Wednesday, 27 January 2010

River deep, Mountain high

It's kind of a given that if you're going to explore Kerala then taking a trip on a houseboat is a must, so ending our beach-bum stint we left Varkala taking the short trip Northward up the coast to Kollam, where we boarded an overnight cruise through the lush tropical backwaters. The majority of the traditional style boats are now mainly used for tourism but life on the river is pretty much the same as it has been for centuries; dominated by sustainance and small scale commercial fishing and dotted with little villages where the river is central to pretty much everything in life. The day was spent chugging along the lakes and channels with a few hours on a small rowing boat drifting through the tiny waterways that threaded through the villages. We stopped for chai at a banana plantation, took a walk though a spice garden and at sundown were taken to the local temple and then on to our young guides house in the forest to meet his mother and sister, who showed us the usual Indian rural hostpitality. Along the way we stopped to say hi to numerous locals who all seemed to be either cousins or aunties or uncles too - it seems no one strays too far from home on the backwaters! We had an early start the following morning, heading on to Alleppey where we appeared to be staying in the middle of a menagery - outside our bedroom window were ducks, a fox, parrots a pair of friendly and inquisitive mongoose and a large and not so friendly emu. It made for an interesting alarm clock anyway!

From Alleppy we then took the boneshaking bus trip that climbed west to the rolling green hills and valleys of the Western Ghats - Keralas inland highland region best known for its tea and spice plantations. The public buses in india are always a mini-adventure, a bit like being stuck in a rusty sardine can on wheels full of all sorts of random people. It never fails to amaze firstly how fast and efficently the drivers manage to get round potholed hairpin bends on mountain roads without hitting anything, secondly how the buses havent actually fallen apart yet, and thirdly just how many people its possible to get inside one. As the already fully seated bus pulled into a small town about 30km from our destination it was clear that school had just finished - imaculately dressed kids were pouring out and running toward the bus. About 20 managed to get on, making it about as packed as we thought it could get. But no! At the next village it stopped again and Sam and I looked at each other in disbelief as litterally another 20 kids somehow wedged themselves in by crawling in between peoples legs, climbing up and standing on the back of chairs, hanging on to the luggage racks, and sitting on the laps of whoever was seated. Face were squashed against windows and armpits against faces. A rickety old bus that must have been made for 30 people now containted about 70. The soundtrack to the next 20km was of zombie style moaning as we felt the full force of every pothole. I'm not even sure there was enough oxygen on the bus for everybody...

Arriving in Kummily, the small town close to the Peryar Wildlife Park, the first thing you notice notice is the smell. It's good. Usually in Indian towns that is not the case. As big producers of Cardamom, Cloves and Vanilla, there are rows of shops lining the main street and it fills the air. Unfortunately their isnt much else in Kummily. But it does smell nice. If you like spice. It had been raining pretty much from the minute we arrived so there wasnt much to do really - we'd planned on doing a full days trekking into the hills to see elephants, but talking to some guys who'd done it the day before and spent what sounded like a miserable afternoon wading through wet leech infested rainforest we decided to let the weather clear up before hand. So, we had to do the only other thing that you could do besides going to the pub. Go to the Tea Factory. Rock and Roll.

Now Sam and I like tea (me - Earl Grey, little milk, one sugar please, Sam - PG Tips Builders Tea - bag pressed against cup), but lets face it - tea factories are the sort of places you go on school trips. Had it been a vineyard I would have been there like a shot, but it wan't, so donning our macs Howard and Hilda style (should I have brought a notebook and pen?), off we trundled for the highlight of our years travelling. Our rickshaw broke down on the way. Initially I was a bit pissed about this as it was still chucking it down and we were getting slowly soaked, but when we arrived it turned out that litterally every cloud does have a silver lining! At the entrance we were informed by an appologetic tour guide that unfortunateley the hour long "How tea is made" film had already started and we would thus not be able to attend and have to proceed directly to the factory walk and plantation. I did my best to hide my disapointment. To summarise the trip to the tea factory, I would say that it may have enabled me to answer some trivial persuit questions that I might not have known the answer to before, but on balance, the Rexel Cumberland Pencil Factory in the Lake District which I went to when I was eleven was still slightly better.

The rain continued, but we did eventually get to do a short trek in in Peryar Park; no elephants alas, but lots of monkeys and leeches. The next morning we headed further up into the Western Ghats to the hill station of Munnar. The surrounding areas are some of the highest tea plantations in the world and the views are stunning - the uniform height (twenty seven inches - I did learn something at the factory!!) that the tea bushes are cut to make the hills look like a giant rolling green shag pile carpet, and at a distance, almost like one vast golf course. Munnar itself is a shabby and odd town, and it seems suprisingly out of place amongst such stunning scenery. Our disapointment with it was further compounded by arriving late and getting the last room in the worst hotel in town. Sandwiched between the local Kerala State Alcohol Shop and a half demolished house full of dogs and chickens with two old fellas burning a fire made of plastic bags, it could have been better located and the queue of alcoholics past the bedroom window wasnt ideal, but at least we didn't have to walk far for a beer.

Following a lovely night in the palatial surroundings of Hotel Fantastic and a "refreshing" morning shower of cold water with a bucket we set out for Top Station; the highest point in Kerala and the border of Tamil Nadu. The scenery grew more dramatic the higher we rose and we'd expected a spectacular view into Tamil from the top, but we were actauly above cloud level by the time we got there - zero visabilty - so we sat in the caf with the locals and our driver, drank chai and eat some very good cakes. From there it was down hill all the way...well nearly.... 6 hours drive back to Cochin, then 15 hours by train to our home for the next month...Goa, and party time...

View our pics here:

Kerala Part 2

Sunday, 17 January 2010

I'm Still Standing

The Indian people are a pretty tollerant lot by and large. They dealt with the tiger-shooting, tea obsessed British Raj for a hundred years, still deal with the tattooed, beer drinking British invasion of Goa every year and, on the whole, seem pretty relaxed about the whole thing. However whilst staying at a hotel in the small Keralan town of Kollam, we saw tollerance taken to a whole new level. Walking into the hotel lobby they were playing the sort of "Pan Pipe Moods" muzak that you hear in dodgy european supermakets and lifts; only after about half and hour we realised that it was the same song over and over again, which, unfortunately, happened to be "Sacrafice" by Elton John.

Now, I don't mind a bit of vintage Elton from the Bernie Taupin partnership days, but Sacrafice is not exactly one of pops finer moments - to put it lightly. Seeing as we were only staying the one night though it was hardly the worst possible torture to endure. However, things did start to veer towards aural assault when it came blasting onto the piped music system at 6.30 the following morning, at which point I could take no more and sprung out of bed (a rare event) and stormed downstairs to reception to ask them to turn the f*cking thing off and why the hell were they playing a Bontempi keyboard version of Sacrafice by Elton John non stop for 24 hours anyway? which the poor bastard on the desk replied "Is that what this is Sir? Oh thank you! I have been wondering what it was for the last month...". Ouch.

Anyway, we had arrived in Kerala; the lush green state with the beautiful beaches on Indias South West coast and pretty much the first thing we did was head straight to a restaurant and order half a menus worth of seafood. I had been fantasising about Grilled Tiger prawns, Tandoori Snapper, Curried Crab, Calamari, Seafood Chowder, Massala Mussels and a host of other sea dwelling gastronomic delights for the last few weeks in North India. Not to say that we weren't enjoying the food in the North, but after two months the same twenty five items on every menu does get a little strained, and frankly there was no way we were ordering anything that swam in an ocean 800 miles inland. Fort Cochin, the old Portugese colonial district of Keralas capital was our first destination and perfect for gorging on fruit de mer. The smell of the harbour was in the air from the minute you arrived and you could pretty much see the famous Chinese fishing nets from most of the compact towns restaurants. We ate a plate of big super fresh prawns cooked in coconut and chilli, a whole grilled garlic-butter Red Snapper and a side of calamari washed down with cold beer and went to bed happy people. I won't even tell you how much it cost too, because it will only make you jealous.

Fort Cochin is a strange little place. Situated on the end of a pininsula accross the bay from the more noisy industrial side of the city, it feels more like a large village on a lazy sunday afternoon in places than a town. Smart little (and some not so little) whitewashed Portugeuse style houses and quiet streets give it a relaxed feeling a world away from the North, and after several weeks of total imersion into the Hindu way of life it seemed odd - almost out of place too see churches and chapels again. Although Christianity has been in Kerala for hundreds of years and is clearly an established religion there, you do get an underlying feeling that it doesnt quite fit in. Something about the way that Indians treat the imagery of Chrisianity seems like its being practised in way that a Hindu would do it, with the religions key players and symols, Jesus, Mary, the Crucifix etc all being turned into forms of Idol Worship. Many homes have what are effectively Christian shrines in them, often with a picture of Jesus (white of course) surrounded by strips of flashing lights and adorned with flowers and possibly some plastic figures of the disciples knocking around underneath.

To a practising european Christan this would probably look crude, tacky and out of line with the generally austere principles of the church, but thats often what Hindu shrines look like - the more gaudy and colourful the better. I have to say I quietly liked the fact that early white colonialists with a misguided belief that a monotheistic god was superior haven't totally been able to wipe out the traditions of the indiginous people. You've never seen such entertaining Christmas Nativity setups either. I wouldn't have been suprised to pull back the blanket on the baby Jesus's manger and find a sneeky Krishna hiding in there...

We only spent a few days in Cochin, which is all you need really. We ate, drank took a trip to a Cherai beach on Vypeen Island and watched some fascinating fishing techniques down on the harbour before catching a train to the superbly named Thiruvananthapuram (we stuck wih the English version - Trivandrum) where we arrived in an almighty rainstorm that had been going on for three days.
Stepping out of the station there was a good foot of water to wade through, so we sacked off the bus and hailed an old Ambassador taxi that stank of wet dog down to Kovalam beach. The rain was still thundering down when we got to the end of the tiny road that led to the beach and the taxi driver refused to take us any further, so we headed on blindly, packs on backs, through through the squal to find our accomodation.

Kovalam is basically one long beach with restaurants along its front and a maze of tiny muddy allyways with houses, huts, forest and eventually paddy fields behind. We had no idea where we were going and were both soaked to the skin in 2 minutes. Clearly no sensible person had come out that night and those that did were more interested in getting somewhere dry than giving directions to a couple of tourons in flip-flops 6 inches deep in fast flowing muddy water. Finally after a lot of buggering about we arrived and were greeted by an smiling old couple who plied us with chai and towells. I've probably said it before, but It's pretty hard to stay pissed off in India.

Now, nobody really wants to hear about someone elses beach holiday so I won't bore you with the details. Once the weather cleared up it basically invloved not a lot except laying on some sand as you do, going to restaurants to eat ridiculously cheap and ridiculously good seafood twice a day and making important decisions like whether to have a beer or a rum and coke. While the food was good we both felt pretty underwhelmed by Kovalam (the package holiday had clearly arrived) so left for Varkalala up the coast which we'd reliably been informed was much nicer. And it was.
Staying at what was our best hotel name yet "Santa Claus Village" (not one fecking elf thought the lying bastards) we did pretty much the same as Kovalam albeit in much nicer surroundings.

Varkala can be described a pretty much a massive Ewok Village perched on top of an iron-red cliff top with a long stretch of beach below. It's got a nice laid back feel to it and was a pretty easy place to spend some time. For my birthday Sam got me (and her) a course of Ayurvedic Massage, which was hell as you can imagine. Three days of three hour massages is hard work I can tell you. We saw the best display of DJing ingenuity yet that night too - an Indian guy somehow playing off an Ipod and Blackberry wired into an amp, just a shame he was crap really. Day Tripper mixed into Psycadelic Trance does NOT go, possibly thematically in an abstract sort of way, but definately not musically. I nearly had words, but Sam told me I was "pissed and a DJ pest" and to leave the master to his work.

We finished off a pretty decent birthday sat on the cliff top drinking low grade rum in a powercut and watching a mindblowing lightening storm fifty miles out over the dark ocean. And who said romance was dead? I have zero recolection of the conversation I had with my parents later that night too, but apparently I seemed "in a very good mood". Cheap booze, a shit disco and a decent light show still do the trick then...

View our pictures here:

Kerala Part 1