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Thousand  Journeys



I love India … even at the times when I think I shouldn’t. The account below is taken from a travel journal written during a three week holiday to Kerala and Tamil Nadu. I hope it shows just what a rich experience India can be. You just never know what’s waiting for you outside your bedroom door.

Just to put things in context ~ this was my fifth visit to India. Some of the places we had visited before, but most of it was new territory.

Day 0

This should have been Day 1, but fate had a different idea, because at 2am, when we had expected to be choosing the in-flight movie on the Cochin flight, we are stuck in fog-shrouded Dubai. So instead of relaxing into the start of our fourth trip to South India, we unexpectedly find ourselves in the midst of 400 stressed and confused passengers from all corners of the planet. Everyone is jostling to be rescued by the five stressed and confused airline staff who are hiding behind a large desk at Transit Gate H at Dubai Airport.

The fallout from the thick fog has caused havoc with most of the flights. In this multinational scrum, people form allegiances as the emotions of the crowd flow between humour, anxiety and anger. My wife Jane and I band together with six other Brits, and we soon learn that the next available Cochin flight is not for another twenty two hours !   So with our holiday mood somewhat dented, instead of heading for Kerala, our first day is spent watching the TV at an airport hotel in Dubai.

Day 1

At long last we get back on route, and after a six hour flight we touch down at Cochin Airport. The obligatory form filling takes place but we soon clear immigration and arrange a taxi to Cherai Beach. It’s early in the morning …. Very early.

We roll up at 4am for a return visit to the Sealine Hotel and are greeted by sleepy but friendly faces as we are helped to room number 27 (our favourite room). Jane and I are now well into that in-between state of jet lag, where you don’t know if you want to go to bed or to try and wake up. So instead we end up stumbling around in a dizzy-daze, forever searching for misplaced items and wondering if we are hungry. After a couple of hours of semi-sleep, I wake up enough to feel the lure of the beach and the prospect of an early morning swim.

Pulling on some trunks, I stumble out of the room, stagger down some stairs, and then within ten strides I am in the surf. It’s beautiful, light, bright, warm and hazy. I float. I sigh with deep relief. And so begins the process of unhooking from another year of work-related stress.

The beach is straight and long, and at this hour it’s empty apart from sandcrabs and a small flock of sandpipers that work the shoreline. These birds are adept at running back and forth ahead of the surf as they pick out breakfast from the wet sand. I walk, enjoying the sensation of the sand between my toes, the rhythmic sound of the waves, and the warmth of the sun on my back. The strong colours of the palms and the sand hit me deep, and it dawns on me ........

I am back in India.

We spend the day dozing, swimming and ambling around, before heading off to Cherai Beach Resort for some dinner. As we walk into the restaurant we recognise more familiar faces. Some from the regular NLP training camp that’s run every new year, others from the staff at the restaurant. This year, today, seems to be different however, and we are disappointed by the food and lack of atmosphere. We eat a strange meal of grilled fish and barbecued sprouts (not nice!) and reminisce over how it used to be a couple of years before when the place was buzzing and the buffets were an abundant feast. Maybe it was just an off day, or maybe its gone beyond its peak. We finished the visit with a quick stroll through the grounds, reconnecting with the familiar smells of sewage that drift through the complex, and congratulate ourselves for choosing to stay elsewhere.

Two o’clock in the morning and we are both wide awake again and so decide to watch some TV. I must confess that I have a horrible fascination for Indian TV, especially the dramas and comedies. We start by watching a drama simply called “Police” (episode 68). It takes a full five minutes for the opening credits to roll by, after which the main part of the programme consists of people sharing very dramatic and meaningful looks, accompanied by lots of dramatic and meaningful music. This is regularly interspersed with brief outbursts of low-grade violence. There is very little dialogue, instead it’s an extravaganza of non-verbal communication, that gets the imagination working to supply your own plot.

We then watch a couple of song and dance videos. The first features a robust middle-aged couple. We watch a fat chap with a fat moustache struggling to throw poses, whilst a woman who I can only describe as HEAVY DUTY sings and dances around him. She is chunky, robust and maternal in a very macho kind of way. The dance routine is slapstick sexuality, and leaves us roaring with laughter. The second video is more of a sensitive type and starts with a young girl chasing some goats. The goats are soon joined by a rather perverted looking man who starts chasing her. Then a whole crowd of dancers appear dressed as green and yellow tigers, who chase everyone. It finishes with another fat chap with big moustache holding up what looks like a man’s wig and shaking it at people.

Jane turns to me and says “I think there’s a lot of rules going on in India that we just don’t know about”!

Day Two

We spend the morning on the beach. Being a Sunday it begins to get busier as Indian day trippers come pouring in. In the far distance we can see a large throng of people on the beach near the bus stand. Although our little hotel is at a quiet area, we soon get a regular trickle of people parading by. It’s not long before we spot “Helmet Man” (man wearing or part-wearing a black motorcycle helmet). Then comes “Briefcase Man” (man carrying a pointless and obviously empty black briefcase). Every year we see these chaps walking up and down the beaches of Southern India all looking just a little bit lonely and lost. Maybe there’s someone can explain the social significance of the familiar figures.

In the afternoon we get a taxi and ferry over to Fort Cochin. Now it is a fact that many purist travellers dislike this little town, seeing it only as a tourist-trap. However both Jane and I don’t really care about that and we love the place wholeheartedly.  It’s true that many of the old buildings have now been turned into guesthouses and shops and also true that the famous Chinese fishing nets are now mostly used to pull in the throngs of visitors who visit ever day. However Cochin has kept its dignity. It is saturated with a balmy atmosphere that runs on its own time. We are happy to return and always find it charming, warm and colourful, full of history and texture, and packed with rich detail.

Our first stop is Idiom bookshop to pick up some of their amazing journals. These books are masterpieces of hand-stitched artwork which are beautifully decorated with metal foil and pressed flowers. They always makes me smile. I buy a large one with a glittering picture of Ganesh on the cover, and this serves as my travel journal for this trip. Feeling a bit peckish we then head over to the Teapot Cafe for some of samosas and gourmet tea. Cochin always seems to have a sleepy, dreamy feel to it where things happen in quiet slow motion. It doesn’t take us long to settle into this seductive rhythm and we amble up and down the streets, appreciating the old buildings and huge spreading trees. Eventually we find our way to the famous fishing nets next to the jetty, and sit down to watch the sunset.

I have a real fondness for these old structures as they creak and groan in the breeze. Its fascinating to watch them in action as crews of four or five men plus the odd tourist helping out work to lever the nets in and out of the water. In some ways it’s like watching the minute hand of a clock, at first glance it looks stationary but then you can gradually become aware of some subtle but unstoppable movement as the main arms of the net tip up and the mesh slowly cantilevers out of the water. When three or four of these nets are working side by side it has a hypnotic effect as it is hard to tell where one net finishes and another begins.

Sadly (unless you are a fish) they are not very effective at catching anything more than passing flotsam. However sometimes the net crew gets lucky and they manage to scoop up a bowl-full of small silvery fish. When this happens a race begins as the leading netsman clambers out on the booms to collect up the fish before the local crows can swoop down and grab them all.

I spend a few minutes taking photos, climbing out onto the base of the nets to get a better shot. I love the way the nets have been constructed out of a jigsaw of worn trunks, planks and rope. It has an organic, natural feel to it, and looks like its been there for a long time.

We are absolutely delighted to see a group of dolphins directly in front of us, and are treated to a wonderful display of aerobatics as they leap from the water, turning somersaults. Previously we have seen dolphins along the Malabar Coast but always from a distance.This is the first time either of us have seen this, and it confirms to us just how special Cochin really is.

Then comes the big question ....... where to eat? Before leaving England, I did some research on the very friendly and helpful India Mike website and printed out a thread called “Places to eat in Cochin”. Unfortunately my smug savvy-traveller mindset soon evaporated when I realised I had left this back at the hotel, and so we remained none the wiser. However as this was our fourth trip to Cochin, we did know a couple of places, and decided to treat ourselves to an up-market visit to the Malabar House Hotel, which is a lovely looking place with a courtyard restaurant complete with fairy lights, pool and live classical music. Sure enough it was a pleasant experience and the food was fine  but I still much prefer a good thali from a down to earth meals joint (which is also a LOT cheaper than the RS1600 bill), but I guess that’s the price for a luxury environment.

Stomachs full we gently walk off the meal in the sultry night. As we were crossing the old parade ground and heading back towards the ferry, a disembodied voice from the shadows enquires  “Hello ... you like marijuana ?”   “NO” says Jane emphatically!  “Well, erm .... yes” says me confessionally. And so after some relaxed haggling over quantity, quality and world prices, the shadowy chap and I agree on a deal, and I walk away with a small amount of Keralan grass.

It was an impulsive purchase as it’s been a long time since I have smoked anything. Later that evening back at the beach I smoke an end of the day spliff, and it completely blows my socks off! It’s so strong that I can only manage half the joint, and as I sit staring into space I am hit with an increasingly intense set of auditory hallucinations. Every sound I hear takes on deeper and deeper layers. The rhythmic swoosh of the surf and the rattling hum of the aircon unit combine with the murmuring of the guests in the next room. All sound unfolds ....... Sounds within sounds, shapes within sounds, colours and patterns within sounds.

Jane looks at me, rolls her eyes and slowly shakes her head ... “You look like a crazy, wild – eyed sadhu” she says. Barely able to function, I admit that I am probably getting too old for this and I crawl into bed.

Day 3

There’s no better way to start the day than an early morning swim. It’s pure heaven to me. The sea is gloriously warm and benignly calm and I feel safe venturing far from shore. Two canoes pass me by, manned by four fishermen in conical straw hats. We smile and wave at each other, and wish each other a “good morning”.

After a simple breakfast of toast and fresh pineapple juice our taxi turns up. Saying our farewells to the staff we load our collection of small bags into the back and settle down for the five hour journey up to Periyar and the Cardamom Hills. The first two hours are spent snarled up in the traffic jams of Ernakalam city but eventually the buildings, crowds and vehicles thin out, and we begin the steady climb up into the chain of hills known as the Western Ghats.

Stopping briefly at a small town on the way we visit a very impressive looking bakery which is stacked floor to ceiling with a vast range of food. The friendly guys behind the counter greet us warmly and laugh with us as we greedily eye up the tempting range of savoury and sweet snacks. We make our selections whilst chatting to them about Christian Saints, David Beckham, Indian Cricket and Liverpool Football Club. We swap addresses, and I take their photo. Their samosas are absolutely delicious.

Climbing ever upwards the road passes through rubber plantations, pineapple fields and eventually the tea estates and spice gardens of Thekaddy. Its a lovely drive, and I enjoy it all the more as I listen to some jazz and Indian classical music on my mp3 player (the travellers friend). At one point our driver stops the jeep and pointing into the forest he proudly proclaims “Nuck Muck”. I wasn’t sure if I hadn’t misheard him, so pulling off my headphones, I ask him to repeat what he had said. “Nuck Muck” he confirms, nodding confidently.

Jane and I are confused.........”Nuck Muck”? we ask each other. “Nuck ...... Muck” ? we ask the driver. “Yes Sir Madam” he replies, this time making his point with a strong head-waggle. “Nuck Muck” he repeats. Jane and I look at each other in total incomprehension.

Nuck Muck, Nuck Muck, Nuck Muck ...I repeat it over and over to myself, turning it over in my mind. At last the penny drops ..... “Ah, Nut Meg! They are growing nutmeg in the plantations”? “Yes Sir” laughed the driver “Nuck Meg”

It’s late afternoon as we arrive for our fourth visit to Kumily, and are welcomed by our friends at Chrissies Hotel. It’s been a busy year for them, as they have made various improvements to the restaurant and rooms, as well as catering for a large group of Australians on yoga retreats.

This is to be the first time our stay in Kumily has NOT coincided with the Sabarimala Pilgrimage ( a huge pilgrimage to a nearby temple in the jungle that now gets more pilgrims in a year than Mecca!). We are so used to seeing crowds of black-clothed Ayappans that the town now seems eerily quiet without them. Well .. quiet by Indian standards. As I write this, I can still hear the call from the local mosque, the bells and chants from the temple, horns from distant buses and rickshaws, ten different dogs barking to each other, a thousand crickets hiding in the surrounding undergrowth, and one pesky and much-too-close mosquito.

Day 4

An easy day today. Last night we chatted on into the early hours, catching up on gossip and tales of hotel life. We get up late and eventually amble down for one of Chrissie’s lovely breakfasts, and to say hello to the restaurant staff. A bit later we head into town for an ayurvedic massage.

Massage shops are a bit like restaurants, we find the quality of the service and skills of the staff can vary tremendously, and this can have a direct effect upon your experience. Over the last four years we have had around twenty massages. Some of them have been outstanding, one of them was so good it was verging on a mystical experience. But we have had others that were unexceptional, and a couple that were so dire that I nearly got up and walked out (it was only the fact that I was as oiled up as a Turkish wrestler and naked as a baby that stopped me). The point is that you never know how it is going to be until you actually sample what they can do for you.

This one came highly recommended, so we went with high expectations. Twenty minutes in, I was feeling rather unimpressed, but I could hear screams, laughter and chatting coming from the women’s section. This I knew meant that Jane was getting a deep-level workout.

As we compared notes later on, she said it was the best massage she had ever had, with the lady masseuse going through a full diagnosis and treatment. All I got was a prolonged basting and brief head massage. I resolved to find a better massage.

The afternoon was spent hanging out and watching India play Sri Lanka (cricket of course). It’s great to see how India have really come up in the world of cricket, and it was a joy to watch some first class play. We also caught up with Chien the cat who put in a noisy appearance to say hello, and make himself at home on Jane’s lap. Chien is one of the world’s character cats. Chrissie discovered him trapped at the bottom of a well when he was a kitten, and rescued the bedraggled feline. Since that time he has become the resident hotel cat, and leads an interesting life. He is definitely the noisiest cat I have ever heard, and he talks constantly to everyone, or just to himself (or God) if no one else is around.

Loved by guests and staff alike, he gets plenty of attention. However life is not always easy as he regularly has to deal with the trespassing monkeys, snakes and dogs that come into the hotel grounds. Chien also has a secret ............ A big secret !  Because every so often he disappears. And he doesn’t just disappear for a couple of days. Chien disappears for a couple of months at a time. Just when it gets to the point where everyone bows to the inevitable conclusion that this time, he really has been bitten by a snake or cornered by a pack of savage dogs and he will never be seen again, then that is the time when Chien comes nonchalantly walking in, shouting hello and looking for food. Sometimes he comes back looking healthy and well-fed, sometimes he is in a skinny, smelly and moth-eaten state. Where he goes ...... nobody knows.

Around sunset, I go up to the yoga room to practice my Taiji and Yiquan (Chinese Martial Arts). After working through the form and exercises I lie down on a yoga mat and simply open up to the peace and atmosphere of the place. The room itself is on the same level as the treetops and backs onto an open expanse of forest. Even though you are in a hotel, you still feel very close to nature there. Sometimes it can be a little too close, as the monkeys often come swinging in from the forest, and cause CHAOS. The last time we were here, they did unspeakable things to the cushions on our balcony (see youtube link ). The next day they raided the restaurant and I had to beat one away with a rolled up newspaper whilst his companions stole the sugar sachets off the table.

We ended the day sitting around the table with our friends, sharing dishes of delicious vegetarian curries and coconut rice, washed down with chilled beer, as we chatted and joked into the night.

Day 5

I was awoken early by Jane suddenly exclaiming “Oh, there’s a monkey looking at me”! She had opened the balcony door and stepped out to get some fresh air, only to come face to face with the upside-down head of a young monkey, hanging off the floor above and peering at her. This sweet-looking imp was quickly joined by a not-so-sweet looking fleabag of an adult, with trouble on its mind. And so we made a quick retreat, shut the door and left them to it.

Later that morning I popped up to the rooftop of the hotel, hoping to have some fun taking a few monkey photos. Sadly it turned out to be a simian-free zone, but instead I could hear something else. I recognised the distinctive and familiar call of some nearby birds, and creeping up to the edge of the roof I spied the resident pair of grey-hornbills. Jane and I had previously named them George & Mildred and these two hold a fascination for both of us as the way they slowly move and interact together is mesmerising. They can be very shy but I managed to take this video by staying very quiet and still. This is a picture of  George and if you click on it, you can see the video. Every time I watch it shifts my brain into a different time zone …. Have a look.

As I stood and looked around I spotted a whole range of other exotic birds in the canopies of the surrounding trees. One was bright orange, accompanied by a bright yellow mate, there was a large black bird with long streamers on its tail, a brown frilly stripey thing that looked like a miniature turkey, and a small flock of noisy parrots flying by. Not bad for five minutes bird watching.

After breakfast had gone down, we headed over for massage number two. I had decided that I wanted to insist on a massage from the boss man (having had the apprentice yesterday). This turned out to be a totally different experience. “These fingers have 33 years experience” he proudly told me, as he prodded and pummelled away. It was excruciating, but genuinely therapeutic, and I came out the other end feeling fresh and ALIVE. As I was dressing I could hear him talking to Jane who had returned to the lobby five minutes before. “Madam” he said, “I have been giving your husband strong massage. He screams with pain” (at this point he screams out like a woman) “but he says very good .... keep going”

We sit and talk about Kalari, and he pulls a pair of wavy-blade knives out from under the counter and strikes a pose, before showing me the scars on his arms and legs from training accidents. “I am Kalari Master” he proudly proclaims, and points to a few impressive looking photos on the wall of him athletically demonstrating the two-man practice forms. “Wonderful” says I, please can you show me some real Kalari?” At which point he evades the request and goes back to advertising the need for us to book in many more massage sessions.

In the afternoon, comes the long-awaited fishing adventure. Adel & I are keen fishermen, and whenever we meet up, we now include a fishing trip or two. During last years visit to Kumily, we spent a wonderful afternoon and evening fishing a gorgeous stretch of river in Tamil Nadu. Even though we didn’t catch a thing, the sheer loveliness of the place made for an unforgettable time, especially as the sun set and thousands of fireflies came out and danced beneath the stars. It was so profoundly beautiful that I didn’t think it would be possible to improve on that.

This time we set out in the direction of Munnar, sitting pretty in a Toyota Qualis, we went further and further off the beaten track. The last five miles we crawled through the forest along half-finished roads that hadn’t even existed six months before. At last we arrived at our destination – the Idduki Reservoir. It was stunning! It looked as if the most scenic of all the Scottish lochs had been picked up and transported to tropical India, embracing the local culture and wildlife. It was heart-stoppingly beautiful.

We spied a fantastic looking fishing spot ........ but getting to it wasn’t going to be easy. First we had to cross above a large waterfall, so picking up our tackle we cautiously waded through the top of the falls. It was very slippery and uneven under foot, and we knew that if we slipped and fell we would be instantly washed over the ridge of the falls and taken over a 100 foot drop to the rocks below. It was at this point that our guide Anthony cheerfully told me “Actually many people come here for making suicide” .... “Thanks” I thought “ I really needed to know that”!

Congratulating ourselves on making it across, we then had to pick our way along a narrow path cut into the side of the cliff face. Holding onto each other, we worked our way along the precarious track, only then to be met with the third and worst of the obstacles – a thicket of thorn bushes. They didn’t even look like thorns, because there were no obvious, long spikes protruding from stems. These thorns were far more subtle, sneaky and horrible, these were Stealth Thorns! Each innocuous looking stem was completely covered in miniature cats-claws; small, hook shaped thorns that grabbed at you, and acting like evil Velcro, pulled themselves into you. The worst thing was that you didn’t get one thorn at a time, but ten at a time. Ten hooked thorns, breaking off into your skin.

It wasn’t until we were half way through the thicket that we realised the pickle we were in, and it took a slow and painful while to eventually get free and then extract the forty or fifty thorns that had embedded in arms, legs, toes, hands and fingers. I felt like a pincushion as I quietly bled from dozens of puncture wounds.

The good news however was that we had made it! We had won through and reached a magical fishing spot at the base of the waterfall. It was as hot as hell, but the sun slowly began to sink into the late afternoon and as the temperature cooled, a full moon rose to our left above the waterfall. If that wasn’t enough, the sunset to our right was …… well take a look !

I would like to say that we caught some fish, but the only bite we got was from a large freshwater crab. The creature was a big as my outstretched hand, and as I lifted my rod it emerged from the depths of the lake, tenaciously holding onto the bait with an extended claw. Anthony took one look at it swinging towards him, screamed like a young girl and ran for his life.

We had to admit defeat, bested once more by the fish of India, and so we simply sat, sharing a beer and watching an incredible sunset unfold before us. Strangely the journey back was much easier than the journey down, and we made it unscathed. As we cleared the top of the waterfall once more, we met two local villagers carrying a huge net. It looked like the kind of thing kids use when exploring rock-pools, but this net was large enough to catch a cow! After a lot of miscommunication, we finally understood through sign-language that the men were bat catchers, and swooped the net across the mouth of a cave to catch bats as they flew out.

Day 6

Today we went for our third and final massage. It was still painful, but again we felt great afterwards. However my main interest was more with Kalari than massage. I have been on the search for good Kalari since 2006, and if someone tells me he is a Kalari master, then I want to see what they can actually do, or at least to be able to discuss principles. Once again the massage guy proudly proclaimed that he was a master of the art, and had a practice / teaching area out the back. “Great” I said, “then show me some”. But despite his promises, nothing ever materialised into action.

The afternoon was a relaxed one, and we spent it sleeping or hanging out with Chrissie and Adel. In the evening we all set out, dressed up, with a top-class meal in mind. First stop was Cardamom County Hotel, but when we got there the place was rammed full of bikers. India Enduro was in town, and as we walked into the parking lot we were greeted by the thrilling sight of 300 Enfield Bullets all lined up, confidently gleaming in the night. This was a particularly pleasing sight for me as it is an ambition of mine to ride a bullet through the Himalayas, and it seemed like a confirmation of the validity of my dream.  However for tonight, 300 happy bikers had a party laid on, and so we went for Plan B and the four of us crammed into a rickshaw and chugged up the hill to Greenwoods Hotel & Restaurant for their sumptuous buffet.

Continue to Part Two


Part One