India – part two

To continue with a rather long post this time.  But first, the Indian take on an old classic for us.  “Where are you from?“, “Australia”, “ohh Ricky Ponting!“ A whole country defined by one man, amazing.  A lot of “Australia used to be good, now India is number one” attitude around, admittedly reflected somewhat in the rankings, but still.  Cricket is popular here, as you may have guessed.  Two dedicated cricket pay tv channels, front page (and almost the entirety of the sports section) coverage in the newspapers, I love it, Kate’s not convinced.

Anyway, from Bikaner, we went to Jaisalmer, another desert town, another impressive fort.  We took the bus for a change this time, not nearly as bad as we thought it could be.  Like most bus trips in developing countries, the stops were numerous and often seemingly in the middle of nowhere, the only real hardship was the volume and frequency of the horn on the bus.  Most of the trucks and buses have magical seeming horns that play a variety of tunes randomly, at ear splitting levels, and boy do the drivers see this as an essential part of driving.  We were dubious about the necessity. Anyway, Jaisalmer. The fort, like Carcassone so long ago in France, was a huge one with people still living in the walls but not a particularly traditional lifestyle – 99% of the buildings were hotels, restaurants, money changers, travel agents and souvenir sellers. But you get that in India. Inside the fort there was a palace museum and a series of about 6 Jain temples that were particularly great. Another big thing was all the traditional merchants mansions (called Havelis) that are outside the fort, seemingly everyone was a wealthy merchant back then as there was house after house of fantastically carved facades (the interiors weren’t always that exciting, it being all about appearances to the outside world).

Onwards to Jodhpur, the blue city and also home to jodhpurs but we didn’t see any polo matches in progress.  The fort here was particularly impressive set on top of a hill/mountain in the middle of town.  Once we eventually got to the top of the fort, the view over the blue painted houses (a sign of nobility once upon a time, now it is thought to repel mosquitoes) was great.  The fort (and audio tour) was what we had come to expect – beautiful buildings and tales of war and death.  But the rest of the town was a little underwhelming.

From Jodhpur we rented a car (with a driver – there is no way we were driving anywhere) to take us to Udaipur with a stop at Ranakpur. Ranakpur has another complex of Jain temples, but in the middle of nowhere but much bigger and better than in Jaisalmer.  Fantastic and well worth the effort of the detour.

Udaipur was always intended as a bit of a relax spot, but also a bit of an indulgence too.  We were there for 5 nights and stayed at 3 different hotels, first off was a cheapie until we secured our room in a nice 5 star job called Udai Kothi for two nights of luxury, and then back to a cheapie for our last night before we flew out.  There wasn’t a whole lot to do in Udaipur, it has a lake, but it’s reputation is more as a place to relax and do not much in fantastic restaurants and hotels, king amongst them the Lake Palace Hotel right in the centre of the lake (where, as just about every budget hotel proclaimed by showing it nightly, some of Octopussy was filmed).  There was of course a palace to look around, a temple, some shops and in one of the many luxury hotels there was an “English afternoon tea” which we had set our sights on some time ago.  I can’t say it was a strictly traditional high tea (toasted sandwiches and chips featured?) but it was very nice and in a great location looking over the lake and lake palace.

We then flew out to Goa for a (bit more of a) relax.  We did the obligatory stop in the capital Panaji (where there was a very uninspiring carnival in progress – tacky floats and bad music everywhere) and Old Goa where the Portuguese influence is everywhere and all the sights are.  Very nice, very church filled and then headed off to the beach to do nothing for four days, along with throngs of other tourists.  Goa is strange, the capital is, as I say, Portuguese influenced but still Indian, but by the beaches any hint of India disappears and you could be anywhere in SE Asia sitting on the beach drinking cocktails, eating western food, buying the standards of beach fashion and reading on hammocks and sun-lounges.  Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just unexpected.  After getting “nicely” burnt, we moved on.  Or at least tried to…

Trains continued to be a pain.  We had been on a waitlist the whole time in Goa and while usually this isn’t a problem as there is a lot of movement in the tickets so you move up the queue (very complicated system as I say) this time no such luck so it got to 11pm on the night of our train and we had no tickets and couldn’t get any for the next night either.  So we stayed on in Goa in a much crappier room and booked ourselves on an overnight bus out of there.  Unfortunately the buses are a far slower and less comfortable ride.  We could only make half the distance in a night and reached Mangalore where we had booked an onward train the next afternoon.

After killing time we got to the train station only to discover that we had gone to the wrong train station (Mangalore Junction instead of Mangalore Central, or possibly vice versa, hard to remember).  There being not enough time to make the journey to the correct train station we had to buy tickets on the next train. Which involved a huge (and very hot and sweaty) queue for unreserved tickets to be upgraded when the train arrived.  Of course the train arrived and it was full, the only seats in a general seating carriage straining to bursting – when we had 5 hours of it in extremely hot and humid weather we thought better of it and opted for one more overnight bus.

Eventually we arrived in Kochi (or Eranakalum or Cohcin or Cochi depending on who you ask) a day or two behind schedule.  A very nice town spread over several islands and the mainland.  We had a wander around the fishing district and so called “Fort” Cochin, including the fantastically named area Jew Town (even funnier for John Saffran fans).  We finished the day with a performance of the traditional dance style “Kathakahli”.  We didn’t realise it at the time but it involves a fancy costume and make up and then just wriggling your eyebrows and shaking your hands around, not very exciting at all.  The next day we booked on a boat trip through the, again, amusingly named Backwaters.  A network of rivers and creeks and the like that spans a huge area.  Our tour was on a big houseboat first, visiting a factory that makes lime out of mussel shells (supposedly, it looked abandoned when we were there), tasted a coconut based drink (toddy) and just generally ambled on the rivers. In the afternoon we switched to smaller canoes for the narrower creeks and visited more stuff.  A very relaxed day.

Next stop was another beach stop a completely incident free train trip away, Varkala.  A very nice beach (and for the first time in a long time, slightly rough seas) was protected from all the restaurants and hotels and souvenir shops by a large, convenient cliff.  A great spot to finish our relaxing finish to India.

A short train trip later we were in Trivandrum (renamed Thiruvananthapuram post-Independence but that’s not a name that I ever used) to finish off with a bit of administration and wait for our flights out of here.  Printing e-tickets, organising money and other things for Kate’s volunteer leg and that sort of thing. All very ho-hum.  We left just enough time to see the main attraction in town, the zoo.  The good old Lonely Planet talked it up a bit so we were looking forward to it, sadly it wasn’t quite that good.  Some enclosures were good (and in these the animals were nowhere to be seen) but most were either cramped or just a rock garden full of forlorn animals. And the locals had a bad habit of hissing and yelling at the animals to get them to move.  Oh well, at least it was cheap.  All in all, Trivandrum was not that fantastic, no great sights, no good restaurants, a whole lot of mosquitoes and a whole lot of noise – we arrived in time for another celebration of sorts, something to do  with the temple and of course involving incredibly loud music all through the night and day..

And with that, India is over.  In Kuala Lumpur waiting for our flights – mine to Melbourne and Kate’s to Sumatra.  India has left a strange impression on us both.  It is certainly a fantastic country, plenty to see and do, some truly amazing experiences, but on so many instances one or both of us was so completely fed up with the place that we would have jumped on a plane back to Australia that second if the option was offered to us.  There are just so many things positive and  negative all happening at once that can be an overwhelming experience.  One that we both enjoyed, taken as a whole of course.  After the last few days though, I am happy to be leaving.  But at the same time, wanting to return in the future.  Who knows when, but I think we will be back. So much more to see. And so many more people to stare at us.  But for now, sweet relief.  And some photos to share.

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