“Happiness is part of who we are. Joy is the feeling”

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Salam!

Back to normal. Work calls and there is no ignoring it. Nose to the grindstone, elbow grease, best foot forward…

But, just before all that malarky, there was just time to squeeze in a birthday celebration so we headed off for a couple of nights at our favourite hotel. It was here we could partake of that which is not ordinarily allowed, like alcohol. Not to excess, of course, just enough to know we’ve had a drop and feel the pleasant effects. There was much feasting on the fruits of the sea, fish and shell fish in abundance and it all kicked off with a crab-fest starter. There was some lazing by the pool, some lazing by the sea, some lazing on the beach and some lazing on the lawn. A pleasant little man attended to our every whim, cold flannels, iced water, iced watermelon and some cold, cold beer with a slice of lime stuffed in the bottle neck. There was some continued lazing on the lazy river, in the pool, in the splash pad and under the fountain. Soaking up the sun, skin red raw and beginning to blister, we supped every ounce from this last, summer holiday moment.

re-lax

re-lax

Even as the sun set, the warm evenings kept us poolside with scant regard for any biting insects that may, or may not, wish to feast on us. It was just like the last day of a glorious British summer, recognisable as the very last chance to be outside in the warm sunshine where it would remain light until a reasonable evening hour. Of course, none of that applied to us because we know it will always be about 30 degrees Celsius and daylight until bedtime – but we knew it was time to say goodbye to our ‘holiday heads’ for this year. It was getting dark but we swam and swam until we could swim no more.

Night swimming

Night swimming

We sang the familiar ‘Happy Birthday’ tune, ate a little cake, drank a little wine, stuffed ourselves on some really great food, then headed off to be transported by sleep into yet another day, where the reality of life and busy work schedules were waiting.

It was time.

 

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

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Day 12-15 (maybe more, I’ve lost count),

Strap in, it’s going to be a long one!

Journey’s end was in sight, not so much a chore but more of a relief. It was the final few days of travelling, to cram in as many temples and palaces as we could (or the guide felt we could!) and suck in all that we could of this exotic land.

To get things on track, we got ourselves to Kollam railway station where we hoped to travel 3rd Class (standing room only, squashed in cattle style) and experience life as a local.

Why use a bridge?

Why use a bridge?

Unfortunately, there were no tickets available at the cheaper end of the class system so we opted to travel in style, in seated class, leather recliners that were magnificent  by any standards, comfortable and wide enough to accommodate the largest of posteriors.

We rumbled along taking in the scenery, the lush, green countryside and the villages where time had seemingly stood still.

In a few hours we reached our destination and disembarked to make our way to a temple where, barefooted, bare-chested (men only of course), and with loin cloth covering the lower regions, we desperately tried to appreciate the richness, history and sheer magnitude of yet another temple.

There was little time to fully explore this wonderful temple, we had to get a move on as, on the way to our hotel, we had the opportunity to stop off at… another temple.

In pretty much the same style as all previous temples, expecting to be less than overawed, we were pleasantly surprised. We were not allowed entry into this particular temple. Home to the most recent of the Maharajahs, he had died without leaving any successor so the government had taken control of all assets which included his place of private worship. Immediately opened up for public devotees to pay homage to their particular deities, it was discovered, somewhere in the bowels of the temple, there was a huge stash of gold. Furniture, icons, statues, coins, bars and anything else that glitters was found, in quantities so we were told, that defy description. Heavily armed guards were posted outside, inside and all over the grounds, photographs are prohibited and the government, many months after the discovery, continue to discover hidden caches of gold and precious gems. Into the government coffers it flows, however its removal with the sheer tonnage of the stuff is taking considerably longer than expected and just when they think it’s nearing the end, another store gets discovered. This enormous wealth, accumulated over hundreds of years through the Maharajah dynasties, their descendants, marriages, taxes, gifts and probably some questionable procurement, leaves no doubt as to how royalty lived and the peasants suffered. None too dissimilar to today’s society.

There's gold in them, there temples.

There’s gold in them, there temples.

Not to be outdone, a hasty snapshot was taken before the big boys at the entrance spotted me. There is some nervousness and paranoia as the government doesn’t really want their find taken from them when they’ve barely had time to stash it away themselves. As robberies go, this would be a world record beater if someone pulled it off. Anyhow, we weren’t allowed in as we are not Hindus so we trotted off to find…

Another palace:

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Padmanabhapuram Palace

Built almost entirely from teak, this vast palatial home to the Maharajahs of Southern India was another example of the ‘haves’ having the best deal in life. A stunningly smooth floor made from ash and egg whites covered the entire interior and one could only estimate at the hundreds of thousands of eggs that were used merely to have a nice, smooth floor. Built over several floors, the palace was a maze of rooms with original features, fixtures and fittings still in place with little or no restrictions on visitors handling and trying everything for size. As usual, we wondered just for how long these priceless items would remain, most hangings showed sunlight bleaching to a greater extent and too many hands rubbing the same pieces of  furniture does, eventually, cause lasting damage. We duly went around touching everything we could get our sticky mitts on and rubbing lots of wood, feeling back to an age when Maharajahs were supreme rulers and owners of just about everybody and everything. Often hidden from public view, the wives, consorts, family members, children and anyone else in the palace household, could wander the vast corridors peering through the hardwood slats to gaze upon an outside world that they might never experience. Such was the slatted design, they could not be seen in the dark hallways as they spied on the minions below.

Peeping out, or in?

Peeping out, or in?

We hadn’t yet made it to our final destination so we continued on, hoping against all hope that there were no more temples or palaces to visit. We wanted, we needed to be at Kovalam Beach where we could check into our hotel and rest, maybe even have a beer. We finally arrived but there was no time to lose, there was a temple to see that was quite extraordinary by all accounts. Oh dear! Kovalam is a resort where, once upon a time, the hippie trail ended for most. Local growers would cultivate and sell marijuana to any long-haired layabout who asked for it. Nowadays, such things are illegal but there is still a psychedelic atmposphere about the place, where gap students come to be a part of something different, to find themselves, before settling down to study or embark upon a meaningful career back home. Stalls selling seventies style  paintings, nick-naks, tie die clothing and all manner of tourist bits and bobs, ply for your trade as this low season brings in little and most retailers are desperate to make a sale. Haggling, obviously, is ideal at this time and bargains can be had if you have no scruples about paying next to nothing for that ‘must-have’ souvenir. We bargained very hard and came away with just a souvenir for less than loose change. Still, in a land of little, a little goes a long way and we reckoned we were spreading the wealth nonetheless. We meandered the seafront.

Kovalam

Kovalam

Along the way, we pretty much invited every hawker to ply their trade with us and we beat their prices down to almost nothing just for the challenge. In the end we didn’t but anything anyway but it’s not the purchase that’s important, it’s the haggling that counts. Once we were done, we formulated a plan to ensure we would no longer be bothered by any more sellers of their ‘finest Indian silk’. The secret was…don’t make eye contact and never, ever talk to them for once they know what language you speak and which country you are from it’ll be, “Manchester United, you like the queen?, Prince Philip came here, London is best and finally; do you know David Beckenham?(sic).

Don't make eye contact

Don’t make eye contact . We actually bought this piece of cloth though!

Enough! We needed to go South, to Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin), so we could see if you could actually see Antarctica from India – which of course you can’t. This is the southernmost point, the ‘V’ of the subcontinent where, at certain times of the year, you can see the breathtaking sight of the sun setting and the moon rising simultaneously over the three seas that meet here: the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.

There was a temple and a palace to see so it was down to the harbour to catch the ferry to the two islands.

Palace to left, temple to right, both  out at sea

Palace to left, temple to right, both out at sea

Four hundred metres offshore is where the famous Hindu apostle Swami Vivekananda (yeah, we never heard of him either) meditated from the 25th to the 27th December 1892, deciding to take his moral message beyond India’s shores. In fact, I have ‘meditated’ for far longer than that, over a Christmas period, stuffed with food and alcohol. I have not moved for four days or more at such times. In 1970 a two-‘mandapa’ memorial was built in Vivekananda’s memory. The huge statue on the smaller island is of the ancient Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar (nope, can’t say we’ve heard of him either). The work of some 5000 sculptors, it was erected in the year 2000 and honours the poet’s 133 -chapter work ‘Thirukural’, (that’s lost on us too), hence the statue is exactly 133 metres high. Ferries shuttle visitors out to both islands and we were not going to miss this opportunity to see another temple and palace, now were we?

palace

palace

temple

temple

 

We wandered about a bit and tried to remain enthusiastic about the history, the architecture and the colossal size of the thing. The Statue of Liberty by comparison, is only 93 metres high. It was jolly windy aloft we can tell you that much. We looked out to sea and there, on the horizon, we saw some low cloud and pollution. No Antarctica ice but we knew she was out there somewhere, beckoning us to visit, to lure us to wilder shores with cold bitter winds to nip at our extremities. Maybe our next adventure, perhaps..?

Don’t forget, you can see all these modes of transport on youtube, should you wish to relive our journey by car, bus, train, rickshaw, ferry and various boats:

http://youtu.be/lueaj46hD2E

Surely now it was time to relax. A trip down the river would do it, a trip amongst the mangroves in a boat, chugging along checking out the wildlife. Unlike the canals of the Malabar Backwaters, these waterways were not inhabited but are a nature reserve and home to an abundance of bird life and aquatic creatures. At times like these, you begin to yearn for the clever camera with a long lens but then you can’t fit all that stuff in your pocket like you can the faithful old snappy-snap-snap Nikon Coolpix. Not quite the quality but still a memory of where we went and the critters we saw.

a bird with a fish in it's beak

a bird with a fish in it’s beak

There were an awful lot of these Kingfisher things, different sorts apparently, some big and some small and a huge one who had a very long beak. Someone was eagerly referring to a newly acquired book entitled ‘Birds of the Indian Subcontinent’. In my eyes that’s called ‘twitching’ an totally unacceptable on every level. Not really, each to their own and though I say it myself, I have never seen so many exotic birds and Kingfishers all in one place. The photo here is without any zoom lens and the bird was no more than a few feet away. We cruised the narrow lanes between creeping mangrove roots, stopping here and there to gaze upon water-snakes, birds and the surrounding scenery.

peace at last

peace at last

It has to be said, this was a highlight of our trip. Not a palace nor a temple, not even a museum. Bliss! We chugged along for the best part of four hours, stopping occasionally to spot birds and to take a short break on a sand bank where giant waves crashed in from the Arabian Sea. As the sun began to set, we headed back, satisfied with our lot.

Amongst the mangroves

Amongst the mangroves

An evening meal, taken locally so as to avoid the risk of posh restaurant food poisoning, then a bedtime story and into the land of nod. The hectic pace was taking its toll so we decided to venture off locally and explore, maybe even engage a hawker or two in some amiable haggling. We came across a lighthouse, just about as traditional as they come, where it was possible to climb up into it and out onto the top parapet. And I’ll tell you now, it was blooming windy up there!

looking up

looking up

For a couple of pence we climbed the inner, circular staircase to find ourselves before an iron rung ladder, completely vertical, going up onto the roof. It was no place for the safety conscious, so we cajoled the kid into going first.

 

Frightening really.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A splendid view was the reward and a gust or two blew away any cobwebs that remained.

With a descent that was even more precarious than the climb, we finally made it to the bottom, somewhat dizzy but elated at having achieved the climbing challenge and to have been inside a real, working lighthouse. Up top we polished the glass with our handkerchiefs, doing our little bit to ensure another ship stays safe out at sea. We called into a local ‘waterhole’ to take some light refreshment. Remeber what I said about eating and drinking locally?

don't judge by appearances

don’t judge by appearances

 

We partook of some odd looking fruit, sliced and mixed with a syrup. Like a giant mangoustein, it was sweet and jelly like in texture, refreshing and costing no more than a couple of pence. Drank and also eaten with a spoon, served in a chunky pint beer glass, it was an interesting experience and by way of gratitude, we photographed the proprietor in order that his image be immortalised for an eternity. In amongst all of this mayhem, we took rickshaw rides, we visited a zoo, wandered towns and villages, dipped in and out of shops and restaurants, saw the sights and breathed in every ounce of atmosphere. We saw amazing things along the way; elephants moving as part of daily traffic, their mahouts riding up top, steering with skinny legs and a long stick. Rare species of birds, so I am told, were dotted along the way, as colourfully clothed manual workers toiled away in fields, locals filled the shops, the roads, and every piece of dry land available and there was chaos, organised mayhem, where people lived their lives with big smiles on their faces.

Not once, not even once, was any of us ill with an upset tum-tum. We did not bother with touristy vaccinations neither. We were bitten only a couple of times by mosquitoes. We never felt oppressed, in danger, threatened or an encumbrance. The Indian people were always courteous, kind, very inquisitive, seemingly content, clean and always well presented. Even the beggars, hawkers and the not so well off, were always clean and tidy. Plastic bags are banned in these parts and it made a huge difference to the environment. Forget the tourists spots and head for the sweet South, where a traditional India is alive and well.

That was our sixteen or so days touring Southern India. Full of wonder, a million memories and over two thousand snap-shots to sort through.

Sit back, and take a deep breath; signing off…

Bye!

“It takes just one wave to capsize a boat, and one more to take it down.”

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Day 10-11 (I think),

Moving swiftly on, we arrived in Kumarakom where we boarded the houseboat that was to be our home for the next day or two. We boarded a traditionally built, converted kettuvallam (rice barge to you), constructed of anjali (jack fruit) wood. ‘Kettu’ means knot and ‘vallom’ means boat. Our 80 foot long craft had been adapted to provide comfortable accommodation with carpeted decks of coir (coconut) matting and furniture made from locally sourced cane. With air conditioning, an enormous open deck lounge and dining area, kitchen and an attentive crew, we would cruise the lagoon and complex system of canals known as the Malabar Backwaters. In fact, a local told us that such a name no longer exists, a throwback to colonial days that was best forgotten. It was increasingly difficult to shake off our Colonial stigma. We decided to continue to call it the Malabar Backwaters just for old times’ sake. We set sail.

view up front

view up front

Our crew comprised of little more than a couple of ‘oarsmen’ and a cook but we were in safe hands as they seemed professional sorts. Traditional lanterns would light our way as the sun began to dip below the horizon and we headed across the vast lagoon, criss-crossing paths with other houseboats, all engaged in the frantic search to find the best place to anchor for the night.

choppy scenes

choppy scenes

Once settled somewhere other than where we had begun, couldn’t say exactly where that was, we started on our curry dinner which was very tasty but becoming a little monotonous by this time. With a sea-shanty or two and a drop of the hard stuff (nope, only water) we tucked ourselves away in our cabin and slept through the night, awoken only by the movement of the boat as she manoeuvred her way back out and into the lagoon next morning. A most enjoyable day was had exploring the lagoon and inner canals where people still live on strips of land only a few metres wide, where the waterway is their principal means of communication and trade and sacks of cashew nuts and coconuts can be seen piled high along the banks and jetties.

The corner shop

The corner shop

Quaint as it was, with people washing their clothes, washing their dishes, washing themselves and even a bit sewerage discharge here and there,  it was a scary moment ordering the fresh, local catches of the day at a bank-side cafe. Frightened by the prospect of dysentery, beri-beri or even swamp fever, it took some nerve to eat a lunch of  locally caught fried shrimp. As we say, ‘fortune favours the brave’ so the shrimp were gingerly eaten and washed down with a local brew of coconut moonshine that was milky in colour and tasted like armpit sweat with a twist of sock odour. At ninety per cent proof it should be kept away from naked flames and it was supposed to counteract any possibility of food poisoning. The shrimp was eaten, the hooch was drank and hey presto – no ill effects.

Note for travellers – ALWAYS EAT WHERE THE LOCALS EAT!

washing up

washing up

weekly washing

weekly wash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We passed many homes, some quite luxurious, others dilapidated but still being used. All were brightly coloured and they lined the banks shaded by swaying palm trees, shimmering rice paddy fields lay beyond where workers painstakingly planted and harvested their own and commercial rice crops. The Malabar Backwaters were a beautiful and peaceful setting, along the way we encountered some smaller, traditional boats with their huge sails and enormous, carved dragon prows. Later in the day we spent several hours sailing down the smaller tributaries in one of these boats where we silently crept up on unsuspecting locals and took their photos as they went about their daily business.

Having avoided the monsoon rains thus far, it was time for the heavens to open but life on the canals carried on – school runs, shoppers, commuters, fishing and goods being transported.

Local bus

Local bus

Then it really rained…

It's raining!

It’s raining!

The downpour was soon over and we were, once again, sedately cruising the canals and backwaters, looking in on a simpler way of life that revolved around the waters.  Migrants are often seen in these parts this time of year, gypsies by all accounts, who come with their families, circular boats literally strapped to their backs, who sleep out in the open and catch fish to eat and sell, merely existing on the fringes of society. They seemed amiable enough and we provided a pleasant distraction for them as they starred in amazement at our pale skins and the blonde hair of the young one.

Gypsies ahoy!

Gypsies ahoy!

Finally making landfall, we took off to the nearest village to witness the harsh realities of life in these parts; Winkle Pickers picked winkles and Coir Weavers made rope.

Winkle picking

Winkle picking

rope making with coir (coconut hair)

rope making with coir (coconut hair)

 

We wandered the villages and bridges, the strips of land between canals and the lush plantations where a work/life balance was  always a dream away; work meant survival.

wandering

wandering across rickety bridges

Our next stay was in a hostel on the canal itself, a trip in two punts to get to our room and then it was bed time after yet another delicious curry. Just when you think you can’t face another curry, a delicious meal arrives and there’s no going back. In with the fingers and get it down ya!

It would soon be time to head to our final destination. A  journey South and further onwards to the tip of Southern India itself where we would look across the sea to Antarctica, although even on a clear day we would not be able to see any land itself but technically it was possible.

Onwards…

“Nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it.”

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Day 8-9

Crossing back into Kerala by retracing our route was just as exciting and treacherous. We waved goodbye to Tamil Nadu and embraced the relative wealth of Periyar where, sadly, we were prevented from entering the National Park due to age restrictions. Were we too old or too young? It mattered not, we made good use of our time by visiting a demonstration of traditional, Indian martial arts, Kerali fighting, in a pit using weapons as well as arms and legs. Many a fit, young buck jumped about with grace and vigour to show us how to defend ourselves, or even beat the crap out of an opponent. Some of the chaps were even intent on jumping through hoops of fire for our amusement. Each to their own.

Having already seen the vast expanse of tea plantations that stretch across the South, we wondered what happened to the leaves after harvesting so made our way to a nearby tea factory. Here we saw the harvested tea leaves processed into the fine black powder that we recognised as ‘ black tea’ for brewing. It was so interesting that we went round the factory again, which was a mistake really as it was on this occasion that the small blond one was snatched from our sweaty grasp and taken off into the interior of the factory. A guide took off in hot pursuit to find said blonde kid being presented to the abductor’s mother, somewhere in the bowels of the tea processing plant. Phew! After that we needed a brew so we sampled the tea infused water which was not as we are used to but pleasant nonetheless. For us it was back on the road and for the workers, it was back to the fields for more leaves.

On route we stopped at Mr Abraham’s spice garden where the owner, a gardener of some repute, showed us around. Apparently Mr Abraham is best buddies with Monty Don (BBC – Around the World in 80 Gardens – India) so we listened intently and marvelled at his collection of naturally growing fruits, herbs, spices, traditional remedies and all manner of other flora and fauna. Well worth a stop just to sniff and taste things you would not ordinarily touch if you saw them growing in the wild.

In place of our day out in the National Park, we headed for an elephant sanctuary where we would hitch a ride, wash one of the beasts and generally muck about in, well the muck I suppose. In order to get us from one side of the hill to the other, we took to our live transport and hung on for a merry old plod through the bushes. Luckily they knew the way as we could not work out any system of steering .

With umbrellas strapped to the side in case of bad weather, we traversed the slopes and made our way to where some elephants were working. Elephants in these parts still work and they can even be seen on the streets walking to and from their work in the fields, in the forests and on the plains where some still run free and wild.

Although rife with abuse, we saw no evidence to suggest any mistreatment, neglect or physical abuse. These elephants were well cared for, protected and pretty much loved by their Mahouts. Most elephants are revered in India as part of the holy order of Hindu life however, not everyone is a Hindu!

For our evening delectation, we made for a local BBQ restaurant where we hoped to sample some good, honest, basic Indian cuisine. And that is exactly what we got. The catch however, was that we had to cook it ourselves. Now there’s a novelty!

With the owner and chef, his wife and their children all assisting our poor attempts at cooking, we splashed, dashed, and fried our way to a culinary extravaganza, enriched by local ingredients and a traditional way of preparation. In the family home we cobbled together our dinner for the evening and resolved to cook like this on our return home, but somehow knew it was never going to happen. With all good intention, we procured the recipe and instructions and that’s pretty much as far as it’s got – for now. Fancy it yourself? Well here you go:

Beans curry [ Thoran]
 
Beans                         –     500 gms
Coconut oil                –   3 tea spoon
Mustard seed              –   1 tea spoon
Curry leaf                   –    1 0 grams
Onion
Salt                             –    I tea spoon
Water                         –  20 ml        
Fire 10 minutes
Half coconut             – cumin seed 5 gram
Turmeric                    – 1 spoon,
Garlic 2-piece, Small onion 2 piece, Half Green Chilly
All store pasting and mixing.
 
Okra curry [Roast]
 
Okra                     – 500
Coconut oil          – 6 tea spoon Mustard seeds – 1 spoon
Green chilly          – 1
Curry leaf            – 10 gms
Onion                  – 2 Salt [ no water]
Coconut slice piece cutting Fire 10 minutes
 
 
Fish Curry
 
Fish                                      – 1 kg
Coconut oil                          – 7 spoon Mustard seeds, Curry leaf
Onion                                   -2G0gnf
Tomato —                                lOOgms
Green chilly                             10 grams
Ginger & garlic paste              50 Coriander leaf
all roasting 5 minutes +
Fish masala fenugreek powder +. Red chilly+ Coriander powder + Turmeric+ tamarind 4 pieces
Salt roasting 5 minutes water 500 ml Put the fish 20 minutes
[spicy down 200 ml coco milk]
 
BarBQue         :.
Chicken small piece cutting -1 kg
Red chilly,Chicken masala
Coiander powder
Turmeric powder Salt, ginger garlic paste
lemon , 1 egg mixing
mixing manuated the chicken
6 hour and grill.
 
Parotta
 
White wheat flour  -lkg
Water                          – 3 glasses
Sugar                          – r spoon”‘””‘
Salt                             – 1 spoon
 
Pineapple curry [Ananas curry]
 
Pineapple             – 500gms
Coconut oil         – 2 tea spoon Mustard seeds – 1 spoon
Curry leaf’          –   5 gms                 —
Sugar                   – 1 spoon
Salt
water                 – ] 00 ml
[coconut half-(-Turmeric powder + small piece garlic +Small onion 1 + Cumin seeds 5 gms
All pasting 10 minutes
 
Beef curry
 
Beef             2K.      -lkg
Coconut oil
                                  -7 spoon
Mustard seeds
                                 -20gms
Curry leaf                 –   20 gms.
Onion
- 50 gms
Tomato                     –  2 gms
Ginger & garlic
                                 -50 gms paste
Coriander leaf            20 gms All roasting 10 minutes
[Garam masala]         – 20 gms,
Red chilly                 –   1 piece
Coriander                  – 1 tea spoon
Turmeric                    -1 spoon  Coconut slice piece cutting Salt 200 ml water put for the Cooks 20 minutes.
 

Yeah, just what we thought. It seemed so much easier when we were doing it under guidance and ingredients were handed to us to chuck in a pot and stir. This recipe, in its entirety, is what we cooked and ate that evening. It looks an awful lot like hard work on paper but it really was quick and easy and without doubt the finest tasting curry we’ve ever experienced. BTW, the spelling and grammar of the recipe is the original, so no apologies there.

Our stay in the hills was one of the highlights thus far although the next few days were said to be an experience to surpass all. We headed for the lakes, rivers, canals and even the ocean that surrounds Malabar, a further jaunt West down to sea-level.

“I have nothing to do with this pseudo-religious approach that Gandhi is advocating.”

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Day 6 and 7 (possibly),

We headed in an Easterly direction, up a mountain and down the other side, a journey of some five hours by bus on broken roads that had seen better days and some that had been washed away altogether the previous day. It was monsoon season and although we had managed to avoid any downpours, torrential rain was evident along our route where landslides and flooding had taken their toll. Finally we made it into the region of Tamil Nadu where a population of some 70 million people reside. That’s more than the entire population of the UK! A local told me that everyone is actively trying to beat China’s record for the most populated country in the world. Seriously, they are looking for that particular claim to fame. Breed on! Finally into the  town of Madurai we rolled, the largest of what is known as the ‘temple towns’. Temples aplenty, their architecture is extremely colourful and the gateways to them are iconic structures in their own right. Immense ‘gopurams’ or gateways carved with thousands of painted Hindu gods are a striking element of the Dravidian temples.

A very big gopuram indeed

A big gopuram

This was also the home of a museum dedicated to the life, times and struggles of Mahatma Gandhi. It was here we would see the ‘lungi’ or loincloth he was wearing when he was assassinated. We would also see his spectacles, a load of written stuff to and from him as well as an illustrated history of his life with photographs and maps. All in all, pretty boring except for the manner in which the exhibits were displayed. Where light erosion was clearly evident, unsealed, hastily constructed wooden display cases let in the elements and the security of most things was sadly lacking. But then maybe that added to the naive charm of this place, a time before Health and Safety and everything sanitized. Parties of school children were being led through the maze displays and lectured on the history of the b*stard English, their b*stard occupation of the Indian sub continent and their b*stard suppression of the indigenous population. Yes, we were made to feel right colonial b*stards, which of course, we were. Still, all’s well that ends well. By way of verisimilitude, here’s a picture to prove attendance at said museum.

Gandhi statue in the background - honestly!

Gandhi statue in the background – honestly!

We made for one of the temples to find a maze of halls, pillared cloisters and sanctuaries inside, most of which were decorated with a profusion of murals, carvings and inscriptions. Artefacts dating back centuries were there for the fondling and bizarrely, display cases acted as post boxes for devotees to push through passport sized photos of themselves or loved ones – in the hope of receiving some sort of blessing we surmised? There was a heady fragrance of incense in the air, along with sweat and cooked food; unseen priests chanted incessantly and their deities were garlanded with masses of colourful flowers. Every morning a statue of Lord Shiva is brought out and then returned, put to bed so to speak, with great ceremony which includes some ritual chanting and a wafting of incense smoke. We waited patiently, sucking in lungfuls of thick, blue smoke to gawp at the solid gold slippers of Lord Shiva, minuscule by any standards and then maybe, just maybe, we might catch a glimpse of the Lord Shiva icon himself. In a carriage surrounded by chanting devotees, Lord Shiva was carried and wafted with smoke as he hid behind the red, crushed velvet curtains of his transport, not once daring to push the material aside to peer out to say hello to us. We had it on good authority that he really was in there but we never saw anything of him so cannot comment further. We left with the assumption that he could not have stood  more than six inches high, going on the size of his slippers and we coughed and spluttered our way home, surprisingly excited at being part of the occasion nonetheless. By cycle rickshaw we toured the town, our rider and guide being an old man of extremely fragile stature who had the skinniest legs a human being could possibly have. Our combined weight was impossibly peddled along by sparrow-legs himself and then, we had the gall to shout ‘FASTER!’. By way of revenge, he tried to kill us by cycling into the path of an oncoming vehicle.

Come in number one, your time is up!

Come in number one, your time  may well be up!

Too heavy to peddle, eh?

Too heavy to peddle, eh? “FASTER”

Look Out!

Look Out!

Blimey! That was close. We pressed on in our effort to visit as many temples and palaces as we could. There are an inordinate amount of them scattered throughout the country, some exotic, some rustic but all with an ancient charm and an atmosphere of being something incredible. We popped into Thirumalai Palace, originally built in 1636 in an Indo-Mhugal stylie, restored by the British in the 19th century (we did some good now and then), retaining some lovely examples of Tamil decoration – if you like that sort of thing? Then, onward to another temple and then another. Again, we were amazed at the very basic manner in which all exhibits were displayed, priceless items that were not environmentally protected, nothing to preserve their appearance or to stop deterioration. Several wooden frames had glass panels missing or broken and there really was nothing to stop you taking an item out and popping it into your handbag – were you so inclined. There were vases on display in one of the palaces, a gift from the Chinese dating from the Ming dynasty, that were barely protected from the elements or even thieving hands. Oil paintings, ink drawn maps, sketches and written proclamations were dusty and in full sunlight, slowly fading and rotting to dust and we wondered how long it would be before such items were totally lost forever. Still, not our problem. We moved on.

Another temple

Another temple

Pigeons had invaded most places and many an interior was visibly fouled. Seemingly oblivious to the health dangers, there were a few chaps scraping up a ton of dried pigeon poo from the floor as visitors wandered through the vast clouds of guano dust, oblivious to Histoplasmosis,  Cryptococcosis,  Salmonella and Listeria. Yeah, look them bad-boys up for a nasty tummy-bug. Pigeons aren’t called flying rats for nothing you know! We held our breath and made a hasty exit.

Back to the relative fresh air of the streets, we took in the market where flowers were on sale as a means for devotees to honour their gods with garlands of sweet smelling flora. Interestingly, a blue-eyed blonde girl caused much excitement along the way – along every way we ventured in fact, crowds followed, gawped, grabbed at, pointed to, photographed and kissed as they do their icons. Such was the interest in having a photograph taken with the ‘god like blonde kid’ we managed to produce an entire photo album entitled, ‘People I Had My Photo Taken With in India’. Back to the flower market where the pale skinned one was constantly ‘honoured’, far too often for comfort, by sellers who wanted to initiate a blessing. For their sake or hers, we could not tell.

another flower in the cap

another flower in the cap

The colours were vibrant and the scent was overwhelming, the heat and humidity, the cacophony of sounds, it all contributed to an amazing day and incredible experience.

It was about time to join the ‘rush hour’ and make our way back to our budget hotel.

room for one on top?

room for one on top?

standing room only

standing room only

The next morning we toured the streets, another temple (Sri Meenakshi Temple to be exact) and another palace before our departure back to Kerala. Just before we got going, we popped down the road to get some milk.

Is that semi-skimmed?

Pint of skimmed please 

A simple way of Indian life perhaps but everyone seemed very happy and content. Looks may be deceiving but there were no grim faces regretting their lot, no road rage, no aggression, no wariness or weariness and certainly no fear of one’s own shadow. Maybe we’re not as smart as we like to think we are?

Time to head West…

“Tea! Bless ordinary everyday afternoon tea!”

Standard

Day 4-5 (ish)

We headed off to Munnar, into ‘hill country’, where the air was noticeably cooler and a lot less humid than Kochi. Munnar was developed by British tea companies in the early 20th century and many of the buildings retain a familiar ‘British’ look. We made our way to our hill station hotel, stopping off here and there to take in the sights, all of which resulted in a seven hour road trip . As was now the norm, the roads were precarious, the driving erratic and the possibility of us ending up in an overturned vehicle, highly probable. We pulled over to take a look at a waterfall and some amusing monkeys.

Another one for the album

Another one for the album lad!

Ha, ha, ha! Very funny. Not these monkeys…

These monkeys:

A certain similarity perhaps?

A certain similarity perhaps?

We meandered around Eravikulum National Park, established in 1970 as a means of protecting endangered species of wild goat and Nilgiri Tahr. There was a possibility we might glimpse a wild elephant or two, a sambar or some macaques. We didn’t. We did however take in a very pleasant view and spotted a couple of Nilgiri Tahrs. In fact, there were Tahrs everywhere and it was difficult not to spot them.

Tahr

Tahr (does not even merit a full size photo)

Through towns and villages we sped, caution to the wind, overtaking, undertaking and barrelling out of the way the locals who went about their daily business.

Coming through!

Coming through!

We came across many local markets selling all manner of everyday items; glorious fruit and vegetables, the best we’d ever seen either here or where you are.

Two pound a pound the cauli.

Two pound a pound the cauli.

And the local growers hawked their wares wherever they could, making a pittance on which to support their ever growing families.

two pound a pound the cauli!

How much for the kid?

The landscape was lush and green and for mile after mile, on every earthy surface right up to the sheer face of a the mountains, tea was being grown. The green patchwork  of tea plants knitted together the valleys, hills, mountains and plateaus. As far as the eye could see and for all our time travelling, it was one tea plantation after another, as one might expect from one of the world’s largest tea producers.

Use your imagination and splice these two shots together to try and gauge the sort of panoramic view of the tea plantation:

right side

right side

left side

left side

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The tea factory in the centre of the left photo and on the left in the right photo is the same one, so if you overlapped the pictures, you’ll get some idea of the vista.

Tea leaves rolling on for ever and ever and ever. Workers, mainly women, labour day in and day out on a fifteen day cycle for each tea bush, harvesting the tips of the new growth to make tea leaves. The very best is exported abroad, your Tetley, Liptons and PG Tips, the rest is for the local market and made into chai – the hot, milky, very sweet drink so revered by all Indians here.

Working the plantation

Working the plantation

Harvesting the top three leaves only.

Harvesting the top three leaves only.

Makes you appreciate the morning cuppa, doesn’t it?

On route we stopped at a restaurant to partake of the local fare. No surprises when we found curry on the menu. Very tasty and colourful  but it was starting to become a little same(ish). We persevered nonetheless and had the lunchtime special served on a banana leaf with not a knife or fork to be seen. Saves washing up apparently – nice idea to put before the Mem-Sahib this evening you guys.

A Dosa, it is called

A Dosa, it is called

After an exhausting journey, we made for our hill top retreat, the highest point in Kerala it is possible to stay – allegedly. The view was outstanding and for the ornithologist amongst us, there were several treats to be seen, including the Nilgiri flycatcher. If you’re not familiar with such, allow me to explain. It’s a bird!

A room with a view

A room with a view

We sipped wine and watched the mist roll in. Wine! I hear you cry. Where did that come from? Well, in these parts, as most places the world over, alcohol is a big problem. Too many people spending money they can ill-afford on booze that renders them unconscious or extremely violent towards their partners. No good will ever come of it I tell you. In order to procure a bottle of France’s finest, you have to negotiate a cage type of sheep run whereupon you order at a little window and collect said order from another little window. There appeared to be an enforced restriction to prevent fat people from buying alcohol. Myself, I am a lean, mean well-oiled machine, slender and darned good looking to boot but even I had trouble squeezing through to make my purchase.

Breathe in...

Breathe in…

And for information purposes only, costing about six of your English pounds, it was some of the finest Syrah grape we have sampled this side of Aix en Provence. Highly quaffable, with slight tannins and a plummy, earthy, rolling barrel down the hillside under-taste; we wondered why we had not bought more of the stuff. That’ll be the drinking problem mentioned earlier I suppose? There was more sight seeing to do, a barbecue to eat from, a disco to attend (oh, yes) and some hiking in the mountains to accomplish before we departed Kerala for Tamil Nadu country.

 Keep the faith, we’re nearly half way through.

TTFN

“I am tossed in all directions by the elephants – I beg your pardon; I should have said the elements.”

Standard

Day 3

We hopped into our trundle bus to take us ‘up country’, North to Guruvayur and the Punathir Kota Elephant Camp where, we were told, we would ‘get up close and personal’ with over forty elephants. These Indian elephants have been rescued from unscrupulous temples or have been abandoned for being disabled. Later on, in one of the many, many temples we visited, we saw a working elephant who, for eight hours a day, stood inside and took money from passing devotees. The money, taken by the elephant’s trunk, is then passed to the mahout (owner/keeper/trainer) who pockets the cash and the elephant then ‘blesses’ the devotee (or tourist) with a pat on the top of their head with the end of the trunk. It’s quite a picture (although pictures aren’t allowed in the temples) but standing there and seeing it perform over and over and over again, it began to look a little bit like ritual exploitation.

Still, not wishing to be judgemental, we gawped at the elephants in the camp, wandered around a bit and mainly avoided the angry pachyderms who threw branches at us if we stood for too long in one place.

you looking at me..?

you looking at me..?

Elephants in Kerala are part of the state’s culture-scape and a major attraction in temple festivals and religious rituals, generally well treated but open to abuse. Recently, many jumbos in the area have ‘mysteriously’ died (as reported in the Times of India) and a number of deaths have been attributed to lightening strikes, where the dangers of  lightening summer storms have been ignored and tuskers have been left out in the open.

On the whole, where tourists are the main source of income, mahouts tend to their individual elephants with dedication and a lifetime of service. One mahout, one elephant – for life!

wash and brush up

wash and brush up

We finished the afternoon with a hasty exit to avoid flying branches and set about finding somewhere to enjoy a darn good curry. Another early start would take us South and then East with a long, long drive to Munnar.

All aboard the Skylark!