Thursday, April 24, 2008

I like Madurai

Despite the touts, the people seem genuinely friendly. I don't know if it helps that I dress the part - bindi, Indian-style jewellery, jasmine-garlanded hair, salwar-kamiz, or ankle-length sari wrap skirt - but I feel like I've had more hellos from adults than normal, even a "welcome to Madurai", a handful of sweet vegetable mix (chopped carrots, red onion and unripe mango) and a flower garland (normally I'm wary of photographing salespeople because I might be compelled to buy something from them, but this man let me photograph him, handed me a garland saying "free", and waved me on my way).

Can you say "stalker"?

I've handed out my phone number all over Asia when random people who I've taken photos of asked for it. I don't expect anyone to actually use it (so I was very surprised when one of the little boys from my road-trek near Ooty called me at 8:30 the next morning, when I was in bed). So yesterday when I took some pics of a schoolgirl drawing a kollam outside her home, I cheerfully accepted a glass of unidentified fruit juice from her mother, and gave her brother my number. And he hasn't stopped calling since. Often I don't hear my phone ringing, so he switched to texting.

  • 13:18 When you come back Tirunelveli
  • 13:38 Now this week when you will come tirunelveli madurai citizen is how you go to madurai meenakshi temple this very famous temple in tamilnadu
  • 15:19 Have u see the temple did you finished the lunch when you go the england give me your number reply message.
  • 15:48 Why did not send reply message a friend is someone who come to the end of the life.
  • (me: I'm busy sightseeing!)
  • 15:58 Sorry I will sent message after if you finished give me message. Sorry. I am very sorry.
  • - 4 missed calls -
  • 17:59 Hi how are you why u not attend my phone Hereafter we both talk by message. Now where are you? How you feel about our area? Today night c cricket and msg me continuously Reply me
  • 18:50 I will call at 9 o'clock did you drink coffee good evening
  • He called at 8. Then again at 9:30. So I politely told him I was asleep.
  • 21:39 If i disturb your sleep means sorry very sorry sweet dream good night

He seems to have eased off today, luckily - he's only texted five times and tried to call four times (he stopped after I sent him a message telling him I was busy).

Meenakshi Temple

I got up super-early to beat the crowds (and the touts) at Meenakshi temple, "one of South India's finest" (Lonely Planet thinks that virtually everything is "one of the finest examples" of its kind), and was at the temple at 7:30. Yes, really.

Unfortunately the temple's main features, the mighty gopura (entrance towers), are under renovation of some sort and clad in palm-leaf matting, so I was unable to glimpse the "riot of carved dieties and mythical creatures" that the tourist pamphlet assures me cover them.

I wandered around for nearly an hour. Not that there was all that much to see, despite the vastness of the complex, as many areas are off-limits to non-Hindus. So I was mostly confined to the cavernous, pillar-lined, musty corridors. All Hindu temples have this distinctive musty smell - the smell of centuries, of faded jasmine, of old incense, of, er, rancid butter (devotees burn ghee candles to their deities, and some carvings are smeared with a mixture of ghee and kumkum coloured powder).

This early in the morning most of the visitors are pilgrims, and the corridors are fairly quiet save for the clink-clink of a lady's anklets, and the ommmm of the morning puja (prayer) being performed at the numerous shrines.

At one shrine I was accosted by a lady wanting to stick a bindi on me. I instinctively shied away, but she smilingly assured me, "no money, I am working temple" and I let her apply the velveteen dot to my forehead.

I came upon the Thousand-Pillar Hall, which houses a small art museum charging a separate entry fee of 5R. I refused to buy a second camera ticket (having already purchased one for 50R at the temple entrance, alongside my 50R entry fee), so I couldn't take any pictures of the elaborately carved pillars (there aren't really a thousand, but it's not far off - 986 according to the guidebook. I wasn't going to personally verify the count). In Hindu architecture, pillars tend to be square or rectangular rather than round, and those at the entrance and lining the central avenue were adorned with larger-than-lifesize gods and goddesses and mythological creatures. My particular favourite was one goddess, depicted resplendent and proud, perched atop her trusty steed, a magnificent duck. Elsewhere fang-toothed demons, helium-breasted dancers and weird dragon-lions watched me pass.

Meandering through the corridors trying to find the gate through which I entered (my shoes were there), I found myself in the entrance hall to the Shiva sanctum. Shiva is often represented simply by a lingam (phallic symbol) and his steed, the bull Nandi. But here he is personified in various poses. I remember the first time I saw an image of the Nataraja (depiction of Shiva dancing on a vanquished demon). It was an 18-inch bronze in the British museum or some such place, and I recall my immediate thought being, "are you sure that's a man?" He does look very girly, but the Nataraja is always sculpted so gracefully that it's become one of my favourite Hindu images.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Down by the river

After retiring into the shade over the middle of the day, I decided to try and find the river. You'd think that something like a river, sluicing right through the city, would be pretty easy to find. But you'd be forgetting that this is India. I walked up street after street, figuring that as long as I stuck to a vaguely north-easterly direction I would surely come upon it sooner or later. Luckily my sense of direction is better than Mummy's, and - more later than sooner - I found myself on a bridge. I found my way down to the riverbank and stood for a while just watching, too shy to pull out the camera and invade the scene. The water was low, and people occupied several grassy islands and islets. Three boys were trapping minuscule fish in a handkerchief, filling a cellophane bag with their catch. Brightly-clothed washerwomen beat sudsy clothes against rocks (the usual method for clothes-washing here), the now-familiar smacking sound echoing off the banks. Middle-aged men in loincloths soaped themselves in the weir under the bridge. Small children played and bathed - girls fully clothed; boys in varying states of undress (some naked save for a shoestring tied around their waist - I've seen this a lot, and I can't fathom the reason for it). A cricket match was playing out on the largest island. On the far side a man washed his autorickshaw.

I crossed a narrow channel to the nearest island. The river was bathwater-warm around my ankles. I hovered by a group of three washerwomen, finally asking if I could take pictures. They were bemused, but agreed.

It wasn't long before I'd accumulated the inevitable band of small boys, which in turn opened the way for their elder brothers. I took photographs, I posed for photographs, I took addresses, and as the sun got low in the sky decided to mosey back to my guesthouse. The small boys escorted me back to the main road.

I pulled out my map and squinted at it. The boys tried to help, which brought a helpful passer-by to my assistance. It didn't look far to my guesthouse, so I waved away his suggestion of a rickshaw, and set off. And then I spotted an interesting-looking lane...

When I finally emerged from the labyrinth of laneways the sun was low and I was on entirely the opposite side of town from where I wanted to be. But no matter - easy enough to find my way.

An hour later I was still trudging around. The sun had set by now, but I was sure it wasn't much further. Then I came to a building I knew I'd already passed, and realised I'd completed a full circuit of the temple. It was time to find transport. The first rickshaw I hailed wanted 50 rupees. My unfailing conviction that my destination is just around the corner comes in handy when negotiating with rickshaws, as I refuse to be bullied into paying 50 rupees for a journey which I am certain is only a kilometre or so. Three rickshaws later I managed to bargain my way down to 20 rupees, and was whisked through the darkness by pedal-power to the door of my guesthouse.

Do you know the way to Madurai?

I arrived very late in Madurai, bleary-eyed from a fitful doze on the bus (again installed in the luggage-space front seat, I again had the glare of oncoming headlights to contend with). I didn't even have the energy to bargain too hard on the price of a rickshaw (I did manage to knock it down from 150 to 120 - still maybe three times the real price, but we both knew it was a good five kilometres into town). I checked into New College House (with, as far as I can gather, no affiliation to any college anywhere), tipped the bellhop (when he got bored of hovering expectantly at the doorway and gently pointed out I should be tipping him), and fell into bed.

The alarm trilled at 7:30. So I told it to bugger off, and went back to sleep. I eventually roused myself and ventured out into the midday heat of 9:30a.m.

I was soon lost. This happens a lot, usually because I don't have a map - the Lonely Planet being far too bulky to carry around, I take mental note of the route and stride confidently out. This method of pathfinding almost invariably fails, as I either lose count of the streets (Indian cities being abundantly endowed with narrow lanes and sidestreets) or, more often, get waylaid as an interesting-looking lane catches my imagination and I plunge merrily into it. On this occasion, however, I did have a map, but was strolling down a broad avenue that the cartographer evidently felt was superfluous. Eventually I found my way to the vegetable market, and drifted through, surrounded by the smell of earth and coriander.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Having promised I'd phone Jency when I was in Tirunelveli, I did so. She was in college and said she'd come to meet me at 6:30. It was only 3 by the time I was back at Tirunelveli, so I decided to have an adventure. I picked a bus at random and asked the driver where it was going. "Smurfville". Suits me. I climbed aboard and took a seat in the ladies-only area at the front, alongside two young women. Kathi and Vanita engaged me in as much conversation as their limited English would allow, bizarrely phrasing almost everything in the past tense, "where did you go?" "where did you stay?". When I told them I was going to Madurai a look of concern crossed their faces, but I assured them I didn't expect to get there on this bus.

The driver liked to relieve the monotony of the route by pretending he wasn't merely a bus driver, but a Hollywood (Bollywood?) stunt driver, and we slalemed through a set of police checkpoint barriers (possibly intended as a traffic-calming measure during the resurfacing of the road).

We arrived at Smurfville, I bid Kathi and Vanita goodbye, and trotted off to explore the tiny town. Much of it was painted a delicate shade of powder blue, which pleased me. I passed a shop selling wicker baskets, twig brooms and plywood coffins. A bored-looking sacred cow. A small puja procession to the temple.

I stopped to take a picture of a schoolgirl drawing a kollam outside her home. I was invited in, and given some unidentified fruit juice (it wasn't orange, it wasn't pineapple, it wasn't apple, grape, passionfruit, mango, sugarcane, or any other fruit I could think of).


I haven't finished writing up yet.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Kanyakumari Day 2

Mostly spent the day mooching around the town. It's a dusty little place, but pleasant enough for a wander, with a constant breeze coming off the ocean.

In the late afternoon I ended up at Tri-Seas Point (I don't remember if that's it's actual name, but it's labelled something like that on the tourist map), and perched myself on the wall to watch the waves break on the rocks and the jolly Indian tourists playing in the water.

A group of young lads occupied the space next to me. I could hear some hushed conversation sprinkled with English, "what is your name mutter mutter what country mutter mutter" and so on. Eventually the boy nearest me asked my name. He spoke quietly, so at first I assumed it was part of the ongoing discussion. Then he asked again, and I looked round. The boy who spoke was striking-looking, with chocolat-noir skin, high cheekbones and intense dark eyes. The four were all 16 years old ("tenth standard," Preethan told me), all wearing lunghis (man-sarongs), and all Christian. The revelation of their religion made me feel uneasy. It's easy being a nominal Christian in Buddhist Thailand - most of them know about as much about Christianity as the average Brit knows about Buddhism, so they have no expectations and I can wing it. But when someone here says they're Christian, they mean real Christian, and I always feel they're going to think me some kind of fraud if they discover I'm not terribly religious. The other day at the girls' hostel in Chennai I was invited to join the girls for prayer time. Luckily I wasn't expected to be able to chant chapter four verses seven to twenty-three from memory. I fumbled with my borrowed New Testament, sneaking glances around me for a clue to the general location of Hebrews and trying hard not to look like a heathen.

The boys invited me to "your church" (I think they meant "our church"), so of course I said okay. So I trailed after them as they led me quickly through the narrow laneways to the church. We went inside and they looked at me expectantly. Oh no, they're waiting for me to know what to do. I had no clue what I ought to do, so I just gazed around me in what I hoped was a suitably reverential manner. "Pray?" Anish suggested, but I wasn't going to risk getting tripped up in prayer etiquette. I considered saying I'd already prayed, or pleading presbyterianism, or something, but in the end I went with a lame "er, no". I crossed myself with water from the font at the boys' urging (is there a right and wrong way to cross oneself? I probably committed some faux-pas there too - hopefully they'll just take it as a peculiarity of British Christianity), and we left the church and went to somebody's house.

I was given bananas and coffee, and made the baby cry. I get that a lot - babies either stare in rapt fascination, or burst into tears at the sight of this ghostly pale apparition. We sat in the small sitting room for a while, they talked in Tamil around me, Anish flicked through the channels to MTV. I was wondering when and how to leave, until after a while Mishak turned to me and said, "go?". I readily agreed, and the four escorted me back to my hotel. And then I realised that I had again missed the moonrise/sunset that I'd come here to see. Oh well, I'll catch it next year.

Sunday, April 20, 2008


Kanyakumari. Land's End. The tip of the Indian subcontinent. Stand at the southernmost point here, where the Arabian sea, Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal converge, and you're staring straight down at Antarctica. It's here, on the April Full Moon day, that you can observe a unique celestial phenomenon (every guide refers to this "unique celestial phenomenon", so the phrase is kind of ingrained in my brain now), the simultaneous sunset and moonrise over the ocean - a magical sight. Only I couldn't tell you, because I rearranged my itinerary and travelled 13 hours to find Kanyakumari completely overcast.

Ganga Lodge

That's as in the river Ganges, not as in the weed, before you say anything, Mr. Chapatti!

It's about all you could hope for 200 rupees a night - the room's spacious, the sheets almost clean, and there's a small balcony over the street. The bathroom is coated with several mm of limescale, but the water is sun-warmed.

There's a pleasant aroma in the afternoons of biscuits baking in the nearby British Bakery. I've seen Italian Bakeries, French Bakeries, and several German Bakeries in India - they pretty much all have the same selection of Asian versions of European breads and pastries, plus melt-in-the-mouth fluffy biscuits and sliced tray cakes (unlike Thai cakes with their unbearably-sickly frosting these are surprisingly nice, as I discovered when I decided, in culinary-adventurer mode, to test one).

Saturday, April 19, 2008

New posts

I've been in an internet cafe for about three hours now, making use of the unusually speedy internet connection to edit photos and update the blog. So I hope you enjoy the new posts (Mattancherry Palace, The Fisherman, My first Indian cinema experience, Chennamkary, Pen Please?, Canoe backwater adventure, R&R, Alleppey to Kollam, From Trivandrum to Pondicherry). There are still more I need to add - bear with me!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Chennai autos are expensive

Chennai auto drivers won't get out of bed for less than 50 rupees, it seems. They won't use meters and they're prepared to negotiate only minimally. I've spent more on autos today than it cost for a sleeper train ticket to Kanyakumari, a 13-hour journey.

A conversation

The scene: at the counter of a small bakery-booth shop. I point at a sandwich.

Me: One of these please.
Man: Senwish. Ohnyon.
Me: Yes, can I have one please.
Man: Fai rupee.
Me: Yes, okay, I want one.
Man: One?
Me: Yes please.

And I finally got my onion bhaji sandwich.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Pavement Painting in Pondicherry

I think these are called Kollams (no relation to the town of Kollam that I was in this week), they're made by sprinkling powder, and (generally much simpler designs) are drawn on doorsteps of houses or outside businesses to bring luck. They're traditionally designed in rice powder, so that small creatures can eat it (though why you'd want to encourage ants to your doorstep is beyond me). As I pottered around Pondy (as this city is generally known, the official renaming to Puducherry in 2006 being almost universally ignored) this afternoon I stumbled on what seemed to be some sort of competition - the pavement was covered with these colourful designs, and ladies adding their finishing touches.

I've put a whole lot more photos on Facebook - and it's taken so long that I haven't had time to add any more writings. The next 10 days before I go back to Thailand are going to be a bit hectic - I'm going to Chennai tomorrow, then down to Kanyakumari and Palayakottam (where G-G-G-Grandfather Henry Bower is buried), then either to Madurai or Kodaikanal for a day or two before heading back up to Bangalore to fly out on the 26th.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

From Trivandrum to Pondicherry

The bus ride from Trivandrum to Pondicherry takes a scheduled 17 hours, starting at 2pm. I was booked into the front seat, which is handy because the front of Indian buses is the only space for luggage - and even then I have to rest my feet on it. A girl with hair cut short in an elfin crop got on and took the seat next to me, waving a cheery goodbye to her mother and aunt.

As the bus pulled out of the station, I closed my eyes and tried to settle back into the plastic-covered seat. Apparently this is a universally accepted sign for people to start talking to me. The girl next to me tapped my knee. "Your goodname?" Charlotte. "Shalette, nice name. I have an aunt called Shalette. She lives in Australia. My name is Jency. I'm a student engineering." Nice to meet you. I shut my eyes again. "What country?"

Some time later when I was daydreaming about something interesting, Jency tapped me on the knee once more to tell me she admired my "silent nature". "I'm a chatterbox," she continued brightly, "my nickname is chatterbox. My mom always tells me I'm such a chatterbox." I liked Jency. We chatted a bit more - it turns out she studies in Tirunelveli, which is right near Palayamkottai, where G-G-G-Grandfather Henry is buried, so we exchanged phone numbers ("call me when you get to Pondicherry" - that makes four people I've promised to call as soon as I arrive) and I hope to meet up with her when I go down there.

There are no such things as toilet stops on long bus journeys in India. Sometimes the bus will pause at a bus station for five minutes or so, but I never know which and I'm always scared to get off in case the bus leaves without me. Plus, Indian bus station toilets (which you have to pay for the priviledge of using) are unfailingly dire. They invariably stink of stale urine. They never have bins, so used sanitary towels are left on the floor or on windowsills. The bucket provided for washing (no toilet paper, obviously) usually looks so grimy I don't know if I'd feel any cleaner for using it. They're frequently unlit. They almost never have a hook or any way of keeping my camera bag off the floor. They're always squat toilets, of course, which I don't mind so much when I'm wearing a skirt, but with trousers and a long tunic to keep a) out of the way and b) off the (usually wet, generally filthy) floor, I find very awkward. Sometimes there's just a gutter running along the wall, with stalls to squat in. Once on an overnight journey I had to decide between closing the door, leaving my camera bag outside on the dry floor and peeing in the dark, or leaving the door open and hoping that none of the kitchen staff of the nearby restaurant glanced in my direction. As a result of all this, I generally attempt to become severely dehydrated for long bus journeys. Unfortunately I'd drank plenty of water in the morning, so by the time we reached Nagercoil, three or four hours into the journey, the pressure was getting quite unbearable. Jency took me to the bathroom, and insisted on paying the 1 rupee charge (she was worried the attendant might overcharge me, as I'm a foreigner).

I needn't have worried about the bus leaving without me, at least - when Jency and I got back on the bus there was some heated debate going on, which continued for ten minutes and got more and more heated. It seemed to come almost to blows, but was finally defused with the involvement of four S.E.T.C. (the Tamil Nadu government bus company) employees. And the cause of all this consternation? A girl was seated next to a young man. The two were not married, nor related, so the girl's father refused to allow them to sit together and insisted that the man be moved. The man had reserved his seat and been sitting in it since Trivandrum, and was unwilling to move. You'd think for all the bother it would have been easy for him just to change seats, but Indian people seem very proprietorial about these things. On the sleeper bus from Hampi to Bangalore I was mistakenly guided to the wrong berth, when the conductor misread the scrawled "5" on my ticket as a 3. I'd just finished arranging my bags around me in the narrow bunk, and settled down, when the chap with the number 3 ticket showed up and insisted I be relocated. My logical argument that both bunks were exactly identical, both being upper berths on the same side of the bus, and that wouldn't it be easier for him just to take my bunk, went unheeded: This was HIS berth, it belonged to HIM. So I huffily (and slowly) climbed down and removed myself to my allocated place. And with smug satisfaction listened to him sweeping the grit from my dusty shoes off his sheet.

Jency got down at Tirunelveli (which the Indian pronunciation strips of almost all its vowels, so it comes out something like "Tirnlw'lee"), and the seat-hopping young man, a student in Pondicherry, took her place. He tried to talk to me, but I was just going to sleep. The rest of the night passed pretty uneventfully. Sleep doesn't come easy with a Bollywood movie wailing through the speakers (long haul bus journeys are often in "luxury coach" class vehicles - "luxury" loosely defined as having glass in the windows and being equipped with TV and DVD player, which I would not necessarily consider a bonus), the driver apparently trying to keep up with a horn-blast quota of at least thirty seconds in every two minutes (thankfully he eased up between about 1pm and 4am), and the glare of oncoming headlights (a downside of having the luggage-space front seat). The lanky student next to me seemed to have several knees and elbows all vying for my air space, and the very very weird man in the seat behind kept reaching around my seat to fondle my shoulder - quickly withdrawing his hand every time I glanced down, and pretending to sleep when I looked round. Weird. At some point in the middle of the night I was vaguely aware of a problem overcoming a potholed road - the bus kept reversing, lurching forward, then stalling. This happened several times before we got moving again.

We eventually arrived in Pondicherry at 9:30, two hours late. I set about trying to find a room. The first 3 places I called were full. The fourth offers a 700 rupee double. Er, I'll get back to you. Then I try the ashram information line (Pondicherry is home to one of India's most famous ashrams, founded by Sri Aurobindo and a Frenchwoman known as The Mother). They give me New Hotel. The only room they have available is a triple. And how much will that set me back? 150 rupees. Done! I can deal with a 10:30 curfew, a ban on drinking and smoking, and all the peace-and-love dippy hippies you can throw at me for that price! The ashram guesthouse is spotlessly clean, with almost-warm water and a western toilet in my en-suite bathroom. My room is labelled "delicacy" (others include "skill", "energy" and "order"). The staff are very nice. Plus, there's a meditation room.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


I promise I will bring the blog back up to date soon - I have pages and pages of notes in my journal, and just have to compile them into something more cohesive and I'll update with all the stories of watching the extremely odd ritual dance art form that is Kathakali, having a schoolgirlish giggle at the saucy murals in Kochi's "Dutch Palace", dealing with overzealous sales assistants, random nutty men and persistant "pen please" children, making new and varied friends, my first Indian cinema experience, canoeing and cruising through Kerala's backwaters... I know you can barely contain your excitement.

Oh, and the photo is of the inside of Kollam's lighthouse. I've met up with a fellow member of the TrekEarth website here, and he's taken me to some good spots around the area. Unfortunately the weather hasn't been too fabulous, but I got some goodish shots of some fishermen today.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Alleppey to Kollam backwater cruise

On the recommendation of one of the other residents, Julie (a herbal healer from the US, who was to be found meditating on the porch during a thunderstorm), I'd decided to take the full-day tourist cruise down to my next port of call, Kollam.

I took the public ferry back into Alleppey from Chennamkary, which quickly filled up and I found myself surrounded by bright colours and waist-length plaits. I was sandwiched between two matching little old ladies. They both wore cream saris with golden edging, in the traditional Keralan style, and their grey hair was oiled and pulled off their paint-daubed foreheads in matching tight buns.

I looked around, puzzled that every joining passenger squeezed onto one of the three benches around me when there was plenty of room at the front, then it clicked - although there was no sign, the front of the boat had obviously been unoficially designated the men's area, which was why I was being crowded out by the female majority of passengers. Eventually, when it was clearly getting silly, people started to take up the front of the boat as well.

On arrival in Alleppey I was sold a ticket for the cruise by a travel agent tout, who helped me with my luggage, then expected a tip (I refused - the commission he'll get for getting me into that travel agent will do him just fine - and anyway I never even asked for his help with my bag). I made it onto the ferry with barely five minutes to spare.

There was a guide on board - and I use the word guide in the loosest sense - who'd occasionally come out with some random commentary. Pointing out one of the traditional wide canoe-barges, he told us matter-of-factly, and I quote: "Country boat. Take many people take some goods some place to another place." Later he pointed out a duck farm. One lady, searching for a suitable response, asked if the ducks were for eating. "No, for eggs," he said, then added "and for meat".

We stopped for lunch at a luxurious-looking resort with a light, airy restaurant area with checked yellow tablecloths and white-painted wooden chairs. And led around the back to a dimly-lit bamboo shed behind it, and seated at worn folding tables with mismatched chairs. The Thali meal wasn't bad (served on the traditional banana leaf. With the number of restaurants using banana leaves as plates, I wonder that they don't run out of banana leaves... same way as they don't run out of bananas, I suppose!) but I'm growing bored of south Indian food.

After lunch we continued into wider waterways, passing fishing vessels and more of those Chinese cantilevered nets. The rows of nets lined up along the horizon creates a skyline of spindly X-shapes on triangular wooden frames, that strangely put me in mind of Rotterdam.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


I'm sitting in a small backwater village. I spend most of the day sheltering from the midday sun - it seems that this close to the equator, the sun stays for an annoyingly long time right overhead. Not like in northerly parts like Britain, where it seems to spend most of the year low in the sky. Here it leaps out of the palm trees like an excessively perky summer camp leader, and is high in the sky by 9am. Then (probably on account of all that early exertion) it loses momentum, and drifts lazily overhead for most of the day. Then in the late afternoon it regains its energy, making a dive for the horizon around 5. By 6:30 it's practically dark.

There's not much to do here but relax, eat (being fed four times a day on unlimited banana fritters, vegetable curries, cauliflower bhajis and tea & biscuits I'm sure I've regained any weight I lost while I was sick - and then some!) and drink the "twice-filtered rainwater - better than mineral water".

At least I'm doing a lot of writing - I've caught up on my journal, which is good because it relieves the pressure I put on myself to take amazing photographs. The scenery here, though very pleasant, is not really spectacular, consisting basically of the same thing repeated over and over, like the rolling scenery in a cartoon car chase: palm trees, church, washerwoman, bridge, palm trees, church, washerwoman, bridge, clone-stamped into the distance. In fact, when we were trying to establish whether Eedo and Yafit's canoe outing had taken the same route as the one Saira, Julie and I had taken the day before, it was hard finding any distinguishing landmark - the further we went, the more we realised the same could apply to any stretch of waterway in the area: Under the bridge, the one near the church, by the rice fields, where there's a canoe tied... past the group of kids, where the river weeds grow - you know, with the water, and the palm trees... yep, that's the one.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Canoe backwater adventure

Eedo, Yafit and I decided it would be fun to take one of the canoes out for a spin in the afternoon. This is not a canoe like the lightweight fibreglass models we're used to seeing. It's a 15-foot, heavy teak vessel, and it proves hard work to paddle and difficult to control. Thomas comes out to see us losing to the current and crashing headlong into the reinforced canal bank after a distance of about 30 feet. In light of our ineptitude he decides to give Eedo (sitting at the back) lessons in steering. After a few minutes we're underway, zigzagging merrily off down the water highway with Thomas staring forlornly after us, convinced, I'm sure, that we were going to shipwreck his boat.

It turned out to be rush hour, with the houseboats all returning to nearby Alleppey, beeping at us as we frantically tried to paddle our unwieldy craft out of their path (sure, you can beep - you've got an engine!).

After a while the breeze started to pick up, and seeing the clouds gathering ominously, I suggested we turn back before the rain came. After a tough battle paddling against the wind, we arrived home just as the first drops started falling.

Pen Please?

I'm by now used to the constant requests for "schoolpen, schoolpen" aimed at me by children. But the kids here are especially brazen. Most places I've been so far, the kids at least engage you in conversation first. The adorable Nagraj in Hampi never even asked directly, just dropped hopeful hints. But here, the most you'll usually get is a perfunctory "hi! Wattisyonnem? One pen?". Some even dispense entirely with the preamble, and greet you bluntly with an expectant "wanben". Er, how about, no. I mean come on, play the game - if they amuse me, like Nagraj did, then ok, maybe. But besides, Kerala's one of the wealthiest states in India, and they don't have a shortage of pens!

Another opener is a photo request. One girl (reknowned for her cheek, according to Thomas) asked for a photo, and even as I pressed the shutter her glance was angled downwards, as she eyed my camera bag, no doubt imagining it full of pens. After the photo she complimented my beautiful umbrella. "Wanben? Chocolate?" Then she started pawing at my jewellery. "Beautiful bangle," I know: you're not having it. Eventually she even tried "Umbrella?". No! F-off, you're not having my umbrella! I mean seriously.

Monday, April 07, 2008


From Cochin I decided to move further inland, to a backwater village, and stay in a homestay run by Thomas. I happened to arrive at the same time as a pair of Israeli backpackers, Eedo and Yafit, who negotiated a special discount price - 650 rupees a day, inclusive of all meals - yay!

Sunday, April 06, 2008

My first Indian cinema experience

In a bid to deflect yet another random man's attempts to strike up a conversation (sometimes I feel slightly guilty for my unco-operativeness - some of them may be perfectly genuine people just being friendly and wanting to practice their English - but I'm automatically suspicious), I waved a cheery "hi!" to the first westerners I saw and dashed to join them. My bemused new friends played along, and invited me to join them for a cool drink. They turned out to be French, and living in Chennai - Lorraine works for Alliance Francaise, and Ben and - I don't remember his name so we'll just call him Julien - study social work. They introduced me to their Indian friend DJ (also studying social work), who in turn invited me to join them (and some more friends) to go to the cinema for a Hindi film, "Chak De! India"

We took our seats in the upper circle. It was hot and sticky in the windowless, ventless theatre (makes a change from arctic-aircon Thai cinemas, I suppose). A large fan rattled away above us, blowing hot air down our necks. But the jovial atmosphere makes up for the heat.

In every cinema in every country I've been to, the audience just watches the movie. Indian cinemagoers apparently prefer a more active role in the experience, and there are whoops and cheers and shouts of encouragement as we follow the Indian ladies' hockey team through training and match after match (they beat Great Britain, but I assured DJ I wouldn't take his cheers personally). As the film reaches its climax, the hall is full of urgent whispers, and when India wins the game (I'm sure I'm not spoiling the ending for you too much if you should ever happen to watch the movie), the entire cinema erupts in enthusiastic, joyous applause. It was marvellous fun.

The Fisherman

As the sun set over Fort Cochin, I watched this fisherman cast his net into the sea. Each time he'd carefully gather it up, then wade out a few feet, wait for a moment (I don't know what he was waiting for - the right kind of wave??), then toss it out. Then he'd drag it a short distance, before pulling it in again, then gather it carefully together ready for the next throw. It seems a time-consuming way to fish - in the 30 minutes or so that I was watching, he cast his net maybe five or six times.

Mattancherry Palace

Mattancherry Palace was built by the Portuguese and presented to Veera Kerala Varma (1537-65), Raja of Kochi, in 1555, by way of appeasement for their plundering of nearby temples. The Dutch carried out some extensions and renovations in the palace in 1663, and thereafter it was popularly called Dutch Palace. Today, it is a portrait gallery of the Cochin Rajas and notable for some of the best mythological murals in India, which are in the best traditions of Hindu temple art. The Ramayana (an epic legend I'm vaguely familiar with as it's a popular theme in Thai art) is beautifully depicted, as are Shiva and Vishnu in other rooms. But it wasn't for the Ramayana that my schoolgirl curiosity had really brought me to the palace.

The decor in the ladies' bedchamber was obviously designed to get its occupants in a suitably playful mood. The walls are covered in saucy murals, from a multi-handed Krishna attending to a small harem of contented milkmaids, to woodland scenes of a menagerie of animals - as the captions put it - "giving themselves up to merry enjoyment." Deer, cows, elephants, lions, baboons, even rats and birds, cavort around the walls. Some of the scenes are quite sweet, like the couple of deer engaged in a game of hide-and-seek in the trees, or the mating lions nuzzling each other affectionately. But I draw the line at bovine cunnilingus. That's just weird.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Chinese Cantilevered Fishing Nets

In Fort Cochin.

This one also got lots of good feedback on TrekEarth.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Backwater Tour

The Thing To Do, in Kerala, apparently, is tour the backwaters. So I booked a Lonely-Planet-recommended tour from Cochin. We went on a houseboat up the river estuary, and watched the men collecting freshwater mussels - some with long rake-nets, others by hopping into the water, gathering the shells with their feet, then ducking under to fill their nets. The meat is very high in calcium, as our guide told us about 47 times. A couple of us brave culinary adventurers tried some, fried up in a curry with tomato, onion and coconut meat - they weren't bad. The shells are fired and reduced to powder, which is shipped out to pharmaceutical companies in the north and used in calcium tablets. Or turned into whitewash. Or fertilizer. Who knew there were so many uses for freshwater mussels?

Thursday, April 03, 2008


I met a German girl called Nina and she invited me to join her at a performance of Kathakali, a traditional Keralan art form.

We took our seats (plastic patio furniture) at the front of the small theatre, and waited for the show to begin. We were introduced to the principal actor, a man "famous for playing the lady parts", a lady explained. Middle-aged and pot-bellied, with a hairy chest under his sash, layers of make-up and bright gloss lipstick smeared clown-like around his mouth, he looks a lot like a panto character. Cinderella's sisters spring immediately to mind. Only uglier.

First we would be shown a demonstration of some of the movements. The actor obediently launched into a sequence of eyebrow raising, tongue-poking, eye-rolling and general grimacing, like some sort of facial yoga. Next, the depiction of emotions - "anger", "fear", "love", etc. Then animals: "this is a snake," which involved flailing arms and legs in what struck me as a most un-snakelike manner. It was as much as we could do to keep a straight face as he acted out a swarm of bees and a lotus flower. For the final demonstration, the commentator-lady instructed us to "watch as a man plays the part of a loving mother". We watched as the man apparently stalked an imaginary child around the stage, screwing his face into what I suppose was meant to be a tender smile, but I'm sure would frighten the poor thing. Then he mimed breast-feeding an invisible child whose head was apparently detachable, as he held it under his sash, while cradling the body on the other side of the fabric.

The main performance was a scene from one of the Hindu epic legends - I forget which. The commentator lady explained that a demoness has transformed herself into a beautiful princess to try and capture the heart of a handsome prince. "Famous for the lady parts" sweeps onstage, a change of costume and the addition of a couple of tennis balls on his collar bones transforming into the sort of beautiful princess you wouldn't like to meet in a dark alley. He's joined by the handsome prince, heavily coated with green face paint and peculiar traditional rice paper gills.

Demoness-slash-Beautiful-Princess sets about attempting to seduce him, but he rejects her. She doesn't give up so easy though, and tries again. Eventually tiring of her advances, he runs her through with his sword. This seems a trifle excessive, but anyway his attack seems to make her revert to her demonly form (couldn't be quite sure, except that she sticks her tongue out), which confirms he did the right thing - the moral of the story being that evil, no matter what its form, should always be punished.

Now, I'm sorry, I know this is supposed to be all very cultural, an art form rooted in ritual and steeped in tradition and generally a spiritual and enlightening experience, but even as Handsome Prince stomped about the stage with the drummer working up to a crescendo, honestly it just seemed a bit daft - especially with the least believable Beautiful Princess in history trying to be coy at the side.

At least now when everyone in Kerala asks if I've seen Kathakali yet, I can say I have.