South India Adventure

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December 3rd 2011
Published: December 5th 2011
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The start to our south India adventure wasn’t the best. The flight was good and we landed on time in Mumbai, this is when the trouble started. New Zealand plus a handful of other countries like Finland, Japan and Luxemburg are now able to get Indian Visa’s on arrival. We thought this would make the entry nice and simple plus potentially avoid the long customs queue. I mean if it wasn’t going to be easier than getting a visa in the London embassy why give you the ‘benefit’ of obtaining a visa on arrival. This assumption proved to be horribly wrong. Initially we saw a small counter saying visa’s on arrival, however we were taken around to this little waiting area with a weary Japanese man and small family from Vietnam. We were instructed to sit, fill out a form and wait for an ‘interview’. We quickly discovered the Japanese guy had been there for an hour already. I will not go into the boring and illogical detail of what took place over the next 2.5hrs, yes 2.5hrs, but there maybe a letter written to someone about the farcical ‘process’. I do note that we had to complete the forms twice as we had not written neat enough for the fat guy in charge, although I have no idea who will be reading the forms. In addition the women in charge of the Immigration Bureau proceeded to count on her fingers how many days 2weeks was. Enough said! We left the terminal at 3am with blood pressures at an all time high. Of course our pre-arranged taxi to the hotel had not waited. The taxi we did manage to get decided to drive at a pace that was appropriate if there was bumper to bumper traffic; probably because he kept falling asleep .... So we cruised at a very leisurely pace through the deserted and dark streets of Mumbai down to Coloba on the Harbour. This trip is a classic example of flash-packing, and for the first week we are mainly ‘packing’. The hotel we checked into was in one of the mainly beautiful crumbling colonial buildings. The room was very basic and clean at a cost of £28 a night. We woke up a little late to take advantage of hot water, so it was a refreshing cold shower to start the day at 2pm that afternoon.

Our little hotel was only around 3 blocks away from the Taj Palace Hotel along leafy tree lined streets. We navigated our way past all the men selling extra large balloons, which in some cases were bigger than the seller themselves, towards the Gateway of India on the Harbours front. Interestingly it did appear there were more domestic tourists than foreign. After finding out where the boat left for the following days trip to Elephanta Island, we set out on a stroll past many of the famous landmarks from the colonial-era. This included the Police HQ, Prince of Wales Museum, Modern Art Gallery, Victoria Train Station, High Court and University. We then strolled around the buzzing Crawford Market area which was jam packed full of anything you could ever possibly need or want. We were wandering around the cloth market amongst the many women and girls pondering what to buy for the upcoming wedding in Goa when an old man said he could help with readymade items. He looked like a nice old fella so we decided to trust him and headed off along a busy street following him until we arrived at a shop. Funny enough I had actually been to this store when I was in Mumbai for work, I was taken here when I was seeing if I could get a dress made for Sarah’s wedding a couple of years back. It was perfect, so after trying on a couple of outfits I settled on an eclectic blue sparkly number with purple pants and shawl. We strolled back through the Oval Maidan and then did the highly tourist thing heading to Leopold’s Cafe for a snack and coke. Interestingly there were again more locals than foreign tourists. That evening we had a one of many great local spicy meals at a local cafe; on both evenings in Mumbai we tried to sample a few different vegetarian dishes.

The next morning we poked our noses in the Taj Palace Hotel which was very nicely done, including the outside terrace / pool area. We read they had taken the opportunity to renovate post the terrorist attacks. There was a little commotion outside as camouflage police vehicles flanked a bus which we later discovered was the West Indies cricket team starting a test match on Tuesday. We had a great breakfast at a European style place called Indigo, great coffee! We then managed to get on the 10am ferry to Elephanta Island, passing by some celebration flag waving and dancing band in the square in front of the Gateway to India. We immediately tried to get upstairs on the ferry and got asked for 10Rp, even though on the ticket in bright red letters it says ‘do not pay more to sit on the top’. On the ride out we could not see a thing given the thick low hanging smog, on the way back you could see the length of the peninsular which gave you a real feel for the size of the city. The water was horribly polluted with rubbish everywhere, including trails on the previous tide, very concerning for the ocean’s health. We also passed by an oil loading station, amazing you get this close really, and again horrid black smoke puffed from the top of the ships while dirty liquid gushed from the side. On arrival at the island there was a little kiddies train to take you ~1km to the start of the park, it was hot, but the train was a little unnecessary. We walked along the stall lined path and then up the hill which again was shoulder to shoulder with people selling all kinds of things in their stalls. The caves were created around AD350 – 750, and many of the large carvings are in a pretty good state. On each wall you had a carving of one of the gods and the cave itself had pillars through the centre which looked great. The other caves did have many carvings, just rooms and little temples. When we got back to the Gateway it was heaving with people, being Sunday there were a lot of people around. That afternoon we had decided to go to Malabar Hill, which is more of an exclusive neighbourhood and then spend the afternoon on Chowpatty Beach. The drive along the famous Marina Drive was good, the bay itself is a lovely moon crest shape lined with crumbling art-deco buildings. The Beach was nice however there weren’t really any cafes beach side they were across the other side of the 6 lane road, thus decided not to come back there. Our first stop was Banganga Tank which was called ‘most sacred and tranquil oases’ in the guide book. It is suppose to be the centre of the earth. It was far from a major site of the city; there was barely any water, probably more general human filth, stray dogs, temples were half falling down with a group of kids playing cricket around the edge. We didn’t stay long and were soon on the way to the ‘Hanging Gardens’, however there wasn’t a lot of hanging. It was more of a sculptor garden, it was full of families picnicking which was nice to see. We did manage to spy one of the more recent additions to the Mumbai skyline which is a house/skyscraper owned by a pair of Steel & Telecoms brothers. They’ve built a house for this family on stilts and it is the size of a small building, fantastic architecture. Rumour has it there are 6 people living there and with 600 staff; seems a little exaggerated however he has built a building/house so who knows. The heat was getting pretty intense up around the 36-38 mark, no were near the max it reaches during other times of the year. However we were starting to melt so high-tailed it to the Prince of Wales museum to stroll around under the fans for a while. There was some interesting carvings and paints from different parts of India.

We were up at 6.30am and out the door by 7am on Monday to beat the traffic up to see the Haji Ali Mosque which is situated about 200-300m along a causeway out to sea. It was really pretty with the white building against the slightly pink morning sky; however the smell was pretty horrendous. We were going to go to the Mahalaxmi Temple, but we were told it was not open until 10am (not really sure that was the case). So we then went on to the Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat which is where all the cities clothes are washed in giant concert troughs. Men were there bashing the saris, t-shirts, towels and much more against the sides of the troughs. The drive out and back was really interesting watching the city wake up. On returning we ended up sleeping for a few hours before heading back to Indigo for lunch and then jumping in a taxi to the airport, with an hilarious driver who wanted to take us on a tour of Bollywood stars houses or shopping before the airport. We went a different route back along a huge bridge which has been under construction for the last 10yrs joining the suburb of Banbra to the lower part of Mumbai. It is still under construction. We arrived at the newly extended domestic airport with plenty of time to spare and surprisingly it was calm and not very busy. So that was Mumbai. The city for me is really about the people, how they live and the workings of the city rather than any major sites per say. I think we managed to get a feel for the place and left feeling relaxed which I didn’t think would be possible given our arrival.

It was a short flight down to Goa, and we arrived to a bright red/pink sunset. Our first stop was at the hotel we shall return to post visiting Hampi, to drop one of our bags. We then continued on to a beach further down the coast which was closer to the train station as we were heading on the early morning train to Hampi scheduled for 7.15am. Our accommodation was beach side and cost less than £20, pretty rustic! That evening we had some of the local fare from a beachside restaurant listening to the waves lap ashore, nice. We were up early again to stroll along the beach with the stray dogs to meet our auto-rickshaw driver who safely whisked us to the train station. We stood with the other travellers heading for Hampi or further afield. The train we boarded at around 8am was going all the way to Kolkata and would arrive in just under 2 days time. Our journey would take only 7hrs. Many of the other passengers had sleeper class and for a second I worried I had bought the wrong tickets. But as it turned out we had AC with the less crowded cabin of 2AC, rather than what was sleeper; no AC and three layers. We joined an Austrian couple and another lady that had perched in our booth. After a little while she disembarked and we negotiated one of the lower bunks, which was in fact our seat, from the Austrian couple and managed to squeeze both of us on it for a little bit of a kip. I am sure the other people in the carriage wondered why one of us hadn’t jumped up to the top bunk. We only slept most of the way there because the window was tiny and extremely dirty so no really chance to watch the country size whizz by, it wasn’t much larger than an A1 size poster if that. We finally arrived a little weary around 3pm and jumped in an autoricshaw, about half way there we stopped and a young man from another autoricshaw jumped aboard. He turned out to be very annoying; he did keep telling us our guesthouse was on the other side of the river, in between trying to line us up for a tour the next day. I was fairly convinced we were in Hampi Bazaar area. In the end we had to get a little abrupt with him. Even more annoyingly was that he was right. On being dropped at a horrid little place with the same name as our guesthouse across the river he had the pleasure of yelling out ‘see I was right, it is across the river’, great. We wondered around the back streets of the Bazaar, which were a little unsavoury, just like the main street. So we decided best to head across the river in a long motorised boat. The other side was known as Virupapur Gaddi, and was a lot bigger and a heck of a lot nicer than Hampi Bazaar. Our room looked out across some rice fields, which sadly were mud as clearly had been picked for the season already. It was a quaint little place with a lovely swing bed/plank out front. That evening we had a lovely meal at the guesthouse the best bit being the divine cashew masala curry, which we had both evenings given the divine nature of the dish. We ended up sleeping in a little longer than anticipated given we spend most of the previous day dosing on the train. After grabbing a few bits and pieces from the Germany bakery we waited for the boat back across the river. As it turned out the boat only went when it was full to maximum capacity and interestingly even though there were two boats they only went one direction. So we watched one of the boats leave empty to cross the river to pick up people on the other side. Crazy but true, as Scott pointed out, probably the easiest way to make sure both teams got an equal amount of income. Or it was just pain illogical. A young man called Raju was our autoricshaw driver for the next 4hrs, we didn’t bother shopping around or negotiating. He offered what we thought was a pretty good deal. A 4 hour tour at 500Rp and 600 if we thought it was good. So what is Hampi? It is the ruins of a forgone empire dotted through a large valley that was strewn with giant rusty coloured boulders with the river meandering through, surrounded by palm trees, banana plantations and rice fields. It first started to be inhabited in the 1300’s and lasted for another 200 old years before being destroyed by some warring faction. In its hay day there were half a million people living in the complex. Many of the sites where beautifully restored, some were currently being restored and some were falling down and really just foundations; similar to some of the Roman ruins you see. We visited about 8 or so different sites, all different from the rest. The highlights for us was the Ganesha stone carving, the huge Virupaksha Temple (standing 50m tall), the pink carvings on what we were told was the Krishna temple, the carved black stone pillars in one temple, the cows wandering around one structure that was being restored and the final stop on our tour the Vittala Temple which included a 1km walk down ruined lined street inside housed wonderfully intricate sculptural work and stone chariot. The tall temple was still working and this where the local elephant lived and amusingly gave out blessings. This entailed handing over some money to be bopped on the head by his trunk. A few small kids didn’t take to kindly to this and either ran away before it happened or screamed in terror. The next morning we were up extremely early as we had to take the long way round to reach the 7.15am train, which of course showed up around 8am. The taxi journey that early in the morning, 5.30am, was interesting. There were lots of men by the side of the road waiting in a squat position, we figured to be picked up for work and/or using the bath room. One young fellow hadn’t quiet pulled up his trousers so we were mooned at around 5.45am. After the waiting on the platform we managed to jump on the wrong carriage however we were pleased we were on the train generally. There was a 15min wait here the smelly bathroom before tearing down the platform at the next station to board the correct carriage. The AC carriages are locked from the general carriages. Again we slept most of the way back to Goa.

Our hotel for the stay in Goa was lovely. Alila Daiwa Goa was fairly new the rooms were modern; we had an excellent view of the paddy fields and a bit of the sensationally big infinity pool. The ‘flash’ part of our holiday had started, yippee! After both having long hot showers in the wet room under the ‘rain’ setting we headed down the beach to the first of the 4 day wedding events of Brinda and Denis (a good friend of Scott’s from his days of living in NYC). As the sun was setting they played an Indian v Ireland football match on the sand with orange and green shirts made especially. That evening we enjoyed a great Indian style BBQ in the colourfully decorated garden area. Each different event was indeed different with different set-up and decorations. That evening was on the beach next to a huge bonfire listening to the Irish lads sing many a song. We got back to our hotel around 2am. The following morning was when I started having a masala dosa a day for breakfast. Which is a delightfully light crispy pancake with sautéed curried potatoes inside eaten with various chutney’s; my favourite being the spicy coconut. Next on the agenda was a Balinese massage, a bit odd being in India, however the hotel chain originated in Bali. I followed this up with a manicure and pedicure, which took forever; my feet were pretty bad though. Scott left before me to go down to getting ready for the ‘Indian Wedding’, which was a mix of Hindu and Sikh. They, like us, had been legally married in City Hall NYC a couple of weeks back. So they ended up having 3 weddings. All the boys were dressed very smartly in Indian garb; light blue tops and cream pants, the groom and his brother in cream. I met up with Scott when he was getting his red turban wrapped around his head and single rose presented. This wedding was really about the groom rather than the bride, especially since the groom arrived on elephant. It was highly amusing all the boys had to dance around the elephant and friends and family followed along behind as well. We walked down to the beach and up the beach to enter the hotel garden area, but before entering the hotel all the groomsmen had to dance for 10mins or so to the delight of the Russian tourists. Many of which were in bikinis or Speedos, I am sure that footage will be on You Tube. The ceremony was lovely with the background of the sunset. That evening we were treated to a fantastic India meal. We weren’t as late back to the hotel as the previous night. The following day was spent pool side before a quick run around at the gym and preparing for the ‘Irish wedding’. This was set in another garden and set up like you would expect any western wedding with an aisle and round tables, place settings and all. They had made up some fun vowels and following the ceremony we all lit large Chinese latten’s which floated into the nights sky (a few getting stuck in the palms). Brinda’s Dad was a little nervous given he owned the hotel! That evening we were treated to more western food which included BBQ lobster. Have to say it was the first time I have ever had lobster at a wedding. The following morning we woke a little late, checked out and wondered down to the Sunday brunch, the fourth and final event of the wedding. We lazed around the our hotel pool and then had a Michelin star experience at the hotel restaurant before heading to the overnight train down to Kerala which departed at around 10pm once we were tucked away in our 1st class private compartment. It was still pretty old and not done up for I suspect 20-30yrs, but it was spacious and had a larger window than the train to Hampi.

We arrived into Ernakulam Junction station around 11am and were soon whisked away by our waiting driver. The vehicle was a classic old car (a gleaming white Ambassador) and we were soon trundling through the streets towards Fort Cochin. You could visualise the colonial British Raj travelling in this fashion back in the day. We were staying 2 nights at a stunning colonial period place renovated beautifully with art work on every wall and in every corner called the Old Harbour Hotel. Our room was amazing (the Princess Suite) and was huge, including a covered veranda that offered views over the park towards the Harbour. The garden pool area was extremely tranquil and very pleasant. We spent both afternoons there and dinned in the lovely restaurant called 1788 (when the place was originally built) as musicians played traditional tunes pool side. It was very romantic and the food was excellent, lots of fresh seafood and lovely combinations of spices. We were both surprised by the quality of the local wine and sampled a few of them while in Kerala, not bad drops at all, however still a little pricey at around £18-20 per bottle. For the same quality at home you would probably pay around the £10-12 mark. Over dinner on the first evening the General Manager spoke to us about the strike planned for the next day. Other tourists were caught out by this a little and couldn’t travel onwards. Funny enough for people on flights or trains they attached a sign that said ‘Emergency’ and raced through the streets so as to get past the strikers. It was rather hot the next day but we decided to walk to the major sites so as not to be hassled by the many autoricshaw drivers. The big thing in this town was to take tourists to shops and extract money from the shop owner and the drivers were a pain in the butt yelling at you and following you for a bit if you walked anywhere. But because of the strike the streets were relatively quiet so good for easy walking with not much traffic racing by you. The walk took us over an extremely stinky canal and through a Muslim part of town. It was good fun watching the town go about its general activities. It took a little longer than expected to arrive at the first destination and as mentioned it was a very hot and humid day, so we were rather weary. The first stop was way better than expected; the Mattancherry Palace housed some fantastic Hindu murals that were in really good condition along with a display of old portraits and photos of the ruling family. We next made our way down to the Synagogue in Jew Town, popping in and out of shops. We had decided to buy a Ganesh statue (the Hindu god of good fortune) and had found one the previous day but wanted to check the general pricing of such items. We then started back towards the Fort area in the steaming heat but when we asked one driver for a lift he would not take us when we said no shops! The Fort area itself is lovely with crumbling old colonial residents and churches all along lush tree lined streets. It is a very pretty place. Before retiring to the pool Scott did some good negotiations to secure our mango wood statue at a fare value for all. It will be for the lounge corner which is decidedly bare at the moment. Next we picked up a little rocking elephant made form rose wood that will become a door stop into one of our rooms. Excellent! It was fun buying a few bits and pieces we don’t usually get anything on our travels but we had been considering a Ganesh since our trip to Sri Lanka and again when we were in Delhi and Bhutan. The next morning after bidding farewell to our lovely hotel we headed south towards the backwaters. We had booked a 4 day/3 night package from Malabar Escapes, who own not only the boat we would travel on but a number of boutique properties around Kerala. We disembarked at ‘Privacy’ which was a lovely place that had only 2 rooms. Once we had settled on the veranda lake side and thought about taking a photo of the cool statue I realised I had left our little snappy camera in the taxi, disaster! However Scott did point out this was probably the least worst place to leave it given the hotel uses this driver all the time. So we did get it back a few days later. Lucky we had taken our larger SLR camera so we weren’t without a camera on this section of our adventure. Our vessel called ‘Discovery’ was gorgeous, coloured turquoise green and very modern. The boat was all ours! It included a bedroom, bathroom, lounge and above a sun deck with loungers; not your traditional or typical houseboat cruising the backwaters. There were four staff on board, the driver, guide, waiter and what has to said was a chief not a mere cook. As we headed across Lake Vembanad Lake we were served one of the many lovely meals on this leg of the trip. Starting with a Greek salad, then a tasty fish cooked in banana leaf with coconut and many local spices followed by pineapple crumble. We reached the first canal by mid afternoon then spent the next 3 or so hours watching the local canal life. Large rice fields, brightly coloured houses, school children on the way home, long boats transporting building material and ferrying people across the river and churches and temples a plenty. At one point in the distance we saw a strange site of two guys in little boats and it looked like they were herding something in the water. As we got closer realised they were in fact herding a huge amount of ducks! Hilarious, I have never seen anything like it. At dust fell we parked up and then headed out to see a local temple it was a little further away than expected. And although pretty on the outside as rows and rows of candles were lit every evening, we were not allowed inside so could not see the statue to Krishna. That evening we enjoyed a candle lit dinner of grilled seafood followed by a stuffed banana and watched a huge electrical storm roll in, retiring below just before the taps of rain hit the deck. The following morning it was slightly overcast but bright and not raining, so we took breakfast on the deck. It was a short cruise before docking again and jumping on one of the long boats. Soon we were paddled down one of the smaller canals, no more than 5 meters or so wide. It was absolutely stunning, tropical jungle dripped over the canal and it was lined by all the ladies doing the washing. Some of the brightly coloured house backed on to the canal and some were very large properties, but most of them were very basic. We were pleasantly surprised that by and large the canal was very clean. There were lots of blue, yellow, red dragonflies buzzing around and kingfishers over head with the same array of colours on their breasts. We then hopped off and went to visit a local farm, mainly subsistence and the main product was a fish farm. We were to have a traditional lunch there but had arrived around 45mins too early. So there was a rather painful wait whereby every so often the guide would come back to us and show us odd things around the house. The food was lovely however Scott was slightly concerned about the hygiene, especially given we were expected to eat traditionally with our hands which we were both pretty bad at. The lady that cooked was pretty funny. She couldn’t speak a lick of English and was laughing and smiling at us the entire time and we ended up getting two servings of everything. That afternoon we headed back to the boat. The sun had come out so we were able to use the loungers for a wee while. We returned a different way than which lead us through extremely wide canals that almost looked man-made, with flooded paddy fields on either side. The boat entered the lake on the completely opposite side from where we had entered and we travelled near the lake edge back to the Hotel ‘Privacy’. On the canal and lake there were lovely floating lily weed type plants. They’re really pretty with pink flowers that opened late afternoon. There was a lot of it and we found out later that it grows extremely fast, doubling in size every 2 weeks. That evening we were able to stay ashore as there was no one at the property. One of the rooms was sensational. It was designed like a little temple with the bed on a platform, an outside shower and huge lounge area with an amazing sitting statue surrounded by a pond full of turtles. We enjoyed a couple of drinks on the deck that wrapped around the room before dinner lake side with flicking candles. This meal was again really really good. It started with a dish which is like vegetable tempura; we then had masala prawns, followed by a rich red gravy curry full of seafood on a lovely sweet pancake. The real kicker was desert of chocolate samosa floating in chocolate mango sauce. The next morning was lovely and the late water sparkled in the morning sun. We had breakfast on-board the boat as we headed across the lake to ‘Purity’ for our final night stay in Kerala and India. We bid our crew farewell and before we turned around they were racing back across the lake for the next trip. This property was again beautifully restored, appointed and decorated with lovely pieces of local art. The one strange thing they did at all properties and the boat was have a long introduction / check in process, whereby there was an extremely long period of sitting around making polite conversation wondering what the hell was going on. Luckily by the time we got to this destination we had sussed out what was going on. So after a short while we offered up our passports and then Scott asked which room was ours. This got the desired reaction of being shown to our room, which again was very modern, great art and views down to the lake. That afternoon we relaxed pool side before dinner. This was again lake side and another fantastic meal of grilled seafood. The next morning wasn’t the best weather, slightly overcast and the lake was actually a little choppy, so we were super lucky with the how the weather played while we have been in Kerala. And so we started our journey home. The taxi ride to the airport was a little painful, taking 2hrs and hitting a wee bit of traffic. Our statue got the once over going through security, but we were soon in the skies heading for Mumbai. We had around an 8hr layover in the city, but had found out that the Hyatt offer a package whereby you can use the gym, spa area and have dinner, so off we went for a run around and our last curry before heading home. We were slightly worried about immigration as the lady that was counting on her fingers had put down 1 less day than required given our flight departure time, which she had read and checked. The customs guy was a little flustered, walked off and we thought oh dear here we go again. He then wandered back, and asked ‘why are you late?’. Scott told him we weren’t and that his colleagues couldn’t count, he-he-he. After standing there a while and telling him our flight hasn’t changed and pointing out it was only 30mins past midnight and thus really not that ‘late’, he begrudgingly stamped our passports to exit the country. And so ended a fantastically relaxing, fun and tasty 2 weeks away and now back to winter.


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