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A Place to Avoid in Ft. Cochin

1 Feb

I don’t rant about lodging very often, but I know that a lot of people look at this blog (almost 2,000 people per month in fact) and I want to make sure that fellow travellers don’t get screwed while they travel in India.

Things started out well, we found (what we thought was) a nice place at Oy’ Cafe and Rooms, the room was big, sunny, and there was a cafe downstairs.  The guys who ran the place were young and very nice.  We got a Rs. 200 discount on the room that was supposed to be Rs. 1000 per night and everything was going well…Until a couple of days ago when Astrid and I started feeling ill.  It got worse yesterday, and we felt fortunate to have a nice, clean place to get well.

This morning the owner/ manager came to our room and asked if we were checking out.  We said, “No,” as we were trying to book forward travel and get better.  So we went to breakfast and then to go use the Internet,  when we decided to switch Internet places (which is crap at Café de Net BTW) because of a slow connection, we saw the owner/ manager of our guest house who looked worried.  He told us that someone had booked the room we were staying in and he “forgot to write it down.”  He wanted us to move out of our room and he said that he would find us another room.  Unfortunately, I know this game- you see, the “person who booked the room was going to pay the full amount of Rs. 1000 and this guy did the math really quickly. 

SO…we went back to the room right away, packed, paid our bill and got out of there…the manager wasn’t even around to look us in the eye when we left.  When we saw him as we were walking down the street to find a new guest house, he ducked into someone’s shop- the coward.  DON’T STAY AT OY’S IN FT. COCHIN.

Anyway, we found a nice room at Santa Cruz Tourist Home for Rs. 550 per night.  We’ll be leaving Ft. Cochin as soon as possible.

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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!

Kerala

21 Jan

It is known as “God’s Own Country” but it is really just India.  We arrived fresh off the train the other day in Trivandrum and decided to try to go directly to Varkala, about 50 km north of the city.  I tried many different places by telephone, but either could not find anything available or felt like they were being dodgy about prices.  After about 45 minutes of calling guest houses and trying to hear anything over the roar of trains, people, PA announcements, (why do local telephones in India all have to be outside where you can never hear what is being said?) and all other loud things, we decided to stay in Trivandrum for the evening – easier said than done…

You see EVERYTHING affordable near the train station was taken by early afternoon.  I mean EVERYTHING!  We ended up spending way too much at Wild Palms Home Stay which was actually very nice and included a typical Keralan breakfast the next morning which consisted of rice noodle patties with shaved coconut and a coconut curry that was reminiscent of a Thai coconut curry- very delicious.  We tried to go to a movie in Trivandrum and that fell through as well- it just wasn’t our day.  So we had some dinner and went back to the room to go to bed.

On first glance, Trivandrum is a very clean city- full of the normal hustle and bustle of other Indian cities, but somehow different.  People are more educated here and most that I talked to speak at least some English.  Kerala’s government has been Communist since the 50s and that may account for the push for literacy- which is amazing for a developing country at 91%! A strange thing about Kerala that I have notiiced is the absence of street dogs- I mean they are gone in Trivandrum itself.  I think I saw one street dog the entire day.

Next day, we took the state bus from Trivandrum to Varkala- which does not go straight there by the way- just ask at the bus station which bus to get on- people are very helpful in Kerala.

So here we are on the cliffs of Varkala overlooking the Arabian Sea.  I’ll post more about this beautiful place later.

Cheers!

Leaving Auroville

15 Jan

Well, it had to come eventually…we leave Auroville this evening after over a month here in Tamil Nadu and one month in Auroville to head off to Trivandrum in Kerala. It has been a good month though, some great bodywork including Thai Massage and Reflexology, great dining-aka salads and healthy food, great exercise- like an Olympic sized pool and many walks, good people- including some new friends, and lots of freedom.

What I think I’ll miss especially is our little cottage that we rented for the last three and a half weeks. It was so nice having our “own” space, free from the rules and regulations of the guest houses. We had a small kitchen where we cooked our own food (exciting when you haven’t done it in months!), a seating area, and an upstairs bedroom. Our bathroom facilities were in an outbuilding, but it was doable. The place was set deeply in the forest in the Revelation community of Auroville with the croaking of frogs, the mournful help, help, help of peacocks, the barking of geckos, and many more woodland friends like a family of mongeese, and a little calico cat that adopted us and brought us “surprises” in the mornings- like half a shrew and some other unidentifiable bloody thing. The cottage was built almost 40 years ago when the land that encompasses Auroville was just a dry, parched plain with very little vegetation. The man who built the house was one of the many that reforested the area and he told us that at one point he could see the Bay of Bengal from the second story of the cottage.

Now all you can see are trees- it is beautiful. Hard to believe that an entire forest can grow in 40 years, but it did. When people complain (as I have heard many do here) that nothing has been achieved here in the last four decades- that the city has not been built as promised-I tell people to look around them and see this lush jungle that just didn’t exist before. I call that an achievement.  The intention of Auroville may take a little more time to realize, but I think that they are heading in the right direction.  I would love to see the vision come to fruition.  If you want to learn more about Auroville check out their website, plan a visit, and come see for yourself.

There are also things that I won’t miss:

  1. People who are more spiritual than God and ask you to bask in their golden glow.
  2. The thin layer of red dust that accumulates on EVERYTHING and works its way deep into your toenails and molars.
  3. Forest friends (e.g frogs and bugs) that find their way into our bathroom.
  4. Cold showers.
  5. Dampness and mildew smell on all our clothes, backpacks, books, pencils, etc.

We had a great time while we were here and we may come back at some point, but for now, we have one month left to go on our adventure and many things to see and do, so onward and outward!

See you in Kerala!

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!

Puri and Konark

5 Nov

Well, its no beautiful beach town, in fact, part of the town reminds me of this beach ghost town that Astrid and I happened upon in Sicily a few years ago. But what Puri lacks in ambiance, it makes up for with a laid-back relaxed vibe that makes it really easy to be here.

We are staying in Z Hotel on Chakrathirta Rd., also known as CT Rd. Funnily, many people say that CT stands for “Cheat Tourists,” which many of the shops and restaurants are designed to do. The Z however, is a piece of sanity and relaxation away from the chaos of hawkers, touts, and rickshaw drivers. The place used to be the rural get-away house of a Maharaja and the owner keeps it in very good condition. The staff are helpful and the room tariff doesn’t break the bank, which is always good at the end of the month. The sea breezes waft through the room and fill it with salt air, a welcome change from exhaust fumes! To the left is a picture of Puri Beach at sunset just behind the Z Hotel.

Yesterday, Astrid and I rented scooters to go to Konark from Ganesh Tour & Travels, also on CT Rd. He charged me Rs. 150 for each scooter for the ENTIRE day, 8:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. The ride to Konark, which is about 40 km from Puri, was fantastic riding through animal sanctuary lands with green fields, sand dunes, snaking rivers, and incredibly blue sky. It was hot and steamy from the morning rains, but riding on the scooters was so cooling we didn’t even notice the heat. The crowds of crazy drivers that are so ubiquitous in India were also absent, so we were basically on the road by ourselves for most of the journey, passing a bullock cart, a herd of goats, or a bicycle here and there. The cars that were around passed us without incident. This was the first time since we got to India two months ago that we actually had the freedom to do what we wanted to do on our own time schedule. IT WAS FABULOUS! No waiting for a taxi, no waiting for buses, no waiting for anything!

We arrived at Konark around 10:30 a.m. and were immediately dogged by a guide that wanted us to use his services. I had read that this would happen, so we let him show us where to park the scooters and had him show us on the sign board at the entrance to the temple complex that he was in fact a registered guide as there are only 29 registered guides. He showed us his ID and it matched so we accepted his offer. I’m so glad we did, he was very knowledgeable about the temple, the carvings, and the history that we would have been lost without him. It would have just been another ancient temple and we would have missed the intricacies of it without him, as well as the Kama Sutra/ Tantric carvings. BTW, I can’t remember his name, but he was number 20 on the board, just look him up if you are there.

Designed to look like a cosmic chariot of the sun god, Surya drawn by seven horses, which represent the days of the week, the temple sits on 24 stone “wheels” that represent the 24 hours in the day. The temple stands 35 meters high and at one point there was another temple behind it that stood 70 meters high. It is gargantuan! The whole complex was positioned to catch the first rays of morning light that would illuminate the deity inside the temple. For more info, check out the Wikipedia page about Konark and the Sun Temple.

We finished our tour in about an hour and a half and ended up paying the guide for two hours because we were so pleased. This temple is one of those “must-see sights” and you should do it with a guide. It makes if far more interesting.

After getting back to Puri around 3:00 p.m., totally sunburned and hot, we returned our scooters, had a snack and then took a long nap. A totally peaceful day!

Oh, if you ever get to Puri, try Peace Restaurant on CT Road. The food is so fresh and good and they get fresh seafood everyday. Everything we had there over four days was incredible. Try the ten grilled prawns for Rs. 150 or about $3.50 US.

We leave tomorrow for Bhubaneswar and a flight to Mumbai and then Goa to see the Portuguese colonial influence on that side of the country. See you on the beaches!

Cheers!