Archive for November, 2008

Kollam to Kochin

Friday, November 21st, 2008

I am still not sure what was driving me, when I booked that hotel room in Kollam. For my sanity, I hope it was lack of choice. The walls and windows of our room seemed to have melted in the humid heat of the afternoon and not even a soft rain could help it. The noise of the busy thoroughfare came in stereo. And only started to subside at 1 am in the morning only to rise again by 4.30.
Under such circumstances we caught quite a decent amount of sleep. Enough to drag ourselves to the train station and board our belated train to Ernakulam, which we reached in the midday heat. A motor rickshaw brought us to the boat jetty from where we wanted to take a ferry to Kochin. As we were cuing up at the ticket counter, suddenly the shutters fell and the counter was shut down – lunch break – despite a fast growing line of people wanting tickets.
We had to wait for 15 minutes until the ticket ventor could be bothered to attend customers again. In those 15 minutes he had counted bunches of money for no apparent reason. He neither drank or ate in this ‘lunch break’.
The sea breeze on the ferry cooled us down while we were setting across to Fort Kochin, an appealing, ancient reminiscent of old glory colonial times. After having set foot on solid ground, we could immediately feel that clocks were going a lot slower here. There is, for Indian standards, hardly any traffic and the ubiquitous honking – another specific Indian vernacular and usually a constant background noise – turned out to be just an occasional disturbance.
We settled down in a beautiful old colonial house in a nice, comfortable and quiet room in the backyard with nice shady tables on the terrace and a big, ancient-looking Chinese fisher’s net in the middle. Wilson, the owner, is helpful and especially liked the fact that we were Austrians for he claimed to have an uncle who worked as a theologian at the university of Innsbruck. Anyway, he seemed to know his way around in Austria.
Despite the fact that we were very, very tired from the noisy night and our 4 hours train ride, we decided to go for a walk and get something to eat. We came across a football field where a football tournament is to take place on the weekend. Despite cricket being the No 1 sports in India, here in Kerala, they also seem to have affection for European football. I might go and watch the match tomorrow.
We are staying until Sunday and then are heading back towards Bengaluru, perhaps, stopping over to spot some wild life on the way. As of now, we are taking it easy, enjoying really beautiful Kochin.


Kollam: Backwaters

Thursday, November 20th, 2008

Fortunately, nobody told us before we left from Kollam for Munroe Island what a 50 minutes trip of 27 kilometers in a motor rickshaw meant. Otherwise, we would have canceled the trip. But after we had started our trip through those crazy Kerala streets there was no turning back.
When we arrived at Munroe Island in order to go on board our canoe, I was again totally exhausted from the noise, dirt and confusion of our ride. I doubt whether I will ever get used to traveling on Indian streets. For me they are the ultimate definition of stress.
Munroe Island presented itself as a stark and welcomed contrast with its smooth, green-colored and tranquil waterways through lush palm tree forests. It was as if we had arrived on a different planet. I could have gone straight to sleep. But our guide, a 20 year old boy, who pushed us through the backwater channels, was utterly entertaining and made sure that we had a relaxing, entertaining and interesting trip. We visited a robe making – obviously for IKEA – group of women, who, at 2 pm, were at the end of their working day, hurrying to get back home in order to cook for their husbands, and enjoying a delicious chai in a backwater sort of cafe. We continued through the backwater for about 2 hours seeing a bit of Kerala wildlife, Kingfisher, water snakes …
It was just beautiful. Like waking up from a wonderful dream to a stark and uncomfortable reality we got on our rickshaw and took the way back to Kollam.
Back in Kollam our rooms were situated at the front side of the hotel, facing the busy thoroughfare. This room gave Prince’s “Let’s go crazy” a completely new meaning. The song must have been inspired by one of these rooms. The noise, for European ears, is something like quantum physics for Newton.
But the craziness didn’t end there. Heading for the post office, we ventured another rickshaw ride, the driver of which took us against the traffic on a three lane one way street. It was like being in a computer game dodging cars. We also survived this trip and here I am writing, in an Internet cafe, which is somewhat silent except for the loud Indian music that is bawling out of a loud speaker.
I am craving for another holiday…


Kerala: Varkala

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

Kingfisher Airways brought us safely from Goa to Trivandrum, capital of Kerala, with a stop over in Bengaluru. We arrived in Trivandrum late at night and caught a taxi to a mediocre hotel close to the train station. The night was very unpleasant due to the most uncomfortable beds we have ever slept in. Before a taxi was supposed to give us a lift to Verkala, 60 ks north of Trivandrum, we went out to explore the neighborhood. We walked towards the train and bus terminal in order to have breakfast in a unique Indian Diner which is located in a tower. This was quite an experience although the food was not particularly noteworthy. For the breakfast we paid about 150 Rupees, which is less than 3 Euros.
Outside the streets were the usual mess and amalgam of people, buses, cars, motor rickshaws and motor bikes. But this time the confusion was even more intense than in Bombay. We caught a motor rickshaw to the most important temple in Trivandrum and as it happened to be a Sunday, the temple site was packed with worshipers. We were introduced to the place by a Hindu kind of guide and quickly left the place after the ‘tour’. The noise and chaos was exhausting and all we wanted was get out of this town. Back at the hotel we immediately had the taxi come and while still in the middle of the noise and action, we were happy to be at least moving out of it.

The 60 ks trip took 70 minutes and left us drained of energy. Driving here is, I am repeating myself, a mere nightmare, which, in retrospect and with admittedly distorted perception, makes the streets of Vietnam or Bali an empty six lane freeway. After arriving in Verkala, our destination city, we lost orientation in the winding streets. The taxi driver neither had a clue where to go nor did he speak or understand English properly. Assuring us to know where to drive us, he started asking people for a place called “Sea Freeze” while our hotel was called “Sea Breeze”. He didn’t heed neither of my many attempts to correct him. We were at the end of our tether…

Finally, at a cul de sac, I was able to point out the place for him and, after he had demanded another 50 Rupees for the long detour which –he– was responsible for, we could finally settle into our new home. The place was just perfect and compensated for all the problems we had gone through in order to reach it.
Sea Breeze is a clean, beautiful and quiet resort run by a gorgeous couple and over friendly staff. It is located at the very end of the north cliffs just in front of a beautiful, small beach, called Black Beach for its black sand. We chose the luxury apartments with comfortable beds and a hammock on the terrace.
We immediately hit the bed for a siesta to recover from the previous traveling and didn’t get up before the sun was reaching the edge of the sea just in front of our balcony.
The rest of our stay was a mirror of our first hours here. Except that we reduced the amount of sleeping and settled into a very relaxed, comfortable, easy-going rhythm of sleeping, eating, swiming, yoga and reading our new books – Sylvia was enjoying “Holy Cow” by Sarah Mac Donnald, an account of an Australian woman about her life as a journalist in India, and I dived into a thrilling book about Neuroplastics and Buddhism and one equally fascinating one about System Theory (by Fridjof Capra called “The turning point”).
In the evening, just before dusk, we would go for extensive walks on the cliffs in order to check out the many shops, buy heaps of stuff, and enjoy the best seafood I have ever come to taste.
Our journey had obviously reached one of its highlights and we could easily spend a week more here.

But as the days go by quickly there are still some destinations to be visited on our journey back to Bengaluru. Tomorrow a taxi will give us a lift to Kollam, 40 ks north of Varkala, where we want to go on a backwater trip. Then we are planning to take the train up to Ernakulam and visit beautiful Fort Cochin before we want to press on towards the mountains in order to visit a wildlife sanctuary.



Friday, November 14th, 2008

After a night in the City Palace hotel, which, honestly, doesn’t have much in common with a palace at all, but which is conveniently situated opposite of Victoria Station, we boarded the train headed towards Goa. We arrived in darkness at the terminal in a spooky atmosphere. On our way we saw many people sleeping on or beside the side walks and in ditches, covered solely with a sheet of plastic or canvas, and were again reminded of the sad fact that 55 % of Bombay’s population lived in slums. Bombay has a current population of about 8 million…
We were lucky enough to get seats in 3rd class on the morning train, not the most comfortable way to travel by any means. There were 8 people in our compartment with 8 convertible beds attached to the walls. It was even narrower in there than on the airplane.
After 12 hours and a trip that turned out to be more comfortable than expected, at dusk, we finally arrived in Old Goa . We had seen quite a bit of India on our train ride and the landscape turned out to be a different picture from the garbage, traffic and smog dominated metropolis that we had just left behind. India is a vast, hot country interspersed by stretches of lush, green forests and rice paddies. Most of it, of course, is a kind of Savannah, all shimmering in golden, ockre colours. There were vast stretches without a sign of a human being, which in an overpopulated country like India comes like a fresh breeze. But you could immediately tell by the ubiquituous garbage that our train was approaching human settlements. For a country that is capable of navigating space crafts on to the surface of the moon, it is a shame how they treat their beautiful soil: Indian cities and towns are a big, big dumbing site.

Goa is a different place to Bombay in many ways. Its Portuguese history oozes from every corner of Goa and has left its eternal mark on people and buildings. There are dozens of Christian churches and beautiful, colorful colonian buildings; the people here have Portuguese names, are Christians and speak a Portuguese influenced pigin. The name of the relaxed but keen taxi driver that drove us from the train station to Panjim, the largest city in the region, was Joao. He turned out to become our private driver for the rest of our stay here. Joao was a reliable driver, although you never can be completely sure about safety on these bumpy and narrow Indian streets with its chaotic traffic. But he navigated us safely to the most interesting spots.
We visited the churches of Old Goa, which in the 16th century had a larger population than London and Lisabon at that time. Now there is hardly anything left of its grandeur, still the many churches are reminiscent of Old Goa’s bloom. A few Hindu temples, an interesting visit to a local spice farm and an encounter with Lalita, a 25 year old, sadly looking but sweet Indian elephant, were the milestones of the rest of our day out cruising.
As we had done every evening in Bombay, here in Goa, we have also been dedicating our dinners exploring Indian cuisine. Food is spicy, exotic and really good, although it is different to Bombay’s cuisine, with an apparent European, mostly, of course, Portuguese touch. Yesterday evenening, we enjoyed a delicious Red Snapper in a tasty sauce, washing it down with Kingfisher, the national beer of India, which is not bad either. At 6 EUR the seafood was a really good bargain, too.
Yesterday we went up North with Joao, exploring one of the many Goan beaches at Arambol. Man, it was hot on the beach, mostly because of lack of wind, which appears to be absent all through Goa. The waves were unspectacular so that Boogie boarding was ruled out as a pastime. Still, the beach was an impressive stretch of sand, endless miles of it, and the Indians had even cared to keep at least this one clean.
This morning we made a boat tour from Panjim, exploring swollen Mandovi river and looking for dolpins further out towards the sea. As a matter of fact, a large school of them happened to roam the bay and were friendly enough to surface from time to time in order to give us a few glimpses of them.
Again it was a nice but scorchingly hot trip.
The temperature seems to vary little, it is a constant 33 to 35 degrees centigrade with the sun at its most relentless between 12 and 2 in the afternoon. Evenings are more pleasant, of course, but temperatures hardly go below 27-28 degrees before midnight.

Since India is such a vast country – something we have underestimated -, we decided to take the aeroplane for the next change of places. Tomorrow we fly down South to the capital of Kerala, Trivandrum, from where we will be destined North to Varkala, another resort with hopefully great beaches. We are curious as to how the mentality, cuisine and countryside will continue to change as we are approaching the most Southern tip of India. By any means, we are looking forward to great beaches, Ayurveda massages and more of that delicious food.



Monday, November 10th, 2008

On Saturay, shortly before midnight, we set foot on Indian soil after an eight hours flight from Vienna. An ancient looking taxi driver in an even more ancient looking taxi, which can be considered quite an achievement, brought us to our hotel. The trip was a first taste of what we should experience in the next days on the street of Bombay.
Well, officially Bombay is now called Mumbai as all cities seem to have at least two names. This, of course, makes things intricate for the foreign traveller and adds to the confusion and chaos that emanates from the streets and by-walk in this bee-hive of a city. (more…)