Incredible India


When we arrived in India at the end of September, we weren’t sure what to expect, or whether we’d enjoy it. After five amazing weeks, we can hardly believe we doubted the place – utterly inspiringly incredible, although certainly not blemish free – but who’d want something that pristine and artificial anyway?

Sitting here in a hostel in Saigon, there’s much to think back to and miss. People sleeping absolutely everywhere in the heat of the day – conventionally in the shade, but more entertainingly on tables in busy offices, on pavements, and even on the central reservation of thundering dual carriageways. Down these roads hurtle the colourful Tata lorries at breakneck speed, alongside tankers with ‘edible oil’ (for cooking?), rickety buses lurching round corners, and of course the yellow and black of rickshaws, all of which use their horns continually to announce their presence. And that’s without touching on the amazing train system, the rusting ferries, and of course houseboats – occasionally with furry stowaways.

I think above all India invades every one of your senses and tests your ability to contrast: the sight of brightly coloured turbans in the north against the white Mundu skirts that men wear in the south; the smells of rich masala sauces wafting from the kitchen and the stench of rotting rubbish; the eternal screech of the horns in the road, and the absolute silence of the desert. These contrasts seem to pervade India itself – most obviously through the difference in landscape and climate between the harsh desert of Rajasthan and the mangrove swamps of Kerala, and in the face whitening creams sold endlessly on TV while westerners are on the beach trying to go from white to brown. I think the juxtaposition goes deeper than just the surface though, to an emotional level – for India is a country whose soul is so religious and moralistic, but yet lets the horrors of caste, corruption and poverty happen – indeed religion endorsing it in the case of caste, even if there is now movement to see both caste and corruption confined to the days of the past – in the end.

Leaving India was also the end of our long journey overland from Beijing, with a flight to Vietnam for the next leg of our trip. We’ve apparently travelled 6420 miles by train (almost exactly as far as we are away from home right now), plus another 940 by road. With almost 7500 miles travelled the old fashioned way over 11 weeks, it’s sad to be taking to the air instead!

So, we bid a final farewell to a land of stunning forts, palaces and natural landscape, of friendly people, the tastiest food (which some of you back home will get to experience) and harsh weather (which hopefully you won’t!). Each of these things we’ve at times had too much of – but that doesn’t mean we won’t be back for more sometime soon! Anyone care to join us for a second lap?


Enlightening Kochi


Kerala feels very different to the rest of India we’ve seen. I’ve mentioned before the lush greenery that envelops the space between the brickwork, but it became clear to us that there was something more than just this. Firstly, Kerala’s very obviously communist, with red flags and slogans painted everywhere. The government has had a good success rate with tackling poverty, which was clearly evident by the lack of street kids which have followed us around elsewhere. Secondly, Kerala’s the first place in India that we’ve seen Churches – and although only 20% define as Christian (compared to 50% Hindu), it’s certainly the most visible religion, with churches, chapels and crucifixes everywhere. Combined with the colonial buildings leftover from Portuguese and British periods of influence, this gives it a distinctly European feel. We especially appreciated it on a walking tour of Fort Cochin, between the Santa Cruz Basillica and the St Francis Church, built in 1503 and the oldest European church in the country, on the way passing the former parade ground and that classic English institution, the Members Club.

Kochi is a city spread across a clutter of both natural and manmade islands on the coast, with the tranquil Fort Cochin where we stayed a stark contrast to the container ship docks and naval air base across the water. The city is most famous for its iconic Chinese fishing nets (pictured below), which require at least four people operating them to haul in their catch. Sadly we didn’t see them in operation, but did see a lot of fishermen with poles fighting a losing battle with the floating water hyacinth that clogs up the waterways all around here.

We were staying in a huge bargain room above Oy’s Restaurant, home to some of the tastiest fish curries we’ve ever eaten – a great base for our final stop in India. From here, we made what seemed like a marathon trek down to Mattancherry, home to the quarter somewhat crudely known as ‘Jew Town’, where there’s a synagogue and a suite of antique furniture shops, which were started by entrepreneurs who bought up the possessions from Jews migrating to Israel en mass in the fifties. We also found (after nearly giving up in the heat) the Dutch Palace, now a museum on the area. Kerala’s present day radical politics may have found some inspiration in the customs of the past – we learnt about the commanding role women used to play in the family, with inheritance following the female heir in stark contrast to the west. The exhibition also told us this is not the case anymore – although women still have an elevated status compared to elsewhere – with the elimination of this system a result of the ‘modernising reforms’ brought in by the British. That’s progress for you!


Our final night in India saw Laura don her Sari one final time, and us go to a night at the (tourist) theatre, to witness a bit of traditional Kathakali ‘story-play’ – something mentioned in ‘The God of Small Things’, if you’ve ever read it. Before the show, we got to see the make-up going on, and then an intro to how the art form works, with nine facial expressions used to express emotions – from obvious ‘love’ to the more confusing ‘pathos’ – combined with a sign language, movement on stage, and live music. Most impressive was the combination of costume and make-up on the two male performers, who were utterly transformed – and we were transfixed, even if the somewhat misogynistic story of the evil female seductress didn’t appeal to our tastes. As we left the performance for a meal to celebrate our time in India, the heavens opened, and we finished a memorable five weeks dining on tuna and prawn curries while watching the thunderstorm around us – an electric experience in more than one way, and one we’ll certainly be back to repeat in the future.


PS. One quick reminder of home!


The South of Kerala


Our journey on from Alleppey took us to the beach at Varkala, a stretch of sand between bright red cliffs and the gorgeous translucent blue of the ocean. As we bounced through the network of back streets to our guesthouse, we wondered if perhaps we’d somehow got the address wrong. We were staying in South Cliff, described as being a bit quieter than the tourist hotspot of North Cliff, but I don’t think we’d quite realised that the place would be nearly deserted, and the popular cafe that was recommended closed – it not being high season. It was certainly peaceful though, with a great cliff-top perch.

Varkala’s really a town of two halves, with the main urban centre a few miles from the tourist-dominated beach. The inhabitants of the two only really seem to meet when arriving and departing – in the more conventional sense through the bus or train station, but also more spiritually at the beach, as the waters are considered holy to Hindus. Many have their ashes scattered after cremation in the waves at the south end of the water, away from the multitudes of white westerners in the next cove further north worshipping a different kind of God – the sun. As we ate breakfast one morning at a beachside cafe alongside the fishermen counting out their catch, we were able to watch the ritual of a mourning family dressed mainly in white, with a few men taking an urn to the water in a final farewell. It was strange to have this happen amid the bustle of restaurant touts trying to attract trade, and rickshaws jostling to pick up a ride – but then this close interplay of religion and everyday life is very typical of the India we’ve seen. Less pleasant was the juxtaposition between the mourners fully clothed in white and the stream of white tourists trickling past in beach wear, something we were told was an absolute no at an Indian holy site. I was surprised at quite how tolerant the locals were, particularly as we were some distance from the western enclave of North Cliff, and this was after all part of a funeral.

We spent a couple of days enjoying the sun and sea of the northern beach, Laura progressively building on the bronze tan she started in Spain, and me just going straight for the traditional lobster look. Amid tasty meals of seafood, we had a great snack of a whole fresh pineapple on the beach, cut and sliced by the woman in the air in front of us, a great bite of refreshment – and entertainment!

Trivandrum is the capital of Kerala, and was our next home for a couple of days, as well as the southernmost point of our trip round India, about 40 miles from the tip of the subcontinent. More importantly for us, it was a chance to try some true South Indian food – the masala dosas that Laura’s written about – as well as a brief retreat to our first western delights in weeks, in the form of pizza and pasta from a fantastic Italian restaurant in a middle class suburb. We also got to stop for a quick bite to eat at the memorably Indian Coffee House near the bus station (pictured above) – designed by a British architect living locally, with the interior one huge spiral.

The city itself is a mix of the bustling and modern alongside some lovely green spaces and the gleaming white Secretariat building, home to the state government. A lot of the architecture in the town is typically Keralan, with wooden structures and red roofs. A highlight was the magnificent Napier Museum, a real splurge at 10Rs (15p) for the two of us. Set in a leafy green park, its interior is a world of colour, with candy stripes in yellow, blue and pink on the walls and a high wooden ceiling – not quite as garish and horrible as that sounds! The museum showcases some amazingly detailed carving, including ivory so thin it’s translucent – and a set of ornate concentric spheres that had us marvelling at how they’d been created.

In the same parkland as the museum is the city Zoo, an unexpected success. We’ve avoided zoos so far because seeing animals in cramped cages with barely enough room to turn around is not really our thing. Fortunately, this zoo was supported by WWF (the environmental group, not the wrestlers, which would be entertaining but odd) – and so the animals were generally in large open enclosures, free to run around. Having said that, the big cats were all in cages while we were there, but we’re assured this was a temporary measure – there was a huge space nearby without any animals in. Anyway, ethics sated, we saw tigers and leopards, lions and hippos, as well as spotted deer, elephants and zebras, and alligators. Actually it was the first time we’d seen almost all of the above in India – and we can now tell you that the roar of a lion is a scary thing!


As a final bit of capital tourism, we popped in to the Puthe Maliga Palace, its exterior roof supports forming a line of fantastically carved wooden horses. There were also thrones on display – one made from some 35 ivory tusks (now those are elephants to be pitied), and another entirely in crystal. These were unfortunately not for us, and so we instead made our way onto the seats we’ve become accustomed to, on the train heading back north, and to our final destination in India.


Food for thought (part two) – India


Being a huge fan of Indian food back home I was slightly afraid that the real thing may not live up to expectations…Needless to say my fears were totally unfounded!

Our sortie into the highly spiced world of Indian cooking may have had a shaky start as we waited for our stomachs to settle after the inevitable bout of “Delhi belly”. However, once recovered, we delightedly delved in!

Indian food varies from region to region but has proved to be tasty in almost every form. Generally breads (such as naans, parathas and chappattis) are more a phenomenon of the North, as are tandoori (clay oven cooked) and meat dishes. This is not to say that meat and bread do not appear in the South, just that you are more likely to find vegetable and seafood dishes.

With that in mind here are some of the foodstuffs that we have encountered:

During our Indian cookery class in Udaipur we learnt how to make pretty much any kind of flat bread that you could ever desire. The basic ingredients for any Indian bread are flour, water and a pinch of salt; mix, knead, roll out and cook dry on a heavy iron plate and you have a chapatti. Parathas are essentially the same with a little oil folded in and used to coat the bread whilst cooking. Naans are slightly more complex with curd (natural yoghurt), baking soda and sugar added to the flour, and rested for 30 minutes before cooking (traditionally cooked in the tandoor, although a hot iron pan will suffice). Parathas and naans can also be stuffed with any filling of your choice, be it fruit, vegetable or meat to provide an endless variety of breads. And the difference between all of these?Chapattis are your common everyday accompaniment to a meal whereas naans are usually reserved for special occasions (well going out for an Indian in England is always a special occasion right?), whilst parathas are normally served at breakfast with chai.

I won’t say much about rice as it’s a grain I’m sure you’re all familiar with. However, I’ll introduce a small fact that surprised us: apparently a vegetable pilau should contain more veg than rice, whereas a vegetable biryani should contain more rice than veg (according to our teacher Sashi anyway). We both believed it to be the other way around! We’ve also discovered Kashmiri rice; rice cooked with various fruits and vegetables, usually including pineapple – a favourite of mine.

Pakoras, koftas and cutlets
It took us a while to ascertain the difference between these tasty little deep fried treats but I think we’ve finally cracked it. Pakoras are vegetables fried in a spicy chickpea (gram) flour batter, whereas koftas consist of vegetables that have been mashed together and moulded into a ball before frying, whilst cutlets are essentially flattened koftas. The nice thing about our experience with these finger foods is that they are much more flavoursome than their British counterparts.

Sadly samosas were not covered in our cooking class but we discovered some of the best samosas I’ve ever eaten in a great little eatery in Jaipur named LMB. Samosas in India are much larger than those tiny little things we get in the UK, they’re also far more sumptuous. These fist-sized triangular parcels, packed full of vegetables and spices deliver a good kick with every bite. Our favourite samosa outlet serves them up with generous helpings of mango and coriander chutneys, the sweetness of which provide a good counterbalance to the spices inside. This is definitely a lunchtime favourite that will be sadly missed.

Aside from their pairing with samosas, chutneys are something that we’ve found surprisingly elusive. They are however deceptively easy to make, mango chutney can be made by blending together fresh mangoes, sugar, salt, chilli powder and a little water. When mangoes are not in season fear not! Simply substitute the fresh mangoes with mango powder (a very intense and sour powder made from dried mangoes), add some extra sugar and water and simmer until reduced to the desired consistency. Coriander or mint chutneys are made by blending the fresh herb with garlic, chilli, salt, a little water and some lemon juice, simple and delicious (maybe omit the garlic if you’re like me).

Dosas are a distinctly Southern speciality; crispy rice pancakes that resemble giant brandy snaps in appearance but taste more like cheese on toast. A masala dosa is curled around a generous dollop of spicy potato curry and served with sambar (a spicy lentil and vegetable curry soup) and a couple of other unidentified but flavoursome accompaniments that come with free refills. Very nice for breakfast, lunch or dinner – or all three!

What to say? Curries come in an endless variety, so much so that I won’t even attempt to describe them. On most menus in India you’ll find a selection of veg and non-veg dishes. With a large portion of the population being vegetarian, vegetable curries are not just relegated to the lowly side dish as they are in the UK. We’ve had some very nice veg dishes including stuffed potatoes (a skinless baked or boiled potato stuffed with paneer and served in a creamy sauce), pumpkin curry, and okra cooked in dry spices (a favourite of Simon’s). In the south we’ve had some delightful seafood dishes including prawn masala, meen papas (a creamy fish fillet curry) and grilled tiger prawns in a tongue tingling spicy sauce. Curries in the south of India (or perhaps I should say Kerala since that is the only part of the south we’ve had time to explore) frequently have a coconut sauce giving them a flavour reminiscent of a Thai curry, although without the fish sauce.

Meat can be a little hit and miss in India. For the most part beef is off the menu due to the Hindu sanctity of the cow. Pork is similarly omitted, presumably out of respect for the Muslim population, although this is just conjecture on my part. Mutton and chicken however can be found on most non-veg menus. Tandoori meats, either in the form of meat on the bone (e.g. Tandoori chicken), skewered boneless chunks (such as chicken tikka) or even minced and shaped into kebabs (common with mutton) are marinated in yoghurt and spices before cooking in the tandoor (clay oven) – delicious! When eating a meat curry in India you may prefer to choose a dish that is specified on the menu as boneless, otherwise you may spend your time picking what little meat there is off the bone. That said, most of meat curries we’ve had have been very tasty.

Mystery veg
In the streets of almost every city we have come across vendors pushing carts stacked high with this miscellaneous green and purple vegetable that looks something like a cross between a mini bell pepper and a brussel sprout. What this vegetable is, or how it is supposed to be consumed we have no idea, the only thing of note is that the sellers periodically pour water over them. If anyone is able to identify this vegetable for us it would be most appreciated!

Lassis are yoghurty drinks, which can be plain, sweet or salty, fruit flavoured, chocolate flavoured or in the case of the Rajasthani specialty ‘Makhani lassi’ saffron and sultana flavoured. Lassis (or at least the sweet type, I cannot account for the salty variety) are very refreshing, providing a cooling antidote to both the hot climate and spicy food.

Not being a tea drinker I don’t believe any description I give will do justice to chai, therefore I leave this to Simon…
“A rich milky blend of tea leaves, sugar and spices, it’s nothing like the watery brown cuppa back home – although a bit of a shock when you see quite how many tablespoons of sugar they’re heaping in!”

You’ll find Indian sweets glinting temptingly at you like little sugary gems behind many a glass counter. We saved this treat for Diwali when sweet shops suddenly pop up from nowhere, bursting at the seams and spilling out onto the pavements, selling large boxes of assorted delights to share with friends and family. We stood in front of a counter and tentatively picked out a small selection to fill our tiny box. Of the sweets we sampled (and you’ll have to forgive me, I don’t know their names) were a round white coconutty one (a bit like coconut ice), a thick treacly cube in a paper case (similar to the topping of a treacle tart), an almond diamond topped with shiny silver leaf (essentially pretty marzipan) and a number of fudge-like sweets (including one chocolatey affair). We enjoyed these little bursts of sugar amidst the Diwali fireworks from our rooftop, a spectacular way to sample India’s sweet offerings.


The Backwaters


We arrived in the southern state of Kerala to a thunderous welcome – a rainstorm. It was a bit of a shock for both of us, the first rain we’d seen in nearly a month in India and a refreshing reminder that this is the wettest state in the country.

The city of Alleppey sits nestled on the west coast astride a pair of canals between the beach and the inland waterways known as the backwaters. In lush contrast to the north, and particularly the parched and desert-like Rajasthan, everything is green and it feels like a tropical paradise: palm trees silhouetted against the sky, coconuts growing above us, and huge bunches of tiny bananas on the table in our guest house, freshly picked from the garden.

It’s always a bit strange arriving at a place in the dark – and especially in the pouring rain. We spent a difficult half hour searching the dimly-lit puddle-filled streets for somewhere to eat (and succeeded), before taking a fun rickshaw journey home the way we’d come, now totally unrecognisable in the gloom of the night. It was a memorable experience, with us shouting overconfident encouragement to the driver – “just a little bit further now” – as we jolted and splashed our way in the right direction but without the faintest clue as to why we hadn’t seen our place yet. As it turned out, we’d walked A Long Way on the trip into town and hadn’t realised. Fortunately despite not being able to agree a price up front (hard to do without a clear destination!), it only cost us 40 rupees, or 60p.

We spent a couple of nights resting from our journey and staying in a cute ‘cottage’ in the back garden of a house, bordered by paddy fields and narrow waterways. We even had our own veranda from which we could sit out and admire the fireflies at night, their lights blinking on and off slowly like tiny indicators in the dark. It was amazing as the darkness closed in around us and we could steadily see more and more flashing flying lights around us, blazing erratic trails through the air. Unfortunately they were also accompanied by swarms of mosquitos who thrive on the abundant freshwater – and so we had to beat a hasty retreat into the mosquito net protection of inside.

We spent a quiet day wandering round town (much less murky in the sunlight) and made it to the beach, where a few cafes look out over the grey-yellow sand to the dilapidated old pier and the ocean beyond. The rusting black silhouette reminded me of the West Pier in Brighton, a monument to better days – and presumably a time when this place was a teeming resort.

Kerala’s main fame these days is as home to the backwaters, a set of rivers and lakes that stretch for miles inland. This is now a big tourist industry, with some 500 houseboats available to rent in Alleppey alone. It’s also something my Dad did when he visited Kerala years ago – and that we were keen to try for ourselves.

I think Laura put it best when she described the houseboats as “like wicker chairs on water” – from a distance it looks like they’re made solely from woven bamboo, with associated concerns about their seaworthiness. Fortunately, up close it becomes apparent that they have solid metal frames, even if this somewhat dilutes the aesthetic. They’re also not quite the romantic delicate boats we’d envisaged in our minds – these things are bamboo-coated juggernaughts, many with multiple en-suite double bedrooms, air conditioning, a second story, and satellite TV to cap it off. It did feel slightly like a traffic jam on the M25 as we first set off, a long tailback of boats all heading in the same direction, chugging along slowly together while spluttering smoke from their exhausts. Fortunately, we soon reached a huge lake, and the boats all scattered in different directions, peace and tranquility restored.

We’d hired a boat from our guest house which we were pleased was smaller than most, with just a twin room, bathroom, kitchen and deck under cover from which we could watch the passing scenery. Nonetheless, even at this scale it was a world apart from the narrowboats we’ve holidayed on in the UK, where a boat the same size would easily sleep 12. On those, everything – beds, seats, to toilets and showers – is in miniature to make the boat smaller. Here we had full size fittings, and space on deck for a dining table, actual wicker chairs, and also deck chairs to recline in! The boat hire also comes with a three man crew who prepared us delicious food for the three meals we ate on board. It’s no wonder this is the most expensive thing we’ve done in India.

The backwaters themselves provide a serene view on waterside village life, with women washing clothes, children splashing, and men naturally sitting around chatting on the various boat jetties. I don’t however think there’s much justification to the phrase ‘virtually untouched’ – for even here there are clear signs of modernity, from the woven white plastic sacks that people have reused to give their fences more privacy to the electricity pylons and occasional sounds of kids watching the TV. As we moored up for the night in the early evening, we went for a wander through the village alongside us, meeting many smiling faces along the narrow pathways. Despite the significant tourism in the area, we were still a novelty, with parents calling out to their kids to come and watch us white people go past. We soon built up a crowd of jostling but timid youngsters around us, although sadly our interaction was limited to the ubiquitous plea from
them of “One pen, one pen?”

Our night sleeping on the water wasn’t entirely without incident – for as we found to our surprise at about 1am, we had a stowaway! We were both woken in our beds by the sound of something gnawing loudly, coming from the direction of our feet. It was loud, and we both sat there for a bit, adrenaline pumping, trying to work out what on earth it could be. A rat? A man-eating spider? An alligator?! It was with some trepidation that I picked up the water bottle and left the safety of the mosquito net cage to take on whatever was dining at our expense.

It soon became clear – but somewhat more puzzling – that the sound wasn’t coming from where our bags lay on the floor, but instead from higher up, somewhere above the door leading into the bathroom. With nothing obvious on our side, we concluded that the killer foe must instead be perched above the inside of the door, ready to pounce on whoever made the next toilet trip. As we listened carefully, I swear I could hear it sharpening its fangs for the upcoming battle. With Laura briefed on what my dying words were to be, the door was opened, to reveal the true horror of what lay inside…

Nothing! It seems that our stowaway must have been a mouse who’d made it into the inch-thick cavity between the two walls and was happily munching away at the tasty wood of the boat. The large hardboard walls were acting as a speaker cone, amplifying the sound and making it sound much larger than it really was. After enough thumps on the wall to wake half the village nearby, it finally stopped nibbling and scurried off, leaving us to try to get back to sleep in our alert state and hope it didn’t return for desert. Fortunately, it didn’t!

Our final day in Alleppey left us with some time to kill after departing the boat at 9am, and so we spent a tranquil couple of hours on a much smaller ‘canoe’ boat (not an actual canoe), traversing some narrower waterways and appreciating the beauty of the area from closer up than our houseboat had permitted. It was a great finish to our time on the water – a highly recommended excursion for anyone visiting the area!