A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: MalcolmB

Introduction


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I wasn't going to write a blog for this trip but a couple of friends have twisted my arm and so I've changed my mind. It will, after all, give me something to do in the long evenings and the long lazy days while relaxing on a beach.

The plan is - for the first few weeks anyway - to follow exactly the same route as my aborted trip in 2015. so after a couple of days in Mumbai it's downto Goa for some sun tanning and acclimatization and then on to Hampi and Hospet in Karnataka. Hospet will, no doubt, bring back some painful memories as it was here in February 2015, after just three weeks travelling, that my passport, money, bank cards, phone, camera, tablet etc. where stolen and after a lot of grief I was forced to return to England. I hope it's not tempting fate to retrace my steps but I feel I have unfinished business and I intend to be much more careful this time!
From there it's on to Mysore and Ooty and then south to Kerala and Tamil Nadu. I then intend to make the long train journey (36 hours) from Chennai to Rajasthan and after a few weeks there head east across the Gangetic plain taking in such amazing places as Varanasi, Bodhgaya and Kolkata. From there it's north to Darjeeling and Sikkim and then after a month in the cooler climes of the Himalayas another marathon train ride to Delhi and then home.

So, five months of travel in the most fascinating, crazy and mind-blowing country in the world awaits. November 8th 2016, the day I fly to Mumbai, can't come soon enough!
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Posted by MalcolmB 21:09 Archived in India Comments (1)

Mumbai

Unpleasant Surprises!

sunny 32 °C
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Wednesday 9th November

Jet Airways flight 9W 117 touches down at Mumbai Airport just before 11.00 am, remarkably on time, and after the usual scramble to get off the plane, I clear immigration, pick up my bag, (as always with a sigh of relief that it's managed to follow me) and head for the exit. As I step out of the terminal I am met with a blast of heat and a tout offering a free taxi ride into town if I will change money with him. Knowing a certain scam when I see one I shrug him off and head for the buses to Andheri from where I hope to catch a train into the city. I quickly give up on this idea as the numbers on the front of the buses are an indecipherable squiggle and I haven't a clue which one I should take. Instead I climb into an auto-rickshaw which I am told will use it's metre and we head off into the chaos of the Mumbai traffic. "Solve all you problems - Free advanced astrogogy ", followed by a phone number, reads an advert on the back of an auto we overtake. I look around at the poverty of the street and struggle to think of any personal problems that need attention. Perhaps another day, I think to my self. Another sign states "Shh! No Honking", but no-one takes any notice and the blaring of horns adds to the general cacophony as we slalom in and out of the traffic desperately trying to overtake everything and anything in our way. Eventually we draw up outside Andheri Station and the driver asks me to pay anything I like. I can't work out what the metre says and so I ask him how much. 150 rupees he says. I know this is way over the odds and so I give him 100. He scowls but I am unmoved and we part on bad terms. I know the fare should be nearer 50 rupees and so I turn my back on him with a clear conscience. Being an old hand in Mumbai I have decided to take a suburban train the 30 or so kilometres to the south of the city as it will be dramatically cheaper than a taxi. The last time I was here 2 years ago I paid 1000 rupees for a taxi (I am later told by someone I meet at my hostel that he paid 2000). Mumbai's trains have a fearsome reputation and during rush hours they are packed to bursting point. I have read that an average of eight people a day are killed, either by falling from the open doors or by being hit while walking along the tracks, but previous experience travelling to and fro from the British Consulate to sort out my stolen passport has taught me that at other times of the day the trains are bearable and so I join a queue that moves almost imperceptibly towards the ticket window as an old beggar supporting himself on a stick moves almost as slowly in the opposite direction. Reaching the counter I hand over 10 rupees in exchange for a ticket. Feeling pleased with myself and rejoicing in the saving of at least 890 rupees I find a seat on a hard wooden bench by a window in the 13.28 bound for Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in the heart of the city. The second class carriages remind me of cattle wagons although they do have overhead fans which battle bravely but in vain to stir the stifling air. Hawkers pass up and down the now crowded carriage trying to sell wallets and headphones and the man sitting next to me unwraps a pair and plugs them into his phone to test them before buying. After a few stops he gets off and someone else takes his place. I look over his shoulder at his smartphone and see that he he reading something about the US Presidential election. "Who won?" I ask, and immediately feel sick to my stomach when he answers. The rest of the journey passes in a state of disbelief and I reflect that soon we may all be in need of that astrologer.

Later, I check into my hostel, dump my pack in a three bed dorm and go to the common room where I fall into conversation with a young American guy. We discuss the catastrophic news from the USA before he asks me how I'm coping with the money situation. I know nothing of this and so he tells me that the government has decreed that in order to strike a blow at the black economy, tax dodgers and counterfeiters all 1000 and 500 rupee notes ceased to be legal tender as of midnight last night. All banks and ATMS are closed for the day and so I have no hope of adding to the meagre funds I brought with me. As most of the 3000 rupees I have is in 500 rupee notes I decide to go in search of a money changer but they also seem to be closed and the Western Union offices I try are either unable or unwilling to convert my cash to small denomination notes. I am now beginning to wish I'd made a note of that astrologer's phone number. Apparently the banks are open tomorrow so it looks like I'll have to abandon my sightseeing plans and queue up, no doubt with hundreds, if not thousands of others, in the quest for some legal tender. In the meantime I'll have to conserve what little I have and try and find a restaurant that accepts credit cards.

In the evening I go to my favourite eating hole and having been assured they accept credit cards I order Masala dosa, vegetable samosas, fresh mango juice and a Sprite. The bill comes to a grand total of 228 rupees (£2.70) and having paid with my flexible friend I return to my hostel reassured and relieved that I will be able to cope with the monetary crisis, at least, for the time being.

Thursday 10th November
I wake late, having made up for the sleep missed on the flight here, and having breakfasted on omelette, toast, banana and coffee I set off in search of a bank. I quickly come across one and peering through the door see that the interior is very crowdeI. Nevertheless I decide to go in and am met by a very helpful young bank employee who helps me fill in a form and then whisks off my passport and visa to be photocopied. I then join a queue to have the copies verified and once the three sheets of paper are stapled together and stamped i join another queue to change my four 500 rupee notes for 20 crisp new 100 rupee bills. The whole process takes less than than half an hour and grateful that I still have most of the day ahead of me I set off to do some sightseeing.

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Later that evening I arrive at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus at 10.15 pm, 50 minutes before my train, the Konkan Kanya Express, is due to depart for Goa. Despite the late hour the station concourse is full of people waiting to board trains.

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I find platform 18 where my train is already waiting and note that the Sleeper and Chair Class carriages and the unreserved coaches are already bursting at the seams.Long distance Indian trains have several classes. The most expensive are the air-conditioned carriages, 1AC, 2AC, and 3AC.Next come Sleeper and Chair Class and finally the unreserved coaches which are a vision of he'll on earth with people and luggage crammed into every inch of space. I find my own 3AC carriage and locate my name on the passenger list pasted next to the door. The carriage is almost empty and I chain my pack to a ring beneath one of the seats and sit back to await the arrival of my travelling companions. They turn out to be a group of twenty-somethings on their way home form one of the gulf states but they largely ignore me and tuck into the food they have brought with them.. The train leaves on time and soon after I make my bed with the sheets and blankets provided and climb up to the top berth. Gradually the chatter off my fellow passengers begins to subside and gently rocked by the moving carriage I drift into a deep and satisfying sleep.

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Posted by MalcolmB 10:25 Archived in India Comments (0)

Goa and Hampi

sunny 33 °C
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Friday 11 November

At first light I am woken by cries of "Chai! Chai! Chai!" as the chai wallah makes his way through the air conditioned carriages. He is quickly followed by another man selling chapattis, rotis and sandwiches from a blue plastic box. I turn over, trying to ignore them and sleep fitfully until we pull in to Tivim and my companions alight amid much noise as they drag their luggage from beneath the seats. I am now alone in my compartment and I climb down from my berth and spend the next two hours gazing through the discoloured and dirt streaked windows at the passing palm trees and rice paddies as the carriage attendant folds and stacks last night's sheets and blankets. Shortly after 11.00 am we pull in to Margao, only 25 minutes late, which for Indian Railways is pretty good, and I disembark and cross the footbridge where I am greeted by a motorbike taxi driver. We haggle over the cost of a pillion ride into town and I fail miserably to knock him down from his 50 rupee stating price. Defeated, I climb on the back for the hair-raising five-minute slalom ride into town. My plan is to go to a bank and get some cash from an ATM and then have some breakfast, but when I see the dozens of people queuing in the sun outside the State Bank of India I quickly change my mind and decide to catch a bus to Colva.

Half an hour later I am making the 15 minute walk along the beach to C'Roque Resort where I am shown to the room which will be home for the next 10 days. I grab a bite of lunch and then have a very refreshing swim. The rest of the day is spent lazing on a sunbed, swimming and walking along the beach once the early evening cool arrives. Day follows day in much the same vein. I occasionally make the effort to walk into Colva village but there is never any money in the ATM. As I am able to pay all my bills with my credit card I am not too concerned and I manage to change 100 dollars US so I have enough cash for a week or so. As the money I have is mostly in small denomination notes I have a wad of cash over an inch thick! It seems that the demoneterisation is causing severe difficulties for many people and not just those it was intended to hit. On the face of it, it seems like a good idea, but in true Indian style the planning leaves much to be desired. The new notes are failing to get through to the banks and the little that does is soon gone. Prime Minister Modi says give it 50 days and everything will be fine. We shall see!

And so the days pass in indolence: to the cawing of the ubiquitous crows I eat good food, drink a few beers and work on my tan. All too soon, though, I am packing my bag and saying goodbye to Ali, Azaan and Sonu who have looked after me so well and heading 30 miles north to Goa's capital, Panjim, for a couple of days.

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C'Roque Resort and Ali, Azaan and Sonu

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Panjim, the capital of Goa

While there I take a local bus to Old Goa, just a few miles inland. This was once the capital Of Portuguese Goa and during its heyday in the 16th century it boasted a population greater than that of Lisbon or London. However, due to the continuous outbreaks of cholera and malaria it was abandoned in the 17th century. All that now remains are the tea stalls and roadside restaurants that cater for the hordes of Indian tourists and the few foreigners that descend on it every day and half a dozen magnificent churches. One of these, Se` Cathedral, is the largest in Asia, while another, Bom Jesus, contains the mummified remains of St Francis Xavier in a glass sided coffin.

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The tomb of St Francis Xavier

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Two of Old Goa's churches

That evening I go to the bus station to catch the 8.00pm sleeper bus to Hampi. It pulls in at a quarter to and I show my ticket to the bus wallah. He studies it for almost two minutes before impatiently informing me that I have the wrong bus. Not only that, but I also have the wrong bus station. As I used this bus station two years ago I have assumed it will be the same one but this is the state government bus station and I should be at the private bus station. The bus wallah waves a hand in its general direction and in a panic I heave my pack onto my shoulders and set off having no idea how far I have to go and seriously concerned that I'll miss my bus. Taking my life in my hands I dodge the teeming traffic as I cross busy roads and stopping occasionally to ask directions I arrive ten minutes later, drenched in sweat, at my destination. Much to my relief my bus is still there and I dump my bag in the luggage hold and climb aboard to find my bunk. I need not have worried because it is another half hour before the bus finally departs. Mainly due to the erratic habits of the driver, i sleep little that night. In an effort to curb speed and reduce the horrific number of death's a profusion of sleeping policemen have been installed on many Indian roads. Having bumped over one of them the bus accelerates towards the next, brakes sharply just before it, then bump, bump as we cross it. This process continues ad infinitum throughout the night until we reach Hampi soon after daybreak. I push my way through the horde of rickshaw drivers who clamour for trade at the foot of the buses steps and ignoring their pleas walk the short and familiar route to Rocky's Guesthouse. I breakfast on omelette and fruit salad and when my room becomes available at 9.30 collapse onto the bed and step till midday.

Wednesday 23rd November

The landscape around Hampi is extraordinary. Over many millions of years, erosion of the granite mountains that once stood here has resulted in the formation of huge boulders that are piled on top of each other, sometimes so precariously that it seems the slightest touch will set them tumbling down the hillside. A less plausible, but more pleasing theory, is provided by Hindu mythology which holds that the landscape is the result of of a battle between two monkey armies and the boulders lie where they came to rest as each army hurled them at the other. During the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries the city of Vijayanager, as it was then called, developed into the world's second largest city, after Beijing, with a population of 500,000. It was immensely wealthy and drew traders from as far as China and Portugal to its teeming bazaars. It all came to an end in 1565 when the city was sacked by a confederation of Moslem armies from the north. All that remains are the ruins of a vast royal palace, the pillars of the bazaar and the ruins of the 2000 temples which litter the landscape. Today, to cater for the tourists, a small town of guesthouses, shops and restaurants huddles in the shadow of the 50 metre tall gopuram which forms the entrance to the still used Virupaksha Temple and dominates everything around it.

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Virupaksha Temple gopuram and the village of Hampi just beyond it

I hire a motorbike (200 rupees or £2,20 for the day) which takes me to the nearby village of Anegundi where I pass the time wandering the streets and chatting with the friendly locals. I then ride to the foot of Anjanadri Hill and leaving the bike climb the 575 steps to the summit where a temple marks the reputed birthplace of Hanuman, the monkey god. I have managed to time this for the hottest part of the day and reaching the top in the baking heat gives me an added sense of achievement.

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Anegundi village

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Chillies drying in the sun

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The ruins of Hampi Bazaar

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The Hampi landscape

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Hanuman Temple and Anjanadri Hill

The following day I sign up for a bicycle tour of some of the ruins and spend a very enjoyable day in the company of Julia from Berlin and Steve and Liz from Manchester. He's a United fan so we immediately hit it off. We are shepherded by Krishna who is a mine of information but travels the route on a motorbike. Just in case one of us gets a puncture and needs a lift, he explains. After seeing the impressive ruins of the royal palace lunch is provided for us and we sit on the grass in the shade near the underground Shiva Temple. An Indian couple appears from nowhere- they spread a mat and from their baskets produce a feast of chapattis, poppadoms, rice, chutneys and curries fit for a king. Later, having eaten our fill, we cycle back to town and spend the rest of the afternoon in the Mango Tree restaurant, lounging on the floor cushions, chatting and drinking lime sodas in the cool of the overhead fans.

I wake on my last day in Hampi feeling a little unwell and would happily stay in bed. Unfortunately, I have to check out of my room by 9.30 am and so I pack my bag, leave it in the luggage storeroom, and set off on a slow walk along the river to Vitalha Temple and back. I pass the rest of the day in the Mango Tree and Gopi restaurants, sipping lime sodas and banana lassi and trying to decide if forcing myself to be sick would be beneficial. In the end I conclude that sticking my fingers down my throat is the least attractive option. By nightfall I am feeling better and I board the 6.30 bus for the half hour trip to Hospet from where I will catch the night train to Mysore.

Hospet! The name conjures up nightmares for it was here on my last visit in February 2015 that my bag containing my passport, credit cards, money, camera, phone and tablet were stolen. I walk past the restaurant where it happened and think about going in. I don't believe in fate, but nevertheless, decide not to tempt it and, pausing only to take a photo, I hurry on towards the station. I grab a bite to eat on the way and then waiting on the platform I am surprised to see Julia coming towards me. She is catching the same train so we chat for half an hour before boarding different carriages and agreeing to meet when we reach Mysore in the morning.

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The scene of the crime

Posted by MalcolmB 04:28 Archived in India Comments (0)

Mysore, Ootacumund, Cochin, Munnar and Periyar

sunny 32 °C
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Thursday 27th November
My train arrives in Mysore at 9.30 am and I meet Julia on the platform and we set off to find the hotel I have already booked. Fortunately, there is also a room for her so having dumped our bags and freshened up we meet in the lobby and go in search of breakfast. We find a place nearby which specialises in South Indian food and peruse the menu. I hope to have a masala dosa, a thin rice flour pancake stuffed with spiced potato, peas and onion but for some reason i can't fathom they stop serving dosas between 11.30 am and 4.00 pm and it is now nearly twelve. We make do with idly, a tasteless rice flour cake which we dip in a curry sauce, and then make our way to Mysore Palace, the former home of the Maharaja of Mysore. The palace was built in 1912, after a fire destroyed the former one, and was designed by an Englishman, Henry Irwin. Henry had probably never heard of minimalism and the concept is as far from his vision as it is possible to get. The palace is ornate and gaudy and it would seem that even the decorations are decorated. Photography of the interior is banned but I manage to sneak a few photos while the attendants, who shrilly blow their whistles at every real or imagined indiscretion of the tourists, are otherwise occupied.

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Mysore Palace

More by luck than judgement we have arrived in Mysore on a Sunday, one of the days along with holidays, when the palace is illuminated by nearly 100,000 light bulbs. We return that evening and at precisely 7.00 pm the lights are switched on. The sight, though undeniably kitsch, is impressive and I feel I have been suddenly transported to Disneyland.

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Mysore Palace at night

The next morning we visit the bazaar, billed as one of the best in India. Every few metres we are stopped by a stallholder who insists we smell his perfumes or watch an incense stick rolling demonstration. We manage to resist their entreaties and come away having bought nothing but with our arms covered in perfume and our cameras full of images of the vegetable and flowerstalls.

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Devaraja Market, Mysore

We catch a brand new bus, in itself a bit of a rarity as nearly every bus I've seen or travelled on so far looks like a beaten up old wreck: it even has a digital display announcing the next stop, and make the 30 minute winding ascent to the top of Chamundi Hill and The Sri Chamundeswari Temple. It seems to be some kind of special day and there are large crowds including many pilgrims in gold fringed black lungis ( a south indian sarong) milling around and entering the temple. We deposit our sandals in a carrier bag and hand them over to the shoe-keeper for safe keeping and join the slow moving queue to take darshan from the goddess. Darshan is the gaining of spiritual merit by being in the presence of a God or a special person such as Mahatma Gandhi and counts towards improving one’s position in the next life. By some mystical means some of their special qualities are supposed to rub off on you. After queuing for nearly half an hour we are granted just a few seconds in the presence of the goddess, an indistinct golden blur in the depths of a dark and mysterious sanctum, before being hurried out to make room for other, far more ardent worshippers. It is a relief to get out of the crush and we reclaim our shoes, having handed over four rupees. Neither of us feel particularly spiritually enriched but the waiting has enhanced our hunger so we find a roadside dabbha for puris and Coca-Cola.

Our next stop is Mysore Zoo. An Indian man I met in Hampi described it as the best zoo in the world. Having seen the amazing zoo in Singapore, I have my doubts, which prove to be well founded, but I am glad to see that the extensive gardens have large enclosures for the animals, although due to a lack of rain they seem dry and dusty.

Later that evening we dine on banana leaf thalis before saying our goodbyes. I have enjoyed Julia's company over the last two days and Mysore has been a pleasure, not least because of its people who have been the the most friendly and helpful I've ever encountered in India. I have also managed to boost my cash reserves as all the ATMS seem to have money in them and the queues are short.

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Julia and banana leaf thalis

I am in the hotel lobby at 6.30 the next morning waiting for a minibus to take me to Ootacumund. It finally arrives at 7.30 and I cram myself into the back window seat for 5 hours of torture as the minibus climbs high into the hills over a multitude of speed bumps and around 33 hairpin bends (according to the Lonely Planet guide). On the way we speed through a wildlife sanctuary and I peer hopefully into the bushes knowing that the chances of spotting a tiger are almost non-existent. But there are groups of spotted sambar deer which graze close to the road, so just maybe? It is more likely, though, that the deer have learnt that being in close proximity to passing traffic is the safest place to be. The minibus dumps me some two kilometres from the town centre so hoisting my pack on my shoulders I set of to walk into Ooty, gladly noting that it so much cooler up here at altitude.

During the days of the British Raj Ootacumund, the "queen of hill stations", was where the Madras administration decamped to in order to escape the unbearable heat of the summer months, loading all the paraphernalia of government onto the narrow gauge train which still claws its way up the hillsides to cooler climes. Now, however, besides the railway, street names such as Charing Cross, a few colonial style bungalows, a lemon-washed church and the graves of many servants of the Raj in its neglected and overgrown cemetery and a surprisingly well maintained botanical garden, there is little to evoke memories of "Snooty Ooty" as it was known. Instead, uncontrolled and unplanned, the town has sprawled across the hillsides and the views for which it was famed have disappeared. India is very keen on roadside slogans which exhort the populace to improve their behaviour. For example, "Be part of the solution, not the pollution", or "Be alert, accidents hurt". One of my favourites, seen in Ooty, is, "Find a bin, put it in". Unfortunately, one may need to walk a couple of miles or more in order to follow this advice and so Ooty is just as litter strewn as many Indian towns and worse than many. On the plus side though, it has introduced a number of mobile lavatories in various parts of town meaning the stench of urine is not as pervasive as in some towns.

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St Steven's Church, Ooty
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Ooty street scene

Disappointed with Ooty, I decide to cut short my stay and go to the station to reserve a ticket on the toy train. The bored woman bend the grille at the ticket office informs me that it is fully booked and has no interest in helping me with alternatives. As I turn away she slams down the metal shutter with a resounding crash. A fitting comment on my stay in Ooty.

And so, before sunrise next morning I board a bus for the six hour ride to Coimbatore, where I have to travel by local bus to a different bus terminal (many Indian towns have more than one bus terminal which makes travelling even more difficult and confusing) for another six hour journey to Cochin. I arrive just before sunset, find a very reasonably priced hotel and dine on a very poor version of prawn noodles at a food court in a shopping mall (one more sign of India's growing modernity) before tumbling exhausted onto my bed beneath a whirling and cooling fan.

Friday 2nd December
A four rupee ferry ride the following morning takes me across the harbour to Fort Cochin, just one of the islands that make up the city. I am always amazed at just how cheap it is to travel in India. Transport is heavily subsidised in order to keep it accessible to everyone, including the very poor. So a six hour bus ride costs less than 100 rupees (approx £1.10) and two hours in an unreserved class on the trains can be as little as 30 rupees. Fort Cochin has in turn been controlled by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British and all have left their mark on it with varying styles of architecture which are just one reason that Fort Cochin has become such a draw for tourists. Another attraction are the Chinese fishing nets which are the legacy of Chinese traders some 600 years ago. Large nets, suspended from cantilevered arms are raised and lowered by half a dozen men with the aid of counterbalances in the form of rocks tied to ropes. Sadly, more modern fishing methods mean that the nets are becoming financially unviable, and as I watch the nets raised with little or nothing in them it is easy to see why this is so. My own financial situation is becoming a little more tenuous as well. Almost every ATM is empty and when I do manage to find one in service the maximum amount withdrawals is 2000 rupees (£25). It is possible to keep inserting your credit card and making multiple withdrawals but with a long queue of Indians behind you I think this is inadvisable and of course unfair to those whose need may be greater than mine. I do after all have a supply of dollars that I can cash in if I run out of rupees.

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Chinese fishing nets at Fort Cochin

I was in Cochin 35 years ago when it was just backpackers who visited the city and a tourist infrastructure was non-existent. Over the last few years, however, tourism has boomed, particularly among the newly wealthy Indian middle classes and there are now an abundance of hotels, guesthouses, homestays, restaurants and tourist oriented shops to cater for them. I manage to track down the "hotel" where I stayed in 1981. It is in a non-tourist area and is surrounded by warehouses dealing in the spices and other produce that is grown in Kerala. As such it has missed out on the boom and has fallen into a state of neglect and disrepair. It wasn't much in those days, with its hordes of rats running wild in its courtyard after dark, but no-one in their right mind would want to stay here now.

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Hotel Akksa, Mattancherry, Cochin

In 1981, with my girlfriend, Barbara, I had visited Munnar because this was where her mother was born and her grandfather had worked on one of the tea estates. It was certainly not on the tourist trail and as we stepped off the bus it seemed that people were surprised to see us. There were only a couple of lodges, a few colonial style bungalows and little else. Stepping off the bus now, I look around for familiar landmarks and other than a church and a mosque which sit proudly on facing hillsides there is nothing I remember. Munnar is now a thriving, noisy, chaotic little town which is the centre of a thriving tourist industry. It's cool dry climate is a welcome relief from the heat and humidity at sea-level and the tea gardens set amid rolling hills and peaks provide an idyllic backdrop. I spend my time walking among tea bushes and climbing ever higher to enjoy the views. Basic accommodation for the tea workers is scattered here and there and on one building I am surprised to see a sign warning that suicide is not only a crime in law but also against God. Looking at the crude conditions in which they live and learning that tea workers earn about 300 rupees a day (£3.30) I reflect on why such a sign is deemed to be necessary.

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Munnar

Thursday 8th December
I am at the bus stand at 6.30 in the morning for the trip to Kumily and the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. There are only half a dozen of us on the bus as it leaves Munnar at sunrise, but as we wind our way down the hillsides it soon becomes apparent that this is the school run. At every stop more and more school children, plus the odd adult, climb aboard, girls and women through the front door and boys and men at the back until it seems the bus can hold no more. Yet every now and then three or four more will push their way on to join the masses already crammed into every available square inch of space. I have a window seat but nevertheless am crushed by the ever-growing crowd. Surprisingly, it not too uncomfortable as the restricted space means I am not being hurled from side to side as the bus veers around corners. Eventually we reach a small town and the school children, all neatly uniformed, are disgorged onto the pavement, while those of us who remain, now with room to breathe, continue on our way.

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The magic bus from Munnar to Kumily

Kumily is a small town on the edge of Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary where I sign up for a hike through the forest and a bamboo raft ride on the lake. Our small group is accompanied by two guides, one of whom carries a rifle. He tells me that it is not loaded and in case of emergency he has only one bullet which he keeps in a pocket. Wondering just how much use he will be in the face of a charging tiger, elephant or buffalo, I nevertheless decide to remain close to him. He belongs to one of the local hill tribes which have inhabited this area for many centuries and he is of course a mine of information on the park and it's wildlife. I learn that there are about 46 tigers in the reserve and that there is little or no competition between tigers and humans for living space. This is great news and bears out my recent reading that India's tiger population is slowly increasing. Alas, none of the 46 tigers chooses to put in an appearance but we do see some elephants about 200 metres away and plenty of monkeys and birds.

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Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary

Travelling through Kerala one could be forgiven for thinking that Christianity is the dominant religion of the state. Large, ornate churches abound and biblical quotes are often to be seen on roadside hoardings or outside Christian schools and missions. Yet Christianity accounts for only about 18% of the population while Hinduism claims some 54%. Despite this majority, any visual evidence of Hinduism is hard to find. Kerala was the first place in the world to freely elect a communist government and it boasts the highest literacy rate in India. It certainly seems to be cleaner and less chaotic than almost anywhere else I've seen in India. I'd love to know why.

Posted by MalcolmB 14:50 Archived in India Comments (0)

Kerala Backwaters, Varkala and Kovalam

sunny 30 °C
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Sunday 11th December
I'm up early after spending a night in the nondescript town of Kottayam and agree a price for an auto-rickshaw to take me to the jetty for the ferry to Alleppey. When we get there it transpires that this jetty is no longer used, possibly because the waterway has silted up, and the new jetty is eight kilometres away. It is difficult to tell if the rickshaw wallah knew this, but as a local, surely he did, but he now has me in his power and the price rises from 50 rupees to 450. I argue and curse him under my breath but know my choice is either to accept or be abandonded in the middle,of nowhere. I decide to put it down to experience and reflect that £5 may be a lot in Indian terms it is really very little in mine. He drops me at the new ferry jetty, a canal choked with water hyacinth where a battered looking craft, which is probably older than I am, awaits. We set off and I soon forget my financial woes as the ferry chugs its way through the hyacinth, scattering the little herons that walk on the leaves searching for prey. The two and a half hour trip is a joy as we navigate narrow canals, wider rivers and a lake, making frequent but brief stops to pick up and drop off locals. Birdlfe abounds, herons, egrets, kites, cormorants, all take my attention as do the dozens of houseboats that are now part of the tourist scene. 35 years ago when I was last in this part of the world these were just rice barges with rattan roofs, but they have been converted and many new ones built as tourism in the backwaters has taken off with a vengeance. I watch, partly in envy, as rich Indians cruise past, knowing that this level of luxury is a little beyond the means of a single traveller.

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The Kerala Backwaters

I intend to stay in Alleppey for just one night but having discovered that my guesthouse, the Paradise Inn, is aptly named and that Alleppey is quite an attractive town I decide to stay an extra day and do a canoe trip. At dawn I meet up with a young Canadian couple and a short rickshaw ride takes us to where our canoe, really a small boat with comfortable padded seats, is moored. We spend the day lazily drifting around the backwaters observing the birdlfe and that of the people that live by the water's edge. Occasionally we take turns to help the boatman paddle. He takes us to his home on the bank of a narrow canals and we eat fish curry from a banana leaf, surrounded by pictures of Hindu gods.

I had considered taking an eight hour ferry to Kollam, but realising that it will not arrive until late afternoon and I will still have some way to go to reach my next stop, Munroe Island, I abandon this idea and instead take a two hour bus ride. In Kollam I discover that getting to Munroe will either mean changing buses three times or taking an auto-rickshaw. I decide on the latter and negotiate a fee of 300 rupees. The driver consults with some of his mates on how to get to my destination and off we go. After a mile or so it becomes apparent that the rickshaw is struggling. We barely make it up a slight incline and the driver pulls into a side road. Gesturing that he will be back in five minutes he disappears around a corner. Fifteen minutes pass and I am beginning to think he has abandoned me but as I debate Wetherby or not to go and look for him he reappears with man carrying a small bag of tools and a new head gasket. He sets to work and quickly removes the cylinder head, gives it a scrape and polish, fits the new gasket and replaces the cylinder head and within ten minutes or so we are chugging off down the road once more.

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We cross a wide river on a ferry that is little more than a metal platform fixed to a couple of boats and eventually, after a little searching, arrive at Munroe Island Homestay. This turns out to be one of the best places I have stayed at in India. The place is owned and run by a delightful Indian couple and their son Vijeesh who does all the organising in addition to taking guests on canoe trips and guided walks. My room is airy and comfortable with a hammock swinging on the porch and the food the family provides is plentiful and delicious. Vijeesh is great fun and delights in mimicking the Lancashire accents of the three girls who are also staying there. He knows the island like the back of his hand and takes us to visit a coir rope making workshop, a thread makers and a cashew nut processors where a group of women scrape the skins from each and every nut by hand. I begin to appreciate why cashew nuts are relatively expensive.

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Cashew nut skinners
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Vijeesh making coir rope

It would be nice to stay longer in such wonderful company, eating such amazing food but a 30 rupees train ride takes me an hour further down the coast to Varkala where perched above a beach on dramatic cliffs a small town of guesthouses, shops and restaurants has sprung up next to the original town. I meet a few other western travellers but we quickly exhaust the little we have in common. Varkala is a major stop on the "hippie" trail down the west coast of India and attracts many of those whose main interest is to live as cheaply as possible while smoking as much dope as they can. They seem to have little real interest in India and after three days I decide to cut short my visit and head further south to Kovalam where I will swap one beach for another.

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Varkala
I was in Kovalam in 1980 when there were a mere handful of guesthouses nestling among the palm trees fringing an unspoilt and undeveloped beach. The place is now unrecognisable. Large and small hotels, restaurants and shops crowd the shoreline and the beach is crowded with sunbeds and tourists. Despite this I grow to like the place and stay for over a week soaking up the sun, eating fairly good food and drinking the occasional beer. My last day in Kovalam is Christmas Day when the place goes mad. It has become a tradition for younger members of the fishing villages further down the coast to visit Kovalam for the day. From mid-morning dozens of fishing boats begin to arrive, outboard engines powering them into the shore where they skid to a halt and their passengers leap out onto the sand. They frolic fully clothed in the sea, impromptu football games start, beer and toddy, the local brew made from palm sap, is produced and for the next few hours Kovalam is consumed by a party.

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Christmas Day on Kovalam Beach

This seems a fitting note on which to leave Kerala and on Boxing Day I catch a train to Tamil Nadu and more craziness in Madurai.

Posted by MalcolmB 15:03 Archived in India Comments (0)

Tamil Nadu

sunny 32 °C
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Monday 26th December

Whoever put the "mad" in Madurai knew what they were doing. It's noisy, dirty, chaotic and crowded. People, people, people everywhere. And quite a few cows into the bargain. While Goa and Kerala are "India lite", Madurai is the full on, in your face, Indian experience. They say India is an assault on the senses and nowhere is that more true than Madurai. I walk it's narrow streets dodging cars, rickshaws and the ubiquitous motorbikes, pushing my way through surges of pedestrians, picking my way past piles of rubbish and the cows chewing on the tastier morsels, skirting filthy puddles and cow pats and the patches of phlegm (spitting is a common habit), on my way to Madurai's great treasure, the Meenakshi Amman Temple. Enclosed by red and white candy striped walls and overlooked by four towering gopurams adorned with gaudilyy coloured figures from the Hindu pantheon at each of its entrances, it stands at the centre of the huge city drawing worshippers like a magnet, as it has done for the last five hundred and more years.

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I leave my sandals and camera (for some reason I can't fathom, cameras are forbidden but mobile phones, which of course all have cameras, are not) at the the east entrance and pad barefoot beneath a gopuram into another world. A caparisoned elephant and a camel lead a procession of men pulling a temple chariot containing the small figure of a god around an inner courtyard and I follow them for a while before finding my way into the inner temple. I make my way through a series of dimly lit, pillared halls and corridors where the smoke from hundreds of ghee lamps, offerings to the gods whose images reside in dozens of niches and sanctuaries, darken the walls. Pilgrims queue patiently to receive darshan at inner shrines which are, sadly, forbidden to non-Hindus, while others prostrate themselves before an idol as an elderly sadhu sits cross-legged, deep in meditation and oblivious to the crowds that swirl around him. I spend hours wandering the labyrinthine corridors, disoriented, both in time and place, watching the life of the temple unfold - scenes that have remained unchanged for centuries.

In addition to the elephant and the camel the temple has a small herd of cows within its walls. Cows, of course, are holy and worshippers can buy a clump of vegetation from a vendor with which to feed them. In another part of the temple are stalls selling all manner of religious artefacts, pictures, puja sets and musical instruments. Nearby, merchants are seated behind mounds of briliantly coloured flowers whose scent mingles with that of incense and burning ghee.

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Sated with the sights, sounds and smells of the temple I roam the bazaars that huddle in its shadow, soaking up the atmosphere and revelling in the opportunity to take photographs filled with such vibrant colour.

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Madurai is undoubtedly one of the highlights of my trip so far and I am sorry to leave. Despite the chaos it has an almost palpable energy that lifts the spirits. But although there are days that excite and enervate there are also days that can overwhelm, when the traffic, noise and dirt wear down one' s patience and a desire to be anywhere else but immersed in the lunacy of India takes hold. Fortunately, days like these are few and far between but my next two stops see me reach a low ebb.

Firstly, the few days I spend up the Nilgiri hills at Kodaikanal are hugely disappointing. I remember it from 1981 as a pleasant hill stations and I hope to spend a few days relaxing and walking. But like Ooty it has become an ugly sprawl, the nights are unpleasantly cold and so is the shower, and I leave after a couple of nights for Tiruchirappalli, or Trichy, as it is more commonly known. Here, there is a temple even larger than that in Madurai, but much of it is forbidden to non-Hindus, and when I do wander accidentally into a shrine I am shouted at by a priest. There is a strange atmosphere and an unusual lack of friendliness. Dejected, I wander the bazaars of Trichy where my humour is further eroded by the dirt and sqallor, the traffic and the sheer number of people that I have to fight my way through. Worst of all is the deafening and ear-splitting blare of car, bus and motorbike horns which reach decibel levels that are nothing short of unbearable. If I could get on a plane now and head home to the peace and quiet of England I'd jump at the chance. Instead, I head to yet another temple town, Tanjore or Thanjavur as it has recently been renamed. The renaming of places in India has become common as the authorities seek to remove traces of the colonial past. Personally, I think this is a shame as it denies India's history. I am glad to say that most Indians still use the old names.

Tuesday 3rd January
Tanjore restores my spirits. The traffic, the noise and the crowds are just as intense and the dirt and squalor, the spitting and the cow shit are jusr as plentiful but the temple is stunningly beautiful in the late afternoon light and its grounds are a refuge of peace and tranquility. Nowhere is off-limits and everyone seems happy and relaxed. Even the priests seem pleased to see me after I queue for darshan, which is free, unlike many other temples which can charge up to 200 rupees for communion at the more popular shrines. I am captivated and quickly fall back under India's spell. All negative thoughts are banished.

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I then spend a few days in Pondicherry (now renamed Puducherri), a French administered colony until independence in 1947. Much of the architecture in the old town is redolent of a Mediterranean seaside town but other than this there is little to see. I do, however take the opportunity to go diving at a small man-made reef a few kilometres off the coast. It doesn't compare with diving in Indonesia or Borneo but nevertheless it is good to keep my eye in and I see quite a few interesting fish including large barracuda, huge groupers and some mating cuttlefish.

I then head to another town famous for its temple, Tiruvanamalai. My visist coincides with full moon when thousands of pilgrims descend on the town
However, this has its downside as, in order to control the huge crowds and get them from one place to another as quickly as possible, the temple grounds are fenced off into different sections and one is not able to wander freely. Again, the crowds and the traffic take their toll on my frame of mind and I am glad to escape the mayhem for the peace and quiet of the seaside town Mamalapuram. This is another favourite of western travellers and the tourist enclave boasts the usual tourist shops, restaurants and hotels but I am glad of some comfort and non-spicy food and revel in the opportunity to walk the streets and the beach, unthreatened by speeding motorbikes. During my few days there it is Pongal, or harvest festival, a three day holiday and everybody seems to be in a good mood. Large crowds pour in, mostly from Chennai which is a couple of hours away by road and the town assumes an atmosphere of carnival, especially at the beach. Interestingly though, very few of them stray into the "western area" which retains its tranquil aura.

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Friday 20th January
I didn't like Madras, or Chennai as it now is, when I was here in 1981 and grew to detest it on this visit. It is a huge urban mess which seems to go on forever but there is little to see. My train to Jaipur is due to leave at 5.40 in the evening and having checked out of my hotel i leave my pack at the claokroom at Chennai Central station and set off to walk the two miles to one of the few attractions. This is Fort William, established by the British in the 18th century to protect their newly established trading post. It soon becomes clear that there is a demonstration going on as hundreds of people are all heading towards Marine Beach either on foot, on the back of trucks or, of course, by motorbike. Horns are blaring even more insistently than usual and placards are being waved but the crowd thins as I head in one direction and they in another. Hot and sweaty, I reach the fort's museum only to discover it is closed in Fridays. I curse myself for not consulting my Lonely Planet more carefully and decide to go to Triplcane Road which according to LP has a few decent restaurants. It soon becomes clear though that I am heading towards the heart of the demonstration as the crowds thicken. At first I am heading in the same direction as everyone else but soon I need to fight my way against the flow and progress becomes painfully slow. Eventually I reach my goal but every shop and restaurant is closed. It seems that the demo also encompasses a general strike and every shutter is down. There is nothing else to do but walk two miles back to the station, where i retrieve my bag and settle down to wait the three hours until my train is due. I find a seat in the terminal where I can keep an eye on the digital display and time passes slowly. 5.20 arrives but still there is no information about my train. I am beginning to get a little concerned and ask a fellow passengers if he knows what is happening. He consults the Internet on his phone and tells me the train is running 2 and a half hours late. I resign myself to waiting even longer but still nothing comes up on the display. The station is becoming extremely crowded. There are no seats left and hundreds of people are standing or sitting and lying on the floor. there don't seem to be any trains arriving or leaving. A "D" keeps appearing next to those trains that are on the display which I take to mean "delayed" but still there is no news of my train. It is now four hours late and another passenger advises me to go to the customer care centre. I am reluctant to give up my seat but see no other option. I find the customer care counter, elbow my way through the crowd and give my train number to the harrassed looking man behind the metal grille. He makes a phone call and then says, "Train not coming to Chennai." I point to my ticket, "Look, it says here that it should be in Chennai at 5.30." "Train not coming," he repeats disinterestedly , and turns to deal with someone else. Instinctively knowing it will be futile to pursue the matter I turn and shove my way back through the crowd of frustrated passengers, wondering what to do now. There is only one direct train to Jaipur a week and I certainly don't want to be here that long. Another alternative might be to take a series of trains but at such short notice a reserved seat will be next to impossible to book and anyway, that would mean travelling in unreserved and overcrowded carriages. As the journey is about 1100 kilometres and would take at least two whole days, I dismiss the idea instantly. The only option is to fly and luckily a travel agent is still open (no doubt cashing in on business from thwarted train passengers) and I manage to get one of the last tickets available for a flight in two days time. It costs ten times as much as the train and knocks a large hole in my budget but I am glad to pay up just to get out of the hell-hole that is Chennai.

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It seems that the protests have been widespread throughout Tamil Nadu and not just confined to Chennai. In addition to closing all the shops, protesters have managed to completely disrupt the rail system, causing delays, cancellations and diversions (which is what has happened to my train). Their aim is to overturn the government in Delhi's decision to ban the traditional sport of Jallikattu on the grounds of animal cruelty. Jallikattu is a little like the running of the bulls in Pamplona and a little like a rodeo. It involves young men trying to hold on to a bull's hump for as long as possible in order to win a prize. The bulls don't much like this and become rather angry with the result that serious injuries and deaths from trampling and goring are common. But the practise has been going on for over two thousand years and many people in Tamil Nadu resent Delhi interfering in local affairs. I suspect that this has more to do with the protest than any real desire to reinstate the sport. Whatever the reasons, the pressure exerted on the government is so intense that they give way almost immediately and Jallikattu festivals take place the following day. The last I hear before flying out of Chennai is that two men have been gored to death. In my current frame of mind, my sympathy is with the bulls.

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Posted by MalcolmB 00:15 Archived in India Comments (0)

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