04/04/2008 - Southern India
Well we've made it to our final country of the trip - India! We've been here almost a week now and loving every sight, sound and smell of it! Much to our surprise we are on a very posh private tour here with just us, a car and a driver at our disposal, and some beautiful hotels, all very different to our YHA experiences.
Day 82 (Wednesday 26th March 2008)
Hotel Airlines International N19.0846 E72.8447
Altitudes sometimes haven't been coming up correctly on Cameron's GPS phone in India, so we're missing a couple - we dunno why!
It was a long 12:10 flight from Sydney to Mumbai (Bombay), made bearable because it was only half full and the personal entertainment systems meant we could watch what we wanted when we wanted! We prepared for the worst on arriving at Mumbai airport at 1930 but the transition through passport control, customs and money exchange proved suprisingly quick, efficient & straight forward. Our taxi to the hotel proved less so. Firstly it needed details in triplicate before the driver could leave the airport, and then after 10 mins driving in what was, to us, utterly chaotic traffic - he pulled over and asked for the hotel address. He drove on again, and after another half hour stopped once more, this time to phone the hotel and see where it was! After 40 mins of driving we found our hotel, only just outside the airport perimeter road!
Day 83 Casino Hotel N9.9616 E76.2695
Jew Town N9.9583 E76.2606
"Tea Pot" Restaurant N9.9679 E76.2455
Up at the crack of dawn, earlier than planned due to our booked breakfast arriving at the door 0430 rather than 0515, then back to the airport for our Kingfisher Air flight down to Cochin, just 2 hours away. What a difference, lush green landscapes stretched for miles beneath us, as we took up the holding pattern to land! We were met at the airport by tour company rep. and our driver, and set off for our hotel about an hour away. On the way the rep. explained the itinerary and how things would work for the next few days. The hotel Casino is one of the best in the area, but badly located fo most of the main sights of Fort Cochin. We managed to meet Cameron's mate James who found us at the hotel, and we caught up over lunch. James is travelling around on his own for 2 weeks and taking in many of the same sights, so we'll probably catch up often. During the afternoon we had a guided tour of the area's main sights : including the Dutch Palace built by the Portuguese!, St. Francis Church, the Synagogue and Jew Town. We also saw the Chinese fishing nets and the catch of the day being hawked by the riverside. In the evening we went to watch a Kathikali dance show, the highlight of which was the hour before the show where you got to watch as the performers put on their makeup, a painstaking process and the end results are pretty amazing. The dance itself for us was both baffling and bizarre, but thankfully it's only a segment and lasts only half an hour long (the entire performance can last 12 hours!). Afterwards we met up with James and 2 other backpackers he had met, Stacy and Louise for a meal. Due to strict alcohol licensing laws, our beer was served to us disguised in tea pots & mugs! Fantastic - Cameron has never drunk so much tea in his life!
Day 84 Broadway Market N9.9768 E76.2801
Boat Cruise N9.9762 E76.2447
Talk of the Town N9.9652 E76.2438
After breakfast we were driven to the Broadway market area of Cochin, where our driver promptly disembarked us and said to meet 90mins later, after pointing us up some small side alley 'to the market'. So that was it, we were abandoned and in a frenetic place, where we were the only white faces and everyone seemed to know what they were doing and where they were going. Undeterred (ish), we wandered around the small streets and alleys, finding hundreds of tiny shops selling anything imaginable. The fruit and veg. market area was totally manic, and lots of stall holders were shouting at us to get us to buy their stuff, one man carrying a 90kg load on his head even shook Cameron's hand as he walked passed, for no apparent reason! It was good fun, and nice to see the real locals going about their lives rather than the touristic bits. Rescued by our driver, he took us to the Grand Hotel for lunch, where a 2 course meal and drinks set us back about 6 pounds outrageously! After a mid-afternoon swim, we were picked up once again and deposited at the ferry ramp where we found to our embarrassment that we had a large boat (that would easily sit 50 people) to ourselves for a sunset cruise. As we boarded there were about 100 locals all waiting for their ferry stood staring at us - we couldn't leave fast enough! The cruise was good, and we got to see a lot of the area/islands from the water and also pulled up near the fishing boats which were returning from a day at sea to watch them unload the catch. As we chugged back to the jetty we looked back on the sun setting over the silhouetted Chinese fishing nets along the shore. Back on dry land we found James and the lasses, and headed out for a good dinner & some more teas!
Day 85 Copper Castle Hotel N10.0616 E77.0635 Alt 1389m
Matupetty Dam N10.1069 E77.1231 Alt 1600m
Grave yard N10.0809 E77.0605 Alt 1392m
Tata tea museum N10.0941 E77.0505 Alt 1384m
Leaving the city behind, we drove for 4 hours through the lush green hills to reach the town of Munnar in the middle of the tea plantations. Along the way we passed the Cadbury owned Cocao plantation, but there were no discounted shops! The roads were very twisty and narrow, and the driving is best left to locals : the basic idea seems to be hit your horn as often as possible to remind others you are there! (or to say hello, or to express frustration etc etc etc) The roads are full of cars, buses, motorbikes, auto-rickshaws and the occasional elephant or horse, not to mention the thronging hordes! Home tonight is the Copper Castle Hotel nestled high in the hills and surrounded by tea plantations, the view from our room is stunning. The hotel is nothing like a castle, nor is it made of copper. After a good lunch we visited the Tata Tea museum where we see some relics from the Colonial era that would probably be best as landfill if we're honest. We also had a demonstration of how tea is produced on the working production line, understanding only 50% of what was said - we therefore spent all of 50p on a book explaining! (who will get this as a pressie?) Disappointingly, and confusingly, there was no tea taste testing! As we left the museum James and the girls were just arriving, and we promised to meet for dinner later. Amazing that in such a huge country you keep bumping into the same people! But we've seen that all along the tourist trails of the world. For our evening meal we had a lovely buffet in the hotel before the girls headed back to their hostel in the town (before heading off to Goa next day), while James had splashed out and was staying at the same hotel as us.
Day 86 Cardomon County Hotel N9.6042 E77.1608 Alt 885m
Poopara Body! N9.9690 E77.2178 Alt 941m
Ara.... Dam N10.0054 E77.2047 Alt 1150m
Another long, and at times terrifying, 4 hour journey today - this time to Kumily near the Periyar National Park. We arrived just about intact. Along the way Cameron & the driver (and about 80 people crowding on a bridge) spotted a body floating in a river. The driver seemed to think it was probably something to do with the Spice trade - intriguing! The Cardomon County hotel is again an excellent choice by the tour firm, and the staff cannot do enough for us. It's quite amusing that for us to arrive, check in and get to the room requires at least 10 different members of staff! Job creation is an art form over here. As we arrived we were also garlanded with Jasmine, and given a dot to our foreheads! Cameron's garland stayed on all of 5 mins to be polite! Just after we arrived, a huge downpour began and the thunder caused several power cuts to the hotel. We thought monsoon season had started early! Our driver decided to postpone our planed afternoon activities until the next day. Faced with a few free hours Nicky immediately decided to try one of the speciality local massages followed by a steam bath - Heaven!! Cameron, noting this was the most expensive treatment on the books, had a lazy afternoon reading a 2nd hand book in the room! Plus massages aren't for real men now are they!?!
Day 87 Wildlife Cruise halfway point N9.5342 E77.1502 Alt 768m
Elephant trek N9.6188 E77.1455 Alt 809m
Spice plantation N9.6179 E77.1590 Alt 812m
Tribal Village N9.5986 E77.1676 Alt 811m
Up before dawn to catch the first boat ride of the day through the Periyar NP. We set off across a mist shrouded lake at 7am in search of wildlife by the water's edge. The surroundings were stunning, the whole environment was created when a huge dam was built in the valley about 90 years ago. It's now a wildlife sanctuary, which protects amongst other animals the elusive tigers. Our boat was a two story affair, and there must have been about 100 people aboard from all parts of the globe. We saw wild boar, black monkey, deer, otter, bison and some beautiful bird life, but no elephant or tiger. On our return we again randomly bumped into James, who had got the bus here the day before and was off on his boat cruise! After a quick breakfast at the hotel we were off again, this time to an elephant sanctuary. It's home to 6 elephants, one of which is a 1 year old baby boy (weighing in at about 1ton). Firstly, we took an hour trek aboard Sangar, a 20 year old male, walking through the forest - and our guide pointed out lots of fruits and plants en-route. Another man walked with us carrying our cameras and taking our photos to record the event. When we returned we watched a huge female elephant give a demonstration of how the animals are still used to help the timber industry, it was awesome to watch her lift huge tree trunks effortlessly. After a cup of tea we were invited to help wash the elephant in our of their twice daily baths, we were given coconut shells to use as scrubbing brushes - and set to work. After a while they asked us if we would like to sit on the back of 4m tall Nelly (not real name!) as part of the bathing. Nicky was straight up and fully clothed sat aboard and was promptly totally drenched as time after time Nelly sucked up huge trunkfulls of water and let it fly over her head! Cameron politely declined the offer after seeing this, but after much cajoling from the Guides was persuaded to strip to his boxers and climb up! He too got drowned, and there is a great video clip of it which will be on Facebook real soon now! We got to feed the "little" baby ellie before leaving, he was having great fun climbing up on his railings to reach further and get more attention & is fairly boisterous with his play at 1 ton! After all the fun and excitement it was time to leave, and we piled back in to the car (Nicky quite soggy still, Cameron going commando!). Next stop was a spice garden where we were taken round and shown all the plants, herbs and spices. When asked to guess the spice from the look feel & smells we proved almost completely useless, which was all a bit embarrassing! We saw loads of stuff including coffee, vanilla, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, turmeric, 5-spice, nutmeg and rubber plants. We are now obviously much more knowledgeable than when we first walked in (just don't make us prove it!) Last stop of a jam-packed day was a local Tribal village, home to more than 400 families. The Government removed them from the forest in the 1970's and set them up with land on which to live and farm. Whilst sheltering from another afternoon thunder/rain storm we met 2 young children, 3 and 7 who were fascinated by our cameras, and after an initial shy period happily took some photo's of themselves and their family, much to the amusement of all. Another good buffet meal back at the hotel, James joining us once again, and being made to sit and "enjoy" our hundreds of elephant photos. We think we are managing to persuade him to update his camera and swap film for digital!
Day 88 Backwater Ripples Hotel N9.5883 E76.4245
Lagoon Cruise midpoint N9.5661 E76.4150
Once more on to the roads, and a 3 hours trip delivered us to Kumarakom in the Keralan Backwaters. At one point we passed a truck on the roads with an elephant riding in the back! The Backwater Ripples resort is pure luxury and our home for 2 days of chilling out. We have a private bungalow with outdoor shower, a hammock and a stunning view out over the lake watching the all the houseboats float by. Paradise. Nicky whiled away the afternoon's heat swinging in the shaded hammock with a book, whilst Cameron preferred the cool aircon and remained indoors reading. A spot of table tennis was abandoned after 3 games (Nicky winning 2-1) when the heat became too much, and the sweat ran in our eyes! At 5pm we joined the rest of the guests, numbering all of about 20 in total for a sunset cruise on the lake. We put-putted along enjoying the breeze and swapping travel stories. The sunset was good but once again we were let down by cloud in the final dying moments!
Day 89 Hammock spot! N9.5888 E76.4230
Heavy rain and thunderstorms kept waking us through the night but the morning was dry and bright. Today is the first full day of the entire trip where we have absolutely nothing to do but sit and chill out, and after 89 days we are in need of one! Morning spent alternating between swimming pool and hammocks, break for lunch and then afternoon following much the same pattern as the morning!! Its absolutely gorgeous here, pretty and peaceful. Afternoon rounded off by a spectacular thunderstorm and lightning display which we watched from the comfort of our sheltered veranda (no rocking chairs unfortunately!). It's been lovely to stop and pause for a day or so out here - back to the travels tomorrow.
Day 90 Lunch Mooring N9.5554 E76.4339
Evening Mooring N9.5091 E76.3554
Off on our houseboat today. We are collected from the hotel pier at lunchtime and introduced to our crew of 3, Captain, Engineer and Chef who garland us with jasmine, and sit us down with fresh coconut juice whilst they set the boat moving. The boat is lovely with a shaded lounge and dining area at the front, a private bedroom with en suite in the middle and a kitchen and crew rest area at the rear. Its very peaceful chugging along the waterways and watching the world glide by. Around here there are no roads so the rivers are the only form of transport and there all all kinds of boats criss-crossing the water moving people and goods from one side to the other. For the locals the river is their life and they use the water to cook with, wash themselves and their clothes in and for the kids to play in! After about an hour we moored up for lunch where we are given a selection of 9 different dishes plus freshly caught fish to eat, far too much for the pair of us to manage! We do our best but hope that the crew eat whatever we leave so its not wasted! After lunch we motor on again. We feel a bit like royalty sitting in our large wicker chairs and waving to the smiling locals as we pass by! Around sunset we moor up for the night and whilst sipping chilled wine and beer we watch an awesome lightning storm in the distance, it fast becomes a competition who can get the best picture! (outcome undecided at present!). At 8pm we are served another banquet for dinner, including loads of dishes which are new to us, and some vegetables we have never even heard of! Lady's fingers? Not long after dinner we retire to our bedroom as the living area is the crews sleeping quarters and we don't want to keep them from their sleep.
Woken gently by the light in our room through the bamboo blinds, we can see the river water passing lazily beneath our boat. Sitting on the deck with a cuppa watching the world come to life is very relaxing. A mountain of food is served up for brekkie including banana and coconut pancakes, omelettes and a pile of toast and jam washed down with fresh pineapple juice - yummy!! Then we are off for the short ride back to the Rainbow Cruises boat yard where we say "Bye" to our lovely crew and "Hello" again to our driver who as always is patiently waiting on us. It's about an hours drive back to Kochi and the noisy traffic and chaos transports us quickly back to reality with a bump! We are staying again at the Casino hotel where we started our keralan adventure just over a week ago. Later we will meet up with James for a last meal before he flies back to the UK tomorrow morning. We fly on to Delhi in the afternoon for the next installment of our Indian trip.
Not long to go now folks, the last 2 weeks are upon us, much to our general disappointment - don't take it personally but we have no real desire for this adventure of ours to end, as I'm sure you can appreciate! Huge Happy Birthday shout outs to Rachel for today, Andy Birch for Sunday, Katie Constable who is 2 on Monday and Nicky's dad and Pete Maguire for the 12th! Hope you all have fantastic birthdays, and sorry we can't be there with you. xx