India 2009 Part 7

17 Hours on the road

India; October 14th; Day 23; New Delhi

Woke up at 4.30 this morning all packed and ready to go on our marathon trip to Delhi. We are attempting to do it in one fell swoop and avoid a night in Rishikesh. We say farewell to our porters who amazingly have got up this early to help us get the bus loaded. I presume they will make an early start to get home. The bus leaves promptly at 5.

For the first couple of hours the road is unmade and therefore slow and bumpy. At about 8 we stopped somewhere alongside the Tehri Reservoir for a breakfast of toast and omelette. after plenty of ascents and descents on the winding road, and plenty of napping too, we arrive at Rishikesh about midday. Halfway to Haridwar we stop at the Midway Resort for lunch. We know this place from our last trip to India in 2005. We have our first meat for three weeks; Chicken Marsala … what else. More importantly we have our first beer for three weeks too. Nectar. Of course we have two pints as the first one disappeared quickly!

Now we are on the dusty plains for the dreary ride to Delhi. The roads are pretty terrible and the journey goes on and on and on. Our driver goes slower and slower. Delhi slowly gets closer but I doubt that we are doing much more than 25 kph. We stop somewhere for tea.

As it gets dark the world seems to get madder and the last hours into the city seem to drag and drag.

It’s after 10pm when we finally arrive after having dropped off the Cook and Maneesh at Himalayan Run and Trek. We meet Heera here, our guide from the Trek in 2005 but we are far to tired to say much more than hello.

Everyone is completely exhausted and irascible when we get to the hotel, especially me and all we can do is have a couple of beers before crashing out. I’m shattered. It was a horribly horrible day.

Arrival in Kerala

India; October 15th; Day 24; Ernakulam

We were up early at about 7 and went downstairs for breakfast. The people from Himalayan Run and Trek were arriving at about 8 to discuss our trip and to help us with the arrangements for the next part of our journey. Keith and I were going to Kerala for a couple of weeks whilst Jim, Adriana, Jan and James were going home. We were in New Delhi a couple of days early so we needed to re-arrange our flights.

Keith and I use the hotels internet to find out the flight details to Kochi (Cochin). It looks like we will have to pay again. The others will have to stay another night here before they can get a flight home. I think they just have to pay a surcharge. The Connaught Hotel staff are very friendly and we manage to find a flight that is leaving today about midday. It doesn’t leave us much time. We also manage to arrange to leave a bag here at the hotel which contains all the camping gear we wont require on the next leg. On our return to New Delhi we will have to come back here to pick it up before returning to the airport. This is a much better option than dragging it all around with us.

The Himalayan Run and Track team offer us a lift to the airport and we leave in a rush after saying our goodbyes to the others. It’s decided that we will discuss the consequences of the trek re-arrangements at a later date.

At the airport we manage to pick up our tickets for the flight and get through the usual palaver of the check-in and security. Keith loses his knife as he’d left it in his hand-luggage!

After an initial delay we eventually leave for the first hop to Mumbai. We spend an hour on the tarmac and then take-off for Kochi where we arrive about 5.30. The sun is just going down, but it’s still pleasantly warm.

We take a pre-paid taxi into Ernakulam and find that our first two choices of hotel are full! The taxi has dumped us off at the first one so we have to manhandle our luggage through town to find another. The staff at the Sealord Hotel are friendly and apologetic that they can’t fit us in and get on the phone to a neighbouring hotel. We taxi around to the SAAS Tower and check-in. After a quick shower we go back to the Sealord as it is one of the few places in town with a bar selling beer! We have dinner at the rooftop restaurant. The beers are great and the food is good too.

We crash out tired after a mad two days. At least we are here. All we have to do now is figure where to go and what to do!

Daytrip to Fort Kochi (Cochin)

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India; October 16th; Day 25; Ernakulam

Another early start start and after a coldish shower we have breakfast downstairs in the empty and cavernous dining room. very sweet banana pancakes as I recall. In the lobby we arrange for a big pile of laundry to be done. almost everything we have is still dirty from the Himalayan trip.

We stroll out into the town and find a scruffy tourist information place in the a bus station. Apart from a few day trips they can’t help us much. Apparently all the backwater stuff is organised from Aleppey which is further down the coast. We search for and find anther Tourist Information place but it too has nothing much to offer. Their is no doubt that they are trying to be helpful it’s just that aside from a few brochures they know next to nothing. This will turn out to be a feature of our time in Kerala. We do however have a Lonely Planet Guide to Kerala with us so we will see how useful it turns out to be.

Back at the hotel we read through some info in the book and Keith phones a place near Kottayam and books us in for two nights. At least we are getting out of this town tomorrow now all we have to do is think about today. It’s easy really as only one place springs to mind. We will go over the water to Fort Kochi and do the tourist thing.

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The ferry terminal is back out through the old bus station and past the first tourist shack. The ferry building itself is not too bad but no infrastructure has been built to get to it! We walk over a pile of rubble and jump a couple of ditches to get to it. Inside we see a timetable on the wall and a line of people queuing. Their is a separate line for women! We clamber into the broken old boat and chug across the limpid water to Kochi. It takes about 40 minutes.

When we disembark we walk towards the main part of the old town. Almost at once we find a restaurant that serves beer and seeing as it’s still a novelty for us we sit down and have a couple. the weather is warm but the sky is hazy.  The restaurant has a stall out front where they sell fresh fish. two huge blue lobsters are moving slowly on a bed of ice. A huge fresh water fish is swimming gloomily around a small tank. I fancy those lobsters though.

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Continuing our walk down the street we come across a small dock where the fishermen are unloading their catch. Huge blocks of ice are being put through a crusher on the back of a truck and the fish is being packed into crates. Along the street a row of tiny vendors are selling fish too.

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Where the seafront building give way to a promenade we come across the famous Chinese Nets. Almost every photograph of Kochi features these nets against the unset. The legend goes that the design of these nets was brought to this coast of India by fleet of the Chines Imperial Navy during the 15th C. Some historians believe that this armada circumnavigated the globe and discovered the Americas long before Cook and Columbus.

We watched these fishermen lower the shallow nets into the water. They are balanced by boulders tied to ropes. But when they haul them out again after a few minutes the catch was of a few paltry little fish only. Keith got roped into helping out a team on one of the nets and they asked for money after I’d taken a few shots. It’s possible that they make more money from tourism now and who can blame them?

On walking further down the shore we passed some fish selling stalls. In places the boys merely had a rug on the floor with the fish spread out. the novelty here was that you bought the fish from them and then they carried it to a local cafe and they cooked it up for you! We walked further down the promenade and then back to through a children’s park to find a row of shacks selling fish lunches. We stopped and had freshly grilled prawns and kalamari on the little tables outside on the pavement. We expected this place to be heaving with tourists but we didn’t see that many at all.

Our guide book noted a few museums to visit so we duly attempted to find them. Down a long empty street past some dilapidated villas we came to the Maritime Museum. It had a boat outside! It was lunch time. It was closed. The guard at the door made no sign that we could go inside anyway and it didn’t re-open for another hour. We didn’t wait.

We retraced our steps toward the main part of town and come across a schoolyard full of screaming kids. Beyond them was the entrance to the Indo-Portuguese Museum which was open. This part of India was ‘discovered’ by Vasco de Gama when he sailed he with a fleet of four ships in 1497. We would later travel to Kappad which is where he first landed in Kerala. The museum here was merely a collection of early Christian artefacts and really quite dull. It is alleged that Christianity was first brought to this coast by St. Thomas in 52AD. Certainly the Christian churches in Kerala are called Syrian Churches. The stuff in the museum though is related to the churches that the Portuguese built in the tears after Vasco de Gama. They must have been surprised to find Christians here already.

In the same grounds of the museum was the Bishops Palace where the Cardinal of Kochi resides. A couple of weeks later whilst we were in Tamil Nadu we read in the paper that the Cardinal had died.  The curator at the Palace noticing that we were wandering about invited us in to look at some of the rooms in the Palace. This was interesting. On one wall was a long list of the Cardinals of Kochi spanning five centuries.

After this we wandered back to the narrow streets of the old town and nosed around the tourist shops. I spent five minutes in an Internet Cafe but couldn’t deal with the dingy light and crappy keyboard. It was time for another beer and it was not easy to find. On one street we saw a tiny written sign which pointed down a scruffy side-alley. At the end of that was a small cafe. Inside we enquired after beer and the man led us through the cafe to a small garden out the back, We sat down and waited and he re-appeared five minutes later carrying a tray of tea-cups and a teapot. We looked bemused, but the teapot was actually full of cold beer and we were expected to drink it from the cups! Beer, all alcohol,  is still largely frowned upon and licences to sell it for the locals are still hard to come by. Our search for beer will become another theme of our journey through the south of India! When we emptied the teapot we ordered another couple of Kingfishers and this time he just left the bottles though he asked us to put them on the floor under the table so they’d be out of sight. The ubiquitous Kingfisher beer. It tastes great now after our three week abstinence but it wont be long before we are sick of it! Not enough to stop us searching for it and drinking it though.

We’ve done a lot of aimless wandering about today but the mission now is to find that first place where we had beer and see if the lobster is still available. We do and it is. At the restaurant we settle down and then change tables. I can’t quite remember why. Maybe it had no air-conditioning. In any case the meal was great and we enjoyed a couple of beers. Marvellous.

It wasn’t far then to walk back down to the ferry dock to get a late boat back to Ernakulam and from there the short walk back to the hotel.

Canoeing on the waterways

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India; October 17th; Day 26; Kottayam

We got up early this morning, packed, skipped breakfast and took an auto-rickshaw to a bus station. In the usual maelstrom and scrum we managed to determine which bus would take us to Kottayam and piled on. This was the first of many bus rides and it had all the required features. The overhead racks are too small for your luggage, the seats are hard and the windows are non-existent. Who needs windows in this heat? We were early so we had plenty of room at first but it soon got full as we went along.

After pushing through the traffic of Ernakulum the bus drove south on the main highway taking many detours into several small towns along the way. We had arranged with George, the proprietor of GK’s Home-stay a few kilometers outside Kottayam that he would meet us in town at the bus station and take us to his place. After a few hours traveling we arrived at a Kottayam bus station but could see no sign of him. As is usual the towns here have a number of bus stations, one of which is the one used by the State Bus Company and the others used bi various other operators. Keith got on the phone and George eventually found us and the three of us piled into his auto-rickshaw with our luggage (a tight fit!) for the short ride. After careering through the traffic in town we headed out into the country eventually crossing a footbridge over a canal and down a rutted path to reach the home-stay.

George’s homestay was by the riverbank and the lodgings were just down a small track at the back. The place had four separate rooms all joined together with a common veranda with a small garden in front. It looked out over a rice-paddy which was at the moment just a brown muddy field.

After our introductions and the usual formalities we settled down. We arranged to have some lunch and George came back for us a while later to take us to his house. All our meals would be taken in his house and generally George would sit down with and chat. Though he didn’t eat with us. We stayed three nights in the end after originally just booking for two, and we were the only guests whilst we were there. George lived with his wife, his mother and his father-in-law. His wife did all the home cooking for us and we were treated to Keralan cuisine at all times. George’s daughter was there too, home from university. he has a son too.

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When we’d finished lunch George showed us his canoe which was tied up in the canal opposite the house. It was a tradition style wooden boat a good 20ft long and he claimed a 100 years old. It was held together by brass rivets. It was a smart looking vessel but spoiled by having poor paddles, one of which was plastic. George offered to paddle us around the local waterways but we assured him that we were experienced paddlers and that we would be safe on our own. Fortunately he handed us a map of the local network of backwaters which would help us in our meanderings. at that point we decided that we’d relax in the afternoon and go for a paddle later when it had cooled off a bit.

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We passed away the sultry afternoon by sitting on the veranda and reading our books. If an occasional butterfly or dragonfly appeared then I’d get myself to take a photograph or two. We were also keeping an eye on the birds which were flitting about. The highlight of the afternoon came when a huge Monitor Lizard made an appearance. Although quite a drab brown colour it was about a metre long. It stealthily moved about the grass in front of us it’s forked tongue flicking. It used it’s feet to scrub up the dirt in places and seemed to be eating small insects. It crept about quite slowly and we watched it for a good half an hour before it ambled off into the undergrowth. It came to within a yard or two of and appeared quite oblivious. I wondered quite how good it’s eyesight was! George’s wife brought down a pot of tea in the afternoon.

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At 4pm we got ourselves together and prepared to try the canoe. We grabbed the paddles from the side of George’s place and settled ourselves in. I took the bow and the plastic paddle and Keith took the stern and wooden paddle. There was quite a distance between us! There’s not much flow in these backwaters and it was difficult to work out if it was flowing at all but we went in the direction that we assumed was downstream.

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We paddled slowly down the canal for about half an hour until we slipped under a bridge and took the right fork. Eventually we reached another bridge and a much larger canal. On the corner was a char shop where a group of men were taking tea. As the light was failing we decided to turn around here and paddled back the way we had come. On our way we passed sights that would become familiar to us as we spent several days in and around the waterways. We saw women washing clothes on the bank, we saw children splashing and playing in the water, we saw men fishing and we passed several other canoes moseying along. It was quiet and peaceful apart from the occasional motor-bike bumping along the track beside the water.

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As we returned so George came out to help us tie up. He was probably relieved that we had not got lost. At dinner that evening he told us a few tales about having to rescue guests who had lost their way in the complex network of canals. After dinner we relaxed and read again. George had supplied us with a couple of beers to drink as we whiled away the evening.

Paddling about the Waterways

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India; October 18th; Day 27; Kottayam

As usual we were up early. On our way to breakfast at 8 we saw a kingfisher on a power line and a butterfly on a weird lacy mushroom. At breakfast we were given fresh fruit and a coconut rice dish. We also had fresh coffee which George makes from his own coffee plants.

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Today we decided to do a longer paddle and we got ourselves on the water about 10am and didn’t return until after 1pm. With the map that George had hand-drawn for us we managed to do a circular route. After following our original route of yesterday we continued along the major canal to reach another junction. We would find out later that this is where we would need to come tomorrow to catch the public ferry for our trip to Aleppey. Today though we turned up another wide canal until we found a very small and narrow canal which would cut us back through above George’s place. It was obvious that not many people travelled this way as we were met by smiling glances from the women working on the banks and washing clothes in the river and by the laughter of the children. “Hello”, “How are you?” they would ask and then say “I’m fine, thank you” in reply. As if they’d learnt it by rote. “Where are you from?” would inevitably come next. From time to time some of the children would run down the bank and ask us for pens. We didn’t have pens but it’s clear that some of the tourists that do come here must bring a pocketful. In actual fact we didn’t see any other tourists in this part of the water-ways and only saw them on the rice boats on the larger canals and lakes. Apart from the locals going about their business we were the only loafers about.

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We were looking out for any wild-life and saw several types of butterflies and dragonflies. Numerous birds were about too. Kingfishers mostly. In the water we were astonished to disturb plenty of snakes. Every five minutes or so we would see a small, foot long, snake, swimming in the water along the bank. On one occasion we saw a larger snake, may be a yard long, attempting to slither out of the water onto the bank. The presence of so many snakes didn’t seem to deter the children that we saw playing and bathing in the water.

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At one point we were amazed to see a huge flock of ducks on the water apparently being shepherded by a man in a boat. They seemed to know what they were doing as they arrived at a bank and proceeded to leave the water in a steady line. Only a few stragglers needed to be encouraged. Apparently these ducks are farmed for eggs and not meat so we wouldn’t be getting duck for dinner. We came across this duck husbandry twice whilst out canoeing. At dinner we asked George about it and he tried to get us a duck egg for breakfast the next day, but didn’t!

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In the afternoon we lazed around again and did some reading. We probably washed out some clothes too and hung them out on the line. The Monitor Lizard made another appearance but didn’t give quite the same show as yesterday. I can’t properly recall if we did another canoe trip later that afternoon. It’s possible. We did however go for a walk around the area thinking we would see things differently from footpaths. George advised us on a route so that we would do a circular route and not lose our way. We almost did though as we found ourselves on the wrong side of a canal and had to walk quite a way to find a bridge so that we could cross over and find our way back. We were almost tempted to ask a local boatman if he would ferry us at one point. It was this evening that we got a good view of the fruit bats. As the sun comes down they emerge from their roosting sites to feed. They are large bats with an almost cartoon like shape as you watch them silhouetted against the sky. These are the largest bats I’ve ever seen. Occasionally we saw a dead one tangled up on a power line. It was amazing to see small flocks of them flapping overhead.

On our return we washed up and went up to George’s place for dinner. He was always interesting to talk to and tonight we were discussing our plans for tomorrow. Keith and I had thought about going on one of those large rice boats that ply the Keralan waterways. They are like small floating hotels, very popular with visiting tourists and therefore expensive. George’s suggestion was that we would get exactly the same experience if we travelled on the local ferries. Of course this would be a lot cheaper too. He told us that we could catch a ferry from very close to here and this would take us out across the lake to a small town on the other side. From there we could catch a bus into Aleppey, spend a few hours there and then catch a public boat all the way back across the lake and through the waterways to Kottayam. From there we could catch a bus back to George’s place. So that was sorted then. That first boat leaves at 8.30. Obviously we have decided to stay another night.

That evening we drank beers and read as usual.

Public Ferry to Alleppey

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India; October 19th; Day ; Kottayam

After breakfast George walks us down to the corner to point us in the right direction for the ferry stop. We follow a small canal and say hello to a few villagers along the way and a couple of children preparing for school. Joining a larger canal we cross over a bridge pass a temple, cross another bridge and arrive at the ferry stop. No-one else seems to be around. Shortly however the ferry makes an appearance and we watch as it is turned around using poles. All the customers then arrive from the surrounding houses and shops. It’s full of people apparently going to work and children going to school.

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As we proceed the boat stops from time to time to pick up more passengers and it’s soon quite full. When the ferry reaches the end of the canal and before it starts across the lake most of the schoolchildren disembark.

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The lake is huge and the shores are barely discernible in the distance. Small rafts of water-hyacinth float around us. We see our first view of the rice boats used as tourist boats as we cross the lake. In the middle of the lake we see some small fishing boats and are surprised to see some fishermen in the water. It’s apparently only a yard deep.

After a journey of two and a half hours the boat pulls into Muhamma and we disembark and start walking into town. It’s not far and we try and photograph some attractive yellow dragonflies to no avail along the way. Once in town we ask around to find out where the bus to Alleppey stops. At the main cross-roads we find a lot of people milling around and after a while we decide to take an auto-rickshaw instead.. We try waving some down but they are all busy. Eventually a local man points us on the direction of a taxi-rank and we get in one. As we turn the corner we stop and pick this fellow up and he shares the ride into town with us.

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At Alleppey (Alapuzha) we get dropped off and walk through the scruffy little place down to the docks. We want to ascertain the time and departure point of a public ferry back to Kottayam. After figuring that out we walk back into town. It’s not very enticing so we decide that we’ll go out to the beach. We wait futilely at a bus-stop and then jump another rickshaw. It’s only a short ride. The beach is a disappointment too. The beach itself is not bad but their is nothing around and it’s all a bit empty. The guide book advises us not to even think about going in the water.  In fact the whole time we are in Kerala we dare not go in the sea. It’s a great pity because with a bit of effort this would be a great spot.

After wandering around a little we decide to get some lunch. Three places are mentioned in the book; one is closed down, another doesn’t seem to have much in the way of a lunch menu and the third is a bit westernised. We choose the latter as the least worst. Actually the food is fine and we get chatting to a couple from the UK who are spending a few days here. I can’t imagine why. Fortunately they sell beers so all is not lost.

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Another short ride in a rickshaw delivers us back to the dock and we get a boat that leaves at about 2pm. It’s crowded with people and their shopping. The ferry leads out to the lake down a short canal where we see a whole string of the tourist rice boats of all shapes and sizes and levels of comfort. We pass many more as we come into the lake and as we sail into and along the broad canals. On the open decks of these boats we can see the guests enjoying drinks and relaxing. We pass several examples of the Syrian churches as we go and small boats ferrying goods about. The canals get narrower as we approach Kottayam and we go under several bridges which have to be raised by a fellow pulling on a rope.

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On arrival at Kottayam we find ourselves quite a way out of town. Only one thing to do; so we grab yet another rickshaw and get driven home. It’s not so straightforward though as our driver doesn’t read and asks another fellow to read George’s card. He;s not sure of the address either and we have to stop many times whilst he asks for directions, shows the card, discusses for a bit and finally moves on. We do eventually get close. At which point we abandon our transport a walk the last bit home. George is glad to see that we’ve made it!

After washing up we return for dinner. It’s chicken again, for the third night running, but as usual it’s cooked in a different, and Keralan, manner. We read and drink beer on the terrace as usual before retiring.