Monday, May 24, 2010

Heading home

The 21st was our final day in India. We had a 7:00 flight from Cochin to Mumbai, which meant we had to leave Fort Cochin at around 4:00.

We started the day with breakfast at a cool little café that I’d found the previous day. I think it was called Art Café Cochin. Delicious French toast, fruit, and properly done coffee. A real treat.

We spent some time online, dealing with emails, then we did some more shopping in the local stores. We still hadn’t bought anything and we had limited success again. Those who we wanted to buy for would have to accept that they were in our hearts, even if we never found them good gifts. We did buy some postcard type things in one shop, but more because proceeds went to local charity than any other reason.

It seemed we’d run out of time though. Lunch was a quick bite at the Art Café, then back to our hotel to settle our bill and repack. Every item had to be shaken out properly prior to the trip home. We didn’t want any special Indian visitors joining us on the trip home. At 4:00 our cab arrived and we started the long journey home.

I had a master plan for the day. We’d leave Cochin on Go Air and get into Mumbai by 9:10. We’d then check in for the rest of our journey home, losing our big packs in the process. Then we’d go to a restaurant near the airport that I’d been looking forward to visiting for weeks.

We’d get there around 10:15, and the restaurant was open until midnight. After dinner we’d head back to the airport, go through security, and still have an hour or so to spare.

No such luck. Our flight leaving Cochin was a little late, but not overly so. Maybe 20 minutes. When we got into Mumbai we had to take a shuttle into the domestic arrivals terminal to collect our bags. When we got there I asked the guy at the info desk how to get to the International departures terminal, to check in. He asked to see my boarding pass or itinerary. I told him I didn’t have one, since we were on an e-ticket. Well, apparently there’s no such thing as an e-ticket in India, even once you’re in the terminal. You

’ve got to have a printed out itinerary, to show with your passport, to get through any security gate. The logic behind this is totally lost on me, since any idiot can print up a fake itinerary to show a security guard, since they don’t check it against anything. But there you are.

I walked away perturbed and annoyed, realizing I didn’t have many options. I did have my laptop on my, with an email with my itinerary, so I returned to the info desk to see if I could use that. The info guy said he was willing to give it a try and took me down to the army sergeant manning the door, to ask. They sergeant said no, paper was the only form of itinerary I could show.

The info guy said that if I could e-mail him my itinerary, he’d find a way to print it out. Fortunately, the Mumbai airport has WiFi. Unfortunately, I still didn’t have an SMS number to get access. But this time the info guy was willing to let me use his number. I sent my confirmation e-mail from Expedia to the guy’s Gmail account, and he went to their admin office to print it out. It was a huge pain, but I appreciated how helpful info dude was. His name was Parvez Perekar. I know this ‘cause that’s the gmail account I sent it to.

I had to wait about 20 minutes for him to come back and, while we waited, a bus came and took everyone waiting to go to International Departures away. When info guy came back with my print out we were issued two bus tickets to get to the departures terminal, but even with my itinerary there was some confusion. For some reason, when Expedia had sent me my “trip details” itinerary it said it was only for one person, not for the two of us. At the time I received that e-mail I’d checked on this and ensured that there were no problems, but now it was a problem. (I should have sent Parvez my original itinerary, but had forgotten about the issue and he was long gone now.) The folks that issued the bus ticket decided to overlook the issue, so we were off to the next terminal.

Or, eventually we’d be off. The folks that gave us the tickets told us to have a seat and they’d let us know when it was time to go. We sat down and, having WiFi access, I opened my laptop to muck around. Then we noticed that everyone else was lining up for the door to catch the shuttle between terminals. We realized that no on was going to call us, we needed to jump in line. It was about half an hour between each shuttle. By the time we got out of domestic arrivals and on our way to International departures we’d been there for over two hours. There would be no nice final dinner in India or a leisurely check-in.

The bus ride between terminals was amazing. It felt completely post-apocalyptic. There were large shanty towns built right against the security perimeter of the airport. We were going through twelve layers of security to just get into the airport, and I’m pretty sure five hundred rupees would be enough to buy your way into someone’s corrugated roof shack and over the barbed wire. This was actually a little shocking, considering India’s problems with terrorism lately. Just the day before Maoists (Maoists?) had derailed a train in the north and set fire to dozens of fuel tankers. Stupid airport security, like the printed itinerary requirement, drives me nuts. But the lack of airport security was perhaps even more amazing.

Our bus pulled over at international departures and it was proper chaos. Of course, people picking up friends and family aren’t allowed in the airport, due to their lack of itinerary, so they all congregate outside the doors. And there’s security to get inside, requiring a passport and itinerary, so there’s a line up outside. But Indian lineups are a special beast, particularly when everyone has a baggage cart with which to bash one another’s ankles. It’s like the last helicopter out of a falling city. It was an ugly sight and, I hate to say, we were part of the ugliness.

When we finally forced our way to the front door the predicable happened. The army dude took a look at our itinerary and only saw one name on it. “Where is Colleen Elizabeth” he demanded. We argued that his colleague at the departures terminal had been fine with it. (He hadn’t.) But he insisted on an itinerary with both names. (Damn you Expedia!) I thought I’d try the e-mail approach with him, letting him know I could show him the itinerary on my laptop. He nodded. So I whipped out my Macbook Air, waited for it to boot, opened my mail program and pulled up the e-mail. Now I was back in the chaos, but this time waving a laptop instead of a piece of paper. We had to run over a few ankles again to retake our place in line, but eventually he realized the stupidity of me waving a computer in his face and just waved us through. We were into the inner sanctum of Mumbai International Departures.

Our adventure had just begun, but it wouldn’t be so dramatic from here on. I just had lots of lines to stand in now. I was standing in the line to check in when I saw a guy who had just checked in walking past us. I did a double take. It was Matt Peskelewis, who I used to work with and got along with quite well. It’s a very small world when you run into people you know in the Mumbai airport. Matt was there to meet with his production people for his children’s clothing company. It was his third trip through the chaos of that airport in the past year. He stuck with us and guided us the rest of the way.

We checked in, only having minor difficulties this time due to our lack of proper printed out paperwork. Then was an endless security line. Colleen was pulled out, because the women’s security line had capacity. Not understanding, I tried to follow, but it didn’t go over so well. I got back in line.

By the time we finally made it through all the lines we had about 20 minutes to spare before boarding. We grabbed a quick bite at the international food court and I looked around the shops, hoping to find an India souvenir of some sort. Apparently Mumbai’s airport has decided to remove anything that would remind a traveler that they’re in India, only carrying generic global goods. So we were out of luck again. We went through at least two more security checks, then boarded our flight to Brussels.

We had a bit of a stopover in Brussels. Just long enough to grab a coffee and feel tired. But when it was time to go our airline, Jet Airways, announced that we’d be leaving late. Their computer system was down, so they’d have to be loading everyone manually, and they thought that that would get us out of there 45 minutes late. Except they didn’t start boarding until almost departure time, so by the time we actually got out of there we were already two hours behind schedule. Since we’d had an hour and a half layover planned for Toronto, we knew we’d now be missing our connection. (Jet Airways sucks. We’ve had four flights with them now. Two have been late by an hour or more. Boo Jet Airways.)

Brussels to Toronto was another non-event. Lots of movies and stiff legs. In Toronto Air Canada was brutally efficient at getting us on another flight. We had another meal and watched a bit of hockey in the terminal, then boarded our final leg, which is where I’m writing this final installment of our trip blog. The trek home has been a long one. From Fort Cochin to Vancouver it’ll be about a 39 hour trek. I’m looking forward to sleeping in my own bed tonight and maybe making some waffles for breakfast tomorrow. It’s been a long and very interesting trip, but I’m looking forward to being home.

If you’re twisted enough to have read all of our travel blog, thanks for sticking with it. I tend to write a lot and I don’t edit as I go. I leave out a bit, including the most personal bits, and things that might be insulting to others, but I include a lot of boring stuff, like what we did for lunch and how we got from point A to point B. That’s because this is as much a record for me as it is for anyone else. So thanks for coming along for the ride. If you’ve got any comments or suggestions, I’m happy to hear them.

Where to next?

A day wandering Cochin

The twentieth was our last full day in India. We had no plans, just to relax, see a bit more of Fort Cochin and enjoy a little more of India.

Our day began with breakfast at our hotel. Unfortunately, we lacked confidence in their kitchen, so it was really just toast and coffee. We then decided to do a little shopping to see if we could find anything interesting to take home with us. We trolled around the little stores in the more touristy area near our hotel, but didn’t come across much. Colleen and I had spotted what looked like some pretty cool shops down near Jew Town on our way to Alleppey two days prior, so we thought we’d walk over there.

We normally took rickshaws from place to place, but I thought that it seemed like a nice day to try to walk it, so we set out. It was a nice day, and it was interesting to walk through a more suburban part of an Indian city. Far calmer and more relaxed than other places we’d been and a good lesson on what other parts of this country might be like. Unfortunately, our map, or my navigation skills, left much to be desired, and we found ourselves fairly lost after a while. Eventually, we can across a road name we recognized and realized we’d been going south rather than east all along. I was in favour of walking out way out of it and Colleen was up for it, but our little stroll became a very long walk.

Along the walk children would often say “hi” to us and run off. Occassionally they’d be more bold. A boy on a bike would ride by Colleen and yell out “Beautiful” as he’d pass. A group of kids would surround us and ask us for a coin from whatever country we were from or a pen. In one of the last encounters with the kids of Kochin a group wanted to shake our hands, then they wanted to kiss Colleen’s hand. I’m sure it made for pretty good stories when they got back home that afternoon.

Eventually we made it to the muslim neighborhood, which neighbors Jew Town and the shops that we’d been looking for. We poked through the shops and they were rather fantastic. Loads of amazing antiques and likely things that had been made to look like antiques. My favourite items tended to be the great old doors, likely taken from local buildings, hopefully with the owner’s consent.

We didn’t find anything worth buying and it had been a long morning of walking. We caught a rickshaw back to our ‘hood, so we could lunch again at the same place we had the day before, Dal Roti. This time the proprietor was preoccupied with being a raconteur with another table, but the meal was still very good.

After lunch we headed back to our hotel for a bit, then caught another rickshaw back to the stores around Jew Town. More browsing, but no buying. While we were poking around one of the monsoon rains began to fall. It’s amazing the amount of rain that can come down in a short amount of time. It rains a lot in Vancouver, but never in this kind of volume. Within a few minutes the streets were full. I had fortunately borrowed an umbrella from our hotel, which provided a modicum of protection, and it was a bit of fun to dash from shop to shop.

We eventually ran out of shops to visit and popped into a little French café for a bit and a tea. Then we walked the route back to our hotel. It was an interesting walk along the spice road. All along the way were warehouses, big and rather smallish, full of spices and foodstuffs. Each place held its tea or potatoes or garlic or spices in great burlap sacks, and the road was a hive of activity loading and unloading shipments. It was a great walk, as long as we kept out of the way.

On the walk back we ran into English Stephen, who we’d met a week plus earlier on the train to Hampi, and who I’d spotted at a distance in Ooty. He’d subsequently teamed up with some other English folk, and they’d come to Fort Cochin. We’d run into him and one of his friends both riding their rented bikes earlier in the day, when we’d had to explain that there was no fort in Forth Cochin. This time they stopped beside us in the rain, both riding the same bike. They let us know that they’d stopped for a minute earlier, to get out of the rain, turned their backs, and when they turned back one of their bikes was gone. They were trying to figure out what to do and how much it would cost, knowing that a used bike cost about Rp500, but that they’d likely be charged many times that. When we ran into them later in the day again, this time on rickshaws, we asked them what they’d done about the bike. They said they’d dropped the one off and done a runner on the other. It seemed like poetic justice to me, since I suspect that the bike shop was probably the ones who stole their bikes in the first place.

Following our walk back from the spice shops we rested in our hotel and washed up. Dinner was in the courtyard restaurant of a nice hotel, where the atmosphere was great and the food was poor. And post dinner was another night of finding English programming on Indian TV. The TV program Castle has turned out to be a favourite of ours, even thought we’d never heard of it at home.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Comment on the train death toll

We watched a documentary on the Mumbai train system the other day, which we made use of when we left the city. It’s the main transportation system through the city and some days over 6 million people ride the system, at extremely low costs.

But here’s the thing – it’s totally overwhelmed by the volume. The population has swollen and the system’s capacity can’t keep up.

One of the main problems tends to be that no one wants to follow the rules in the stations. They’re all in a hurry to get where they need to go, so they walk across the tracks and down take the elevated walkways, which are admittedly a pain when you’ve got heavy baggage.

So, every year between 3,000 and 4,000 people are hit and killed on the train tracks in Mumbai alone. That’s 10 people a day that die on their tracks.

The drivers are told to stop the train, get the body off the tracks, then move on and report the body at the next stop. You can’t stop the train for any longer than that.

Granted, Mumbai is a monster city. It’s half the size of my country. But 3,000 people a year dying on their train tracks is insane. And, while not easily preventable, preventable all the same if someone really wanted to fix the situation.

Perhaps this is just one of many examples of me applying my cultural norms to this Indian population that is so different from my own.

Morning on the boat and the Dutch Palace

The morning of the 19th we woke on our houseboat. The AC had shut off a few hours earlier, so it was already pretty warm. The monsoons had started to kick in and we’d had a big rain during the night, so everything was pretty damp too, but it was a pleasant morning.

Our cook served up a big breakfast but, like most Indian breakfasts, we ate selectively. Toast, fruit and a pancake or two is as adventurous as I get in the morning.

Our boat got going and before we knew it we were back in the harbour where we’d started. We hadn’t actually slept that far away, which we’d been suspicious about since we could see the occasional headlight through the trees at night. We disembarked, caught a cab, and got a ride back into town.

We only had a couple more nights in India, so we thought we’d try another hotel in Fort Cochin that sounded very nice – the Ballard Bungalows. We called ahead and booked a room. When we arrived Colleen stayed in the car while I ran up to check the space. It was in an old converted heritage building and was very interesting, with huge high ceilings, nice patios, and crazy ornate beds. We took it and, since we’d only slept moderately well on the hot boat the night before, immediately took a nap.

When we got up we went for a late lunch at a highly recommended local place called Dal Roti. The proprietor was a very kind gentleman who was happy to help us through the menu. We had one of our best meals in India in a very relaxed atmosphere.

Fort Cochin has been a major southern port for centuries. Massive cantilevered Chinese fishing nets line the waterfront, each of which is manned by about 8 guys to raise and lower the net. The Portuguese at one time had control of the area and were subsequently booted out by the Dutch. Later the English had their turn. And, like any great port town, it had a major Jewish population. All of these influences came together to create a fabulously interesting environment, definitely worthy of a day’s walking around.

On the other hand, the monsoons had come to town and you didn’t want to get caught in them. They seemed to kick in in the late afternoon and last for a couple of hours. On the positive side, they certainly cooled the place down, making it much more pleasant to go for a walk around town.

When we finished our lunch at Dal Roti the rain had somewhat subsided. I had read about an interesting place called Mattancherry Palace, that the Portuguese had given (bribed) to the local Raja in the 16th century. The Dutch had fixed the place up later, so it was also called the Dutch Palace. I had expected something fairly palatial, and we were disappointed. It was a pretty beat up building, and all of the out buildings seemed to be falling down. A lot of the Hindu paintings on the interior of the building had been preserved, but many were only half finished and they weren’t terribly interesting. There was a smattering of museum-type pieces (e.g. clothes and weapons), which were of greater interest, but not much greater.

To be honest, the most interesting stuff in the Dutch Palace were the murals in the ladies bedchamber. These depicted Krishna, with all six hands and two feet, “taking care” of a group of milkmaids. Krishna was a stud, and this appealed to the immature twelve year old boy in me. It’s pretty shocking what they’d paint on someone’s walls a few centuries ago.

A rickshaw took us back to our hotel, where we cleaned up and went for dinner. We had a few places that we were eager to check out, but it turned out that most of them were closed. It was really the low season here. (I’m like that guy in the Capital One ads, who seems to only go to places during the offseason.) Colleen picked a place on the corner that she thought looked decent, largely because it had the most diners, which is usually a good strategy. This time, not so much. Dinner was terrible, and there wasn’t much else to do in town after. Back to our hotel, for an evening of reading and searching for watchable English TV.

A side note – It seems like there’s only 10 ads that run on English TV, almost all of which are awful. It’s just painful to see the same ad in every commercial break, sometimes multiple times in one break.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Boating the Keralan backwaters

The 18th was the day of our house boating trip in Kerala. I’d read about them in Lonely Planet and, when we’d been in Goa, our travel agent had been promoting them. We’d booked one through her and were optimistic that it’d be good.

Our taxi picked us up at 8:30. We tried to grab a cup of coffee at the Indian Starbucks knock-off, Café Coffee Day, but we were the first ones there in the morning and they couldn’t figure out how to run their espresso machine. Jumping back in the car we asked our driver if he knew another good coffee shop nearby. He stopped at the first restaurant up the street, where they served watered down coffee with loads of sugar in a plastic cup. I dumped it at the first light.

The drive was from Fort Cochin to Alleppey. One thing that gets confusing around here is that all of the cities seem to have two names – the first is often perhaps an English name (e.g. Bombay) and the second is often the renamed / original name (e.g. Mumbai). We were driving for quite some time before I figured out that Allapuzha was Alleppey, and that that was our destination. The drive was about an hour and a half, and when we arrived our driver seemed to have no idea where he was going. We were supposed to have connected with the boat operator Faisel, but every time I had tried to reach him I had only ended up with people who said they were “friends of Faisel”. It was all quite confusing, but I decided to just go with it and hope for the best. Eventually, our driver connected with a FoF, who met us with a rickshaw, and we found our way down to the boats.

We were pretty nervous driving through Alleppey. All along the waterways were loads of boats, in various states of disrepair. They ranged from large canoes with roofs, to tourist barges, to pretty exotic converted barges. One thing that LP said to do when booking a houseboat was to get down to the water and see what you were booking. We’d booked in Goa, so we hadn’t done that. We’d have to hope for the best.

Our rickshaw driver dropped us off at the waterfront that was covered in houseboats. They all seemed pretty nice, but huge. The guys told us to board the first boat and just have a seat and wait. Colleen and I weren’t even sure if we’d be sharing a boat with others or if we’d have it to ourselves. I thought I’d booked the latter, but the more I saw the more uncertain I became.

After a bit of a wait, we were told our boat had arrived. It was at the end of five boats that had been tied up to one another. (It was a very busy docking area.) We crossed the four and found our boat. It was terrific. It had an open bow, where our skipper would drive from, a large room with a bathroom for Colleen and I, a kitchen in the stern, and an upper deck for sitting and watching the world go by. It was just Colleen, me and our two crew, the captain and a cook. It was a great size for a day’s adventure.

We got going immediately, puttering along the waterways outside of Alleppey. They call this area the Kerala backwaters, and it’s an amazing maze of canals and waterways that seem to go on forever. If you didn’t have an experienced captain you’d certainly get lost. However, if you did get lost, there was never a shortage of other boats to ask. This house boating seemed to be a very popular activity, even in the so-called offseason, and on our way out we followed dozens of other vessels doing the same thing.

The boats were amazing. They’re designed like rice barges, and many of them may be converted commercial boats. They seemed to range from 40 ft to 80 or more. They range in design, with most having a main central sleeping/eating area, and an open bow. Many have top decks fitted with chairs and chaises. Some, like ours, have AC in the bedrooms to keep things manageable when the days get too hot, but the AC only goes on at night. And they’re all covered with woven palm roofs in various shapes. They’re quite lovely.

We spent the afternoon just heading up and down the many channels. It was a lovely day, overcast to keep the extreme heat down just a bit. Our cook put together a nice lunch of fish and various curries and local Keralan dishes. Afterwards it was impossible not to nap on deck as the world floated past. All along the shore were houses of the families that made their living fishing and farming in these waters, carrying on their daily tasks. It was a surreal experience to relax on our boat and take it all in.

Late in the afternoon our captain, who, like the cook, didn’t speak English, pointed to the shore and said “Fish market” and “prawns”. He seemed to want to know if I was interested and, knowing how much Colleen loves a good prawn dish, I agreed. We pulled over and bought 5 massive prawn beasts. I got robbed on the deal, and I’m sure the captain got a good cut, but it seemed worth it for a locally caught prawn dinner.

That evening we moored against one of the waterway’s banks. It was such a busy area that we were right behind another houseboat, which wasn’t really a bother except they seemed to want to watch loud Bollywood films late at night. Our cook served up a very good dinner of prawns, chicken curry and a variety of Keralan veggie dishes.

After dinner we retired upstairs, where we could watch the sun set and talk as it got dark around us. It was pleasant, although not perfect due to our neighbours. Eventually the lack of light and the abundance of mosquitoes got to us, and we retired to our cabin for the night.

A Keralan backwater cruise had been highly recommended by all the Indian guidebooks and they hadn’t steered us wrong. It was a lovely way to spend the day.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

To Fort Cochin

The next day, the 17th, was a travel day. A bus from Ooty to Bangalore and then a flight from Bangalore to Cochin.

The local western coffee shop was closed when we had to head into town to catch the bus, so we went off with no breakfast. That was probably a good thing, because the ride down from Ooty was actually worse than the ride up. Plastic barf bags were handed out at the start of the journey and the first was in use by the family behind us within five minutes. The rest of the three hour drive down the hill was a constant chorus of vomiting from all around the bus. The driver pulled over at one time so that bags could be disposed of and people could get their acts together, and I’d say 40% of the bus filed out. I was feeling better by this time, but for Colleen who gets car sick at home, riding a swaying bus with the sound of sick all around was a nasty experience. Power to her though, she made it without joining the choir.

The rest of the ride to Bangalore was uneventful. A movie called My Name is Khan played, about an autistic Indian guy who goes to America. It seemed pretty bad to me, and we could only understand the American portion, but Colleen thought it was decent. Then a shocking Bollywood movie came on. I just don’t get that stuff.

We caught a cab from the bus depot to the airport, almost an hour away. We were pretty excited about the airport though, ‘cause we’d been told it had good restaurants and WiFi access and we had a few hours to burn. We checked in but couldn’t find any signs saying which restaurants were where. We took a look at our gate area and it looked promising, so we went through security to see what was there. It turned out to be a bad Indian restaurant and a bad coffee shop. We went to leave that area, at which point we were informed that once we’d gone through security we couldn’t leave. Now, I’ve done some decent travelling and this was the first time I’ve encountered this problem. I’m happy lining up and going through screening a few times, but here I was trapped in my one little gate slot. We hadn’t eaten all day and we were stuck with little option.

We did the best we could to get some pre-packaged sandwiches down and tried to make the best of it. Next, I wanted to get online. I pulled out my laptop and tried to access the available WiFi. I was happy to pay for it, but it appeared to be free, I just had to give some info. Unfortunately, the info they required was my SMS number, in order to text me the password to get WiFi. I intentionally didn’t bring my phone on this trip, which meant there was no way of getting access, free or paid. Aaargh. Bangalore Airport I hate you.

Some poor airport employee had the misfortune of approaching me to do a customer satisfaction survey. I don’t think he really understood what happened.

We caught a Kingfisher flight down to Cochin and got in around 8:00 PM. From there we got a cab to Fort Cochin, to the little hotel we’d booked, the Raintree Lodge. When we pulled up we were met by Victor, the incredibly friendly manager. The room was decent and the AC worked – we were happy. We went down the street to get some dinner, but most places had closed at 9:00 or so, and it was now getting close to 10. But we found an Italian restaurant called the Four Seasons, which served some good pizza and pasta, and stuffed ourselves.

Not much happens on travel days on a trip like this, but they’re hard work. We went back to the hotel to get a good night’s sleep before the next day’s adventure in Kerala.

Flower shows and tea museums in Ooty

The 16th was a wonderful morning, since it was the first day in several where we weren’t ill and didn’t have to move. We ate breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant, which was tough because the only fresh items tended to be Indian and, while I love Indian food, I can’t deal with it for breakfast.

We spent some time in the morning online, then we decided to visit the Ooty flower show. I had read that it was the highlight of the year in Ooty and the hotel’s city guide said that it was one of the best flower shows in the world. While I really don’t care that much about gardening, visiting one of the world’s best flower shows seemed like an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.

We caught a cab to the botanical centre and we could already see that it was going to be chaos. We bought our tickets and headed in. It was a mess. There was a solid line of people moving very slowly past about 100 meters of stalls of some of the saddest flowers you've ever seen. Everyone was jammed in, pushing past one another, to see flowers that looked like they were grabbed from the bin behind the local florists. We had to wait 15 minutes to just get past the first line and then we were into open space, but there wasn’t much to see. More stalls of sad wilted flowers, a few installations of flowers stuck onto statues and buildings, and a map of India made of flowers.

Colleen was not amused. She was tired of being shoved and pushed around at a really rather awful flower show, with nothing to see beyond flowers that we get at our local florists at home. On the other hand, I was enjoying the irony of the whole thing and was rather amused by the badness of it all. To be honest, this was probably not the best mix of perspectives, and we decided to get out of there.

Colleen, not feeling well, headed back to the hotel. I wanted to see a bit more of touristy Ooty, so I negotiated with a rickshaw driver to take me to the tea museum. A point to note – I’ve discovered that in India, any time I think I’ve won a negotiation, I’ve actually lost.

I went to the tea museum with low expectations, and they were exceeded. The big sign on the building said Tea Museum and Tea Factory. The reality was that it was much more the latter, but that was OK. I got to walk through the process that tea goes through, getting from foliage to packaged product. It was a good demonstration, as the machines that were there were in action and tea was being bagged. And the place smelled great. I had gone all the way through the factory demonstration, had fought my way through the gift area that seemed to focus on products having nothing to do with tea, and found myself in the parking area again having completely missed the so-called “museum” part. I went back in the main entrance and found the museum hidden off to one side. It wasn't a museum but rather a series of posters explaining the history of tea. I realized that I could probably get a better history of tea just by looking it up on Wikipedia, but it was interesting to read the posters and see the history of the main industry of the region written from a local perspective. I was amused when I got to the section on the life of the plantation manager, where it mentioned him golfing at the Ooty Golf Club in his spare time.

My rickshaw driver had waited for me while I was in the museum. I jumped in and he took me back into town, to the Kebab Corner. I grabbed a late lunch / early supper and went for a wander around town. Being the off season for foreigners but the high season for Indian tourism I found it interesting being the only non-Indian person in a sea of people. I’m sure there was another white tourist somewhere in town, but I didn’t see anyone not Indian through thousands of people. It’s a strange feeling, coming from a place like Vancouver where even at the ethnic-specific festivals there’s a huge mix of cultures, to be here where there doesn’t seem to be a visible minority population. (Colleen pointed out that there’s probably a visible minority population within the Indian population that we just can’t see, which is probably a good point.)

I wandered through town, up to St. Stephen’s church, which dates back to the 1820s but was closed that afternoon (Sunday?), and made my way up to our hotel. Our bus out of town the next morning was an early one, so we were going to make it a fairly early night. I dealt with some blogging and e-mails and headed up to our room. I flicked on the TV and caught the finals of the world cricket championship – the World 20 Twenty – England vs. Australia. I watched about 60% of it, then decided to go to sleep. But I couldn’t get to sleep not knowing the final result, so I got up and watched with the volume off until the wee hours of the morning. Who knew cricket could be so engaging. England beat the Aussies easily, after some rather poor Aussie batting and an amazing performance by England's Pietersen and his partner, whose name escapes me.

Whacking balls in Ooty.

The 15th got underway in much the same way the prior day had – we had to find a hotel room. We had breakfast at Lymond House, packed up our stuff, and sorted out what to do. Money wasn’t an issue, the problem was that this was peak season for Ooty and this particular weekend was the Ooty flower festival, the highlight of the season. All of southern India had descended upon our little hill town.

The owner of Lymond House told us that she had a recommendation for us. It was called the Flower Cottage and, while she hadn’t been there herself, she thought it might do. (Not much of a recommendation when she’d never been there, but we were already pretty fed up with her by this time.) It was walking distance so we decided that we’d go over there and check it out, and if it wasn’t wonderful we’d simply go to the very pricey Savoy, just down the street, which I was certain had to be nice.

We walked over to Flower Cottage, where the owner met us. It was pleasant enough, in a tiny long-term home stay kind of sense, but not a good spot for us to continue our recuperation. So we walked back to the Savoy, which had to be nice. Right? Immediately after going through the gate I knew we were in trouble from the tacky children’s toys strewn across the lawn. They showed us a room, which was dark and musty and miserable and not somewhere that you wanted to be spending a day. We couldn’t stay there either. So money wouldn’t solve our problem.

We went back to Lymond House to figure it out and Colleen remembered the Holiday Inn that we had pooh-poohed before. I called and they had a room. We’d take it. We didn’t need to see it. We had faith that there would be a minimum standard to an international hotel chain. We packed up and headed over. When we got to the Holiday Inn we were incredibly pleased. The room was great.

I was pretty amused to look around the room 20 minutes later and realized that I’d be horrified to have a room like this in North America. Nothing was quite right and all was a little old and sad. But my standards are flexible, and I was very happy to have a guaranteed room for more than a single night that didn't smell and was mostly clean.

We went down to their buffet lunch for a couple of bowls of chicken noodle soup. Soup is good food when you’re not feeling so hot.

Then we got properly dressed and caught a taxi over to the OGC. Yep, we went to the Ooty Golf Club. I’d discovered it online a few days earlier and it sounded perfect. 18 holes with pretty good yardage. When we checked in they let me know that they couldn’t let Colleen play, since all she had for footwear was sandals. I wasn’t necessarily surprised, since it seemed to be the kind of place that would consider itself the last bastion of civilization in the region. But they were OK with Colleen walking the course, and she was happy with that.

I got a set of old rental clubs. They included woods that were about 20 years old and had tiny little club heads plus some old Ping Eye irons that, while aging, were still up for the job.

The next question was how many balls did I want to buy. They were going for 50Rp each, which is a pretty good deal. But I didn’t want to buy too many and have them left over afterwards. They asked me what my handicap was and, when I told them, they suggested 10 balls. I thought that was outrageous and went for five. Those who golf with me know that 10 isn’t out of the question, but I simply couldn’t buy that many prior to a round. It seemed like bad karma.

And we were paired with a caddy. Actually, we were paired with two. We started with one, but the first caddy convinced me that, since you couldn’t see much over the various hills on the course a second caddy that would go ahead and show me the line and spot the ball was a good thing. Since caddies were going for under $5 for the round, I agreed. It wasn’t the first time my caddy would try to scheme me and get away with it.

So we headed off to the first tee. I was hoping the five balls would do OK. We hoofed it up a small hill and got to a point before some trees and my caddy said “you hit from here”, then he teed up a ball. It was a 560 yard par five playing down hill, then over a hill, then off somewhere I had no idea. My second caddy was standing about 300 yards away, acting as an aiming point. The clubhouse was on the right and a stand of trees was on the left, with nasty scrub all along the ground amongst them. It was a nice wide open fairway.

I stepped up with my little driver. Took a practice swing or two. And tried to carefully drive it down the middle. Nothing doing. Pulled to the left, into the trees, and long gone. I tried to laugh it off, teed up another ball, and yanked it left, into the trees. I was now hitting five from the first tee. I tried to be casual, tried to be amused, and lined up a third tee shot, which I then pulled left again, into the trees and unfindable. This was not cool. 60% of my balls were gone, and all my manliness. I smiled and said “Let’s go” to my caddy. We walked forward about a hundred yards and he teed it up for me again – from the women’s tee. I hit a decent drive from there, but the damage was done. I’d lost all credibility.

Now I knew I had to buy some more balls. I hoped that what had just happened on the first tee wouldn’t happen again, but I also didn’t want to be half way through my round and run out of balls. So I said to my caddy – “I think we might need another five.” He popped into the club while I went ahead to continue the hole. My second (or eighth, if you're keeping score) shot was fine and the third/ninth found the green. When my caddy came back from getting some more balls he had a great big bag of fifteen balls. He said I should buy all of them. Now, I know I was bad off the first tee, but I didn’t need a total of 20 balls to play a round. (I hoped.) I told the guy I only wanted five, but he insisted I needed all of them. I said no and we left it at that, with him stuffing all the balls in the golf bag.

The Ooty Golf Club was very interesting. It seemed to have originally been built for the tea plantation managers and the subsequent English governors of the regions. Our caddies described it as one of two “natural” golf courses in the world, with the other being in Scotland. (Not true, but a good tale to tell.) By natural they meant that it wasn’t mowed, but was kept in shape by flocks of sheep roaming the course. The flock came into play on a few holes and I prayed I wouldn’t kill one of them with a shanked iron. As nice as it sounds, this means that the course was pretty rough, with big bare patches in some places and extra “fertilizer” laying about in others. Also, apparently the South India Amateur Championship was being played at the course over the next couple of days, so the greens had been taken care of. They were playing rather quickly, unless you were putting uphill, in which case the ball would stop dead immediately. And other greens were soaked with water, making them almost unplayable.

I played much better after getting off the first tee. I was never able to figure out the tiny driver, but all my other clubs came together. It was amazing playing at such a high altitude. The ball would go farther than it ever has before. I was reaching 210 yard par 3s with a 3 iron with no difficulty. For a golf fan like me, it was a great experience to play at such a high altitude.

One further note about our caddy. He didn’t seem to be terribly happy with us. After a couple of holes he got a call on his mobile (which went off in my backswing!!!) and seemed to have other thoughts. On the next hole he suggested that we didn’t have time to complete our round, and that we should move over to the back nine now. Knowing he was screwing with me, I declined, saying I wanted to play the holes in their natural order. He then said he needed to see someone in the clubhouse but would be back in five minutes. He asked if he could be paid for the balls now. I told him I didn’t want to 15, but that I’d pay for 10, just to be on the safe side. I knew I was being scammed, but I also knew I’d feel like an idiot if I lost a bunch of balls again like I did on the first tee and couldn’t continue. He took the cash and disappeared. I didn’t think I’d be seeing him again, and was pretty happy about it. The other caddy seemed much nicer, and happy to be out with us.

The round was a lot of fun. Crazy holes that went up and down hills, over gullies, and across one another. I got my act together and didn’t need half of the balls I’d bought. And, while I’m sure my score was crazy high, I had a good time. By the 15th hole though I was dying. We hadn’t eaten a proper meal other than soup in several days, the temperature was in the mid-30s with high humidity, and we were playing at 7,000 ft. I could barely drag myself through the final few holes and was very happy when 18 was finished. This was the first time in my life I’d golfed with a caddy, and I was so glad to have someone to carry my bag.

One final note – we did meet our scammer caddy again at the 9th hole, where he was waiting to rejoin us and get paid his fee. I let him know that we wouldn’t be needing his services anymore. He acted shocked, but I’m certain he wasn’t. I expect he pulls his tricks any time a tourist shows up.

I don’t think the Ooty Golf Club gets many western tourists coming by to play. But, if you’re in town, look it up. It’s definitely worth the trip, and it’s a totally unique golf experience.

After the round we caught a rickshaw back to the hotel. We were exhausted from being in the sun all afternoon. We cleaned up and ate dinner at the Chinese restaurant in the hotel. It was a weird place. We were the only ones there. Apparently all the Indian guests eat in the other restaurant, where they have vouchers as part of a package. And we were most definitely the only non-Indian guests in the hotel.

After dinner, we retired to our room where we watched the awful League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I wonder about Sean Connery’s selection of role’s sometimes.

Better times in Ooty

It seems that everywhere we went we had to move hotels. The first morning in Ooty was no different, but this time it was our decision. The challenge wasn’t deciding to move hotels, it was finding one with room. Ooty was crazy busy.

We started the day trying to find some food we could eat safely. Lonely Planet recommended a couple of bakeries that were unknown to our taxi driver. We ended up wandering around until we stumbled upon one of them. Again, LP misled us, this place was not the hub of activity they had mentioned, but we ate what they had – egg buns and veggie puffs, to try to get some energy.

We next went to a local web café (but without the café bit) to try to find a place to stay. We called several hotels, but almost none had any room, other than the Holiday Inn, which wasn’t inspiring to us, or the very high end Savoy, which sounded OK. Eventually we reached a place mentioned in LP that we hadn’t been too excited by the description of, called Lymond House. We asked if they had a room for a couple of nights and they said yes! Victory!

When we arrived to check out the room it was perfectly lovely. It was an old converted home with several suites with great big, very clean, modern bathrooms. It had fireplaces, comfortable beds and a restaurant opening onto pleasant gardens and serving stomach friendly foods like potato leak soup. We were thrilled.

We checked out of our original hotel and moved over to Lymond House. We had a nice lunch of pumpkin ginger soup and cleaned ourselves up. We started to feel human for the first time in days. We had considered taking the mini-train down the hill from Ooty on our departure and mentioned this to the house manager. He let us know that it was closed, and that we should book our bus out of town as soon as possible, as things were filling up fast, so we headed down to the bus depot.

The bus station is pretty nasty. And buying a ticket is a matter of figuring out which stall does what. And it’s a competitive process. But we made it through and had a ticket out of town for 6:45 AM on Monday morning, in time to get us to Bangalore for our flight to Cochin.

After that we returned to Lymond and relaxed. We asked them if we could stay an extra night, since we’d only booked the two nights when we first arrived, and the booking person let us know that he’d find out and get back to us.

We had dinner at Lymond House that evening. Lamb chops for me and quiche for Colleen. They put on some music for dinner atmosphere – Leonard Cohen. It was all a little surreal and very nice. (I asked the manager why Cohen. She responded that he was very popular “amongst a certain type of person”. This woman put the snooty back into Ooty. Charming at first, a little later it was painfully arrogant.)

After dinner, not having heard back from the booking person as to the extra night, I found the manager. She looked very awkward when she let us know that they had screwed up on the bookings and that not only could we not stay the third night, we couldn’t stay the next night either. I couldn’t believe it - someone wanted us to move again.

Now, if something like this happened in North America I’d probably tell the hotel to go to hell. I was already in the room and wasn’t going anywhere. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel up for the fight, nor did I feel good about the security of our stuff if we stayed and then went out to explore Ooty. So, we were screwed, we’d have to find another place. We’d take care of that in the morning, we still had one night in the no-longer-quite-so-lovely Lymond House.

The Road to Ooty

The next day began with our bus pulling into the station in Bangalore. Not surprisingly, we both still felt miserable. We hadn’t had any food stay in our bodies, apart from 7-Up and Fanta, for over two days and we hadn’t slept properly for two nights. I pulled out my handy Lonely Planet and found the best hotel within a very short distance of the station. Frankly, it wasn’t a very good hotel, but it was close and it was clean and we were only going to be there for a few hours before the next leg of our trip.

We checked in and crashed right back to bed. A few hours later, around noon, we woke. We were famished but not sure if we could keep anything down. And the idea of Indian food was somewhat horrifying. Thankfully we were in a global tech hub, so global companies had opened up there. We found a cab and caught a ride to one of four Bangalore McDonald’s.

Of course, McDonald’s in India is a little different. First, there’s no beef. So we ordered a couple of McChicken’s. And they have to cook the fries a little differently, since I think that beef tallow (what the hell is tallow?) is still used in McD’s’ oil around the world. But it was relatively edible food. Of course, we couldn’t eat our entire meal. Just a few bites here and there. But it was a step.

Or not. As soon as we got back to our room Colleen had to forfeit her lunch. Back to square one. But I got to keep mine.

We had to keep slogging on. We caught a rickshaw to the bus station, which was right across the street from our hotel, ‘cause we were feeling that weak. We found platform seven and waited for our nice AC Volvo bus to Ooty to arrive. I had specially booked seats 1 and 2 right behind the driver so that we could have a great view through the trip up into the Nilgiri Hills and enjoy the sights. Unfortunately, when our bus arrived it turned out that those were the two spots that had absolutely no leg room. We’d be cramped in on this 11 hour drive.

(By the way – in case you’re wondering – buses in India, and in all other non-western countries to which we’ve travelled, don’t have bathrooms. You get sick, it’s a problem. You have other issues, which I had but haven’t documented in this travelogue, it’s a problem.)

It was a long drive. I can usually read while on a trip, but not in my condition. The seats were cramped, but it had been a good call to book the front, where we could enjoy the view and where we weren’t as likely to get ill from the motion. We went through Mysore and then on to Ooty. We made a final stop at a small diner beside the road about 5 or 6 hours into the ride. I had told the gentlemen who ran the hotel we’d be staying at in Ooty that I’d call before we left Bangalore telling him when we’d be getting in. Unfortunately, the phone lines were never working. (A surprisingly common problem in a country that is supposed to be a tech hub.) At the rest stop I was able to get four older gentlemen to pull out their mobile phones and see if they could figure out how to call my hotel's number. It seems overly complex for even Indians to figure out which prefixes need to be used and how many digits. But eventually, thanks to the old dudes in their lawn chairs at the rest stop, I got through and let the hotel know that we’d be arriving very late.

(An aside – Everyone in India has a mobile phone. This, in itself, isn’t surprising. But it seems to cause challenges for those of us who don’t have a phone on them and, as a result, don’t have an SMS number. One gentleman couldn’t seem to figure out how to book me a bus ticket without an SMS number until I showed him how to uncheck the box on his computer. And in one of our hotels it wouldn’t let me sign up for WiFi access unless I gave them my SMS number. It has become an automatic assumption, like having a home address.)

It turned out that the rest area was the last stop before the great push to Ooty. After that point the road became ridiculous. We were on a giant Volvo bus going around hairpin turns, one after another, for hours. At one point we hit a stretch that was down to a single land of incredibly uneven pavement. I said to Colleen “At least we don’t have to deal with oncoming traffic anymore.” I’m such an ignorant foreigner. It was still two lanes, and there were large vehicles coming the other way that had to negotiate with our bus.

We only had to stop a few times to back up to let other vehicles by. Our bus driver believed that might made right, and that he should be blowing past everyone. It was actually a pretty amazing driving feat. Of course, we had just spent the past two days being ill, so a drive like this wasn’t the best thing for us. Fortunately for us, we had no food in our stomachs to lose. (We hadn’t even thought about chancing the road side restaurant.) But the others on the bus started getting ill, including the guy sitting right behind us. So we had to sit on this lurching vehicle with the sound of yakking in our ear as we fought to control our “issues”. The lovely part is that when someone’s sick bag became full they would go to the front of the bus and chuck the clear bag out the driver’s window. Nasty!

Speaking of littering, my favourite surreal part of the trip came when we went through the checkpoint that led our bus into a national park. There are signs all over the place that plastic is banned in the parks. (Plastic is banned. Littering doesn’t seem to be. Bizarre.) When we first got on the bus they had given everyone a plastic water bottle, so everyone on the bus had at least one plastic bottle. Colleen and I probably had six between us. So when we got to the checkpoint the park plastic police had a few words with our driver, who then passed them a solitary water bottle that he’d had at hand for just that purpose, then we drove on. I said out loud “You’ve got to be kidding me!” and Colleen gave me a big Sshhhhh. (It’s sad. I believe that India is likely the most litter filled country I’ve been to. But they seem to want to make plastic the evil in a few parks that they want to keep clean. There’s no focus on behaviour, just plastic. It's like making guns illegal but still letting people kill one another. I must be missing a cultural thing here somewhere.)

Apart from the crazy curves and death defying passing the drive through the park area was pretty cool. We passed three or four elephants just hanging out by the side of the road. It’s also tiger territory, but we didn’t see any of them.

So we finally pull into Ooty on our now very gross bus and are so happy to be done. We’ve survived the ordeal and made it to what is reported to be a very peaceful “hill station”. It’s late, but we got in a lot earlier than first planned due to our driver's technique. We get a rickshaw to the hotel we’d booked. It’s down a lavender lined lane and I have high hopes. We get there and meet the proprietor, who is a lovely older man whose kids live in Seattle. He’s been to Vancouver and we have a nice chat. Then we go to our room. Disaster. Lonely Planet had said that the rooms “carry a whiff of age and colonial class”. The only whiff these rooms carried was the whiff of their bathrooms. They may have been clean, but they certainly weren’t sanitary. And the colonial class was completely missing, unless you find rock hard beds classy and colonial.

I was crushed. It was the end of another long day. It was too late and we were too exhausted to find an alternative. Colleen was an amazing trooper. She kept an upbeat attitude, fixing up the bed with the blankets that appeared OK and just staying positive, even when I knew she felt like death. I couldn’t have appreciated her attitude more since I was pretty much finished with travelling at that point. I was thinking that maybe I’m just too old to deal with this stuff anymore. It was perhaps the first time in any of my trips when I’ve been ready to pack it in and just head home.

We slept poorly and fully clothed to try to minimize contact with the bed. I woke up around 5:00 determined that the first thing we’d do the next morning was find a great place to stay, whatever it took.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Gettin' the hell out of Hampi

Morning came to Hampi and the prayers to the porcelain gods had started to subside. Colleen and I were both completely exhausted. I felt like I’d lost a fight with my intestines.

I stumbled down to the reception area, where they looked at me in terror. The first thing the manager said to me was “You need to go to the hospital.” I tried to laugh it off, unconvincingly. The last thing I wanted was a hospital in this kind of scary, pretty grubby town. Interestingly, I’d had a very good chat with an young Englishman on the train to Hampi who had told me of his group's medical problems in Northern India. One of them had had to go on a drip to get liquids into her, and he’d had to go on all sorts of meds. But I was pretty sure we had just had bad food poisoning, not something long term.

I asked them to send us up some breakfast, knowing that we couldn’t eat it but that we should try. It never got touched, except for some toast that we made an effort with later on in the day and which made an instant u-turn with me. We also asked them to send up a selection of 7-Up, Fanta and water, knowing that we needed some sugar and liquid. And then I went back to bed to try to pass out.

There’s not much else to tell about the rest of that miserable day. It was spent in bed, moaning, with periodic rushes to the washroom. Showers were frequent, to try to cool down, then the uncontrollable shivering had to be dealt with. The room heated up to the point where, even if we'd been healthy, it was ridiculously hot. The AC was ineffective. Oh, and the power would go out periodically, taking down the AC and the TV for half an hour at a time.

I am deeply grateful for the fact that we had a TV in our room. It kept me sane. This is probably politically incorrect for me to say, but I really can’t stand Indian TV or movies, which comprised 90% of what was on. But it’s a distraction. And the cricket chamionships were on at the same time, so I had several hours to try to figure out this game that I’ve always found terribly confusing. (The rules are simple. It’s the scoring that kills me.) I think I’ve got the one day test-match basics nailed, which is a major accomplishment.

The big dilemma for Colleen and I that day was that we had a 10:30 PM bus ticket that we needed to use to get to Bangalore to catch a connecting bus to Ooty the next day. We had also bought a bus ticket that left the next day that we could use instead (yes, we were double booking), but that would result in us catching the night bus to Ooty from Bangalore, which sounded pretty unpleasant. We rolled this one around all afternoon and decided we’d make the call as to whether we’d catch the bus at 8:30. When the time came, we’d been yak free for 3 hours. We felt like hell. We weren’t sure if we’d survive the rickshaw ride to Hospet to catch the bus, let alone the bus ride itself. But we decided to make a run for it. Another night spent in Hampi just sounded too terrible to us.

We’d asked the hotel to book us a taxi, but they said there were none to be had. Rickshaw it was. We packed up, asked the hotel to not give away our room in case we were back in half an hour, and climbed in.

I didn’t think I was going to make it after five minutes of bouncy exhausty rickshaw, but after ten minutes more I felt better. I’d make it to the bus stop anyway. Colleen forged on too. We didn’t talk, both of us just staring blankly ahead, trying to keep it together.

The bus stop was a dodgy looking stoop in front of a bank with the power out. Nothing around to indicate that buses actually stopped here. But we sat and waited and sweated and were quiet. People eventually joined us. Cows and pigs wandered the streets. And we felt miserable.

The bus eventually came – late of course – but we were good to go. It was a sleeper bus, which I’d never been on before. That meant that there was a row of two seats below, then a row of single bunks. And above there was another row of single bunks and a row of double bunks. When we’d bought the tickets we’d picked up a double and a single, beside each other. The idea that we’d bought three seats seemed to blow the ticket taker away, but it turned out to be a blessing. We climbed into our bunks, stowed our bags in the third bunk that was separated from the aisle by my body for security reasons, and we were able to lie down in relative peace. We had windows that opened and, apart from the very poor roads and the constant honking, it was a pretty good spot to feel like hell in. I won’t say that we slept well, but we wouldn’t have in a real bed either, and we certainly wouldn't have in our hard beds and in the hot room in Hampi. It was as good as it was going to get.

It had been a very long and unpleasant day. It was looking better now that we were on the bus, but we both felt drained and miserable. This wasn’t going to be over in a single day.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Riding to Hampi and one bad lassi

The morning of the 11th was an early one. Our driver, Franko, showed up at 6:30 and we were off for a day’s journey – destination Hampi. He got us to the Margao train station by 7:30, where we desperately tried to figure out which platform and which train we should be getting on. India’s rail system is the worlds largest public utility employer, with over 1,500,000 staff. Unfortunately, they are terribly elusive when you need them. We eventually figured it out with the help of other equally lost looking travelers. I had a good chat with the golf pro from the nearby Intercontinental, who stood out due to his very unique luggage, and gave him my recently finished Good Walk Spoiled.

Booking train tickets had been challenging. The only ones available had been sleeper seats in a non-AC car. Fortunately, booking sleeper seats gave us more room than the average Indian, who all seemed to have to battle for space and were well accustomed to fitting 5 people in 3 seats, but it was still pretty jammed for all on board. It was about a 6 hour trip that I made pass by reading Cormack McCarthy’s The Road. It’s a terrific book and, if you’re a regular reader of my blog you know that I love McCarthy’s style, but it’s not a terribly uplifting read. Regardless, it was a wonderful distraction from the heat and chaos going on around us.

Hampi is several hundred kilometers east of Goa and it was amazing to watch the landscape change. We’d gone from a hot coastal climate to really hot plains. It was flat, dry and pretty damn inhospitable. But when we got nearer our destination the landscape changed again, with great piles of massive boulders cropping up here and there. It often looked almost artificial, like the set of the Flintstones.

We were going to Hampi because it had sounded amazing in everything I’d read about it. It was the capital, Vijayangar, of a kingdom established in this region in the 13th century and had grown to be one of the largest cities in the world by the late 16th, with over 500,000 people. It was a centre of trading and culture and one of the largest Hindu kingdoms in history. And then, around 1565, the whole thing was razed to the ground in a battle that I won’t pretend to understand.

The train actually goes to Hospet, about half an hour from Hampi. We were pretty exhausted from the heat and the travel, but we jumped in a rickshaw and took the half hour ride to the town and the basic accommodations I’d booked, the Padma Guest House, highly recommended by Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet and the best thing available in Hampi. It was perfectly decent and we got an A/C room facing some of the ruins. The only real challenges were that the A/C was inadequate to fight the heat of the Hampi sun, which beat directly into our windows in the afternoon, and that the bathroom was connected to other parts of the building and was a complete sauna that heated the rest of the room if the door was left open. Both theoretically manageable issues.

We booked our rickshaw driver for the next day for the 5 hour guided tour, and booked the hotel room for two nights, knowing that the next evening we’d be catching a late bus and we wanted to keep a room to shower and relax in before the bus.

We got cleaned up and decided to go get a bite to eat. It was already around 5:00 so we went to the dinner restaurant recommended by LP and by the Cheeky Chapatti folks in Palolem, a place called the Mango Tree. The walk to the Mango Tree was amazing. We started by passing the main temple, which the Hampi Bazaar is built around. Lots of Indian people were there checking it out, but we didn’t stop in because we knew we’d see it in detail the next day. We then walked down along the river that runs through Hampi. It was simply beautiful. The piles of boulders surrounded a relatively lush area and the river ran through it all. The sun was low on the horizon. The whole thing was spectacular.

When we got to the Mango Tree it was just as we’d heard. An incredible setting overlooking the river, the perfect place to hang out and have a bite. The menu had an extensive listing of Indian veg options, plus lots of drinks. Since it had been a long hot day we ordered a bunch of drinks including a couple of milkshakes and lassis. (The milkshakes are fruit and milk, no ice cream. And lassis are made with curd instead of milk.) They were a bit sour, but delicious after a long day. Dinner was a couple of curries that were very tasty.

After dinner we went back to our hotel feeling very full. Time to lie down and let the curries settle. Except it never did. Colleen got hit first. She hit the washroom for a cool down shower and never made it. (Somewhat graphic details follow. Stop here if you’re faint of heart.) She lost her curry and felt terrible. Feeling ill after a spicy meal is not totally unique for Colleen, who doesn’t have a strong stomach, but this time was special. My curry made its return about an hour later, and I do have a strong stomach.

I won’t go into detail about all of this. Suffice to say that there were many trips to our sauna washroom throughout the night. Probably a dozen for me, maybe a half dozen for Colleen. I know I kept our neighbours and the hotel management awake for part of the night with my bellowing into the porcelain amplifier. The manager, a terribly nice young guy, actually stopped by the room at one point of the night, to see if we needed a doctor. We didn’t hear him though, probably too busy moaning.

Of all our travels to all the dodgy locations, I’ve only ever been truly ill once before while abroad, and that was to the awful resort area of Veradero. (Cuba is amazing and its people terrific. Veradero isn’t Cuba and is not worth visiting. You want a resort, go to a resort.) This night in Hampi was my worst night of travel ever.

A final day in Goa

The 10th of May was our last day in Goa. We didn’t have a lot planned, and that’s generally a good way to spend the day at the beach. Colleen got the day off to a good start with a private yoga session and an early morning swim in the ocean. We had breakfast at the Cheeky Chapatti restaurant, where I could get my preferred vacation food - lemon and sugar pancakes.

We returned to Bhakti Kutir, where we had to change rooms. Unfortunately, when they showed us our new room it wasn’t particularly lovely. It was open to the outside, so the mosquitos could get at us. The fan and the light switch seemed to be connected, so that if both were on at the same time the fan would go very slowly and become ineffective. That was a big challenge when it was as hot as it was. And the bathroom, which was outside with Indian style facilities, was shared with the bottom half of the “cottage”. Not so terrific. We tried looking in on a few other places in the area to see if they had space, but since it was the end of the season all spare rooms were either being torn down or were worse than the one we had. (And to be worse is saying a lot.) Money was not an issue, there was nothing to be had. I also tried calling a pretty cool looking place just North of us, which I’d spotted that morning reading a travel magazine's "hot list", but was never able to connect the call. Eventually we just decided to accept our fate and stay in the less than fabulous accommodations.

Lunch was at the Round Cube, so we could eat and watch the ocean. Then I spent some time online and on the phone, trying to book rooms in Hampi and Ooty, our next two destinations. We went for an afternoon swim. Cleared up our tab at Bhakti, since we had to leave early the next morning. Then had a nice dinner back at Cheeky’s. They had remembered our questions earlier about whether there were any good bakeries around, so that we could stock up for the next day’s journey, and had carrot cake ready for us. A nice touch.

We finished the day at the Oceanic Hotel, writing these blogs and catching up on important items, like Canucks score. (Oy!) Then it was back to Bhakti for a pretty miserable night making sure the mosquito netting was properly tucked in, sweating due to inadequate circulation, and just try to stay sane.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

I'm frickin' dyin here

No new updates. Colleen and I both got nasty ill last night from the lassis at the Mango Tree in Hampi. We're dying. It's been a long hot day today. The wimpy AC in our room can't beat the direct sunlight and 45 degree heat.

Frickin dyin.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Pictures are coming

If you're following along with our trip, rest assured that photos are coming. Internet access at most places is painfully slow, so they're being added as we go. I'll be adding images chronologically, so it'll take a few days to catch up.

Valet parking and the green economy

I spotted these two signs walking around Mumbai the other day and thought they were fabulous for completely different reasons.

The first just inspires confidence in their service. I wouldn't be leaving my car there.

This business has probably been around forever. If they were new they'd probably promote themselves as an environmentally sound business. Frankly, I'm not sure what you'd do with old "share forms, office records and unservicable materials", but there must be some sort of business there.

Puttering around Palolem

There wasn’t much planned for May 9th. Just hanging out around Palolem and enjoying a bit of sun and sand.

I woke up early and read in the hammock on the patio of our cottage. No one showed up for yoga, so I chatted with the instructor as he left. I used my bad stomach as an excuse for not showing up, and he suggested some remedies for India-belly. (Which, you should thank me, I’m not going to go into details about here, other than to say that it’s much better now. Thanks for your concern. And thank you Cipro®.)

Breakfast was at our place, which seems to be only semi-open for food. Kind of frustrating. Then we headed over to the travel agent’s to sort through our issues. We got them mostly resolved, although the trip to Ooty may be a bad idea. It’s a lot of time on Indian buses, including a “sleeper bus” without AC. We’re gonna stick it out though and see how it turns out – stay tuned.

We scootered to the next beach over – Patnem. It’s far less developed than Palolem and very nice. However the sand rises to a ridge and then drops to the shore, which makes for slightly “less perfect” beach. We stopped there for a read and a drink and considered a swim, but realized that the waves there are actually larger than at Palolem, where they’re already pretty damn big. Colleen did a little shopping to pick up some lightweight wraps and saris, and we moved on.

We went for a bit of a drive into a local town to hit an ATM. The traffic was a little more chaotic than we liked, and we decided to stick to the back roads on our little scooter. Only once so far have I tried to drive on the right side of the road, and I was going slowly at the time, but I don’t want to push my luck in traffic. You never know when 20 years of driving instinct is going to take over.

We also sorted through the problem of us being booted out of our room on the 10th. Apparently we needed to ask the guy at the front desk when someone else was around, who could tell him to just put us into another room instead of tossing us out of the place altogether. A much better solution. Although we’ll see what the new room is like.

We found a lovely little lunch place run by an English couple called Cheeky Chapatti, or something like that. We only grabbed a small bite there for lunch, but we returned later for a very big dinner including their fabulous mojitos, king prawns, eggplant masala, and apple and mango crumble. Not cheap, but fabulous.

After lunch we went for a swim off Palolem. The water off of here is the Arabian Sea I believe. It feels like bath water and may be the warmest water I’ve encountered in any of my travels. There’s a bit of an undertow and, after some unpleasant experiences in the past, I’m pretty cautious, so we never ventured too far from the shore. Regardless I, along with many others, had poor enough timing to be standing at the wrong depth when some massive waves hit. I got the full churn and burn experience, and a lot of water up the nose and sand in the ears. Some poor Indian guy had just gotten in the water at the time the first wave hit and looked just stunned. He turned to me and said “Wow. That was a big wave.” I told him to turn around, just before the next one beat him down. He got to his feet before the third and final one hit, then struggled his way out of the water. That dude had very bad timing. I doubt he’s coming back.

We also discovered the only WiFi in Palolem, in a hotel called The Oceanic. It had a pool for Colleen to swim in while I updated our travel journal. Unfortunately, the pool turned out to be a little skudgy, and my laptop had run out of juice, but we knew where to go in the future.

That’s about it for the 10th. Another day in a beautiful place. We have one more day in Goa with nothing planned. Should be perfect.

Waterfalls and driving through Goa

We had met our driver, Franco, for our waterfall adventure the day before at the travel agents. When we’d mentioned that we’d like to get to the falls without there being a lot of people there he’d suggested that we leave fairly early in the morning, like 7 or 8. I’d gone for eight, and he’d pushed for seven. Going with the philosophy that one should trust their guide, I settled for seven.

When we got up that morning it felt pretty early and I was rather sore from the day before’s yoga session. Plus, my belly wasn’t doing so well – I had a very minor case of India-gut. But we were good to go. Franco showed up on time and we headed off to who-knew-where.

Colleen has always had a love for waterfalls. When she used to visit me in San Francisco we’d find them on treks around California. And we’ve made great hikes to falls in the past in Cuba, Indonesia and Thailand. It’s a bit of a vacation ritual.

Our drive to the falls was pretty interesting. First, we hadn’t had the opportunity to get breakfast before we left. Nothing is open in Palolem until much later in the morning. So after about 40 minutes driving Franco pulled us over in a small town so we could grab some breakfast samosas. We got several of them, some other bready things, and a Fanta and a Coke – all for less than $2. When I bit into my first one I discovered that it wasn’t my standard samosa – it was screaming spicy hot. I got a case of the spicy-hiccoughs, and was horrified to see Collen, who can’t stomach spicy food, eating hers. She seemed fine though, at which point Franko pointed out that what I’d chosen wasn’t a samosa, but some sort of Indian manliness test. (OK. He didn’t say that last bit.) The other doughy bread things sweety and tasty, he called them Bons, which may have just been his way of saying “bun” – we really couldn’t tell.

The other interesting part of the drive was the traffic. After about half an hour we started to pass dump trucks. And as we carried on they became more numerous, until it got to the point where the roads were simply clogged with them. There were thousands of them going in all directions. Franco explained that there are several mines in that part of Goa, and for the past several years the trucks have completely taken over the roads. There are trucks as far as you can see shipping minerals out of this region. From what I could understand it’s largely ore headed to China. The trucks go from morning to night, 8 months of the year, coming off the roads only during monsoon season. The poor people who had nice homes by the road now have homes beside a constant traffic jam of diesel fumes and mining dust. It was complete chaos, and the thought of that amount of “stuff” being removed from this province every day was somewhat mindboggling and a little depressing. I realize that it’s the way of the world, and that it provides good paying jobs in a pretty poor part of this relatively poor country, but actually being in it was a very different experience.

It turned out that this was part of the reason why Franko had wanted to leave so early, so we could avoid the worst of the mining traffic. Even so, he zipped in and out of the traffic, because if we just went with the flow it would have taken hours. It’s an interesting experience to be headed around a corner and seeing two mining dump trucks coming at you, passing one another and taking up the entire road. It was the first time driving in India where our driver has actually pulled over to get the hell out of the way.

Franko took us as far as Colem, where we chartered an off-road Land Cruiser-ish vehicle for the rest of the ride to Dudhsagar Falls. (And no, don’t ask me how to pronounce that.) The vehicle chartering operation seemed very dodgy, with the boss-man sitting on the side of the road collecting for the drivers and guides, but there were no other options. And you definitely needed a proper vehicle for this ride. Even at this time of year, when it hasn’t rained for months, we were driving through rivers and the roads were very badly beaten up. It was a pretty cool 40 minute trip in, and I’m not sure how those vehicles do it every day.

At the end it was a short hike to Dudhsagar Falls. They’re the second highest in India, and a pretty spectacular sight. Again, thanks to Franco’s timing, we’d arrived early enough to be the first people there. Colleen had brought her bathing suit and immediately jumped in to swim in the pool at the base of the falls. I made my way in a few minutes later. Franko had warned us that the water was quite cold, so I was waiting for the shock, but it turned out to be “India cold” not cold cold. It was gorgeous.

I don’t really like swimming. For me it’s just an ongoing battle to not drown, which takes all the pleasure out of it. On the other hand, Colleen loves swimming and is quite content to paddle around for hours. So she swam around the base of the falls, finding places where there were rocks on the bottom that I could stand on. Then she’d signal to me and I’d swim to the next rock. It was a good solution for both of us.

After a bit more people arrived at the falls. I got out to take a few photos and to read the sign that listed all the people who had drowned there over the past decade. (There were lots, but I decided it was rather poor form to take a photo of the sign. Karma and all.) Our guide came up to me to make his case, rather persistently, that we should be sure to tip him and his partner very well as the money they made right now would have to cover them throughout the off season. He wasn’t wrong, but it was disappointing to have a pretty cool experience put off a bit by someone asking for money. (I’m sure it won’t be the last time it happens here.) He also mentioned that we had to tip him in the vehicle, ‘cause his boss would take half if he saw someone give him money outside of the car.

On the drive back along the bumpy road we passed many more off road vehicles on their way up. It would be crowded at the falls before long. And at one of the last river crossings before we left the park the locals had taken over the river for a bit of fun in the water, kayaking and taking paddle boats through the first few turns and wading through the water with their families.

Franko was surprised to see us back in town as early was we were, but was happy to head out. Unfortunately, it was still busy truck time on the way back. We felt tiny in our taxi, amongst all the huge dump trucks. And, in true Indian fashion, there didn’t seem to be an rationale behind the flow of traffic, leading to some pretty good snarls that we were in the middle of. Thousands of trucks along dozens of kilometers. It’s a pretty amazing sight.

When we got back to Palolem we grabbed a late lunch down on the beach. Colleen went for a bit of a swim and I happily finished one of the books I’d brought – A Good Walk Spoiled by John Feinstein. A non-fiction account of life on the PGA tour. It was a pretty interesting read, but it’s gotten rather dated since it was first published, before Tiger had his massive impact on the sport.

As an aside, I also read Chuck Palahniuk’s Pygmy on the first days of our trip. I love Chuck’s books, but this one was a little trying. It’s a writing accomplishment, everything is in the form of a broken English North Korean-esque terrorist diary. But that doesn’t necessarily make for good reading.

Later we did some trip planning. We realized that getting to Ooty was not going to be as easy as the travel agent had suggested, and that we needed to pay her a return visit. We were also informed that we couldn’t extend our hotel stay as long as we needed to, as someone had already reserved our cottage as of Monday. Neither were a big deal, but they needed some figuring out.

Dinner was at a restaurant that Franko had recommended. A few minutes after ordering the power went out, which meant that the fans all died. Even outdoors at this time of year it was stifling, and dinner was spent in a constant sweat. The food was fine, but we were happy to get out of there and call it a day.

Yoga and other silly pursuits

I have sadly discovered that as I grow older my body has become much less flexible. So, on our first morning in Goa, I decided to avail myself of our place’s morning yoga sessions. I may be the only Vancouverite who has never done yoga, and this was an interesting place for my first time. Our session was outside in a small cement area that they’ve built for this purpose. It’s a terrific setting, covered by the jungle canopy, with the sounds of all the local birds accompanying us. There were five participants, including Colleen and I, and of course there was the Indian yoga instructor, who was super bendy flexy. I enjoyed the class, although I wasn’t able to get fully into a lot of the poses, and I did have one falling incident when I tried to do with my right arm what my left arm was supposed to be doing, but overall, if I can’t quite call it fun, it was an interesting experience. And I’m sure it can’t hurt my golf game.

Back home Colleen often goes to “runners yoga”. I was running pretty regularly until late last year, when I damaged my foot, and I can understand the appeal of runners yoga. But I don’t understand why no one seems to have “golfers yoga”. I’ll bet there’d be a fair bit of appeal to us aging guys whose bodies don’t bend the way they used to, and who’d love to get another 10 yards out of their drives.

After yoga we grabbed a breakfast on the beach at the same place we’d had dinner the night before, Round Cube, and then didn’t make much progress from there. I had a good book, I had a great seat in the shade, and I was pretty happy. Colleen went in for a swim a few times and we were content to hang out there for several hours.

That afternoon we went over to one of the many travel agents who line the two streets of Palolem to plan our next stages. We had a pretty good idea of where we wanted to go next, none of which was terribly original. Like most places, there tends to be a standard travelers route. The challenge was that, even though it’s the off season for tourism, it’s the high season for travel for Indians, being the period when they tend to travel home to visit their families. So trains tend to be full, which makes moving on challenging.

We found a seat out of Goa and on to our next destination, Hampi, for Tuesday, the 11th. We weren’t terribly pleased with that at first, but then realized that we were just going to be forced to stay on a beach for a couple of extra days, which is a pretty good thing. We’d stay in Hampa for a day or so, then head to Bangalore where we’ll catch a train to Ooty for a few days. Then back north to Bangalore where we’ll fly south to Kerala. We’ll spend the remainder of our time there, flying back to Mumbai on the 21st to catch our flight home early on the morning of the 22nd.

While at the travel agent we’d also booked a trip for the next day to visit some waterfalls and we’d planned for a houseboat trip in Kerala, one of the apparent “must do’s”. We felt pretty good having that all sorted out. It had gotten fairly late and we had missed lunch, so we went back to our place to freshen up then back to the village to have dinner on the beach at a place called Cuba. The food was great and the service was terrible, the opposite of the way things are in the real Cuba. Lovely irony.

Our second day in Goa had been a good one. Nothing terribly interesting, just a really good relaxing day. The way some of your vacation should be.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Arriving in Goa

I learned my lesson on the train down to Goa - Don't get too far away from the train when it stops at a station. There's no warning when it goes again. It just goes. Fortunately, I was able to leap on. It would have been a little odd for Colleen to wake up the next morning with me no longer aboard.

We arrived in Goa after the overnight train ride somewhat refreshed but not totally there. It had been a long night and it was hot and muggy out. We had booked a hotel in the Goan capital of Panaji ahead of time on and were looking forward to visiting the town. It was supposed to have a nice Portuguese influence and be a cool place to check out.

When we got to our hotel, The Ginger, they didn't have our reservation. I could spend the next couple of paragraphs ranting, but I'll save it to say that after 45 minutes sitting in their lobby and downloading the confirmation for them they finally said they had our room, but they needed another RS500 to complete the reservation. That probably would have been fine at the start, after all it's only $10, but we were so fed up with their whole process and lack of service that we just walked out of the hotel and caught a cab for our next destination, Palolem.

We did get the cabbie to drive through Panaji and stop so we could grab some lunch. It appeared to be a nice enough town, but we don't feel like we missed out on anything.

Our cabbie drove us the hour and a half down the coast to Palolem. We hadn't made a reservation and, knowing that we're here in the off season, we knew we might be in trouble, but our driver was willing to poke around into a couple of places. The first place we went was closed. And the second was very scary. But the third, a place called Bhakti Kutir, showed us around and had lovely rooms. We expected to pay a premium, but when we asked how much they gave us a dirt cheap price, saying that the rates were low since it was the off season. Nice! Things were working out in our favour for a change.

We checked in, spoke to a guy about getting a motorbike for the next few days, and headed down to the beach. It's a very nice crescent shaped beach with huts built all along the shore. Apparently the law here is that there are no permanent buildings allowed within 200M of the shore, which means that every year all the buildings get torn down in May and rebuilt after the monsoons. Our building, not being within 200M of the shore (although I suspect it is) didn't have to follow those rules. Apparently they mean business with this law. We were told that a few years ago owners disregarded the law and the government rolled in with bulldozers, taking it all down. As a result, the beach huts now are extremely basic, but the temporary nature of things gives the town a pretty cool feel.

We grabbed a dinner that evening at one of the many beach restaurants along the shore, the Round Cube. The food was terrific and the service was entertaining. We enjoyed it and planned to go back.

After dinner it was back to our place for a good night's sleep. After the night train the day before we needed it.

We'd made it to Goa and to a beach. This was one of Colleen's key criteria for this trip, after spending the last 7 months working with a dog sledding operation in the Yukon. It's lovely and hot and a tropical paradise. A great spot to be for a few days.