Plantations, Punting and Paragliding

Plantations, Punting and Paragliding

While many people will have spent Boxing Day enjoying their Christmas Day leftovers or going for a walk to shift that slightly comatose feeling that comes from eating too much and moving too little, James, Milly and I spent it on a bus. A fancy AC bus with windows that did not open, which wound its way up through the hills to the tea plantations of Munnar. A bus on which I was sat next to an elderly man who obviously suffered from motion sickness as he proceeded to throw up about 45 minutes before we arrived at our stop. Unfortunately he did not reach for a bag in time and his sick splattered, only slightly, onto my feet. Delightful. At this point I slightly envied Brennan who had chosen to remain in Kochi before heading straight to Alappuzha (which I’m going to refer to as Allepy because it’s easier to spell). Thankfully the phrase “things can only get better” was highly appropriate as the three of us spent a great couple of days trekking through the hills and drinking copious amounts of tea.

Considering we’d spent over a week doing very little, my body was slightly surprised at being pushed into hiking boots and sent on a 17km hike through the tea, coffee and spice plantations of Munnar. We started our morning at 7:00, when it was still pretty chilly, and walked our way through the tea as the sun was starting to rise and burn away the morning mist. Treks in Munnar have to be undertaken with a guide because all of the plantations are technically private property, so to walk alone counts as trespassing. To start with we all found our guide rather sweet and endearing, but by the end of the day he had revealed himself to be less endearing and more self assured, bordering on arrogant. Still, he was a wealth of information and told us a lot about not just the plantations but the culture of living in this part of India. The majority of people who work on these plantations are women, because they are the ones who do all the picking, while the men are mainly employed in the production factories with a few working out on the plantations to distribute the fertiliser. The women work from 8:00 in the morning to 4:00 in the afternoon (the men finish at 1:00) and are expected to pick 20kg of tea a day for which they receive 301 rupees. If they pick less than this their wages are docked and if they pick more they receive 1 rupee extra per kilo. They then go home and cook dinner for the family, despite the fact their husbands will have got off work many hours before. No wonder they were striking about pay! And no wonder Tata, the company which owns the majority of the tea plantations in this area, is so wealthy.

2 hours after we left our guesthouse we arrived at the highest point of our walk, over 2000m about sea level, where we stopped for breakfast and chance to take in the stunning scenery. The air up here was so refreshing compared to the pollution we had been breathing in the big cities and there was greenery as far as the eye could see. Sadly for my knees we spent the remainder of the day going downhill- weird I know to prefer uphill but I have old lady knees and they ache like crazy when going down for too long. Thankfully there was a lot to distract from the pain as we made our way through coffee and cardamom plantations, tiny villages growing all sorts from cocoa to bananas and multiple spice plantations. Our guide kept trying to shock Milly and myself by pointing out huge spiders and asking us to try weird and wonderful things he picked along the way. He totally underestimated his audience as neither of us are particularly afraid of arachnids- a snake or a bird and it would have been an entirely different story. We’re also not adverse to trying weird things- I ate a tarantula in Cambodia for goodness sake- so trying a cocoa bean before it has been dried really didn’t bother me. Not something I would recommend though as it’s much more pleasant when it’s been turned into chocolate.

Apart from our slightly controversial conversation about religion over our lunch, the whole day was extremely enjoyable, although I was pretty knackered by the end of it and my legs were crying out for a sit down. Thankfully we timed our arrival back in the main town better than the day before so all the tea shops were open. Our local tea shop, serving 20 different varieties of tea, sat opposite a bakery, so we rewarded ourselves with tea and cake accompanied by multiple games of 7s. We had visited the Tea Museum the afternoon we arrived, a rather stressful experience involving a massive row with a rickshaw driver, but the highlight was definitely the trekking (we all fell asleep in the museum giving an indication of how interesting we found it). Munnar as place however, is a must, and JJ Cottages a great place to stay if you’re on a budget- it’s bright pink so can’t be missed!

After 2 nights of mountain air it was back to the coast to pick up Brennan in Allepy and see what we could get in terms of boats on the famous Keralan backwaters. We’d decided a houseboat was probably out of our price range so went for the canoe option offered by our hostel, which allowed you to get off the main river and see the smaller waterways and the way people lived. Potentially this would have been more enjoyable had I not had so much Old Monk the night before, which meant the last thing I really wanted to do was sit in a little canoe all day and float around in the sun. Despite feeling a tad queasy for the first half an hour, it was a very relaxing day and the beauty of the backwaters cannot be denied. Apart from a minor mishap where we got stuck under a bridge, it was pretty smooth sailing, which is surprising considering our boatman let Brennan take over the punting for a while.

We spent a full day on the river, before heading back to dry land where Milly and I had an evening of Ayurvedic therapy to look forward to. We’d booked ourselves in for a Patra Podala Sweda massage, which involved being covered in oil and pounded from head to toe with balls of herbs, wrapped in cloth and heated, before being put in a wooden box for a steam. Yes it may sound totally random (because it was) but it was also extremely relaxing and much needed by my aching calf muscles which were struggling to cope with going from sitting on buses to long walks in the hills.

The plan after Allepy was to head down to Kovalam to spend New Year on the coast before we went our separate ways. After bumping into our old friend Tom however, we were persuaded that Varkala was the way to go and decided to try there instead. We almost did end up in Kovalam as none of us were paying proper attention and didn’t realise the station we’d been sitting in for 2 minutes was where we needed to get off. Thankfully we managed to get ourselves and all our stuff off before the train left the station because I think jumping from a moving train with all our luggage would have been beyond all our capabilities! All the excitement was too much for Milly who lost her balance when trying to pick her water bottle off the floor and ended up in a pile of laughter and backpack on the platform. Recovered from our hysterics she was able to get herself up with is a good thing because the boys had walked off in embarrassment at our breakdown. Chivalry is so dead my friends.

The small seaside town of Varkala is set along the top of a cliff with a wide sandy beach which offers absolutely no shade and was therefore not somewhere I could spend much time (the curse of ginger skin). We had hoped to have a go at surfing but the waves were slightly pathetic over the few days we were there so Milly and I had a go at paddle boarding instead. I have done this before, but only on a lake, and what with my centre of gravity issues I was unable to stay standing for more than a few seconds. Even Milly struggled as although the waves were pitiful, the current was fairly strong. It was good fun though and definitely counted as exercise which provided the unnecessary justification for all the cake we consumed while staying here. We also found ourselves a beauty parlour run by an adorable woman who kept giving us discounts on everything, so we decided to treat ourselves- it was New Year after all and to be honest our feet were so disgusting a pedicure was long overdue! Tinted, threaded and covered in beautiful henna we were ready to see in the New Year.

I always find New Year’s Eve never quite lives up to expectation, so this year I was trying not to have any and yet it still managed to disappoint slightly. Not that we didn’t have fun, but unfortunately there was a #metoo moment early on in the night which put a slight downer on the rest of the evening. Please don’t think I’m jumping on the bandwagon but I think it’s important to highlight that sexual harassment can occur anywhere, even in extremely public places where there are many people around. I remember having a conversation with a boy on my Spanish Course back in May whose reaction to finding out I was coming to India was “ha, you’re going to get raped”. Not only is this a horrible thing to say to someone but it’s always making a massive generalisation about an half the population of a country, and from what we had experienced so far, totally unfounded. Yes we were constantly harassed for photos but I’ve felt more uncomfortable on night’s out in Newcastle than I have anywhere in India. Until New Year’s Eve that is. It wasn’t so much that I felt someone touch my backside (that, I am sadly used to) it was more the fact that the hand aggressively pushed its way through my legs and attempted to go up inside my shorts. Yes I was wearing shorts. Yes I was also wearing a backless top but I don’t believe my attire warranted such invasive action by a man who was simply walking down the street behind me. Now I am totally aware this may seem like a mild incident compared to what some women go through but it left me feeling extremely uncomfortable and a little bit dirty that someone felt it was OK to touch me in this way. I have never been more grateful for the people I was with as Milly and Brennan made enough of a fuss that the guy in question was barred entry from multiple bars and restaurants along that part of the strip. We did manage to see in the New Year with a bang and I realised how lucky I was to be travelling with this amazing group of people.

Sadly our time together was coming to an end and after a final day together of playing cards and eating in order to feel less like death warmed up the boys left early to catch their multiple trains back up to Goa. After a month of being a foursome it felt weird going back to being just the two of us but Milly and I had decided the New Year started on the 2nd and planned to see it in in style. What better way to throw yourself into 2018 than by throwing yourself off the cliffs attached to a giant parachute?! Obviously we didn’t really throw ourselves, we were more guided by the French guy who ran the paragliding and actually knew what he was doing. Still, the whole sensation makes you feel like a bird and is a lot more relaxing than sky diving once the initial stomach churning has subsided. Said birds get slightly confused as to what your doing in their sky but it’s amazing to see from their perspective for once and the Keralan coastline is fairly stunning.

Our time with the boys had come to an end and so, as it turned out, had our time among Western tourists for a while. We were making our way into the relatively unknown state of Tamil Nadu to the Southern most tip of India and I was excited to get going again after the fairly slow pace of the past month. I’m not sure however, that we were quite prepared for how different Tamil Nadu is in comparison to very much set up for tourists Kerala.

TOP TIP FOR KERALA: Arm yourself with plastic bags when heading up to Munnar and make sure you sit next to people you know so as to avoid surprise sick sessions.

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Khristmas in Kochi

Khristmas in Kochi

The one place which everyone told me to come when I mentioned I was coming to India was the one place I was least concerned about having spent 3 weeks here with my parents when I was 18: Kerala. Travelling as a backpacker is, obviously, totally different to a family holiday but I was happy for the others to make the decisions here as I knew I had seen the obviously touristy places before. Our collective wish to be somewhere settled and central to celebrate Christmas meant we decided to spent 3 days in Kochi, which in hindsight was possibly overkill for this rather small town whose sights we explored in the first day. Despite being so far away from home we were determined to carry on the traditions of Christmas, namely: eating too much; drinking too much and having arguments over board games. All of which we succeeded at.

We arrived in Kochi the day before Christmas Eve and decided to get the sightseeing done before the Christmas period properly started. This time I consented to the hiring of bikes and despite our little adventure through the backstreets of the Jewish Quarter and a slipped chain, it was a very enjoyable, if sweaty afternoon. We started our little sightseeing tour at the Chinese fishing nets- THE symbol of Fort Kochi. These traditional nets were declared by James and Brennan, in their professional mechanical engineering opinion, to be highly inefficient and deemed in need of replacement. From here we pedalled our way past the dilapidated Dutch Cemetery, onto St Francis Church, where Vasco de Gama was buried for a few years. Our next stop was the highly unexpected Indo-Portuguese Museum, full not of the history of Portugal’s invasion of Kerala but of Catholic memorabilia, before ending our morning at the Santa Cruz Basilica. It was here Milly and I came to the decision that we do not like Indian churches. Meaning no offence, we just think that they look slightly tacky as they are often garishly painted in overly bright, simplistic colours and miss the tranquil nature that is evoked by their temples. The Santa Cruz Basilica was at least less depressing than St Francis which is not only less tranquil but miserable to boot.

After a necessary pit stop for tea and cake (it was elevensies time after all) we hopped back on the bikes and made our slightly unorthodox way to the other side of town to explore Mattancherry and Jew Town- I did not get us lost I simply wanted everyone to be able to take in the backstreets of the town. I completely forgot I’d visited Mattencherry Palace and the Pardesi Synagogue when I’d previously visited Kerala; walking round the Palace I had a very odd sense of deja vu. Unfortunately we were unable to visit the synagogue because it was a Friday and therefore closed to visitors. Not that we were that disappointed as by this point we were done with sightseeing and in need of some sustenance. Thus the tone was set for the remainder of our time in Kochi.

There are plenty of places to eat and drink in Kochi (as long as you are not looking for alcoholic beverages as these are much harder to come by) and Milly and I made it somewhat of a mission to sample as many of them as possible. Along with Teapot, Loafers Corner became a favourite haunt due to their deliciously rich chocolate cake and ridiculously huge peanut butter shakes complete with ice cream and topped with a peanut butter wafer (so much for losing weight in India!). On Christmas Eve Milly, James and I treated ourselves to a ‘gala’ dinner at the Koder House Hotel (Brennan was being a Grinch) which offered turkey and a tasty version of Christmas pudding served with spiced wine. It wasn’t as good as Mum’s but it was a sound attempt. The hotel was decorated with a substantially sized Christmas tree and the chairs covered with red and gold bows. Decked out in our Father Christmas hats we left feeling significantly more festive than when we arrived and headed back to the hostel full of much needed Christmas spirit.

Continuing our festive mood we rejoined the Grinch at the hostel to embark on an evening of rum and Monopoly. Not being a firm, family favourite in our household I was significantly on the back foot and was bankrupted out of the game after about an hour and a half. I was content to sit and watch the others continue the game, which lasted for about 3 hours, and the highly entertaining arguments that ensued. Is there a better way to see in Christmas than with full stomachs, full glasses and family arguments over why someone won’t sell Mayfair?

Having played Monopoly late into the night Christmas Day was a fairly subdued affair. We swapped our Secret Santas over breakfast at our favourite spot, Pepper House and both Milly and I were pleasantly surprised by how well the boys had done. It turned out to be a straight swap between James and Milly and Brennan and myself, which worked out well for the purchasing process. I have to reiterate that the boys did good, although I’m not sure how impressed Brennan was with his fold up hat…I thought it was great. Milly and I spent most of the day attempting to watch Love Actually on the hostel’s dodgy wifi before we all went out together for dinner. As much as I love a good roast turkey, the enormous fresh fish Brennan and I shared was definitely a up there with some of the best meals I have eaten on this trip so far. Having over exerted ourselves the night before, Christmas Day turned out to be an early night, despite the fact none of us were particularly eager to go back into our room. We’d had a visitor earlier on in the day, and one much less welcome than Father Christmas. Ours came in the form of a huge rat- one of the reasons we chose to go out for breakfast rather than partake in the free food offered by the hostel!

In spite of our little visitor, I think we all enjoyed our first Christmas away from home. We saw in Christmas Day in an appropriate state of merriment and the prolonged game of Monopoly certainly added an air of homeliness to the day. While the hostel may have been slightly depressing we made the most of the Kochi as a town and Milly and I treated ourselves to a Christmas Eve massage along with multitudes of cake and chocolate. It may not have been the most festive Christmas ever but it is one I won’t forget in a hurry and I couldn’t have asked for a better group to have spent it with.

TOP TIP FOR KOCHI: While we enjoyed our stay, perhaps 3 days in this rather small coastal town is a little bit of overkill- a day and a half is more than enough time to enjoy what it has to offer.

Anyone Fancy a Cuppa?

Anyone Fancy a Cuppa?

Milly always tells me that when you’re travelling for prolonged periods of time it’s very important to have rest days. While Goa could potentially be viewed as ‘rest time’ sleeping off the night before on a beach or zipping round the jungle roads on the backs of mopeds doesn’t leave you feeling particularly rested. We therefore made up for this by having 5 days after Mysuru of doing pretty much nothing except drinking tea and coffee, playing cards and reading. By the end of those 5 days James and I in particular were ready to move on but they were definitely necessary to prevent us burning out.

This picture gives the impression of someone enjoying a serene and pleasant journey does it not? Well this could not be further from the truth and I still do not know how Brennan managed to pass out so spectacularly on a bus that was throwing us several feet in the air every time it went over the smallest bump and was driven by a man who obviously thought he was Lewis Hamilton. Let me quickly tell you something that unites every single bus driver we have encountered throughout our time in India: they cannot drive! It doesn’t matter whether you are on a public bus or private bus, a seated bus or a sleeper bus, every single driver seems to forget they are in charge of a vehicle that is relatively large and contains upwards of about 30 people. They drive as though they are riding a motorbike with only themselves to think of and have no concern for their passengers being thrown around like clothes in a washing machine. Still, for those of us travelling with him and the passengers on board our connecting bus, it may have been preferable if Brennan had fallen asleep again rather than attempting to lead us all in a chorus of “The Wheels on the Bus“. While the bus driver found it amusing, the teenage kids on the bus were less than impressed!

In spite of the bumpy and awkward journey, Honey Valley coffee plantation was peaceful and quiet, surrounded by beautiful hills and out of earshot of car horns. We found Honey Valley in the Lonely Planet (of course) and I can imagine that under usual circumstances it would have felt much more homely. Unfortunately, we were not staying there under normal circumstances, as the family had recently suffered a bereavement and it was painfully clear they had reopened more out of necessity than actually being ready to once again receive guests. That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy our stay: the “backpacker rooms” where we stayed were clean and extremely cheap; there was a ready supply of hot water (a rare luxury) and the homemade wine and chocolate most certainly added to our evening entertainment. We just felt like every time we asked for something, like a coffee, which is not an unnecessary request when staying on a coffee plantation, it was a massive hassle. I would still highly recommend it as a place to stay but it may have been better for them to remain closed a little longer.

For me, the main draw of this place had been to get out of the towns and cities, breathe some clean air and go for some nice long walks. This was exactly what we did on our first full day. Two girls from the UK had arrived in the early hours of the morning and decided to join us on the morning stroll James had mapped out for us, while lazy boy Brennan stayed behind to crack on with Shantaram. Our walk turned out to be more of a hike than a stroll as it involved a fairly steep climb up a decently sized hill, but the views we got were totally worth it. There was so much green everywhere it made such a nice change from the dust and grey of the cities- even Hampi was dusty. It wasn’t the longest walk but it got our stiff legs moving and for me was much more enjoyable than the attempt we made in the afternoon.

Not that I didn’t have fun getting lost among the coffee plants and it didn’t really bother me that we never found the waterfall, despite the help of a friendly farmer who gave us some refreshing oranges from his garden. I was just in a small amount of pain having been bitten by some weird flying creature which caused my finger to swell to twice its normal size. In the end we gave up on our search for the waterfall and settled instead for an uphill power walk back to the plantation- a solid reminder of how long it’s been since I’ve been to the gym…

Both at Honey Valley coffee plantation and our next stop at the KK Heritage Homestay in Kannur, we spent a lot of time reading and playing cards. One evening in Honey Valley we formed a “backpacker table” at dinner consisting of our little foursome, the two girls from the UK and the couple who were in the room next to Mills and I. We spent a good couple of hours working our way through the homemade fruit wine and playing countless games of S@!*head, 7s and Cheat. We did not subject these newcomers to Brennan’s favourite card game “Ashlock” because it tended to bring out the worst in all of us. We reserved that for when it was just the four of us and spent our second day at Honey Valley reading, writing and playing with their adorable pack of puppies.

As all good things must, our stay at Honey Valley came to an end and we had to say goodbye to the puppies and embark on yet another crazy bus journey to cross the state border into Kerala. We were pleasantly surprised as the journey started off fairly serenely, winding through the green covered hills in the dappled sunlight passing the occasional monkey on the side of the road. These monkeys are a lot less cute when they are sitting on your bus bearing their fangs at you, which is exactly what happened when the bus stopped for the driver’s break. The majority of the passengers obviously disagreed with me and found it hilarious to feed them entire packets of biscuits but all I could think was “I’m glad I’ve had my rabies shots”.

I don’t know what happened to the bus driver on his break but when he returned he was more familiar as the crazy driver flying along the roads, tooting his horn and over taking everything from lorries to motorbikes. As we were speeding through these villages we noticed an enormous number of Communist flags and huge banners of Che Guevara’s face watching us as we passed through pretty much every settlement between crossing the border and reaching Kannur. Did anyone else know that Kerala had turned Communist? Because none of us had a clue…

No political news or news in general really reached us over the next few days. After the first night of strength, the wifi signal sadly declined although being off the grid doesn’t really bother me and Mills and it never affects the boys as they have sims. We were content with our new routine: beach in the morning followed by reading and cards in the afternoon interspersed with more cups of tea than is perhaps healthy to consume in the course of the day. We were also treated to some of the best home cooked food since Gujarat because the woman who ran the homestay was an incredible cook and pretty much assumed the role of our Mum for the duration of our stay. Fresh fish, coconut pancakes and still warm chapathis were just some of the culinary delights we were treated to and it was never too much to ask for tea or coffee.

While here, I had trouble sleeping past 5:00 so one morning I decided to get up and watch the sunrise. Mills joined me and as we sat on our balcony watching the beautiful sky change from pink to blue our host mum appeared with a tray of tea cups and a pot of tea. We’d finished that and started on our second before the boys had even surfaced which added to the peacefulness of it and was the perfect way to start the day.

It was certainly more peaceful than our second early morning where we decided to borrow the canoe from the homestay next door and have a little paddle up the river. For some unknown reason, possibly because it was early and we weren’t yet fully functioning, we let Brennan take charge of the steering. He turned out to be terrible at co-operating with whoever else was rowing so in the end he literally threw his oar in and James took over. Other than the minor incident where he crashed us into a tree, the return journey with him in charge was much more peaceful and the whole trip was a success because the canoe remained upright and we did not get wet. As it was early we also got to see the fisherman bringing in their nets and the birds were fluttering around getting themselves ready for their day. Other than the bickering and the sounds of the birds, there wasn’t a sound, a treat which I tried to savour as I knew we were heading back to the cities.

As much as I enjoyed the days of doing nothing it felt time to kick back into gear and make our way down to Kochi, where it had been decided we would spend Christmas. The man who ran our homestay assured us we had seats on the bus and didn’t need tickets because his sister’s brother was the driver. This did leave us feeling slightly skeptical but we were proved wrong as we all did get seats. The main issue with the bus was that we got seats. It was an overnight seated sleeper which are the worst kind of buses because you get no sleep at all and the AC is always too powerful so you feel like you are travelling through Antarctica rather than Southern India. It was, however, a means to an end and got us to Kochi in good time ready to suss out the city for all of our first ever Christmas’s away from home.

TOP TIP FOR DOING NOTHING: While participating in this unfamiliar activity always have a hot beverage to hand and never feel guilty about savouring the moment. Doing nothing is just as important as doing something.

Majestic Mysuru

Majestic Mysuru

Things have changed a lot since we started out on this trip; namely our attitude towards transport. We initially stated we would NEVER get on a public bus with all of our bags for more than a couple of hours and yet we now happily take them for hours at a time. We also swore we would never again get an overnight seated sleeper after the horrendous discomfort we experienced on our four hour journey from Ajmer to Jodhpur, however beggars can’t be choosers and that’s how we came to find ourselves on a seated sleeper for 10 hours between Hosepete and Mysuru. Ironically the 20 minute journey from Hampi to Hosepete was on a sleeper but this was less than comfortable and the conductor threw Milly’s bag in my face so I wasn’t at all sad when we switched buses. Despite having an incredibly numb backside by the time we reached Mysuru the journey wasn’t as bad as we expected and after a walk to the hostel to reclaim feeling in our legs and a much needed shower we were feeling relatively refreshed and ready to take on the sights in the 24 hours we had allotted for the city.

The city of Mysuru (formerly known as Mysore) has several stunning buildings which we wanted to visit during our fleeting visit, the main one being the Mysore Palace. The Palace is situated in the centre of the city and really is a very beautiful building. Once we’d worked out the rather complicated entry process and navigated the crowds we were able to take in the beauty of the place. For once we had done our Lonely Planet research before our visit so were aware that the main Durbar Hall was constructed in three different styles: Hindu sculptures, Western paintings and Arabic balconies. Being aware of these differences made them more easy to spot and so much easier to appreciate. Upstairs the halls were a lot more in your face and we didn’t need a Lonely Planet to appreciate a room that was decorated from floor to ceiling in gold. India most certainly is an advocate for the expression “go big or go home”

Being on a backpacker budget we decided against paying, in our opinion, the extortionate price to visit the museum and settled instead for a slow amble around the grounds before exiting in search of our next stop. On our way out Milly had a moment: all of a sudden she was flapping her arms, talking very fast (faster than normal which is saying something) and very high pitched. It didn’t take long for me to work out what had caused this excitement. Elephants of course! There was a small group down a path just by one of the palace gates, munching away on hay and having what looked like a little dance. They were chained which is never nice to see but they seemed to be being looked after pretty well if the amount of food they had was anything to go by. We never found out why they were there because a gaggle of school kids turned up and we made a quick exit before we were harassed for selfies.

Our trip to Mysuru consisted of just Milly and myself as the boys had chosen to spend an extra day in Hampi planning to meet us in Mysuru for our onward bus the next day because they are highly uncultured and uninterested. In hindsight this was probably a good thing as it left Milly and I to do what we do best: wander round haphazard parts of the town in the search of museums and monuments recommended in the Lonely Planet. Our first stop on this magical mystery tour was the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahlaya museum, which we assumed was going to be a museum about her life and work as a politician…We could not have been more wrong. It turned out to be another extremely random museum, the likes of which you can only find in India. This one at least did have an exhibition about the origins of India as a unified country which was quite interesting but there was also the usual assortment or mismatched objects and pieces of art bearing absolutely not relation to each other. We did have to laugh at how we find ourselves in these odd spots.

Next on our list was St Philomena’s Church. Having spent all of our time in Goa on the beach or the back of a scooter we ended up missing out on Old Goa, so as yet had not really experienced a church in India. It’s quite an interesting thing to witness and a perfect example of cultural appropriation as a way of imparting a new religion on an already highly established one. For example, the practice of removing shoes as a sign of respect when entering a temple has been carried through and so we were expected to remove our footwear when entering the Church. Can you imagine this happening back in the West?! The way the Churches are decorated also reminded us of the temple paintings because there is so much more colour in them than you normally see, even in a Catholic Church. In a way it’s quite surreal but if it made the transition from traditional Hinduism to Christianity easier then it was most likely a necessity. The outside of the Church was also undergoing a colourful makeover, which in our humble opinion made it look rather like Lego- not the most appealing look for a Church but then I’m not religious in any way so my opinion may not be as valid.

After a much needed afternoon nap and some serious research into Kabbinakadu and the coffee plantation (our next stop) we caught the bus up the winding roads of Chamundi Hill to visit the Maha Baleshvara Temple. While we may not have made it up in time to actually go into the temple we did get a pretty decent view as the sun set over the city and the outside of the temple was decorative enough to make it a worthwhile trip. It doesn’t seem to matter what monument we visit; it can be big or small, religious or just a statue but you are guaranteed to find stalls selling anything and everything from food to total crap. While marvelling at the business mindedness of the Indian population and attempting to get a different angled view of the sunset we were set upon by thieves. And by that I mean one of the many monkeys roaming around attempted to steal my water bottle. It really wasn’t that dramatic but it did make me jump and while I managed to maintain my grip I ended up throwing the bottle away for fear of catching another weird and wonderful disease.

Now I know what you’re thinking reading this: Hannah you have written a whole blog and not once mentioned food, are you feeling OK? Never fear I am about to discuss the best thing we have discovered since arriving in India…the bakeries and sweets. After my tussle with the monkey we headed back into town for dinner and a wander around the Devaraja Market where we were totally shown up by an 11 year old boy. To prevent him trying to sell us something we didn’t want Milly told him we were German. He then proceeded to list almost every major city in Germany to find out where we were from before adding insult to injury by speaking very impressive German. Although he was asking very basic questions Milly hasn’t studied German since she was 13 and so had no idea what he was saying and I was far too busy laughing at the whole situation to help her out. In the end we made our escape through the flower stalls and headed to the bakery to make ourselves feel better at being out smarted by a child.

Indian sweets taste mainly of sugar with the occasional hint of chocolate, nut or marzipan, which in my opinion makes them very close to perfection. It did seem however, that it was going to take more than a sugar rush to fix our sluggish brains as we totally bought Brennan’s story that he and James had been upgraded to a sleeper for their bus journey. The indignation we felt was quickly replaced by annoyance at the boys for winding us up but mainly at ourselves for believing their little joke. It was at that point we decided we needed to sleep in order to be back on top form for our reunion tomorrow and the most likely fairly complicated journey up to the fresh air and coffee.

TOP TIP FOR MYSURU: Be wary of mischievous primates looking to relieve you of your personal possessions.

That is a Nice Boulder

That is a Nice Boulder

They say in life you should do one thing every day that scares you. Technically I do because I walk past birds on the street every single day and for me that is terrifying. I think however, this is more about trying something new and different that pushes you outside of your comfort zone. For me that was bouldering for the first time in Hampi, THE place to go in the world for bouldering apparently. For those of you who are unfamiliar with what bouldering is, it’s basically rock climbing but on big free standing boulders rather than up cliff faces and involves crash mats rather than harnesses. I would advise against Googling it because apparently the results are far from pleasant and led to this reaction from my slightly over protective mother:

For a girl with centre of gravity issues and long, gangly limbs which rarely do what my brain tells them to do bouldering was a challenge but it was one I absolutely fell in love with and something both Milly and I are keen to pick up once we get home. I am extremely thankful that James was with us for this part of the trip because he is a bouldering pro and while it was mildly depressing how easy he made everything look if it wasn’t for him I may still be sat on a rock in Hampi unable to get down for fear of slipping and cracking open my skull.

Milly and I were in Hampi for two days and the four of us went bouldering twice; once in the evening and once in the morning. My fitness levels are well below what they were a year ago and so heaving my body up a boulder was a bit of a struggle. Plus the foot and hand holds were pretty much non-existent so there was a little voice in the back of my head reminding me the chance of falling was relatively high. I chose to ignore this voice for the most part and I was glad I did because the adrenaline rush of making it to the top of even a fairly pitiful boulder was insane. There is also a great sense of community among the people who boulder. It was awesome to watch people who have obviously been doing it for years scale the rocks so easily but also see how they worked out where to go on the more difficult ones. There was a little part of me that was worried they’d laugh us off the rocks for finding the baby boulders so difficult but in fact they seemed to find it impressive we were trying it for the first time in such challenging conditions and were great at offering tips and advice about the best way to get up.

Personally, getting up the rocks wasn’t the main issue. With James’ advice and a bit of momentum getting up was a challenge but achievable. Getting down on the other hand was a whole different ball game. There was a lot of hanging by the fingers tips on the first evening but for once my gangly limbs were more of a help than a hinderance as it reduced the drop. The next morning however, I got well and truly stuck. The others managed to slide down the obvious route gracefully and while I saw exactly what they did I couldn’t bring myself to do it. In my mind’s eye I saw myself slip and fall, cracking my head on the way. Totally melodramatic but once I had that image in my head it wouldn’t go away. Thank God for James who talked me down an alternative route while Milly and Brennan offered words of encouragement and stood with outstretched arms ready to catch me if I fell. Luckily I have decent aim and managed to land on the crash mats. After that I called it a day, content to watch the others take on the more challenging rocks. I may not have been a natural but there is something addictive about bouldering and a seed of interest has definitely been planted for the future.

If bouldering doesn’t sound like your cup of tea I’d still recommend a visit to Hampi, although apparently they’re closing a lot of the guest houses down, so check before you travel. The town is split in two with the boulders and majority of guest houses on one side of the river and the temples and bus stand on the other. The guys that run the boats are, like most men than operate transport in India, out to make as much money as possible. While I very much enjoyed our little trip over in the bamboo boat, I think charging 50 rupees was slightly extreme but then it was that or walk 7km round to the nearest bridge so they totally have the monopoly of the river.

We had planned to get bikes and cycle round the temples but I vetoed that decision because I am clumsy and the bikes did not have brakes so it most likely would not have ended well. In the end we haggled the deal of our lives with a rickshaw driver who took us around the multiple temples for 400 rupees. Apparently though, while waiting for us at the first temple, he decided it was not worth his while and abandoned us. Luckily there were plenty of others hanging around and one who was stupid enough to agree to taking us for the same price without asking what that price was. Needless to say he regretted his decision when it came to payment but by that point it was too late and we got an absolute steal.

The temples of Hampi are split into two: the ones you have to pay for which are really quite impressive and the ones you don’t which are not. We ended up doing a drive by of most of the free ones because a lot of them are just piles of rubble, but there were a couple which were more impressive. The Queen’s Palace with its line of elephant stables and the Sri Virupaksha Temple complex were definitely worth the visit. We managed to fit in everything we wanted to see in an afternoon and I’m glad we took a rickshaw because by the time we were done it was very hot, very sweaty and I was very hungry.

While the temples might not have quite lived up to expectations the bouldering certainly made it worth a trip. The icing on the cake was the film showings all the guest houses do in the evenings. For years I have been meaning to watch Forrest Gump as I know it’s a classic and people look at me as though I have two heads when I say I haven’t seen it. But if I had watched it, then I couldn’t say that I saw it for the first time snuggled under a blanket in Hampi, eating a Nutella doughnut and if that’s not a bucket list experience I don’t know what is.

Our short stay in Hampi came to an unfortunate end for me as after a morning of bouldering my body decided to have a break down meaning I wasn’t able to join the others on their bike ride to the river. Not only did it mean I had to spend the day in bed but it made the thought of getting on a 10 hour SEATED sleeper even more unappealing. Unfortunately it had to be done as Mysore and its palaces were calling, so I did what I do best: I took Imodium and took control (other brands are available). One government sleeper to Hosepete and one highly uncomfortable seated sleeper to Mysuru later and I was extremely grateful for the invention of medication which had prevented me having a potential accident…on with the culture.

TOP TIP FOR HAMPI: Find yourself a James to make sure you don’t end up sat on a rock for the rest of eternity.

Some People are Born to be Driven

Some People are Born to be Driven

In the not so distant past, during the turbulent days when I was learning to drive, I had a conversation with my cousin where we divided the world into two distinct groups: those who are born natural drivers and those who are born to be driven. Both of us belonged to the latter group and while we have since passed our tests and I now consider myself a fairly competent driver I am less than confident driving anything other than a car. My past experience with a quad bike has led me to believe I should probably not be let loose on a scooter without several long weeks of tutorage. Sadly the best way to explore Goa is by scooter and while Milly is a competent driver she did not feel comfortable with a passenger- understandable as I was a bit of a nightmare. Luckily for us we had made friends with a group of boys who were more than willing to spend their days buzzing around the beaches of Goa and were happy to take passengers. Mitch and Brennan were the two guys we’d spent the day with in Mumbai and turned up at our first hostel in Vagator about 4 hours after we did. It was here we also met our Kiwi friend Mark who spent his final day in Goa being Milly’s chauffeur while lucky Brennan got me for the next couple of weeks. What a treat!

If you are looking for beaches of beautiful white sand that stretch as far as the eye can see then Goa is probably not the place for you. If you are looking for sand that’s a little grey and bars serving cheap cocktails that stretch as far as the eye can see then Goa is more your scene. We started our Goa experience up in Vagator but much preferred the beaches of Palolem where we set up camp most days in a restaurant called Dreams of Palolem which sold good food and cheap cocktails-winner.

Milly and I did venture to northern Goa for a highly unsuccessful 24 hours. We were not fans of Arambol because the cyclone down the coast caused a storm which meant the electricity went off, so no fans in the room which turned into a sauna. After a terrible night’s sleep we slept through our alarms so missed yoga and it continued to rain all morning so there was no sunbathing. We ended up leaving the afternoon after we arrived but as we got on the wrong bus it took us the long way round and 3 buses later we arrived in Margao 15 minutes after the last bus had left meaning we had to get a taxi. Everyone else we’ve met has loved it so maybe we just got unlucky…I’m sure if the sun was out it would have been great.

While beach and bar hopping had their perks (241 cocktails being the main draw) the best day on the scooters was our adventure out to the Bubbling Lake and Netravalli Waterfall. I’m not going to pretend, the bubbling lake was a bit of a let down but it was hilarious because James (our newest recruit) and Brennan had built it up to be something impressive and it turned out to be a small pool with the occasional ripple. I’m sure it was of great religious significance as it was outside a temple undergoing major construction but to us it was a hilarious puddle.

The waterfall however, was anything but a let down. The drive up along the winding roads through the jungle covered hills was beautiful and I was even more grateful that I wasn’t driving because by this point I trusted Brennan’s chauffeur skills so could relax and enjoy the ride. This didn’t mean I didn’t grip on like a drowning person when I thought we were going too fast but for the most part I was able to relax. From the road it was a 5 minute walk down to the waterfall where there was no one around except a security guard. The water was absolutely FREEZING and I was quite impressed I didn’t have my usual hyperventilation- this bodes well for my summer of Canadian lake swimming! Once you could no longer feel your toes you got used to the cold and we spent an enjoyable afternoon swimming and practicing our yoga moves on the rocks- I definitely didn’t wobble out of the pose the second the photo was taken.

Getting to the waterfall had been fairly straight forward; we’d taken a couple of wrong turns but we’d all made it. The same could not be said for our journey home. It started off as Brennan’s fault because, as usual, he didn’t listen to my instructions and drove straight past the turning. On the second attempt Mitch, Milly and James went straight past the turning but we were at the back so took it hoping they would work it out and come and find us. After waiting up the road for a good 20 minutes there was still no sign of them so we made the executive decision to carry on and meet them at Space Goa like we had arranged. Despite getting horrendously lost ourselves and over shooting the exit of the park by a good half a mile we had a fun journey back with relatively little bickering which for us was quite impressive. By the time we arrived at Space (really good vegan and vegetarian restaurant just outside of Palolem) we were starving and had to order food or hanger may have led to one of us strangling the other. When we finally heard from the others we discovered that getting lost had been the least of their worries. Poor James’ bike, which had been sporadically cutting out for the past two days, had finally given up and broken down. Thankfully they were all together and had been able to get in touch with a mechanic who had sorted him out fairly quickly. We felt pretty guilty for leaving them but as they pointed out when they all turned up in one piece, what good would two more people watching the mechanic fix the bike have been?

In addition to the treat of being driven everywhere and letting the boys (attempt) to organise day trips, Milly and I used Goa as a rest from all the traditional Indian food we’d been eating. Not that we don’t love it but sometimes your body craves a fresh salad and with the amount of cocktails and Old Monk Rum (avoid if at all possible) it was needed to offshoot the negative effects. There are a lot of vegan and vegetarian restaurants dotted around the various towns of Goa because by nature it attracts the hippy/yoga community. Not that we were complaining as it made a delicious change from Palak Panner and Masala Dosa. The boys weren’t massive fans to start with but we dragged them to Zest Cafe in Palolem on so many occasions they had no choice but to like it by the end. I think between Milly and myself we went there about 6 times in the space of a week, including for Milly’s birthday breakfast. It was 3 times more expensive than we had been paying for food anywhere else but like a lot of other things such a dignity and self control, budgeting went out the window while in Goa.

Goa has been dubbed the party capital of India for a reason. It was the most touristy place we had been on our trip so far and the first time in ages we weren’t constantly asked for selfies; they’re so used to Western tourists we’re no longer a novelty. Back in the day (apparently) you couldn’t move for all night trance parties on the beach and a lot of the people who were partying here back in the day still come back every year. And they are still going to the trance parties. Trance isn’t really my thing but we did go to one while we were in Vagator and brought the average age down by several years- the DJ was at least 50 with a long grey pony tail but he was just living his best life so hats off to him. As with most party resorts, the government has started to crack down on the loud music, drugs and drinking that had become such a large part of the Goan culture. Luckily there are ways to get around the music curfew so parties still go on until the early hours of the morning making it the perfect place to celebrate Milly’s 24th Birthday.

The people in charge of nightlife in Palolem have thought of two perfect ways to get around the issue of sound complaints: holding parties in the middle of the jungle and silent discos. Milly saw her birthday in at Leopard Valley, which is an open air club out in the middle of nowhere. We then spent the morning scootering out to Turtle Beach, the only beach we found in Goa without a strip of bars along it, before returning to our favourite haunt Dreams of Palolem for recovery coconuts followed by multitudes of birthday cocktails. That night we celebrated in style at the Neptune silent disco. Personally I think silent discos are the best, most hilarious invention. Everyone is absolutely going for it and literally dancing to the rhythm of their own beat. With three different channels people were all over the place and we all had an absolute ball. We didn’t make it to early morning yoga the next day but as we’d been the past three days I think we were allowed a day off. It was Milly’s birthday after all.

Goa was not somewhere especially high on my list when we were talking about our trip to India. I knew it would probably make a nice change from having to worry about what we were wearing and would give us some time to chill out and work on the tan. It turned out to be an absolutely awesome two weeks and while we left probably more tired than we arrived it was totally worth it. We met some amazing people and increased our onward travelling crew from 2 to 4. Sadly Mitch had booked flights on to Vietnam but Brennan and James were coming with us to Hampi and potentially further. I’m happy to report that all four of us survived the sleeper bus to Hampi, despite the bus driver’s countless attempts to throw us from our beds as he tried to break the record for travel time between Canacona and Hampi. While we were sad to be leaving the sun and cocktails it was time to get on the move again and get back to the temples and culture.

TOP TIP FOR GOA: Find yourselves some lovely willing friends to drive you around. Even if you don’t mind driving a scooter it’s much more fun to let someone else do the work while you enjoy the scenery. Thanks Brennan!

Pit Stop in Pune

Pit Stop in Pune

Pune was not somewhere high on our list of places to go, if I’m totally honest I hadn’t actually heard of it before coming to India. We were however, intrigued enough by what we’d read since our arrival that it seemed a worthwhile way to break up the journey to Goa. This did mean another overnight bus, which seems to have become synonymous with me being absolutely DESPERATE for the loo. This experience is not pleasant when driving under normal circumstances but is even worse when driving through India as the roads are far bumpier and the drivers go at whatever speed takes their fancy- normally ridiculously fast. After several pleading interactions with the bus driver he finally pulled into a service station, which had some of the worst toilets I’ve ever used but by that point I was so desperate cleanliness was no longer a top priority. I was not the only one who needed to use the facilities but unfortunately one guy who got off the bus was obviously not as memorable as me because he was left behind…oops.

The slight delay this caused meant we arrived in Pune later than expected, but considering most hostels we’ve stayed in are used to people arriving at various times throughout the day and night we didn’t think it would cause too many problems. Unfortunately for us, Backpacker Panda don’t seem to be familiar with the etiquette of how to behave when people arrive at ridiculous o’clock in the morning: it’s NOT socially acceptable to ask them to fill in all their paperwork, hand over their passports before proceeding to give them a tour of the hostel. At that time of day you let them sleep and worry about the paperwork in the morning! As it turned out we weren’t going to get much sleep anyway as we unfortunately had a snorer in our room. Thankfully we found a place close by the hostel the next morning which did the most amazing eggs royale for breakfast giving us the necessary energy to explore.

Our troubles with transport seemed likely to continue as we struggled to communicate with our rickshaw driver where we wanted to go. After driving in totally the wrong direction for a good 10 minutes we finally booked our bus and with the admin out the way were able to actually start exploring the city. We decided to start on the other side of the river at the Aga Khan Palace, which turned out to be the most surprising stop of the day. We’d done limited research on anywhere in Pune other than the Ohso International Meditation Resort so were extremely uninformed about the palace. Not only was it set in beautifully peaceful surroundings it also turned out to be where Gandhi, Kasturba Gandhi (his wife) and Mahadeobhai Desai (his secretary) were held prisoner after protests in 1942. Both Gandhi’s wife and secretary died here while under confinement and their ashes are buried in the grounds. Even more surprising was the additional memorial of Gandhi himself, which claimed to contain his ashes. We had not idea this palace was quite so significant.

As I said, we really only came to Pune to satisfy our curiosity about the Ohso International Meditation Resort (otherwise referred to as a sex ashram). Sadly they’ve stopped offering tours, therefore the only way in is by paying the ridiculous fees and participating in the meditation and philosophy that sex is the path to enlightenment. The Resort follows the teachings of Bhagwan Sheree Rajneesh, a guru who started this movement. His ideas don’t seem to have been particularly well received outside of Pune,as he was reportedly deported from the US before being continually deported or denied entry from a further 21 countries prior to his return to India. We were distinctly underwhelmed by the sight of the ashram; it was an ugly black building full of people wearing regulation maroon robes complete with matching socks. You can’t even swim or workout in your own clothes you have to purchase regulation, colour coordinated attire . In fact we struggled to see what your initial registration fee bought you, other than the mandatory HIV test and neither of us felt any regret at not having the inclination to experience the resort first hand. Maybe it’s one of those things you shouldn’t knock until you’ve tried but as much as I like to be a “try everything once” type of person I feel like the Ohso Meditation Resort is something I’m happy to just hear about second hand.

We’d attempted to visit the park attached to the ashram which is free but only opens at certain times, which we missed. I think we might have been denied entry anyway as you’re not supposed to talk while you’re in there and staying quiet is not something either myself or Milly are especially good at. Instead we headed to the Irish Bar, purely because we got a discount from the hostel, and loaded up on nachos and beer. The food was good but disappointingly lacking in the desert department. Thankfully there was a cake shop up the road to satisfy our sweet craving but it also led to a interesting interaction with a supposed ex-army General who invited us to an Officer’s Mess party. Unfortunately (or thankfully) we had to politely decline as we were leaving but this meant he asked us for a photo which we now felt obligated to say yes to. This meant the guy working in the shop thought he could have a photo too, except he got way too close for comfort and reminded us why we stopped saying yes to photos. I would have run away but I didn’t want to compromise the safety of my chocolate, caramel and banana cupcake so I half skipped, half walked out of there and did not look back until I was round the corner. How we get ourselves into these situations I do not know- all we wanted was some cake! Thankfully our next stop was Goa, where they are much more used to Western tourists so we could keep ourselves out of trouble. Well as much as you can in the party capital of India…

TOP TIP FOR PUNE: Be firm with rickshaw and taxi drivers or you’ll end up having to hike miles with all your stuff to where you actually want to be because they think they know best.