Boats, Bugs and Big Baths

‘The Venice of the East’ is how Alleppey in Kerala is packaged up! Kerala is famous for fish curry, ayurveda and Kathakali performances, but all this pales against the biggest money spinning activity in the state… exploring the lush backwaters by traditional houseboat.

A typical house boat

This experience in consistently rated as a highlight by most travelers… languidly floating through rivers, past small villages, fishing off the side of the boat and eating food prepared by a crew and generally just chilling out… but there are some warnings to heed – namely in terms of the expense, with some people forking out over 9000 rupees for a trip which should really have cost closer to 5000. Also the importance was stressed by numerous books, websites and travelers of seeing the boat you are traveling on before you set off!

Our budget was 5000 for the boat, which we were sure should get us something without holes in it! Its impossible to move much further than 200 metres in Alleppey without being offered a boat trip, so in no time, we had seen the boat (via a high speed motorcycle ride to a random hidden jetty) and settled on a price of 4000 rupees… leaving us money to spare to take a smaller boat for the afternoon to see other parts of the backwaters. Bargain… hey!

Our smaller boat

The smaller boats are not plush, just simple boats with sun screen cover and chairs… but once you deck them out with a bottle of port… they are fit for a king. We spent 5 hours cruising around the waterways with all manner of life lining the shores, schools, shops, people washing clothes, people washing themselves, chickens, goats and cats… plus some very plush hotel reserts… then topped it off with the most fantastic sunset and night sky, before returning to Alleppey for dinner.

So could we top this the next day with the houseboat trip? Went meandered through the bigger waterways – with a fair amount of other boats, but it was still magical and we were fed with delicious food… even buying some huge langoustines from a passing boat which we had as a starter… it was just perfect relaxation (although we suspect we overpaid significantly for the langoustines!)

Giant langoustine

So after a hard day we headed to our bedroom aboard the boat, to have a well deserved sleep… now this is where it get interesting… there must have been around 50 HUGE cockroaches in the bedroom… pretty much on every surface…. I was frozen in the middle of the room (probably due to the large dark rum and coke I had drunk) but soon realised the seriousness of the infestation…. I mean these things were about 2-3 inches long. What ensued was a furious catch or smash system implemented by the staff – believe me I would have slept anywhere else but there was no option in the dark night… so we climbed under the mosquito net and trembled through the night… still hearing the creatures who had successfully hidden in the room.

We decided the next morning that there must have been a next somewhere… the boats are filled with gaps and holes as they are made of bamboo and natural materials… and the boat was clean… no cockroaches in any other room….Morale of the story is you get what you pay for! But imagine if we had paid 10,000 rupees and still had cockroaches….

Next stop after roachville…. Kochin – one of the biggest seaports in Kerala – made up of a collection of peninsulas and islands. The main city is big and smelly and noisy, so we headed over to Fort Kochin, the chilled out, tourist area, which is a mix of old houses built by the Portuguese, Dutch and British and sports huge chinese fishing nets over the harbour. There is loads to do here, so we started by organising a trip to a nearby Elephant training camp.

Kodanad training camp was purported to be only 1 hour in a rickshaw from Kochin and we were keen to get there in time for the elephants’ bathtime in the river before 8am… so we set off a 6am… the rickshaw took over 2 hours and was very very bumpy…. so we arrived despondent, thinking we would clash with the big bus loads of tourists or even worse… have missed the whole thing. We were amazed to discover no other tourists there at all… and a very large elephants having a bath on his own. We took a few photos and then were invited to get in with him and give him a good old scrub with a coconut shell! It was amazing! and I think our tactics impressed him as he curled his trunk over his tusks and closed his eyes. It wasn’t until afterwards that we discovered that he was being bathed alone and apart from the other elephants because he had mental problems! great! lucky we survived that one… he seemed normal to us!

Big boys bath time

Andy Shaw drives a Rick Shaw

“Hey, how hard can it be”?

It’s nothing more that just a ‘supdt-up’ mobility scooter. Throttle on the right, clutch on the left, gear change with a flick of the wrist……..don’t need to worry about the brakes……lets go.

'Where do you want to go? I give you good price'

It felt great, riding along in a large egg with three wheels and a truck horn……BBBBBBBeeeeeeeeeepppppppp!!!!!!!!

The owner was a young lad no more than 20 years. I think he had faith in me. We’d just been to the elephant park out in the sticks so traffic was low. These things can slide through the eye of a needle. The bad boy had a sound system as well as fancy bling.

If I have had more experience of these crazy three wheelers I would definitely consider buying one to do some traveling around India. I decided to give the controls back to Naz after 10 minutes as the traffic started to fill up…….

The only problem with buying one is that after a 3 hour journey, (on the way back from the elephant park) my bum was not happy and nor was my hearing from all the tuc tuc tuc tuc tuc noise………

Great fun though, even your granny could drive one, and they’re cheap

Ayurvedic and beyond……

Well, where do I start???

We arrived in Kovalam, in Kerala and thought to ourselves…… we’ve been very busy these last few weeks, why not have a treatment/massege and relax while we here. Ayurvedic treatments originated from these parts of Kerala so will no doubt be good value for money…….

Nieve as we are, we both booked in for a 1 hour session under the description of hand massage at a lovely little place that was highly recommended to us. I had an idea that some oil was going to be used and that you may need to ‘strip off’ to receive the treatment but i wasn’t ready for what happened next…..

“Next, you sir, come with me”! I followed the guy into my private room. I looked at the various equipment comprising of a well oiled bench and a rope hanging from the ceiling…. I just want a back massage I said. “Ok, strip”. I was kind of expecting a little decency, maybe a towel or something.

“Sit here”, what on that chair?

He started with a head massage which was ace, at this point I had 2 hands to cover my equipment….

“Ok on bench”

It was so slippery I nearly fell straight off. He started on my back and arms…. this is ok I thought……hey, where’s his hand going????, almost inside somewhere it shouldn’t be. Top to bottom, top to bottom, Both sides, left then right side. I felt great apart from the weirdness of a man putting his hands between my arse cheeks.

“Ok, turn over

This was going to feel very weird. My inhibitions had to be swolled up like a shark eating surfers or I was going to freak. My chest, my shoulders, my legs, MY GROIN!!!  I just had to try and imagine it was someone else……oh no, don’t do that. I’m sure that a hand gliding past in close proximity was part of the treatment????

After the session, I definately felt great. I would certainly recommend this as a treatment. Be prepared for a little oil, a little nakedness and a leap of faith….

Covering some Southern Ground

Well when last you left us, we were in Hampi, soaking up the atmosphere of the boulders and ruins and experiencing Divali.  We were also soaked… it rained ALOT in Hampi… not great in a place where there are no proper roads and the way to get to some of the sights was across the river in a coracle… we had to abandon our sunset ride on the river on the last day as it was just too high and menacing! Divali seemed to go on for around 3 days and involved fireworks in the street, lots of flowers and lovely smells and all the men gambling on street corners for money…. Divali is the festival of money afterall where followers give thanks to the godess Laxmi… one of the guys in our hotel lost 10,000 rupees!

Divali made it difficult for us to get out of Hampi… as all the trains were totally booked up. So we ended up on yet another delightful bus journey… spent most of it flying in the air as the roads were so bad! So we arrived in Bangalore feeling very tired and ready for some TLC. Bangalore is a very modern city, with connections to software and big business; the inventor of Hotmail is from there!

Essential City kit - walking boots and a map!

Apart from the Bamboo Bike (see blog at https://tattybackpacks.wordpress.com/2010/11/14/the-bamboo-bike-from-bangalore/) We didn’t have any specific plans… so spent some time refreshing ourselves – mooching around malls and bookshops, going bowling and going to see an American film… we even fit in a trip to a steak restaurant and had a few cheeky drinks. One afternoon was whiled away in the Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum…which shared alot of exhibits with Magna where I work in Rotherham – some of the exhibits were very strange and others very modern.

After Bangalore – we headed via Chennai, to the east coast. We hooked up with another Couch Surfing person in Chennai, who we spent a couple of pleasant hours chatting with. We have not yet managed to surf any couches, but meeting Vijay and Gopu has been a great way to find out more about Indian life.

Check out the caption under the photo!

The way to travel in Tamil Nadu seems to be by bus… a word that strikes fear into our hearts… if it’s not an overnight sleeper bus which rattles our bones and never stops for toilet breaks, then its a local bus, which looks like it should be on a scrap pile and either has double the passengers on that it should, or wheels make thunderclap noises, or windows that rattle and leak, or a really loud ‘DVD playing on a crappy old screen – and before all that fun, you have to find the bloody thing in a bus station which resembles a riot scene! We did eventually find our bus to Mamallapuram… after standing in the wrong place (where we had been told to stand) for about an hour!

Mamallapuram is a small village on the east coast,  just south of Chennai. It has a fantastic shore template and the five rathas – a collection of monument temples and the best stone elephant in India.

Elephant in Mamallapuram

We spent 2 days exploring and looking at all the stonework which they produce here, from tiny stone pendants to giant elephants and snakes… some of it amazing work.

Next it was on to Pondycherry; a french colony and seaside retreat… on yet another local bus – yet again a pile of crap. We made it in one piece and checked into a nice hotel before heading out to explore. Pondycherry’s back streets with french architecture and ‘rue’ rather than street signs, were very strange, but there was good street food on offer and lots of shade in the European section of the town. The other side of the canal however on the Indian side – things moved up a notch in terms of craziness… hot, smelly and mad as always, the streets were lined with market stalls selling everything from earmuffs and ballaclava’s (yes you heard right… and it is Swealtering here!), the bangles and fish! Andy took a constitutional through a fish market – i just couldn’t face the smell! and we purchased a traditional indian wooden drum which on closer inspection was made from a thick tube of cardboard! oh yes… 2 days in Pondy was well enough and we booked yet another night bus (joy) to Madurai.

Meenakshi Temple in Madurai - 6.30am!

We decided to see the main sight in Madurai and then move on …. had enough of cities! The Meenakshi Temple is an astonishingly bright Hindu temple and very well maintained. Inside are numerous meditation areas, small shrines and stalls… plus a temple elephant with it’s own jazz band!

So then it was back to another chaotic bus station to board a local bus for 6 hours to Kanyakumari… the southernmost tip of the continent. It was a long and very hot journey and it was NOT worth it! We should have gone to the tip and then caught another bus…. but it was too late. Kanyakumari was smelly, touristy and busy and subject to multiple powercuts and no operating ATM’s. We felt proud to have reached the end of the country but ready to move on very swiftly.

Current location is Kovalam in Kerala, the most developed resort in India… yes its touristy and not too cheap, but the waves a great for surfing and boogie boarding and we are recharging batteries again. We headed over to a fishing port yesterday which is currently bustling with noisy fish wives and card-playing fishermen… but is set to be a major seaport for cruise liners in the next few years. We are glad we went while it was in its current state… having chai with the fishermen who spoke no English while they grinned at us was their toothless mouths, was a unique experience – unlikely to survive the western invasion. Plus Andy needs a few days to perfect his surfing stance and our hotel has a pool…. so it seems rude to rush off….

Andy with his really tatty surfboard

The Bamboo Bike from Bangalore

I first heard about the ‘Bambike’ from friends whilst chatting on a roof-top cafe in Hampi. “When in Bangalore, check out thisguy who makes bikes from Bamboo”. As soon as I heard, my ears pricked up… as a keen cyclist, I instantly had images of this creation, running through my mind. Vijay, the creator, was a fellowcouch surfer so we got in touch and once in Bangalore, we were on a quest!

We caught a local bus and arranged to meet him at a random shopping centre… 5 minutes from his workshop. He said he would “pick us up”. We heard the noise of a motorbike approaching and it was Vijay on his Royal Enfield complete with sidecar! How cool i thought… it was just like the one out of the Garden state film!

After shaking hands and introductions, we headedoff to his workshop to see the Bambike. I was amazed that a guy would take time out of his day to pick up 2 complete strangers and show  them around his business premises… but that is what couch surfing is all about… gaining from experiences meeting new people. WhWhen we arrived, vijay made a bit more sense…he runs a furniture business very successfully with many staff and some big customers… apparently without marketing (which had Rach quaking in her unemployed boots!).

Vijay and Andy with the Bambike

I loved his idea and could see potential for this in the inner cities… with the general obsession with green issues partcularly…. the bike looks cool, is green and could easily be manufacturedand sold through distributors across the world! He has interest from various people, including Italy and America… so good luck Vijay! His website is handcraftedbikes.blogspot.com

no it will not fit in your backpack!

Keep an eye out for these in the UK!

An Indian Food Odyssey

Our first meal in India

As a resident of Bradford, curry forms a staple part of my diet and is probably one of my favourite cuisines. So embarking on this trip to India promised to be a journey into some serious culinary delights! 2 months into the trip, I think its about time to set your mouths a-watering!

Initially Indian food did not live up to its promise at all. Our 2 days in Delhi bore only small fruit in the form of some scrummy Masala Dosa; a rice pancake with various dipping sauces. Stuck in Agra for 4 days, we found little to much on… the vegetarian restaurants used very poor ingredients but I guess the meals were passable… when washed down with a clandestine beer! It was when we arrived in Varanasi that we found some delicious curries.. Malai Kofta, Aloo Gobi and freshly baked breads.

In Chandigarh we were extended some Indian hospitality by a local family who happened to own a restaurant and gave us our first non-veg meal of Butter Chicken and Fish Masala… delicious.

On the train up to the mountains we had spicy tomato soup from a small stall and some spicy potato in a bread bun… all washed down by the obligatory cup of chai… spicy milky and sugary tea…. If you don’t take sugar in your drinks… you are going to struggle in India!

Street Food Seller in Tamil Nadu

The best meals are usually from grotty street stalls that we spontaneously visit. Amritsar offered Channa Masala and fresh baked Pui, Jaipur gave us Chola Bhatura and fresh saffron lassi and in Mumbai, a guy chopped up tomatoes, onions, coriander and peas and served it to us in a roll of newspaper on the street. We’ve had rice dumplings served on palm leaf and samosas freshly fried up in front of us…

So that’s the good… but how about the bad and the ugly??? Breakfast is the hardest meal in this country… who can face stuffed paratha and pickle every morning…. and I remember the rejoicing when we found porridge for the first time…One breakfast looked like one colour… including the colour of the plate and we didn’t even touch it. We had a curry in a homestay in Jaipur which was just pure water and on a train a fellow traveller was disturbed by his non-veg meal which appeared to be an egg…. I say appeared as no-one dared to eat it! And if you don’t fancy curry then there is always the tourist food…. usually double the price and nothing you would recognise! But there are exceptions to that rule… Indians seem to get Israeli food…. there are alot of travellers here from that part of the world… and Laffa, Falafel and Hummus are plentiful… we even found an italian restaurant to rival Pizza Express whilst we were in Goa!

Sometimes decoding the menus is hard… not the Indian ingredients… we quickly picked up aloo, gobi, saag, paneer, muttar…. we were more concerned with Babeens on Tost, Pogh Egg and Wine-sized soup!

Lassi and Chola in Jaipur

So now in Pondycherry in Tamil Nadu… we are off out this evening to sample something not often available … the sacred steak! probably washed down with some beer!

Hampi is a lot like scampi, bang bang Divali……

Hey, just arrived in Hampi from our 12 hour bus ride…….to the welcome gesture of

‘Do you want tuc-tuc, blah blah blah……..’.

The difference between all our other encounters and this was that the drivers were actually climbing on the bus like monkeys. Feeding time at the zoo. It pissed us off, and the rest of the bus passengers.

Luckily our hardened skin repelled their attack. As Hampi is about the same size of a football field common sense suggested we’d walk. While trying to escape the grasp of the tuc-tuc drivers another one tried to cut across in front of us to stop us walking. This was not a good tactic so I told him so in a Bradford style taxi rant……..plus it was raining and the ground was soaking. Cow babba was also in the equation.

Lovely Hampi

Apart from that little incident Hampi has proved to be a great little place….Not too big….. Great food….. Awesome temples to see from the roof top restaurants…….. and loads of unusual rocks struen around the place. The sun set is awesome too. More pics to come, but after our SD card problem we’ll wait until they get backed up before leaving it in the hands of Indian Mr Bean.

It is also Divali while we’re here, so they’re loads of Indian kids with bangers and fireworks (Bad combination), loads of flowers, gambling and celebrations for 3 days…..

Probably staying around for 5 days so we can build up our strength after Goa….that was stressful……sitting drinking on a beach…..

Back to the hard travellers life again…….Bangalore next stop.

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