Wednesday, 27 January 2010

An evening stroll with David and Anan

In the evening, when the day had begun to cool, I decided to take a stroll along the beach. As I walked I was approached by the usual array of trilby-wearing local drug dealers, restaurateurs gently plying for trade and the odd fisherman asking the most frequently asked question: ‘Hello! Where you from?’.

I then got chatting to Anan and David. Initially, I was slightly suspicious and curt with them, but it soon became clear that they were genuinely nice guys who just wanted to chat. David asked about Flintoff: ‘How is Flintoff? Is he a good guy? Is he got good character?’. I had to admit that I neither knew Flintoff personally nor did I know that much about cricket.

It turned out that Anan and David were actors who worked in Bangalore. They explained that it was hard work with 12-hour days. They’d been given 10-days leave and had come to Palolem for a break. After that they were off to Malaysia with work.

When I explained that I worked in advertising, Anan explained his sister worked in media also. She took jobs out in the countryside and was paid 50,000Rs a month which was extremely well paid for India.

I asked them whether they’d been into the sea to which they shook their heads and said no – they don’t swim in the sea because a lot of people get rashes. I couldn’t determine what these rashes were but they were adamant that they only swim in ‘fresh’ water. I decided at that moment that maybe I wouldn’t be swimming in Palolem!

The subject soon turned to why I ‘had no friend’. They were fascinated that I was 29, travelling on my own and not married. I explained that my boyfriend was in New Zealand and, with genuine concern for my age, they asked when we were getting married. I had to explain that in England, marriage wasn’t necessarily a given when you have a boyfriend and that I had to wait until my boyfriend proposed. Confusion washed over their faces…I think they found it all a little overwhelming. Anan explained that he had four sisters and no brothers; ‘They’re hard work’, he explained. They both laughed and said they were happy being bachelors.

Having walked to the end of the beach and back, and found a suitable restaurant with tables right out by the sea, I decided to say my goodbyes. They said goodbye and headed off down the beach.

It’s always refreshing when you travel to meet genuine people who demand nothing of you. Often, you’ll meet people and they’re after something: a relationship, your business, your money, your business for ‘my cousin who owns the best hotel/restaurant around’, to be ‘your friend’, to ‘learn English’, or the plethora of other ways people attempt to derive money or a marriage visa out of you. Whenever you’re chatting to someone, you’re always slightly on edge waiting for the conversation to turn to what it is they want. To be able to have an amiable chat with people and to be able to walk away not feeling done out of something is a truly great experience!

A very touristy Palolem

Palolem is touted as the best beach in Goa; for some, it’s one of the best beaches in the world. I must admit that I’ve been incredibly spoilt in life and spent time on beaches in the Caribbean, and Palolem, in my mind, just doesn’t quite compare.

When I arrived on the main road of the street leading down to the beach, the first thing I noticed was the usual rubbish strewn about the place. There were small piles hidden between buildings and an array of plastic bags and bottles carelessly flung out among the palm trees. The beach itself (given the sheer number of beach huts lining it) is reasonably clean and is given a once over every morning during peak season, but during the rest of the year it is often left accumulate rubbish (according to the LP). It’s a real shame that a state so dependent on tourism as Goa is, hasn’t got round to cleaning up its act.

In fact, sat in one of the restaurants on the beach edge, I watched as the Indian man sat next to me proceeded to wipe away the sweat from his face, arms and legs with napkins and, without a second thought, throw the napkins onto the beach. My anger got the better of me and I turned to stare at him and loudly said ‘Do you have no pride in your country? It’s disgusting that you throw rubbish onto the beach.’ One of his friends translated and they all burst out laughing – such is the maturity of some of the guys here. It is blindingly obvious that there is a real need for education to alter the habits of people here in order to protect the environment. Palolem has the potential to be stunning but the rubbish issue clearly lets it down.

On a positive note, Palolem does offer some much needed respite for weary travelers, especially for those heading down from frenetic north India. It is completely westernized with bars selling burgers and chips, roast dinners, pizza and pasta. If you’ve been eating curry three times a day for a month, it can provide a much needed break.

Whilst Palolem is the most expensive place I’ve been to in India, it’s still cheap compared to anywhere else in the world and offers people sun, sea and sand at a fraction of the cost of, for example, the Spanish coast.

Palolem also seems to attract yoga/hippie types so the place has a very relaxed feel about it – partly because many people are stoned for much of the day. Get up early and you see people walking with their yoga mats under their arms as they return from an early morning yoga/meditation session.

In fact, where I’m staying you can have introductory Hatha yoga lessons. I watched as a couple took part in the square of sand in front of our huts. Laying their towels out and placing incense sticks in the ground at four corners, they began their yoga stretches led by an overweight, white guy. There was something rather amusing watching a flabby, white, middle-aged, British guy with no top on lead a yoga class: for some reason, I’d always expected yoga teachers to have svelte, vegan-esque type bodies.

Onion bhajis, very little sleep and a rickshaw full of weed-smoking Israelis

At 2pm I found my seat in Tier 2A of the sleeper train to Goa. It was a 15-hour journey but I had my blog, a handful of postcards and a very big book (Shantaram – the cheesy choice of book to read whilst travelling round India!) to keep me occupied.

Plying the corridors of the train were chai wallahs, coffee wallahs and a range of different food wallahs – employees of the train company – who walked up and down calling out and selling their wares. It’s a very effective system. Unlike the UK where you either walk to the buffet carriage or see one person whizz past you with a snack trolley, here you could literally eat and drink your way through 15-hours straight. Coffee, tea, onion bhajis, cheese sandwiches, cold drinks are available to you constantly throughout the journey up until about 9pm when the wallahs leave you in peace to sleep.

At about 5pm, a man comes through the carriage asking whether you'd like dinner and offers you the choice of three or four dishes for 50Rs. A couple of hours later, and your meal arrives in a small takeaway container. I had hot chapattis and a vegetable and paneer dish to go with it. The food was piping hot and arrived at your seat for you to get stuck in to. A damn good service – Network Rail take note!

After the 15-hour journey, I stood bleary eyed outside Madgoan station. It was 5.30am. Taxi drivers, rickshaw drivers and motorbike drivers were all touting for business. I saw the pre-paid taxi rank – it was going to cost me 600Rs to get to Palolem. I wasn’t too keen to pay that much so I decided to think about it. There were a few other small groups of tourists hanging about so it was pretty safe so I did what anyone would do: I put my bags down and bought chai whilst I pondered my options.

Whilst taking my time drinking my chai, I'd noticed a group of guys who looked like Israelis stood in a small group. (It wasn’t that much of a guess – thousands of Israelis travel through India each year as it’s one of the few places they can travel easily on an Israeli passport. Chatting to one of the guys later on, he put the number at 20,000 at any one time).

I headed over and asked whether they too were heading to Palolem and whether they’d be keen to share a taxi. I was in luck! They were, and whilst they were considering taking a bus, my offer to add an extra body into the equation of the cost of a taxi perked their interest. One of them jogged over to a rickshaw van driver and came back to announce that we could get to Palolem for 100Rs each.

The rickshaw van was like a small van: it was fully enclosed with two benches facing one another. Piling up our large rucksacks into the passenger seat next to the driver, we hopped in the back with some of our day sacks. Surprisingly, it managed to fit the five of us in the back quite comfortably, which was just as well as we had a 1 hour drive ahead of us. The guys were very friendly (we did exchange names but for the life of me I can only remember Raff) and we chatted for a little while before the tiredness took over and I busied myself looking out the window as they chatted in Hebrew.

No sooner had we got started (by now it was 6am) than out of a day sack came a piece of paper, a little sachet of weed, a cigarette and a roll up. By the light of a mobile phone, with one of them holding the folded paper in a v-shape, I watched one of the guys adeptly roll up a spliff. Given that we were in a rickshaw and it was dark, it was an admirable feat!

Opening one of the windows – despite there being a breeze rushing through the van anyway – they sat and smoked their breakfast spliff, kindly offering me some in the process. I declined as, even if I was a smoker, I felt 6am was a tad early to be getting stoned!

After a long one-hour journey, punctuated by our driver clearing his throat and gobbing out of the window at regular intervals, we arrived at the beach resort of Palolem. I didn’t have any accommodation booked and hadn’t been looking forward to trailing up and down the beach with my large rucksack. The Israelis were great though, two of them offering to look after my bag with theirs, whilst I went with the other two to find rooms.

It was just as well they did look after my bag as it took us a good hour walking up and down the beach to find anywhere with room. The beach is a long strand of yellowy sand with a palm-fringed boarder in which wooden huts of varying size, colour and quality had been built. The few places we found were charging 1,000Rs a night – double what I’d been paying for accommodation elsewhere. The boys finally found a place that suited them housing all four of them for 600Rs. I didn’t particularly like the beach hut set up there (the huts looked particularly shoddy) so I decided to carry on. The boys very kindly offered to continue to help me look, which was very kind of them and very much above the call of duty. Shortly after, we came across Presleys – a restaurant and bar with a few beach huts set out in a small, sandy square. The area was clean, the hut was clean, there were a few piglets and chickens running around and they were only charging 500Rs: I went for it.

On our way back to the others looking after our bags, the two guys who were with me stopped to read a sign in Hebrew. I asked what it said and they explained that in most towns or touristy areas in India, there’s a Jew House and the sign was welcoming them to the house in Palolem. The house is not a synagogue but a place where Jews can meet, get to know one another and enjoy a Friday evening meal together. They explained that when they had travelled to one town and couldn’t find accommodation anywhere, all four of them had stayed in the Jew house overnight. It seemed like a pretty good idea to me! Unfortunately, the closest sense of community us Brits have in Palolem is The Smugglers – an English pub serving everything from Yorkshire puds to bangers and mash!

An introduction to the Indian postal service

I finally arrived at Prem’s a little bedraggled after my bus journey from Munnar. I’d decided that that afternoon I’d pick up a few souvenirs and lighten the load of my rucksack slightly, by sending a box of stuff home. I spent the next few hours doing deals with various stores selling a massive array of silk items and carpets. I was in a touristy area so it was obviously overpriced but as I had a window of opportunity to send stuff home, I thought I might as well take it and pay over the odds. After a lot of haggling I managed to come away with various silk table placemats, some cushion covers and a random patchwork piece that I’ve yet to decide what to do with.

The following morning I picked up some spices, packed my box and joined the hustle and bustle of the Indian post office system. Fortunately, Prem had forewarned me that I needed to get my parcel covered in material by a tailor beforehand, which I’d duly arranged. The tailor sewed material around the box and then placed a wax seal all down the seams to ensure no one tampered with it.

I arrived at the Post Office and stood in the parcel / speed posting queue. The man behind of the counter had decided long ago that life wasn’t worth rushing so he took his time with every item. The other ladies behind the counter sat twiddling their thumbs and directed everyone who came in towards the parcel queue. In front of me was a tourist who was also sending a box. As I stood behind him in typical Brit style, a couple of local guys came in and just walked to the front of the queue hanging over the tourist’s shoulders to try and get served. The tourist turned to one guy who was being particularly persistent and broadcast loudly that I was next in line.

As the tourist was about to finish being served, I positioned myself in such a way that as soon as he moved I had my box on the counter blocking the persistent queue jumper. I was about to be served when Mr Persistent started trying to wave paperwork in front of the counter guy. A very loud ‘Excuse me. Do you mind? It’s my turned to be served’ soon put him in his place and he shrunk away and stood and waited in line with everyone else.

Whilst I appreciate that queuing is not part of Indian culture, it can be infuriatingly annoying – especially as a female travelling alone as people feel they can get away with brushing you to one side. Rule number 1 in India: always stand your ground!

Silly trousers

When tourists arrive in India, it appears that instinct draws them immediately towards oversized, garishy patterned, hippy-esque trousers with the crotch down by the knees. It would be understandable if they were trying to fit in with local Indian style but, no, locals most definitely don’t wear them. The result is a bunch of tourists wandering about India looking like complete and utter wallies. I wonder what the locals must think of us!

A little too much vomit for my liking

It was time to leave Munnar behind and head back down to Fort Cochin for the evening before getting a train to Goa. A four-hour bus ride down through the mountains cost me 75Rs – about £1.

The bus was virtually empty when I got on. With the help of the conducter I managed to manoevre my oversized rucksack down into a little area next to the driver. From there I took a place next to the window on one of the bench seats that seats three people. Behind me was an Indian lady who was also sat on her own.

The windows had metal shutters that could be pulled down or released to expose a windowless window if that makes any sense. Basically, if your shutter was up, you were exposed to the elements. It was pretty chilly so I had my shutter down.

We started to make our way down through the mountains at the usual breakneck speed, the only conciliation being that the size of bus meant that physics wouldn’t allow two buses to pass by one another on the narrow mountain roads so our driver was forced to slow down to a near stop, giving passengers some much needed respite from the constant weaving and swerving along hairpin bends.

I occupied myself by acquainting myself with bus politics. Whenever men got on the bus (and it was mostly men travelling) they would sit anywhere except next to me or the one lady sat behind me. As the bus filled up, I began to feel a bit like a leper. The bus was full to the brim and I had a three-seater bench to myself or, if one or two men did sit on the bench they were very careful to be seen to be sitting as far at the other end away from me as possible. As soon as a seat became free they were up and away from my bench as quickly as they could be. Part way through the journey, a man and his wife boarded. Seating his wife carefully between me and him, I finally had some company on the bench.

My conclusion was that it was obviously deemed impolite for a man to sit next to a woman who wasn’t his better half. Looking around the bus, women naturally sat with one another; it wasn’t anything sinister, that’s just how it happens here…an unspoken rule!

The bus was soon full: not to cattle market standards but every seat was taken and there were a few people standing. Most people had their window shutters open, and for no other reason than for being a tad cold, I still had mine closed. I’d taken my jacket off but had it covering me up to my ck to keep warm as I was still a bit chilly. And what a fortunate thing that was too!

Three guys were sat in front of me and in my daydreams of life, love, the universe I hadn’t really noticed them. Suddenly, as we turned a particularly brutal corner, the guy sat in front of me who was obviously feeling more than a little travel sick, without warning jumped out of his seat and threw up out of the window. This act in itself would not have caused me much distress…had the bus not been moving at full pelt around a corner at the time. As the person sat directly behind him, I was to receive the brunt of what can only be described as ‘splash back’ – the unfortunate result of the vomit + wind equation. Fortunately, I had my shutter down so it was literally just splash back and not complete immersion.

The poor lad, who was clearly looking very green, received a lot verbal heckling from other passengers and a clip round the ear from the guy sat on my bench who stood up for me and his wife who also received a few bits of sick on her sari. My trusty wet wipes were soon out of my bag and the speckles of sick on my jacket (fortunately not on my clothes!) were soon wiped up and balance was once again restored.

No sooner had I got back to daydreaming when the sick guy's mate who was in the middle of the row in front of me jumped up, leant over his sick mate and proceeded to projectile vomit out of the window. I was prepared this time and with the speed of a ninja had my jacket over my face to protect it. And yes, I was the receiver of splash back number two. Again the bus erupted in uproar and the poor lad was grabbed by the scruff of the neck and dragged to the far back corner of the bus where he could vomit without causing anyone any problems.

Meanwhile, sick boy number one was still having a torrid time of it. He continued to throw up, receiving abuse and smacks from all angles. I had my sick shield action down to a tea and all I can say is thank God for wet wipes!!

Once we were off the mountains peace was restored and the boys’ stomachs obviously calmed down. The husband and wife got off the bus and a woman with a young child got on and promptly sat next to me. Whilst the bus was going full pelt, stopping and starting erratically, this woman was able to breastfeed her child. I was absolutely astounded at how she managed to feed whilst gripping onto the back of the chair in front as we swung violently around corners. Talk about feeding on demand! India will never cease to amaze me.

TV India style

The couple of times I’ve had TV in my room I’ve had a good look and I’ve decided that Indian TV is truly fascinating. Bar the news channels and the Discovery channel (which became my TV saviour), the majority of Indian TV takes the form of loud musical romance films with flamboyant, overweight, mustachioed male leads who sporadically burst into song and dance routines mid-conversation surrounded by beautiful women in glitzy saris. There is usually a couple of arguments to be had, some making up to do and then, inevitably, part way through the film, someone dies, resulting in copious melodramatic crying and wailing before balance is restored and everyone sings and dances once more.

The advertising – something I check out wherever I go – is also interesting. In the UK the likes of Dove and Garnier sell fake tan; in India, they sell skin lightening products. Every other ad on TV is focused on skin lightening – pale skin being a status symbol over here. The premise is that the lighter your skin, the less likely it is that you work out in the fields in the blazing sun thus you must be relatively wealthy either not needing to work at all or working in a higher-paid office environment.

Private medical insurance also makes up a large proportion of ads. Either there is no public health system or the ads reflect the inadequacies in such a system. Those who can afford it obviously opt to go private, thus private medical insurance becomes a heavily marketed product with companies competing hard for business. On a single channel (Discovery Channel!), I must have seen at least 10 different companies touting their medical insurance policies.

Other than that, it’s hair oil or shampoo containing hair oil and paint containing Teflon. :).

Christianity India style

Religion is a seriously big deal in India, and it doesn’t matter what religion you are, India will cater for you. And unlike the more sedate, subtle appreciation of religion we have in most of the West (bar maybe some of the fanatical Christians in the US), in India, religion is a vociferous, colourful and often slightly garish affair.

Take the Christian churches I came across in Munnar. On the hill was the Roman Catholic church – a large stately building looking down over the whole town. Down below, at the base of the hill was another Christian church. This church was an outdoor church: a white, fixed cross stood high and proud on a wide pole. Attached to the pole was silver bunting, which created the shape of a makeshift church roof. Beneath the bunting the priest stood.

At night – every night – this church and the RC church at the top of the hill came to life. And it was in no way subtle! The RC church on the hill had neon blue lights that created an outline of the church so that it shone out from the blackness of the night sky like a beacon. Down below, at the more makeshift church, a PA system attached to the roof of a rickshaw was set up. Out of this blared the tinny sound of an electric organ/keyboard and the unfortunate whine of Indian song performed on a very cheap and nasty mic. Small neon lights were hung around the invisible edge of the church and flashed every colour of the neon light colour spectrum.

Out in the street, life came to a halt. Rickshaws came to a firm stop in the middle of the road and people gathered holding candles to hear the sermon boom through the crackling loudspeakers. People had come from everywhere for the service and filled the entire road, frustrating those rickshaw drivers who were still trying to make a few pennies and who insisted on nudging the mass goers out of the way with their front tyre whilst simultaneously pelting their horns.

The following evening I was sat in the garden of Rheinberg Homestay when I nearly jumped out of my skin in fright with the sound of the loudest and, what must have been, the lowest airbourne fireworks I’ve ever heard. Intrigued, I headed down into the town to take a look at what was going on. A large procession was taking place on behalf of St Anthony (I’m not entirely sure why as that’s as much information as I could gather). The street again was filled with people walking in procession and holding candles. At the front, beneath a tarpaulin attached to four poles and held by four people, the priest led the way. Just behind him was a large open-backed truck. On the roof of the driver’s compartment was attached a large gaudy statue of, I guess, St Anthony. The truck was draped in coloured tarpaulin and flowers; a thin string of neon lights also made an appearance. At the back of the truck were (as you’d expect) a PA system blaring religious hymns and a collection of V.I.P’s. Again, traffic frantically wove in and out among the procession goers and yet they continued to walk peacefully with their candles not fearing for their lives whatsoever.

It was a fantastic sight to see, the colour, the culture, the clamour, the character bringing my vision of India very much to life!

On to the foothills of the Western Ghats

I headed to Munnar – a mountainous town renowned for its tea making. Originally I was planning to head there alone by bus but Mark, Phil and Sam decided to come with me (Walt had lost his passport and had had to fly to Chennai to sort it out!). We went by car on the 4.5 hour journey that took us from sea level to 1,900 metres. Hair-raising would be a bit of an understatement to describe the trip: take typical Indian driving, 3 hours of hairpin bends and a lot of overtaking in an underpowered car and you pretty much get to feel what it’s like to be stood outside those pearly gates.

Whilst Indian road rules – or lack thereof – leave many a westerner utterly bewildered, if you observe it for a while, you begin to notice a certain liquidity that enables cars to keep moving and accidents to be avoided. The horn plays an integral part to driving here: you sound your horn at every corner so that a car coming in the opposite direction knows that you’re there (and most probably on his side of the road as you overtake in a bend) and thus slows down; you sound your horn as you overtake someone so that they know you’re overtaking and move to one side; and you sound your horn as you come up to a junction because the chances are you won’t be stopping and others better be warned. When you get to a junction, there won’t be a traffic light to direct you so it’s first come first served, and if you are turning left or right at that junction, there’s no need to look to see if anyone is coming, you just pull straight out. Anyone driving along the road you’re turning onto will have anticipated you doing that and slowed down to allow you to pull out. From the outside looking in, it looks like utter madness but, in reality, as long as everyone abides by the same set of ideals, the traffic keeps moving and most accidents are avoided…there are a fair few very near misses that keep you on your toes though!

We arrived in Munnar about lunch time and found our way to The Rheinburg Homestay (recommended by an Australian couple who also attended Leelu’s cooking class!). It was slightly more expensive (by £2) than other homestays I’d seen but this was seriously stunning. We had huge rooms, a shower with hot water (very rare!), internet and, as we were perched on the hill side, we had lovely views over the town and the peace and tranquility you get from not being stuck in a town centre. What’s more, we were just a short 2 minute walk down a very steep hill to the town; the only downfall being the very steep walk back up! I was staying here for 4 nights whilst the guys were only there for one night before they headed back to Aus.

We’d just sat down to a beer when Ravi – a rickshaw driver cum tour guide turned up, brochures in hand, to advertise the various activities he could offer us. He was a decent enough chap but he didn’t half go on…especially when we were sat enjoying a beer after our frenetic drive! I agreed to do a trek (primarily because I needed to get some practice in before Nepal) in a couple of days time and that seemed to keep him happy.

That evening and the following morning was very quiet as the guys were beginning to wind down at the end of their holiday and weren’t particularly keen on visiting the area. The following morning, after a long debate on the nature of love (don’t ask!), it was time to say our goodbyes and for Mark, Phil and Sam to head back down through the mountains to begin a 28-hour journey to Australia.

The following morning I got up bright and early and met Sasi – my rickshaw driver for the day. He’d offered to give me a tour of the local sights for half the price the local tour operators were trying to charge me and I gratefully took him up on his offer. His rickshaw was very tidy with photos of the local sights displayed proudly inside. He also showed me with great pride a little book in which he’d collected various opinions from tourists on his services as a tour guide, all of which were very complimentary.

Sasi was a wealth of knowledge on the area. We left early at 8am and headed up into the hills. It was seriously nippy and I regretted not picking up my hat and scarf as I left my room. As we wound our way up the desolated roads free from other rickshaws and tourist buses, it was beautifully peaceful. We made our way up to a large lake that had been created by a dam. At this time in the morning it was perfectly calm with not a ripple in sight; on all sides were blue tinged mountains; rising from the surface, a soft morning mist. I took a few photos but Sasi was even more of a happy snapper than I and insisted on stopping every few metres so that I could take photos of the lake from a slightly different angle.

From the lake we headed passed the ‘Honey Bee Tree’ touted by the tour operators in their list of ‘sights’ that you see on their tour. Unsurprisingly, it was just a tree with a few natural bee hives in it – certainly not worth the money some of the operators were asking for.

After half an hour or so, we turned a bend to be greeted with a panoramic view across the deep valleys below, tea plantations spreading out across the horizon. Again we stopped for the all-important photos with the ultimate Kodak moment of me picking tea. Dropping down into the valley below, we passed bright pink and purple houses in rows, small churches and temples, a school, shops – all the trappings of a village except that this ‘village’ was part of the tea plantation. Sasi explained that the workers who work in the field are paid as little as 120 rupees a day (About £1.25) but in return they get a free house to live in, free medical care, free child care until the child reaches 4, free milk, fruit and eggs for young children and the women get 3-months paid maternity and then are only required to work three or four days a week if they choose.

Labour on the tea plantations is hard. New tea leaves are picked from the bushes every 10 days so as soon as one field is complete, another is ready to be started. During the dry season, the workers work in blistering heat; in the wet season they work through monsoon rains and leeches become a big problem. Mostly women work in the fields. Some use sheers to trim away the new leaves; others have large sacks on their backs to collect the leaves, which are attached to them via a headband strapped across their foreheads. When full of tea leaves, these sacks weigh around 40kg – three quarters the bodyweight of an average size 8/10 woman (of which very few of these women would surpass!). Tea plantations are usually on steep hills so the women are picking tea and carrying the leaves up and down very steep inclines making this particularly back-breaking work. After grape picking for only 4 days, I can fully appreciate the amount of effort it takes to get tea onto our tables. Next time you enjoy a cup of tea with breakfast, it’s worth bearing in mind the work that went into it!

We continued our journey up the mountain to reach a point on the border with Tamil Nadu known as Top Station. On a good day, you get stunning views across the valleys and tea plantations; on a bad day, all you see is a wall of cloud as the mist slowly rises from the valley below. I got there just in time. The clouds were still fairly low in the valleys so I got a stunning view across all the mountains. But as I stood there and watched, the wall of cloud slowly rose, blocking any view I had. For the busloads of tourists who were travelling up the mountain as we headed back down, there would have been little to see.

The following morning at 5am, myself and a NZ/Austrian couple met Ravi – our guide for the morning mountain trek we’d booked. I’d learnt from the day before and was fully prepared with hat and scarf as the three of us were bundled into the back of Ravi’s autorickshaw. Even with the canvas sides that had been Velcroed on, it was pretty nippy.

First stop, a chai shop and some very sweet, very milky tea to start the day. From there, it was a 15-minute drive up into the dark, misty, silent hills to reach the start of the trek.

We started the trek and made it up the first slope in time to watch the sunrise. Sitting on the rockface, we watched as the sun slowly peeped over the horizon. As we watched the orange ball rose, transforming the mountainous horizon from jet black to glorious pink. No sooner had the sun, in all its glory, freed itself from the clutches of the horizon than the eerie reverberations of an air raid siren echoed through the mountains: it was time for the tea plantation workers to start work.

It took us a couple of hours to reach the summit, Ravi insisting on stopping every few metres to tell us about a plant, to point out something in the valley below or to position us for the perfect Kodak moment. Ravi also had a mild obsession with finding Neel Thar – a mountain goat that’s only found in the Munnar region – and spent much of his time looking for them, pointing them out and insisting on taking photos of them with our cameras despite our zooms only achieving the vague outline of brown blobs.

At 8am we reached the summit where Ravi proudly dispayed the most amazing array of fruits for our breakfast: passion fruit, red bananas, green oranges (yep…they’re supposed to be that colour), pineapple and a couple of other fruits that I hadn’t seen or eaten before all made an appearance. Perched high (on the summit of the second highest peak in the area at 2500m) we sat and heartily tucked into the fruit with the mountain and the spectacular view across the valleys below all to ourselves.

Massage, manicure and masala

Today I decided to treat myself. Having heard a lot about traditional Ayurvedic treatments in India (primarily to cure pain), I decided on a full body massage. Now massage, as many of you will know, is not really my cup of tea, but having had a Thai massage in Thailand, a Turkish massage in Turkey and a massage in an original Roman spa on an island off the coast of Naples, I decided to carry on the trend.

I rocked up at the small house-like clinic and was greeted by an older woman who was the doctor in charge. I was introduced to a younger lady who was to be my masseuse and taken into the massage room where a large, smooth wooden massage table took up much of the space. My masseuse told me to undress so, in true Western style, I stripped down to my bikini, only to be told I needed to take off ALL my clothes. I looked around hopefully for a towel of any description only to be sorely disappointed. I suddenly felt very naked and more than a little self-conscious; it’s not often you find yourself totally butt-naked in front of a complete stranger. She noticed how uncomfortable I was and gave me a small piece of string, which she tied around my waist and from which she draped the tiniest piece of white material to cover my most sacred of areas. I was then told to sit on a plastic stool where I had oil rubbed into my scalp as she massaged my head.

After 5 minutes of a pretty good head massage, I was told to climb onto the wooden massage table and lie on my back. I managed to manoevre myself rather awkwardly onto the already oily table before the little piece of material - my final shred of decency - was duly ripped away and I found myself slip-sliding, utterly naked about the table like frantic beached whale.

For the next hour every bit of my body was pummeled from head to toe; even my eyelids got a massage. My boobs got the full works as did each of my finger and toe joints as each finger and toe was clicked in sequence, much to my dislike. It felt like I was swimming in a sea of oil as the masseuse manoevred me around the table to get me into the right position whilst simultaneously telling me to relax.

After a good 45 minute massage, I was then told that it was time for my steam bath. I was led out of the massage room completely naked with no towel, to the room next door. In this very rustic of rooms was what can only be described as a giant wooden box with a hole through the top. The front was opened up and inside was a plastic stool that I was told to sit on. The only problem was that I was slightly taller than the average Indian so the stool was a little too high and the box slightly too short for me, thus when positioned on my stool I was rather uncomfortably hunched over as my shoulders pressed against the top of the box.

At the back of the box was some sort of mini coal furnace that boiled water, the steam of which was piped into the box. The final effect is a rather uncomfortable steam box in which you sit locked up for a good 15-20minutes.

From the box I was led into a mosquito-infested cold shower to hose myself down. Unfortunately, given the amount of oil used and the number of mosquitoes sharing my shower, a quick wash down with a bit of soap was not enough to remove all the oil so it was soon back to Prem’s for my third shower of the day.

The experience was about as traditional as you can get but was worth every rupee; I left the clinic with a big grin across my face and feeling pretty damn good. That afternoon I decided to continue the pampering process with a pedicure and manicure. It cost me 200 rupees for a luxury pedicure and basic manicure…all of about £3. As someone who hates having to fanny around with nail files etc., having the opportunity to get my nails done at this price was well worth it.

Finally, to complete my day, I’d signed up to do a Keralan cooking course along with my new aussie buddies. Leelu is a veritable institution in Fort Cochin and her cookery classes come well recommended. They are held each day between 10am and 12 and 6pm and 8. You turn up at her home, take your shoes off then take a seat in her kitchen where you are given a board, paper and a pen. Leelu then begins to show you how to cook traditional Keralan dishes. She has a very good set up with a kitchen help who chops and peels the veg and keeps an eye on the dishes that are cooking whilst Leelu prepares others. That evening we were taught how to make a fish masala, a couple of veggie dishes and chapatti. It was a really interesting evening and Leelu certainly knew her stuff: one guy asked how to make mango chutney and she just recounted an exact recipe from the top of her head. As someone who can only really cook to recipe, I was amazed by her ability to recount exact weights and measurements of ingredients of various dishes.

The best part of the evening was the chance to eat what we had cooked. It was truly delicious! Not too hot or spicy, just brimming with flavor. What’s more, I got to eat fish which meant chucking my veggie diet to one side for an evening…it made me realize how much I missed fish and meat and confirmed that I could never be a full-time veggie!

Keralan backwaters

8am the following morning the divorcees, Sam and I hopped onto a minbus for the one-hour drive towards Alleppey where we, and a handful of others, were to pick up a traditional wooden houseboat for a cruise through the Keralan backwaters.

The backwaters are a palm-fringed network of rivers, canals and lagoons. On the banks, small villages grow spices or have thriving cottage industries in rope making or lime production. The houseboat is powered by two men: one punting, one steering, and it glides peacefully along the tranquil waterways. At times we’d turn off into tiny waterways that only just fitted the boat through and we’d brush past the lush vegetation draping down from the banks. Cutting through the silence every now and then were villagers practicing dance, children splashing about in the water or women washing clothes at the water’s edge.

At lunchtime we stopped for a traditional Keralan lunch. Typically food is served on a banana leaf. Placed in the centre are bread (poori, roti, chapatti or naan) and rice then dollops of various sauces such as dahl (made from lentils), pickles and milk curd are placed around the edge. Using only your right hand, you tear off a piece of bread or round up a small handful of rice before dipping it into one or two of the sauces and attempting to eat it as daintily as possible. Inevitably, food ends up all over the show so I’ve learnt very quickly to always ensure that I have hand wipes to hand before I start eating (it is very difficult to search through your bag for them when your right hand is covered in sauce!)

After lunch, we switched our transportation method to a traditional wooden canoe. Some canoes were large seating 6-8 people, others were smaller seating only 4 or 5. Again, we were punted along through narrow waterways, passing children splashing around in the water and women busy at work. Suddenly, ripping through the silence an autorickshaw with a giant speaker attached to its roof rattling over a bridge, government propaganda blaring out. As soon as it passes, peace and quiet is instantly restored.

We stopped off briefly at a spice village where we were given a short spice tour. Our guide pointed out cinnamon as the bark of a tree, the pepper vines and the fruits that house nutmeg. This was a very similar, yet shorter version of the spice tour I did in Zanzibar.

The Keralan backwaters are undoubtedly very beautiful and probably some of the cleanest water in India (throughout the whole tour I only noticed two shoe soles floating in the water) but having been spoilt with my visit to the Okavango Delta, if I were to recommend one over the other, it would most definitely have to be the Okavango. Nonetheless, the Keralan backwaters have been very well looked after and to see so little rubbish – given the amount in the surrounding area that you drive through to get there – is remarkable and a sign that at least in some places, India has started to do something about its rubbish problem and conserve some of its landscape.