Thursday 15 February 2007

Back in the UK

Well, I've made it, after an uneventful journey back (not helped by sitting behind someone who managed to extend his chair back into my lap), only hiccups being that poor Deb (my sister) managed to visit terminals 2,3 and 4 before finding me,and that I have an absolutely streaming cold (thanks, Ooty).

Before I close down, let me recommend two books I am reading on India. One is "In spite of the gods : the strange rise of modern India" by Edward Luce, and the other is "The algebra of infinite justice", by Arundhati Roy. The first is written with critical affection by an English journalist (married to an Indian)and the second with critical passion by the Keralan author of "The god of small things". I'm not yet ready to give you a clear account of the two books, but I am interested to see that both are highly critical of the traditional placing of the village at the centre of Indian culture and identity. They say the village is at the centre of the problems (as did that young Intel employee I met in Bangalore). Over two thirds of Indians live in rural India, or rather, fail to make a living in the country. Luce argues that there needs to be a shift to industrialisation and urbanisation: that the agriculture is not viable unless plots are larger and modernised methods adopted. Roy is more angry: she sees the wretched villagers as the victims of cynical exploitation: by the state, businesses and the varoious international players, not least the World Bank.

These two books, plus the Amartya Sen, which I left in France with Chris, should help me develop a more critical sense, perhaps a less romantic view of what I have seen.

None of this will change my intense enjoyment of travel in India and my respect and liking of Indian people. We have a lot to learn from them (though not perhaps their driving habits...).

Goodbye readers and thank you for your messages of appreciation. Now to sift my way through the photos.

Monday 12 February 2007

Mumbai - Bombay. BIG city!

My flight was with one of the India Ryanair type companies, Kingfisher, but it was ten times better. It took off more or less on time, we were presented with a zip-up plastic bag which as well as earphones for the video entertainment screen, had a couple of sweets to suck during takeoff and a rather nice biro. My veg meal was also pretty good. All this for less than 35 quid for 850km.

I was rather dreading Mumbai airport as guidebooks and fellow travellers have warned me of the touts. I ignored all offers of taxis and almost by accident discovered the pre-payment taxi queue. Mumbai actually seems to operate with taxis which have meters and printout sheets telling you waht the rate is!

The drive into Mumbai was pretty impressive. It was by now night, and I got the impression of a huge city with high rise blocks and neon lights everywhere, and fast moving often five-lane traffic. Well, it would be five lanes if people stuck to the lanes...

I was booked into a hotel called Volga II. We eventually found the road, thanks to my Lonely Planet map. I have since discovered that Mumbai taxi drivers rarely speak English and I get the feeling that they have not taken the equivalent of the London black cab city knowledge test.

As soon as I stepped out of the taxi, I was approached by touts egging me to come to Hotel Volga. No, no, I said, I already have a reservation in Hotel Volga II. Whereupon a smoother guy appeared and said he was the manager of Hotel Volga II, produced a crd for the hotel, and said they were the same group. It was ten in the evening, so I gave in.

Perhaps I should have insisted. The 'hotel' is up three flights of an extremely dirty staircase, my room is at the end of a manky corridor, with a washroom and staff kitchen immediately outside, and the room itself is one of the dingiest I have stayed in. The sheet (singular - lots of cheaper places only offer a bottom sheet) looks clean, but the rubbish basket has not been emptied, the floor of the shower room looks dodgy (I have emptied my Dettol bottle on it) and the shower drain is blocked. I'm going to avoid too much washing till London!

Not a bad night, once the guys in the corridor outside went to bed around midnight. This morning it was raining! Apart from a couple of drops in my first week, this is the first real rain on this trip, and even this stopped after an hour, but it left Mumbai grey and muggy for the morning (it has cleared up this afternoon).

I'm in Colaba, the most famous touristy area of Mumbai, less than 400 metres from the Gateway of India (through which the British troops left India for the last time at Independence) and decided to do a walking tour of this area.

First impressions: Mumbai is dirty. The streets are dirty, even in front of the posh upmarket hotel Taj Mahal, which overlooks the Gateway of India, and the sea is visibly polluted. The grey weather did not help, but I was a little disappointed by my walk: Mumbai's grandiose buildings turn out to be a rather drab grey or yellow brick colour. Why was I expecting red, as in Rajasthan?

I then made my way along a broad highway with large museums (closed on Mondays), colleges, clubs and libraries on either side. I was immediately plunged into Victorian London - Indian style. These grand colonial piles were clearly built by architects of the school of the V&A. They are impressive, and quite unlike anything else I have seen in India, but as I said, I found their colours drab. It doesnt help that it is difficult to look properly at buildings when concealed by hoardings, railings (with guards forbidding entry for photos) and five lanes of traffic in front.

I passed the law court area, with lawyers walking past in black suits and white cravat like neckerchiefs. Next to the courts was the University of Bombay, another Victorian pile, and in front of it Oval Maidan, where I think international cricket matches are played. Today there were about four games being played,ranging from a serious one with most people in white to a handful of s small, Moslem boys.

I moved on to the Oxford Bookshop, where I bought the Edward Luce book (hardback)for less than a fiver. Final stop, a fabric shop, where I bought three metres of silk, also for less than a fiver. (Sadly I dont have time to get a tailor to make it up into a long shirt for me.)

Now I'm going to my horrible room for a good read. I'm feeling better, but still queasy, and am just marking time till I set off for the airport tomorrow morning. A pity, as I think other areas of Mumbai deserve to be explored, but only if you have lots of stamina.

So - - this is probably my last entry from India. Thanks to all who have written - and congrats for sticking with my verbose blog to the end. I look forward to seeing if any of the photos are worth adding to these words (sadly none of Varkala).



Mumbai - Bombay. BIG city!

My flight was with one of the India Ryanair type companies, Kingfisher, but it was ten times better. It took off more or less on time, we were presented with a zip-up plastic bag which as well as earphones for the video entertainment screen, had a couple of sweets to suck during takeoff and a rather nice biro. My veg meal was also pretty good. All this for less than 35 quid for 850km.

I was rather dreading Mumbai airport as guidebooks and fellow travellers have warned me of the touts. I ignored all offers of taxis and almost by accident discovered the pre-payment taxi queue. Mumbai actually seems to operate with taxis which have meters and printout sheets telling you waht the rate is!

The drive into Mumbai was pretty impressive. It was by now night, and I got the impression of a huge city with high rise blocks and neon lights everywhere, and fast moving often five-lane traffic. Well, it would be five lanes if people stuck to the lanes...

I was booked into a hotel called Volga II. We eventually found the road, thanks to my Lonely Planet map. I have since discovered that Mumbai taxi drivers rarely speak English and I get the feeling that they have not taken the equivalent of the London black cab city knowledge test.

As soon as I stepped out of the taxi, I was approached by touts egging me to come to Hotel Volga. No, no, I said, I already have a reservation in Hotel Volga II. Whereupon a smoother guy appeared and said he was the manager of Hotel Volga II, produced a crd for the hotel, and said they were the same group. It was ten in the evening, so I gave in.

Perhaps I should have insisted. The 'hotel' is up three flights of an extremely dirty staircase, my room is at the end of a manky corridor, with a washroom and staff kitchen immediately outside, and the room itself is one of the dingiest I have stayed in. The sheet (singular - lots of cheaper places only offer a bottom sheet) looks clean, but the rubbish basket has not been emptied, the floor of the shower room looks dodgy (I have emptied my Dettol bottle on it) and the shower drain is blocked. I'm going to avoid too much washing till London!

Not a bad night, once the guys in the corridor outside went to bed around midnight. This morning it was raining! Apart from a couple of drops in my first week, this is the first real rain on this trip, and even this stopped after an hour, but it left Mumbai grey and muggy for the morning (it has cleared up this afternoon).

I'm in Colaba, the most famous touristy area of Mumbai, less than 400 metres from the Gateway of India (through which the British troops left India for the last time at Independence) and decided to do a walking tour of this area.

First impressions: Mumbai is dirty. The streets are dirty, even in front of the posh upmarket hotel Taj Mahal, which overlooks the Gateway of India, and the sea is visibly polluted. The grey weather did not help, but I was a little disappointed by my walk: Mumbai's grandiose buildings turn out to be a rather drab grey or yellow brick colour. Why was I expecting red, as in Rajasthan?

Sunday 11 February 2007

-- or perhaps not

Booking a hotel in Mumbai proved a nightmare last night. I tried over a dozen, including several visits to the Indian equivalent to directory enquiries where hotels had changed numbers, and eventually found somewhere in a fairly grotty hotel (according to Lonely Planet) with shared bathroom. (Pity I lightened my load by throwing out my flip flops, brought for just such occasions.) So much for my plan to finish the trip in style in Mumbai. Perhaps it's just as well, as I shelled out 1845 (over 20 quid) for Hotel Vellora. Still, at least I had two hot showers for my money.

Of more concern is my continuing health problem: I'm beginning to be concerned about possible kidney/high blood pressure problems and have emailed Chris to ask our doctor if I should try and see a doctor in my last hours in Mumbai.

My continuing fatigue means I'm spending another morning doing very little, in preparation for the afternoon flight to Mumbai. It all seems horribly familiar given that I spent my last two days in India last time being ill in Delhi.

One good thing is that the hotel slid a Sunday newspaper under my door at 6.30 - 'The Asian Age'. It includes lots of syndicated articles, in particular from the Spectator and New York Times, for example, Allan Massie writing on the genre of crime novels, and a good review of a book on India by Edward Luce 'In spite of the Gods' which I will look out for.

One little snippet, which encapsulates this multi-lingual, multi-religious country: when Sonia Gandhi (Catholic) made way to Manmohan Singh (Sikh), he was sworn in as Prime Minister by President Tabdul Kalan (Moslem) in a country where 81% of the country is Hindu.

It is also sad that I have missed the Mysore trip. Still, I'm not feeling too down at the moment, despite this sad blog entry.

Well, here I am marking time at the airport. There are only two terminals, but at 50 rupees, just over 50p, for an hour, this is very reasonable. The computers are in a corner of a cafe and once again I am struck by what a sweet tooth Indians have! It makes me feel good that I am not the only one. As in the icecream parlour yesterday, they are tucking into pastries, icecream and cakes. Indeed everywhere one goes there are stalls selling food and it is not unusual to see families sitting down on railway platforms, tucking into a meal. I have seen one or two overweight young people and I wonder if this will afflict more of the middle classes.

Feeling OK at the moment.

Saturday 10 February 2007

End of 36-hour nightmare

After my first night at Ooty, I bought a thicker fleece for 350 rupees (less than five quid) and slept in all my clothes including fleece. "Slept" is the wrong word, as I suddenly felt ill in the evening and hardly slept all night. I had clearly caught a kidney chill, as I was up to the loo every hour throughout the night and in the morning I felt really rotten, with a splitting headache.

Before I could deal with feeling ill, I had to go to the post office to post home some of my baggage, to make the rucksack a bearable weight. I have worn everything I brought, except a sun hat, but I reckon now all I need is one change of clothes. Even so, I still have quite a lot; it is amazing how much space is taken up by things like mosquito nets, travel towel, washing things and medicines.

As I expected, posting took almost all the morning. I was directed from the local postoffice to a larger one by the market - who redirected me to the head post office. But first I had to find a tailor to sew up my parcel. While the tailor performed what I still regard as a wonderful miracle parcel, the cloth shop owner entertained me. It turned out he was a born again Christian, having found God after two decades of cigarette and alcohol abuse. Now he has converted his Hindu family and all the staff in his shop (who all came from Hindu or Moslem families) - while I was there they had their regular morning prayer session, with one man reading from the Bible in Tamil, and then the owner praying in English - for my benefit, I reckon, since he was praying for me to find the Way. He was incredibly well-meaning and I think genuinely happy with his new life, but feeling as rotten as I did I just wanted to escape.

The head post office turned out to be in a cluster of nineteenth century colonial offices, with a stone church next to it. A pity about my headache and feeling nauseous, as this had been an area I had intended to explore. As it was, I decided that my next stop must be the doctor, so I took a rickshaw to Dr Sanjay's hospital (the YWCA recommendation).

I suppose you could say that the best part of three hours waiting in a tiny Indian hospital is all part of the rich tapestry of learning how India works. The rickshaw drive was up a precipitous steep road which had long lost any tarmac and had some stupendous potholes (indeed, the whole of Ooty has the most potholed roads I have seen in a town). At first sight the hospital appeared to be little more than a doctor's surgery, with a looong queue of patients, and a little pharmacy in front. I reckon its main business is maternity (there were notices saying in comformity with various laws the hospital neither performed terminations nor gave information on the sex of a future child). I realised after some time that there was a tiny lab, an xray machine of some sort and an emergency department (a man was carried in by five friends and directed to go to xray in an ancient lift.

The queuing system was a little like that at the bus stations and I was beginning to wonder if I would reach the head of the queue before my bus left, until a nice nurse (it took me a while to realise that the women with green cardigans over their saris were nurses, took me under her wing. But still, I had to wait for an elderly Moslem, who was clearly of some importance as well as infirmity, to jump the entire queue. He and his wife were in for ages, with their driver going to and from their car (parked right at the entrance, almost IN the hospital) for various things.

The doctor was understandably extremely rapid, saying that the urine sample didn't show any infection but that my blood pressure was extremely high, which would explain the migraine and nausea. I was then prescribed some paracetamol and some anti-emetic pills and given a pain-killer injection. All this came to 180 rupees (two quid))!

Back on the narrow-gauge railway for the start of my trip back to Coimbatore. It was as beautiful as on the way up, but I was beginning to wilt as we reached Mettupalayam, where I had to wait for an hour before getting the express train to Coimbatore.

At Coimbatore I spent a couple of hours on a tightly packed platform before the Bangalore train arrived. I was 18th on the waiting list for 3AC and had been optimistic, but nightmare, the ticket inspector said absolutely no chance, and that if I really wanted to take this train, I should go to second class (non-AC, the cattle trucks). In despair but desparate I started off for the long trek back to second (India trains are incredibly long, and invariably the AC classes are at the extreme end of the train, the furthest end from any entrance/exit.

To my horror the train started to move out, but a man called to me to hand over my bag and jump - which I did! Luckily he hauled me and my bag in, and that started the beginning of a heart-warming experience in a nightmare journey. There I was, with the prospect of standing outside the (smelly) loos for nine hours, in the company of three young men, including the one who had hauled me up. They turned out to be part of a family group of six and they too were on the waiting list, higher up than me. One of them said that should they get a place, they would insist that I took it.

After an hour or so sitting on my rucksack, the young men got the attendant to bring some sheets and we all sat on the ground, trying to get some sleep. The man next to me had a Nano ipod and kept on putting on numbers for me to listen to. His taste was touchingly old-fashioned and sentimental: I was entertained with the Everly brothers, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and Bob Dylan. I reciprocated by showing the photos of the family and our house on my iPod, (but discovered to my concern that I couldnt hear any of the music).

Later I was dozing fitfully when the same young man woke me and said he had got me somewhere to sleep - of sorts. He dragged all my luggage, through the compartment, with bodies sleeping everywhere on the floor as well as berths, to the other end of the compartment, where the sheets attendant usually slept, in a cubbyhole in the wall. This had been made up with clean sheets (but no mattress!) for me, and after I was installed (uncomfortably as he insisted I should keep my rucksack at the foot end for security), I saw the young man pay the attendant some money, which made me feel very bad. Sadly I did not see him in the morning to repay and thank him, but I did appreciate their concern and friendliness.

Hurrah for my mobile. Once I had decided, regretfully, that it would be foolish to take the morning train for an overnight stay in Mysore, I had rung ahead and found a room - not easy in Bangalore, given its status as India's number one technical centre. So at 7am I joined the packed throng (12 abreast) up the steps over the usual bridge (as usual we were NOT on platform 1), and took a rickshaw to my hotel. As usual the rickshaw driver said my hotel was full - and then had to stop three times in order to ask for directions to it.

Hotel Vellera turns out to be another one catering primarily for Indians (I have no idea whether the top end places have Indians as well as well-off Europeans, but the budget places are dominated by Western backpackers). I asked for a quiet room and it actually seems to be quiet, and to possess the best plumbing I have seen for some time. Hot water and a shower that worked! I celebrated by having a long shower and then sleeping.

Now it is midday, I am back on my feet and feeling better, though still distinctly weak. I have made it the half-mile from my hotel to an internet place. So far the shops, noise, dust and traffic are just like any other city I have seen, but the young are definitely different: the streets are filled with people wearing trendy western clothes. There also seems to be a far higher proportion of English speakers.

On my way I passed a camera shop which looks pretty modern. I think they have my size filter in stock, so I'm about to go back to the hotel and collect my camera. That will be a relief, as I have been travelling for a month with an unprotected lens, since my filter broke in Mamallapuram.

And then, I propose to hole up in front of the telly in my room. I have already watched part of a very good documentary on the environmental damage being done by companies quarrying for marble in Rajasthan.

A litle later

Ater the morning session on the internet, I popped next door to an icecream parlour, to indulge myself (had a tasty mango shake - and yes, an icecream). Fascinating, it was not a smart place, yet it is clearly a cool location for Bangalore's young middle class. I sat opposite a pretty young woman in her 20s, dressed in jeans and carrying a laptop bag. She spoke impeccable English, even using phrases like "what a pain". She has an MBA and works for Intel, in human resources. We talked a bit about India's problems; I suggested that overpopulation was a key problem. She said she thought that resolving the problems of the rural areas was even greater. Three quarters of India's 1.2billion people live in the country (hard to believe when as a tourist one goes from one congested city to another) and she said they had poor infrastructure, poor access to services such as education (in contrast to the cities, where she said, India has "fabulous education"), and were locked into debt with loan repayments. Result: a widening gulf between the majority of the population and those who, like her, were educated and were experiencing an astronomic rise in standard of living.

Tomorrow afternoon I fly to Mumbai. I'm back in the internet place because the hotel I had targetted in Mumbai is not answering the phone and I'm having to look for alternatives. Not easy, it is supposed to be even more expensive than Delhi.

Thursday 8 February 2007

Ooty. Cold!

The YWCA may be in an old 1920's colonial bungalow, but the budget wing is a long, institutional corridor with basic, spartan rooms on one side and bathrooms on the other (cold, very cold, water only).

I had been warned it would be cold up in the hills, but was not prepared to freeze! I had comed armed with silk things against the cold (squashes up in my rucksack) so I went to bed dressed in my silk thermal underwear, a silk polo sweater - and my silk nightie on top (for decency's sake, since my bathroom is across the corridor). I was surrounded by very noisy young Indians, but still managed to fall asleep. After a couple of hours I was freezing, despite the extra blankets I had ordered. This is apparently an exceptionally cold snap (reminds me of my time in Varanasi) with temperatures down to 6 degrees in the night. It feels like even less, partly because I am now accustomed to the tropical heat of the coast, but also because the roof is a basic corrugated iron affair with absolutely no insulation (not to mention the ill-fitting windows). There are coal firegrates in the bedrooms - relics from a more opulent past, unfortunately.

At breakfast I met a young American who has just spent two years teaching in China (a system which she says is an absolute scandal, as there is no quality control and an awful lot of western cranks and weirdos sign up. Interestingly, despite the fact she had no time for the kids in her school, who were for the most part the children of party apparatchiks who had failed the entrance to public schools, she reckoned that it was thanks to the Communist Party that China has the edge over India on education, health and birth control. Anyhow, she said the trick here is to go to bed wearing absolutely everything you have in your rucksack. (We were eating breakfast wearing not just fleeces but our rain jackets.) It's now midday and I have shed my fleece and am considering removing my socks :-}

My travel plans have hit a major snag. The idea was to take a bus from Ooty to Mysore, then train to Bangalore, train to Goa, spend a day recovering with Claire on the beach, before catching a train for the last leg up to Mumbai (the train is already full, but I was allowing on getting a tourist quota ticket).

The problem is that Ooty is in the state of Tamil Nadu, and Mysore and Bangalore on in the state of Karnataka. I had already learned last night from a young French/Brit lawyer that there is currently a major water dispute between the two states: Karnataka has apparently been refusing to release water downstream to Tamil Nadu. The Tamil Nadu state government has taken them to court, and a tribunal has just ruled that the agreement between the two states, dating from the 19th century, is still valid, and Karnataka has been ordered to release the water.

The state of Karnataka is apparently going to appeal against the decision, but meanwhile there is obviously quite a lot of unrest, with strikes and demonstrations. The bus services between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are operating. The lawyer and his friend are going to take a local bus to the border, walk across the border, and then hitch to the nearest town, to pick up another local bus to Mysore. I clearly cannot risk this, so I'm in the midst of revising my travel plans.

One thing about travelling in India is that you do get to know the travel agents and railway systems, sometimes with just a little too much familiarity. However, I have just been to a very nice travel agent (computer system, impeccable English, helpful) and have bought an air ticket from Bangalore to Mumbai - my final destination - on the 11th (I had wanted to travel the next day, but there will apparently be an all-out strike then). And to get to Bangalore, I will now have to train all day to Coimbatore and then all night to Bangalore. Since I have a day to spare, I will then continue on to Mysore, do an afternoon's sightseeing, and then return to Bangalore the following morening! The travel agent was helpful, giving my train numbers and names and times, but I'm now on my way to the station to book these trains. The key one is already full, but I should hopefully get a seat on the tourist quota.

Meanwhile, I have stopped off at the internet place, GlobalNet. It took me half an hour walking backwards and forwards yesterday before I found this place down a dark passage. But it was worth the effort: the machines are managed impeccably and I have had two CDs of photos burnt by one of the staff, who teaches computing at Ooty's International School (international because it does International Baccalaureat exams). He spent a lot of time trying to rescue my photos of Varkala from the contaminated compact flash card, browsing the internet for the latest anti virus software, but eventually confirmed that there is no solution other than to reformat the card. The virus is called 'moonlight'. I dont know whether to murder virus writers or Bill Gates first.


Got the tickets at the station OK. I'm now booked back to Coimbatore, but am 18th on the waiting list on the sleeper train to Bangalore.

Wednesday 7 February 2007

Ooty. Magical train trip

Nowe why did I think I needed to set the alarm on my mobile? I should know by now that I am likely to hear the temple priests (my bedroom is always close to a temple) waking up Shiva and Parvati at 5.30. And should I sleep through that, there is always a siren. In Mettupalayam it goes off at 6am.

Still, not a bad night. It was not as cold as Munnar, but cool enough to reduce mosquitoes to a mere handful. And I only had two cockroaches in the shower. My room was decidedly grotty, but I have discovered that you can get small bottles of Dettol in the market, and I now use this liberally on such occasions.

I had been determined to take the narrow gauge railway up to the former British hill station of Ooty, and I've made it. I arrived a good 40 minutes before the train was due to leave in order to get a good seat and discovered to my annoyance that the train had been standing there since 5am. Still, I managed to get into the front carriage.

This is a delightfully dinky little train - feels a bit like going on one of those toy trains by the seaside. I had a first class ticket (I think it cost me all of three quid for the 46 km return journey) in order to get a good view. The first class carriage (the only one with windows - of a sort) is right at the front. The steam engine pushes the train up the mountain from behind. My fellow passengers were a gay (English/Scottish) couple of my age who live in Kovalam and a young French diplomat living in Moscow, with a Russian friend.

A signalman sat on the platform in front of our compartment. He has done the job for 30 years, he told me, and retires on 31 March. His work seemed to consist of pulling the lever that activated ear-piercing warning signals and waving green and red flags (repeated by three or four other signalmen placed along the train, so the engine driver at the back could start or stop.

It must be over 50 years since I was on a steam train, and I had forgotten the thrill of the jerky, slow start out of the station, the hooting and the belching black smoke (in this case, luckily behind us). Here I had the added fun of watching the track ahead. The railway lines have a third, rachet line in the middle, as the train goes uphill on a cog system. There was a dicey moment about ten minutes after we started when the train sighed, and came to a halt. But then it recovered and chugged on, at a fast walking pace.

We soon started to rise off the plain, and started to cross the first of the 31 bridges. There are also 16 tunnels on this stretch of line, which goes from a height of 326m to 2193m. The bridges are distinctly hairy: old train sleepers, with spaces in between, and increasingly dramatic drops below. (At one stage we stopped at a station which had a board commemorating The Great Calamity, when a landslide did indeed destroy a section of line and killed people (presumably the passengers?). Beside the track there are often piles of old, buckled track, as well as lots of evidence of landslides. I do wonder how much longer this line, built by the British in the 19th century (British train, the guard said to me with admiration), can survive, given it appears to be getting closer and closer to the edge.

The scenery got more and more breathtaking as we rose and rose up the mountains, with views to the valleys way below and across to precipitous rockfaces opposite. It was even more dramatic than the previous two days. As usual I can't name the vegetation, apart from eucalyptus trees, but it is predominantly green, although there were some lovely orange and pink flowers on the trees beside the line. The rail cutting is so narrow that I could have reached out and touched the leaves of passing trees. Sadly I don't think I have any photos which do this trip justice: apart from being on the wrong side of the carriage, and the usual haze in the valleys, it is really difficult capturing panoramic mountain views, as I know from the Cevennes.

The train stopped at little stations on the way, the first one looking particularly like that in 'The Railway Children'. At one there was a longer stop and we all got off and rushed to the chai stall. I had hardly eaten the day before and was starving and bought a couple of delicious, spicy vegetable pakora-like balls. Unlike British Rail, you never need go hungry or thirsty on an Indian platform. As we approached the two hill stations of Coonor and Ooty, the now familiar tea plantations appeared and the tall eucalyptus like trees which I still dont have a name for.

At Coonor the steam train was replaced by a slightly faster diesel (with no cog line) for the last less precipitous leg of the journey. I was really sad when we finally drew into Ooty station. This had been a wonderful journey, even better than I had expected. Paul, if you are still out there reading this, you HAVE to make the trip (and book seat number 1 on the left side.

Coonor had looked tatty, dominated by what I think is a military munitions factory. Ooty (easier to say than its other names Udhagamandalam and Ootacamund) is a also and unappealing, uncontrolled sprawl, with little signs so far of its colonial past (though I'm going to explore more tomorrow). However, as it is less frenetic than larger towns, I have just enjoyed my afternoon stroll through the bazaar and commercial area, taking photos of the stalls that one so quickly takes for granted in India.

I'm staying at the YWCA in a rather bleak (bottom of the range, at 250 rupees a night) but clean room in what was in previous existence a palatial tea planter's bungalow (unlike British bungalows, it is actually on two floors). There is a huge sitting room, complete with fireplace - necessary here - and dining room, where I had lunch with an English couple and a French/Polish couple with a ten-year-old child. The English were probably nearer 70 than 60 and clearly habitual travellers since taking retirement. Improbable at first, as the husband, a retired 'Government scientist' (meteorologist he hastened to add, nothing directly to do with defence) was particularly British. They were both very jolly and I could see that the guesthouse staff and rickshaw driver responded with warmth to their obvious enthusiasm and appreciation.

Tuesday 6 February 2007

Munnar to Coimbatore. Glorious scenery

After an extremely cold night (what a dramatic contrast with the previous night's stifling heat in Kochi) and noisy - a coachload of teenagers arrived at 11pm and seemed to spend an hour calling to each other up and down the stairwell, I set off from Munnar, again in the car driven by Salim (another 1900 rupees to Coimbatore, but preferable to a six and a half hours to cover 130 kms in a local bus over a road which is one of the worst I have come across in India.

My trip has been made by having such nice driver. Anybody going to Munnar, look up Salim, mobile number 9447512114. His English is sufficient to answer lots of queries and he worked hard at pointing things out to me, and at the same time wasn't too chatty. He is one of a tiny group of Moslems in Munnar. He explained that both his father and father in law had been fishermen (lots of the Keralan fishermen seem to be moslems), but when he was young his family moved to Munnar. We talked about the usual things: families - he has a daughter of 10 and a son of 4 - the fact that we don't have to cough up a dowry for our daughters (he said his wife came with a lakh of gold), and indeed that we did not pay for Kate's wedding!

Salim speaks Tamil as well as Mayalayam. When I asked him why, he explained that 90% of the population in Munnar was now Tamil. As he said yesterday, as the Keralans stop working on the plantations, their places are taken by poorer people from Tamil Nadu. Poorer because Keralan land is richer, thanks to the wetter climate. Wages (I couldnt make out whether these were official, average or whatever, but even so, they are a good indicator) in Tamil Nadu are 80 rupees for men and 40 for women, while in Kerala they can expect to get 150 and 100 respectively. When you remember that 100 rupees is 1.12 pounds, this is still very paltry. Of course things are cheaper here, but even so...Salim looked at my Nokia mobile and said it would cost 4000 rupees in India. So how do they ALL manage to have a mobile??

The scenery as we left Munnar was even more breathtaking than the previous day. Unfortunately my photos won't do it justice: it was often difficult to stop, the typical Indian haze is difficult to reproduce, and the sheer grandeur is impossible to portray. We travelled for hours through the mountains, the highest of which, Ana Munar, is 2695 metres. (Once again I was struck by how small the Cevennes seem in comparison.) The tea plantations go up the precipitous slopes of the mountains, and just the tops are exposed to show a continuous range of red and black rock. Apart from tea workers plodding along the road to work, the countryside was miraculously empty for India.

Gradually the tea plantations gave way to more rugged scenery mile upon mile of dense green forest in the valleys below and still giant mountain tops above. We passed through a national game park - sadly but not surprisingly I didnt see anything. I didn't expect to see one of the now very rare tigers, but I had hoped for the odd elephant.

Salim showed me plantations of sandalwood, being developed by the government to restore the supply diminished by notorious sandalwood smugglers. The most famous, Verpeena, operates in Karnataka,to the north of Kerala, but there are still lots of 'small Verpeenas' said Salim. The sandalwood is actually a rather unpreprocessing tree, unlike the more plentiful tamarind trees in the same woods. These are used to make the local curry.

Then, soon after Salim told me that we had crossed back into Tamil Nadu, we descended down from the mountains, onto the familiar Tamil Nadu flat plain, back in the land of rice, sugar and palms. By midday we had reached Coimbatore.

Coimbatore. My father's birthplace
I should have been more drawn to find out more about where Dad was born and any information that might have been available with birth records, but Coimbatore is as unappealing as the guide books say: yet another vast, noisy hectic Indian city, centre of the textile industry. I passed a few factories and had read in the guidebooks that they are diversifing into synthetics, and ravaging nearby countryside by growing inappropriate trees needed for their production, upsetting the delicate eco-system.

I did stay long enough to have a nightmarish time in the railway station. I wanted to book the tickets to and from Ooty, where I go tomorrow, but also the tickets from Coimbatore to Mumbai (from where my plane goes next week). I had thought of taking trains up to Goa, stopping for a day or two to recover (hopefully meeting up with Claire again) and then on to Mumbai (another 12 hour journey).

To reserve tickets you have to complete lengthy reservations forms, including the number of any train to be taken. So first I had to queue at the tourist information office, to get the train numbers. This proved complicated as there is no direct service from Coimbatore up the west coast: I would have to take three trains over a couple of nights to get to Goa. Anyhow, armed with train numbers, I then had to battle (no queue) at a counter where the woman issued reservations forms (why couldnt they have them on a stand?).

Then I had to complete them - one for each train - and then join a third queue for reservations. The entire reservation hall was crammed with people queuing, the queue snaking backwards and forwards to the entrance. My heart sank - and then after 15 minutes, I spotted one counter indicated 'Credit cardholders/Passholders/Senior Citizens' and better still, the queue was much smaller, and had chairs. Even so, I had been in the station for nearly two hours by the time I got to the front - only to be told that the train to Mumbai is totally full. All that for nothing. There is a definite downside to having cheap fares in a country where people are so passionate about travelling.

Helpful Salim tried but failed to find the AirDeccan (India's Ryanair) office, but this is something I will have to resolve in the next couple of days. Otherwise my last few days in India are going to be taken up with the practicalities of getting the 800 plus kilometres up to Mumbai. I kick myself having booked to leave by Mumbai before planning my itinerary; I was attracted by the incredibly cheap (non-changeable) fare.

Salim persuaded me to take his car a further 60 kms (another 600 rupees) to Mettupalaram, in order to pick up the narrow gauge railway at 7am tomorow, rather than at 5am in Coimbatore. To make up for this extravagance I'm staying in a rather seedy hotel, with questionably clean sheets and bathroom (complete with someone else's toothbrush). Mine is a 'de luxe' room (presumably because it has a fan) and costs 300 rupees (nearly4 quid) rther than the standard 200 rupees.

Monday 5 February 2007

Munnar. Spices and tea.

Given my dislike of five hour local bus rides, the only way to get to Munnar is by taxi. So at 6.30 my taxi was waiting for me. The 100 or so km ride to Munnar, which is in the hills that separate Kerala from Tamil Nadu, costs 1900 rupees plus tip (about 24 pounds). Incidentally, changing money is so easy these days with cash machines (ATM seems an international word), or rather it would be, if the machines had any money in them. We stopped at three machines in Kochi but none would give me more than 50 pounds, which makes the exchange costs too much.

My driver, Joga, was pleasant enough, though he spoke very little English. As usual, the roadside straggle of Kochi lasted for miles, but at last the road started to climb and the scenery became more attractive. We seemed to go uphill all the way to Munnar and about halfway there we stopped at a spice plantation.

At first glance it was not very prepossing: a rather scruffy farmhouse, with some scrubby green plants beside it. Then Joga and a woman started to pluck seeds and fruit from what looked at first like weeds, and I began to realise that I was surrounded by spices. Then the woman's husband arrived and led us down a path through thick trees to yet more spice trees and bushes. At one point we took an extremely precipitous route up and down an earthy hill - my heart sank as I had not brought my stick with me, but both men solicitously helped me over streams and rocks.

I've taken photos of these anonymous looking plants, in the vein hope that I may be able to match names with plants later. What I do remember was that I was shown nutmeg, cinammon, cardamom, betel, vanilla, rubber, cocoa, coffee, tapioca, apricot (well, a relative of ours) and pineapple, all crammed next to each other. Naturally, given my culnary ignorance, I did not recognise half of them when the two men handed them to me, and also they tasted different, as in many cases they were not yet dried.

The rubber was particularly interesting. This farmer has a thousand rubber trees, so my short tour must have only scratched the surface of his land. He showed me how he cuts the rubber tree until it bleeds a white liquid - the rubber. He then picks some long leaves and carefully bandages up the cut in the tree trunk. He does this each day and it takes six trees to produce a kilo of rubber, for which he gets 100 rupees (just over a pound). He then showed me a shed (rather like the huts for smoking fish in Scotland) where he dries the rubber - and then two large iron mills (like old fashioned wringing machines) which are used to flatten the rubber into large flat sheets.

Actually, I think despite appearances this must have been quite a prosperous family: not only did he have several workers, but - a rarity - a car.

We arrived in Munnar about lunchtime, and I took an immediate dislike to it. My hotel (not my first choice) is one of those impersonal antiseptic places, perfectly clean, bt lacking any charm, and as per usual, I have a small room with no view. The town is really little more than a village which straggles for a kilometre or so along the road. It is obvious that this is a place undrgoing rapid change; originally it was little more than a stopping place to get to the old colonial tea plantations which, since independence now belong to giant Indian corporations such as Tata. Now there are signs that Munnar has decided to take on tourism as well, and all over the place there are ugly concrete buildings going up. The final straw was that the tourist office, usually so good in Kerala, was distinctly unhelpful. So I decided to try and fit tomorrow's trip into the afternoon and move on to Coimbatore tomorrow, a day earlier than planned.

I found a private travel office near the rickshaw park and hired a taxi for today(750 rupees) and one for tomorrow (1900) to take me on to Coimbatore, a total with tips of nearly 30 quid. Hopefully thereafter I will be back to trains.

My afternoon trip was to Top Station, about 35 kilometres from Munnar, on the Tamil Nadu/Kerala border. As soon as we left Munnar, we were suddenly in tea plantation country, and it is breathtaking.

The tea shrubs, which my driver, Salim, said were mainly planted a hundred years ago (largely by Scottish tea planters, my guide book said) are perched on precipitous slopes, like patterned green carpets. The pattern is the narrow pathways created so that the women who pick the leaves can pass between the bushes. They are rather like a denser, squatter version of the rows of vines we get in Languedoc Roussillon (though the soil looks richer here, and the monsoon leaves everything so green). Salim explained that the shrubs were pruned every five years, with only 18 inches taken off the top, and then the tea pickers work their way through the plantations, picking just three leaves a time from each bush. The leaves picked just after the monsoon are regarded as the best, but the harvesting goes on all year (apart from the monsoon).

The tea pickers are all women - the men are apparently busy elsewhere, doing heavier work, said Salim. A good picker can pick 14 kg a day, for which she gets 82 rupees (bout a pound), though in high season, she may make an averate of 100 rupees. Salim pointed out the rows of shacks which are the housing provided for workers by Tata. In addition they have land to plant vegetables, and free schooling and healthcare. I asked if tea pickerschildren followed their parents on the estate and Salim said they had until about ten years ago (when Munnar starteed to expand) but that now many were moving to the town to make more money. Who is picking the tea then? People from Tamil Nadu, Salim said. This sounds a bit like the story we heard from the Goans, that the Tamls are the cheap labour force which does the work others no longer want to do.

As well as the bushes of tea, the steep hillsides were covered with plantations of extremely tall trees, rather like eucalyptus trees, which Salim called something like 'grandees'. These apparently take less than ten years to grow to an immense height and are used to provide fuel for the tea drying, with the surplus sent to Kochi to be turned into paper pulp for newspapers. There were also some extremely attractive trees with red flowers, which Salim said were planted by the British to counter mosquitoes, but which have virtually disappeared (been cut down) since the British left.

We continued to climb up the hill, the light becoming more hazy and the clouds more menacing. The mountains (about 2000-2500 metres high, are rounded rather than craggy, but otherwise rather reminiscent of the Cevennes. The panoramas when I reached Top Station were breathtaking, but impossible to capture in photos, particularly given the haze. On our return drive, the tea plantations took on a lovely velvety hue in the evening sunshine. At Top Station itself, the viewing point is reached by a precipitous descent, using roughly hewn and steep rock steps. I was pleased I had remembered my stick and felt a sense of achievement at climbing them without being totally winded!

So, I have had two lovely car trips with a rather unsatisfactory period in the middle. I was tempted to postpone my departure, but I fear the only way to continue with similar experiences is to hire more taxis. (The young have the option of hiring mountain bikes or trekking through the plantations.) But at least I have had a taste of this beautiful plantation scenery.

Sunday 4 February 2007

Kochi again

I shared a table with an English photographer at breakfast today (in my favourite cafe, Kashi Art Cafe). He turned out to be a Rough Guide photographer and knew Nick (the RG writer I met on the plane) well. He's travelling with three cameras and an extremely heavy tripod! Since he carries these firmly with him all the time, his clothes have been relegated to a lightweight bag and he admits travelling is not easy. (He was horrified to hear that I was travelling with an unprotected lens since my filter broke way back near the start of my trip. I'm just hoping the lens is not scratched.) I asked why he carried such a heavy tripod and he said that it was essential for street scenes: he sets up the camera focussed on a particular spot in the street and then, using remote control, clicks when subjects put their foot in a particular spot - that way the artificiality caused by standing behind a large camera is avoided and he says he gets completely natural photos.

I had started the conversation by suggesting that Rough Guide should focus a bit more on the older tourists, as I had noticed that on this trip there are far more people in their fifties and sixties than when I was travelling two years ago. He agreed and confirmed that there were far fewer young backpackers than there used to be and that the tourist industry seemed to be adjusting to a slightly more comfortably off market - ie by putting their prices up! We both wondered where the backpackers are going these days.

He too said he was saddened by the impact of tourism on Kochi, which he has known for some years, and he confirmed that Kovalam, which I had decided to give a miss, despite my friend Sally having recommended it, had been spoilt by the high-rise hotels on the seafront catering for package tours. Indeed, he said, he reckoned that the whole of Asia had changed in remarkably few years, with only Laos and Burma not sucked into tacky tourism. (He was also impatient with European girls who complained about locals ogling - when they lay on beaches in bikinis, often yards away from a mosque.) It is strange seeing so many westerners here after their relative absence in Tamil Nadu. I wish I was the only tourist... ...

My photographer friend reckoned that the fun of travelling like this would soon be over, though he didn't know how he would cope with a job permanently in England, as he feels more and more alienated by the views of his friends (on issues such as Blair, Iraq, terrorism etc) and more respect for the values of most Indians, in particular their friendliness, tolerance, loyalty and family values. Sounded a bit like my Welshman yesterday.

My tourist itinerary for the day was to see the old synagogue and a palace with sevententh century frescoes.

Kochi has had a Jewish quarter ('jewtown') for centuries: the Jews have coexisted with all the other nationalities and religions (helped by some astute gifts and favours to local rulers) right up until their relatively recent exodus after the establishment of the state of Israel. There are now only a handful of ageing Jews here.

What they have left behind is an absolute gem of a synagogue. Outside it is charming in a low-key way, but inside is even more delightful (no photos of course). Built in the 17th century, the overall impression is of light and grace. There are large windows, a whitewashed ceiling with elegant decoration in the middle, and everywhere chandeliers (19th century Belgian), and glass balls. There are gilt columns holding up the women's gallery, gold on the preacher's pulpit and, the crowning glory, a floor of exquisite blue and white tiles from China. I could have done without the stifling crowds, here and in the palace. Not only were there a lot of tourist groups of my age, moving around in slow waves, but an army of uniformed convent children, being taken around at 'speed, speed' by their nuns.

It is exceptionally hot today and it was after noon by the time I reached Matancherry Palace, but I'm glad I perservered. It's called the Dutch palace, but was actually built by the Portuguese in the 16th century as a present for the local ruler and later added to by the Dutch. Inside there were dark, beautifully carved teak ceilings - very like the jackwood interior of the palace I saw near Trivandrum, and some good quality artefacts displayed. But the real treasure were the frescoes: the wals were lined with beautiful scenes from the Ramayana - the well-known fables of the gods which I am beginning to grasp. I fell in with an Indian who was explaining the stylised conventions to his Italian friend, and we agreed that one could make some comparisons with fifteenth century Italy (he is a fan of Lippo Lippi!), particularly in the demons, with their symbolic long fangs. They were as good as, but very different to, the frescoes I had seen in Rajasthan.

I had a jolly rickshaw ride back, as the driver had been married nine months ago, was expecting his first child any day now and was clearly very excited, giving me a blow by blow account of his wife's health, the baby kicking hard (glad to say he doesn't care if it is a boy or girl so long as it is healthy). He said he would have to work overtime next week, to pay for the cost of the hospital. They are using a private clinic, he said, as the government one was no good.

I have now succumbed to the heat, and after another shower, am sitting under a fan in an internet cafe (good computer, sticky keyboard). Soon I must go back to the travel agents to have yet another go to co-hire a car to Munnar tomorrow. The bus trip is apparently NOT to be recommended to the faint-hearted.

Several hours later
I have a car coming at 6.30 tomorrow morning. I have failed to find someone to share it, but actually I'm quite relieved that the absolutely gormless young English couple in the travel agents at the same time as me were still dithering as I don't think I could have handled a day with them - they have no idea at al what to do or see here. I can't understand spending money going abroad without having some idea what to expect. The car will cost 1900 rupees (about 23 pounds).

Then I went off for my final walk in Kochin. I went to look at the Church of St Francis, the first church to be built in India, parts dating back to the 16th century, and was disappointed to find it closed, possibly for reparations. Next to it was a large open space on which boys were playing several games of cricket and football (in this heat!).

I headed for the shore to capture the last hour of sunshine, to find that there is a promenade of a kilometre or so which was completely packed with people, happily promenading up and down. Kochin takes Sunday as the day of rest seriously: most of the shops are closed, so the morning's rickshaw drives passed through ghostly empty streets. And here they all are, whole families, men selling icecreams, balloons and whirly toys - and even a film crew filming a scene (a bollywood?) surrounded, inches away, by an audience of several hundred. All very gay.

I kept bumping into the same man, following the same route, and taking the same photos, so we got talking. He comes from Switzerland and is here to order a boat, which he will then ship back to Europe in a container! He used to be a photographer who specialised at one time on food photography and later on aerial photography.

I finished my walk by the fishing nets again. The stalls were now full of fish and doing good trade, though I didnt see any fish auctions, as I had early in the morning. I was taking photos of the fish and a young man attached himself to me and told me what the fish were called. I have of course already forgotten most of their names, but I do remember there were snappers, shark and one called a helicopter, because it looks like one. Anyhow I hope to put up some pictures.

Supper consisted of four glasses of pineapple juice and now a bottle of water!

Saturday 3 February 2007

Ernakulam and specs

Wel, I am now the (proud) owner of a spare pair of specs, for the first time for many years, given their extortionate price in Europe. Did I say 'proud'? Well er, no. I made a disastrous choice of frames (blame it on my shortsightedness); they are absolutely hideous and I look like a dragon.

In theory I was doing a very sensible thing. I took the ferry for the thirty-minute trip to the mainland (less than 3 rupees - about 3p) to Ernakulam, intending to buy specs and get a copy made of my favourite trousers.

On the boat I sat next to a much tattooed Welshman in his fifties who lives here for half the year. He says that after a lifetime of travelling he has found inner peace here and feels it is his true home'. His friends are all locals and he is no longer regarded as a tourist.

After the relative calm of Kochi, Ernakulam comes as a bit of a shock: it is yet another noisy, frenetic Indian city. I took a rickshaw to 'Lens and Frames' the specs shop recommended by my hotel and was relieved to find a modern shop, not unlike the ones in Europe. I explained I wanted large lenses, as my current specs are too small to give enough protection against bright sunlight. I chose a pair with dark lenses in (my mistake, as I didnt take in that they have hideous black frames when my photochromatic lenses are not dark). I was then given an efficient eye test, measured for the specs and given the price for photochromatic, non-glare, varifocal lenses: 9000 rupees (about 100 pounds) - a third of what I paid last time in Britain. I was told to come back at 7 in the evening to collect them.

Then I realised I had left my credit cards back in the hotel, so instead of looking for cloth, I had to go back to the island to fetch them. The evening was a bit of a nightmare, as I couldn't find the shop. Three rickshaw drivers later I tracked it down just before closing time and after collecting my specs all I wanted to do was get back to the island.

Queuing for my ferry ticket (in the ladies' queue) I held out my coins to the girl in front of me and by signs asked her how much the fare was. She pointed at 2.50 rupees and helpfuly paid for mine along with her thre tickets - another small example of the friendliness of Indians.

The local ferry is a bit scary to take; it is just like the buses: these basicaly calm tranquil people suddenly become maniacs, pushing and shoving to get on. Worse, there is quite a gap between the quay and the boat, with nothing to hang onto when you jump.

I found myself sitting next to the girl from the queue and her two friends, one of whom spoke a little English, so we spent a happy half an hour 'talking' to each other. The girls come from Kochi and commute to Ernakulam every day to work in a textiles shop (from Monday to Saturday, 9.30 to 7) and were looking forward to their Sunday off. When I asked if they were married, they said no, their families could not afford a dowry.

Kochi - magnet for tourists

I got up at the crack of dawn (not difficult because my mattress was excessively firm) in order to have an early morning view of the fishermen at the nearby beach, famous for its Chinese fishing nets (apparently introduced to Kerala by Kubla Khan). I had already seen these at intervals when on the backwaters and here they are ranged along the sea front, like a series of graceful sails. The nets dangle down from high, sloping poles and are raised and lowered by a complex system of levers and weights. I watched one being lifted out of the water and it needed four men to move it. I talked to one fisherman, who let me take a photo from his net platform (for a tip) and he said that his net was co-owned by five fishermen. There was not much happening today, he said, because the current was too strong. However, there were quite a lot of small canoes out fishing, and several fishermen on the shore throwing nets - with the same movement as a discus thrower - into the water. I know its not easy, as I watched Claire have a go when we were doing our first boat trip.

As I idled away along this shore, I appreciated that Kochi is also an important freight harbour; there was a steady traffic of large ships passing by. Not surprising when you consider that Portuguese, Dutch and British merchants have all operated from here for centuries.

I wandered round the streets near my very central guesthouse and you can see that this area once had great charm. There are large merchants' houses with definite Portuguese or Dutch influence in their design as well as being distinctively Keralan: many have the elegant tiled roofs of the regin and gracious large windows, covered balconies, and inner courtyards. They must have made very comfortable homes at one time.

However for me Kochi is a bit of a disappointment, particularly given the buildup I was given: I fear tourism is on the point of destroying this place. Pretty well every large house has become a hotel or guesthouse and the streets are lined with shops selling Indian artefacts ("just one look..."), internet cafes (with skype - rol on broadband in the Cevennes, so next time I can phone home for next to nothing), and travel agents. With the exception of an excellent breakfast place Kashi Art Cafe) the food is disappointing and the prices of lodgings, food and transport elevated.

Friday 2 February 2007

Kochi. Arrival

This afternoon it was time to move on to Kochi. Luckily for me, Johnson and his wife, Angela, were going there too and gave me a free ride in their (air-conditioned) car, right to the door of my next hotel. Quel luxe.

Another splashing out (how often have I said those words...) on Walton's Homestay, where my room will cost 1000 rupees a night. It is a magnificent place, with rooms round a beautiful small garden or courtyard, a library (I imagine books left by previous travellers) and downstairs an Ayurvedic doctor, massage sessions and yoga.

This is the most organised tourist place so far, and when I signed in I was given a sheaf of maps and pamphlets and booked in for a 90 minute show of dancing this evening. I've only walked a few yards down the street to write this blog (first place disasterous, this place lovely modern Windows XP) and Ive copied my Allepey photos to a hard disk, but still have to find a place to put them on a CD. Sadly I have checked and I dont think I have a copy of my Varkala photos. All those scenes of palm trees, sunsets, beaches, and cliff views. Well, I suppose I'll have to be content with my ones of teh Secret Beach.

I'm off now for the dancing, but cant wait to explore Kochi old town tomorrow. It looks lovely - a mix of Indian and European architecture.

A few hours later

I rather suspect that my guesthouse did not direct me to one of the main dance shows in town: first my rickshaw driver took me to TWO wrong ones and then I found I was one of an audience of three. Still, it was interesting and of a reasonable standard.

Keralan dance, called Kathakali, is in fact a mixture of dance, singing and musicians, with a dance tradition going back centuries. I was particularly struck by the importance placed on facial expressions and realised that the mischievous smile of our friend Sarah (Christine Avril's daughter)when doing her Indian dance is not unique to her. The other interesting bit was a form of martial arts dance by two gymnastic young men, one of whom performed dazzling acrobatics with two spinning swords.

I finished off the days with several cups of masala tea at a cafe called Tea Pot, where I got talking to two women from Biarritz. They are off to buy clothes in the bazaar of Ernakulum, the modern city right next to Kochi. We also Indian dentists and opticians. One of the women had had implants done in Bangkok a few years back and had spectacles made in india and was pleased with both. Perhaps this is the moment to get a spare pair of specs - they make them up on the same day.

Allepey. Now a canoe trip

I couldn't resist it. I signed up for a second boat trip, this time a different experience, a six hour canoe trip exploring the smaller channels. It's costing less than 1000 rupees (12 quid).

The rickshaw with my canoe man, Shaji, came for me soon after 5am (!) and we past through the still dark and deserted streets to where his boat was moored. It is about the size of a Thames rowing boat, with two seats facing each other in the middle and a third seat in front. Shaji paddles behind. The seating area is covered by an attractive coconut mat roof, but this made my entrance onto the boat rather clumsy and inelegant! On occasions like this I carry my stick, not only to balance against in tight corners, but as a message that I'm not very agile. It works.

Shaji is a delightful cheery chap with enough English for a reasonable commentary. He loves talking - and cracking jokes about non-existent crocodiles etc. We glided off silently and shaji pointed out a coconut oil processing factory. He said that a few years ago there were many more factories in this area, but that they were all now closed. He blamed it on the government but could not explain why - he just said "politicians". I get the feeling he's not keen on the communists.

The canal was full of green weed - as are many of the canals in the backwaters (my guidebooks says one of the reasons is the fertilizer used in the rice fields). Shaji said that the government cleared lots of the canals two years ago, but will have to do so again.

At about six we passed a mosque, with the loudspeakers blaring away, calling people to prayer. Shaji is a moslem and says taht 30% of the people in Indias are moslem, 30% christian and 40% hindu. I reckon these must be the figures for Kerala rather than India, as I'm sure there are not that high a number of christians overall. Anyhow he confirms what others say, that in south India the different religions co-exist peacefully. Later we passed a bible class and an arabic school, and then the moslem loudspeakers were replaced by ones blaring out hindu prayers.

As dawn broke signs of life increased. Each house has its own set of steps in the river bank giving access to what is clearly an extension of their homes. There were the usual scenes of men bathing vigorously in the river (later Shaji pointed out a bathing hut beside the water which he said was used by the women. There was lots of teeth cleaning going on as well, and all the usual scenes of clothese being banged on the rocks and cooking pots scrubbed. All this washing activity continues at a gentler pace throughout the day.

The houses line the canals or channels on either side, separated from the water by a towpath which has a constant stream of people. In the morning there are lots of schoolchildren, neat in uniforms, with satchels on their backs, making their way to various schools, which also line the river banks. Traffic on the river stepped up also, as men travelled to their work. You get the feeling that everybody has a boat of some sort - you really have to when living on what is essentially a series of islands, with very few bridges connecting them. At one stage we passed a house which Shaji says is the home of an English couple, who live like Indians (bathe in the river) and give English coaching classes to children. We also passed his home - he has one five-year-old son.

At 7.30 we stopped for breakfast in a little cafe shack beside the river. When I said I didn't want iddly I was offered tea and porota and was taken to the kitchen to see it being made. The kitchen was a dark place with huge cauldrons on a wood fire and a man banging out dough - the porota, which I think is made of maize flour. Anyhow it was good - much better than iddly, rice cakes which I find simply too heavy. It was served with a delicious chickpea sauce containing chilli (not too much) and coriander.

In India you wash your hands before and after eating and even the most humble place has a sink somewhere for this. Shaji showed me the sign 'water' in Mallayalam, so that I could locate it in future. Fat chance, I find it hard to memorise the look of the beautiful script. We were placed in a little room off the main room, but later I got to greet (and take a photo of) the villagers in the main room. Shaji then took me to a neighbouring house to use their toilet. Pity I hadnt brought my torch: the look was a dark, dark shed at the back and impossible to see anything once I closed the door... Returning to the canoe, we met a man who - as usual - asked Shaji all about me and then, through him, said his son was working in Norway for two years as a theatre nurse. I wonder what language he is using.

I asked Shaji about the large black plastic tanks I saw from time to time and he said they were indeed drinking water, supplied by the government. I couldnt work out whether it was supplied free or not.

Shaji bought me some bananas which were small and delicious. Illogically I felt it wrong to chuck the skins overboard, but Shaji assured me "Bananas good. Plastic bad." I do get the feeling that Keralans are much more aware of the disasterous impact of plastic on their environment. Indeed the streets do seem much cleaner than in other parts of India.

More river traffic: the river buses were increasing. These are river versions of the land buses, ie wooden bench seats crammed with people, and barred openings rather than windows. There were also canoes carrying building materials, one carrying a stack of plastic chairs, a mango seller and later in the day several fish sellers, who have a distinctive cry to bring out the housewives.

Shaji was for ever helping me identify the different trees, to distinguish between palm trees and coconut trees, mango, pawpaw, betel nut and cashew nut trees, flowers used for Ayurvedic medicines. We saw many more birds than on the previous boat trip, particularly when we turned up one very beautiful, very peaceful, heavily weeded canal. I got a really close up view of kingfishers, very satisfying.

Mid-morning we stopped at a coconut stall, where I was given the usual coconut with straw and after I had drunk quite a lot, they took the coconut away and returned it with the top neatly off and a bit of husk to spoon out the coconut. Its the first time I am conscious of eating the soft almost liquid layer before you get to what I think of as coconut. One of the men at the stall had a huge bow and arrow, which Saji said he used to catch fish. The fisherman was too happy to demonstrate: first he banged the water, then looked for signs of movement and pulled the bow. I think he was a little crestfallen when he was unable to demonstrate a successful catch.

As we entered the canal for the end of the trip we passed what looked like a kettu vallam and river bus graveyard. But beyond it was a gigantic boatyard and Shaji said that all these vessels would be rescued from the water and rebuilt.

AT last it was time to end this magical tour. In many ways it was far more satisfying than the first one because we explored the inner life of this area. But I'm glad I also had the more palatial experience.

Thursday 1 February 2007

Allepey. Back on land.

I had a poor night: at 1.30 I got up to turn off the fan, which was chilling us,at 2.30 Kate phoned us (she forgets that India is ahead not behind the UK in time) and I wrestled with my mosquito net in order to crawl across the floor in search of my mobile before everybody woke up, and at 3.30 I got up to go to the loo. Apart from these events, there was the mosquito wandering around inside my net, the relative cold, and the constant blare of music from loudspeakers in a village across the paddy fields (the Indian love of noise never ceases to amaze us). The music continued until about 4 in the morning; at 5.30 I watched the first signs of dawn, and then Claire and I gave up and got up to watch a beautiful dawn.

Another tasty meal for breakfast: some sort of savoury dish based on noodles made by grinding rice, covered with coconut and accompanied by a tasty sauce. And of course, masala tea.

Eventually this lovely interlude came to an end, and mid-morning we were once more on land. We all agreed that although extravagant, it had been a delightful experience and when shared by four, my cost was bearable: 2000 rupees including tips (24 pounds).

We are now back in town with two objectives: to try yet again to put my photos onto a DVD and to update our blogs. The first of these has turned out potentially disasterous. As yesterday, the computer said I had viruses on two of my cards - deleted the viruses. Either the viruses or the anti-virus software appears to have deleted photos as well! I cant quite work out what I have lost but I fear that much of Verkala and our trip to Allepey may have gone. I suppose for the readers this is good news as we have been snapping feverishly for the past few days, drunk on the neverending diet of exotic palms and beaches, but I am upset for myself. How right our friend Tim was: the safest way to carry large amounts of photos is to buy more compact flash cards and wait till one gets home to transfer the photos to a computer.

Time for some more food (!) before we go on a walk along the canals of Allepey and Claire sets off on a long and arduous journey by train and bus to Mysore. This is our last day together and I'm going to miss her very much. She is an excellent travel companion and a sterling person. I'm hoping we will meet up in Europe and that I may be able to put her in touch with good contacts in her hunt for a new job (she was a project manager in the call centre industry and definitely wants a more rewarding job!).

Several hours later:
Good meal and pleasant walk down canals to Allepey Beach, a huge sandy expanse with a rickety wooden pier, full of Indian families enjoying the seaside. I talked to a family from inland Kerala, who had come here for a wedding and were now enjoying their sight of the sea. The children were squealing with delight as they risked drenching themselves in the surf (not nearly as impressive as at the Secret Beach two days ago - I'm still feeling the aftereffects in my left hip, unfortunately). And then goodbye to Claire, who sets off on a horrendous series of train trips to Mysore, via Mangalore and Bangalore.

Wednesday 31 January 2007

Allepey : houseboat trip

This was the day for the start of our trip in a houseboat on the Backwaters. Johnson's boat had been fully booked up when we arrived but we persuaded him to ask people if they would mind two extra people (and thus a reduction in the cost). He had arranged that we would share the boat with a Canadian couple.

After the habitual delay (over an hour...) we were driven to the houseboat where we met the Canadians, Doug and Jules. They turned out to be delightful - similar outlook on life to us, and with a great sense of humour. Sharing with them definitely added to the pleasure of the trip and not just because they came so well equipped - anti-mosquito candles and the makings of some excellent Mojitos. We have learnt that it is a clever thing to buy a bottle of white rum for adding to those innocuous looking fruit juices we drink all the time!

The boat was a delight. I think we had all been attracted by the sheer beauty of these 'kettu vallams'. Originally designed for wealthy Keralan grandees to entertain, they fell into disuse until some years ago when someone had the bright idea that it would be a good wheeze to use them for tourist trips. There are now several thousand of these which have been restored or newly built and a thriving boat building industry.

They are built in jackwood, the local handsome hardwood (no I cant tell you if they are replanting and how long it takes to grow them, but I must ask Johnson)and the planks are bound together with coir and then tarred, like the fishing boats. They are extremely palatial; ours had a huge front deck with sofa and armchairs, a round dining table and continuous seating along the two sides. Behind this was the single large bedroom with en suite (Claire and I would be sleeping on the deck) and aft was the kitchen quarters. The roof and walls were covered by the attractive, curved coir matting - I cant wait to put up a photo as they are so beautiful.

Jay helped us on board, where we were met by the three crew members with garlands of pungent smelling jasmine and coconuts complete with straws. We sat drinking, big grins on our faces, wallowing for this brief experience of the ambience of colonial opulence. As we glided away from our moorings we passed the same scenes of village life as the previous day, but in a more intimate way, as we were closer to the water and travelling slowly.

You do get the feeling of more prosperity here: even the cottages beside the water, separated by a towpath which has a continuous traffic of people on foot and bicycle. Occasionally there were glimpses of further stretches of water beyond the houses and towpaths, and rice paddy fields lower than the level of the water, reminding us that the Netherlands, this is reclaimed land, potentially vulnerable to flooding.

There were regular refreshments of delicious masala tea and at one stage we stopped for a bizarre (but picturesque) walk through a village and paddy fields to a catholic church enclosing the house of some important 19th century local priest. One of the three nuns who live there took us on a tour of church and house - a weird experience, given the agnosticism of all four of us, it is so difficult to understand the intense devoutness of others. The 200-year-old house was interesting as it gave us some idea of how Keralans lived in the past. A significant part of it was used for food storage, the rooms had predictably low entrances, but surprisingly high roofs, indicating the relative prosperity of the priest's family.

This is obviously a regular stop for the tourist boats, and we were rather baffled as to why this and not, for example, a local temple. In fact we were struck by how much we were part of the tourist process: the boats seem to follow more or less the same itinerary. This didnt bother us as much as it should because it was all the same a beautiful experience and we have learned to cope with the embarrassment of snapping photos like any other trippers, and of children running along towpaths calling out "one pen, one pen".

A major part of the enjoyment of the trip was also the food - a delicious lunch and dinner, and of course Doug and Jules' Mojitos... ... We drank these as we watched the sun setting slowly over the palms, turning the water into a rosy hue. The birdlife increased at dusk, with kingfishers and various fish-catching bird. We also passed a huge group of ducks - a duck farm.

As it grew darker, the crew prepared Claire's and my mattresses on the deck and set up the mosquito nets. ACtually there was some confusion, not helped by a lack of mutual language, and initially they expected us to share a rather skimpy double mattress and seemed perplexed when they were asked to give us a second mattress, and we had to supply the second mosquito net! There were also not enough sheets on board and Claire and I were distinctly cold during the night.

Allepey and the "Secret Beach"

I had a great night. This must be the first place where there was total calm all night, plus an efficient mosquito net. Only downside: no hot water, so I washed my hair in cold - not very successfully, so the massage oil is still conspicuously present.

We somehow spent the morning hunting for somewhere to write my photos onto a DVD. I thought I had found somewhere, but eventually they made a complete mess of things and I got my money back. I should have done this in Varkala, as I'm running out of space - just enough for tomorrow's boat trip.

Frustration in the morning was replaced by bliss in the afternoon. We had arranged for Johnson's rickshaw driver to take us a 25-minute drive to what he calls "The Secret Beach". The rickshaw took us as far as a hotel near the beach, run by a friend of Johnson's. We heard the food was good, so we decided the best way to spend the hot part of the day was to eat. What a good decision; I reckon this is the best meal we have had so far. It is amazing how many different ways coconut can form part of your meal here; there was delicious okra in a coconut source, something like coleslaw containing grated coconut and a dish of chopped up things with what looked like small bits of cheese, but turned out to be coconut, plus of course other spices which I am incapable of identifying. The flavours were all delicate and individual. Afterwards we ate yummy chunks of a water melon in perfect condition.

We walked off lunch on our way through the local village to the beach. It was unlike other villages we have seen: very calm, organised, with a grid of dusty alleys between the houses, which although small looked unusually prosperous, with solid walls and often with the distinctive Keralan tiled roofs. We passed mainly women busy about various domestic tasks, including collecting water from standpipes. At one point we came across half a dozen women sitting in what looked like mountains of rubbish. It was indeed, and what they were doing was sifting through to sort out all glass, which they take to a bottling factory. Labour-intensive though this seems to us, it is good to know there is some recycling. As always all the women and children we saw were incredibly good-natured and friendly.

Then suddenly, just past a little church (with loudspeakers blaring - the first noise in this calm place), we reached the beach. Apart from a handful of fishing boats, and a few groups of fishermen sitting in the shade, there was nobody there: just miles and miles of beautiful yellow sand, fringed by palm trees, as far as the eye could see. Later we discovered there was another couple from the hotel, but they were out of sight.

There was a picturesque cabin - rather like the kiwi 'bach' - where we could leave our clothes safely. The water was deliciously warm, though the surf was a bit scary for me, more than I am used to, and difficult to get through without being pounded to the ground. AFter our swim we sat for ages on the beach, revelling in the sun, made kinder by a light breeze, and continuing our detailed study of crab behaviour. They pop out of their holes, with two eyes on the ends of long stalks apparently able to see in all directions, as the moment a crow lands or a wave approaches their hole, they scuttle back incredibly fast, each one clearly knowing exactly where to locate its hole.

As the sun moved towards the horizon, there was more sign of fishermen going out to sea, in their picturesque pointed boats. Interestingly there was not the ogling that you tend to get at other beaches. Johnson explained later that his friend, the hotel owner, is the big shot in this area. His father built the local school and so the family is held in much respect.

Apparently the hut next to the one we used is the home of an Englishman, Danny, a 35-year-old friend of Johnson's who seems to spend most of his time drinking local beer (we too like our Kingfishers) and smoking hash, with the occasional trip as a motorbike tour leader to finance these habits, and if really pushed to it a return to England and a spell as a courier rider.

Waiting for the rickshaw driver we talked to the other couple, Italian speaking Swiss. They are not going on a houseboat, the woman explained, because her partner was scared of crocodiles!

Monday 29 January 2007

Varkala to Allepey by boat,

We caught the train to Kollam without a hitch and by 10 in the morning were sitting in the boat which was to take us through the Backwaters to Allepey. Kerala has a markedly more efficient tourist industry than anywhere else I have been in India. I was interested that the lifeguard stationed above the beach at Varkala to stop people straying near dangerous rocks was a KTDC employee and the boat we took was also run by the ktDC. There was an English speaking guy to answer our questions and we stopped en route at a waterside KTDC restaurant for an excellent lunch, and later at tea-time for a snack in a village (I had delicious banana fritters0. The entire eight-hour trip cost 300 rupees (less than 4 quid).

The boat was full of tourists, Indian as well as foreign, and we glided off on time down a wide channel, initially with fairly prosperous looking villas and hotels on the borders, plus a few temples and churches (which look as exotic and Indian as the temples). Occasionally we passed loudspeakers blaring music across the water, reminding me of similar loudspeakers in greek villages 40 years ago.

The Backwaters are an immense network of lakes, rivers and canals which spread oer miles of this central part of Kerala, separated from the sea by narrow strips of land. Gradually the houses near Kollam were replaced by fishermen's cottages, interspersed with rice paddy fields and the lush, lush green of palm trees and other vegetation.

Everywhere there were fishing boats, some little more than dugout canoes, others huge handsome boats with magnificent prows. The guide explained to me that they are often owned by a syndicate of perhaps 50 fishermen. They are made without nails, the planks being strapped together with coir, a cord made with coconut fibres, and then sealed with black tar. The bigs ones go out to sea, whereas the little ones fish in the backwaters. We were impressed by the huge size of the fish in our restaurants - giant barracudas, snappers, butterfish, searfish, pomphrets and of course tiger prawns.

It was incredibly peaceful going slowly upstream, lazily watching the village life unfolding on both banks. Claire and I both love boats, so we were in seventh heaven. Gradually the salt water was replaced by freshwater, identifiable because the scum increased. Up until now the main birds here and in Varkala seemed to be the ubiquitous huge 'crows', some of them with a handsome red on one side of their wings. When we reached the freshwater the birdlife suddenly became more varied in particular we spotted dozens of kingfishers! There were also white egret-like fishing birds, and flocks of little ducks (the first we had seen in India.

As everywhere in South India, our passage was greeted with smiling, waving friendly people and children running along the banks calling out "one pen. One pen."

The sun was setting as we, reluctantly, drew into Allepey, where we were to have a free pickup from the guesthouse of our choice, JohnsonsTheNest (thank you, Nick Edwareds, of the Rough Guide, whom I met on the plane and who recommended this excellent place. We had wondered how we would pick out our driver from the melee on the quay. no problem, there was a smiley young man called Jay wearing an England teeshirt and bearing two lovely red roses in his hand. The rickshaw, which belongs to Johnson, was the first one I have seen with a roofrack for rucksacks. Unfortunately it also had the usual mechanical problems, so half-way we had to transfer to another rickshaw.

Johnson's house is in a quiet middle-class suburb which reminded me of my lovely stay at Master Paying Guesthouse in Delhi two years ago. It was a gated compound, with a green garden in front and a huge verandah for the guests.

We were welcomed by Johnson an energetic man, permanently on his mobile making arrangements for various guests, who speaks excellent English, perhaps acquired during his time living in the Gulf.

We are in lovely rooms (mine is huge) in the back garden. In fact the whole compound is spacious. We ate our delicious supper with other guests in a large dining room. There are two girls, one English (grew up in a topee in a hippy community in Deven) and the other also from New Zealand. I didn't take to her at first, which goes to show one should not judge by appearances. She turns out to be intelligent, interesting, with strong views about racism (her boyfriend is a Cape COloured and his parents are not happy about him having a white girlfriend).

she too has just read Roy's book "The god of small things" - I finshed it on the boat and found it an excellent choice, given it is set in this part of Kerala.The english is more floral than that of English writers, but her use of language is skilful and powerful. She writes with passion and humour, intermingling story with political comment. It is the story of a disfunctioning middle class, formerly prosperous, brahmin family in small-town Kerala, and of a divorced woman disapproved of and stifling in the family, with her two unusual, vulnerable twin children.

The end is haunting and involves the other key character, a handsome, gifted, independent spirited Untouchable, and his relations with the woman and her children. The book shows the caste system as alive and well. This is confirmed by our newspaper reading, there was an article a few days ago reporting that Untouchables who had become Christians to escape the caste system are now being excluded from legislation aimed at positive discrimination for Hindu Untouchables - because they are no longer Untouchable, but Christian. Roy in her book talks of such Hindus, who find after conversion that they are expected to go to different churches with different ministers.

Another guest at the hotel, Mark, is Keralan born but was adopted as a child by a Swedish couple and now has Swedish nationality. He is a profesional double bass player who seems to be branching out into business in Kerala, despite not speaking Malayalam. He is here to set up some sort of tourist office in Allepey and then a place in Varakala where Swedish families can stay long-term, educating their children in the Swedish system. Mark's view is also that the caste system is alive and kicking, a view not shared by Johnson or his assistant, Jay. Johnson says that the young no longer have any time for the caste system. Hmmm

Sunday 28 January 2007

Varkala. Last day

Another blissful day: two hour massage, delicious brunch, afternoon in the sea, and now I must dash to watch the sunset over the water.

I have more to say - but another time. Tomorrow we set of at crack of dawn to take a train and then a boat to Allepey, where the day after we will be taking a boat trip in the famous Backwaters. So there may be a little gap before I update this.

Some time later...
There were little touches with my daily massage sessions which were strange but all part of the experience. The masseuses were all young, smiley, pretty and dressed in a delightful uniform of cream coloured saris. I noticed that they treated both husband and wife of the many, mostly german, couples here. I dont know what the husbands though, but i certainly would not liked to have had a male masseur...

my third, Asha, was the youngest, at 18. she had the marks on her forehead indicating she was a Vishnite. She started the session by standing in front of me, with eyes closed, and then touched my feet and my head. During the two hours there were several such occasions, along with pouring oil onto my head (have to say that my hair and underwear are not quite the same now!).

Her style was completely different; more gentle stroking than vigorous massaging. Two hours is a little too long for me to lie on a couch, my back was definitely suffering by the end. But I'm not complaining - it was nice to be pampered. At the end the doctor gave me a couple of special pads together with a list of the various herbs and oils needed, so that Chris can continue the treatment! it was not cheap - 5400 rupees (about 65 pounds) for six hours, but still nothing like what one would pay in Europe.

As usual, we rewarded ourselves for all this hard work by a delicious brunch of muesli and a fruit and ginger lassi (adding the ginger is my idea, and I have suggested they add it to their menu).

I spent the afternoon (rashly?) on the beach, as I wanted to save sunset for walking around taking photos. Annoyingly the fishing vessels arrived just as the sun disappeared behind the haze on the horizon, so i didnt get the shot I had been planning. Still, the sunsets are gorgeous here, and I am totally addicted to viewing them through the leaves of the palm trees.

Supper was another fish meal, yummy, accompanied by a rum and fruit juice. Despite guidebook warnings against iced drinks, we are risking them here, as the waiter was careful to reassure us they made the ice with bottled water. The waiters in our breakfast and supper places great us as old habitues now, and besides we are a patron of the internet cafe at our supper place. There, the guy in charge has quite good English (he was brought up in Malaysia) and treats us rather better (he says I'm truly international - an English woman who has the mannerisms of an indian but lives in France) than some of the other clients and charges us virtually nothing.

Saturday 27 January 2007

Verkala again. Sloth.

I'm halfway through another self-indulgent day. Claire and I had 8.30 rendezvous with the masseuses. I had a different, older one, who introduced foot and hand massages too, while Claire's treatment has resulted in her needing lots of hankies subsequently - she is hoping that she is successfully cleansing her systems!

Back to our breakfast place for a lengthy brunch. Another muesli concoction and I have invented a new drink: I asked the cook to add ginger to my mango lassi - Claire agrees. It was superb and I have suggested they add that to the menu. Have you noticed how often I am talking about food now? Must be feeling better, but it does rather put paid to the idea of travel in India having the side benefit of weight loss.

It is a curiously hazy, overcast day, but as hot as usual. So I think it is time for a swim.

I have a feeling that tomorrow will be more of the same, so dont expect much more until I have made the trip on Monday to Allepey, where I plan to do a boat trip on Kerala's famous backwaters.

Oh, there was one thing I forgot to talk about yesterday. We shared our breakfast table with a Belgian in his fifties on his 52nd trip to India. Until recently he was a trader in textiles, with Indian partners scattered around the country. He loves India and the Indians, even he has no illusions about the difficulty of trading as a foreigner. He recently sold his business to one of his business partners in Hyderabad, and was clearly hurt by the way a Rajasthan trader whom he had thought of as a friend is no longer interested in retaining contact, even though they have spent lots of time together over the past 20 years. In contrast he is clearly delighted that his Hyderabad friend turns out to be a real friend, so much so that he has sent him the air ticket to come to a family wedding (a huge affair, with 3000 guests!). He will be the only European there, and he has come to Varkala to reland get strength for what he knows will be a big event.

Friday 26 January 2007

Seductive Verkala

This place is paradise to travel weary travellers.

We started by having THE most delicious breakfast. I still have slightly dodgy bouts of nausea and we both feel that we are temporarily unable to take any more Indian food for a while. We love it, but are suffering an overdose of rice and the various variants on chapati. So instead, here I was eating a delicious muesli, fruit and yoghurt mix for breakfast, washed down by a cappuccino.

We have both bought new clothes (me, because I have been moving too often to wash and have run out of clean tops!). Claire can by cheaper off the peg, but my size means I have to pay double and get them made. I have said that I need at least one skirt for tomorrow morning (didnt say how many days I had been wearing the skirt I had on...).

Then I used Claire as my porter to carry my rucksack to the new place, and we both signed up for our Ayurvedic treatment, me for arthritis and her for asthma.We both have a pretty sceptical approach to mystical philosophies based on the balance of the forces of space, fire, earth, water and air. But Ayurvedic medicine has been around for a long time, and is particularly strong in Kerala, and we were attracted above all by the notion of relaxing massages.

First we had to see the Ayurvedic doctor. He turned out to be a young, gentle good looking man. As we were only here for a few days rather than the usual fortnight, we did not get the usual detailed interrogation of our family and history; instead we were each prescribed a daily massage followed in my case by a treatment whose name I didnt catch but seems to involve hot sponges, and in Claire's case, more massaging of the head. The doctor asked me if my arthritis was worse when in Europe, and when I agreed with surprise, said that the forces of cold and dryness contributed to my problems. I nodded, smiling.

Then off for my first session with a masseuse called Veena. I really didnt know what to expect: my only experience until now was partial massages, usually by friends. I suppose the most difficult bit for an overweight 63-year-old is stripping in front of this lovely young woman.

That apart, my main overall impression was of the pleasure of being covered by warm oil. The massage started with me sitting on a chair, while Veena first poured oil into my hair and massaged my head - a nice sensation (and what's more I am surprised to find that perhaps the oil is helping my overly dry hair). Then onto the leather cushioned bed for a full head to toe massage. She may be tiny, but Veena has incredible strength and energy! The second part of my treatment was similar, but instead of massaging, Veena patted a sponge covered in oil vigorously all over the body. All this is not only meant to redress the balance of the forces, but to encourage blood circulation and cleansing of the pores.

It did feel very good, though at the end of two hours (!) I was beginning to wilt with the strain of lying alternately on my front and back. We had been able to have very little conversation, given Veena's lack of English, but I did gather that she was 23 years old and, surprisingly, unmarried, and had followed a one-year course on massage before joining this centre.

She then helped me as I slipped gingerly off the couch and slithered across the oily floor to the adjacent bathroom, to shower off all this lovely oil. I asked the doctor afterwards what was in the oil and he explained that it was warmed sesame oil combined with the ancient remedies of Ayurvedic herbs. I later saw that beside his room there is a herbal garden where these are cultivated.

An interesting and on the whole pleasurable experience, which will be repeated daily. I think it is going to cost about 15 quid a two-hour session. Goodness knows what this would cost in Europe!

Well, after all that hard work, I treated myself to a delicious fish cocktail and fruit juice in the hotel garden. Claire indulged herself as well - even though she had not yet had a session.

In the afternoon we had a brilliant session on the beach. The water is wonderfully warm, there is enough surf to be fun, and we found a quiet spot at the end of the beach where we could sit on the sand, leaning back against conveniently comfortable flat rocks. David Attenborough would have been proud of us as we earnestly watched and discussed the behaviour of the tiny crabs scuttling in and out of their holes just above the water, and wondered about the diet of the exotic but definitely mundane crow-like birds walking aimlessly on the beach. Suddenly the sun was setting, there was a lovely line of shimmering light stretched from the horizon to the sand, and the sun turned into a moulten red ball.

We finished this perfect day with a delicious meal. I had tiger prawns in an excellent spicy sauce, good vegetables and rice (so much that I actually left some prawns - unheard of for me).