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James

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Back to Delhi [Mar. 12th, 2016|07:52 pm]
James
Every night on this trip I've had two main courses to compensate for the fact I don't eat lunch. Almost every time the waiter will ask "would you like sauce medium or hot?" and I always err on the side of caution. The truth is though, Indian food isn't really that hot. It's spiced not spicy, so I decided to take the plunge and order a 'hot' prawn massala. It was perfect.

I also realised that on this trip I've only had rice once! I just order naan, chapati or paratha to mop up the sauce.

Yesterday was another relaxed day in Varkala. I grabbed a late breakfast at a cliff-top bar overlooking the beach and for the first time on the trip craved comfort food from home. I ordered a ham and cheese crepe and the ham was actually streaky bacon. It was sensational. Energised, I walked the entire length of the beach, from one side to the other, wading in the water. I then had lunch and two pots of sweet chai at another restaurant with stunning views out across the Arabian Sea.

Varkala's beach is okay but the waves are too big to swim properly and the stray dogs are a nuisance (I had to hastily hit one with a book when he cocked his leg to wee over my rucksack yesterday). But the real charm in Varkala is the winding cliff-top road, where there are no shortage of relaxed places to enjoy the stunning view. I read my book - 'Gone Girl' which was fantastic - and then watched the sun go down.

Suddenly I felt a drop of rain and then another and soon the waiters were pulling tables under cover to keep them dry. I savoured the moment - it's the first rain of the trip and it felt great!

The only other thing I did was some souvenir shopping. Noticeably none of the shops have any prices, so stall-holders can charge as much as they think they can get away with. I don't have a problem with that and quite enjoy the process of bartering. I placed my item in front of the woman, probably early twenties and she said "how much you give me?" I told her that I'd let her say a price first - it was like a game of poker. She said "well, I want to give you fair price because I think if I say 2700 rupees, you say it's too much". 2700 rupees is 27 quid, a veritable fortune here, and I'm pretty sure her ploy was for me to think "okay, let's meet in the middle" and offer 1700, still miles too much for what I'd chosen. I told her to imagine I was an Indian lady wearing a sari which made her laugh. We settled on a price of 1000 rupees. I'm pretty sure the local price would be something like 3/400 rupees but 1000 rupees (a tenner) was a decent price for a tourist and although I know I could have probably got it for something like 700, I quite liked her salesmanship. She also had a family to feed - she told me several times during the process.

It was the penultimate day of my trip and it was only the second conversation I'd had with an Indian woman! (the first was Flowery, the wife who helped Delight Homestay in Cochin).

This trip has run like clockwork with hardly a thing going wrong, but on my last night in Varkala I ordered a tikka and the chicken was extremely soft, like it wasn't cooked. I checked in the candlelight and it seemed to be cooked, but when I was throwing up later that night I knew I should have trusted my instinct!

This morning I'd arranged a taxi to take me to Trivandrum. My flight was at 10.45am so as always I decided to err on the side of caution and arranged a 7.45am pick up (I always have worst case scenarios in my mind, of breaking down and having to flag a cattle-truck on a country lane, or something). The taxi arrived tardily at 8am and the journey - 45 minutes I was told - lasted 75 minutes. As it happened, 9.15am was a perfect time to arrive but I still always steel myself for the "this is the wrong terminal" sucker punch, which in fairness has only ever happened once to me. It was the right terminal.

I have to say, Trivandrum has the most careful security I've experienced. My luggage was scanned and then three people gathered around and studied something closely and asked me "do you have lighter?" I didn't but the mystery was solved when a young guy said "mosquito zapper?". After a very thorough frisk, I was allowed through to the gates, where I finished my book. As soon as the gate opened, every Indian person stood up in a flash, crowding around the gate, while the tourists sat and waited until there was less of a queue. I love Indian people but they are the most impatient people on the planet. Roads, queues, airports, they want everything five minutes ago.

I flew on an airline called IndiGo - a clever name I thought. The in-flight magazine was named 'Hello 6E', which I thought was a bit inappropriate, especially if a young child was sat in seat 6E (there was a city-guide article called '6E in the City'). The stewardesses wore badges which said 'Girl Power', which I quite liked. I've painted a very rosy picture of India I think in these blogs but the place of women in society is one negative. Aside from stewardesses and old women selling fruit from blankets on the street, I've only seen two working women all trip - one in a bank and one who seemed to own a restaurant in Cochin (the exception to this rule was Varkala where lots of women seemed to work in souvenir stalls). Women are expected to marry by the time they are 30 and look after the home.

It was a two hour flight and I watched us fly directly along the coast, a white ribbon of sand 30,000 feet below and began our descent over the skyscrapers and slums of Mumbai. I did what I did earlier in the trip, stayed in the same seat as passengers filed off, cleaners did a quick sweep and then new passengers came on. A man directly behind me was asleep and although he didn't snore, every now and then he'd do a 50 decibel grunt that made every on my row laugh. The second flight lasted 90 minutes.

I've chosen to stay in the same area as before but choose a different hotel. That might seem a strange thing to do given the fact I wasn't full of glowing reports about it earlier in the trip, but I like the fact that I know where everything is so I don't have to get my bearings again on the one night I am here. My hotel is a slight upgrade from four weeks ago (not saying much) and I specially requested a room "as high as possible" given the incessant horn-honking of Delhi.

That said, it's probably not too dissimilar from receiving noise sleep deprivation torture in Guantanamo Bay. I sat on my bed, three floors up, and the beeping was so comically loud from the streets below and the walls so paper thin, the rickshaws and taxis may as well have been driving outside my door. I genuinely don't think it would be possible to have an early night without ear-plugs. A good hotel room is a place to escape the outside world and relax, but downtown Delhi you can't escape the noise.

Speaking of early nights, India is definitely an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of place. Almost every night after dinner I've headed back to my hotel as there isn't a bar/club culture here at all - at least not for tourists. The exception to this rule is Varkala, which has plenty of bars and a younger crop of tourists, so flyers are handed out on the beach advertising live music or happy hours.

Tonight will be low-key and then tomorrow I have a three hour flight to Dubai. I have an eight hour stopover there, so have arranged to spend an evening at my brothers villa and then get a taxi back to the airport early next morning. Then I fly back to England, back to normality, my friends and family and cool, crisp weather.

This trip has exceeded expectations to the power of ten. It's been hectic, tiring and chaotic at times, but pretty much everything has run smoothly. I saw the Taj Mahal and then explored Rajasthan, a colourful mish-mash of religion, people and culture, where cows with foot-long horns roam the streets and forts tower over cities like Game of Thrones. Then I headed South to Kerala, far more relaxed with some beautiful beaches and superb mountain scenery.

I've visited Delhi, Agra, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Jaipur, Cochin, Munnar, Kumily and Varkala - plus nights in the desert and on numerous sleeper trains - and loved every single place. The North and South of India are like two different countries. It's such a vibrant, diverse, interesting place.

Picking a highlight is almost impossible. I loved the desert safari, falling asleep on the dunes, staring up at the blanket of stars, and the thrill of hiring a motorbike in Cochin, to brave India's roads and find myself some picture-postcard beaches. I loved the huge forts in Jodhpur and Jaisalmer and the Taj Mahal gave me goosebumps. The tea plantations covering every valley in Munnar were sensational, I saw a tiger-print and an unexpected highlight was the waterfall at Athirappily. The food has been superb throughout and as always I've loved getting from A to B. The distances involved are huge at times but that's been part of the fun.

I've had a superb month in India. I would recommend it to anyone.
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