Thursday, February 16, 2017

Kalari full body massage in Munnar, Kerala
I’ve never been into massages. I had a Chinese foot massage once which hurt and tickled so much it had me writhing in hysterics. But while visiting Munnar, a hilltop town in Kerala, I tried a Kalari full body massage, a local speciality used on martial arts warriors.
    My masseur was a small, softly spoken man. After replacing my clothes with a meagre loin cloth, he set to work on my face, prodding and rubbing as if applying an invisible coat of make-up. It was only when he finished that my skin felt softer and muscles more relaxed as if my face had been remoulded into a happier expression.
    I did not have long to absorb the pleasures of this appetiser as there was still the rest of my body to work on. I lay on the table and, as the man rubbed oil onto my arms and torso, the smell of coconut filled my nostrils.
    In Kerala most of what you touch and eat is derived from the state's vast crop of coconut trees. Every part of the plant is used for building materials, utensils, hair products and, of course, cooking. Coconut oil is a ubiquitous ingredient in Keralan cuisine and it's good for the skin too, judging by the copious amounts I was basted with.
    He began probing every inch of my body outside a narrowly defined bathing suit area. It was sensational! But some of those sensations caused me to stifle giggles or jolt as if electrocuted when a knuckle hit a nerve. As he pounded my back I had to fight the urge to fart. Maybe the treatment was designed to release such internal pressures. At one point I heard a series of bloodcurdling screams coming from the TV playing in reception.
    After about 40 minutes of being squeezed and pounded like an artisan baker’s dough, I was directed to sit in a small wooden chamber for a steam bath. A panel was inserted across the front and another at the top leaving only my head exposed. It reminded me of a magician restraining his assistant before a trick involving sharp swords.
    The temperature was cool at first and rose at a comfortable rate as the steam built up. As I began to sweat I remembered hearing how a frog will remain in cold water as it is slowly heated even until it is boiled alive.
    After ten minutes I emerged soaked in perspiration, but it was clean and fresh, not like the greasy, smelly sweat from a workout. The man dried me off and marked my forehead for good luck before I got dressed.
    Back in reception I waited for the rest of my group who had booked an extended session. I sat next to an Indian man with a grey beard. After a few minutes, my masseur reappeared holding bunches of long, rusty nails. He and the old man discussed these at great length and my eyes fell on a small brass crucifix, one of several religious ornaments decorating the room.
    I wondered what my companions were going through, but they soon emerged looking radiant and, all in all, I felt pretty good too. As I fell asleep that night I fancied I could still smell the coconut oil deep within my pores releasing its nutrients into my supple skin.
Coconuts: a staple ingredient in Keralan cooking and good for the skin

Thursday, February 9, 2017

India diary part 4

I fly south for adventures in the forests and backwaters of Kerala...

November 13 Cochin

Ashok drives me to the airport in the morning for my flight to Cochin in Kerala. At the entrance to the airport there is a small currency exchange booth manned by four people. The rates displayed are the best I have seen so I try to change some money but am told they are closed. 
The sun is bright when I arrive in Cochin which is just as well because it is run entirely on solar power. The system is so efficient it creates surplus energy and, to make maximum use of the land, vegetables are grown between the solar panels. I learn this from Sreejith, who picks me up at the airport. He is Keralan and will be guide and travel companion to myself and a couple of other travellers for the next few days. We drive to a nearby shopping centre where Sreejith takes me to a restaurant and I order their speciality, biriyani. It comes as a mountain of rice with succulent spicy chicken packed in the centre. 
He tells me to wait at the shopping centre while he goes to collect the rest of the party who are on a later flight. I spend much of this time queuing at the ATM, the first I have come across which is actually dispensing money. There are about forty people in the queue each taking around a minute to make their withdrawals on a machine with a long and complicated menu. It has become something of a spectator sport with a crowd gathered round the machine passing updates back to their friends in the queue and prompting users on which buttons to press. As time passes I become acutely aware that the cash is limited and sooner or later someone will get to the front and find there is none left. When my turn comes I insert my card, am informed of a hefty charge (in addition to my own bank's charges) and, with a little help from the ‘audience', I request the maximum R2000 and after a moment's hesitation the cash slot opens dispensing a thin wad of notes. 
A couple of hours later Sreejith returns with the rest of the group, two Italian sisters Agnese and Agata. They have just arrived in the country via Delhi and need cash too so I spend another hour waiting at the same ATM which is mercifully still paying out. 
In the evening we drive to the fort area where we check into a modest homestay. Due to a booking error we all have to share the same room but it’s big enough for us all to get a good night’s sleep. 

November 14 Cochin

In the morning we stop at a fish market where the coast is lined with Chinese fishing nets. Teams of fishermen work these huge structures using a system of ropes and pulleys. One group invites onto their rickety wooden platform. They are keen to explain their operation as a group of tourists and seabirds gathers. We are enlisted to take hold of the ropes and help lift the net out of the water. When we all heave the large structure rises with ease. Among a mass of seaweed and debris there are only one or two small fish in the net. One of the fishermen shows of part of their catch but gets a nasty cut on his thumb in the process. 

We get in the car and head into lush green countryside till we arrive in Allepey at around midday where there is a houseboat moored waiting to take us on a one day cruise which I have written about here

November 15 Anakullum

After disembarking from the cruise we drive up into the hills. We pass through numerous small towns. In between we drive along winding paths through forest and as the towns become further apart we begin passing waterfalls and tremendous views. In the afternoon we stop at a spice plantation where we were introduced to the incredible range of spices grown in the region. There are pineapples of the baby and full size variety and nut meg trees that come in male and female varieties and have to be planted together. Our guide also breaks open a cacao pod for us to taste the seeds. The seeds are about the size of hazel huts, quite hard and covered in white goo. We are told not to bite them, as they taste very bitter, but to suck the goo which has a sweet flavour. 
We continue higher into the hills where the forest becomes thicker and the road less well defined. It is dark by the time we roll along a narrow road into an area that has just enough scattered buildings to be called a village. This is Anakullum. I like to get off the tourist trail but I have never succeeded to this extent. It seems a long time ago that we were in the shopping centre with air conditioning, shops, restaurants and ATM. 

We check into our accommodation, a very basic room with some old beds and very primitive electrical wiring but it doesn't matter, we will only be sleeping there for one night. We go for dinner at a humble cafe run by a husband and wife. They invite us into their kitchen to watch as they make egg curry though it is so dark it is hard to see as they blend spices and mix ingredients over a simple stove but the end result is a tasty meal.
Egg curry
Anakullum may be off the beaten track but it does have one notable attraction. The river is a popular spot for wild elephants to gather. Elephants are rarely seen in the wild but there is something about the water at this spot which attracts them. After we have eaten we do some elephant spotting. We sit on the wall of a park. All we can see is a volleyball net but we can hear the river and can just about see it when Sreejith puts the car headlights on. Several locals join us and tell us how the elephants were there last night for four hours and how they come every night. One slightly wild man claims he is the elephants' protector, appointed by the forest rangers. 

We spend a couple of hours sat on the ground playing cards, but nothing disturbs the gentle rush of water beyond. With an early start the next day we turn in with a promise from one of the villagers to call if the elephants appear. As we drive off I imagine a herd gathering for a midnight game of volleyball. 

Saturday, February 4, 2017

India diary part 3

I go on the trail of the great poets of Maharashtra.

November 12 Pune, Alandi, Dehu

I travel to two towns near Pune with temples devoted to famous poets and prophets. I am grateful to Ashok, not only for driving me there but for being a guide in sacred places where it is easy to feel at a loss as a foreigner. Our first stop is Alandi – the resting place of 13th century poet and saint Dnyaneshwar. He is renowned for writing a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita – a book from the Hindu epic Mahabharata. He began this 1810 verse work when he was just 12. At the age of 21 he departed life through deep yogic meditation known as Samadhi.
    Devotees still congregate at the temple marking the place he was buried. We enter the main courtyard to see a long queue snaking round to enter the main building. We walk round to the back and Ashok says something to an attendant who lets us through a gap in the railings. The entrance to the temple is blocked by a stern female security guard who is locking the gate and continues to do so without even looking at us. The woman who had let us through starts remonstrating and, just as we’re about to go, the security guard waves us through, her expression unchanged. We squeeze through a series of narrow passages in a line of worshippers.

"May the Self of the universe be pleased with this sacrifice of words and bestow His grace on me." 

Sant Dnyaneshwar

    After exiting into the courtyard we enter another area where Dnyaneshwar’s verses are displayed on wall panels and devotees sit reading his works. Ashok speaks to one man who has travelled from another town to sit in the temple each day until he has read the works 108 times, counted on his rosary. There is constant chanting and everywhere people are praying and making offerings. It is impossible not to be moved by the euphoria and the devotion that this young poet, unknown to me before today, still inspires after more than 700 years.
Temple devoted to Tukaram
    We take a short drive to Dehu where there is a temple dedicated to 17th century poet and saint Tukaram. The temple is next to a river where it is said the authorities ordered the poet to throw his writings. Miraculously the papers floated on the water and were undamaged. The temple is a labyrinth of dark rooms and small shrines. Entering means removing shoes and socks and much of the floor is covered in prickly green plastic matting which is painful, though also strangely invigorating to walk on. 
The sun sets over the river where Tukaram is said to have cast his writings
    We visit a second, more modern temple devoted to the bard. After entering along a path of excruciating cobbles,  Ashok shows me Tukaram’s verses written on panels covering all the walls of the two-storey building. He reads, translates and sings the verses until we are suddenly ushered out.
    Prayers begin and we join a gathering in two lines of men and women. The building resonates with singing, chanting and clapping. A priest walks up and down the lines carrying a flame, hands reach out as he passes. It is a glorious Hindu ritual but also a human gathering which transcends race, religion and borders. My heart soars until I pay the penance of walking over the cobbles again on my way out. A group of boys follows asking: "what's your name? Where are you from? Do you like football?" and other questions which I answer through clenched teeth as I make my way one painful step at a time back to Ashok's car.

New temple devoted to Tukaram

"Words are the only jewels I possess
Words are the only clothes I wear
Words are only the food that sustain my life
Words are the only wealth I distribute among people." 


Tukaram's statue in Dehu

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

India diary part 2

My travels continue in Pune with sightseeing, shopping and unexpected financial problems...

November 9, Pune

In the morning I am grateful to a passerby who pays R100 towards my tuk tuk fare. Ashok is working that day and had suggested that I go into town and take a day tour of the city. When I pay the driver the R120 fare with a 500 note he starts protesting. At first I think he hasn’t got change but he seems to be saying he can’t take it. The passerby steps in and hands me R100 to settle the matter. It is not a huge amount of money but still generous, particularly as the whole country is going to be short of cash for the next few weeks. I remember Ashok saying that the Prime Minister is cancelling all 500 and 1,000 rupee notes in a move against corruption. I had thought he meant they were bringing in new notes and phasing the old ones out as routinely happens in the UK and other countries. But in a shock move to purge the nation of black money the notes had been declared invalid over night. Most of the 4,000 odd rupees I have on me are no longer legal tender.
I am still trying to get my head round this when I join the tour. The guide is reluctant to take my R500 note to pay for the tour at first but sympathetic to my situation. He explains I will have to change my money at the bank and I ask if we are stopping near one. He tells me the banks and ATMs are closed for the next two days and I start to panic as none of the admission fees for the sites we are visiting or lunch is included. I find though that other people are prepared to take the old money at their discretion and through these transaction I accumulate enough legal tender to last the next day or two.
View of Pune from Parvati Temple

Shaniwar Wada

Japanese gardens
The tour consists of a heavy itinerary of temples, museums and other attractions. I am the only foreigner on board and but the guides offer English explanations of the sights. In the middle of the afternoon the guide points out an ominous black office building with Trump Towers in gold lettering. That’s the moment I hear he has won the presidential election. I almost hit the floor. The Indians seem quite amused but the guide assures me during the next stop that they don’t like Trump either.
Outpost of the Trump empire

When I arrive at my hotel that evening the caretaker asks if I want dinner. It is about 7:30 and he says it will be ready at 9. It is about 9:45 when he finally puts the food on the table but it is worth waiting for, a tasty lentil soup and wonderfully flavoured dish of French beans, aubergine and tomato served with mountains of chapatis.

November 11, Pune
Long queues following demonetization
The banks reopen and Ashok drives me into town. It soon becomes clear I will have to wait a long time to change my old money as there are long queues outside every branch. I manage to change some money at Thomas Cook though, not as much as I wanted but enough to produce a substantial wad of rupees. I spend the day shopping and exploring the colourful city centre. The food market is particularly lively.

I go into a few clothes shops looking to buy a shirt or two. One is a family run emporium with a very loud and rotund proprietor. When I ask about shirts he shows me one or two assisted by the rest of the staff and as I peruse them piles more appear on the counter. I try a couple on and, while they are not exactly what I had in mind, they look good, stylish. I point out that one of them has a button missing. He brushes this aside saying he'll sew it back on. He cajoles me into buying both shirts and we agree a price of £20. I pay in English money which he explains he can use on an upcoming trip to London and it saves me using my Indian money. When I remind them about the button there is a delay in finding a needle and thread. This gives one of the assistants the chance to show me a tacky range of jewellery. Later they offer me a seat and serve me chai in a tiny plastic cup while the only woman in the shop sews on the button. "In India, if a woman can't sew she can't get married!" the shop owner proclaims. Later I discover that while the shirts seem to fit when I'm standing upright, if I sit or slump my shoulders they bulge open at the front revealing unsightly masses of bare flesh!

Scenes from Pune

Saturday, January 14, 2017

India diary part 1

November 5, 2016, Mumbai

I make the following observations during the taxi ride from Mumbai Airport to my hotel: A group of men stood in the back of a small van trying to remain upright and in the vehicle, a girl on the back of a motorbike talking on her phone in the thick of the traffic with horns blaring non-stop – needless to say she isn’t wearing a helmet, a take-away advertising the softest kebabs in the world, a shop called Selfie Hairstyle, trees full of lights from the recent Diwali festival. I see a man stood by the central barrier taking a photo of his family standing on the other side of the road as traffic hurtles between them. As we near the hotel the driver stops twice in as many minutes to ask directions. Even I can tell where to go the second time but he insists on quizzing a couple of pedestrians before bringing me to my destination.
If the traffic is bad when you're in a car, it is even more terrifying if you're a pedestrian. After checking in to my hotel I go in search of dinner. I come to a busy junction and make a dash when a small gap appears. Other pedestrians stroll across as vehicles tear back and forth.
After a filling and reasonably priced vegetable thali I return to the hotel. This means crossing the road again. This time I find a set of traffic lights and cross on the green but that doesn't stop a moped from screeching round the corner towards me.

November 6, Mumbai

I continue to be alarmed and dismayed by what people get up to on the roads and taxi drivers’ poor geography. On the way to the Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum the driver repeatedly gets out to ask directions while brandishing my guidebook. On one such stop I see a man sat on the back of a motorbike carrying a car windscreen.
    The museum is a fascinating collection of artefacts in an ornately decorated building. The park it’s located in is less attractive with a collection of zoo animals in woefully decrepit conditions. It is particularly sad to see the elephants rocking back and forth at the back of their bare concrete enclosure.

November 7, Mumbai

I visit Haji Ali – a mosque at the end of a long promenade stretching out to sea. It’s a colourful and busy place with a stream of visitors and worshippers going to and fro. It is a wonderful location to watch the sunset.

    The taxi driver who takes me back ploughs through the traffic. At one junction there is a constant flow of traffic three vehicles thick. There are no gaps yet somehow the driver manages to bulldoze his way through, horns honking in all directions until we get over to the left lane.

November 8, Mumbai

In the morning I explore the caves and stunning views of Elephanta Island, about an hour’s ferry ride away from the Gateway of India, Mumbai’s port area. On the way back we have to board one ferry and then cross over onto another one moored alongside it. As a girl ahead of me steps between the two boats her cardigan slips from her waist and falls in the water. A crewman puts his hands on either side and lowers himself down, grabs the garment with his feet and returns it to its owner.
Monkey on Elephanta Island

   In the evening I meet my friend Ashok and we travel together on the train to Pune, his hometown and my next stop.

With Ashok on the train to Pune

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Houseboat cruise in Allepey, Kerala

Kerala is a region with plenty to explore. Most tourists start in Cochin where there are enough sights and attractions to last a week or more. But the backwaters of Allepey offer a more gentle pace and outstanding natural scenery. Escaping the bustle of the city to cruise the rivers while enjoying the best Keralan cuisine should a part of any traveller's visit to the area. Read more

Bird life

Life by the river

Going home on the school boat

We stopped off early on the cruise to pick up a bottle of toddy, a beer made from coconut water which gets stronger during the day as it ferments.

A Keralan banquet on the houseboat