Last day in India

Today is our last day in India. I woke up at 9am and lay listening to my MP3 player, I do feel really sad as it brings it home to me how quickly the time has flown by. Over the past 2 months we have travelled around 3500 miles, through seven states and 13 cities.
We have learnt about the Hindu religion and the caste system and I have found, with a very few exceptions the Indian people to be helpful, kind and friendly.

There are fewer differences between England and India than I initially thought. India is a place of huge contrasts, although poverty is obvious wherever we have been, there is also great wealth here. Some of the people have habits that are difficult to like, for example the chewing of paan. This is a mixture of herbs, spices, sugar and tobacco wrapped up in a betel nut leaf. It is chewed and eventually spat out. It can be addictive and stains the mouth and teeth red, eventually rotting the teeth away. In north India the streets are covered with red spit and the ability of some people to hawk snot still amazes us.

I have seen lots of things which I would like to see adopted in England, for example women only carriages on trains and separate waiting areas for women and children in stations. It has been interesting to see the Indian government’s response to HIV infection and there is a mass polio vaccination programme taking place here at the moment.
It is simple and cheap to buy any medications over the counter and although I feel that this must lead to a lot of dangerous self diagnosis it does make the prescription charges in England even harder to stomach. Our experience of healthcare here although brief was excellent.

Although many children go to school and education is very valued in a lot of states, child labour is still a huge problem here and I think we all could have cried at times seeing tiny kids begging on the streets, dressed in filthy rags with no shoes. This isn’t just confined to children though and many old and disabled people seem to have an equally tough life here.

The climate is great, for someone who loves the heat the temperature is perfect and has never been too hot although occasionally too cold. Although bearing in mind it is winter here, I’m sure cities like Chennai and Delhi must become quite unbearable in the summer.

Everywhere smells, the food stalls are amazing this is something else I would love to see at home, although they would of course be governed by lots of health and safety legislation consequently driving prices up. We have eaten for less than a pound and had some amazing snacks and fruit juices very cheaply. The smell of frying food is often tempered by stinking drains and in some places the streets and pavements seem to serve as good toilets. After all why use a loo when you can piss up a perfectly good wall.

We have been lucky enough to see some fantastic sights, The Taj Mahal was as beautiful as I expected and visiting Varanasi and the Ganges River was one of the best experiences of my life. India has an interesting and varied history and Ali and Maisie have learnt so many things here that would have been out of their reach if we had decided on a new kitchen and a better car instead of this trip.

I wonder if I will ever come back here. You could, I’m sure spend years here and still not experience everything India has to offer. As I had read before we came away that it is one of the harder places to negotiate your way around, I am encouraged on to visit other places and already thinking of future trips perhaps to places like South America, Canada and Africa.

There could never be a last thing to say about India as it is so overwhelming in so many ways but finally we have met some inspirational people here and I think I can safely say we have all had the most fantastic time and loved every minute of our travels so far.

Mamallapuram

Today we got up at 7 so that we can leave early for the days sight seeing at the town of Mamallapuram. We have hired a car and driver and expect it to take around 2 hours to get there. After about an hour the driver asks if we want to stop for breakfast and we agree this is a good idea as we haven’t eaten since yesterday afternoon.

I’m slightly apprehensive when we’re told there isn’t a menu but we agree to try the south Indian breakfast. We have had tried it before but today there is no choice and idlis and dosa’s arrive on a banana leaf with their accompaniments. Idlis are salty steamed rice flour balls and dosa’s a kind of rolled up thin crispy pancake. The accompaniments are sauces made with mint, coconut and chilli of varying spiciness. I can’t eat this, early in the morning and like a complete philistine and to Simon’s disgust I pour sugar on mine and encourage the kids to do the same!

We eventually arrive at Kanchipuram Temple, this isn’t where we asked to go but still we’re pleased the fella has brought us here as there is a festival for one of the gods taking place and we see him being paraded through the street in a palanquin and fire offerings taking place.

There is an elephant at the temple entrance and we ask if the kids can have their photos taken with it, before he knows it Alister has been whipped up onto its back and is going for a ride. For someone scared of heights this is a little out of his comfort zone especially as there was nothing to hold onto except its skin which he said was hairy and tough!

The Brahmin of the temple shows us round and talks us through the history of the temple pillars. He points out “women with big boobies” to Ali on the sly and seems to like showing us the Kama Sutra pillars the best.

We stop for lunch at a beach shack, this beach was affected by the Asian tsunami in 2004 but everything appears to be back to normal. We have some seafood and then walk down to the waters edge. It is one of the most overcast days we have experienced since arriving in India and although it’s not cold I’m not surprised when it starts to rain.

Next we stop of at The Shore Temple this temple was built around 700 AD and represents the final phase of pallava art; it depicts images of the Hindu god Shiva. Sadly though, we found the corpse of a huge turtle more interesting and probably spent more time examining that.

Lastly we visit The 5 Rathas and Krisna’s “butterball” these are stone carvings and a large precariously balanced looking rock. The Ratha’s are temples and animal carvings and include a life size elephant carving. These both make good photo opportunities and we get some shots for the website.

We start back around 5.30, this is a little early, we think as Chennai is only 55km away and we are not due back until 8pm. So we’re not surprised when the driver suggests we stop off at a few shops on the way back. We have read about other travellers really experiencing a hard sell but as Simon is no push over and there is no one more stubborn than me, the carpet, wooden carving, jewellery, painting and ironwork merchants can’t persuade us to buy anything and we leave empty handed but having had a good look around.

Despite the lack of sales the driver seems happy enough as he has been given a small commission anyway in the form of a gift just for taking us there. When he suggests more shopping we insist he takes us back to the hotel citing the mosquito’s as the reason we need to get back and covered up.

7.45pm the internet provision is poorer here than anywhere else we have been; I’m not sure whether this is just in this area or in Chennai in general. Going out now to eat and to try and update website. Next time we do this will probably be from Singapore. We are leaving India tomorrow night at 11pm. How exciting is that ?

Sorting stuff

Someone’s screaming baby woke me up this morning, I was dreaming about home and it took me ages to get orientated to where I was. Still I felt glad to wake up early as we have quite a lot to do today. We have moved rooms and are all now on floor 1 which means that Simon and I are back in the same room and the kids are opposite us.

After breakfast I start to sort our gear out, we want to post some things home such as the India guide book and maps, postcards and admission tickets that we have collected over the past 8 weeks. We are also ditching more of our clothes, some things we haven’t used and some that is too stained to get clean properly. I think we will give these to someone in the street. Although the overall opinion is that giving to beggars just encourages them more, we have found it impossible to ignore them and Chennai is full of people asking for anything you can spare.

We have seen people here so physically disabled that you wonder how they have survived. One man at the station appeared to have no lower body at all and yesterday I gave a young women a few rupees who looked so heavily pregnant it seemed she could have her baby at any moment.

I try to imagine what a difficult start to life her baby will have and think about our little niece Hope and my friend Marie’s son Ben. They are also tiny babies but have such a huge advantage just by being born in England with ready access to education and healthcare. We are very lucky in that respect and being here has definitely reminded me of that fact.

Chennai is just about the busiest, hottest and most polluted city I have visited. With none of the history and sights of Delhi or the modern feel of Mumbai it would be easy to stay
in our hotel room and watch TV for the next few days but we have found by getting out and about we have seen sights here that we haven’t experienced elsewhere and I’m definitely enjoying it here.

In the afternoon we have planned to go to the snake farm, but unfortunately our crappy planning comes into play and we arrive there to be told it is closed on Tuesdays. No surprise when we check in the guidebook, which quite clearly states open Wednesday to Monday! As it is quite late in the afternoon we ask the driver to take us to the American burger bar and spend an hour or so completely stuffing our faces.

We get back to The Orchard Inn and lie on the bed. I have been reading the local paper which has some interesting stories today including one about a leopard that was found in someone’s bathroom and news of the arrest of 38 people in connection with illegal cockfighting in Madurai.

As we ate so much earlier we decide not to go out for dinner and make do with a couple of beers and some 7up on room service. Tomorrow we are going out for the day to Mamallapurram, this is a coastal town famous for temples and stone work and hopefully we have organised it a bit better than today’s outing. It is Tamil Nadu’s premier traveller’s attraction and a World Heritage site and we’re hoping for an interesting day for our last full day in India.

Circus

Today we have had the best day. I woke up at 9 o’clock to Simon banging on the door, as our rooms are on 2 separate floors I decided late last night that I would feel more comfortable if we each slept with one of the kids.

For breakfast I decide to try the more healthy option and choose fruit salad but this is slightly spoilt by the fact that it is covered in sugar and bits of sweets!

We then go shopping, we have to buy a few things, nothing too exciting but it’s good to be able to get the stuff we need, that we have been unable to find in some of the smaller places we have visited. I found my sunglasses broken in two a few days ago and we both buy ourselves a new pair. We bought Maisie a skirt. Ali a book and a CD called The Alternative Album; it has The Doves, Radiohead and Supergrass on it as well as some other stuff. Although we have brought lots of music with us we are always buying CDs at home and I have missed that.

Most exciting of all, we buy The Lonely Planet guide to Singapore and Malaysia. It only costs us 11 quid which is much cheaper than in the UK and as I haven’t a clue about what to see and do in Singapore and have given it no thought, past drinking Singapore Slings in The Long Bar at Raffles Hotel I’m looking forward to reading up about it over the next few days.

The shopping plaza has a food court, an area selling traditional Indian clothing and craftworks and a large department store. Not quite The Bullring but good enough and we have a great day. The time flies by and we go back to the hotel, tired and all shopped out.

After a rushed early dinner we get in a rickshaw and head for the circus which starts at 7pm.The big top is lit up and we stop on the way in and buy candy floss, popcorn and cokes. We pay 100 rupees for ringside seats but it is well worth it for a good view, the acts are really good. Our favourites are the trapeze artists and the performers riding bikes backwards whilst juggling fire sticks.

Maisie liked the animal acts and these included huge parrots riding bikes, dogs carrying umbrellas and a performing pony. Although we enjoyed most of it, it was difficult not to feel that the animals are being exploited. We found an elephant dressed up, with its tusks sawn off playing cricket especially sad.

Last act of the night were 4 wild camels, which despite their trainers best efforts were determined to gallop madly around the ring, rolling their eyes and snapping at each other. It was an abrupt and chaotic end to a great night out and we agreed we had a great time.

We get in a rickshaw and the driver seems to think that we haven’t had enough thrills for the night. He drives so fast and madly I think he must be on drugs. Chennai at 10pm is amazingly busy still and when we turn into on coming traffic at breakneck speed I just close my eyes.

The kids think it’s all a laugh but eventually Simon tells him to slow down. When we arrive at The Orchard Inn in record time, we haven’t got any change and I begrudge having to pay him over the odds for a scary experience. Still there is no choice and he seems thrilled with the extra. As I watch him swerve off into the night I hope he will be ok and console myself with the thought that if he does kill himself tonight by driving like a total lunatic, then at least he will die happy.

Chennai

Following a very restless night, I awoke properly around 5am and decided to brave the train toilet. Western style toilets are available but the Indian squat toilets are usually the better choice and it’s just a matter of being brave and getting on with it. A pretty vile experience though at that time in the morning.

We pull into Chennai Central on time at 6.15am; this is a bad time to be arriving anywhere as the hotels often don’t kick their previous guests out until mid- morning and we may not be able to get into our room until later. We fight our way through the station which is absolutely packed and make our way to the pre paid taxi service desk.

Despite it being early it is already hot and really busy, the taxi driver drives like Michael Schumacher and we arrive at The Hotel Himalaya just gone 7am. It looks ok and I’m relieved when the chap on the desk says our rooms will be ready in 10 minutes as we are all tired and need to crash for a few hours. We are informed that there is no restaurant but room service is available. Our initial optimism soon disappears though when we are shown to the rooms, what a dump. The beds look clean and are comfortable but these are the only positive points.

The paint is peeling off the walls in both rooms and the toilet cistern is steadily emptying all over the floor in one of them The windows are barred up and so dirty I can’t see a thing through them. Both rooms smell damp and horrible and as we have to spend at another 4 nights in Chennai we quickly agree we will look for somewhere else later.

By now we are hungry so we order room service, my appetite soon disappears though when 2 cold masala omelettes and 4 toasted jam sandwiches arrive wrapped in newspaper and tied with string.

We crash out for the morning and Maisie and I don’t wake up until 12.30, we have been disturbed twice by men knocking on the door claiming they had the wrong room and although it doesn’t feel unsafe here, I feel that may change tonight and definitely want to leave. We really need a good wash after a night on the train and even though it’s horrible here I’m desperate for a shower, but when I go and find a fella and ask him for towels he shakes his head and tells me not until after 2pm.

We get dressed and jump in a rickshaw, and after a long drive around town we arrive at The Orchard Inn. I ask if there are any rooms available and although it doesn’t look promising Simon intervenes and eventually the fella decides there will be rooms available after 7pm tonight. We check them out and although they could hardly be described as top end they are a big improvement on The Himalaya.

We have lunch in their restaurant and the food is cheapish and good. Maisie and Ali insist on having paneer masala which they love eating with their fingers, they are really getting into Indian food culture and often now eat with their hands like the locals. Eating cheers us up and we decide we will return to the other place, shower and collect our gear. By the time we get back there seems to be a party going on with plenty of whisky and rum being drank and a rowdy crowd of men congregating outside our door. We choose the best room, (which is a difficult choice between horrible and horribler) and all pile into one, it seems good natured enough at the moment but I feel a bit safer all together.

Eventually we manage to get some towels and to my amazement there is a plentiful supply of hot water, despite the notice on the door urging you to use water and electricity sparingly I figure that as we have paid for 2 rooms that we won’t be spending the night in we are entitled to use as much water as we like and we all shower and wash our hair.

The area we are staying in is called Triplicane and seems to be a centre for medical services. A kind of Harley Street for Madras, opposite is The Shifa Jaundice Clinic and Simon suggests I could go and offer my services and do a bit of work ????..
I don’t think so!

We leave The Himalaya at 7pm and transfer to The Orchard Inn which is in the district of Anna Salai. As soon as we have checked in we get in a rickshaw and head for The Galloping Gooseberry American Diner. An hour later and we have had the best burgers, with chicken wings and deep fried mozzarella sticks for starters, a Greek salad and washed down with fresh fruit milkshakes, it was yummy and such a welcome change from Indian food for all of us.

We head back for the hotel around 9pm, make a quick call home and then lie on the bed reading the complimentary Chennai Chronicle. Very informative, it gives us some ideas of things to do, starting with a visit to the circus tomorrow evening, looking forward to that.

Journey to Chennai

We didn’t wake up until 10.30 and after 12 hours solid sleep I feel great. We spend the morning packing up our stuff and have a quick breakfast of toast and fresh juice.
The kids watch a DVD of The Blue Planet and I get them to write a story about life in the ocean from the perspective of a dolphin, imaginatively called Flipper. To encourage them on I make it into a competition where they get a point for each fact and they seem quite enthusiastic about it.

We get some lunch at the hotel next door, although up until this point we have avoided this place as judging by the number of empty rum and vodka bottles piled up in the alley behind it is obviously a local drinking den. As we are pushed for time we decide to go for it and although the place is smoky and everyone already has a beer on the go we have decent veg thali’s for 30 rupees each.

We arrive at the station with time to spare and eventually The Chennai Express leaves as planned at 4pm. We are always a bit apprehensive about who we will be sharing our compartment with but the fella who gets on at the next station is friendly and speaks good English. He tells us he lives in Chennai and works as an accounts manager for Heinz, he has been in Kerala on business and he spends an hour or so advising us on places of interest in and around Chennai. He gives us his email address and mobile number in case we have any problems in Chennai and readily agrees to swap bunks with me so I am up higher and more out of reach from groping hands.

After a few hours playing cards, scrabble and reversi we settle down for the night, I can’t sleep and lie there listening to my MP3 player, my much loved birthday present and an essential for drowning out the snoring that is shaking the train carriage.

K.T.C. Guesthouse

I have spent the night absolutely freezing my arse off, partly due to the fan and I guess the temperature must drop out on the water. At 5.30 am I got completely dressed and although I was really tempted to watch the sunrise in the end the bed won and Simon went and got some photos which I admired later!

Breakfast was toast and fruit and evil tasting coffee and we arrived back in Alleppey around 9 o’clock. Unfortunately the Cherukara Nest was all booked and we are therefore spending our last night here at The KTC Guesthouse. This turns out to been clean and comfortable and even though I have to have a cold bucket shower I feel refreshed and revitalised by mid morning.

I spend an hour or so doing science with the kids we have been working our way through the body systems and complete the circulatory system today. We never did dissect a heart; although Simon found a chicken heart in last nights curry and we all had a good look at it I don’t think that counts. We make a start on the skeletal system which I don’t think will take too long and they both try hard which is good.

We will be travelling to Chennai (Madras) tomorrow and are due to catch the train at 4pm. I feel very sad about this as it will be our last stop in India, before we fly to Singapore next Thursday. We spent ages last night with the fella’s on the boat showing them our trip photos and some pictures from home. Looking back over the past 7 weeks it seems such a long time ago since we were in Delhi but also the time has flown by.

Simon goes out to get Ali’s guitar case re stitched; we have already had this done once but as it is stuffed with music it is very heavy and has ripped again. He has been printing tabs off the net and is learning some stuff by The Raconteurs, The Fratellis and Razorlight.

We get some lunch and then spend some time on the internet; we are researching information on accommodation and things to do in Singapore. As we won’t be there for long we want to use our time well. I have a few emails from friends to catch up with and it’s good to hear their news about how they spent Christmas and New Year which now seems absolutely ages ago.

We are going to try and get some tandoori food tonight. Simon and the kids are quite uncomplaining but I am getting fed up with our curry and rice diet and we have all been fantasising about having a roast dinner. Although we love curry and will eat most things, often the choices are quite limited and non-veg is not available in many restaurants here. In fact I have been reading in the guidebook about an American style diner in Chennai that sells great burgers and for me who hates cooking but loves junk food it sounds like my idea of heaven!

Its 10pm and we have just got back, we found a good restaurant and had chicken tikka, chips and salad. Until this point we have eaten very little salad as I have been worried that it may have been washed in tap water and have relied on cooked vegetables as a means of getting the green stuff in but tonight I think stuff it, we’ll take our chances. With less than a week to go in India and no serious episodes of the shits for any of us this may be a risky choice to take, I’ll let you know tomorrow.

The houseboat

We set our alarm today and had breakfast on the veranda before packing up our stuff yet again. Tony the guesthouse owner has been great, very friendly and obliging and Simon pays him a little over what we owe for his troubles. Which have mainly been making lots of coffee and finding us cokes and beers at night!

He orders us a rickshaw and we are taken to the houseboat, it is a converted rice barge with an upper and lower deck, a dining area and two bedrooms and is quite luxurious. At our disposal for the next 24 hours are 3 fellas including an on board chef. All our meals are included and we ask a lad to stock up on soft drinks and beer before we go.

At around 12ish we’re off and within 5 minutes are gently floating across a huge still lake, the only noises are ducks quacking and the hum of the engine which is frequently
turned off so that we can drift peacefully. The fella’s propel the boat using long poles and several smaller boats paddle past. Someone offers us 3 lobsters for 1000 rupees but I’m glad we turned him down when Suresh the chef produces a simple but tasty meal of fried fish, salad, chilli green beans, spicy cabbage and plain rice. We also polished off 3 strong beers and 2 packets of cashews and all agree we are completely stuffed.

The backwaters consist of a massive network of canals, lagoons and lakes and with the sun beating down and a warm breeze the houseboats are the perfect way to explore them.
We pass temples and small villages and Suresh points out a coir factory. The backwaters are lined with palm trees and flat rice fields stretch either side as far as I can see.

We stop off at the riverside, Simon and Ali go to inspect some huge fresh water prawns and they decide to buy four as an addition to our dinner tonight. I was worried that we might go hungry and we brought lots of snacks onboard but I needn’t have worried as there is a large basket of fresh fruit on the table and soon a snack of a sort of deep fried sweet bread and cups of chai are produced.

I spend the afternoon lying on the front of the boat watching the peaceful backwaters go by and Simon does an hour or so of maths with the kids.

At dusk we moor up at the lakeside and watch the beautiful sunset. Sitting in the darkness in the warm night air, with the sweet smell of the mosquito coils and the sound of cicadas and some distant drumming from across the water is an absolutely awesome and magical experience. There is a full moon and although far across the lake I can just make out faint lights from other houseboats, in the blackness it is easy to imagine we are the only people here.

Our only light comes from a single light bulb and it is literally alive with buzzing insects from small flies to huge flying beasts. These in turn attract lots of small lizards which dart everywhere on the walls of the boat. My friend Nicky bought me a lovely fine mesh sarong a few months before we came away and I remember her saying to me that I would find lots of uses for it. It has undoubtedly been the most useful thing I brought with me and I have worn it as a scarf, skirt, top and dress. I have slept on it and under it; it has been my comfort blanket on bus journeys and protected me from the sun and the cold. Tonight I’m so glad I have it as it makes a perfect mosquito net and I think thanks Nicky for such a great present as we get bombarded by hoards of winged creatures.

At around 9pm Suresh tells us our dinner is ready, it looks fantastic and so much food, we’ll never be able to eat it all. The prawns have been cooked with spices, coconut and lemon and there is a spicy chicken curry, vegetable rice, chapattis and several different types of vegetable dishes. We finish our meal with some fresh pineapple and then sit listening to Ali playing his guitar; today has been a perfect day.

Alleppey

Kerala is described in our guidebook book as “India showing its gentle and relaxed side”and when we woke up this morning to the sound of exotic birds we agreed that sleeping under a mosquito net feels both romantic and adventurous and Kerala is everything we had hoped for.

Alleppey is the main hub for getting a houseboat and Simon decides to go out fairly early and try and book something. The boats all return to Alleppey around 10.30 and I’m pleased when he comes back at 11.30 having booked us a boat for 110000 rupees (120 pounds). This is for 24 hours and the prices have risen considerably since the last Lonely Planet edition. The fella tells Simon that there is a huge demand for boats and although there are over 400 in this area we had no option but to pay up in order to get a decent boat.

We spend the day quietly at Cherukara Nest; the kids do an hour or so of literacy and write a comparison of Indian and English culture concentrating on food and the landscape. I am reading a novel by John Grisham and am pleased to spend the afternoon sat on the veranda. It’s very indulgent to do nothing for such long periods and far more relaxing than a holiday where we are usually busy trying to have a great time. I always try my best to get a sexy tan when we are away but as we still have 5 months of hot places to go I have found I’m not so bothered!

We sit and have a beer with an Australian called Liz who tells us some interesting travel stories about her previous trips around South East Asia and decide to try and get an earlier dinner. We put our faith in an auto rickshaw driver by asking him to take us to a restaurant and as usual this turns out to be a mistake as he takes us to the most expensive place in town. We have a quick look at the menu but as it is a set curry meal and costs 660 rupees each we ask him to take us somewhere cheaper. We end up at The Indian Coffee House which is in a good location on the beachfront and our total bill comes to 208. Much better value!

Back at the Cherukara Nest we head for an early night. The houseboat is booked for 11.30 in the morning and we want to be up bright and breezy in order to have a great day.