|Part 8: A little flavour of Fort Cochin |
|Day 20 |
My last early morning swim, before we left Cherai. It’s been a wonderful place to stay. Doubtless there are many prettier and quieter beaches throughout India, and for sure there are many cleaner places, but even so it has still been great.
I rode ahead of the taxi in order to return the enfield and say thanks to the Bullet Man. When I arrived he simply said “Supa Ride Yar”? I agreed with a smile and head waggle, yes .... Supa.
An hour later we were back at the Fort House Hotel to claim our reservation. It felt great to be back there, and the place had received a bit of a facelift since our last stay 12 months ago. However all was not plain sailing as a charade then followed while we were offered a series of sub-standard rooms. One had a major damp problem, and two were two noisy. It was only when we were at the point of walking out and finding an alternative place to stay that a suitable room miraculously appeared.
We have experienced this phenomenon a few times over the years at various hotels across southern India. I guess there must be some logical business strategy behind it, but I personally can’t see any benefits compared to making your guests feel they are in a good place and well looked after. Why does it have to be such a struggle to get a decent, clean, quiet room at a fair price ?
Brushing off this frustration, I had a couple of things on my agenda. The first of which was food and drink. We got a rickshaw into town and joked with the driver about the commission agreement they have with the very posh “Habitat” shop en route. He admitted to us that “If you walk through their door, then I am a happy man” ........... “If you buy something there, then I am a VERY happy man”, referring to the levels of commission he would receive.
We settled into the cool of the Kashi Art Cafe, which had also been spruced up since our last visit. We had a tasty and healthy lunch of tomato soup and potato salad, and spied a couple sitting at a nearby table that we had last seen in Madurai. India’s like that, as you often find yourself bumping into people unexpectedly.
The next thing on my list was getting hold of a little ganja. Leaving Jane at the cafe, I set forth hoping to be approached by dealers in town and so passed through a couple of likely looking areas, but there were no offers. So deciding to be a bit more proactive and courageous I asked a pair of particularly shifty looking rickshaw drivers. Sure enough my hunch was correct, and within two minutes I had purchased a couple of grams of quality marijuana for around £5. It was a bit of a tense and uncertain transaction, not least because of the language barrier, but after a bit of further shiftiness from the shifty guys, I walked away with my prize wrapped up in a roll of newspaper the size of a small cigar. Feeling excited and relieved I then met Jane down the road and I celebrated with a cuppa and slice of cake at the Teapot Cafe.
That night we had an outstanding meal at the Fort House Restaraunt. Sat out on the jetty, under the stars, eating succulent Pepper Tuna and Braised Seerfish in banana leaf ..... it was sublime. A wonderful, wonderful meal finished off with a steamed banana in caramel sauce ... YUM!
Afterwards we decided to saunter down the road in search of a funny coffee shop that had just opened up last year. As we stepped out of the hotel, we couldn’t help but notice a new building on the opposite side of the road. From the gate we could look down a long hallway to a six foot statue of Shiva in his Nataraj pose, lit up in the distance. It looked amazing. The watchman spotted us, and we tried asking him what this impressive looking place was. By way of an answer he invited us in and led us to a chap behind a desk who explained it was the new Cultural Centre (ie tourist draw) that showcased Keralan culture. We suddenly found ourselves being given a private tour as he went round unlocking the museum, theatre and Kalari sangha. The building was beautiful and it suddenly dawned on me that it had swallowed up the little coffeeshop that we had originally set out to find.
Our Last Day, and we decide to soak up as much of Fort Cochin as possible.
Setting off early before it got too hot, we made a left turn out of the hotel and wandered down into the old merchants quarter. Even though this area is obviously past its heyday, I love this part of Fort Cochin. Full of nooks and crannies, run down spice and tea warehouses and old offices that belong to another era. Even at this hour, the narrow streets are still busy with porters and trucks carrying sacks of exotic goods.
Taking another turn we pass into a quieter, more residential area where mainly women and children smile as we pass by. Tiny houses line the streets, colour-washed in blue and green, and lines of vibrant washing are hung outside. The people in this little enclave look and dress a little differently than other parts of Kerala, and I wonder what their history is.
For a little taste, here is a video I made from our last visit:
Eventually we reach our goal of the Jain temple, and slip inside for an hour of cool peace. It’s a pretty little place, simpler than most of the Hindu temples we have seen, and has a lovely atmosphere. We sit quietly and watch devotees come and go, each person performing their own individual ritual of worship and prayer. A few of the more devout people arrive wearing the distinctive Jain face masks. They remind me of surgeons about to carry out an operation, but the reason for the masks is to prevent harm to insects through accidental swallowing. The only sounds we hear during this time is the ringing of bells, the shuffling of feet, and the chirping of sparrows that fly into the temple to feast on the grains of rice that are left for them.
As the morning wears on, we carry on walking back to the main tourist area for a spot of clothes and souvenir shopping. Along the way we savour the variety of weird and wonderful signboards and posters that would bring a smile to any visitor.
Another long-standing ambition of mine has been to find some high quality martial arts in Kerala that match the level of skill and power of the guys I have encountered in China. Because Kalari is regarded as the root of most of Asia’s martial arts, I have lived in hope of seeing and experiencing something really special. Despite meeting some good guys around Kannur a couple of years back, I still haven’t found anything that I would describe as genuinely “awesome”. Therefore my final mission was to check out the Kalari at the cultural centre we found last night in the fading hope that maybe I would be seriously impressed.
Purchasing my ticket, I was shown to the Kalari hall, and found there were a total of five of us in the audience. The show soon started and was a good display of athleticism and focus, and it was obvious that a huge amount of training and dedication had gone into their practice. For me, the most impressive part was one guy demonstrating the “ribbon sword” ( a terrifying weapon that looks like a sword, but where the blade consists of two springy ribbons of sharp steel ). At one point he lost full control of it, and hit a wooden banister (just six inches from the foot of a guy in the audience). It was sobering to see how the blade had cut deeply into the hard wooden rail, but even more sobering for the guy who nearly lost half his foot! The weapon was so lethal that I think I would rather face someone with a handgun than armed with one of these swords.
At the end of the show we were all invited down for a bit of hands on teaching and a few photos. So I took the opportunity to “cross hands” with one of the main guys for a friendly test of his skills. It was immediately obvious to me that he was strong, fast, flexible and very fit, but sadly it was yet another disappointing experience as I was able to shut him down and take control very quickly. My disappointment increased a moment later when I picked up one of the metal staffs that they were flashing around so impressively, only to find it was made of flimsy plastic and as light as a feather! ............. All in all, another hollow Kalari experience.
Later that evening Jane and I sauntered out and had the good sense to choose the Dahl Roti Restaurant for our final meal. This came highly recommended in an IndiaMike thread, and as we were about to enter we got chatting to an American couple who were just leaving and very enthusiastic about the quality of the food. Even though we were early, the place was filling up fast with tourists and Indians alike, and we were lucky to get a table. The verdict on the food? ........ DELICIOUS. God I wish we had discovered this place earlier, because even writing about it is making me dribble!
It was a beautiful night, with the whole town appearing relaxed and happy. Walking off our full bellies, we took one last evening stroll around the streets we have come to love so much before returning back to the hotel for a couple of hours sleep.
At 3.00 am we had a knock on the door to tell us our taxi had arrived to take us to the airport, and it was then that the manager of the Fort House Hotel got her revenge on us for daring to quibble over the quality of their rooms, because not only was the taxi the oldest and most decrepit Ambassador we have ever been in (and believe me we have been in some old buckets over the years), but the driver was the youngest we have ever seen (he looked about 14 years old).
India still managed to get her last laugh on us before we could leave her soil, as this seemingly straight forward journey soon turned into a farce. The taxi turned out to be almost out of petrol, and the gauge only registered a tiny flicker above empty when we went round corners. Consequently we spent the first thirty minutes travelling at a very tense fifteen miles per hour as our child driver took every opportunity to coast along in neutral until we finally found a petrol pump. After that he drove like a bat out of hell in order to make up the lost time.
As we rumbled through the night along straight and empty stretches of road, I tried hard to convince myself that we would still manage to catch our plane in time. After deciding that the best thing to do was close my eyes and try to relax, I began to doze and it only vaguely registered with me that the car was beginning to drift a bit too erratically. Luckily Jane was still awake enough to realise something wasn’t right, and catching sight of our driver’s face in the rear view mirror she could see that our boy had closed his eyes and actually managed to fall asleep at the wheel! Shouting ” WAKE UP” and shaking him by the shoulders did the trick as she managed to rouse him (and me) before we crashed.
And so it was that we finally made it back to Cochin airport; in one piece and with time to spare. Sitting in the departure lounge with a cup of the worst tea in the whole country I reflected on how India had treated us to another huge slice of life in such a short while. This had been my fifth trip to India, and each visit has been a stunning experience full of variety, humour, challenge and adventure. There is nowhere else like it.
|Part 7: A little flavour of Cherai Beach area |
|Day 17 |
The first section of the drive out of Munnar was absolutely stunning, and as we stopped to take in a final view, we spied our little bungalow way up on the hillside, and realised what a prime position it held. Moving on down the road turned into a long winding route that stretched all the way from the fresh-aired ghats to the hot and sultry coastal plains. A strange variety of signs had been erected at the side of the road, telling people to “Avoid Plastic” and “Do not scare animals”
Stopping briefly in Cochin, an old warhorse of an ambassador turned up to take us back to Cherai Beach for another couple of days of R&R. As we ground our way over and into the car park, we were greeted by the familiar smile of the hotel owner. When we had first met him last year, he could barely string three words of English together. Now he is up to full sentences, but still struggles. Having rung two days previously I thought I had managed to make a clear booking with him. However we were now met with blank looks. After further examination and some detective work, we realised that he had written us down in the book as Mr & Mrs PILDY (rather than Bailey). I remember spelling out our name to him over the phone, and could now imagine all too easily how B became P, A became I and so on.
We decamped in our budget, sea facing room, and there was nothing more to do other than RELAX. We ate at the restaraunt in the evening, which was a surprisingly good meal. Poor Jane was not so well, as she (as well as a lot of other tourists in India) was working her way through a head cold.
One musing I’ve had about India is regarding the place that sex and violence has in society (or at least how it is portrayed in the media). Having now done a lot of TV channel hopping and Hindu Times reading, it has struck me that violence is seen as normal and to be expected. I have seen graphic levels of torture and violence portrayed at all hours of the day on TV, including a particularly unpleasant torture scene at 9.30 in the morning.
If you take out the religious service and music programs from the equation, then it seems that 90% of all TV programs include regular violence. What surprises me is that I have never seen this acted out in society. After three months in South India, I have not seen a single fight, or ever felt personally threatened.
As for sex ..... every western film or TV program shown on Indian TV has been carefully censored to remove any depiction of physical intimacy. As I write this, we have just witnessed a twenty minute real life drama on the beach below the restaraunt. Not surprisingly it has involved a group of Indian lads and two western women tourists who were having a quiet swim.
The boys went in the water, and after a game of cat and mouse where the girls tried to maintain their distance, they eventually gave up as the boys closed in on them. As the girls walked out from the sea, one of the lads took a photo of “girl in bikini”. This did not go down well at all, and she demanded that he delete the photo (quite rightfully), but the boy refused and ran off.
Out came the hotel staff who berated the group of boys. Five minutes later the lad with the camera was caught and forcibly made to delete the picture in front of an increasingly large crowd of onlookers. There was a lot of shouting, grabbing of arms and notes being taken. It ended with the boys walking off down the street looking very pissed off, and two western women tourists looking very fed up.
My conclusion so far is that ..... whilst violence is endemic in the media, there seems to be little signs of it in society. Whereas sex is cut out of the media, but uncomfortable undercurrents of sexual tension are commonplace.
A beach day and a bike day. The highlight of this day for me was finally getting hold of a Royal Enfield Bullet. After enquiring at the hotel about hiring a motorbike, the owner asked “would you like Bullet”? HELL YES
So sitting in a rickshaw for the ten minute journey to the “Bullet Man”, I wandered how this was going to go. The Bullet man turned out to be a small repair and sales shack at the side of the road. The only bikes there were five Bullets, and I was soon initiated in the starting procedure, of bumping up the amps and the method of gently coaxing the engine into life. Finding neutral however was a difficult and mysterious process, and one that I continued to explore and refine for as long as I had the bike.
The sound of the engine is wonderful. A steady assured and resonant heartbeat which inspires confidence and stately power. Enfields are definitely a relaxed and stately ride when compared to other bikes, but oh the brakes! The front brake is like squeezing a sponge and had all the effective stopping power of a clamping a custard pudding to the wheel. In contrast, the back brake was sharp as hell and locked up the wheel within a second. Therefore riding was lovely, but stopping quickly was going to be ..... interesting.
I picked up the coast road, and chugged out of Cherai, passing a bunch of cheap looking homestays at the far end. Pretty soon I found myself at a busy fishing port which was clearly the place where all the local boats docked to unload their catch; which looked to be about 90% shrimps when I visited. Walking around and taking a few photos, I was hailed by one old seadog of a captain who invited me out to sea and help with the catch. Under other circumstances (ie a lot more time and advance notice to Jane) I would have accepted what would undoubtedly have been an unforgettable experience.
As it was, I sought my further experiences on dry land and turned round and went due south along the coast road. After half an hour the road began to disappear beneath sand , and riding became hazardous as the bike began to drift and skew as I silica-pleined my way through small villages, where children came running to watch the strange foreigner sliding by. The situation became worse and worse as the road metamorphosed into sand dunes, giving the place an end of the world feel to it. Unable to ride any further, I backtracked a little and took a new turning along a small road into the backwaters area.
It was a beautiful area of sleepy villages, palm groves, boats and fishing nets, and I felt a rush of joy to have the chance to ride here. I pulled up at one point beside a large palm-fringed lake to take some more shots and take shelter from the sun. Standing by the shore, watching three brahminy kites soaring overhead, I thought to myself how peaceful a place this was.
However my reverie was interrupted by two gentlemen who had snuck up on me to ask “Hello Sir, would you like to make a contribution” ? It turned out that they were selling 50RS contribution tickets. Taking a brief look at the ticket that had been thrust under my nose, I could see Sonia Ghandi’s smiling face in prominent position. I explained to them that as I wasn’t allowed to vote, I wouldn’t be making any donations to Congress or any other party. We then had a good chuckle when I added the fact that I admired their desire to seize any opportunity.
Eventually the water disappeared to be replaced by a maze of earthen tracks and back-alleys. Zig-zagging my way along a made up route that I hoped would be a useful direction, I suddenly found myself emerging onto the main road back to the beach.
Twenty minutes later I had all but made it to the hotel when I came within the tiniest, tiniest whisker of being run off the road by an autorickshaw. The driver obviously made an executive decision the quickly closing gap ahead was big enough for him, two bikes and a car. In hindsight I suppose he was proven right, because we did actually all fit. However at the time I was convinced we wouldn’t, and to be honest, I still think it was impossible. So once again the old adage holds true ...... In India all things are possible
|Part 6: A little flavour of Munnar |
|Day 15 |
Today was mainly a travelling day. It was also Valentines Day, and we wondered how it was going to go after recent reports in the news about Hindu extremists who were threatening to attack any courting couples who dared to display signs of affection. I guessed that me and the missus would be spared (unless we went to Mangalore which was the epicentre of the unrest), but the reported attacks and the resulting suicide were shocking to read about.
Putting these thoughts behind us, we settled comfortably into the back of our taxi and set out for Munnar. As we finally left the plains a sign at the base of the hills read “Entering Ghat Road. 17 hairpin bends” I am sure that most people would agree that Ambassadors are not really suited for rally driving, but our driver did his best as we roared up the mountainsides at 20 miles an hour. I gave up counting the hairpins after the first six, and decided it would be better to avoid taking stress, and so I simply sat back and plugged in my earphones to listen to some music.
As we crossed the border back into Kerala, the climate noticeably cooled down and we were once again driving through verdant cardamom and tea plantations. It was a lovely area with quiet and scenic roads, just right for motor biking I thought.
We had a couple of options in mind for accommodation, and first on the list was Isaacs Residency. As we pulled into the car park we took one look at the noisy and charmless block of concrete and instantly decided on checking out our other options. I had to laugh to myself as when I rang them yesterday the receptionist was keen to book us into the “executive suite” for the outrageous sum of £85 per night. As we did a u-turn in their car park I wondered if some poor soul had ever paid that kind of money for the fabled suite of suites.
Our next option was Shamrock Villa which was about 5km out of town. It turned out to be an agreeable place, and we took one of the rooms that provided beautiful views across the surrounding valleys and hills. The place is also built right above a small rural hamlet, which bugged me at first as it spoilt the sense of seclusion and peace, but after five minutes of sitting on the balcony and waving at the local children who danced around in delight, I was completely at home there, and really enjoyed watching village life unfold while sipping masala tea and recovering from the five hour journey. From this vantage point we watched heavy clouds come rolling up the valley, and to our great surprise it began to rain ..... hard.
That evening we had our valentine’s meal in our bungalow, safe from attack. The staff brought dish after dish of delicious vegetable curries that still make my mouth water when I think about them.
During the last two weeks I have learnt something new from the TV. Previously I had no idea that the women of India are currently facing a national crisis ! Apparently it affects huge sections of female society, and is every woman’s secret nightmare. Yes, I am talking about the dreaded condition commonly referred to as “Hair-fall” Every evening we watch with increasing alarm, as dramatic commercials advise on the seriousness of the problem and prescribe treatments to combat it, and out of the corner of my eye, I can see Jane testing the robustness of her own hair when she thinks I am not looking.
It’s amazing what you can learn from adverts !
After a tasty breakfast we took a leisurely walk down into town. It was a nice route that started up in the tea fields before dropping down to follow the route of a river. Being a Sunday the church in the local village was busy, and had an entire side of the building opened up allowing us to peer inside as we passed outside. There were lots of people around, but it had a very relaxed atmosphere. As we walked further down the hill we passed a few fellow travellers walking in the other direction and we stopped briefly to chat to a Canadian teacher who was also setting out on a leisurely trek.
The local area was a quiet and peaceful place that had gorgeous views. However it was no surprise to find that the nearer to town we got, the noisier and less charming things became.
See youtube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9VBWI19utU
As we finally walked into Munnar town we found it was busy with India day-trippers and a lot more Western tourists than we had been used to seeing. It was also market day and the place looked quite prosperous with a large range of fresh fruit and veg for sale. It felt good to stretch our legs, and we reckoned to have walked a good few miles by the time we got back.
There was no denying that the general area of Munnar was a nice place. The problem for us was that felt we had seen it all before; with it being a blend of Kumily and Kodaikanal. We were very used to tea and spice plantations, and had seen the spectacular views of the tops of the Ghats from a previous visit around Kodai (see my video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jScxjCp642U ). Truth be told, we were hankering for the beach and cosmopolitan life of Cochin. So plans were made and we arranged our checkout and taxi for the next day.
That just left the afternoon, and Jane was happy to get more balcony life as she listened to Buddhist teachings on her mp3 player, whilst I picked up a motorbike to explore the local roads. Apart from the treacherous potholes, it was a nice ride on yet another small-engined Hero. At one point in town a policeman flagged me down and with a serious head waggle he explained that in Kerala one now needs to wear a helmet (if I had been given one, I would gladly have worn it), and with that bit of info he waved me on with a smile.
After refuelling with a litre of petrol, I passed a young western traveller and gave him a friendly nod as I accelerated out of town to go deeper into the tea fields. Unfortunately the day remained quite overcast and so the photos I took were all very dull, and didn’t really do the amazing landscape the justice it deserved. Deciding to call it a day, I turned round and made the decent back into town. Cruising round the corner, I saw the same traveller who by this time had picked up a bike of his own, and we shared a look of two wheeled brotherhood as we passed each other by in opposite directions.
|A little flavour of Alagarkovil & Thiruparankundrum |
|Day 14 Alagarkovil |
After another pleasant breakfast in Madurai, we set off in a taxi for another adventure. Inspired by a brief posting on India Mike, we were now heading for the nearby village of Alagarkoil to see the temples.
As foreign (ie. Western) visitors to India, we are constantly presented with challenging experiences, and challenging questions. On the journey out we pulled up at a major road junction, and whilst waiting for the red light to change, we were confronted by the sight of a middle aged woman stood at the side of the road, cleaning her teeth. What was so disturbing for us was that she was using the dust and filth from the gutter as an abrasive to polish her teeth. Unable to turn our heads, we watched as she repeatedly coated her wet finger in the roadside dirt and then scrubbed away at her teeth. With increasing unease we then watched her walk up to a puddle of filthy water and wondered if she was going to use this to rinse the dirt out of her mouth.
Fortunately for us the light changed and we drove on before we had the chance to witness this. Whether she did use the puddle water we never knew, and so we were left trying to make sense of this scene. Was this poor woman disturbed or mentally ill? Did she have learning disabilities? Was it simply poverty that necessitated this seemingly desperate act? Or was it simply our own cultural perspectives and biases that made a problem out of this behaviour? My instincts said that she had learning disabilities, and this was not normal behaviour for anyone, but two things really struck me; the first was that she actually looked quite healthy, and the second was that despite being surrounded by people who could see what she was doing, nobody paid her any attention or had a problem with it. So .... what does this mean ???
As I pondered this and many other issues that India raises to foreign travellers, the city gave way to countryside, and before we knew it, we had reached the outskirts of Alagarkoil. To be honest I didn’t really know what to expect other than it is another “interesting temple site”. From the taxi we could spy the main temple area which looked very exotic and similar to Ankor Watt in Vietnam, with tree roots growing over and through the surrounding walls, and monkeys scrambling over the statues and carvings that made up the towers of the outer complex. It was the kind of sight that quickens the heart of any adventurous traveller, however there was one big fly in the ointment that put us off visiting, and that was the fact that 200 small schoolchildren were filing up to enter the temple gates, and we knew that could only mean one thing ..... CHAOS! So, opting for Plan B, we decided to visit the Vishnu temple at the top of a nearby hill first.
As our taxi reached the end of the road and pulled up in a car park, we could tell that this was going to be an interesting adventure. High up in the surrounding trees were hundreds and hundreds of huge fruitbats, squabbling and chatting with each other as they each vied for prime roosting spots from which to hang upside down and observe the goings on underneath. Far from being deserted, the site was heaving with people, and we joined a line of pilgrims ascending a long flight of steps up the hillside. As we climbed we were flanked by a crowd of monkeys on each side of the steps, who looked on curiously at us as we passed by.
As we climbed higher we could hear a great hubbub from the building up ahead. The atmosphere was very highly charged, and we had no idea what was going on. As we entered the building there was a great crowd of very wet looking people standing around, and the deafening sound of shouts and screams echoed around the walls, but what was really strange was that we couldn’t see anyone who was actually making any noise. I edged my way to a central wall with a hole cut into it and peeped through. The sight that greeted me was extraordinary.
(see youtube link) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZU5vb-cqYY
I found myself looking down upon a throng of people, who were passionately jostling for access to the water from a sacred spring. This was not a place of serenity and contemplation, it was chaos, it was incredibly intense and at times it looked to be bordering on out and out warfare. I was very glad that I wasn’t down in this pit, fighting to fill up water bottles or to be sprayed down by the guardian of the hosepipe from which poured the sacred water. A great line of partially clothed pilgrims were queuing up between steel rails, desperate to get access to the guard with the hose. Arguments regularly broke out and there was a scrum of people surrounding the guard, pushing back and forth. After a little while of watching this spectacle, we climbed outside and up onto the roof of the building, where families were drying off and sitting down to eat some breakfast.
Many people kindly invited us over to join in the feast, and the local monkeys were also included, as families shared their rice and vegetables with them. We stayed for a while, just taking it all in, before descending again to get a final blessing from a fine looking holy man who was stationed at the base of the stairway. This chap was dressed in orange and green silks, and brandished a large wand of peacock feathers with which he bestowed blessings upon the pilgrims as the returned from the temple above. We shared smiles and a couple of rupees with him and the woman who had looked after our sandals, before retiring to a nearby chai stall for a clay cup of delicious sweet tea and a spicy snack.
Once more we were laughing at finding ourselves embraced by such exotic situations. Almost afraid to detract from the memory of the experience we had just been through, we were in two minds about visiting the main temple at the base of the hill, but in the end we decided to just “put our head round the corner” to see what was going on.
The temple itself was an interesting complex; spread out over quite a large area, most of which was in the open rather than in ancient and dark buildings. Once through the entrance gate, yet more exotic mayhem ensued, and we were somewhat bemused to find ourselves surrounded by an incredibly varied mix of life. Painted cows, beggars and pilgrims, sadhus, goats, Brahmins, monkeys and hundreds of children. The only thing missing was a herd of elephants.
It was mayhem, it was abundance in action, it was fantastic. We skirted round the priests who were leading a crowd of white clothed men in some very shamanic sounding chanting. Passing through a huge gateway we entered a large open area, built around a another stone temple. Once again we were the only westerners around, and it was clear that many of the people there had never seen foreigners up close. I stopped to take the photo of two toddlers who had just had their heads shaved and plastered in yellow sandalwood paste. Their mother just stared at us with a look of total incomprehension. She had no idea who we could be, or what an earth I was doing. After a bit of gentle work and an open smile, I managed to coax a vague acknowledgement of common humanity, but we remained as exotic and strange to her as she and her children did to us.
The place was crammed full of school kids, and once they spotted me with my camera, each and every one wanted to be a film star. I suddenly found myself surrounded, and needing to get some basic level of good-natured control. The girls wisely kept out of it, while the boys were so keen to get prime place in the picture that they were jumping up and down so much it was like they were on pogo sticks. It wasn’t till afterwards that I noticed the annoyed looks aimed my way from their teachers, and I realised that my actions had caused complete disarray to their previously well-ordered (by Indian standards) school outing.
(see youtube link) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1geTfqj0zo
As we left we were constantly approached by all manner of people asking for money, for all sorts of reasons. An intelligent looking sadhu wanted some chai money, a young boy wanted money for a school bag, an old lady wanted money for food, others gave no reasons ... just outstretched hands. And so goes one of the dilemmas of india ..... when to give, how to give, how much and in what circumstances ?
I know the various schools of thought on this and in a way I subscribe to all of them, but at the end of the day I trust my own instincts and god-given right to make my own choices and mistakes. My main worry is in case I to trigger a begging avalanche, where we suddenly get swamped by increasingly desperate demands for cash from a rapidly growing crowd, and I well remember being mobbed in Mysore after slipping 20RS to an old lady outside a temple. Today’s experience looked like it could get of control very quickly as arguments broke out between the people around us as they debated who got there first and who had the most right to our funds. Luckily we managed to extricate ourselves without too much of a major disturbance and we returned back to our hotel for a well earned samosa and siesta.
Later that afternoon I left Jane relaxing in the room whilst I set out on my own to fulfil another ambition. Two years previously we had made a trip to nearby Thiruparakundrum and had a wonderful time visiting the temple and Brahmin school there. After which I climbed part-way up the local hill to watch the sunset. My ambition was to go back and this time to reach the mosque at the summit. The main route up the hill is on the outskirts of town and overlooks a beautiful area of river, plains and rocky outcrops. The hill itself didn’t look too high, and there is a great construction of red and white painted steps that pass through a series of carved gateways stretching all the way to the top.
However, climbing the steps it wasn’t long before I found out that the hill was a lot higher and a lot steeper than it looked. The steps were numbered and after a lot of sweat and toil, I found that there were six hundred and twenty three of them! Surprisingly they didn’t go all the way to the summit, but veered off to the left and petered out underneath a rock overhang with an ancient looking carving. The place looked and felt old (I have since found out that it is probably a Jain carving of around 1000 years old).
At the end of a track stood a small Hindu temple forged into the side of the hill. Once I had stopped gasping for breath I took off my sandals and entered the door, purchasing an oil lamp and offerings inside. It was a humble place, and a small group of men sat at the back talking quietly. They didn’t seem surprised to see me, and left me in peace as I had a chat to Ganesh and lit my lamp. Afterwards they gestured for me to go on through a back door. Wondering what could be out there, I walked through and found myself back in the open air besides a small pool of water and a tree festooned with coloured ribbons that trailed lazily in the breeze, and yes ...... yet more monkeys.
It was a peaceful, special place, and many of the monkeys were clustered around the pool drinking water from their cupped hands. The views down to the plains far below were spectacular and I stood for a while to simply absorb it all. However it wasn’t long before the monkeys became restless, and the alpha male approached me and started grabbing and pulling at my trousers in a menacing way. I didn’t want to stick around to see what he had in mind, and so I beat a hasty retreat back the way I had come.
I met up with the guys from the temple and we shared a few words and some food. I still wanted to get to the very summit and the mosque (or maybe it was a Muslim tomb) that had been built there, and reading my intentions, the men led the way across the sandy red rocks following a barely discernable trail. Finally we arrived at the foot of the mosque, and they explained to me that every Friday evening for the last three years they had been coming to this point to feed the “holy monkeys”.
“Watch now sir” they said, and started shouting out “Bah, Bah, Bah” (meaning “come”). The effect was incredible. As their shouts echoed around the rocks, the place became alive with monkeys. Swarming in they came, from tree tops, roof tops, caves, ruined huts, from under bushes, out of cracks in the ground. The whole hillside grew fur and tails, as monkeys ascended, descended, and simply materialised from thin air! “Maximum coming are one thousand monkeys” said another chap, as he gestured all around. They didn’t come quietly either. They purred, they chattered, they spat, they screamed and they fought as they came.
Each man carried a cloth bag and reaching in they pulled out handfuls of soaked pulses and lentils which they flung around like they were sowing seeds. The monkeys went wild, and I went up to the mosque for safety.
There wasn’t much to see at the mosque, but there was a chap there selling drinks, and by this time I had long emptied my water bottle and was parched. Unfortunately the only choices on offer were the old Indian-style fizzy drinks. All of which proudly proclaimed on the sides of the bottles that they “contain no fruit” and which taste of saccharine and god only knows what else. I choose the least offensive looking one, and the seller prized off the rusty cap and handed it to me. As I went to take a swig I could see a large fly floating belly up at the top, and so handed it back. Trying another one, I managed to take two small sips of the synthetic slush before I decided that I would rather risk dehydration than subject myself to another swig of this poison.
As the sun set on the horizon, I began to climb down, this time choosing the old route of steps cut haphazardly into the rock face. The views were gorgeous and the path led me back towards the temple and town. At the bottom of the hill a man approached me holding a stick of chalk, and gestured for me to draw round my feet onto the base of one of the steps. This I did, along with adding a few decorative embellishments, and for a small fee he then started to carve an impression of my feet into the stone. It was a perfect and strangely profound conclusion to an afternoon’s odyssey. This had been one of the most remarkable days of my life.
|Part 4: A little flavour of Ramashwaram |
|Day 12 |
Packing light, we found our taxi and headed east for Ramashwaram. In truth I didn’t really know what to expect. All I really knew was that I liked the name, and had picked up from here and there that it was an interesting place with a nice atmosphere.
A couple of hours later as the taxi ascended onto Pamban Bridge, affording us a wonderful panorama of fishing villages, indigo blue sea, and large stretches of white sand, I knew this was going to be good. Actually, Ramashwaram turned out to be wonderful.
Youtube link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qKUHkppauNQ
We had booked a night at Hotel Tamil Nadu on the beach. At RS420 this was the cheapest place we had stayed for a while, and after a couple of nights at the Royal Court, it definitely felt like slumming it. Ramashwaram has many, many good points, but two things detract from its charm ........ the dirt and the flies. Vast areas of the island are covered (and I mean covered) in litter, and many areas of the town are infested with large, bulbous-bodied flies. Hotel Tamil Nadu had certainly adopted its fair share of both of these blights, and if truth be told, the place is a real dump! We stayed in the annexe which looked like a half-finished experiment in cubist architecture. It was in desperate need of a deep clean and three coats of paint.
We didn’t stay long in the room, not least because it had a very wobbly ceiling fan that had come adrift from its mounting points. I didn’t dare to examine the fan any closer because I knew I would then spend all night awake, worrying about the physical and psychological damage it would do if it suddenly fell the six feet onto my naked, prone and all too vulnerable anatomy (whilst still spinning at 2000 rpm).
So deciding to make the best of it, we went for a walk and soon found ourselves at the famous temple. Having visited a good number of temples in my time, I have come to realise that you just never know what’s going to happen when you step over the threshold ......it always feels to me like it’s a journey into the subconscious at some level or other. There have been one or two times when these journeys have been remarkable, strange, powerful experiences, and I have found myself shot out at the other end, breathless, stunned and in some way changed; wondering to myself what on earth had just happened? There have also been times when we’ve been turned away or treated with disdain and hostility, and there have been other times when the temple seems lifeless and soulless, devoid of any significance other than the question of whether its all a big sham. Maybe it’s simply a reflection of my different states of mind, or maybe it’s just luck of the draw as to what day you go, and who you meet.
Anyway, this particular day was a good day. A remarkable day. Crossing the threshold, our eyes adjusted to the darker interior as we walked between rows of statues and flickering flame. We were soon pounced on by a group of three men. One looked like security, one was some sort of custodian or guide, and the other was a friendly looking priest who was obviously mute.
The priest and I hit it off immediately, and acknowledged our brotherhood through eye contact, smiles and head waggles. The security guy explained that non-Hindus were only allowed in certain parts of the temple (a restriction we were used to, and which makes the exceptions all the more special). My friend the mute priest winked at me, and gestured that it was all OK. A camera ticket was purchased and we set off with the guide.
It was just as well that we did have a guide, because the temple is a bit of a maze, with many different sections, both indoors and out. The experience soon turned into a wild blur as we were led down stone corridors, from room to room, with our guide directing us to do this and do that, using conversation that may or may not have been in English ( I was only picking up about one word in five). The mute priest had been true to his word, and we were suddenly re-directed down a tiny passage way to surprisingly find ourselves in the central section of the temple, and joining the queue for darshan.
I was garlanded, blessed, daubed in sandal, and presented in front of the temple deity. Down a long dark tunnel, deep in the heart of the temple, I could see the golden figure of the deity / lingam, lit by devotional fire. It was a mesmerising and powerfully moving sight, that struck at the centre of my being. And then all too quickly we were whisked away. Next began the ritual of the wells.
Ramashwaram temple is famous for its numerous sacred wells, and we were taken from one to another, to be doused in the water from each of them. Thankfully our guide and the priests went easy on us, and we only got wet (whereas the real pilgrims were getting completely soaked). We joined groups of smiling, saturated Indians, as we slipped and slopped our way from well to well. Sometimes indoors, sometimes outdoors, it felt like being part of a children’s’ party game as we were led hither and thither, blessed and splashed, skidding along the wet stone walkways that were already polished smooth by centuries of passing pilgrims.
Finally we came to the main halls. Ancient, magnificent, megalithic and mythological. These architectural wonders are designed to give a perspective of the infinite, and were stunning to see and walk down. At one point we bumped into the temple elephant, at other times sadhus would suddenly appear sitting in the gloom, looking every bit at home as the old stone statues that lined these halls.
After more blessings and further exposure to gods, goddesses and universal principles, we were suddenly informed that the tour had finished, and we were free to wander at will. And so we did, in a daze, looking at each other and laughing in wonder.
Eventually we found our way back to the main entrance and as soon as we stepped outside, we got caught up in a passing procession of four hundred singing and clapping men and women, and one guru, carried aloft, sitting in meditation. We declined peoples friendly invitations to join in, as it was by now all getting a bit much for us to take in. Instead we headed down to the nearby holy beach to sit and watch the sunset whilst cows and pigs roamed free and pilgrims bathed away their negative karma. See youtube links:
It wasn’t a good night. Hot, sticky and sleepless. For reasons already mentioned we didn’t stick around Hotel TN, and after a delicious idly and sambar breakfast we piled into the taxi to do a some more exploring before heading back to Madurai.
First of all we headed due east along an increasingly narrowing strip of land. Our driver pointed to a sandbank a little way out to sea and told us that was the shore of Sri Lanka. It looked so close that you could almost throw a stone onto it. The road grew narrower and started to disappear under sand blown in from the shore. At one section we could see the remains of the old railway track that was destroyed in the cyclone of 1968. Looking at the twisted sections of old track I tried to imagine the ferocity of the storm and what it would have been like trying to find shelter in this flat and exposed landscape.
We stopped at another temple on the shore that marks one of the events in the Ramayana, but instead of going inside I was captivated by a fascinating sight outside. Just like in the famous scene in Lawrence of Arabia where Omar Sharif gradually appears out of a shimmering mirage, I could see two strange figures in the distance walking on water.
Caught in the glare of the morning sun, two silhouetted women in the far distance were carrying large pots on their heads and wading through the sea that was no more than twelve inches deep. I stood and baked in the sun, watching and waiting for them to come ashore. It was a remarkable and iconic sight which is only hinted at by the photo.
From there we drove further east until we could drive no more. The road had simply run out. From here there was only sand, sea and a humble fishing village. It was a poor and very simple place of palm-leaf huts, boats and nets, and with the mornings catch drying in the sun. There was a real feeling of being at the end of the world here, and it had a dreamlike quality to it.
The people were shy and not keen to interact, and so we soon headed back, stopping one last time at the base of Pamban Bridge for a final goodbye to this remarkable island.
I have to say that I really liked Ramashwaram. I liked it a lot. It reminded me of how Pushkar used to be twenty five years ago, when it was still a relaxed and innocent pilgrimage site. On our brief stay we had no one hassling us for business or donatations. There was just an air of acceptance and people ready to smile and laugh.
|Part 3: A little flavour of Madurai town. |
|Day 10 |
We said our sad farewells to Kumily. It was a deep wrench to leave such a beautiful place and our valued and cherished friends. However it was time to hit the road again, as there were other places to explore, and new friends to make. So with mixed emotions, we set off for Madurai.
We had the good fortune to be picked up by Joffey who must surely be the prime contender for the “Safest Taxi Driver in India” award. Joffey was a master at reading the road ahead, and keeping us out of danger and in a relaxed mood. I don’t consider myself a particularly nervous or fainthearted individual and I certainly like my share of excitement, but I like to feel that I will reach my destination without having to dice with death on the way. God knows we have also had a few front runners for the “Worst Taxi Driver in India” over the years, and the trauma of two of those journeys remains deeply etched into my neural pathways.
The road from Kumily to Madurai was easy and very pretty, and there can’t be many nicer drives to take in South India. Passing through rice paddies and palm groves with the Western Ghats framing the scene, it was a lovely journey. Eventually the lush green gave way to dramatic and strangely formed red-stone hills, and we passed through a string of brick-making villages that stored their bricks in large pyramid shaped barns.
After 3½ hours we edged our way through the Madurai traffic and pulled up at the Plaza Park Hotel. On our last visit to Madurai we had stayed at Hotel Supreme, and resolved to find somewhere better this time. India Mike and Trip Advisor reviews had suggested that the nearby Park Plaza was marginally better (and the laundry service simply couldn’t be any worse), so it was with high hopes that I approached the lobby and asked about a room.
I was taken up to see an available double room, and my heart sank ......... Man, what a dump! And at £40 per night!!! OK, it wasn’t filthy, but there is not much better I can say about it, as it was the kind of hotel room that was so dull, worn and shabby that it instantly generates a feeling of deep depression as soon as you open the door. I explained to the bellboy that the room was not acceptable to me, and I returned to our taxi leaving the Plaza staff making a great show of sorrow and lamentation on my exit.
Next stop was the nearby Royal Court Hotel. Now it was my turn to make a great show of sorrow and lamentation when they quoted the taffifs as starting at £50 per night and wouldn’t budge on the price. But we liked the place, and biting the financial bullet, we treated ourselfs and booked in for a couple of nights. With a little hindsight, I’m very glad we did, because the place was great.
After a siesta, we set off for the Meenakshi Temple in the evening. Madurai rickshaw rides are always an invigorating experience, whether by cycle or auto rickshaw, and I’ve always enjoyed seeing the abundance of Madurai flow by in a kaleidoscope of colours, faces, smells and sounds. To me it is one of the experiences that defines “real India”.
It didn’t take us long to get to the temple area, and we walked round the newly pedestrianised road that skirts the temple complex. There was a full moon shining down, and the evening was tropical and balmy hot. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood, especially us. Whether by design or fate, we found ourselves entering the adjacent market area rather than the temple. The last time we were here we had actually managed to miss this amazing place.
Housed in a part of the old temple complex, the market is full of tailors, bangle stalls, metalware merchants and book sellers, It is a wonderful spectacle. Jane trawled the bangle stalls as I took some photos, before embarking on the complex decision-making process of choosing a good tailor to make us some clothes. With around 20 of them to choose from, it was a bit daunting.
I was quickly touted by a chap who claimed to be a master tailor but who was currently beset by various family issues including the death of his wife last week. I will give anyone the benefit of the doubt, but it didn’t take long for me to develop serious doubts about the validity of everything he said. Nevertheless we followed him to his stall to see what he could provide.
The stall of this master tailor turned out to belong to another guy who was totally unrelated and we simply weren’t impressed with what was on offer. So moving along we passed on down the aisle. This simple act of walking through the market turned into an amazing experience which felt like being shepherded between rows of bullfighters, as all of the stallholders on either side would swish out multi-coloured silks and linens in front of us as we walked through.
We then stopped at another stall that we liked the look of, and proceeded with negotiations over getting a shirt, a blouse and a pair of trousers made up.
Once the textiles were chosen, the styles agreed and the measurements taken, came the part where the price is discussed........
The Art of Haggling
After clocking up nearly a year in India, I am now at a stage where I really enjoy haggling. With all its subtle drama, layers of psychology and the underlying battle of wills. To be honest, I still have no idea whether I really am paying a fair price but the principle that I hold onto is to only settle a final price that feels good and OK to me.
We started at 2,800RS from the tailor. After some play acting on my part to indicate that this was an obscene request, I told him that we could get them at half that price in England (not strictly true but all is fair in the art of haggling). I then put in my counter bid of 600RS at which he was so insulted that his colleagues had to restrain him! Ten minutes later, after more drama from both sides, we arrived at a friendly deal of 1001RS. Why the extra rupee? ..... Who knows ! ... but 500 was paid as a deposit, with the rest to pay tomorrow when we picked them up.
From there we popped into Meenakshi temple, which was under major restoration work at the time. Not only were all the goporums covered up, but the tank was drained and the main temple area full of wooden scaffolding and planking. A bit disappointing but still a wonderful place to visit and take a few photos.
Buffet breakfast at the Royal Court was very pleasant, and greedily I helped myself to croissants followed by idly and sambar, followed by toast and jam, topped off with some fresh pineapple! We were joined by a charming Canadian woman who was taking a more spiritual trip around India than us. She had recently had a hug from the Hugging Mother, and was planning to get a second one before going off to study yoga for a couple of months.
After saying our goodbyes to her, we returned to the Temple Markets, and with uncertain anticipation we picked up our new clothes. I need not have worried because they were great. Nicely tailored and fitting perfectly. I was so impressed that I ordered another shirt there and then, and gave the guy a little leaway on the price.
We then ambled around the whole area, laughing with and photographing the local shopholders, and soaking up the atmosphere.
A cycle-rickshaw man approached us, offering a tour of the city; Jane wasn’t sure, but its the kind of thing I like to try, so after a little deliberation, the three of us set off.
It turned out to be an excellent decision, as we spent a highly enjoyable afternoon trundling around some really interesting and attractive areas of Madurai. Having already gotten to know some of the main sights of the city last visit, I was keen on exploring some of the lesser known places this time. Our rickshaw guy was called Pandy, and he was a real delight to spend time with, always smiling, always keen to point out items of interest and to make sure we were happy and comfortable. If you ever go to Madurai and this guy approaches you for a tour, I totally recommend it, and ask that you look kindly upon him.
We started with a visit to the the river banks and saw the spectacle of Madurai’s laundry getting beaten to death (this HAS to be the place where the Hotel Supreme punishes its guests laundry). Next was the local woodyards and the ladder-makers quarter, followed by a suburban village where we stopped to visit weavers, and spinners and metal-beaters.
Away from the main centre everyone was friendlier and more relaxed, and I confess that I was amazed to find that we were never asked for a single pen, toffee, English coin, or to purchase anything at all.
That night I stood out on the balcony under an orange-glowing full moon, and marvelled that I had so easily travelled to such a wonderful place. I felt the spicy warmth of South India all around me, sensing the sheer abundance and richness of its varied culture and exotic wildlife. I reflected on both how deeply foreign it all remained, but also on how normal it had become for me.
I felt grateful for making the string of choices that had led me to here, and also felt grateful that Jane shared my love of India and was equally happy to forgo nice, comfortable, easy-going holidays, in favour of the challenges and rewards of the sub-continent..... God I Love India !
|Part 2: A little flavour of Periyar & Kumily |
|Day 4 |
We are back in our favourite hotel – Chrissies in Kumily, and today is an easy day. Last night we chatted with Chrissie and Adel the hotel owners catching up on news and tales of hotel life. Getting up late we eventually amble down for one of the lovely breakfasts, and to say hello to the restaurant staff. A bit later we head into town for an ayurvedic massage.
Massage shops are a bit like restaurants, quality and service can vary tremendously, and this has a direct effect upon your experience. Over the last four years we have had around twenty massages. Some have been outstanding, one of them was so good it was verging on a mystical experience. But we have had others that were unexceptional, and a couple that were so dire that I nearly got up and walked out (it was only the fact that I was as oiled up as a Turkish wrestler and naked as a baby that stopped me). The point is that you never know how it is going to be until you actually sample what they can do for you.
This one came highly recommended, so we went with great expectations. Twenty minutes in, I was feeling rather unimpressed, but I could hear screams, laughter and chatting coming from the women’s section. This I knew meant that Jane was getting a deep-level workout. As we compared notes later on, she said it was the best massage she had ever had, with the lady masseuse going through a full diagnosis and treatment. All I got was a prolonged basting and brief head massage.
The afternoon was spent hanging out and watching India play Sri Lanka. It’s great to see how much India has advanced in the world of cricket, and it was a joy to watch some first class play. We also caught up with Chien the cat who put in a noisy appearance and make to himself at home on Jane’s lap. Chien is one of the world’s character cats. Chrissie discovered him trapped at the bottom of a well when he was a kitten, and rescued the bedraggled feline. Since that time he has become the hotel’s resident cat, and leads an interesting life. He is definitely the noisiest cat I have ever heard, and he talks constantly to everyone, or just to himself or God if no one else is around.
Loved by guests and staff alike, Chien gets plenty of attention. However life is not always easy as he regularly has to deal with trespassing monkeys, snakes and dogs that come into the hotel grounds. Chien also has a secret ............ A big secret ! Because every so often he disappears; and he doesn’t just disappear for a couple of days. Chien disappears for a couple of months at a time. Just when it gets to the point where everyone bows to the inevitable conclusion that this time he really has been bitten by a snake or cornered by a pack of savage dogs and he will never be seen again, then that is the time when Chien comes nonchalantly walking in, shouting hello and looking for food. Sometimes he comes back looking healthy and well-fed, sometimes he is in a skinny, smelly and moth-eaten state. Where he goes ...... nobody knows.
Around sunset, I go up to the yoga room to practice my martial arts. After working through the form and exercises I lie down on a yoga mat and simply open up to the peace and atmosphere of the place. The room itself is on the same level as the treetops and backs onto an open expanse of forest. Even though you are in a hotel, you still feel very close to nature there. Sometimes it can be a little too close, as the monkeys often come swinging in from the forest, and cause CHAOS. The last time we were here, they did unspeakable things to the cushions on our balcony (see youtube for the censored version http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjQbO9FvLm8 ). The next day they raided the restaurant and I had to fend one off with a rolled up newspaper whilst his companions stole the sugar sachets off the table.
We ended the day sitting around the table with our friends, sharing dishes of delicious vegetarian curries and coconut rice, washed down with chilled beer, as we chatted and joked into the night.
I was awoken early by Jane suddenly exclaiming “Oh, there’s a monkey looking at me”! She had opened the balcony door and stepped out for some fresh air, only to come face to face with the upside-down head of a young monkey, hanging off the floor above and peering at her. This sweet-looking imp was quickly joined by a not-so-sweet looking fleabag of an adult, with trouble on its mind. And so we made a quick retreat, shut the door and left them to it.
Later that morning I popped up to the rooftop of the hotel, hoping to take some monkey photos. Sadly it turned out to be a simian-free zone, but I recognised the distinctive and familiar call of nearby birds, and creeping up to the edge of the roof I spied the resident pair of grey-hornbills (we had previously named them George & Mildred; see youtube link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T69RH3xlPyo ). As I stood and looked around I spotted a whole range of other exotic birds in the canopies of the surrounding trees. One was bright orange, accompanied by a bright yellow mate, there was a large black bird with long streamers on its tail, another brown frilly stripey bird looked like a miniature turkey, and a small flock of noisy parrots flying by. Not bad for five minutes bird watching.
After breakfast had gone down, we headed over for massage number two. I had decided that I wanted to insist on a massage from the boss man (having had the apprentice yesterday). This turned out to be a totally different experience. “These fingers have 33 years experience” he proudly told me, as he prodded and pummelled away. It was excruciating, but genuinely therapeutic, and I came out the other end feeling fresh and ALIVE. As I was dressing I could hear him talking to Jane who had returned to the lobby five minutes before. “Madam” he said, “I have been giving your husband strong massage. He screams with pain” (at this point he screams out like a woman) “but he says very good .... keep going”
When I come out we sit and talk about Kalari, and he pulls a pair of wavy-blade knives from under the counter and strikes a pose, before showing me the scars on his arms and legs from training accidents. “I am Kalari Master” he proudly proclaims, and points to a few impressive looking photos on the wall of him athletically demonstrating the two-man practice forms. “Wonderful” says I, please can you show me some real Kalari?” At which point he evades the request and goes back to advertising the need for us to book in many more massage sessions.
In the afternoon, comes the long-awaited fishing adventure. Adel & I are keen fishermen, and whenever we meet up, we now include a fishing trip or two. During last year’s visit to Kumily, we spent a wonderful afternoon and evening fishing a gorgeous stretch of river in Tamil Nadu. Even though we didn’t catch a thing, the sheer loveliness of the place made for an unforgettable time, especially as the sun set and thousands of fireflies came out and danced beneath the stars. It was so profoundly beautiful that I didn’t think it would be possible to improve on that.
This time we set out in the direction of Munnar. Sitting pretty in a Toyota Qualis we went further and further off the beaten track. The last five miles we crawled through the forest along half-finished roads that hadn’t even existed six months before. At last we arrived at our destination – the Idduki Reservoir. It was stunning! It looked as if the most scenic of all the Scottish lochs had been picked up and transported to tropical India. It was heart-stoppingly beautiful.
We spied a fantastic looking fishing spot ........ but getting to it wasn’t going to be easy. First we had to cross a stream above a large waterfall, so picking up our tackle we cautiously waded through the top of the falls. It was very slippery and uneven under foot, and we knew that if we slipped and fell we would be instantly washed over the ridge of the falls and taken over a 100 foot drop to the rocks below. It was at this point that our guide Anthony cheerfully told me “Actually many people come here for making suicide” .... “Thanks” I thought “ I really needed to know that”!
Congratulating ourselves on making it across, we then had to pick our way along a narrow path cut into the side of the cliff face. Holding onto each other, we worked our way along the precarious track, only then to be met with the third and worst of the obstacles – a thicket of thorn bushes. They didn’t even look like thorns, because there were no obvious, long spikes protruding from stems. These thorns were far more subtle, sneaky and horrible, these were Stealth Thorns! Each innocuous looking stem was completely covered in miniature cats-claws; small, hook shaped thorns that grabbed at you, and acting like evil Velcro, pulled themselves into you. The worst thing was that you didn’t get one thorn at a time, but ten at a time. Ten hooked thorns, breaking off into your skin.
It wasn’t until we were half way through the thicket that we realised the pickle we were in, and it took a slow and painful while to eventually get free and then extract the forty or fifty thorns that had embedded in arms, legs, toes, hands and fingers. I felt like a pincushion as I quietly bled from dozens of puncture wounds.
The good news however was that we had made it! We had won through and reached a magical fishing spot at the base of the waterfall. It was as hot as hell, but the sun slowly began to sink into the afternoon and evening, and as the temperature cooled, a full moon rose above the waterfall. It was a profoundly beautiful moment.
I would like to say that we caught some fish, but the only bite we got was from a large freshwater crab. The creature was a big as my outstretched hand, and as I lifted my rod it emerged from the depths of the lake, tenaciously holding onto the bait with an extended claw. Anthony took one look at it swinging towards him, screamed out and ran for his life.
We had to admit defeat, bested once more by the fish of India, and so we simply sat, sharing a beer and watching an incredible sunset unfold before us. Strangely the journey back was much easier than the journey down, and we made it unscathed. As we cleared the top of the waterfall once more, we met a couple of local villagers carrying a huge net. It looked like the kind of thing kids use when exploring rock-pools, but this net was large enough to catch a cow! After a lot of miscommunication, we finally understood through sign-language that the men were bat catchers, and they swooped the net across the mouth of a cave to catch bats as they flew out.
We had booked ourselves onto a half day trek in the afternoon, and so we simply lazed away the morning, lying on couches by open windows and listening to the breeze rustling the treetops. At midday we were picked up in a rickshaw and after the usual red tape of buying tickets and filling in forms at two different offices at either ends of the town ........ we were finally allowed to start walking.
The trek was a newly organised one and is marketed as the “Clouds Walk”. However clouds tend to be morning things in Periyar and at 2pm there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Instead it was as hot as a lap dancers thong. The route was a simple circle, that began with climbing up to the top of the tallest hill, walking along the ridge taking in the spectacular views (with or without clouds), and descend again via the tribal villages.
The only problem with the schedule was that climbing the tallest hill in the midday sun proved to be an extreme experience. Our guide Augustine turned out to be a great story teller, and he worked hard to lift our spirits and strengthen our resolve to reach the summit of the hill. He started by relaying stories of local heroes and heroines who had tamed tigers and avenged the death of husbands killed by evil kings. He then went on to describe how he once carried an overweight 85yr old German lady all the way to the top of the hill. Feeling both inspired and shamed for only being marginally fitter than an obese octogenarian we managed the final gasping steps up to the summit.
In celebration Augustine sung us a Malayalam hymn as we rested and took in the view. From the top of the hill we could see the entirety of Kumily town as well as the plains of Tamil Nadu stretching out into the far distance. Turning around we were faced with the vast area of jungle that makes up Periyar Tiger Reserve. Here and there we can spot huts and small hamlets clinging to the sides of the hills, but for the most part it remains an unspoiled wilderness.
We start walking along a ridge heading towards the lookout point at the head of a lush green valley. However we meet a local goat herder who tells Augustine that there are elephants nearby, and so plans change as we make a detour to try and find them. Augustine saw it as a matter of personal honour that he would show us some wild elephants, and so he disappeared ahead to track them down, whilst Jane and I sauntered along the main path, listening to the exotic birdsong and admiring the plants. It was not long before we found Augustine waiting, and he beckoned us to follow him up a tiny animal track that wound its way into the bush. After a lot of scrabbling along this obscure path and through thick undergrowth, we emerge (somewhat worse for wear) onto a small rocky plateaux, and there across the other side of the valley are three wild elephants munching their way through the forest.
As we sit and admire them we begin to discuss the various merits of elephants, of which memory, intelligence and resourcefulness feature highly. In order to illustrate this Augustine tells us a story;
A little while ago there lived a farmer in a neighbouring area. He lived in a small treehouse right at the edge of the forest, and he cultivated a small patch of land in front of his dwelling. Unfortunately the farmer began to be plagued by a large male elephant who regularly appeared out of the forest at night and ate up most of his crops. The elephant was a fierce beast that took no notice of the shouts and stones thrown by the poor farmer who was powerless against it, and unable to chase it away.
After the third visit from the marauding elephant, the farmer had almost nothing left of his crops and he was in a desperate state. So after discussing the matter with his neighbours, they hatched a plan to teach this rogue elephant a lesson and chase it away for good.
So when the elephant appeared again the farmer was ready, and quickly cooked up a large pan of oil. When this oil was smoking hot, the farmer threw down some vegetables underneath the treehouse, and when the elephant came up to eat them, the farmer emptied the boiling oil on top of the elephant’s back. The elephant went MAD, dashing about, trumpeting loudly, knocking down small trees and trampling everything under foot. But the farmer stayed safe up in his treehouse, out of reach of the elephant. And eventually the burnt elephant retreated into the jungle, and disappeared.
Years passed, and peace and prosperity had returned to the farmers life. He was able to tend his crops without any further difficulties, and had become a local hero for defeating the rogue elephant.
That was until one day, in the middle of the night, a large elephant with scars across his back, came sneaking out of the jungle, and up to the base of the treehouse. The elephant had broken off a piece of bamboo, and purposefully split the end of it. Using his trunk he ever so quietly pushed the bamboo pole up towards the sleeping farmer, and very carefully, and very gently he used the split end of the bamboo pole to grab and entwine the man’s hair. Slowly twisting the bamboo round and around, the elephant tangled up the farmers hair with the split ends of the pole, and by the time the farmer woke with alarm, he was unable to free himself.
The elephant then pulled sharply on the pole, and the man came flying head first out of the treehouse. As soon as he hit the ground the elephant speared him to death with his tusks, before walking back into the jungle, never to be seen again.
Augustine then went on to describe just how dangerous elephants can be, and so we told him one of our own stories, of the first time we travelled to Periyar and trekked through the tiger reserve. At that time we suddenly came face to face with a mother elephant and calf, as they emerged out of a bamboo thicket just fifteen feet from where we were standing. The two of us and our guide froze like statues, and held our breath whilst the mother elephant eyed us up and down, before choosing to walk on by. We thought it was fantastic, but we could tell from our guide’s reaction that it was far too close for comfort. Even so it was an exhilarating experience that was topped off half an hour later when I almost stepped on a cobra!
Augustine was so impressed with our story that he treated us to a cup of tea at the tribal village chai stall, and we sat cooling in the shade of the hut, while the local tribes-people took turns to try on Jane’s sunhat.
This was to be another fishing day for Adel and me, whilst Jane was going to have a relaxing day around town and the hotel.
At midday, Adel and I got back into the Qualis and headed out to a small river an hours drive away. Yesterday we had been promised by Anthony that we had a “100% chance” of catching fish here, although this optimistic forecast was now amended to “90% chance”” this morning. We weren’t sure what had happened overnight to result in a 10% drop, but it still sounded like a good bet to us.
When we got there it didn’t look so promising. A small cloudy river, overlooked by a local road. Choosing to make the best of it, we decided to try a shady spot on the far bank, and crossed over a nearby bridge. There was no denying it was a pretty spot, and it reminded me very much of a stretch of river I used to fish in Surrey. We spied a comfortable looking rock under a large shady tree, and decided to set up from there. It was a perfect position, right above a deep pool, and we could already see numerous small fish dimpling the surface.
It wasn’t long before we were joined by a local fisherman who mimed to us advice on which spots to try and how deep to set the baits. It also wasn’t long before we were discovered by the local children, who had clearly never seen a foreigner up close before. Word got out and over the course of the day there was often a small audience stood on the roadside looking down and marvelling at the strange visitors.
That said it remained a peaceful place and at one point we were treated to the sight of a kingfisher perched on a nearby branch, also doing a spot of fishing. Being a long-time angler, I am used to seeing these gorgeous looking birds, but as with all things, India effortlessly manages to produce a more colourful, and more exotic version. This kingfisher sitting opposite us was such an intensely dazzling shade of electric blue that it was almost painful to look at. Sadly this amazing bird did not stay for long, and with a quick swoop, he picked up a small fish in his beak, and flew off downstream. However the gap he left was soon replaced by a very happy sounding parrot, who spent the next hour talking to himself and whistling at passers-by. We never got to see this bird, but I have never heard such a range of expression from any animal, and it was impossible not to listen to him and smile.
As the sun began to set, we were still waiting for a bite, and so we had to conclude that if there really was 90% chance of catching fish here, then we had obviously come on a 10% day, and nothing could be done. So once again, the fish of India had won.
Meeting up with Jane in the evening, she described how her relaxing day at the hotel had turned into the most dramatic monkey encounter yet. She had been dozing on the couch in the afternoon, when a sudden noise woke her. Opening her eyes she found herself looking directly at a large monkey which had snuck into the room and was sitting just four feet away by the fruitbowl, with an apple in his hand. Jane screamed, the monkey jumped out to the balcony and Jane scrabbled up to bolt the door shut.
Emergency over, the monkey settled down on the balcony to eat his prize, and Jane settled down, safely on the other side of the glass door to watch him. More monkeys soon arrived, and seeing that fresh fruit was on hand, and they did not want to be denied. First they tried repeatedly to break through the door, even though Jane was a foot away behind the glass. It amazed and disconcerted her that the monkeys had no fear, and that they were greedily eyeing up the remaining contents of the fruitbowl next to her. The situation was getting serious, and various focussed attempts were made to break through the door. When this proved fruitless, they bounded around the front of the building, heading for the main door to the room.
Two of the culprits
It took a moment for Jane to realise what they were up to, and a desperate race then took place to reach the door before the monkeys could get in. Luckily Jane won, and managed to lock the front door before the monkeys outside could turn the handle and push it open. They were thwarted and they knew it. But far from being gracious in defeat, they took out their frustrations on the water filter that was stationed outside in the hallway. With a great crash they pulled it off its stand, and 30 litres of fresh drinking water poured down the stairs. Not content to leave it at that, they then dismantled the whole system into its component parts, and flung them around the entire area.
And so ended the Battle of the Fruitbowl.
This was our final day in Kumily. Jane had arranged ot visit “The Blue Mango” with Chrissie, while I had my own plans which first involved getting hold of a motorbike.
I spent the morning relaxing and getting some more training in.
At 2pm the manager found me and handing me a key said “Chris ... your motorbike is ready” This was exactly what I had been waiting to hear! On my last visit I had plucked up the courage to rent out a motorbike for a day, and set off into the wilds for a mini-adventure. Not only had it been my first time dealing first hand with Indian traffic, but it was also the first time I had got on a motorbike in over 20 years. Apart from a couple of near-death experiences with on-coming traffic, I had such a wonderful time then, that I had been looking forward to another two-wheeled adventure ever since. And that time had now come.
This time I had been given a Hero Honda Passion, and I confess that I struggled to form a harmonious relationship with it. The gears were in a different sequence, and it was too small to be comfortable for me. However I wasn’t going to let that stop me, and as I wasn’t planning on going far I decided to just get on and make the best of it, and so I wobbled off through town, stopping to put a litre of petrol in the tank along the way.
There was a particular area I wanted to explore around the head of the Vaigai Valley in Tamil Nadu. We had passed through it a couple of times in a taxi, and had the chance to explore it much more intimately when we went on the excellent “Bullock Cart Tour” that is run from Kumily. That was an enchanting experience that involved an afternoon of trundling at 4 miles an hour along cart tracks and back roads through this verdant and pretty area. And so I wanted to pick up some of the route of this tour and then go really off the beaten track to see what was waiting to be discovered.
I had to duck my head as I rode under the barrier that marked the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu, after that it was a lovely fifteen minute cruise downhill to the hot plains below. Thankfully there was very little traffic on the road, and I had the luxury of turning off the engine and simply coasting down with a warm breeze against my skin. This was sheer heaven to me, which was made all the sweeter when I reminded myself that normally at this time I would be trapped in some boring meeting or sat behind a computer in a grey office, looking out the window at a dismally damp and cold England. The contrast was like night and day, and I was so glad to have made the effort to get out to the wonderful exuberance of India rather than dragging through the depths of another British winter.
People cheerily smiled and waved hello as I passed by. I try responding with my own version of the head waggle, but it upsets my balance and I’m in danger of coming off the bike, and so I settle on a hearty “Hello”. At one point I ride by a young boy of about 9yrs and we make each other’s day as we both give each other a formal salute as I pass on by.
Turning off the main road, I picked up a cart track that follows the course of a palm-fringed river, and I stop here and there at my leisure, taking photos and watching the incredible bird life. At one point I come around a corner and ran straight into a large group of dhobi wallahs who were using the surrounding bushes as clothes racks to dry off the freshly washed saris and lungis. It was a blisteringly colourful scene, and they were as surprised to see me as I was to see them.
Further down the road I stopped at a chai stall to rest. I sat in the welcome shade and sipped sweet tea whilst watching a young boy effortlessly herd a large flock of goats along the dirt track out front. In the centre of the earthen floor of the hut, sat a tiny, tiny kitten. As small and vulnerable a creature as you could ever imagine, and looking very underfed and in need of care. If I had found him at home, I would have instantly rescued him, but here in rural India ...... what to do? Running through various options in my head, I soon realised that the only thing I could do was simply wish him well, and good luck.
I tried making conversation with the people around me, but we had no common language, and so brief eye-contact and cursory nods were as far as we got. Outside was a different matter however, as behind the shack were a group of women and a much loved baby. The colours of their saris was astonishing and they fell about laughing in shyness and excitement when I gestured if I could take some photos. The grandmother agreed and held up her cherished grandson. They owned one tooth between them.
My final stop was further up the river, by a large weir. The power of the water as it flows out of a deep gorge and crashing over the weir was phenomenal. At a section on the river just above the weir there is a quiet pool, and there on the river bank I could see ashes and what must have been human hair. Piecing the evidence together it was obvious to me that this spot is used as the local cremation ground.
Parking the bike, and walking up the hill, I followed a path along the top of the gorge just as the sun was setting. It was a deeply peaceful and quiet place, and was one of those rare and treasured times in India when you at last find solitude. As I walked on, I surprised a couple of large hares who loped off into the bushes, and further on I came across yet another troop of monkeys. Unlike the rogues at the hotel, this bunch were very shy and it took a while to get their confidence before I could move in close enough to take a couple of photos.
Feeling good about the world, and having achieved another ambition (but still feeling desperately sorry for the kitten), I returned up the hill and back into Kerala.
|The start of South India trip number four |
|I Love India. |
Even when sometimes I think I shouldn't.
Many of the best moments of my life have occured in India, and some of these moments have grown out of the help and advice that has been shared on IndiaMike. So I want to say thanks to all who have posted over the last few years, and to give a little back by sharing some excerpts from my travel journal written on our last trip in January 2009. It is my hope that people find it both entertaining and a little informative. I travel because I love new experiences and encountering new ways of looking at the world. India provides both of these for me in abundance. As part of this process I have also included many of my personal thoughts and observations - if they offend anyone then I apologise because that is not my intention ..... but if you really are that sensitive then I also suggest that you may need to travel more
KERALA & TAMIL NADU JAN/FEB 2009
This should have been day 1, but fate had a different idea, because at 2am, when we should have been settling down to the in-flight movies on the Cochin flight, we were actually still in foggy Dubai. Rather than relaxing into the start of our fourth trip to South India, we found ourselves in the midst of 400 stressed and confused passengers from all nations of the globe, all jostling to be rescued by five stressed and confused airline staff who are hiding behind the tall counter of Transit Gate H at Dubai Airport.
The fallout from the thick fog has caused havoc with most of the inbound and outbound flights. In the multinational scrum, people form allegiances as the emotions of the crowd flow between humour, anxiety and anger. We band together with six other Brits, and soon learn that the next available Cochin flight is not for another 22 hours! So instead of heading for Kerala, our first day is spent watching the tv at an airport hotel in Dubai.
At last we get back on route, and clearing immigration and the crowded airport we sort out a pre-paid taxi to Cherai Beach. We are now well into that in-between state of jetlag, where you don’t know if you want to go to bed or to try and wake up. So instead we end up stumbling around in a dizzy-daze, forever searching for misplaced items and wondering what to eat.
We roll up at the Sealine Hotel at 4am, and are greeted by friendly, familiar faces as we are helped to number 27 (our favourite room). After a couple of hours of semi-sleep, I wake up enough to feel the lure of the beach and the prospect of an early morning swim.
Pulling on some trunks, I stumble out of the room, down some stairs, and within ten strides I am in the surf. It’s beautiful, light, bright, warm and hazy. I float. I sigh with deep relief. And so begins the process of unhooking from another year of work-related stress.
The beach is long, and at this hour it’s empty apart from sandcrabs and a small flock of sandpipers that work the shoreline, running back and forth ahead of the surf as they pick out breakfast from the wet sand. I walk, enjoying the sensation of the sand between my toes, the rhythmic sound of the waves, and the warmth of the sun on my back. The strong colours of the palms and the sand hit me deep, and it dawns on me ........ I am back in India.
We spend the day dozing, swimming and ambling around, before heading off to Cherai Beach Resort for some dinner. As we walk into the restaurant we recognise more familiar faces. Some from the regular NLP training camp thats run there every new year, others from the staff at the restaurant. This year, today, seems to be different however, and we are disappointed by the food and lack of atmosphere. We eat a strange meal of grilled fish and barbecued sprouts (not nice!) and reminisce over how it used to be a couple of years before when the place was buzzing and the buffets were a sumptuous feast. Maybe it was just an off day, or maybe its gone beyond its peak. We finished with a quick stroll through the grounds, reconnecting with the familiar smells of sewage that drift through the complex, and once again we congratulate ourselves for choosing to stay elsewhere.
2am and we are both wide awake again, and so decide to watch some TV. I must confess that I have a horrible fascination for Indian TV, especially the dramas and comedies. We start by watching a drama simply called “Police” (episode 68). It takes a full five minutes for the opening credits to roll by, after which the main part of the programme consists of people sharing very dramatic and meaningful looks, accompanied by lots of dramatic and meaningful music. This is regularly interspersed with brief outbursts of low-grade violence. There is very little dialogue, instead it’s an extravaganza of non-verbal communication, that gets the imagination working to supply your own plot.
We then watch a couple of song and dance videos. The first features a robust middle-aged couple. We watch a fat chap with a fat moustache struggling to throw poses, whilst a woman who I can only describe as HEAVY DUTY sings and dances around him. She is chunky, robust and maternal in a very macho kind of way. The dance routine is slapstick sexuality, and leaves us roaring with laughter. The second video is more of a sensitive type and starts with a young girl chasing some goats. The goats are soon joined by a rather perverted looking man who starts chasing her. Then a whole crowd of dancers appear dressed as green and yellow tigers, who chase everyone. It finishes with another fat chap with big moustache holding up what looks like a man’s wig and shaking it at people.
Jane turns to me and says “I think there’s a lot of rules going on in India that we just don’t know about”!
We spend the morning on the beach. It’s a Sunday and it soon begins to get busier, as Indian day trippers come pouring in. In the distance we can see a large throng of people on the beach near the bus stand. Although the Sealine is at a quiet area, we begin to get a regular trickle of people parade by. It’s not long before we spot “Helmet Man” (man wearing or part-wearing a black motorcycle helmet). Then comes “Briefcase Man” (man carrying a pointless and obviously empty black briefcase). Every year we see these chaps walking up and down the beaches of Southern India, looking a little lonely and lost. Maybe there’s someone can explain the social significance of the familiar figures.
In the afternoon we get a taxi and ferry over to Fort Cochin. I know that many people dislike this place, seeing it as a tourist-trap of the worst kind, but Jane and I both love it wholeheartedly.
First stop is Idiom bookshop to pick up some of their amazing journals. These are masterpieces of hand-stitched and beautifully decorated artwork that always makes me smile. I buy a large one with a glittering Ganesh on the cover to serve as the travel journal for this trip, and we then head over to the Teapot for some tiffin. Cochin always seems to have a sleepy, dreamy atmosphere, where things happen in quiet slow motion. I take a photo of a guy fast asleep in a doorway and laugh to myself as I took a photo of the same guy asleep in the same doorway two years ago; the only thing different is the colour of his lunghi.
We amble up to the fishing nets, and sit down to watch the sunset. We are absolutely delighted to see a group of dolphins directly in front of us, and are treated to a wonderful display of aerobatics as they leap from the water, turning somersaults.
This is the first time either of us have seen this, and it confirms to us just how special Cochin really is. I spend a few minutes taking photos, climbing out onto the base of the nets to get a better shot. I love the way the nets have been constructed out of a jigsaw of worn trunks, planks and rope. It has an organic, natural feel to it, and looks like its been there for a long time.
Then comes the big question ....... where to eat? Before leaving England, I copied out the India Mike thread “Places to eat in Cochin”. Unfortunately I had left this back at the hotel, and so remained none the wiser. As this was our fourth trip to Cochin, we did know a couple of places, and decided to treat ourselves to an up-market visit to the Malabar House Hotel, which is a lovely looking place with a courtyard restaurant complete with fairly lights, pool and live classical music. The food was OK, but I still prefer a good thali from a down to earth joint (which is also a LOT cheaper than the RS1600 bill), but thats the price for a nice environment.
We walk off the meal, heading back towards the ferry, when a voice from the shadows says “Hello ... you like marijuana ?” “NO” says Jane emphatically! “Well, erm .... yes” says me. And so after some haggling over quantity, quality and world prices, the shadowy chap and I agree on a deal, and I walk away with a small amount of Keralan grass.
Back at the beach I smoke an end of the evening spliff, and it blows my socks off! It’s so strong that I can only manage half the joint, and I am hit with an increasingly intense set of auditory hallucinations. Every sound I hear from the surf to the aircon unit unfolds ....... Sounds within sounds, shapes within sounds, colours and patterns within sounds.
Jane looks at me and shakes her head ... “You look like a crazy, wild – eyed sadhu” she says. Barely able to function, I admit that I am probably getting too old for this, and I crawl into bed.
There’s no better way to start the day than an early morning swim. It’s pure heaven for me. The sea is warm and calm, and I feel safe venturing far from shore. Two canoes pass me by, manned by four fishermen in conical straw hats. We smile and wave at each other, and wish each other a “good morning”.
After breakfast our taxi turns up, and we load our collection of small bags into the back and settle down for the five hour journey up to Periyar and the Cardamom Hills. The first two hours are spent snarled up in Ernakalam traffic, but eventually the buildings, crowds and vehicles thin out, and we begin the climb up into the Western Ghats. Stopping briefly at a town on the way, we visit a very impressive looking bakery. The friendly guys behind the counter greet us warmly, and laugh with us as we eye up the tempting range of savoury and sweet snacks. We make our selections whilst talking about Christian Saints, David Beckham, Indian Cricket and Liverpool Football Club. We swap addresses, and I take their photo. The snacks are delicious.
The road passes through rubber plantations, pineapple fields and eventually the tea estates and spice gardens of Thekaddy. Its a lovely drive, and I enjoy it all the more as I listen to some jazz and Indian classical music on my mp3 player (the travellers friend). At one point our driver stops the jeep and pointing into the forest he proudly proclaims “Nuck Muck”. I wasn’t sure if I hadn’t misheard him, so pulling off my headphones, I ask him to repeat what he had said. “Nuck Muck” he confirms, nodding confidently.
Jane and I are confused.........”Nuck Muck”? we ask each other. “Nuck ...... Muck” ? we ask the driver. “Yes Sir Madam” he replies, this time making his point with a strong head-waggle. “Nuck Muck” he repeats. Jane and I look at each other in total incomprehension.
Nuck Muck, Nuck Muck, Nuck Muck ...I repeat it over and over to myself, turning it over in my mind. At last the penny drops ..... “Ah, Nut Meg! They are growing nutmeg in the plantations”? “Yes Sir” laughed the driver ..... “Nuck Meg”
It’s late afternoon as we arrive for our fourth visit to Kumily, and it is to be the first time our stay has NOT coincided with the Sabarimala Pilgrimage ( a huge pilgrimage to a nearby temple in the jungle that now gets more pilgrims in a year than Mecca!).
We are so used to seeing crowds of black-clothed Ayappans that the town now seems eerily quiet without them. Well .. quiet by Indian standards. As I write this, I am sitting on a balcony high above the town and forest, and I can still hear the call from the local mosque, the bells and chants from the temple, horns from distant buses and rickshaws, ten different dogs barking to each other, a thousand crickets hiding in the surrounding undergrowth, and one pesky and much-too-close mosquito.