Tuesday 12 April 2011

South India - Easter 2011

Eat with right, wipe with left
Friday, 15 April 2011
After a taxi ride that I will probably never forget we have arrived at our first destination, Sandeeps house in Banashankri, Bengaluru.  We got here at about 8 last night, quickly freshened up and then headed out for dinner.  Cultural differences are already very apparent such as road etiquette, eating habits and general health and safety.  Bengaluru is busy with Jam packed roads with jam packed cars/trucks.  The rule of the road seems to be to take over at every opportunity possible (no matter how slim that possibility may be!) and pap the horn several hundred times every elapsed 10 minutes.  A suggested drinking game was to drink every time you hear a horn.  In England this would not work.  Here, it really really would not work.  You would die.  To overcome the constant annoying car horn sounds they have resorted to making musical horns and most cars have another tune which plays when reversing.  Among this highway symphony there are trucks piled with men heading home from work, motorbikes whizzing in and out the traffic and buses with men hanging out the doors because they're so full.  This is Bengaluru, very little tourism and a real insight into the working life in India.  Madness! 
Paan street vendor

Concentrating hard
We ate grilled chicken, tandoori chicken and chicken kabab in a place called Empire which is popular for... yup you've got it, chicken.  Chicken here is skinny, boney and so much tastier than our quick grow steroid chickens.  They came with their own little sauces and some kind of spicy powder to double dip (if you dare) your food in.  Also chicken kabab is not chicken on a skewer! Its crispy fried chicken with bone and all.  No cutlery meant eating with your hands... well hand, as it was pointed out by Sandeep that it is somewhat frowned upon a little to eat with your left hand.  This is fine with chicken and probably my preferred method (well two hands) to eat it but the main course brought on some difficulties.  How on earth do you rip a chapatti with just the one hand?! Anyway, i ate Idli for the very first time which are little steamed rice cake/bun things which taste great with Sambar, a standard lentil and vegetable curry.  I avoided any chutney's as they tend to use local water to make it.  Having said that, i ate the salad and finished my meal with paan which are both washed in local water.  I would like to tell you what Paan is but i don't really know.  Paan is the name of the leaf which encloses... i have no idea.  Lots of stuff that varies massively from stall to stall.  The water hasn't been an issue so far as its the 2nd day in and i am happy to say that all is well with my belly and i am still passing solids.  Touch wood.  Anyway, call it my roots but this is my favourite food of all time.  This is what i would label my comfort food to be.  There are no overly strange foods (comparatively to other Asian cuisines!) with a variety of vegetables and the standard meats of chicken and mutton taking the bulk of all Indian food. 

For breakfast Sandeeps dad provided us with several different typical Bengaluru breakfasts.

Breakfast 1: Masala Dosa with Sambar
Breakfast 2: Masala Puri
Breakfast 3: Vada with Sambar
Breakfast 4: Akki Roti with Chutney
Breakfast 5: Upma

Dosa is very common here and i have seen it in a lot of places.  They are simply rice pancakes most commonly with a spicy potato filling (making it a masala dosa).  Vada is a deep fried rice flour kind of donut and akki roti is a rice flour roti.  Upma i figure is the Indian version of Couscous made using semolina.  After stuffing my face last night, i quite happily stuffed myself again.  This is turning into my Singapore trip all over again.

Before setting off on the first leg of our trip we had a quick visit to to Bengaluru City to pimp the car up with a UV film on the windscreen and i took the opportunity to go get a shave.  I didn't bother bringing a razor as i knew it was ridiculously cheap to get a nice clean straight razor shave on the street with a head and shoulder massage thrown in for an extra few rupees.  Our first destination is Mysore (currently en route whilst writing this) and we have just stopped off for lunch at an all veg eat as much as you want (which translates to eat as much as you can...) restaurant where the meal was eaten the traditional way from a banana leaf.  This kind of food makes me think that if i was forced to be a vegetarian then i would have to live in India.  It really wouldn't be possible in any other country for me.

Jess is tall, white and ginger
Sunday, 17 April 2011
All eyes on Jess
I obviously didn't touch enough wood when i said that all was well and good with my belly and that i was still passing solids.  Man i was ill the night before last.  Started off feeling really cold which meant something was clearly wrong in mid 30's weather.  Got back to the flat and threw up a good 3 pints worth of food and went to bed shivering, waking up for toilet trips throughout the night.  Oh dear...  Turned out in the morning i was actually pretty ok.  Slight headache but felt much better.  Indian food is quite heaty and I think it was more that i just ate ridiculously too much and needed to get it out of my system.  I shall be sticking to regular portions from now on.
We stopped off at Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary where the sign quite clearly states that it costs 50Rs for locals and 300Rs for foreigners!  The question is, can i pass as a local?  Well apparently so! Well after demonstrating my Indian accent to Jess and Sandeep it was decided that i could definitely pass as a local... if i didn't speak.  We had a boat trip on the lake looking at nesting birds and resting crocs with a guide/rower that i wasn't allowed to talk to.  Sandeep is impressively scared of lizards (yes i know he's the one born and bred in India!) so he wasn't overly keen on being in a boat with crocodiles around.  At 50Rs i would recommend it.  300Rs... well there isn't really that much to see.  After the brief boat ride we got back in the car and headed onwards to Mysore.  On arrival we drove up Chamundi Hill to get a glimpse of the city lights with a fantastic view of Mysore from up high.  There is also a nice little temple to visit here but we arrived after hours. 

Dinner was at a place called RRR which is renowned for their biryani and i had read about this place in books.  Rammed with locals you know its going to be good.  Unfortunately this was around about the time i was getting ill and so could barely eat anything.  How annoying.  Yesterday morning we took a rickshaw to Mysore palace.  Sandeep settled the price for us as rickshaws are probably the most common way for a tourist to be over charged.  As mentioned before, the roads in India are scary enough behind the security of a proper car.  A rickshaw is nothing more than a 3 wheeled bike with a black and yellow tin can shell as cover.  It is an iconic Indian vehicle and has to be used at least once for the experience and so Sandeep followed behind in the car.  At the palace, sticking out like a poop in a punch bowl among the hordes of locals, we attracted the attention of absolutely anyone that was selling something.  People here are fascinated with Jess as she is both white and tall (and ginger!).  It's quite funny as people here seem to have no subtlety as they will literally stop in their tracks to stand and stare for minutes on end.
Little stream down by the tree house
We arrived in Mudumulai National Park in Tamil Nadu at around 3pm and moved into our tree house.  This place is amazing! Total bliss and relaxation.  What a treat to kick back high up in the bamboo drinking hot chai (masala tea) and playing cards whilst waiting for sundown.  Sundown brought on our next event; Night safari!  On the back of a jeep under the cover of nightfall there was potential to see deer, elephants, bison, bear, leopard and the golden prized tiger.  Unfortunately the tigers didn't want to come out to play on this particular night.  Nor did the leopards... or the bears.  I don't care it was brilliant and i would definitely recommend it.  Dinner was chicken curry and roti by camp fire which topped it all off beautifully.  A word of warning though; mosquito's here are zilch, absolutely none at all (at this time of year).  Other bugs and flies (non biting as far as i gathered)... a heck of a lot.  Jess resorted to spending some time in the car because of it.  It was only at night around the lights and we made the rookie mistake of leaving our room light on with the door open.  Well you live and you learn.

Snooty Ooty Tea
Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Apparently the preferred constituents of a mattress here is stone.  Its like sleeping on tarmac!  They obviously prefer this here as every bed i have slept in so far has been like this.  We left our tree house to drive up hill to Ooty which is a popular holiday destination for South Indians at this time of year as its altitude means it is much cooler up here.  Its climate makes it ideal for growing tea too and so the majority the land is filled with lush green tea plantations. It boasts the highest peak in south India called Doddabetta which has a real Skegness (tacky English seaside resort) feel to it with colourful cartoony figures, popcorn vendors and excited children.  Though there is not really much to be excited about, its a nice view but not when compared to the views from the miniature railway we caught an hour later from Ooty to Coonoor.  This cost about £1 for "first class" and we some how managed to get a carriage all to ourselves.  I read somewhere that the left hand side of the train rewarded the best scenery tea plantations and mountains.  This, i guess, was when travelling towards Ooty as we largely got rocks, walls and grass.  We sat waiting, fixed looking out the windows when Jess looked round to notice the very impressive views on the other side.  Good job we had the carriage to ourselves!  Sandeep drove and met us in Coonoor claiming that the views were equally as good.

We were heading to Fort Kochi, our first stop in Kerala, which was about 200km away from Coonoor.  This required dinner and sleep on the highway so we could arrive in good time.  At dinner, again Jess attracted much attention with the waiters asking me if they could have a photo with her.  Jess generally towers over most people in a room here and so these photos made for some comical viewing.  I managed to buy some local dress wear which i have seen a lot of men wearing.  Actually buying it was a bit of a challenge as i didn't know what they were called and the shop owners didn't speak a word of English.  After a mixture of actions and pigeon English their faces told me that that still had no clue to what it was i required.  Eventually i told them that i would be back in a minute (which probably meant nothing to them) and went to find Sandeep to get the name of this item of clothing.  I am now a proud owner of a Lungi!  Now, how do you put it on...?

After several attempts, for breakfast the next morning i went down sporting a very badly tied lungi.  We ended up having to ask one of the waiters how to do tie it properly and so he offered to teach me there and then.  Now this involved me stripping down to my undies in the middle of the restaurant and i was very aware that my boxers weren't my days best.  More waiters gained interest and took me to a back room to argue over how best to tie my lungi before sorting me out good and proper.  The morning was spent on the road as was most of the afternoon.  Fort Kochi is much more touristy where often it would be me and Sandeep being the minority in a room.  We stayed in a lovely little home stay, that i a booked previously on hostelworld.com, called "Taj Mahal Home stay".  They cook great food in their little restaurant and fresh seafood can be ordered earlier in the day so they can collect it straight from the shores fish markets to have it ready for dinner.  The family are brilliant at making it feel very homely as we were welcome in the kitchen to watch them cook and i woke up to playing carrom with one of the children.  This is my kind of place!
Playing Carrom in Kochi
Sandeep suggested that we go for a full body Kerala style massage before going to watch a traditional Keralan dance called a Kathakali.  This would be my second ever full body massage so i roughly knew what to expect.  Well i thought i did.  I walked into the room to find what i can only describe as a make shift thong of which i was supposed to change into for my massage.  There were two issues i had; 1) it was little larger than a piece of dental floss and 2) I had no idea how on earth this thing goes on!?  Now i am the kind of guy who in the changing rooms needs to have his boxers lined out ready for the quickest exchange from trunks possible.  Trunks off, boxers on. Bam.  It's not short of a nightmare when I try and go too fast and get my foot stuck in my undies in the process.  So after staring at it for a while, with my head in my hands, i decided i had to model it on top of my clothes first to insure i knew what goes where and what ties to what.  It was this point at which my masseuse came in and insisted that he would put it on for me...  Well at least there was no worry of a happy ending this time (referencing my Indonesia trip)

Gods own country
Wednesday, 20 April 2011

We have boarded our house boat in Alleppey to meander through the backwaters of Kerala.  I read a number of negative reviews on houseboats largely focusing on cleanliness so we chose through a friends recommendation.  Done correctly, the backwaters of Kerala by houseboat can be one of the most beautiful things you can do in this lifetime.  Luckily we did it correctly and so i can definitely recommend "rainbow cruises" for their clean and comfortable house boats (video below) and their excellent food.  For about £60 each we had 24 hours on the boat with a captain, a butler and a cook to look after us.  I would say that some of my best meals were eaten on this boat as the cook will make what you want exactly how you want it.  I am not quite sure what the backwaters actually are.  They seem to be a series of fresh water lakes that are connected by lots of palm tree lined canals.  The cushioned open deck (above) is perfect to sit and write, read, bird watch, people watch, fish, chat, drink beer, play cards and do just about anything to experience real chilled out bliss. 

Lunch was fried fish from the waters, sambaar, mixed veg fry, papads, crispy fried bitter gourd, onion raita and rice.  This was all done Kerala style using a lot more coconut and aromatic spices in its preparation.  Actual heaven.  They gave the option of stopping at a fish market if you fancied buying anything special for dinner.  Of course i fancied it.  I bought some gigantic prawns and a whole kingfish for the cook to prepare for later.  Out of the three of us i am the only one that actually likes seafood so i told the staff that they must eat most of it.  The prawns were fried in Kerala spices and were easily the best way i have ever had them prepared for me with the spices and the meat soaking up all the prawny flavours from the shell. Yum.
After a quick swim i spent the evening fishing for tiddlers and watching the sun go down as Sandeep and Jess retreated inside away from the mosquitoes and lizards.  The sunset was truly epic.  Starting with orange skies behind the black silhouette of the palm trees, colours of bright pinks and deep purples emerged as if from nowhere, all reflected in the ripples of the shimmering backwaters.  Impressive huh?
 Hot curries, Hot sun, Warm people
Good Friday, 22 April 2011

Wednesday we were close to the whole day in the car journeying towards Kovalam, with a brief stop at Varkala beach (left) for lunch.  Varkala is one of the top rated beaches in Kerala, second only to Kovalam where we set aside two full days to give us plenty of time to soak up the Kerala sun and bathe in the warm Arabian sea.  There are a few beaches here but we stayed on the lighthouse beach which is the most popular one in Kovalam.  Yesterday we were up early and headed straight out to the beach.  At this time of year it is good to avoid the afternoon sun as it really screams down between 12 - 3pm and temperatures are peaking at high 30's.  At 8.30 in the morning we pretty much had the beach and the body boards all too ourselves.  With late breaking waves and a decent stretch of shallow it is pretty easy to catch a wave on a body board.  Even for beginners (me!).  Bigger waves breaking slightly further out seem ideal for proper surfing for the cooler people too.  Jess had a few issues with her bikini not doing a great job on it's primary function but we were having so much fun on the beach, cold kingfisher in hand, we actually forgot about lunch.

There are 3 famous dishes in Kerala which you generally wont get anywhere else; Kerala Crab Curry, Kerala Beef Curry and Meen Pollichathu (fish in banana leaf).  I had planned these into our stay as we had three main meal slots in Kovalam; Wednesday dinner, Thursday lunch and Thursday dinner.  The creamy, coconutty, messy crab curry was first and by far the best prepared crab i have eaten.  More so, i'm afraid, than the Singapore Chilli Crab and that's saying something.  It  was that good!  The fact that we missed lunch yesterday put me in a bit of a pickle as it meant i had two dishes to eat but just the one meal time left to eat them.  Unless... i ate one for breakfast  :oS.  So it had to be done, fish in banana leaf last night and beef curry this morning.  Last night we went to a posh hotel where we sat out on the balcony and ate dinner whilst the sun slowly sank into the sea.  We finished the night in a beach front bar playing table tennis, drinking kingfisher and eating Pakoras. 

Yet another amazing sunset
This morning we were up and ready for yet another hefty journey down to Kanyakumari.  I had my beef curry and washed it down with a couple of cup of cardamom tea.  I love cardamom tea!  English tea is one of the few things i really dislike but Indian tea is damn good.  It may be down to the bucket of sugar they put in it but i'm drinking it at every moment.  After meals, on the road, for breakfast, as a night cap, at all times!  The beef curry... well it would have been lovely a few hours later as i found myself somewhat envious of Sandeeps nice and light puri masala.  Like i said, it had to be done.  The cow is sacred in most parts of India where its slaughter is actually illegal.  The chances of finding a beef curry anywhere on the rest of my trip is highly unlikely.

Grand master one handed eater
Saturday, 23 April 2011

On the way to Kanyakumari we visited an all wooden palace.  Again it was time for me to be a mute as it was 15Rs for locals and 200Rs for tourists!  That's over 1300% increase!? So i label myself as a local and manage to get through the palace doors without saying a word.  It being a palace, we were required to remove any footwear and walk around bare foot.  A local (which supposedly includes me for the next half an hour) have feet that can walk on hot coals.  I however, dont.  Looking like Bambi's first steps on the gritty, stoney floors the words foreigner were printed on my forehead in big bold capitals.  I think the floors were put there on purpose to test those cheeky tourists.  Good job i am a local.  The actual palace may be interesting to some people but not so much to me.  I was more interested in people watching and seeing their reactions to Jess.    
If there was a championship of some sort in eating with your right hand i think i would win.  I have been practising (not really out of choice) and i can eat rice, rip chappattis and scoop curries all with this same hand keeping my left completely clean and free to do whatever i want!  I have been sampling a lot of the street food in Kanyakumari as there seems to be a fair amount here to cater for the Indian tourists that flock here this time of year (Schools were out for there longest holiday just a few days back).  It may seem a little risky eating off the street but in general if no water is used in its preparation then it should be fine.  Besides, other than spewing from both ends in Mysore I have been passing solids since! well for the most part.  Street food is dirt cheap.  This morning i bought 4 different bhajis for 10Rs and yesterday i paid the same for chilli bhajis.  My theory is the further backstreet you go the cheaper and tastier (and maybe riskier) the food gets.  In general, if there is a lot of locals eating there then it must be good local food.  All this food i have eaten has never cost more than 15Rs.  I have been eyeing a particular fruit since Kerala often seeing street vendors selling it.  It's called palm fruit (i think!) and I eventually got round to buying it yesterday.  It really doesn't taste of anything.  Like a very bland coconut water flavoured jelly. 

Jess said "lets wait for a wave"
Kanyakumari is the southern most point of India and where the Arabian sea, Indian ocean and the bay of Bengal meet.  Me and Jess went down to dip our feet in the three seas among many people fully dressed in their colourful saris/lungis just sitting there in the sand letting the waves flow into them.  The ladies were lovely and once again fascinated in Jess.  Where's my attention hey!? We joined them for a beautiful photo involving us to do more than just dip our feet in the water.  With wet backsides we said our goodbyes and headed back to our hotel. 

Jess has a colleague whose family live just outside of Kanyakumari and she had arranged to pay them a visit.  I forgot the Indian mentality towards guests in their house.  It felt like the whole street had gathered to welcome us.  They had presumed that me and Sandeep knew Jess' colleague too and so were cracking out his wedding photos, baby photos and showing us around his bedroom.  The truth is we have never met him but we decided it was easier to pretend we had.  They made us fresh Dosa with chutneys (with mineral water this time!) and Jess got her hand painted with Henna by one of the girls.  A lovely family and a great way to spend an evening sampling family life in India.

This morning we woke up stupidly early as the sunrise in Kanyakumari behind the Thiruvalluvar Statue was recommended to be completely worth it.  It so wasn't.  Up at 5:30 we sat in darkness on the steps by the sea along with a few hundred other people, who were obviously given a similar recommendation, and waited for the sun to peep out of the sea.  And we waited some more.  Then darkness turned into light.  And we waited some more... It didn't happen.  As if by magic (though not as exciting as magic) the sun was in the sky and we saw nothing.  I did however get to eat some brilliant street food so all was not lost.  Upwards and onwards to Madurai temple, our last stop!

"Sir, would Madame like something?"
Monday, 25 April 2011

"Jess would you like anything?"
"urmmm... a bottle of water please"
"she would like a bottle of water."

She is sitting right next to me!?  This happens a lot.  They speak as if Jess wasn't even in the room.  A number of times now people have only addressed me and Sandeep when "talking to" Jess.  Rarely do they ask questions directly to her.  Also interesting is that the roads have no women on them?! The streets are completely filled with men and men only.  Today i counted (you spend a long time in the car, you get bored sometimes!) how many men i saw before i saw a woman and got to 26 men! 26!?  Where are all the women!?  Another cultural difference I have noticed is that two men will happily walk down the street hand in hand arms swinging back and forth.  In England if this was to happen, one could make a valid presumption that those two men were an item.  Not the case in India.  Sandeep insists that it is not because there are no women in India and that they are actually just friends.  Thing is, if they are not holding hands then they will quite likely have their arms wrapped around each other without a gay thought in mind.  Its all very innocent.

Anyway, 10 days and 1800 plus kilometers later we are back in Bengaluru with a couple of days spare to explore this city.  On the way from Kanyakumari we had a brief stop off in Madurai to visit the Meenakshi Amman Temple.  It was brief because it was closed and we decided that it would be time better spent travelling towards Bengaluru than waiting for it to open and staying the night in Madurai.  No matter, surely the inside could not have been more impressive than the outside!  The outside was extraordinarily complex and intricate with hundreds of elaborately sculptured and painted figures on it.  Something to really push my camera to its limits.

Yesterday, me and Jess set out shopping on our own, without the guidance of Sandeep, armed with the words "Esh tu?" (meaning "how much?") to give me the smallest ray of hope to souning like a local.  It didn't work.  Prices went through the roof as we had gone from being two locals with a foreigner to two very obvious foreigners.  The rickshaw ride was the first thing we got ripped off on as Sandeep confirmed on the phone that we definitely paid more than double.  Right from now on we are ringing Sandeep before we buy anything
We roamed around a mall called Forum which was very western in its layout with the well known Pizza Hut, KFC and McDonalds all with their own little Indian twists.  We went to the cinema first (Scream 4 - I know we really should have watched a Bollywood film!) and then had lunch in McDonalds.  It's like being back in England!  Well i was recommended to try an Indian McDonalds as the menu is very different.  Well with a majority of non beef eating citizens they would struggle a lot with a typical McD's menu.  Beef burgers were nowhere to be seen with replacements of McSpicy Paneer, Chicken Maharaja-Mac and McAloo Tiki burgers tending to the locals taste. 
We took another rickshaw to UB City where the rich like to hang out.  Smart Italian restaurants along side Louis Vuitton, Rolex and much of the same retailers where prices look like phone numbers were slightly beyond us.  Back onto a tuc-tuc and onwards to Brigade road, India how i know and like it.  Busy streets lined with tiny local shops and food outlets rubbing shoulders with the big brand stores and chain restaurants.  Men trying their best to convince you they are selling real brand sunglasses, women selling sliced fruit sprinkled with spices and beggars sending out their dusty children to pull on your clothes and heart strings for a few rupees all add to the deep and diverse atmosphere.  All of this and we ate at Nandos.  I know i am ashamed of me too.  For our night cap we met up with Sandeep and a friend of his and spent the night in a bar eating really good chocolate desserts and smoking Paan flavoured Shisha.

Sandeep was busy all day today so we decided to hire a driver for the day (for 500Rs - using Sandeeps car) to take us to the sights and scenes left over in Bengaluru.  First on the list was Bengaluru Zoo which cost just 45Rs to get in.  Though it is dusty, aged and in need of renovation it was still an interesting trip with the Tawny Owl, Christmas Goose and the common 'Leicester Square' Grey Pigeon all on show as exotic animals.  Lunch was Chicken Biryani which i think i have had about 5 times (or mutton) since i have been in India and i would say that it's one of my favourite meals to eat here.  Its got your meat, your staple rice and it always comes with a side of Raita (a kind of yogurt based sauce) and small bowl of vegetable curry.  Everything you need!  We visited a couple of temples and as our driver was Hindu he explained it all to us making it well worth the visit.  Wouldn't really have been so interesting without him. 
So this is it, i am done in India.  Jess and Sandeep will go on for another week to explore Goa but unfortunately i have school on Wednesday.  Oh well, it has been an amazing trip and my view of India has changed massively.  I had only been to Goa before and that was all i had to base my impressions of India on.  Love it or loathe it (and i can see why people switch between the two), there is so much to learn and appreciate in India from their diverse cultural cocktail to their warm and friendly nature.  Absolutely none of this would have been possible without the generosity and selflessness of Sandeep.  He drove the whole thing, took us to places we wouldn't have known about and was the sole reason for going to India in the first place!  An absolute top bloke and the pearl of such a beautiful country.

Top 3 meals:
- Chicken Biryani in RRR, Mysore.
- Crab curry in Kovalam, Kerala.
- Fried Chicken Kabab on the houseboat, Allepey.