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    Tuesday, 30 June 2009

    A bit of culture to aid recovery in Kochi

    Off Sight Seeing [Enlarge & More]
    Well, after about 72 hours of gut-wrenching agony I’m well enough to at least write a little! The train journey was pretty difficult, but I got to know the toilets pretty well – it’s amazing how your standards lower a bit after a few trips to throw up directly onto the moving train track that you can see through the hole in the ground that’s shaped like a toilet! After getting to Kochi, the first afternoon/evening was a complete write-off for me. I was continually ill and completely drained of energy, so Mahmoud went out for a little wander to get some food for himself, have a little scout around, and pick up a few bits and pieces for me!

    The next day, I did manage to get out of the hotel room, and was greeted by a pleasantly warm and sunny Kochi. As I was feeling better, we went out and enjoyed the city, doing a walking tour around the main sights. Kochi is a great place to visit – there are loads of things to see – an interesting blend of historical sights and daily life which means that you can happily walk around the city and not get bored. Furthermore, the people are really friendly, and we struck up a few conversations easily – everyone seems to speak English! Even though Kochi is such an appealing place, we were still surprised to find so many foreign tourists there – I think we saw more in one day than we’ve seen in the entire trip so far! It seems to be a very popular destination.

    Chinese Fishing Nets[Enlarge & More]

    The best of the sights was the Chinese Fishing Nets, huge contraptions fitted with counter-weights, which get lowered into the water for several minutes at a time, and then are pulled out with a few fish wriggling inside. We went down and sat with some of the fishermen, and heard their stories about their lives – including how since the 2004 tsunami, they no longer catch nearly as many large fish as they used to. I’m not sure of the reasons behind this, but it was really interesting to hear how this event has affected their livelihoods. They also mentioned that they rely on “donations” from tourists – something we’d known from the beginning we would need to provide them with due to the fact they’d motioned for us to come over in the first place!

    Kathakali Performance [Enlarge & More]

    We saw a few other interesting sights, including the Dutch Palace (actually built by the Portuguese) which contained some very interesting Hindu murals, and the spice market – the smell alone there was interesting! A real blend of aromas. In the evening, we went and saw a Kathakali dance – very expressive, despite the lead female (a demon) being played by a man, which I assume is normal. They gave a little explanation as to what some of the expressions meant which was useful for when they did the actual dance. By this point, I was starting to feel ill again, and had to rush to the bathroom near the end, almost missing the dramatic climax of the dance where the green guy from heaven cut off the breasts, nose and ears of the yellow demon woman from hell – no messing there!

    After that, the rest of the evening was over for me, and I went another evening with no food – three in a row! Mahmoud kindly brought me back some plain rice at my request, and I forced a few mouthfuls, but was not really able to eat. I’ve been making it all up today though, and am feeling a bit better, although still very low on energy. Thanks go to Mahmoud for running around after me these last few days and doing all our planning and everything - I could get used to this!

    Sunday, 28 June 2009

    Not a good time to get sick

    Jack Fruit, Spice Plantation [Enlarge & More]
    It was 22:10, the train was already 10 minutes late arriving in Madgaon train station and Jono had been sick four times already. Of all the nights to pick to be sick it had to be the one where we had a 16 hour journey ahead of us to Kochi. We’re not sure what the culprit of the food poisoning was but our suspicions lie with the ‘light buffet’ we were given at a visit to a spice plantation.

    We ended up spending four nights in Colva, a beach in south Goa. It was definitely busier than the others we had visited and the great location of the hotel and pool kept us there for two nights more that we were going to.

    The spice plantation visit was to break up the routine of taking it easy having a swim and something to eat, the tour around the plantation was really interesting and informative. We learnt that the most expensive spice is saffron, the age of the beetle nut tree can be worked out by counting the rings on the outside, three per year and that the husk of the nutmeg nut is used to produce mace.

    Train to Kerala [Enlarge & More]

    We have about four hours of the train journey left to Kochi and Jono has been up and down all night running to the toilet. He’s asleep now but he recalled to me earlier how on his first run to the toilet he managed to get outside the berth door and be sick on his arm and then take a couple of steps and be sick on the floor and finally sick outside the toilet. He was still smiling though! He’s had a few more trips since and used both the Western and Indian (hole in the ground) style toilets depending on what the need was.

    I tucked into a lovely breakfast of spicy omelette and bread this morning and as soon as Jono smelt it off he went running, I did feel a bit guilty but one of us has got to keep our strength up.;)

    Wednesday, 24 June 2009

    Petulant Waiter in Panaji

    Laundry Returned [Enlarge & More]

    There is nothing like getting back your clothes clean, all washed and ironed. One of the good things about travelling in India is that even if it feels like an extravagance it’s dirt cheap. We are now staying at a beach side hotel, Longuinhos, with a room overlooking the sea and a lovely pool for very little money. And as a bonus breakfast is included! It’s been lovely to go for a dip in the pool and cool down each day as it’s not always safe to swim in the sea during the Monsoon.

    Colva Beach [Enlarge & More]

    We’ve made our way to Colva, a beach in South Goa, which is much busier than the previous two beaches up north. One of the things I’ve noticed here and generally in India which you don’t always see travelling other developing countries is the locals love to enjoy the sights, including the beaches, as much as we do. I think that’s a very healthy sign and that in the case of India, that it is an emerging nation - as for more and more people there is extra money to spend on luxuries.

    Fisherman on Colva Beach [Enlarge & More]

    Spending so much time by the sea we’ve tried some fish dishes mostly using a fish called Kingfish. Neither of us know what one actually looks like whole but it must be pretty big based on the size of the steak we had the other night at the Portuguese restaurant called Viva Panjim in Panaji.

    We were both hankering after something that wasn’t spicy so we had the equivalent of fish and chips. It was a steak of Kingfish covered in semolina and fried, very lovely. The only down side to the experience was the waiter brought us out a random plate of fried ‘Bhindi’ (Okra), which neither of us ordered. We refused to accept them and the waiter refused to serve us like a petulant child for the rest of the evening. Luckily one of his colleagues jumped in and was very helpful. He recommended for desert a speciality cake (bebinca) made up of 29 layers, we counted them like saddos. It was ginger based and very delicious.

    Monday, 22 June 2009

    When the roof leaked in Panaji

    We left Arambol two days ago and have been staying in the state capital of Goa, Panaji, since then. Arambol was nice enough, but we were both ready to move on. There was a bit of a contingent of stoned hippies who spent all their time on the beach in Arambol – I’m not sure if they ever went to bed! Between them and the dogs which littered the beach and kept fighting, it started to become a bit less relaxing and seem more grotty.

    Panaji is a lovely place, Portuguese in its architecture and its legacy. Most of the houses here are beautiful big Portuguese villas (one of which we are staying in), and the town retains a certain charm with its wide streets, large shops and a feel that is quite different from most Indian towns or cities. Panaji and all of Goa was actually a Portuguese colony until 1961, and this is reflected in the character of the town and many of the people – a lot of the people are almost western in their looks, hairstyles and clothing. It was a big surprise to us when we were walking down the main street as to just how many liquor stores there are here – they seem to be the most common shop! We were also surprised that there was a promotion for cheap Carlsberg in the town, complete with loud western music!

    Finding our way[Enlarge & More]

    On our first night here, I woke up at 2am to a big thunderstorm, and the sound of rain absolutely hammering down. I got up to make sure that there were no leaks in the bathroom – fortunately there weren’t, so I went back to bed. However, Mahmoud also woke up to find himself absolutely drenched – the roof was leaking directly onto his bed! After a bit of reshuffling of furniture, and Mahmoud changing clothes, the leaking crisis of Panaji was over – we requested a new mattress for Mahmoud in the morning!

    The following day, we did a little self-managed walking tour of Panaji – it truly is a melting pot of European and Indian culture, with a heavy Christian influence as evidenced by a number of churches. The Hindu temple to Hanuman was also a good sight – very colourful! The people here are very friendly, not quite so forceful when they are selling or drumming up business – the taxi drivers call out to you as you walk past, and do a little driving motion with their hands – it’s very funny and they always laugh as they do it! The day was very hot and humid thanks to the rain from the night before, and by the end of the walk we were both drenched in sweat AGAIN – it was exhausting.

    Jono Dancing! [Enlarge & More]

    That evening, we did a river cruise on the Santa Monica, a boat recommended by the Lonely Planet, which advertised it as a cruise with a performance and dancing. It also described it as less rowdy than the other cruises. Well – I can only assume by less rowdy they mean “family-oriented”, because the cruise had a DJ playing all the latest Bollywood songs at the highest decibel rating. There was some dancing, but mostly it was the people who had paid to ride the “leisurely” cruise, who knew all the moves from whichever movie each song was from. Well, it wasn’t what I expected, and it was admittedly atrocious, but I really enjoyed it – you can’t help but crack a smile when you see people enjoying themselves so much. As the only non-Asian person on the boat, I stood out like a sore thumb and as you can imagine, a few people tried to get me up to dance. One guy was pretty persistent, and in the end I very reluctantly did a little dance (copied his moves), and he got his requisite photo with me – hilarious for all I’m sure. Mahmoud was all for me doing a dance, but wasn’t quite so keen to get up there himself – don’t worry, I saw to it that he was included in the fun. Unfortunately he set his camera to some bizarre setting first, and I couldn’t get a good picture – sorry!

    Today, eardrums still vibrating, we visited Old Goa, the former state capital of Portuguese-administered Goa, and looked at some of the old churches and cathedrals there. Very interesting, and quite unique architecture – a display of colonial power which is still present today. The story of St. Francis Xavier’s incorruptible body which is entombed there is interesting, although rather macabre I think! It was another hot day, and for the first time since we arrived in India it rained during the day while we were out – we waited in one of the large churches until the rain stopped. Thanks to the rain though, it seems this afternoon is a bit cooler – what a relief!

    We’re now off to try some Portuguese food – with Mahmoud having just got over a 24 hour bug, and my stomach a wee bit shaky, let’s hope we cope with whatever they give us!

    Saturday, 20 June 2009

    Hippies, Sunburn and Cockroach

    Blogging in Arambol [Enlarge & More]

    Arambol did live up to its reputation, the best sight was a ‘German’ lady who hadn’t seen a good bath for a few months and had the requisite dreadlocks and hippie demeanour. We were in an Internet Café and I heard her say just before she fell asleep in her chair “W-w-w-w-w-How to you make it small letters?” in her strong slurry German accent. The nice internet lady came over and pressed the caps lock key for her.

    Even though a lot of time it was cloudy the sun is pretty strong. Jono learnt the hard was by getting glowing red shoulder while going for a dip in the Arabian sea. I did the same however I was very aware that the Monsoon seas are really dangerous so did not venture out too far. The waves would have been ideal for a surfing

    View at Dinner [Enlarge & More]

    The most memorable part of Arambol was not the hippies or lazing around doing nothing but the cockroach that decided he liked our room and Jono’s backpack more than the rest of Arambol. I’m not a big fan of the critters and if I can, I’ll avoid being in the same room which means that Jono got the privilege of getting rid of it.

    Trying to get rid of a Cockroach is not an easy thing, as you don’t want to squash it on anything of yours as it’ll just dump all it’s eggs right there, which will mean you’ll have a little family of them in no time at all. In the end after a few screams by Jono he got it outside and the homestay owner who had come out of his room to see what all the commotion was about expertly removed it from Jono’s backpack and squashed it.

    See hilarious video here of cockroach!!

    Thursday, 18 June 2009

    Arambol – Town of Hippy Magic (Mushrooms!)

    Arambol Beach [Enlarge & More]

    After bedtime last night, there was a major electrical storm in which the power came on and off several times. It was a bit bizarre, because for a few hours we were the only two in the entire hotel, with the staff having also gone home. We had managed to get a meal by going on the back of a motorbike (both of us plus the driver!) in a terrifying 10 minute bike ride to the nearest restaurant – which ended up being very good and very cheap. Mahmoud can speak Hindi which has been really useful on several occasions, but he had managed to convince the guy who was looking after the hotel (Yogesh) to take us to the restaurant – we may have had to take a taxi otherwise. The food was excellent, and although we also paid for Yogesh (plus he had a beer!), it was our cheapest meal yet at 198 rupees – a bargain at just over £3!

    Mind Boggles [Enlarge & More]

    Thanks to the storm, we both had trouble getting to sleep. The thunder was so loud that you could hear it over the noise of the electric fan (which was really loud on it’s own). It seemed like it should be pouring with rain but it didn’t start until after we fell asleep – and when we woke in the morning it was raining steadily.

    By about 11am it had stopped raining, and we made our way to Arambol (hippy-ville) to find a more central place and convenient place to stay. I had some reservations, as the place sounded like a bit of a hippy/drug den, and was imagining stoned hippies wandering around with manky dreadlocks, all spaced out on magic mushrooms – but there weren’t THAT many of them (there are some!). Actually, Arambol is really lovely and I’m enjoying it so far. We’re staying in a wholly decent and clean hostel right next to the beach and restaurants for a mere 350 rupees per night.

    Making Footprints [Enlarge & More]

    Being in such a great location, we sat down by the beach as the sun came out for the afternoon, and watched the world go by. Walking along the beach a little way, we came across a washed up dolphin carcass being eaten by crows, and a well full of toads and a turtle – lots of animals! The beach has a lot of dogs living on it which is mildly irritating – I think because there are so many westerners here they get fed pretty well, and they stick around for the food – but they’re still mangy horrible creatures that snap at each other constantly and look like they each have a flea colony living on their backs.

    I had the best mango juice ever today – pure mango pulp. Mangoes are in season at the moment, and they are so sweet and juicy – better than any mango you will get in a western supermarket! It was so tasty; I will be going back for seconds (and thirds!). We went back to the same restaurant for dinner, and we watched the sunset from a table on the beach, accompanied by a refreshing but warm sea breeze – beautiful and very relaxing!

    Arambol is a great place to relax and do nothing, and we’ve decided we want to spend a few days here. It’s relatively quiet at the moment, but I can imagine it getting very busy during the high season (I’m glad we’re not here then!). No doubt in the next couple of days we’ll come across some amusing sights here in hippy-ville – I’ll let you know!

    Tuesday, 16 June 2009

    The bright yellow snake

    Mandrem Beach [Enlarge & More]
    I thought the bright yellow snake was dead until it moved! Lucky I did not get much closer to have a look.

    Arrived in Goa expecting to be lashed by heavy rain and wind but it’s all calm so far. The train ride was long but comfortable, my bunk a little short for me but wide enough for me to curl up in. We got up in time for the sunrise this morning the first of our trip, from the train window a hazy orange glow greeted us with a very lush green landscape of banana and coconut trees, rice field and generally green vegetation. It was like watching TV as it did not seem real tome as it was so different to what we left behind in Mumbai. 12 hours later we arrive at Thivim our stop and it was the first time I’ve had to carry my backpack any distance – I definitely have too much stuff.

    Villa River Cat[Enlarge & More]

    We opted for a quiet beach called Mandrem and with a bit of persistence we found the Villa River Cat nestled just beside the beach. What we did not realise was it the off season really means everything is shut down and the hotel has been opened up for us. It’s lovely but the only dilemma we have is how do we feed ourselves? Luckily for tonight Yogesh the guy who runs it has kindly offered to take us to his friends place after a bit of persuasion from me in Hindi. I’m not sure what we are going to do tomorrow, we may decide to go and stay at the slightly busier beach down the coast which is full of hippies – that’s what we are told anyway – but it does not appeal to either of us.

    Venomous Yellow Snake[Enlarge & More]

    As you can imagine with no one else around the beach is deserted apart from sharing it with a bright yellow snake. It wasn’t moving much as I think it was injured, but on Jono’s advice, as he saw it move first, I kept a safe distance while taking a photo.

    Monday, 15 June 2009

    The flies are disappearing...

    Elephanta Carving [Enlarge & More]

    I’m writing this from the comfort of my bed on the 0111 Konkan Express from Mumbai to Goa. We’re staying in class 1A, which is air conditioned and has reasonably private cabins with either two or three beds. So far the train journey has been ok, bar the usual train station scammers that you normally encounter – trying to extract money for every little thing!

    Today was a good day. We checked out of the hotel at midday, and made our way to the India Gate, at which point we boarded a “Deluxe” boat to Elephanta Island. The boat was not particularly luxurious, but there was a lovely breeze blowing across the sea and the hour long boat ride was pleasant. Elephanta Island was excellent – the attractions there are the ancient Hindu temples, which mainly contain depictions of Shiva and Parvarti in huge and awe inspiring carvings, pulled right out from the rock of the island. Although the island was amazing, there was a small climb to the top, and by the time we reached the temple I was completely drenched in sweat! One Indian guy got a photo with me, although I’m not sure whether that was because I’m a tourist, or because my sweaty t-shirt was photo-worthy!

    A little hot![Enlarge & More]

    Our visit to Mumbai has now come to an end, but I have to say I really enjoyed this first stop of our trip. I noticed some surprising things about Mumbai – one of which being that there seemed to be hardly any flies! This could be due to an effort to clean up the city, as there is also very little rubbish in the city centre and tourist areas. Similarly, there are hardly any dogs, cows, or open sewers, so I guess that the flies don’t have too much to eat! Furthermore, there are no rickshaws, a mode of transport I always used in my last trip to the north of India – there only seem to be taxis in the centre.

    All in all, Mumbai has been brilliant – I just hope the rest of our trip is as good (or better)! Off to Goa now – time to see what the Monsoon is all about.

    Saturday, 13 June 2009

    We are closed, weathering out the storm and will open in Oct 09

    Dhobi Ghat, Mumbai [Enlarge & More]
    The heat is exhausting….

    I’ve found myself with very little energy over the past few days and it must be down to the heat. The Monsoon is late in Mumbai and the heat and humidity is oppressive. I’m not a big fan of air conditioning but we’ve had it on constantly in the hotel room.

    It’s our 3rd full day in India and it’s been pretty hassle free so far. I go about pretty unnoticed while Jono attracts all the peddlers. Also if I’m walking behind him I get to see all the stares he gets as a ‘white tourist’, sometimes I’m in awe of how far they can twist their necks round – just like an owl. There is no shame in staring here and I get my own posse of watchers when I’m trying to get that shot with my camera, usually crouched on the floor.

    India Gate [Enlarge & More]

    It was another slow start today and we made it to the Dhobi Ghats where probably all of Mumbai’s laundry gets done. I’ve seen it on the TV and as always with that way round it seemed a lot smaller than I imagined in real life– interesting all the same.

    Finally found somewhere to stay in Goa , the Monsoon has arrived there and all the beach huts we planned to stay in are closed. We got one reply back from an owner saying “we are closed, weathering out the storm and will open in Oct 09”, let’s hope it’s not that bad.

    Eating: Lovely cheap food at Kamat restaurant in Colaba for another princely sum of 300rps. For that we ate:

    Bhel Puri ( an interesting spicy mix of dried bits including rice puffs)
    Paneer Palak ( Cheese & Spinach)
    Yellow Dal Fry
    Garlic Naan
    Bottle of mineral water

    Thursday, 11 June 2009


    CST Train Station [Enlarge & More]
    I’ve noticed a pattern whereby shady looking men with bloodshot eyes come up to me when I’m walking down the street in a particularly tourist-centric area…

    “Sir… something?”, or a whispered “…Hash?”

    At first I thought they were saying “Nash”, and I thought – how do they know my name?! But I figured it out pretty quickly and my standard response is now “No, nothing!”.

    Today was the hottest day yet, and we’re both suffering from blisters on our feet and a bit of heat rash from wandering around in the humid conditions. Here’s hoping we get used to it!

    Another late start, although not as late as yesterday, at least we were in time for breakfast this morning. We visited the train station, not to book train tickets but so that Mahmoud could take photos of the magnificent building described in Lonely Planet… OK, so it didn’t end up being quite as an amazing building as was described, but it was pretty amazing watching all the trains coming in, and people leaping off and on. Apparently Mumbai has the largest train station in Asia, and I can believe that – every minute or so a new train would come in and offload several hundred passengers. It really gives you a feel for the number of people in India!

    Chowpatty Beach [Enlarge & More]

    This afternoon we hopped from one air conditioned café to another until it was cool enough to walk to Chowpatty Beach, one of the few beaches in Mumbai. It was not really worth the walk. The sand was hard and grainy, and I didn’t want to think much about what was in it – the beach was probably pretty polluted. But that didn’t stop hordes of families descending on it, and a lot of people were down there enjoying the afternoon sun. I was slightly (very) disappointed by the lack of places to eat there, so we took a taxi down to Colaba and had a lovely curry – each evening’s meal seems tastier than the last!

    Starting to relax into it

    Icecream seller [Enlarge & More]
    It’s been a couple of days now and it’s bloody hot, it is 33C in the shade.

    Mumbai has not been what I expected, it’s cleaner, friendlier and not as intimidating as Delhi was, the only other large city in India I have it to compare to.

    I’m slowly getting back into crossing the street which in the face of it is a random process but the key is to start walking and not to change your walking speed. The rest takes care of itself as everyone from trucks, taxis and cyclist steer around you.

    It’s easy to forget that it is a city of contrasts, from the air as we came into land all you could see is miles upon miles of ‘slums’ right next to glistening new tower blocks. It must be the area we are in but not seen any of the ‘slum’ side yet.

    Even poverty is at bay here, you have to look more closely than other places in India to see it. A stark reminder was on the way back to the hotel from having an all you can to eat Thali, a family including the children were strewn across the pavement, looking like they were settled for the night.

    Breakfast at “Place on the Corner” Omlette and Roti for 40rps, ok if you are stuck for somewhere.
    Eat at “Samrat Restaurant”, 225rps each for a Thali all you can eat, great value and delicious.

    Mumbai - First Impressions

    Mumbai Taxi [Enlarge & More]
    Today was our first day in Mumbai, and the first day of our trip. I’ve been to India before – I spent time in the north of India – so I thought I knew what to expect from it, but today was quite a different experience.

    We left Heathrow Terminal 5 on Monday evening, and spent the night on the plane, arriving in Mumbai nearly 9 hours later at 11:15 the following day. When we walked out of the airport, the heat and humidity were the first things that struck me, and my clothes stuck to my body instantly. Although I wasn’t expecting it, I think I experienced a slight culture shock as we were driven from the airport to our hotel in the Fort area of Mumbai. Seeing the traffic madly zipping past, and watching the people on the side of the road, I began to wonder why I had let myself come back to India! The poverty is always overwhelming here, and it’s shocking to realise that so many people in this country live on so little. It makes you feel lucky, but also a little guilty.

    When we got to the hotel, we had a rest and a snooze to catch up on some lost sleep, and then we went out with the goal of getting to the seafront to see if we could catch some good views and get our bearings. After following the map in Lonely Planet, and getting slightly lost, we eventually found our way there. The sun was beginning to set behind the city skyline, creating a gorgeous scene to greet us. Thousands of people were out sitting in the sun, jogging, or walking along the seafront and enjoying the cooler weather of the early evening.

    Walking back to the hotel, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I wasn’t being hassled too much to buy things or to give money to beggars. Only a couple of beggars came up to me all day, and most shopkeepers said hello rather than try to hawk their wares on me straight away. This is in stark contrast to Delhi – the hassle capital of India. Despite my initial misgivings I think I’m going to enjoy Mumbai – it’s beautiful, friendly and overwhelming, all at the same time.

    Monday, 8 June 2009

    And we are off.

    The Flat[Enlarge & More]
    Just a very quick update as I should be in bed. I've spent the week packing the flat up, tidying and just getting all those little things done before flying out tomorrow.

    What a week, someone should have told me that going away for a year would mean packing up as if you are moving house! For some reason it did not dawn on me. Thankfully all boxed up and stored away for the year now with the last box packed an hour ago. The flat itself is spotless, it looks like when I first moved in, all clean and sparkly.

    The trick is not to spend too much money, I got the boxes free form the local supermarket and all the stuff from the flat it either stored in the loft or with kind friends.

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