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!