A Travellerspoint blog

India

North India - The whistlestop tour of the golden triangle

Delhi, Agra (Taj Mahal) and Jaipur...from warmth to bitter cold and men who sells zips on trains!

See the itinerary of this trip, and details about each destination.

So with a heavy heart we left our friends in Goa...back to Margao train station to face the normal chaos we had grown accustomed to when travelling in India. Thankfully we already had our ticket but as soon as we arrived, we realised that our train was showing as 4 hours late...wounder!!!

Our attempts to get Dave onto our train were unsuccessful so we said goodbye to Dave who was on the next train after ours and agreed to meet up at the other end. Our train finally comes and we fight through the crowds, dodge the families with what looks like their entire worldly belongings set out on the platform and weave through the food hawkers and bundle ourselves onto our designated coach...and we're on! Phew! So far so good!

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Settled in our cabin this would be home for the next 28 hours...or maybe not! Somewhere along the route, I'm not sure at which point, it seemed that everyone knew that this 'express' train was no longer going to be doing much in the way of expressing itself to Delhi. I'm still flummoxed as to how they knew (as there was no announcement to say so) but they did; every Indian on that train knew though nobody could tell us how much of a delay we could expect! We had no idea how long this train journey would end up taking so we had no choice but to just accept that it will take as long as it takes!

Our train cabin 'roomies' were an older Indian couple, who spoke very little English so despite a couple of confused attempts at making chit chat, conversation was a little thin on the ground which was a real shame especially as this was becoming an epic journey! And in fact, come to think of it, they didn’t talk to each other all that often either, nor did they read a book or occupy themselves with anything. They simply sat and chilled, ate or slept. Staggering! They must have been bored to tears!

But come to think of it, in nearly every train journey we had taken in our time in India, it was very rare to see the locals entertaining themselves with books or papers. They seemed to have an amazing ability to just sit and be still no matter what length of journey!

As we headed further north, the landscape started to change. We noticed fields that reminded us of England and we noticed areas which had denser populations and families literally living next to the tracks in small one room houses, some of them in no more than a simple shack. As we got closer and closer to Delhi, we saw that people seemed to be dressed in heavier clothes; we knew that it was colder in the northern areas but nothing prepared us for the reality of it. By the time we were getting ready for our 2nd night’s sleep on the train, our cabin started to get really cold and we were rubbing our hands to keep warm (Dave was in a train just behind us and he said that the non AC train was even colder due to all the windows not shutting properly and him not having any blanket! He actually lost the feeling in his feet during his journey!).

We were about 30 hours into the journey and naturally by then we were starting to get a bit of cabin fever. Our eyes had gone blurry from hours upon hours reading of our books and we were running out of movie on the netbook (I think we'd have gone stir crazy without the movies!) ; even conversation was starting to running dry...we surely hadn’t got long to go now?!?!??
Time seemed to stand still for a long time, and after a 2nd night on the train, over 2000 miles covered, and if you count the initial 4 hour delay...it was nearly 40 hours later when we finally stepped off our train in Delhi!

We arrived into Delhi at about 7am as the day was just beginning. As we stepped off the train we were hit by the cold like a slap in the face! It was FREEZING!!! We were a few kilometers from where we needed to be so it was a taxi or a rickshaw ride away. With the cold biting away at us we were intent on getting a taxi with 4 doors to keep the cold at bay but it was not to be so we piled our backpacks into a little open sided rickshaw and braved the elements! It was a low point in our Indian rickshaw experiences to say the least! We had trousers on and long sleeved tops but nothing like what the temperatures required and still donning our flip flops the cold numbed our sad little exposed toes in minutes!

So got to the main bazaar street to where most of the backpacker hotels were and tried to find a room. Thankfully we found one without too much difficulty and to look at it was pure luxury compared to anything else we had stayed in in India, but like us it was not quite so equipped for the cold and didn’t have any heaters. Favouring a quality mattress and upmarket décor we simply decided that we would don some elaborous sleep wear at night. It was not a pretty sight I can tell you! (both of us opting to be fully clothed, me donning two pairs of trousers and hat and gloves to bed!). We soon warmed up and the joy of having a big and soft mattress made it all worthwhile!

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We had a couple of days in Delhi before we were due to meet up with Dave and Suza to head to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, which gave us time to apply for our tourist visa for Thailand so we spent our time taking in some sights around Connaught Square and doing some shopping. Being back in a bustling Indian city after such a long time in Goa was a rush to the senses and seeing the bustling market stalls and rickshaws flying past was like seeing an old friend (perhaps as we knew it was our last week in India it made us a little nostalgic too). People had warned us about Delhi saying it would be a shock, but for us it wasn’t so. I think once we had come through Mumbai back in September and seen many chaotic towns and cities along our travels, this was no big deal. In fact, parts of the city such as Connaught Square with grand colonial style buildings, expensive restaurants and the little park in the centre we really liked!

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Soon it was time to head to Agra. We agreed to try and get the 11:30am train from New Delhi train station and to meet Dave and Suza on the platform. We got there ready for the journey, wrapped up in as much clothing as possible. I felt a bit like a stuffed toy but determined not to let the cold dampen my excitement of seeing one of the wonders of the world. The journey wasn’t supposed to take too long but again once onboard we experienced delays and to make things worse, as we got closer to our destination, it got colder still. But we kept our spirits up as J and I spent the time getting acquainted with Suza.
As per the normal rule of thumb on the trains, we had a plethora of chai and coffee wallers coming up and down the train, people selling samosas, veg cutlets, biryani’s, crisps, biscuits, water, cans of coke, sprite….and even a few people trying to sell us zips. Yes, zips! A very niche market but these guys would have every size zip you could imagine! Not the whole zip though, just the bit that goes up and down. The zip man looked at each of us and pointed out any old looking zip on a jacket or bag and suggested that it needed replacing. 10 out of 10 for originality, but I didn’t see him make any sales, poor bloke!
We eventually rolled up at Agra in the afternoon, again the train having been delayed on route and we went in search of a room. We had heard that Agra wasn’t much to look at and as we walked through the town, we could see why. For a place which has such an amazing sight as the Taj Mahal, the surrounding town was a bit of a hole!

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The guest houses were also pretty basic and pretty cold too but we got something that was clean and with a hot shower though again we found that it was impossible to get a room with heating. It was getting so cold now that were wearing practically everything we could get on. Five layers of clothes and still the cold was getting through! We really couldn’t believe our bad luck and was astonished as to how cold it was. The restaurants were mainly outdoors but thankfully ours had a little fire lit to keep us warm when we ate and even better they had Galaxy branded hot chocolate which went down a treat! Result!

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We asked the locals if these temperatures were normal and they said that every year from during the first two weeks of Jan, they have a very cold spell after which time it goes back to reasonable temperatures where you can wear simply a t-shirt or shirt. It was just our luck that we were travelling the north from 5th to 11th Jan (or perhaps just terrible planning on our part)!

So that evening we kept it simple and decided that a rickshaw to our chosen restaurant would be all the wandering about we wanted to do. The restaurant was recommended in our guide book but a few kilometres away so it meant another freezing rickshaw ride! All four of us piled in (j up front with the driver) we headed off. As the rickshaw gained speed the wind really started coming in hard on our faces, coupled with the heavy blanket of mist which made visibility almost impossible; we started to wonder if this was such a good idea! Thankfully our rickshaw driver knew the roads like the back of his hand and got us there in one piece! And despite the numbness in our hands and feet, the trip was worth it as the food that night was really good and well worth going out of our way to get there.

That night it was a challenge to keep warm in bed and again wrapped up for the long cold night ahead! It was becoming a source of humour as we’d be once again donning our hats and gloves for bedtime!

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The next morning, hesitant that the fog and mist would make our visit to the Taj Mahal a disappointment, we decided to not go there too early and hope the skies would clear. Decked out in our multiple layers we took the short walk to the entrance. Looking around for where to purchase tickets, we discovered that the ticket office was some 2km up the road. Why they decided that was a good idea I’ll never know! So bemused, we all made the journey up the road to get our tickets. The only good thing of it being that it got the blood circulating and I think for a moment there I actually started to get some feeling back in my toes! Thankfully the way back was made easier by the free electric bus they had to ferry customers back to the gates and grateful for this small mercy we hopped on!

We agreed for a local guy to be our tour guide, a humorous chap who was quite likeable. Once through the gates, and the Taj was in view we saw that it was shrouded by mist, we were a little disappointed but our guide continued on giving us various snippets of interesting information such as:

  • The Taj Mahal was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, in the memory of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal after she died in childbirth with their 14th child.
  • Apart from being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Taj Mahal is one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
  • The Taj Mahal build costs in today’s money about US $100 million. It took 22 years and 22,000 people to complete. The grave of Mumtaz Mahal is located at the lower chamber, while the grave of Shah Jahan was added to it later.
  • Four minarets rising to a height of 162.5 feet surround the 213 feet high central dome.
  • The four minarets of the Taj Mahal were built at a 2-degree angle so that in the face of any natural calamity like earthquake the minarets surrounding the dome would not fall and destroy the dome but would fall away from it.

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By the time we walked halfway through the beautiful gardens of the Taj, the skies cleared up and before us was the glistening white structure in all its glory with beautiful blue skies behind it. Glimmering in the sun, it stopped us all in our tracks; amazed and in awe. This was certainly one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen and would totally recommend anyone to go and see it. Well worth the entrance fee!

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We felt glad we had made the effort to visit and afterwards while munching on some tasty samosas from a street vendor we headed to ‘Happy Day coffee Day’ shops (J's favourite coffee shop!) to get some tea and coffee to warm us up. It was just outside there that I bought a little key ring from a local boy who was making silly faces through the window, including his personal favourite pose the 'inside out eyelid pose'. That alone was worth a souvenir purchase!

With no time to loose (and no reason to stick around in Agra) it was back to the train station once again to get the train to Jaipur. Again, more delays (which was apparently due to the cold and mist) we stood on the cold platform while sun set. We waited on the platform, getting progressively colder as the minutes turned to hours; our hope and circulation draining away with each passing minute. We met another couple from Norway on the platform and befriended them. They had not long started their India journey and were somewhat shell shocked at their experience so far…a feeling I remember only too well when we first got to India! So we invited them to stick with us as we waited patiently and it chatting to them helped the time to pass. We also made friends with a little Indian girl of maybe 8 or 9 who was clearly a street child, giving her what sweets and snacks we had and any loose change. Wearing a raggedy dress and no shoes, she was upbeat and skipping about despite the bitter cold.

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Eventually our train did come and we hopped on and found a carriage and in the process met a lovely young Australian girl who was travelling solo. At only 18 years old I was impressed with her courage, but I suspected that it was more her sweetness and naivety which made it easier for her. With her tales of endless male attention and invites to drink chai and swap numbers we could see that it was water off a ducks back to her. We’d heard many a story from other lone female travellers about being harassed and groped and we worried about her and tried to warn her to be a little more cautious. Anyway for this trip, we all had each other which was good because a 4 hour journey turned into 6 and with the onset of night, the temperatures dropped again and we were huddled up to each other to try and keep warm. Everyone shared stories, played cards while also sharing snacks, spare jumpers, scarves and the sleeping bag which we draped across everyone. And as the night wore on and we got progressivley colder and more hungry, we realised that this was the first time we’d been on an Indian train but had seen no chai wallers or food wallers. It broke all the laws of Indian train transportation!!! Having had no dinner, we were all starving so when we pulled into a station, the lads all jumped off the train in a mad dash to find some sort of food for us. Not knowing how long they had, it was a race against time but they came back with an assortment of snacks for the group just as the train started to pull out of the station! They guys were legands that night! What should have been a miserable journey turned out to be a good laugh and one which we'll always remember fondly.

We arrived into Jaipur at about 3am and we all said our goodbyes to our Auzzie friend who was staying on. So me, J, Dave, Suza and our two new Norwegian friends made our way out of the train station. Opting to walk rather than get a rickshaw (not sure why we did that…I really don’t!) we started to walk towards the road which we read had a few hotels. The walk, though not really far felt much further, perhaps due to us being tired and cold; passed through the main highway. It was on this walk that I started to notice how many people were sleeping rough under the raised carriageway. Under the haze of the street lamps, there were a sea of sleeping bodies hidden underneath blankets and I was amazed at how many people were there, young and old and over the two days that we spent in Jaipur this was something I saw again in street doorways and pavements. I asked a local rickshaw driver why this was, and he said that people from the surrounding poor farms, come to Jaipur hoping to find work but many are forced to sleep rough as they have no-where else to go. It was sad to see and something which stuck with me about Jaipur.

On a happier note, it was Dave’s birthday while we were there and we planned on spending our day doing some sight-seeing followed by dinner in the revolving restaurant that evening. We met up for breakfast at the local ‘Happy Day Coffee and made plans for the day. It was here that we met a local guide who was more than a little charismatic! He offered to show us around in his rickshaw for the afternoon for a reasonable price and despite the aroma of booze on his breath (I know…perhaps this is a bad idea!?!) , we agreed to take a chance on it and see what the amusing man could show us.
His first job for him was to take us to a good restaurant for the birthday boy’s birthday lunch, and on route he stopped off to buy Dave some birthday flowers! How kind!

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His first task started off well as we dined on some very tasty food in a very pleasant looking restaurant, toasting to Dave's birthday, munching on some very nice tandoori chicken and rice. That said, just as we were finishing up, our drunk guide staggered into the dining room smoking a cigarette much to the annoyance of the restaurant manager. Stinking of booze and smoking out the restaurant, we suggested he should extinguish it, and he did….right in the mint dip on our table. Shocked and nearly speechless we realised that he was not just drunk but rude too! Embarrassed and bemused, we told him to wait outside before he caused any more trouble. Back in the rickshaw, we wondered if we should cut this guy loose; and by the time we got to the pink city, his drunken slurring and pushy ways were really starting to becoming too much to we said a curt goodbye there...with him behind us slurring something about "f**king tourists!" I guess there was no love lost there! As J put it, there is only one word for that guy….”RAGGO!”

With him out of the way, we could start to enjoy our day and took a slow walk round the pink city and into the palace grounds. The streets of Jaipur were hectic and somewhat in your face, but as we got closer to the palace everything became much calmer and even more so once in the palace grounds. It was outside the palace that was saw a snake charmer; the one and only time we had seen one in the four months we had spent in India! The rest of the afternoon was spent strolling through the palace grounds, enjoying the peace and serenity.

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The evening arrangements were to head to the well-known revolving restaurant near by. Me and J headed there via the coffee shop where we had a chocolate birthday cake reserved for Dave’s birthday. We arrived at the restaurant and went to the bar to wait for the others, where we enjoyed some cocktails and masala peanuts (and Dave and J favourite appetizer). The meal in the restaurant was really great. A totally veggie place that did really tasty dishes, with night views over the city and an in house band playing, it was a great setting. The band played an Indian happy birthday song for Dave and the restaurant staff brought out the cake with a candle lit on top. A nice touch for his birthday meal!

With a new dawn, it was time to get back on the road once more. We said goodbye to Dave and Suza and headed back to the train station for our final Indian train journey. I would like to say that it was on time, but yet again it wasn’t (it turned out that a strike as well as the cold front was the cause of all these recent train delays; which made sense as the previous 4 months train travel had been pretty much on schedule) and so because we had a flight to Thailand to catch the following day we decided to scrap the train and get a bus to Delhi instead. Pushing past the masses in the train station, we saw the counter for the refunds and the people in a scrum to get to the front. Never one to find an orderly queue in India, the only way to get service is to adopt the attitude, 'when in Rome, do as Romans do'. So we waded through and pushed and shoved and elbowed our way along with everyone else fighting to get service at the counter. Madness! It was in this scrum/queue that J was told by a local that he didn’t have a right to be at the front of the so called queue because he wasn’t Indian! Determined not to be put off, J stood his ground and we managed to get our refund. The good news is that the bus we got left on time and got to Delhi in reasonable time and in the process we didn’t freeze to death so we were two happy bunnies!

Even in the airport the following day, we witnessed the funny ways of Indian people. Waiting in a queue (a proper queue, one person in front of another) in WH Smiths (yes they do have them in Delhi airport!), we saw an Indian guy look at the queue, and then look at the cashiers. Then deciding that the queue didn’t apply to him, he just jumped to the nearest cashier and tried to pay. It was hilarious to watch as he was promptly told by the cashier to get to the back of the queue. He looking totally confused and bemused but not deterred, he decided to just try another cashier and then another, before eventually admitting defeat and joining the back of the queue! It was like watching a fish out of water and made us laugh as our parting observation of India!

Our 4 months in India had come to an end. It had flown by and it brought with it a myriad of experiences and memories, good and bad but most definitely worth taking time out to explore. A country of contrasts is the best way to describe India, with so many situations you could easily discover a world of opposites…the contrasts of wealth and poverty living together in Mumbai, politeness and generosity of the lovely families we met on the trains compared to the rudeness of the scamming rickshaw drivers in Mysore, the serene peaceful beauty of the Keralan backwaters and unbearable noise pollution of the chorus of horns honking main towns and cities; honesty and corruption living in apparent harmony everywhere we went; the examples are endless. India is a place where you go to discover their culture, good and bad, like it or lump it; and despite the challenges that we faced we look back with smiles, remember the funny stories that shaped our journey and are glad we experienced it all.

Posted by Eveness 09:13 Archived in India Tagged train delhi jaipur taj_mahal agra cold rickshaw tour_guide snake_charmer Comments (0)

Goa - the return!

Chilling out, fun times, drunken times and great new friends!

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Back to the beaches of Goa…and what a fun 7 weeks we had there! One of the highlights of our time in India!

So after we finished our route in Kerala, we made the decision to slow down a bit in search of rest and relaxation and to also avoid the typhoon that had hit the Bay of Bengal and affected pretty much the whole of the east coast. We made the 18 hour journey back to south Goa via an overnighter to Mangalore in Karnataka and then a few days stop at Gokarna (Kudley beach) and then onwards south Goa for Palolem beach. We had already planned to head back to Goa to meet our friend Dave (who had been traveling the north of India and Nepal) for Christmas and new years, so we figured we’d come back a bit sooner to avoid the typhoon and rest our tired legs!

Being back in Goa was so good, no really it was! As much as the diverse and interesting sights we had experienced in Karnataka and Kerala was fulfilling, we discovered that traveling India was at times very tiring and sometimes frustrating and after two full months on the road we figured it was a good opportunty to chill for a while. So we were glad to be back in a place where we could rest and escape the crazy noise poluted places we had been to. And it was quiet in Goa...apart from the occasional honking of the bread man with his old horn and over-sized bread basket balancing precariously on the back of his bike first thing in the morning! We knew that Goa would revive our spirits and nurture us back to traveling health and maybe along the way we would have a bit of a giggle.

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Palolem, had transformed since we had passed through there in October. The beachfront previously had just as few bars/restaurant had since filled up to cover nearly every gap along the palm fringed crescent bay with bamboo style bars and beach huts. It was so very different to the Palolem we has seen before but with that came a buzz to the place and we knew that this would be a great place to celebrate Christmas and new year.

The monsoons in India had dragged on longer than usual and when we arrived there were a few days of thunder storms dampening things in the afternoon. We watched from our balcony of our hotel the last of the storms and the biggest one by far. Dark clouds rolled in, the rain came down, instantly flooding the streets and the wind was blowing hard as we watched the beach empty and everyone running here and there to escape the downpour. The palm trees were swaying left and right, with large branches breaking off and crashing down on bikes, cars and huts. We watched as fork lightening lit up the afternoon skies and saw the chaos of a palm tree uproot and collapse onto one of the beach huts in front of us and the electricity lines literally explode at each pole all along the little beach road, dramatically bringing the lines down onto the roadside. Watching all that from the safety of our balcony, I have never been happier to be staying in a concrete build hotel in all my life!!! But despite the power outage that we inevitably had (not that power cuts were unusual in India!), and the local children skipping around the wires moments later, locals appeared out of nowhere within minutes to start putting the lines back up and power was restored in no time. I don't think I ever saw such efficiency in my whole time in India! That said, I doubt that these were put back in quite the same way that our telephone engineers back home would, but it seemed to work and everyone was happy!

As the sunshine eventually won the battle over rain, beach life in Palolem really started to get into it's groove. Out and about we soon got chatting to people and we met a bunch of guys in the nearby (and very tasty!) authentic Thai restaurant called Yum Yum Tom Tums. Ran by a Goan by the name of Joe and his partner Nok (who comes from Chaing Mai) this little place tucked just behind Rococo’s on the south side of the beach place is Palolem's little gem (Nok’s Pad Thai is a real winner!). For us it was also a welcome change from the Indian curries we had been eating pretty much every day since we’d arrived in India! It soon became a meeting place for many of the long term visitors and somewhere you could always get a great mojito!

It was in Yum Yum Tom Yum’s that we got to know Stuart, Graham, Paul and Jason who also often frequented the place and we’d join the big table at the back and a quick pad thai would turn into an all night affair with plenty of banter too! Most of the guys had been in Goa a while, some for a few weeks and some a few months or as in Jason case, a permanent Goa resident.

Stuart and J had a genius idea one day to organise our own full moon party on the coming Saturday night. Palolem was still pretty chilled out at this point in the season so this sounded like a great idea! Paul’s friend Jackie was also due to be visiting him on that day so we extended the invite to her also. The evening started off well with everyone at Yum Yum’s and hitting the beers with hopeful expectation of a good night!

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Everyone was on board for a big night and got the party started nice and early and by 10pm we went in search of some entertainment. We found it in the shape of a launch party for a beach bar by the name of ‘Neptune Point’, a bar that ordinarily would be a chilled out beach bar, but for this one night only was absolutely banging with some uplifting house music and a bar full of people having it large on dance floor! The hands in the air crowds reminded me of a 90's rave with sweat dripping, drinks spilling and tunes banging! It was the most happening thing this beach had seen in weeks and we couldn’t believe our luck and timing and quickly joined in on the party!

It was in here that we met a couple that was on a two week holiday, who were super friendly and as it turned out, super swingers (or so it came to light later on that night...no, not like that...they told us!) They could see that we were all in party mode so struck up conversation with us to see what we were celebrating. A strange but friendly couple with pretty intense and alternative ideas about life...it made for some interesting conversations to say the least...the weirdest one being the 'eye gazing' topic of conversation! (You had to be there!) Anyway, they stuck with us for the rest of the evening and we ended up in the infamous 24 hour bar on the beach (Silver Star), keen to keep the party going. I recall that at some point in the early hours the girl (Claire) declared that she had the urge to cartwheel along the beach saying how uplifting it was (that doesn’t happen every day, does it!) encouraging the rest of us to join in! OK so the guys didn’t seem so keen but in the middle of that heavy session, blurry eyed and devoid of better judgment it seemed like a good idea to me and Jackie so in the dead of the night under the light of the full moon on the beach in front of a late night bar you could see three women whooping and cheering away as they happily cartwheeled down the beach in unison. I can’t imagine how that would have looked to the bar full of people, I am just grateful that no-one thought to grab their camera! A bizarre but fun night for all and a great send off to the Stuart, Paul, Jackie and Graham who were due to leave India in the coming week or so.

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Things were chilled for a while and we hired out motor bike for a giggle (J wanted a big cruiser as the sought after Enfield Bullet rode like a tractor so we choose an Avenger) so you could often see me and J zooming about here and there, nipping up to the chilled out Patnam and Galgibaga beaches. We still hung out in Yum Yums and had a few good nights there; in particular the night when Marcus and Joe convinced me and J to get on the sesh. Before long, it all went a bit woo and a bit wah, Joe making shapes to the tunes in his head and Marcus falling of his chair and breaking it!

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A hilarious night which ended with me and J feeling pretty spangly watching the moon set (we'd watched many sun sets but this was our first moon set!).

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J on beach watching the moon set

The following week we met Scott and Lorraine (both from Birmingham!) who was staying in the room next to us. It wasn’t long before we we’re hanging out and sharing stories about travelling and Birmingham. Like most of the brummies’ we’ve met, Scott was top banana. On the level, well-travelled and a good laugh. Most of the time we were chilling on the beach, sipping cold beers, chucking the frisbee around and mucking about in the sea (human ring throwing with a giant inflatable ring was a good one!).

The finale of our time together ended in a silent disco called Silent Noise (where you have wireless headphones to hear the DJ’s playing – a clever way around the 10pm amplified music curfew) at Neptunes Point, (in between Palolem and Patnam beaches). These beach parties I’m sure about ten years ago would have been more of a hippy thing and less orgainised but this was the silent noise launch night for the season (a big event!) and it had to be done. We convinced Scottie and Loraine to come even though it was their last night and they were heading to the airport at the crack of dawn. It was an absolutely banging night and pretty much everyone in Palolem was there making shapes and having a top time! The Stanton Warriors were playing a DJ set and were on top form as well as Scottie who managed to spend most the night raving bare chest sweating like a nutter!

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A tip top night which ended about 6am with tired legs and full on crash and burn. We said our goodbyes on the night and we woke to a note from Scottie under the door which had some lovely farewell words and typical Scottie good humor! Hopefully a friend for life that guy and someone we’ll definitely link up with often. Happy Days!

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So with still a month to go before we would have to move on, we chilled out, spending our afternoons watching the sun set over at Patnam beach and Palolem beach, amusing ourselves with the increasing numbers of hawkers who would comb the beach looking for someone to buy their cheap jewlery, though we never grew tired of hearing the fruit seller on his slow but steady approach as he sang his happy song "Piiiiiinaaaaaaapple...cocooooooonut...papaaaaaaaaaya...waaaaaatermelooooon"!

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We eagerly awaited the arrival of our friend Dave who was at the time traveling around Nepal and north India. He soon made it to Goa and Dave’s first day there consisted of us getting down to the business of sharing a beer and exchanging our traveling stories. We hadn’t seen Dave in over a year since he had left the UK to travel so it was really nice to him and to compare our experiences of India. So with Dave’s arrival the build up to Christmas could officially begin and with that we found ourselves frequenting our usual haunts such as ‘The Nest’ (by far the best bar staff and best fillet steak in Goa!), Yum Yum's, Papillion (great Indian food) and Rococo’s (where we could normally find Jason and his sleepy giant bull mastiff hanging out).

Almost overnight we met a whole new group of people, including the lovely Merete (JB) and Camilla (frisky) from Denmark; as well as the guys...Pete (coco Pete), Sean (soups/sean the sheep) and their mate Tony (who had had such a dry sense of humour!)…all of which were from Birmingham! What a great group of people! We met JB and Frisky on the beach when Dave looking for a frisbee partner approached Camilla (Frisky got her nickname when she misheard me call her the ‘frisky girl’ instead of the frisbee girl and the name stuck from there!) We met Coco Pete through Nok (I think we met at the Alpha bar during one of their headphone parties when J was twisted and up for a late one and they walked me part of the way home...what gentlemen!). We had a laugh that night and though we discovered that we supported opposing football teams (Up the Villa!!!) or as Pete would say “right up em!” we formed a friendship from there!

Along with these great people, good old Bill (barnacle Bill!) from Iceland, another Nest regular who was never far away and always beaming from ear to ear with his famous happy smile as well as the musical guys who brought us many a good night of sing-alongs…Christabelle, Sandy and of course not forgetting Colin.

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Every night was a cause for celebration, the drunken jenga games, the hilarious song Pete would sing “no-one knows what it’s like….to be a baaaaad man, to be a saaaaaaad man….behind blue eyes”, Sean the soups amazing ability to dance in the early hours when the power of speech had gone and everyone was fading. Frisky’s unique facial expressions that expressed more than words ever could and JB’s fantastic and unforgettable rendition of the Jungle Book songs in Danish (hence the nickname JB!) were their trademarks as was J and Dave’s fascination with other peoples food. J coming in to grab the first bite of everyone’s food and Dave there to clean up any left overs (those hollow legs of his never seemingly got full!) Never a quiet moment and loads of funny memories!

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In between Christmas and New Years, a few of us decided to head into Margao for the day. Me, J, Sean, JB and Frisky jumped on the local bus and a normally dull journey turned into a giggle with lots of chat and banter and with the occasional famous Frisky expressions! With Indian music blaring out into the hot and stuffy bus and the bumpy roads making us hang on tight, it made for a fun journey (though we all left with sticky sweat patches from the humid bus ride…not a good look!) With the task of shopping done (though that was mainly me getting my netbook) we decided to take a break at the famous Longuinis restaurant in the town centre for some food and drinks.

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We spent a fair amount of time there, toasting with peach schnapps and beers and sharing stories about ourselves. It was nearly dusk and so we negotiated our taxi ride back into Palolem. The journey home was hilarious! With not enough seats in the taxi, we put J in the boot area and with his head popped up over the back seats we were ready to go! Already a little bit tipsy, we asked our taxi man to stop off at the local wine store for fresh beers for the 45 minute journey back which meant our little party mood could continue. In search of some entertainment we asked the taxi man to put on some his radio. He didn’t have a working radio so we instead we opted to sing some songs to pass the time. This was where we first heard JB’s rendition of the Jungle Book songs as well as her and Camilla’s joint versions of the classic songs! At the end of the journey, we all fell out of the taxi (J falling out of the boot!) laughing about the great day and funny journey home!

The run up to Christmas was great! Christmas Eve starting off with a great traditional roast dinner at Cheeky Chapatis followed by a full on beach party at 'Cosy Nook' with seriously great old skool tunes kicking out and everyone up dancing like no tomorrow! Everyone was on great form and was a fabulous way to start Christmas!

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And Christmas day itself started off in full swing with everyone donning their Santa hats and us all eating our Christmas dinner on the beach, sipping beers, champagne and the odd tipple of Baileys Irish cream (it wouldnt be Christmas without that now would it?!)

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I think one of the best memories from these few great weeks in Goa and the one that will last the longest for me is the evening of New Year’s Eve, when we all partied, danced, drank and sang until well into New Year’s Day. It was a fair old session...in fact it would be fair to say it got more than a little messy! We started off as per usual at The Nest with Mohan, Raj (the Raginator!) and the guys buzzing about super-efficient as always, making sure we all had drinks and always with a smile on their faces. With the evening underway, we found out that our friends Christabelle and Sandy were playing at the open mic night along the beach so we all headed up there to enjoy the music. A great way to start the night!

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We were all starting to feel a little bit merry by then (some more than others, hey J!) and yet the night was young! So blurry eyed and full of energy it was back to the Nest once again in preparation for the midnight countdown and fireworks! Just as the midnight countdown came around Pete came out of no-where with a massive box of fireworks hoisted on his shoulder shouting out “COME ON!!!!!”

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We lit the fireworks and as they ascended up they joined the hundreds of other that filled the skies all along the beach and we hugged and cheered the New Year in! With midnight under our belts we all stumbled over to the Alpha bar where they had an open-air DJ playing tunes until 4am. We took to the dance floor (and the stage!) and shook our funky asses like James Brown himself! You might think that this was the end of the night….oh no…as Pete with his famous phrases would say “one more; and we will continue!” we were on our way back to the Nest again to keep the party going! It must have been way past 4am and the Nest was still in party mode so we all piled in to the chill out area and Christabelle got on her guitar to sing us our favourite songs as we watched the dawn bring us the first glimpses of sunlight of 2011.

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A classic memory from the early hours of that morning was of Tony and J talking to a young Indian guy who woke for breakfast and got talking to the guys. This guy was on holiday with his friends and told J and Tony about his engagement to a young Indian girl. Baring in mind that we were still on the beer and pretty ruined by this point, Tony and J with completely straight faces and dead pan voices started to tell this poor guy that his life was over if he was to marry. That it was ''suicide'' in fact. "Don't do it mate" "Seriously..." He wasn’t sure if they were being serious or not but 15 minutes later the boys nearly had the poor guy convinced that getting married was a disastrous idea! I turned round to see Sean in fits laughing at the antics of Tony and J! I think he worked it out that his leg was being pulled but it was so funny to watch! At was at around this time that Colin (the other one, slightly nutty one) who as the early morning progressed was starting to act a little weird, and very wired; decided to jump up to grab the bamboo struts which supported the palm roof of the bar. Calling him down in fear of him hurting himself, he ignored us and then monkey barred his way up the A-frame and back down again to the other side! A very odd bloke if you ask me and for sure a surreal moment!

By the morning some slipped off to get some well-earned sleep while the rest still in the chill out area got into the ‘zone’ of Jimmy Hendrix and Led Zeplin, each of us nodding our heads through hazy bloodshot eyes in approval as ‘A whole lotta love’ was building and coming to its pinnacle (met with the unexpected blast of energy from Soupie Sean who got right into gear to shake it right there and then!). Proper legend…and a lasting snapshot memory that I’ll always have! Not that this would be the last burst of energy from the dancing Sean…oh no! Before long, sometime maybe around 12 noon (by which time the rest of us were pretty comatosed and little able to talk let alone move) the bar next door blasted out some crazy banging tunes to which Sean leapt up and really started to give it some welly! That was a classic Sean moment and one that stays with me as a classic NYE memory!

The Nest, which had firmly become our favourite hangout, had provided us with so many memories and laughs. With the adventures of the crazy people like annoying Clive, Crazy Dutch Pete (pictured below)

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...not to mention Wendy and Scottish Jackie; all of these characters and the funny things that happened there gave us the inspiration to rename The Nest as ‘The Cookoo’s Nest’ but the people who really stand out were the great people we spent time there with and who became our friends; and of course the amazing staff at The Nest who were always a good laugh and were always so friendly and accommodating.

Our 7 weeks in Goa came to an end on 4th Jan (As Pete would say "My name's Goff and I'm off!") when me, J and Dave woke early to an emotional goodbye with the gang (even Pete woke up early for that one!) and headed to the train station to start our 2000 mile train ride to Delhi. It was so sad to say goodbye to everyone; such great memories and great friendships forged during our time there, but promises of remaining in touch firmly made before we departed.

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Posted by Eveness 00:18 Archived in India Tagged beaches parties goa christmas drunk nye palolem the_nest Comments (3)

Karnataka

Hampi, Bangalore, Mysore, trains, transvestites, monkeys and bed bugs

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View Eve & J's Trip on Eveness's travel map.

So after our spell chilling in Goa, we decided it was high time that we slung our rucksacks on our backs and got on the road to see the 'real India'!

We had heard good reports about Hampi so decided that this would be our next stop on our travels. We booked sleeper on the train to keep things easy even though it was a day time journey as it was a bit of an early start and we wanted to option of chilling on our bunk if we felt like it. Its was a morning train and on arriving to Margao station we saw it was chaotic with everyone packed into the platforms. Locating our platform was a job in itself as with everyone we asked, we managed to get a different answer! Once we found out which platform we needed, we negotiated the crowds of people pushing and shoving (not an easy task with our rucksacks!). I thought that was the hard bit done but we had to work out which part of the very long platform to stand in for the coach we had booked. Again, we didn't manage to get a simple answer to this question and so when our train turned up the whole platform burst into a frenzied mass of people literally sprinting up and down in a bid to get on board! Wow...in the haze of an early start and not quite awake yet this was quite a shock to the system!!! So rucksacks on our backs we too joined in with the locals and ran like the wind taking no prisoners as we went! After a panicked scramble we found our coach and managed to get on to the train before it departed! Even though we made it onto the train, there was a scrum to get to everyone's seats with elbows and bags flying about. But as we discovered, once everyone had their seats located and were sat down, everyone was as polite as could be! In the midst of the scrum, we had found our bunks and couldn't help but laugh at the madness of the previous moments compared to the peaceful, cheerful smiles as we said hello to our fellow passengers!

Despite booking a sleeper, the reality was that on a day time train there is so much going on that sleeping wasn't really an option but the sleeper meant a little more space than the standard seats and comings and goings on the train kept us entertained for the whole seven hours with the various wallahs (sellers) walking up and down chanting in a deep voice their rythmic songs of "Chai..chai...coffee...chai" "Samosa, samosa, samosa" "Biscuits, chips, biscuits, chips"!!! And if the endless opportunities to buy food on the train wasn't enough, at nearly every station we stopped at, the train would be inundated with more food traders selling various food items through the windows to the passengers.

Our seats were next to a family who were doing a similar journey to us, and it seemed that they were well prepared for the trip with what looked like a picnic of various Indian foods to munch on. Pretty much the whole journey consisted of different food items being passed around the family members and they made generous offers to include us in this feast while asking questions about our travels. Compared to the scrum to get on the train, there was a real contrast to the openness and welcoming nature of the people on the train once everyone had settled.

Once we arrived at Hospet, which was about 13km away from Hampi. We grabbed a rickshaw and headed to the main bazaar area. We liked the buzz of the main town and decided to find a guest house. We had heard about the selection of guest houses across the river but we coundn't see a reason to get a boat to the other side of the river and to drag our rucksacks up the bank of the river towards the nearest guest house so we agreed to stay in the main bazaar area instead. That said, we soon worked out why most travellers do this short boat trip and its down to the lack of booze and meat in Hampi town. Because its a religious place, it was pure veg and tea total. I was sure that this would be no issue as we had fully expected many places in India to be like this....but after only two days I was suffering from meat withdrawal and J was feeling the burn with the lack of beer, How very sad! So yes, we did eventually cave in and ventured over the river for an afternoon just to sample the very things we were missing!

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Hampi

Aside from this, Hampi was lovely. The quirky main bazaar, the most temples you could ever imagine in such a small town with monkeys climbing the temples and surrounding buildings and just as amazing (if not more in J's eyes!) was the wonderful landscape of the area.

Temple in Hampi

Temple in Hampi

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The whole place was covered in these beautiful boulders, stacked on top of each other as if some giant had carefully placed each one there. Hiring a moped on the other side of the river gave us the best views as we explored the area.

Cheeky monkey at a local shop in Hampi

Cheeky monkey at a local shop in Hampi

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With the river flowing through the edge of the town we discovered the very cool Mango tree restaurant which overlooked the river. Good food and great views, though we discovered it was best to go there for lunch rather than dinner as after sunset the flying bugs really came out in droves!

Soon enough it was time to move on and our next stop was Bangalore city! That was an interesting journey! We decided to book a sleeper coach rather than a train as it was quicker and cheaper. We hadn't done a coach yet so we figured it would be fun. We should have known better as we had seen the terrible state of the roads in India. So as we settled in our bunk bed ready to sleep our way to Bangalore, we soon discovered that sleep isn't obtainable that easily on a coach. It was as if Michael Schomaker himself was driving the bus and when we hit a big pot hole or speed bump, it sent us high up into the air and nearly right out of our bunk! Literally hanging on to each other and anything that we could anchor ourselves to, we could do nothing but laugh as we buckaroo'd our way along. I'm not sure if the road got better or if we bumped out heads and passed out, but eventually we managed to sleep a little and woke up in Banglaore the next morning.

We knew that Bangalore was known for its big IT outsourcing and new found wealth amongst the young IT professionals there and so we were keen to see what kind of vibe the place had. We read that the city itself wasn't full of architectural sights but we took a couple of days to check it out. It was a good place to get stuff done (including paying a visit to the Canon service centre to fix the camera lens I clumsily dropped on the floor in Heathrow airport on our flight out to India!) and while we went about our business we discovered that Bangalore had a very western feel to it. The clothes shops were carrying international brands such as Adidas, Nike, Levis etc and there was of course the famous Mc Donalds and even KFC there! The bars and restaurants were often frequented by groups of young Indian people, both men and women, enjoying a beer or two. We had seen young women in a couple of bars in Mumbai but none since so this was an indication of how Bangalore seemed to be adopting real changes in attitudes towards women and socializing. We would also see young Indian couples, dressed in western style clothes walking along the street holding hands (which was the first time I had seen that).

We had a couple of days here and in the local paper (The Hindu) we found daily listings of various sports, arts and culture events happening in the city and so decided to check out a few things. We went to a rock climbing competition and saw how the young boys and girls had a real passion and talent for climbing (and there were some impressive climbs to be seen by kids as young as 5 or 6 years old!)

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We also found out about a music event called Shoonya which was a musical collaboration between Indian and African students in Bangalore. The event was to promote the integration of the African students who often find it difficult when they first arrive in India. It was an amazing night in which we heard a range from folk music, Carnatic and Hindustani music to West African rhythms. We heard for the first time the Kora — a 21-string harp-lute popular in West Africa. So beautifully delicate, this instrument was played by an African student who was in Banglaore to study his degree and was accompanied by an Indian lady who sang a traditional Indian song and in the background, the soft rhythm of an Indian drum. The guy on the drums was truly impressive and as the show came to a close the drums became louder and more intense as everyone on stage joined in to make the final performance go out with a big bang! A thoroughly enjoyable night!

We had also been invited to a night club by a couple of German girls we had met earlier that day and even managed to get on the guest list...but it was not to be. By the time the music performance was drawing to a close I realized that I was beginning to feel quite unwell so we changed our plans and headed back to grab some food before heading back to our hotel. Unfortunately I was deteriorating fast and food was not an option for me and we had to speed back. As soon as we got to our room it all went very very wrong! I wont say too much but it was a pretty bad bout of food poisoning and was very messy. Two days of back to back movies (how glad was I that we had booked a room with a TV!) and running back and forth to the loo. Actually, J was great at nursing me back to health, however his decision to try to feed me a masala dosa when I was still feeling a bit iffy was not a good one. I have not been able to look at one ever since!

Once I was back to health it was time to head out once more. We had heard good things about Mysore so we decided to head there...this time on the train, and this time on the very nice AC cooled seats (along with complimentary on board meals no less)! So off to a good start! We arrived in Mysore, expecting good things from what we had been hearing about the place but our first impression was not quite in sync with that. Aside from the very amusing sighting of a group of rather beefy looking sari wearing transvestites lunching together at a restaurant we were at (this, we discovered would be the first of many sari wearing tranny sightings!), and the very impressive palace in the centre of the city (which would be illuminated during festivals and sunday evenings, was really worth paying the entry fee for (entry fee Rs200 for foreigners and Rs20 for Indian), Mysore was not the place we had hoped it to be. (OK, this is the bit where I have a whinge, sorry!)

The first thing that hit us was the overwhelming noise (the mass honking of horns and crazed rickshaw drivers over taking, undertaking; pushing and shoving between cars) and the immediate presence of persistent rickshaw drivers mobbing us as we tried to leave our hotel, pressing their services upon us even when we made it very clear that we did not need a rickshaw! When we did need a rickshaw, negotiating a fair price was difficult enough but most drivers did no know where we would be asking to go to...it made getting a rickshaw a drawn out and slightly frustrating process. We also on one occasion had trouble actually getting the driver to take us to where we wanted to go (we wanted to check out Mysore's very famous wood carvings at the well known crafts emporium; but the driver was insistent that this pace was closed for refurbishment (and he knew of somewhere else he could take us...surprise surprise!). We knew that it wasn't closed, and a very stressed out conversation took place where he accused us of calling him a liar...which it turned out that he was by the way! We got there in the end, by asking another rickshaw driver but this was an exasperating process!

Our experience of Mysore was not helped buy the discovery by J that he had somehow broken out into a a collection of very dubious looking bites (that looked very like bed bugs!) which meant we had to change rooms (although to be fair to the hotel, they were very gracious and gave us a free upgrade to a deluxe room!) and hot wash our entire wardrobe; which meant a night of movies and room service as we waited for our clothes to dry! We're not sure if the bed bugs came from our time in Bangalore or Mysore but it was the final straw to swing our decision to leave in hope to find a more relaxed location.

Next stop, the state of Kerala!

Posted by Eveness 21:43 Archived in India Comments (0)

Kerala and a touch of Karnataka again (Oct-Nov 2010)

So goodbye Karnataka, hello Kerala!

With my bout of (explosive) food poisoning and the bed bug incident put behind us, we were good to go! We had gone back to Bangalore to sort out my broken camera lens (I clumsily dropped it while going through customs in Heathrow back in September) so we booked a train from Bangalore to Ernakulam (for Fort Cochin) in the neighbouring state of Kerala. We’d heard good things about Kerala and were looking forward to a change of scenery from a big city to the historical coastal port of Fort Cochin. We had learned that Kerala had the highest levels of literacy in the whole of India and had even democratically elected communist parties into power more than once in the last few decades. Though unusual, it was said that this had had a positive effect on the overall education, health and wealth of the Keralan people…it was time to find out for ourselves!

We took the overnight sleeper train (but this time upgraded to the AC carriage as we were hoping that we would find that there would be less cockroaches roaming around and the toilets might not be quiet so disturbing!). To be fair, in the most part that was true; however at the end of a long overnight train journey, going to the toilet was still an extreme sport!). Thank god for the sealed windows in AC, to keep flying insects at bay during sunset but it did little to help block out the bad smell that would drift though from the loos every time the train came to a stop at a station. Seriously, words cannot describe that smell!) And squatting on a moving train, that’s an art form if you ask me! But enough toilet talk…I think you get the picture!

As with many of the train trips we had taken, we found that the Indian people sharing the carriage with us were very friendly. (In the majority of the sleeper options you share with about 5-7 other people so you soon get used chatting to your new neighbours!) We shared our space with a young family and other than getting woken up to the sound of a Disney film blaring out of a laptop at 7am, the journey itself was pretty smooth. As we arrived at the train station in the morning, we met a young English travelelr who was heading to the fort area also so we all jumped in a rickshaw together. We hadn’t booked our accommodation ahead of our arrival so we had a look around and there seemed to be something in for every budget. We picked a modest but clean room in the heart of the town on Princes Street with a balcony overlooking the street outside. At Rs.400 (about 5.70 GBP) per night it was good value for money and very well located. The name of our new digs was ‘The Outback’, but fortunately it didn’t resemble anything from Oz apart from the name!

J chilling on the balcony of our room

J chilling on the balcony of our room

Fort Cochin is a very quaint colonial style historic port with plenty of charm; compared to the nearby local town of Ernakulam (which is like most Indian towns; chaotic & noisy) Cochin was a sight for sore eyes. The main harbour, famous for its export history from the days of the Raj was lined with its famous Chinese fishing nets and roadside fish market.

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The nearby streets were filled with aging yet colourfully painted and restored colonial buildings now serving as hotels, restaurants and craft shops. It was clear that Fort Cochin is now primarily geared up for the tourists but the people who lived and worked there were friendly and the food good so we were not complaining! Many of the restaurants did not have an alcohol licence so when we sought out a beer, it would be served up in a tea pot and mugs so as to conceal their contents! Top marks for a novel approach to the problem (though J never quite got his head round drinking beer out of a mug)!

View from our balcony - Fort Cochin

View from our balcony - Fort Cochin

We stayed for about 3 nights, all of which were pretty peaceful and relaxed. We spent time walking along the peaceful and quaint streets and the fishing bay (where they use the famous chinese fishing nets) as well as going to see a performance of Kalaripayattu, the oldest martial art form of Kerala in South India (over 2000 years old).

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At the end of which J asked if they would teach him some of the moves so up he went onto the stage to try his hand at it!

J trying his hand at Kalaripayattu

J trying his hand at Kalaripayattu

The local people seemed to live a very peaceful existence here too, many happy to make conversation and the school children leaving school to go home would swarm the streets riding on the back of rickshaws and scooters waving to us and other foreigners as they went by. With other places calling us we decided that to book a multi-stop trip with a driver to take us inland to the well known tea plantations in Munnar for two nights, then the national park in Periyar for two nights and then back out to the coastal town of Allapey where we would pick up a boat to coast along the famous Keralan backwaters.

Our onward journey began at 5am and we met our driver who was waiting outside our hotel, a friendly man though he wasnt much of a talker! We had a long drive ahead of us but on route we stopped off at a river side place where we had been told that a nearby Elephant sanctuary would be taking the elephants down to the river for their daily bath. We were not the only ones who knew about this daily ritual and there was about a dozen people gathered by the river bed waiting for the arrival of the elephants. We saw about four elephants come down the lane and one by one plunge into the water with their keepers riding up high on their shoulders. Seeing elephants in captivity was not ideal but it seemed to me that they enjoyed being scrubbed down by their keepers. It was a brief stop off and still groggy from our early start, we got back in our taxi and back on the road once more.

We arrived in Munnar by around lunch time. Munnar is an inland hill station famous for its tea plantations with its highest peak reaching around 2900 metres (Picture the town Stallone arrives in in Rambo, first blood with an Indian twist). The hills on the approach to the town we were to stay in were lush and green. The air was misty and cool and the feeling of the place was very different from the other places we had visited so far in India. Before we got to our accommodation we spent a few hours in the car exploring the local area. The drive from Munnar was amazing with endless fields of tea plantations disappearing into the distant hills, sweeping curving roads hugging the smooth soft lines of the green plantations.

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Tea plantations in Munnar

Tea plantations in Munnar

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As we climbed further up the hills, we saw the heavy white mist resting on the hill tops, creeping slowly over them like a blanket. The stillness and the beauty left us speechless as we climbed further up and over the peaks until we reached the ‘Top station’ which was the highest point on the highway and nearby to where a the Kurichi or Neelakurinji plant flowers only every 12 years (though unfortunately not this year!)

We dropped off our bags at our homestay and headed into town to do a scouting mission to the local town and to grab some lunch. We had been told by John who was our homestay host that the best local café which served the best food in Munnar was only a short walk away! It was a little place called Rapsey which was in the main bazaar in the centre of the local town. Serving simple but delicious food and boasting a packed visitor’s comment book, it certainly lived up to the hype! On the walk home, hoping to find somewhere to grab a beer we got chatting to a local police man who told us (OK, so we specifically asked him) that the one and only bar in Munnar was located up the hill at a big hotel (we were beginning to realise that the further away from the coast we got, the more difficult it was to get a pint!). So we decided that it would be rude not to at least take a look! Off we went, found the hotel…and the bar attached to the side (with its own separate entrance tucked away from the main hotel entrance). We walked in to find a dimly lit bar (with only 1 toilet just for men…do you think they are trying to say something???) and got ourselves a drink. It was quiet at first but the bar soon filled up, and it was then that I realised just how much I stood out as a woman…me being the only one there!

Thankfully a couple of Californian girls (sisters names Hilary & Alexis) came in which evened up the male to female ratio a little (they too had found about the one and only bar in town!) and joined our table. The drinks flowed and the laughs soon followed. We were having a really good time and getting along great with our new found friends, though we soon became aware that we were getting funny looks from the local Indian men who seemed to be somewhat unhappy that a table full of westerners (and I suspect in particular women) were having a good old drink and a laugh. We were approached by the bar manager and told that he had received a complaint about the loudness of our voices from one of the local men drinking at the bar (who was giving us very disapproving looks). We found this odd as there was a group of about 8 young Indian guys who were drinking and laughing much louder than anyone including us! I started to get the feeling that not everyone in the bar was so keen to see us in there and suspected the new influx of women didn’t help matters!

We finished up and headed back to our homestay named (Johns Homestay) where we got chatting to the owner, John who was a very gentile older Indian man who spoke the queens English perfectly and who was really welcoming. We got talking about the history of the area and asked him about how the local people felt about the British rule before India gained its independence in 1947. He recommended that we visit the local tea museum to learn about the history of the plantations to gain a good understanding of this. We took his good advice the very next day and learned that the Scottish pioneers in the 1870’s had discovered the climate was perfect for growing tea so began to turn the whole area into the tea plantations that still exist today. It seemed from what we were told the people of Munnar saw positive change that resulted in the foundation of the plantations. Schools, hospitals, roads and trains amongst other essential facilities were introduced for the workers and their families during this time as well as more work opportunities than the local population could cater for (and as such people were recruited from Tamil Nadu to fill all the jobs). After independence in 1947, the plantations were transferred into Indian hands and since then, it has given shares to each and every member of staff that works in the fields every day. We had come to Munnar expecting to hear stories of British rule in a negative light but it turned out to be the opposite.

Our short stay had come to an end and it was time move on to our next stop Periyar, a few hours drive away where there is a big national park and we made our way there hopeful to spend time seeing some of the amazing wild animals India boasts such as tigers, elephants etc. The drive there through the beautiful green hills was as stunning as the approach into Munnar. As the tea plantations started to tail off, we saw other plantations of cardamom and rubber. We climbed higher and higher and the mist was so thick we could barely see a few meters in front of us. Despite the thoughts of us inadvertently missing the bends on the narrow roads high up on the hill and plunging to our untimely deaths, we pushed on slowly through the mist until we descended once more, eventually dipping underneath the thick blanket and regained our visibility. We got to Periyar with hopeful expectation of wildlife trekking though unfortunately the weather being so wet there (we discovered that they have a second mini monsoon at that time) this was less than ideal for trekking and the odds of seeing wildlife were pretty remote. We heard reports from other trekkers that the most wildlife they’d seen was the leeches that had attached themselves to their ankles during their trek! So accepting the soggy situation we opted instead for the more sedate and certainly dryer option of a Keralan cooking lesson. We went to a very modest local home (and gathered round the very modest and small kitchen) to see how they make a typical Kerala chicken curry, a bean curry and poratta (a very tasty layered south Indian bread).

The next day we headed to Alleppey, about a 4 hour drive and immediately booked an overnight houseboat trip on the famous Kerala backwaters for the following day. A one bedroomed houseboat made with beautiful woven wicker roofs set us back Rs.3500 for one night including meals (which was about 50 GBP). A bit of a treat on a backpacking budget but we had heard good things about it so we had to do it! We had one night to kill before the trip so we headed into Alleppey town to find somewhere to stay. We found a heritage home stay called ‘Tharavad’ which had been built for a well off Indian doctor over 100 years ago and had been owned by the same family ever since. The house, still preserved in its original traditional setting felt like we stepped back in time as we arrived. The bedrooms were simple but comfortable and a nice place to rest for the night.

Kerala backwaters

Kerala backwaters

The next day, we headed out onto the backwaters of Allepey on our house boat. The weather was perfect and as we cruised along the water ways, we discovered that along the narrow but long banks which separated the sectioned off backwaters were whole communities with small houses and even schools doted along the banks. Small one man boats paddled up and down, women stood on the banks washing clothes, thrashing the dirt from them. Aside from the many tourists’ house boats, it struck me as a peaceful place to live and one that was so different from the hustle and bustle of typical Indian life.

Locals living in villages in the Kerala backwaters

Locals living in villages in the Kerala backwaters

We had two staff working on our boat, one steering the boat and the other cooking up feasts for us. When I say feasts, I really mean it! When lunch came out, there was enough food for 6 people! And when dinner came out, I’m sure there was enough for 8 or more! It was impossible to even make a dent on what was presented to us but the flavours and quality of the food was out of this world! During the day while we were docked up for lunch, a man in a little wooden boat paddled over to us. He was selling fish from his little boat and we bought some big tiger prawns for our dinner that night, which our expert cook coated in masala (yum!).

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We sat out on the deck as we watched the beautiful sun set over the back waters and I hate to say that it was at this point that the swarm of insects started to swarm around us. We did our best to ignore them but though we covered up to escape mosquito bites, we found our bodies covered in bites the following day (having bitten through our clothes!). It was the only drawback to the boat trip; such a shame really.

The next day we headed to Varkala, a well known beach on the coast of Kerala, with restaurants and guest houses set up on the cliff top with great views of the sea, we were looking forward to some beach time! Varkala was lovely, very peaceful and laid back. The beach was small and shallow but was pleasant though as we had found the changeable weather in Kerala due to their mini monsoon most afternoons had showers so chilling in a restaurant on the cliff side was the norm. We only stayed for a few days but while we were there we bumped into a couple that we had met when we were on holiday in Cuba 3 years ago! It was their first holiday since Cuba and somehow we had all ended up there at the same time! Strange but true! All in all, Kerala was a relaxed and very enjoyable part to our trip!

It was time to decide on our next location and it was going to be Tamil Nadu and possibly Sri Lanka but a cyclone hit the south east coast of India along the Bay of Bengal and that would have made for a miserable route so we decided on coming back towards Goa ahead of plan (we had planned to go there for Christmas & NYE anyway). The route we took from Varkala was the coastal rail route via Manglaore and then Gokarna (Kudley Beach & Om beach) which is in the state of Karnataka and inbetween Kerala and Goa.

We had heard that Gokarna had a beach not far from its town centre though this was mainly used by local Indians and was not as nice as some of the neighbouring beaches. So we were happy to look to go to Kudley beach which is a few kilometres from the town and train station we were due to arrive at. It must have been about 8pm by the time we arrived into Gokarna and after some humourous auction style bartering headed by J, we managed to get ourselves a rickshaw to Kudley beach. It was already dark by this time and though we had heard that some of the other beaches did not have any road access to them, we heard that Kudley was accessible so we had no cause for concern. That said, as we went along the concrete roads started to look more disheveled and before long we were on an extremely rough and narrow dirt track climbing up a hill. No easy task for a rickshaw with two passengers and two heavy rucksacks! Vaguely amused by the novelty but growing in concern, we soon realised that the road was becoming more and more difficult to climb and the rickshaw was now moving very slowly as it was bumping around the loose rocks and holes in the ground.

Hanging on for dear life, we were looking forward to seeing the beach and getting off this bumpy ride! The journey did end though sooner than we expected! The rickshaw driver got us to a high point on the dirt track (which is odd as beaches are not normally found at the top of a hill!) and then told us that he could take us no further. Confused we asked him to explain what he meant. It turns out that the way onto Kudley beach was indeed via this rocky road up hill, however the way down to the beachside was through a steep and very rough and rocky pathway which our driver said to head down for about 10 minutes. That wouldn’t have fazed us had it been in daylight but at this time; there was no lighting what so ever! All we could see was what looked like a dark hole!

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With the rickshaw diver about to bid his farewell we would be completely alone and unfamiliar with the pathway, we had visions of taking a wrong turning and ending up falling down a steep cliff never to be seen again! With much persuasion (and an offer of a generous tip) the driver eventually agreed to escort us down the difficult path using his mobile phone and our head torch to light the way. We did make it down there alive but it was no walk in the park that’s for sure!

The next morning, seeing Kudely beach in daylight it was easy to see why young travellers opted for this spot.

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It was a very laid back and simple beach place with nearly all of the accommodation very cheap and very basic. We managed to find a hotel with proper beds but we paid well over the odds compared to the other accommodation and the bathroom wasn’t exactly clean but we decided that this was preferable to the other, much cheaper places which closely resembled prison cells (concrete beds with thin stuffed mattresses and no windows, just an air brick or two). It was here that we met fellow back packers (Georgi & Lizzie) and over a few evening beers we would put the world to rights and laugh about the craziness things we find when travelling around India! We explored a little while we were there, taking that walk back up the steep pathway and then taking another path down to the neighbouring beach (Om beach). This beach had a lovely crescent shape (named Om due to the similarity in shape to the OM symbol) and the waves more boisterous (which J loved!) and all in all had a nice feel. Again, pretty basic accommodation in the most part but a good backpacker vibe and the beach was peaceful. Our few days in Gokarna passed quickly and it was soon time to hit the road again onwards back to Goa!

Posted by Eveness 04:27 Archived in India Tagged beach fort kerala munnar periyar karnataka varkala cochin ernakulam allepey gokarna kudley om Comments (0)

Chilled out in Goa

Arambol, Agonda and Palolem!

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View Eve & J's Trip on Eveness's travel map.

After our arrival in Mumbai, we were looking forward to getting to Goa. We flew there to keep things easy and got to Arambol, north Goa in no time at all. It was still very early in the season and the monsoon was still persistent so our first impression of Arambol was that it was dead! The roads towards the beach were a bit swampy and there wasn't much open but we plodded around with our backpacks to find a guest house. We found one that was really cheap at 150 rs per night which is just over £2 (though it was a good 10 minute stride to the beach which when it rained was pretty unpleasant!) and the family there was really lovely. We could have looked for something a bit closer to the beach but I think by that point I would have checked in anywhere as I was right in the middle of a bout of Delhi belly and knew that I was on borrowed time!

So, Arambol was pretty quiet when we got there; which given our baptism of fire in Mumbai this peace and quiet was ideal for us to wind down and get into the groove of things. As the days passed, the rain eased off a little and Arambol started to come to life and getting used to the new sights and sounds of the place is something which has really stuck with me. Cow's roamed freely along the beach and dogs running in packs, scounging off the foreigners at the beachside restauraunts. At sunset the swarms of dragonflies would fill the skies as they hovered in the afternoon sea breeze within inches of us; the little luminous green lights of the fireflies in the night and the odd sounds of the geckos and squirals, not to mention the bat which managed to find its way into our room one day and spent 15 miutes swooping and divebombing us! We thankfully only saw one bat fat rat and one dangerous (though small) snake in our time in Goa!

The New guest houses, restaurants and shops were opening up as each day passed and little by little more visitors came. Arambol, still very much a fishing village despite the popularity for tourists had its own chilled vibe to it. We befriended one fisherman over the 3 weeks we stayed in Arambol who would chat to us on the beach about how his fishing trips had gone and was always keen to chat. He then invited us out on his boat one morning to fish and see if we could find dolphins. He didn't want any money for it, just wanted to show us his trade (which he was very proud to say he learned his trade from his father and worked with his brothers) and take us out on the water. Him and his brothers showed us how they cast the nets and then took us further out to see if we could spot some dolphins. With the engine switched off, the water quietly lapping up against the boat; everyone was a quiet as a mouse...then finally was saw a group of about three dolphins nearby. It was amazing to watch. Afterwards, we came back to shore and we were invited back to his family home for Chai, biscuits and fresh papaya! What a great way to start a day!

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We loved Arambol's 'sweet lake', which was a small shallow lake just nestled behind the smaller of the Arambol beaches (just round the rocks) and spent a coupple of lazy afternoons chilling out and enjoying some of the sunnier days that had started to become a little more regular. IMG_0246.jpgThere were always Indian ladies on the beach who were so desperate to sell us something in low season. I think, other than the persistence of most of these ladies, most of them were alright and could have a chat with you; though after a while it did get somewhat tedious explaining that we didnt want to buy today... persistent is a good word to describe them!

Our timing of coming to India was great as the Ganesh festival was underway and we saw various parades in Mumbai and then a big celebration on Morjim beach (just a couple of km from Arambol) which a local told us about and we were lucky to get down to the beach in time to see all the families in the area bring to the beach their own Ganesh statue to launch into the sea as the sun was setting. we saw literally hundreds of these Ganesh statues being brought into to the sea!

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We met some great people at Arambol, mostly as we chilled out at Om Star (our favourite restauraunt!) and this soon became the place to hang out and meet up with people. The steamed momo's and Jamaican mama cocktails at Om Star kept us coming back time after time too!

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We had some fun evenings with Steph, Timo, Adi, Tal, Jay and Babu and his crew....especially the night where we brought a bottle of Malibu to the bar! It was hard to leave there as we'd enjoyed it so much but after 3 weeks it was time to move on, so we headed to south Goa to a place called Agonda.

Agonda was soooooo quiet! Wow, a small place with a nearly empty beach and only 2 or 3 restauraunts open. This was lovely and quiet but after few days we'd had enough and decided to move on to Palolem where we had been told that more stuff was going on.

Palolem was most definitely the place in south Goa where tourists went, with its 24 hours bar and its gorgeous beach, no wonder people made this a place to stop. That said, it felt a little too geared up for tourists and although we enjoyed a few days there we figured that it was time to move on from beach life in search of the 'real India' so we booked our train tickets inland to ancient Hampi in Karnataka and we were soon on our way!

Posted by Eveness 04:41 Archived in India Tagged beach goa chilled Comments (1)

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