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.

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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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A note on India:

Have I mentioned how much we love India? Although sometimes it can be challenging here, and some parts of this culture are shocking and saddening, or simply unbelievable, but more often than not its just simply, indescribably amazing. Every day we’re learning a bit more, observing a bit more, trying to make sense of this country, the people, their beliefs and their ways of life. It’s surprising how much we are willing to adjust; not even consciously – just naturally adjusting to our surroundings and relaxing our ‘Western Standards’ – simply by experiencing and being immersed in all of India’s everything. It seems as though you can either flounder or flourish here, in the sense that you can either hate or love India. We are flourishing.

Every day we observe and learn new things; new behaviours, new traditions, what is acceptable here and how things work in often nonsensical and unfathomable ways… Sometimes India is inspiring, sometimes its challenging, sometimes it’s crushingly despairing, but it’s always exciting, always enthralling, always fascinating, and always incredible.

India is testing us, pushing us, confronting us and questioning the way we think and behave. Simple tasks like queuing to buy a ticket or sitting on the bus take on a whole new meaning and procedure here, and it’s an experience to ‘learn’ these things again. Sometimes, we are forced to step out of our comfort zones, but so far that’s never ended in a negative way.

Everything feels intoxicating here in India; the sounds and smells and sights captivate and exhilarate us, and also sometimes repulse us – often at the same time. Either way, India is like an addiction; we just want more and more of what this country has to offer.

Street stalls, tiny shops, markets, bazaars and food vendors feel like the beating heart of India, with everything and everyone working and functioning around these buzzing activities. Everyone has a job to do; the shoe makers, the umbrella fixers, the chai vendors, the touting tuk tuks, the fishmongers, the tailors, the launderers, the hat sellers, the hundreds of fried-goods vendors, the people… somehow they all work around and with each other in invisible unison, amongst honking horns, hectic traffic and an ocean of human bodies on the move.

The sounds! Oh, the sounds of India… Noise is constant here, silence is a rarity. Honking horns, two-stroke engines and buses accelerating set a beating base for the rhythmic Indian tune that never ends. Food vendors can be heard selling their goods, bicycle bells ding, men hock and spit, scraping sounds of brushing and sweeping marble floors grate against the chit-chat of locals. Cats mew and dogs converse, while touters yell their “Hello madams, you come look?” and “Yes, hello Sir you want tuk tuk?” Inquisitive locals yelling “Hello where you go!?” is a chorus we’ve become accustomed to, and sometimes we add to the tune by responding “Just walking.” For some reason, people don’t seem to grasp that concept.

Indian people are lovely. We notice their smiles before anything else (even when they’re trying to scam us) and often, those big smiles with white (or red pan-stained) teeth are infectious, and we end up instantly smiling back. The children love to say hello, and it’s not uncommon for people to come up to us, shake our hands and simply ask us (with those huge smiles) “where from?”
They speak like they are singing, and their spoken English sounds as if each word is dancing on their tongue before it emerges with unique, only-in-India word structure. I never tire of hearing them speak; especially their ‘cute’ descriptions such as “you feel the freeness”, “you eat good taste” and “that is mostly not possible.”
The Indian people (if they’re not trying to get our money – and sometimes even when they are) are welcoming us into their country with the utmost respect and again – the biggest smiles.

Family units seem very strong here and children seem to be the beating, lively pulse of every family. The babies and children are gorgeous – as all babies and children are – but these little ones are stunning; decorated in brightly coloured clothing, materials, shiny beads, henna tattoos, jewelry and lacy dresses. It seems like parents dress their children for every day activities as though they’re participating in a festival or parade of some kind. Children are everywhere, playing, laughing, and sometimes shockingly, working.
Friendship seems just as strong as family; people are connected and work together in big communities. Neighbours are friends,  adult friends hold hands, teenage girls chatter while walking arm in arm, and young boys carry on with their arms around their each others shoulders.

We spend most of our time marveling, smiling and laughing at what we’re experiencing; everything is so new and exciting, and we’re loving every minute. Of course, there are things we find shocking and distressing too; but never the less, we are observing what is happening around us, and we’re learning what life is like in this part of the world. We sometimes have to remind ourselves that this is not our culture, so we must just accept that it is different from our own.

Traffic is so hectic and unstructured at times, we cannot comprehend how it can actually work – but it does, much to our thumping hearts and sweaty palms delight. Watching the chaotic order unfold mesmerizes us, and offers us a glimpse of how these drivers and stretches of road somehow operate. One of the general rules we’ve observed is the attitude of “Fuck you all, I’m a bus – get out of my way now!” in which any sort of traffic – human, bikes and vehicles – disperses madly in every direction to accommodate for buses that rule the roads.

Poverty here is confronting; every day we encounter so many struggling people asking for money and food. People with horrifying disfigurements, disabilities and illnesses and injuries lay begging on the streets, and it’s impossible to not feel extreme sympathy for these people. We sometimes buy food and give it to people in need, but we don’t give money; as heartless as it may seem, how do you choose who to give and not to give to? Furthermore, unfortunately we have to wonder if the money is really even going to these helpless people, or into the pockets of someone else.

The pollution in the air is terrible – I imagine this thick, black cloud clogging the breath of every person, clogging the clouds and the skies and the oceans with its ever-growing filth. Sadly, sometimes I don’t have to imagine – I can literally see that thick black cloud. I breathe it in whilst wincing and gasping, hoping that somehow I’ll be able to catch a breath of fresh air if only I hold my breath a little longer.

We watch as people, over and over, finish with whatever they’re using and then simply throw it to the ground – our Western morals flinch at this littering every time with despair. The streets are lined with filth and waste, plastic, bottles, paper, waste and polystyrene dishes are strewn everywhere; it seems people are comfortable walking through rubbish filled streets, swimming in the ocean along with floating debris, and walking along beaches where pieces of trash outnumber the grains of sand. Bins are hard to come by, but the ones we see are never full; I guess people don’t regard waste management as important.
The other day on a train we watched a group of very well educated people, who all dressed impeccably and spoke fluent English, physically move from their seat to open the window of the train to throw their rubbish out, and it took everything I had not to tell them how disgusting and disappointing that is to see.

Almost just as shocking as the littering problem, is the fact that some people seem treat India as one big open-air toilet. People find anywhere and everywhere to relieve themselves; people shitting and urinating in the streets, on piles of rubbish, in train and bus stations, in back alleys, in bodies of water and in open fields is not an uncommon sight. An Indian man recently told us that sanitation and toilet facilities in India are “so really bad,” and it’s obvious; trying to find a functional toilet outside of a guest house that is a) in existence and b) not terrifying is no easy feat. The other day I was forced to use a urinal: literally, it was called a “Lady urinal.” I don’t even know how to use the squat toilets properly, let alone a terrifying “Lady Urinal”!

Dangerous driving, poverty, pollution, littering and scary toilets aside; we are so excited and thrilled to be here. We’re learning, we’re observing, we’re [starting to] understand, we’re exploring, and we’re loving every minute.

Ancestral India – 05.08.2013

As we rolled into Ooty in the early, early hours of the morning, we saw scenery like we had never before seen. As the sun began to rise, it revealed to us thousands of tiny, colourful houses dotted and lined throughout the greenest hills at bewildering heights, and closer to the road, shop vendors and tea stall holders began to turn the lights on in their shop fronts. The air was freezing, and when we stepped out onto Ooty’s wet ground just after 5:30am, hawkers selling beanies and scarves surrounded us.

We’d booked accommodation ahead of time at an old, Brittish building complex-turned-guesthouse/hostel.

We walked there as the sun was rising, through the cold air and mist, feeling the refreshing rain drops on our sun burned skin.
On arrival, we were shown to our dormitory my worst nightmare; a tiny space that resembled a prison cell with four metal beds, sinking mattresses, dirty wet  blankets, a dirt floor and tin roof ceiling, gaping holes in the walls and ceiling, a bin that had not been emptied in what I can only assume has been months, a strong smell of damp rot and several mosquitoes – bigger than I have ever seen. As for the bathroom, all I can say is what bathroom? There wasn’t one.

Seeing as it was already raining, and the temperatures here get well down into the very cold range, we thought, amongst some other contributing factors (see above), we might have to decline this room cell, and so were offered another cheapie room, which when they opened the door to reveal another sinking mattress, the smell of paint fumes almost knocked us down. Needless to say, we never removed the packs from our back and decided that we would find somewhere “alternative.”

Marching up the road in the rain, exhausted from little sleep, I imagined we looked like two turtles with heavy shells plodding silently along. The scenery was beautiful and the walk was really lovely; it was so nice to feel cold for just a little while. In town, we hoped a tout would pounce and be able to show us to a room – which they did – but it was another shit-box complete with wet carpet, a swarm of flies and a 60’s porn-star look-a-like manager who was, to say the least, a little off putting. Again, it was time to find an alternative.

Standing at a chai stall more than an hour later after we’d arrived in Ooty, we downed cup after cup of tea alongside a group of tiny smiling school boys, before moving on to find some where suitable. Finally, we let a tuk tuk driver take us to a place that was half decent and reasonably priced, where I spent a shamless half hour sitting under the hot water – my first hot water shower in what feels like forever.

Not that I’m complaining at all though; this place is beautiful and we had all the time in the world to just be here, seeing as we’d arrived here as the sun was rising.

The reason we’d come to Ooty was not only because it’s an incredibly beautiful and quaint little city, unlike other places in India, but also a personal one: Jake’s grandmother grew up and studied at a prestigious school in a small town called Lovedale, just 10km from Ooty city, and it was important we took the opportunity to visit.

We took a tuk tuk out to Lovedale and spent an hour and a half or so at the school. The staff there were unbelievable, they bought out huge hand-written record books that dated back to the 1800’s, and spent their time scouring the names of past students, trying to find Jake’s grandmother.
They were successful in finding her name, and were able to give insight into her history here at the school. We were greeted by the head of the school, deans and head-staff, and given a personal tour of the massive school grounds.
It was very special, and an experience no doubt Jake will hold dear to him forever.

Beautiful Building - 155 years old

Beautiful Building – 155 years old

The student record book, dating back to the 1800s

The student record book, dating back to the 1800s

A very special record

A very special record

 

We spent the next few hours exploring the town, which is set amongst hills and mist, colour and a sprawling main strip. We had another dodgy looking late-lunch at a local joint that tasted pretty decent, before heading back late afternoon to our hotel. In the evening we made a futile attempt to get some chai, but the FREEZING weather saw us quickly retreating back to our room.

Needless to say, today has been amazing and exhausting, and we look forward to tomorrow where we can more-fully appreciate this town with a fresh perspective and a good nights sleep behind us.

Ultra-Deluxe India – 04.08.2013

India sometimes keeps me awake for hours at night; her constant hustle and bustle means that often my mind is left racing to try and catch up with and comprehend the overload that is what my eyes have seen. When I finally drift to sleep at night, I’m frequently still thinking about the culture we’re currently immersed in, and my dreams float through scenes of people-packed bazaars and chaotic, colourful street scenes.

I felt unmotivated this morning; lethargic and in a not-so-interested-in-temples mood. We hauled our luggage down to the Trichy Junction Bus Station cloak room early in the morning, and paid 100 rupees for a half-naked man to store our only belongings, alongside his graying-underwear and once-white, sweat-stained shirt that was hung neatly from a wall hook. I prayed our bags would still be there when we returned in 12 hours time.

We found a chai vendor and filled our flask with sugary liquid; what has quickly become our morning routine here in India.

Brunch was a traditional South Indian banana leaf meal from some local joint, served, surprisingly, on a banana leaf. The eighty staff members (or there abouts) were keen to watch these two foreigners attempt to eat with their hands, and the majority of our meal was spent with many, many enquiring eyes studying our every mouthful. We questioned the level of safety in eating this food; it was a little cold and dodgy looking, so we quickly bought a coke after the meal, with the hope that the terrible chemicals in coke would kill any nasties before they had the opportunity to flourish and strike us down. Not sure how effective this method of avoiding Dehli-Belly is, but anything goes in this sort of hygienically challenged environment.

Because we were feeling really lazy today, and because we knew we had a long, 8 hour bus ride ahead of us this evening, we took a Tuk tuk to Trichy Old Town area and the main Bazaar.
We saw a very impressive church… and then proceeded to go shopping. Well, not so much shopping as simply walking through the Bazaar; a crowded, hectic, chaotic, overwhelming, polluted, noisy space full of people buying and selling, clothing, watches, baby clothing, sari material, plastic shit, cooking ware, fruit, shoes – always so many shoes… Amidst the normal human crush and pushy motorbike drivers honking their horns, it was so much to take in.

Flustered, frustrated, unable to find the places we wanted to get to, we left the bazaar in search of the Rock temple, which we did see from a distance, as it sat high above us – something like 400 steps above us. Laziness, feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, the extreme heat and the fact that non-hindus can’t go into the temples were combining factors in the decision not to climb the rock. We considered climbing it just for the view over Trichy, but it wasn’t that much of an argument since from the ground, Trichy looks like a sprawling mass of buildings set on mountains of dirt and red dust, littered with rubbish and crowded with people, cows, goats, dogs and traffic… and no doubt, also a big cloud of pollution. The stench of urine is really strong here too – although you can’t see it, I imagine it to be a big, yellow blanket of stinky invisible-ness. So, we passed on the climb and the view, and instead took a tuk tuk to another temple about 3km further away.

Hindu  temples are impressive with their large, towering entrances of colour and sculpture, statues and depictions… but it’s hard for us to appreciate them any further really, as we can’t comprehend the spiritual and religious traditions and meanings.

The temple was dark, damp, and full of people either sleeping, eating or begging, and the areas were piling up with rubbish. The stone carvings inside the temple were really quite impressive, but there was a temple elephant wondering near the grounds, with paint covering its face and chains on its feet, and I hate that with a passion; poor animal treatment masked under the name of religion is not something I’m impressed by. For me, this temple was nothing spectacular.

Moving on, we had to get out of the heat and sit down. It seems there is a lack of places to actually just sit, drink some chai and relax… we found a small eatery and had an ice cream, and proceeded to make a rough itinerary/plan for the rest of our trip in India… we were there for a while – a concept that obviously was strange for the locals – but we needed the break.

Finally, we decided to visit the biggest temple here in Trichy, that is also supposedly one of the biggest in India – we figured we should make the effort since we are only here once.

We walked there, and it was a nice stroll past children playing cricket, women in coloured saris carrying large parcels and items on their heads, goats sleeping on the road and cows munching on piles of rubbish.

At the entrance, we were stunned by so many people and such a towering, impressive entrance. People were everywhere.

Shops, market stalls, clothing, foods, chai… we walked the streets through what felt like a small enclosed city to the next main entrance and another impressive tower of colour and sculpture, but decided not to go any further in, again; we’re obviously not hindus and we respect that this is a place of worship.

Instead, we watched the people move around us; a couple of motorcyclists had an argument over who would go through a tiny entrance first, children played, and a massive crowd gathered around an eatery that was frying up delicious smelling food – we’ll try whatever they’re eating. A man helped Jake to order, and he was served a couple of green chilli/bell peppers fried in a spiced lentil four batter, and a couple of other fried lentil things. It was too much food, and we ended up giving some food to a couple of locals who were really appreciative. We never throw food away here; it’s always given to someone who needs it, and that simple act today showed us, again, how much we take for granted.

We caught a bus back to town as evening was falling – it was so interesting to see the bazaars packed to the walls with people, every different eatery cooking and preparing different foods, chai stalls crowded with people, and families out together. It’s fascinating, every time, to see India in action; night times are wonderful in this country – at least, in the small area we’ve seen. It’s as though India operates during the day, and lives at night.

We had dinner at a local place that was decent; we tried dosai which we will definitely be eating more often now; another Indian food to add to the ‘safe to eat/I-know-what-that-is’ list.

10pm and we picked our back packs up from the cloak room – they were still there, and so was half-naked man and his dirty underwear. Packs on, we walked through the station – very cleverly right past the massive stretch of urinals – as the thousands of staring eyes fell upon us – we’re starting to find this less unnerving and slightly easier to ignore.

We’d reserved an Ultra Deluxe Class, Air Conditioned bus ahead of our overnight journey and were secretly smug with our out-of-chatacter organisation!… but when we arrived, we were directed to a dilapidated and un-roadworthy looking vehicle, with peeling, faded-green paint, several large rusting sections, broken chairs and stuck windows. The air conditioning didn’t work, unless you count the very economical and eco-friendly open windows – which worked a treat for the duration of our journey – except when it rained.
We sat down, wondering when the ultra deluxe part of our journey would commence, then reminded ourselves to stop being such spoiled Westerners. The Indian music started blaring – the beginning of the sound track for our trip to Ooty – people began reclining their seats to uncomfortable levels, and the driver backed out of the madness that is the Trichy Junction bus stand.

Then the music and lights were turned off – the ultra deluxe part began – and silently, we rolled our way up and up and up to Ooty over a period of 8 hours.

At around 1am we stopped for a break: the lights were turned on and the driver screamed out something, of which I simply understood “chai” and “bat-roum.”  I was up.
All of a sudden all these sleeping bodies had risen, and we were all off the bus; I stood laughing at the hilarity of this nonsensical situation.
In the darkness, men dispersed in every angle to urinate freely (literally) whilst the women lined up to pay the toilet guy 3 rupees. Yes; at 2am there’s a guy sitting at a wooden table outside stench-embedded, urine smelling toilets, waiting for buses to arrive and for people to come and use the toilet…I won’t be complaining about my job again, ever.
Someone else (or maybe the same business-smart man?) obviously thought it would be a profitable idea to have a ripped music and DVD shop open for business at this time of night; therefore, nothing could be heard over the blasting speakers, which sat in the dusty open surrounds, filling the late-night air with loud, bad quality Indian music.
I stood in front of our bus and was overcome with laughter: as screeching treble filled my ears – along with much obligatory hocking and spitting – I stared in awe at the absolute dump of a vehicle that was being masked as a bus, titled at the front with some crooked, rusting letters spelling “U  RA D L X” (what would’ve once said Ultra Deluxe, before half of the letters fell off and it became not so ultra).
More to the point, on the side of this magnificent beast was some painted text, which titled this thing a “Highway Airline.” I was almost in tears at this point from laughing; I’ll blame it on exhaustion.

Still, here we were in the cool night air – Indian men doing double takes as they walked past this laughing white girl – traveling in true style on our bus Highway Airline to the hill country town of Ooty, 2240m above sea level. I’m not going to lie; it wasn’t the most comfortable 8 hours, but we loved every moment of it, and our dodgy Highway Airline too.

In the early hours of the morning, the bus speed slowed to accommodate for the hair-pin bends, curves and turn as we made our way through the hills and the sun began to rise. We watched, bleary eyed, as scenery rolled past our eyes like we had never before seen, and for a fleeting moment, we forgot we were in India.

French India – 02.08.2013

Bonjour from Pondy: a quirky city with a great deal of French influence, but a strong beating Indian pulse. Also, Happy Birthday to my gorgeous grandmother.

Today was spent exploring the city by foot, starting from the old French Quarter where we’re staying. We started our morning with masala chai, coffee, and free wifi, and made a ‘plan’ for sight-seeing today, working from our guidebook map. We headed towards the beach, along Gourbet Avenue, but didn’t get too far before we came across a shoe maker along side the road, crafting shoes on the floor of his tiny open shed/shop. Seeing as Jake has size 16 feet that are impossible to find shoes for and his thongs are already wearing through one month into our trip, we’d been on the look out for a shoe maker. 700 rupees ($12.50 AUD) for a pair of custom made, awesome looking leather sandals – ready the same day – how could we not order a pair each?!…

We continued walking along the coast line, looking out along the ocean. The sun was beating down today, but the walk was beautiful and there were several interesting sights, beautiful French architecture and some important monuments (including a statue of Ghandi) along the way to see. We visited a couple of Hindu temples, but the constant begging for us to buy crappy tack that we didn’t need (including creepy framed photos of a close up view of some old dude’s yellowing cataract eyes) meant we left pretty quickly. We went to visit the well known Sri Aurobindo Ashram here, but it was closed to visitors at that point, so we moved along.

We explored the town some more, visited a book shop, a couple of market stalls, explored the massive maze that is the Gourbet Market, and ended up at a vegetarian restaurant where we both ordered thali – a delicious banquet/feast that ended up being our breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The opening to the Gourbet Market

The opening to the Gourbet Market

Kitchen Goods

Kitchen Goods

Gourbet Market

Gourbet Market

The opening to the Gourbet Market

Gourbet Market

Excellent Sales Technique

Excellent Sales Technique

An example of why you shouldn't consume ice in India

An example of why you shouldn’t consume ice in India

Thali is an all-you-can-eat meal (don’t be put off by the dodgy association); traditionally served in several tiny steel bowls, within a larger steel platter. Our thalis came out with about 10 different curries, gravys, watery stocks packed with massive amounts of flavor, a large dried chilli, stock and oil, raita, a dish of sour curd, a little Indian sweet and some spiced, sweet rice. Massive amounts of rice are given, along with a flat bread and pappodams. And if all of this doesn’t make you full, staff are constantly coming around to top up the tiny steel dishes with more steaming [whatever is looking a bit empty]! All this for 150 rupee (under $3 AUD). I managed to get through about half of my thali, with no top ups. I have no idea how the locals can manage to top up two, three, four times before they’re finished…

Thali

Thali

After rolling out the door of the restaurant, we visited another book shop where I bought Eat, Pray, Love – how cliché – but, I’ve finished the obligatory must-read-if-travelling-to-India Shantaram, and missed having a book to read. That should keep me occupied on the five hour bus trip tomorrow!

We walked back along the beach towards our shoe maker, whose name I discovered is Prabu – for anyone who has read Shantaram – awww, Prabu!…  Prabu, along with his uncle, was in the process of putting the various pieces of our shoes together – the bases, the soles and the straps. Watching him and his family member craft our shoes with such patience and ease was a lovely experience, they bought us chai and chatted with us a bit; Prabu explained “I really happy in my job.”  They fitted our shoes several times to our feet, before finally gluing down the straps to fit us perfectly. Prabu’s tiny work space was filled with tools, glues, scraps, materials, shoe bases, photographs, shoes, books, and a beautiful antique-looking Singer sewing machine.

Smiling Shoe Makers

Smiling Shoe Makers

The end result!

The end result!

We took a tuk tuk later that evening to outside the city area, with the intention of booking a private bus for tomorrows five hour trip to Trichy on the advice of some locals – they explained since tomorrow is a Saturday, traveling by the local bus will involve “you not being freely or freeness.” However, the only private buses that run were firstly, only overnight buses, and secondly, really expensive. I guess we’ll take the ‘normal’ bus tomorrow and see how we manage: I hope we get some freeness.

Our short time here in Pondy was wonderful; it didn’t feel as though we were in India at times, and at other times we couldn’t have felt like we were anywhere else… I’m so glad we have had the opportunity to spend a tiny piece of our journey here.

Generous India – 01.08.2013

We can now mark our second dot on the Indian map – we’re in Puducherry (Pondicherry), but I’m just going to do as the locals do and call it Pondy. It’s easier and it sounds cuter.

We planned to take the bus early this morning from Chennai to Pondy, in order to spend all afternoon exploring, stay just one night here, and then move on to our next destination late tomorrow afternoon… But like I said, that was simply the plan, and travel is no fun if you stick to a plan.

Waking late, we fluffed about, re-packed our backpacks – which we had managed to sprawl over the entire of our tiny room in the three days we were there in Chennai, and filled our canister with chai.
Checking out, the guest house staff told us how we could save a whole hour of travel if we most simply walked 5 minutes to the train station near by, took a train 15 minutes South, and then got down and got a bus to Pondy…So most simple, so quick, cheaper, and so much more convenient sounding…

Firstly, the walk was not 5 minutes and was not most simple either; it was like 30 minutes of walking in the relentless heat and pollution with 20kg on our backs through hectic traffic and hoards of people, past touters galore, and over the bodies of the sleeping homeless.
We finally then arrived at an empty – I repeat – EMPTY – train station… EMPTY! In Chennai! It was scary. We bought a ticket to a train station we didn’t know how to pronounce, with no idea where the platform was, where to go from the station, or how to get to Pondy…Things weren’t feeling that most simple any more…

And then a young man (whose name is Sreeram) walked by us, and was kind enough to show us how to get to the platform, which was ‘hiding’ upstairs. We chatted a bit, and it ended up we were both getting down at the same station, so thankfully he said he’d show us where to go; turns out, knowing which station the train was currently in was really difficult, as the large signs were only in either Hindi or Tamil, with tiny English translations underneath. We spent the duration of the train trip talking, and when we got to the station that we needed to be at, he explained that it was a 20 or so minute walk from the station to the bus stand to catch a bus to Pondy – a walk we soon realised would’ve been very hard for us to navigate on our own. “Get down from train and catch bus to Pondy” wern’t exactly detailed, accurate or most simple directions, Mr. Guest House man!

Sreeram was so generous, he hailed a ‘Rick’ (a rickshaw) – as he called them – and tried to barter with the driver to give us the local price (which should’ve been around 25 rupees). The driver refused anything less than 50 – because of our bags apparently – but it didn’t matter. Sreeram hopped in the seat next to the driver and the drivers friend, so there was three in the front, Jake and I in the back, along with our two bulging backpacks. Sreeram told us “Now you’re getting a real ride in India.” He said the tuk tuk driver would drop us where we needed to go, and that he was going to go a little further to a restaurant he loves here; turns out the food there was the whole reason he was travelling to this area on the outskirts of Chennai. Since it was lunch time, we asked if we could join and he was delighted.

He paid for the tuk tuk, much to our protests and explained we are his guests. At the restaurant, he ordered for us both the local specialty, and we had a wonderful time talking and learning a little more about India, and him and his family.
At the end of the meal, he refused to let us pay, again saying we were his guests – he was really so very generous, we felt really humbled.
Finally, he walked us to the ‘bus stop’ (just a stretch of road much like every other stretch of road) and hailed a bus for us when one quickly drove by.
Our goodbye was quick, but we hope Sreeram knows how appreciative we were of everything he did for us today; without his assistance, we would’ve been very, very lost.

The bus to Pondy was really very civilized! It was full, but not packed, the chairs were comfortable and they reclined, there was no blaring music, the driver drove at a very comfortable speed, and we even had a rest stop break! Very different from what we’d expected!

We arrived in to Pondy late afternoon, around 5pm, and managed to find a decent guest house in the old French Quarter. We booked for two nights here instead of the one we had planned – we got caught up today with other such fun.

The sky blackened quickly and it rained heavily for a little while, so we didn’t venture out until late evening, but it didn’t matter – like Chennai, this place doesn’t sleep early.
The shops and streets were buzzing, and certain areas were blocked off to three and four wheelers (although those vehicles didn’t seem to want to obey the laws and crammed the streets anyway). People were selling, buying, shopping, eating, drinking – it was as hectic as Chennai had been, but it doesn’t really phase us now; already we’ve adjusted to the madness of every day life here in India.

Walking the French influenced, but very hectic Indian streets, we looked through shops and market stalls before heading back late, preparing for a day of exploring tomorrow. It’s been a great, inspiring day; one we will absolutely remember for the rest of our trip, thanks to one very generous stranger.