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Stories from oversea Tales of joy and sorrow from a travel junkie

Head Waggling, beer in teapots, Eagles and Jellyfish stings

INDIA | Saturday, 22 November 2008 | Views [1642] | Comments [4]

So the next chapter begins, extremely belatedly, a thousand more miles travelled, a hundred more chapatis, a dozen more trains and buses and many many more head waggles later.

The day after i wrote my first blog, we travelled to Allepey in Kerala, a bit further south than Cochin. There's nothing much to see or do in Allepey accept arrange for a "Kettuvallam" (houseboat) trip down the Kerala backwaters. Usually, the process is at least a half day long wander round Allepey town tediously bargaining left, right and center to get a good and fair price. Luckily, we bypassed this having made friends with San and Shabab, the guys who ran the home stay we were staying in. They had a houseboat that provided a good backwater trip deal including; a 22 hour overnight stay on the boat, with just the two of us along with the driver Pushpan and a chef Rejeevan to cook breakfast, lunch and dinner, all for 3500 rupees, which, works out about £35. This is extreme amounts for our general budget but in the grand scheme of things, for a once in a lifetime experience, its a pretty darn good deal. These Kettuvallams used to be used for transporting rice that's harvested in the fields alongside the backwaters and are made from wood with thatched roof covers. Basically, they are floating cottages with bedroom(s), bathroom, a kitchen, and a dining area and not a bad place to spend 22 hours.

The kerala backwaters are stunning. They're made up of 5 large lakes connected by canals and rivers that altogether extend to almost half of Kerala. Within all of this, people live. There are towns, schools and churches and its really not a bad place to be. The waters ripple with the sunlight and palm trees reflected on them. The chef cooked us fresh food with coconut milk, a traditional ingredient in Keralan food and it was some of the best food I've eaten in India so far.

The next day, our friends San and Shabab let us hang out at the home stay until our train to Varkala which was later that day and which our new friend San was getting too. The train was a painless 4 hours and we arrived at Varkala, further south in Kerala. Varkala is a town that is perched on the edge of beautiful cliffs that tower above the beach below. Eagles soar through the sky as you lay on the beach below which feels somehow safe and protected by the cliffs. Unfortunately, the sea was home to a community of jellyfish which we discovered by word of mouth before we went eagerly running in. It was literally impossible to go in even knee high without being stung, as i learnt for myself ignoring the warnings from others. The atmosphere in Varkala was really relaxed and I had some of the best food I've had in India there with each restaurant fronting tables of fresh fish caught that day.

We left Varkala reluctantly and got on an overnight train to Madurai arriving at the inconvenient time of 4.30am, two hours early. Surprisingly, there were a lot of people up at this time and it was quite easy to find a hostel; 200 rupees a night; 2 pounds fifty. Madurai is a dirty, hectic town that you don't want to stay in for too long so we spent one day visiting the vegetable market, full of smiles and requests from locals for photographs to be taken of them which we happily obliged. We also visited the Mahatma Ghandi museum which showed a detailed account of India's struggle for independence from 1957 to 1947, a visit that really reminded me of where I was. It was incredibly moving to read in detail the suffering and injustice the Indian people went through under British rule and to be reminded of just how incredible Ghandi was, dedicating most of his life to justice for India and its people. 

The other main reason to go to Madurai is for the Sri Meenakshi temple, which is one of the largest in South India. It was incredible. It was so big it was difficult to know where you'd been and where to go next. It was fascinating to see the amount of religious people in one place, and not just people, within the temple there was an elephant giving blessings too!

From Madurai we travelled by train to Tiruchirapalli where we discovered there wasn't really much to see however, we managed to eat our own weight in thali's, an Indian dish that serves up chapatis, poppadom, and at least four or five small servings of different curries, yogurt and a dessert.

Ponducherry, was our main destination we were looking forward to in the Tamil Nadu state, a former french colony with much of the french influence still existing today. We got a 5 hour train from Tiruchirapalli where i had the pleasure of sharing half a seat with the largest woman in India and unfortunately, managed to arrive at the tail end of the monsoon. As im sure you've either all heard or even experienced, when it rains in an Indian monsoon, it really really rains. Everything we owned became wet or damp including the room we stayed in so it wasn't ideal conditions for venturing out far to see the town. In the short dry spells we managed to make it out to have a wonder round and from what we saw it was a really pretty place. It was great to be able to eat croissants which were impressive enough to satisfy our cravings! One night, we were involved in an unfortunate incident where an Indian man drove past on his motorbike and managed to grope a German girl we had made friends with. We arrived on the scene just after it had happened but the man was still there and was not shy to confront us when we told him to leave her alone. Luckily, there was someone watching from their balcony and as he had an audience, he was eventually scared off. It really makes you think about where you are and how many of the Indian men seem to view western women out here. After that happened we sheltered from the rain waiting for a rickshaw to pass but it was late so the chances were slim. Then, as if to restore our faith, a kind young Indian man rode past on his bike and asked if we were ok. Finding out that we needed to get home, he rode off in the pouring rain to find us one and brought it back to us. Its an interesting example of the juxtaposition of Indian culture, one minute they're ripping you off (or groping you), the next they're going out of their way to help you.

After a damp few days in Ponducherry we set off on what turned out to be one of the worst journeys we've made, to Bangalore, in the Karnatika state. We got a 5 hour cramped train from Ponducherry to Chennai and then waited three hours for a connecting 4 hour train to Bangalore. We hoped that the monsoon wasn't going to join us but unfortunately it did. So, after a 12 hour journey we arrived in a slightly less wet but equally morale bashing Bangalore. Bangalore is the IT city of India and you can see from the offset that everything is more advanced there. At times, you could be walking down a street in London with pizza hut on your right and Levi store to the left. As i said, our morale was low and having come from warm Kerala to wet and cold Tamil Nadu we weren't feeling 100% healthy either, so, guiltily, I admit we didn't do much here aside from eat and watch the TV in our room that seemed like a complete luxury and indulgence. It was here that we discovered whilst watching an Indian news channel, as it was happening, the terrorist bombings on Mumbai. This was pretty shocking to hear, being in India, however, India is a huge country and Bangalore was far enough away for us not to feel threatened.

So, once we couldn't take anymore tragic news or face the rain outside we moved on to Mysore, also within karnatika. I adored Mysore. For the second largest city in Karnatica, it was very clean and it had a good feeling to it after the concreteness of Bangalore. Mysore sits at the bottom of Chamundi hills which has amazing views over the city. The name Mysore comes from the ancient name of "Mahisha" which stands for "Mahishasura," a demon from Hindu mythology who is believed to have ruled Mysore. The goddess Chamundeshwari is believed to have killed the demon and her temple lies at the top of the Chamundi hills. Hindu religion is full of thousands of fascinating stories like this. We visited the amazing Mysore Palace, the largest palace in India and we roamed through the Devaraja market full of colorful dyes, flowers, abundances of fruits, vegetables, cakes and sweets and wide varieties of oils and incense, all to the ever changing scents of all of these things. I made friends with one of the incense and oil stall keepers, "Mezammil," who kindly showed me how to make incense and gave me a bunch of sandalwood incense for free. To make incense is really simple; the sandalwood, or whatever material is being used from woods like sandlewood to seeds and fruits like coriander and nutmeg, is mixed with water to create a play-doh like texture. This is then rolled over thin, cut to size sticks of bamboo, a bit like when you roll fresh dough with a rolling pin. Leave it to dry and hey presto, you have yourself an incense stick, although it took me about 5 minutes to make mine and they make about 10,000 in one day.

After an amazing time in Mysore, we headed to Gokarna, still within Karnatika which involved a 10 hour overnight train to Mangalore with 6 hours to kill there before our 4 hour train to Gokarna. It would have been OK if I'd been able to sleep on the train but firstly, there was no room for my backpack under the seats so I had to have it on my bed on the top bunk and there's really not enough room for that and me. Secondly, I had one snorer to my left, one to my right, one directly below and a crying baby below to the right. One of the snorers was an old woman that made strange noises in the night. So, I lay awake for hours listening to the harmony (or not) of sounds making a "sleeping on Indian trains playlist" on my ipod and once that was done, it helped me to get about 15 minutes sleep before we had to get off at 8.45am.

The light at the end of that tunnel was that our destination Gokarna was a small beach side village for some serious relaxation and some serious relaxation did we do. It is made up of a small village and then four beaches; Kudle beach, Om beach, Half moon beach and Paradise beach. To get to the beaches you have to walk with each beach being about 30 minutes walk apart from each other, or, get a fishermans boat to take you for a price (about 70pence). All the beaches are really secluded and quiet with only about 6 restaurants with huts you could stay in on Kudle and Om beach with one on Half Moon and about two on Paradise. We stayed in some really basic huts on Kudle beach for a few nights. It was amazing to go to sleep to the sound of the most varied humorous animal sounds and the clear and close sound of the tide coming in and out. It was here, one morning whilst I was doing some extra hardcore relaxation on the beach that my brother rocked up and surprised me with his presence weeks early. Ben you are a legend. So, with him in tow for a month, chilling was all the more sweeter. We moved to Om beach when Ben arrived and stayed in some slightly less basic rooms/huts. It happened to be a full moon when we were there and that night we sat round a campfire with strangers listening to whoever picked up the guitar. The moon was so bright that every face could be seen and moon shadows followed us through the night.

It was also here that Ben and I tried a "bhang lassi," lassi being an Indian drink made with curd (their version of yoghurt)and bhang being a preparation made from the leaves and flowers of a cannabis plant. The drink is made up of bhang mixed with almonds, spices, curd and sugar. Apparently, bhang was first used as a Hindu rite in 1000BC and thereafter became integral to Hindu culture. Further, its highly associated with Lord Shiva, one of the three principle Gods in Hindu religion, as he is believed to have commonly used it. Anyway, down to the actual experience...well, it certainly spaced us out, and gave us the giggles at first, and then spaced us out some more, until it got a little tiring, literally, and then until we had dinner and I tripped out that I wasn't chewing on my food, I was chewing on my tongue. Hmm. All in all, a funny experience but next time, assess the strength first!

After about 10 days in Gokarna, we dragged ourselves from beach bliss by train to Hampi, still in Karnatica state. Hampi won me over and still remains one of my favourites. It really is one of the most incredible places I've ever been. For miles and miles all you can see is boulder after boulder piled up or balanced in the most seemingly illogical positions. We stayed across the river; Virupapur Gadde, that divides two sides of the river where people wash themselves and their clothes everyday. We met there, Scott, Stefan and May, all lovely Canadians who we rented bicycles with one day and rode down empty roads lined with banana leaves and paddy fields with the sun on our backs towards Monkey temple. After the exhausting walk up to the temple (too many beedies- Indian cigarettes) we were rewarded with the most amazing views. These mountains of boulders stretch for miles and miles and you can sit there for hours in awe of how they came to be there. In terms of how they came to be there, well, it remains to be somewhat of an incredible mystery. Hampi lies within the ruins of Vijayanagara, the capital of the once wealthy Vijayanagara empire which was destroyed by Muslim sultans. All around Hampi there are monuments, temples and sculptures all carved out of these huge boulders and everywhere you go you can see and feel the amazing history of the place. It's definitely one of my favourite places in India.

Christmas took us back to Arambol, Goa, and back to the same huts we stayed in months back. We bumped into a friend we made in Varkala on the first day who had a group of friends that we met that night and thereafter joined, altogether there was about 9 of us. We had an amazing time together. On Christmas eve, Skye, a chef who's worked with the likes of Gordan Ramsey and Jamie Oliver, cooked us a three course meal at his friends restaurant which consisted of fresh hummus, nan bread and fresh prawn Momo's (Tibetan food- a bit like dumplings) to start, fresh kingfish for main followed by apple crumble for pudding. Not your traditional Christmas dinner or even Indian style Christmas dinner for that matter but absolutely delicious. We partied after that and thereafter for the next week or so. Christmas day, having nursed our hangovers, we hired a fisherman's boat to take us out to sea where we jumped off the boat and swam, watched the sunset and hopeful to see dolphins, we were rewarded with the Christmas present of seeing dolphins jumping out of the water. Ben and I did a five day Hatha/Iyengar yoga course from 2-5 each day which unfortunately started on Boxing day, the day of the guaranteed hangover, not the best way to start. However, in the end it was really enjoyable and a really interesting exercise that benefits your mind aswell as your body. It's definitely something I would like to continue, if i can discipline myself to do it.

India really does get under your skin and i don't just mean the dirt. It's the hardest place to be yet the most rewarding. It's not easy being hassled every five seconds, being stared at constantly, living in mostly dirty conditions and eating Indian food constantly. Everything's a hard bargain. But the juxtaposition of it is it's incredibly rewarding to experience the wholehearted kindness from 90% of the people you meet here, to see the most genuine smiles you've ever seen, to experience the most accommodating people you've ever met and the most selfless friendship, to taste the most delicious food, and to see some of the most beautiful sites in the world.

So, this pain, frustration and hardship of traveling India, is completely counteracted with all the reward and beauty and of course ultimately, all part of the experience. No war, no peace. No search, no gain. No knowledge, no understanding. No pain, no beauty.

With that i leave you with a very very belated (Lambert style) Merry Christmas to you all, and a massively excellent New Year,





Hello Paper Back Writer. Lovin your blogs, they are an entertaining read. Slightly jealous your sunning it up on an Indian adventure whilst we back in Blighty are struggling through knee high drifts of snow. O well, shit happens. And so does snow. Take care and I look forward to the next blog.


  Chris Alborough Feb 6, 2009 12:03 AM


wow. youve come such a long way since the last one i didnt realise. really enjoying the detail. esp the boulders, can totally imagine it all. i love that random extraordinary nature stuff! cant resist saying that you are experiencing awesome things, monsoons and all XXXX

  Lucy Williams Feb 7, 2009 7:01 AM


It certainly makes me dream reading you blog so thank you for including me
Lots of love

  alex Feb 7, 2009 9:24 PM



  SUE LAMBERT Feb 8, 2009 5:37 AM

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