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Thousand  Journeys



Part Three

Day 14

Our return to the Royal Court in Madurai was disappointing. We had been given a room where the state of the bathroom was getting us down. One lesson we have learned from travelling in India is the need to state very clearly what your wants and needs are. We were very quickly moved into a better room with apologies.

Today was going to be an interesting day. We had a plan to go to nearby Alagarkoil to see the temples there, and so we set off in another taxi, to embark on another adventure. As a foreign visitor to India, I find I am constantly presented with challenging experiences, and challenging questions. Today gave me another one of these moments:

On the journey out we pulled up at a major junction, and whilst waiting for the red light to change, we were confronted by the sight of a middle aged woman stood at the side of the road, cleaning her teeth. What was so disturbing for us was that she was using the dust and filth from the gutter as an abrasive to polish her teeth. It was a sight that made us extremely queesy. Unable to turn our heads, we watched as she repeatedly coated her wet finger in the roadside dirt and then scrubbed away at her teeth. With increasing disgust we then watched her walk up to a puddle of filthy water and wondered if she was going to use this to rinse the dirt out of her mouth.

Fortunately for us the light changed and we drove on before we had the chance to witness this. Whether she did use the puddle water we never knew, and so we were left trying to make sense of this scene. Was this poor woman disturbed or mentally ill? Did she have learning disabilities? Was it simply poverty that necessitated this seemingly desperate act? Or was it simply our own cultural perspectives and biases that made a problem out of this behaviour? My instincts said that she had learning disabilities, and this was not normal behaviour for anyone, but two things really struck me; the first was that she actually looked quite healthy, and the second was that despite being surrounded by people who could see what she was doing, nobody paid her any attention or had a problem with it themselves. So .... what does this mean and what is the rational response ???

As I pondered this and many other issues that India raises, the city gave way to countryside, and before we knew it, we had reached the outskirts of Alagarkoil. Yet again I didn’t really know what to expect from this place other than according to a single sentence in the Rough Guide it is another “interesting temple site”.

From the taxi we could spy the main temple area which looked very exotic and similar to Ankor Watt in Vietnam (albeit on a much smaller scale), with tree roots growing over and through the surrounding walls, and monkeys scrambling over the statues and carvings that made up the towers of the outer complex. It was the kind of sight that quickens the heart of any adventurous traveller, however there was one big fly in the ointment that put us off visiting, and that was the fact that 200 small schoolchildren were filing up to enter the temple gates, and we knew that could only mean one thing ..... CHAOS! So, opting for Plan B, we decided to visit the Vishnu temple at the top of a nearby hill first.

As our taxi reached the end of the road and pulled up in a car park, we could tell that this was going to be an interesting adventure. High up in the surrounding trees were hundreds and hundreds of huge fruitbats, squabbling and chatting with each other as they each vied for prime roosting spots from which to hang upside down and observe the goings on underneath. Far from being deserted, the site was heaving with people, and we joined a line of pilgrims ascending a long flight of steps up the hillside. As we climbed we were flanked by a crowd of monkeys on each side of the steps, who looked curiously at us as we passed on by.

As we climbed higher we could hear a great hubbub from the building up ahead. The atmosphere was very highly charged, and we had no idea what was going on. As we entered the building there was a great crowd of very wet looking people standing around, and the deafening sound of shouts and screams echoed around the walls, but what was really strange was that we couldn’t see anyone who was actually making any noise. All the people I could see were strangely silent and yet it was too noisy to speak to anyone. Very confused and somewhat disturbed I edged my way to a central wall that had a small hole cut into it. I cautiously peeped through and the sight that greeted me was extraordinary.

I found myself looking down upon a throng of people, who were passionately jostling for access to the water from a sacred spring. This was not a place of serenity and contemplation, it was chaos, it was incredibly intense and at times it looked to be bordering on out and out warfare. I was very glad that I wasn’t down in this pit, fighting to fill up water bottles or to be sprayed down by the guardian of the hosepipe from which poured the sacred water. A great line of partially clothed pilgrims were queuing up between steel rails, desperate to get access to the guard with the hose. Arguments regularly broke out and there was a scrum of people surrounding the guard, pushing back and forth. After a little while of watching this spectacle, we climbed outside and up onto the roof of the building, where families were drying off and sitting down to eat some breakfast.

In contrast to the chaos below, this was a peaceful and civilised area and many people kindly invited us over to join in the feast. Even the local monkeys were included and they greedily tucked into the rice and vegetables that families shared with them. We stayed for a while, standing in the shade of the treetops and just taking it all in.

Descending the stairway again we got a final blessing from a fine looking holy man who was stationed at the base of the stairway. This chap was dressed in orange and green silks, and brandished a large wand of peacock feathers with which he bestowed blessings upon the pilgrims as they returned from the temple above.

We shared smiles and a couple of rupees with him and the woman who had looked after our sandals, before retiring to a nearby chai stall for a clay cup of delicious sweet tea and an even more delicious spicy snack.

Once more we were laughing at finding ourselves embraced by such exotic situations. Almost afraid to detract from the memory of the experience we had just been through, we were in two minds about visiting the main temple at the base of the hill, but in the end we decided to just “put our head round the corner” to see what was going on.

The temple itself turned out to be an interesting complex; spread out over quite a large area, most of which was in the open rather than in ancient and dark buildings. Once through the entrance gate, yet more exotic mayhem ensued, and we were somewhat bemused to find ourselves surrounded by an incredibly varied mix of life. Painted cows, beggars and pilgrims, sadhus, goats, Brahmins, monkeys and hundreds of children. The only thing missing was a herd of elephants.

It was mayhem, it was abundance in action, it was fantastic. We skirted round the priests who were leading a crowd of white clothed men in some very shamanic sounding chanting. Passing through a huge painted gateway we entered a large open area, built around a another stone temple. Once again we were the only westerners around, and it was clear that many of the people there had never seen foreigners up close. I stopped to take the photo of two toddlers who had just had their heads shaved and plastered in yellow sandalwood paste. Their mother just stared at us with a look of total incomprehension. She had no idea who we could be, or what an earth I was doing. After a bit of gentle work and an open smile, I managed to coax a vague acknowledgement of common humanity, but we remained as exotic and strange to her as she and her children did to us.

The place was crammed full of school kids, and once they spotted me with my camera, each and every one wanted to be a film star. I suddenly found myself surrounded, and needing to get some basic level of good-natured control. The girls wisely kept out of it, while the boys were so keen to get prime place in the picture that they were jumping up and down so much it was like they were on pogo sticks. It wasn’t till afterwards that I noticed the annoyed looks aimed my way from their teachers, and I realised that my actions had caused complete disarray to their previously well-ordered (by Indian standards) school outing.

As we left we were constantly approached by all manner of people asking for money, for all sorts of reasons. An intelligent looking sadhu wanted some chai money, a young boy wanted money for a school bag, an old lady wanted money for food, others gave no reasons ... just outstretched hands. And so goes one of the dilemmas of india ..... when to give, how to give, how much and in what circumstances ?

I know the various schools of thought on this and in a way I subscribe to all of them, but at the end of the day I trust my own instincts and god-given right to make my own choices and mistakes. My main worry is in case I trigger a begging avalanche, where we suddenly get swamped by increasingly desperate demands for cash from a rapidly growing crowd, and I well remember being mobbed in Mysore after slipping 20RS to an old lady outside a temple. Today’s experience looked like it could get of control very quickly as arguments broke out between the people around us as they debated who got there first and who had the most right to our funds. Luckily we managed to extricate ourselves without too much of a major disturbance and we returned back to the Royal Court for a well earned samosa and siesta.

Later that afternoon I left Jane relaxing in the room whilst I set out on my own to fulfil another ambition. Two years previously we had made a trip to nearby Thiruparakundrum and had a wonderful time visiting the temple and Brahmin school there. After which I climbed part -way up the local hill to watch the sunset. My ambition was to go back and this time to reach the mosque at the summit. The main route up the hill is on the outskirts of town and overlooks a beautiful area of river, plains and rocky outcrops. The hill itself didn’t look too high, and there is a great construction of red and white painted steps that pass through a series of carved gateways stretching all the way to the top.

However, climbing the steps it wasn’t long before I found out that the hill was a lot higher and a lot steeper than it looked. It turned into a very taxing climb and I needed a couple of breaks along the way. The steps were numbered and after a lot of sweat and toil, I found that there were six hundred and twenty three of them! Surprisingly they didn’t go all the way to the summit, but veered off to the left and petered out underneath an overhang with a pleasing rock carving cut into it. It looked like it came from an earlier time and I later found out it was a Jain carving at least 600 yrs old.

At the end of a track stood a small Hindu temple forged into the side of the hill. Once I had stopped gasping for breath I took off my sandals and entered the door, purchasing an oil lamp and offerings inside. It was a humble place, and a small group of men sat at the back talking quietly. They didn’t seem surprised to see me, and left me in peace as I had a chat to Ganesh and lit my lamp. Afterwards they gestured for me to go on through a back door. Wondering what could be out there, I walked through and found myself back in the open air besides a small pool of water and a tree festooned with coloured ribbons that trailed lazily in the breeze, and yes ...... yet more monkeys.

It was a peaceful, special place, and many of the monkeys were clustered around the pool drinking water from their cupped hands. The views down to the plains far below were spectacular and I stood for a while to simply absorb it all. However it wasn’t long before the monkeys became restless, and the alpha male approached me and started grabbing and pulling at my trousers in a menacing way. I didn’t want to stick around to see what he had in mind, and so I beat a hasty retreat back the way I had come.

I met up with the guys from the temple and we shared a few words and some food. I still wanted to get to the very summit and the mosque (or maybe it was a Muslim tomb) that had been built there, and reading my intentions, the men led the way across the sandy red rocks following a barely discernable trail. Finally we arrived at the foot of the mosque, and they explained to me that every Friday evening for the last three years they had been coming to this point to feed the “holy monkeys”.

“Watch now sir” they said, and started shouting out “Bah, Bah, Bah”   (“come, come, come”).

The effect was incredible. As their shouts echoed around the rocks, the place became alive with monkeys. Swarming in they came, from tree tops, roof tops, caves, ruined huts, from under bushes, out of cracks in the ground. The whole hillside grew fur and tails, as monkeys ascended, descended, and simply materialised from thin air! “Maximum coming are one thousand monkeys” said another chap, as he gestured all around. They didn’t come quietly either. They purred, they chattered, they spat, they screamed and they fought and tumbled as they came.

Each man carried a cloth bag and reaching in they pulled out handfuls of soaked pulses and lentils which they flung around like they were sowing seeds. The monkeys went wild, and I went up to the mosque for safety.

There wasn’t much to see at the mosque, but there was a chap there selling drinks, and by this time I had long emptied my water bottle and was absolutely parched. Unfortunately the only choices on offer were the old Indian-style fizzy drinks. All of which proudly proclaimed on the sides of the bottles that they “contain no fruit” and which taste of saccharine and god only knows what else. I choose the least offensive looking one, and the seller prized off the rusty cap and handed it to me. As I went to take a swig I could see a large fly floating belly up at the top, and so handed it back. Trying another one, I managed to take two small sips of the synthetic slush before I decided that I would rather risk dehydration than subject myself to another swig of this poison.

As the sun set on the horizon, I began to climb down, this time choosing the old route of steps cut haphazardly into the rock face. The views were gorgeous and the path led me back towards the temple and town. At the bottom of the hill a man approached me holding a stick of chalk and a chisel, and gestured for me to draw round my feet onto the base of one of the steps. This I did, along with adding a few decorative embellishments, and for a small fee he then started to carve an impression of my feet into the stone. It was a perfect and strangely profound conclusion to an afternoon’s odyssey.

Day 15

Today was mainly a travelling day. It was also Valentines Day, and we wondered how it was going to go after recent reports in the newspaper about Hindu extremists who were threatening to attack any courting couples who dared to display signs of affection. I guessed that me and the missus would be spared (unless we went to Mangalore which was the epicentre of the unrest), but the reported attacks and suicide were shocking to read about.

Today we set out for Munnar, and as we left the plains a sign at the base of the hills read “Entering Ghat Road. 17 hairpin bends” Ambassadors are not really suited for rally driving, but our driver did his best as we roared up the mountainsides at 20 miles an hour. I gave up counting the hairpins after the first six, and decided it would be better to avoid taking stress, and so I simply sat back and plugged in my earphones to listen to some music.

As we crossed the border back into Kerala, the climate cooled down and we were once again driving through verdant cardamom and tea plantations. It was a lovely area, just right for motor biking I thought.

We had a couple of options for accommodation, and first on the list was Isaacs Residency. As we pulled into the car park we took one look and decided on checking out further options. I had to laugh to myself as when I rang them the day before, the receptionist was keen to book us into the “executive suite” for the outrageous sum of £85 per night. Looking up at the noisy and charmless block of concrete I wondered if some poor soul had ever paid that kind of money for the fabled suite of suites.

Our next option was Shamrock Villa which was about 5km out of town. It turned out to be an agreeable place, and we took one of the rooms that provided beautiful views across the surrounding valleys and hills. The place is also built right above a small rural hamlet, which bugged me at first as it spoilt the sense of seclusion and peace, but after five minutes of sitting on the balcony and waving at the local children who danced around in delight, I was completely at home there, and really enjoyed watching village life unfold while sipping masala tea and recovering from the five hour journey. From this vantage point we watched heavy clouds come rolling up the valley, and to our great surprise it began to rain ..... Hard.

That evening we had our valentine’s meal in our bungalow, safe from attack. The chaming staff there brought dish after dish of delicious vegetable curries that still make my mouth water when I think about them.

During the last two weeks I have learnt something new from the TV. Previously, in my ignoranceI had no idea that the women of India are currently facing a national crisis ! Apparently it affects huge sections of female society, and is every woman’s secret nightmare.   Yes, I am talking about the dreaded condition commonly referred to as “Hair-fall” Every evening we watch with increasing alarm, as dramatic commercials advise on the seriousness of the problem and prescribe treatments to combat it, and out of the corner of my eye, I can see Jane testing the robustness of her own hair when she thinks I am not looking.  

It’s amazing what you can learn from adverts !

Day 16

After a tasty breakfast we took a leisurely walk down into town. It was a nice route that started up in the tea fields before dropping down to follow the route of a river. Being a Sunday the local village church was busy, and had an entire side of the building opened up allowing us to peer inside as we passed. There were lots of people around, but it had a very relaxed atmosphere. As we walked further down the hill we passed a few fellow travellers walking in the other direction and we stopped briefly to chat to a Canadian teacher who was setting out on a leisurely trek.

Reaching Munnar town we found it was busy with India day-trippers and a lot more Western tourists than we had been used to seeing. It was also market day and the place looked quite prosperous with a large range of fresh fruit and veg for sale. It felt good to stretch our legs, and we reckoned to have walked a good few miles by the time we got back.

There was no denying that Munnar was a nice place. The problem for us was that we felt we had seen it all before; it being a blend of Kumily and Kodaikanal. We were very used to tea and spice plantations, and had seen the spectacular views of the tops of the Ghats from a previous visit around Kodai. Truth be told, we were hankering for the beach and cosmopolitan life of Cochin. So plans were made and we arranged to cut our Munnar experience short and checkout the next day.

That just left the afternoon, and Jane was happy to get more balcony life as she listened to Buddhist teachings on her mp3 player, whilst I picked up a motorbike to explore the local roads. Apart from the treacherous potholes, it was a nice ride on yet another small-engined Hero. At one point in town a policeman flagged me down and explained that in Kerala one now needs to wear a helmet (if I had been given one, I would gladly have worn it), and with that bit of info he waved me on with a smile and a head waggle.

After refuelling with a litre of petrol, I passed a young western traveller and gave him a friendly nod as I accelerated out of town to go deeper into the tea fields. Unfortunately the day remained quite overcast and so the photos I took were all very dull, and didn’t really do the amazing landscape the justice it deserved. Deciding to call it a day, I turned round and made the decent back into town. Cruising round the corner, I saw the same traveller who by this time had picked up a bike of his own, and we shared a look of two wheeled brotherhood as we passed by in opposite directions.

Day 17

The first section of the drive out of Munnar was absolutely stunning, and as we stopped to take in a final view, we spied our little bungalow way up on the hillside, and realised what a prime position it held. Moving on down the road turned into a long winding route that stretched all the way from the fresh-aired ghats to the hot and sultry coastal plains. A strange variety of signs had been erected at the side of the road, telling people to “Avoid Plastic” and “Do not scare animals”

We got into Fort Cochin at 1pm and checked into the last available room at the Fort House Hotel. It felt great to be back there, and the place had received a bit of a facelift since our last stay 12 months ago. After some negotiations over the price (I got 500RS knocked off), we were shown to lovely room 12

I had a couple of things on my agenda. The first of which was food and drink. We got a rickshaw into town and joked with the driver about the commission agreement they have with the very posh “Habitat” shop en route. He admitted to us that “If you walk through their door, then I am a happy man” ........... “If you buy something there, then I am a VERY happy man”, referring to the levels of commission he would receive.

We settled into the cool of the Kashi Art Cafe, which had also been spruced up since our last visit. We had a tasty and healthy lunch of tomato soup and potato salad, and spied a couple sitting at a nearby table that we had last seen in Madurai. India’s like that, as you often find yourself bumping into people unexpectedly.

We then made a disappointing return to Idiom Bookshop where we planned to buy a crate of their wonderful handmade journals. However despite earlier promises they had not restocked and the shelves were bare. The woman serving was painstakingly hopeless at providing info about new stock or where to source them, so we decided to return when we knew the manager would be available.

That night we had an outstanding meal at the Fort House Restaraunt. Sat out on the jetty, under the stars, eating succulent Pepper Tuna and Braised Seerfish in banana leaf ..... it was sublime. A wonderful, wonderful meal finished off with a steamed banana in caramel sauce ...  YUM!

Afterwards we decided to saunter down the road in search of a funny coffee shop that had opened up last year. As we stepped out of the hotel, we couldn’t help but notice a new building on the opposite side of the road. From the gate we could look down a long hallway to an illuminated six foot statue of Shiva in his Nataraj pose. It looked amazing. The watchman spotted us, and we tried asking him what this impressive looking place was. By way of an answer he invited us in and led us to a chap behind a desk who explained it was the new Cultural Centre (ie tourist draw) that showcased Keralan culture. We suddenly found ourselves being given a private tour as he went round unlocking the museum, theatre and Kalari sangha. The building was beautiful and it suddenly dawned on me that it had swallowed up the little coffeeshop that we had originally set out to find.

Day 18

An old warhorse of an ambassador turned up to take us back to Cherai Beach for another couple of days of R&R. As we ground our way over and into the car park, we were greeted by the familiar smile of the hotel owner. When we had first met him last year, he could barely string three words of English together. Now he is up to full sentences, but still struggles. Having rung two days previously I thought I had managed to make a clear booking with him. However we were now met with blank looks. After further examination and some detective work, we realised that he had written us down in the book as Mr & Mrs PILDY (rather than Bailey). I remember spelling out our name to him over the phone, and could now imagine all too easily how B became P, A became I and so on.

We decamped in our budget, sea facing room, and there was nothing more to do other than RELAX. We ate at the restaraunt in the evening, which was a surprisingly good meal. Poor Jane was not so well, as she (as well as a lot of other tourists in India) was working her way through a head cold.

One musing I’ve had about India is over the place that sex and violence has in the society (or at least how it is portrayed in the media). Having now done a lot of TV channel hopping and Hindu Times reading, it has struck me that violence is seen as normal and to be expected. I have seen graphic levels of torture and violence portrayed at all hours of the day on TV, including a particularly unpleasant torture scene at 9.30 in the morning. If you take out the religious service and MTV type programs from the equation, then it seems that 90% of all TV programs include regular violence. What surprises me is that I have never seen this acted out in society. After three months in South India, I have not seen a single fight, or ever felt personally threatened.

As for sex ..... every western film or TV program shown on Indian TV has been carefully censored to remove any depiction of physical intimacy. As I write this, we have just witnessed a twenty minute real life drama on the beach below the restaraunt. Not surprisingly it has involved a group of Indian lads and two western women tourists who were having a quiet swim.

The boys went in the water, and after a game of cat and mouse where the girls tried to maintain their distance, they eventually gave up as the boys closed in on them. As the girls walked out from the sea, one of the lads took a photo of “girl in bikini”. This did not go down well at all, and she demanded that he delete the photo (quite rightfully), but the boy refused and ran off.

Out came the hotel staff who berated the group of boys. Five minutes later the lad with the camera was caught and forcibly made to delete the picture in front of an increasingly large crowd of onlookers. There was a lot of shouting, grabbing of arms and notes being taken. It ended with the boys walking off down the street looking very pissed off, and two western women tourists looking very fed up.

My conclusion so far is that ..... whilst violence is endemic in the media, there seems to be little signs of it in society. Whereas sex is cut out of the media, but undercurrents of sexual tension are commonplace.

Day 19

A beach day and a bike day. The highlight of this day for me was finally getting hold of a Royal Enfield Bullet. After enquiring at the hotel about hiring a  motorbike, the owner asked “would you like Bullet”?   Hell YES.

So sitting in a rickshaw for the ten minute journey to the “Bullet Man”, I wandered how this was going to go. The Bullet man turned out to be a small repair and sales shack at the side of the road. The only bikes there were five Bullets, and I was soon initiated in the starting procedure, of bumping up the amps and the method of gently coaxing the engine into life. Finding neutral however was a difficult and mysterious process, and one that I continued to explore and refine for as long as I had the bike.

The sound of the engine is wonderful. A steady assured and resonant heartbeat which inspires confidence and stately power. Enfields are definitely a relaxed and stately ride when compared to other bikes, but oh the brakes! The front brake is like squeezing a sponge and had all the effective stopping power of a clamping a custard pudding to the wheel. In contrast, the back brake was sharp as hell and locked up the wheel within a second. Therefore riding was lovely, but stopping quickly was going to be ..... Interesting.

I picked up the coast road, and chugged out of Cherai, passing a bunch of cheap looking homestays at the far end. Pretty soon I found myself at a busy fishing port which was clearly the place where all the local boats docked to unload their catch; which looked to be about 90% shrimps when I visited. Walking around and taking a few photos, I was hailed by one old seadog of a captain who invited me out to sea and help with the catch. Under other circumstances (ie a lot more time and advance notice to Jane) I would have accepted what would undoubtedly have been an unforgettable experience.

As it was, I sought my further experiences on dry land and turned round and went due south along the coast road. After half an hour the road began to disappear beneath sand , and riding became hazardous as the bike began to drift and skew as I silica-pleined my way through small villages, where children came running to watch the strange foreigner sliding by. The situation became worse and worse as the road metamorphosed into sand dunes, giving the place an end of the world feel. Unable to ride any further, I backtracked a little and took a new turning along a small road into the backwaters area.

It was a beautiful area of sleepy villages, palm groves, boats and fishing nets, and I felt a rush of joy to have the chance to ride here. I pulled up at one point beside a large palm-fringed lake to take some more shots and take shelter from the sun. Standing by the shore, watching three brahminy kites soaring overhead, I thought to myself how peaceful a place this was. However my reverie was interrupted by two gentlemen who had snuck up on me to ask “Hello Sir, would you like to make a contribution” ? It turned out that they were selling 50RS contribution tickets. Taking a brief look at the ticket that had been thrust under my nose, I could see Sonia Ghandi’s smiling face in prominent position. I explained to them that as I wasn’t allowed to vote, I wouldn’t be making any donations to Congress or any other party. We then had a good chuckle when I added the fact that I admired their ambition to seize any opportunity that came up.

Eventually the water disappeared to be replaced by a maze of earthen tracks and back-alleys. Zig-zagging my way along a made up route that I hoped would be a useful direction, I suddenly found myself emerging onto the main road back to the beach.

Twenty minutes later I had all but made it back to the hotel when I came within the tiniest, tiniest whisker of being run off the road by an autorickshaw. The driver obviously made a confident decision that the quickly closing gap ahead was big enough for him, two bikes and a car. In hindsight I suppose he was proven right, because we did actually all fit. However at the time I was convinced we wouldn’t, and that I was going to die. To be honest, I still think it was impossible and I am not sure how it all worked out; So once again the old adage holds true ...... “In India all things are possible”.

Day 20

My last early morning swim, before we left Cherai (possibly for the last time). It’s been a wonderful place to stay. Doubtless there are many prettier and quieter beaches throughout India, and for sure there are many cleaner places, but even so it has still been great. I rode ahead of the taxi in order to return the enfield and say thanks to the Bullet Man. When I arrived he simply said “Supa Ride Yar”? I agreed with a smile and head waggle, yes .... Supa.

An hour later we were back at the Fort House Hotel to claim our reservation. A charade then followed as we were offered a series of sub-standard rooms. One had a major damp problem, and two were too noisy from the bar next door. It was only when we were at the point of walking out and finding an alternative place to stay that a suitable room miraculously appeared.

We have experienced this phenomenon a few times over the years across southern India. I guess there must be some logical business strategy behind it, but I personally cant see the benefits compared to making your guests feel they are in a good place and well looked after. Why does it have to be such a struggle to get a decent, clean, quiet room at a fair price ? They do exist but getting them can sometimes be a disheartening experience.

After we had settled, we simply relaxed and rested before having another lovely evening meal on the jetty.

Day 21

Our Last Day, and we decide to soak up as much of Fort Cochin as possible.

Setting off early before it got too hot, we made a left turn out of the hotel and wandered down into the old merchants quarter. Even though this area is obviously past its heyday, I love this part of Fort Cochin. Full of nooks and crannies, run down spice and tea warehouses and old offices that belong to another era. Even at this hour, the narrow streets are still busy with porters and trucks carrying sacks of exotic goods.

Taking another turn we pass into a quieter, more residential area where mainly women and children smile as we pass by. Tiny houses line the streets, colour-washed in blue and green, and lines of vibrant washing are hung outside. The people in this little enclave look and dress a little differently than other parts of Kerala, and I wonder what their history is.

Eventually we reach our goal of the Jain temple, and slip inside for an hour of cool peace. It’s a pretty little place, simpler than most of the Hindu temples we have seen, and has a lovely atmosphere. We sit quietly and watch devotees come and go, each person performing their own individual ritual of worship and prayer. A few of the more devout people arrive wearing the distinctive Jain face masks. They remind me of surgeons about to carry out an operation, but the reason for the masks is to prevent harm to insects through accidental swallowing. The only sounds we hear during this time is the ringing of bells, the shuffling of feet, and the chirping of sparrows that fly into the temple to feast on the grains of rice that are left for them.

Another long-standing ambition of mine has been to find some high quality martial arts in Kerala that match the level of skill and power of the guys I have encountered in China. Because Kalari is regarded as the root of most of Asia’s martial arts, I have lived in hope of seeing and experiencing something really special. Despite meeting some good guys around Kannur a couple of years back, I still haven’t found anything that I would describe as genuinely “awesome”. Therefore my final mission was to check out the Kalari at the cultural centre we found last night in the fading hope that maybe I would be seriously impressed.

Purchasing my ticket, I was shown to the Kalari hall, and found there were a total of five of us in the audience. The show soon started and was a good display of athleticism and focus, and it was obvious that a huge amount of training and dedication had gone into their practice. For me, the most impressive part was one guy demonstrating the “ribbon sword” ( a terrifying weapon that looks like a sword, but where the blade consists of two springy ribbons of sharp steel ). At one point he lost full control of it, and hit a wooden banister (just six inches from the foot of a guy in the audience). It was sobering to see how the blade had cut deeply into the hard wooden rail, but even more sobering for the guy who nearly lost half his foot!  The weapon was so lethal that I think I would rather face someone with a handgun than armed with one of these swords.


At the end of the show we were all invited down for a bit of hands on teaching and a few photos. So I took the opportunity to “cross hands” with one of the main guys for a friendly test of his skills. It was immediately obvious to me that he was strong, fast, flexible and very fit, but sadly it was yet another disappointing experience as I was able to shut him down and take control very quickly. My disappointment increased a moment later when I picked up one of the metal staffs that they were flashing around so impressively, only to find it was made of flimsy plastic and as light as a feather! ............. All in all, another hollow Kalari experience.

Later that evening Jane and I sauntered out and had the good sense to choose the “Daal Roti” Restaurant for our final meal. This came highly recommended in an IndiaMike thread, and as we were about to enter we got chatting to an American couple who were just leaving and very enthusiastic about the quality of the food. Even though we were early, the place was filling up fast with tourists and Indians alike, and we were lucky to get a table. The verdict on the food? ........ DELICIOUS. God I wish we had discovered this place earlier, because even writing about it is making me dribble!

It was a beautiful night, with the whole town appearing relaxed and happy. Walking off our full bellies, we took one last evening stroll around the streets we have come to love so much before returning back to the hotel for a couple of hours sleep.

At 3.00 am we had a knock on the door to tell us our taxi had arrived to take us to the airport, and it was then that the manager of the Fort House  Hotel got her revenge on us for daring to quibble over the quality of their rooms, because not only was the taxi the oldest and most decrepit Ambassador we have ever been in (and believe me we have been in some old buckets over the years), but the driver was the youngest we have ever seen (he looked about 14 years old).

India still managed to get her last laugh on us before we could leave her soil, as this seemingly straight forward journey soon turned into a farce. The taxi turned out to be almost out of petrol, and the gauge only registered a tiny flicker above empty when we went round corners. Consequently we spent the first thirty minutes travelling at a very tense fifteen miles per hour as our child driver took every opportunity to coast along in neutral until we finally found a petrol pump. After that he drove like a bat out of hell in order to make up the lost time.

As we rumbled through the night along straight and empty stretches of road, I tried hard to convince myself that we would still manage to catch our plane in time. After deciding that the best thing to do was close my eyes and try to relax, I began to doze and it only vaguely registered with me that the car was beginning to drift a bit too erratically. Luckily Jane was still awake enough to realise something wasn’t right, and catching sight of our driver’s face in the rear view mirror she could see that our boy had closed his eyes and actually managed to fall asleep at the wheel! Shouting ” WAKE UP” and shaking him by the shoulders did the trick as she managed to rouse him (and me) before we crashed.


And so it was that we finally made it back to Cochin airport; in one piece and with time to spare. Sitting in the departure lounge with a cup of the worst tea in the whole country I reflected on how India had treated us to another huge slice of life in such a short while. This had been my fifth trip to India, and each visit has been a stunning experience full of variety, humour, challenge and adventure.

If you have managed to read the entire South India journal ..... I hope you liked it. I also hope that I have managed to show just how rich an experience it was for me. India seems to have a habit of compressing more life into one day than most other countries do in a week. There is nowhere else quite like it and I would encourage anyone to explore it for themselves.