Tag Archives: travel

India Pt 9: A last lap to Fort Kochi and home

14 Mar
Kathakali in Kochi.

Kathakali in Kochi.

From the stage, a brightly dressed character slathered in canary yellow facepaint rolled his eyes from side to side, then up and down, before bugging them out and causing fits of laughter amongst the audience.

Between my giggles, I turned to the boy and saw awe and confusion writ large on his face. ‘What a strange end to our trip to India,’ I thought to myself.

The brightly painted man was part of a Kathakali troupe, a famous style of theatre which has been going on in Kerala since the 17th century. The actors onstage – who spend years training – use dramatic hand and eye movements to communicate the stories while a sharp-voiced singer keeps the chorus and drum beat going behind them. It was fabulously strange but also mesmerising.

Famous Chinese fishing nets in Kochi.

Famous Chinese fishing nets in Kochi.

It was our last night in India and the boy and I were exhausted. After leaving the luxury of Vaamika Island, we took a speedboat and taxi to our final hotel in Fort Kochi, the city we were due to fly from the following morning.

After a day wandering the dusty streets of the former Portuguese and Dutch town, taking in the crumbling colonial remnants such as St Francis Church (where explorer Vasco da Gama was once buried), the boy and I were officially ready to head back to our damp cool English home. A month on the road had officially taken its toll.

But knowing it was our last night, we also wanted to experience a few final bits of India and a Kathakali performance was one that had been recommended by many books and sites we’d researched.

Makeup in progress.

Makeup in progress.

We arrived in the hot theatre just in time to see the final stages of make-up being applied to each of the actors – a process which can take up to an hour for each show. The audience was then treated to an explanation in English of what the various moves meant – from a flick of the hand to an accentuated eye roll, Kathakali is one of the most expressive things I’ve ever witnessed.

Then, for 30 minutes we watched a few scenes from a story written by king Karthika Thirunal in the 18th century which focuses on the battle between Narakasura (a demon king) and Lord Krishna. A normal Kathakali play would be many hours long, so the shortened version gave us only an oversight but was fascinating the whole while.

An intense battle.

An intense battle.

Leaving the playhouse befuddled at what we had just seen, the boy and I proceeded to Malabar Junction in the top-end Malabar House Hotel to treat ourselves to a special final meal. Earlier in the day, we’d eaten at the fabulous Dal Roti (whose owner is slightly hyperactive and very friendly) so, ironically, we decided to skip a last traditional Indian meal and indulge in a more ‘modern’ choice – odd, I’m sure to hear given these were our last hours in India but after so many Indian meals, our limits were topped out.

The setting at Malabar House was beautiful – a classical music troupe entertained guests spread around an open courtyard and into the swish dining room, while tables were abuzz with the chatter of well-to-do locals out for a night of food and fun.

A final shot - looking much browner than we would a few months later.

A final shot – looking much browner than we would a few months later.

Over our final glass of wine and meal, we reflected on our time in India – from the highs to the very low, lows. It was a beautiful country but it was most definitely challenging and tiring.

We would leave India the next morning with the desire to sleep and recuperate for a week. And while the difficult moments stood out at the time in our minds, these few months later it is much easier to recall all those other times filled with pleasure, something I hope to do for many years to come.

India Pt 8: Into the land of luxury

7 Mar
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The outdoor pool at Marari Beach Resort

After our experiences in Alleppey and Kollam, I had given up slightly on finding peace and relaxation in Kerala again. When finally we found a place to lay our heads after our less than enjoyable day of canoeing around the backwaters, we were exhausted and even a cold beer did little to assuage that.

But as a new day dawned, I confess a bit of excitement was creeping in – we were off to one of the top resorts in the region for a hotel review I was doing and had two more to experience after it for pieces which will appear soon on The Arbuturian.

Now, I know it sounds terrible – after all, we were there to experience ‘proper’ India, not ‘posh’ India – but the desire to drink a cold drink without fear of poisoning myself on dirty ice cubes and the hope of using a public loo that was clean had overtaken my best efforts to find beauty in the chaos.

A welcoming arrival awaited us in our cottage.

A welcoming arrival awaited us in our cottage.

The boy and I left behind our backwater hotel (the quite nice but very buggy Palm Grove Lake Resort) in a tuk-tuk, to head thirty minutes north to the exclusive Marari Beach Resort. In retrospect, arriving at a gated hotel in a tuk-tuk is not the most logical of transport methods (we were asked four times by the guard if we were sure we were in the right place) but little could bring us down: paradise was close enough to taste.

A stunning butterfly in the gardens.

A stunning butterfly in the gardens.

With access to a white-sand beach and a large outdoor pool, the eco-Marari Beach Resort is all about keeping in tune with the environment. An organic garden supplies much of the produce for the kitchens while an on-site bio-gas plant recycles kitchen waste into energy to run the electricity. Goats and small cows roam the lawn to keep the land trim and a butterfly garden promotes conservation of rare species. Local school children are invited in to be taught about conservation as well.

The perfect lawn mower.

The perfect lawn mower.

After checking into our thatched-roof cottage and washing off days of dirt in our beautiful outdoor shower, the boy and I headed to the crystalline swimming pool to finally relax into the swing of life that the more privileged class lead. Relaxation, it seemed, is possible in Kerala – you just might have to pay for it. Finally we felt like were were on vacation.

The next day, we departed the seaside to head to the nearby Kumarakom Lake Resort, which sits on the edge of the expansive Vembanad Lake. Voted the top hotel in India in the World Travel Awards last year, the Kumarakom took luxury to a new level. Feeling slightly like trespassers with our big backpacks, the boy and I were awed as we accepted flower wreathed coconuts and leis on arrival, and saw the expansive green grounds and shimmering lake. After a day laying by our private pool, we took a boat trip around the lake to watch the sunset (something offered daily to guests) and shared a bottle of wine over a wonderful seafood dinner. It was – it seemed – becoming a lifestyle that the boy and I could adjust to.

The lake at Kumarakom.

The lake at Kumarakom.

After what felt like far too short a time span, we were off once again to head further north to the final review hotel – Vaamika Island Resort. I’d not heard much about this hotel beforehand so neither of us was sure what to expect. Unfortunately, we came into contact with a taxi strike, meaning the trip was doubled in length (and meant we had to go via Alleppey again) as our driver went all the way around the south side of the lake to avoid running into any of his colleagues who he knew would block his way since he was not on the picket line.

A tense, long and hot cab ride ensued but it was all worth it when we arrived at a dock to find a leather-lined Sun-Ray speedboat waiting to pick us up.

Sunset over the backwaters at Vaamika.

Sunset at Vaamika.

Vaamika Island Resort is situated on a private island in the backwaters near Kochi and was built by a slightly eccentric German named Klaus Schleusener who spent much of his working life teaching at universities in India. He sold the island to developers in 2011 and the company was in the midst of building more cottages during our stay.

Upon stepping off the speed boat, we were led to the largest villa I have ever seen – complete with private pool looking out to the lake, large patio and incredible carved wooden features. After dropping off our bags, we were handed a mobile phone. Confused, I asked what it was for. “That is for your private butler Nibin who will be looking after all of your needs.” To say it was all surreal is an underestimation.

The view from the pool at Vaamika.

The view from the pool at Vaamika.

Our next two days were spent lounging by the pool, ringing Nibin for beers and eating copious amounts of food (at least 10 dishes every meal) on our patio. It was a world unknown to the boy and I, and we were slightly perplexed by the idea that people can choose to live like this as a normal choice on vacation.

Ash pots in the museum on Vaamika Island.

Ash pots in the museum on Vaamika Island.

Interestingly, the island also features a private museum, which includes a collection of Kaavada (pronounced: cowardi) – stone or wood carved rectangular blocks that are worn on the shoulders of people taking pilgrimage (most often) to the Palani temple in Tamil Nadu. Pilgrims dance with these on their shoulders while making prayers to Hindu god Lord Subramanya. The collection also includes ash pots used for burying relatives’ remains, with some being 500 years old. Former-owner Klaus collected them all over the years, although he has never made a fuss about it and few art collectors/art historians even know it exists.

We finally had to depart the island for our final night in Kochi before our flight home to London. But it was with lead-heavy legs that we dragged ourselves away from it, knowing we’d be unlikely to experience these levels of luxury anytime soon.

And so, after four days of rest, the sheen of Kerala had returned. And while the relaxation was needed at the time, it is true the boy and I now talk about the hilariously unenjoyable times experienced in Alleppey and Kollam as much as the stunning beauty of these hotels. A bit of both, I suppose, can’t hurt during one’s travels.

In the final part, the boy and I wander the dusty streets of Kochi, take in a bizarre Kathakali performance and say goodbye to India.

India Pt 7: The murky backwaters of Kerala

19 Feb
A kettavullum - what I wanted to take on the backwaters.

A kettavullum – what I wanted to take on the backwaters.

“You’ll be so relaxed in Kerala!” said friends. “You’ll love it, it’s the most relaxing place ever!” said others.

That was just what the boy and I were hoping to hear as we’d booked Kerala to be the last port of call during out travels around India. We couldn’t wait to let the chilled out times take over. And that, luckily, was what we experienced during our first four days in Varkala – beauty, sunshine, heat, friendliness and just pure paradise.

But our relaxing times were not, as we learned, to continue. Instead, I found myself crying into a plate of soggy pasta, ruing our decision to leave Varkala’s shining shores. But more on that later.

You see, I’d had it in my head for months when planning the trip that we would take a Kettuvallam around the backwaters of Kerala. It was the one thing I’d been looking forward to most for the final part of our trip.

You see, a Kettuvallam is a traditional, large Keralan style houseboat with thatched roof and large deck for watching the day go by as you drift up the backwaters, which make up a huge area of the central part of this south western state. It sounded like just the thing to enjoy a day on and I’d built it up so much in my head that I couldn’t wait to leave Varkala (as much as we were in love with it) so that we could go and find one to rent.

I’d done a lot of research ahead of time and found that most guidebooks recommend showing up the day before you want to take a boat and negotiating with the agencies directly. So, we packed our bags, treated ourselves to a taxi journey from Varkala to Kollam and got ourselves dropped directly at the front door of the “highly recommended” District Tourism Promotion Council office, which was supposedly the best place to get a good deal.Lon

Unfortunately, our conversation with the tourism office did not go so well. It went more like this:

“Yes, we have a boat that you can take to Alleppey. It will include your captain, food, water and overnight stay.”

“Perfect – and how much would that be?”

“16,000 rupees.”

“How much?”

“16,000 rupees.”

“You mean, £200? Seriously? No, we’ve done our research and it’s definitely supposed to be around 8,000 rupees.”

This exchange continued for a while until I called them thieves and stormed out. The boy was not, I might add, impressed with my negotiating skills.

The next two hours proceeded to be similar in their frustrations, only we were carrying our heavy backpacks with us too to make things even more awkward. After trying our best, what cropped up was one of those spaces of time that, when you travel, almost inevitably crop up, the “I just want to be in my house where it’s clean and in my city where people are nice” kind of breakdowns. This led to the aforementioned crying into my noodles.

A Keralan bus (photo care of: learn-malayalam.com)

A Keralan bus (photo care of: learn-malayalam.com)

So, we decided we’d cut our losses in Kollam and find a way out of the town sharpish. Our only option was a bus. Which, by the way, turned out to be the best part of our transport travels in India.

You see, buses are large – very large. And ramshackle. And the drivers of these buses seem to have no care for the other vehicles on the road – being the largest things, they can zoom straight up the middle of the highway with no fear of anyone getting in their way. Which is exactly how our driver acted for the two hours we were in his company.

As we plowed our way up the highway, watching smaller trucks and cars swish past the holes in the bus where windows normally would be the boy and I couldn’t help but laugh, especially as everyone looked at us in puzzled form since we were the only foreigners in their midst. It was well worth the £1.50 we paid.

And so after two hours of chaotic driving we arrived into Alleppey. There we headed for what our guidebook suggested was a great little cheap hotel (the Palmy Residency, which people on TripAdvisor also seem to love) to bed down in. Cheap it was. Great it wasn’t. When I tried to explain that for our £5 we were going to need sheets that didn’t have blood on them and the man looked at us like we were demanding, I knew we weren’t going to be in for a good stay. But, we’d already lugged our backpacks down many a dirt road to get there and we couldn’t be bothered with looking elsewhere – so long as he changed the sheets (which he did).

We headed out pronto to try and find another houseboat carrier that would take us the next day. You see, there are dozens of Kettuvallam companies in Alleppey – far more than in Kollam – so we thought we had a good chance of negotiating.

Unfortunately, it was not to be our day. After speaking to a dozen agencies up and down the main drag, they all wanted to do their best to rip us off. We eventually settled on doing a backwater canal day trip on a smaller, hand rowed boat with Antony’s Tours and Travels and I let go of my dream of taking a Kettuvallam for good.

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By the time we’d worked our way through all the agencies, almost all the restaurants were closed. I’d only eaten a few bites of soggy noodles so was starving but despite the boy’s and my best efforts, a restaurant was not to be found. So, we settled on bags of crisps. Yep, that’s how desperate things got. And what’s worse? The fan in our musty room was barely working when we got back.

As we sat down on the bed in our pants, sweating and exhausted, eating crisps and drinking lukewarm beer, I luckily still managed to chuckle. As the boy put it: “At least you always tend to remember these types of moments and we can laugh about it later.”

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The next morning, things seemed to be looking up. The sun was bright and we arrived at Antony’s Tours and Travels with fresh hopes for the new day. But, once more, Alleppey disappointed.

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We’d been promised a great backwater tour with loads of journeys down little canals that the massive Kettuvallams couldn’t get to. What we actually got was one trip down one little canal to get dropped off on the bank where we were presented with coconuts and then (after consuming them) told we had to pay for them, before being badgered by the young tour guide constantly to buy him sweets and water (because he was sooooo hungry and soooo thirsty) and for me to please give him my backpack because he loved it. The young guide kept trying to give the boy and I (and the other guests: two Colombian girls and one French guy) alcohol before graphically flirting with the French guest and telling him some very rude things about what he wanted to do with him.

The boy being put to work.

The boy being put to work.

We then had lunch in a village house that was meant to be followed by a village tour but, instead, found ourselves stuck for two hours in the host’s house constantly being told we’d “move along in a little while” but never actually leaving. And the other guide kept getting the boy to row the boat because he was too tired!

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Okay – there were some good points: the backwaters (as you can see from the pictures) are beautiful and teeming with life.

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But, I can, most certainly, never, ever recommend Antony’s Tours and Travels – all we’d been promised was reneged on and I can’t imagine how that company’s managed to get so many good reviews on TripAdvisor!

And so, our time in Alleppey could not come to a close quick enough for me. We ended up staying at the Palm Grove Lake Resort (after a nightmare of a time trying to find a hotel as every one seemed to only have the most expensive rooms available) and that, at least, was serviceable (except for the army of ants that invaded our room).

All in all, Alleppey and the backwaters stand out for how awful they were. But, that, is sometimes what you get when you travel. Those promises of relaxation were not to be for all of Kerala. I can only hope that others among you have better experiences if you manage to get there!

In Part 8, the boy and I take in some luxury hotels and finally see how relaxing Kerala can be – if money were no option.

India Pt 5: Turtle trains & Ramshackle Chic Lodgings

28 Jan

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100

I peered out the window of the moving train to see the oddest sight: a jeep filled with ten, terribly squished passengers speeding past, its occupants smiling and waving at us.

This was unusual mainly for the following reason: a jeep so laden down with body weight was still going faster than our train.

The boy and I had finally decided to say our goodbyes to Darjeeling, having had a wonderful three day break in the little town. But instead of taking the speedy route of a shared taxi down the hill 32km to Kurseong – our next stop – we opted for a lumbering and hilariously slow train journey instead.

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100

At first, we thought it would be a quaint way to travel. It was to take three hours to cover the short distance but – with the turtle-slow traveling – we figured we’d get the chance to enjoy the views down the mountain in a wonderfully relaxed manner and all at the low price of around £3 each for “first class” tickets (this relating to the ancient, dusty seats covered in a carpet-like material that were an upgrade from the wooden benches in “second class”).

But, as soon as we boarded, we realised our mistake – we’d forgotten how much people in all parts of India love to use horns. While we’d only experienced this in cars, as it turned out, the same logic goes for trains.

That’s right – THREE hours of a blasting, blaring train horn.

So much for a laid-back journey!

One of the many shops one passes a few feet away from on the Darjeeling-Kurseong route.

One of the many shops one passes a few feet away from on the Darjeeling-Kurseong route.

But, regardless, the trip was incredibly memorable. The old diesel locomotive runs along a frighteningly narrow track that zig-zags back and forth across the main road. This seemed to be the primary reason why the conductor had to blast his horn constantly – to stop distracted drivers plowing into the side of the carriages. When the train wasn’t trailing over the roadway, it mainly traveled alongside it, giving us a good view of the inside of the jeeps that beeped their way past. As we lumbered our way downhill, villagers would come out of their houses to wave at us, while dogs howled at the horn. At times, we passed so close to shops and houses, we could have easily leaned out the window for a packet of crisps or a pair of pants off a laundry line. It was – quite possibly – the oddest journey I have ever taken.

"The most tourist friendly hill station in the world."

“The most tourist friendly hill railway in the world.”

When finally we arrived in Kurseong – which labels itself the “most tourist friendly hill railway in the world” for reasons unbeknownst to the boy and I – we were longing for some peace and quiet.

P1170437We’d made reservations at Cochrane Place – a hotel on the town’s outskirts. Since we weren’t spending the extra money on a trip up to Sikkim, we thought we’d treat ourselves to a couple of nights of more upscale lodging.

The hotel was formerly the home of British colonial Percy John Cochrane who acted as the area’s magistrate in the early 20th century. It has been restored to house a wide variety of individually decorated, slightly ramshackle rooms and has a restaurant on-site, which made for easy dining.

At the back of the first floor was our room – am expansive, two-floored deluxe space with lounge, bedroom and a balcony that overlooked nearby houses and mountains. We even had a teddy bear to greet us.

King Kong anyone? Odd decor at Cochrane Place.

King Kong anyone? Eccentric decor at Cochrane Place.

But despite the more upscale space and welcoming soft toy, everything about Cochrane Place felt slightly haunted – from the old abandoned games room, to the colonial pictures on the walls and strange antique dolls in cabinets.

And, while at the hotel I can honestly say I experienced something that will haunt me for years to come – a stick massage.

Billed by management as a local treatment, I expected a “stick massage” to use, well, sticks, that would likely be rolled up and down my spine or arms to help the masseuse work out tough knots. Given I’d had 10 days of lugging around a heavy backpack, it seemed like just the thing that would relax me.

But oh how I was wrong. A stick massage is – quite literally – a massage that uses different shaped wooden instruments that are hit against the skin in a tapping manner to stimulate the nerves. As I lay on the bed, fully clothed, and had sticks rattled against me like a drum for an hour, I realised it probably would have been best to confirm how this massage was done before agreeing to it.

I’ve never seen the boy look so happy to have missed out on something than when I regaled him with the tale of being rat-a-tat-tapped for 60 long minutes.

Local tea workers off for lunch.

Local tea workers off for lunch.

The bizarre nature of Cochrane Place was, however, one of its most charming aspects. We would dine each afternoon and evening with a different group of guests in the large dining room, chatting about our travels and asking them where they had been, while looking out towards the sparkling, lit up hills where thousands of strangers were likely eating their meals in their homes. In the daytime, we trekked around tea estates and up long, winding hills near the hotel.

Both it and the train journey will stick with the boy and I for years to come – and, sometimes, that’s what traveling is best for: experiencing the unexpected!

In Part 6, the boy and I head south for our last leg around Kerala and fall head over heels for Varkala.

India Pt 4: To the land of tea and tourism

21 Jan
The view from the Darjeeling hills.

The view from the Darjeeling hills.

Having grown up in the Canadian countryside, I am almost always more at peace in places with a spattering of soaring, snow-capped mountains dotting the horizon.

And so, after a week in the heat of central northern India, it was with joy that the boy and I began our journey to one of India’s most north-eastern states: West Bengal.

As with our past travel in India, it was not to be easy: 24 hours of train and road journeys followed, during which we waited in the searing Varanasi heat for our delayed first leg, battled at least 1,000 people in Patna station while desperately trying to find our train platform and bedded down in the wrong train carriage, only to be unceremoniously rooted out and shunted to a dirtier carriage three cars away for the final 10 hours. We had, luckily, already arranged a pick-up at the end of our train trip through our hotel, which meant the last three hours of road travel into the West Bengal mountains were spent in a more comfortable 4×4 jeep.

The Himalayan view from Glenburn Tea Estate.

The Himalayan view from Glenburn Tea Estate.

West Bengal and the state’s most famous region (Darjeeling) was to be unlike any other area we experienced in India. An hour after departing the dusty heat of New Jalpaiguri – the last major train hub before heading north – everything began to change, from the style of dress worn by passersby to their identity, with most villagers looking Nepalese or Tibetan rather than Indian. Strings of prayer flags and Buddhist temples dotted the hills and, in the distance, the mighty Himalayas poked through when the clouds cleared. It was more peaceful, less populated and welcoming.

Our first night was spent at the stunning, colonial era 1,000 acre Glenburn Tea Estate and Boutique Hotel, a full review for which will appear in the coming months on online luxury magazine, The Arbuturian‘s, website. Without giving away too many details, I can promise you that if you are planning a journey to this region anytime soon and fancy indulging in the most serene service, location and food, and fancy learning a whole load about tea, you will fall in love with Glenburn. Director Wes Anderson (of The Darjeeling Limited fame and many more films) stayed there and was apparently inspired to name that film after a sign found on the tea estate.

Bags of tea for export at Glenburn.

Bags of tea for export at Glenburn.

After a day of some serious relaxation (and laundry washing/intense bathing), we headed on our way to Darjeeling, a hill town surrounded by luscious tea estates and the awe-inducing Mount Kanchenjunga – the fourth highest in the world.

Our original intention was to spend three nights in Darjeeling before heading off to Sikkim – a more northern state that is wedged between Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. Unfortunately, the boy got a terrible cold and – having traveled so extensively – we were officially exhausted. As such, our short trip to Darjeeling turned into a three day/four night stay.

We both fell thoroughly for Darjeeling. I’d heard many people say it is a very touristy town and not that appealing but for us, it was bliss.

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100Our first night in the town was spent at the fantastic Revolver Hotel – a Beatles themed lodge run by a small, friendly woman named Asenla. She told us her inspiration for starting a hotel based around the fab four came from a childhood growing up in rural Nagaland (a far-eastern Indian state) during which she listened to the band’s albums that her uncles – who traveled frequently – would bring her and her family. The boy and I chose it because of the simple fact that we figured we’d be unlikely to stay in a Beatles themed hotel in India ever again.

The hotel has five basic, wood-paneled clean rooms – named George, Paul, John, Ringo and Brian (for manager Brian Epstein) – filled with quirky Beatles memorabilia. With an electric blanket and heavy woolen comforter, it was a perfect place to bed down for the chilly night (it was only around +5 when we were in Darjeeling). The next morning – for the low price of around £2 – we even had breakfast in bed.

The ramshackle but wonderful Dekeling Hotel.

The ramshackle but wonderful Dekeling Hotel.

As the hotel was fully booked up for our remaining nights in Darjeeling, we checked into the (slightly pricier but lovely) Dekeling Hotel, right smack bang in the centre of Darjeeling with beautiful views of Kanchenjunga. We counted our lucky stars for having found yet another fantastic hotel – our track record was 100% on our India trip to that point and the Dekeling – with its big lounge with long, cushioned benches to curl up on and a toasty woodstove to play chess beside – was just right.

The boy meets a Buddhist dog.

The boy meets a Buddhist dog.

The rest of our days in Darjeeling were spent exploring more of it than I would guess many tourists – who seemed to pass through in a day or so on their way to remote Sikkim – would have had the chance to take in.

One day we took a pleasant 1.5km stroll from the town’s central crossroads called Chowastra Bazaar over to the quaint, picture-perfect Bhutia Busty monastery, which was first located in Sikkim before it was transported and reassembled in Darjeeling in the late 19th century. Rumour has it the Tibetan Book of the Dead’s original manuscript was housed here. VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100

Later that afternoon we headed to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre, which was set up in 1959 to accept Tibetans fleeing the crackdown by the Chinese Communist government.

The man formerly in charge of the Dalai Lama's dog's safety.

The man formerly in charge of the Dalai Lama’s dog’s safety.

There we learned the history of – not only Tibet – but the escapees’ survival over the decades through their making of handicrafts such as intricate hand-dyed and spun carpets. We even met an ancient, weathered man who was said to have been in charge of the Dalai Lama’s dog during his escape from Tibet to India in 1959. The Centre now includes men’s and women’s retirement homes, a school and museum.

Another day we visited the influential Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, which is renowned for its conservation breeding programme and research of the stunning snow leopard, red panda and Himalayan wolf. Later that night we caught an adorable dance performance by the local Tibetan school’s children on a stage set up in the town centre.

And, as the boy was also feeling very under the weather, we ate lots – as they say, starve a fever but feed a cold. From Tibetan Momos (or, dumplings) at Kunga Restaurant (located, conveniently, under the Dekeling Hotel) to surprisingly delicious Thai food at The Park restaurant and filling vegetarian Indian fare at Hotel Lunar, we were never short on tasty meals.

View of the quirky Darjeeling streets.

View of the quirky Darjeeling streets.

On our final night, we were moved to the Dekeling Resort (the more upscale sister hotel of Hotel Dekeling) because there was no room at our former spot. Our huge room had a big lounge with roaring fireplace. As we sat beside it drinking beer, the boy and I both realised how much we’d fallen for the charms of Darjeeling. The people were always friendly (but rarely pushy), the food was great and the attractions of interest. It was, by far, one of favourite places in India and the perfect spot to recuperate after the heat and chaos of Delhi, Agra and Varanasi.

In Part 5, the boy and I take the world’s slowest train journey and I experience the joys of a stick massage in the hill town of Kurseong.

India Pt 3: Trains, Cows and the Ganges

4 Jan
Varanasi at sunrise

Varanasi at sunrise

The moment I fell for Varanasi was when it finally became peaceful. It was six in the morning, the pale sun was lifting a yawning head above the skyline and everything was dripping in an orange and pink haze.

Our captain.

Our captain.

The boy and I boarded a small rowboat with two young American girls from our hotel and our rower – an older gentleman with a welcoming smile. A little boy – no more than six or seven – hopped across the deck and over other boats to ply us with candles draped in marigolds to light and send bobbing out over the Ganges. We agreed to the inflated price he was offering and handed over our rupees, before lighting our candles, making a wish and nudging them away from the boat. Around us, dozens of other tourists were doing the same thing but – rather than feeling like we were on a tour group with these strangers – it felt oddly peaceful.

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We had been in Varanasi for less than 24 hours, having arrived via a 12 hour train journey from Delhi. I was still feeling delicate, having succumbed to Delhi Belly sickness two days prior, which saw me curled up in the fetal position at my friend’s flat in Delhi for an extended period of time. Primed with antibiotics and three other unpronounceable pills, the boy and I took a risk of boarding our planned on train and continuing our journey.

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Luckily, I managed to rest and I arrived in Varanasi feeling worse for wear but ready to continue our trip with increasing hopefulness.

Varanasi is considered the holy city in India. Belief goes that if you come to die in Varanasi and have your body cremated by the riverside at one of the burning ghats and your ashes spread by your relatives in the Mother Ganga (as they all refer to it as) you will break the cycle of reincarnation, finally allowing your soul to escape to the other world. It is here that people come to pray, to die, to live – it is a city full of more noise and colour than anywhere else I experienced in India but it also has its wealth of peace.

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We were met at the station by a young man from our hotel – Kedareswar Bed and Breakfast, a small, family-run place right on the river Ganges. We’d arranged the pick-up ahead of time opting for a non-AC car. What we found was barely a car itself dating back to the 1960s and driven by a man so sun-weathered and wrinkled we were amazed he was still able to walk, let along operate a vehicle. After multiple attempts to shut the trunk and doors of the pea-green car, our bottle-glasses wearing driver inched his way out of the train station lot into the insanity of Varanasi’s traffic.

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We had both thought that Delhi was bad – but Varanasi took chaos to a whole new level. It is the superstar of insane roads and with the smog, dirt and stench rolling in through our windows, it was soon clear that my nausea had not yet abated and that taking an AC car would have probably been wiser.

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When finally we arrived at the B&B – located at the end of a string of winding alleyways piled high with cow dung and rubbish – we were most glad to discover our place of residence for the night was cool, clean and relatively quiet bar the workmen pounding away on the building next door. It faced straight onto the Ganges and, at the cost of £16 for the night for a room with AC and private bath, was just right.

The balcony at Kedareswar.

The balcony at Kedareswar.

After a nap, we went out exploring, but the 35 degree heat proved too much for my exhausted self – having not really eaten for two days I was weak. Instead, we did what we normally avoid and opted to take a tour arranged by the hotel. I’d heard negative things about the tours in Varanasi being overpriced and usually a scam, but we lucked out and had an honest hotelier who arranged for us to take a tuk-tuk with a knowledgeable and friendly driver all around the city.

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The Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi.

We toured the beautiful, tree-lined grounds of Banaras Hindu University – one of the top universities in the country according to our driver – and proceeded to visit four different temples, including the peaceful Sankat Mochan Temple dedicated to Hindu Lord Hanuman, and the 8th century Durga temple, with its grounds filled with (not so evil) monkeys. For £5 for the tour for us both, it was well worthwhile in my state.

Evening puja.

Evening puja.

That evening, we punted out onto the Ganges in a private rowboat (arranged, again, by our hotel at a steal of 100r (or, £1.20 each) to watch the evening puja (or prayer) ceremony at Dasaswamedh Ghat. Dozens of other boats came up beside us but we were lucky to be the only couple with a whole boat to ourselves to sit back in and relax while we watched the intense dance of men from the temple wearing orange and red, dance with fire and make music.

Morning scenes in Varanasi.

Morning scenes in Varanasi.

But it was the next morning when I really fell for Varanasi. In that beautiful morning light, the city came alive as hundreds of people bathed in the Ganges, said their prayers and let the cremated ashes of their relatives float out onto the river. Despite the continual chaos of the city, that morning’s boat ride was filled with peace.

Our candles drift out.

Our candles drift out.

Varanasi for us both ended up being a highlight, which surprised me not only because I was still quite ill but because I had read numerous negative stories about it before arriving.

Sunrise in Varanasi.

Sunrise in Varanasi.

I believe much of our enjoyment came from staying in a place with friendly owners, who seemed to really care about their guests, without wanting to rip them off or overcharge for tours/transfers/the room. It was basic but just right for letting the peace of Varanasi wash over our tired, Delhi trod-souls.

In Part 4, the boy and I escape the heat of central India and head north to the Himalayan hills of a tea estate and Darjeeling in West Bengal.

India Pt 2: the Taj, a fort and one evil monkey

28 Dec
The evil monkey sits and waits...

The evil monkey sits and waits…

It was a stand-off to rival the best of the Westerns.

The boy vs a monkey.

Perched confidently on a window ledge was contestant number one – the monkey.

And behind the table, grasping his Coke tightly, the boy.

And me? I was at the back of the room, squealing.

We’d arrived a few minutes before this scene began, trudging our way up the rickety stairs of a hole-in-the-wall restaurant on Agra’s main drag, Miyan Nazir Road. We were hot, dusty and thirsty, and decided to go upstairs to see some views of the Taj and experience greater airflow.

After our drinks (a Coke and a banana lassi so filled with unblended banana chunks it was rendered undrinkable) arrived, we sat back in squeaking, metal chairs to have a moment of peace.

And then the monkey swung into the scene.

At first, he simply stared at us, long arms hanging on the grate of the fencing around the rooftop’s perimeter. But then, after a scratch of his belly, he inched forwards…and then further forwards…until a few seconds later,  he was sat on the chair opposite us, looking very determined.

I switched into “flight” mode while the boy chose “fight”. Clutching his Coke, the boy and the monkey eyed each other up fiercely while I took to the back stage. The monkey then turned to me with a look that almost seemed to say: “That’s a bit rude. I’m just here for a visit.”

Feeling I’d hurt the monkey’s emotions, I edged a bit closer. But then he glared, gave a hiss and looked terribly evil.

At that second, the owner came back up for a smoke and chased the monkey away. But not before the monkey had peed all over the table, as if to say: “That’s what I think of you all.”

Agra Cantt station.

Agra Cantt station.

We had arrived in Agra that morning after a very early train journey from Delhi, which we almost didn’t make due to the fact a scam train worker wouldn’t let us through the gates, telling us our journey had been cancelled. This was despite the fact our train was clearly showing on the departure board and matched our ticket numbers. Yet another scam we had to deal with. We ended up sneaking onto the platform via the exit, just to avoid him but I noticed him trying the same thing on with many other confused looking tourists.

Luckily, the journey on the Shatabdi Express was very pleasant and – as it was 6am – we were able to watch the hazy colours of sunrise filter over yellow and green fields, casting a perfect pale light on the surroundings.

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After arriving at Agra Cantt, and taking a quick tuk-tuk ride into the main part of Agra (where the Taj is) we had a light breakfast, getting our first views of the astounding structure from a beautiful rooftop restaurant (this earlier one, without monkeys). Even from afar, it was magnificent.

The Taj in all its glory.

The Taj in all its glory.

As we were there on Eid, we discovered entry to the Taj was free before 10am so we headed quickly to the entrance to make it on time.

I relax in the sun at the Taj.

I relax in the sun at the Taj.

The day was perfect weather wise – an azure sky and pounding sun made it hot even by 9am but we were more than chuffed with the temperature change from rainy London to not mind a bit of potential sunburn.

And, of course, the view was even better. While the Taj Mahal is one of those images most of us have seen umpteen times, nothing beats experiencing it in its marbly flesh. The waterways leading up to the structure are crystal clear and reflect its towering lines, while the gardens are hushed and delightfully cool. We wandered around for an hour, taking in every inch of this 17th century wonder. My favourite part was taking off my shoes (a rule when you walk onto the main section) and feeling the solid, icy marble beneath my feet. I saw dozens of tour groups wearing special socks over their shoes but I wouldn’t have missed getting my soles dirty for anything.

Precious stone inlays decorate the walls of the Taj.

Precious stone inlays decorate the walls of the Taj.

After a long walk around and inside all of the parts we could visit, the boy and I took our leave feeling a delightful calm within us that only a structure of such beauty, spirituality and grandeur could create.

And then we met the monkey – so much for relaxation!

The boy at Agra Fort, with the Taj Mahal in the distance.

The boy at Agra Fort, with the Taj Mahal in the distance.

We continued on our journey of Agra’s sights by visiting Agra Fort, about two miles away from the Taj Mahal. This red walled fort dates back to 11th century. It acted as the seat of the Sultan of Delhi in the 15th century, but became more famous when seized by the Mughal empire in the 16th century, then becoming a walled city and the seat of Shah Jahan (the creator of the Taj). You can see the Taj from from the Fort, and it was here that he was eventually imprisoned by his son – Aurangzeb – and put in a cell with a tortuous view of his precious Taj, bound to never enter its marble surroundings again. While it is not half as famous as the Taj, it is well worth visiting if you have the time.

Agra Fort

Agra Fort

When finally we departed Agra for the journey back to Delhi, it was with a feeling of accomplishment. Seeing these incredible structures in person was a highlight of our trip to India. And knowing we survived our encounter with the evil monkey made it all the more pleasurable.

In Part 3, I succumb to ‘Delhi Belly’ and the boy and I find peace in chaotic Varanasi.

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