sirisa clark

the things I do and the words I choose


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The Fun with Rani Tour, part Tiny Kitten of Doom

And so to Varkala, a place that Rani and I couldn’t help associating with Vikings… Laura had a hot tip for a homestay in town from a French couple she met in the Andamans (who turned out to be our French couple from the boat back! Frickin’ tiny world, seriously), so we called them from the bus and snagged a couple of rooms.

The homestay was well out of town along the cliffs, which meant some slightly hairy late night walks by torchlight to get home, but once we’d explored the full on tourist mecca of Varkala and its myriad ayurvedic centres, souvenir shops and regulation German bakeries (why do people of the subcontinent put so much stock in German baking? This merely mystified us, but seriously upset the French people we met), we were very happy to be out of the fray. Our homestay had a wide porch with tables and a daybed where all the guests ended up congregating and lazing. It had wireless and seriously good meals. It had a huge chocolate labrador, and it had a tiny black and white kitten…

 

This kitten became a source of some heartache for Rani and me, as we soon learned it wasn’t quite right. According to the owners it had received a kick to the head that left it retarded and unable to smell, and subsequently it didn’t show any interest in eating. The poor thing was so scrawny, it tended to sit at the bottom of the kitchen steps, wobbling slightly but not moving around much. To make matters worse, the owners had a little three year old girl, who delighted in picking the kitten up around its middle and carrying it, legs akimbo and mewling pitifully, around the house. As often as we could we’d intercept her game and treat the kitten to an afternoon of being stroked to sleep in our laps. In my wildest dreams I like to imagine that kitten will work it out and grow up happy and strong, but if nothing else I take comfort in having made it very happy for a few days…

Well, that was a depressing little sidetrack eh? sorry to have taken you down that road, let’s get back to the beach.

The other plus point of our out of town location was being away from the tourist beach. We went to visit it one day and it was rather like popping along to Benidorm, or Margate on a really hot August bank holiday, except that all the lobster flesh was inverted in various headstands and asanas… Up north we had a beach pretty much to ourselves, and what fun it was! Unlike the placid waters of Havelock, Varkala treated us to some seriously pounding waves that near enough swept Rani and I out to sea, and sadly stole Ben’s newest pair of sunglasses off his face and out to sea (the third pair to meet a sticky end on this trip, I was torn between buying him a new pair to cheer him up, and telling him that to lose one pair could be considered unfortunate, but three started to look recklessly cavalier…) Once Ben had found a body board to hire though, the waves became less of a menace and more of a playground.

Having been pounded to pieces in the day, we spent our evenings playing cards and drinking beers with our fellow homestayers, Stefan from Hamburg, and Joona from Finland. Laura and Joona hatched a plan to head to an ashram down south, and spent their final day saying farewell to cake and beer and the good life. We had a goodbye breakfast, which stretched into lunch, and then a last trip to the beach… Suddenly the sun was starting to set, the air turning rosy, and a sneaking suspicion that nobody was going anywhere that night came over us, everyone but Laura and Joona, who held on to the idea that they would take a late train to Trivandrum well into the evening. Finally we pointed out that they didn’t stand a chance of arriving before 9 or 10pm, and they confessed that their leaving was looking less and less likely. The six of us went out for a farewell dinner instead, and we assured Laura that we were leaving the next day too, so we’d help them get out the door.

After another fairly leisurely breakfast the next morning, we said goodbye to Stefan and our hosts, and headed to the train station en masse. Ben, Rani and I hopped the train north to Ernakulam, and Laura and Joona took a bus south, with promises to reunite with us in Hampi if the yoga and meditation turned out to be a bust. So guess who we’re meeting in Hampi in three days’ time?


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Ben’s Guest Blog: India Encounter #5 – “Eighty Rupees”

We’d missed the bus.

What an irony, with only a single human’s fingers-and-toes-worth of days remaining before returning to London where missing the bus is practically the only thing you ever do.

But out here it’s no biggie. Shanti, dude. Something’ll come along and it’ll all be fine. Everyone’s so blissed by the sun, sea, sand, smoke and various hippy action that we felt no disappointment at all as we began moseying up the hill towards the village. It was about 8 klicks back to Kudle (say Kood-lay) Beach and our lodgings, but we were sure to snag a rickshaw on the way, whether we liked it or not.

Sure enough, five minutes’ walk through the village and there was a slight, frail guy next to his rickshaw offering the world for tuppence. I wasn’t much in the mood for bartering after a day’s exploring the cliffside beaches, but you know how it is – you have to keep up appearances.

“How much to Kudle?”
“One hundred rupees.”
“One hundred? It’s a hundred from back there at the bus stand! From here, ummmm, eighty.”
“No no, hundred rupees.”
Shake shake shake. Ah well, time for bad cop. I smiled and turned to Siri. “Shall we just walk then?”

We made as if to leave – now or never. “You sure, not eighty rupes?”
“Err…seventy rupees.”

Blink.

But a blink was all it was – we were stuffing ourselves in the back of the auto quicker than you can say ‘Bargain’.

Second-guessing time, as we clattered over the monsoon-ravaged roads like a cart with hexagonal wheels. Did he have the meaning of seventy wrong? Or the meaning of eighty? Had the sun fried his brains? Had the sun fried my brains? Should I have held out for eighty?

In the event, no-one ever found out. We reached the drop-off near the beach, handed over seventy rupees, waited for the driver to check through the sweaty notes and smile at us. He obliged. We smiled back and wandered towards the huts.


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The Fun with Rani Tour 2011, part lazy

India is a fairly vast place, but the traveller circuit is pretty small (to wit, we’ve just walked into a cafe in Gokarna on the west coast, and run into two separate people we met in the Andamans over a thousand kilometres away). So it was no great surprise that before we’d even said goodbye to Johan and Manon, we were making plans to meet up with another friend from the boat, Laura from Germany.

But before we catch a bus and a ferry to Alleppey to meet Laura, let me tell you about our farewell breakfast with Jo and Manon. I had a hankering for a breakfast that didn’t involve idly or dosa or sambar or anything even vaguely curried, so I dragged our wee group to a cafe the Lonely Planet assured me did a fine line in western treats like pancakes and cornflakes and all that jazz. Over a fruit platter we got chatting to an ageing hippy at the next table who waxed lyrical about, well everything. He was a seriously positive guy, telling us about the amazing time he was having in Kumily, the wonderful yoga lesson he’d had that morning, and his plans to travel down to a local ashram to meet the “Hugging Mother”, a popular woman guru who goes around the world hugging people. Apparently she hugs thousands of people a day, doling them out from dawn to dusk without taking a break. We’ve met a couple of people who have been hugged by her and said it was a transformative experience, and briefly toyed with the idea of going to see her ourselves, but couldn’t make our schedule line up with hers.

Our new happy hippy friend Michael turned out to be a Welshman originally, who’d lived in London for many years and now lived in Holland (like I said, a small world no?) But the best part was discovering that during the sixties he was a Harley Street dentist to the stars, poking around in the gobs of Ronnie Wood, Eric Clapton, George Harrison and, as he put it “their mutual wife Patty”, as well as David Bowie’s wife and John Cleese. He told us about an anaesthetic technique they pioneered that involved sustaining patients in a state of semi-conscious general anaesthetic so they could do hours of work on them and it would feel like minutes. Fascinating guy.

Anyway, bit of a non-sequitur, but I had to share that for one of our best encounters to date. Let’s get scooting along to Alleppey shall we?

We took a bus part of the way and then a ferry, which gave us our first taste of the Keralan backwaters. It would have been amazing were it not for the fact that a) we were sat right next to the ridiculously noisy engine and b) despite all the noise, Rani and I were so dog-tired that we could barely keep our eyes open to take in the sights. After another very long day’s travelling, we arrived in Alleppey as the sun was going down and were met by our hotel host, Anju. We’d booked two nights for ourselves and Laura at the Paradise Inn, recommended by Jo and Manon. When we arrived however, Anju started shaking his head and saying there was a real problem. He’d double booked the rooms for the second night, but would be able to move us ‘just across the road’ to his friend’s hotel, with nicer rooms for the same price. Okay great, we’d been looking forward to a lie-in for a change, but we’d get up early, move our bags and then just chill out.

Not so easy. The next morning we presented ourselves in reception with our bags, and Anju said “great! The rickshaw’s just outside” Uh, what? I thought it was just over the road? “Oh yeah yeah, it’s really near”. So we pile into the rickshaw and follow Anju on his bike to a house maybe 20 minutes out of town. Granted it looked lovely, but it was way too far out of town for us. Anju looked a bit nonplussed, but started ringing round his mates to find another hotel closer to town. Back in the rickshaw, and off to the Brown, which had two rooms, and the second should be vacated any minute: “normally people only stay two nights, and these guys have been here two nights, so the room should be free”. What do you mean, normally, should be? “No no, 100% it’ll be available”. Well, 5 minutes later The Brown’s owner appeared, and no the other room wasn’t free, but he had another hotel just round the corner with a free room. Argh! Fortunately this one was actually just round the corner, and the upshot of spending the whole morning running around hotels with Anju was a 20% discount on the accommodation, bonus!

After an afternoon wandering Alleppey for a spot of light shopping and some ice cream sundaes (one of which seemed to involve alien sputum, but it was in fact a fairly evil pistachio sauce. Poor Laura), we booked a canoe tour for the next day. I’d initially been quite keen on the idea of a houseboat, but it turns out they’re huge, noisy, expensive and entirely unnecessary. For one thing, they can’t fit down the mini side canals, which turned out to be the most interesting bit of the backwaters. Sitting in a hand-paddled canoe was also a lot quieter and more relaxing, and we felt a bit sorry for the rich tourists chugging about with their noisy motorboats.

We spent the morning snapping photos or everything, but by the afternoon we’d all settled into a sleepy lull, watching the world drift by and occasionally dozing off. The lazy hazy feeling was so complete that at one point in the afternoon Ben said “what day is it? Is it… Friday?” There was a long pause as we all thought about it, but nobody could say for sure…


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The Fun with Rani Tour 2011, week 1

So we are in fact coming to the end of Rani’s visit to India, but as we’ve been having so much of the fun part, there’s not been much time for the blogging. I will instead give you a wee potted history of our adventure in the South, in three week-sized installments!

Ben and I bussed from Pondicherry to Bangalore overnight, arriving at 6am and dropping our bags off at the hotel before spending 4 dazed hours wandering the streets so we could check into our hotel at a reasonable hour, as they operated a 24 hour check-in/check-out policy. Some words were exchanged and tears shed when we returned from our tiresome wanderings to discover they had already checked us in in our absence, but we managed to secure a 10am check-out. From there we high-tailed it to the airport to meet Rani, but my visions of greeting her at the arrivals hall were sadly quashed by a soldier with a rifle strapped to his shoulder, who told us we weren’t permitted in the airport. Still, having taken delivery of the VIP, we all crashed out in the hotel for a few hours to recover from our various journeys.

Our first proper day in Bangalore we headed to the Science and Industrial Museum, which kept us entertained like eight year olds for a good five hours. In the basement they had a real live mechanical dinosaur (!), a life-size recreation of the Wright Brothers’ flying contraption, and an amazing wire-frame maze spread across the ceiling, into which we joyfully cranked tennis-sized balls and watched them make loop-the-loops, roll across xylophones, pass through logic gates, seemingly split into two, and bounce off a platform in the centre of the room before landing perfectly in a gravity well to tumble back into the crank. We did this for a good half hour and at no point did our delight diminish.

Wandering through the museum we started to feel a bit like superstars, with groups of schoolkids shyly approaching to practise their English (“what is your native place please?”) and ask if they could take photos with us. We even had a security guard follow us around the Fun Science hall (remember when you were a kid and the Science Museum was awesome? I think they exported all that to Bangalore).  This initially made me rather jumpy, especially as I got a little too exuberant with a couple of the interactive displays and thought the guy might hit me with his lathi for damaging the property, but it soon became clear that he just wanted to watch us having fun and make sure we tried out all the exhibits.

From the museum we walked to the more upmarket neighbourhood of Bangalore and found our way to a rather dark but stylish bar where a pitcher of Kingfisher was less than a fiver. We played cards and chatted with some drunk Bangaloreans, who recommended a nearby restaurant for dinner. The place was undeniably swanky and the food was wonderful, curry and biryani served on banana leaves with deep fried cauliflower, mmmm…

Our second day in Bangalore was slightly less successful, partly because most of the day was overshadowed by uncertainty as to whether our waitlisted train tickets would be upgraded to confirmed seats. We headed to an art gallery to pass the afternoon, but it wasn’t quite as fun as playing with cranks and mazes, and was preciously lacking in places to just sit down and relax. Ben did find a chair to sit on, but was quickly intercepted by a rather anxious attendant, who told him it was part of the installation (this was apparently not the first time he’s sat on a work of art, having jumped about on Dali’s Mae West lips sofa as a kid). Getting kicked out of not one but two cafes for playing cards did not lighten our moods (one place we were genuinely hogging seats, but the other place was empty and the waiter clearly just vindictive). We repaired to the station to sit on the floor and wait for our train like the locals, and like an eleventh hour blessing, our tickets were confirmed and we were away.

The overnight train wasn’t much fun for any of us, Rani getting her first taste of sleeper-train joy, Ben perenially unable to sleep on sleepers, and me attacked by a squadron of bedbugs in my bunk that left me a paranoid and frazzled mess. We arrived in Kodaikanal bleary-eyed and slow-witted at 6.30am. A man who stepped down from the same carriage as us struck up a conversation and asked where we were going and if we had transportation. We told him we were planning to catch a bus to Kodaikanal and he told us that buses from the train station were very irregular and we’d be better off driving to the nearby bus station, before telling us (with a strangely hesitant and uncomfortable manner) that he had a vehicle and was heading that way. We paused momentarily but decided we had numbers on our side, so followed him to his jeep. On the way we learned he was a Jesuit priest, his jeep emblazoned with “St. Joseph’s” and we relaxed somewhat, until we got out onto the open road and his driver started weaving through oncoming traffic at a breathtaking speed… Road life didn’t improve much once we’d boarded the three hour bus up into the mountains, taking the only remaining seats at the back of the bus. Of course this broke the golden rule (always between the axles!) and Rani paid the price with some fairly serious motion sickness (and I thought I was green on the boat…)

Kodaikanal was cool and calm, a welcome respite after the noise and pollution of Bangalore, but without any plans to do some serious trekking there wasn’t a whole heap to do. We walked the 5km around the lake, balked at the price of rowboats, and posed for pictures with local teenagers. By far the highlight of our visit though was the awesome hot shower in our room. After just two days under piddly cold showerheads Rani was suitably impressed, but having lived with cold showers for nigh on three months, Ben and I were both ready to jack in the rest of the trip and just spend 3 months in the hotel, taking turns to have hour long hot showers each.

From Kodai we headed by bus to Kumily to meet up with our Dutch friends from the Andamans, Johan and Manon, and head to Perriyar Wildlife park from a jungle trek. Jo and Manon booked us into their lovely homestay and told us the guy would meet us at the bus station, but as our bus broke down and arrived nearly two hours after we were told it would, we felt pretty terrible for making the guy wait around, but he was nice as pie about it. Exhausted from our day’s journey (the first half of the bus ride was all standing, bumping down the hillside, lurching into bemused Indian laps) we were greeted with the news that our jungle safari began at 5am, and so quickly repaired to bed.

We woke in the pitch-dark and dressed by torchlight as the power was out, before jumping in a jeep and whizzing through the cold morning air to the wildlife park. Once inside the gates and as dawn crept up, the driver took to standing and leaning out of his window to scope the area for elephants. He stopped occasionally to point out extremely well camouflaged Horny-Bills and distant specks that were apparently bison but from our vantage point looked distinctly like fleas…

Having spotted no elephants, we arrived at a lodge where we were to have breakfast and then be rowed across the lake by our jungle guide, Sumbosh. Our trek began with a steep uphill climb and an introduction to some local flora and fauna. Soon we were spotting elephant footprints in the muddy path, being shown the scratchmarks of tusks on tree trunks and watching flies swarm over fresh elephant dung… but no elephants. Sumbosh snapped a twig of bamboo and told us that if we heard that sound it was likely an elephant passing through the bush, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was more likely to be the tour group 5 minutes behind us, being told something similar by their guide!

We saw giant red squirrels, a distant black monkey whooping through the trees and the flash of a kingfisher taking wing over the lake, but no elephants, and certainly no tigers. Sumbosh told us that just the day before he’d seen a leopard, but this was cold comfort for us. Rather forlorn, we returned to the lodge for lunch and another boat trip on the lake. Employing the strangest rowing technique we’d ever seen (light flicks of first one oar then the other to maintain an even keel), Sumbosh asked us to sing and English song. We gave him a short rendition of the Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon, and he returned the favour with a Keralan song.

In the end our closest encounter with an elephant was in the small skeleton museum the lodge maintained, where we examined huge skulls and a pelvis the size of two giants platters. We bid Sumbosh farewell and climbed back into the jeep for our return journey. On the way out our driver kept his eyes peeled for animal life, and as we zipped along he somehow spotted a monitor lizard, the same colour as the rock and half obscured by foliage. Photographs duly snapped, we returned to our homestay for a tasty homemade Keralan meal.

The next day we explored Kumily with Jo and Manon, they shopping for souvenirs, and we signing up for an evening performance of Kalari. We said goodbye to our Dutch friends over beers and cards, and repaired to the cultural centre for the evening’s entertainment, of which more in Ben’s Guest Blog…