South India 2005

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Friday 28th January, 2005            Sydney to Mumbai (Bombay)

At 5.45am we’re up to shower, pack and walk across the road to Central Station to catch the airport train to the international terminal. We’re the first to check in so we get a window seat, an aisle seat with a spare seat between us which means that we’ll really be able to spread out. After brekky at McDonalds we line up with hundreds of people at immigration. At the Tourist Refund Scheme we get a refund for our digital camera then buy a book and duty free grog.

The waiting area at Gate 32 is packed with Indian travelers. We get our first taste of cultural differences when it’s announced that Business Class and people with small children can start to board. This is like waving a red rag at a bull and the signal for all the Indian passengers to jump to their feet and charge the gate. On the plane we soon realise that it’s only going to be about half full so I quickly jump over to four empty seats in the middle row. Mark doesn’t want to sleep but he has three seats to stretch out on and I have a whole row to lie down and sleep the whole way.

After twelve hours flying we land at Mumbai’s Sahar International Airport at 5pm India time. Outside we grab a pre-paid taxi (RP360) to take us to Colaba on the southern tip of Mumbai’s peninsula. The airport is only twelve kilometres from central Mumbai and twenty kilometres from Colaba but it takes us nearly two hours of chaos to get here – traffic jams, pollution, horns blowing and beggars at the window every time we stop which is most of the time. Mark is too tall for the seat and his head is just about sticking through the roof. Of course, the taxi is an old Ambassador car and one of our favourite memories of being in Rajasthan five years ago. The taxis here are painted black and yellow compared to the white taxis of the north but the same otherwise – rundown inside and out but always with an attempt to beautify – flowers, religious medallions, incense, seat covers and loads of atmosphere. Not far from Colaba, we get a peek of the sun setting over water but still haven’t got our bearings yet.

Finally in Colaba, we pull up at Bentley’s Hotel. It’s an old four storey colonial looking building in a tree lined street just one block from all the action. Luckily we already have a booking and we’re given a huge room (AUD $36) with bathroom on the bottom floor overlooking the street. A big tree outside our window is alive with noisy birds but they soon quieten down as night falls.

By now we’re both starving so we head off for the Colaba Causeway which is the main road busy with markets and cafes. We find an Indian restaurant with only Indian customers. It’s called Kailash Parbat and Mark orders a thali while I have a club sandwich. We have our first lime sodas of the trip bringing back more fond memories of northern India. I’m almost falling asleep at the table so we’re in bed by 9.30PM.

Saturday  29th January, 2005                             Mumbai to Goa

Our first morning in India! I’m up at 4.30am – should have taken Mark’s advice and stayed awake on the plane. By 7.30 we’re having our breakfast of marmalade, toast, tea and coffee at the table set against the window overlooking the sunny street. It’s surprisingly quiet with only the sounds of birds and someone sweeping the road with a straw broom.

Before our midday checkout time, we decide to do some sightseeing as well as trying to book a train for Goa tonight. The guys at the front desk tell us that we can only book at Victoria Terminus and only after ten o’clock so we set off now for India Gate. This is only a few blocks away and a sunny, peaceful walk through the tree-lined streets. On the way an old holy man stops to bless us by tying red and yellow strings around our wrists and dabbing red paste on our foreheads – we give him the expected donation.

Coming out onto Strand Road that runs along the harbour wall, we pass the very elaborate Taj Mahal Hotel in its prime position overlooking Apollo Bunder and India Gate. The Gateway of India is in the style of all arches of triumph and in this case was built by the British in 1924 to celebrate their triumph over India. They probably should have saved their money because by 1947 India had gained independence and the British were sent packing back to England. Now India Gate is a busy ferry wharf and tourist attraction and a popular place for locals to get together. Here a little gypsy girl ties flowers around my wrist and I part with money for the second time in a few minutes – must get a bit tougher.

Now we find a taxi to take us to Victoria Terminus. We stop at traffic lights at the big Wellington Circle and realise how very British Mumbai still is. We could almost be in central London – red double decker buses and stately buildings, like the Prince of Wales Museum everywhere we look. But no, this is definitely India with buzzing auto rickshaws, beggars and brilliant sunshine.

Closer to the station we see more examples of the British occupation – the neo-classical Town Hall, St Thomas’ Cathedral and the spectacularly ornate Victoria Terminus itself with its Gothic design reflected in the elaborate exterior of turrets and towers. Inside, a sweeping staircase leads us to the ticket office and within twenty minutes we have our sleeper tickets for Goa (2A class – US$56 for the two of us). The train leaves at 11pm tonight so we decide to check out of the Bentley and find somewhere cheap to crash out this afternoon.

In Colaba, we look at three hotels nearby and decide on Hotel Moti owned by Raj, an overly friendly Indian man who loves here with his young family. The hotel is set in a lovely old two storey house and very colonial/tropical inside and out – overhead fans, louvered shutters on all the windows, tiled floors and arched doorways. Actually our room has none of this as we’ve opted for a cheap little room (RP 850) at the back with a shared bathroom. We like it anyway.

Back at the Bentley, we check out and meet a friendly taxi driver hanging around outside. His name is Baboo and he wants to take us on a tour of Mumbai this afternoon. This will work out perfectly. Firstly, he takes us to Hotel Moti where we leave our gear then speed off for who knows where. We don’t get far before we see an Indian wedding procession on the other side of the road. We ask Baboo to stop so we can take some photos but the father of the bride drags us into the procession. Next minute he has the both of us dancing while the ladies clap their hands to the music. He even invites us to the wedding but we’ve got too much to do this afternoon.

From here we end up at the tip of Marine Drive which is the road that hugs the semi-circular bay. At night the lights around the edge of the water look like sparkling gems so it’s also known as the Queen’s Necklace. Now we fly past Chowpatty Beach then up to the more affluent area of Malabar Hill. This is also a predominately Jain area and our first stop is a very ornate Jain Temple. Outside is a pretty leafy area of huge trees with long hanging roots and very lively with music, food stalls and beggars. Inside, worshippers are praying, bowing, and making patterns of uncooked rice on small boards on the floor.

The next stop is the Hanging Gardens where Baboo walks around with us before driving on to the Parsi Towers of Silence. The towers are where the Parsis place the bodies of their dead so that vultures can pick the bones clean. As followers of Zoroastrianism and originally from Persia, the Parsis now number less than one hundred thousand and most of them live here in Mumbai. Of course, we’re not allowed to see the bodies but we can see the vultures circling overhead – a bit creepy.

Back down the hill, we visit Mani Bhavan which is a lovely three storey house in a quiet tree filled backstreet. It’s where Gandhi stayed whenever he came to Mumbai and it’s now sort of a mini museum recording his amazing life. It has a lovely peaceful atmosphere with sunshine pouring in the upper floor windows and trees in the garden outside. From here we cross the city to the Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat. This is actually a massive open-air laundry where most of Mumbai’s washing gets done every day by up to five thousand men. It’s an amazing sight especially looking down on it from up here on the railway bridge.

We’re all feeling hungry by now so Baboo says he’ll take us to his favourite vegetarian restaurant. But first (there’s always a catch) he wants us to visit his friend’s silver shop. Don’t have the heart to say no but don’t want to buy anything either. We’ll look anyway and he seems happy with that. Finally, at Baboo’s very local restaurant for lunch he orders us Punjabi thalis, masala dosa and lime sodas – a good, cheap meal.

Now it’s time to head back to Colaba but he’d like us to look at one more place – a cloth emporium this time. Okay we’ll look but that’s all. It seems that he’ll some sort of payback from the shop even if we don’t buy. Finally, we’re glad to get back to Hotel Moti where we have drinks sitting outside near the side entrance. Tall palms give it that tropical feel we always love. Raj’s parents who are visiting from Delhi, are here as well and seem very sweet. Before dark we have showers in our shared bathroom which literally looks like the black hole of Calcutta. The roof is held up by tree trunks (no joke) and there’s a hole in the floor that I’m sure a rat is going to fly out of any second – I have the fastest toilet stop and shower in history.

We sleep till 8.30pm then walk around to Leopold Café for dinner. This is described as a ‘Mumbai institution’ and is constantly packed with travelers and a hip young Indian crowd. It’s very art-deco and opens out onto the market and the busy street outside. Behind the main street is a much more interesting area. Food stalls are set up in a dark alleyway and Indian customers drive up in their cars for takeaway while others crowd the clusters of tables and chairs set up along the edge of the alley. A man is making roti bread and he looks like he could do it in his sleep. We buy mandarins, chips and water for the train then wander down to the Gateway of India. Here groups of the very poor are huddled together on the footpaths of Apollo Bunder almost in the shadow of the Taj Hotel which only the very rich can afford – one of the many ironies of India.

At Hotel Moti we pack, say goodbye to Raj and easily find a taxi outside to take us to Victoria Terminal. We’re dropped right at the entrance and easily find our train despite the crowds of people. An extended Indian family wants to be in our photos and they proudly line up for the camera. Because we’re in first class our carriage is at the far end of the platform. This not only means a long walk becausethe train is a monster, but it also means we pass the second-class ‘sit up all night’ carriages. They look more like cages with two levels of people crammed into each one. This is the ultimate in ‘cattle-class’. Of course, everyone has brought along everything but the kitchen sink so it’ll be a pitiful night for these people.

After the nightmare of second-class our first-class cabin seems total luxury. We’re sharing with another couple and there’s only a curtain between us and the aisle, but we have benches to lie on and even sheets, blankets and pillows. Our roommates are an odd looking pair of aging hippy-types both in their forties. He’s Eddy from Holland but born in Indonesia and Marguerita is a monkey-faced girl from Switzerland. They’re heading for South Goa and have been there endless times before. Eddy has the best sense of humour. When the train jolts forward, I say ‘are we leaving already?’ he says ‘yes, we go now. Second class leaves later’. They’ve got lots of advice for where we should stay and it seems we’re heading for the ‘un-cool’ bit. It’s all relative though and I guess, for them, when you’ve been somewhere so many times, you seek out something less than the norm. For us, we’re happy with our plans because we haven’t booked in anywhere and we can move around if we don’t like it. The train leaves on time at eleven o’clock and we talk for a while before making up our comfy beds. Go to sleep feeling guilty about all those poor people at the other end of the train.

Sunday 30th January, 2005                                     Vagator

We both wake early but fall back asleep again till 9am. Breakfast is omelets but I can’t stomach mine so Mark eats both. We pack and say goodbye to Eddy and Marguerite as we pull into Thivim Station at 10.30am.

Outside is bright blue skies and much hotter than Mumbai. We find an auto rickshaw to take us to Vagator, twenty-four kilometers through lots of small towns and villages. Because it’s Sunday we pass streams of people coming and going to church. The women aren’t wearing saris but Western style skirts and tops – a strange sight for India. In half an hour we arrive in Vagator which seems to be a straggly village spread out for a kilometer or so from the beach. We book into the Dolrito Guesthouse which is at the end of a dusty, rutted track. It’s set amongst dense trees and coconut palms and we check into a clean room on the first floor with our own bathroom and balcony. For 450Rp a night it’s a good deal. The owner is a friendly Christian Indian and serves us breakfast in the garden at the back of the house. We decide to catch up on some sleep then decide it’s a waste of time so we head up into the village.

The Tin Tin Bar is closest cafe to the top of our track and looks very appealing. Feel like we’re in Bali. We have cold drinks while listening to a trendy Asterisk CD that a very black African woman has put on. It’s full on doof-doof that has the guys in the kitchen dancing and even we like it. Dance parties are the thing here in Goa and Vagator is apparently party central but I know we’ll be snoring before they even start. Next to Tin Tin is a string of market stalls where I buy a top to be altered and Mark is having some board shorts made. Now we head down to the carpark at the beach where another market is set up and where busloads of Indian day-trippers are arriving. Far too many people around so we walk back to the village and come across Veda Massage.

Apparently South India is the place to get an Ayurvedic massage which was formulated by ancient vedic gurus more than five thousand years ago. We’re not really sure what it is but there’s only one way to find out. We settle for a forty-five minute Kerala Ayurvedic Abhyanga which has advanced massage techniques ‘to ease circulatory problems, tension release and journey tiredness’ – all this for 300Rp. And it really is the strangest massage we’ve ever had. In separate rooms we’re asked to strip naked then have usually two people at a time rubbing gallons of oil into every nook and cranny. Nothing is sacred – boobs, fanny, balls, doodle and bum cracks. Not sure if it’s enjoyable but definitely an experience we’ll never forget. Almost dripping in oil, we try to wash it off but it takes a couple of hot showers each and it’s still there. After more soapy water we’re still sliding off the toilet seat.

Today is the final of the Australian Tennis Open with Leyton Hewitt playing so we walk down to the Garden Villa Café to watch it live on television at two o’clock. We order chips, fried eggs, beer and lime sodas while we watch Safin give Hewitt a beating. On dusk we walk down to Little Vagator Beach scattered with grass huts and cafes. The day-trippers have all gone and the beach looks like a Goan postcard. Above the beach is Little Vagator village so we climb the steep track to find a busy market and lots of very cool travelers. Everyone seems to have a motorbike – must hire one for ourselves.

Away from the beach are more cafes and stalls and we stop at a cool Tibetan café for dinner. Love the atmosphere – Tibetan waiters and Bob Marley music playing. It’s dark by now so we eat our tuna salad and garlic vegetable balls by candlelight. After dinner we move on to the Double Lotus which is an outdoor café under coconut trees and with low tables surrounded by mattresses. More candles here and lovely background music. The menu has cheap gin sodas so we have a couple each and save our duty free for later.

Instead of backtracking to the beach, we decide to walk back to Vagator via the laneways. The problem is it’s pitch dark and we’re not sure if we’re going in the right direction. This is a lovely time of day – very peaceful but somehow exciting being out here on our own. After a wee wee in the bushes, we finally find our way back to the main street where we stop for chips and Bacardi Breezers ($1.50 AUD) at an open air café where a few Indian guys are playing pool. Back towards our guesthouse we find a true local café/shop where village people are watching television. Sitting at an outdoor table we order yet another Bacardi Breezer. Next door is the internet place where a motorbike roars up driven by an amazing looking couple. He’s big, black and beautiful while she’s a striking gypsy looking women with wild black hair and hippy clothes – never dull around here.

Bed at 10pm.

Monday 31st January, 2005                              Vagator

This morning we wake to the soft sound of rain on the roof. It’s still warm and the rain looks pretty falling through the trees outside our room. Instead of wasting a day we decide to see some of the other towns not far south of here. First we have breakfast at Tin Tin where we find the thatched roof is leaking badly except for a dark corner under the eaves. The floor is flattened dirt and we still have to dodge a few leaks but it’s cosy with the rain still falling outside. The power is out as well but we somehow manage to get a hot breakfast.

Back out in the street we ask a guy playing pool in a nearby café if he can drive us to Calangute. He tells us we’re ‘very lucky’ since this is the first day of rain for months. On the way we pass through a few small villages away from the coast and in no time pull into the overcrowded main street of Calangute. This is so different from Vagator and seems to be invaded by flabby sunburnt Poms in daggy beach clothes. We come across a camera shop and get our photos put onto a disc so, at the very least, it was worth coming here even if it’s just for this.

Calangute really is too awful so we take off on foot to Baga which is along a busy side road and heading back towards Vagator. We ask some locals how to get to the beach and end up in a wonderful village area overgrown with coconut and palm trees. The cutest little kids come running out to see us when we stop to watch a lady in a yellow sari drawing water from an old well. The rain has stopped by now and the clouds are starting to disappear so hopefully we’ll have good weather from now on.

Further down the laneway we come across three friendly young Indian men who walk with us to the beach. They take us to Coco Joes which is just one of many thatched cafes set up along the beach. Mark and I order beers and food while we talk to our new friend William. He comes from Kerala but after the tsunami destroyed his mother’s house and the family’s fishing boats he had to come to Goa to earn some money. He tells us that the tsunami came one and a half kilometers inland and thirty seven people from his village drowned. Despite his sad story, he smiles the whole time and tells us about the fat ugly tourists that come to Calangute. He says that his friend, Mustafa, who’s wandered off somewhere, had an English girlfriend who was so fat they called her ‘little elephant’. He thinks this is a great joke. Meanwhile Bob Marley music is playing and when I say I like it William turns the volume up full blast and plays it over and over for the next hour.

More people are walking along the beach now that the weather has fined up and the cows are out in force as well. I ask about massages and end up with a wonderful leg and foot massage in the back of the shack from a sweet man called Akbah. Mark spends the time eating his garlic squid and drinking beers with William.

The sun is fully out by the time I finish my massage so we say goodbye to Coco Joe and William and walk along the water’s edge back to Calangute. Groups of young Indian men are frolicking in the water and having a hilarious time throwing sand at each other. We’re continually fronted by ice cream sellers and hawkers and the beach is suddenly a hive of sunbaking tourists. The sunshine hasn’t made this place any more appealing so we grab the first taxi we can find and hightail it back to Vagator – so nice to get back to the laidback feeling of this little town. At the Dolrito we change into our swimmers and set off for Little Vagator beach.

At the corner where the track meets the road, we buy a bag and shirt then a pineapple from an old lady at a tiny makeshift stall near the path to the beach. It’s wonderfully hot and sunny by now so we head for the sand. A few beach shacks stand dotted among the palm trees where locals are lounging around on the verandahs. Further on are cafes with sandy floors and beach chairs and umbrellas set up outside. We lay on a couple of chairs next to some glamorous French people. A man and two suntanned women in g-strings are smoking and having very animated conversations. We order lime sodas then, while Mark reads, I must look a prime target and soon become surrounded by beach hawkers. These are exotically dressed young girls in yellow and green saris and wearing gold bracelets and earrings. They have the most perfect white teeth and the prettiest faces. Their names are Tina, Lolita and Celia and for the next hour and a half they tell me about their lives and try to sell me everything in their shoulder bags. I shouldn’t say ‘try’ because I end up buying two ankle bracelets, a shawl, a Rajasthan cloth, two silver bangles, a silver mirror and salad spoons. They ask funny questions like ‘why is mumma (me) is so brown (fake tan) and why is puppa like a fridge?’ They tell us that they work all day on the beach while their husbands stay at home sitting on their arses. Celia hassles me to get one of her henna tattoos. I suspect she’s no expert when she shows me her designs she’s sketched in a sad, tatty little book. I think ‘what the hell’ and end up with a childish, crooked band around the top of my left arm. She’s happy to assure me that it will last for at least a month.

Another young hawker is standing in front of me with a sulky look on her face. ‘You buy nothing from me. I tell you up there’ – she points to the track – ‘you have beautiful skirt’. I say ‘well you have beautiful skirt too. So now we’re even.’ Fed up with getting hassled, we walk back up to Tin Tin Bar in the village for a lunch of prawn cocktails, battered calamari, a prawn pizza and lime sodas. Mark decides to go back to the room to read while I do some emailing in the cramped little room next door to the grocery shop.

We’ve decided that tonight we’ll go to Chapora for a quiet meal, so on dusk we walk up the track to find a driver. Out of Vagator we turn left and find that Chapora is only a couple of minutes drive down a winding dark road. The village is set amongst tall palm and coconut trees and is probably very beautiful in the daylight. But it’s not the peaceful little spot we’d expected. The main street is only about a hundred metres long and right now is overcrowded with hippies, cows and roaring motorbikes. It’s the most incredible place we’ve ever seen. Most of the hippies are at least middle aged and some definitely look like they had much too good a time in the sixties. Mark thinks they probably came here and just forgot to go home.

About halfway down the street we find a buzzing, crowded café called The Yak Bar. It’s open on three sides and dimly lit with coloured lights for lots of atmosphere. We find a seat on the edge of the balcony so we can watch the circus around us. This is people watching at its best. There’s French accents, German accents, Israeli accents ….. Two stunningly hippy French women are engrossed in conversation next to us – very expressive hands and chain smoking. Soon a tiny calf climbs the two steps up from the street and mingles with the crowd. He gets shooed out by the waiter but is back again a few seconds later.

After a couple of beers we find a rooftop café further down the street. It’s cooler up here with mattresses all over the floor, curtained walls and ceiling and candles on the low tables. We find a cosy corner and lay around on pillows while we drink our duty free and order hot chips. Later we cross to another busy bar where the same little cow comes in for a visit. The waiter laughs as he moves it outside and doesn’t even seem worried when it comes straight back in and wees all over the floor. Needing a loo myself I find it out the back next to another lying around on mattresses area. We move out here to stretch out and to watch all the hippies in action. Bongs are getting passed around and everyone is off their face – don’t know if they’ve got the right idea or they’re just idiots.

By eleven o’clock we’re sick to death of hippies so we walk back up the hill to Vagator and the Tin Tin for more prawns, calamari and spring rolls.

Tuesday 1st February, 2005                            Vagator to Anjuna

At 9am we wake to heat and sunshine and decide to move on to Anjuna this morning. In minutes we’re showered, packed and in a taxi flying through villages and fields of coconuts. We’re wrapped in Anjuna at first sight. Like Vagator and Chapora, it sits amongst coconut groves with a relaxed main street and the village occupying a few leafy laneways. Here we try to get into the Red Cab Inn but no luck probably because it’s recommended by Lonely Planet. A family house next door has a room to let but it’s only curtained off from the rest of the house so Mark says thanks but no thanks. The family is sweet about it and tells us of a guesthouse nearby called Valentina.

We love Valentina! It sits on the corner of two quiet shaded laneways where a family of cows is ambling past. Sebastian and Maria own Valentina and live in a lovely white rendered house with a wide verandah at the front with four rooms to let in the pretty overgrown garden. The guesthouse is in a long white building with tiny blue painted windows – just lovely. Our room is big and airy with a tiled floor and overhead fans. We have two shuttered and barred windows – one looking out onto the sunny laneway and the other onto a small verandah inside the yard. Two simple beds with thin cotton covers, a chair and an old fridge that doesn’t work make up the entire furnishings. The first thing Mark does is push the beds together. The Valentina family is obviously Christian and we have a God Bless This House sign on our door. We have to share cold showers and a toilet which we get into by stepping over a low tree branch. Tommy is the family dog and seems to have the run of the whole place.

For breakfast we walk up to the busy main street and pass lots of cows on the way. Even though it’s a predominately Christian area, cows still seem to be part of the culture. Breakfast is tuna salad and French toast in an open-air café then we look for a travel agent to book tickets for Kochi. We soon find that all trains are booked out until the end of February – so slack of us to leave it this late. But then the sweet girl at the desk makes some phone calls and there have been two cancelled seats to Kochi on the 3rd – the universe provides.

After buying loo paper and some bottled water, we make our way back to Valentina where we ask Sebastian about hiring a motor- bike. We have to show that we can actually ride the thing and I make an immediately bad impression by ramming it straight into a fence. Sebastian takes Mark on a trial run at a nearby field and they’re back in five minutes with Mark being given his honorary licence – think I should just be the passenger. Mark still feels I can do it, though, and I do a few laps of the field but we eventually both agree that I’d do better as the pillion.

From here we drive straight down to the beach for lime sodas in a thatched café overlooking the water. Next to the café is a string of market stalls where I buy a top then we drive around the narrow sandy backstreets that wind their way through village houses. We seem to be riding through people’s backyards but everyone is friendly and probably used to lost travelers. Can’t go more than a few metres without someone asking ‘you want ganga?’ – no thanks!

I can’t describe the feeling of riding around with Mark in this free and easy place. It’s a strange feeling of freedom that can only happen somewhere so far from the constraints and regulations of our own culture – no helmets, no limitations, no rules! We love every minute and understand why some people never leave.

At a few deserted market stalls away from the beach we try on some clothes which are caked in red dust from the track outside and so old and sun damaged that they’re full of holes. We feel sorry for the people selling them, so Mark ends up buying a shirt that will no doubt fall apart the first time he wears it. Back at the Valentina, I sleep while Mark reads and drinks beers. At four o’clock we ride down to Zooris Bar set high above the beach where we sit on floor cushions and drink beers and sodas.

From Zooris we take off through the village once again to the other side of town where we find an atmospheric café away from the beach called Mario’s. In an overgrown garden, we order fish and chicken sizzler while we talk to Monty (the owner) and his friend who’ve both spent time studying in Australia. Much later we ride back to our side of the village to have drinks at Briyani Place Café where we listen to wonderful Indian music. The floor is soft sand and we sit on cane chairs while served by a very stoned waiter.

On dark we decide to move on to the Shiva Café which is a rooftop café across the road for tuna salad and spring rolls – very hip, very trendy. Ride home to bed.

Wednesday 2nd February, 2005                              Anjuna

Today is hot and sunny once again. I ask about a shower so Maria heats a big bowl of water over an open fire then pours it into a plastic bucket. I have my first bucket wash and enjoy it so much but Mark opts for a cold shower. Back on our precious bike, we head out of the village to an organic café on the road leading to the market. In a leafy courtyard, we have freshly baked brown bread, eggs, an omelet, tea and a cappuccino.

Now it’s time for Anjuna’s famous Wednesday Flea Market. The crowds are here already but we easily find a space to park amongst the cars and motorbikes. The market is a sea of stalls that seem to go on forever. It’s spread out along the beach but stretches a hundred metres inland as well. There must be thousands of stalls with vendors coming from all over Goa as well as traders from Kashmir and Tibet. Everything imaginable is for sale – clothes, rugs, handicrafts, jewellery, CD’s, spices, drums, food…….. Every stall-holder calls out as we walk past and hawkers stop us every few steps. A young boy called Ganesh begs us to come to his stall where his mother is waiting. Her name is Ranupa and she’s a Gujarati tribal woman. There’s lots of them here at the market and all dressed in the traditional vibrant dress with mirrored headdress and smothered in silver jewellery. She’s so sweet and I can’t leave without buying bracelets, silver salt and pepper shakers and a Gujarat mirrored belt which she’s made herself. Not to sure about that but it’s the real thing anyway.

After a few hours of mixing with hippies, cows, Indian tourists, ex-pats and travelers, we soon become overwhelmed and head for a café with a sandy floor overlooking the beach. It’s packed as expected but we manage to share a table for cold lime sodas. Back in the market, Mark bargains hard for twelve cushion covers, a beaded bedspread and a scarf – unbelievably cheap!

Too hot and bothered to stay any longer, we grab the bike and wind our way through the still congested road. Nice to cool down on the bike and get away from the crowds. At Valentina we drop off our bargains, then ride up to the main street to email and exchange money. Then it’s lunch at the Star Café which is actually a big garden with tables and chairs set up under coconut trees. Feeling tired for some unknown reason, we spend the rest of the afternoon sleeping under the ceiling fans in our room. Dinner is back at the main street at the Oasis Café where we spend the whole time people watching. At the table opposite is the same stunning couple we’d seen getting off a motorbike in Vagator a few nights ago. She seems totally bored and we decide that she’s only with him because he looks so amazing. But then Mark realizes that this incredible looking woman is actually a man herself – love this place!

After they speed off on their motorbike, we decide to ride back over to the quieter area near the market. It’s so wonderful to be riding through the open countryside in the soft warm darkness. Close to the market we have drinks at a café on the road and watch all the stall-holders heading for home. A continual stream of small trucks absolutely crammed with people and gear passes us for the next hour. Now we jump back on the bike and find another café on the road into the village. In another garden courtyard, we sit on stools at the cane bar and make great friends with the two funny waiters, the barman called Shiva and Shiva’s girlfriend. They tell us that they’re in love but their parents don’t know they’re seeing each other. They’ll ask permission to marry in May but, because Indians have arranged marriages, they could have to give each other up. They even seem to accept that they may have to marry someone chosen by their parents. Shiva makes us gin squashes and then free glasses of vodka because ‘the boss is away’. As we leave Mark gives him a one thousand rupee tip.

Finally home to bed after a great day.

Thursday 3rd February, 2005     Anjuna to Manua (South Goa)

I think we’ll be having a lazy day today – as opposed to the frantic pace we’ve been keeping since we arrived here in Goa. Don’t wake till nine o’clock then walk up to one of the cafes for breakfast. Still tired somehow, so it’s back to the room for me to sleep and Mark to read. At lunchtime we walk up to the Star Café to sit again in the shade of the trees. Lunch is prawn cocktails, fish, chips and lime sodas. We’re entertained by watching a large table of fiftyish year old hippies – obviously ex-pats on account of their dark suntans, long hair and that ‘too many years of drugs’ look. They seem to be a happy, laid-back group so good on them.

Before going back to Valentina, we organize for a taxi to pick us up at five thirty to drive us to South Goa where we’ll be catching the train to Kochi from Manua tonight. We spend the afternoon packing and reading before saying a sorry goodbye to Valentina and Anjuna. So glad we came here.

The drive south takes one and a half hours as we pass through the Goan capital of Panaji, onto Colva and finally to the coastal village of Benaulin. We’ve decided to be dropped off at Benaulin instead of going straight to Manua as it’ll be a nicer place to spend the next few hours. It’s dark by the time we arrive and we spend an enjoyable time lounging around on big cane chairs on the beach while we order food and drinks. A family of Indians is eating at the table next to us and have a tiny boy and girl that keep me amused while Marks reads.

At nine o’clock we find a driver to take us to Manua Station where we lie around on benches till the train arrives half an hour late at 11pm. No first class this time but we really prefer the second-class non-air conditioned sleeper. Air conditioning is always too cold and, besides this, we can have the windows wide open. Our open cubicle has six bunks with three German guys opposite, me on top, Mark in the middle and an Indian lady on the bottom on our side. No sheets or pillows either but we always bring our own pillows and the rugs we bought in Rajasthan five years ago.

Wake about a thousand times during the night but still manage to get plenty of sleep.

Friday 4th February, 2005                                        Kochi (Cochin)

This morning breaks hot and sunny once again but we still have a long way to go before we can get off the train. It’s an eighteen-hour trip so we won’t reach Kochi till mid afternoon. Having the top bunk is a real bonus as I can lie around all day while Mark has to give up his bed so the Indian lady can sit up. She soon disappears though so he ends up with the whole seat to himself. The top bunks are separated from the adjoining cubicles by a wire grate and I talk to a young black guy lying on the bunk next door. This is why we love second class – so much friendlier with a true communal feel.

At one station a handsome boy of about twelve gets on with his younger sister and they sing and play the bongos for us. They have gorgeous faces with snowy white teeth and rich brown skin. We give them a 10Rp tip and they move on. Later other children get on and do the same thing with hand clackers.

For breakfast Mark buys an omelet from one of the porters who continually walk through the carriage selling tea, food and water. Every now and again he gets out at a few stations to have a stretch on the platform but generally we spend the whole day reading, eating, sleeping or sitting in the open doorway watching the countryside go by. The trip is long but we’re so glad we chose to get to Kochi this way.

At last at Kochi Junction at 3pm we grab an auto rickshaw to take us to the Grand Hotel on MG Road in Ernakulam. This is Intrepid’s base in Southern India and tonight is the beginning of our fifteen-day trip. The Grand is a big, uninspiring box which I hate on sight. Our room is big with a bathroom and air conditioning but is as characterless as the outside.

Before we do anything we head for the bar downstairs. This is a dark, windowless room with scattered lounge chairs and low stools at a sunken bar. After a beer or two we go back to the room to shower and unpack before we meet the Intrepid crew at six o’clock. Our leader is Pulak (a young Indian guy from Orissa) and the crew is Sue (a lawyer from Sydney), Steve (her friend and a barrister from Perth), Wendy and Stephen (a wimpy mother and son from New Zealand), Barbara (a fat girl from Switzerland), Laurie (from Canada) and John and Chris (a civil servant and a lawyer from London). Wimpy Wendy is a lawyer as well so we have four on this trip. Everyone seems nice but probably anal.

We introduce ourselves in the dining room then after dinner everyone else goes to bed while Mark and I hit the bar alone – yes, definitely anal.

Saturday 5th February, 2005               Kochi (Cochin)

After waking at 7am, we shower then meet the group in the dining room for a buffet breakfast. We sit with John and Chris. He seems to be fun but not too sure about her – very British upper class, we think. After breakfast, Pulak finds us auto rickshaws to take us to the wharf where we’ll catch a ferry to the old Portuguese area of Fort Kochi. The local ferry is interesting with lots of Indian passengers but Kerala has a working harbour which is very unappealing and the scenery is ultra boring.

At Fort Kochi we walk to Jewtown to visit the Jewish Pardesi Synagogue. Since this is always closed on a Friday we wonder what we’re doing here. We visit an antique furniture shop crammed with wonderful stuff but not in the mood to buy today. From Jewtown we walk through the spice markets which are much more exciting. Kochi exports spices all over the world, so much trading is going on around us. Pulak takes us to a warehouse where ginger is spread out all over a wide quadrangle. It’s covered in lime and takes our breath away. The traders are all very friendly and there seems to be more goats than people for some reason.

At the end of the spice market is Mattancherry Palace (also called the Dutch Palace) built in 1555 and is now a museum. Lots of Indian tourists are here but, as Mark and I aren’t at all into museums, we just admire the carved ceilings and windows and get the hell out of here. Much rather be outside near the market. The others gradually wander back all looking as brain dead as we are. Now we jump in more rickshaws to drive us to the Church of St Francis. Not interested in churches either and becoming totally bored with this whole day.

Across the road from the church is the Lakshadweep Sea where the famous Chinese fishing nets are permanently set up. They’re massive nets attached to thirty metre high poles and look quite beautiful. Along the shore is a row of stalls where the ‘fish friers’ sell all kinds of seafood. Some of it is so fresh that it’s still alive. Half the Intrepid crew is too scared to eat from here so they go off with Pulak to a restaurant – yes, again, definitely anal. Mark, Laurie, Sue, Steve and I pick fish and prawns which are taken to a thatched hut to be cooked over hot coals. I go in to watch some of the cooking done in pans of garlic butter while the others sit at a table on the sand. We all order drinks then I wander off to talk to some fishermen sitting in a group near the water. They have a pet cat and her kitten who look healthy very well fed. Other hungry cats soon come running to our table when the food appears and Mark and I give up half our meal to feed these poor little things.

After lunch, the others wander off to shop while Mark and I decide to look for the posh Boathouse Hotel. It’s an upmarket place on the water but the main attraction is that it’s air conditioned. Around an arched courtyard we find the restaurant where we sit at the bar for cold beers and sodas. Sue and Steve turn up and he looks like he’s about to explode – red as a beetroot and literally sweating like a pig.

Back outside, we take a while to find the others but finally Pulak herds us all onto a small ferry packed with ladies in beautiful saris. We western women look so boring in our daggy travel clothes. It’s standing room only till we reach Vypan Island where we have to wait half an hour for the ferry back to Ernakulam. Mark and I go exploring then it’s on to a bigger ferry to take us across Vembanad Lake to the mainland.

At the pier we all take auto rickshaws back to the Grand and after a short rest, Mark and I are down in the bar. No other westerners here and it seems to be a meeting place for Indian businessmen. We sit at the bar and spend a fun hour talking to the two young barmen. At a quarter to six we meet the Intrepid crew in the foyer and follow Pulak through the busy streets to the See India Theatre near the station. The theatre is housed in an old atmospheric building with a dark interior and puts on nightly performances of the Kathakali dance. The first hour is watching the performers putting on their elaborate makeup which is about three quarters of an hour too long. PK Devan is the host and he gives a wonderful talk on Indian philosophy and Hinduism and the Kathakali dance itself. He’s a passionate, hypnotic man and we enjoy his presentation even more than the dance.

Afterwards we’re back in auto-rickshaws to the other side of town for dinner at a South Indian restaurant. While we wait for our food, Mark and I go walkabout to find a box to pack the things we bought in Goa. We’ll store them at the Grand in the morning instead of carting them all around southern India.

Another rickshaw back to the hotel, another visit to the bar (only us) then back to the room to pack. Bed about 10.30pm.

Sunday 6th February, 2005         Kochi to Kerala Backwaters

Breakfast is a hot buffet again in the dining room. After putting our box into storage we all meet with our packs to set off in auto rickshaws for the bus station. Today we’re off to the Kerala backwaters but first we need to catch a bus to Alleppey. Mark and I are sitting behind a young married couple with two tiny girls on their laps. The older one is about three and the mother tells us ‘she has vomitting’. Sure enough about half and hour later she throws up but somehow they catch it in a plastic bag which then goes flying out the window.

After two hours we pull into the busy Alleppey bus station next to one of the canals. Basic cafes line the water and we sit on a rough wooden bench to drink hot cha and eat fried bananas. Soon we follow Pulak to a private boat which will take us into the backwaters. The boat has a polished wooden open cabin and a roof big enough for us all to sit on. After storing our packs inside, we spend the next one and a half hours lying in the cabin or sitting on the roof in the sun.

The scenery is spectacular. The Kerala backwaters is a series of manmade canals, estuaries and deltas. It’s a labyrinth of waterways is fringed by dense tropical palm forests with small villages in between. We pass old rice barges that have been converted into houseboats for tourists and all with their own captain, cook and crew. The backwaters act as a transport network since the only way to get to the islands is by boat. This means that everyone and everything is moved about in an assortment of water traffic – public ferries, rice barges, private boats and dugout canoes.

At last at Thomas’ homestay we pull into a small pier where we’re greeted by Thomas and his family. On the verandah of the family home, they give us welcome drinks of cold grape juice. Mark and I are then taken to a smaller house a couple of hundred metres away along a dirt track next to the canal. We’ll be staying by ourselves while the others will all stay at Thomas’. This is a bonus for us because we feel like we’re on our own instead of with a tour group. The house has a wonderful tropical feel with cane furniture, ceiling fans and bare floors. Baboo owns the house and he shows us to a bare dark room with an overhead fan and two hard bunks – we love it. We’re to share a bathroom with a German couple who’ve been renting another room in the house for the last few weeks.

The humidity is so much higher here in the south and we can’t wait to get into the water. Baboo says it’s safe for swimming so we walk up to Thomas’ house to see if anyone else wants to come in. No takers so we float around on our own under the overhanging coconut trees – heaven. Feeling so much better after our swim, we lay around reading in our room till Baboo tells us that lunch is ready at the other house. We’re having a traditional Kerala meal cooked by Thomas’ wife and mother. Using our fingers, right hand only, we eat bean and coconut dahl, banana chips, coconut potatoes, other sorts of dahl, chappattis, tiny bananas and washed down with filtered water.

Till 4.30pm we lay around reading then meet on Thomas’ verandah for chai, the very sweet milky Indian tea. Now we follow Thomas for a guided walk around his tiny island. He takes us along the dirt path running beside the water where women are washing clothes and one lady is bathing her tubby baby boy. We pass men with homemade harpoons and a tiny tea shop and all the village people come out to have their photos taken. The track soon turns right to follow a smaller canal and even the people in the village on the island opposite are waving and calling out.

Further along the track we look back to see thousands of ducks swimming towards us and being herded by two duck farmers in dugout canoes. As they get closer the ducks become spooked and run up onto the opposite bank. One of the farmers has to chase them back into the water but they all just run back up a few metres further on. By now the sun is low in the sky painting everything a soft gold – such a wonderful time of day to be here amongst the coconut palms and orchards of mango and jackfruit trees. This inner part of the island is mainly taken up with small acreages of rice paddies and is apparently where the ducks are headed. They eat the remains of the harvested rice, at the same time fertilizing the fields when it comes out the other end.

A few basic houses are scattered amongst the rice paddies and Mark and I stop to talk to some friendly ladies. All the huts seem to have goats, a cow and chickens running in and out the house. As we walk along the pathways between the fields, we pass men and women carrying huge bundles of harvested rice on their heads and others in the fields with a threshing machine.

The sun is now a red ball peeping through the coconut palms and on dark we reach the other side of the island. Here we hop on a boat to take us for a one-hour ride through the canals and then on to Thomas’ house. The boat is lovely with an arched thatched roof and cane lounge chairs. The crew sings us a few traditional Keralan songs – very heartfelt. At a quarter to eight we arrive back ‘home’ and half an hour later we’re all at Thomas’ table again for tonight’s feast. Banana leaves again instead of plates and fingers again instead of cutlery.  Except for chicken, South Indian food is mainly vegetarian with the usual suspect ingredients – ginger, shredded coconut, chili, curry leaves, turmeric and coconut milk. Tonight dinner is chicken curry, dahl, rice, chappattis and bananas.

Afterwards we sit out on the verandah with the others. Very peaceful here with geckos running up the walls and tiny frogs hopping in and out of the open doorway of the house. Then it’s cold showers and bed by 10pm.

Monday 7th February, 2005       Kerala Backwaters to Kumil

The alarm wakes us at 7.15am after a sound sleep. Feeling very sweaty with the humidity and the heat, our cold showers are very welcome this morning. Repacking our backpacks we meet at Thomas’ house for an eight o’clock breakfast. Today it’s masala dosa, fried bananas, tea and coffee.

Outside we thank Thomas and his family before boarding a comfortable boat for a four hour trip out of the backwaters. Today the weather is glorious again – still hot with a cloudless deep blue sky. The canal is mirror calm with coconut palms reflected in its still  waters. A long canoe-like boat is carrying locals from one island to another and children dressed in green and white uniforms are walking to school. The schools in the backwaters are predominantly Christian and called The Holy Family Schools. Most of the ones we pass are playing religious music over loud speakers. Like yesterday, we see people bathing and washing clothes and one woman is even washing her cow like we wash our car. Old men called mud diggers are dredging sand and mud from the canal by holding their breath and diving to the bottom. The mud is dumped onto their tiny dugout canoes, then they sell it to the villagers to be used in house construction. Other men are diving for shellfish which is crushed and used as lime to fertilise the fields.

Mark and I alternate from lying on cushions in the cabin to sunbaking on the roof. People are waving to us the whole time and we pass more flocks of ducks. Some of the smaller canals are choked with water hyacinth. It looks so pretty with its purple flowers but keeps getting caught in our propeller and someone has to dive down to untangle it. At one place we come upon a small wooden bridge which some locals lift up with hand pulleys to let us through.

At Kottayam, we pull into the bank where two jeeps are waiting. Before leaving, we all use some very smelly toilets then have lime sodas made for us at a tiny shop. After tying all the packs to the roof, Mark and I sit in the middle seats for a very bumpy one and a half hour ride to a bustling township. Poor Barbara has been sitting up the back where the seats face sideways and she’s now feeling seriously sick. This is our lunch stop so she’ll have time to get well. We’re eating at India Coffee which is some sort of national franchise but has the usual dodgy Indian service – stuff ups with orders and bills and everything late. Mark and I order French potatoes (get ten chips each), two eggs (get four), a salad (a plate of sliced onion with three flecks of tomato) and fried chicken (burnt chicken bones) – would rather have eaten from a street cart.

Taking off again, Barbara is now in the front seat and Mark and I take the dreaded back seat which is made even worse with the sun blaring in through the back window. We’re heading for the busy market town of Kumily in the Western Ghats. It’s only sixty-eight kilometers away but the road is so steep and winding that we never get over 30kph. All along the roadside women are doing manual roadwork which seems to go on forever. The trip takes two and a half hours and takes us through rubber, tea, coffee and cardamon plantations. This area is actually called the Cardamon Hills but I know Mark couldn’t give a rats as he’s looking worse than Barbara did a few hours ago.

Finally driving through Kumily, we pull up at Hotel Ambodi in the adjoining village of Thekkady. Mark jumps out and unceremoniously throws up in the garden. He’ll feel better now. Hotel Ambodi is in a lovely green setting with shady trees near the entrance and gardens throughout. The buildings are three storey cottages with sloping roofs and shuttered windows. Our room is on the middle floor with a big sunny balcony and a soaring wooden ceiling. In fact, everything is made of polished wood – walls, floors and multi-paned windows. The sheets and bedcovers are snowy white and Mark collapses on top of the bed – still not feeling great.

After an hour he’s recovered and we all meet in the foyer before jumping into three auto rickshaws. We drive through Thekkady with a bamboo forest towering above us on one side of the road and basic shacks on the other. Winding through the streets of Kumily, we drive a short way uphill to a spice garden owned by a smiling man called Abraham. He takes us on a one-hour tour of his garden of which he’s obviously very proud. We like that it’s not laid out in any sort of order but a rambling jungle that reflects nature itself.

After the tour we have another South Indian meal, this time in Abraham’s home – chicken curry, parathas, pappadams and vegetable curry eaten off banana leaves once again. The drinks are a strange mixture of cardoman and turmeric but best of all is the dessert of curd, rice, sliced banana and sugar. By this time it’s dark outside and a bit chilly at this time of day in the mountains. We have a short wait for our tuktuks to arrive and then off we all speed back to the hotel. A few of us get together in the bar for drinks but Mark and I are, as usual, the only stayers.

Showers then bed by 9.30pm.

Tuesday 8th February, 2005                Kumily

This morning we’re up at 6am to get ready for our trek through the nearby Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary where we’ll see elephants, bison, sambar, monkeys, boar and antelopes. The auto rickshaw ride is cold again so hot tea and coffee at a roadside stall near the gate is a good start. Inside we all get fitted for leech socks then follow our Indian guide into the forest.

 

For the next few hours we seem to wander around aimlessly looking for wild tigers and elephants which, of course, never appear. The most exciting thing about the whole ‘trek’ is a few deer and wild boar and a monkey or two but we’d seen more in the carpark so even this is a letdown. Our guide shows us tiny mimosa (plants that close up when we touch them) and some bushes covered in daddy longleg-type spiders – not exactly thrilling but something at least. We end up at a water hole where elephants often come to drink but ‘not today – many yesterday’. The closest we come to an elephant is some great piles of dung – three hours for poo! I’ve now added national parks to my hate list!

Back at the carpark we take off our leech socks – not even the excitement of a leech – then pick up our tuktuks to make a beeline for Kumily. At the guesthouse, Pulak tells us about massages at the very fancy Spice Hotel but Mark and I want to try one of the little massage places in the village. Right now though we’re starving so we wander over to the Spice Hotel with the others and order breakfast with big Steve. On the very posh and sunny verandah we feed some of the big water birds wandering around. Mark says there’s more wildlife here than in the fucking national park!

Mark’s cold is getting worse so he goes back to the room while I spend a frustrating hour on the slowest internet in history. At four o’clock the two of us walk up to Thekkady. This is a true local village with a nice feel – small massage places, a tiny hospital, food stalls and a camel. Up in Kumily we sit in a hot sunny café – food comes out all wrong and horrid as well as taking an hour. Walking back down to Thekkady, we stop at Sunita’s house/herbal medicine shop for an Ayurvedic massage – stacks of atmosphere in here. Mark is taken to a separate room and gets the whole Ayurvedic treatment as before in Vagator. I go to a tiny cupboard of a room with red lights and posters of Hindu gods. Totally naked again, we’re both smothered in oil and even our hair is plastered flat. My massage girl is a sweetie and afterwards I get kisses on both cheeks as well as a bear hug from Sunita.

After the actual massage, we’re led by the hand to cubicles out in the back yard. We sit on a stool while we’re washed down with hot, red-coloured water – not even allowed to dry ourselves. Then as we leave, Sunita dabs some special oil on the palm of our hands then more bear hugs. God, this has been the best experience!

Because we’re running late, we haven’t got time for showers but head straight to the hotel dining room where we’re meeting the group for dinner. We both stink and my hair is ugly to say the least. The meal is only okay and Mark’s butter chicken looks exactly like one of the elephant dumps we saw this morning – provides a good laugh for everyone and he eats it anyway. Can’t wait to wash my hair so as soon as the meal is over I’m off for a hot shower. The power goes out half way through and I stumble around in the dark trying to get dressed. Mark is already dead to the world. I read by torchlight.

Wednesday 9th February, 2005           Kumily to Madurai

Breakfast is at seven o’clock in the dining room then off we fly in tuktuks for the bus station in the cool crisp air of morning. Today we’re off to Madurai which will be a four hour drive but downhill this time. The bus station is right in the centre of Kumily – very basic and full of activity. I always love the busyness of these places especially early in the morning.

Bullock carts stream past and, for some reason, all the bullocks have their horns painted red or green or one of both. Tea stalls are doing a roaring trade and old men want their photos taken. Our bus is an old rattler and not too full at the moment. One side of the aisle has two seats and the other has three, so Mark and I spread out on a 3-seater bench. The bus pulls out about eight o’clock and we soon leave Kumily behind. Except for our massage last night, which we found by ourselves anyway, I think coming here is a waste of time.

Our three-seat choice soon turns out to be a bad move, when a few stops later, a man gets on and squashes onto our seat. This is fine until he starts pressing his arm against my boob and then lets his hand move over to my leg. I’m not sure if I’m imaging it at first but then finally push him away. This has no effect whatsoever so I whisper to Mark what’s happening. He’s furious so he tells the groper to piss off and gives him death stares till the man says a cheery ‘goodbye’ and gets off the bus. We move to the two-seat side

On and on, we wind our way down to the plains where the heat finally hits us once again. Despite the groper experience, which was funny anyway, the trip is fantastic. We stop in lots of small towns and there’s so much to see going on outside. We stop at a few bus stations where young boys sell us chopped watermelon through the open windows and others walk through the bus with baskets of fried potatoes for sale. At other times we pull up in the centre of towns where food carts are piled high with mandarins and all the men wear the traditional white dhoti (a baggy nappy style skirt) and bullock carts lumber past.

By noon we’ve reached the outskirts of Madurai and can see the five towers of Sri Meenakshi Temple dominating the skyline. From the bus station, we throw our packs into auto rickshaws and thread our way through cycle rickshaws and busy foot traffic on the way to the hotel. It’s another uneventful place but close to the temple which is probably why we’re staying here. After dumping our bags in our room, Mark and I make our way to the Plaza Hotel for lunch then walk through town looking for a place to download our photos. A helpful man says he’ll show us the way but he really just wants us to go to his shop – no surprises there. We eventually find a photo lab in the same building and it ends up all too easy even if a bit time consuming. Now we head for the other side of town to Ruby Restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet. It’s behind a dusty garden and very bare and local – love its simplicity. We ask for beers that arrive a few minutes later on the back of a bike and are almost as hot as our chicken and corn soup and chicken spring rolls.

Across the road, Mark has his first shave in India for this trip. Like in Jaipur five years ago, he has two lathers, two shaves, water sprays, alum and a massage – all for 10RP. From here we grab a cycle rickshaw to take us through the heavy traffic to the hotel for our usual afternoon siesta.

At 4pm we meet Pulak and the others for our visit to the Sri Meenakshi Temple. The West Gate is the closest but we have to enter around the other side at the lively East Gate opposite the bazaars. Outside are hawkers, flower sellers, pilgrims and the never-ending stream of cycle rickshaws. We leave our shoes at the gate with a mass of Indian pilgrims then push our way through the hundreds of worshippers to the inner part of the complex. The Sri Meenakshi Temple is a massive six hectares in area and, because Meenakshi is the protector goddess of Madurai, the temple is the heart centre of the city. It’s the most magical of places – a huge, ancient conglomeration of shrines, statues, halls of columns, The Golden Lotus Tank and untold images of Ganesh. Musicians are playing inside and people are burning oils and dabbing grey ash on their faces.

At the bazaar between the inner and outer walls, the temple elephant blesses us by wrapping its trunk over our heads and all overlooked by statues of Shiva, Pavarati, Ganesh and Vishnu. Raju is our guide but he’s hard to understand so Mark and I just prefer to soak up the atmosphere. Only Hindus are allowed in the Meenakshi Shrine which is the sacred inner sanctum but we see worshippers performing all sorts of strange rituals. Two tall statues of Pavarati and Krishna are having balls of butter thrown at them but we’re not sure why. Also inside the temple is the very atmospheric Temple Art Museum. Here another guide shows us how the columns ‘sing’ when they’re tapped and we have photos taken with an Indian family.

Back outside in the street is a noisy parade and dance performance with a fake horse that wants to befriend me for some reason. We’re not sure what it’s all about but there’s always some festival happening in India.

Around the corner, Pulak takes us to Raju’s shop where we climb four flights of stairs to the rooftop. Here we get a bird’s eye view of the temple with the setting sun turning the towers a soft pink. Big Steve bought a cricket bat in the street so Mark and the boys have a game of cricket on the roof. Later some of the others go off to the bazaar but Mark’s cold is giving him some grief so we take a cycle rickshaw back to the hotel. On dark we have a drink at the rooftop cafe upstairs and decide not to go out to tea with the others. After dinner Mark goes back to the room while I find an internet place down the road. An early night.

Thursday 10th February, 2005            Madurai to Pondicherry

We’re back up to the rooftop for breakfast where I ring Jacky for her birthday. At 10.45am we all meet in the foyer then walk with our gear to the railway station. While we wait we sit around on our packs on the platform and buy bananas and junk food for the train. We’re off to Pondicherry tonight and the first leg is a six-hour train trip to Villupuram. We’ve booked a sleeper carriage even though it’s a day trip and I race for one of the top bunks (selfish!) so I can lay down the whole way if I want to.

The others don’t seem to want to lie down anyway. Pommie Chris doesn’t move from her seat, reading for the entire seven hours. Her back is ramrod straight – very stiff upper lip while John wanders around smiling as usual. Mark sits, reads, walks up and down the carriage and finds an empty top bunk on the opposite side of the aisle to stretch out and read. I don’t know what the rest are doing because I can’t see them because I haven’t got off my lazy arse off the top bunk. I’m having a wonderful time – snoozing, reading, eating chocolates and writing.

At Villupuram Station, Pulak finds us a couple of vans for the one hour drive to the coast and Pondicherry. Our drivers are lunatics who have turns overtaking each other and Big Steve is shitting himself in the front seat. Finally Pulak tells them to slow down when we stop for petrol and they do. The road is busy all the way to Pondicherry which is the biggest town we’ve visited so far. It’s dusk by the time we arrive at yet another boring hotel on the main street into town. The Jayaran Hotel is clean but same, same.

Pulak gives us half an hour to change before we meet downstairs at 7.30pm. Outside he pulls in a few auto rickshaws off the street and we’re soon speeding to the French side of town. Tonight we’re eating in a wonderful French restaurant where the tables are set up under the stars. The menu has lots of seafood choices but whenever we pick one, the answer is always ‘No – Tsunami’. But apparently we can have prawns because they’re farm prawns and not from the sea. While we wait for our meals to come, I talk to a group of smoking French Canadians who are living here at the moment. Nice to talk to interesting people for a change. Even though Mark isn’t a smoker he comes over to escape our nice but dull dinner mates.

Tuktuks back to the hotel.

Friday 11th February, 2005         Pondicherry to Mamallapuram

Mark’s cold isn’t any better today so we ring Pulak to tell him we won’t be going with them this morning. I’m not sure if this is just an excuse to be on our own again, because at 10.30am we’re out in the street doing our own tour of Pondicherry.

Not far from the hotel we find a local market hidden away behind the busy Nehru Road. We spend ages in the flower area where thousands of marigolds are being strung into temple leis. In the meat section, six young men all line up for a photo and I buy bangles from an old lady sitting on the ground. We need to eat so we catch an auto rickshaw to a dark local cafe opposite the Sri Aurobindo Paper Factory. After breakfast we wander around the factory where, even though the paper is produced in bulk, it’s still all done by hand. From here we walk down to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. We’re not allowed in the front entrance but in a tiny door in the high brick wall. We watch the beginning of a ceremony in the garden but then any non-Hindus are ushered back outside

At the nearby Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple, we take off our shoes and walk around the inner shrine. A large bridal party is involved in some sort of ritual while other worshippers burn incense and oils. Outside the hawkers are too persistent so we jump in another auto rickshaw to go back to our room.

At 1pm we tuktuk our way through town to Seagulls Restaurant overlooking the waters of the Bay of Bengal. It’s an ugly place with a crappy menu so we just have a drink and cross the road to look for Le Club. This is more like it – so old and French and tropical. The cafe has a thatched roof and open on three sides. It’s set in a lush garden in front of the very beautiful Hotel de Pondicherry. The hotel is an old French mansion slightly rundown but with an appealing faded glory – why aren’t we staying somewhere like this? After a lunch of pizza and tuna salad, we quickly race back to the hotel in a tuktuk as we’re to meet the group at three o’clock.

This afternoon we’re off to Mamallapuram which is a small fishing village two hours up the east coast and in the state of Tamil Nadu. On the way we pass through the community of Auroville which is sort of a commune of multi-nationals set up by The Mother. It’s a pretty, rural area where the people involve themselves in alternate forms of agriculture, politics and science. Unfortunately the temple is closed so we keep heading north after calling in for the customary petrol stop. Even this is interesting as it’s been newly opened so all the bowsers are covered with flowers after being blessed.

The road up the coast is narrow but well paved and it’s an enjoyable couple of hours driving through small towns and villages. We finally arrive at Mamallapuram at 5.30pm and see that, although it’s small, there’s lots of traveller’s cafes, guesthouses, shops and internet places. Our hotel is called Seabreeze and right in the market area. It’s also right on the beach and has nice gardens and shady trees. There’s even a pool and a thatched cafe so we’re all more than happy with our accommodation tonight.

After checking into our room, Mark and I walk down to the beach and can still see the effects of the Boxing Day tsunami. Mamallapuram was actually taken off the Intrepid itinerary for a few months because of the devastation here. A lady hawker follows us and I buy a sarong which I definitely don’t need. In the village we email home then at 7pm meet Pulak and the group. He takes us through the village to the other end of the beach to Mr Steven’s restaurant overlooking the water. The restaurant is upstairs and the bottom floor is still being repaired from where the tsunami destroyed all the rooms. Dinner is an Indian banquet and we all have a fun night together. Bed at 9.30pm.

Saturday 12th February, 2005         Mamallapuram to Madras to Mysore

Another perfect sunny day. Mark and I have breakfast in the beach café next to the pool – good food and good service. At 8.30am we all meet in the garden where bicycles are waiting for us. This morning we’re doing a four-hour bike ride to visit the rock carvings that Mamallapuram is famous for. We ride through the village to a green park where we visit a few cave temples and try to push over the spectacular Krishna’s Butter Ball. This is a huge round rock virtually hanging by its toenails to the side of a sloping rock face.

Now our guide takes us to see Arjuna’s Penance which shows relief carvings of elephants and other animals. The history is all a bit complicated and I’d prefer to play with some baby goats in the cave instead. We buy a bottle of frozen water from a street cart then cycle through the stone carvers’ village to the Five Rathas. We park our bikes under the trees near carts selling all kinds of fruits and drinks – very hot today. Outside the gate I buy three ‘original’ hand painted pictures only to find that everyone else is selling them as well.

Back to the stone carvers’ village we stop to watch the artisans at work. They chisel away at the stone to make the most amazing sculptures. Most of them are exported overseas. From here we cycle to the beach where the 7th century Shore Temple sits looking out over the Indian Ocean. It’s a World Heritage Listed site and was lucky to survive the tsunami without too much damage.

By the time we get back to the Seabreeze we’re all still feeling very high from our morning bike ride. We’re also incredibly hot so some of us head straight for the pool – wonderful! After lunch in the hotel café, Mark and I walk into the village to look for a massage place. We find one but he can only do us one at a time so we decide to forget it. Instead we find an upstairs café/bar where we sit on the verandah overlooking the street for cold lime sodas. Back amongst the shops and market stalls, we spend ages bartering for four silk bedspreads, six pillow-cases, a scarf and a Tibetan thanka (AUD $385). The owners are understandably ecstatic because business has been slow since the tsunami disaster.

It’s about three o’clock by now and Mark has a date at the beach with Steve and the rest of the guys. I do some emailing then wander down to watch the cricket match with Barbara. Mark, Steve and John are having a great time with some of the local boys. It looks amazing with the ocean and the beautiful Shore Temple as a backdrop. After the game, Mark goes for a swim and I worry that he’s gone out too far. He has another quick swim back at the hotel pool then we pack and have dinner with the others at the café.

At 7pm we all board a bus for the one and a half hour drive to Chennai. It’s still light when we leave and see the usual bullock carts, farmers working the fields in loin cloths and even acres and acres of salt fields. By the time we reach Chennai at 8.30pm it’s very dark. This city is crazily busy and is giving me a headache just driving through it. It takes ages to get through the evening traffic jams to the train station on the other side of town.

At last at Central Station – it’s an old colonial beauty with hundreds of people waiting for trains – good people watching. Finally on board at 9.30 pm, I’m happy to find that Pulak has given Mark and I the top bunks. Later we’re not so smug because the air-conditioning is freezing and cold air is blowing straight onto us from the ceiling just inches away. Mark feels sick tonight and now I can feel a cold coming on as well – will definitely dodge air-conditioning whenever we can. Still, despite being cold, we love the sleeper trains.

Sunday 13th February, 2005                          Mysore

By the time we wake at 8am, it’s time to get ready for our arrival in Mysore at 8.20am. The station isn’t too overcrowded and even outside there seems to be some sort of order. Black and white Ambassador taxis drop us at the Hotel Viceroy conveniently located right opposite the Mysore Palace. While Pulak is arranging our rooms, the rest of us have breakfast in the sunny dining room. Apparently the rooms won’t be ready for a few hours, but we’re given two day- rooms to share. While I take a shower Mark has a quick nap in the boys’ room as he didn’t sleep too well last night.

At 10.30am we all meet in the foyer then cross over to New Statue Circle near the Mysore Palace. At the moment one side of the road is blocked by a noisy demonstration march. The men are wearing green shirts and caps and march ahead of the women who are wearing their normal colourful saris. They’re all balancing bundles on their heads and make for a big open area near Gandhi Square.

Once the demonstration has passed, the wide streets seem almost empty. With a population of less than a million, Mysore is so clean and quiet compared to any other Indian city we’ve seen. This particular area is so pretty as well – the Palace before us, tree shaded streets and horse drawn carts ambling by. And the weather is glorious once again.

Pulak takes us around the outskirts of the Palace to the main entrance on the west side. On the way we pass food stalls set up under spreading trees and even a camel – a rare sight in the south. The entrance is busy with Indian visitors but we manage to get our tickets without any hassle – another difference from northern India. Mysore Palace was built in 1912 as a maharaja’s palace and the present maharaja still lives in part of it. A guide takes us all barefoot through room after elaborate room describing the architecture and the massive paintings of Mysore life at the time of the raj. It’s all beautiful with detailed carved doors, intricate ceilings and heaps of stained and coloured glass. We both love it here.

Outside to the heat, we claim our shoes and buy a book on the palace which is very unlike us – we really must be impressed. Now we all walk to the Devaraja Market only a few blocks away. The market mainly sells fruit and vegetables but the best bits are the colourful spice market and the flower section, where thousands of orange and yellow marigolds are being strung into temple offerings. Mark and I go off on our own and have fun with the flower sellers and buy jasmine oil and some of the sandalwood incense that Mysore is renowned for.

The street outside is congested and so very alive and exciting. It’s too hot to walk so we grab an auto rickshaw to get back to the hotel. At each intersection we’re directed by uniformed traffic police standing very importantly on a sort of raised box in the middle of the street. At the Viceroy, our rooms are ready so after checking in, Mark does some washing as we’re actually staying here for the next two nights which gives us a chance to get things dry. We’ve accumulated so many dirty clothes that we even send some off to the laundry.

In the same street as our hotel is the Parkland Hotel Restaurant. This is a wonderful down-market indoor-outdoor sort of place with lots of climbing plants, gardens and a band of live musicians. It’s very backpackerish which means we can have western food as well. After lunch we jump in another auto rickshaw outside to take us seven kilometres out of town to the Lalitha Mahal Palace Hotel. This was also built as a maharaja’s palace and we can see it far into the distance glowing a brilliant white.

At the main entrance a fat jolly doorman with huge moustaches and a red uniform opens the door for us. Inside the foyer is a stuffed lion with a stuffed tiger at the top of the marble staircase – very Raj. Of course, we’re only here for drinks so we do a quick search for the bar. This is in a dark cavernous room with a billiard table and old lounges set out around the walls. Like an old gentleman’s club, it’s all deathly quiet and we feel the need to whisper. After a Tom Collins and a couple of daiquiris, we head back out into the afternoon sunshine and tuktuk into Mysore and the Viceroy Hotel.

My cold is much worse now and my voice is more like a croak. It’s nice to rest for a couple of hours in our room before meeting Pulak at 7pm. He’s been trying all afternoon to get us tickets for a picture theatre. He’s been to all four theatres in town but no luck. Apparently Sunday is the big day and men have been lining up at the theatre next to the hotel since 2pm for the 7pm session. Pulak thinks tomorrow night should be easier and anyway we’ll be having enough excitement already tonight at the Mysore Palace.  Every Sunday night the Palace is literally lit up like a Christmas tree – apparently it’s the Indian Griswold’s at their tackiest best.

It’s a carnival atmosphere as thousands of people pour in through the gate. The palace elephants are grazing to our left and people are setting up picnics on the lawn. The tension mounts till on the dot of 7.30pm, ninety seven thousand lights globes light up the palace and each gate. It’s actually quite beautiful. In the courtyard in front of the palace, three brass bands have turns of playing a tune. It’s hilarious because they’re all hopeless and while one is playing, the other two bands don’t stay in line but just mill around talking to each other. I think the best thing about the whole event is crowd watching. All sorts of people are here and everyone is very excited. To beat the rush we leave before the light show ends which also means we’ll be able to get a seat in a restaurant. We wade our way through the crowds to the even more crowded area outside the gate. It’s a festive family atmosphere with music, food carts and stalls selling balloons and trinkets for the kids. We stop at a cart while Pulak buys us a plateful of very spicy food to try.

Now we cross the street to a South Indian restaurant which Pulak loves but I hate. No atmosphere and we’re eating off banana leaves again – the novelty is definitely wearing thin. After dinner he takes us to the oldest bar in Mysore. I imagined an old colonial upmarket place but this is much, much better. It’s a true Indian local with not even a sign out the front. Inside is crowded with plain tables and chairs all occupied by men only. Out back is a sort of a cement courtyard where we pull a couple of tables together and a few of the men find us chairs. There’s no attempt to decorate – just cement walls and floor painted a deep green – looks every inch its one hundred and twenty years. It’s also very dark and moody which we all love. Pulak orders us a dark whisky called India Pride which we drink straight. Then the men at the next table want their photos taken and make us feel very welcome. A great night.

Monday 14th February, 2005   Mysore to Somnathpur to Mysore

Our second day in Mysore. Sunshine is pouring in through our window so it looks like we’ll have another perfect day. After breakfast we take off in three Ambassador cars for the half hour drive to Chamundi Hill to visit the Hindu temple of Sri Chamundeswari Temple. Chamundi Hill is over a thousand metres above sea level so it’s a long slow winding drive to the top. Mark decides to ring Andrew while I wander around looking at the ladies sitting in the ground outside the temple selling coconuts and flowers for offerings.

After a short guided tour of the temple, we walk back down the mountain to meet the taxis at the bottom. Pilgrims are climbing the one thousand steps from the base of the hill to the temple but, thank God, we’re taking the easy way out and doing it backwards. Half way down we stop at Nandi, the five metre high Shiva’s Bull carved out of solid rock. It’s also a stopover for the pilgrims who leave food offerings on their way to the top. This makes it a lively area of people, monkeys and food stalls where we buy bags of chopped pineapple.

Back in the taxis, we drive east heading for the small village of Somnathpur to visit yet another temple. The roads are pot-holed and unpaved most of the way so not surprisingly we end up with a flat tyre. We pass bullock carts, groves of coconut trees and cultivated fields in between lots of tiny villages. Finally arriving at Somnathpur after a couple of hours, we park under some shade trees and look at a few stalls selling local handicrafts. Somnathpur’s main attraction is its Keshava Temple built in the thirteenth century. They call it a dead temple because now it’s just a museum with no actual worshippers. It’s an example of Hoysala architecture and literally a mass of minute stone carvings. A guide not only shows us around but makes sure we’re listening by firing questions at us every few minutes. Actually we learn heaps but fail miserably at recognizing the different images of the gods. He shows us the carved columns, ceiling panels, colonnaded cloisters and the outside walls decorated with layer upon layer of Hindu images. We spend most of the time trying to get in a shady spot as it’s extra hot in here with the sun reflecting off the stone.

In the cars once again, we make the long dusty drive back to Mysore where we stop in a village area on the northern outskirts. We’re having lunch at a family home owned by a smiling man called Baboo. He introduces us to the ladies of the family who’ve been doing all the cooking. It’s another feast of chicken byriani, rice, dahl and a custard dessert.

By the time we get back to the hotel, my throat is so bad that I can barely talk. Mark and I walk around till we find a pharmacy to buy cold and flu tablets. It’s a hole in the wall place with a crowd pushing their way to the counter. Our turn at last but the pharmacist decides we should see the doctor who’s surgery is up a set of narrow wooden stairs. The room is totally bare except for a desk in the centre and two chairs in front. He asks us to stand at the window so he can look down our throats and announces that we both have tonsilitus. There’s not an instument in sight and he can’t find his prescription book but finally we have prescriptions for two lots of tablets and a medicine and told ‘do not eat chillis!’. Downstairs Mark waits to get the prescriptions filled out while I make hurried toilet stop back at the room. Despite having a cold and India belly I feel surprisingly good.

We meet outside the Viceroy and walk back down to the Parkland Hotel for cold lime sodas before I go off to use the internet. At 6.30pm we meet Pulak and the Intepid group at the cinema next dor. Our seats are upstairs and numbered for some strange reason. It’s a stuffy furnace in here until a couple of sad looking fan start spinning above us. As the movie starts with an explosion of music and lights, there’s cheers and whistles from the crowd. The movie is typical Bollywood – dancing, singing, fighting, crying and an ugly hero with a fat caterpillar moustache – hilarious! The fight scenes are the funniest – the punching sounds aren’t synchronised with the punches but no-one seems to mind. At half time Mark and I decide we’ve had enough and leave to have dinner on our own on the roof of our hotel.

Tuesday 15th February, 2005              Mysore to Ooty to Toda village

Another perfect sunny day. After breakfast we all take off in a mini bus and head out of Mysore. Today we’re off to the town of Ooty, the shortened version of its unpronounceable real name Udhagamandalam, in the Nilgiris Mountains. Passing through a few small towns, we turn off the main road and drive for an hour or so through a national park. We stop for a break at a small teahouse where monkeys are running everywhere. Mark and I don’t bother with tea because the monkeys are too much fun to miss out on. A pretty stream runs past the teahouse and we can see local women washing clothes and obviously enjoying a good gossip, going on all the laughing. On through the park, we see a few deer amongst the trees before we start the steep climb to Ooty at over two thousand metres above sea level.

It’s midday when we arrive and we can already feel the coolness in the air even at this time of day. The town rambles between hills with a lake in the middle and a racecourse taking centre stage. We’re staying at the YWCA overlooking the town and next to the racecourse. After unloading our packs from the roof of the bus, we all crowd into the old foyer while Pulak organises to have our packs stored away for the night. Just off the foyer is a big sitting room and a dining room beyond. Upstairs is another smaller sitting room with an open log fire – heaps of old world atmosphere here.

Mark and I decide to head into the main part of town to get something to eat. Walking down the hill and out on to the busy Ettines Road, we find an auto rickshaw to take us to Commercial Road near Charing Cross. As a former British hill station in the early eighteenth century there’s still a few remnants of its English past. Most of the old British buildings have been demolished in the name of ‘progress’ so the town has lost most of its former charm. We pass roadside market stalls and the train station before getting dropped amongst the cafes and restaurants. We grab a quick lunch of pizza and beers before heading back to the YWCA. For the next couple of hours we hang around in the downstairs sitting room, reading and even grabbing a snooze on one of the lounges. We haven’t booked in because this afternoon we’re off to spend the night in a Toda village higher up in the mountains. Can imagine how much colder it’ll be up there.

At 3.30pm we pile into another bus just with a day pack each as we’ll be staying back here tomorrow night. We stop for petrol as usual at Charing Cross then head out of Ooty. The bus slowly climbs and climbs till we have a bird’s eye view of the town itself and tea plantations spreading as far as we can see. In a small village we leave the bus and follow our guide, Habib, through a tea plantation then up a steep path through a forest area. I keeping asking Pulak ‘are we nearly there?’ and he always smiles and fibs ‘nearly there’.

At last we burst through the trees into the sunshine of the Toda village where a welcoming committee is sitting on the grass. All the women have long black hair that they coil in long sausage curls and keep in place with coconut oil. One mother has two tiny girls wearing their best frilly dresses and shaved heads. Apparently this was done in a ceremony yesterday when they also had their ears pierced. The women are all wearing the traditional Toda black and red embroidered shawls. They’re actually sewing now and naturally have things for us to buy. For one thousand Rupees I end up with a shawl I’ll probably never wear again but I love it all the same.

Hot Indian tea and coffee is handed out to us in small metal containers while we talk to the ladies. My favourite is Janini, a stunning dignified woman, with four children and a handsome husband. She’s sewing a marriage blanket in the same white cloth as all their clothes. Even the men wear all white and the embroidered shawls wrapped around them Indian style.

Habib gives us a rundown on the Toda people. Each village is quite small and is usually made up of one extended family. ‘Our’ village has just eight homes and thirty-six people. The Toda people traditionally lived in cone shaped thatched huts but only one family still lives like this here. The rest are mud brick homes attached to each other with tiny doorways and tiled roofs. The whole life of a Toda villager centres economically and spiritually around the buffalo – not for eating but for milking only – and there’s a few of them grazing nearby.

Meanwhile, the men of the tribe are sitting in a group away from the women. Two of them are having a noisy argument and even start wrestling with each other. I ask Habib what’s going on and he just shrugs and says ‘brothers!’. I guess that explains it but we think that, besides this, all the men are probably drunk.

Now everyone wants to have their photos taken and Janini gives me her address written on a scrap of paper and we promise to send them copies. By now the kids have come home from school and apparently have to do the same steep climb through the tea plantation that we just made this afternoon. No way to get vehicles in here so it’s definitely the real thing. Now Mark and the boys start a cricket game with the kids which lasts almost till dark.

Finally the men are all smiles and friends again and build a campfire to warm us up. The kids sing for us and even the three brothers give a passionate welcome song. The temperature has really dropped by this stage, so Mark and I need to pile on more clothes. Pulak shows us the house where we’ll sleep and where we luckily have our own bedroom. The room is cosy with the tiniest window and a bed piled high with heavy blankets. The walls are washed in pink and decorated with a few old photos and faded pictures torn from a magazine – simple but very homey. Back outside I need to use the toilet which is anywhere out there in the bush. This is also where the village people ‘go’ so I so I take my torch far into the trees so no-one catches me literally with my pants down. Mark is swinging the kids around in circles so I wander off to watch a baby buffalo suckling on its mother. Some of the men are putting the pigs and buffalo into pens for the night while the women have started the evening meal.

The cooking is being done in the hut next to ours so Mark and I go in to watch. We’re asked to take off our shoes then proudly given a spot on a bed to watch the ladies at work. Everything is done over an open fire and the kitchen is full of smoke. It makes our eyes sting but only adds to the special atmosphere. The food is vegetables and rice as the Toda people are strict vegetarians. They don’t even have musical instruments which would need to be made out of animal hides.

Soon everyone is herded into the other room where the dancing and clapping starts. Mark is wrapped in someone’s shawl and I’m wearing mine so we feel very ‘Toda’. Happily, I’ve also found a cat who either won’t get off my lap or I won’t let it. Mark gets up to dance with the villagers and everyone is having a great time. Now it’s time for dinner so we all squash into the kitchen and eat off metal plates. The food is basic to say the least – no spices here to liven things up. After dinner I make another dash to the bush and I’m sure I’m going to get a shoeful of someone else’s visit.

Wearing all the clothes we can find, and covering ourselves in a wad of blankets, we’re cosy and warm in our little bed. Dogs bark through the night but we sleep well.

Wednesday 16th February, 2005                  Toda village to Coonoor to Ooty

We’re up at 6.30am for another visit to the bush then breakfast in the kitchen. Noodles this morning and everything as tasteless as last night’s meal – spoilt bitch that I am. After watching the men milk the buffalo, we say goodbye to these sweet people and set off behind Habib. We’re on a ‘trek’ to somewhere but Mark eventually realizes that we’re just walking in a huge circle. What a waste of bloody time – there’s nothing to see anyway. At last we come to the top of a tea plantation with a village at the bottom. I slip down a steep bit and can’t wait to end this stupid walk. On the edge of the village is a Hindu shrine where we rest in the shade before walking amongst the houses. These are all painted the brightest of greens, blues, purples, yellows and reds. Further down the hill we pass children lining up in a school yard then stop again at a tea house to wait for a bus. We buy hot tea and a cakey thing before the bus arrives to take us to a tea plantation further down the mountain.

Here we watch how the tea is processed after it’s picked in the hills outside. The others go off to buy tea but Mark and I spend ages down amongst the plants watching the pickers. All the women here have big cane baskets strapped to their backs and throw the leaves over their shoulder as they pick each handful. This is one thing I’ve always wanted to see first hand.

Back in the bus we drive to Coonoor for lunch before being dropped off at the station where we’ll catch the miniature railway back to Ooty. It was built in 1898 and is unique because it’s pushed up the hill rather than being pulled. Brakemen wave to each other with red and green flags from opposite ends of the little bright blue train. Each carriage is separate from the rest and Mark and I share with a friendly Indian family. The lady keeps smiling at me then sends her little daughter over to give me a pair of blue earrings – the sweetest thing. Mark and I let the kids sit at our window as we have the best views. At one station we notice an important sign – ‘Clean Habits Are Noticed By Others and Copied Too’.

At Ooty we stop at a pharmacist for me to buy cold and flu tablets then back to our room at the YWCA. Our room is nice with our own bathroom but it’s freezing – just hate being cold. I sit out in the sun to warm up then jump into bed with Mark for the rest of the afternoon. We feel like being alone tonight so instead of having dinner with the others, we decide to go to the very posh Savoy Hotel. On dark we take a tuktuk into town to do some emailing then another tuktuk to the Savoy. By now it’s freezing – definitely should have got a taxi instead.

The Savoy is another Taj owned hotel with a colonial heritage. It’s a one storey gem with wide verandahs and lawn chairs at the front. An open fire is raging next to a bar set up on the grass so we have a couple of drinks out here before dinner. Mark has a beer while I order a hot rum and honey to try and warm up.

The dining room is still in its former gorgeous state. Dark panelled walls, wall lamps, candles and flowers on white linen cloths and waiters in waistcoats and bow-ties. In one corner a very old man plays a piano – old British favourites like ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’ and ‘Chopsticks’. Dinner is first class and the whole experience worth freezing to get here.

About 10pm, the office orders us a taxi which is a much more sensible way to get around at night here in the mountains – especially when we’ve both got a cold. Back at the YWCA, I crash out in bed while Mark stays upstairs with Pulak and Steve till 2.30am drinking and talking in front of the open fire.

A good day.

Thursday 17th February, 2005   Ooty to Coimbatore to Kochi

Apparently we’ll be spending most of today on the road. After a breakfast in the chilly dining room, we pack our gear into a minibus then take off for the three-hour drive to Coimbatore. Although it’s all downhill from here, it’s still a slow trip. There’s some sort of road protocol so that buses going down stop to let the buses coming up cut the corners at each hairpin bend. Besides this, the road is seriously pot-holed and we’re all glad to reach the plains again.

At Coimbatore we wander around for a while finding a toilet (too bad to use) and buy water for the next leg of our trip to Kochi. Compared to the cool mountain air of the last few days, the sun is scorching and we try to find a spot in the shade. From Coimbatore we’re on a big local bus which is much more comfortable and even has a television at the front. For the next five hours we sleep as much as we can till we reach the outskirts of Kochi at 3.30pm.

The bus stops near our hotel so we’re soon back in our room at the Grand Hotel. Mark and I are also soon back down in the bar – on our own, of course. At 6pm we all meet for our final farewell dinner. It’s almost as dull as our first night together and Mark and I get away ASAP back to the bar. Goodbye Pulak, you’re a sweetheart. Goodbye Intrepid crew, it was ‘nice’ meeting you.

Friday 18th February, 2005                            Kochi to Mumbai

Today we leave Kochi for Mumbai – very glad to be on our own. After a 7.30am breakfast, Pulak waves us off in our taxi to the airport. On the way we ring Raj at the Moti Hotel in Mumbai to make sure we can get a room tonight. At the airport we sit with Steve and Sue who are flying to Delhi and will be on the same plane as us to Mumbai. I really enjoy talking to Sue but it’s a bit late to find out that we could be friends. The flight is delayed so when we arrive at Mumbai we have to circle above the airport for ages because we’ve missed our earlier landing spot.

From the airport we grab a taxi for the long trip to Colaba. We seem to end up in some sort of taxi scam. We pay our driver but he stops after a couple of kilometres and a new driver jumps in. Our old driver gives him 100RP then as we take off our new driver tells us we owe him the original fare as well. At first we don’t know what he’s going on about but he’s obviously seriously pissed off. He bitches the whole way and we can’t wait to get out. At the Moti Hotel we grab our bags while he’s still going off so Mark tells him to bugger off.

Raj is here to meet us like old friends and to give us the best room. For 20,000RP a night (~AUD$80) we have our own bathroom and a big airy bedroom with a magical colonial feel – overhead fans, louvred shutters, a cool tiled floor and high ornate ceilings. While Mark organises the drinks, I go outside to set up a table and chairs in the courtyard. When I look out onto the street, here is our taxi sitting in the same spot and the driver still going nuts and shaking his hands at me. He’s really giving me the creeps so I go inside to tell Raj who storms out to tell him to get lost but luckily he’s already gone.

At lunchtime we wander around to the main street and through the market stalls to find an excellent cafe on a corner called Mondy’s. Packed with travellers and middle class locals, it has a juke box playing old western hits and a great menu. After a jug of beer and a pizza, we go back to our room for a rest before dressing up to have drinks at the Taj Mahal Hotel.

The Taj has an elaborate and busy lobby with designer shops, bars and cafes. We have a couple of cocktails in one of the lower floor bars but prefer to eat back at Mondy’s. After dinner I buy a stack of earrings and shawls for presents from the market outside then have an early night at 9pm.

Saturday 19th February, 2005             Mumbai

The weather is perfect again today and we make an early start. We walk south through the Colaba tourist market to Colaba’s local produce market. The usual fruit and vegetable stalls line the streets and all sorts of fish is being sold. Walking down to the waterfront we find the Harbour View Cafe for breakfast – a rooftop restaurant overlooking the water and the Gateway of India.

From here we catch a taxi to the Crawford Market, a few kilometres north of Victoria Terminus. Outside we’re approached by a little elderly man who wants to show us around. He takes us though the old British-built building which may now be a crumbling remnant of its former grandeur, but still exudes a century old atmosphere. The fruit and vegetable section surrounds a once beautiful fountain but the animal section is the most interesting or perhaps the most disturbing. Dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, white mice, chickens and even ducks dyed a brilliant blue are crammed into cages too small for them and the meat section is a bloodied mess of animal parts and entrails with big black crows scavenging the leftovers and rats running everywhere – a fascinating place, for sure.

Back outside, we catch another taxi to the Chor Bazaar about fifteen minutes north through streets so crowded we’re stopped most of the time. The Chor Bazaar is the old Thieves Market and is in the middle of Mumbai’s Islamic area. We hear the call-to-prayer from the local mosque and everyone is dressed in traditional Moslem clothes – men in white robes and skull-caps and women in the all-covering black. It takes us a while to find Mutton Street which is where the antique shops are crowded together. We squeeze our way into a couple of shops that are crammed with wonderful stuff mainly from the days of the Raj. We’d love to buy heaps here but I don’t think our house can fit much more in.

In Colaba we have lunch at Mondy’s then do a bit more shopping in the street market before heading back to Hotel Moti for a drink in the courtyard. On dusk we get a taxi to Chowpatty Beach on the other side of the Peninsular on the shores of Back Bay. We’re after Cafe Ideal which Lonely Planet recommends but it takes us a few goes of asking locals before anyone knows where it is. Finally we find it just opposite the beach and settle in for a few beers and food. It’s an old Iranian cafe but we don’t fancy the menu and decide to eat later in Colaba. Crossing the very busy Marine Drive, we walk along the sand towards the lights and all the action. Two head massagers called malish-wallahs, hassle us till we agree to a massage each. They’re so rough and so hopeless we can’t wait till it’s over let alone enjoy it. It is fun, though, to be here watching all the Indian families out for the night.

Back in another taxi, our driver has to slam the breaks to a screaming stop when we nearly hit a man who’s run out in front of us. Definitely need a drink after that one. In Colaba we head for Mondy’s but have to line up outside till a table becomes vacant. We’re finally squashed into a far back corner near the jukebox but we love it here. A young English woman comes to ask us if she can share our table with her friend. Her name is Orielle and his name is Jack – both from England and just met each other here in Mumbai a week ago.

We spend the next couple of hours talking about their lives. Orielle is a dancer who’s made it big in Bollywood movies and Jack is a sculptor who’s won a scholarship to study in Florence for three years. Both his parents are artists and apparently high up in London society. He’s very sweet and not at all snobby about his public school upbringing. At the moment he’s working on a Bollywood film set himself until his scholarship starts in a few months time. Orielle tells us that she can get us onto a Bollywood set tomorrow but, shit, we’re going home!

Later they take us to a very unsophisticated, local bar in one of the backstreets where we sit upstairs and order jugs of beer. Orielle and I are the only females. From here they take us to a trendy gay bar a few streets away. Inside is smoky and dark and a transvestite barges in to touch up her makeup while Orielle is sitting on the loo. It’s an amazing place and we all get on the dance floor while the barman minds our bags. Orielle and Jack are fantastic dancers and everyone stops to watch them. At 2.30am Mark and I decide to call it a night. So great to spend our last night like this.

Sunday 20th February, 2005                          Mumbai

Our final day in India. Our last breakfast is back at Mondy’s then we spend the rest of the morning packing. At 11am we say goodbye to Raj and set off for the airport. As we get out of the taxi a man calls out to say that the Qantas flight has been cancelled. I can’t think how he knows we’re flying Qantas but I guess our Aussiness sticks out a mile. I pray that he’s wrong but one look at the board and there it is – cancelled! Everyone is standing around not knowing what to do till it’s announced that we won’t be flying out till tomorrow afternoon. It’s too far to go back to Colaba but they soon tell us that we’ll all be put up in hotels near the airport for the night. I’d love to chuck a major tantrum – could be in Bollywood if only we’d known earlier – but everyone else is behaving and Mark is composed as always. He’s my calming rock and says we should hang out with the Business Class people to try and get into a better hotel – we do, and end up at the Hyatt!

We all pile into a bus outside and in minutes we’re booking into the very classy Airport Hyatt. Our room is amazing and we decide to enjoy ourselves with free food and drinks. Dinner is free as well and we stuff in as much as we can before lounging around for the night in our beautiful room. It’s a nice change to sleep in luxury but it’s not our idea of travel – much prefer to stay in cheap little backpacker places amongst the real India.

Monday 21st February, 2005                         Mumbai to Sydney

Breakfast is buffet style and we eat as much as we can so we won’t have to buy lunch. At the airport we lay around on sun-lounge style chairs and the time really flies. At three o’clock we leave on time for the twelve hours to Sydney.

Tuesday 22nd February, 2005                       Sydney

Land in Sydney about midday – train to Central and train home to Newcastle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About virginiascott

I'm an interior decorator, travel writer and blogger
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