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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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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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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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In a pickle already..

Here we are safely arrived at or first hotel in Cochin , Kerala in South West India. It seems to have been a long time waiting for this trip to come around and I have not written my blog for ages so I am a bit out of practice. Trips to a nice hotel in Crete are all very lovely but there’s only so much you can write about when you don’t leave the hotel compound for days on end! Not sure what happened when we went to Iceland as that really was worth a blog post or two but somehow I was distracted by all my lovely travel companions and the snow!

Still never fear, India’s here and this is where my blogging all began. No adventurous train journeys planned this time though.

It would already seem that we are also a little out of practice in the travelling department. We flew out from Birmingham on Emirates to Dubai and then after a relaxed two hour changeover there we caught our connecting flight into Cochin. The first flight was amazing, really smooth and I’m pleased to the say the extra legroom I’d paid for was fab. Jane and I watched films all the way and the 7 hour flight was over in no time. However, the next flight to Cochin wasn’t so good. There was quite a lot of bad turbulence and I am not a fan of this these days. Especially when they tell the cabin crew to take their seats. Anyway, we arrived!

We met our guide and driver Vaiju and made our way in a nice Rav 4 to the Malabar House Hotel,  which is in the centre of Fort Cochin, the old town. The drive took about an hour and we noticed how different this already seemed to our trip to Northern India. It all seems a lot more modern, westernised and there was a distinct lack of animals roaming the streets. However, the colours along the way are amazing, especially the ladies clothes which are really bright.

So at our hotel we checked in any by now we’re desperate for some sleep. It was about 11am local time and weird this – their time difference includes a half our! We just wanted to get a few toiletries out of our suitcase – only the locks on the new Samsonites would not open with the code we’d put in. We knew this was going to be trouble back home as we couldn’t really understand the picture instructions. Excellent. Anyway it was all too much so we decided to ignore this pickle and go to sleep for a few hours. Of course we couldn’t really sleep so a bit later we woke up and tried again. We searched the Internet and found several informative videos telling us to use a zoom camera and a flashlight to look for differences down the side of the dials. Only trouble was there was a non existent gap and we couldn’t see nuffin. So by now stress levels were rising. Jane wanted to contact Samsonite in via Joyce back in England and I wanted to rip the suitcases apart with my bare hands. However, in the end we decided to take the suitcases to the nice young man in reception . He smiled promisingly and told us to leave it with him, it would take some time. We skulked off back to our room and waited in tense silence. After about an hour there was a quiet knock at the door and the boy with the smiley face beamed proudly and waved what looked like a hairpin at us. He had done it. What a blooming star. Thank goodness …now our holiday could begin.

We decided to celebrate by using our toiletries, putting on our anti mosi stuff and going up to our lovely hotel’s Wine and Beer lounge! Oh the air conditioned luxury. Actually we sat outside and decided to acclimatise as it is incredibly hot and humid here. We ordered a bottle of Indian (yes I know…) Chenin Blanc and despite the label on it that said ‘Drinking alcohol is injurious to health’ it turned out that wasn’t true at all and in fact it was particularly marvellous! We then took our wine down to the hotels restaurant and whilst an Indian trio played lovely soothing music we ate a fine feast. I say feast because it turned out the Biriani starter I ordered was a main meal so we had quite a bit of food. After my ‘starter’ I then had a Paneer (cheese) dish and Jane had a thali (three small dishes with rice). It was all absolutely delicious and we had a lovely time!

 

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The Road to the Kasbahs

Last time we came to came Marrakech we were disappointed that we’d been unable to fit in a trip the High Atlas Mountains so this time we pre-booked. I read the blurb that Thomson gave online and whilst there were two trips that sounded remarkably similar, we opted for the one called ‘High Atlas 4×4 – Road to the Kasbah’s.’  

Having had two very lazy days by the pool getting mindful we were now ready for our adventure so on Tuesday off we went. The day started with us waking up as usual to the sound of the 5am call to pŵrayer from the nearby Koutoubia Mosque. We popped into the hotel restaurant to see 6 other adventurers having a rushed early breakfast too. Then we met up with our tour organiser in reception and got assigned to our 4×4 vehicles and Ahmed, our driver for the day. We shared our vehicle with a nice Dutch couple, Peter and his wife, who’s name I never caught but who had a terrible hacking cough.
We drove along to the hotel we stayed at last year and met up with the other 5 vehicles in our 4×4 caravan and met our guide Rashid.
Then we got on the road proper exiting Marrakech to the South East and heading to the mountains. The weather was pretty dull as we set off and as we started to gain a bit of height it got rather worse and soon we were driving in fog which got thicker and thicker. Hm..this looked like we hadn’t chosen such a great day to do this sight seeing trip..but never mind.
The guide wasn’t in our vehicle so we just had Ahmed telling us bits and pieces along the way….all of it in French which only the Dutch lady really unstood.
We climbed through a small town called Ait Ourir which had a market going on. This mostly involves lots of men with donkeys and carts having a gathering in the dusty, scruffy looking place. We carried on into more rural areas with olive groves and green grass before it started to get too foggy really to see much at all, including the car in front.
After about an hour we reached our first stopping point, a cafe with a viewing terrace and we couldn’t believe our luck when, just as we reached here the fog cleared and we emerged into the sunshine. The views were beautiful with lots of green hills around us but by the time we’d had a comfort break the fog had come back again and these views disappeared once more.
On we went climbing higher and higher up towards the pass at Tizi-n-Tichka. The fog cleared once more and the scenery started to change to forest areas with lovely pine trees including an area reserved for the Royal Family of Morocco to go hunting. We passed through the town of Taddert where there is a barrier that is put down in Winter when snow closes the pass.
We’d been able to see that we were heading up towards the snow and now it started to come into full view although nowhere near the road ..thank goodness.
I must admit parts of this road have become a bit of a blur after this. Suffice to say that we kept on climbing and the scenery kept changing. At times we were driving alongside beautiful fast, flowing rivers surrounded by prune and almond blossom trees, next we were driving through areas of arid red rock with boulders as big as houses and precipitous drops to the side of the road. The road is so winding  that it’s impossible to count just how many hairpin bends it has. I am sure the Thomson blurb didn’t tell us all this! I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the number of points along the road where there was either a serious rockslide that had been cleared to one side or the safety barrier to stop you going over, had actually gone over itself!
So,yes it is not for the faint hearted this trip and I was so glad that Ahmed seemed to be a very good and patient driver.
After another stop at a particularly precipitous point to take some photos, we reached the high point of the pass itself which is at a height of 2260 metres (7415 ft). At one point up here they were repairing the road. They closed the hairpin bends down to just one lane with one cone !
Soon after the pass we took a turn off the main road (‘main’ road LOL) and followed the sign to Telouet. This road was even more winding and now the Tarmac had obviously run out. Now we really did need the 4×4 and I realised that I have just not been putting my Rav 4 through its paces back home! Ahmed clearly enjoyed driving on this stretch and seemed to speed up. Oh goody…
We now started to travel along a remote valley which became more and more scenic as we continued. We passed through some amazing mud villages. The first main stop was at the village of Telouet itself which has a largely abandoned old Kasbah. We learned from Rashid about the meaning of the word Kasbah. Basically it seems to be a sort of fortress, generally with 4 tall four-sided towers and made of earth obviously. This particular Kasbah was very important apparently back in the day but perhaps not as far back as we might have thought. It was in fact the stronghold of the Glaoui tribe in the early 20th century whereas the scenes that were before us today were positively biblical. The place is still occupied by descendants of this moorish tribe who have much darker skin than the Berber race around here. The main fortress, however, is in such a state of disrepair that we weren’t able to visit- only taking pictures from afar.
After this stop we carried on along the valley following the route of the Wadi Ounila where the scenery continued to be absolutely stunning with different kasbahs and villages along the way. It’s very fertile up here and we passed plantations of palms, olive and fig trees. In some parts though it was just rock the colours of which were continually changing. In places red, yellow, more white and even purple. One particular stretch of the road was just gravel and we even forded a river at one point and balanced along a makeshift bridge at another.
Our next stop was to admire another village which I think was called Anemiter. It’s red mud buildings seemed very well preserved as they hung over the River Ounila.
Finally, we reached our main destination which is the UNESCO World heritage site of Ait Benhaddou. It’s famous for being one of the best preserved kasbahs in the whole region. But it’s claim to fame goes way beyond that as it has been used in lots of movies such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Mummy, Gladiator and much to Jane’s joy more recently in the TV series Game of Thrones. For those fellow GoT fans it represents the fictional city of Yunkai where the Khaleesi went on her travels in search of an army and those ever elusive ships in series 3. Jane was very excited about this and strode about in her ‘I am not a princess, I am a Khaleesi’ t-shirt just like her heroine Daenerys Targaryen (minus her dragons).
The site stands on a small hill on the far side of a river and to get across to it we had to negotiate some stepping stones. The river was not deep but quite fast flowing and some nice local lads were there to hold our hands for a small price of course. Jane and I decided we would manage without and made it. However, we saw two chaps slip and fall in, one of whom did it in spectacular style as he tried to save his camera bag. Oops.
After this we had a little climb up around the Kasbah which really hasn’t had much done to preserve it which is why all the film producers love it. It was also quite hazardous walking around as a result of this and another poor chap took a tumble. Health and Safety is really not an issue over here.
It is quite stunning and we could clearly see how it had been made from just mud, timber and bamboo.
On our return to the village we went back a more sedate way across a proper bridge! This took us close to our restaurant for lunch where we had some nice Salad, bread, omlette and chicken skewers. We felt we deserved a beer but much to the disappointment of Jane and the Belgian lads we’d sat down with, this was a dry town!!
After lunch Rashid told us that we would then take a drive to the town of Ouarzazate which is pronounced ‘war-zazat’. This was a turn in completely the wrong direction from Marrakech but it seem that there are plenty of reasons to visit. Here are just a few:-
1) it is known as the Gateway to the Sahara (which we did not visit)
2) it has a big film studios here (which we did not visit)
3) Rashid’s friend has a carpet shop here (which unfortunately we did visit)
However, the main reason that Jane and I were pleased to have had this little detour was so that we can say that we have been to a place with a name pronounced ‘War-zazat’.
We had driven 220km to get to this point and by now it was about 4pm and Rashid told us that it would now take 200km drive of four hours to get home. Oh my goodness ….and what a drive. To start with we went along a new bit of road until we met back up with route N9 where earlier on in the day we had turned off to Telouet. This bit wasn’t too bad but then we had to retrace our steps all along this winding, precipitous road back upto TnT pass. Of course it began to get dark and Ahmed, who had by now been driving for about ten hours, was rather impatient to get home. We kept getting stuck behind slow trucks or vans and he couldn’t wait to get past them. It was quite honestly pretty terrifying and Jane was sitting in the front. Poor thing. I, meanwhile, was cramped up in the very back of the van trying my best to test the brakes. As we got lower down not only was it dark but it began to rain. Oh great ..slippy roads as well now.
It did finally take us the predicted four hours to get back into Marrakech but instead of taking us back to our hotel Ahmed decided it would be nice to take us to see the Palace. He drove along very slowly blabbing on in French ‘Regarde a la droit….Regarde a gauche….’ We have no idea what we were supposed to be regarding but frankly we weren’t interested. We wanted a well deserved beer in the bar!
Finally, he gave up and took us back to the hotel. We gave him a great big tip as even though on the way back he got a bit impatient, he really was a very, very good driver.
So there we have it a 420km round trip and this must have been one of the most scenic drives in the world. In the bar later I equated it to having a day trip upto the Lakes back home, having a bit of a drive up Wrynose Pass, and then coming home again same day. Is that what tourists do? Crazy.

 

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Ooh Marrakech

I don’t normally choose to write blog posts about our shorter breaks but something happened yesterday that compelled me to capture a few thoughts about our trip to Marrakech. We came here last year too and had a lovely time so much so that when we were trying to decide where to go for some Winter sun this year..we came back. We are staying in a different hotel this year, The Medina Gardens. It’s still with Thomsons and we chose it because it is closer to the souks and because it has a heated pool. Last years hotel, the Riu Tikada Palmerie, had the most amazing huge pool but it was like taking an ice plunge and in fact I was one of only about a handful of people who ever went in. So this place seemed a better option. It is also a ‘Couples’ hotel. Now this is an interesting concept when you’re a gay couple. I had been slightly nervous that we might be arrested and thrown into a Morrocan Jail (now that would make for an interesting blog post..) but that hasn’t happened yet. However, I must say, I feel rather out of place. There’s something slightly odd about being with a group of people who choose to segregate themselves from others. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with it but it does make the place seem quite calm which is good.

Anyway it was our first day yesterday and we decided we needed to visit the spa. The nice lady had all sorts of packages on offer and I think we were a little mesmorized or jet lag perhaps? I doubt it seeing as it only takes 3 hours to get here!! We chose the Bledi package for a 3:30pm visit. After a nice lazy day by the quiet pool (which isn’t heated) it was time for us to go in. This was going to be a Hammam experience, apparently, although we didn’t know what to expect. So let me tell you…

First of all you are asked to strip down to your bikini or pants in our case as no one had mentioned bikini. Then you are taken into a rather hot, steamy room and the nice lady throws lots of buckets of warm water over you. Interesting..

Then you are invited to lie on you back on a slab of concrete covered with a big, kitchen sponge pad. Then we were washed down with some black soap. Funny thing was it wasn’t actually black but it did smell of Eucalyptus. Then we were left for about 20 minutes just staring up at the ceiling. I’m sure normally this would enable one to examine the beautiful patterned tiling of the Hammam but in our hotel it meant staring at a mouldy white ceiling waiting to feel the cold drips land on your body. It was around about now that I got a fit of the giggles and decided not to take the whole thing too seriously.

Next up the nice lady came back and gave us eye pads which smelled rather floral but were quite stingy. This now meant that we had even less idea what was going on. I could hear that something was happening to Jane and so asked her what was going on. She said that she was being rubbed down with a brush which didn’t sound too good especially as I could hear that it sounded quite vigorous. However, when it came to my turn it was really rather nice and in fact it was a rough flannel rather than a brush. I felt well and truely exfoliated.

Next we were covered in mud and sand or rather ‘clay’ as they like to call it. By now we could see what a state each other looked like and we laughed to see each other covered from head to toe in dirt . It was quite oily and felt as if it must be doing us some good as we were left for another 15 mins. Now I began to realise that lying on a concrete slab wasn’t very comfortable.

The lady came back in and made Jane sit in a white plastic chair whilst she threw more buckets of water at her to get the mud off. Then it was my turn and after this we got sent out of the steamy area to sit in a dry area in our robes.

To finish off we then had one of the best massages I have ever had with lovely fragrant oils and just the right amount of pressure and pokiness. 50 mins of total bliss. Lovely. And I have to say that by the end of it I had never felt so clean!

 

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Last night in Shanghai

As the sunset we left Pudong and drove back over the river to catch our evening river boat cruise. This lasted about an hour as we sailed up and back down the river this time admiring the city skyline and light show from the water. I have never seen anything like it. I ❤️ Shanghai, as the lights on the side of one of the big tall buildings kept telling us. It is a vibrant, young, modern, clean and friendly place and a great city to end our trip.

So what of China overall then? I think you will have noticed that I struggled a bit to start with. I think it was the jet lag and perhaps also the slightly cold weather in Beijing but also just the sheer volume of people everywhere, which takes some getting used to.
Once I relaxed a bit then so did the Chinese people we met and once again, like India, I found the people to be friendly but perhaps a little more shy. The other thing we have noticed is what a calm people the Chinese are. Despite their numbers, we never once saw anything verging on aggressiveness or road rage, for example. It was very clear that family is the cornerstone of Chinese society and they were especially lovely with children.
One thing I did find very different here in China compared to India, was the apparent lack of spirituality here. Yes, there is Buddhism and lots of history but I get the feeling that the young population pay more regard to science, business and facts, rather than religion etc. That was certainly the view of more than one of our guides.
The other thing I think you’ll have noticed is how little I knew about China before we arrived. My Mindmap of China was pretty non-existent and whilst I knew about the pace of development, until you see it in city after city I don’t think it hits home. I read an interesting quote about this urbanisation in The Guardian

“Whilst most people in China were farmers 30 years ago, 50% of people lived in cities by 2011 and by 2030 it’s estimated one billion people, or 70% of the population, will be urbanites.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been quite so surprised that at times it seemed a bit busy!
It has certainly been an amazing adventure and I’ve really enjoyed all the different experiences we’ve had a long the way. I don’t think China is for everyone but who knows what the future holds. Shanghai gave us a flavour of what China could become and once they develop the biggest Universal Studios in Beijing and a new Walt Disney World in Shanghai, maybe it will replace Florida as the destination of choice.

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