Kate’s Adventures in India

Reporting to Big Guy and Poucher – the Indian Adventure October 2012.

DAY 1 – 18th Oct

Hi Guys, well we haven’t left Sydney Airport yet but the Adventure has begun! In about 15 hours we will be in Cochin (Kochi) if you want the Indian name.Bill is sitting opposite sending text messages – hey what’s new and I am hanging on that first glass of champagne when the doors close!! Does Poucher remember his trip to USA?

It’s 10.15 pm and here we are in Singapore. Singapore Airlines is not as special as Kangaroo Klass on Qantas but not bad either! We managed two games of Scrabble and another here in the lounge of Terminal 2, Changi Airport. I have to confess Bill score is up there but we aren’t finished yet! If you are transferring to Terminal 2 as we had to there’s a train – crikey! We passed by this great shop I know called Madame Butterfly so had to pop in and pick up a few trinkets – Bill had to pop into the Duty Free to pick up a few bottles so now we are traveling slightly heavier than when we started ten hours ago.

I think the 15 hours is blowing out but it’s all confusing with the 6 hour time change between Aus and India. I think it’s this confusion that allowed Bill to get this itinerary past the keeper- not usually something I agree to! Next time I report in hopefully it will be DAY 2 and we will be in Cochin! Fingers crossed! PS Out of all the delicious food in the lounge Bill chose octopus and mung bean soup – I hope we don’t see it again anytime soon!

DAY 2 – 19th Oct

Last night arriving in Cochin late ( 2am Aussie time) we had an hour’s
drive to the old part of the city. We saw loads and loads of trucks by the side of the road, lots of dogs, small hotels and very few people. Lincoln our guide informed us only 1 million people live in Cochin – is this India or not?!! Oh I forgot to mention water – heaps of that too. Rivers, lakes, waterways and somewhere around the corner from our hotel the harbour.

The Old Harbour Hotel, one of the exclusive small hotels of the world and indeed it resonates with its colonial past. Dutch in origin with white washed pillars, fans , tiled floors and a kindly face to cater to every whim. Breakfast overlooking the garden and swimming pool with delicious fruits, juices and the British touch, bacon and eggs. The Portuguese first came in the 1500’s only to find Arab traders had beaten them to it – more history later!

I’m not sure Big Guy how you are going to break this news to Poucher- this morning we went for a walk along the seafront and there were lots of kangaroos made of cement and guess what? The pouch had printed on ‘use me’ – these are the garbage bins of Cochin! To top off the insult there was not one piece of litter in the so called bin but plastic strewn all over the place. After the upmarket silver edifice in Beijing I was devastated. It took several minutes in the tuk tuk with the nice driver, Rasheed for me to recover my equilibrium.

I have to report – Bill got ripped off big time in the spice shop and then we were taken to the local laundry where all hell was being beaten out of all manner of clothes and linen.Each washer person had their own little cubicle with water and a stone where upon they did the bashing – it was medieval.Even more so the ironing with a big flat iron filled with hot coals – it weighed about 5 kilos and the little old lady pushing it about 10. By now Rasheed was feeling a little peckish so he dropped us off to a fish ( read curry) restaurant by the water and Bill was a happy man with his Kingfisher (local) beer and a whole fish curried especially for him! It’s not over yet, after this we were tuk tuked to the ginger factory in an old Portuguese go down – all the ginger being dried on the ground for tea etc. Next door three ladies in colourful sarongs making candles for the local churches and I kid you not – there are hundreds of churches in Kerala. Those missionaries certainly trotted out their stuff in the 1600’s but there still is the occasional mosque and temple and even a synagogue which is on our agenda for Sunday – busy days. Dinner back here in the hotel, charming restaurant opening onto pool and garden, obligatory rain, cooling, we are in the tropics!

DAY 3 – 20th Oct

After the delicious breakfast by the pool we were persuaded by the hotel staff not to let Rasheed and his open air device take us through the busy city and up to the Hill Palace- the hotel car was a much wiser choice and thankfully when the monsoon arrived the driver was able to scramble back down to the car park ( some distance) and let us shelter under the verandah of the very fine, but somewhat dilapidated former residence of the Kings of Kerala. Kings, maharajahs or whatever these boys did themselves proud. While the rest of the population was struggling with the divine retribution of a Christian god the bounties on the hill knew no bounds. Steeped in their Hindu beliefs, peacocks, harems, and wayward, distasteful habits abounded. A grand garden covering many acres is now being beaten into submission slowly and attempts at restoration of the buildings a arduous and demanding project.The driver pointed out small open shops on the way back with great carcasses of butchered beef hanging in them. It seemed that eating meat is reserved for the weekend and of course only for those not of the Hindu persuasion . Returning to our hotel after crossing the many bridges that span the waterways of Cochin none other than, you guessed it was the forever smiling Rasheed waiting to take us on our next adventure!

Oh how not to disappoint but our chosen Kashi Art Cafe was literally around the corner! An expat retreat Bill was mortified to not only find there was no curry but also the cafe with no beer. We chose a tuna sandwich instead and admired the several contemporary works of art. As we left the cafe you guessed it again, there was Rasheed – this time we accepted a drive to the waterfront to visit the Chinese fishing nets and on the way hopped into a tiny bookshop where Bill in a flash purchased 2 and 3 of Fifty Shades – shady or what??!!

Dinner – decisions, decisions! We opted for Bruntons Boatyard the smartest hotel in old Cochin. Maybe I haven’t properly explained the difference between old and new. The modern Cochin ( I really should be saying Kochi – the Indian name) is on another island a ferry boat ride away and in between is a British man made island called Willingdon. In absolutely pouring rain we stepped out of our hotel into a tuk tuk or an auto- rickshaw as they are referred to here and off we went on the 3 minute journey. During the ride without side covers I arrived dripping and disheveled! A rum cocktail was a welcome start to an interesting meal in the History Restaurant. A banana leaf entree and a lamb shank curry accompanied by Tuborg beer helped to rectify my earlier Scrabble loss and uncomfortable clothes. We walked back to our hotel past the Chinese fishing nets and into our room – the bed strewn as always by sweet smelling flowers, small in size and delicate in appearance. Didn’t stop Bill disposing of them tout suite!

DAY 3 – 21st Oct

An early start so an early morning walk was the go. Cochin was mainly asleep so no hawkers, no hassles! Our guide arrived at 9.30am on the dot and off we drove to the major attractions of Cochin. One of these is the Jewish Synagogue, Truly! But wait for this – Jewish people were among the earliest boat people here – 70BC! They were chased out of their homeland by those nasty Romans and found this coastal paradise and to top it off became the main traders in spices for which Kerala is famous. Next up were the Portuguese,1503- a long time between boats or what??! ( remember hours of learning at school about Vasco da Gama – we saw his tombstone in the St Francis Church but his body was removed 15 years later and returned to Portugal !) the church is the oldest European one in India. Back to the Synagogue – built in 1568 it still functions for the 9 remaining Jews in Cochin. There was a little problem some years back and the younger Jewish people here returned to their homeland as the lack of new blood was having strange effects on their dwindling population. Still there is Jew Town adjacent to the Synagogue and the Star of David and other symbols embedded in the architecture. Around the corner the Mattancherry Palace loomed – built by the Portuguese for the local Raja, Veera Kerala Varma after they had unthoughtfully destroyed his original one it was restored in 1663 by the Dutch settlers and became known as the Dutch Palace. Things aren’t always as they seem on the Indian sub continent!

Squeezed in between Jew Town and the Dutch Palace is the Spice Market -once the trading place for the world famous spices and until recently a Pepper Exchange operated there! Beats stocks and shares in terms of colour and aroma! Nearly done we returned to the beach front where the huge fishing nets introduced from the courts of the Kublai Khan still do their stuff and produce out of the estuary the fish that Cochin is also famous for. Their owners offer to cook their catch for you but looking at the general debris in and out of the water I reckon it may not be such a good idea. Standing metres high the nets are operated by a series of ropes and heavy stones that act as a cantilever and pull and lower the nets in and out of the sea. There are millions of sleek looking cats around so I guess there’s a bonus for the animal kingdom. At this point we farewelled our nice lady guide who had also explained some of the social mores of arranged marriages etc. A small cafe around the corner from our hotel called Oys provided the necessary sustenance for lunch, also a home stay it sported a bookshelf with English books and a certain expat air – welcome at times!

Just time for a quick afternoon nap and off again for the Sunset Cruise. This was looking a bit iffy as the afternoon monsoon had hit but miraculously ( maybe its all those churches we visited!) the weather cleared and we set off on a little dingy of a boat to peruse the waters of Kerala.The guide on the boat spoke the kind of English mostly heard here – not quite the Queen’s version and largely unintelligible ! Not to worry we were looking at fishing boats, the man made island the Brits engineered in the 1800’s and the partly cloud covered sunset. You have to hand it to those professional colonisers – give them a building project and they were onto it. The biggest excitement for the afternoon was when another tour boat nearby was boarded by the police – when our guy saw this he quickly produced 3 of the most dilapidated life jackets ever seen! I’m all for ‘rustic’ but when it to life saving devices give me the 2012 version every time. Luckily there was no call for them and as we returned to the wharf we saw the fishing nets illuminated by the setting sun, tall and majestic and known as the Chinese fishing nets – a timely reminder of the vast cauldron of cultures that Kerala is. Poetic or what, eh..?!

A safe and delicious option for dinner – our own patch, The Old Harbour Hotel. The chef has befriended Bill having discovered his love of everything curried and as the aromas wafted out into the night, the lights twinkled in the garden and beyond, the pool shimmering in the dark, we reflected on life, it’s treasures, it’s highs and occasional disappointments. If we were to use the age old instruments for weighing rices and spices I am sure the weightier side would be the goodness that life provides and the lighter end of the scale the darker side.

DAY 4 – 22nd Oct

Oh, the usual packing hassles – away 4 days and already little unessential articles appear needing to be stowed. Already thanks to the whiskey quota we have a new bag and that’s practically full. A fond farewell to the staff, attentive to the end! Our car and driver are waiting for us and as we are introduced to Radheesk I feel a long conversation happening as we face the 2 hour drive to where our rice barge awaits us ! My predictions were correct and we had quite an hilarious drive trying to understand and interpret – the common ground seemed to be the cricket ground and Ricky Ponting in particular. All India populated by cricket tragics! The rice barges were waiting for us and ours was a smaller version – two of us and 3 crew. Some are enormous like gigantic snails somblantly negotiating the wide and sometimes narrow waterways. The barges originally transported rice, spices and other goods from one end of the country to the other. In the side passages as we negotiated through the weed we saw all the daily routines of people whose life is dictated to by the river. Washing, eating, clothes , saucepans- the rituals are all preformed on a small platform built into the bank. Fish come from the river, rice grows beyond and trees are laden with coconuts , papaya and bananas – quite Elysian superficially the reality is tough.

Our young chef produced a delicious meal, curry in various forms and we ate as we silently glided by this panoramic performance unchanged in thousands of years.

The faithful Radissh (pronunciation) was waiting at the dock and we embarked on the final leg back to the Marari Resort – the monsoon had struck again and we arrived at the reception as the rain tumbled down, Ruthie arrived at the same time and in her dripping state welcomed us warmly. Charming bures, watermelon cocktails, a swathe of Scottish and English friends – we had arrived! An enormous buffet followed the imbibing and every type of curry presented itself. Happiness for the number one curry muncher!

DAY 4 – 23rd Oct

An early morning walk along the glorious beach skirting the Arabian Sea seemed like a good idea. The fine , white sand stretches endlessly and once away from the confines of the Marari beach we observed the fishing boats, fishermen and their catch. We were also early enough to catch the morning ablutions and we aren’t talking dogs here! These same fish appeared in the village shops unrefrigerated or by the side of the road all day long. The temperature rose to about 35c and was enough to render me completely vegetarian!

Again we were back in the dining room and although the curry breakfast appealed to some I stuck with an omelette and the ever delicious fruit and fresh curd. Nothing more arduous than a walk around the butterfly garden followed by the vegetable garden was planned and as we observed the Crimson Rose and Blue Tiger Butterfly I thought of the beauty, colour and fragility of nature’s most delicate work. The home plant of the Crimson Rose Butterfly is the brilliant red Pagoda plant, so named due to its shape.

The day loped leisurely along, swimming, more swimming and then a massage arranged while Bill coerced some reluctant tennis players onto the court. It was a massage with a difference and after a blood pressure check 2 lithe young women whisked their hands up and down my body after first anointing it with hot oil. Head to toe I felt that if I slithered off the massage bed I may be meeting those Hindu gods of whom I’ve heard so much about! Luckily I made it to their shower where I was ceremoniously washed down with an aromatic paste! Making it back to my bure I rewashed and scrubbed ungrateful to Mother India!

During the day those old Ausie/English friends the Stevens had arrived and many Mohitos later we were on again for the curry buffet – luckily there is a chef who is a dab hand with pasta so a welcome change for moi!

DAY 5 – 24th Oct

YOGA 7.15 am. What a great idea. A peaceful start to the day and an amazing teacher who demonstrated a head stand except his head wasn’t on the ground and he supported himself by his hands. We left after the hour humbled by his lithe brown body and his charming manner.

A quick dip in the Arabian Sea nearly proved fatal as the famous undercurrent pulled us towards the blue horizon and we stumbled back to breakfast chastened by the thought of an express trip – one way. The pool beckoned and there we lay, sat, gossiped until the cocktail cry went up. At least an hour later the drinks appeared and someone was heard stipulating ‘today please’ . Lunch by the pool is the same format but fills the Bill when it eventually arrives! Excitement for the evening event was brewing -more people arriving and a definite hype building up . It is even rumoured there will be bagpipes. I had to stop Bill shouting out , ‘here’s Ruth’s brother, he lives in a castle!’

The tennis four again dragooned by Bill were off again so Lindy and I set off in an auto- rickshaw for the local village. Lindy was on a mission to buy Ruthie a nightie the locals wear when they remove their saris . Mission accomplished the driver then took us to an amazing Hindu Temple where the first thing we saw was an enormous bull tethered in the court yard. I thought how some of our churches may be improved by animals grazing in the grounds!

Back to the Marari and preparations for the evening were underway! Our pre pre dinner drinks with the Stevens loomed and as we made our way to their bure we felt the party tempo increasing. A wee dram with them lightened the mood and as we approached the club house where the first part of the evening was to take place the haunting sounds of the bagpipes warming up reminded us that the days of the Raj weren’t really so far behind! A true friend of Ruthie,he had carried his pipes all the way from bonnie Scotland to serenade her in the manner that all Scots expect on special occasions! Plied with Mohitos and samosas we were then treated to a special Hindu theatre performance especially for the birthday girl! In true Indian fashion the timelessness of the evening had drifted and we were definitely in the ‘ eating before you collapse’ mode.

A four sided table rectangular in shape with a space in the middle, accommodated all 29 of us. Many, many curries to chose from, all sorts of delicious roti, rice pancakes etc. There was more bag piping when the cake was cut and the strains of ‘by yon bonnie banks’ drifted away out over the Arabian Sea. Exotic by any standard. Then the sharp realisation that tomorrow for yours truly was D day sent us scurrying if not stumbling back to our boudoir ( read bure) for our last sleep.

DAY 6 – 25th Oct

A walk before breakfast along the white sandy, occasionally soiled sand brought us once again to the village and its white cross, fishermen, their nets and their catch. The buyers with their plastic crates and bikes were busy haggling over the small, sardine like fish lying in the dirt.Veritably a dirt market! Dogs and children were playing on the beach and giggled as we approached, using their only English words – ‘ what is your name ‘ and ‘ where do you come from’ – no attempt at begging or hassling us in any way. On the buffet for breakfast we saw those same little starry eyed fish, the morning catch on the table already! For the Indiaphiles there is a grand selection of morning curry and for those not accustomed to the rigours of chilli early in the morning an omelette chef and all manner of things for a hearty British breakfast. The British Raj maybe long gone but in certain important ways it is not forgotten! Fond farewells to our old and new found friends, a quick dip in the pool and yet another drive back to the big smoke, the airport of Kochi. Of course we were about 2 hours too early and the poor chap helping us also had a long wait. Finally we arrived in Colombo in the middle of the monsoon and the 35 kms journey from the airport to the city took 2 hours. You had to give it to that driver big time – he dodged huge trucks, tiny tuk tuks, buses and all manner of cars in the teeming rain. Finally we arrived at that grande old dame of Colombo – The Galle Face Hotel. A wedding was in progress and as we fought our way to reception we were reminded of a previous visit in the 70’s – that time we had to fight for a decent room and nothing had changed in 30 years. Finally settled in a room with a view the fine dining option was the only one left – oh what trials travellers have to bear! Aussie steak was on the menu and what a relief it was that we were able to wash it down with a bottle of Valpolicella – set us up nicely for the arduous day ahead.

DAY 7 – 26th Oct

The breakfast spread on the long verandah was a Sri Lankan feast and included the famous egg hoppers! This is a rice paper wrapper in the shape of a bowl with an egg cooked in the base. Coconut sambal on the top it looked good but too much curry for early morning! I was taking some photographs from our room on return – a large tower over the sea loomed near by and as I focused on the top I realised there were men up there with machine guns. As we were next to the Indian High Commission there may have been an inniment threat! Also in sight from the window a railway line snaked around the coast and as the train chuffed pass there was a class of passenger hanging on the outside of the carriages – definitely not first class!

The doorman secured an English speaking tuk tuk driver ad we were off to the Barefoot Gallery well known for its Sri Lankan goods. I realised straight off that it was the creation of Barbara Sassoon who had begun the business thirty years ago. Very charming cloth, clothes and little mice! A happy hour or 2 was spent there and we retrieved our driver and made for lunch at the Paradise Cafe. Recommended by that well known Indiaphile, Sandy Pratten we were well rewarded with amazing decor, great food and an art collection almost totally of Donald Friend’s drawings of Sri Lanka . This led us to the owner who we discovered had lived in Aus for 10 years, bought all his collection through Mrs Schineberg at the Holdsworth Gallery and knew all the Aus artists, their patrons and their partners right down to that colourful character Patrick Hockey! Gobsmacked by all this and isn’t it a small world etc in walked the entire party from the Marari Beach! Saying ‘goodbye’ to Geoffrey Stevens once obviously wasn’t good enough! On their way to Marissa Hills this was a ‘must do’ stop in Colombo! After all the necessaries we left them to their lunch and our ever faithful chariot was at the door. The day not over we returned to the hotel where hair dos and manicures and pedicures awaited us. We had passed by a seller of the ubiquitous betel nut which has stained teeth for generations. A sundowner in the form of a Mohitos lulled away the afternoon after a walk along the Galle Face Green watching kites gliding against the sunset and the populous dipping their toes in that ever treacherous Arabian Sea. As the Arabian night descended we sat on the long and pillared verandah supping curry and musing on times past and present.

Days 8, 9, and 10. 27th, 28th, 29th October.

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