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Varkala, life on the edge

24 Jan
Well we arrived here in Varkala almost a week ago and I find it a very nice change from the normal beach scene in India. The imposing cliffs (see photo at left of sunset from the cliffs) stop the buildings from pouring onto the beaches like most resort towns and that makes the air and environment a little cleaner and more relaxed. The state of Kerala understands that the beaches here are an important resource and they take care of them and their tourists accordingly. There are teams of women in olive-drab sari uniforms that come and clean the beach daily, lifeguards that actually make sure people are not drowning and police that chase off the ever popular gawking Indian males and drum salesmen.

They fail on one area however and that is what to do with the massive amounts of garbage that accumulate on the cliffs. There does not seem to be a dump anywhere around so garbage ends up being swept off the cliff onto the cliff sides on the approach to the beaches. The cleaners only clean the beach itself and will not clean the cliff sides. The result is very sad; potato chip bags, plastic water bottles, leaflets, and lots of other garbage end up on the cliff sides everyday- and nobody does anything about it. The prevailing theory is that as long as it is not on the cliff top, it doesn’t exist.

But aside from that Varkala is a beautiful place. Watching from the cliffs as the waves and swells on the Arabian Sea roll in while fishermen in small boats along with their helpers bobbing up and down in the blue-green waters, pulling in the days catch is something that can take up hours. The sightings of dolphins in the area are frequent and amazing- the sight of them gliding and jumping through the water stop people on the cliffs dead in their tracks.

We are staying in an interesting place- I don’t know if I would recommend it or not, but the name in itself is something to write about. You see we are staying at Santa Claus’ All Seasons Village and Ayurvedic Resort. Yes, you read that correctly because as we all know when he is not making tiny elves slave over toys in the North Pole, Santa and Mrs. Claus spend all their free time in Varkala, India having Ayurvedic Panchakarma treatments and eating continental food. The room is cheap at Rs. 500 per night and there is a “swimming pool” of which I use the term loosely as it is more a place to wash off the sand from the beaches nearby. The lock broke on our door the other day, and in typical Indian fashion a man came to oil the lock with lavender-scented Odonil, a room freshener. That lasted for a half day and then the lock went out again. Luckily there is another door that leads out to the pool which we can use. The coconut palms around the property are painted with all kinds of interesting scenes including traditional Keralan Kathakali dancers and St. Nicholas. It kind of makes you scratch your head and wonder…

Getting past the hawkers on the cliffs is another story- every shop owner lurks outside their business which looks EXACTLY like the one next door imploring you to “Yes, have a look my shop?” Some are more aggressive than others and I simply try to ignore them. The restraunts on the cliff are very similar- as the dinner hour approaches the workers lay out the days catch to try to entice you. When that doesn’t work they get in front of you while you are walking and lure you with promises of “strong drinks and chilled beer.” When that doesn’t work they ask you questions like; “You walk by here every night and you never come eat here, why not?” Last night a man asked me this question and I turned to him and said with a smile, “I only eat in restaurants where people don’t attack me as I walk by.” He seemed so confused by this statement as if people enjoyed being hounded by restauranteurs as they take an evening stroll.

There are a few good restaurants where they won’t attack you- check out Kerala Coffee House, which doesn’t serve very good coffee, but has great food, Clafouti- who boasts Thai food and a Pumpernickel Bakery-which doesn’t serve pumpernickel bread, and Trattorias (notice the random plural)- which also serves Thai food and has- you guessed it– a German bakery- that only sells croissants and other French pastries.

We are trying to decide what to do with only three weeks left in our trip- do we want to continue travelling or do we want to take it easy? We’ll let you know.

Cheers!

Pondicherry…

11 Dec

Only because I like the name better. They officially changed their name last October (2006) to Puducherry, but hey Pondicherry sounds so much better.

We’re staying in one of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram’s Guest Houses called Park Guest House. It is fantastic! Totally quiet, spotlessly clean, and RIGHT on the beach. The waves of the Bay of Bengal are breaking literally 500 meters from our balcony. There is a beautiful garden area with flowers and grass and it is very calm. There are a couple of rules, like you need to be in by 10:30 or the gate is locked, you can’t drink alcohol or do drugs, but those are easy. And if you abide by these rules, you can stay in probably the calmest place in Pondicherry and all for 600 Rs- about $15 USD.  Where are you going to get a beach front hotel for $15 anywhere?
We have been walking around for over a week now on wide, paved, clean streets, taking in the French influenced architecture and enjoying the Promenade that runs along the Sea. There are real bakeries here too, with croissants, brioche, real French bread, yummy! It’s amazing the food you miss when you’re on the road, but this has been nice.

The other day as we passed the courthouse, directly on the Promenade, a police officer came out and stopped us. He looked incredibly gruff and for a moment, I thought we had done something wrong. He reached out to shake my hand and asked where we were from. “The US.” we told him waiting for the ticket book to come out or something. He smiled from beneath his huge bushy mustache (huge mustaches are the norm inTamil Nadu) and asked if we had a camera. I didn’t bring it on that trip so he asked us to come by the next day and take a picture with him. We said we would. The next day we arrived and he told all of his friends that we came back to take a picture, so with rifles in hand, we all took a picture with him. He asked me to email him the pictures when we could. Now every time we pass the courthouse he waves to us!

We head off to Auroville, about 10km away in the next couple of days. I don’t know how much Internet access we will have but I’ll try to post as much as possible.

Cheers!

Palolem, Goa

22 Nov

Hey all, just a quick note to let you all know we haven’t dropped off the face of the earth! We moved down south to Palolem Beach on Monday and it is like a slice of heaven. Sure, there’s as many taxis, shops, and dolphin watching boat trips as you want to take…and as many touts trying to get their commission as soon as the whities step off the bus, but AHHHH…it really is paradise. I can imagine what it must have been like twenty or thirty years ago when the hippies happened upon the beach for the first time. Pristine jungle with swaying coconut palms, huge green mountains in the background, blue-green sea and blue skies that go on forever.

It is really beautiful here, the water and the beach is cleaner, there is more wildlife- like the hermit crab pictured to the left, and if you don’t want to, you never have to step foot in a polluting vehicle, everything is right there on the beach for you…as long as you want the ubiquitous “multi-cuisine” restaurants, (which we don’t) because while they may do multi-cuisine, they hardly ever do any of them well. Me, I much prefer a good curry and rice or for a real treat here in Palolem, walk off the beach and into the main part of town to go to either of the two health food restaurants there. Both Brown Bread and Blue Planet serve up tasty salads and GASP, tofu dishes like tofu with mushroom sauce, mashed potatos with grilled onions, carrot orange salad, and bread with cashew butter for $120 Rs., a totally fair price! Now I never thought I would say this, but give me a good grilled tofu with brown rice, steamed vegetables and peanut sauce any day of the week.

We are staying in a beach-front shack toward the north end of Palolem Beach called Brendon’s, it’s pretty good although a little over priced for what you get. I mean, it really is a shack, plywood walls, sloping floors, it rattles and creaks when you walk in it, but hey, look where you are, it’s freakin’ beautiful! If you stay out of the room all day as we do and close your eyes when you do come in, then everything is alright. Besides, the staff are the best bunch of guys we have met anywhere. Bobby, Kumar, and John are our favorites, but everyone is very nice. To the right is a view from our front porch watching the sunset over Green Island and the Arabian Sea.

We’ll be here until Thursday and then off to Chennai and Tamil Nadu.

Cheers!

Goa, it isn’t just beaches anymore.

11 Nov

Panaji is one of those places that people tend to overlook when they travel in Goa. It is far from the airport, crowded, semi-expensive, and hey, let’s face it, people just want to get to the beach. However, it is a mistake to miss Panaji- it isn’t much, but seeing the Portuguese influences on architecture- not your typical Indian concrete bomb shelters, and city layout- beautiful squares, parks, and fountains that actually work, and restaurants that serve something besides the expected masalas that you find everywhere else, you begin to realize you have stepped into a place that is totally different from other places in India.

As you walk through the narrow city streets you see buildings that look like they are straight out of Portugal. Brightly painted in beautiful turquoises, tranquil greens, canary yellows, fiery oranges, pastel pinks, and electric blues, the houses and buildings lend a character to the city that is unmatched elsewhere. Buildings here are very well taken care of and as Astrid and I strolled through the city, we noticed many structures were undergoing renovation. There are churches on every other block including the impressive Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception (below) which overlooks the Municipal Gardens near the Fontinhas area of Panaji. This church was originally consecrated in 1541 and was the first stop for sailors from Lisbon to give thanks for a safe ocean crossing before heading to Old Goa about 17 km away.

One thing you shouldn’t miss if you come to Panaji is the food. It is an excellent mix of traditional and Portuguese and the flavors are amazing. We went to a restaurant called Viva Panjim right around the corner from our guest house and was introduced to Goan/Portuguese cuisine from a fantastic woman that has been running this restaurant for the last four years. Although she is a baby in the industry, she has already received awards and accolades from her fellow chefs all over the world. Try the chicken xacutí which is a brown curry made with coconut milk and aromatic spices. It was divine!

We also had a meal at A Ferradura (Horseshoe) near the Old Pato Bridge and managed to offend two religions in one meal. We had the chouriços (a spicy pork sausage) with Goan bread for an appetizer and breaded steak served with salad and chips for our main meal. Our Hindu waiters cringed a little when we ordered it, but it was fantastic. For dessert I had the caramel custard and Astrid had the Bolo San Rival, a cashew cake that was absolutely incredible! Definitely our most expensive meal of the trip, but all told it came to $12 USD!

From here we head 15 km north to the beaches of Baga, Calangute, Candolim, and Anjuna for about a week. We’ll post more later.

Cheers!

Ginger Hotels- Like living inside an IKEA!

1 Nov

So we took the train from Kolkata to Bhubaneswar this afternoon and stayed at a relatively new chain of hotels for India. The Ginger Hotels have quite a few locations in the south of India and they are modern and very cool. They are also not cheap by Indian standards. But, in this instance, you actually get what you pay for: Danish modern design, fun color schemes, staff that actually want to help you, lifts (for those sick of stairs,) AC, flat screen TVs in all the rooms, a gym, vending machines (unheard of in India,) SOFT and CLEAN sheets, and a decent restaurant.

More hotels in India need to look at what is going on here, my biggest complaint so far, with so many hotels is the lack of simple cleanliness. Ginger has got it down.

So here’s my top five recommendations for all you hoteliers in India…

  1. Clean your windows with vinegar and water- don’t just wipe them with a dirty cloth that streaks grime and nastiness all over them.
  2. Kill cockroaches and other bugs- don’t let them multiply and take over.
  3. Use some bleach now and again on your white bedding- it won’t hurt you, I promise.
  4. If your restaurant has a kitchen, and it is viewable by the public, please clean it at least once a month, or even better just close the door, no one wants to see what they may be eating.
  5. A coat of paint doesn’t hurt, it may cost money, but you’ll recoup it in the amount of people that continue to stay at your hotel.

There I said it. Hopefully you’ll do something about it.