An Indian Familymoon

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January 7th 2013
Published: January 8th 2013
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Well namaste to you all and as a brief introduction, this trip (well, the first half anyway) is a little different than our normal travels. First of all it has incorporated many more people – namely Jane’s family - parents Ann and Peter, brothers Jack and Tom, as well as Beth who married Tom but a few weeks ago - thus the moniker of the ‘familymoon’. Secondly, we are staying in surroundings that are generally a step or two up from our normal lodgings - envision some wonderfully restored colonial houses and even the odd palace. And thirdly, instead of braving broken down public buses and the like, we have been ferried around in our very own minibus (the ubiquitous ’Tempo Traveller’) complete with driver - namely the wonderful Dhinesh, all round nice guy and driver extraordinaire, as he weaves unflustered around heavily laden vegetable trucks, manic tuk-tuks and oncoming pilgrim buses festooned with garlands. And of course the odd cow.

As we arose to our first morning in India, we all piled on to the Traveller that would be our semi-home for the next fortnight. Our first destination was Mysore, home to a stunning palace and due to its wide streets, leafy surrounds and relatively fresh air, the up-and-coming retirement village of southern India. We spent our first afternoon wandering around the Maharaja’s Palace – an amazing and extravagant piece of architecture that rises majestically out of the city and contains more marbled and glamorous rooms and walkways than really seemed necessary. But when you’re the Maharaja I guess you get what you want, regardless of cost or trouble. At night, the palace comes to life with no fewer than 100 000 globes and we looked on admiringly as a wonderfully uniformed brass band rehashed Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Brittania with their finest pomp and ceremony.

For me however, the real highlight in Mysore were the markets – I’ve seen many a market over the years but this one was really something special. Besides the huge array of wonderful fresh fruit and veggies (including an entire section dedicated solely to the wonders of the simple banana) and the incredibly friendly traders, the markets were full of spices, oils, traditional paints and countless other items. And it was also obviously the first stop in town for flowers used for casual use, ceremonial decoration and other general blessings. And as you turned the corner into the relevant aisle you were confronted with tremendous piles of fresh, bright buds and were hit with a perfumed aroma that actually managed to mask some of the less desirable smells that had been lingering around. We straggled through the narrow aisles as people yelled, negotiated, bartered and cajoled for huge bags of fresh flowers and multi-coloured garlands, avoiding flying elbows and over-eager buyers.

Yet alas, as anyone who knows me is aware that I always manage to do something health-related to myself upon my travels, thus it was so again, although I was a little surprised to be among the walking wounded on day two. Fear not, it was nothing major – merely an infection in my elbow which rapidly spread up my left arm. Just a mild case of Mysore Arm. Sorry, couldn’t help myself…

With Doctor Peter on board, we pulled over to a roadside pharmacy but lacking in any sort of prescription, and inquired to the chemist about a possible treatment. I revealed my now rather red upper arm, the gentleman behind the counter glanced at it, smiled, wiggled his head and merely said “Nursing home.” Hmmm. I’m thinking he probably meant hospital and surely it wasn’t that serious. To be honest I didn’t really fancy spending the rest of my days watching the world go by with the old-age pensioners in suburban Mysore. Anyway, after politely declining his offer of alternative accommodation, he wobbled his head again, rummaged under the counter and happily provided me with a packet of antibiotics and a Kit Kat. Interestingly, the chocolate bar cost more than the drugs. Canny chemist.

The people here are really so wonderful – frequently pausing to say hello and smiling genuinely, while incorporating that little head wiggle. They are truly interested in where you are from, especially when you reply Australia and this gives them the gleefully seized upon opportunity to discuss that most popular Indian pastime - cricket. In most other Asian countries when you mention you are Australian, you invariably get an “Ah. Kangaroo,” accompanied by a hopping motion. Here it warrants an “Ah. Ricky Ponting,” followed by a well-timed cover drive. While in a museum yesterday, the curator came up and without even asking where I came from, proceeded to commiserate about the recent retirement of Mike Hussey from the Australian team. I was personally rather keen to keep looking at the amazing ancient artefacts all about me in the short time we had, but he was quite insistent that we discuss the relative merits of Indian and Australian batting averages over the past two decades.

Our next stop was Udagamandalam, or thankfully, Ooty for short, high up in the Nilgiris Mountains and possessing a much cooler and indeed pleasant climate. The British (never ones for suffering in intolerable heat, except for those peculiar reddish ones found on Australia’s beaches) obviously quite quickly adopted the area for their own as an escape from the much hotter plains and thus the town was nicknamed Snooty Ooty.

We were fortunate enough to have secured rooms in the Maharaja’s summer residence– the wonderful Fernhill Palace and we all wandered gob-smacked around our very own mini-residences - numerous palatial rooms decked out in Burmese teak and garnished with old artefacts and sepia photographs of royal parades, doe-eyed princesses and grand old men brandishing blunderbusses and standing astride the odd dead tiger.

We also happened to be there for New Year’s Eve – a celebration which incorporated a quite extravagant meal, including over forty dishes as well as the most spectacular food-carving ever seen, including whole bouquets of flowers carved from vegetables and whole pumpkins and watermelons transformed into incredible works of art (although we did notice that one of the pumpkins seemed to have a Santa Claus on its other side). The dining room also contained a massive replica of the Taj Mahal, however, the piece de resistance was the roast suckling pig which was apparently cooked inside before the pitiful carcass was strung up outside on a metal pole over an unlit spit in order to create the impression of a wood-fired extravaganza…

We were also blessed with not one, not two, but six DJs pumping out various dodgy Western house tunes and ‘interesting’ technofied remixes of Bollywood classics. Which probably wouldn’t have been so bad if the they turned the volume on their three stack speakers down considerably and if they perhaps had bothered to cater to their audience just a little bit better – namely bemused Westerners and a fairly older crowd of well-to-do Indians. However despite the thumping dance tunes, there was much laughter all round and the Kingfishers flowed late into the night.

After a beautiful ride on India’s last steam train down through the mountains, chugging through villages and peering down gaping ravines and along breath-taking valleys, a long and exhausting drive ensued as we crossed into the state of Kerala to the wonderfully restored house of Bugs (not his real name but a truncated version of an obviously much longer and complicated one), perched in the rice paddies and surrounded by beautiful little villages. Kerala is one of the richest and best educated states in all of India (indeed, the locals generally refuse to work in the fields themselves so face the need to import manual workers from neighbouring Tamil Nadu) and they are also rightly proud of their relative religious tolerance – temples sit next to mosques which sit next to churches and it seems that everyone generally seems to get along.

As expected, the food has been extensive and wonderful and the further south we’ve moved, the better it seems to become. Vegetarian for the most part and even for a fully-subscribed carnivore such as myself, it has been full of the most mouth-watering deliciousness meal after meal after meal. A myriad of lip-tingling curries, scrumptious dhals, delicious dosas and seasoned rices scooped up with freshly cooked rotis, papadams and naans.

While at Bugs’, we spent a day visiting a Brahmin village and wandering the little roads that weaved through the paddies, waving and chatting with locals. I even had a chance to pop in to a local school (literally four concrete pillars and a roof) where I was mobbed by scores of excited grade 6 boys who desperately wanted to shake my hand and again discuss the ins and outs of the Australian cricket team. It was truly wonderful to be out of the cities for a bit and to see a bit of the countryside and engage in a much slower pace of life.

And thus to Kochi. It was a fair drive past the bustling chaos of the suburbs of this large coastal city with its own commercial port and Naval base – the sign outside of the latter sported what I suppose is a quite reasonable military slogan of “Hit first. Hit hard. Keep Hitting”, to the lovely area of Fort Kochi. This area has long been the epicentre of the spice trade and both the Portuguese and the Dutch took turns at coddling up to the local Maharaja in order to secure trading rights over the last few centuries. Add to them the Jews, the Chinese and various other peoples and Cochin was one of the original multicultural melting pots.

Jane and I abandoned the rest of the family and spent a good eight hours wandering among the meandering little lanes through the areas of Fort Kochi, Mattancherry and Jew Town, the latter obviously named for the large Jewish population who resided there up until the creation of Israel at the same time as Indian independence whence they collectively moved westwards. There remains but eight Jews left and a most wonderful synagogue which is alas, apparently rarely used due the need for a minimum of ten men. The waterfront was a bustling, chaotic scene of traders collecting and distributing rice, chillies and spices and we allowed ourselves to get utterly and thoroughly lost in the back streets and canals. It was wonderful, waving to the kids and sort of chatting to the locals using a mixture of sign language and broken English and getting thoroughly charmed by their bright and genuine smiles.

While the blokes all look generally smart in their de rigeur long pants in the city and dhotis in the countryside, coupled with short sleeve collared shirt (and the fashion accessory of the 21st century Indian male is obviously a wonderfully luxuriant and well-formed moustache), it is the ladies who really catch the eye. Decked out in wonderfully bright and colourful saris they manage to maintain a certain glamorous sophistication no matter what they are doing – working, shopping, taking tea, hanging from the sides of buses or even knee-deep in the rice fields.

And that is that – halfway through the inaugural Indian familymoon. Tomorrow we head south for a couple of nights meandering around the backwaters of Kerala on our very own houseboat and then it’s eastwards to the temples of Madurai. May the familymoon continue…

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8th January 2013

Thank you
Hi Simon, Once again I am thoroughly enjoying reading about your travels. You make me feel as though I am there! I am very envious as I so love the contrast that is India and you describe that so well. Stay safe and enjoy the rest of your familymoon!
9th January 2013

Pink English Pom!
Hey Simon, Loving the beautiful lyrical writing, you have painted a clear picture in my mind of your adventures, the palaces and accommodation sounds incredible, and glad to hear your arm was nothing too serious! I only have one issue... The poms you write about being reddish on the beaches is just not true! I have avoided getting burnt so far and am very proud of myself!!! ;) Keep up the excellent entertaining blogs and safe travels x x
12th January 2013

Hey Harry! Cheers for that and I'll duly note you as the exception to the rule! Hope all is going well - see its quite warm back home. Off to Sri Lanka now (minus family) and some more adventures...speak soon.

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