Highlight of Southern India: Hampi Best thing about Kerala/Tamil Nadu: the warmth of the people Biggest frustration: not being able to order plainly cooked food Biggest bugbear: the ineffectiveness of local laundry services – the kids are looking more and more like street children New skill acquired: eating very spicy food Family 'broken sunglasses' tally: 12 Food I am now sick of: basmati rice Activity I miss the most: going for a run
3 SMALL KIDS, 2 CRAZY ADULTS, 1 YEAR TO TRAVEL THE WORLD
POST 14: 27th April 2017, Goa, India.
So after four months of a gorgeously tropical but nonetheless predictable daily routine in Bali, we got back on the adventure train, renewed and 're-birthed' (in true Ubud fashion), and flew to Kochi in Kerala. With nothing but a four-night booking in a homestay and no idea where to go next, we prepped ourselves for a culture shock.
Photo caption: Asian fruit stalls are always so much nicer to look at than the ones at home (top left); street vendors on the sea-front promenade. Selling food. Of course (top right); chilling out in the cool, breezy park (bottom left); Kochi's sea-front promenade (bottom right).
I have travelled to India five times in my youth (to Delhi, Ranthambore, Jodhpur and Jaipur in the north, as well as to Mumbai and Hyderabad in the middle) but never to its southern states. And during each of these trips I enjoyed the cosseting that comes with being either a wedding guest or an ambassador for a global brand (the uber-luxurious Amanresorts or ABN AMRO bank). So visiting again almost exactly nine years later to the day, this time with three kids under seven in tow and no security blanket to ease our potential pain, made me pretty apprehensive.
Photo caption: living in India in Victorian times wasn't easy despite what we might think. A quick visit to the largest church in Ooty confirmed this with lots of plaques for women and men in their 20s and early 30s who had died of fever. This particular lady had already had 7 children by the time she was 30. Ouch (top left); always waiting for food (top right); buffalo road block (bottom left); personalised trucks (bottom right).
And yet the first thing that struck us about Keralan life was just how easy it was. Everyone spoke English! Signs were readable! Streets and restaurants were clean and tidy! And, to the kids’ delight, there was finally a whole range of breads on offer instead of just the usual rice suspects. Here, unlike Bali, there were no stray animals to be wary of nor beggars to hound us. The regional government seems to run a very tight ship: no-one has more than two children (as advised), there is no prostitution, all strays are sterilised and the population is 100% educated (hence the lack of begging).
Kochi was a haven of quiet and calm compared to a typical north Indian city - almost Mediterranean in its outlook. Shopkeepers were super honest and the locals went out of their way to make sure we were happy. For example, when going ‘off menu’ and trying to order some plain, ‘green’ vegetables instead of the usual potato, carrot and cauliflower mix, instead of telling me that this wasn't available, the enterprising young waiter hopped on his scooter and went to buy me some from the local market. On his return, he then explained to his chef how to make them into a Thai 'green' curry. By the time I had realised how lost in translation my request had become, I was too embarrassed to say anything. It was delicious!
Photo caption: Jew town - which surrounds the oldest active synagogue in the Commonwealth (top left & bottom right); excerpts from a book - I never did find out which but I did get quite hooked - that are found on walls dotted all around Kochi - I never did find out why (top right); incense shop (bottom left).
So having left India until the last leg of our trip because I was worried it would be too much of a culture and hygiene shock for the kids any time before then, Southern India in fact turned out to be one of the easiest places to travel around. Hiring a driver to take us (and our mountain of luggage) from Kochi to our final destination in Goa definitely helped. But even our tentative foray into public transport was made memorable by the welcoming nature of our fellow train passengers, their generosity with their food and the spontaneous entertainment provided by our female conductor who kept bursting into song.
Photo caption: Alleppey backwater cruise: Captain Raphael (top left); local houses (top right & bottom left); a typical Keralan house boat (bottom right).
After three days spent exploring Kochi and one sailing the backwaters of Alleppey (slightly underwhelming), we set off on a road trip towards Goa. It took 15 days, with stops in the hill station of Udhagamandalamhere (for some countryside), Mysore (for some city) and Hampi (for some temples).
Check out our progress here!
India is LARGE and most roads are either in bad condition, mere dust tracks or too narrow to drive along at a decent speed. Thus getting from one place to another usually took at least 8 hours of pure misbehaving torture from the kids and lots of screaming from us. So by the time we got to Goa, our proud driver, Greesh (who announced that driving for 16 hours straight is mere peanuts for a Keralan), was well and truly initiated into the worst aspects of our family dynamic. Thankfully, he seemed to take it in his stride. (Indians are pretty relaxed).
Photo caption: long distance driving with kids sorely tests your patience. Having exhausted all possible entertainment options at this stage, I am pictured here (above bottom) resorting to a family air-guitar competition. We would try to leave around 8.30 in the morning to get to our next destination at around 6pm. Our one allocated pit-stop would be at a road side cafe (example above top) which, despite looking very grotty from the outside, usually produced amazing food. We even inadvertently once ate a plate of crudites (more lost-in-translation ordering) with no adverse effects. Word of advice: always travel with your own bar of soap (some restaurants have water but not all have soap) and never look at where they wash up. This alone will make you ill.
Udhagamandalamhere was our first proper stop after a very picturesque but uncomfortable journey on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway. Not surprisingly, this town is more popularly known as Ooty, or 'Snooty Ooty', after the colonials that used to summer here. We stayed in the perfect, period, Rudyard Kipling-esque Lymond House with only three bedrooms, a lounge with a working fireplace and to complete the picture, a beautiful vintage car parked out front.
Photo caption: Lymond house in Ooty (top & bottom left); me wearing all of my warmest clothes at once when temperatures dropped to 9 degrees inside at night (bottom right). Never can I be accused of showing only my best sides.
But at a whopping 2,300 metres above sea level, Ooty’s description as a 'hill station' is slightly misleading and the fireplace was put to good daily use when temperatures dropped to a chilly 9 degrees in the evening. (To put this into context, the Alpine ski resort of Meribel is located at only 1,400m asl and the highest inhabited town in the Alps is at 2,100m.) The altitude meant we got seriously chapped lips and two days of splitting headaches but on the plus side, I hardly saw the kids when we were in the hotel as they were so happy to have a huge wrap-around garden and swing to themselves in which they could play all day in less than scorching temperatures for once.
Photo caption: Scenes from our five hour journey on the 'toy train' from Mettupalayam to Ooty. Our carriage for 6 which took 11 of us (top left); a hilltop train station (top right); mountain vistas (bottom left); pee break (bottom right).
Here, we continued to encounter warm, friendly and accommodating people. One in particular went the extra mile by arranging the return of Xanthe’s beloved toy rabbit (without whom she has never slept), who had been left a two-hour drive away in our former hotel. It still makes me smile to think of the solo adventure he must have undertaken to be reunited with us - a trip to the bus station from the hotel, a two-hour plus ride on the bus to Ooty (accompanied by whom?) and then a lift from the station up to the hotel. And the cost of his return by “courier escort” which took less than half a day to get to us? A whopping 60p!
Photo caption: the queue at Ooty station when we arrived (top left); the locomotive was at the back of the train rather than at the front and pushed the carriages up the mountain (top right); lush vistas of verdant tea plantations and mountain springs (bottom left); SQUASHED! (bottom right).
In contrast, I didn’t love our self-catering 'coconut grove' accommodation in Mysore. Never trust a venue on Airbnb that doesn’t show a picture of the bedroom (they have added them since). The city itself however was definitely as grand as it is hyped to be: huge, wide boulevards, immense public office buildings and large, leafy town squares. I loved the almost fairy-tale architectural blend of colonial Victorian and Mugal styles in which these imposing public buildings were built. The jewel(s) in the crown were the former maharaja’s palace and the separate palace (now a luxury hotel) he had built exclusively for his guests, replete with essential helipad. (Because one soon finds that just the one palace simply isn’t roomy enough to accommodate one’s guests.)
Photo caption: Mysore's Devaraja market - the stalls extend far beyond those inside the building (top left); Mysore Palace (top right); the view from the top of Chamundi Hill, 1001 steps high! (bottom left); some of the wares on offer in Devaraja market (bottom right)
As is so often the case, the highlights of our stay were not so much the sights but the experiences we had whilst there: an early taste of monsoon season with an evening rain storm of such epic, scary proportions that it definitely would have been described as a hurricane in the UK (another reason not to stay in amongst a coconut grove); receiving a family blessing at the Chamundeshwari temple (Chamunda - the "fearsome aspect of the Divine Mother" - has been the patron goddess of the city of Mysore ever since she slayed the demon that was threatening its destruction); buying oils from a 12 year old wheeler-and-dealer at the incredible Devaraja market; and my Ayurvedic massage which has to be the most unusual treatment I have ever received.
Photo caption: having received a red bindi from inside the temple (symbolising divine sight), we each received a physical blessing from the goddess Chamunda in the form of a wrist band, tied several times in an intricate fashion as the holy man recited a mantra (top left); a cow on a busy Mysore street (top right); drinking fresh sugar cane juice (bottom left); buying essential oils - geranium and jasmine - inside Devaraja market (bottom right)
It started innocuously enough with a Hindu prayer, after which came a foot scrub administered by one masseuse, during which warm oil was poured into my ears to clean them and then all over my hair and scalp to moisturise them, by another. They then joined forces to administer a vigorous, four-handed “synchronised” (their speciality) massage, which covered very nearly every single inch of my body. (The Indians may seem prudish in daily life but when it comes to wellness, not at all.) It ended with a steam in a Victorian-looking wooden contraption into which you had to climb in order to sit on what looked like a church pew. The lid of this box then closed around your neck to leave only your head exposed whilst you were slowly cooked. I had to ask them to turn it down twice. Afterwards, I was given two mystery tablets to take with my supper in order to “cleanse” my gut (where the toxins amalgamate after an Ayurvedic treatment).
Photo caption: some of Hampi's amazing monuments including a stone chariot (bottom left).
I was also blown away, in a different way, by our final destination of Hampi. Not knowing beforehand that it was a UNESCO World Heritage Site, nor anything else about it for that matter, we were amazed to find that it is only a tiny village located actually in amongst the ruins themselves.
The site is remarkable not only because most of its historic buildings are so well-restored but also because of the unusual geographical landscape in which it is located: towering temples and majestic palaces rise up out of a palm tree-dotted, desert-like terrain that is broken up by piles of vast boulders, seemingly strewn in every direction. And yet unlike so many other globally-renowned architectural sites, this one was almost deserted! All of which made exploring so magical – you could really feel the ancient energy of the place, despite the daily, 41-degree heat.
Photo caption: temple detail (top left); a pregnant monkey stealing the contents of our bin - I'd filled it with rotten figs: with no fridge nor air con and 41 degree heat, none of our fruit collection survived. She had a feast (top right); river view - where Lakshmi the elephant took her daily morning bath - we never did manage to catch her on time (bottom left); Hampi temple (bottom right)
Even more amazing was the fact that a two-day, Hindu festival was planned during our stay. We had no idea what this would entail but as it coincided this year with the full moon, it drew hoards of Indian pilgrims from villages far and wide, who either walked for miles carrying their luggage on their head or came by tractor load to witness it. And just as their ancestors would have done before them many centuries ago, they set up temporary homes in, on and under the temples, using them to hang their washing on, to set up shop in or to aid in the display of their wares.
Photo caption: Hampi temple (top left); joining the throngs of pilgrims (top right); bathing in the river to cleanse before the full moon/festival (bottom left); locals squatting in the temples (bottom right).
Indeed, from one day to the next, a little auxiliary town seemed to spring up out of nowhere to accommodate the visitors: shops selling all sorts of clothes, toys, religious paraphernalia, fruit and of course, Indian sweets. There were skills on offer too: hair shavers (it is auspicious to shave your head before being cleansed in the river prior to the festival), shoe shiners, pop-up eateries and even a lone entrepreneur with his mobile, bright blue set of bathroom scales.
As in Myanmar, we discovered that being white with three small kids - two of which are blonde - made us just as much a draw as the festivities themselves. I was constantly being asked if all three were mine (?) and we were never without our little band of followers. These would either just stare at us or try to touch one of the children - I think they thought it brought good luck. Given the number of ‘selfies’ we posed for, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the kids are the new Asian Facebook sensation.
Photo caption: Lakshmi the elephant dispensing blessings in the crowd (top left); dancing transvestites accompanied by male drummers and male dancers carrying huge metal poles covered in bells which they threw up and down - heavy duty work! (top right); the crowds waiting for the festival to start - every available roof top was used - even if it was thousands of years old! (bottom left); the chariot moving towards and past us to great cheering (bottom right)
Indians do not do things by halves and the festival itself was a proper extravaganza! The spectacle included a towering, decorated, wooden chariot - the centrepiece and focus of the ceremony as it was dragged by hand from one end of the town to the other - a holy elephant collecting cash and dispensing blessings as it wandered amongst the crowd, flying bananas tied up with bougainvillea (the auspicious aim was to throw them actually into the moving chariot), dancing transvestites, flaming torches, hypnotic drumming and an ecstatic, cheering crowd of thousands.
Photo caption: one of the "golam" drawn in rice flour powder found in front of villager's houses on the festival day. The floor underneath has been died green with cow dung paste, prized for its anti-bacterial and mood-enhancing properties! (top left); enjoying street food (top right); Hampi temple (bottom left); sweetie heaven! (bottom right)
And all this merry making without a drop of alcohol (it is banned in Hampi for religious reasons) or any other form of drug. Which actually made a big difference to the overall vibe. Despite having three small kids and constantly being surrounded by huge crowds, I never once felt unsafe. Indeed, I felt the safest and most welcome I have ever felt at a festival! Everyone was there to have a good time, and I must have heard the phrase "this is true Indian culture" from those around me at least 5 times. Since we were off to Goa the next day to start the next 12 week chapter of our stay in this incredible country, I took this as a good sign...
To see where we are on a map, click here!
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