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Back to India [Feb. 13th, 2017|06:58 pm]
James
I had a really nice few days in Dubai, visiting Ben and family. The highlight was a motorboat trip on the final day. I expected a leisurely cruise through the marina but we were bouncing over waves for 90 minutes so I felt quite saddle-sore at the end. We slowly drifted through the marina, dwarfed by skyscrapers, then accelerated in to the open waters around ‘the palm’. The views looking back to Dubai’s skyline were extremely impressive. We stopped in front of Atlantis Hotel, at the top of the palm, which has rooms that cost $35,000 a night (minimum stay four nights!). Possibly a bit out of my price range. Then we sped across to the Burj al Arab, before backtracking towards the marina. We went past Sheikh Mohammed’s royal palace, where sometimes you can see the pet tigers and leopards that live in the grounds. The sheikh gave his wife a whole frond of the palm for her wedding present. She’d have been just as happy with a new cutlery set I bet. On Saturday I spent the morning at the beach, playing with my nephew Oliver, and the afternoon splashing around in the pool with Harry. It was great to catch up with family again.

I am now back in Delhi. Last year it didn’t leave me with a particularly good impression but this time I love the area where my hotel is located, along the bustling main bazaar. I got checked in to Hotel Shelton by Virat and Vijay, before being shown up to my room by a young porter called Sunil. My love of cricket definitely makes it easier for me to remember names in India!

My room is excellent. It has a decent view out of the window as opposed to the sun-starved rooms I had on my last trip. The best thing about my hotel though is the rooftop restaurant on the top floor. I felt hungry so ordered myself my first ‘aloo’ (potato) dish of the trip as well as a massala tea (tea which tastes like curry – result!). The place was busy with other backpackers as I believe it scores highly on Trip Advisor.

I slept really well… until about 5.30am when the incessant beeping begins on the street below. Subsequently I must have had about 200 micro-sleeps before I hauled myself out of bed mid-morning. I’ll use my ear-plugs tonight.

The first thing I needed to do today was book my train ticket for the next leg of my trip. Last year I really wanted to go to Ranthambhore to see tigers in the wild, but the timing never worked for me. This time I didn’t want to miss out, so I booked a train ticket for Wednesday. My initial plan had been to leave Delhi as soon as possible but I like my hotel so much, I’ve decided to stay an extra day. There are lots of things to do here.

Once that was sorted, I had the day to do some sight-seeing. I hailed a very jovial rickshaw driver called Nagpal and told him ‘India Gate’. I loved the ride. We swerved in and out of traffic and I held on tightly as I was blasted by the warm, fume-filled air. Rickshaw rides are a tourist attraction in themselves and definitely not for the faint-hearted.

India Gate resembles the Arc de Triumph and honours Indian soldiers who lost their lives in various wars. My favourite thing about it is that there is a 2km straight road approaching it, flanked by large lawns and flower-beds, which means it feels very spacious – a welcome relief in Delhi. I walked around the arch, past candy-floss and balloon sellers, then retreated to find Nagpal. There were lots of rickshaws lining the approach but I soon saw him waving vigorously in the distance. He was such a cheerful fellow I asked him whether he’d mind posing for a photo in front of his rickshaw. He agreed but sadly his cheerful demeanour evaporated and he went all serious on me.

He took me to Humayun’s tomb next, apparently one of Delhi’s most sublime sights (it was where the Obamas were taken when they were in Delhi). It was built in the mid-16th century and married red sandstone Indian architecture with Persian marble for the first time – in fact it was used as inspiration for Agra’s Taj Mahal. It was very impressive and there were several other large tombs in the leafy grounds. I circumnavigated the battlements surrounding Isa Khan’s octagonal tomb and sat in the shade outside another large tomb which was built in honour of the emperor’s favourite barber!

I decided to walk to Lodi Garden next. I miscalculated the length of the walk – it was probably only 2 or 3kms but along on a busy road in the beating sun. It was the posh part of town as I walked past Delhi golf course, the national stadium and some seriously swish villas. Lodi Garden was beautiful – lots of undulating lawns, glimmering ponds and yet more crumbling tombs. Swans flapped in the lake (menacingly I thought), peacocks wandered serenely through the grounds and there were all sorts of birds. I found a bench and read my Lonely Planet for a while, before hailing a rickshaw back to my hotel.

Delhi is as noisy and crowded as ever – and sometimes it feels like I’ve got a target on my back from people wanting to extract rupees from me (“I give you good deal, sir”) – but for some reason I’m just getting much better vibes from the place than last time. It just goes to show the importance of finding the right hotel.
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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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Kumily to Varkala [Mar. 10th, 2016|08:58 pm]
James
On my last night in Kumily I had dinner with Ketz and Ami, an Indian couple from London I met on the safari in the tiger reserve. We met at a restaurant called Sandra's and had a veritable banquet between us, the highlight of which undoubtedly was a spinach paneer dish which I'll definitely investigate when I get back to England. Oh, and Aloo Gobi (potato and cauliflower) but that's a given. Ketz and Ami were good company.

Next day I woke bright and early and did my last bits of packing before walking in to Kumily town centre to catch a bus. There were about ten rickety buses standing on the forecourt and I found one with 'Kottayam' written on the front. It was an old local-style tin-can of a bus, with no glass in the windows - which I was grateful for as the breeze helped overcome travel sickness as we slalomed our way down mountain paths. The bus stopped at lots of bus-stops and people got on and off. More on than off it seemed. It was very crowded at one point and I noticed that all of the men sit at the back and the women sit or stand at the front, even if there are spare seats at the back. The four hour trip cost just 84 rupees.

Bus-rides in India are exhausting. You feel every pot-hole in the road and it's difficult to sleep as you hurtle around corners quickly and the driver blasts his horn incessantly. I felt like I really wanted to sleep but not a chance! We passed stunning valleys and drove through bustling towns and I was amazed at how many churches I saw. I know India is a hotch-potch of different cultures and religions but I didn't realise Christianity was so widespread in Kerala (hardly a trace in Rajasthan).

The reason I wanted to leave early is that the next leg of my trip, the ferry to Alleppey, leaves at 1pm, 3.30pm or 5pm. If I could catch the 1pm ferry then I stood a really good chance of arriving in Varkala before it got dark. But because I managed to catch a bus almost straight away and we made such good progress, I arrived in Kottayam at 11.30am. I stood a good chance of making the midday ferry.

Incidentally, an interesting fact about Kottayam. India has the largest iliterate population in the world and yet Kerala has a literacy rate of nearly 94%, staggering for Asia. Kottayam has 100% literacy.

I took a rickshaw from Kottayam train station to the jetty, but it seemed to be the wrong place. It was a canal overgrown with lily pads, standing in which was a wooden boat that looked like it could sink at any minute. There was no ticket office (or indeed any building of any sort), just a boat in a canal, next to a field. "Ferry to Alleppey?" I asked doubtfully to a man who was sat on the gangplank. It was.

I got on and after ten minutes and a three point turn in the canal - or actually a 33 point turn would be more accurate - we slowly chugged our way through the lily pads. We went down quaint canals that were lined with wooden bungalows and colourful clothes blowing gently on washing lines. It would have been much easier for me to get a direct bus to Alleppey this morning but I wanted to do this ferry trip. The backwaters trip from Fort Cochin was enjoyable but left me a little bit underwhelmed and this was more interesting with more to see. We stopped at numerous other jetties and people jumped on or off, mainly ancient looking fishermen or stooped old women carrying bags of vegetables. The canal opened up in to a huge lake and after two hours we drifted in to Alleppey. The trip cost just 15 rupees (15 pence!) but this isn't a tourist attraction, it's how the locals here get about.

It was only 2pm and things were going smoother than I dared imagine. I'd researched train times from Alleppey to Varkala and they were at 4.30pm, 5.40pm and 6.15pm. When I was planning the days travel the night before, I never dreamed I'd make the first train. It was too good to be true though. The first train was running an hour late which meant I had about three hours to kill.

Not to worry, near the station was a rustic looking place with a big blue 'restaurant' sign outside. I entered and bought myself a cold Sprite and asked whether I could have a menu. "No no" said the man. I looked around and saw an Indian man eating food, so said "can I have food please?" (doing the universally recognised sign language of shoveling food in to my mouth). "No no" he said. I could see a man in a kitchen, a diner eating food and there was a sign that said restaurant... all the clues were there but apparently I couldn't get food. I didn't mind to be truthful as the food I saw looked very basic which rightly or wrongly made me suspect it might be a candidate for an upset stomach. I bought a packet of bourbon creams and three pieces of peanut brittle instead and went to read my book on the platform.

My train ticket cost just 50 rupees. It was a two hour journey and my ticket enabled me to sit anywhere in the back ten carriages in economy. There were lots of open compartments filled entirely by Indian men, half a dozen fans whirring on the ceiling. There was no glass in the windows, just bars, which made it look a bit like a prison cell on wheels. I sat opposite a man who looked like Trevor MacDonald and we began to pull away. I was glad for the breeze as the carriage had a sweaty smell (not surprising as most of the men inside had taken their shoes off) and when the train was stationery there was a distinct waft of urine as the toilet emptied itself on the tracks.

I read my book and quite enjoyed the train-ride, watching the countryside go past. At one point we stopped at a station and a few moments later a woman walked past, holding a cute little girl. She held her hand out to me pleadingly. I had some 5 rupee coins in my wallet, so gave her those (15 rupees I think). The woman was really grateful and the little girl waved to me. So I waved back and then a little game of 'wave tennis ensued as her mum walked away down the carriage and me and the little girl took it in turns waving to each other. 'What a nice moment' I thought as I continued my book. A few minutes later I caught them in my peripheral vision, walking past on the platform. The women deliberately stopped in front of my window and the little girl waved again. haha, how nice. I suddenly remembered I had half a packet of bourbon creams I bought earlier, so I fished them out of my rucksack and reached through the iron bars in the window to pass them to the little girl. She took the packet, pulled one of the biscuits out, broke it in two and began licking the chocolate. We waved each other goodbye for the second time and five minutes later the train slowly pulled away. As we began to gather pace I noticed the mother and daughter, stood at the steps to the exit, waving to me! They'd waited especially to wave me off. The little girl shouted "bye bye", showing off her English and I actually found myself welling up! It's little things like that that make travel so memorable.

We pulled in to Varkala in the dark. I hate arriving at a new place in the dark as it's impossible to get a feel for the place. In big cities it can feel quite intimidating too, but not so much when you can hear the lapping of waves from nearby. I chose a hotel called 'Santa Claus Lodge', purely for the comedic nature of its name and my room though fairly basic, has air-con, a balcony and I'd discover next morning, a view of the ocean. Oh, and a pet millipede in the bathroom.

It was a really cheap day of travel. I wanted to do it 'local style' and swerve tourist buses or taxis, and the total cost for the bus (84r), ferry (15r) and train (50r) came to just 149 rupees - £1.49!

Varkala is a laid-back beach town with most of the hotels on the cliffs overlooking the beach. I enjoyed walked down the cliff path, past the restaurants and little clothes stalls and then spending the day on the beach. I hired a lounger and an umbrella for the frankly ridiculous price of 400 rupees (but what can you do?) and enjoyed whiling the day away, reading my book which I'm really enjoying ('Gone Girl') and going for a swim. I say 'swim', the waves were quite large, so I enjoyed doing battle with them.

It feels quite a hippyish place here. As I was reading my book, an Indian man approached and tried to sell me wooden bead necklaces. Half an hour later another man approached trying to sell me a bongo. It's that kind of place. The guys all seem to have lots of facial hair or silly hats and I saw a girl earlier who literally looked exactly like Lisbeth from the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. But I don't mind at all, it's got a chilled feel to the place. Each bar and restaurant plays western music (at an acceptable volume... I hope I don't sound too old when I say that) and as the sun starts to set you can see people doing yoga on the beach.

I've got another day of doing very little tomorrow and then I begin the long journey home.
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Periyar Tiger Reserve [Mar. 8th, 2016|07:50 pm]
James
What a brilliant day.

I spent it trekking and rafting through Periya Tiger Reserve. There were eight of us in the group, accompanied by six guides including one with a gun. If an animal acted threateningly, he'd shoot in the air (he told us later he only had three bullets which I thought was a bit remiss of him).

We trekked in to the forests and it was exciting knowing all of the exotic wildlife that was in there somewhere. Periya is a massive nature reserve and only houses 50 tigers, so our chances of seeing one were virtually non-existent on foot, but thrillingly we did see a tigers footprint near a watering hole and a tree which a tiger had clawed at to mark its territory. It added an exciting edge to the day but just to be safe, I stuck close to the guy with the gun.

Elephants presented danger too. At one point we were walking along and the forest opened up in to a clearing and the guides shushed us and told us to stop. They were concentrating their attention on some bushes and trees to our right and told us to make a wide arc in to the clearing opposite. Once there we saw two elephants, feeding themselves on the foliage. It was really exciting to see a wild elephant and very different from the many domesticated 'tourism' elephants I've seen many times before in Asia. This felt a thrill.

On TV programmes in the jungle, it suggests that there is an exotic animal around every corner or a parrot up every tree, but my experiences in Laos and Borneo, and here today, make me realise it's not like that at all. You can go hours without seeing anything as animals are generally wary of humans. But you can certainly hear them, from the noise of the insects to the warning cries of the lion-tailed macaque, which sit sentry-like at the very top of trees and warn the surrounding areas if there is any movement below. You can also see plenty of evidence of them. All the way through the day we saw huge pad-like footprints of elephants, often near water, and the Bear Grylls in me got very excited about all of the dung I saw. "This is fresh".

The day incorporated some bamboo rafting and paddling our way downriver. It took about ninety minutes and we saw sambar deer and bison. It was swelteringly hot - over 100 degrees the guide told us - so it was hard work. I was ready for lunch when it arrived.

The park is home to 35 mammals. As well as rare Bengal and white tigers and an estimated 1000 elephants, there are leopards, bears, sambar deer, bison, various monkeys and even the Indian giant squirrel, which I've spotted various times before. There are also lots of exotic birds, from bright blue kingfishers to elegant wading birds, and amphibians including the brilliantly named Indian Cricket Frog. We didn't see any snakes but saw a meter-long piece of shedded snake skin - it reminded me of the scene in Alien.

We did some more rafting after lunch which was again was hard work in the heat. I'm sure the Austrian guy to my left kept pretending to take photo of birds to get out of rowing! By the time I'd finished I had a blisters on my hands. I expected the rafting part of today to be relaxing but it was grueling!

On the hike back to the start point, came the most exciting part of the day. We saw a herd of six elephants grazing across a small stream. The guides told us to head in to the forest opposite, out of sight, so we did as we were told. We arced round and came back out with a really good view of them, maybe 70 meters away. By now they were aware of our presence, and five of them made a rush for the bushes, leaving just the mother, staring at us, scraping her foot repeatedly in the sand. "Hurry, go!" said the guide and we all bid a hasty retreat. He told us later that the foot scraping indicated that she was about to charge. I've heard elephants can outrun humans, so it was also a bit scary.

There were some fun people on the trip, including an Indian couple from London who I'm meeting up for dinner with shortly.

The whole day cost 2000 rupees, 20 quid.

I got back to my hotel and discovered there was a power cut. Not ideal. I wanted to switch the ceiling fan on full power and cool down but instead I had a cold shower. The place I'm staying, Green View Home Stay, is fantastic - and I'm not just saying that because I'm using the owners computer right now and he's hovering over my shoulder. I've got a hanging bamboo chair on my balcony!

Tomorrow is a long day of travel to Varkala, including a four hour bus-ride, a ferry and then perhaps a train, plus lots of confusion and frustration between no doubt!
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Three days in Munnar [Mar. 7th, 2016|07:38 pm]
James
Internet connection was sporadic in Munnar and for some reason the computer wouldn't allow me to post to Livejournal, so I've got three days to catch up on...

The drive to Munnar from Fort Cochin was lengthy, partly because I really wanted to see Athirappily waterfalls, which meant a hefty diversion. I met my driver at 6.30am outside Delight Homestay, standing proudly in front of his vintage Ambassador Grand. Cars don't sound more colonial than that.

Because we left early, we beat most of the Ernakulum traffic. The drive was really nice. The early morning orange sun rose above the fish farms and Chinese fishing nets and once we headed inland, my driver Miles - a good name for a taxi driver I thought - acted as tour guide. We passed pineapple and cashew nut trees as well as valleys of rubber plantations. Miles explained that they extract 'milk' from the rubber tree using a tap and then heat it to turn it to rubber. We drove through a beautiful valley that reminded me of the Lake District but with palm trees instead of pine trees. I saw monkeys squabbling in the road and Miles pointed out the biggest red squirrel I have ever seen, jumping from branch to branch in the trees above.

Athirappily waterfalls don't feature in my Lonely Planet but I found photos of them online when researching this trip and really wanted to visit. It took two hours to get there and after paying the 100 rupees entrance fee (plus 20 rupees camera fee of course) I was walking down a rocky path, towards the thunderous sound of crashing water.

I've seen some nice waterfalls before but this topped the lot. It was a shelf 50 meters high that in wet season would be a cascade of water, but now was split in to three waterfalls side by side, each impressive in its own right. I stood at the top and watched the water fall over the edge, then took a long path down to the bottom and stood in the spray. It was a nice way to cool down. A number of locals wanted their photo taken with me, so I got extra wet posing with them. I dried off almost instantly as I headed towards a viewing platform constructed in the river. It was quite a puzzle trying to work out how to reach the platform, jumping from rock to rock, but I saw blue lizards and bright green dragonflies and eventually reached the platform. The view was fantastic. It turned out it wasn't a viewing platform at all though, but a stage that was being constructed for a scene in a Hindi movie.

I was looking forward to see Athirappily but I didn't expect it to be quite so fantastic. Less enjoyable was the climb back up to the top though!

The drive from Athirappily to Munnar lasted about five hours and was fantastic, more like a paid excursion. We drove through valleys and climbed cliff paths. At one point I saw a wild elephant. We stopped at a small restaurant about halfway and I ordered my usual 'travel day' staple of fried rice, as well as a speciality of these parts, dosa - a large savoury crepe that is crispy, so a mix between a pancake and a poppadom. It was only a small restaurant and amusingly the toilets had a sign ‘Vomiting in washbasin not allowed’. Not what you want to read when you’ve just eaten somewhere!

The higher we climbed, the better the views became. The bumpy road snaked up the side of mountains and my ears popped on three separate occasions. Munnar is 1700 meters above sea-level, almost twice the height of Scafell Pike, UK’s highest point. I must admit, the last half hour was a challenge - I had to concentrate on my breathing!

I’m staying at a brilliant hotel called Shamrock. It's located about 3km out of the main town, up a steep, bumpy path, near places like Windermere Hotel and the rather ominous Drizzly Valley Hotel. My room is huge. It has a sort of reception room to walk in to, with a desk, table and wardrobe, then a corridor leading to my bedroom. It’s a nice bedroom with a large balcony and a fantastic view of the mountains. The windowless rooms of Delhi and Agra are now a dim and distant memory! The time was 4pm but I felt tired (I only had four hours sleep last night) and also my stomach was doing cartwheels. I slept for a couple of hours and even lying on the bed I felt like I was still swerving and dipping on that mountain path.

Straight away, I love Munnar. It has lots of high peaks, one of which I’m trekking up tomorrow. Almost all of the slopes are taken up by tea plantations, that look like a green mosaic. We passed a beautiful tree with vivid purple leaves and Miles told me it was a jacaranda tree. In every hedgerow or bush are bright purple, red or yellow flowers. A fellow backpacker summed it up perfectly at breakfast when he said Munnar is like “a garden in the sky”.

I will stay here for at least three days, perhaps four. I’ve got a room with a view, the food is good (of course!) and there seems to be lots to do. Even if I decide to chill a bit, I've got a balcony and room service. The temperature is also noticeably cooler, which is a relief after the sweltering heat in Fort Cochin.

Second day in Munnar I woke early for breakfast and met my walking guide at reception at 8am for a hike.

It reminded of many walks I've been on before... no sedate, gentle start, instead a hard relentlessly uphill half hour slog before it began to level out a bit. The initial bits were through really lovely tea plantations. Once it leveled out, there were large rocks to sit on that gave fantastic views back over the valley towards my hotel. The valley was covered in a patchwork quilt of tea-plants and all around misty mountain tops faded in to the distance.

The walk was an almost exact replica in length and height to 'Cat Bells', one of my favourites from the Lake District in England. It was a gently undulating ridgewalk of sorts, climbing over a succession of slightly higher peaks until we reached the top, which was flat and rocky. The views were great and the stiff breeze was the perfect antidote to the heat (although considerably cooler than Fort Cochin, it's still about 85 degrees here during the day). The walk back down was through a forest, past coffee, lemon, eucalyptus and cinnamon trees. I saw another one of those giant squirrels, as well as a big lizard that looked prehistoric with a head-dress. Soon we came out in to rice terraces and meandered our way through the valleys.

My guide was a 22 year old called Parily. He told me interesting information about the tea plants. Each stem has three leaves. The middle one is more of a spear-like bud and is used for white tea, the most expensive, the medium sized leaf is for green tea and the largest of the three leaves is for black tea. The vast majority of Munnar's population is employed in the tea industry, either picking, processing or packing. Tea-pickers work from 8am to 6pm each day, with an hour lunch at the hottest time of the day and two coffee breaks ("coffee?" I said!). They get Sunday off and only work on Saturday mornings, which meant that by the time I encountered my first tea-pickers they were in a festive mood as they had nearly finished for the day. Further down the valley I met a group of old ladies, who were weighing the large bags of leaves they had collected.

It was a brilliant walk and just about the perfect length in the heat. To hire the guide cost 1200 rupees. I got back to my hotel at 2pm. I sprawled across my bed, ordered a lassi and a Sprite from room service, and readied myself for my second walk of the day which started at 4pm.

This time a very politely spoken guy called Tony was my guide, taking me down to the tea plantations at the bottom of the valley. He started by taking me through a wooded area where he pointed out various plants to me. There were some fantastically vivid colours on show, including angels trumpets (white flowers that looked like trumpets), morning glory (vivid purple flowers), flame plants (as its name suggest, fiery red bushes) and my favourite, landanas, which were brightly coloured speckled flowers. We descended in to the valley, wandered around the tea plantation for a while and then set about the hard slog back up to the top.

I enjoyed chatting with Tony. He told me that he used to work in a customer complaints centre for a mobile phone company and often worked 16 hour days, sometimes without a break if they were busy. He got paid only 1000 rupees a month (£10) but got accommodation and a free phone. He was a university student so he was then able to get a job at Shamrock hotel, where he earns 10,000 rupees a month (but no free phone!), which means he can save up. He was 31 years old and said that this year he will probably marry, his parents were currently trying to find him a suitable match.

After a while I asked him if he could stop calling me 'sir' and call me James instead. He seemed a bit taken aback and said "okay sir, sorry sir"! He then explained that he called me sir because I am ten years older than him. It's one of the many things I love about Asia, how they respect their elders.

I must admit, after two fairly lengthy walks, my feet were quite tired by the end of the day. I had a shower and ordered room service. Aloo Mutter (potatoes in peas) and a spicy chicken dish. I had room for more so ordered 'homemade plum cake' with a cup of tea. I finally realised what it is about chai I love so much here... it tastes like tea from a flask! As I ate this feast I watched football from back home on TV. It's the first TV I've watched all trip.

I absolutely love my room. There are large windows at the foot of my bed and the view is fantastic, right out over the valley. Since no-one is overlooking me, I don't close the curtains at night, which means come next morning, I'm wide awake when my alarm goes at 7.45am. Natural daylight has an invigorating effect on me! I've definitely had the best nights sleep in this leg of the trip.

The day after I hired a rickshaw driver to take me to some of Munnars most famous sights. We wound our way through the valleys and then climbed higher and higher until we reached 'Top Station' which was neither at the top of anything or a station. At the ticket office there was a sign which read 'Indians 25 rupees, tourists 50 rupees' so I joked "one Indian please". He laughed but didn't fall for it. Sadly the views at the viewpoint were obscured by heavy mist. It was interesting though, because the viewpoint was between two valleys, so the mist rolled in over us dramatically.

I was told that the mist could clear by midday, so I found a quiet spot down a small path, and completed a crossword. By the time I returned to the viewing deck, there were faint outlines of mountains but the view was still impaired. There were also lots of people in a very confined space and it was a bit of a circus with a large group of very boisterous young guys, so I gave up waiting for the mist to lift and headed back to my rickshaw driver.

Although 'Top Station' disappointed, the rest of the day was excellent. We stopped at Kundala Dam and Mattupetty Lake, which again looked just like somewhere in the Lake District. My favourite stop was Echo Point, a green lake which snaked its way through a succession of valleys. I stood at the edge and wondered what to shout. There were lots of other people around and the acoustics seemed to suit very high-pitched or sharp noises, so I shouted "EVIE!", the name of my niece, and the Munnar valleys shouted back "EVIE VIE vie vie". The best part of the day though was just driving around, snaking up and down the valleys and seeing the carpet of green tea-plants covering every available surface. I'd ask my driver to stop whenever I saw a fantastic sight (which was often), so I could jump out and take a photo. At one point I noticed a sign which said 'elephant crossing'. It's easy to forget how many wild elephants live in these forests.

Moving from state to state is making for a fantastic trip but it's difficult to keep up with the languages. Hindi is the main language of Rajasthan but a different language is spoken in Kerala and Tamil is now the language of Munnar. Nama-ska-rum means 'hello' and thank you is now 'nandri'. People are exceptionally friendly in India and I've had so many smiles and hello's today. I love seeing their face light up when I say hello back to them in Tamil. They definitely appreciate the effort, even if sometimes they do laugh at my pronunciation.

I'm leaving Munnar tomorrow morning, to go to Kumily and Periyar National Park, where there is all kinds of exotic wildlife. There are two options to get there. The easy option is by car, which will cost 2500 rupees (25 quid). It's a four hour drive, so it seems a reasonable price considering the driver has to drive there and back. The advantage of this is that I can leave when I want and get door-to-door service - always preferable when I've got all of my luggage in tow. Option 2 is going by bus. It leaves at 6.20am which would mean a 5.30am alarm call. That in itself isn't a problem (I've had a number of similar alarm calls this trip) but I never like the idea of taking a cramped public bus with all of my stuff. But if I'm being honest, the main reason I'm favouring the taxi option isn't comfort or convenience, it's that I can dictate when we stop - for example if I want to take a photograph or, more likely, if I'm feeling car-sick!

Today I set my alarm for 8am and after a quick breakfast of toast and coffee, I was on my way to Kumily. The views were sensational as we meandered through the Western Ghats, past a seemingly never-ending succession of green valleys covered in tea-plants. We passed a beautiful lake and drove through small villages with colourful bunting hung up across the street, past countless spice gardens and a forested area that had the loudest insect noises I've ever heard. It was like electricity.

As expected, about halfway through I was feeling a bit car-sick due to all of the winding, dipping, bumpy mountain roads, so I called for a tactical chai stop. It cost 30 pence for two cups, one for me and one for my driver.

We arrived in Kumily just after midday and after a road-side conference with six rickshaw drivers, we found my hotel, Green View Home Stay. My room is clean, spacious, painted lime green and like every 'double room' so far on this trip, has two single beds pushed together. I have my own balcony but it has a warning: "beware of monkeys"!

Half-day options in the park are limited, especially for single travelers, so I settled on a boat-trip. It cost 225 rupees plus 450 to enter the park. As recommended by the helpful chap in the tourist information shop, I got there nice and early to secure a good seat on the top of the boat. While I waited, I chatted with a group of friendly young Indian men and at one point became aware of movement to my left and saw a monkey sitting there, a tiny baby clinging to it.

The boat was a double-decker and I had a plum seat on the top deck at the front. I was sat next to a friendly guy who said he remembered me from the day before. "I saw you at Echo Point, applying suntan lotion". It sounded extremely plausible. The boat began chugging slowly along the water, heavily forested woods spilling down in the river. We saw bison grazing in some planes, samba deer splashing around in the shallow water and in the distance a herd of about ten elephants. Over 1000 live in the park, as well as about 50 tigers which gave the sanctuary its name. The chances of seeing them, or indeed the leopards, are very slim, but we saw all kinds of exotic birds and even three baby otters.

Tomorrow I go on a full-day hike around the park, so hopefully I will get to see more wildlife from close-up. I've been warned not to wear anything red or white as animals can see it more clearly!!

Then the day will be quite a long travel day, down to Varkala. I will need to get a public bus to Kottayam (4 hours), a ferry to Alleppey (2.5 hours) and then either a bus or a train to Varkala (2 or 4 hours). With an early start I'm hopeful I can be in Varkala by a respectable hour.

I haven't got time to proof-read this - need to eat!
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test [Mar. 7th, 2016|07:00 pm]
James
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Last day in Fort Cochin [Mar. 3rd, 2016|08:42 pm]
James
Today has been a relaxed but productive day. I went to breakfast at 8.30am and enjoyed chatting with two elderly Icelandic ladies, hippies at heart I think. I did some laundry, banking and then booked a flight back up to Delhi. It cost £80 which is good value considering it's a three and a half hour flight. That's longer than it will take me to fly from Delhi to Dubai!

I've been scratching my head the past week how best to get back up to Delhi but it was a conversation yesterday morning at breakfast in which someone suggested I fly from Trivandrum, that everything fell in to place. It's a city near the southern tip of India which means I can meander my way down for the remaining nine days of the trip. I've loved my first five days in Kerala so I'm really happy I'll get to spend as long here as possible. Quaintly, the road name signs here all have 'God's Own Country' written beneath them.

David, the owner of my homestay, has been able to give me plenty of recommendations. Munnar, high in the Western Ghats, is my next stop, a mountain range that separates the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. But on the way I'm making a hefty diversion to see Athirapally waterfalls. In Munnar I plan to do some walking and perhaps a cookery course, before perhaps heading to Periyar, a national wildlife park. Then I will head back to the coast. I've got plenty of ideas and my trip will culminate in the beach town of Varkala. The Icelandic ladies said it was a lovely place and it's located just a short distance from Trivandrum, where I will fly up to Delhi from.

The rest of my day was spent relaxing, wandering, shopping and lying spread-eagled underneath the ceiling fan in my room! The heat here has been intense - over 100 degrees farenheit every day.

At lunch I went to one of the Chinese fishing nets where there was a collection of different types of fish staring at me from a table spread with ice. I didn't recognise some of the fish but bought a red snapper for 250 rupees. I forgot to barter but it was still only £2.50. I then took it over to small stall and the owner grilled it for me with chilli and ginger. A little bit of lemon juice and parsley on top and it was without doubt one of the best meals of this trip. Simple, fresh and delicious.

Aside from watching some kids play cricket for a while, reading my book and having an afternoon nap, that's about all I've done today. Sometimes you need these kind of chill-out days. This evening I phoned my Mum and Dad back in England. They have one of those anti-coldcall systems where you have to say your name and they get chance to accept or reject the call, so I couldn't resist saying Mahatma Ghandi. It was nice to chat for a while and really cheap too - just 20 pence a minute (I was so surprised I double and triple checked he didn't mean £2 per minute!).

Tomorrow I get up at 6am and there will be a fair bit of driving - two four hour journeys I think. David from my homestay has arranged a driver for me and since I trust him so much, I took him up on his recommendation of a homestay in Munnar too. I'm really excited to head in to the tea plantations in the mountains. The scenery looks spectacular and the temperatures will be a bit more bearable too.
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Motorbike trip [Mar. 2nd, 2016|08:58 pm]
James
I've had a superb today, one of my most enjoyable of any of my trips to Asia.

One of the main advantages of staying in a homestay is the amount of local knowledge and advice you can get from the host family. The house owner, David, recommended yesterday that I could hire a motorbike out and visit some off-the-beaten track beaches further down the coast. Kerala's beach isn't anything to write home about - it's littered, busy and the water is choppy - so the prospect of finding other beaches really appealed. However I was wrestling with whether I could be brave enough to drive on India's roads. At breakfast this morning David assured me it was "just a coast road" so I decided to give it a go.

I went to a local bike rental shop and opted for a scooter. There were also more powerful Enfield bikes but I have never rode one before and I thought the less power, the better! That said, the throttle was the most sensitive I've ever used, so my first act was to lunge forward in to a pile of sand! It cost a measly 350 rupees (£3.50) to hire the bike for the day. I then went to a garage and put in a few litres of petrol (200 rupees).

It took about half an hour to reach the coast road and it was a baptism of fire, trying to get used to a whole new set of rules of the road - as well as my Harley. One of the reasons I think India's roads are so scary is that apart from the very occasional imported car, the quickest vehicles on the road by far are buses. As a result I'd be happily pootling along when up ahead I'd notice a bus careering around corner on the opposite of the road, overtaking a rickshaw, meaning I had to brake sharply. Plus I'd be always having to check my mirror as a bus would race up behind me and give me the fright of my life by honking its horn in my ear.

Soon the road became less busy and snaked its way to the coast and I could relax a bit. The most stressful thing suddenly became making sure I returned all of the waves of the children and the smiles of the adults that I passed. I drove through rustic little villages and past rivers where I saw rows of Chinese fishing nets. I passed groups of kids walking to school, the girls all with ribbons in their hair, and several really spectacular churches. As I said in my last post, India is such a melting pot of culture and religion.

I loved the fact that each village had chalk drawings on the road with messages like 'happy new year', 'thank you for visiting' and, oddly, the peace symbol. At one point I had to slow down to a stop as there was a big celebration outside one of the churches. There were hundreds of women dressed in the same colourful saris and I couldn't resist snapping a few photos.

After about an hour I arrived at the first beach. I'll be honest, I expected something quite modest as Goa is regarded as the jewel in India's crown in terms of beaches and it doesn't look that special from photos I have seen. Maybe that is harsh. However, this beach, whatever it was called, was sensational. Wooden boats lay in the sand at one end and then it stretched for miles in a straight line with barely one other person on it. This beach isn't mentioned in my Lonely Planet and therefore doesn't get the crowds. There was no litter, just a perfectly sloping beach from tropical palm trees down to the Indian Ocean. It was just after midday and the heat was searing, so I decided not to take a swim, instead I made a start on my traditional holiday Jack Reacher book underneath a palm tree.

Every bit as nice was Mararikkulam Beach, 17km further south. This one was a little bit busier. There were a few homestays in the bumpy path leading to it and one restaurant. This time I went for a swim and the water was fantastic - the warmest I have ever swam in. I splashed around for a happy half hour and then dried off beneath one of the dozen or so umbrellas on the beach (like a flash a man appeared for payment - 50 rupees/50p). I read my book, drank a cold drink and absorbed the beauty of my surroundings. It's so rare to find a beautiful beach without the trappings of success. There were no bars playing music, advertising 'free wifi' or jet-ski's, just silence, a smattering of people and the occasional fishing boat bobbing up and down on the horizon. Wow. It's made me decide to get off the beaten track more often in future trips.

It was about 4pm when I decided to head home. After a watermelon smoothie and a fresh application of suntan lotion, I began the journey back to Fort Cochin. By now I was quite comfortable on the road and at times pushed my Harley upwards of 45kph.

What a fantastic day. I'm quite chuffed I managed to do it but also saw two of the nicest beaches I have ever seen. Total cost, just over a fiver, including petrol.

At one point I was about to get back on my bike when a rather portly chap with grey hair and an orange smeared bindi on his temple, asked me "where you from?" In Delhi that would be a precursor to be ripped off but in Kerala it's just someone being friendly. He was thrilled when I said England. "We Indians have so much to thank England for, like education and healthcare" and he offered me his hand to shake like I was personally responsible.

When I arrived back at my homestay, Ali and Julia (the Taiwanese sisters who I had dinner with a few nights earlier) were at a stall outside, drinking milk from coconuts. It's been really easy to chat to people on this part of the trip.

Another big positive of the day came at breakfast. I was having my usual toast and coffee when I was joined by two British couples from Leicester and shortly afterwards two Danish women. All of them had been to India many times and as a result I got some great advice that was helped shape the rest of my trip. It all hinged on how I can get back to Delhi. I've ruled out a 48 hour train-ride (!) so my options were to fly back from Cochin, so do a loop back to where I am now for the next week or so, or perhaps even head over to Chennai (formerly Madras). But the capital of Kerala is Trivandrum, further down the coast, which runs half a dozen flights to Delhi each day. That means I can now plan an itinerary, up in to the mountains, perhaps one more 'backwater' trip and then end in Varkala, a beautiful beach overlooked by cliffs. Varkala is very close to Trivandrum which ties everything together perfectly.

I have to say, this holiday is exceeding expectations. I loved absorbing the culture in the North but the second half of the trip is all about relaxing.

I'm also loving the food. Last night I had squid in curried tomato gravy, egg-plant and prawn pakora with tamarind dip, chapati and a mango lassi. Yum. Interesting fact... technically 'curry' doesn't exist, it was a word invented by the British to describe Indian cuisine, based in the Tamil word to describe spicy sauces, 'kari'. Obviously because the rest of the world now knows it as 'curry' it appears on menus here too, but the more traditional places call it gravy - i.e squid in tomato gravy.

Speaking of food, it's time to eat. I have absolutely no idea what I've got planned tomorrow, apart from calling my parents later in the day.
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Kerala [Mar. 1st, 2016|08:43 pm]
James
I've had an enjoyable first few days here in Kerala. It's a much more relaxed pace of life than Rajasthan which I'm grateful for, especially after the long couple of days travel to get here.

Fort Cochin has lots of nods and winks to British, Portugese and Dutch colonial rule, as well as the usual array of churches, temples and mosques. Without question India is the most culturally diverse country I have been to. I love the wide array of different outfits, headwear and facial hair. Just now I saw an old guy wrapped in a sarong, long white beard and orange bindi painted on his forehead.

My favourite part of Fort Cochin is the coast near my hotel where there is a row of Chinese fishing nets. They are huge contraptions that lower and hoist 10 meter square nets in to the water, using large rocks acting as counterweights. Six men have to haul the net out of the water as the others collect the catch, so it's very labour intensive and often the hauls are only half a dozen fish. It's interesting to watch. I enjoy seeing all of the opportunistic birds perched on the edge of the nets each time they're hoisted up, hoping to get a free meal (the fishermen shake the nets to ensure there is no pilferage). Every ten minutes the process is repeated, so I got myself a cold drink and a front row seat and watched the process repeat over and over.

As I was watching this interesting spectacle, I decided to sample some of the street food. The people who run the stalls often don't have the best grasp of English, so it can be a lucky dip, but that's part of the fun. I had a savoury doughnut and a large crispy dumpling which contained curried potatoes and peas. Tasty. Later I picked two different items from a different stall. One was spicy onion samosa and the other was a rather plain fried potato patty. I ate half of it and gave the rest to stray dog that was lazing under my table. I had two pieces of peanut brittle for dessert - a trusty favourite for my trips to Asia.

A man pulled up alongside me on a motorbike and said "you want to be in film?" Sadly my hopes of a budding Bollywood career were dashed when he told me that he was filming a TV advert the day after. I had already booked a day-trip so declined his offer. He handed me his business card which said 'Sathram Movies' on the front.

Later that afternoon I went to 'Mattancherry Palace', mainly because I wanted to pick somewhere on the opposite side of Fort Cochin that I could walk to. It was located near the intriguingly named Jew Town, where there were lots of shops that sold exotic spices. Mattancherry Palace was as a gift from the Portugese to the Raja of Kochi in 1555 - or more likely a sweetener to secure trading privileges. It cost just 5 rupees to enter (5p!) and my sixth palace of the trip turned out to be one of my favourites. Firstly, it included English descriptions of the items on show, which the other palaces didn't. It was an atmospheric building too... so atmospheric in fact, I banged my head extremely painfully on a low doorway. As well as several highly polished palanquins (hand carried royal carriages) it contained lots of incredibly well preserved Hindu murals, including one that depicts Krishna pleasuring eight happy milk-maids.

It was cool inside too, which was just as well as the afternoon heat was scorching. The three days I've been here it has been minimum of 35 degrees celsius. On my first night though, there was a storm with lots of ominous thunder rumbling for an hour. I was in bed and worried that adverse weather might affect my next days plans but it was another scorcher.

Last night I went to a traditional Keralan performance at a theater close to my homestay. The performance, called Kathakali, dates back to Shakespearean times and was a strange mix of face-painting, dancing and facial expressions. Strangely the cast was all men and a woman was depicted by a man whose face was painted yellow. It did give certain parts of the show a bit of a pantomime twist. The highlight were the two drummers.

Afterwards I had the best meal of the holiday so far. I had king prawn massala in a tomato, onion and coconut sauce - it was one of the best things I have tasted anywhere in Asia. I ordered two mains, so also had spinach paneer and mopped it up with paratha - stringy, flat naan bread. Sat in the corner of the restaurant were two girls and one of them asked me where I was from. Ten minutes later I was sat at their table and ordered myself another pineapple lassi. They were sisters Ali and Julia from Taiwan - the second Taiwanese people I've met on this trip.

Today I went on an enjoyable trip to the Keralan backwaters. I had breakfast of fruit, toast and coffee in the grand wood-paneled dining area of my homestay and got picked up by a minibus at 8am. When everyone was on board, we drove an hour to Kumarakom, where we all hopped on a boat. The boat didn't have a motor so two wiry old men set about 'punting' us across a wide river using long bamboo poles. Soon we entered the shallow waters of a tributary and after half an hour the canals got narrower still. It was enjoyable sitting back in the shade, a pleasant breeze in my face, watching the world go by.

We passed homes of local people, wooden boats moored outside. Our guide pointed to a tree with white flowers. There were pear-like fruits hanging from it which he told us are poisonous. Apparently if we ate one, we'd be dead in five hours. He joked that the fruit does have its uses... insecticide, pesticide and suicide.

We made a few interesting stops too. Firstly we stopped at a place that made cement powder from clam shells. The operation looked like something from Breaking Bad. Then we went to a place that demonstrated how coconut fibre got made in to rope. I looked up and saw a palm tree way overhead, loads of coconuts clustered at the top of the arching trunk. If one of those fell and landed on your head, you'd know about it! I took a few steps to the side. The last stop was my favourite, a guided tour around a spice garden. Our guide plucked leaves from plants and let us smell or taste them, while outlining their benefits. There was cinnamon, kaffir lime, old spice, cloves and basil. The latter is good for insect bites so I took a leaf and rubbed it on my wrist. Nutmeg is good for diarrhea which is also worth noting - although mace grows from the same plant which is poisonous.

At lunch about 25 of us ate vegetable curry off a banana leaf, which included a really tasty coconut and cabbage side dish. I chatted with a German guy who is going to Nepal next, an Australian couple and a pretty Indian girl from Chicago who is back home for a family wedding. I also bumped in to a guy who works for the same place as me and name-checked some of my colleagues - it's a small world!

After Fort Cochin I will head inland to Munnar, which is high in the mountains and a good place to go trekking around the tea plantations. After that, I haven't decided. There are certain places I'd like to visit - for example the weird rocks at Hampi, the spectacular Ajanta Caves or holy Varanasi next to the Gangess - but they'd involved days of travel to get there and they're off the beaten track. Plus I'd need to then get to a major city with an airport so I could fly back to Delhi for my return flight home.

Currently I'm favouring staying in Kerala for as long as possible. There are plenty of beaches further South (the one in Fort Cochin is windswept and not very appealing), plus waterfalls, national parks and other places of interest to explore. I've also read about cookery courses and might even try some yoga!

Tomorrow I'm thinking of hiring a scooter out. It costs just 250 rupees a day (£2.50), plus petrol, and could be a good way to explore. The owner of my homestay suggested it and pointed me in the direction of a few nice beaches I could have to myself further down the coast. Although I like the idea I need to ensure that the coast road isn't as mad as some of the other roads I've experienced in India!
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Jaisalmer - Jaipur - Mumbai - Cochin [Feb. 28th, 2016|07:37 pm]
James
My last afternoon in Jaisalmer was spent relaxing and wandering around the Fort. As I was finishing an early dinner at a rooftop restaurant near my hotel, I heard thumping Indian music coming from one of the narrow alleyways. I have found it difficult at times to navigate my way around the maze-like medieval alleys of the Fort but following my ears was much easier. I found a crowd of about fifty people in a narrow street. Pretty girls in elegant saris danced as young guys stood and watched. It was like Rosies before 10pm but without the alcopops. I assume it was a wedding party.

On the way back to my hotel I fulfilled one of my ambitions of the trip by playing a game of street cricket with four young boys. Despite the fact that the cobbled surface tested my judgement outside off-stump and the light was poor (I was tempted to walk off for bad light at one point), it was good fun.

My train from Jaisalmer to Jaipur set off just after midnight. I got the middle bunk in a berth of three and after everyone had settled down, managed about seven hours of sleep. It's strangely therapeutic sleeping on a train. It wobbles and sways and the sound of snoring somewhere below was oddly hypnotic. There's not much wriggle-room though and I woke with a stiff back. The last three hours of the trip I chatted with a pretty French girl who said that the highlight of her time in India was visiting the weird rock formations of Hampi in Central India. It's on my 'maybe list' of places to go but I suspect getting there would be too time-consuming. The countryside sped past and gradually the buildings became pinker before we rolled in to Jaipur - 'the pink city' and capital of Rajasthan.

First impressions were unfavourable as I was swarmed by rickshaw drivers outside the station. I picked one and stated my price before he could try to rip me off and he agreed. I sat in the back as we sat still in traffic as a beggar pestered me continually for money. I do give to beggars occasionally but never pushy ones who hang around train stations and never on travel days when I'm carrying most cash. Even though I carry most of my money in a separate zipped pocket, it would be stupid to pull out my wallet in the scrum outside a train station.

I hadn't booked a hotel but found one near the city walls. My room cost 1200 rupees but was fairly basic. I didn't mind as I'd only be staying one night here and the location was decent.

The time was 3pm and I had about four hours of hurried sight-seeing to do in Jaipur before darkness fell. I'd be flying down to Kerala next morning so I had no time to waste.

My rickshaw driver had waited for me and drove me through the city gate to where a concentration of Jaipur's main sights are located. I was keen to get started but my driver started giving me the full run-down of things to do in Jaipur and offered to show me around. When he began to sense my desperation to end the conversation, he passed me his business card. I'm building quite a collection of business cards this trip - from cafes, rickshaw drivers, internet cafes, hotels and even random people I've sat next to on public transport.

Almost as soon as I stepped off the rickshaw, a man approached me and said "would you like to buy gems?" It's one of the oldest scams in the book in Asia - a man charms you with a get-rich-quick scheme to buy gems and make a huge profit but of course you would just end up with worthless stones. The fact people still try this scam suggests some tourists are foolish enough to fall for it!

I started off by visiting Hawa Mahal, Jaipur's most distinctive landmark. It's a very European looking building, almost Gaudi-esque from a distance, that Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh had built in 1799 to enable the ladies of his royal household to watch the procession of people on the streets below. It looks like something from a fairytale - a honeycombed hive of pink sandstone, rising six storeys above the busy street below. After snapping some photos from the front, I paid the small entrance fee and hastily wandered around inside. Like all major sights in India, it was possible to pay extra for an audio guide but I didn't have time to fully absorb the historical significance of the place, I was on a tight time-frame! I climbed to the top and enjoyed the views. One one side I looked down to the bazaars below and on the other side I could see the palace, where I planned to go next. Perched on a rocky mountainside overlooking the city was Amber Fort, which sadly I wouldn't have time to visit.

Next door was the intriguing Jantar Mantar, which looked like a series of odd pieces of modern art inside a large walled garden. In fact it was the observatory of Jai Singh, built in 1728, that contains large instruments of calculation used for astrology. Some of them measure positions of stars and others calculate eclipses. There were about 20 in total, all with different uses, including one that looked like a stairway to heaven and another that resembled a large skateboard ramp. The busiest attraction was a concave half sphere, about 10 meters in diameter, that had all kinds of lines and calculations. It would have been fascinating to pay extra for an audio guide here but again I didn't have time. The sun was getting lower in the sky. I could have done with one of Jai Singh's sculptures to tell me how long I had left of daylight.

Right next to this was the Palace. I know this sounds incredibly uncultured but I'm getting a little bit tired of all of the palaces I've seen on this trip - this was my fifth. But as well as the usual collections of decorative clothing, tapestries, weaponry and stern looking portraits of magnificently moustached maharajas, there were a few unique points of interest. Next to the Armoury was the Diwan-i-Khas, a pink marble pavilion where maharajas consulted their ministers. In it there were two 1.6 meter tall silver jugs that are the largest silver objects in the world. My favourite courtyard was Pitam Niwas Chowk, a perfectly square space with four very elaborate doors, decorated to represent the four seasons. The Peacock Gate, depicting autumn, was particularly popular for photos - which was a bit annoying as that was the only entrance/exit from the yard so I had to waste valuable seconds waiting to leave as a Japanese group posed.

The palace was guarded by men wearing bright orange turbans. One of them saw me looking and gave me a huge smile. "You like photo?" he said. So I posed with him next to a cannon as another guard took the pic. When he handed my camera back he said "tip?" I gave him a small tip but thought it was quite unprofessional behaviour from someone who is meant to be guarding a palace. You'd never get that at Buckingham Palace.

The sun was hanging dangerously low in the sky.

My favourite part of the day came next, just walking along Tripolia Bazaar and looking in to the interesting shops. Sari shops were a riot of colour, woman sitting cross-legged in front of eager salesman, selecting brightly patterned silks and I particularly enjoyed the aromas when I walked past spice shops. I cut down an alleyway to head back to my hotel and stumbled upon dozens upon dozens of shops selling marble and plaster sculptures. In each a man was chipping away at a large block as their latest piece took shape.

I ate a restaurant from my Lonely Planet with the very English name 'Copper Chimney'. I ordered a thali, a platter of lots of small dishes, including mutton curry, a mustard seed gravy, onions, pickles, rice and a savoury fried egg thing I couldn't identify. I also ordered aloo matta - a potato and green pea dish that was the spiciest thing I've tasted on the trip so far. I was invited by a couple from Reading to join them at their table and we talked about India, their daughters backpacking adventures and walking holidays in the Lakes. When they left another British couple, this time from Blackpool, invited me to join them for a beer. I was quite tipsy by the time I got back to my hotel.

I heard cheering coming from the bar downstairs so went down to investigate. India were playing Pakistan and people were rowdily cheering every boundary as India cruised to victory. I have really enjoyed how cricket has been a common language for me on this trip - an ice-breaker for so many people I have met.

On the way up to my room, there was a comedy interlude. I walked up to the reception desk and a young guy averted his gaze from the cricket highlights.

"Namaste. My room doesn't have a towel. Can I have one please?"

"No" he replied flatly.

"Erm. It's just that my room doesn't have..."

"No!" he said emphatically. Hmm, how to deal with this I thought. I needed a shower and didn't think I'd need to work so hard for a towel.

I smiled. "Maybe you don't understand... I'm staying in room 103 and I don't have a towel. You know, for shower?" (I mimed drying myself with a towel)

He called a security guard over and after explaining what I needed, the guard got me the towel and toilet paper I craved. The receptionist must have thought I was just some random guy who wanted a free towel. It reminded me of my trip to China last year, when getting myself understood was impossible at times. Even with expert mime.

Next morning I woke bright and early (well, early at least) to go to the airport. It was 6am and as my rickshaw bumped its way through the deserted streets, I reflected that I was sad to be leaving Rajasthan. I loved Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, the desert safari was the highlight and I even had time for a whistle-stop visit to Jaipur too. There were a number of places I didn't get to visit, including Udaipur, Pushkar and Ranthambhore National Park, but maybe I will get chance to visit them later in the trip.

I had two flights. The first left Jaipur at 8.10pm and landed in Mumbai 90 minutes later. I saw perhaps the prettiest air-stewardess I've ever seen on this flight.

Home of the majority of India's film industry, Mumbai is a real contrast of the super-rich and the super-poor and was where Slumdog Millionaire was filmed. I saw glimmering skyscrapers in the distance and the tangle of closely compacted slums with rusting corrugated roofs near the river and at the end of the runway. I was instructed to stay on the plane as virtually everyone got up and left, then watched as half a dozen men in high-vis jackets came on and quickly tidied the cabin for the next flight. I had to lift my feet at one point as a man hoovered my row. Ten minutes later the passengers bound for Cochin boarded and shortly afterwards I was on my second 90 minute flight of the day.

I finished my first book of the trip, 'Inferno' by Dan Brown. It was excellent but one chapter had my blood boiling. Dan Brown has a tendency to romanticise locations of his books to such a degree sometimes I wonder whether he is commissioned by tourism departments to set his book in their cities (I find it a bit infuriating during an exciting chase scene for example, he'll break off to give a lengthy historical interlude about a statue they've just passed). He wasn't so complimentary about Philippines though. Needing some context for one of the characters of his book, he described Manila as a place of child prostitution, pan-handlers, pick-pockets and worse... where "for every one person Sienna fed, hundreds more gazed at her with desolate eyes" and where, to top it off, she nearly got gang-raped. "When people face desperation, human beings become animals" he wrote. I love Philippines and while Manila does have problems - as do lots of places in Asia and the rest of the world for that matter - it is a million miles away from this lazily researched, sensationalist nonsense. Filipino people are amongst the friendliest I've ever met on my travels and Manila is not as dangerous as he wrote.

Kerala is located near the southern tip of India and straight away the place feels more tropical. It's a lot hotter than places I have been so far - even than the desert in Jaisalmer! The taxi from the airport took about an hour and I was dozing off by the time I reached my home for the next three or four days, Fort Cochin. It's a palm-lined colonial town that is the gateway for lots of interesting day-trips I have planned.

I chose to stay at Delight Homestay - quite possible the quaintest place I've ever stayed. It has a white picket fence, hanging plants outside reception and balconies on each of the two upper floors. I think the breakfast room is on the roof but I haven't checked yet. 'Homestay' means it's a family home with rooms rented out to tourists, which results in a really friendly atmosphere. A boy was watering the plants in the garden and I said a cheery 'namaste' to a woman who I assumed was his mother, hanging out washing. My room cost 3000 rupees per night (£30) which is on the steep side compared to other places I have stayed on this trip, but well worth it. My room is really nice and the perfect place to relax.

I'm really excited for this leg of the trip. It will be far more relaxed than my time in Rajasthan and will involve a lot more outdoorsy stuff. I've got boat-trips, waterfalls, mountains and tea plantations lined up for the next week. I'm also looking forward to sampling Keralan food, especially the sea-food. So on that note, I've got to go back to my hotel, shower and then find myself somewhere nice to eat.
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