The God of Small things

Anyway, enough of the fellow travellers, let’s get back to the Backwaters! After our really, really rough nights sleep it was good to get up and sit out on the shady verandah to have our breakfast. The fan above our heads was already whirring as the temperature in the sun must have been up in the high 80s. That day Jane and I had two plans to explore the local village , on the recommendation of the other guests. In the morning we’d take a short walk around the block to see the local village life and in the afternoon we’d go out in the traditional wooden canoe which enables you to explore the narrow waterways that the bigger houseboats just won’t get to.
Well, what a fantastic day we had! The walk around the village took us along narrow paths wide enough only for bicycles and mopeds and we slowly wandered about greeting all the locals we met. As always they were all incredibly friendly and whilst they’re not all desperate to get in your photos down here in Kerala, like they were in the north, they are more than happy to have their photos taken.
Early on in the walk I wasn’t sure I’d be able to carry on because my banana belly was really painful. But after a short break sitting on a wall I was able to carry on. Banana belly is not as bad as Delhi belly but it is painful and seemed to require me to mostly be sitting or lying down.
The colours and reflections here in the water are beautiful and it was just what I’d wanted to see here so it was great. We saw lots of lovely birds whilst we were out and especially Kingfishers which are quite large and vivid blue out here. They sit on the wires which run across the waterways helpfully making them easy to spot. The other favourite sight is of people using the river to wash everything from pots, to clothes and even themselves. I think by the time we’d finished we taken photos of pretty much everyone’s washing on the line.
After a light lunch and a short rest lying on a swinging day bed on the verandah, it was time for our 4pm canoe boat ride with Vashu. He is a tiny little 75 year old man who had worked for Xavier all his life and their fathers had done the same before this. He said hardly a word and looked very stern most of the time and he would be punting our canoe along today. Poor chap. He’d carried my suitcase in, which was probably about as big as he is, on his head the previous day so he wasn’t going to be daunted by this. Ekaterina had done the same trip in the morning and said we shouldn’t expect him to be pointing out birds or anything else of interest to us but it would be very peaceful.
And indeed it was. We set off in the long heavy, wooden canoe directly from the steps into the waterway in the homestay garden and slowly, slowly Vashu glided us along. The waterways here are mostly very narrow and quiet and they are tributaries of the Meenachal River. They’re surrounded by lush vegetation and coconut and banana trees. The waters aren’t that clean but you do pass people swimming in it joyfully after a long, hard day at work or school to cool down.
You may have heard of this river and if you have it’s probably because you’ve read Arundhati Roy’s Booker prize winning novel ‘The God of Small things’ . I’ve been reading this during our trip and seeing the place it is set in has really brought it to life, which is good because back home I was finding it a tough read! It’s become easy to picture the characters in this book (Ammu, Mammachi, Esthappen and Rahel and the Paradise Pickle and Preserve Company) going about their ill fated lives.
One of the highlights of our canoe trip came as we approached the village and suddenly we realised that the ‘normal’ blaring of music from the back of a tuk tuk wasn’t the communist party chanting like it ‘normally’ is but religious music. Along the riverbank at 5pm on a Wednesday there was a Catholic Church procession going on which most of the village seemed to have joined. We boated alongside them and although they were taking it quite seriously, I managed to get a shy wave and smile out of a few of them.
When we were ready to go back, after about an hour we just had to tell Vashu to ‘go back’ and then he did just that. It had been an absolutely awesome day. That evening we spent with Linda, the children’s author and then we also swapped rooms to the newer block hoping to get a bit of sleep. Hurrah!

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The people you meet at a Backwater homestay

When we went to Northern India one of my blog posts was about the three people you meet when you go to Varannasi. On that occasion they were all local Indian people we came across and who made a strong impression on me.
This time around I want to tell you about the different people we met at our Homestay in the Backwaters of Kerala because they were fascinating and we found it bizarre, the mix of people who rock up at this basic Homestay.
Firstly, we met a young Indian couple (Varun and Amrita) who now lived and worked in New York, USA. He was a Sikh and she was half Sikh, half Hindu. They helped run the family garment manufacturing business out of NY and were clearly from a very wealthy family. They owned and lived in an apartment near Grand Central Station in Manhattan. They were really sweet and funny and desperate to open their bottle of wine but didn’t have a corkscrew. As the Homestay didn’t have one either they had resorted to drinking the toddy complete with insects. They contemplated several alternatives but in the end we agreed to open ours and we all shared that. We chatted a lot about politics (American, UK and Indian) and travels and I particularly liked their wicked sense of humour. We’ve exchanged email addresses so I hope we will get to meet them again, maybe in NY
Next up was the tall skinny girl who was travelling by herself. It turned out that she was an International model , Ekaterina who was 35 and originated from Vladivostok in Russia. She was ‘spotted’ when she was just 16 and had then lived and worked in Japan, Paris and New York. She’d been partying pretty hard and had been travelling to India regularly in the last year to try and sort her life out. She was doing lots of yoga, Vipassana practice (hours sat in silence) and now exploring Ayurvedic healing with her ‘doctor’. She was also really good company and had been at the Homestay for about five days so was useful in terms of ‘the knowledge’. For example, she explained to us that, at this place you only have to ask and they’ll get you something, but if you don’t ask very specifically, then they’re unlikely to make an assumption. For example, if you BOTH want a banana dosa for breakfast, then you have to specify that or you’ll just get one. Ekaterina was largely travelling on her own and would be here until Jan when she had to return to Paris to work for US designer, Thom Browne. She seemed very chilled out here in Kerala so I hope she continues to travel safely and find herself, as that seemed to be what she was doing.
Finally, on our last night at the homestay we had a new guest who arrived in a taxi. She was a lovely American lady in her 60s and her name was Linda and she was an award winning children’s author and illustrator, who lived in The Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina with her husband. She again was travelling by herself round India for a month. Her reason for travelling was that she’d had a bad accident about a year ago and clearly it had been very serious and she took time to recover. As a result she’d clearly decided it was time to get out there and see some more of the world, even if her husband didn’t want to go with her. She was great to talk to about writing, art and of course travels. She was having the most amazing, scary adventures. For example on day 1 of her arrival in India, she found herself being deposited by the busy roadside in Mumbai, expected to find her way onto her bus to Mysore. It sounded horrendous but she was adopted by some kindly Indian ladies who made sure she got safely on board. It was a sleeper and she had to spend the next 14 hours on there with no toilet. ‘How does that work?’ she asked herself and to be honest, we never did find out the answer to that. I loved Linda’s attitude when, having woken up on the bus the next morning she said to herself ‘Well, I survived that so everything else is gong to be ok!’ I hope that Linda again continues to travel safely and enjoy the wonderful encounters with other people that India serves up daily.
Namaste, one and all xxxx

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Room without a view

After our two nights in Periyar we were on the move again and off to one of the stops I’d most been looking forward to. We were on our way to the Keralan backwaters. First we’d be stopping in the Backwater Heritage Homestay for two nights and then we’d be on a houseboat for one night.
The drive down from Periyar was again a really long, bendy, precarious route and we seemed to be heading downhill for most of the four hours it took. Once again we passed through some splendid scenery and by now we were able to point out the various different plantations (tea, coffee, cardamon, rubber etc) as we passed through. The road was incredibly busy with folk coming and going to the two and a half month long Hindu festival at Sabarimala. They might have been pilgrims but they weren’t very good drivers.
We had a few stops along the way. First of all at a quirky old fashioned cafe for a cuppa coffee and a loo break, then Jane wanted to stop in a ‘real town’ and have a look at their shops. Vaiju pulled up in just such a place and out we got. The temperature down here was incredibly hot in the sunshine so it seemed a little incongruous that we were visiting their local Christmas shops trying to find the best giant hanging star! We’d seen these all around Kerala and we needed our own. We also found that we needed to visit a local hardware store where we once again bought presents for the lucky people back home. We finished our Xmas shopping trip with a very acceptable cornetto.
The next stop involved the purchase of alcohol from a Government store. This one was in a very busy city called Kottayam. They are exceedingly seedy places only frequented by men, but they do sell their beer and wine very cheap (compared to hotels) and something was telling us that we’d need this to get through the next few days….
We also needed to exchange some money as we were by now running out of rupees. Vaiju found the place down the back streets of Kumarakom which is itself in the backwaters and Jane got excellent service from the three ladies who served her.
Finally, after much driving round some really tiny lanes and over bridges over the narrow waterways and asking for directions several times, we found ourself at the Backwater Heritage Homestay. The place looked really lovely from the outside and Xavier greeted us warmly, although with limited English.
Vaiju left us to it as he was off to stay with his sister for the next couple of nights so we were on our own. As he left, we were being distracted by some duck herding that was going on in the backwater river just by the garden. Basically, two guys in canoes herding about one hundred noisy ducks up river.
Well, when we were shown our room it was the hottest little box I’d ever had the pleasure of sleeping in. It is a really old traditional house but this room was like a cell. It was small, dark, humid and had no windows. In addition there was a welcome party of at least 3 mosquitos that we could see. Oh gawd.
Anyway, before we had to put up with that we went for a short walk with the other guests who we’d get to know better later. We walked along to the local fish farm and watched a man climb a coconut tree to tap toddy. Then we brought some back to taste. You have got to me kidding me. The stuff looked revolting. It’s basically coconut water/sap which ferments but the stuff in the bottle had brown sediment at the bottom and a variety of insects floating on the top. Er, no thanks, we will open one of our cold beers.
When we got back we ate our dinner on the verandah of the other part of the property where the other guests were sleeping. The food was good, simple, plentiful and definitely local with a mix of fish and veggie dishes. Bananas for pudding were by now starting to take their toll on my tummy.
We had an excellent night talking with the other guests putting off the inevitable of having to go to our cell to sleep.
By the time we did, Jane was completely paranoid about the mosquitos and she had completely covered herself in Deet, said she was wearing all her clothes to bed and turned the air conditioning (oh yes) down to 17 degrees. The room was absolutely freezing and so I too had to put my fleece and tracky trousers on but still couldn’t get warm as we only had a sheet for cover. It was horrendous and in the middle of the night (4am) I’d had no sleep and had developed both a cold and a serious sense of humour failure when Jane asked if I was ok. The air con went off but the temperature barely lifted. Not good. The scenery on these backwaters had better make up for it.

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Monkey Mafia

The next morning we were on the go again and after another breakfast of dosa, banana and almost certainly pineapple and homemade honey, we said our farewells and got on the road at about 9-30. We learned over breakfast that the previous night’s storm was now officially being called a cyclone and it even had a name -Okhi. The local news was warning that this was going to continue to wreak havoc over Kerala, Tamil Nadu and the Lakshwadeep islands for the next few days. Oh goody…but at least the news was also full of helpful tips of dos and dont’s in a cyclone (see photos)
Our next stop was Periyar and Jane had asked me what the journey to Periyar would be like. I had to confess I had no idea but I thought Periyar would be down a bit from these great heights. The weather up here was still cool and cloudy but we got some spectacular views as we set off down the same road we’d seen all the tea pickers the day before. This road was tiny and extremely downhill and bendy. To start with we drove through lots of tourist accommodation offering jeep safaris and elephant rides. But as we got lower it became more remote and for once there was little along the wayside , except jungle!
The road was fairly precarious and it soon became apparent just how much damage the cyclone had done as we saw many trees and branches down and in places these had fallen either across the road or pulled down power cables with them. I think it was lucky that we’d not been trying to do this journey the day before because by now at least, the people were busy clearing things up and making repairs. No wonder the electricity and wifi at the Rose Garden was so bad and we now felt slightly guilty that we thought they’d merely been rationing us!
After about three and a half hours we made it to Periyar. Along the way we stopped once for a brief unsavoury toilet break and bought a bag of poppadums for later. We had nothing else on our itinerary today and we were looking forward to being back in a luxury hotel, The Spice Garden. So Vaiju dropped us off and in we skipped. This place is quite a big resort but it had a slight feel of an upmarket holiday camp to it. Upon arrival we were told about the list of activities they had going on and they seemed to informatively label everything. The swimming pool looked inviting but as it was still rather damp and cloudy here and the water was cold, I decided even I wasn’t going to try it.
That afternoon we decided to have a venture into town by ourselves but there were mostly just tourist tat shops selling all the same things and at a higher price than Cochin. We did, however, enjoy shopping for gifts in the toy shack. Lucky children!
After a while we were too hot and bothered so we called it a day and returned to the enclave. Now the really good thing about this hotel is that it has a fabulous bar. It’s called ‘Woods Bar’ and is named after the Englishman who was the head ranger at Periyar Tiger Reserve back in the times when the English ruled. The room was filled with old photos of tiger hunts on elephant back and men in pith helmets etc. It had a full sized snooker table and a photo of the Duke of Kent playing on it when he had visited. Jane and I enjoyed a beer in here and met some chaps from Liverpool, via the Greek Islands, who told us about how, since they’re now retired, they spend months on end just wandering around India. It sounds great but I’m not sure that’s for me!
Later than expected because of all our chatting, Jane and enjoyed an excellent meal in the hotel’s ’50 miles around’ restaurant. The concept is that everything you eat has come from within fifty miles of the hotel. Here we ate stuffed ladies fingers (okra) and then various Keralan vegetables dishes, followed by the most delicious local pudding which was like a coconut pannacota/soufflĂ©. Very nice indeed.
The next day we were up and ready to explore more of Periyar and we started off by having a tour of a spice garden. Not another one- I hear you say. Yes, and in fact we said the same thing but went along with it anyway as it seems it would be quite short and we didn’t want to be rude. So, off we went and met up with Sajid , our guide for the tour. It was quite a small scale garden compared to Jose’s rubber plantation but Sajid was particularly good at pointing out the medicinal benefits of all the plants. By the time we’d finished we knew what to do if we got anything from a common sore throat, arthritis, upset tummy, ladies problems and even cancer. He was a really sweet chap who showed us lovely pictures of his wife and kids and explained to us why, unlike lots of other Keralan people, he didn’t want to work abroad. He said that he loved where he worked, he didn’t want to be away from his family and he got to meet lots of people from around the world and learn from them as a guide. I don’t think you can knock his logic.
Anyway, after doing some quality shopping here (more gifts, lucky people!) we decided that we couldn’t really come to Periyar without at least visiting the tiger reserve. It seemed a bit odd that this wasn’t on our itinerary but Vaiju explained that we wouldn’t see any animals. Don’t put him in charge of sales here.
Still we decided we would just go for the boat ride, even though I’d read about it online and it sounded hellish. So we caught the little rickety bus that took us and all the Indian tourists to the boat landing. Nobody was impressed by my attempts to get them to sing my song about going to see a Tiger, especially Jane.
Once at the boat landing we were told that we would be on the 1-45 boat which meant we had an hour and 15 mins to wait. Still there were some nice seats we could relax on. Until the monkey mafia moved in. Then we spent the rest of the time being terrorised by monkeys as they sat around looking menacing and then moved in as a gang to try and grab anything they could including water bottles or your video camera. At one point I’d been sort of laughing at an Indian family braving it out when unbeknownst to me one jumped on the backpack on my back and made me very cross. They were even terrorising people in the inside bit and when Jane questioned this with the security guard, she said ‘This, monkey area.’ As if to say, they were here first, what do you want me to do about it?
Fair enough. Basically, I could not wait to get on that boat. Even though I’d been looking at it and felt it may have a few Health and Safety issues. Starting with the fact that it looked like it had been built in the 1920s and hadn’t undergone an MOT since. As soon as they announced boarding everyone rushed in an unorderly fashion to get on, even though we had numbered seats. Once on, we were all instructed to don our orange life vests and that’s how we sat for the whole one and a half hour trip. Plus , we were instructed not to stand up! I’m sure this was probably a good thing because if we had seen an elephant I’m not sure the boat would have coped with the rush of people to the left!
Needless to say, we didn’t see tigers or elephants but the Sambol deer and cormorants were rather splendid!
The day ended well, as in the rickety bus back out of the park, Jane got chatting with a nice lady who gave her her business card and offered to do our dental treatment next time we were in India.

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A Nice Cup of Tea

The next day the situation with the electric hadn’t improved , it was really intermittent. We had another lovely breakfast of pancakes, bananas, pineapple and honey served in an old Gin bottle!
Then we went out with Vaiju in the car for our morning visit to the tea museum and plantations. By now the weather had slightly improved and as we drove upto Munnar it became very clear why we were here. The views of the mountains and the tea plantations way exceeded my expectations. It really was stunning.
We visited the tea museum with Ansell our guide and watched a short film about the history of tea production in the area and how the English had bought land concessions and using the shy local tribal people’s skills learned to plant tea. Ansell then gave us an explanation of how they process the tea. This was all very nice and we even enjoyed a cuppa but Jane and I really wanted to be out in the plantations taking pictures. It seems we were not allowed to do this, possibly because of the bad weather and it being (too dangerous) but Ansell did take us for a great walk up a small road which passed through the tea pickers village which we loved. He was also really good at pointing out the birds we passed which included a red whiskered bulbul, a shrike, sunbirds and plenty of others I can’t remember!
Next stop was the manufacturing centre which Tata tea company have set up for Differently Abled young people to work. So we had a tour of the paper making plant and the dying centre. It was interesting and we were particularly impressed that Starbucks in Mumbai had put in a massive order for bags from here. Good on ’em as it was a v good cause. We did our own bit to help by visiting the shop.
After this we met up with Vaiju again and he drove us back down to Munnar town itself where Ansell gave us a short tour round, mostly of the fruit and veg market and then what he called the main bazaar. The town was very busy as it was apparently going to be a festival of some sort the next day so town was packed with the local tribal people (the shy ones from the forest) and they were strikingly different, very small, very dark and with facial features of Australian aborigines. The girls had also decorated their hair with pretty flower pieces.
After a brief stop at his office, so we could hook up to wifi and touch base with civilisation, he started driving us back to the homestay but suddenly we came across a tea field where the pickers were at work so Jane and I got out and we merrily skipped down the road towards them taking the pictures we’d really wanted to get. They were all really friendly and didn’t mind at all the strange English ladies, happy as Larry in the rain.
We then decided we were rather hungry and needed lunch even though it was about 3-30pm . We decided the posh hotel Vaiju took us to to start with saying we only wanted something small, where he would eat. So the. We stopped at what looked like a Vegetarian fast food place where, although it looked unpromising and empty when we went in, we ate some great food. A buttered bhaji (basically a bun) with some sauce and then a huge pile of vegetable pakora and some tasty homemade French fries on the side. Yum.
Then it was back to the homestay where after a nice rest we had another lovely meal and this time there were 12 of us eating. Pudding was always bananas, out of the garden of course.

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Into Da Bundu

We only had one night at Mundackal Estate so after a delicious breakfast of Dosas (crispy pancake), the sweetest, best tasting bananas in the world and honey we said our farewells to both Jose and Daisy and our new best friends, Cynthia and Janet.
We’d really enjoyed our stay here but it was time to move on and Vaiju then started driving the one hour 30mins drive up to Munnar. Munnar is high in the West Ghats (hills) and it wasn’t long before we commenced the climb. Early on we passed through several towns where the local Communist Party are very popular as evidenced by all the little red flags with the hammer and sickle on them and lots of bunting along the streets. The road bends and winds for miles and miles as we climbed ever higher. We had a couple of stops to look at waterfalls along the way along with lots and lots of Indian tourists who make a colourful scene in their splendid saris.
Eventually we arrived at our next homestay where we’d be for the next two nights. This was the one I’d been really looking forward to as it looked really sweet and was called The Rose Garden Homestay. It was in fact about 20kms down from Munnar.
We were greeted this time by Tommy, his wife Raji and their son Dilip. They were lovely and smiley and welcomed us in.
Up here the temperature had dropped considerably and I’d go as far to say that it was cold. They served us a simple, tasty lunch on the balcony where we sat and admired the view through the trees. After this I decided to do a little painting sketch of the view. Unfortunately there was no electricity but just one light in our room powered by battery back up when we arrived and as a result no wifi. They thought it would be back on quite soon.
At 4pm we agreed we’d like to do Tommy’s tour of his garden. Compared to Mundackal it’s only small but he operates a little nursery growing and selling plants to local people and hotels. He had lots of lovely flowers and his garden was very pretty and he enjoyed taking us around and showing us all the different plants and especially his bats! He also took great pride in showing us his tank where he used kitchen and garden waste to produce enough gas for the household! You were left wondering ‘why don’t we all have one of these?’. Once again he grew lots of fruit, veg and spices and it was interesting to see where cardamon comes from. Basically, a very large (6ft) leafy plant in the same family as ginger and turmeric where the nodule seeds just grow at the base and can be picked every 45 days. He also had a very impressive vanilla plant which had about 100 pods growing on it. I’m not sure how much he gets for them though compared to how much Waitrose charge!
After our tour he suggested we walk upto the viewpoint just up the road which we did along with other guests Pamela and Ian from Yorkshire. It was getting a bit late and it was cloudy but the views back down and across the Ghats are excellent.
That night we all dined together so we also met a nice couple from Leeds and we enjoyed exchanging tales of our various travels. Remind me never to go camping in the Argentine Pampas looking for Anaconda. Apparently you get eaten to death by mosquitos! Talking of which, unusually it is me that has had a few bites here…Jane has remained unscathed. Touch wood.
That night everyone was warning that a storm was coming in and Dilip even told Jane that ‘this sort of weather normally means there is going to be a tsunami.’ Thank god then that we were high up in the hills. However, that night a storm did indeed hit. Before it went dark it became really, really windy and we saw some branches come down even from our balcony. We went to bed and listened to the sound of the wind and rain pelting down on the house’s tin roof. I must admit I was wondering why on earth we had travelled all this way to this place and its English weather and unreliable electricity supply which was still off and on every five minutes.

Ps In da Bundu is a reference to a trip to S Africa with Laura H. It means you are in the back of beyond. Or at least that’s what we said it meant and have done ever since.

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Off the Beaten Track

The next day it was time to leave our lovely hotel Malabar House and we had an early departure at 6.30am. This was because we were keen to see the elephants being washed in the river on the way to our next stop. Joyce and Enid had seen this and their pictures were fabulous but when I looked it up in the internet I found out that the elephant camp had moved and it was doubtful that they still did the river bathing at the new camp.
Still our travel agents arranged for this saying that we needed to be there for 7.30am, hence the early start. Vaiju drove us all the way out of the city past the airport again and then on gradually more and more remote roads. It took about two hours to get there and near the end Vaiju had to keep stopping and asking the locals ‘Elephants?’ and they generally pointed down the road. It didn’t look like the locals had seen too many foreigners down here before…hm.
So we arrived on time at the Kodanad Elephant camp. It didn’t actually open until 8am so we waited whilst a few people slouched up for work. We were needless to say the ONLY people waiting to go in. Vaiju sort of directed us in and there was no further instruction to be had, other than we could visit the Butterfly Garden, the Deer Park and then the Elephant camp. It all seemed rather odd and I asked ‘Are the elephants just in here? Are they behind a wall of some sort?’ Vaiju never really answered that but encouraged us in by ourselves.
So first we walked through the butterfly garden which wasn’t very impressive. All very interesting but we decided it was time to go and see the big stuff so we carried on up a track. After a while we came to said Elephant camp where I suppose there was some sort of washing going on. There were just 4-5 very sad looking elephants chained up and their mahouts were either brushing up around them, cleaning up their dung or one was hosing down the ground around his elephant. I’m sure the elephants have been rescued from far worse conditions but they were swaying backwards and forwards so it was rather distressing. We decided to make a swift exit.

Our other stop today was the famous Thattekad Bird Sanctuary. Our tour notes describe this as having a rich variety of forest and water birds. Once again we appeared to be the only people visiting but it was still quite early. It didn’t start promisingly though when we were first directed to some small cages and told that there was a peacock in there. Even better there was a King Cobra in another cage…those of you who know Jane will know that this is never going to be top of her must see list! It was all very poor and sad especially the porcupine who was also in a cage. We didn’t even realise it was a porcupine , as I told Jane ‘There’s some sort of animal in here but it’s sick or I think it may even be dead’. We quickly decided to move on and visit their butterfly garden. This was more impressive with lots of lovely flowers and indeed butterflies. The nice lady showed us some chrysalis too.
Next we moved on to try and find some birdlife but there was no map or clue as to where we ought to go so we wandered around aimlessly in the heat and humidity. We found a bit of a dried up lake and riverbed where the sign said ‘Boating’ but by the look of the boats, which were about 12 feet above any water , I don’t think anyone had been boating here since the 70s. And of course there was not a single bird to be seen anywhere! So disappointed we made our way back to the car via the cages where by now some monkeys were entertaining the local tourists. We also decided to make use of their ‘facilities’ which left a bit to be desired.
After this second v poor experience of the day we then drove onto our Homestay, the Mundackal Estate. This was really, really remote and again Vaiju had trouble finding it. In the end it was about a mile from any sort of road up a bumpy stone track through the rubber plantation. However, when we arrived the house was stunning with beautifully manicured gardens and we were greeted by the lovely Jose, his wife Daisy and there son George. Once again, all Indian but with I guess Keralan Christian names. Our room here was fairly basic but lovely and air conditioned. We ate a massive lunch prepared by Daisy and then had a rest. At 4pm we met the other guests who were staying here , Americans Cynthia and Janet, sisters from Boston and California. We all got taken on a guided tour of the estate by Jose. It was great seeing everything they grew from ginger, coconuts, yams, guava, bananas, pineapple, nutmeg, cinnamon, peppercorns, chillis, curry plant, tapioca, mangos, cocoa and coffee to name a few. He was also very entertaining so we had great fun. It was beginning to get dark as we visited, in his truck, the best bit which were the rubber trees and here we learned how they tap the trees, collect the latex, take it back to the processing plant, put it through a mangle to remove all the water and finally smoke it. The buildings this was done in were really, really old fashioned as was the equipment he used. At one point the mangle stopped (it was electric) and I just knew that to fix it Jose would take a spanner to it and hit the cogs hard. He didn’t let me down but sadly he couldn’t get it to work.
After this we went back to the house and then ate another fine meal which included lots of ingredients from the garden. All delicious! Then we got chatting to the Americans , so much so that at one point Jose turned the lights off and we took that as our cue to go to bed. The day had improved no end!

 

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Cooking up in Cochin

Our itinerary for the second day in Fort Cochin was much more relaxed and after a lovely breakfast in the hotel Vaiju collected us at 11.30 to take us to our cookery lesson. We drove out along the Beach Road and gradually the houses along here got smarter and smarter. Eventually our driver found the right house which said on the outside that it belonged to Nimmy and Paul. It’s funny, lots of the nice houses here have the owners names outside and I can tell you that Shiny Mathew (MP) has one of the finest houses in Fort Cochin!
So Nimmy is an Indian lady, she was 57 and very slim and sophisticated looking. She welcomed us into her home and kitchen and explained that we were going to make four dishes today, two vegetable and two fish dishes. She gave us a little booklet with several recipes printed in there including these.
Then we got to work, heating the oil in clay pots over a gas ring and then frying things off . All of the chopping had been done by her two assistants who worked outside in the huge extended kitchen area.
The dishes we cooked were
1. Meenmolee (Kingfish in coconut milk)
2. Thoren (vegetable stir fry in fresh coconut)
3. Mezukuperatty (vegetable stir fried in garlic seasoning)
4. Prawn Ularthu (sautéed prawns)
It was all quite easy and Nimmy did a lot of the work , we just tickled the pan every now and then! The aromas were incredible and it was nice chatting to Nimmy about her 13 years running the cookery classes.
After our time slaving in the hot kitchen we got to sit outside on her lovely patio and eat the food which was then served to us. It was all delicious although I have to say the prawns were my favourite. This was only the second time in my life that I have eaten prawns and both this year in cookery classes!
We got on very well with Nimmy who was interested in us and also told us about her family. I must admit it was a bit disconcerting though when she asked what jobs we both did. Jane explained she worked for the Legal Ombudsman and got a respectful nod. But when I explained that I was a banker she seemed to audibly let out a snort. Rude.
Before we left we met her husband Paul , a retired stockbroker, he was very nice too and we were by now getting on famously. Nimmy admired both my flip flops and my Fitbit and she immediately got in touch with her son in Singapore to ask him to get her one. Just before we left she told us she’d let us into a secret. She was a little tired today because she’d been sleeping very deeply when her husband woke her up at 6am. She wasn’t ready to be woken up so she told us she hit him and told him he was a ‘terrible dirty old man’. This made us snort out loud too!
With that we were back into the car and back to the hotel.
After a short rest we were then on the go again. We set off in the car the very short distance to the harbour by the Chinese fishing nets where we were to catch our harbour cruise boat. It was very busy around here but Vaiju lead us through to the front where lots of people were waiting for a ferry. We marched right through and our boat was waiting for us. And just us! We sat on the plastic chairs on the top and off we went. The cruise takes place around the big lake area and we had a chap who explained everything to us. The only slight problem was that Jane couldn’t understand anything he was saying so this left me trying to pay attention. And I could only understand one in twenty words. It went something like this……mnar, mnar , mnar 360 rupees for a coffee, mnar mnar mnar 650 thousand rupees, Government building (rubbish), private building (v good). So I can’t say we came back particularly well informed. But it was rather lovely seeing both old Cochin, new Cochin (lots of tower blocks going up fast) and then our favourite bit- the fishing harbour where the colours and reflections were amazing.
We got lots of friendly waves and ‘hellos’ from the other boats we passed as well as the fishermen as we watched the sun go down. As we approach our get-off-point we were told to put on the life jackets that we’d been given at the start (and which until this point, had sat on the chairs beside us).This was so that we could go across the channel back to the harbour. It did get a bit choppy so it was a really convenient place for the Police boat to pull alongside us and ask to see the boats captain’s papers. We sat on our plastic chairs holding tightly onto our life vests and tried not to look too guilty for not wearing them earlier. After a bit of bumping of the two boats all was good and even the Police went on their way with a wave.
It was a very good trip and afterwards we went back to our hotel and made use of the wine and beer lounge again and had some tapas at the bar. What a great day.

 

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Kathakali night out.

After our day tour of old Cochin and my swim in the rain, it was time to go out again as we were going to the Kathakali performance. We left in the pouring rain but luckily Vaiju and the car were waiting for us. The Kathakali hall is down some narrow alleys and when we went in the make up application was already underway.
For the first hour we sat and watched the men apply their make up. No, we weren’t just early , this is the best part. One big chap lay down on the floor whilst and older man applied lots of green, black and white makeup to him. He also used quite a lot of glue and attached several carefully cut paper strips to him. Meanwhile another fellow sat there and applied his own orange make up. Then they swapped places and were joined by a third fellow who applied a more natural looking (well that’s what the blurb said)yellow make up to his face. It was all very fascinating but there was also quite a bit of prima Dona behaviour mainly from the make up applicator who seemed to think he was in charge and got very annoyed when his make up sponge wasn’t in the right spot.
After this some band members arrived and a man who was in charge of cymbals explained what was going to happen next. So we had a little demonstration of cymbals and drum playing followed by an excellent demo of one of the main aspects of Kathakali which is the use of the eyes and face to portray various emotions. This varied from the waggly eyebrow look which represented ‘love’ to the nasty smell under the nose look which represented ‘sarcasm’. All very good and fun.
Next up was the main performance and here we were in for a treat. The blurb said we’d be seeing a story from the Maharabat. This seemed to involve a peasant , a prince and a monster from the forest who was generally being annoying and needed to be killed. It was all very gripping although there was an awful lot of flouncing about in over sized skirts. I found it very off putting that the peasant bore a very close resemblance to Joseph in a kids nativity play back home. Complete with very poor beard and t cloths for a headdress.
The monster did quite a bit of growling and the prince flounced about stamping his feet and waving with his red truncheon whilst Joseph just sort of meowed at the back and stroked his beard. It all came to a climatic end when the Prince poked the monster in his stomach with the truncheon and then followed a Shakespearean death scene surpassing anything we’ve seen at the RSC.
Marvellous, the crowd rose as one in rupturous applause. Well maybe not quite…but we did get up and leave thinking it was time for dinner.
Tonight we’d decided to eat at the Old Harbour Hotel as Joyce and Enid had stayed here I think and Sam F had recommended it too. The meal was really good. I had a keralan chicken curry and Jane had Masala Fish and orange prawn and we shared a couple of Kingfisher beers. We were too chicken to walk the 200 years back to our hotel as it was very dark and a little bit scary so Vaiju had waited for us and drove us back to the hotel. Bless. All was well with the world.

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Um Jala, Hey Jala!

Day 1 in Cochin kept us very busy. After a breakfast of a huge Egg and Bacon Dosa (crispy pancake) we met up at 10am with our guide for the day Mary Griffin. She was not the softly spoken Irish lady we’d been imagening but instead a very colourfully dressed Indian lady. You can see her in some of the photos here. She explained to us that she was an ex banker who had changed jobs after she had started her family as the hours worked better for her. She was really lovely and looked after us very well in our half day walking tour of Fort Cochin. She was also extremely knowledgeable so my desire to learn a bit about the history of this part of the world was soon fulfilled. Our first stop was very near to our hotel , the St Francis church. This is said to be the oldest European church in India and was built by the Portuguse during their time here in the 16th century. It contains the Tomb of Vasco da Gama. Here we stood by a map and then sat in the pews whilst Mary taught us all about the politics, religions and caste system in Kerala. Essentially Kerala is the most well educated state in India, it welcomes all religions who mix well and it has a socialist (communist?) state government. The caste systems is not offcially recognised but for all of that, it still seemed to be alive and kicking for example in terms of who you marry etc. It was quite fascinating and also to learn about how all this education and wealth (lots of people work abroad) has actually lead to the need to import food from neighbouring state Tamil Nadu as no one wants to work the land. The net result is that the average age of mortality has actually gone down from 90 to 65 in th last 20 years. That’s all working out well then.

This was all very interesting but I was already finding it hard to stay awake. The heat and humidity is exhausting and Mary didn’t really pause for breath! Anyway, next week walked on past the Real Marigold hotel where Lionel Blair and his mates stayed. We walked on to the Chinese fishing nets. These are very famous but Mary explained that since the Tsunami the fish numbers had declined dramatically and really these nets only survive on government subsidy and tourist income. So we paid our dues and enjoyed going out on the nets and helping the fishermen tug on the robes to haul the net up and down. We sang a nice song as we worked ‘Um Jala, Hey Jala’ or something similar. They were very friendly and it was fun. Then we walked past the fish market and admired the stalls with their catch of prawns, red snapper , shark and squid. It was a lovely colourful scene.

Other stops along the way today included the Santa Cruz basilica , a Catholic Church which was much more ostentatious than the other one. We learned that there were Lots of different types of Christians here including the St Thomas Christians and the Syrians Christians. Then we went to the Synagogue which looks after the five remaining Jews in Kerala. No pressure then on the 45 year old woman running the reception. This old building was really quaint, very basic but it had beautiful glass chandeliers.

Next up was the Dutch Palace. Not really Dutch at all but Portuguese originally but used by the Maharajas. Here again we learned lots, this time about the Hindu religion as there are some amazing murals on the wall. However, I will spare you the ins and outs of Vishnu and his many wives and the monkeys. By now we were both really struggling to pay attention as we moved from room to room although the paintings of the different maharajahs with the shoes that pointed at wherever you stood in the room were a highlight.

Next up we drove (oh yes by now we had been joined by our lovely air conditioned car and driver) to see the Dhobywallas . Otherwise known as the local laundry. This is a place where a local family can rent one of the stands and do washing for a career. Strangely, many young Keralans chose banking over this these days. No wonder as the irons weighed 8kg (4 bags of sugar) and Jane could hardly lift it. Whilst we were here it reminded Jane of her Dad and all the ‘Wallahs’ he had known from his time in India. Chaiwallahs, punkahwallahs etc. Me it just reminder of It Ain’t Half hot Mum.

After this we came back to our hotel to relax and I had a swim in the pool whilst the rain came down. It was bliss.

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