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Published: April 5th 2012
As I write this I'm sitting in an internet cafe in Trivandrum, the capital of the Kerala region of India, and it's so hot I think I might melt!
We started our stint in Southern India with a quick flight from Delhi to Bangalore on the 14th March with 'Spicejet' (thankfully it did turn out to be a real airline!). Bangalore, or Bengaluru, though still a bustling Indian metropolis, is nowhere near as dirty, crowded or characterful as Delhi. It is also very much a city on the 'up', with huge billboards advertising expensive jewellery for the modern career woman and swanky new apartment blocks that promise not just a home but a whole lifestyle package. Building work is going on everywhere and a new overpass and metro network are under construction. Bangalore also feels very western with coffee shops and shopping malls around every corner - there was even a Marks and Spencer!
After a short stop in Bangalore we caught our second sleeper train to Hampi. After no less than 7 cities in just over 2 weeks, alighting from the train at 8 am and seeing the countryside was something of a relief. I remember there was a distinct smell when we arrived, which wasn't car fumes or rubbish for a change, but the aroma of lush vegetation and fresh air. Hampi is a small town famed for its beautiful temples and the ruins of the former Vijayanagara Empire. A world heritage site, the monuments of Hampi are beautiful, but more spectacular is the landscape surrounding it. Huge boulders the size of houses lay strewn about amid beautiful banana plantations and palm trees - it looks like a pre-historic eden. We spent 4 days soaking up the relaxed atmosphere of Hampi, wandering round the ruins, attempting a bit of yoga and sampling nearly every riverside cafe to escape the midday heat!
Another sleeper train saw us back in Bangalore before we took our final overnight journey on the amazing Indian railways down to Kochi in Kerala. We stayed for a couple of days in the Fort Cochin area, which is the old part of the city. Here you can see vestiges of Kochi's colonial past with beautiful Dutch-style buildings that lend more of a European feel than Indian. The beautiful Chinese fishing nets that line the shore hint at the history of this fishing port. It is only in the Matancherry area, or 'Jew Town' as it is also known, where spice shops and old warehouses, now converted into cafes and antique shops, line the streets that you can appreciate how important Kochi was in the spice trade.
From Kochi we caught a bus to Alleppey. Known as the 'Venice of the East' Alleppey is situated at the start of the amazing Keralan Backwaters, a series of natural and man-made lakes, canals and rivers lying parallel to the Arabian sea. Although our budget didn't quite stretch to hiring one of the magnificent house-boats, we did decide to take a punted canoe trip. Ambling along the backwaters was an amazing experience; all along the shore lie small villages, interspersed with palm trees and surrounded by paddy fields that stretch for miles. We saw people going about their daily business - women washing clothes in the river, children playing in the water and men skillfully building boats. Stopping at a riverside restaurant we were presented with the day's catch,which they cooked and served on a banana leaf with various curries and chutneys - so tasty!
From Alleppey we took the tourist ferry to the Ashram of the guru Amma, the 'hugging mother'. It was an 'interesting' experience. The peace and tranquility of the beach-side retreat was lovely and the programme of meditation and yoga appealing, but the deification of Amma by a lot of the people there I found a little strange. I had thought that a guru was more of a spiritual guide and teacher than a god, but that's really not what came across while we were there. We only stayed one night but it was really fascinating to see the place and we both got rather forceful but nevertheless loving hugs from Amma herself!
After an 'enlightening' experience at the Ashram we headed down to the beach town of Varkala. With a row of restaurants, shops and cafes strung out along a cliff that overlooks a beautiful beach below and the shimmering Arabian sea beyond, it is the perfect place to relax. And, apart from a couple of run-ins with lovely cockroaches, that's exactly what we did. We spent a relaxing few days hitting the beach, getting bashed up by the ridiculously strong waves and sampling the numerous beachside cafes.
After just over 5 weeks I can't believe we are leaving India. It is a country of contrasts, rich and poor, North and South, relaxed and hectic. I think we were lucky to see many different sides to India and, despite the ups and downs, I would definitely come back - there's so much more to see!
Next stop Sri Lanka!
Lots of love
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