Saturday, 30 July 2011

Goodbye Kochi and thanks for all the fish

... well we didn't eat that much to be honest but the place fairly reeks of fish in some areas (Simon's rucksack being one such place... some might say "oddly enough" but not me)

We've enjoyed a week here and had a great time. People have been fascinating, friendly and fun.

On Friday Simon had his inevitable day of the "Kochi Quickstep". (I think I had pineapple poisoning - S) It happens to each of us each year but fortunately lasts 24 hours only. The weather stank, torrential rain interspersed with incessant drizzle so we were both really quite flat by the evening and hitting the 3 week wall! This state we have discovered manifests in symptoms such as: Talking about cheese, mashed potatoes, ice cold chardonnay, clean sheets, hot showers, fresh air etc and can develop into a fever of talk around the minor details of which train to catch back from the airport, whether to take a taxi from Clitheroe or Whalley and the order of showering, drinking a cuppa tea and getting into our own bed when we finally arrive.

We took a couple of G&Ts as medicine and slept it off though and by Saturday morning we were up bright and early and walking the walk again. By Saturday afternoon the spice trade area whilst still buzzing seemed to have a more fun and laid back feel about it and this was apparent when a group of saronged chaps standing on a flat bed lorry catching the sacks of spice which their pals chucked up to them, called to Pants to join them!

Whether this was in jest or not we'll never know because Super Pants, having bounced back from his illness and feeling the need to prove his manliness and strength, leapt up to join them (with only some slight help from two guys yanking his arms from above and three heaving his backside from below) and began to work with the spice shifter wallahs as though he was doing it all his life. Great guffawing and fun for all and some fab photos.

About 100 feet down the street another such outfit seemed to have had word that there was much fun and skiving to be had by getting the white tourist who would be soon approaching them to help. I think they sent a runner to alert the guys "Yes he is coming, no not this tall American, the one you're after looks more like Bill Oddie & his goat".

This time Simon was really determined to prove he had the smarts for the job and wasn't merely a laughing stock. They gave him a rag for his head and had him trying out for the role of "balancer of sacks on head" job. Would he allow them to give him the advantage of only carrying one? Would he heck.... standing there with a sack on his head, no hands as they were both engaged in the universal sign language of "Gimme more, Bring it On" Really funny! Can't wait to show the pictures (they have to wait until we get home though for fear of viruses wiping our SD cards as happened in Cambodia once)

Anyway it's been great but today we're moving on again by train back to Varkala. Hopefully this will give us an opp to get some sun (though not holding out much hope) and also to chill completely for 5/6 days before heading to Alleppey and uber chilling out of house boat and cycling about the backwaters..if poss.

In Varkala about 9.00pm our time this evening which should be around 5ish UK time so anyone fancy any face time? JB?

Love to all J&P x

Scenes from Fort Kochin

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Old Spice & Extreme Face Painting

Quickly got ourselves a great room in Fort Kochi in a cafe run by two brothers which has just three bedrooms above at slightly different rates - we took the middle one fence sitters! Yah Boo) Nice big room with big bathroom but very hot as a/c is a no goer. Also the hot water we were promised is there but just not in the shower. The deal is if you turn the mains tap under the sink off it allows water to flow from some taps on the all under the shower -which barely dribbles. This water can be heated through a small (kettle sized) tank and provide you with a bucket full of hot luxury. You can then tip said hot stuff over your head and repeat process until water level on floor is pushing the half inch limits of the door step and endangering bedroom's flood defences. Invariably at this point you have stinging soap in your eyes as you slip and slide around fumbling for the cold tap. Its great and we love the daily adventure.

Meanwhile we have been away three weeks in hellish humidity, drainy smelly streets and muddy forest paths as well as the occasional monsoon downpour followed by a dusty bus/ rickshaw ride. Hotwater is rare and laundry services involve your kit being taken to the nearest river or ditch and beaten into submission by a dobhi man or woman and then left to eventually dry towards the end of August when the Monsoon ends. Hence I now need to be airlifted out of my trousers at the end of the day, leaving them standing at the foot of the bed til morning. We've been ignoring the NO LAUNDRY sign in our room to try the "DO-IT YOURSELF DOHBI MAN!" approach with the help of Mr Beckman's Travel Wash and our aforementioned bucket! Drying stuff is nigh on impossible though.

These slight irritations aside we are having a great time in Fort Kochi. The town has an amazng history and is possibly most well known for the arrival of Vasco de Gama back in 1500s. He was buried here but later disinterred some years later and taken back to Portugal where he lived happily ever after....

The Portugese influence and that of later European colonial visitors is apparent in the beautiful old buildings and the area towards Jew Town where the spice traders' warehouses still stand and still do great busy business. Awesome to walk along the road down there, the noise and bustle and great spicey smells (we both had fits of sneezing at several stops) It is medieval with goats, chickens, cows wadering around the streets and men pushing huge hand cart piled with sacks of dried chilli, cardamon, cumin etc Again the colours of women in their dresses, scarves, saris adds to the picturesque view.

As you nearer Jew Town though the traders selling clothes and Indian crafts become a bit wearing as they try and entice you into their shops and it all becomes a bit reminiscent of Vietnam "YOU! LOOK MY SHOP" Though not that aggresive to be fair.

Yesterday our Homestay host said his brother was driving into the city and would we like a lift in? We said "Sure" and had a great journey over two bridges to take us to mainland with said brother. The guys had spent 10 years living in Australia and returned to open their cafe in their home state of Kerala. It was interesting to talk to a young Indian chap about his views on his government, corruption, India, Kerala etc.. I asked him what the deal was with the advertising that all the men had big moustaches and looked like uncles? He laughed and said it was the old folks' idea of sexy in a guy and that his aunties always complain when they see him asking "Where is your moustache and you need to grow a belly; how can we ever marry you off without!" Really nice guy.

Once left in the big city we were at a loss what to do, not having any dire need to buy gold that left us pretty much with the only choice of heading back to Fort K on the ferry. My God!! Debbie if you ever fancy a job as a trouble shooter what with your ferries experience here is the place for you. Men and women queue in different lines for the same rum sozzled dude who only materialises in the booth once the ferry lands and it's inward passengers have disembarked! By the time I got near enough for a hit of rum breath I was soaked as though I'd had a bucket of water thrown at me. So Hot! The tickets x 2 cost 5 rupees ... about 10p (was it worth asking the guy to stagger into work to ensure he gathered in the 10ps? Not like they use the money to maintain or clean the terminal or the boats!)

Last night we went along to the Kerala Cultural Centre to witness the ancient (though turns out not that ancient- about 400 years old!) art of Kathakali dance/acting. It was really great. You arrive early and watch the face painting bit which is an absolute art. One guy looked like Ian Mckellen getting ready to play Widow Twanky (in fact I never saw him without his foundation on so it really could have been Sir Ian) The best guy is the baddy who has intricate red and green face and a white shelf thing attached to his chin. Hard to describe but it took about 45 mins for his mate to apply whilst he lay down on his back chilling out. At the end he got hold of a mirror to check himself out. (I was hoping he'd start crying and kicking saying "But I wanna be spiderman!!" but he didn't!)

The drummers and singer came out then and the thing was explained and an actor came out and demo'd some of the hand signals and the eye acting.. (which made my eys hurt just watching as he rotated his eyes in time with the drumming)

Finally the performance. We had both though "Yeah right!" in our believe nothing way, when the guy said these actors train 6 years to do this. Honestly it was great and funny in a way too. Great photo opp and just really fascinating- we want to get them to appear at Glasto next time now! Seriously need to get Pants in that make up. Pants meanwhile is most impressed that in order to achieve scary red eyes in his green face the lead actor places the seed from a certain flower under his bottom eyelid (what you don't have eyelids on your bottom?... you know what I mean) and this makes his eyes bloodshot. Pants is awestruck with the skiving possibilities associated with home made bloodshot eyes (the fact that he is a professional skiver already is a moot point it seems- so expect a red eyed Pants next time you see us!)

Anyway they've just put the garroted cat CD on again so it may be time to flea (no not a typo, more a freudian slip- scratch scratch)

We're staying until Sunday as we love it and have found some amazing food places. Sunday we take the train back to Varkala to top up the tan hopefully and read all the books I've just bought. Then Alleppey (aka: Allapuzah)about a week later (6th or 7th) for backwaters boat trip and the Neru snake boat festival.

Love to all

Tuesday, 26 July 2011


So where were we? Oh yes scoring a lift from our Green View Homestay host across the Cardamon Mountains higher and higher up to the hill station of Munnar. Over 3 hours to get 102 clicks because the roads are in such appalling state of repair but the views, the valleys and mountains and jungle and waterfalls and amazing rivers and villages... it really was astoundingly beautiful. The driver was a quiet dude who didn;t utter a single word to us throughout (actually a nice change) the price was about 26quid which is awesome value.

Our Green View host had phoned his pal in Munnar before we left to score us a room at J & J Cottage Homestay (the guy there told us "No problem chose the style of room when you arrive price between 300 and 800 rupees) When we finally turned the corner and spied the old part of Munnar Town through torrential rain our hearts sank. We pulled up outside a tall thin pink house and clambered up some steep steps to a little glassed in area to wait for 40 mins whilst our room was being cleaned (Cleaned? In India? Yeah right!)

Turned out the only available room was the 800 rupee one right at the top of the building. It was bizarre, along a skinny corridor and all glass around it. The bedroom was draped with red/gold velour curtains around the glass walls and there was a weird sort of waiting room which was part of the deal, with cold floor and Indian rug, a sink and four office chairs!! Weird, cold and the rain lashing the window and flat roof! Grim! We went for a bit of a walk along the muddy street and found a multi-cuisine place (cooking for Jains, Veggies, Non Veggies, Halal etc) where we ate ridiculously good thali with about 6 dishes and a stack of naans and breads. Not an awful lot happening in the old town though and the weather was appalling. Simon decided to go and seek better accommodation whilst I shivered in the room.

Next thing I know we're zipping along (if 1 mile an hour over the moon's surface in a rickshaw can be called zipping!) towards a homestay out of town in the midst of tea plantations. In the torrential rain on crazy winding roads covered in water filled pot holes of indeterminate depth it was the most white knuckle ride I've ever been on at under two miles an hour. Not one to do without a good supportive brassiere I can tell you. As soon as we arrived I could Simon was already convinced that it was the place for us despite having not yet seen our room. The views and the location were second to none. Overlooking an enormous waterfall and across a valley and surrounding mountains covered in tea, forest and crags. We spent a cold shivery beer less night in J&Js (going to sleep about 7.30 from want of anything else to do)but happy in the knowledge that we would bale in the morning.

Next day we headed up to our new home. Once in there we realised the room had never been cleaned, the electrics where suspect and the place reeked of stale wet tobacco and drains. It was small and cramped and everything was damp. But Heh? We were in paradise so that was okay until we discovered that they didn't serve beer in their restaurant and the food was made with curry powder and microwaved and extortionate.

However we spent two and half great days walking round the tea plantations and talking to kids from little tea workers hamlets and taking photos which will no doubt be rubbish as it mainly rained and rained. It was a lot like wet days in Ambleside but around 5000 feet above sea level.

People are so lovely and friendly and are so keen to have their photo taken. To see people working in the emerald green plantations wearing bright colours and protection of coloured plastic over their heads and bare feet. I will always think about them whenever I have a brew in future. They are paid 120 rupees per day (about 1 pound 30!) The women have a truly appalling life. Up at 5am to start making the breads and the basis of supper, get the children up and to school, start work in plantations in all weathers at 8am and work until 6pm then home to house work, supper, washing, caring for the kids and this 6 days a week.

We also hopped a bus to see the bazaar and main area of the town. It was heaving down which made the adventure even more atmospheric really. All the rickshaws, buses and haulage trucks proclaim their various religious leanings with colourful paintings and stickers shouting out the names of Christian saints or Hindu deities. There are some quite amusing signs about like Infant Jesus Tyre Shop, Roshini Ladies Inner Wear, Lovedrops Hotel - Si has written some others down - there are loads of smirk worthy signs about. Had to laugh in spite of the rain when I saw a NO PARKING sign in town and right under it parked up an auto rickshaw bearing the windscreen sticker JESUS! It would have made a great postcard with a tag saying "Except for Himself!!"

We made the decision to bale early from Munnar because literally every item of clothing is soaked and cannot dry. Talking of dry we were also feeling a bit miz about the fact that we were stuck up in the hills with no decent food and no beer at all. The whole town seemed to be dry too. Pure luck had Simon spot a nice looking cafe where we ordered some great veg curries and as we sat down I noticed a sign outside saying "Brandy Shop" Simon duly left cafe and followed the clues that lead him to a Kerala State Beverage Control shop. This seems to be a big rip off where by the state says it needs to restrict the sale of alcohol to prevent drunkeness so it has 350 odd offices throughout the state where people can queue to buy whatever booze they can afford with the extortionate tax (we're talking 100% on spirits and 50% on beer) Anyway Our Man on a Booze mission returned to the cafe carrying a box with beers and a small plastic bottle of rather suspect looking rum. We then scored a bottle open and a load of crisps and Bombay mix and headed home for a rather enjoyable night in bed at 5pm with books and iPods and beers and snacks Haha! you can't keep a good boozer down Munnar!

It worked out that a taxi to Fort Cochin was about 22quid (no pound sign on the keyboard here hence all the quid words) Again a 4 hour drive down from the wet wet heights of tea to sea level, sunshine, backwaters, Chinese fishing nets, spice traders, Vasco de Gama and a chance to really make up for lack of booze and put Andrew's (THE WADDY ARMS) advice about ridding your beer of glycerine in to practice. More of that in next day or two as sitting in very hot internet place with the most dreadful Indian music ever playing in my ear- sounds like someone being garrotted!

Images from Jewtown, Fort Kochin

Monday, 25 July 2011

Wild times in Kumily

Sorry it has been awhile (we did suspect that internet access mayn't be so readily available in the out back) So a few posts to come to update you.

We left Varkala on a bright sunny morning in a big posh 4x4 and a driver called SABU! Cool! We had been admiring the acting talent of 50s/60s child actor SABU the elephant boy before we came out here so it was great to meet him in person and see he'd grown a moustache and ditched the pachyderm for a real vehicle- VROOM!!

He took us on the 6 hour wonder ride to Kumily (a crap town near to the super cynical outdated Periyar Tiger reserve- though we didn't know this at the time!) The journey was awesome and at (57 quid a bargain) Aircon comfort as we passed small towns full of character and witnessed the State's agricultural staples of Tapioca, Pineapples, Cashew Factories pumping smoke out across banana and palm forests and then the climb higher past miles and miles of rubber plantations and finally into spice country - cardamon and tea. Sabu stopped at a fab cafe for us to taste some real Thali curry and enjoy the view of mist shrouded, dripping forest slopes.

After 6 long hours we drove into a messy little wild west town, bustling with rickshaws and people and noisy with the competing sounds of horns, the call to prayer at local mosque and the rather tuneless bell of the local catholic church.

Long story short we ended up bagging ourselves a jungle view room at the Green View Guesthouse of 750 rupees per night (about 10 quid) It was large and had balcony and wait for it.... HOT water!! Turned out we needed the hot water as the temp up there had plummeted and the hot and sweaty nights in Varkala were soon a distant memory.

Our laid back host turned out to be a kind of Indian Bill Oddie (only thinner!) He knew loads about local birds and wildlife and soon Simon was well in to sitting on balcony whilst I took my afternoon beauty nap, ticking birds off in the Collins Book of Indian Birds and confessing that to him it was a giant I Spy Book-style game!

We spied: Purple backed sun birds, scarlet minivits, laughing thrush, magpie robin also languor monkeys, white monkeys, flying foxes.

The first afternoon we walked into the sh*th*le that is Kumily. Sorry Kumily but for the average westerner it really leaves a lot to be desired - ESPECIALLY beer! It was pretty much pouring with rain and the hotels were all catering to Indian tourists and had great taste in fringed curtains and velour and no taste in beer and also no guests! Finally found an empty hotel restaurant where we were served warm beer by baffled waiter at great cost.

Later we discovered a restaurant called the Spice Garden and sat alone in there for the evening eating pretty fine Paneer Butter Masala and supping a few cold ones. (The beer here is Kingfisher and has quite a high glycerine content which I am finding leave my eyes bloodshot and head pounding after only two pints which has been about the daily maximum intake to be fair)

So first night we were in bed by 9pm. The first day we took a rickshaw to the outskirst of town and were dropped off at the foot of a mountain lane- we proceeded to clamber up that for a few hours stopping to photograph red whiskered bulbuls, mynah birds (not mynah at all - really impressive) and desperate but failing to catch (photographically speaking)amazing butterflies with swallow tails and not far off swallow size!!

On reaching the top of the hill we were caught by a chap who introduced himself as George Battyman (an unfortunate handle some may feel) but nothing of the batty man with our George Oh No sir! George, despite his shabby sarong and shirt and a look of a man who enjoyed the odd palm toddy, informed us that he owned not only the tea plantation on which we stood but most of the tea in Periyar and further tea in Munnar. He was married with two children and earned 8000 rupees a year so for him life was great. He kept pointing at various points N, S, E and W and saying Yes Yes Battyman. Bless him for the blarney- when we finally shook him off he turned away and said this my home and wandered into a one room shack (probably for a snifter) This not before trying to sting Simon for 100 rupees for a trip up someone else's watch tower and the BS life story!

That night we ate at a romantic Italian place! Well it advertised as Italian. Simon had wait for it Paneer Butter Masala and I had spaghetti with grated laughing cow cheese on it (wouldn't like to be the one to clean the grater after that!) We were in bed by 8pm.

Next day we were determind to get into the Tiger Reserve despite what anyone said we could do it single handedly (the tours were designed for 8 people and so it would work out very expensive for 2- I don't think there were 8 people staying in the town to be honest!!) We had to pay 7 quid each to just enter the park! For Indians it is only about 20p so when Simon said to the guy "Two please...... both Indian" I had to laugh. The guy looked a bit astonished but then saw the funny side as he pushed a few miserable rupees change at us!!

The Periyar Tiger Reserve boasting that it is oldest in India (not necessarily a great thing since it clearly hasn't reviewed its eco-tourism policies or attempted to bench mark with more modern enterprises or look at new thoughts on eco tourism in donkeys years) Basically all we were able to do was walk a couple of miles down a road to the lake where coach parties of Indian tourists are herded on to triple decker ferries to just within toppling capacity (and that only since a bad year when two capsized and 45 tourists were drowned)

For Si and I we were happy to be wandering along looking into the trees and spotting birds and monkeys. Annoyingly, despite huge signs banning horn tooting and overtaking and loud music the taxis, autorickshaws and private cars and jeeps as well as buses and coaches completely ignore this and traveling at great speed overtake hooting like crazy and scaring anything remotely interesting deep into the jungle. At one point we were quietly watching some interesting birds when a small car with a squeaky wheel pulled up and slowly followed us as we walked along clearly trying to see what we had been looking at before the idjit scared it off.

We had a good walk out of it though and were out for about 4 hours. We saw monkeys, Languors, deer and the Malabar squirrel which is huge and great colours and has the ugliest face! That night we ate at the Spice Garden again, drank two beers and were in bed by 7.30pm (well 9 then!)

We had decided to move on the next day and arranged another taxi to take us on what turned out to be the greatest most stunning journey across the cardamon mountains and higher and higher into tea country and the Munnar Hill Station (between 5 and 8 thousand feet) A three and half hour journey of 102 kms into God's Own Country.

Writing this from Fort Cochi internet cafe and need a Masala Chai now so going to sign off and leave you in finger chewing suspense about Munnar! Did they find luxury digs? Was there beer flowing from every mountain spring? Were their sleeping brows kissed softly by the early morning sun as it climbed over the tea covered mountain passes and entered the lacy curtained window of their golden Boudoir each day? Is Jo the world's most sarcastic individual?... Come back soon to find out folks......

Up in the hills and clouds near Munnar (Twinned with Ambleside)