Monday, 28 July 2008

Under pressure

I left the airport at Port Blair (the capital of the Andaman Islands) with just 17 minutes to catch the 1pm ferry to Havelock Island. The reason for the rush was that the dive centre was open and so was my wallet.

The ferry was an old rust bucket with fewer seats than there were passengers, so me, my bags and my lit fag were outside on the stern deck. This was okay till it started to rain. Mind you watching the misty rain releasing clouds roll over virgin forest and turquoise tropical waters was worth getting slightly wet!

By the time I arrived at Island Vinnie’s beach resort (and the dive centre which is attached) it was dark but the beer was cold and the food, which was my 1st meal of the day, was great!

Dive log:

Day one:

I have no idea where the dive sites were or what they were called. I just didn’t care! I haven’t dived since early March and all I wanted to do was get under some pressure. This is not the best time to go diving here in the Andamans, what with it being the monsoon season and all but the viz is better than you’ll get in England (actually this really isn’t true but I’m just trying to make you all feel jealous…is it working yet?) and rather surprisingly it was a chilly 27 degrees in the water (think I’m getting soft, will I be able to dive in England ever again?). Its scenic diving so we spent the dive in the 6-18 metre range and at that depth there was enough air in the 12 litre tank for at least an hour. The dive boat is your typical wooden canoe with a tree trunk for a keel, sadly there was no lift fitted on the stern and I had to use a “ladder”. I just about remembered how to use one of those contraptions. Under the water there were fish from all 3 classes, i.e. small, medium and large and in the evening I had one that had been curried…nice!

Day two:

The boat ride to the dive site took about 90 minutes and we ended up at a small forested rocky outcrop sticking out of the water in a large expanse of ocean surrounded by islands circling a few miles away. Falling into the water and sinking to the seabed 15 metres down I found that the viz was twice as good as yesterday. The coral was really healthy (apart from some bits that had been trashed a few Boxing days ago) and the fish life was abundant. During the two dives of the day I saw

• Fish
• More fish
• Lots more fish
• A lobster
• A turtle
• And for the 1st time ever…a banded sea snake!!!! How happy was I!

In the afternoon (this includes the boat ride back) it rained. The rain, unlike in England, is warm, so who cares! Especially when the water lapping against the pure white soft sandy beach is as warm as a bath

Day three:

Once again there were fish, lots of different coloured fish. Did I mention that there was coral, no? Well there was and there were also anemones, with clown fish in residence. During the surface interval a couple of divers thought it would be okay to smoke a joint…I wasn’t really bothered as neither one was diving in my group.
Out here in the Andamans the diving is basic. There is no ship to shore radio, no O2 kit and the nearest decompression chamber is in Thailand which is over 1000 kilometres away. So, you dive safe and stay shallow…and you certainly don’t act like an arsehole and smoke dope between dives!

Day four:

As always with some dives the best bit comes right at the end when you are running low on air and today was no exception. With only a few minutes left we were surrounded by a shed load of fish including several Napoleon wrasse. These fish are big; nearly a metre long and they like to take things slow. So plenty of time to have a look at them and wonder how big the frying pan would need to be! As I was turning around in a long and lazy sweep two rays came along to say hello. I was at 9.6 metres and was wondering exactly how many bars of pressure I needed to surface safely. Turns out it was 10 bar less than I thought…which was nice!

Day five:

No diving, just bicycling across the island in the sun!!!! 1st day since I been here that it didn’t rain.

(This is another lie because by midday is was raining and didn’t stop till 6pm)

Day six:

As it was a Sunday I went for another cycle ride, this time turning left out of the resort entrance. As there are only two roads on the island I thought I would go down the other one today. The little road snaked along the coast with jungle on one side and the sea on the other. So much better than being in London I thought too myself as the kilometres very slowly went by. The road led eventually inland and after passing rice fields, farmer’s cottages, chickens and very lazy dogs it came to a halt. So there was nothing else to do but turn my Hercules bike around and go back the way I came.

In the afternoon, amazed that it still haven’t rained and the sun was still shinning I did some washing. Not you understand to get clean clothes but more of a case of getting rid of the smell of several wet days…

Day seven:

Another Monday morning without having to worry about when the alarm clock is going to go off. No soul destroying thoughts about how short the weekend truly was and how long the week ahead at work will be. Saying that, having a coconut land on your bamboo hut roof at 05:30 in the morning loud enough to make you jump a few inches off the bed was nearly as bad!

Today‘s diving was somewhere. The viz was poor and the plankton abundant. Now if only I could get my mask to stop fogging up every 3 minutes I might even see something!

Day eight:

One of the dope heads was back and this time he had a small underwater camera. Sadly he was in my little group of me, the dive guide and him. Not only did he like to “smoke” between dives his air consumption was pretty dire as well. However, as he had a camera I thought he might be taking it slow trying to get a few good shots. Um…no! After 30 minutes of chasing after any large fish he saw he was down to 50 bar. Myself, well I still had 120 bar left. Not happy, its costs R3000 for a days diving and I damn well want to get my monies worth.
The next dive was better but only because when once again he breathed his way to 50 bar in no time at all we were back by the anchor line and we were able to leave him with another group that were going back to the surface. After that I still had enough air for another 40 minutes of wandering around scaring the clown fish.

Day nine:

It was hump day Wednesday and as the sea was slightly rough there were lots of humps to go over. The three other divers (a family group from Russia) were, after 20 minutes into the 80 minute boat ride, all leaning over the side saying hello to their breakfasts. This was good news because it meant more samosas for me! The 1st dive of the day was over a little gorge 30 metres under the waves. Initially I wasn’t really that impressed with the dive but after seeing one huge turtle, a couple of spotted rays, two reef sharks, several large groupers and a school of barracuda up close and very personal (they have very small but amazingly sharp teeth and they look mean!) I had changed my mind and found myself enjoying it immensely.

Day ten:

Well I suppose it had to happen one day soon and today was that day. Yep that’s right, I rented an underwater camera. What the hell were you thinking it would be?

(Joe, if you’re reading this get your filthy little mind out of the gutter for once)

Anyway the camera looked cool, even if it was a Canon and I’m a Nikon guy at heart, but after a short while of playing with the buttons I came to realise that the zoom button didn’t work. Lucky for me my arms can move in and out. Once underwater I discovered that the strobe didn’t work as well…looking on the brightside once again I didn’t worry about it and just concentrated on getting the shots! Back on dry(ish) land I put the camera card into the laptop and spent a few hours putting the colour back into the photos, mostly the reds!
Sadly on the last dive of the day my dive computer finally died. The low battery sound was beeping as loud as it could yesterday but as I only had two more days diving I hoped it might last. As I have no watch, I’ll be diving old skool for the remaining two days. Yes I know I mentioned about diving safely previously but at the depths I’m going to I would need a twin set before I would have to worry about my dive time going into any kind of decompression.

Day eleven:

What’s the one thing you can’t find on Havelock Island? Well if you run a dive centre the answer would have to be the tide charts telling you what time slack water was. Both dives today were running a current that if I had been back in the English Channel I would have put up my d.s.m.b and just drifted. Here, for some reason they like to come back to the boat via the anchor rope. At least this way you can hold onto the boat when you surface as the swell was fast and furious but somehow I was the only one going “weeeeeeee” each time a big wave came along!

Day twelve:

Today was going to be my last days diving but I was wandered along to breakfast I was informed that the diving was off due to the weather. Not being that surprised as the ferry to Port Blair was cancelled yesterday and as it turns out today as well. Will I be able to get a ferry on Monday? Honestly who cares…not me that’s for sure. This place is the only chance of peace and quiet I’m ever going to get in India and I’m making the most of it!

Day thirteen:

Today is my last day of diving. After 10 days of diving I’ve seen all the dive sites, sometimes more than once (this is of course a good thing). If you ever come here I would recommend the following:

1. South button
2. The wall
3. Jackson’s something or other
4. Thingy ma jigs pinnacles

As you can tell I’m not that concerned with names anymore!

I took a camera underwater for the second dive of the day. My luck with the underwater camera continued and after 50 photos or 10 minutes the batteries failed…just as I saw a mantra ray quickly followed by the whale sharks who were both chasing the blue whale in a game of tag!

When I got back to base in the middle of the afternoon I was informed that there had been a small earth tremor or quake on the island at 13:05. At the time I was on the dive boat and you don’t feel the earthquake on the high seas…mores the pity

In the early evening I finally got around to checking my emails, first time in about 3 weeks. Turns out I’m being sued for an unpaid gas bill from about 15 months ago…this should keep me amused for a few weeks while I drag it out.

Monday the 11th of August:

I have finally gotten around to knowing when I’ll be leaving Havelock Island and will be doing so on Thursday. This only gives me three days to relax in my hammock, reading a book a day whilst listening to the gentle sound of warm tropical waves washing up onto a soft white sandy beach.

The boat ride back to Port Blair was great. I didn’t rain so I spent the entire time on the top deck, watching the fiery orange sun slip beneath the horizon. The full moon began to shine its reflected light across the ocean whilst the stars twinkled history from high above me.

I have the weekend to relax (again) in port Blair before I fly to Calcutta on Monday morning.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Down by the sea

Damn, there are a lot of white people in this town and they’re mostly French. Not that’s a bad thing I mean it could be worse, they could all be Germans or even worse Australians…G’day mate!….O the horror!

Mamallapurum is a small seaside town with a few temples, rock carvings and oodles of souvenir shops. It’s also a main centre for stone work and the resulting statues. Well all those temple statues have to come from somewhere.

I’m in a hotel near the beach staffed by pushy and slightly annoying staff. The room is a little overpriced but it has a tv (for the weekend sporting action). The hotel also has a swimming pool! I’ll be staying here for a long weekend before getting back on the road.

In the early hours of Friday morning the electrical power to my room disappeared and didn’t return. So, as the oppressive temperature of the now stagnant air closed in around me, my pores relaxed and the floodgates opened. Waking up later in the morning with the bed sheet clinging to my back wasn’t the best start to my 1st full day here. 90 minutes later the power was back on.

Question: how many Indians does it take to flip a trip switch?

Answer: only one but it takes him a while to get really motivated.

Once refreshed by a cold shower (this is a good thing) I was off on a bimble.

The 1st place was down by the shore, it was a temple and the name of the temple was…come on…work it out…that’s right, the shore temple! It was small but most enjoyable to walk around and the setting was just about right.

On my way to the next place of interest just outside of town I had an enjoyable chat with a local stone merchant who was overseeing the refurbishment of his small shop cum gallery. He has friends in England, Carshalton to be exact but has been unable to visit them as the British home office has refused him a visa 3 times. So instead we talked about his travels in Finland, Sweden, Germany and a week’s holiday in Majorca that he would rather forget about (it was his 1st experience of seeing working class brits enjoying their “two weeks in the sun” holiday).

Back on the bimble, I passed several stone workshops (well it was more like 40 of them) and I stopped outside one of them and went mmmmm! Do I really need an 6ft high stone statue of a semi naked dancing girl? To be honest the answer was yes! However I can’t see my parents wanting to have it outside their house in a quiet cul-de-sac of Buckingham for several years. Maybe I’ll just not tell them till after it turns up and just say “what, you never got the email?”

Anyway, coming back to my senses (or did I?) I ended up at the 5 Rathas. Not to sure of what a Ratha was but confident in my ability to be able to count up to five. Well they’re made of stone, carved out of larger stone and there was five of them plus a cow and an elephant.

Finally deciding that I really didn’t feel the need to visit Chennai or Madras I brought a plane ticket to somewhere remote with lots of small islands and a dive centre that‘s open. All I need now is for the monsoon to be nice and quiet for a week or two.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Thanjavur : half a day would of been enough

Well it has a world heritage listed temple. Was that a good enough reason to go?

Yes but then again maybe no.

Anyway back to the temple. It’s not the biggest I’ve seen and it was very similar to the ones at Hampi. It did have a large craved bull inside the grounds and one of those psychotic temple elephants. The construction started in the 10th century AD and between then and now it was finished.

Did I mention there is an old palace here in town as well…No, well there is!

I got here yesterday and I’m leaving tomorrow. I heard a rumour that the place I’m going to has a restaurant that serves scotch eggs! If that’s a lie I’m going to find out who wrote the section of the guide book and pay them a little visit late one night.

Friday, 18 July 2008


The train ride out of Rameswaram was easy, relaxing and as the sun went down we headed into an electrical storm.

Now, being inside a large metal box, on big metal wheels rolling along a big metal track made me wonder…do trains get hit by lightening?

The storm itself was glorious! For a few milliseconds at a time the dark of night was replaced by the sheer brilliance of light, intense as the midday sun, illuminating the view all the way to the horizon. On occasion as I looked out of the window I saw bolts of lightening piercing the dark, rain heavy, menacing clouds.

By the tine the train got into the station it had been down pouring for 20 minutes and this being southern India during the monsoon it meant lots of water! Luckily I was able to get a rickshaw to my hotel only 500 metres away. Getting out of the taxi I discovered that the courtyard entrance was now one huge puddle deep enough to get the bottom of my ¾ length trousers soaking wet! On the plus side there is a restaurant and more importantly a bar attached to the hotel. The other nice feature is that all the rooms are set around a small and shady courtyard.

The next day was a day for doing nothing (I know…again!!!) and getting all my clothes laundered. I also pretended that I was in fact a highly skilled and well trained solider (you should be able to work that out).

On Sunday I decided to go and look at a few temples here in Trichy or Tiruchirappalli as it should be called, not that I’ve got any chance of pronouncing that! As one of the temples requires you to ascend nearly 500 steps I arrived outside the entrance of the Rock Temple just after 8am. It’s called the rock temple because it is on top of a rock 83 metres in height. (Sometimes things are very obvious)

With my shoes off I made my way up, passing the resident temple elephant by a wide margin (ever since I saw a temple elephant go on the rampage a few weeks ago on “the world’s most amazing videos” I’ve decided that they are all mentally unstable and liable to run amok at anytime). There are two temples at the top and as I ain’t no Hindu I wasn’t allowed in either…phew, lucky escape! The views from the top of the rock would have been really good except that someone went and built a temple right on top of the best vantage point!

The second temple I went to was a mile or two away across the Cauvery River. The Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple is huge covering over 60 hectares and has seven concentric walled sections or enclosures. The temple construction started in the 10th century and the last piece of building work was finished at the end of the 20th. The 1st six enclosures are filled with houses, shops, hawkers, beggars and the usual clutter of Indian life. Walking down the central road, going under each highly painted and multi sculptural gateway it felt like my first real experience of temple life. Not like the dead and sterile temples of Hampi or the small singular temples that had failed to impress me in most of the towns I’ve already been in.
At the final enclosure with money paid, shoes off and guide hired I had a good look around. Inside there are several temples each one reflecting one of the ten reincarnations of Vishnu. The central gold covered temple (1800 kilos of gold used) was completely off limits to non believers. However you are allowed to stand near the entrance and have a quick peek.

Interesting fact number 1346: the Tamil alphabet has 246 letters!

In the evening there was another downpour but as I really really really wanted a pizza it was a case of rain jacket and flip flops on. The few hundred metres to the pizza place was just enough to get me completely soaked from the hem of the jacket down. Whilst it’s always fun to walk in the rain, here in Trichy (as with most of India) street lighting is at its best minimal. So it’s always hard to judge how deep the water is as it flows like rivers down the road. It’s at this point that you remember the fact that half the water is gushing out of the semi covered street drains, or sewers as I like to call them and the “scent of India” starts to rise up and say hello to your nostrils.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008


I was glad to get off the bus after a long and amazingly bumpy 10 hour ride. The next several minutes were spent tying to get some feeling back into my arse…I failed!

The bus station was a 10 minute rickshaw ride from the centre of town and I was able to find a room (overpriced) at the second hotel I went into. The centre of this town is the large Ramanathaswamy temple, its one of the more sacred temples in southern India. The small town of Rameswaram itself is dirty, dusty, smelly and rubbish strewn and I didn’t like it!

The following morning, after leaving my laundry at reception, I decided to head 1st to the train station to see what trains went where and when. I never made it; instead I ended up on the road out of town that led along the island to the peninsula. It was only about 18kms away so I decided to go for a walk!

About 5km into the walk the island basically became one big sand bar. In the middle, only a couple of metres above sea level was the single track road with small pockets of pine groves either side interspaced with scrub. To my right the waves were crashing on the nearby shore and on my left was a huge expanse of virtually flat sand disappearing into the distance. I could just make out the sea through the heat haze. Walking along the flat straight road reminded me of triking in Italy last august. The road was straight, the sun was hot and there wasn’t much shade….brilliant!!!!

At the end of the road was a Navy observation post and a ramshackle collection of fisherman huts made from bamboo and woven palm leaves which I suppose technically made it a village. There was also a shop so I was able to rehydrate with a “cool” drink (here in India it seems to me that only the beer is cold).
On the beach the 4ft waves were tumbling onto the sloping sand and the Indians were playing their usual game of “who’s going to drown first”.
Walking to the opposing beach took you across a 1000 metres of flat sun baked sand. The heat haze and the blue sky made it difficult to guess where the ocean was. Finally making it to the sea the difference was extreme. Here the waves, 4 inches in height, gently lapped against the shore line and the sea was mill pond flat.

Sitting down and relaxing I watched the fishermen at work. Rowing their boat out from the shore in a big arc deploying the net as they went. At predetermined points a man would jump off the boat and into the shoulder deep waters, holding onto the net. Once the boat had reached the shore a few hundred metres further down they started to slowly pull in the net from both ends.

Walking back to the village across the flat and featureless sand I was, for 10 minutes, dive bombed by a pair of birds. Just like WW1 fighter aces they came at me from out of the sun.

Jumping out of the richshaw back in the dirty, smelly, shitty little town of Rameswaram (do you get the feeling that I don’t like this place?) I decided that I would leave the next day. Walking past the temple entrance all I could say to myself was “Not Another F**king Temple” and continued to my hotel room.

Down at reception the next morning the following conversation took place.

Me: hello, can I have my laundry please
The idiot: what laundry?
Me: the laundry I gave you yesterday morning
The idiot: just one minute please…………
The idiot: here you are sir, sorry but it’s not clean
Me: what!
The idiot: we forgot to do it
Me: you’re useless

I went straight to the train station.

The train to Madurai left at 17:30 and as Madurai is a big town (probably dirty, dusty and smelly as well) with a big temple in it I thought N.A.F.T. The train to Tiruchirappalli left at 13:55 and as I just wanted to leave asap I got a ticket for that one.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

At land's end

Following several weeks of travelling in a mostly southern direction from Mumbai, I can’t go any further. I have reached the bottom of India, Cape Comorin and the small holy town of Kanyakumari.

After spending 5 nights on the cliffs of Varkala it’s good to be back in amongst the hustle and bustle of Indian life. Mind you it is a small town!

Arriving in the early evening I’ve got a non sea view room in an okay hotel overlooking the small harbour on the eastern side of town and therefore India. The room costs R180 less than the one across the hall but as it has a cable tv it’s not like I’ll be looking out of the window that much! Thankfully I was able to see the last several laps of the German round of Motogp.

Later on in the evening after a large bowl of delicious noodles (hey, would you want to eat Indian every night?) I’m in a basement bar. My preferred style of drinking is always subterranean and would you believe my luck, the only cold beer they have is “strong”, we’re talking 8% plus. With great foresight I can see my hotel from here…well if the bar had windows and wasn’t underground you understand! Despite my pleading the barman insisted on me receiving the complementary bar snacks. If they had been nuts I could have just about been tempted. However, sliced tomatoes, carrots and cucumber ain’t beer finger food!

The next day I was up early and out and about. The walk around town took about 25 minutes and that was me walking slowly. So off I went to the ferry.

The ferry, where, over there, to a little temple with knobs on it, there over there right there.

A few hundred yards off shore are two rocky outcrops. On the smaller one, covered in scaffolding, is a statue of the famous Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar. It stands 133 foot but is currently undergoing restoration. They are sealing the stonework with a polysilica coating to protect against erosion from the elements. Why no one thought to do this when it was built 8 years ago is beyond me (so it’s closed to tourists till the middle of October).

On the larger rock outcrop is the Vivekananda Memorial built to celebrate the life and deeds of Swami Vivekananda, the wandering monk who once spent 3 days and nights here going Om! (and that was over xmas bet he forgot to buy his family any presents). Whilst the views from this perspective were good the cultural significance failed to find any fertile ground in my consciousness to take root. Wishing to find out more I went to the small museum (back on the mainland) which told the story of the man and why he went a wandering. I still didn’t get it…how does walking around without any possessions begging for food bring you closer to god?

In the evening with the sunset an hour away I found a spot down near the beach to take some pictures of the sunset. I couldn’t be arsed to take a taxi to sunset point 2.5kms away. It was slightly overcast and the sunset was quite poor, walking back along the beach road 15 minutes later I happened to turn around and was overwhelmed by the brilliance of the now gorgeous sunset. The wispy tendrils of the clouds were lit up by the full spectrum of pinks and reds against a glowing orange sun. As tomorrow is my last night here I’m definitely going to sunset point. What do you think are the chances of it raining tomorrow evening!

Checking my finances online earlier in the day it turns out that over the last 6 weeks I’ve spent £500. I have no idea if that’s too much. Wondering about this I thought I would try and work out how long it will take me to get to New Zealand. Turns out I should be there in May 2010 (ish). When’s the rugby world cup on?

Almost forgot about this…when I arrived at the train station I made my way towards the exit for my now traditional 1st fag in a foreign town ritual. Nearing the exit all of us passengers were steamed by the rickshaw drivers swarming around us all like angry bees on a hot summer’s afternoon desperate to get our business.

Tomorrow I’m going to make like a front room and lounge!

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

On the edge

The train ride was short and sweet but only because I snuck into a sleeper carriage. The town of Varkala is about 2kms away from the beach and cliffs and I had three places to look at for my accommodation needs. The 1st place was, due to it being the low season, on budget. For R500 a night I have my very own bamboo hut set in an attractive garden, yards from the cliff edge. It’s a little house all of my own and sitting outside underneath the veranda during the heat of the afternoon is just the right side of total relaxation.

Most of the places along the cliff, like shops and restaurant are closed due to it being the depths of the low season. However there are just enough places doing business to keep me in food, drink and fags! I’m thinking of staying here till the weekend before heading south one last time. Also as time is moving along and there are places I want to visit in India on this visa, I have “planned things”. Not sure if it was worth the effort that it involved but a few days reading and relaxing here will be a nice as I have been so busy lately. (This is in fact complete lie but I don’t want to annoy all you little wage slaves too much!)

Wednesday: I love my little house! It’s also nice to have a double mattress that is in fact a double mattress as opposed too two single ones pushed together. The shamefully pink mosquito net did its job well and I woke up early and totally refreshed. However at 6am on the cliffs of Varkala nothing is open and it wasn’t till 8:12 that I had my 1st sip of coffee. That really is too longer a time to wait but it was a big pot! Not sure of exactly which day I would want to leave on, the 1st thing to do was find out when I could leave! The 3km walk to the train station was most agreeable even though it was nearer 4km. Well the road was too pleasant not to walk all the way along it. Fortuitously, there are 2 trains everyday to my next destination. One is at 8am and the other is at 2pm. As it will only be a 4 hour ride can you guess which one I’ll be going on? By the time I got back to my little bamboo cliff hut I was hot and sweaty. A jug of cold water over the head refreshed me and sitting on the veranda wondering what was going to happen next to Prince Andrew, Pierre, Count Rostov and Sophie made the afternoon fly past

After being totally depressed by my pasta dish last night, sprinkling cheese onto the pasta doesn’t make it a cheese sauce; I went to the big 4 storey hotel down by the beach head. It had a great poolside restaurant and as there was a government run bar attached I was able to have alcohol legally. (unless you are a government run enterprise an alcohol license will cost £25000 a year here in the Marxist run state of Kerala, so none of the cliff restaurant are allowed to sell beer as they can‘t afford a license but as with all thing they find a way around it!) The food was great and it was all the same price or cheaper than the cliff top restaurant I ate in the night before.

The next day was another day with not much on the agenda even though it was drizzling slightly a morning stroll was what I felt like doing, so I did… Walking northwards along the cliff path and away from the tourist encampment it soon became calm and peaceful. The crescendo of the breaking waves altering in pitch and with the seventh wave starting once again from the top. To my right, once the hotels had faded from view, were groves of coconut palms and small waterlogged meadows. Every once in a while I passed through the smallest of settlements only 3 0r 4 houses strong. The fishermen and their families live close to the sea! Finally reaching a good vantage point on a small protruding portion of cliff that had yet to yield to the waves I watched the fishermen out on the sea in their tiny wooden canoes.

Operating a few hundred yards off shore, casting their nets whilst balancing on either side of the canoe barely 18 inches wide. Getting out pass the surf was simple, getting back in was another matter! Both of the canoes turned to home. The 1st one started to surf the crest of a wave for a few seconds until the wave broke and ejected the fishermen head first into the foaming maelstrom. The second canoe faired less well and was wiped out within a second. The crashing waves spinning the canoe along both axis of rotation. Finally after what seemed to be the longest time the two men appeared and like bedraggled rats clung onto the upturned hull as it continued its journey to the safety of the sand…I wonder if this happens every time?

Needing a somewhat delayed caffeine fix I went back to where the concentration of restaurants was highest. One pot of tea and a tomato and garlic toastie later I was back where I started, feet up, book open and the music on! Sadly after a few hours even this was too much effort and so with the fan whizzing around I siesta. In the evening, whilst in the soaping cycle of my shower the power failed and I was left in the dark…these things happen! As a wise man once said to me many years ago (I really can’t believe that I am calling Mr Iles wise here) if you’re in a situation where nothing you can do has any affect on the outcome, just relax and enjoy the experience, so I did! Friday In the early evening a finally finished War and Peace! Damn fine read although in places slightly heavy going. For the evening I went to the nearby funky café to meet up with an English couple (I had met earlier) and another ex pat who were living here in Varkala. They were all in the process of setting up hotels in the local area. From listening to their stories it seems that bureaucracy is alive and well in India.

Sunday, 6 July 2008


Its now Monday evening (I think) and I’m back on the road tomorrow, well actually, it’s back on the tracks as I’m travelling by train (by general class for the 3rd straight time…the magic can’t last forever).

Kollom isn’t anything special but it is at the bottom of the backwaters, which spread south from Kochi, hit Alleppey in the middle and end at kollam. With the town not worth seeing I splashed the cash and went on a 3 hour punt in the backwaters.

To get to the starting point took a very fast and nervous 45 minute rickshaw ride, with a lecherous and immensely vain man who spent most of his time looking sideways or backwards depending on the quality of the young women we passed and if nothing caught his eye, then his face did in the mirror!

Once on the canoe, it all slowed down. Taking a winding course down canals mostly only 10-20ft wide underneath bananas and palms. Pass tiger prawn and fish ponds, all of which were netted to stop the herons and fish eagles from having an easy breakfast, lunch and dinner. At the half way point we entered a large shallow lake and watched as two fishermen dragged their nets in a large and lazy circle. The fish they caught would make a good whitebait lunch. Back in the narrow canal system the canoe turned a corner and there right in front of me perched on a drooping palm frond 6ft above the water was a fish eagle. We passed slowly towards and then underneath it. It only flew away when the guy doing the punting got too close. So, 4ft from a wild fish eagle…bloody marvellous!

Down at the beach for the afternoon (yes I know I have a hard life) watching the pounding surf crash onto the steeply sloping sand. At this beach last year 18 people died whilst swimming. I really don’t think that most Indians can swim well if at all!

Tonight I am having an early one as I have got cable tv.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

In the backwaters of God’s own country

I spent just the one night in Kottayam. Trust me, it was enough. One good thing going for the place was that it had a very good English language book shop. After browsing for a while I decided on two books. One was an introduction to the works of Herr Friedrich Nietzsche and the other one was Leo’s war and peace. Nice lightweight reading for lazy afternoons.

The ferry to Alleppey left at 11:30 but I was told by the misinformed hotel staff it was at 10am. The good news was that there was a greasy spoon café next to the jetty. This being an Indian greasy spoon café I just had a coffee. It was raining before the boat left and when it turned up 3 hours later in Alleppey it was still raining…I really don’t mind anymore! The ferry ride itself was great, after 30 minutes the loud belching diesel engine turned into background noise and as we left the narrow canal and entered onto the lake all you could see was water and palm trees. Back in amongst the canal system we berthed at Alleppey. Described in the guide as a little slice of Venice in India. Um…no quite! Perhaps it should have said a little slice of Birmingham instead. Although the local mayor of Alleppey might be a bit upset with the last sentence.

I used the guide to find a lovely little room in a new build two storey house for only R500 per night a short walk from the jetty. They do have cheaper rooms for R300 but I never got around to looking at them! It has marble tiled floors, a great shower, a quiet fan and most importantly a decent mosquito net. There’s lots of water around and the mosquitoes here are big bastards!

WOW…what a great night sleep! The mattress was just right and the net did its job 100% and also the fan worked well overnight gently wafting me as I slept. Breakfast came and it was the usual, yep a huge mug of black coffee, which then set me up for the day ahead.

The wander to the beach a mile or two away was along the canal for most of the time. This section really isn’t used by the boats and so it has become covered with floating plants. The “towpath” sadly didn’t go all the way but jumped from side to side and on several occasions stopped abruptly only to continue 10ft away. Once at the beach I realised immediately that it was not a place for swimming. The 5 foot breakers were crashing only yards from the shore line and the water wasn’t blue or even green! There was however a nice shady place to sit on the jumble of semi organised roughly shaped stone blocks that formed part of the sea defences. After spending an hour listening to the crash of the surf I slowly made my way back towards the town.

In the evening, just as I was about to leave for dinner and a very cold beer, the hotel manager came up to inform me that tomorrow there was a national strike and that all the shops and restaurant would be shut. How long for? I asked, might be 12 hours could be 24 was the reply. Bugger! So before settling down to some spicy chicken, I got me some provisions, well actually it was just a couple of packet of biscuits and a fruit juice!

The next morning all the shops were shut, so I went on a backwater cruise of my own. This one followed a meandering course switching left and right through coconuts, bananas and around houses. It was free but only because the meanderings took place on solid asphalt (and occasionally mud!).

Thankfully the strike was over by the evening and I was happily parked in a local bar sucking down on a cold beer. A local man sat down at my table opposite me, with a small glass of whiskey in his hand. I nodded a hello and watched open mouthed as he then proceeded to grab a hold of my beer bottle and fill his whiskey glass to the brim with my beer!!! This he quickly downed in one. Then he made a move to help himself to my fags!!! This was just too much! You never touch an Englishman’s beer especially if you’re going to try and nick one of his fags afterwards. My wrath knew no bounds and when he asked me for a fag in an annoyingly pleading way my reply left him without any confusion as to what the answer was.

On Friday morning I spent 57 minutes queuing at the train station so that I could have a chance of a seat on Sundays’ train journey…that’s right I’m on the waiting list!

Saturday was my last full day here in Alleppey and so I finally relented and went on a backwater cruise.

Not wanting to go on one of those “house boats” I instead got a small canoe powered by a 55 year old man called Anthony. He was only charging R100 an hour so I decided that as it was a slow way of getting around, 6 hours would be just enough time to relax and enjoy the experience before boredom set in. once we had crossed the lake we navigated a few large canals before heading into the smaller ones that most boats don’t go down. Top place, top choice! Fish eagles, weaver birds and kingfishers were seen.

In the late morning we left the boat behind and went for a walk around a small village. Some of the houses were built on their own little islands, with just a small bridge or a 25 second canoe paddle needed to gain access. Walking back to the canal we walked above the rice paddy fields that stretched on uninterrupted into the distance.