A Travellerspoint blog

January 2009

homeward bound

about to board the plane for toronto

overcast 7 °C

We're in Brussels and about to start the very last leg of our journey. I have several more blog entries about India but I'll have to post them from home unfortunately -- not enough time to upload the photos.

Thanks for traveling with me -- stay tuned for the last few posts ...

Posted by a_broad 00:04 Archived in Belgium Tagged air_travel Comments (2)

Munnar ...

despite all the climbing it's still my cup of tea

sunny 22 °C

Munnar equals tea plantations. In fact, as we drove from Thekkady we knew we’d arrived in Munnar when the tea plantations started.

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Close to 7,000 feet above sea level, Munnar is a very lush, green, picturesque hill station that is totally unspoiled – home to tea, coffee and cardamom plantations.

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The drive was long, but gorgeous and we stopped several times to take pictures – and to sample some water coconuts – they look nothing like the ‘hairy’ cocoa-coloured coconuts we’re used to at home. These are bigger, smooth, greenish and need to have their tops hacked off with a hatchet – easier said than done. Then you can drink the coconut water, which is delicious – and then you eat the jelly.

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It’s very good.

Our resort – Tall Trees – is up a very steep incline – and keeps inclining – even to get to the restaurant it’s all uphill. We each had our own two-story cottage, set amongst – you guessed it – tall trees.

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The setting is gorgeous – very eco-friendly – full of colourful flowers and leaves and trees of every shape and description. And, it’s located on a 66-acre cardamom plantation. Just glorious – and certainly as opposite to the luxury we experienced in Rajasthan as can be.

This is nature at its best -- rustic … pure … simple. Waterfalls, lakes, streams and hills abound. It can also be quite cool, although we’re lucky. It’s sunny and lovely.

Last night Marney and Rashmi were afraid we’d be cold so they called and asked for some hot water bottles for all of us to keep in our beds (we got them in the desert and also at Spice Village). They were told this resort “doesn’t provide that service” … but lo and behold, just a few minutes went by and there was a knock at their door.

There stood a young hotel employee proudly carrying a tray upon which stood five, 500 ml plaster drinking water bottles which they’d made hot for us. Very sweet indeed – and very creative thinking too. That’s what they’re like here. They will do anything to make you feel welcome and cherished.

This morning after breakfast we visited a tea plantation and learned how tea is processed – you will be sorry to learn that the awful truth is that the dregs of the batch get shipped to North America. Then we went to a nursery where I went insane shooting pictures of flowers – and also saw members of a women’s club who were all dressed in turquoise saris – set amongst the flowers it was just a breathtaking sight.

More water coconuts on the side of the road, a nice lunch at a buffet restaurant near town, a walk through Munnar Village and back to the hotel for dinner (and hopefully to watch at least part of Obama’s inauguration – it will be the first time in a month I’ve watched TV. We’ve had TV everywhere we’ve been but I’ve not put it on once. After my third day in India I stopped reading newspapers too – even the local ones.

I have no idea what’s going on in the world and right now I don’t care. I guess I’ll find out soon enough, because tomorrow we go to Cochin – we’re there for one night – and then it’s back home.

This month has gone so quickly I can’t believe it’s virtually over. This has been the most marvelous experience. I’ll be back …

Posted by a_broad 03:25 Archived in India Tagged ecotourism Comments (5)

thekkady

a cool mountain town in the Cardamom Hills

sunny 21 °C

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More time to unwind in our lovely, tranquil resort (Spice Village) set 3,000 feet above sea level – each of us with our own, thatched-roof cottage.

As soon as we got settled in Marney and Cynthia went on a plantation tour. Haidee, Rashmi and I opted to go into town (a 2-minute walk) instead. Yes, we went shopping, but I feel compelled to mention that while I am doing a lot of shopping it is not costing a lot of money:

When you shop at the markets like we are you are spending anywhere from 150 to 350 rupees on pants, tops, scarves – which, loosely translated, comes to between $1 to $2.50 in U.S. dollars. In Samode (at the start of our trip) I got three silver bangles for $7, for example.

In cities like Mumbai you pay much more in the fancy shops where you’d swear you were on Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive – but that’s not where we’ve gone. This is much more fun, actually – and we’ve all become experts at haggling.

I will be having hernia surgery when I come home, though, because my bags are becoming heavier and heavier … and I’m needing more and more pieces of luggage.

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On this particular sojourn in the shops the three of us met Deepak – one of the most wonderful guys you’ll ever meet. His English was fantastic – which he credits the 18 years he spent with hippies in Goa for. He’s a philosopher, a charmer, a fabulous salesman, an entrepreneur (he’s got three stores in Thekkady), and an all around great guy. We even met his son and his wife – and soon we were all having masala tea – courtesy of his wife, who made it at home for us and brought it to the store.

We were there for a long time and we all walked out with bags and bags full – wonderful silk ‘laundry’ bags.

Back at the resort I tried to get on the internet – to no avail. I had a feeling it would be spotty in the South – and in fact, I never could use it in Thekkady. So instead we went to a cooking class – which was very interesting and delicious as well. Then we enjoyed some local entertainment and a wonderful dinner.

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Kerala is known for seafood so I’m in heaven.

You can’t keep your eyes open here past 10 pm. I think I read the same two lines of my book four times and just had to turn off the lights. As I fell asleep I was serenaded by crickets. That’s the last thing I remember.

Up bright and early the next day, I wandered around taking pictures of all the plants – you have no idea what grows here – cinnamon, teak, curry leaves, coffee, tea, ginger, pepper, and on and on the list goes.

Haidee and Marney went on a three-hour nature hike – Spice Village is right near the Lake Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. I opted not to because I didn’t feel like exposing myself to lots of mosquitos – especially as I didn’t think they’d see a lot of animals – which, in the end, they didn’t.

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Instead I checked out the property, watched a man carve earrings and serving pieces from teak and coconut shells, relaxed and went back to town. I had thought I’d have an ayurvedic massage, but in the end I didn’t even want to do that.

After all the activity of recent weeks it was nice to just veg in the beautiful, calming, serene place. At the end of the day we went to a spice market and loaded up on ginger and cinnamon and nutmeg and vanilla and cardamom and masala mix for tea and coffee and seasoning for every conceivable kind of curry – fish, chicken, vegetable, lamb – and we also got some oils – musk, eucalyptus, aloe vera, special massage oil for sore joints – our luggage will be very fragrant on the return trip home.

What gave us all a giggle was when three women (neighbours who were out shopping together) asked if they could take their pictures with us. For close to a month now we’ve been asking the locals if we can take their photos – this time the tables were turned – and we were the novelty.

You have know idea how excited and happy they were when we said “yes”. The whole village turned out for the event – you wouldn’t believe the size of the crowd that gathered. It was really sweet.

Dinner at a local restaurant (another feast – with main dishes costing in the range of 100 rupees – less than $2) and again, early to bed.

How I got everything I bought into my suitcase I will never know, but the Gods were smiling on me for sure …

Posted by a_broad 02:04 Archived in India Tagged ecotourism Comments (1)

a houseboat cruise of the backwaters

the perfect start to our week in Kerala

sunny 22 °C

Kerala is a very narrow state (only 350 miles) and it runs along the Western coast of India. It’s lush and very green and it’s where you find the plantations – rubber, tea, coffee, cashews, teak and spices – cardamom, pepper (black, white, red and green), cinnamon, tumeric, ginger – which makes the air so very fragrant. It’s also one of India’s most progressive states – they have over 90% literacy rate here.

This is where Ayurveda (a 4,000 year old holistic medical science) began. Doctors prescribe treatments based on your constitution and then special oils and herbal concoctions are poured or massaged over your body. I am hoping to have time to give it a try – they say it’s quite something.

When I was doing the research for my trip and I ‘discovered’ Kerala I couldn’t get over the colour – it’s so intense it looks over-saturated – like it’s been enhanced. But it’s not – that’s exactly what it’s like – and it just takes your breath away.

What also leaves you breathless is the extreme contrast between the hurly burly atmosphere of cities like Delhi and Jaipur and Mumbai and Varanasi and the calm and tranquility of the South. It’s also a fair bit warmer here – it is tropical, after all – and there is some humidity – not hard to take at all – but I don’t think I could handle it in the summer. My hair and skin, however, love it.

This area is also riddled with mosquitos – you MUST keep spraying and spraying and spraying yourself – especially at dusk. I am being very diligent – after my reaction to mosquito bites in Bequia last year I am completely paranoid about bites; and I can also live without malaria – which you can still get even if you take Malarone (anti malaria pills) – you’d just get a milder case. So you must pay attention. You’re advised to wear long pants and long sleeves, which I am doing. They’re in very lightweight fabrics, but this is not the place to wear shorts and sleeveless tops.

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We’re beginning this last leg of our journey with a houseboat cruise of the backwaters. When you look at the boats it is hard to imagine where you’d sleep on them. But we had a four bedroom boat – each with its own bathroom … there was a lounge with a TV and satellite dish) … a kitchen … even a dining room table. Amazing.

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And when you are on that boat, drifting along the river you are in another world. There is nothing you could ever do that would be more relaxing … or more peaceful and meditative.

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A perfect time and place to reflect and find the answers that are, of course, within all of us – but are buried under the layers and layers of stress and pressure and duties and responsibilities and chores and activities and obligations of our daily lives. At home we’re focused on success – here they are focused on the true meaning of life – here success is not measured in material terms.

When I was in school I remember that one of my favourite books was Lost Horizon. Well I’ve got to tell you, if this isn’t Shangri-La then I don’t know what is. It is as close to paradise as I think you can get on earth!!

Our flight from Mumbai to Cochin left so early (about 7:40 am) that we ended up having most of the day to enjoy the houseboat (thankfully). Once we got settled in, we lounged around for a bit and then Rashmi and I went to lay down.

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The next thing I knew Haidee was waking me up to say that the guys (the boat comes with a crew of three) had asked if they wanted to go out exploring in a canoe.

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Something must have gotten lost in the translation though, because Haidee and Cynthia thought it was a fifteen minute trip and we’d be going to a village where we would be able to walk around.

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So you can imagine our surprise when our boatman handed us oars – and then when we found ourselves working up a sweat for the better part of an hour – especially when we had to navigate through the dense water hydrangeas – it was hard work let me tell you. But in the end despite the moaning and groaning we all agreed that it was fun and worth the effort.

We got back in time for tea and more napping – this time on huge mattresses and pillows on deck. I could have stayed there – in that very spot – for days and days.

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Dinner was dee-lic-ious!! Prawns (caught that morning) the size of lobsters (I kid you not) – simply grilled with garlic. Chicken, so tender it just melted in your mouth (virtually no chewing required). Pinepple curry made with coconut (indigenous to this area) … beet root … rice … roti … vegetables – and some good Indian beer to wash it all down.

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And a sunset that is simply indescribable!!! The sky and the water literally turned scarlet!!

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By ten we were all fast asleep. Nature had acted like a tranquilizer – none of us could keep our eyes open.

I got up early enough to have a shower and enjoy the scenery before breakfast. By 9:30 we were on our way to our next stop – Thekkady (Periyar).

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It was difficult to leave …

Posted by a_broad 02:02 Archived in India Tagged boating Comments (2)

mumbai

formerly known as Bombay

sunny 23 °C

Our flight to Mumbai didn’t leave until 1:40 so we got to sleep in late. What luxury!

On one hand I was looking forward to seeing Mumbai – it would be very different from anywhere else we’ve been because it really is a very cosmopolitan, sophisticated, worldly (expensive city – condos go for about 100,000 rupees a square foot).

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But on the other I sort of dreaded it because once we get to Mumbai our wonderful vacation is almost over.

Two nights in India’s answer to Chicago, LA or New York, and then off to the South (Kerala) for a week and then home. I can’t believe we’ve been gone for three weeks already. And, in fact, for Paul and Melanie Wray (from Australia), Mumbai signified the end of their vacation – that’s where they left us to go back home.

We landed around 3:40, 4 pm and I was immediately struck by the size of the airport – and also how modern it is (it was also noticeably warmer and more humid). We could have landed in any big city. Once out of the airport we also saw modern cars for the first time – Mercedes, Honda, Porche, Volkswagon – you name it, they drive it – no camels on the streets here.

The traffic was also horrendous – our hotel is really close to the airport (when Mumbai was attacked by terrorists we unfortunately had to cancel our reservations at the Taj and rebook at JW Marriott) – but it took well over an hour to get there – in bumper to bumper traffic all the way.

But along the way we saw interesting restaurants and shops carrying just about every international designer label you can think of – and also passed local boutiques who promote talented local designers and more traditional sari shops, as well.

I felt instantly at home – Mumbai (India’s seaside financial capital and every trend-spotting, trend-setting fashionista’s paradise) is a city I could live in easily – if I could afford it, of course.

At first we thought we’d go downtown but once we got to the hotel we decided to hang around there. It’s a HUGE hotel – a ‘business’ hotel – and they have a magnificent pool – an infinity pool that leads right into the Indian Ocean.

Haidee and Cynthia decided to go swimming. I went to my room to re-pack for the umpteenth time. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve packed and unpacked – living out of a suitcase is a pain in the …

Anyway we were all packing now for a week – Rashmi told us that there was no way we could take all our luggage on the houseboat and even some of the other places we’re going to in the South are difficult to get to – no way we could drag those bags. So the plan was to pack everything we need for a week in one bag and leave the rest of our luggage at our last stop in Cochin, the Taj Malabar Hotel.

It took me two hours – not because I started off with a lot of clothes – but because of all my shopping. India is a shopper’s paradise – gorgeous things, very inexpensive – at least at the markets we went to. Mumbai would be very different, obviously.

So we all did our own thing and then we met for dinner at the hotel.

In the meantime Rashmi found out that there was a Bollywood party in our hotel – it’s right in the heart of Bollywood and the celebs hang out at the hotel bar. It was an invitation only event but that didn’t stop Rashmi from trying to get us invited.

Her charm didn’t seem to be working so Cynthia and I decided to pack it in and go to bed – we have been constantly on the move for three weeks. So what happened?

Rashmi, Haidee and Marney not only got into the Bollywood party they ended up crashing a wedding – they got to meet the bride and groom, their parents and even had their pictures taken – years from now that couple will look at those wedding pictures and wonder who the heck the three women in jeans were!

The next day was action-packed! Lots and lots to see so we had to be downstairs, ready to go at 8 a.m.

We had a fabulous breakfast – you had to see that buffet to believe it:

Eggs cooked to order, every kind of fruit imaginable, five different flavours of yoghurt, bagels, Danish, four different kinds of bread to toast, croissants, coconut croissants, porridge, oatmeal, three or four different kinds of cold cereal, muesli, bacon, chicken sausages, fruit juices, compotes, crackers, cheeses, smoked salmon, capers, vegetables, cream cheese, and about ten or fifteen different Indian breakfast specialties.

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Then we met our guide – a woman, this time and we headed off to our first stop – an opportunity to take pictures at Dhobi Ghat, a spectacular outdoor laundry.

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Never have you seen anything like it!!

That done we went to use ‘the facilities’ at the Taj Hotel – it has re-opened – and I am so happy to say it was crowded and bustling – you would never have known there’d been any problems here just a few short weeks ago – except for the tight security at the gates and door – pretty consistent throughout India, by the way.

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I wish we’d changed our reservations back once it re-opened but it just means I will have to return to Mumbai. If the lobby is anything to go by, it is a truly majestic and magnificent hotel.

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We saw the Gateway to India (right across the street from the Taj) – which was built in 1911 to welcome King George V to India.

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Our next stop was Elephanta Caves – an hour’s ferry ride and a relatively short ‘train’ ride away – and well worth the trip. Dating back to the 7th Century these cave temples were fabulous – as was the chair ride I took up the more than 125 steps you need to climb to get there.

It was a little after 3 pm when we finally met up with Rashmi again at the Taj Hotel – and then we spent some time at one of the 8 synagogues in Bombay.

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I have to tell you, I really enjoy the visits to the synagogues (we have another one coming up in Kerala). It definitely gives you a ‘connection’ to the city. As part of this ‘sightseeing expedition’ we also saw the gorgeous Victoria Terminus – Mumbai’s main train station and the very house that Mahatma Ghandi lived in.

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A short shopping spree at a government price-controlled store followed and we then went to check out Crawford Market – a series of bazaars that sell everything from fabric to diamond jewelry.

Zonked by then we went for Chinese food (yes, in India) … and headed back to our hotel. We needed to get to bed because we had to meet in the lobby at 4:15 a.m. (no, it is not a typo – I meant 4:15 a.m.) to catch our very early flight to Cochin.

Posted by a_broad 01:58 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (3)

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