A Travellerspoint blog

The End of the Road...For Now

March 15th – April 30th

Well, for all those who I haven't caught up with yet, I finally made it back home – not quite in 80 days but I think I had more fun than Phileas Fogg and Michael Palin put together!

With Mark away on tour, my final few weeks in Perth were spent in preparation for my return to the UK, and more importantly, to urgently find paid employment, since my coffers were more than empty. Our final day was sad, but perfect – breakfast on the beach in Cottesloe, followed by a fish and chip lunch by the harbour in Freemantle and a romantic evening picnic in King’s Park, overlooking the city – my last glimpse of Perth for several months. After an (yet another) emotional farewell at the airport, I set off on the long flight back to London.

Almost 24 hours later (and an incredible 8 hours sleep) I arrived at Heathrow at 5am, feeling rather despondent that after my rapturous send off 12 months ago, there would be no-one there to greet me. Imagine my shock and delight when Joe sidled up to me with a cheery "Hello Mum". He’d booked a cheap flight back from New York for the week and decided to surprise me – what a lovely son!

After a sensational year, I was brought back down to earth with a rather large bump the next day, when I discovered that my tenants were refusing to move out. Although comfortably ensconced and warmly welcomed at my mate Michelle’s, I was facing a lengthy legal process (up to 6 months) to evict them. Jobless, penniless and now homeless, I was beginning to wish I had stayed in Australia. Walking down my local high street felt almost surreal and with the stress and uncertainty surrounding my house, I was finding it very difficult to acclimatise.

My tenants finally moved out 3 weeks down the line, and I’m finally just beginning to feel “at home” and settled again. I can’t describe the joy at unpacking my clothes and belongings that had been in storage – it felt like Christmas! The much anticipated re-unions with friends and family have been warm and wonderful, and I am enjoying being back in my comfort zone once again. Perhaps one of the best things about being away for so long, is the coming home. I must do it more often.

My prudence in starting the job-hunt early paid off and after a couple of interviews, I’d secured a 3 month contract working in my home town, which means no commuting and better still, no overpriced train fares. Things were slowly starting to come together.

Many people have asked me to name the highlight of my trip, or my favourite destination. I find this impossible to do as every country I visited offered a whole host of memorable and individual experiences. As I read back over my blog however, the following stand out as exceptional moments that will be imprinted in my mind and in my heart forever:

- Cruising down “The Strip” in Las Vegas in a limo to celebrate my mate Karen’s 50th birthday

· Driving down Highway One in California with Dan, singing along to the Beach Boys on the radio

· Getting “merry” on margaritas on more than one occasion with Tash and the crew in San Fran

· The hilarious Pythonesque Mariachi’s of Garibaldi Square in Mexico City

· The towering ancient skyscrapers of Chichen Itza in Mexico and Tikal in Guatemala

· Soaking in the atmosphere and the nightlife in old Havana

· Sitting on the dock of the bay in Caye Caulker, Belize surrounded by tropical fish

· Sipping champagne in a Jacuzzi at the Sanctuary Lodge overlooking Machu Picchu

· Wandering around the weird and wonderful markets of La Paz

· Traversing the lunar-like salt plains of Uyuni in Bolivia

· Sharing a shot of pure alcohol with the miners in Potosi, hundreds of feet below the surface

· Getting up close to the power of nature at the spectacular Iguassu Falls in Brazil and then again in Argentina

· Watching the sunset from the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain, Caipirinha in hand (it’s a drink!)

· Catching an impromptu Tango show over lunch in San Telmo Square, Buenos Aires

· Trekking and snow walking in the stunning snow-capped Patagonian Andes and finding hidden beaches with views that took my breath away

· Spotting my first whale in Kaikoura and watching in awe as the huge tail fin smashed down into the sea

· Perfect solitude and breathtaking views trekking the Abel Tasman coast, New Zealand

· Taking in the beach, the sunset and the open air cinema on a very special day in Broome

· Seeing in the New Year in Sydney with a fabulous view of the harbour bridge and opera house and falling in love!

· A very chilled out day spent cruising the back waters of Kerala listening to Robert Palmer, Rod Stewart and Sting on my ipod

· Seeing the joy in the faces of the adorable children of Irula Pakuti in India when they were given the clothes and toys Mo had brought them

· A very romantic final evening in Perth with Mark picnicking in King’s Park overlooking the lights of the city

And for those interested in statistics:

Distance travelled: Over 100,000km

Number of bus journeys: 68

Number of train journeys: 5

Number of sea/river voyages: 15

Number of flights: 28

Number of World Heritage Sites Visited: 31

Number of Life Changing Experiences: Countless

Number of Hangovers: I can’t remember...

Number of lifelong friendships formed: 6

Number of credit cards completely max-ed out: 6

In summary:

My trip may have left me financially impoverished, but the places I visited, the people I met and the experiences I have shared have completely enriched my soul. Thank you all for joining me on my adventures – your comments, e-mails and feedback made me feel like you were all on the road with me, and I hope my words have excited, encouraged and inspired those “explorers” out there.

As most travellers will tell you when they return from a trip like this, their wanderlust has not been satisfied, but ignited. As comforting as it feels to be back home in familiar surroundings and re-united with friends and family, I know it won’t be long before my itch needs scratching again (no tube of antihistamine cream is going to cure this one!).

So, for now I must now follow my heart and my man back to the Antipodes in July to continue my adventures, when I hope to continue my blog. I hope you’ll all be joining me again (in spirit, if not in person – and not all at once please, we only have one spare room!).

Kathyxxx

My last day - Cottelsloe Beach

My last day - Cottelsloe Beach


My Hunky Man!

My Hunky Man!


Dragonfly - Cottesloe

Dragonfly - Cottesloe


Red Man - Cottesloe

Red Man - Cottesloe


Perth by Night

Perth by Night

Posted by kathystravels 16:00 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

All Quiet On The Western Front

February 11th – March 14th

Some of you may now be wondering by now if Mark turned out to be a psycho killer and if I'm now in pieces buried under his Barbie (or even on his Barbie!). Well, I’m pleased to report that I’m very much alive and kicking and settled into a life of domestic bliss in a Perth suburb. I’m beginning to feel a bit like an extra in "Neighbours" and have learnt the finer arts of swimming pool maintenance, getting goat faced (despite Aussie wine being more expensive here than in England – what’s that all about?), cockie spotting (don't ask!) and generally “fiddle-arsing” about.

To be fair, the souvenirs I brought back from India included a nasty dose of the flu and my first couple of weeks back I was (as Mark described me) “crook as a dog”, so didn’t really feel up to doing much at all. Plus, Perth was enjoying one of it’s hottest, driest summers, with temperatures in the high 30’s most days – just as the air-con decided to give up the ghost. Still, I comforted myself by adding the London weather forecast to my “favourites” to give me a daily boost, whenever I started feeling homesick.

Mark was due to go off on a 14 day tour up to Broome, but my rain-dance ritual paid off, when the west coast was flooded out by Cyclone Diana, and he had to return home to me after only 5 days.

Strangely enough, after 9 months travelling around the world, it made a nice change to be settled and doing household chores again. I had the time to go shopping and found myself enjoying cooking and housework and a bit of gardening. My near perfect suburban live was marred slightly by the extremely bad Aussie TV (a mish mash of regurgitated British comedy from the 70’s and 80’s – think Porridge, Allo Allo and Man About the House – with a fair sprinkling of mediocre US sit-coms and very old black and white movies). Oh, how I miss the Beeb.

Lethargy had began to set in, and after a few weeks of “bludging “ about, I was excited when after his next tour, Mark suggested we take a road trip down to Albany on the south coast of Western Australia. For someone who makes his living from driving thousands of kilometres a day, Mark sure loves his road trips. I’m curious as to how he’s going to find the roads in England when he comes over in July – it may put him off driving for life! Our first couple of nights were spent in the peaceful country town of Walpole, which is surrounded by national parks filled with majestic forests of Tingle and Karri trees – some of the largest trees in the world. The 40 meter high Valley of the Giants tree-top walk was impressive, but beginning to feel a bit “treed-off”, we branched out and headed to some of the most stunning and isolated beaches I’d seen. Not to mention the kangaroos that seemed to be hanging around just waiting to have their photo taken!

Finally making it to historic Albany, WA’s first city – we settled into the hostel there before exploring the this old colonial town and it’s surroundings the next morning. The hilltop war memorial overlooking King George Sound (where 30,000 Anzac troops set off to fight in the trenches during the First World War) was an interesting and moving site. Along the rugged coastline, Mark showed me several lovely beaches in the Torndirrup National Park including The Gap and The Natural Bridge and the strange granite formations at Elephant Rocks.

Our final night was spent in the pretty(and slightly hippy-ish) town of Denmark, where we found a lovely romantic little rustic cottage in the bush for not much more than the cost of a hostel. Surrounded by Karri forests, stunning beaches and wineries (not to mention an award winning pie shop – sadly didn’t get to try the “Vinda Roo”`) we vowed to make a return visit in the very near future.

Back to Perth, it is now only a matter of days before the end of my trip and reality is beginning to bite. I find myself with mixed feelings – both dreading and looking forward to returning home.

The last couple of months have been an unexpected detour from travelling, but the whole point of my journey was to explore and enjoy some new life experiences, which I feel I have certainly done! Meeting Mark has been wonderful and has turned my plans upside down, but I can now return to the UK with a new sense of purpose and direction. I do need to earn (and probably borrow)some money as my trip has gone well over budget, but plan to rent out my house again for another year and return to Perth with Mark after his trip to “Pommieland” in July.

I am now looking forward to catching up with friends and family, briefly settling back into life in England, watching some decent TV, going to Glastonbury, celebrating my 50th birthday on both sides of the world (I still feel much too young to be 50!), and then moving on to the next chapter of my life.... watch this space!

ps. Any leads to potential job opportunities (or loan offers!) would be greatly appreciated...

Sunset over Perth

Sunset over Perth


King George Sound, Albany

King George Sound, Albany


Tingle and Karri Forest

Tingle and Karri Forest


It's A Hard Life!

It's A Hard Life!


Walpole Sunset

Walpole Sunset


Woody

Woody


Tingle Tree Climb

Tingle Tree Climb


Weird Ring in tingles!

Weird Ring in tingles!


Trek to the Summit

Trek to the Summit


What a Poser!

What a Poser!


Help! I'm turning into a Sheila...

Help! I'm turning into a Sheila...


Walpole

Walpole


Walpole at Sunset

Walpole at Sunset


Pelicans Nornalup

Pelicans Nornalup


Pelican Feeding Time

Pelican Feeding Time


My Treehouse

My Treehouse


Our Off Road Driving Expedition

Our Off Road Driving Expedition


No Comment!

No Comment!


Tingle (Tangle) Tree

Tingle (Tangle) Tree


Valley of The Giants Tree Top Walk

Valley of The Giants Tree Top Walk


Tree Top Walk

Tree Top Walk


Torndirrup National Park

Torndirrup National Park


Torndirrup National Park

Torndirrup National Park


Torndirrup National Park

Torndirrup National Park


Elephant Rocks

Elephant Rocks


The Natural Bridge

The Natural Bridge


The Gap

The Gap


Torndirrup National Park

Torndirrup National Park


Our Cozy Cottage, Denmark

Our Cozy Cottage, Denmark

Posted by kathystravels 16:00 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

The Good, The Mad and The Ugly

Chennai and Mamallapuram

January 30th – February 11th

The journey to the airport at 4am through Cochin was a delight – no traffic, no mad drivers, no horns....and we made it in just under an hour. My short flight across to Chennai (capital of Tamil Nadu and formerly known as Madras) was equally stress free – and unlike the buses in India, thankfully the planes do have glass in the windows!

Sadly, my state of inner calm came to a crashing halt once I left the airport. I had arranged to meet up with Mo and Ernesto in the international arrivals hall, only to find I was not permitted to re-enter the airport without a ticket. So caught in the no-man's land between the terminal building and the heaving crowds behind the huge barriers outside, I patiently waited for their Emirates flight to disgorge. The wait was worthwhile and after a warm re-union, we set off in a taxi into the depths of "hell"!

The worst traffic excesses of Cambodia, Vietnam, Bolivia and Peru did nothing to prepare me for this huge Indian city. With seemingly no road rules other than it being compulsory to cut in front of every other vehicle at every opportunity, whilst honking your horn incessantly, the traffic clogged journey into the centre took the best part of an hour. I tried distracting myself by chatting to Mo in the back, but having no seatbelts in a taxi whose brake pedal was being used with equal enthusiasm as the accelerator and the horn, was pretty scary. The pollution was unbearable, so with no air conditioning and being reluctant to open the windows, we arrived at Mo’s hotel feeling slightly dishevelled. Having been travelling for over 24 hours, M & E were even more exhausted than I was, but after I found a reasonable hotel close to theirs, we decided to head out for something to eat.

The area we were staying was called Pondy Bazaar and was a labyrinth of streets containing shops and stalls selling everything from strange looking vegetables to cheap toys. Bizarrely enough, there were one or two very upmarket clothes shops which wouldn’t have looked out of place in Oxford Street, surrounded by the dirt and grime of the market. This place made Kerala seem clean and I felt that I was going through the culture shock all over again. After lunch in a kind of an “Indian Vegetarian McDonalds”, and much haggling with the rickshaw driver (this became quite tedious after a few days – we know the price we should pay, they double it, you end up somewhere in between and in the end no one ends up happy!), we set off for a stroll along the famous Marina Beach.

One of the largest (and certainly the most polluted) urban beaches in the world, stretching 14km long and almost 500m wide in places, this massive expanse of sand is home to thousands of food and market stalls and is enjoyed by most of the city’s population on this Sunday afternoon, if our visit was anything to go by. Arriving in the heat of the midday sun was probably not a good idea, and after a quick drink under one of the few shady spots, we retired back to our hotels for a rest. We returned later that afternoon when it had cooled down to a balmy 25 degrees, and discovered that dirty and crowded as it was, it did have it’s charms.

Apart from the stalls selling chai, barbecued corn on the cob, and seafood and some very basic fairground rides, the throngs kept themselves entertained by paddling in the extremely rough waves, taking horse rides and much to our amusement, having their photos taken standing next to cardboard cut-outs. These comprised of a background of somewhere like the Taj Mahal, or even a western style house, while posing with arms draped around a tiger or the cast of a Bollywood film. We felt we could have earnt a small fortune hiring ourselves out as we were treated like film stars by groups of youngsters wanting their photos taken with us! They obviously didn’t get to see too many tourists here.

The following couple of days were spent wandering around the markets and side streets, stumbling upon temples and old colonial buildings, demonstrations and street parties - and trying not to get mowed down, ripped off or worn out. M & E had stayed briefly in Chennai last year, so were eager to explore, and I have to admit it was often a funny, fascinating and eye-opening experience being immersed in the middle of a real Indian city (complete with cows wandering nonchalantly amongst the cars, rickshaws and lorries). However, after a while, the dirt and extreme pollution along with traffic and searing heat got to me, and I began to dream of being somewhere quieter, calmer and less hectic and exhausting.

We had arranged a car to take us out of Chennai, an hour or so down the coast to the tourist town Mamallapuram, which would be our base for the coming weeks. My plan for this part of the trip, was to join M & E in trying to find somewhere we could spend a meaningful few weeks volunteering, and last year they had met a Belgian lady who had become involved in helping out in a local village here. I was relieved to find that the town itself was a fraction of the size of Chennai, had a beach (even though the pollution and the waves made it too dangerous to swim) and therefore a sea breeze, and several half decent restaurants – including an internet cafe which served beer! Oh – and there were some pretty awesome temples too.

Neela had arranged a discount rate at the hotel for us, and we settled into our comfortable and clean rooms for the duration. We even had a balcony, overlooking a car park/cum rubbish tip/cum cow shed!

We spent a restful couple of days exploring the ancient monuments which featured some amazing 7th century stone carvings, dotted around this world heritage town. The highlights were the Five Rathas (a series of chariot shaped monoliths including one of the most perfectly formed stone elephants – finally I get to see an elephant!), Arjuna’s Penance (a huge bas relief on the face of a rock), The Shore temple (stunning location on the edge of the sea) and Krishna’s Butter Ball (a massive rock that looks as though it’s about to roll down the hill, but has been there for centuries). These sights make the town a tourist mecca, which sadly and inevitably means constant hassle from the stall holders and shopkeepers, and make selecting from a very good range of souvenirs and crafts a chore when it should be a pleasure.

Rather more disturbingly, it also makes it a haven for fraudsters preying on visitor’s sympathies, as we all too soon discovered. Walking back from the beach one evening, I came upon a small group of children sitting cross legged in a “class room” which was in reality a shop front, being “taught” by a girl of no more than 9 or 10. My curiosity was aroused and I walked back past later with M & E. This time a teacher came out and explained that this was an orphanage for children who had lost their families in the Tsunami. I suggested we buy the kids a packet of biscuits each and were directed to the stall conveniently located opposite. Seeing these poor little mites sitting there just holding on to their packs of biscuits was very moving and we vowed to come back to visit again. M & E had the opportunity the next evening and actually met the owner of the orphanage, Rev. Bila, who they admitted had left them feeling slightly uneasy. Meanwhile, I had Googled the place, and after sifting through several brief mentions of it, came across a disturbing report from a couple of years ago written by a Swedish journalist. Apparently “Rev. Bila”, set up the orphanage 10 years ago and basically “rents” children from poor villages in the vicinity, sends them off to the local school in the daytime but puts them up in appalling conditions with meagre food rations and has been known to beat and abuse them. The parents think they are being treated well but when the tourist season is over, the older children are sent home, to be replaced with younger, more “tourist friendly” siblings. The good reverend lives very nicely off the not insignificant donations of sympathetic tourists and charities that become involved. We even suspected that the biscuits we bought were sold back to the stall once we walked around the corner.

M & E’s friend Neela was most upset when we told her, as she knew all about the Rev Bila and thought that the “orphanage” had been closed down. She vowed to go to the local Childline office and report it, although Bila’s connections with the local “mafia” would make any action difficult. Feeling very despondent, we wondered if we should leave Mamallapuram and move on to Pondicherry, an old French settlement further down the coast.

Then by chance, the following day, Neela introduced us to Fulvio, an Italian who we discovered had originally been duped big time by the Rev Bila. After he found out about the scam, he took a year out but decided to set up his own small foundation to help genuine and worthy causes in the area. His aim is to carefully seek out individual cases where lives could be vastly improved with a small investment of funds such as supporting a young widow by paying her a small salary to escort the local children to school, and assisting bright young students through bursaries, and even pays for motorbike mechanic courses for young offenders. As his inspiring story unfolded over breakfast, we felt uplifted and re-assured that at least there were some people with a genuine interest in trying to improve the lives of these extremely poor children and young people. We asked if there was anything we could do in practical terms while we were there.

That afternoon, Neela took us to Irula Pakuti, a small village of “untouchables”, the lowest of the castes, that had been sponsored by the trust. This settlement had been fortunate enough to have had their straw huts replaced by a German company who had built brick houses and a small hall which acted as a school room for the younger children. Fulvio’s trust had provided a teacher for the pre-school kids and even a sewing teacher for the mums. Neela was concerned because several of the children had a nasty skin disease, probably caused by the unhygienic sanitary conditions. Fulvio was willing to pay for the children to visit the doctor and get medication but was concerned that the parents would not give them their medicine and also that by allowing the kids to play in the dirty water, they would just continue to get infected.

While Ernesto was discussing ways to improve the water and sewerage supply, Mo and I were enraptured by the kids, who began to lose their shyness and began to adopt us! In the absence of any toys, we entertained them by singing all the playgroup songs we could remember and making up the words to those we couldn’t! Mo had brought a load of clothes from Italy and it was very humbling watching the delight on these little one’s faces being given a new t-shirt or a dress.

On our return, we all agreed we’d felt an instant bond, and decided to stay on in Mamallapuran for a while. After speaking to Fulvio, we made a trip back to Chennai to buy some more toys and puzzles, and Ernesto helped organise the trip to the doctors.

Over the next week, we spend each morning or afternoon visiting and playing with the children, teaching them (and the teacher) how to put together a jigsaw puzzle, and made a display of all the photos we’d taken of them, which they were enthralled with! Mo and I even relived our youth by showing them how to play hopscotch and all the skipping games we could remember from school, and I thought we did pretty well for an almost 50 and an almost 60 year old! I’m not sure who got the most out of our visits, them or us!

M & E had started to feel settled here and were happy to stay on for the next 3 – 4 weeks before spending the last couple of weeks of their trip doing a little sightseeing. As inspired as I felt about the work that Fulvio was doing, I felt torn, as my original plan was to spend 2 months in India, including a month volunteering, and then and I wanted to travel up to Mumbai. But now I found myself feeling quite unsettled and distracted, and speaking to Mark on the phone every day, made me miss him even more. I finally made the decision to return to Perth, but to keep in touch with Fulvio and try to offer him some practical help with updating the website, gaining some publicity for the trust and hopefully find him some more sponsors for the young people he supported.

I had enjoyed my time in Kerala and Mamallapuram. Kerala was somewhere I had always wanted to visit and must be one of the most beautiful parts of India. It was great catching up with Mo and Ernesto and spending some time with them. The experiences we shared with the children of Irula Pakuti I will never forget. We were even invited to dinner (twice!) by our local laundry man, who lived in a 3 room house with his 4 charming daughters (two of Neela was sponsoring through university in Chennai, where they spent 4 hours travelling to on the bus every day!). We ate before the family (they would eat later!) on rush mats on the concrete floor in the bedroom that the girls shared. They had a TV and mobile phones, but very little else in the way of luxuries. Yet they seemed happy and Sanju was immensely proud of his family.

It is sad that many Indian people don’t understand the concept of helping each other – they always seem to expect something back in return for doing someone a favour. As a tourist, and a westerner, you feel that you are constantly being ripped off or scammed. Nothing here is straightforward or efficient and everything seems designed to frustrate, but the idiosyncrasies often put a smile on my face. Despite being one of the poorest nations on earth, most people were hard-working and strived to better themselves and I had the privilege of meeting some wonderful, warm, hospitable and inspiring and people.

Like the last time I visited India – truly the “Land of Contrasts” – I was relieved to be leaving, but somehow I looked forward to returning one day.

For more information on Fulvio’s work with the Malar Trust:

http://www.malartrust.org

http://www.malartrust.org/eng/irular_pakuti1.htm

No, Please Don't...

No, Please Don't...


Marina Beach, Chennai

Marina Beach, Chennai


Tea Time - Marina Beach

Tea Time - Marina Beach


John Travolta Eat Your Heart Out!

John Travolta Eat Your Heart Out!


Arjuna's Penance, Mamallapuran

Arjuna's Penance, Mamallapuran


Does My Bum Look Big???

Does My Bum Look Big???


Deya gets a new dress

Deya gets a new dress


Our New Friends

Our New Friends


Children, Marina Beach

Children, Marina Beach


Dinner time at Sanju's

Dinner time at Sanju's


Food Seller Marina Beach

Food Seller Marina Beach


Funfair Ride Marina Beach

Funfair Ride Marina Beach


University Building Chennai

University Building Chennai


My Fan Club, Marina Beach

My Fan Club, Marina Beach


Chennai Street

Chennai Street


Little Boy, Chennai

Little Boy, Chennai


Hindu Temple, Chennai

Hindu Temple, Chennai


Meditation Centre, Chennai

Meditation Centre, Chennai


Street Art, Chennai

Street Art, Chennai


Anjuna's Penance, Mamallapuran

Anjuna's Penance, Mamallapuran


More Fan Club Members!

More Fan Club Members!


With Mo and Ernesto by the tank temple

With Mo and Ernesto by the tank temple


Who You Looking At????

Who You Looking At????


I spot and elephant!

I spot and elephant!


Temples Everywhere! Mamallapuran

Temples Everywhere! Mamallapuran


Mo and I Feel Boulder...

Mo and I Feel Boulder...


I wish!!!!

I wish!!!!


Local stonemasons, Mamallapuran

Local stonemasons, Mamallapuran


Ganesh joins Facebook!

Ganesh joins Facebook!


I get over my elephant fixation...

I get over my elephant fixation...


My Darling Areli... I want one!

My Darling Areli... I want one!


Balaji, Pappi and Danush...bless!

Balaji, Pappi and Danush...bless!


Cows on the beach

Cows on the beach


Dinner at Sanju's- yum

Dinner at Sanju's- yum


I re-live my youth!

I re-live my youth!


Menaga

Menaga

Posted by kathystravels 16:00 Archived in India Comments (0)

Tea and History....and Imaginary Elephants!

Kerala (Pt 2: Kumily and Cochin)

24th – 30th January

Relieved to have arrived in Kumily (or Thekkady or Periyar depending on which sign you believed), I managed to find a lovely homestay and although a little over my budget, I decided to treat myself.

The huge Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary is supposed to contain around 40 tigers (although no-one had actually seen one for several years), along with elephants, giant squirrels, wild boar, bison, monkeys and other birds and wild species. I secured the last space on a rafting and trekking trip the next day, and then spent a fascinating evening at the local Kathikari Centre. Kathikari is a four century old dance and mime art, bringing stories of gods and demons to life. We watched the complicated make-up and costume preparation routine prior to the show and then the art was explained in detail. The actual performance resembled a cross between a pantomime and mime act, and the characters (all played by men) used elaborate body and face movements (often very amusing) to relay the story with musical accompaniment.

After an early start I arrived at the Sanctuary where our rafting group were issued with very trendy, regulation anti-leech socks to wear. The early morning mist rising off the lake (artificially made by the British in 1895 when they flooded the valley, as we do) made a great photo and we were relieved to be setting off in the relatively cool part of the day. Spotting a couple of eagles along with some egrets and other water birds around the lake, the guides gave us a running commentary on the state of the elephant dung as we stepped over mounds of it. It was getting fresher – a good sign!

After a quick tiffin break, we took to the water on our rather haphazardly constructed rafts and handed our oars (I hadn't really expected this to be self service!), but at least it was good exercise. Most of the wildlife we spotted was miles away on the other side of the bank and to be honest, could have been anything, but wild boar was the consensus of opinion.

Feeling optimistic that we would spot some elephants our guide took us tracking through the woods and eventually we were told to stand still and be quiet. The anticipation mounted as the lead guide, with his shotgun slung over his back, quickly climbed a tree and confirmed that there were a group of elephants in the next clearing. We all got our cameras out at the ready. What happened next was almost farcical. All the guides started shouting at us to run as fast as we could away from the forest, leading us through bushes and eventually across a stretch of bog, where we all got "bogged down" in the mud. Finally we were “safe” and it was explained that they had spotted a group of bull elephants with a young elephant, who looked as though they were about to charge in our direction. Quite frankly, I still can’t see why one of the guide’s couldn’t have acted as a “decoy” and led them into our line of vision so we could have taken some photos??! But then I wondered if it had all been an act to drum up a bit of excitement for our behalf. We never did get to see a real elephant that day, which was hugely disappointing. The remaining trek (and indeed, the bowl of rice for lunch) sadly turned into a bit of an anti-climax, and I was glad to return to the cool of the hostel for a shower. I did get to see a group of monkeys being mildly obscene as I walked back though!

I’d passed by several hillside tea plantations on the journey up to Kumily, but was slightly distracted by trying to remain on the bus. Fascinated in seeing how my second favourite beverage was produced, I braved another tuk tuk journey back along the pot holed road. I had discovered that these auto rickshaws are totally devoid of shock absorbers, and what with the absence of tarmac, the only way for a female to withstand the journey is to wear a sports bra, or as I did, cross my arms firmly across my boobs holding on to them for dear life! After a painful 15 km ride, we arrived only to find the factory closed due to it being Independence Day. The driver sensing my disappointment and his chances of a tip diminishing, offered to show me around the tea gardens himself and explained the process. The other part of my trip included a visit to a Spice Garden. Kerala really is a garden state, with so many varieties of fruit, vegetables, drinks (tea, coffee, cocoa) and almost all the spices under the sun growing plentifully here.

That evening I wandered into town to find somewhere to eat, wishing I could get a cold beer. In Kerala alcohol consumption is frowned upon and only upmarket hotel bars (who have to pay a small fortune for a liquor licence) and some dodgy illegal backstreet joints serve it. Imagine my surprise when I sat down at a small local restaurant, to be offered a beer. I asked the waiter to repeat the question. Yes, he definitely said “beer”. But when he turned up a few minutes later with a teapot and mug, I began to think that something had been lost in translation. The waiter saw my puzzled and disappointed expression, and explained that this was “special tea” and finally the rupee dropped. Pouring myself a nice cold cup of frothy “tea” I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. This is the funny, eccentric side of India that I love.

Dreading the 6 hour bus journey the next morning to the old Port of Cochin, I came prepared, but it was not nearly as bad as the last, although the return trip along the bendy mountain roads did make the poor lady next to me quite ill. We were pulled over by the police at one stage, and when I asked why, expecting it to be for speeding or dangerous driving, I could have sworn they said it was because the driver and conductor weren’t wearing their uniforms! Nothing would surprise me here.

After being turfed off the bus in Cochin (at a petrol station, of course!), I managed to find a rickshaw to take me over onto the reclaimed peninsular of Fort Cochin (where I had been recommended to stay).

“Kochi” is made up of a series of islands and peninsulas joined by bridges or ferries, and the old trading post and Colonial settlement of Fort Cochin seemed a little less manic than the traffic clogged roads of mainland Ernakulam. I took a quick wander around the narrow streets, which seemed to be full of shops selling souvenirs and clothes. This was obviously where the tourists stayed. It was also the preferred haunt of one of the original “tourists”, Vasco De Gama, (unfortunately his house, which is now a hotel, was fully booked). Apart from the incongruous European traders houses that still dominate the waterfront, the main sights seemed to be St Francis’s Church (the oldest European church in India), the Portuguese built Mattancherry Palace (I’d seen better) and the Pardesi Synagogue set amongst the crowded lanes of Jew Town. Unfortunately I wasn’t in the market for spices, antiques or souvenirs just yet (may be tempted near the end of my trip) so the constant “hard-sell” began to wear me down after a while. So, making Fort Cochin my base for a couple of days, I took advantage of the wide selection of hip cafes, and probably put on another kilo or two!

On my final night I decided to join the families and youngsters taking a stroll along the seafront promenade with it’s fish market and fine views of the Chinese cantilever fishing nets prominent all over Kerala. A relaxing and enjoyable end to my travels in Kerala, before my flight over to the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu, to meet up with my good old friends Mo and Ernesto.

Final thoughts on Kerala:

The tourist board had named the State “God’s Own Country” (which “god” exactly is unclear, as the state comprises mainly of Hindus, Catholics and Muslims). Kerala was certainly easy on the eye, swathed in vivid green tea plantations and coconut groves and home to thousands of species of exotic birds and wildlife – a veritable “Garden of Eden”. The backwaters and beaches are stunning. The history and culture are fascinating. What is less than “heavenly” however is that this beauty is all too often marred by the pollution and rubbish that is liberally strewn everywhere. It is a very sad sight and I left hoping that this problem is addressed before it’s too late.

Kathikali "Dame"

Kathikali "Dame"


Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary

Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary


Nice Tips!

Nice Tips!


Fort Cochin

Fort Cochin


Jew Town Fort Cochin

Jew Town Fort Cochin


Kathikali Make Up Session

Kathikali Make Up Session


She's behind You!

She's behind You!


The Dramatic Ending

The Dramatic Ending


Stunning Leaf Art Periyar

Stunning Leaf Art Periyar


Periyar Lake

Periyar Lake


Periyar Lake View (Notice NO elephants!)

Periyar Lake View (Notice NO elephants!)


Still No Elephants...

Still No Elephants...


The Daily Grind - Pepper Plant

The Daily Grind - Pepper Plant


Service Wash - Thekkady Tea Plantation

Service Wash - Thekkady Tea Plantation


Tea Plantation Thekkady

Tea Plantation Thekkady


Bird of Paradise Flower, Spice Garden

Bird of Paradise Flower, Spice Garden


Spice Plantation

Spice Plantation


Orchid, Spice Garden

Orchid, Spice Garden


Arabica Beans

Arabica Beans


Rubber Tree, Spice Garden

Rubber Tree, Spice Garden


Chinese Fishing Nets, Fort Cochin

Chinese Fishing Nets, Fort Cochin


Fish Market Fort Cochin

Fish Market Fort Cochin


Basilica, Fort Cochin

Basilica, Fort Cochin


My Roomie, Fort Cochin

My Roomie, Fort Cochin

Posted by kathystravels 16:00 Archived in India Comments (0)

Another Week, Another World

Kerala, India (Pt 1 Kovalam and the Backwaters)

18th - 24th January

After my last flight with Tiger Airways, I had expected the worst on my onward flight from Singapore (from Perth) to Trivandrum in the Southernmost Indian state of Kerala. I was pleasantly surprised – no long queues for check in, the flight left 5 minutes early and I was given an emergency exit seat. After the stewardess helpfully (and rather worryingly) explained to me that I would have to open the door and manage the escape shute in case of an emergency, I settled down to enjoy the 4 hour flight, with the luxury of 2 spare seats next to me.

Arriving into the seaside resort of Kovalam after dark, I lugged my rucksack past a long promenade of shops and restaurants, alongside a beach full of moonlit fishing boats and crashing waves. The next morning I awoke to have breakfast overlooking this picturesque scene and marvelled at the huge lighthouse and a million palm trees that dominated the tourist town.

The day was spent acclimatising to the humidity and sorting out yet another mobile phone to use in India (a new phone was cheaper than topping up my Australian phone!), buying plug adapters (Indian plug sockets have 5 pins like ours, but still the plug always seems to fall out of the wall), containing my ecstasy at finding a jar of proper English Marmite in the local supermarket for a quid, and waiting for the power cut (one of many) to end, so I could check my e-mails.

Having visited India many years ago, I kind of knew what to expect, but the culture shock was still quite startling, after spending several months in the US, New Zealand and Australia. The heat, the dirt and the poverty is always shocking and I was instantly on my guard in fear of being constantly ripped off and I switched into full blown "haggling" mode as soon as I arrived. I guess it's just how things are done here. But despite the hassle, the majority of people are very friendly and the prices are still so inexpensive compared to Australia. Kerala must host the world record for vegetarian restaurants – and finally I managed to find really good curries, mostly for less than a pound each! I could tell I would need to seriously watch my weight here (maybe a dose of dysentery by the end of my trip would help, or perhaps I’d have to invest in a cover-all sari!).

Without any real plans for a change - I hadn’t really spent much time researching India - and without my trusty Lonely Planet book, I felt a bit lost and lonely and was missing Mark. After exploring the town, feeling slightly uncomfortable sunbathing on the beach and getting battered by the powerful waves, I pulled myself together and booked a day trip to Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of peninsular India by private car (I didn’t feel brave enough to sample the local buses just yet).

The persistent attention of the driver wore me down a little, but I enjoyed watching the paddy fields and banana plantations sail by despite experiencing some of the worst drivers that India has to offer (mine being one of them!). Other than overlooking the meeting point of the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, the town itself was pretty uninteresting, but we visited the Suchindran Temple on the way and on the return, the wonderful ancient palace of Padmanabhapuram (try saying that in a hurry!). Being the lone tourist at the site, I was mobbed like a film star by a sweet bunch of school kids wanting to practise their English.

The following day I decided to pack up and move on to Kollam, which was a gateway town to the famous backwaters that cover the western coastlands of the state. I’d heard glowing reports of the cliff top resort of Varkala from fellow travellers, so asked the driver to stop off there for lunch. The stunning location, perched above a palm fringed beach, coupled with the cosmopolitan cafes and laid back atmosphere, made me regret not planning longer in this hippy hang out. I vowed to return one day and sample some yoga classes and try out an ayurvedic massage.

Finding Kollam to be just another big bustling city, I checked into a hotel and walked down to the beach for a dip. Unfortunately, like most beaches in Kerala, there were signs warning against bathing all along the beach. Asking a couple of friendly young Indian girls to watch my bags and my back, I braved going in up to my knees, only to be swept off my feet by the strong current and swirling waves. They weren’t kidding! Feeling even more hot and sticky than before (and now very sandy), I blagged my way into swimming pool of the town’s only 5* hotel and cooled off with a relaxing swim.

That evening as I went out to dinner, I found myself surrounded by a Catholic Saints Day Parade, along with firecrackers and piped music. And later that night from my hotel window, I had a front row seat for the impressive firework display.

I’d decided against staying on a houseboat (de rigueur during a visit to Kerala) on my own, as I thought the experience would be better shared. However, I did spend a most wonderful, relaxing day on the ferry which took me through the shimmering waterways up to Aleppey, passing small communities on the way. The trip was topped off by the most incredible sunset. If only all my journeys could be made this way.

By stark contrast, the following day’s bus ride to the hilltop Periyar WildlifePark was an absolute nightmare. There seems to be only one class of bus in India and it isn’t “First”. Luckily I arrived early and managed to get one of the last few remaining seats by the window. The bus was fully air-conned (there wasn’t actually any glass in the windows!). Although well before the scheduled departure time, as soon as there was no standing room left, we took off (I am becoming wary of this practise and always turn up at least 30 minutes before the bus is supposed to leave), and at that early hour the breeze coming in the “window” was freezing. I ended up with my blanket, scarf and hat on until someone pulled the blind down completely obscuring the views. Finally the sun filled the sky and it warmed up.

As previously mentioned, the driving here is unbelievable. Indian drivers are just not content to drive along the road in a single file. Even in the middle of crowded towns, they are constantly trying to overtake and cut each other up to get ahead. Why??? My journey turned into what I can only describe as a white knuckle ride. As the bus wound it’s way up through the mountains and along hairpin bends at death defying speeds, everyone had to cling on to the back of the seat in front or the window sills to avoid being thrown around. My driver then had an attack of road rage after the bus in front refused to let him past. He spent a good 10 minutes on the wrong side of the road, honking his horn (another habit the Indians seem to be obsessed with) and finally cut past the bus on a blind bend, almost causing an accident. All for nothing, as he had to stop a few minutes later to let people off! Incredible.

Kerala Pt 2 to follow soon....

Kovalam Beach

Kovalam Beach


Suchindran Temple, Kerala

Suchindran Temple, Kerala


Palace of Padmanabhapuram

Palace of Padmanabhapuram


Chinese Fishing Nets, Backwaters Kerala

Chinese Fishing Nets, Backwaters Kerala


Sunset Alleppey, Kerala

Sunset Alleppey, Kerala


Sunset Kovalam

Sunset Kovalam


The "Saturday Night Fever" Float

The "Saturday Night Fever" Float


Suchindran Temple

Suchindran Temple


Mr Blobby's Temple, Kanyakamari

Mr Blobby's Temple, Kanyakamari


Varkala, Kerala

Varkala, Kerala


Palace of Padmanabhapuram

Palace of Padmanabhapuram


Palace of Padmanabhapuram

Palace of Padmanabhapuram


Indira was thrilled with her new boob job

Indira was thrilled with her new boob job


Knees up Mother Singh

Knees up Mother Singh


Fisherman, Kovalam Beach

Fisherman, Kovalam Beach


Festival Parade, Kollam

Festival Parade, Kollam


The Statue of Libertys Promiscuous Sister

The Statue of Libertys Promiscuous Sister


Chinese Fishing Nets Kerala

Chinese Fishing Nets Kerala


Backwaters Kerala

Backwaters Kerala


Backwaters, Kerala

Backwaters, Kerala


Birdlife, Backwaters, Kerala

Birdlife, Backwaters, Kerala


Backwaters Kerala

Backwaters Kerala


Houseboat, Backwaters Kerala

Houseboat, Backwaters Kerala


Backwaters Kerala

Backwaters Kerala


The Biggest Dosa in the World!

The Biggest Dosa in the World!


Tea Plantation, Kerala

Tea Plantation, Kerala

Posted by kathystravels 16:00 Archived in India Comments (0)

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