Bed Bug and Papping India: 15 – 16.08.13

We pulled into Hampi in the early hours of the morning, the sky still black with only the faintest silhouettes of rocks in the distance.
Before we could even step off the bus, touters boarded and the eager faces of four or five Indian men peered through the corridor, asking where we go and offering to take us to nice room. They swarmed around us whities as we tried to get our soaking wet, muddy packs organised and onto our backs. The smell of cow shit – lots of it – filled the air, and our nostrils.

We decided to walk into town; the Hampi bazaar is tiny an easily managed by foot; crowded with guest houses and restaurants, cows and the inevitable poo that they drop at every turn. We stopped for chai whilst the touters and tuk tuk drivers begged and pleaded with us to let them take us to different rooms for just 10 rupees (they forgot to mention the commission they’d make, at our expense, if we took a room). We’re cottoning on to their little tricks and games – thankfully – and we declined.

In the bazaar it took ages to find a room, we hopped from guest house to guest house, checking prices, cleanliness and wifi availability. It was light by the time we found a room that was basic, cheap, reasonably clean, and had a strong wifi connection.

We sunk a pot of masala chai at an eatery, and managed to have 100 rupees removed from our wallets by a pair of shifty “holy men” – learned our lesson there! We had breakfast with the locals at a little open air eatery that was cooking idlys and dosas, and took in the vast scenery surrounding us.

Hampi is a town like nothing we’ve before seen. The bazaar itself is a little maze of sprawling streets, souvenir shops, guest houses, restaurants, roof top cafes, hippie shops, book stores and travel agencies. Red dirt, puddles of water and mounds of cow shit make up the roads and pathways, where children run bare footed and cows block every corner. The women walk through with baskets and pots of water on their heads, and every second corner shack is filled with convenience items like toilet rolls, biscuits and necessities like shampoo and trashy magazines. Monkeys jump from roof top to roof top, children who should be in school try to sell post cards and books, people are touting, and every restaurant wants to sell the tourists a cup of the “ best coffee.”
The cows spend their days lazily; strutting the streets and forcing their heads into any crevice that may return food. We watched them frequently enjoying pieces of cardboard and news paper from the ground, posters from walls, and occasionally offered them an indulgent banana skin treat.

Outside the bazaar, a small market area and group of street stall eateries, chai stands, produce carts and tacky souvenir shacks surrounds the bus station, which is more a large area of dirty and gravel overlooking mountains and boulders, ancient ruined monuments and one massive temple.

The ruins of Hampi are sprawled out over a large area; mountains, hills, piles of enormous rock and palm trees line every view. Still exhausted, we hired a tuk tuk to take us around the main sights for five or so hours.
The temples and monuments were amazing; spectacular architecture, carvings and scenery. At the main temple, we hired a guide for a short tour of the place which gave us great insight into the significance and meaning of certain structures, buildings, carvings and history.

Throughout the day, we were continually in awe of how empty these tourist attractions were; most of the time we had the monuments, temples and areas to ourselves, or only had to ‘share’ them with a few other people. When we were not alone, we spent the time being harassed by locals wanting to take our photo. I had a small baby shoved into my arms and posed for a family photo-shoot with a child who was obviously not comfortable. The family photograph features me pulling an unimpressed face, along with the child.
Local men continued to whip cameras and phones out at the sight of us, papping at the most inopportune moments. How many hideous photographs of me are now on facebook, I hate to think.
At the last temple we were bombarded by an Indian family, which consisted of about fifty people, who wanted photo after photo with different people in the shot, in different poses, with different family members, standing on different sides of Jake and I, and then in front, and then behind, and then with babies in the shot, and then without, and then some more. I began to get irritated by the 80th odd photograph, and when they started shoving cameras into our faces to take close ups of just Jake and I, I just walked off. They continued papping, and I continued pulling faces that would make any image delete-worthy. The photograph thing got exhausting fast.

We decided we’d leave tomorrow night for Mumbai, rather than spend a second night here in Hampi. We seem to be moving through places a lot quicker than expected, but it’s a good thing; we’re able to add in more places to visit in India which is exciting! Whilst a bus takes around 12 hours to reach Mumbai, a train takes around 25 hours and would involve a lot more hassle. We’d been keen to take a train for the sheer experience it would offer, but ended up booking a sleeper bus leaving from Hospet – a 30 minute bus ride from Hampi. We;re excited to move on to Mumbai and to spend a little while there.

A man at one of the many booking agents called us in through the window, and when we said “what’s up?” he responded with “nothing man, I’ve been waiting for you!” … Oh India, how you make us laugh.
He explained to us the sleeper bus he could book us on was “very beautiful” and would have a TV all to ourselves with English sub titles. The thought of trying to sleep on a bus with 32 separate TV units was terrifying, and furthermore, the smell of weed from his cigarette was a little off putting and we left.
We booked a non-tv sleeper bus at a different agency, and so it was official: tomorrow we’re off to Mumbai.

Well after 10pm, laying on our beds exhausted, Jake spotted a tiny bug on my pillow which was instantly recogniseable as a bed bug. Uuuuuugh! We can’t be bothered with this shit!
This was the start of a long night.
Luckily a little convenience shack was still open, and selling – of all things – fly spray. Pulling the beds apart, the mattresses off the bed frames, the sheets and pillow slips away and moving our belongings and bags as far way as possible, we coated every surface with the spray. Wondering the streets late at night, we dodged cows and goats, tiny children still awake, women carrying pots on their heads and finally found some locals playing soccer, who let us use their phone to contact the no-where-to-be-seen guest house owner. He came, didn’t seem to think that it was that big of a deal, and eventually dragged the infested mattresses out and a couple of filthy, thin, wheat packed mattresses in. We refused to sleep on the infested wooden beds, and instead were given no option but to sleep on the thin mattresses on the tiles without pillows or blankets. Our hopes for a decent night sleep were crushed.

On our second day in Hampi, which happened to be Indian Independence Day – we checked out and watched our bed bug infested mattresses get dragged back onto the bed frames, ready to welcome the next sleeping body.

Today happened to be Indian Independence Day – a holiday for all – and a not much of a day for us.

We strolled down to the street food stalls next to the bus station; the place was jam packed with people, food vendors, chai stalls; the place was buzzing. Hampi was going to be busy today; 8:30am and the area was packed with colour and life. People had Indian Flags painted on their cheeks, and a colourful image made from salt was spread out on the ground, surrounded by people cooking and eating and selling and buying.

Back at what had quickly become our “Old Faithful” in Hampi, we ordered a pot of chai and simply sat. We chatted with the owner, and about our trip. It’s moving so quickly it seems; or have we just been moving quickly? Traveling at night makes a real difference, that’s for sure.

We decided to visit another big temple today, we hadn’t been yesterday and we were keen to go today… but, it was an ocean of people – people from surrounding villages made the trip to Hampi today for the public holiday celebrations – and we were very quickly overwhelmed.
People all around us were photographing us with their phones and cameras, and tour guides hassled us to hire them. We didn’t want to leave our shoes with the “shoe guard” at the temple – and further more pay for that – and the touting tour guide didn’t console my fears by saying “yes, you know why people is wanting them is for that they are the good leather.” After several hundred photographs were taken of us from several hundred different, bad angles – with me making several hundred ugly faces for the photographers – we didn’t even enter the temple. It was irritating to not be able to move without being photographed, and we were worried about our shoes being stolen by the several lurkers near the thousands of pairs of shoes.

As we wandered away towards the river and ghats we were continually photographed as we walked, and parents forced their tiny children – and us – to shake hands. At the river, hundreds, if not thousands of Indian locals were mingling. I was getting really irritated by the number of cameras in our face, and people everywhere around us pretending to be photographing something else when they were obviously aiming their cameras at us – then looking away when I gave them the eye.

Sitting on the wall leading down the steps to the river, people surrounded us to get photos with the whities. I refused to face them, so I can only assume there will now be several hundred photos of my back all over Indian Facebook. A boy grabbed me by the arm and asked for a photo “just one madame” he said. I know this game well already – just one photo means just one with this specific camera, and no doubt there will be several cameras floating about – and I flatly refused. So, taking my answer in his stride, the boy directed his mates with their cameras around me, grabbed me and put his arm around me. He now has several photographs on his camera of me scowling, yelling at him and running away swearing. I can just imagine the photo of my screwed up face, downturned brow, curled bottom lip and two front teeth forming a “Fff….” will make a great story when he returns back home.

Running up the stairs away from the papping locals, I was harassed by several boys making kissing sounds and yelling “Hello madame, where you from?” “Hello madame, where you go?” “Hello madame, how are you?” Pissed off that I was unable to enjoy anything at the present moment without the harassment of local men, Jake and I retreated to a rooftop café where we spent hours drinking masala chai and stealing wifi.

Eventually, having spent a good portion of our day in a café, it was time to head to the bus stop, to travel to Hospet where our bus for Mumbai would depart at 6:30pm. However, we were stopped by a tuk tuk driver who offered to take us for 200 rupees – what is actually a very reasonable fair considering it was a) a holiday, b) we’re tourists, and c) it’s a 30 minute drive or more to Hospet. Not wanting to bother with the jam-packed, holiday maker buses, we took the tuk tuk, and it proved to be a better choice!
Prince, the driver, was the same age as Jake, and keen to get some advice on how to pick up Western girls; I think he may be a little confused about the process. He was asking what the maximum amount of time we thought it should take for him to be able to ‘woo’ a Western girl into marrying him in. As in, how many days – not years – mere days, for him to be able to meet, date and become engaged. Furthermore, his western bride must be prepared to move away and live in India, because he believes he cannot get Indian food anywhere else in the world, where as westerners can absolutely get western food here in India… Finally, he believes if he is married to a Western girl, he can absolutely do what he wants – go away whenever he wants, where ever he wants, with who ever he wants, and his western wife wont care – supposedly, this is the opposite of what Indian women are like, according to Prince. We shared some good laughs, tried to teach him what NOT to do (eg. DON’T make ridiculous kissing noises and behave in a ridiculous manner) and he was a genuinely nice guy.

Traffic jams nearby Hospet meant wandering hands had the opportunity to find their way into our tuk tuk, and men stared at me from every angle and viewpoint. Prince ended up having to drive a different way; 5 extra kilometers through muddy tracks and over rough road to get us to Hospet. Once there, he spent time chatting and talking, took us to our bus company stand, showed us where to get food and use a bathroom, and didn’t once ask for more than the 200 rupees he originally asked for. What a guy! We tipped him anyway.

Using a bathroom in Hospet was an ordeal; the men surrounding our tuk tuk as we got out were intimidating as they stared blatantly at me, and there just didn’t seem to be any women around, anywhere! They stared and stared, and when we finally made it to the bathroom to pay the 5 rupee charge, the man there tried to tell us it was a 5 dollar charge – in whatever currency ours was. Ridiculous.

Sigh. I think today was just one of those ‘off days’…

Finally on the bus, we joined forces with a Spanish girl and spent our evening eating Hide and Seek biscuits and chatting. Laying back in our double bed berth as the bus rolled towards Mumbai, we were able to relax and let today’s frustrations and stressors wash away.
We feel nothing but excited for what this new part of our travels will bring.

 

Scary Toilets and The Luxury Hampi Express

Pretty much as soon as we arrived in Goa – or at least in Agonda – we’d unexpectedly ended up planning to leave. The tiny section we have seen of Goa has been breath-takingly beautiful: green, lush, misty, rice paddy fields and hills that climb into the clouds. Farmers and dirt roads, palm trees and oceans…

We packed and left Agona early in the morning, bleary eyed and still utterly exhausted; still trying to catch up on the lost nights sleep from the sleeper train. We took another overpriced tuk tuk to the bus station near by, then an hour long bus to Maragoado. From there, we sunk a couple of chai (oh, the withdrawals we were already suffering!) before taking another one hour long bus journey to Panji – Goa’s main city.

We dumped our backpacks with another sweaty man at the cloak room, which happened to be situated between the ladies and the men’s toilets: instead of praying that our bags would still be there when we returned, I prayed they wouldn’t absorb the smell of stale piss within the next 8 or so hours.

We’d been keen to go to an Organic Farm – Savoi Spice Plantation – to take a tour and see what organic farming is like in India; particularly in beautiful Goa. However, it was a 35km trip out there, and we didn’t want to spend 1000+ rupees on a taxi or tuk tuk, so we tried to find a bus. It was foolish; we’d just come off two hours on two separate buses that were packed so tightly it was difficult to move, and further more, we were both exhausted and hungry. But we persevered; asking one bus conductor after another for assistance in finding the right bus. We were sent to one side of the massive station, then back again, then back again, then back to a smaller section of buses, then told there was no bus, then told there was several buses, then told we had to pre-purchase a ticket, then told after we’d lined up for the ticket we didn’t need a ticket and to go “over there”, then we were “over there” we were told that bus didn’t go to the plantation, and it was around about then that I said “Fuck it I don’t even care!”, and we decided we’d just go and stuff our faces with North Indian thali and drink lassi instead.

We were so exhausted, we struggled to get up after eating, which had consequently made us even more fatigued. We had the good intention of visiting Old Goa – 9km away – which was filled with old Portuguese churches… The thought of visiting Churches today however, felt like the biggest chore, and we were much more inclined to find a chilled out café and waste away the hours until our sleeper bus departed. As we wandered about like a couple of sloths, we found a ‘Nescafe’ café – which would do for a few minutes at best – and then suddenly, I had a fantastic idea.

Let’s go and see a movie at the cinema. Not just any movie. A Bollywood movie.

Arriving at INOX Cinema, we booked tickets for Bollywood Blockbuster “Chennai Express.”
The next three hours were amazing; we don’t understand any Hindi, but we followed along easily enough, thanks to Bollywood’s ridiculously dramatic over-acting, spontaneous singing and dancing numbers and a good dose of imagination. We loved it – definitely going to see more Bollywood. We came to beautiful, beachy Goa expecting to spend our time mostly outdoors, but instead we spent our best hours there inside the cinema complex, and came out singing the catchy tune “Chen-ai-ai-ai-ai, ai-ai-ai, Chen- aiii expresssssssssssssss” – a tune that has stayed with us ever since.

We didn’t have to wait long between our movie finishing and our bus departure; enough time to get a drink, walk to the bus station, collect our bags, buy some food, and for me to use the bus station bathroom. It was the scariest Indian toilet I was yet to see; you know it’s going to be a horrifying experience when you – the white forigener – walk in, only to meet an Indian woman warning you “dirty! So very dirty! Do not go!” with a horrified expression on her face as she rushes out. Still, I had a 10 hour bus ride ahead, and no choice. I picked the least scary squat toilet, rolled up my pant legs, held my breath… I thought the worst was over… and then I went to wash my hands in the sink which was filled with ricey vomit. Uuuuuugh.

Jake downed five samosas in the time frame it took me to mentally recover from the scary toilet experience, and then along with several other foreigners, we boarded our first ever sleeper bus – a mighty steed – bound for Hampi. We were not sure what to expect; I feared the worst as I’d read about bad experiences, but when we walked through the isle to find our beds 7 and 8, we were surprised to find a double bed – with sheets, a pillow and even a blanket! What luxury. I called this bus, the Luxury Hampi Express.

In the middle of the night, the bus stopped for a refreshments break. I clambered out, bleary eyed, needing to wee. Jake came along to the toilet block to protect me, but waiting outside the piss smelling building, he couldn’t save me from the horrors of the officially scariest toilet I have now seen since arriving in Asia. Use your imagination.
Stifling my screams, I was forced to wee in the open air onto a sloped piece of concrete whilst Jake stood guard to make sure no one else came along for the show.
I guess, when your partner can openly, willingly and comfortably watch you squatting over a piece of piss sodden concrete, and not be at all bothered by the sight, you know you’re the best possible companions.

Back on the bus and with the horrors of the refreshment stop slowly easing, we lay there in the Luxury Hampi Express saying a silent goodbye to Goa, and letting the feeling of excitement for a new place to explore wash over us.

Goin’, Goa, Gone India – 12 – 14.08.13

Here I am, sitting on my bed for the night, the top bunk of a set of three berth bunks, within an 8 berth bunk section of our Sleeper Class train cabin. My face inches away from a set of three very ancient looking, inch-thick with dust fans, the man next to me (only a metal grate between us) doesn’t look so inviting and I think he might be a snorer. From my top bunk view, I can count fourteen – yes fourteen! – pairs of dirty bare feet. Including Jakes. This could possibly become my worst nightmare, very quickly. Ugh.

This morning was spent casually; the lead up to our first-ever Indian railway adventure looming. We needed to prepare. Jake woke early to fetch chai and we spent the morning packing up our backpacks (and locking them twice!), which we’d done a fantastic job of emptying and sprawling over the entire guestroom over the course of the previous two days.
We visited the supermarket to stock up on snacks for the journey, but our options were as followed: about 30 different types of sugary biscuits with not-s-enticing names like “Milky Fresh”, “Fabs”, “Hide and Seeks” and “Velvet Browns” and some savoury crackers that were advertised on the packet as “we’re still very sweet!” … we left the supermarket with, of all things, three post cards and no food four our journey.

We took a bus from the Fort to the mainland of Kochi, with the assistance of a lovely Indian woman who told us which bus to catch and then when we should get off, before attempting to walk to the railway station. We got lost. Hot, sweaty and with our packs making our knees hurt, we caved and hired a tuk tuk to take us the rest of the way, which was 20 rupees well spent, considering we would’ve probably never made it otherwise.

Luckily next to the railway there were several little market stalls, and we were able to stock up on bananas, water and chai to stave off hunger for the next 16 or so hours.

The station was a sprawling mess of chairs, people, little shops and eateries, waiting rooms and signs with no English translation. A couple of king young Indian boys assisted us with finding where to go to catch our train, which we were grateful for – even the officers at the station had not been able to assist us, and the Information Counter looked similar to any sort of Indian ‘queue’ – a mass of people fighting over one another, pushing in front of and around each other to get the attention of the one staff member. Yeah, we were not even going to bother with that.

All sorts of people are traveling on this train, and it’s fascinating to observe how people operate. We walked in to our carriage to find about 4 people crammed into seats 21 and 22 – our seats – all of them staring back at us as if to say “yes?…Why are you looking at us?”
When they find out that someone else has actually paid for these seats, they are forced to scuttle away and find another seat that might possibly, just maybe, somehow be available for them.
At each stop this happens over and over, I’m watching people walk through our carriage scouring for an opening – somewhere, any seat – that might actually not already be occupied. This is our first train trip, of course, and I think there’s a lot more to learn about how this complex system operates.

On the train after having been forced to use the latrine and wee in zig-zagging motion through a little black hole, I suddenly had a flashback to that moment when we booked our tickets and were told “Yes, oh yes, very comfortable and clean, oh yes” by the lovely man who was now obviously very deluded. Lovely and clean – my ass it was! – but I can handle toilets flooded with urine, dirty feet and dusty fans, cramped spaces filled with strange men, sleeping in the same clothes I’ve worn all day and using my backpack as my pillow. This is an experience I’m oddly loving, and furthermore, what better way to people watch and gain a little more insight into the culture, from way up here in my no curtain, fan-only, sleeper berth.

Speeding along, the fans ware spinning, the breeze was nice through the open windows, and the train hummed along the tracks. People were sleeping head to foot with their carriage buddies, people were chatting, drinking chai, reading, listening to music, watching movies, relaxing, playing with their children on these lovely and clean bunks.
Already, I love Indian trains.

Late in the night, we are bombarded by a group of Indian boys – the same ages as both Jake and I – who are also traveling to Goa “for to enjoy the life.” We spent a couple of hours sitting with them in the bunks chatting and laughing, whist they took a hundred-plus photographs of us and the ‘ring leader,’ as I shall call him, spends a good portion of time giving us a personal viewing of the eight thousand photographs of himself on his mobile, “giving pose” – as he described itin eight thousand ridiculous different outfits. Every time he showed us another photograph of himself in unflattering tight pants and a trout pout facial expression, he asked us “How is this, you think?”

We didn’t get much sleep on the train and arrived at the awful hour of 4:10am. What a fucking night mare time that is to arrive into a new destination – learning curve; we won’t be doing that again. Thankfully the rowdy boys were getting off at the same stop and they woke us up. How they knew it was the right stop I have no idea – no announcements, not large signage saying ‘welcome to your destination,’ no obvious anything that might possibly indicate we were there.

Regardless, we got off and walked out of the station into the black night time sky, where just two tuk tuk drivers were waiting. “Where you go?” they asked us… “uuum… we don’t even know!” I responded.

So, we sat there in the open air at 4:30am, alongside a hundred odd sleeping Indian bodies, eating biscuits and reading our guide book, trying to decide where to go. Eventually we decided we’d settle on Agonda, and then tomorrow move along to the next destination, with a plan to spend about 6 nights in Goa then move on to Mumbai by train.

We waited and waited for a more reasonable hour, and eventually at 5:30am, we took a taxi to the bus station with the hope of their being frequent buses, as per what we’d read.
We were wrong. The bus station was still dark and full of sleeping bodies and clusters of men, and no buses were leaving until 7am.Shit.

I turned around and suddenly, like a shining beacon of hope, there it was – a 24/7 coffee house. No matter how bad the coffee is, we’re going there! I was almost skipping with joy – along with the 20kgs of baggage on my back – at the fact that we would not have to endure that dark, dodgy bus station.

We finally caught a bus that was headed for Agonda – an hour or so spent packed in with a hundred odd other bodies; school children, farmers, women with baskets of vegetables and one lady who spent the trip tying long beans together in bunches with string. How foolish I was to think that an early bus would be less crowded. This is India, Emily!

During the bus trip, we were informed that our bus did not go to Agonda as promised, and we would have to catch a very over priced tuk tuk the rest of the way. Seeing as it’s low season, we should have guessed the issues that we were about to face here in Goa.

Arriving into Agonda early morning, we checked in to a cheapy but fine guest house with a view looking out over the swirling ocean waves. Hungry, we walked into town hoping to find a little café in this quiet stretch of coast… and that’s when we began to slowly realize that literally, everything in Agonda is shut. Not just for the morning, not just for the day. For the entire low season. Every shop, restaurant, eatery, book store and touristy place was covered with blue tarp. Monsoon season here meant not one place was in business, besides three tiny convenience stores that were not very convenient. We felt trapped.
 

Our only real option, seeing as we had already handed over all our clothing to be laundered, meant hiring another overpriced tuk tuk to take us to Palolem – the super touristy area that would have a few shops and eateries open at this time of year.
Palolem was okay, but felt more like a Thailand tourist strip – complete with flimsy knock off clothing, bongs and pipes in the window sills of shops and staff sitting lazily outside the doors begging us to come in.

We ate a dodgy meal, wandered the beach aimlessly, saw a motorbike accident, watched several badly injured dogs struggle to walk around the main area, bought a pineapple for dinner (since nothing would be open), wandered through a couple of shops and then, when we’d had enough; more exhausted than I can describe after the train journey, we took another over priced tuk tuk back to empty Agonda.

We spent the afternoon and evening relaxing to the sounds of the ocean and rain, eating delicious pineapple and crackers with vegemite and reading the Classifeds section of The Hindu newspaper – the Wanted adds for Brides and Grooms is an interesting read, to say the least.

We were planning to spend 6 nights exploring Goa, but after realizing today that low season here means basically EMPTY, we booked ourselves a sleeper bus to Hampi – departing from Panji (Goa’s capital) tomorrow night. I’ve read a lot of good things about Hampi and I think it will deliver a lot more than Goa has…I guess, what this simply means is we’ll have to come back to India again. When everything in Goa is open.

Fort (Fought) India: 9 – 10.08.13

Today we moved away from Alleppey, up the coast to Kochi (Cochin); still within beautiful Kerala.

After street food and the obligatory chai, we hopped on to a dodgy looking bus; the worst we’ve seen yet, only to be confronted with a massive puddle of vomit by the front seat. Moving away instantly, we sat down and packed away our huge packs (Indian buses don’t seem to be designed to accommodate for luggage), only to be informed by an English speaking man and a rather large, belly-out older lady who just simply stood over Jake and eye-balled us, that actually, this is a ladies only seat; Jake – you’ll have to move. So, whilst Jake was relegated to sit with the men up the back [who all fell asleep on him], I was wedged in between the window and two very portly ladies who spent the two hour bus ride staring at me.
Oh, India…

Down from the bus in Ernakulam, Kochi, we had to then get a ferry over to Fort Kochi, 3.5km or about 20 minutes over sea. Finding the ferry was easy enough, but buying a ticket was an unorganized, inefficient, chaotic ordeal. To put a positive spin on things, let us call it a “learning experience – a lesson in queuing in India.”
In a small room there are two very long lines that form in front of one ticket booth, staffed by only one person.
There is a normal queue – used only by men (with about 40 people lined up at the time), and a ladies only queue. Neither of these seem to be moving, although the ladies queue was significantly shorter (about 10 women). Next to the ladies queue is what I can only describe as an unofficial queue; more like a group of men who stand there, trying to pay off the ladies to buy them their ticket so they don’t have to line up.
Oh, India…
Each passenger is strictly forbidden from buying any more than two tickets at one time apparently, as is explained by many different signs within the room, and you can absolutely not buy a return ticket – how absurd to think that you might want to return to the mainland at some point. These rules make competition fierce between those in the unofficial queue, and the men were relentless with their questioning and underhanded money transfers.
I joined the ladies queue and stood in the line surrounded by men on both sides – both the unofficial queue and the men’s queue – and then the next 20 minutes were just ridiculous, eye-opening and uncomfortable.
Whilst standing in the line that never seemed to move, it felt like I was the unwilling star attraction in a parade that everyone had come out to see. The men stared, and stared, and then stared a bit more, all the while, shoving money at me (and other women) and asking for me to buy them a ticket.
Between ignoring the staring and the constant hands shoving money at me for tickets, I spent my time being pushed, shoved, hung off, coughed on, squeezed and leant on by the woman behind me. First she hung of my backpack, scrunching my clothing with one of her hands and tapping my arm as though it was a natural habit; as if that would make this line go faster. At one point, a lady at the very front of the queue must’ve recieved her ticket, and the woman behind me shoved me forward so hard – before anyone else in the line could even move forward. Ah, lady, please! Talk about impatient… I ended up pulling my backpack around onto one shoulder and shoving my elbow hard into my pack every time she leant on me, in the hope she’d back off, oh, you know, even slightly, but it just made her cling to and then push me even more. I gave her the look. Even that didn’t work… I was at a loss.
By the time the queue had moved forward and I was the next customer, I thought it was over, but then I had to fight off her hand that shot out over my shoulder, clinging to her rupees in the hope she could purchase her ticket before me. I don’t think they quite understand the notion of a queue, but there was no way I was letting this pushy woman rain on my unwilling parade!
I held up two fingers to the ticket master and he took my rupees. Without knowing the cost of the ticket, and being unable to ask on account of being unable to hear and almost trampled by men and the clingy bitch behind me who kept slapping her arm about over my shoulder like a wet fish, I had faith the non-corrupt ticket man would return my change and my ticket… which he did…for three people. Oh, what’s that – only two tickets allowed per person?
When I finally fought free of the irritating woman and the crowds of men, I realised I’d been short changed as well having been unfairly charged for three tickets instead of the two I had asked for, and was apparently only allowed.
Thanks, India…

Furthermore, all this happened under the watchful eyes of Indian policemen.
Oh, India…

Ordeal aside, we had to laugh at the craziness of this situation and the event that was unfolding before us… two queues that were going wild with impatience. You’d think that maybe this ridiculously inefficient system might’ve been upgraded to something that worked a little better, but again, this is not our culture; all we can do is observe, laugh, and get ripped off in the process.

We spent the afternoon in Fort Kochi not doing too much; just exploring, browsing books stores, walking, trying to work out if we go to Goa or Mysore next (the tough decisions we are forced to make these days) and then attempting to book train tickets for tomorrow night, which didn’t work. We spent the evening walking along a not-so-nice stretch of rubbish and litter “beach”, past the famous and fantastic-looking Chinese Fishing Nets and stall after stall after stall of fishmongers selling their latest (still alive!) catches.

Kochi is well catered to tourists and the locals are really friendly and welcoming (even the ones blatantly scamming you!) That, and there are ‘free wifi’ signs outside every café and guest house , shops selling all types of silks, pashmina scarves and brightly coloured fall-apart-the-next-day hippy pants, tailors wanting to sew you up anything you could possibly want, handicrafts and government souvenir shops with salesmen just desperate for you to “just only looking, looking is free,” and gelato shops that sell “the best coffee” apparently.

With the question of Goa or Mysore? still remaining, we wern’t sure where we’d end up tomorrow – getting to Mysore sounded expensive and difficult and involved the words “Government Bus” which automatically made me think twice… with train time tables not lining up and seats unavailable, we decided we’d stay one more night.

Our second day in the Fort was wonderful, spent simply enjoying the Fort and what it has to offer. Jacob went out early and bought back some South Indian street food for breakfast; dosas, idilys and pitthu along with a pea curry sauce and obligatory chai, and we started our day with a true Indian-style breakfast.

We decided today we would head to Mantacherry and to Jew Town, an area of the Fort that once, hundreds of years ago, was occupied by hundreds of Jewish people. Our guest house owner explained to us that 400-odd years ago, when banks didn’t exist, the wealthy Jews living here in the Fort kept their money safely in their family homes. The men would go to work and the women would stay at home with the children, ensuring the money was kept safe. At one stage, a group of Muslims began invading the Jewish people’s homes when the men were at work, murdering the women and children and stealing their money. This problem continued and the Jews were forced to ask the King for help. The King decided to combat this problem, he would give the Jewish people their own area of land, which is now known as Jew Town. It was located right next to the Palace, complete with gaurds at the entrance to ensure the families were safe. When Israel became its own country, many Jews immigrated to Israel, leaving behind only a few families in Kochi. Now, there are only a few Jewish people remaining. We were told contradicting numbers, so I guess the best I can do is note that there is somewhere between 8 and 24 Jews living still in Kochi. There are no longer any living Rabbis here, therefore the single Jewish Synagogue is now no longer in use.

We were approached by a driver who claimed he spoke very good English, and “although I’m not an encyclopedia, I have a good “Product knowledge” (knowledge of this area). Cute.
The next three hours or so giving us a fantastic tour of the Fort and through several different sights, giving us insight into the area, the people, the history, the culture, the lifestyle, and India.
We visited the ‘first Church in India’, and passed several old Dutch, Portuguese and British houses, as well as some that once belonged to Jewish families (most of which are either now fancy hotels, cafes or owned by rich Keralans).
We were given little brief history lessons along the way, as well as life lessons, a language lesson in the Mayalalayam – the dialect of Kerala – and just really fascinating stories and information.
We visited the local laundry – where around 55 Tamil people – I think for memory we were told 40 men and 15 women – spend their days tirelessly washing, scrubbing, beating, bashing, hanging, drying, ironing and folding every hotel, hospital, restraurant and paying customer’s clothing. The area was fascinating; the people washing stand in a small ‘section’ – completely immersed in a pool of water to just below their knees –  scrubbing and rinsing and then ringing and ‘bashing’ (the best way I can describe the motion) the laundry against a hard surface. Inside the building, elderly people spent their time moving HEAVY coal powered (fuelled by burning coconut shells) irons over people’s jeans and shirts, finally folding them in immaculate piles. They all gracefully stopped to smile and wave at us, and Jake was given a brief job to iron a patch of denim.

We visited a fruit market to buy some pomegranates and bananas, and then we asked if our driver – Salim – would take us to get some chai. He proceeded to take us to ‘the best place in Kochi – famous, he told us, for sweets and the best samosas in Kerala. That’s a big claim to make when we’re in Samosa country… Before we entered, we got to watch the makers of all the various Indian sweets (which all involve either lots of oil, lots of sugar, lots of ghee, lots of pastry, and most commonly, a mix of all of these ingredients.) They graciously smiled for us and went about making their sweets with such speed and accuracy, sitting on the hard floor in the heat of a tiny kitchen area, surrounded by pots and pans, woks filled with boiling oil, vats of mixture and powders and other things, all bare footed and shirtless. It’s truly amazing, how these people work.

We had chai and samosas, and Salim ordered us a sweet he thought was the best for us to try – I’ve decided that I do not like Indian sweets (thank goodness, I do not need more sugar – the sugar in Chai is enough to fatten me up way more than I’d like!) , they all seem to taste the same to me; oily and overly sweet with a nothing-else taste. Indians sure love sugar. I’ll be lucky to leave this country without having developed diabetes simply from the few cups of chai I consume each day.

We visited the Dutch Palace which had some beautiful and incredibly detailed (so detailed it was overwhelming!) murals on several of the internal walls. It was really interesting.

We visited a spice market in action, as well as a ginger factory; both were fascinating to see but of course, we didn’t buy anything. Not that we wanted anything, but thankfully we can graciously use the excuse “Oh, we’re Australians – our customs have strict rules would confiscate anything we bought.” That excuse – which also happens to be true – actually works here, the locals say, understandingly, “ah, Australians. No, you can’t buy”, unlike in Sri Lanka where the sellers enthusiastically told us of course we can take fresh spice into our country.

Even though I’d specifically said NO SHOPS when we hired him, when it came to the end of the tour, Salim begged us to visit one shop for him – of course – so he could “get points”, ensuring we just have to walk in and look and leave. I begrudgingly dragged my ass from the tuk tuk, a little pissed but not surprised that we’d have to walk through a shop filled with wooden elephants, carpets, scarves and jewelery – none of which we want – and continually say no to pushy sales people.
Which, is exactly what we did, escaping – eventually – after the salesman had begged us to buy just one thing. “Not much money for you, just small money for you” he explained, further backing up his begging with a story that his boss will scold him and doesn’t like giving the staff their pay packets when they don’t actually make any sales, and that this business will most likely probably might be closing soon because it’s not doing good business without our single not much money sale…

The evening was spent wandering about and drinking copious cups of chai. We booked our train tickets to Goa tomorrow – we were only able to get Sleeper Class which will be… interesting to say the least – and took a stroll. We ended up back at the Chinese Fishing Nets where a fish auction was taking place as a boat had docked and was unloading new big fish.

Tomorrow we embark on our first Indian railway journey – a 14.5 hour sleeper class, 850km journey from Kochi, Kerala to Goa.

Backwater India: 7 – 8.08.13

We arrived into Alleppey, Kerala, at around 7am after what was actually a reasonably good sleep on the overnight semi-sleeper bus from Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. Taking a tuk tuk to our guest house, the driver quoted us 30 rupees then asked for 40 when we arrived. I argued and he agreed again to 30, but then I felt so guilty for arguing over around 18 cents I paid him anyway… Foolish girl. Lesson learned; I won’t do that again.

We spent our first day wandering about, eating street food, drinking oh so much chai, posting mail and purchasing an umbrella from a shop that took this umbrella shit seriously. We had to pass about 30 different staff to walk out with what we had described to them as “the cheapest umbrella.”

Our second day in Alleppey was spent on the backwaters,  which was indeed, an incredible experience. We had planned originally to take an overnight houseboat however, we decided against it mainly because we realised the amount of pollution those big boats send back into the water, and we’d rather not contribute to that. Instead, along with another guy we met here, we paid for a human paddle-powered, covered canoe and a boatman to take us on a seven-hour exploration of the backwaters and open lakes.

It was incredibly beautiful; quiet, peaceful, and relaxing… we made our way ever so slowly past rice patty fields, brightly coloured homes and washing hung out to dry, past women bathing their children, men building mud retaining walls, fishermen waiting for a catch, many boats, chai stalls, women slapping their wet washing hard against rocks, dishes being washed, people swimming, and people simply living out their lives along the waters edge.

It’s monsoon season here at the moment and everything is just… wet. The water levels were much higher than what is obviously the usual; rice paddy fields were completely immersed in water, along all the canals people were building higher mud retaining walls to keep the water in the canals and not in their homes, the little chai stall/restaurant we stopped at was flooded with water inside and out, and when we walk to and from our accommodation, we walk through a flooded road area which is simply “normal”… I can’t imagine wading through my kitchen or bathroom but for the locals here, it’s obviously just a part of life. When you can see shrimp darting through the water in the kitchen of your home, I guess nothing is too out of the ordinary?

Safe to say though, we’re being really careful of what we eat here; monsoon season means food and hygiene standards are even more compromised in certain areas than they would normally be. Which is a lot.

There is an annual boat race here in Alleppey that is a huge deal, this year being held on the 10th. We’ll miss the event – only just – but we didn’t completely miss out; we were lucky enough to see the women’s team practicing and singing beautifully as they paddled to a drum beat in unison. People on other boats waved to us,  groups of men danced and sang, children paddled their boats and the vibe in the area was wild and exciting against a calm backdrop.

Sipping chai on the banks of the canal, we had the realization – once again – how amazing it is, and how lucky we are to be able to travel like we are, and have these incredible experiences. We are absolutely having the time of our lives.

Floating through the canals, we didn’t feel as though we were in India – away from honking horns and in your face pollution – there were no touters or crowds, and it was beautiful to sit and soak in the sunshine for a while.

Fort [Fought] India: 9/08/13

Today we moved away from Alleppey, up the coast to Kochi (Cochin); still within beautiful Kerala.
We had a simple breakfast at a street eatery; omlettes with onion, tomato and chillies, some mini dosas with sugar and of course, the obligatory chai. Delicious India.

We hopped on to a dodgy looking bus; the worst we’ve seen yet, only to be confronted with a massive puddle of vomit by the front seat. Moving away instantly, we sat down and packed away our huge packs (Indian buses don’t seem to be designed to accommodate for luggage), only to be informed by an English speaking man and a rather large, belly-out older lady who just simply stood over Jake and eye-balled us, that actually, this is a ladies only seat; Jake – you’ll have to move. So, whilst Jake was relegated to sit with the men up the back [who all fell asleep on him], I was wedged in between the window and two very portly ladies who spent the two hour bus ride staring at me. Oh, India…

Down from the bus in ErNakulAm, Kochi, we had to then get a ferry over to Fort Kochi, 3.5km or about 20 minutes over sea. Finding the ferry was easy enough, but buying a ticket was an unorganized, inefficient, chaotic ordeal. To put a positive spin on things, let us call it a “learning experience.”
In a small room there are two very long lines that form in front of one ticket booth, staffed by only one person.
There is a normal queue – used only by men (with about 40 people lined up at the time), and a ladies only queue. Neither of these seem to be moving, although the ladies queue was significantly shorter (about 10 women). Next to the ladies queue is what I can only describe as an unofficial queue; more like a group of men who stand there, trying to pay off the ladies to buy them their ticket so they don’t have to line up.
Oh, India.
Each passenger is strictly forbid                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             den from buying any more than two tickets at one time apparently, as is explained by many different signs within the room, and you can absolutely not buy a return ticket – how absurd to think that you might want to return to the mainland at some point. These rules make competition fierce between those in the unofficial queue, and the men were relentless with their questioning and underhanded money transfers.
I joined the ladies queue, after screaming at Jake (because you can’t hear anything over the hundred-odd other voices screaming in the tiny room) that I will buy the tickets. So I stood in the line, surrounded by men on both sides – both the unofficial queue and the men’s queue, and then the next 20 minutes were just ridiculous, eye-opening and uncomfortable.
Whilst standing in the line that never seemed to move, it felt like I was the unwilling star attraction in a parade that everyone had come out to see. The men stared, and stared, and then stared a bit more, all the while, shoving money at me (and other women) and asking for me to buy them a ticket.
Between ignoring the staring and the constant hands shoving money at me for tickets, I spent my time being pushed, shoved, hung off, coughed on, squeezed and leant on by the woman behind me. First she hung of my backpack, scrunching my clothing with one of her hands and tapping my arm as though it was a natural habit; as if that would make this line go faster. At one point, a lady at the very front of the queue must’ve recieved her ticket, and the woman behind me shoved me forward so hard – before anyone else in the line could even move forward. Ah, lady, please! Talk about impatient… I ended up pulling my backpack around onto one shoulder and shoving my elbow hard into my pack every time she leant on me, in the hope she’d back off, oh, you know, even slightly, but it just made her cling to and then push me even more. I gave her the look. Even that didn’t work… I was at a loss.
By the time the queue had moved forward and I was the next customer, I thought it was over, but then I had to fight off her hand that shot out over my shoulder, clinging to her rupees in the hope she could purchase her ticket before me. I don’t think they quite understand the notion of a queue, but there was no way I was letting this pushy woman rain on my parade! I held up two fingers to the ticket master and he took my rupees. Without knowing the cost of the ticket, and being unable to ask on account of being unable to hear and almost trampled by men and the clingy bitch behind me who kept slapping her arm about over my shoulder, I had faith the non-corrupt ticket man would return my change and my ticket… which he did…for three people. Oh, what’s that – only two tickets allowed per person? When I finally fought free of the irritating woman and the crowds of men, I realised I’d been short changed as well having been unfairly charged for three tickets instead of the two I had asked for, and was apparently only allowed. Thanks, India.

Furthermore, all this happened under the watchful eyes of Indian policemen.
Oh, India.

Ordeal aside, we had to laugh at the craziness of this situation and the event that was unfolding before us… two queues that were going wild with impatience. You’d think that maybe this ridiculously inefficient system might’ve been upgraded to something that worked a little better, but again, this is not our culture; all we can do is observe, laugh, and get ripped off in the process.

The boat ride to the fort was nice, and we were able to find a fantastic little guest house with ease.
We spent the afternoon not doing too much; just exploring, browsing books stores, walking, trying to work out if we go to Goa or Mysore next (the tough decisions we are forced to make these days) and then attempting to book train tickets for tomorrow night, which didn’t work. We spent the evening walking along a not-so-nice stretch of rubbish and litter beach, past the famous and fantastic-looking Chinese Fishing Nets and stall after stall after stall of fishmongers selling their latest (still alive!) catches.

Here in Fort Kochi you can pick and choose your seafood from the fishmongers, take it to near-by eateries and restaurants, and pay them to de-scale, fillet and cook your seafood. Seeing the giant groupers still breathing (only just) and the crabs bound with string, along with every other fish covered with flies was off putting, and instead we had dinner at a chilled little place called Pancakes and Dosas, where the specialty is – surprise, surprise – pancakes and dosas.

Kochi is well catered to tourists and the locals are really friendly and welcoming. That, and there are ‘free wifi’ signs outside every café and guest house , shops selling all types of silks, pashmina scarves and brightly coloured fall-apart-the-next-day hippy pants, tailors wanting to sew you up anything you could possibly want, handicrafts and government souvenir shops with salesmen just desperate for you to “just only looking, looking is free,” and gelato shops that sell supposedly good coffee – this is a tourists dream, isn’t it? Maybe. At least, the free-wifi is.
Not sure where we’ll end up tomorrow at this stage; getting to Mysore sounds expensive and difficult and involved the words “Government Bus” which automatically makes me think twice. Furthermore, the main reason we were considering going there was to see the massive and renowned markets, and also break up the journey to Goa, but even that doesn’t seem to work in a convenient way. We considered going to Mysore, then to Hampi, then to Goa, but we aren’t sure if we have ‘the time.’ (Taking into consideration all the other places we want to visit whilst in India, as well as our time in Nepal.)
Originally our plan was to take a night train to Goa, but the only one is already booked out, unless we want to leave tomorrow in the day time and arrive in at 1am the following day, which means no time to explore Kochin. I think we’ll have to stay one more night here, but really, this place seems great, so why not.

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