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.

 

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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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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.

Photo, Photo India

Our first full day in India. It’s amazing how quickly we are adapting to such a new and different place and culture – already things seem less hectic than yesterday when we first arrived. We wonder what it would’ve been like for us if we hadn’t had Sri Lanka to ‘warm us up’ to the hustle and bustle of India.

A rest stop

A rest stop

Incredible architecture

Incredible architecture

We spent today exploring and trying to adjust ourselves; trying to navigate our way around a tiny section of this massive city. We walked the streets to just look, people watch, and try and gain a little bit of insight into this extraordinary culture.

A quiet stretch of street

A quiet stretch of street

It was wonderful to have no specific sightseeing agenda – rather, we just walked. Within the first hour of exploring, we’d been asked by four locals to take a “photo, photo” of them, using our camera. At first we were suspicious – in Sri Lanka the locals had done this in order to get tourists to pay them money. However, it became clear quite quickly that the payment they wanted was simply the opportunity to see themselves on the digital screen. I’m not sure how it is in other parts of the country, but at least here, today, that’s how it was.

Workin' it

Workin’ it

This guy wanted a photo too...

This guy loved the camera

We found a local shopping mall – Spencer Plaza – which was an interesting experience; if you imagine a bazaar with sprawling shops and little alleyways, street food stalls and touters all contained within a building, that’s a better depiction. I ended up buying a few pieces of Indian style clothing with beautiful colours and patterns; our first full day here, and I’m already shopping.

A sugar cane juice vendor

A sugar cane juice vendor

We ate lunch at an Indian vegetarian restaurant that served up incredible meals. The place was full of locals, and Jake ordered “what they’re having” – a set lunch that came out on two enormous silver platters; one dish held four watery curries and poppadoms, the other dish held 10 beautiful varieties of curries, with a savory pancake and noodle-style pancakes (the best way I can describe them) in the centre of the dish. Staff walked around with a massive bowl of rice, and continually piled more fresh white rice into people’s dishes, and the curry is never ending if you wish so. We watched as locals rhythmically mixed their rice and curries between their fingers, pouring the watery curries onto the rice and then adding generous amounts of the other thicker curries to the mix. The locals eat A LOT, it seems:  we watched as they ‘re-filled’ their rice three or four times each, as well as their curry dishes when they ran out.

Just a small part of a very large meal...

Just a small part of a very large meal…

Funniest moment of the day: when taking photographs of a wild street scene, I turned around to see the face of an Indian man with a colourfully painted forehead, smiling a HUGE white toothed smile at me and my camera – he’d been fascinated by the screen and come in for a closer look. Literally an inch or two from my face, he scared the shit out of me! I squealed, and he was delighted.

Another day...

Another day…

Our evening was spent again wondering the area near-by to our guest house, taking in the sights, sounds and smells that are so foreign to us, yet strangely familiar.

Adjusting...

Adjusting…

Stepping over the bodies of sleeping people, around stray dogs and through the small gaps between parked motor bikes, we dodged the traffic as we madly tried to cross the roads. We passed the same sprawl of textile and homeware shops, street food vendors and chai makers, flower garland weavers and men busy working at their sewing machines, through scaffolding and busy streets, past smiling faces and staring eyes. We watched as food was tossed high into the air from boiling woks, and as our naan was prepared in a tandoori oven, before being wrapped up in butchers paper and tied with string. Children asked us to take their “photo, photo” and were overjoyed at the opportunity to see themselves on a digital screen.

Smiley

Smiley

Again, we had to watch our every step and movement to ensure we didn’t get hit by moving traffic, or step somewhere we shouldn’t, but it was easier – it’s getting easier – to manage.

We didn’t venture much further than yesterday this evening – but we didn’t have to – there’s no need. I think we could walk the same area night after night after night, and every time we’d see something new, meet someone new, or discover a laneway we hadn’t before noticed… The thing about this place, it seems, is that there is just always so much happening – so much to see and take in.

YUM!

YUM!

We found a “home ware shop” – a tiny space between two buildings – and bought a metal chai canister. We don’t like contributing to the already horrendous rubbish situation, and with the amount of chai we suspect we will be drinking in the next three months, the 48 rupee investment in a metal, re-useable tea canister is a much more environmentally friendly option than the hundreds of little white paper cups. (Well it will be once I’ve washed and scrubbed it to within an inch of its life.)

The food is all so tempting to eat; the Indian sweets are so bright and colourful, the smells are aromatic and we watch as people effortlessly add more and more spice to whatever they’re cooking. It all looks – and is – so new and foreign, we wouldn’t know what to choose! Jake had read that Chennai, and the South of India, is known for its fabulous ‘Kebabs’; he was keen to try one but… we’re just not sure yet what we can trust, and what our western stomachs can handle.

We ended the night with two cups of chai – each – a perfect way to finish off what has been an enthralling, entertaining and insightful day in India.