A Travellerspoint blog

Paradise, And Why I Am Never Leaving Again

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My main reason for coming to Gokarna was to see Jog Falls, the highest waterfall in India. I had not factored in just how much I would love Gokarna though. It plays host to hundreds of Hindu pilgrims each year and has a vast and beautiful beach bordered by tall palms and tucked away guest houses, shimmering ocean stretching out forever towards the horizon, clear warm water and hardly a manmade object in sight. Facing perfectly west, every night the sun deliquesces down the sky and evaporates through the horizon.</p>

<p>I’d arrived with Inga but we had decided to stay at neighbouring guesthouses – I opted for the stone bungalow with fan and attached loo, she for the mud and palm hut. The people at my guesthouse are lovely. An easy, jocular atmosphere permeates our lazy afternoons spent chatting, eating and drinking fresh fruit juices, swimming and a doing a whole lot’ a nothing.

<p>We had a beach party. Fish was bought from the morning market, vegetables were bought from the evening market, alcohol was bought from the bottle shop, I made a spicy paste for the fish and we barbequed everything on banana leaves.

<p>So passed the days, suddenly, and at the same time very slowly, I had been in Gokarna a week. Inga had left already and I needed to think about doing the same. But first I really wanted to see Jog Falls. Currently out of season, they are not in full flow; apparently during monsoon they are spectacular. However, I had been told that they were still something to see.

<p>Having (I have just this second realised) that I read the Lonely Planet wrong, I was under the impression that it took just one hour to get to Jog Falls. In my defence I was told at the bus station that it only takes one hour and its says 45 minutes in Anna’s Russian guide book.

<p>Yesterday at 10.30 am I waved goodbye to the people having breakfast and promised them photos of waterfalls by suppertime. I arrived at Jog Falls at approximately 4.15pm. Having fallen asleep, as I always do in cars etc; a lasting effect of having been driven around until I fell asleep as a baby, I woke up at about 3.00pm to the bus creaking, groaning and choking its way up the steep road. I was squashed, as you always are on Indian buses, up against the window. Looking out at a huge climb ahead of us and a largish drop to the side of us. The boy next to me helpfully informed me that we would be at Jog Falls in two hours and it was 200km away. </p>
<p>My brain chugged into gear as slowly as the bus. I know that sunset is at about 6.00pm, because we sit on the beach and watch it everyday. If it has taken me this long to get here, I am guessing that it’s the same on the way back. How ridiculous to go all this way and not see the falls. How will I get back? If I have to stay somewhere, I have no money and no passport. Oh shit. </p>

<p>We stopped, as usual, 10 minutes from the destination for everyone to take chai, go to the loo etc. We stopped for about half an hour, time I increasingly didn’t have. </p>

<p>Then, as is also usual in India, someone helped me. A nice young guy, from Bangalore who immediately told me his name and that he works in IT. Who then asked if I was alone and if I was married, reported back to the growing crowd of men my answers, yes I was alone and no I wasn’t married, which was discussed briefly amongst them. He then told me that I could not return to Gokarna the way I had come, luckily at nights the treacherous roads are closed. I would need to go another way: from Jog Falls to Sagar to Sirsi to Kumta to Gokarna. I could expect to reach Gokarna at about 10-11.00pm. He said I had time to look at the falls but whatever I did be out of there by 5.00, because after that – no more vehicles. </p>

<p>My options were not great ones. Firstly, I don’t like Indian roads especially at night. Secondly, once I reached Gokarna I would have to walk about fifteen minutes down a dark deserted beach – not a good idea. Lastly, and as I have briefly touched upon, I hadn’t bought any money with me, apart from 700 Rupees or my passport or guide book. Mainly because I was only going for a couple of hours, and I was already walking down the beach when I remembered; I did however have credit cards.</p>

<p>I got to the falls, my mind so full of what my next step should be I couldn’t really appreciate how beautiful it was. Even though there is hardly any water, the imposing height and grandeur of the falls is apparent. I knew I had to; I took a couple of photographs looked at a monkey or two and made my way back to the entrance desk. I needed to get to an ATM, an internet cafe and possibly a hotel for the night. There was a hotel nearby, with TV and a restaurant for 500 rupees. I agreed to have a look and very quickly disagreed to stay. </p>

<p>I was informed that the last bus to Sagar, where the ATM machines were, had left. I had no way of knowing if this was true or not, I couldn’t risk staying and getting stranded and so had to take a taxi the half an hour it would take to get to Sagar for the not so bargain price of 500 rupees. I was, by now, starting to worry about where I would stay or if it would be possible to bus it all the way home. I wasn’t in any position to start haggling prices and he knew it. </p>

<p>The view from the taxi was stunning, much of it thick forest on dark red earth. Villages and rivers, fields and valleys. I tried to enjoy it. As night fell, 6.45pm, we arrived in to Sagar. The taxi driver had said that Sagar was a city and I was hopeful of my chances of getting a room for the night. The approach to Sagar stripped me of any illusion. A distinct lack of concrete and neon told me that this was no city, a town perhaps, maybe even a big village, but defiantly not a city. </p>

<p>The first ATM machine refused my cards, twice. I had only enough to pay the driver but that was all. I considered the possibility of taking the taxi all the way to Gokarna where I had money, it would cost a fortune (probably about £15) and I would avoid it if I could. The second ATM delivered my lovely crisp 500 rupee notes which, after peeling off two; I stuffed the rest in my bra for safety. I began to feel calm again; I was more in control now.</p>

<p>The bus to Sirsi was my next goal. The officials at the bus station couldn’t have cared less that I needed a bus. I tried several times, pointing at each of the patiently waiting buses asking “Sirsi?” Head waggles and hand flicks were all I managed by way of a response. I was getting a little exasperated when a lovely young girl came to my rescue. She told me in near perfect English that this bus and this bus would be leaving in about half an hour and they both took the same time to Sirsi. I asked her about hotels in Sirsi and how it would be for a girl alone. Her eyes widened, “alone?” “Yes” I replied firmly. She looked over my shoulder as if hoping that I was lying and behind me would hove into sight, my protector and champion – my husband.</p>

<p>It wasn’t to be and so I picked the bus on the left. Thankfully I had remembered to bring a good book with me. Catch 22 helped keep my mind off the situation at hand, it’s a brilliant book you should read it or read it again. Suddenly the girl was back with the information that I would be able to find a female friendly hotel in Sirsi. </p>

<p>The last bus out of Sirsi had gone when I got there. Sealing off my options, I was staying the night. I got organised. Found an internet shop and printed off my passport, visa, a list of hotels in the vicinity of the bus station and a Google map locating said hotels. That was easy; the hard bit was finding a rickshaw driver who knew where they were or how to get me there. I am repeatedly amazed at how the taxi drivers have no idea where things are located in their own towns and cities (which are not that big).</p>

<p>The first hotel said no they had no room. I took a deep breath, returned to the rickshaw and we made our way to the next hotel. They too, were fully booked. The third and essentially my last choice was hotel Panchavati. It was about 15 minutes drive from the bus station and I really didn’t want to go any further as my bus out of there was at 7.00AM the following day. I was desperate for a room.<br />

“No room – wedding party” the receptionist said. At which point I did what any self-respecting, frustrated woman travelling alone (“alone?”, “yes alone”) in India would do. I started to cry. “Weeping? Is she weeping?” I heard. Soon there were about 10 people in reception all looking at the girl without a husband, weeping because she can’t get a room. I realised the only dignified thing to do would be to remove myself I got back in to the rickshaw, where I sat very straight backed and pulled myself together. </p>

<p>Meanwhile in reception, there was a big conversation going on about my predicament. The receptionist had started to call other local hotels and braver members of the crowd poked their heads out the door to get a better look at me ‘weeping’. The receptionist was eagerly informing every hotel in the neighbourhood that a weeping English girl, who was alone, needed a room. None were forthcoming. Just as I was starting to feel exhausted, it was now 9.00pm. The same receptionist, who had just refused me, agreed that I could have a room. Room 208, with a shower and TV and a pure-veg restaurant downstairs, mine for 300 rupees. </p>

<p>I knew that everyone at the guesthouse in Gokarna, especially Anna, my lovely Russian neighbour whose clever husband Dennis fixed my computer (yes, I really think it is!), would be worrying about me. </p>
<p>I left Sirsi at 7.30am and arrived back to Gokarna at 10.30. I have spent the day vowing never to leave Gokarna again and swimming in the fabulous sea. Tonight we are having a party, because the four boys, who went off to another beach to live like Robinson Crusoe for 5 days, are back as well. </p>

Posted by saraintrep 00:18 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Chinnar - Where We Slept in a Tree House

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In India, often, you are not given all the information. The ambiguous head-waggle can cause confusion and often yes will be the answer whatever the question. A rickshaw driver might pull up somewhere, turn around and gaze at you expectantly. For your part you have no idea that you have arrived at: a waterfall, museum, shop or ‘The history of XYZ National Park’ hut. You are supposed to, and in the case of Ganesh – ordered to, leap out of the vehicle immediately snapping away.

Similarly people will tell you to follow them, with no explanation where or why. When you ask for an explanation, you are dismissed with a flick of the hand and insisting on one can result in puzzled faces and raised brows.

So, when we had asked if we could arrive at Chinnar Wild life sanctuary at 17.00, the answer was yes. We even went to the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary satellite office in Munnar, the morning of our departure to confirm the details. Yes, we could stay in a tree house for three people, including dinner, breakfast and a morning trek for 1500 Rupees all in (about £7.00 each). We naively suspected nothing.

Ganesh, the rickshaw driver who would drive us the 6 or so hours up to Chinnar, came with glowing references and a newly painted rickshaw. Once we had persuaded him that we really DIDN’T want to go to the Tea Museum, we set off, only about 45 minutes late.

Chinnar is on the Kerala – Tamil Nadu boarder and there were many things to see in between: Tea Plantations, Coffee Plantations, A special Keralan mountain goat and several waterfalls. The weather switched between rain and sunshine and fog. We paid to walk up a small hill and see the view over the beautiful rolling and rather steep hills or in our case - the fog. We did see several goats and I am sure even Ganesh was happy with how many photos I took of them. Ganesh was firmly by our sides the whole time, telling us when to get on and off the bus, ordering other people about and once telling me to watch my dress as it had moved a centimetre off my shoulder. He didn’t like it when we were talking to the local schoolboys on a trip and he was, in general, getting on our nerves.

We ate instant noodles for lunch. Made in a little road side chai hut. It merrily poured with rain for several hours.

We reached Chinnar at about 17.30, ready for a hot dinner and the excitement of tree-top dwellings. As with everywhere, you must first sign in - registering your name, passport and visa numbers etc. We were then informed that dinner would not be possible. No explanation. No indication of a life or death situation. Just “no dinner, only breakfast”. We were having none of it, we had agreed, confirmed and paid for dinner. We would be getting dinner!

Here is where it would have been helpful to have had more information. For example, if someone had told us, that the tree house was quite far from the Check-point and office where we were, in fact a full 15 minutes walking. Had someone suggested we leave our rucksacks in this handy locked room, take only the bare essentials and a torch (there was, of course, no electricity) and as there was no toilet at the tree house, use the facilities here. Without our rucksacks we could have walked less encumbered, therefore quicker, to the tree house. Oh yes, it would also have been very useful, had someone, anyone, at any point during the entire course of the day, had anyone cared to mention or thought that this was the kind of information that we might need: At dusk, it turns out, the, no-one knows quite how many, resident elephants of Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary start crashing about in pursuit of food or another normal elephant dusk-time activities. We should have already been safely ensconced inside our room built high-up above the danger path. If those elephants got spooked by us making our way to the house they could potentially charge at us. Additionally telling us that dinner was not possible; because bring it to us could result in someone’s death – we would have understood.

But no, this was not what happened. Instead we hulked our full rucksacks, day sacks etc through the forest, following our guide Manju as he set off at a worried pelt through the shrubs and trees. Seemingly a wilderness, which he could read and recognise landmarks equal to our corner shops and high-streets. We were panting along behind him, “Danger – Hurry – Elephants!” Our first clue to the potential peril we were in.

We approached the tree house with the last of the light, Manju shushed us, informing us that the growl-panting, huffing sort-of sound was a near-by leopard; they too would be starting to hunt soon. Lucy climbed up first followed by me, Michelle and finally Manju with all the bags. Unlocking the padlock, we peered in to our tree-top fantasy abode. By torch light we could make out a small wooden room. mattresses hung from a rope going across the room and two shining black orbs, the eyes of the occupant rat, who was quickly evicted. Unfortunately the smell lingered.

We settled to the small room, rigging up a light and mosquito nets – Lucy even made a water bottle toilet that, ingenious though it was, I was unable to use – stage fright of some sort! We bolstered the beds with our backpacks and felt relatively safe. Manju was to sleep outside the room on the little ledge - I suppose to protect us from any leopards that might drop in to visit. Then our red-faced shame as four boys with huge torches delivered our dinner. They had come in convoy for safety, four people to deliver the white ladies’ dinner. As they walked away from the tree house they broke in to a run, I could see their huge torch beams bobbing erratically in the pitch black and morbid thoughts crossed my mind.

We actually slept quite well. I woke up in time for dawn which was spectacular. A spot of Indian breakfast and chai later, we set of on our little trek through Chinnar. No one mentioned that any of the delivery boys had been torn limb from limb by Grizzly Squirrels, so we assumed all was well. The walk through the forest was beautiful and as in all of India, quite diverse from one moment to the next. Shrubs and open hillsides turn to tall tree forest to sandy river bed all in about an hour. We did see wild elephants, but they were across the border in Tamil Nadu and to us they were just moving brown blobs, admittedly vaguely elephant-shaped brown blobs.

We left Chinnar and headed to Coimbatore, where our train to Bangalore left from. Coimbatore is a hole and I will say no more about it. Bangalore is supposedly a beautiful city with amazing restaurants serving up incredible culinary delights. We wouldn’t know. I spent five hours in an internet cafe uploading photos on to Flickr and we ate at KFC and Pizza Hut.

Posted by saraintrep 11:13 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Heffalumps and Birthdays

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For Michelle’s birthday we got up at the crack of dawn for a very special treat. We were going to wash elephants. At an elephant orphanage on the way to Munnar, which is where we were headed. Every morning at 8.00am the five or so elephants come down the muddy path to the river for their morning bath. They are orphaned elephants, who, I was informed, don’t work and have a ‘lovely life’.

<a href="http://saratheintrepid.wordpress.com/files/2009/11/elepant-wash-web.jpg"><img src="http://saratheintrepid.wordpress.com/files/2009/11/elepant-wash-web.jpg" alt="" title="elepant wash web" width="490" height="339" class="alignnone size-full wp-image-101" /></a>

They certainly have a lovely bath and the setting is breathtaking. Lowering themselves slowly and with considerable grace into the water. Once down on their sides and using their trunks as snorkels, they are exfoliated with a coconut husk. They are vast; the skin is tough and covered with course hairs. They seem gentle and passive, but at the back of your mind is the awareness that they could pop you like a berry. Two were still very small, only 3 and 6 years old but the bigger ones were 30 or 40. They have a similar lifespan to humans so the ages are corresponding. We took the opportunity to get to know the elephant - upclose and personal. Inspecting the tail and the ears, finding a soft spot in the fold of the ear where it joins the head. The eyelashes that circle the surprisingly small eyes. The trunk is heavy and the skin of it is rough and wrinkled, it feels like one huge muscle (which it may well be), it’s inquisitive prehensile tip constantly moving about, feeling and sniffing about the world. I even touched the baby’s tongue, but I got told off and quickly removed my hand –not before noting that it is very smooth, slimy and pink. Here I am on the front line – getting the facts.

It was truly the experience of a lifetime, one that I will try to repeat. I hope you enjoy the photos.

We took the 5 hour bus to Munnar. Wending our way up through, as far as I was concerned, the treacherous hair-pin bends of Kerala’s beautiful tea plantations.

The PG Tips adverts are true. The tea plants, perfectly manicured to one height, cover the hills. Women dotted about the landscape; their brightly covered heads map pins on the hills, chatter carrying on the wind. Accompanied by a rhythmic snip as their tools harvest those all important leaf tips. They are bound from the under arms down to the ground in heavy plastic sheeting to protect them from the all encompassing damp.

We had one night in Munnar to celebrate. To make up for our damp cell of a bedroom we had dinner in a ‘posh’ restaurant i.e there was wine on the menu - solidifying our choice. We feasted on prawns, calamari and salad, washed down with red wine as Abba played ever the speakers. We returned to the cell and listened to music on my dying laptop. Thank god we were a little drunk, sleeping in that vile room in any other condition would have been impossible.

Posted by saraintrep 08:11 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Happy Birthday To Me

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The problem is I don’t feel 31. When I say it out loud, I hear it but I don’t believe it. I knew this year was going to be a significant one for me – I couldn’t have known to what degree. I was dragged kicking and screaming into my 30’s but in an effort to make the most of a bad situation I faced facts and took stock - sorry but clichés are a must in times such as these.

So here I am on the eve of my 31st birthday. Here in India. It’s the first birthday that hasn’t had a huge build up, the first one that hasn’t and can’t last a week. Lucy and Michelle have made a huge effort to make it special. We have a plan and everything:

• Go see Chinese fishing nets.
• Brunch.
• Beauty Salon.
• Cake.
• One bottle of WINE.

We have sorted out the priorities as you can see. The missing ingredients are my heels and a new dress. But most of all I miss my friends.

Fort Kochi is a lovely little place, immensely touristic with European sensibilities. Hidden nooks, charming crannies, art cafes, quirky bars and on top of that it is also going to be the scene where my animal sanctuary dreams all get played out.

We got as dressed up, as much as it is possible to get dressed up when you only have one dress, no heels, a home-made haircut and a cunningly comprehensive make-up kit. We were ready to paint Fort Kochi all colours of the rainbow. Until 10.30 that is, when everything closes. Oh yes, a birthday to remember. Having ticked off all the items on the above list and adding in clothes shopping, we had only dinner to think about. I chose the quaint blue upstairs Italian restaurant, appropriately named ‘Italian Upstairs’. Like 17 year olds we had concealed in the bag a small bottle of vodka, have I mentioned that Kerala is a dry state? We asked Penny, ostensibly the waitress, if we could, providing we were very careful and didn’t get the place shut-down, Irish up our Fresh Lime Soda’s a little. We had a brilliant time, it felt just like a birthday. I will never forget spending my birthday in India.

And here the fantastic coincidence: Penny, who was helping out a friend by waitressing that night, moved to Fort Kochi three years ago with her late husband. After seeing the plight of the street animals in Kochi, they upped-sticks moved to India and opened a shelter. I couldn’t quite believe my luck. Did she need help? Yes, she did. What a birthday present! Part of my motivation to travel was to fulfil a life long ambition to do something more for animals. Research bought up many options for volunteering all of which cost anything from £600 – £2000 for two weeks. This way I will be genuinely volunteering my time.

I will be returning to Fort Kochi to help out in whatever way I can for one month. I will continue with Lucy and Michelle as Far as Hampi and then, somehow, make my way back. Sewing up the problem of where to spend Christmas and looking after needy animals all in one intrepid swoop.

  • On this auspicious occasion I would like to take the opportunity to say, loud and clear: “STEPHEN!”*

Posted by saraintrep 01:00 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Great weather For Ducks

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The houseboat trip through the Keralan backwaters was always going to be bittersweet. This was a trip that Nick and I had planned to do together and I felt his absence keenly.

There is no doubt that this is an idyllic, romantic getaway. Traditional rice houseboats, like friendly, rotund floating beetles, meander slowly through the canals and watery byways of Keralan life, as they have done for hundreds of years. Possibly the most beautiful scenery I have ever drifted past on a boat weaved from rice. Ok, its not actually weaved from rice, its weaved from coconut fibers, that are stripped from the palm fronds and go through a complicated softening system in order to then be weaved into boat shapes, but rice was more succinct.

Flanking both sides of the river, little houses each with a set of steps leading down into the water. Here all the important activities of the day take place: washing pots and pans, swimming, bathing, meeting neighbours for a catch-up on the daily gossip. The best of the Indian character seems to be here in Kerala. They wave at you from the shore, turning on enormous white-toothed smiles when you wave back. They do not seem to tire of the conveyor of gawping tourists snapping away at them as they go about their daily chores. The closest we came to anything like hawkers was when a fisherman pulled up alongside our boat offering us fresh tiger prawns and lobster. The laid-back lifestyle permeates everything, from the languid water to the graceful palms stretching towards the heavens and the morning mist as it rolls over the canals and paddy fields.

We had a boat-driver man and a cook, ensuring that we didn’t lift a finger for two days. Trapped on the 30 ft boat, even I was forced to relax. I had spent most of our days in Varkala marching back and forth between our hotel and whichever restaurant we were holed up in, making Michelle and Lucy dizzy! So, with no where to go and nothing to do, I was obliged to comply. We read, beautified, snoozed, ate and drank our longed-for wine.

Knowing three English girls could never go Keralan house-boating without intoxicating liquor we had found one of the fabled ‘Bottle Shops’ in Alleppy, the town where our backwater adventure began. Exiting the rickshaw outside the little caged shop we were drawing enough stares but when we joined the exclusively male queue, there were audible gasps and guffaws. Purveyors of all the best alcohol known to woman, we were ushered through to the inner sanctum, the rows of bottles themselves, and allowed to browse the shelves while the regular customers remained outside conducting their transactions through a wire grill gazing at three of the most despicable women they had ever seen, luckily we were dressed respectfully!

We were in Kerala during the second monsoon, the main one being around July, every year during October/ November they have another mini one, lasting about three to five days. Except this year due to climate change our mini-monsoon lasted about two weeks and in the end even I was longing for the rain to stop and to able to have dry hair and clothes.

At about 4.00 PM as if on queue, the blue skies and fluffy clouds transform into a glowering tempest. Sitting on our deckchairs and sipping really quite bad wine we watched the drama unfold. Lightning lit up the dark countryside like a strobe, creating snap-shots of daylight followed by thunderous drum rolls and the rain pelted down so hard I thought the river might burst its banks.

We had really hoped to see something more of the Backwater way of life but the houseboats are too large to go down the smaller canals that run through the villages. We decided that the best solution would be to hire a canoe and take a closer look. The three of us were soon safely ensconsed in a wooden canoe armed with cameras. The canoe-man promptly handed Lucy a paddle and we started to make our way across the main river. We turned down into one of the little canals, about 10ft wide, here we could practically see into the houses. It was so beautiful and serene. Greeting the people that we passed and hoping that would be enough of a courtesy to then be able to start snapping away paparazzo style.

Then, and we should not have been surprised, the rain came bucketing down. Lucy and Michelle both had a cough, we had no ponchos, and two fairly expensive cameras, but the canoe-man did have one umbrella. Soon our romantic trip through the village was more of a race back to the boat, with Lucy and Michelle drenched through to the skin, both taking it in turns to paddle heroically home. I was holding the umbrella over me as I desperately tried to protect the cameras from the deluge. I think that was the end of our battle to be dry – for the rest of our time in Kerala all our clothes maintained a musty dampness that seems to have pervaded everything.

Posted by saraintrep 07:58 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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