Back on level ground

The past week has been a tough time, following the death of my uncle, Andrew, after a short illness. He was someone I always admired for his sense of humour and outlook on life and I have many great memories of him, both from when I was a child and as an adult. It came as a great shock, and he will be sorely missed by everyone who knew him, and especially by his family.

I arrived in Mumbai from Kathmandu excited about my next 6 weeks in India. It’s a place I’ve been wanting to visit for a while and I was feeling a mix of excitement and trepidation – I’d also spoken to a few people who really didn’t enjoy India – too much noise, dirt, traffic and crowds. Mumbai traffic is meant to be really bad and so I was preparing for the worst when I got out the airport and into my non-aircon taxi (top tip – pay the extra for the aircon taxi). However I was pleasantly surprised that the trip only took one hour (it being a Sunday afternoon may have helped) and I was soon in my hotel in a nice central area of Mumbai near the cricket ground. Mumbai itself was also a nice surprise, with wide roads, quite a few trees and parks and lovely old buildings dotted all over the place. People say that Mumbai is very different from the rest of India, so it was a nice, relatively peaceful introduction.

My beautiful taxi from the airport
Marine Drive – a popular evening meeting spot
The view of the cricket ground from the rooftop breakfast area at my hotel
One of the many open areas where around 50 cricket games were happening at the same time

The next morning I went on a organised tour to the famous Dharavi slums from the movie Slumdog Millionnaire and the book Shantaram. I used Reality Tours and Travel, a really well organised company that uses 80% of its profits on various projects in the slums, and whose guides are typically people with experience of living in the slums. The tour was really interesting, covering some of the recycling industries run out of the slums, the food and pottery manufacturing industries and the residential areas. Although there is a bit of an element of feeling like you’re in a human zoo, the guides do a good job of avoiding this and trying to give you a non-sensational impression of the place. Our tour also had a quick stop at the Dhobi Ghat laundry area where all the laundry for hundreds of hotels and clothes manufacturers is done by hand. After the tour I checked out the impressive Victoria Station and its gothic architecture and wandered through the streets towards the Gateway to India, a huge arch overlooking the sea commemorating the visit of King George in 1911. After all of this I was in need of some refreshment and so headed to one of the bars in the area for a quick drink. After meeting a New Zealander, a Spaniard and an Englishman, a few drinks rapidly turned into many drinks. As a result, the next day turned into a rest day in my hotel, as my head wasn’t up to facing the noise and crowds outside.

The Dhobi Ghat laundry area
The ticketing area in the Victoria Station
Victoria Station
A street in the historic area of Mumbai
The (very crowded) Gateway to India

The following day I flew down to Thivandranum in Kerala, on my way to Varkala. I spent one night in a nice little guest house in the middle of a non-touristy part of town and was fortunate to have egg curry for both dinner and breakfast – heaven. I then headed to the bus station to catch the 10:30 Bus to Varkala. Unfortunately after some time waiting and being deafened by some really horrible music I found out the the bus wasn’t running, and so a caught the next bus to a town near Varkala, where I could catch a Tuktuk for the rest of the way. It was on this unbelievably terrifying bus ride that I had my first proper experience of the driving in India. Basically there are only two speeds on the road – either you are faster than the vehicle in front of you, or you are slower than the vehicle behind you. You are either the Overtaker or the Overtaken. The Overtaker spend almost all of their time on their hooter to make sure everyone knows they are coming. The Overtaken generally ignore the Overtakers, occasionally moving slightly out the way. Our bus driver was determined never to be an Overtaken. So much so that much of the journey was spent permanently on the wrong side of the road with his hand on the hooter, causing most oncoming traffic to move into the emergency lane. The only vehicles that would cause the bus driver the reluctantly move back in his lane was another bus or truck. The traffic in general on the roads outside the towns seems to be much scarier as everyone goes a lot faster. It was a huge relief to finally arrive in Varkala and have a drink to calm my nerves. I’m really glad to we will be using trains for most of our travels in India!

Dinner egg curry
Breakfast egg curry

Varkala is a pleasant little seaside town in Kerala, known as both a religious site for Hindu pilgrims and one of the less commercial, slightly alternative tourist spots. The main tourist area sits at the top of a long red cliff, with a pretty and secluded beach at the bottom. The religious beach is quite a bit further south, and so the people in swimming costumes don’t cause any offence. The place was quite a bit bigger and more touristy than I expected, but still a nice place to chill for a few days. You do eventually get tired of walking along a same strip of shops and restaurants, so I wouldn’t recommend spending a long time there. For a reason I couldn’t quite work out, the selling of beer is frowned upon, and so beers don’t appear on any menus but can be bought. When you get them the bottle is wrapped in paper and you can’t leave it on the table but rather need to put it on the floor behind a table leg. All rather weird. Something that I didn’t like (and which seems to be the case all along the coast) is the selling of baby and juvenile sharks in the restaurants. Particularly in Varkala this appeared to be used as a way to get tourists to come eat at the restaurant to be able to say they’ve eaten shark or to take a picture with the dead shark. This is something I’ve never really come across and something which I really feel strongly about, and as a result I decided to only eat at restaurants which didn’t have shark on the menu, which cut down my options a lot.

The cliffs and beach at Varkala
No chance anyone is going to think that is a beer

Before leaving Varkala for Kochi I did a really good Kerala cooking course through Kerala Bamboo House, learning how to make Kerala Dhal (the best dhal I’ve ever had), Kerala Chicken Curry and Kerala Paratha, amongst other dishes. Really worth doing if you are in Varkala, but make sure you are hungry as you make a lot of food.

Me and Chef Ani on the cooking course
The final spread

On my way to Kochi I did a 2 hour canoe tour through the Kerala backwaters (also through Kerala Bamboo House). The normal backwater tour is on a houseboat over one or two days, but I’d heard that they could be quite crowded with lots of boats on the same stretches of water. The canoe trip avoids the large bodies of water and instead focuses on the tiny little canals leading off from the lakes. The boat ride was great – beautiful scenery, peaceful, very untouristy (I didn’t see another tourist) and gave you good feel of what village life in Kerala was like. We got to see some nice wildlife, including several kingfishers, kites and a water snake. 2 hours is also a good length of time, any longer and I would have got bored.

The Kerala backwaters
Cruising through the narrow little canals
More backwaters

After my canoe trip and a fairly scary taxi ride I got dropped off at the station to catch the next train to Kochi, which arrived as I was waiting in the ticket queue. I hurriedly bought a 2nd class ticket ran to my platform and jumped on the carriage as the train started moving (having to ask a lady who was standing in the doorway saying goodbye to someone on the platform to please move so that I could actually get onto the train). I then tried to find out where I was supposed to be sitting, as was told to head to the first two carriages. I walked as far as I could and found an empty seat to sit down. When the ticket guy came around he told me that my carriage was still further forward, but could only be reached when we stopped at the next station, as it was physically separated from the rest of the train. With little alarm bells ringing, I nervously waited for the next station when I headed to my actual carriage, which turned out to be the lowest class on the train, where seats were basically a free-for-all. I had to stand in the crowded corridor for about an hour, slowly making my way deeper into the carriage, before being able to get the edge of a seat for the last 30 – 45 minutes. While I’m glad I got to experience travelling in this class, I think I’ll be using the more expensive carriages in future.

Arriving at my nice little hotel in the historic Fort Kochi area of Kochi, I checked my emails and received the terrible news about my uncle. It was quite tough being far from my family and Anne at this time, and having to be on my own. I was really looking forward to Anne arriving in a weeks time. That evening I said goodbye to my uncle in a way I knew he would appreciate – with a curry and a beer.

The next morning a woke up to more bad news from home – an old friend and ex-colleague, Mark, had gone missing in rough seas during a sea kayak race in South Africa, and who’s body was later found. Although I hadn’t seen Mark for a couple of years, it was a big shock.

That day I wasn’t feeling up to doing much, but still wandered around Fort Kochi, checking out the many colonial buildings and churches from when the Dutch East India company was based here. I also saw the traditional levered fishing nets that are still used around Fort Kochi, before heading back to my hotel to chill, as my efforts to find a TV showing the cricket between SA and Australia and to find a beer or two came to naught (Kochi is unfortunately completely dry on Sunday’s).

The fishing nets in Kochi
One of the colonial buildings in Fort Kochi which had a nice little restaurant attached
One of Fort Kochi’s old churches

The next day I caught a much more comfortable AC2 class sleeper train to Goa. The train was quite bumpy and was scheduled to arrive at the very unpleasant time of 3am, but fortunately we were delayed by 3 hours and so I managed to get some sleep. I was in two minds about where to head after Kochi, trying to decide between a few days at a beach in Goa or to head a bit further out into either the tea growing areas of Kerala or to Hampi in Karnataka state (a historic set of ruins in a beautiful rocky setting) but was wasn’t feeling up to some long journeys to get to each place, and so went for the easy option. I headed to Palolem, one of the more chilled beach areas in Goa (there are no large resorts) for 3 days of doing very little other than read, eat and drink. Palolem is quite a bit busier than Varkala with a beautiful long beach stretching for a kilometre or two. I stayed in a simple hut looking out onto the beach, which was exactly what I was looking for. I also spent a day at the nearby beach of Patnem, which is much quieter and less developed, and seemed to be a nice option if you are looking for lots of peace and quiet.

My AC2 train carriage
The view from the hammock on the balcony of my beach hut in Palolem
Palolem Beach

After a relaxing time at the coast I flew up to Delhi to meet up with Anne (on Sunday morning) and Alice (on Saturday evening), arriving on Friday evening. After the peace and quiet in Goa, and a nice metro train ride from the airport to the main train station, Delhi hit me like like a ton of bricks. As you leave the station you are suddenly in the middle of dust and smoke and noise and people and vehicles. I carefully negotiated my way to my hotel, a 15 minute walk which mainly involved trying not to get run over by tuktuks and motorbikes. Feeling a little jittery I had a quick dinner before heading to bed.

The next morning I braved the streets, heading on the metro to the tiny streets of Old Delhi to see the red fort, the huge structure built by the Moghul king in the 1600’s. The fort is an interesting stop, but quite a few of the buildings are in fairly poor repair, and you can’t go into most of the places. It is still a nice escape from the streets, but probably not worth it if you are planning on visiting some of the forts in Rajastan. Later that afternoon I joined Reality Tours for one of their Delhi tours – a 3 1/2 hour street food tour in Old Delhi at night. I also did the (free) optional pre-tour of the Sikh temple in Old Delhi – an interesting place to visit. I loved the street food tour, as I was a little nervous of trying any of the foods on my own. We had some really good things to eat as we wandered through the tiny crazy congested streets, also stopped by at some of the interesting places along the way, such as the spice market and the street full of wedding shops. Definitely worth doing if you are in Delhi.

One of the buildings in the Red Fort, Delhi
A marble building in the Red Fort that formed part of the King’s residence
A peaceful Delhi street
Inside the Sikh temple
Cooking for the worshippers at the Sikh temple
Walking through the crowded narrow streets of Old Delhi
Some money necklaces on Wedding Street
A chilli shop in the market
Looking down on the main market
The streets at night
The largest mosque in India, in Old Delhi
Our butter chicken being prepared and cooked

Alice arrived just as I got back to the hotel, and it was great to see a friendly face to to hear about her travels to Nepal. The next morning Anne arrived (yay!), and the three of us wandered the streets around our hotel before heading to the station to catch our train to Varanasi.

Links
1. Reality Tours and Travels: http://www.realitytoursandtravel.com
2. Kerala Bamboo House: http://www.keralabamboohouse.com

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