Published: December 16th 2009December 16th 2009
Elephant in a truck
Probably being taken to a celebration
The first stop on our India trip is the shopping mall called Dubai where we change our from one Emirates airplane to another for the final leg to Thiruvananthapuram which is the capital of Kerala. It is easy to see why Emirates is one of the best airlines in the world. Apart from the service, the entertainment system, the leg room and the staff, when they dim the cabin lights beautiful stars appear in the cabin ceiling. It’s only a little thing but it has stuck in my mind. But the best part is watching the forward camera as the plane lands because it is like sitting in the cockpit.
I have decided to turn vegetarian while in India for a number of reasons:
1. Vegetarian food is sure to be varied and tasty
2. It is probably safer
3. Meat in Asia often tends to be very boney
4. I can adopt that morally superior attitude that all vegetarians seem to have.
The Dubai Shopping mall is very big and very shiny. And at 2am it was very, very busy. More of Dubai later, because at 3am we took the next plane to Thiruvananthapuram.
Note the long fans driven by a punkah-wallah
The plane was full to the gunwales and the vast majority of passengers were Keralans on their annual visit to their homes and families and were loaded with armfuls of goods and presents. An extraordinary number of Keralans work in the Middle East and the money they send home has a hugely beneficial effect on the Keralan economy which makes it the richest state in India.
On arrival at Thiruvananthapuram we were checked for swine flu by an official who pointed a temperature "gun" at our foreheads which, from a distance, measures our temperature. If it is too high there is a chance we would have swine flu and would, presumably, be taken away.
Fortunately our temperatures were OK, so we were waved through and finally, after many hours travel, we had arrived in India!
As we left the safety of the airport we steeled ourselves for hoards of beggars and sure enough the first one greeted us within about 10 seconds. However she was quite decent and reasonably polite and little did we know at the time that being accosted by a beggar like this was highly unusual in Kerala. In fact in our whole Keralan trip
Same method used for 500 years
we saw only five beggars (though we saw many in Tamil Nadhu ) which is in stark contrast to Sri Lanka where you couldn’t move for them in some places.
We were greeted enthusiastically by our Indian tour manager (we had arranged this trip through an Indian company) and introduced to our friendly and smiley driver who has just enough English to be understood. Most of the time. And we had a brand new 6 seater Toyota Innova for the next 10 days. Luxury!
Driving, as in Sri Lanka, is interesting and a little terrifying. Like here in the UK they drive on the left. Unlike the UK though it seems to be optional. The centre of the road belongs to whoever gets there first. Size also counts here and buses win over everything. There are not many bicycles presumably because they have been wiped out by the buses. There are lots of scooters and motorbikes. Incidentally we saw a slightly unsettling sight of a man on a motorbike not wearing a helmet with his wife and child sitting “side-saddle” behind him! This is not uncommon. Motorised rickshaws (or tuk-tuks) are everywhere. They buzz around and make a
nuisance of themselves just like wasps which is strange because they are all painted black with yellow stripes. There seem to be a lot of road tolls but you are never sure why they are there. Sometimes there is a bridge attached to the toll but not always. Also it seems if you don't like to queue for more than 30 seconds you simply cross to the right side of the road and go through the on-coming lane. It all adds up to chaos. Apparently, so our driver said, you have to look into other road users eyes to find out what they are going to do. This didn't help one pedestrian who was knocked down by a motorbike in front of us. He was ok but a bit angry. He obviously didn’t look into the motorcyclist’s eyes.
Kerala means "land of coconuts" and it is clear why. They are absolutely everywhere. The area round Thiruvananthapuram is covered in coconut groves. So if you don’t get mown down by a motorbike or bus you will get pole-axed by a falling coconut.
The towns and villages we shoot through are not very picturesque. Shops line the road in various
I think that is pepper
states of disrepair and everywhere there is a chaotic jumble of telephone and electric cables. There are no supermarkets, just miles of single-fronted premises selling just about anything you could want. There are, however, more modern shops with glass fronts, proper floors and shelving starting to appear. The area is rich in produce so the grocer’s shops burst with fruit and vegetables of all types and colours including 12 types of bananas.
Most men wear a dhoti which is a multifunctional sheet wrapped around their waist. It can be either fully down to the ground like a long skirt, or it can be pulled up into a sort of miniskirt which is cooler and less cumbersome. On top they wear standard shirts as we would recognize them, but in the past they would have worn another cloth, a la Gandhi.
Women wear the most colourful saris and they all look elegant and cool. Even the beggar at the airport looked well dressed and colourful! In the villages we didn’t see any women in Western clothes.
As we career down the road we are occasionally stopped by the equivalent of a sleeping policeman, but in this case they
God on left, seductress on right
are 3ft high barriers placed across the road. This slows the traffic down very effectively and has the added benefit of carrying advertisements. In fact there are advertisements everywhere and they are mainly in English. There are also lots of red hammer and sickle flags of the ruling communist party which is in power at the moment. It is strange to have communism and rampant capitalism and consumerism but apparently the communist party is not like it used to be, so I was told. This is communism in a democracy so it can't be too harsh otherwise they won't get voted in again. Americans, apparently, have difficulty understanding this concept.
We had plenty of time to take in the unfolding and fascinating street scenes (which included an elephant being transported on the back of a truck - not something we see in Surrey), because we had a 4 hour journey. We finally arrived at the state’s largest city of Kochi in late afternoon. The last few miles were less stressful because we were separated from the oncoming traffic by a sturdy central reservation. By the time we had booked into our hotel we had been travelling for over 24
Luxury, if a little hot
A set dinner was included in our accommodation and we were all looking forward to it - our first Indian meal! But disappointment arrived at our table because we were served cream of chicken soup followed by grilled fish and chips. This was not what we wanted at all! We wanted to live and eat like real Indians do (or at least have a table near the window so we can watch them) and so we let the restaurant manager know he didn’t need to give us bland food. The next course was much better and truly Indian (in fact from that point onwards we ate Indian food every meal, including breakfast). I wondered if the other diners, who were all Indian, had the chicken soup and fish and chips? I doubt it. For some reason a magician kept us amused while we ate.
We had our first breakfast in India and it was a marvelous spread: sambal, idlis (rice cakes) utapam, chutneys and other things I cannot remember and they were all delicious (apart from baked banana which somehow is all wrong). There were some cereals and you could have an omelette but, because an
Not sand castles
Indian company had made all the travel arrangements, the hotels tended not to be of the "international" type but were for well heeled Indian tourists and business people. Which suited us.
Kochi is the biggest city in Kerala and has a long and rich history. Our informative local guide gave us a great introduction to the state of Kerala. Apparently there is nearly 100% literacy and the city has a majority of Christians and Christianity has been there longer than in Britain. And so on.
We went to the beach where a family was scattering the ashes of a relative into the sea, which seems to be pretty normal. Further along the sea shore we came across teams of fishermen hauling up huge "Chinese" fishing nets. A method unchanged for over 500 years. They even let us haul up a net and we caught two pretty fish. Next stop was a church built in the 1500s by the Portuguese which was then rebuilt by the Dutch. It had a interesting cooling system consisting of a number of long plank-like fans which ran the length of the church over the congregation and were powered back and forth by ropes attached to
Colourful and busy
the big toe of a punka-wallah who sat outside (I never found out why he used his big toe). He would sit outside because he was invariably an "untouchable" and therefore not allowed in a church. Things have moved on since then but from what I understand the caste system still has some effect on Indian society, for example we noticed that Indians (presumably high caste) in hotels and restaurants did not treat serving staff very well, and sometimes would completely ignore them.
Our next visit was to a laundry. I think it is fair to say that laundries have never been high on my list of things to visit, and in fact this is the first laundry I have ever visited. The collection of stone buildings which made up the laundry were, as most buildings in Kerala, in need of some repair. Each dhobi-wallah had his own cubicle which had a concrete trough of water with a stone on the side on which he thrashed the clothes until they were clean or fell apart, whichever came sooner. There was no easy-care crease free wash option. The clothes were dried on rows and rows of washing lines without using pegs
Beautifully dressed women
by ingeniously using two lines twisted together and pinching the clothes between them. When they were dry the clothes were pressed by irons heated by burning coconut shells or sometimes even electricity. Finally they were delivered to the hospital, hotel, big house or barracks they came from.
After years of bitter experience our hearts always sink when we are taken to a “shopping opportunity” but in this case we had to go. Sometimes I think they see Western tourists as walking wads of money. We don't need a table/carpet/jewellry/local handicraft/wooden thing/roughly hacked stone etc. And how would we get them home? But we do like to use their toilets.
It seems that everywhere in Kerala is about 4 hours from everywhere else, so our next hotel “Deshadan” was in the mountains and a 4 hour drive away. The drive was a delight though, and we stopped for lunch at an Indian / Chinese "tourist" restaurant- the tourists generally being Indian. We were given a menu and chose a strange mix of Indian and Chinese which, if I am honest, wasn’t very exciting. Then we looked enviously at our driver who had ordered a "meal" and had been given a wonderful
variety of delicious food for about 70p. We decided we should order a "meal" next time. (We now know a “meal” is a Thali).
As we wound our way slowly into the hills the scenery changed from coconuts trees to more jungle-type trees and it became distinctly cooler. Wild monkeys appeared at the roadside and did cute and amusing things for food.
Hotel Deshadan is about 1700m up in the mountains (in fact the highest resort hotel in Kerala) and our room, though very damp, had spectacular views across a valley. There were no concessions for western people here so I didn't have to worry about a bland set meal. In fact the buffet meal was fabulous. We had hot spicy soup followed by paneer jalfrezi, tarka dall, rice, roti and other tasty things I cannot remember the name of. The dessert was a delicious cardamom flavoured rice-like pudding which wasn't made of rice.
The hills here are alive with tea bushes so we had to visit a tea processing factory. Actually there is not a lot to tea processing it is basically picking, drying, crushing and packing. The process hasn't really changed in 150 years when it
Old and New
was started in Kerala by a Scot. And from what we saw, some the machines hadn't changed in 150 years either. We were given a free cup of tea which you would expect to be “the best tea I have ever tasted” but it wasn’t. It was cloyingly sweet, made with condensed milk and served from an urn!
The next visit was to a national park. We were not entirely sure why we were taken there but it was on the itinerary and the driver was sticking to the itinerary. Cars are not allowed in the park so you have to take a bus up the hill to the where the more (marginally) interesting part of the park starts. Unfortunately the queue for the bus was about 2 hours long. However our enterprising driver, praise be to him, somehow managed to get us to the head of the queue. It may have been because as foreigners our entrance fee is about 10 times more than Indians pay and that gives us the right to queue jump. Who knows, but anyway there are so few westerners we were a bit of a novelty. In fact when we eventually got to the park some people asked us if they could have their photo taken with us! The park was pretty unremarkable and the highlight was probably the wild goats, or maybe the bus stop. Or us!
After a great lunch (less than £10 for 4 of us) we stopped at a small dam. Again not impressive but everywhere watching and sometimes talking to the people is the highlight.
The previous night we had bought and drunk the few remaining bottles of beer the hotel had possessed so we thought we should buy a couple more for the coming evening (there is rarely a bar in an Indian hotel). We expected it would be easy enough to do but how wrong we were. We parked in a large town and walked to where the driver thought he knew where we could buy beer. However the one beer seller was not where he remembered so we were directed over a narrow dark bridge (it was pitch black by now) and into dark, rough back streets where the chilli hanging in the air caught in our throats and made us cough. And finally we found the beer shop: an open fronted establishment but with a sturdy grill keeping the rather desperate customers from the racks of liquor. They gave their money at one end and shuffled along the grill to be given their purchase at the other. It was all rather seedy. Still needs must and we came away clutching our 4 bottles of kingfisher beer.
And, as these things happen, when we got back to the hotel we had a phone call from reception inviting us to a Diwali barbeque with lots of.........beer. So we went and had some jolly nice food, drank their beer and watched the younger members of the hotel staff put on the most dangerous fireworks display I have seen in a long time. Great fun!
A day in the hills. The scenery is amazingly beautiful. The manicured carpet of tea plantations gave way to forests of cardamom trees. The newly built road was very smooth and made the journey quick, quiet and very enjoyable. We had another great lunch of biryani which seems to be a favourite in this area. After lunch we visited a spice garden in a beautiful valley and it was fascinating to see all the spices we are familiar with growing in their natural habitat. There were pepper corns, cinnamon (bark of a tree), allspice (just one plant, many flavours), cardamom and so on. There were also huge spiders in huge webs. We were advised to keep well away, which was pretty obvious, because the spiders have a nasty bite. At the end of the tour we had the mandatory sales pitch. We resisted the cure-all potions, including a guaranteed cure for baldness, but we did buy a carrier bag's worth of spices.
Our hotel on the edge of the jungle was fantastic. We had our own “house” in the grounds. The restaurant produced wonderful, fragrant and spicy food and I was in heaven working my way down the long buffet table. However the food was not to everyone’s taste because an American entry in the visitors’ book suggested they needed to provide oatmeal waffles for breakfast. These people really shouldn't travel outside North America!
I was awoken by very loud bird who screeched incessantly outside our window and I did my best to spot the noisy culprit but she proved very elusive. However I did see a very exotic bird with very long thin feathers which were longer than their body streaming out behind them. A beautiful sight but I never saw him again and in fact I didn’t see another bird as remotely exciting during the whole of the trip. It was my ornithological high point.
Elephants live in the area so we had to go for an elephant ride. Some years ago when I was younger (obviously) I took a camel ride which proved to be one of the most painful things I have ever done, voluntarily. I have to say the elephant ride was just as painful. My legs just don't open far enough it sit comfortably astride an elephant's broad back. Apart from the excruciating pain the ride was ok, but it was along a well trodden track along the edge of the forest so we really didn’t get the feeling of being intrepid explorers or fearless tiger hunters. I just grimaced and hung on. When I got off (and it couldn’t come too soon) I could not close my legs properly, however an immediate visit to an Ayurvedic (traditional Indian medicine) massage got them together and functioning reasonably well again
It was strange to see the communist hammer and sickle flag everywhere. The last time I saw the red flag in such numbers was in Soviet Russia in the 1970s. Unlike Soviet Russia, though, here they have to win democratic elections, which they did quite recently. However in Kerala it is not the hard-line and austere communism of the old Soviet Union. Private enterprise and individual initiative flourishes everywhere despite a bloated and intrusive beaurocracy.
Lunch was taken at a restaurant where again we were the only Europeans and the filling and delicious food cost us under £5. For four people!
As a rule we normally avoid any ethnic event which features singing or dancing, but for some reason we decided to see the Kathakali dancers (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kathakali )
Actually I think we went because it was deemed a “must see” and was included in the price of the trip.
When we arrived the two dancers, both men, were on the stage putting on their makeup. Whether there is no space in the small hall’s changing room or whether it's for our benefit I don't know, but it's a very interesting spectacle, particularly as one was orange and one was green. The seats filled up with families of Indians and most had at least 10 family members. In fact even when the play started large families continued to noisily stream in, shouting to each other, oblivious of the actors or the rest of the audience. The entertainment started with the compere, in English, announcing an emotion or action such as love or anger and the actor, in his fine costume, would act it out. Most of the acting seemed to consist of suggestive eyebrow raising and finger pointing. After this amazing and bizarre demonstration of the actor’s art(!) the play started. The god person strutted around, the evil demon women (played by a man) did her best to seduce the god and after an hour or more of more frantic eyebrow raising and finger pointing the god killed the demon. Or at least I think that is what happened.
Back in our hotel I had one of the best Indian meals I have ever had anywhere. No doubt. It was a buffet so I tried everything. I had small cauliflower florets cooked in crumbs with a lovely creamy sauce, crispy thin okra, vegetable jalfrezi curry, paneer curd cheese korma, dall, fragrant rice, chapati and spicey chutneys. There was also a lovely fish in coconut in an uttapan basket. So different and better than the majority of so called Indian restaurants in the UK. (Did you know that 90% of "Indian" restaurants in the UK are, in fact, Bangladeshi?)
I needed to change travellers’ cheques for rupees, even though we were hardly spending any, so our driver took us to the state bank in the town centre. We had heard about the efficiency, or lack of it, in Indian state organisations so we entered the bank through the very narrow entrance with interest. And we were not disappointed. Two young English back packers sat disconsolately at the foreign currency desk. They were told to wait 45 minutes while the clerk obtained the exchange rate, presumably by carrier pigeon, from head office. As much as we wanted to see the pigeon arrive, we decided to leave and try our luck elsewhere. Our driver (may his enemies fall at his feet in disarray) told us to follow him down an alley, up some stairs, round a corner and there was a normal bank! We had quick and immediate service and the exchange rate took 30 seconds to arrive by the modern marvel called the telephone. However we had to listen to the bank manager’s view on the water dispute between Kerala and the dastardly neighbouring state Tamil Nadhu, but it was worth it.
We stopped at a roadside stall and bought a coconut with a straw in it for a few pence. I can't say it was the best thing I had ever tasted and in fact I was glad I was sharing it and didn't have to drink a whole one, but it is something you have to do.
We reached our lakeside hotel after yet another 4 hour drive. It was a large splendid hotel sprawled amongst palm trees around man-made canals which fed into the lake. The rooms were well appointed and, most important, they were cool. However in the evening our friends returned to their room to find chewing gum stuck over their room keyhole. It seems the children of middle class Indians are every bit as badly behaved as ours can be. And they seem to treat staff particularly badly. Perhaps the caste system resurfacing in the young? Anyway, as ever the food presented in a huge buffet was delicious and varied, and while we ate we were treated to more ethnic dancing. Hurrah!
We had been told that whatever we do in Kerala, we simply must have a 24 hour trip on a rice boat. So that’s what we arranged. Rice boats were originally made to carry rice (!) and are barge sized, but now many have been converted to provide a trip with a difference to the many Indian and foreign tourists. And presumably it is more lucrative than carting rice around. At the front of the boat there is lovely spacious sitting and dining are, then two nice bedrooms with their own surprisingly large bathrooms and at the back is a kitchen and the sleeping quarters for the 3 crew. And, as ever, there is a public wash basin to wash your hands after eating because most Indians eat with their hands, or more precisely with their right hand. The boat was actually as good as we dared hope. Just imagine sitting in a polished wood open-sided lounge gently gliding through lakes and canals being served food and drinks. We set off across the huge lake to the canals on the other side and entered the forest. Houses and boats lined the shore and people went about their daily routine as we slipped by. It was magical. A breeze kept us just cool enough. If the boat stopped moving the heat was stifling. For lunch we moored with the front (or bows, I think) hard into the shore so it was like dining in a jungle. The chef had caught fish which we had with a variety of Keralan accompaniments. After lunch the cruise continued at its leisurely pace. We saw red and blue kingfishers, cormorants, eagles, egrets and lots of birds we don't know the name of. The sun set a beautiful red orange behind the heat haze.
The boat does not have air conditioning which, if I am being positive, gave us a very good idea of what it must be like for a normal Indian person in this climate i.e. bloody hot and stifling.(In fact a lovely receptionist from the last hotel who was born in hills inland complained that it was far too hot here in Kerala on the coast). The night was stiflingly hot but we didn’t want to open the windows because you never know what might fly in. We had a ceiling fan which wobbled and whined all night 5 ft directly above my groin. I hate to think what would have happened if it worked itself loose and fell on me, as it threatened to do. But amazingly I slept quite well and woke to beautiful morning.
We left the boat and set off to our next hotel which was, of course, 4 hours away. As we drove through the villages we saw many communist party meetings being held, or about to be held. So lots of red hammer and sickle flags and loudspeakers, which seem to go together. We were told that although they are the communist party, they are not really communists. A bit like the Labour party in the UK.
Almost as ubiquitous is Tata which is a huge commercial organisation with fingers in many pies from cars (including Jaguar) to tea to batteries to hotels, and may more. It is not, as far as I know, involved the funeral business which with a name like TaTa it should be.
While driving through the villages I realised that I had not seen a single badly dressed women nor one in western dress. We decided that Keralan women must be the most beautifully dressed women in world. Schoolgirls looked absolutely stunning. We could not see a single drab, badly dressed female anywhere. Even toothless old crones looked well dressed.
Traffic is chaotic and traffic rules are there to broken, particularly the rule about driving on the left (or was it right, it is hard to know). The middle of the road is open for anyone. We saw, right in front of us, what happens when two motorcyclists decide at the same time to claim the middle of the road. Not surprisingly they crash into each other and get tangled up. Fortunately neither driver (un-helmeted of course) was badly hurt so they angrily shouted at each other until they could untangle themselves. Meanwhile the traffic was being held up behind them and tooted their horns impatiently. I could understand why 130,000 people die on the roads of India every year.
We drove into the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadhu and immediately noticed more poverty and beggars. We were advised not to give money to the beggars so we generally didn’t. Apparently it encourages them. We stopped at a very colourful and very local fruit and veg market in a town. Again we were the only western people but we were left alone to wander amongst the colourful women. Some sellers had very few items to sell, for example one had just two turnips (they looked like turnips) to sell. Or perhaps she had sold 200 and these were the last 2, but I doubt it. Anyway, she was nicely dressed.
We were visiting a palace, and at the entrance we had to take our shoes off and leave them in a shed, then make our way, painfully, across the gravel courtyard, to the royal rooms. The wooden palace was built in the 16th century but has been recently renovated. It was designed to impress the king’s subjects and visitors and to keep the king cool, and apparently it did both admirably. A group of children were visiting at the same time as us, but they seemed to be more interested in us than the building. One of our expectations of India was that we would be hassled by children but all the children we encountered had just wanted to practise their English on us.
We continued on our journey and didn’t go to a temple where you MUST take your shirt off before entering which is a nice contrast to 99% of religious establishments in the rest of the world. India has rightly got a reputation for quirky or extreme religions such as this temple and we saw another example further on. A procession in the street was headed by a man suspended by hooks into his back. As the procession moved he swayed back and forth. Again, not something you see in Surrey.
Our destination was the very southernmost tip of India i.e. the pointed bit at the bottom. At the very end you have to get a ferry to a rocky outcrop which has yet another temple. The boat was in a poor state of repair and I must admit I did look for the possible exit routes should it decide to sink. We had life vests but I would not want to trust my life to one. We landed, took our shoes off again and took a quick walk round the temple and peered at the holy footprint impressed on the rock. I think footprint was stretching the imagination a bit but I thought it would be rude to be suggest to them it could be just natural erosion. Further round, when I was in the atmospheric meditation centre for peaceful thoughts, just about to attain a higher sense of awareness, when the curse of the mobile phone struck again. I was very glad it wasn’t mine.
We had another driver for the trip to Tamil Nadhu because our normal car is not yet licensed to travel out of Kerala. Unfortunately this driver is a bit more aggressive in his driving style and I ended the trip with jaw ache having clenched my teeth in fear the whole journey. And driving in the dark is even more terrifying than driving in daylight because pedestrians walk in the road in unlit streets. No wonder most of the 130,000 deaths a year are pedestrians. But we made it back safely.
This was the first day without a journey or a planned visit so we caught up with our reading. Morning was spent round the pool and then we went to the beach in the afternoon. As we walked to the beach we passed many local women making, it appeared, sandcastles but on closer inspections we discovered they were making piles of little fish which had been drying on the sand. The piles are then scooped into baskets, heaved onto the women’s heads and sold in the local villages. But surely the fish will be very sandy?
The sea was rough so swimming was out of the question. In fact it was difficult just to stand still in knee deep water. Furthermore the sea was full of bright blue jelly fish the size of footballs. We were assured they were safe but we didn't want to test the theory. Anyway I think being on a beach is vastly over-rated, especially if you can’t go into the sea. I was thinking this as I lay on an uncomfortable wooden sun lounger with 1/2 inch thick mattress with my head on a pillow made of a book, a shoe and my shirt. I couldn’t lie on my side because the lounger was too hard on my hips. I could only lie on by back and that makes it hard to read because you arms ache after a while. The sand was swarming with crabs and it was very hot. When I tried to doze someone would try and sell me a banana, drum, greeting card, shell, etc etc. Where is the fun? But I do like the sound of the sea.
"Oh dear there is a mistake on the tickets! They have me down as a male!" wailed the only female in our group. No, sweetheart, we are flying to Male, the capital of the Maldives. This, unfortunately, is a true story.
When we landed at Male we were treated with good and bad news. Bad news was that there was a strike at the resort we had originally booked. Good news was that we had been moved to a better resort which involved a sea plane journey which, if we had bought it separately, would have cost £300 each! We were also promised a bottle of wine, fruit and a free excursion to soften the disappointment. But actually we were delighted, especially with the seaplane ride.
Our small seaplane (just 15 passengers) flew us over a beautiful azure blue sea, dotted with small islands surrounded by turquoise reefs. I sat directly behind the pilots who were very relaxed and flew the plane in bare feet (apparently they are known as the “barefoot pilots”).
Our new resort covered the whole small island. Our rooms were spacious and cool with a semi-alfresco bathroom which had a cascade shower in open air (though still private of course). It was strange to be back in this ordered, un-chaotic world. We didn’t particularly like being surrounded by all the British, German, Russian, French, Italian holidaymakers who seemed to take enjoying themselves so very seriously. In fact we saw more smiles and laughter in the average Keralan street than in the resort. We also had trouble adjusting to the cost, for example a bottle of water in Kerala was 40p and in the resort was £4. Thankfully our meals were included in the price of the holiday.
Global warming is already a problem here as the sea rises, particularly as the highest mountain in the Maldives is only 2.4m high, On the beach in front of our room was a new 5ft high wall built to stop the surges which are becoming more frequent and damaging. It spoilt the view of the ocean but this wall, and no doubt others will need to be built, is vital for the very survival of the resorts.
The average day for us was breakfast, lie down snorkel, lie down, lunch, lie down, snorkel, lie down, dinner, bed. The barn-like bar and cabaret building had a whiff of Torremolinos about it, probably due to the fact that most people were on all-inclusive deals and were trying to get their value for money. There was also the whiff of tobacco smoke. The bar was tolerable for 30 minutes or so. And at £5 for a small beer, 30 minutes was all we wanted to stay. But these were small gripes which were more than made up for by the sand, sea, coconut palms and giant fruit bats, the size of seagulls which lived in a tree outside our room. But even better than that were the fish. We snorkeled out to where the reef plunges nearly vertically to the depths and here were the most amazing array of fish of all sizes and colours. Indescribable. So I won't.
We took a boat trip to search for, and then swim with, manta rays which are huge teabag shaped fish which can be 3m across. However as we headed to “Manta Point” where they congregate we were surrounded by 100s of dolphins who performed spins and jumps and somersaults just for us. Some swam just in front of the boat apparently enjoying the bow wave. It was fantastic and we thought that after this treat who cares if we don't see a manta ray? Which is just as well because we didn't! It seems the exuberant dolphins scare away the larger but more timid mantas. Nobody seemed to mind so we swam along a reef on a deserted island and saw a turtle.
As we left the island we reflected on what we thought of the Maldives. The place is lovely and would be even better without the tourists. The resort where we stayed gets all its clients from Europe and Russia who want sun and sand, inclusive drinks all the time and not much else. So the Maldives must be taking custom from Spain. How long they can keep doing it as the sea rises, I don't know, but I wouldn't mind returning in the future to see how they are faring. And to see manta rays.
Our Air India flight was due to go at 1.30 but as we sat in the departure lounge it was announced it would be delayed and we were to leave the departure lounge. Luckily we have access to a nice lounge with comfortable seats, food and coffee. We had already been in the airport for 4 hours but it could have been far worse, we said. But then the departure time changed to 8.30pm, which was now a delay of 7 hours. Then it was put back to 7.30am next day. Oh joy! We trooped down to baggage hall and were reunited with our luggage. Lots of milling around and then we were put on a water taxi to the town of Male and the joys of the Relax Inn. A nice meal then bed. We couldn't summon up the enthusiasm to explore the town, anyway we had to up at 3.30 am. I don't know who named it the Relax Inn but as we went to bed at 10 a very noisy concert started nearby, possibly on our balcony, and continued until 12.15. We might as well have gone to the concert! The bed was not very comfortable and the pillow was stuffed with turnips.
At 3am alarms went and we all dutifully got up and congregated in reception at 4am. The airport people finally turned up at 5. Back to the ferry but of course not everyone made it so more hanging around. Getting our multiple language group to go in the same direction at the same time was very much like herding cats. At least we knew the plane will not go without us. We eventually boarded the plane for the journey back to India for our connection to Dubai.
When you are told your plane can't fly and they need to get a spare part from somewhere else, you think the worst. Especially when the plane is old and you only had a few hours sleep the night before. Tension increased even more when the captain came into the cabin and was inspecting one of the doors right behind us. Anyway, it all went fine but I can't pretend I wasn't relieved when the plane landed.. And things got very much better when we were upgraded to business class for our 4 hour flight to Dubai with Emirates Airline.
I normally have trouble justifying paying the extra for business class but when you are sitting in it you wonder how you can travel any other way, especially when you are tired, as we were. The business class cabin was very spacious, in fact the seat in front of me was so far away it was actually quite hard to see the TV screen on the back of it, but this allows the seat to almost flatten out without worrying about your head being in the lap of the person behind. The food was good, the wine was excellent and the service was impeccable. It was a shame the journey was only 4 hours.
We shot through shiny, palatial Dubai airport and were whisked through wide hot streets surrounded by countless amazing buildings to our accommodation in Chelsea towers. Hotels can be very expensive so we were staying in apartments normally used for long stay visits but which can be taken for short trips. Four of us had a 3 bedroom flat complete with 4 bathrooms, fitted kitchen, lounge and dining room for only £40 per person per night.
I had heard many negative comments about Dubai but I quite liked it. In the evening we went to a reconstructed area of shops, cafes restaurants and canals. The size and quality of it was so impressive you could forgive it being a reconstruction. The European ex-pats, as always, can be a bit disagreeable but our Persian meal was delicious if a bit expensive. The view of the amazing Burj Al Arabia at night is unforgettable.
The creek area was where Dubai started as a small village before it started its phenomenal expansion in the 70s. The old area has been tastefully renovated and the souks really give a great feel of Arabia. Much more enjoyable than, for example, the aggressive souks of Morocco. Omani friends joined us on a trip round the creek and the fantastic new buildings contrasted with the many wooden fishing boats moored below them. The Dubai museum was fascinating and very well done. In the evening we had an Arabic meal accompanied by the house Lebanese wine of robust and challenging character (at £50 a bottle).
And so back to UK after a wonderful trip. The highlights were: Keralan food, beautifully dressed women, the Indian people generally and Maldavian fish.