Thursday, 28 April 2011

Ocean Stars

Emma at the headland - Om Beach

Om Beach, Gokarna. We arrived at Om Beach and met up again with Ina and Pia around one week ago. We have completely lost track of time in this beautiful part of the west coast of India. Om beach is so quiet as the season is drawing to a close, for the monsoon is imminent. We met a good deal of travelling friends at this beach, and for a week or so we were a friendly group from all across Europe:  Love and Sabina from Sweden, Flo (short for Florence) from Austria, James from France, Nunu from Portugal, Cherry from the UK and more who’s names have escaped me.

The beach has two small sandy bays that meet in the middle to form the Hindu Om symbol. The perfect beach is lined with little beach shacks serving great world cuisine,  the Tandoori King Fish may well be the finest delicacy I have ever eaten. The atmosphere here was so laid back, little happened and days passed unnoticed. Swimming, relaxing, reading etc were the order of the day, and we felt, a well deserved break after many hours of overnight bus and train traveling. We ventured through the jungle along the cliffs to reach other bays: Half Moon and Paradise beach, all of which were serene and perfect, isolated from roads with access only by a short trek. Often during the day, dolphins can be seen in the bay, tails in the air and sleek fins gliding through the water. I wished I could hear their “chattering” beneath the waves.

Sunset over Om Beach

Our good friend Flo from Austria provided us with much amusement, and each morning we would be up at around 06:30 to go through a session of five elements yoga, of which he was a superb teacher. This was a mixture of tai-chi and Yoga, with a Chinese heritage. It was less strenuous than Emma’s chosen Ashtanga yoga, and just perfect to do to the sunrise in paradise. Guy might have to become a five elements convert, though I can only recall two: Tone and Colour… Flo, I hope that we meet again before you leave India, as I’m currently three elements unwise! Oh, and I’ll never forget your phrase “this is one of the songs”. I hope that we will meet you near Saltzburg in the near future, and we’ll post those spices along the way.

 Bull and Calf at Om Beach

During the night before we left, we all enjoyed the most spectacular natural phenomena:  We swam with stars in the ocean. There was a huge bloom of luminescent plankton. The sea glowed turquoise around the body and glimmered like distant stars. One could see their whole body in the water illuminated by tens of thousands of tiny “stars”. The harder you swam, the  more intense was the eerie, beautiful light. The sky was full of stars, and the ocean too. I don’t expect I will ever experience such a unique event again, and we were all awe-struck. Emma likened the experience to "Faeries of the Sea".

 Luminescent Plankton (not my photo)

We headed from Om Beach to Goa – Palolem beach. Well though we thought we had to see Goa in all it’s touristy glory. On arriving at 02:00 am (travelling in India is often through the night, in order to cover large distances asleep – rather like teleportation) the beach at Palolem reminded me of Newquay in it’s appearance – predominantly British tourists watching huge screen football match and drinking on the beach through the night – Emma thought it was akin to Magaluf and agreed with Alabama 3 when they sung “Ain’t going to Goa”, if you haven’t heard it before it sums up the scene pretty well!
Looking beyond naff party time glitz, one can see that this would have been a most beautiful place before the package tourist invasion – perfect crescent, white sandy beaches and an ominous looking island; Monkey Island that there may still be time left today to take a canoe across to visit. Pia and Ina have headed to the dog sanctuary to help with the stray dogs at a widely respected charity here. The dogs trust put on an outdoor cinema in a little bay around the corner last night, with delightful table service tandoori food and a great movie – Three Days Later. It was a superb evening and Guy got out of his general misery “I’ve come here to visit India, not bloody Newquay” mood, and apologise to Emma. Well on the plus side, we leave Goa at 05:00am in the morning and are heading to Hampi. We plan to do some voluntary work at the Hampi Childrens Trust for a week or two. So tomorrow we wave goodbye to the ocean, plankton, beach huts, paradise and Newquay for the lunar landscaped Hampi – and Scott Roberts – I think I will regret not bringing my climbing shoes…

 This is Pervy Frog - He spent the week in our bathroom watching us with those pervy eyes!

As always - some more photos on Flickr - There is one for you Mr Kyle.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Tea in the Clouds

The mountains and tea plantations of Munnar

We traveled from Periyar to Munnar with Pia and Ina, our German friends. Munnar is also a national park and contains Indias highest peak outside of Himalaya - Ana Mudi 2695 m. So naturally Guy got all excited about climbing it. The trouble is, in India, such things are just not really possible. As with Periyar, the entrance to the park was extremely expensive and you were only permitted to walk for 1km! So Guy dragged Emma up the snake infested mountain (we actually saw no snakes) and we broke into the national park. Liberation? Not really: With no maps available we could only guess as to which was Ana Mudi. Well several hours of trekking through jungle, tea plantations and along dry rivers, we got to around half way up the sheer rock sides of the mountain. And there we were in the tea plantations, in the clouds. It was very beautiful and we felt pleased to have a self guided trek in the mountains. Emma saw a puma sprinting through the jungle ahead, after 5 minutes discussing the possibility of it eating us, we proceeded forth, discovering it was just big jet black monkeys!

Top Station, Munnar with Pia and Ina

We really enjoyed the cool climate of Munnar and could have stayed longer, but it was time to travel back to the coast; Fort Kochi. We stayed with Pia and Ina for a couple of relaxing nights and ambled around the town, enjoying good food and games of Hearts!  We also ticked another box of "things to do" in Kerala and went to see the Katakali dancing. A very interesting experience - from the men applying their make-up, demonstration of eye movements and gestures to rhythmical drumming, to a 40 minute performance (these performances usually last for 7 hours).  The photo really cannot capture the whole atmosphere of the drumming, singing, bell ringing, conch blowing, eyball-jiggling and dancing!

Chinese fishing nets in Fort Kochi

The evil God of the Katakali performance

After looking at a large map of India, it became apparent that we have covered little ground in this vast land, it was time to travel North. So we waved goodbye to Kerala from our overnight sleeper and headed to the city of Mysore (via Bangalore) in Karnataka. On arrival, we both felt that Mysore was the least chaotic city of India we had traveled to, with less traffic, less people and a slightly cooler climate. However, we soon became wise to the fact that many people in Mysore are very good at bending the truth and leading travelers astray from their plans - we were taking to beedie factories, incense factories, silk emporiums, and markets galore! We traveled around the city for the day with Mirza and Felix, two very entertaining gents from Switzerland, visiting the Hindu temples of Chamundi hill, the largest palace in India and more silk emporiums. The sheer opulence of the palace inside shocked us, along with having to bribe the guards to take cameras inside!

Mysore Palace - former Maharaja abode

The Wedding Chamber

My favorite photo to date - Hindu temple within the palace

The next leg of our travels is an overnight train to Gokarna, Om beach - as recommended by Mirza and Felix. And if you are reading this, it was very amusing to meet you we'll see you in Switzerland soon, perhaps we'll bring the little train!

Refreshing freshly squeezed sugar cane and ginger beverage, our new favorite!

Monday, 11 April 2011

Keralan Backwaters to Periyar

Our stay in Varkala was extended several days due to Emma developing a severe ear infection and fever. We enjoyed a spectrum of India's healthcare options; the 2 rupee general hospital that was by no means pleasant to visiting the immaculate surgeons house (though he did look like the crazy doctor from Return to Oz).The storms in the evenings persisted and we managed to capture some interesting lightning photographs.

Lightning above Varkala

Although she does look like a propped up corpse in this picture, Emma is enjoying this Varkalan sunset

Emma has since recovered well and we made swift progress to the backwaters in Alleppy, where we took a tiny boat out into the sunset - it was our most lovely moment to date, and the first moment of calm away from the racket of the towns. We were pleased having not taken the Gin-Palace houseboat cruises - they were both expensive and seemingly pretentious on the backwaters, only able to stay to the main large waterways. Our lovely little private boat (which was little more than a canoe with a palm tree canopy) sneaked down many narrow canals, where we got a wonderful view of life on the backwaters. We observed the villagers living with the water in harmony and it was very peaceful. We decided that the driver (captain?) of our little boat had the best job in the world, and he agreed. We putted along past his house whereby his wife popped out and waved!
 Our lovely boat in the Keralan Backwaters

A glimpse of village life

Next day we took the ferry from Alleppy to Kottayam, where we met two lovely German traveling companions who's names I cannot spell! As a group of four, we took the taxi to Periyar National Park and Tiger Sanctuary. This was the most spectacular drive through the mountains of the Western Ghats, passing huge rubber, tea and spice plantations.

On the following day we were encouraged by the German girls to rent scooters to take on the lovely quiet mountain roads. While Guy jumped at this possibility, remembering the days he rode his scooter a decade ago, Emma reluctantly agreed to join as a passenger. Well it turned out to be the most amazing day, surpassing even that of the backwater cruise, the freedom of the weedy scooter, cool mountain air in our hair and roads so beautiful and free of traffic. We felt as if we were in Easy Rider!

As we rode into the sunset, we passed waterfalls, monkey roadblocks and little dusty towns where we stopped for refreshments, while entertaining the idea of  being in Wild West towns, and us the cowboys. Groups of enthused locals would surround us and question us on our countries, cricketers and footballers. To finish off the perfect day, we rode to a spice garden, in which we were greeted by the incredibly multi-lingual spice aficionado owner. He took us around for an hour or so, and we were bewildered by the sights, tastes and scents of the fresh growing spices and medicinal herbs. This area is where 75% of all cardamom is grown and it smells delicious!

Four monkeys admire Guy's radical Hog

We stopped at a Mountain Waterfall

Today we took the early morning ferry inside the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary and it was almost instantly a disappointment! Not only were the tickets expensive, we had expected we could just relax and go for a
lovely walk, but even got told off for straying about 50m from the path! Infact all you can do in the park is get a cruise on the ferry or pay loads for a guided tour. Well at least the boat made us laugh. All the action was inside the boat, nothing really happened outside! Most of the hundred or so passengers were sent to sleep (Emma included).
 The Joy of Cruising Periyar Lake

The slightest hint of a distant animal sent the passengers into havoc. During quiet moments I just wanted to stand up and shout "TIGER", however I resisted the urge! Even running for the queue was stressful - not the tranquil journey we had envisaged. We saw some distant bison, couple of monkeys and deer - not even an elephant and certainly no tigers in the Tiger Sanctuary! It was a beautiful place, spoiled by the fact one can not enjoy it freely.We hope that all of the National Parks will not be as strict and expensive in future.

 Periyar this morning

It has certainly been a week of highs and lows, a rollercoaster of emotions. Such is the way of traveling India. Tomorrow we look forward to moving on to Munnar National Park, also in Kerala.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Kerala, Cricket and Friends


We travelled to Kerala on a 13 hour sleeper train experience - 2nd class sleeper. Though there were mostly cockroaches in the seats, it was also a wonderful experience! We met many good people on the train, chatted for hours into the night and were amused by the array of delicacies being sold by "wallahas" up and down the carriages.
Emma on the top bunk in the train

We arrived at Trivundrum, the capital of Kerala. There was a stunning Raj palace we visited, and a unique large temple we were not allowed in, though the unofficial guide was very sad when we did not want to buy his wood carvings!
Hindu temple in Trivandrum - uniquely painted just one colour

The stunning Raj Palace - incredible wood carvings make up the structure of this huge palace

India is the land where everything is offered upon you, especially as a tourist. There are days where we become frustrated having to fend off literally hundreds of street vendors, rickshaw drivers, taxis, all offering "very very cheap price sir"! Though it is there livelihood and being a westerner is just the target for a few extra rupees.
Simon - Our favourite "throw wallah" in Kovalam - He was lovely, but we just cannot fit any more stuff in our rucksacs!

We swiftly escaped the busy city (after spending a day organising getting a sim card for our mobile) and headed for Kovalam, a paradise beach in the south of Kerala - white sandy beaches and beautiful warm waters. Guy felt like a real traveller when he heard a coconut fall from the high palms nearby, despite Emma saying he could not open it, half an hour later with a brick he peeled off the fiberous husk victoriously and cracked the hard nut inside for a tasty refreshing fruit experience. It felt all Golding's Lord of the Flies!

Half way through the husk...
The freshest coconut ever - victory!

We met some friendly travellers who have inspired our adventure:

Katharine and Tom from London who were particularly generous in paying for the evenings meals and beers, along with giving us their Lonely Planet on India. We shared stories and had a great evening chatting about their stay in Kerala - they inspired us into staying in the stunning hotel in Periyar national park in the middle of a lake which may be the next port of call. Oh and Tom, if you read this - we certainly would love to take you up on the offer of the Tunng gig, and thanks for the gifts! We hope you had a safe return journey.

We also had the pleasure to meet Micah and Rachael, cycle touring south India for a few weeks - they were an inspiration into how to enjoy life and adventure. We juggled on the beaches, eat amazing burgers and did a few days of "bodysurfing" in the sea at Kovalam and Varkala. Though they were cycling, we stayed a day extra and chased them to Varkala where we met again! Im so glad that their adventure inspired Emma to embark on a cycle tour on our return. Hats off to you Micah and Rachael, how you can cycle every day loaded in these searing southern India temperatures is beyond me! We will visit one day in the US - mainly because I'd love to check out that BMW motorbike! (Don't tell Emma!).

Micah and Emma - Ultimates

So we are now staying in Varkalla, where Guy was able to (almost) achieve his life ambition #2 - surfing without a wetsuit in tropical seas. 65 rupees later I had a previously snapped foam longboard re-shaped into a 5ft shortboard! Well I can half tick off dream #2, having stood up upon the weird board for almost 5 seconds on some tiny waves! I still did not get the dream wave; glassy tropical right-hander...

Guy (falling off)

Emma has become a sun-addict on these beaches, and is developing a lovely tan. She had a great time practising juggling with Micah on the beach and was passing "ultimates" with 6 balls. Perhaps someone might suggest a good fairytale book to replace her completed Stardust book, as she has thieved my Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance book. Grrr!

On the topic of books, my cloud spotting has reached new heights (no pun intended), with the breif encounter with Cumulonimbus, the king of clouds last night, providing a cacophony of thunder, lightning, wind and rains during the epic cricket world cup final.

We were sat in a little bar on the edge of the cliffs where we watched the final few hours of the cricket final; India vs Sri Lanka. The atmosphere was (literally) electric, all the locals chanting and drumming with the bongos for their beloved nation of a billion cricket lovers. Both sides played extremely well, but India prevailed by hitting an epic 6 for victory! Everyone in the town went crazy through the night and are smiling even more, which for the Indians, I thought not possible!

"India Win"!

So next up - Kollam, where we will be enjoying the famous backwaters of Kerala, in boats and even canoes. I cant wait to leave this tropical beach paradise of Varkala!

p.s You may be able to see some more pictures on our Flickr page: namasteindia2011