A Travellerspoint blog

January 2011

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)

A Very Happy New Year

Sydney and Perth Revisited

Dec 27th – Jan 18th

Dodging the flooded roads I finally made it to Sydney around 1am, and settled into my very noisy city centre hostel for the night. After watching the news unfold of the disaster in Queensland over the following days, I felt relieved I had decided to travel south instead of north for the New Year.

I'd arranged to meet up with Mark (one of the tour guides on our trip up to Broome), and after a rather nice reconciliation at the airport (yes, I realise I’m going to get a lot of comments and questions about this part of my trip!), we picked up a car and headed up into the Blue Mountains, where we’d planned to spend a couple of relaxing days before heading back to the bustle of Sydney for the New Year Celebrations.

We were staying at a pretty little guest house in the town of Katoomba, nestled amongst the impressive gorges of the Blue Mountain ranges. Having the car meant we could explore the area at leisure and we set off to visit the Three Sisters, a rock formation shaped like three women. The Aboriginal Dream Time legend goes that three aborigine sisters had fallen in love with three brothers from an opposing tribe. The brothers tried to kidnap the sisters so a local witch doctor turned them to stone to protect them. However he was killed in the battle before he could reverse the spell and they remained frozen for perpetuity.

Although cooler than the city, the following days it reached the 30s but we enjoyed a couple of bushwalks to stunning lookouts over the gorges, waterfalls and mist covered mountains. Our last morning was spent experiencing the Scenic Railway, the world’s steepest passenger railway which took us down the valley into the bottom of the gorge.

Back in Sydney we checked into our accommodation at the University of New South Wales (a room here was cheaper than a hostel and ten times better – no grotty student digs for these guys), we had started to plan our New Year’s Eve. Watching the celebrations and fireworks in Sydney had been an almost lifelong ambition for me. The stunning displays over the harbour bridge and opera house had always impressed me when they were shown on British TV, and my vision of enjoying them with a glass or two of champagne, in the warm night air was about to become a reality. By a fabulous stroke of luck, Mark’s brother and his wife had decided to spend a few days in Sydney, and their daughter had an apartment overlooking the harbour, where they had invited us to join them.

So instead of queuing up with the crowds to get a good spot on the water’s edge, we had our own private balcony with the most amazing views, with good champagne, good food and good company on tap! The fireworks lived up to my expectations and this was a New Year’s Eve that I won’t forget in a hurry. I finally convinced Mark to walk back through the city to our accommodation to "soak in the atmosphere", and two hours later, we were still soaking it in, albeit a bit less enthusiastically than when we set off! After a very late start the next day, we enjoyed a spot of shopping in Paddy’s Markets, a large complex where you could buy anything from knickers to cabbages and most things in between.

After sharing a half decent curry in the picturesque suburb of Rose Bay, we said goodbye to Terry and Pam and promised to come visit them in Canberra on my next trip. Mark was returning to Perth the following evening, so despite the increasingly gloomy weather, we hopped on the ferry over to Manly for a picnic on the beach before I saw him off at the airport.

On my final day in Sydney, I had arranged to meet up with Jo, who worked with me back at EMI in the 80’s. We hadn’t seen each other since just before she emigrated here 5 years ago, so it was a lovely re-union and great fun catching up with each other’s lives.

So... this is where my story starts to turn into the plot of “Eat, Pray, Love”!!! (substitute “Drink” for “Pray”). (For those not in the know – a book/chic flick about a woman who feels her life needs a change of direction, so goes off travelling).

Taking me completely by surprise, I found myself falling for this funny, rough, tough but very sweet Aussie bloke, who’d pursued me all the way across Australia and who had made my New Year extra special. He’d persuaded me to follow him back to Perth while I was waiting for my Indian visa to be processed. So, my last two weeks in Oz were spent making myself at home in his comfy house on the outskirts of the city.

Perth definitely seems to enjoy one of the best climates in the whole of Australia and while hot (who cares when you have a pool, a cool drink and an air conditioned house), enjoys more days of sunshine than anywhere else and an average winter temperature of 21 degrees.

We decided to leave Perth for a few days to explore the scenic Margaret River coast, south of the city. Our trip took us through the stunning seaside resorts of Yallingup, Busselton and Dunsborough, rolling farmland, wineries. Mark took great pleasure in showing me around his beloved Western Oz and I think he found it a nice change since most of his tours were to the north of Perth. Unfortunately I caught some kind of virus and felt a bit under the weather while we were there, but still enjoyed our stay, and in between doctors visits, exploring August and the Cape Leeuwin–Naturaliste National Park.

We had a lovely evening watching a film under the stars with a picnic, lazing on the lawn of the Mentelle winery. Stopping off for lunch at the pretty town of Dunsborough with it’s white sands and crystal clear waters, we returned to Perth for a few days where Mark took great pleasure in introducing his new “Pommie girl” to some of his friends and family.

Sadly, my time in Oz was coming to an end - my Indian visa had finally come through, and I had managed to change my flight to Singapore so that I didn’t have to return to Sydney. My six weeks in Australia had been more eventful and memorable than I had ever imagined. My trip had taken on a new meaning, my life had been turned upside down, maybe fate had played a hand and I have a feeling I will be seeing a lot more of Perth in the very near future (enigmatic, or what???!!!).

PS: If they ever make a Hollywood movie of my story, I want Cameron Diaz to play me! Not sure who would play Mark (Mel Gibson perhaps?!).

The Three Sisters, Blue Mountains

The Three Sisters, Blue Mountains


Our View for New Year's Eve

Our View for New Year's Eve


Sydney New Year Fireworks

Sydney New Year Fireworks


Film Night at the Winery

Film Night at the Winery


Blue Mountains View

Blue Mountains View


Red Gum Tree, Blue Moutains

Red Gum Tree, Blue Moutains


Ferns, Blue Mountains

Ferns, Blue Mountains


Sydney Skyline New Year's Eve

Sydney Skyline New Year's Eve


Rose Bay, Sydney

Rose Bay, Sydney


Fireworks Sydney New Year's Eve

Fireworks Sydney New Year's Eve


Sydney Fireworks, New Year's Eve

Sydney Fireworks, New Year's Eve


Scenic Railway Blue Mountains

Scenic Railway Blue Mountains


Sydney with Mark

Sydney with Mark


Weird Boobie Art Installation, Opera House

Weird Boobie Art Installation, Opera House


Me and Jo, Sydney

Me and Jo, Sydney


Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse and Cow!

Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse and Cow!


Yallingup Beach

Yallingup Beach


Cape Leeuwin National Park Beach

Cape Leeuwin National Park Beach


Cape Leeuwin National Park

Cape Leeuwin National Park


The Rocks - Cape Naturaliste

The Rocks - Cape Naturaliste


Mark's Pool

Mark's Pool


Mark Trying Very Hard Not to Let Me Go

Mark Trying Very Hard Not to Let Me Go

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