Friday, April 20, 2007

The Lowdown On The Photos

Before you all get upset, I must apologise about the lack of photos. Being in rural India, it has been difficult to find internet connections that can cope with uploading photos.

To reassure you, we have some lovely pics and I promise I'll put them up as soon as I can. As it happens, the connection here is fine, but there's no disc drive in the computer - if isn't one thing, it's another!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Rebuilding An Empire

Hampi is a national treasure. The ruins really are quite amazing – it’s the sheer scale and extent of them. The Indian government are currently doing lots of archaelogical digs around the area in an attempt to uncover more of the ruins. Slowly they are rebuilding more and more of the temples, bazaars and palaces. Unfortunately, much of the city is now under banana plantations, so some of it will never be uncovered. The rebuild has only been going on since the 1980’s, before then Hampi was deserted, but now it’s a thriving little village again. I can’t imagine how amazing this place will be in another 20 years.

For the locals, the main source of income is the tourists, so there’s lots of begging too, especially in the low season. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard “do you want a rickshaw madam?”, “like to buy some stickers?” and “hello, bananas?”. They certainly try hard!

Friday, April 13, 2007

A Temple Blessing

The following morning we went to the Hindu Temple at the end of the bazaar. It’s one of the few working temples in Hampi and one of the largest. On entering the temple we took the services of a guide, who showed us into all the nooks and crannies and gave us a thorough explanation of each section of the working temple. In and around us, the locals bustled, giving their offerings to their gods and receiving blessings from the priest in return. Stuart and I both got blessings from one of the priests and wore our bindis with pride for the next few hours.

As we entered the courtyard, Lakshmi, the temple elephant came out. The beautifully painted elephant gave a bow at the front of the temple and then made her way to the entrance. She gives blessings to people who give her a coin. The blessings are given by patting you on the head with her trunk and then she rings the bell around her neck. A perfect way to end our temple tour.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The End Of An Empire

Hampi was once the capital of one of the largest Hindu empires which reined about 500 years ago. Originally it had 500,000 residents, spread out over a huge area and it controlled the spice trade between Europe to the West and China to the East. Originally there were 3,000 temples within the area, but Muslims came in the 14th century and distroyed most of them, leaving only a few and destroying the empire in the same swift sweep.

A fascinating place with numerous ruined temples, rock carvings and statues. It takes about 3 days to fully see all the sites and we needed a moped and a guide to get between the sites. The area is really quite incredible and you really get a sense of the glory days of one of India’s strongest empires.

The Hindu Ruins Of Hampi

After a day’s train ride we arrived at Hospet, the nearest town with a station to Hampi. We had met a guy on the train, so the three of us and our big backpacks hopped in a rickshaw. I sat next to the driver, clinging on for dear life so I didn’t fall out! Lucky for me, he was a fairly calm driver, so the ride was painless (beside the ache in my arm from holding myself inside the rickshaw).

As we drove into the small village of Hampi we passed several old ruins. The sun was going down and casting a beautiful orangy light over the granite boulders and ruined temples. As we swung round the corner into the main bazaar, the village came alive with people and cows everywhere. At the top of the bazaar the main temple stood proud in the air. A few Hindu priests loitered outside in their robes and the sacred bull ambled past the grand entrance to the temple. The aromas, sights and sounds created a magical scene – and a typical India that I had imagined.

That evening we went for dinner and had the compulsory thali - a special India ‘dish of the day’. You get a selection of little curries, a soup, rice, pickle, chapathis and a popadom. Quick, easy and it always delivers! It’s been our stable lunch time food since we got here.

From Munnar To Fort Cochin

After a relaxing Munnar we went on to Fort Cochin. Our relaxed bodies soon gave way to tense muscles after a bus ride from a driver with 'special Keralan training'. We made it to Fort Cochin in 4 hours, well under the allotted 6.5 hours of the state run bus! We found our preferred guest house Elite Hotel, which was a major disappointment. It was obvious that a mention in the Lonely Planet had made the owner complacent and the hotel was now in a dingy state. We decided to stay one night, whilst we found somewhere else. We ended up in a guesthouse only 50 meters away - Princess Inn, which was clean, friendly and cheaper.

That night we had a wander around the historic town and discovered the Chinese fishing nets - large, cantilevered nets that are down by the port. They've been there hundreds of years and were bought over during the reign of Kublai Khan. They're still used today by the fishermen who scratch a measly living from them. We discovered these just as the sun was going down and the tide was high, so the fishermen were using them in the low light of evening sun. Quite magical.

The rest of time in Fort Cochin was spent wondering around the colonial streets and drinking tea in a charming little teashop called Teapot. Their selection of tea was second to none, with a variety of different grades from the plantations as well as fruit and herb teas. All of which could be accompanied by cake. How colonial we felt! On one visit we had 'silver tips' tea, made from the young unfolded leaves of the tea plant. They create a fragrant, delicate flavour which we both adored. Unfortunately, this tea was 50 Rupees a cup as compared to 15 Rupees of standard tea. A rather expensive cuppa, but really good!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

More Culinary Delights - South Indian Recipes

Having enjoyed our last cooking course so much, we decided to do another. This time our chef was a local woman (receommened by the tourist booth in Fort Cochin). Again, we had a feast and thoroughly enjoyed the lessons we learnt. Here are the recipes:

Keralan Fish Curry
White fish, such as mullet
2" ginger shredded
handful of garlic (about 15 small cloves) shredded
10 shallots shredded
15-20 curry leaves
3-4 tbsp coconut oil or veg oil (not olive oil)
1 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp fenugreek powder (roast seeds and crush into powder)
3 tsp chili powder (not hot chili powder)
3 tsp tamarind paste
1/2 tsp salt

Heat oil and add mustard seeds to pop. Add garlic, shallots, 10 of the curry leaves and ginger. Cook until shallots soft. Place turmeric, chili, and fenugreek in a pot and mix with a little water to make a paste. Add paste to the pan and mix well. Once the oil starts to come out of the mixture, then the masala is ready. Add some water to make sauce - the sauce can be as watery or thick as you like. Bring the sauce to the boil, when it's simmering, add the fish. Add a bit more water to the level of the fish. Give the pan a swirl/shake - don't stir it. Add the rest of the curry leaves and cook for about 10-15 minutes or until fish is cooked.

Fish Fry
2" ginger
5 cloves garlic crushed
Pepper powder
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp fenugreek powder

Make the above into a thick paste with a little vinegar. Score fish and rub paste onto fish. Marinade for a couple of hours, then fry or grill.

Okra with Masala (can also use beans, peas, aubergine or cauliflower instead of okra)
250g okra chopped (do not wash once the okra is chopped)
2 small onions, chopped
10 cloves garlic
1-2 green chilies, roughly sliced
2-3 tbsp coconut oil
1 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp coriander powder
1 cup of coconut milk

Fry onion, garlic, chili in coconut oil for about 5 minutes. Add okra and cook for 1 minute. Add garam masala, turmeric and a dash more oil. Add coriander powder. Add water to the level of the okra and salt to taste. Cook for 5-10 minutes. Add coconut milk (and a bit of corn flour if it ends up being watery).

Vegetable Stew (can also add cashews - just soak the nuts overnight)
1/2 cauliflower chopped
2 medium potatoes chopped
3 carrots chopped
Handful of peas
10 small cloves of garlic sliced
2 green chilies sliced long ways
2 small onions sliced
1-2 cinnamon sticks
5 cardamons
10 peppercorns
10 cloves
2-3 tbsp coconut oil
2 tsp coriander powder
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 cup coconut milk
Enough corn flour to thicken (follow instructions on packet)

Heat oil. Add garlic, chili and onion and cook for 5 - 10 minutes. Add veg and mix well. Add cardamons and other spices, stir well. Cover with water and add salt to taste. Cook until the carrot is soft. Take the pan off the heat and add coconut milk and corn flour. Bring to the boil and then take off the heat.

Cabbage Thora (can be used with any vegetable)
1 small cabbage shredded
1 onion chopped
1" ginger chopped (only use ginger for cabbage recipe)
2 chilies chopped
1.5 handfuls of coconut (use desiccated soaked in water if no fresh coconut available)
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cumin powder

Put all ingredients in a bowl and mix by hand. Add a bit of water and mix well. Add to frying pan and cover to steam vegetables until cooked (about 10 minutes). Then garnish.

Garnish (for 1 dish)
5 shallots sliced
10 curry leaves
2-3 tbsps coconut oil or veg oil
1 tsp mustard seeds

Heat oil and add mustard seeds until they pop. Add shallots and curry leaves. Fry until light brown and then add to the top of the dish.

Later that evening we took a night train to Goa, where we would make a connection to get to Hospet and on to the ruins of Hampi.

Ayurvedic Massage

As part of our list of things to do, we had to make sure we had an Ayurvedic massage. There are different types of massage from full body to just a head massage, all of which use extensive oils. Stu and I decided that we’d give this a go in Fort Cochin. From the pictures, we decided to have a full body massage, which is given by two people in synchronisation and lasts about 45 minutes.

We arrived at the Ayurvedic centre and I was taken upstairs to the ladies’ rooms and Stu was led away to the men’s rooms. Once upstairs and I was instructed to strip – all off! I certainly wasn’t expecting that. Then I sat down on a mat and was massaged from head-to-toe by two ladies. The massage was vigorous in places and very relaxing in others. I just shut my eyes, relaxed and let them get on with it. The ladies weren’t shy and the massage went over every inch of my body – all I could think of was a naked Stu sat downstairs having the same treatment (which made me giggle).

At the end of it, I was covered in oil – literally dripping! I was given a bar of soap and towel and shown the way to the shower. It took me about 10 minutes to scrub the oil off me, but I emerged a glowing, relaxed, new Nicky.

I met Stu downstairs, who seemed a little stunned by the nakedness of it all. We weren’t expecting to be naked – all the pictures of the massage were of people with their pants on! It is probably something that we would do again though.

Monday, April 09, 2007

On To The Hillstations Of Munnar

The next day we jumped on a bus for our journey to Munnar - a small town in the cooler hills surrounded by tea plantations. Since we had seen a tea plantation in Kumily we weren't expecting much from Munnar. The touristy nature of Kumily with touts galore had left a sour taste in our mouths and so we were expecting another small, dirty town in the middle of Kerala. We were completely wrong. The scenery was stunning. After travelling through endless cardamon and banana plantations, we came into rolling hills which stretched for miles and miles. Somewhere in the middle of them was Munnar.

Munnar is nothing more than a village with active bazaar and enough rickshaw drivers for a reasonable sized town. We found a small home stay called Westend Cottage and our friendly host gave us maps of the village and surrounding area, details of a tea museum and some decent walks around the plantations. He was cleverly giving us things to do in order to lengthen our stay... and his pineapple pancakes in the morning were enough reason to stay!

Our one night stay, turned into three nights as we spent the time ambling around the tea plantations and saying 'hi' to the smiling faces in the local villages. It was bliss and a welcome break from the touts of the more touristy spots. The weather was also much cooler then Kumily and the other places we’d been – we even needed blankets at night.

We also managed to find a lovely little restaurant and with every meal, the food just got better. For anyone going to Munnar - try the Bamboo Hut, behind the bazaar. Fab.

An Evening Of Kathakali

In the evening we went to a performance of Kathakali - a traditional dance, usually danced by boys around 16-18 years old in the Hindu temples. They train for six years to perform in these performances which take place during celebrations and festivals. They dramatise old stories with eye movements, facial expressions, foot movements and a special language made up of twenty something hand movements. When combined, these movements tell the story whilst loud banging and singing play in the background.

The performance we saw was only 45 minutes with an hour of preparation beforehand, where the actors would put on their makeup and costumes on the stage. Then they do a demonstration and explanation of the intricate hand/foot/eye movements before starting the performance properly.

The evening was incredible. The actors dance around the stage with such passion and dramatic expression, that by the end of just one hour their eyes are red and streaming with tears. Usually the performances go on all night. Thoroughly enjoyable!

Friday, April 06, 2007

Our Trek Into The Wildlife Park

The following day we did a one day trek into the tiger reserve. Luckily it was just Stu and I on the trek with the company of two local guides - one to lead the way and the other to go at the rear - for safety. We went in with the full expectation of not seeing any wildlife - much like our jungle trek in Bolivia. The animals are all far too clever to allow some clumsy, noisy humans to stumble across them. Anyway, we'd seen plenty of wildlife outside the park during our stay to satisfy our need to see exotic animals. Also our guides warned us that it was very unlikely that we would see any animals, only insects and birds would grace us with their presence.

Immediately as we started our trek, it was clear that elephants frequented this place regularly as there was heaps and heaps of dried elephant dung. Ten minutes later, we came across more fresh dung and our guides informed us that the dung was from last night, and so one could be close by. Literally, a few minutes later we were blessed with an elephant sighting. He was in the distance, alone and chewing on some bamboo in a really thick part of the jungle. He was very difficult to see, and we could only really make out the flapping of his ears and the odd movement from his trunk. Not good for photos, but it was great to see him, even if just a glimpse.

After 30 minutes we stopped for breakfast and tea, before making the climb in the sultry heat up a steep hill to the top of the escarpment. Here, we were blessed with great views of the reserve, although we couldn't see to the other end of the park - a mere 750km away!

We walked down into a clearing, where the smell of rotting flesh began to fill the air. Just over the other side of a small stream, the carcass of a bison lay rotting. The animal had clearly been the dinner of the tigers and our guide advised us that the carcass was 20 days old and that this was a usual spot for the tigers to feed. I was hoping that was as close as we were going to get to see the tigers and I certainly didn't fancy being their next meal!

After an hour or two, we came once again to a clearing and as we walked through the bushes, we came across a family of elephants happily feeding at the bottom of the hill. There were 9 elephants in total, two of which were babies. We crouched down and watched in awe as the realisation hit us we were watching wild elephants, in their natural habitat. It was really special.

We moved across the clearing and settled down for lunch, away from the elephants. Stu and I watched the midday heat rising from the dried out lake as we let our lunch go down. A few minutes later, one of the guides came rushing to us and called us over. We followed him to view the elephants again by the little water left in the lake. They had just had a bath and were cooling off with mud on their backs. This time we were much closer and got some much better shots. We were quite in awe.

The rest of the afternoon, we wandered back through the thick woods to the tribal village and then onto Kumily. We thanked our guides for being so great and set off home, exhausted and exhilarated.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Lions, Tigers and Bears

Our first two days at Kumily we came across wildlife heaven. From the crazy family of monkeys on the road into town in the mornings (they even read the morning paper!) to the roaming street cows chewing on the rubbish on the way home, we were blessed with sightings of wildlife.

Our first full day in Kumily and we had seen monkeys, wild cows, lizards (large and small), a chained elephant (not very nice), squirrels, crazy green frogs, a preying mantis and a snake. Even in our cottage we managed to dance around the room a couple of times, between the resident scorpion and rogue rat! We were doing well on our hunt for wildlife!

Monday, April 02, 2007

Cardamon, Pepper and Tea

We ventured inland towards Kumily to sample the spice gardens and tea plantations of Kerala. After a treacherous 4 hour bus ride, squashed in-between Stu and two other Indian ladies on a seat made for three tiny Indians, we arrived at our destination. At least this time, I had Stu with me!

Kumily is a small town where the tourists are shipped in for only two reasons: spices and tigers. The region is home to the cardamon and pepper plantations of India as well as Periyar Tiger Reserve. Our first stop was the spice gardens. Unfortunately we had picked a rather poor guide, but he did have two thumbs on each hand which made for a welcome distraction when he couldn't answer our questions. We still managed to come out of our tour a little more knowledgeable about how spices are grown and harvested.

Some interesting things that we discovered:
Cloves - actually a flower stamen, which when in its raw form is actually a natural anesthetic. Our tongues went numb from only a small drop. These are very good for the teeth and gums.
Cardamons - grow at the bottom of a large plant that look like bull rushes. The cardamons are dried for cooking, but the fresh seeds can be eaten raw for a really intense flavour.
Pepper - grows as a vine up a supporting tree. The different types of coloured pepper actually come from the same plant, they're just harvested at different times and treated in different ways.
Cinnamon - chew on some bark for some really lovely flavours. It's also really good for your teeth and gums.

The same morning, we went to a tea plantation and factory. It was quite a whistle-stop tour, but it was interesting to see how the tea was made. The particular plant we went to used a wood burner to roast leaves. The leaves were then made into smaller leaves or powder and graded as to it's strength and flavour. Quite fascinating, but with all the talk and smell of tea, we really wanted a cup. Unfortunately no tea tasting and no tea shop - the communist Keralans are missing a trick there!

Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Backwaters Of Kerala

The following morning we took a trip on a houseboat around the backwaters of Alleppey. The backwaters consist of a large lake with much of the surrounding land being reclaimed. The reclaimed land creates intricate alleyways of canals between which lie paddy fields, banana and coconut plantations as well as villagers who work the land.

Our overnight journey was a small piece of heaven as we drifted in and out of waterways, catching a glimpse of village life on the backwaters. It was a scene that Kerala is famous for and incredibly serene.

Our captain proved to be a fountain of knowledge on Indian politics and so we spent the day picking his brains and learning about the communist life that the people of Kerala lead. He lived locally in one of the villages and that evening, he took us into his village and invited us into his home. At the back of his house we watched his family coming in from his paddy field with bundles of harvested rice. I managed to upset an ants nest and landed myself with around 8 itchy ant bites. We then picked a papaya from a tree in his back garden, which was to be our dessert later. He then fed us the most delicious mangoes, fresh from his tree.

We were fed a fabulous evening meal and watched the fireflies lighting up the coconut palms above our heads. We went to bed shortly after sunset and got up shortly after sunrise to finish our mini-cruise back in Alleppey.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Fun And Games On The Trains

We left our beach resort and headed to the train station for some fun and games on a local train. We had a bit of trouble working out which carriage we were supposed to be in and had to run down the platform with our backpacks in tow. We were almost at our carriage (with all the other Indians) as the train started to move. Ever resourceful I jumped on the train and pulled my heavy pack up only to turn around to find that Stuart wasn't there. I looked out the train and found Stuart looking dazed and confused walking up the platform.

I had a moment of panic as I stood all alone on a train, without my ticket. The only positive thing was that I had landed myself in an air conditioned carriage which allowed me to compose myself and meet some other travellers, who had also jumped on the wrong carriage in a hurry.

As we came to the next stop, the train master said that me and my new friends had to go our carriage - the hot, smelly one crammed with all the locals. We jumped off the train, I had a quick scan for Stu, but no sign of him so we ran very quickly to the next carriage, forcing ourselves on with our elbows. I suddenly realised why Stu had missed the train as the carriage was brimming with people and there simply wasn't any room (this was after 30 or so Indians had piled out). We stood for the next couple of stops, moving out the way as local vendors sold chai and other wares between the stops.

A couple of hours later we came to our destination - Alleppey. I left my new friends and went to the guesthouse that we had booked earlier that day. Luckily I had made the reservation that morning, so I knew where to go (normally Stu does it). I sat and waited for Stu, whilst the young Indian men running the hostel doted on my every need.

An hour later, a worried Stu arrived at the guesthouse. A rickshaw journey, bumpy bus ride and another rickshaw later, we were reunited and he tucked into my leftover biryani.