I have mentioned before that there aren’t many chalkies around these parts and from this vantage point we quickly grasped that we were the main attraction. Everyone who went on that escalator stared at use for the full duration of the journey. I don’t believe that anyone meant to be rude moreover perhaps they thought we weren’t real, more of a ‘dice man’ installation. After a while it was a little uncomfortable sipping coffee with this ever changing audience studying us in the Starbucks fish bowl so we moved on. While strolling around the shops I happened upon a section in a department store which was selling suitcases. Now for those who don’t remember how this started as a student gap year with all the trimmings, hostels, rucksacks, sleeping bags (for the love of God what made me think I could travel that type of budget when I didn't have too!). The last vestige of the student backpack trip was my rucksack and today I was retiring it for a lovely giant suit case with wheels.
Next effort was to actually look for the items we had set out to buy. Now at 58 years I don’t believe I am very old but I do know I’m not young. I don t believe I am morbidly obese but I do know I’m not skinny. I am not small but neither am I particularly tall. I believe I am the average Irish Mammy and all I am looking for is a simple pair of knickers. After looking in many lingerie shops in this very sophisticated shopping mall and only being offered teenie weenie utterly cosmetic pants of no practical use whatsoever, I finally fell upon M&S, such a relief. Well I was relived until I saw what was on offer. Honestly, I was in shock at what was on offer. I don’t know what their target market is but they don’t reside in India. I have seen no expats and if I had they would have had to have been on the vastly rotund sizing to fit what was available. In India, women, at least those I have seen, are mostly small in stature and even if wide in girth these offerings by M&S would house a small family. So I’m stuck between itsy bitsy and a hammock suffice to say I ain’t no itsy bitsy teenie weenie anything and beggars can't be choosers. I was happy with my giant suit case on wheels to carry my giant knickers. Now, I think that’s enough about my very comfortable knickers.
Munnar Tea Plantation
We left our hotel at 6am on a Sunday morning to make the four hour journey to Kerala - ‘Gods own country’ although I don’t know who names it such, I can understand how it came about when you see the beauty of the place. The sun was just raising as we left the city. There were many people up and busy on this very early Sunday morning. On the outskirts of the city I noticed a group of young boys getting ready for soccer practices. It was 6:30 am and these young boys were already on the pitch. 10 am sports practice in Ireland GAA on a Saturday morning used to make me feel heroic, feeling a little inadequate looking at these guys who must have been up at 5:30 am. The driver tells me that soccer has become very popular in recent years and if they don’t turn up these boys are off the team. Many families see soccer as their way out of subsistence and anyone can make it big through soccer despite the caste system as the game is about skill and nothing more. I remember the beautician I met in Goa had said the same about her son and his soccer skills and I really hoped they were right. The cynic in me said money always matters for the equipment you can buy, the training you can buy, even for the slave money can be for disappointment but I kept that thinking to myself and hoped I was wrong. We drove on through the country and passed through a few towns.
In the square of one small town we passed I noticed there were upwards of 100 young men well dressed but casual. It was now around 8am. These men look just like your average student with laptop in their backpacks slung over their shoulders. I asked the driver what was going on and he told me the guys were waiting to be hired. I was shocked. Perhaps my shock was more to do with my naïveté assuming that education protected people from these types of demeaning hiring fair practices but not here. I am back again to realising how lucky we are to live in a location where hiring and firing is not solely the remit of the bosses. Although the zero hour contracts introduced to help Economy’s during the crash shows just how easily gains can be taken away. We passed through that town heading for the mountains when the driver suggested stopping for a bite to eat. I live in mortal fear of Delhi belly and will go without food rather than risk that particular travel experience. We stop in at a road side cafe the driver directs us upstairs and he goes downstairs to join the other drivers. Its a Sunday morning and just like home the cafe is busy with people having their breakfast. We are given the menu and pick the thing least likely to cause damage. Its very clean but I suppose there is no avoiding flies in this type of heat so a few hoover around. I’m having buttered toast and bottled water. Róisín has acquired a taste for Chai tea so she orders that along with toast for her breakfast. Toast arrives already buttered, WHY!? Because of the heat in the places where I have tried butter it tends to be rancid so I have gave up trying. I discreetly try to hide the toast in some napkins and hide it in my bag with the intention of feeding it to the monkeys if we pass any. We get back into the car and the stink of butter wafting from the bag is really off putting. Our driver asks if we enjoyed breakfast and I lie and say it was great. It really was a good place but I am not taking any chances when it comes to food. Up the mountains we go and we pass many colonies of monkeys but there is no discreet way of getting rid of the toast so we are stuck with the stink. Up into the mountains we go and eventually we arrive at the town of Munnar where we meet our guide before heading out into the tea plantation. Our driver drove us up to the walkway through the plantation. Our guide was in his early 20s and this was a part time job for him to help pay his way through college. He was studying law but would have preferred to study medicine however the fees were way out of his family's reach. Everyone who can afford 3rd level here seems to do either Law or medicine. Third level is out of the grasp of ordinary citizens. He was a very nice guy and knew the history of the plantation as his family had lived in the area for generations. He seemed to be running a bit of a temperature as he was sweating profusely and naturally being Irish I was too polite to ask and just hoped he was on the beer the night before. Him being hung over had a better outcome for us than him having covid as we were due to fly to Sri Lanka the following evening. The plantations were truly beautiful and could be seen stretching for miles over every mountain top and up to the edge of the national park and wild life reserve. The climate in these parts is very comfortable it was very easy to see why the English colonised it. We walked around the grounds for about an hour. Our guide explained that the plantations are now owned by the Tata organisation and that the workers were paid less than average wage but they got homes with the job and medical care also. The managers did appear to have lovely homes with well kept gardens and the field workers homes were bunched together with little I could see to commend them. I did ask our guide what happened to the workers when they retire but he didn't have an answer.
We went to the tea plantation museum. Here we got lose up to the equipment used in the harvesting and processing of tea. First we sat in a small cinema and were shown a film of the history of tea and how it came to be in this location. Apparently back in the age dot this English guy came traveling in the region and on discovering the area was perfect for growing tea he approached the local Maharaja and offered him peanuts for the land. The peanuts were accepted as the Maharaja did not believe the land had any value, so he pretty much gave it away. I’m adlibbing a little but not a lot. I’m surprised that this film is clearly depicting the Maharaja as a fool and the English guy as the smart man and this is being played to an audience of Indian people with the exception of Róisín and Myself. It went on to tell us of the great works the English owners did for the people and how they were the very first to think of land conservation. They had créches for the children where the older women would mind the children while the younger women worked the fields. I did start to think that perhaps I was being a little too hard on the colonialists after all they seemed to be introducing supports for women workers. They were also, I was informed by the movie, the first to consider conservation and habitat protection back in the 1900's. Well now I am truly feeling ashamed of myself for judging these English emigrants so harshly by assuming they only came to get what they can at the expense of the local population. They also had education programmes for the children of the workers so lots of good works being done. These interlopers generated enough wealth that they were able to build a hydro electric power station here and for themselves. Can you imagine how much tea had to be sold for that little trinket. When we left the movie the first room I pass through is the trophy room with floor to ceiling of animal heads and walls of photos of trophy hunters standing over every type of animal. The cynic in me suggested that when you have enough money to build your own power station you don’t need more tea but perhaps you need to conserve some land for you shooting gallery hobby. We continue on through the different rooms depicting a life and time that no longer exists but I get the distinct impression was much admired. The good works are being stripped away one by one. Education was for the managers children not for everyone. Heavens forbid that education would be given to the tea pickers they might realise they were getting a raw deal. The last straw falls when in the final room we are shown the money the plantation owners paid their workers. In addition to their hydro electric power station they also had their own mint. Yes they paid their workers in coin tat had no value outside of the plantation...need I say more. The final part of this tour brought us into the processing rooms. Here we learned how tea is processed and quality assigned to each blend. So first cut is white tea and this is the best and most expensive. Its made from the first 3 shoots of the new season and its dried quickly to maintain colour and flavour. The more processing the leaf gets the more its quality diminishes. The guy who came up with the tea bag must have made millions for the Tea companies. Before tea bags this stuff was swept off the floor or brushed out of the drying machines as dust. Yes we who drink so many gallons of tea are actually drinking the worst of the tea production. We end our visit to the plantation with serious reconsideration of the convenience of tea bags.
Processing Tea Leaves
Machinery made in Ireland from the Munnar Tea Plantation
Chocolate Factory and Boat Ride
Heading back to the city we stop off at a chocolate factory which made real chocolate. I hadn’t realised there was any other kind but apparently there is a compound chocolate which replaces cocoa butter with a cheaper fat. Yuck, just thinking about that is off putting. So saw a full demonstration from cocoa bean to finished wrapped sweet and had little tasters of different samples along the way. I am baffled how anyone discovered this bitter little bean, if left to rot for two weeks, then drying it, roasting it, grinding it would deliver the most wonderful irresistible product! We bought a few samples then realised we were flying the next day so of course we had to eat it to reduce bag weight. Final part of this very busy day brought us to a beautiful park with a beautiful lake. Our driver dropped us at the entrance where we made our way down for a boat trip around a lake. Our driver thought to suggest a speed boat but we were happy to wait for the public ferry, no pleasure in tearing around a lake at break neck speed. I decide a bathroom trip was called for before the boat arrived so off I went in search of the loos. I think perhaps most Europeans have a fear of being confronted with a squat toilet, that hole in the floor that we have no clue how to approach. Well in our park visit I was confronted by such a dilemma and it would be a further 3 hours before we got back to our hotel. Luckily there were two mature Indian ladies just ahead of me and here is the trick, you pull the legs of your pants above your knees before you proceed to pull anything down. I hasten to add the toilets weren’t an open plan affair just that the ladies were pulling their trouser legs down from their knees when I arrived. So for all you adventurers out there I hope that was a helpful bit of observation. We are nearing the end of our Indian leg of the journey. We needed to get a covid PCR test for the flight to Sri Lanka and asked our driver if he knew of any place near us. He not only brought us to a test centre but he also waited 40 minutes for us and returned us to our hotel. Now tell me any European taxi drivers extending that courtesy to anyone out there?
Boat Trip in Munnar
Perhaps it's the same in other countries, let me know! No, these men will fight off hustlers on your behalf. Haul your bags into and out of the car and insure that you are delivered safely inside your door or to the concierge of whatever establishment you have booked. So big ‘thank you’ to all our drivers in India. If you are planning to do any traveling in India save yourself a lot of hassle and get a driver, its really not as expensive as you might think bearing no relation to European prices. We are safely delivered to the Radisson Blu which we have booked for 5 nights and that is costing us a total of €260 including breakfast. Just out of curiosity and to save readers the effort I checked to see what Radisson Dublin were charging for a Thursday night in April and it is €162 for one night room only. So if you are thinking of traveling further than Benidorm perhaps think about braving a longer flight. Take the opportunity to travel to those places we usually only see on telly and meet those beautiful smiling people who don’t just smile for the cameras they really are that friendly.
So fair to say we are very happy with the room. Next thing is to check out the restaurant. It's taken me a while to realise that most hotels even those that claim to be catering to a western pallet do not. Most Asian people don’t like our bland food, while most Europeans cant fathom how to eat curry for breakfast. What is a bigger realisation for me is how little accommodation we in Europe give to other cultures yet I pretty much expect a full Irish and trust me I am daily disappointed on this journey. I think I have become that caricature of a holiday maker from a 1980's sitcom looking for my chips and beans. I’d kill for chips, beans and Clonakilty sausages.
Radisson Blu Kochi
We took a day trip to Alappuzha (Alleppey) which is about an hour and a half drive from Kochi city. Our driver picked us up 9 am on another not surprisingly sunny day. We arrived at the town about 10:30 am and met the captain of our little boat who’s name was Manute. Alleppey is a area of low lying wet lands which in the past 200 years has been reclaimed for agriculture use. In doing so the people have created a series of interconnected canals and waterways. Our boat trip was to last 3 hours with confidence say we only saw a fraction of it. We got into our beautiful little boat with roof to keep off the sun and open sides to admire the view. The boat had the capacity to take 7 passengers seated. There were two cushions to the front nose of he boat for two passengers to sit up front. Just in the middle of the boat was a beautiful Chaise lounge for those wishing to recline throughout the trip. There were 4 white plastic garden chairs to the back with towels covering each. If the towel slipped you quickly realised they were not purely decorative as in this heat and humidity plastic and skin are not a comfortable combination. I imagined my cousins, Karen and Annette sitting on those deck chairs, admiring the view and passing out the toffees saying “go on have another one”. As we moved along we noticed that there were many large houseboats docked and empty. Manute explained that these would (pre-covid) have been full and out on the water for week long tours. They had kitchens and bars and all the comforts the western travellers needed but they were sitting idle for the past two years.
We moved away from the bank and made our way down the canal we passed other small boats docked along the canal. These boat owners waved and shouted 'welcome', some ask where we were from and we proudly shouted 'Ireland!'. I am constantly amazed at how welcoming people are to us. Manute said that they see our presence as a sign of hope that covid is over and life may be getting back to normal. There was no envy that Manute had a fare and they didn't, they were genuinely happy to see business being done by one of their own. We head across open water to connect with a canal system a short distance across the lake. We pass a few of the bigger house boats which seemed fully loaded with passengers. Manute explains that they adapted to the lack of tourism by doing day trips on Sundays for locals which meant dropping prices and for most this was their only income in the past two years. Manute told us that he was a general handyman and could pretty much turn his hand to anything. He was also a farmer and so was not totally dependent on the income the boat brought. He was married with two children and for him the income from the boat is an extra. That income makes life easier but he was lucky, he told us, because he was diversified he said laughing. Through the many canal ways we went the boat moving up and down different channels. Its difficult to describe this place. Its called the Venice of the East but you can put out of your mind any idea of ornate bridges and Cornetto advertisements, water is the only thing these two places have in common. Imagine a series of flooded fields with raised banks between each field. The main banks are approximately 10 meters wide on which stand houses. The older houses are brick built and look to be two possibly three roomed homes. The door is open on most so I couldn’t help but see inside. The front door leads straight to the living room with a three piece suite and a television. Beyond that room a door lead out to what looked like an open kitchen come utility area, it was sheltered but not closed in. What utilities these houses had I just don’t know but Manute had mentioned with some pride that his wife had a washing machine. Children played outside running along the banks and between the houses chasing each other reminding me of my own childhood before the advent of hyper caution and play stations.
Boat cruise heading towards the floating village
In recent years, many houses had been flooded and so new houses tended to be built on concrete stilts to approximately ten feet off the ground. The new houses looked really modern, not just elevated and you could tell they belonged to younger or bigger families. The older one- room houses were clearly owned by single older people and it was only by looking in their faces that you could tell their age. I saw a woman who must have been at least in her eighties haul a stack of rice on her back along the bank to her house. The sack had to have been about 20 or 30 kg. Even though this area produced a lot of rice there wasn’t enough to feed all the people, so the government subsidised supplies for those in need such as the older lady I had seen. Large areas of agricultural land had been lost during the repeated flooding. As the water rises it breeches the banks which then allow salt water to wash in and contaminate the land with salt water. Efforts had been made to reclaim the damaged fields but it was happening so often it was becoming impossible to continually maintain the outer banks. It was cheaper for the government to pay the rice farmers not to work than reclaim what was lost.
The schools, temples and medical dispensaries all occupy the wider banks with narrower banks used to walk between fields or to other villages. It looks idyllic. Each house has a small stepped area just outside the front door. There are four or five steps with a brick wall stretching about five feet to support the bank. Here the women wash their clothes or their children or themselves. These travels of mine have made me realise just how much I take for granted. I couldn’t imagine a house without indoor plumbing. Yet watching these people going about their daily activities reminds me of my many relatives who would go to the village well to get there drinking water. A huge barrel at the side of the house collected rain water for general washing. We journeyed along the waterways going by many villages and homes. There were times when rounding a bend we would inadvertently intrude on a family bathing in the water. The laughing, joking and general chatter among themselves would instantly stop and silence would fall like a guillotine, then they would pretend not to see us and we not see them until we awkwardly got out of view. They tolerate us because we bring much needed revenue to the area and that revenue employs many of their friends and neighbours. But I have no doubt that if helping my friends and neighbours required strangers walking through my living room I would not be so accommodating.
Alleppey Floating Village
Around the next bend we come upon the floating traveling shop. Its no Tescos in a giant barge, just a little rowing boat. The shopkeeper sits in the back with all the goods for sale to the front. They travel the canals selling fruit and veg or bread just about whatever you might need from your local corner shop they will bring to your door. As they approach a home they ring a bell and out comes the lady of the house to make her choice. It reminded me of childhood summers in Geesala and the traveling shop which toured the side roads and Cul-de-Sacks of Erris in the days when only a few had cars. Pat Walsh drove the truck for many years and although I cannot remember how often during a week the truck did the rounds I do remember the routine; As he approached a house along the road he would beep the horn of the truck and wait a few minutes to see if anyone was about. The lady of the house would pull back the net curtain with eyes popping and waving her purse as a code to say I’m on my way, hold on there, seconds later she is running down the small pathway simultaneously pulling on her coat. Pat would be waiting at the back of the truck ready to fill a cardboard box with what was requested. The truck was lined on both sides with floor to ceiling shelving from which Pat would gather all the goods required. The ladies would recite from the list they held in their hands the items they were looking to purchase. It was usually simple enough stuff but occasionally they would ask for fancy bits because they had cousins arriving from Dublin or England. All those memories reawakened by a boat on the Alappuzha waterways and that is one of the unexpected gifts of this amazing trip.
After the agent left I took a look around. We had been promised some provisions but none could be found. I opened one of the kitchen cupboards and, to my surprise, I found a giant cockroach lying dead. I was grateful it was dead but not impressed that it was there.
It was getting late and we had no way of getting to the local supermarket, so I texted the host asking where the supplies promised were hidden and told him about the cockroach. Our host sent a man immediately around with the groceries we were promised before arrival and this man removed the dead cockroach. When he left I set to making food. Nothing exciting, just eggs and bread but it would see us to the next morning. The kitchen was very grubby and everything was in a really bad state. Dishes looked like they were barely wiped and put into the press and the fridge looked as if it had never seen a cloth. The table cover was covered in cigarette holes and breadcrumbs. The bed sheets had holes and generally looked like they should have been on kitchen duty as cleaning cloths at this stage. This was clearly not the standard I had expected when I booked an AirBnB property which claimed to have signed up to the COVID cleaning protocols. However, It was too late to do anything about this place now, instead I would deal with it in the morning. Róisín was taking it all in her stride. She had seen bigger bugs when doing her J1 in the USA. So giving full gratitude for her bravery and refusing to go into the kitchen, bathroom, or bedroom until it was first inspected we settled in (as best we could for the night). We boiled the eggs to eat with our bread as it required the least use of equipment. I was o grateful for the sleeping bags which backpackers revert to for just such occasions. I did wonder if my 5 star living had raised my expectations to a level that I could never return, but no, the place was a tip. I decided that in the morning we would find a shop and buy some cleaning products. Crazy I know! But the next day was New Years Eve and I knew it would be impossible to find anywhere else to stay.
View from balcony of AirBnB
New Years' Eve
We got up the next morning and headed out to explore the area and to find a shop. It was about a ten minute walk to the beach from our AirBnB and along the way we passed a few little shops but nothing like a supermarket. The beach was pristine white, beautiful and stretched for miles with nobody else around. I hated the thought of going back to the dirty apartment and we failed to find a shop that sold any kind of cleaning products. I could not understand how this guy had managed to get a 5 star rating on AirBnB and a cleanliness badge with his apartment in such a state. I had been an AirBnB host for a few years and cleanliness was my highest priority. To my surprise I learned that buried deep in the small print was a statement that the reviews listed for this property were actually from another property the host owns. I had been an AirBnB host and never knew this could be done. I was so mad when I realised and resigned myself to leaving and taking the loss. I got back to the apartment and started looking for another place to stay. It was the 31st of January and there was no room at the Inn unless you were prepared to pay over €300 for 2 nights. I had stayed at the Marriott for 50 euros per night so this was a huge inflation. I understood it was business. No one was preparing a room on New Years' Eve without being well compensated.
We found a resort further up the cost which we could book for €300 plus an additional €80 for the mandatory New Years' Eve party. I text the owner of the AirBnB we were staying in and told him I was leaving as his property was filthy. I told him I would appreciate a refund of remaining days as the property he had rented to me did not meet even basic cleanliness standards. I put it to him that if he gave me a refund I would not review, as in any real since the booking had been cancelled. If he chose not to give a refund I would be reviewing his property with pictures and I would not be glossing over the state of the place. Having to book alternative accommodation at this late stage was costing me a fortune and I was not going to take this hit alone. I was giving him a chance to get out of this but he claimed I was blackmailing him. He claimed that the apartment was not as bad as I was saying and that the problem was that I had expected "European" standards of cleanliness and not Indian. I sent him the full collection of pictures taken and he returned with an apology. He was quite good about things in the end and offered to compensate us for the alternative accommodation which I told him was very generous but not necessary. I knew it had been very difficult in the tourist industry for the past two years and I had no intention of making matters worse for this man. I knew a review from a European could make or break a business this part of the world as things were opening back up since the pandemic. I was happy to get the remaining days refunded and not review his property at all, good or bad which I felt was fair. We managed to book a taxi to our next destination, which again because of the day was now being charged at €40 and an hour long wait to be picked up. Beggars can't be choosers, so within the hour we were collected and driven to our new accommodation.
Coconut Creek Resort even as a 3 star was an enormous step up from what we had just left behind. Between finding new accommodations and trying to find a taxi it was 6:30 pm by the time we got to our hotel room. By 7 pm the reception were phoning the room to say we had to head over to the New Years' Eve party. The mandatory party that we had to attend because we were being charged whether we went or not. The hotel bar and restaurant were closed for the evening so if we wanted to eat we had little choice but to go to the party. Now party attire was not something we had considered when packing our rucksacks so I had little choice but to go in what I had. Oh my god! what I had was fine for hoofing around street markets but not for a New Years' Eve party. But luckily I was born with the gift of “brazen it out” as the gran used to say. Quick shower, brushed the hair, no drying as I was going for that "don’t care" look as nothing in my bag could challenge that persona. We were guided along some sandy paths and through some sand dunes to arrive at a beach bar where everything was set up for a fab night of festivities. There was entertainment, great food, table service and drinks included so the €40 ticket wasn’t looking too painful after all. They had participant games which I joined in with (if your doing the "I don’t care wardrobe" you need to be in the thick of it to pull it off!). There were a lot of English families which I hadn’t expected. I later discovered that they were all employees of the British consulate working in India and I suppose it was cheaper to put them up in India for the holidays than fly them all home. Róisín and I had our own table near the back of the room. Where other guests may have seen each other around the pool or at breakfast we knew no one and no one knew us. The owner of the club had, just a short time earlier, placed a bottle of wine on our table and said it was for an activity that was happening later. So when the request for volunteers from the audience to come to the stage to take part in a game went out, I put my hand up immediately. I figured if we didn't get with the program we would be out in the wings for the night. So in my not inspired t-shirt and ill fitting pants I took to the stage and I had a fabulous time. The game required that we had a set time to get particular items and return with them to the stage. As everyone on stage with the exception of myself had large groups or family with them to help, the host very kindly asked the audience to help me as it was only Róisín and I. It was great fun running among the audience asking people for whatever object we were required to get. It was also a great ice breaker. When I returned to our table the people at the next table started chatting and then asked us to join them. That turned out to be a 4 am party and one of the best in memory although it still doesn’t beat Vicars' Street Dublin New Years' Eve 2017. The resort was fabulous with some great craic! (Irish for fun, pronounced crack). The other hotel guests there, as well as an Indian party, kindly invited us to join them into the wee hours. The food was exceptional. I hadn’t had steak since leaving home and was surprised to discover that Goa didn't have the same reverence for cows compared to the rest of India. I had my first steak in this fabulous establishment and it was so good. I don’t usually eat a lot of steak but its extraordinary how we crave the things we are not allowed. We were relocating to a less expensive hotel the following day but for now it was new years day and we were treated ourselves to some spa treatments, good food and any other facilities available to us before our departure.
New Years' Eve fireworks
We checked out of Coconut Creek the next day and relocated to Palmieri’s Dourado, a little further down the coast and on the edge of a tropical forest, only minutes from the beach. This was more within our budget at €182 for 4 nights. We had gotten lost a few times on the trip there and at one point we pulled into the forecourt of the wrong hotel and were told by the owner that the place we were looking for was closed down. I figured he was lying as I had only booked the hotel the previous day and our taxi driver agreed saying he was just hoping to get our booking. But we did eventually find the correct location and this place was a real little find. Our room was on the ground floor with a balcony that lead onto the pool deck and to the restaurant. New Year was over for most and the hotel was empty except for Róisín and I. I think this must be what its like to own a fully staffed private villa with everyone there just to ensure every whim is answered. The restaurant had two members of staff and someone was in attendance at all times.
Goa Beach near hotel
Bike Tour of Goa
We took the opportunity to go on an electric bike tour of the area. We arrived at the place to get bikes and to meet our guide. We were given a little lesson on how to operate them and they checked that we understood the rules of the road. I was confident I could handle this and so off we went. The tour took us out of the village and along a quiet busy road for a stretch before turning off into the narrower roads along the paddy fields and into the jungle. When I went to turn left off the main road and onto the side road I employed my rules of the road training, right arm out and moved to the center of the road, whereupon a motorbike swerved across the center line and just missed hitting me. So the lesson was take everything you know about the rules of the road and forget them. In India. rules of the road are an aesthetic aspiration but nobody really uses them and you are likely to get yourself killed if you try. Any junctions I came to afterwords, I pulled the bike to the side of the road and ensured there was no traffic near me before crossing. Our guide was great stopping along the way to point out interesting things to us like the touch me not plant which curls up when you run your finger along the leaves.
We went up a mountain to see a church and free wheeled down on the bikes. It was mighty craic (even more fun!) and the guide enjoyed my sense of humor. He brought us to some very off the beaten track locations, one being through a village in the forest and down to a beautiful river bank. As we cycled through the village children hung out the windows shouting “Hello” and laughing when I replied. I said hello to everyone I passed and everyone without exception returned a smiling "Hello" back to me. I cannot fault the friendliness of the Indian people. We Irish have a repetition for being friendly but you can still meet the odd grump, haven’t met any here, very pleasant people. Our guide told me that most of the tours he does, the tourists don’t talk and just want to take pictures so he cannot tell whether the group are enjoying themselves or not, ergo he sticks to the program and ends the tour as planned. So if you want to see the road less traveled and less commercialized, be nice to your guide and show them you are interested. Our 10 km cycle with numerous pit stops ended back at the starting point after 3 hours. It was getting pretty hot now so we headed back to the hotel to lazy by the pool for the afternoon. Oh what a wonderful life, Ahhhhhhhh! We spent a relaxing few days in this hotel. Found our way eventually to the beach through a coconut grove where deserted white sandy beaches stretched as far as the eye could see. This hotel was the perfect location to catch a breath and recharge. We had one more location to see in India and then we were on to Sri Lanka. We flew from Goa heading for Kochi after our week long break.
Rather than wait for confirmation of refund we booked the Indigo flight immediately. We figured that if we missed this flight we would just be compounding our losses with our accommodation and connecting flight that are already paid.
We got into the queue for check-in and waited our turn, as you do. We are used to making sure that our bags weight and size are correct, Mr. Ryanair has us trained like circus seals. But India seems to have very few restrictions other than the usual, no guns, explosives, nail scissors or battery items in your bags. So, a couple turn up with 6 bags between them and they get a bit miffed when the check-in staff want them to remove their laptops from the luggage. A battle ensued where they insist that they are not going to remove their laptops because the laptops were in the bags when they arrived three days earlier. Now personally, if I had been lucky enough to get away with a breech of packing requirements I would take the win and keep my month shut (those of you who know me that’s a big ask). But this couple are hysterical and shouting “I want to see your supervisor now!”. Wow, even to facially express your dissatisfaction with European ground staff you risk being grounded. Here the supervisor arrived and calmly and respectfully told them they needed to remove their laptops. I have no idea what was in the bag and as it was a domestic flight I’m guessing it wasn’t drugs. Yet, they refused to remove the laptops and so voluntarily left the airport. I was surprised to see every make and shape of cardboard box or plastic bag being presented as check-in luggage and not an eyebrow being raised. Anyhow, after waiting and finally getting our turn we are turned away because our bags hadn’t been screened at the entrance to the airport.I was so grateful we had allowed loads of time to get through the airport and pick up the bags and quickly had them screened. Absolutely painless and was returned to the top of the queue with no objection from others waiting as they seemed to appreciate our time served in the queue.
Bags checked in and off we go to our terminal gate. I had wrongly assumed that we had completed our security screening but as we approached the gate there were passport and hand luggage checks. I didn’t think I had any illegal contraband with me and was surprised when I was taken aside and my bags were taken apart. The security officer insisted I had electrical devices in my bag and I insisted it was my mobile phone and laptop in the tray. Item by item were removed and put to one side. Eventually I place my vape out and that is when he hones in on this as the criminal. I’m absolutely baffled. I have managed to stay off the cigarettes for over a year now with the aid of my vape. I had bought additional batteries and cartridges so as not to be tempted to go back on the cigs and now I discover vapes are illegal in India? Every device is taken from me, about two hundred euros worth and I am disappointed but grateful I’m not being fined. I look into this and later discover that India is a tobacco producer. They also have a strong tobacco lobby who managed to convince government to outlaw vaping based on the argument that younger people might take up vaping rather than smoking. It’s a logic I have failed to rationalize but I am now without vapes which have been my crutch for a long time. It was very straight forward after that we got the flight to Mumbai and arrived with plenty of time to get to our connecting flight to Goa.
I was directed to go outside the building again and was told I could get a taxi if I headed right at the exit doors. I could not see any taxi rank and could see on google that terminal 2 was some distance away. We stood around trying to figure out how to work this but nothing was clear. Started walking the length of the exterior of the building as indicated by google maps but it just looked like we ran out of path. Two foreigners looking lost and bemused drew the attention of an official who was directing traffic. He very kindly approached us and asked if we needed a taxi guessing it was for terminal 2 and pointed across the road to a tuk-tuk station. Over we went to discover a very efficient system. There was an endless supply of tuk-tuks and no fighting over the price. You were given the next available vehicle at a fixed price. In we climbed into the vehicle, stacking our bags on the seat in front and off our driver went.
I was surprised to learn that Mumbai is bigger by population than Delhi and very different. Although we just drove through the city it didn’t seem to be any bit as crazy a Delhi. The driver drove with a reasonable level of caution, or perhaps I was becoming more accustomed to the driving, whichever it all seemed more in control. That feeling quickly disappeared when another tuk-tuk comes along side us as we are driving and asks if we are going to terminal 2. He then went on to tell us that our driver wouldn’t be able to take us to terminal 2 as only taxis were allowed there and tuk-tuks were prohibited. Our driver noticed him speaking with us and although our driver had little to no English he knew this guy was causing trouble. Our driver started shouting at the other tuk-tuk driver as we continued driving on the motorway. The road rage made it feel like we were in an action movie. I was more worried about that shouting than anything the guys were saying to each other. The interloper was so cheeky and told us not to worry as they were brothers and his brother didn’t understand the rules. Now our driver starts shouting "liar!" and pulls across the traffic, reigniting memories of Delhi to park at the side of the road where he gets out and starts to take picture of the other guy's vehicle. At this point the other driver gets back into his vehicle and takes off. I never cease to be impressed by the scams that we are regularly presented with. We may have believed the other guy if we were tight for time and in a panic to get to the other terminal. As it was, we had plenty of time and knew we had been directed by an official at the airport towards the tuk-tuk in which we were traveling. But I imagine this scam would work a treat on anyone in a rush and panicking that they might miss their flight. As it was we made our flight. Security was a breeze. I was confident and oh so sad I had nothing to declare. We had a comfortable and uneventful flight to Goa. All we needed now was a taxi to our apartment.
We land in Goa to a crammed and chaotic airport. The place was packed but it was the day before New Year's Eve and I got the impression that Goa was the expat and party capital of India. Just an impression, I’m basing that purely on my observations. Everyone was dressed up and ready to go lounging by the pool or walking on sandy beaches. So as we enter the arrivals hall and we are assaulted by taxi drivers asking where we are going and do we need a taxi. Róisín went to ask at an information desk how we go about getting a taxi. To her discovery, there are independent controls at Goa airport so that tourists can avoid getting ripped off. Personally, I believe there are controls on airport taxis because the prices bear no relation to any other taxi fare anywhere in India. They are through the roof. Not by Irish standards but defiantly by Indian standards. We had been getting 4 hour drives for €30 to €40 whereas Goa was looking for €16 for 30 minutes which made me wonder if we were still in India or were we in a totally different country? Anyway we hop into the taxi and make our way to the AirBnB that we booked along the Goa coastline.
The journey was costing us €40 and for that we were getting a lovely air-conditioned car and a lovely driver named Tara who happened to be living in Udaipur. The journey would take approximately four and a half hours, bringing us up over the mountains. Tara had good English and offered to bring us the "scenic route" which is always my preference. We passed through many towns and villages. The higher and further into the mountains we went the more narrow the roads became and the more people looked at us with open curiosity. Clearly, the children found us a real novelty as they ran from the fields to wave and chase the car. Women sat on hill tops guarding and tending to their goats. Their bright and colourful sarees distinguished them from the landscape that surrounded them. There were points along the narrow roads where two cars could not pass simultaneously and one would have to move off the road in order to pass. At another point our driver came to a very sharp bend in the road and on taking the turn was faced with a mother and child to the right and a cow to the left with just enough room for the car to pass through. In this very narrow and unpredictable gap our driver chose to veer towards the mother and child to gain precious centimeters rather than to hit the cow. To kill a cow would result in a 3000 rupee fine and 5 years in prison there was not a conscious thought given to the women and child. I don’t believe that our driver was a bad man by any strength of the imagination. He simply understood the penalty for injuring the cow whereas no statuary law stated what would happen if you killed a women and child, it possibly fell into the simple statement of "accident" as it would anywhere else in the world.
We drove about these windy roads for a good part of the journey. This was Róisín’s first encounter with travel sickness. She had never suffered as a child but these roads with the twists turns humps and bumps were not doing her any good. We had a further hour to go before we descended from the hills and into view of Udaipur, the ‘City of Lakes’. The views were spectacular. It was hard to believe that these lakes were artificial because they were so vast. The city was founded in 1560 by the Maharaja (King) and features many palaces and many lakes which stretch across the valley.
Driving over the Mountains to Udaipur (lots of monkeys!)
Organizing Our Udaipur Tour
We were staying at the juSTa Sajjangarh Resort and Spa for three nights and this five star beauty was costing us €132.28 with breakfast included. The room was enormous with a floor to ceiling window that looked on the village in the valley below and to the Monsoon Palace at the top of the mountain beside us. As has became the norm for us, the hotel, the staff, and the facilities were perfect. Tara (our driver) asked if we might be interested in him being our driver for a day to see the sights of Udaipur. We agreed a price of 4000 rupees (€47.65) if he could include an English speaking guide and he assured me he could. If you find a good driver its always worth asking if they are interested in more work or can they recommend someone else if they are not free themselves. You are dealing directly with the driver so the money goes to him and cuts out the middle man. It may not make a substantial difference to what you pay but at least you know the person doing the work is getting the pay.
Our driver dropped us in the main car park from where we could either walk or take a golf buggy for a very small fee to the main gate. Anticipating a long day of walking ahead of us I opted for the golf buggy and very glad I did too! There is a trek and a steep incline from the car park to the entrance to the palace. At the top of the hill, the entrance courtyard is accessed through three towering archways revealing a formal garden of walkways and lawns down the centre with the entrance to the palace on one side and a collection of artisan shops directly opposite.
The entrance to the palace features another imposing gate with elephant impaling spikes protruding. These seem to be a regular adornment in the palaces we have visited, pity for the poor elephants. The palace is a museum of Maharaja living. The style and opulence of the many rooms is awesome. There are art galleries, sculptures, mosaics, glass, and mirror work all creating a feast for the eyes and a glimpse of the absolute power and wealth of this ruling class. After independence the royals lost the revenue from every state they ruled but kept their palaces. These were opened to the public in order to generate some income and from the crowds I witnessed its a nice little earner. We went from room to room and at some points it was slow going as it happened to be a public holiday. Luckily, our guide was very familiar with the many hidden passages of the palace and so we were able to slip away down a concealed passage to arrive magically in another area of the palace. It takes about 2 hours to see this palace but it is one of the highlights of a visit to Udaipur.
The City Palace, Udaipur
We left the palace and went to investigate some of the craft shops. I was tempted into N.F Collection, a shop on the grounds of the palace which sold authentic hand made pashminas, rugs, and other luxury items. Authentic is the magic word here and these particular pashminas were authenticated by The Rolling Stones and Hillary Clinton to name a few. I was introduced to the owner by our guide who seemed to know everyone in the palace, ergo he knew all the secret passage ways. Farooq, the owner, was a quintessential gentleman and sales man. He had an album of all the famous people who had visited his shop over the years. So wanting to be in the inner circle if only by association I decided then and there to purchase a pashmina. Farooq explained that he had just returned from Kashmir with new stock, and slowly and meticulously he started to open each parcel. He would not tell me the price but wanted me to feel each fabric and note the difference in texture and quality. I knew the price was going up with each package that he opened because the softness and embroidery would increase. Clearly, he was equally enthralled to reacquaint himself with the stock he had brought back as I was to see these beautiful pieces for the first time. I laughed as he kept opening more and more packages and placing them on the floor in front of me and repeatedly told him I couldn’t afford most of the shawls but he did not mind. I think I knew and he knew this sale was going to happen because I had accepted the offer of tea (remember the rug!) but perhaps neither of us were sure of the price level. A lady came in and was waiting impatiently for Farooq to finish or at least pause his dealings with me and attend to her. He politely waved her away and said he would be with her in a moment. I got the impression that her interruption was not welcome and was considered rude. I had told him that I was happy to wait as the lady in question seemed to be getting very exasperated but he declined my offer and continued in a very relaxed manner to show all the pashminas. Real pashminas have an oily feel to the wool because they are a natural fibre. I eventually chose one from the vast array set before me. Having miscalculated the currency difference I did buy one quite a distance above my budget and not being Hillary Clinton, I cannot afford to wear it for fear of pulling a thread. The girls have been told its a family heirloom and as such it will come out of the precious cover when I’m gone. How they divide it will be up to themselves and might require the wisdom of Solomon and the two mothers as to who is most worthy. We concluded our business and off Roisin and I went to the next location. We did skip the boat ride as the crowds were worse than when we had first arrived.
Saheliyon ki Bari
Tara, our driver picked us up at the bottom of the hill outside the palace and brought us to the Saheliyon ki Bari. This was constructed in 1710 for the royal ladies, the Queen, and her 48 maidens and was exclusively for their use. It featured 2000 fountains of various sizes and detail and were scattered all over well kept gardens . At the centre is a large pool with a central white marble canopy and four black marble canopies at each corner of the pool. This area is surrounded by a high wall in which there are changing rooms so allowing for total privacy. There was another pool with elephant fountains and then another area which was a large paved circular area with lush tropical forest surrounding (fountains sprung from the stone paving giving the air a humidity familiar to this foliage). The water was supplied from a local lake and on the turn of one valve the water would be delivered by gravity to all pools. I do love a good garden and this was one to inspire. Having spent an hour there we headed back to the car to make our way to the Monsoon Palace. The palace was a beautiful white marble structure which we could see from our hotel and I was eager to see it up close.
Elephant Fountain in Saheliyon ki Bari
The Monsoon Palace
This was a holiday weekend and all attractions were very busy. The Monsoon Palace sits on top of a mountain at the centre of a wildlife sanctuary and has panoramic views out over the city and the surrounding countryside. It took us a while to get through the main gate but the wait was well worth the effort. There was a good carpark at the top and not too strenuous a walk to get to the palace. We were still encountering people who were fascinated to see us and asked for our picture which never bothered me (such a narcissist!). The palace is unoccupied and small by comparison to all others we have seen but the views are magnificent. The views seem to go on forever and gives some realisation of the sheer size of this country. We took the view in on every angle and then proceeded back to the car. On the way to the carpark we chanced to meet with the young German couple we had previously met in Agra at the Baby Taj. We exchanged stories about our travels and while doing so a child asked to take a picture of all us chalkies together. The German couple said they had encountered the same request throughout their trip. This couple were traveling on a budget and the longer they could make that budget last the longer they could tour so I understood them being very frugal in their choice of accommodation. That said, they had made the decision early on in the India leg of their trip to stretch their budget to, at the very least, a private room rather than a dorm and private coaches rather than test the train system. I felt a lot better about my decision to leave budget accommodation behind when these hardened young travellers how found it a trial. They asked where we were planning to go after India and when we said Sri Lanka they laughed and told us that Sri Lanka was India for beginners, it would be a few weeks before we understood what they meant. We said our goodbyes and I promised to adopt them if we should meet a third time on this journey. We finished our day and were dropped back to our hotel for our final night in Udaipur.
View from the Monsoon Palace Udaipur
Our flight from Udaipur to Mumbai was early the next morning so we had arranged for Tara to collect us at 5 am as our flight was at 8 am and we had a 40 minute drive to the airport. It was dark when we left the hotel and as we drove through the city I was very surprised to see many many people making their way to work at this hour. Roadside and street chai shops were already up and running so I assumed their owners must have gotten up at 4 am. It's mesmerising to see how hard these people work for so little. There are no luxuries, no fancy phones or clothes or shoes. Suffice to say there aren’t even knock off designers in the general population and yet they work so very hard and for endless hours. Even the staff in the hotel you could see them at breakfast, lunch and dinner from 6 am to 10 pm, which were last orders in the kitchens and yet they were never less than courteous. It is a hard life here with no safety nets. We really have no idea how lucky we are and our fortune of time and location of birth. We arrived at the airport with plenty of time to organise ourselves for our flight. Then, suddenly, we read "Flight cancelled!".
Hi, I'm Olive and I am the writer of this blog. I am traveling the world with my 22 year old daughter, Róisín, who has just graduated University. I wanted to document this journey because it is unusual for a woman of 58 years old to go on adventure that most students do on a gap year. I will try to share my insights into this epic journey with you along the way and maybe inspire more people my age to go on these crazy adventures too.