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.