Monday, March 31, 2008

From Ooty to Kochi

It's a long and winding road down out of the mountains from Ooty. I started out trying to read, as I usually do on bus journeys, but before long the pitch and yaw of the dilapidated bus as it jerkily braked and accelerated round the numerous bends on the snaking road conspired to make me feel positively seasick. My general comfort wasn't helped by the muggy, exhaust-fume-laden atmosphere inside the bus, or the bruise that was steadily developing on my upper arm. Indian buses for sme reason have two metal bars running along the side: one positioned to inflict maximum damage to your tricep as centrifugal force thrusts you to the side of the vehicle on hairpin bends; the other is at eye level, so you have to dip or raise your head and look under or over it to enjoy the view. Having given up on the book, I peered around the bar and through the filthy windows at the rain-misted landscape, trying to ignore the headache-inducing soundtrack of wailing and screeching Indian music being pumped through mega-decibel speakers - apparently the only robust part of this rolling colander - punctuated by intermittent blasts on the foghorn to disperse goats or monkeys from the road.

A two-minute toilet break provided a brief respite, but too soon we were back underway, lurching along twisting roads that had me in equal measure regretting the chocolate brownie elevenses before the journey and yearning for just a few hundred metres of straight track. I reflected that this ranks jointly as the most uncomfortable journey I have ever taken. A bus ride on similar terrain in Laos had a similarly queasy effect. Sick bags were passed out at the start of that journey, though thankfully I didn't have occasion to use mine.

And then, suddenly, just when I thought I couldn't take it any longer, the road emerged onto endless flat. Looking back it's like looking at a child's painting. The Nilgiris seem to rise straight out of the plains, like a handful of Alps uprooted by some mischevous God and set down in the middle of Holland, huddling self-consciously amidst the pancake-flat landscape.

The change of terrain was a welcome relief, and through palm orchards, rice paddies and dusty towns, I gradually regained my equilibrium. By the time we passed through Mettupalayam I was feeling much better. By Coimbatore I was fine.

In Coimbatore I had to change buses. Which entailed a sweaty trek across town hauling my suitcase (note to self: whenever Indian bus conductors say it's easy to walk the distance, remember that they are not taking my luggage into account) to the other bus stand. I boarded the day's only Cochin-bound bus, which coincidentally left 20 minutes later. Timing.

Arrived Cochin late at night, and checked into the Sapphire Tourist Home, which is v nice.

Saturday, March 29, 2008


The light fragrance of the tea bushes mingles with the pervasive aroma of the interplanted eucalyptus, the delicate scent of the jasmine garlands adorning the lady passengers' plaited hair, and the smell of diesel exhaust. The Kotagiri-bound bus winds through a landscape of what must surely be some of the steepest slopes ever cultivated, punctuated by tiny tribal settlements, some no more than 30 neatly terracotta-tiled, turquoise box-shaped houses clinging to the terraced sides of tea-lined valleys.

I hopped off the bus in some random small village about 3/4 the way to Kotagiri, and started to hike back along the road towards Ooty. Caused my usual stir as I made my conspicuously blonde way along the route. Walking through tiny, dusty villages, I accumulated a complement of small, dark-skinned and lunghi- (kind of a sarong worn by men) clad boys who, with the distraction of my apeparance, had abandoned their game of cricket and proceeded to follow me along the road. Eventually they insisted that I ought to take a bus to Ooty, on account of there being tigers in the hills. I hadn't really covered the distance I'd anticipated, but, while I suspected the tiger claims to be somewhat erroneous, my memory card was virtually full and my battery running low - and anyway I was losing the race against the fingers of cloud creeping over the peaks and spilling into the valley - so I gave in and agreed to let them put me on a bus. They ushered me to a perch on the bank, and amused themselves with my phone & camera and scrambling up and down trees to fill my bag with inedible, hard, unripe plums, then flagged a jeep to ferry me back to town. I left them with my phone number (one actually phoned me while I was still in bed the following morning!) and a couple of broken pencils, which were all they could find of interest in my understocked backpack.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Photo of the Day

Taken trekking in the (very steep!) hills around Ooty. I walked 30 kilometres today you know!

This photo's been v well received on TrekEarth.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Lawrence School, Lovedale

This afternoon I took myself off down the road to Lovedale, to see Lawrence school, the school Nanny and all her brothers and sisters attended, and where her father was the Resident Medical Officer. After about 40 minutes of waiting at the gatehouse I was given permission to enter the school. A khaki-clad guard who came up to my shoulder took me on a tour of the grounds - at the double. I asked to see the hospital wing, and he quick-marched me off down there. No sooner than I stepped foot inside, the clouds that had been gathering ominously let loose in a torrential tropical downpour. I was shown round by the nice RMO. As it was after the long weekend, the wards were almost empty - the only residents a group of senior boys who had been caught swimming in the lake and were being made to stay in the hospital wing as punishment! She showed me the clinic, which aside from the addition of a modern telephone appears to have changed little since great-grandfather's day.

After a roundabout route that took us through the kitchens (where I was given chapatti and yummy biscuits), I came to the office, where I was allowed to look at the old student records. The girls' ledger still holds the admittance record of a 9-year-old Nanny and 11-year-old Aunty Fan, in February 1929 (the boys' ledger bears the record of Reginald Leonard and Robert Hastings Hughes) - with a note, "withdrawn 18/12/31 to be day scholars as father appointed R.M.O. of the school."

Interestingly, several entries had the note "withdrawn (date) - proceeding to England."

Chemistry lab - again, I could easily imagine that not much has changed since the Hughes sisters and brothers studied here.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Sunshiney Ooty

When I went back to my room on Saturday evening, the Thais were being noisy again, so I decided that if I couldn't beat 'em I'd join 'em, and went to introduce myself. Turns out I've stumbled on the Thai expat community of Ooty - they're all studying here, mostly hotel management. So I unbolted the door that separates my room from the rest of the cottage, and spent the rest of the evening with them, and then all of rainy Sunday.

Now the sun has come out again, finally - it's actually so warm I really didn't need to put on a second jumper to come out! I think I'll mosey over to Lovedale this afternoon. Tomorrow I'd love to do a trek if the weather's like this again.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Rainy Ooty

Arrived in Ooty late last night (the 9:15am bus was scheduled to take 7 hours - it took nearly double that!). It was raining. I checked into my tiny single room in the YWCA, separated by paper walls from a large party of Thais who did their best to make me feel at home by chatting noisily and blasting out Thai pop songs.

When I woke up this morning it was still raining. I ventured out, bundled in my corduroy trousers, T-shirt, cashmere sweater, hi-tec Rohan jersey and the warmest of my dupattas (scarves that go with the salwar-kamiz suits). But it was miserable - visibility was about 20 feet, and practically all the shops were shut. So I did what you might expect from me - I hibernated. I went back to bed in my sleeping bag under a thick woollen blanket, and slept until 2pm.

This afternoon it's still raining, but at least the cloud cover has lifted, so I can see further than the other side of the street. I've found the town centre, and the internet cafe, and - most importantly - the copious homemade chocolate and fudge shops and bakeries! Unfortunately the rain is forecast to continue until at least Monday, so I don't know whether to stick it out until then in the hope of doing a trek and perhaps getting some worthwhile photographs (at the moment it's a dead loss), or just give up Ooty for lost, visit Lovedale for interest's sake, and head on out into Kerala, where in fact it's also raining but at least it's warm!

Pesky weather - I come all the way to India, only to find damn British weather!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Of paddles and pocking

Nagraj the boat boy. He kept accosting me whenever I walked down past the river, and I promised I'd take a boat trip with him. On the third day he was taking a couple of tourists out and I was walking over the boulders, and he called me over because he didn't like the look of two men following me, and told his customers I was his friend and gave me a lift back to the ghats (steps). I got him to take me on a little punt (well not a punt, a paddle), and he chattered merrily away about life, the universe and everything. He got quite passionate at one stage, something about some tourists "pocking", which I couldn't for the life of me work out - until I remembered that f sometimes becomes p. From what I gather he once caught a foreign couple getting intimate amongst the boulders, so he threw a rock at them, chastising them for being so disrespectful in this sacred place, and told them in no uncertain terms to get a room. He was such a sweetheart, with his little pudding bowl haircut. I wanted to say goodbye to him before I left, but couldn't find him in the afternoon. Then he got on the same bus as me out of Hampi - I heard my name, turned around and there's his cheeky little face grinning at me. So I gave him a handful of pencils. Kids here always ask for "school pen".

Aside: Also randomly ran into Bollywood Statuesque German and her friend this afternoon at the Mango Tree restaurant in Hampi.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Clever map

Have added a nice little map so you can follow my journey. It's not as clever as some (I've seen one which displays a little wiggly line following all the roads taken), but I can embed it at the top of the page there, which is handy. I'm also uploading lots of pictures to facebook, here.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Hampi has a power cut

I emerged from the internet cafe (which continued running on backup power until the battery ran out) into a very dark Hampi. V pleased with myself for having the foresight to not only buy a torch, but pack it sensibly and accessibly in a side pocket of my camera bag, which is with me at all times.

Hampi day 1

Started the day with a visit to Hampi Bazaar's main temple, which I've forgotten the name of. A guide promptly offered his services, and I agreed to a tour. He demonstrated the 'musical' pillars, which despite being carved from solid granite, reverberate tunefully like a xylophone when tapped with the fingers. After poking around the various shrines and so forth, we went up to the roof to climb up the tower. He insisted on piggybacking me up two flights of stairs "because of the problem with the feet" (turns out there were mean bitey ants lying in wait there). Then he sold me on a guided walk to the nearby waterfalls.

Two huge monolithic Ganeshes, a fourth-incarnation Vishnu and an oversize Shiva lingam (er, bollard) later, we set out down a track through a banana plantation. The sandy path emerged at the river bank, and we clambered over the rocks to the 'waterfall'. What it lacks in stature it makes up for in enthusiasm, thundering over several large granite boulders. Guide blokey tried to persuade me to swim. It was around this point I remembered why I never take guides. They always try to be my friend, telling me their life story and enquiring about mine. This annoys me. If I'm paying you, I don't want to be your friend. If you're my friend, you'll guide me for free. On the plus side though, it was certainly handy to have someone to lug the camera bag around, carry the water, and take photos of me.

Me in my fabulous salwar kamiz.

We stopped for lunch on the way back to Hampi Bazaar, and he read my palm. Very accurately too: He correctly surmised that I had an ex-boyfriend, that I had plenty of money but don't always save it, and that my parents are interested me. Great, now tell me something that doesn't apply to every single mid-twenties western traveller who comes through India, and I'll be impressed. He did also say I would marry a foreigner, but since I'd already told him I work in Thailand (my standard response to the "what do you do" question), I don't think you need worry unduly about my future involvement with hepl-ful Asians. I lay back on the hessian-covered granite slab, trying to relax with my head on a sandbag pillow, and he told me mysteriously "what you are thinking, it will success". Which was welcome news, since I was hoping he would stop talking soon.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

In Hampi

It's a long, hot journey from Bijapur to Hampi, so I can't be bothered to update. Maybe tomorrow.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

India: dusty

Aunty Ellen's white facecloth will never be the same again.

Friday, March 07, 2008

An afternoon in Bijapur

I've had the most amazingly fantastic afternoon! On my way back to the hotel I was persuaded to take a tour in horse-drawn rickshaw (local transport, not a tourist novelty - as I said, this place sees only a few dozen foreign tourists a week). He drove me around the sights - a massive cannon, a medieval watchtower, a couple of mosques, and ended at the town's largest monument, Gol Gumbaz.

The grounds around Gol Gumbaz are a popular picnic spot, and as I walked up the path I caught the interest of a group of Muslim women and children. They invited me to sit with them, I took some photos, they offered me lunch. The matriarch piled my plate high from several containers (they thoughtfully provided me with a spoon for my rice, though they ate with their fingers). Oh, and - this one's for Roger - they were impressed with my Hindi when I said chapati!

Two hours, 20 photos, a gift of a necklace and three exhausting games of tag later, they invited me to their home. I said I would love to, of course. The three older girls (two 20-year-olds and a 14-year-old) disappeared back under their black overcoats and veils (I guess married women don't wear them?) and off we went. I was again glad I decided to invest in a few salwar kamiz for myself when one of the ladies pointed out a foreign couple and expressed disapproval at the woman's outfit: T-shirt and knee-length skirt.

It turns out they're from three separate households, all neighbours, so I spent the evening shuttling between the three, drinking chai, watching Bollywood movies (sometimes in colour, sometimes in black & white), and entertaining small children and the inevitable curious onlookers. I finished up at the home of the only English-speaker in the group, for a dinner of spicy rice and fried chicken. It was very tasty, although as guest of honour, they had obviously given me all the 'best' bits - the most succulent bits - the bits next to the bone. And we all know what I'm like with meat on the bone. But I was very good (despite still being full from the massive late lunch) - I even tackled the curried hard-boiled egg.

Eventually I felt it was time for me to get back, and announced my departure. They were worried about me walking the short distance to my hotel alone in the dark, but I assured them that an autorickshaw would know it. In the end they put me on the back of English-speaker's father's motorbike, and all three families waved me off as I left.

Indians can also spot a foreigner on the back of a motorbike, in the dark, behind the glare of the headlamp.

A morning in Bijapur

I checked into the Hotel Tourist and set off on foot. Bijapur's bigger than it looks on the map, so I pottered along for some distance, before I came to the signpost I was looking for, Ibrahim Roza. This is the mausoleum of some local sultan (he originally intended it for his queen, but since he died first, he ended up there too). I'd been attracting curious glances (actually that's putting it very mildly - almost everyone I passed stared openly), and when I signed the visitor's register it became obvious why. This is Bijapur's principal attraction, and it receives, on average, 5 foreigners a day. And it's high season right now.

Anyway, the mausoleum is very pretty - got a few good pics. Photographic potential increased still further by green parrots and obligingly brightly-dressed cleaning staff sweeping the grounds and manicuring the lawn with miniscythes. Yes, really. I had the place to myself (besides the sweepers) for some time before I was joined by a Muslim family, who asked me to pose for a photo with them. Asian people love to have photos taken with foreigners - even in well-touristed areas of Thailand, where Westerners are hardly a novelty. I've lost count of how many photos of me there are floating around various corners of South Asia by now - if I charged a quid a time I'd probably have enough for a fortnight's accommodation.

I made my way back in the direction of the hotel, meandering through residential lanes and being accosted every few paces by schoolchildren eager to be photographed. 12-year-old Kashidhra (or something) invited me to her home for a cup of tea, where I chatted to her English-speaking mother and aunt for ten minutes and admired the marvelously tacky disco-light Hindu mini shrine above the door. Then I was led to another family's home and, after more photos, given a bunch of grapes.

From Murud to Bijapur

It's a long journey! It's only an inch on the map. First I took the bus to Alibag (2 hours). Indians have good eyesight: They can spot a foreigner through the murky window of a speeding rural bus from 20 paces. At Alibag I changed onto a bus to Pune (6 hours). Once in Pune I established where to get the night bus on to Bijapur, then with four hours to kill, I decided to find an internet cafe. Standing around looking lost is usually a good way of attracting a tuktuk, and one duly pulled up beside me. Piling my luggage into the back, I told the driver "internet cafe". "Address please?" he said. "No, no address, I just want internet. Internet" I mime tapping on a keyboard - from past experience this is usually sufficient - and he sets off. A couple of minutes pass and I get the impression he's just driving with no particular aim in mind. "Internet?" I try to confirm. "Address please?" No, I don't have an address, I just want internet. Mime typing again. He looks puzzled. "Wat erria?" ARGH!! He pulls up to ask for help translating the crazy foreigner's rambling. Right next to an internet cafe.

Time flies when you're having fun, and suddenly it's 8:45 and I have to find my way back to the bus stand. Pune has three bus stations, and I realise I don't know which one I want. After one stop some helpful people told the driver where to take me, and I ended up at a bus stand I'm quite sure isn't the one I came into, but as it turns out has a Bijapur-bound bus leaving at 9:30, so it'll do me just fine.

A restless night laid across three seats (thank goodness the bus wasn't full), nestled in my sleeping bag, hugging my camera bag and occasionally being jerked bodily into the air by overzealous speed bumps, and I arrive in Bijapur.

Thursday, March 06, 2008


I intended to stay in Murud for a couple of days max, but ended up staying four, mostly because of how complicated it is to get out again as long-distance buses (except the one to Mumbai) don't pass through. But in that time I've been taken on two impromptu excursions (got some decent photos out of one), chased green parakeets on a medieval island fortress, been accosted by hordes of schoolchildren asking to have their picture taken, and been invited into three homes (twice for dinner, once for chai and biscuits). And taken about 700 photos. Oh, and I've also learned to read Hindi (can't speak much, but I can read the place names on buses, which is always useful!)

(you'll just have to tilt your head - I have no photo editing software on this computer)

On my first day I was taking pictures from the bridge, when a boy-on-a-bike pulled up and asked if I'd like to go for a ride. I sized him up and judged that if he tried anything funny I could probably take him, and said yes. He took me a short way up the road and for a walk along a rocky shore (probably a geologist's dream - there were all sorts of crystal formations). A small group of women were collecting salt from the evaporated shallow pools left by the receding sea in the pitted rocks. I took one or two worthwhile photos there, but hoped to go back the next day to take some better shots. Then he asked for a kiss. I told him no, but he persisted and I eventually relented and allowed him one kiss on the cheek.

That evening I was invited to dinner by one of the multitude groups of kids who mobbed me asking to be photographed. Will have to write a description of that evening later, as I'm running low on time now.

Next morning I took myself off by tuk-tuk (or "autorickshaw" as they seem to be known in India) to Janjira fort, the famously impenetrable island fortress (actually impenetrable - in its entire history it remained unconquered). Transport to and from the island is by local sail boat. I unsuccessfully attempted to photograph the resident blue and green parakeets (that is, blue parakeets and green parakeets). As I leave I'm taken to view the new toilet block (western-style, flush, running water, marble washstand), of which the archaeological site manager is obviously terribly proud, as he demonstrates the working taps.

I walked the four or five kilometres back into Murud, with four delightful septuagenarian gentlemen from Pune. "We're trekking," they told me cheerfully from beneath baseball caps. They do this all the time, it seems, their hiking gear consisting of checked shirts, pinstripe trousers, deck shoes and camo-print backpacks. They've already trekked most of the west coast, in stages (this section was the one part they haven't covered), and are planning to venture east next. "Better than staying at home", they told me. When we got into town they bought me a bottle of Limco, then I watched them amble off on their way on to Alibag.

In the afternoon I went back to the rocky beach in the hope of photographing the salt ladies again. They weren't there, but two men (one young, one old) decided to take me on a hike up the mountain to see the "lighthouse" (actually a simple beacon). So we clambered up the dry-grass-covered hillside. It smelled of Portugal. We stopped for a rest, and the younger man, Sajid, politely asked for a kiss. And I - just as politely - refused. He started pleading, but I'm bored of that game now so I got up and started walking off. He spent the rest of the walk apologising and calling me sister.

Then the older man, Aslam, gave me a ride on the back of his pushbike back into town, and invited me into his home. I was ushered into the dark (there's no electricity in Murud during the day), turquoise-painted living room and introduced to brother-wife, brother-daughter, wife and mother. Super-sweet, milky chai-you-could-stand-a-spoon-in follows, accompanied by puddy and rich tea biscuits, which I nibbled at politely, looking alternately at my reflection in the TV screen and around the room, as a succession of curious friends, relatives and neighbours traipsed through to peer at the novelty guest. In the nicest possible way, I felt slightly like a zoo exhibit. One of the visitors was a black-cloaked, head-scarved and veiled muslim lady. Once inside, she removed all the outer layers to reveal that a friendly, smiley lady in pink salwar-kameez exists behind the letterbox.

And then - busy social life I have in India - I headed back to my room to shower before my dinner date with the family who run the guesthouse! And I've run out of time now, so you'll have to wait for the next exciting instalment of Mad Auntie Lottie Goes To India.