Golden

Our detour up to Punjab for the wedding meant that we got a couple of days to spend in the state and so we headed to Amritsar. I am so glad we did as it is home to the Golden Temple one of the best buildings we have seen in our travels in India. We arrived back in Amritsar at 1am after a train journey from Bhatinda and once we checked into our hotel we were out for the count. We had both picked up a flu from being on the go and all the partying at the wedding had worn us out so we spent our first morning in Amritsar recovering and watching TV in bed.

We weren’t completely slack though and in the mid afternoon we headed off to see the famous Golden Temple. The temple is a Sikh temple which meant no shoes and head coverings. We dropped our shoes off at a little counter and hoped to buy a little scarf or bandana as the guidebook said the palace was rife with shops selling them. However we couldn’t find any so we decided to go for the ones that the palace provided. I was a bit iffy as I’m not sure if and when they get washed and I had visions of getting head lice but since we were there and all the locals were doing it we thought ‘why not’. With our head scarves on we headed in one of the main gates to view the temple everyone had been talking about.

They talk about it for a reason. It is absolutely stunning. It doesn’t quite measure up to the Taj Mahal but it comes a very close second. The complex is huge with marble floors and clean while buildings surrounding the water on which the Golden Temple is located. The central gold temple shimmers in the water and in the light of day as it is made with real gold. I’m not sure if words or photos can do it justice. We slowly wandered around the complex taking in the beautiful architecture and detailed sculptures before making our way into the golden temple itself. There was quite a queue to get in as many Sikhs had made the pilgramage to come and pray there. There were even security acting as bouncers making sure it wasn’t over loaded. With a bit of a shuffle and shove at the end we got inside the temple to have a look. In the centre four men were playing music and singing what I assume would be prayers that could be heard over a loudspeaker in the complex. The building shimmered from the inside but we barely go a chance to look as we got caught up in the crowd of people moving through. It was beautiful but we were certainly out of place as tourists as we had to weave through people praying on the floorand bending to kiss the ground. I felt like we were intruding on something so after a very rushed look we left to go back outside and view from afar.

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The temple draws massive crowds so it was interesting to people watch – the people in solemn prayer, the families visiting with children as tourists, westerners taking photos. We whiled away an hour just waking and looking which meant we were still there at dusk. It was even prettier bathed in a soft glow of pink. We headed out of the temples and onto the streets that form a bazaar around the palace. It was crazy noisy and busy and the shopaholic in me was dying to go crazy but I was good and refrained from buying anything. We were still feeling a little worse for wear so we headed back to our hotel and relaxed in the quiet.

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We were better tourists the next day and had arranged a tour of the Pakistan – India border closing as well as a few temples. The border closing was crazy! There really is no other word for it. We drove for about an hour up to the border and then walked through security, showed our passports and scrambled through the crowds into the V.I.P area for foreigners and got our spot. As we arrived the ceremony had just started and couples of Indian girls were running the flag up and down the road as guards watched on. Then the music started and all the girls jumped onto the road for a massive dance party. It was like being at the wedding all over again. The crowd clapped along with the music as they watched on and when Jai Ho came on they all went crazy. From what we could see of the Pakistan border not much was going on over there but the Indians were certainly making up for it.

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Once the dance party finished the guards came out and began their march. First one of the soldiers does a huge long wailing cry into the microphone and then two soldiers march down to the gates. The MC then runs arounds the crowd urging them to cheer and chant as the guards work the I magic at the gates. This was repeated on the Pakistani border I am sure but due to the crowds we couldn’t see much. The soldiers then did this crazy sort of kick  march at the gates to cheers of the crowd. Its hard to explain really what was going on because there was so much happening and so many people standing and shoving to see I mostly saw the back of peoples heads. At the end the flags are dropped and the ceremony is over and the stampede starts. We were pushed and shoved and ended up climbing a fence to get out – so much for being V.I.P’s. Thankfully we survived with everything I tact and headed on to the next stop.

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The Mata Temple was our next point of call and since neither James nor I had read up about it we had no idea what it was all about. We wandered in and got directed along a flight of stairs that led us along a windy adventure through the most colorful and jazzy temple I have ever been in. I say adventure because it was like a crazy house at a fun fair. We had to walk up a massive slope, get on our hands and knees and crawl through an opening, walk through rooms covered in mirrors, past massive distorted statues and through a tunnel of water. It was interesting but hard work not getting lost!

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Our final stop was the Golden Temple but this time to see it lit up at night. It was just as stunning with the golden building lit up and shimmering in the water. Since we had seen it the day before we had a wander around to see it at night before heading to the free kitchen. The palace operates a free kitchen which feeds over a hundred thousand people a day. We gave a small donation however since we were there for pure tourism reasons. We were given a Thai plate and bowl and guided to upstairs where rows and rows of carpet were set out. We sat down and joined the locals an waited for our food. Volunteers come along and pour dhal, curry and rice pudding onto our plates and water into our bowls. There were men walking big baskets of chapati around and to get one you had to hold your palms out and wait for them to drop it into your hands.  We sat cross legged and ate with our hands and the food was really yummy. Considering they serve so many a day and we received it hot and fresh they must certainly have the system down. Once you are finished you get up and take your plate to the washers who get rid of the mess and start the hard task of all that washing up. It was really amazing to see how much they can do to feed so many and just another reason that the Golden Temple is such an amazing place.

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The next day we were up bright and early at 4am to get on a train to our final destination, Udaipir. We had a great time up in Punjab and I would have to say it was one of my favourites (as most places tend to become) because we had experienced so much great stuff there. I was also happily surprised by the food – we are getting a little bit over curry but the food we had in Punjab definitley reignited our love of Indian flavours. Its hard to believe we were going to skip this part of India completely and I’m so glad we didn’t as I highly recommend a visit to everyone.

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Tying The Knot – Indian Style

Going to an Indian wedding wasn’t always on our travel plans but when Hamish mentioned him and Michelle were going to one in Punjab and it probably wouldn’t matter if we tagged along we changed our itinerary to fit it in. Don’t worry – we weren’t wedding crashes, the groom Karendeep is a close work mate of Hamish’s said more the merrier. Karendeep lives in Melbourne but is originally from Bhatinda and when his parents thought it was taking him too long to find a wife they did it the more traditional way of arranging a bride. It wasn’t a blind wedding though and Karendeep had met his bride Jasimeen several times and was happy about the match. My feelings about arranged marridges as side (I dont really agree with them) it was promised to be one hell of a party. There was the ‘engagement party’ that evening with the ring ceremony followed by the actual wedding and further celebrations the next day.

We met Mish and Hamish in Amiritsar and shared a taxi to the town of Bhatinda. It was really pretty scenery and as we got further out of the city the road signs were less and less in English and I was excited about heading off the tourist trail (the city with a population of over a million doesn’t even get a mention in the guidebook) and experience something uniquely Indian somewhere off the grid. We had a bit of a delay due to a peaceful protest blocking the highway which meant once we arrived at our hotel we had to quickly meet Karen and his cousin before a quick freshen up before we headed to his family home.

Once we arrived we were greeted with lots of waves and shy smiles before Michelle and I got ushered into some seats to get our henna tattoos done. All the female in the family had already had theirs completed and it all looked so intricate I thought it would take ages. I completely underestimated the professionals  and they had done both sides of my hands and arms in about 20 minutes. The long part was waiting for it to dry as it takes up to two hours to dry completely. We were then given some delicious home made food but couldn’t eat it – thankfully the boys were lovely and fed it to us. Since we were in a regional house the food was all eaten by hand so it must have made an interesting scene to watch us four attempt to do it. The whole family were so welcoming and those that spoke english came and chatted an we were played with food and drinks which is just a perfect example of Indian hospitality.

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We sat in their courtyard and chatted away as the rest of the family got ready. It was interesting to see the men’s prepare their hair and beards and then wrap their turbans. All the women went off to get dolled up and all came out looking gorgeous in sparkly tunics and dresses with their nice long hair all done. I felt fairly under dressed in my best summery dress and sandals! Once they were all dolled up we headed off to the wedding venue. We drove along and there were three massive venues on the street all lit up with fairly lights. We arrived at ours and walked the red carpet (literally) as we got papped (literally) – there were so many photographers and even a video camera with huge light on it.

The venue was set up beautifully with big marquees filled with drapes and fairly lights full of couches and tables outside in the cool evening air. Inside there was a massive hall with a DJ playing loud Punjabi music but my favourite part was the food. There was two massive aisles off turreens and stalls with all different types of food. Not to mention the tandoori oven and full bar. It was like walking into a food court. We waited on some couches for awhile for the groom to arrive and were instantly surrounded by ten waiters offering us whisky and sodas (the only alcohol offered), soft drinks, food, desserts or just to come over and look at us. And that’s what everyone did!

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As we were wandering around a young girl called Max came up to us and started chatting, asking all the usual questions such as ‘where are you from?’  ‘How long have you been in India?’. It wasn’t until a little later she told us that we were the first foreigners she had ever seen and spoken to. She was a really smart girl and such a good conversationalist it was hard to believe she was only 12. As we were chatting more and more people came over asking for our names and for photos. It seemed that we wouldn’t be able to have a quiet night and celebrate from afar.

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We had a break from all the attention when the bride arrived and we got to see Jasimeen for the first time. Her family lead her in with a procession and she looked gorgeous in a white and blue dress that sparkled like crazy. She was quite a shy and demure bride as she met Karendeep on a stage in the hall set up for photos. They sat there for hours smiling for photos with different members of the family and any friends who jumped on stage. While this was happening we helped ourselves to some of the delicious food on offer. I was some of the best I’ve had in my time in India and it was a great opportunity to try a few things that were new on Punjabi menu.

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It was then time for the ring ceremony which involved the family gathering around, showering the couple with gifts and the bride and groom swapping rings. Once that was all done it was onto the dancefloor and I can tell you the Punjabi’s know how to dance. We joined in and attempted as many Bollywood moves as we could. They had a ritual of the females dancing with a lit up pot on their heads and the men following them with a big stick as people threw money around them. No one really explained why but we gave it a go anyway. By this stage all the formalities were over and the bride and groom joined us on the dancefloor and had some fun. However we were all knackered and headed back to the hotel ready to do it all again the next day.

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We were up bright an early the next morning to head over to Karendeeps family home again for more preparations. As today was a more formal day everyone was in even fancier gear and Michelle and I got to wear sarees! I had bought one on my travels as soon as we found out we were going to a wedding and Karen’s family was kind enough to arrange an outfit for Michelle. We duckes into a room to get dressed and luckily for me Karen’s aunt, Mannah, helped me wrap it around. As there are many different ways to wear one we attempted two before we settled on a third way that a rookie like me could walk and dance in. It was a bit of a process as my petticoat, blouse and cloth were arranged and pinned and I have a whole lot of respect for the women who wear them everyday and work, sit on the back of motorcycles and wander town in them. Mish was lucky with a skirt, top and scarf combo the only problem being it was too big but with a bit more pinning we were ready to go.

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As we headed back to the venue we were asked to join the procession with Karen and we wandered the road with the family as he rode on a decorated horse with sword in hand as bagpipes played. One of his Uncles was kind enough to explain that this was a gallantry display meant to represent that Karen would save and protect his bride once she was his. We arrived at the venue and Karen and his family was greeted by Jasimeens family where another ceremony was held. This time it was to join the two families and garlands of marigolds were given to each other. Once that was over Karen met Jasimeen in the temple for their official ceremony. We used this time to relax on the couches under the marquees and people watch. We weren’t getting as many requests for photos but we did get to meet more people as they were really friendly and interested as to how four westerners were at a Punjabi wedding.

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After the temple ceremony, Karen and Jasimeen walked back in as husband and wife and we followed them into the hall for more photos and and another ceremony of placing garlands of flowers over each other. Jasimeen looked beautiful in her red and gold outfit to match Karen’s gold tunic and red turban. They both looked much more relaxed and happier as all the guests went up to the stage to offer their congratulations. We spent the afternoon feasting on more delicious food and taking lots more photos. This time we spent most of it with Jasimeens family and it was nice to meet her sisters and brother as we had met Karen’s whole family too.

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It was all over too quickly and the bride and groom left for the afternoon. It was kind of sad to see Jasimeems family say goodbye as she was led off by Karen’s family to their home. She will be moving to Australia soon too so i am sure they were sad to see her leave. We went back to the home to pick up our stuff and change back into our civvies. The party was going to continue on there but we thought it was best to let the family have some time without westerners intruding and spend some time just the four of us as it was the last time we would all be together for awhile.

It was such am incredible, fun, colorful experience and these guys sure know how to party. It was amazing to be involved in such a cultural experience -the tradition, the food, the dancing and getting to wear a saree. Just amazing. I almost want to urge everyone to go out and befriend a Punjabi and weasle their way into their wedding. It felt really special to be welcomed by so many people into such a family orientated event and we were lucky we got to share Karendeep and Jasimeens special day.

Home Cooked Meal

Throughout our trip we have had the chance to test out many delicious curries and Indian meals so when we saw a sign advertising for cooking classes Dad, James and I  jumped at the chance to learn how to make them. We signed up for a lunchtime class that went for three hours and taught us to cook five dishes – all of which we got to eat at the end.

We arrived at the home of Mukti, our teacher for the day, and were welcomed into her kitchen with a drink and she explained how the day would work. We were joined by two Polish girls who had been travelling India after a wedding so we had lots to chat about as we waited for the class to start. The first meal we cooked was a mushroon masala and I stepped up to help Mukti and one of the other girls out while James and Dad played scribe and photographer. The meal was fairly simple to make although it did have a lot of ingrediants just to make it perfectly spicy. The second meal was a Paneer Mutter which basically means ‘cheese and peas’. Paneer is an Indian cottage cheese and is used as a substitute for meat quite often in their vegetarian meals. This one came with a Masala based sauce using many of the same spices and ingrediants as the last one.

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Then it came to the funnest part of the class – making chapati. Chapati is a thin bread made of flour, salt and water then cooked in a pan. We got taught how to mix and knead it before watching a demo on how to prepare and cook them. It looked like a simple case of rolling them flat, putting them in the pan and then to make it fluffy popping them straight on the flame. Once we got down to doing our own I found out it is a lot harder then it looks. I couldn’t quite get my chapati evenly round so they ended up a bit wonky when I put it on the flame. We sat down to eat the two curries with the chapati and they all tasted OK even if they were wonky. The two curries were delicious and full of flavour although I did prefer the mushroom Masala so will probably try that one again at home!

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After our lunch it was onto the next stage which was to cook Biryani – a sort of Indian fried rice. All of us were fans of the dish so we made sure we paid close attention to how it was done. Once again I was surprised at the amount of ingrediants used just to flavour the vegetables that were going to be thrown through the rice. Its looking like I may have to invest in the seven traditional spices that are used just so I can re-create the meal. The final dish was what I was looking forward to the most – dessert! We were taught how to make Halwa which is a carrot based dish. Basically you grate carrot, pour sugar, butter and milk over the top and boil away the liquid before serving. Sounds like a weird mixture but I can guarantee it was delicious! As was our Biryani!

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With notepads full of recipes and our tummys full of food we said goodbye to Mukti and headed home to hit the beach. It was a really fun experience and I think it won’t be the last time I do a cooking class while travelling. Plus after two months of eating out for every meal it was nice to have a sort of home cooked meal. That afternoon we wandered Calangute Beach and watched the fishermen bring in their haul. They were calling out for volunteers so Dad jumped in to lend a hand and along with lifeguards, beach goers, westerners and locals they got it in safely. We watched the men unroll their nets and pop the fish in baskets to sell at the market as the local dogs tried to snack on the rejects.

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The rest of our time in Goa sped by in a haze of relaxing by the pool, strolls along the beach and afternoon cocktails. It was a fabulous ten days to finish up for night in the sunny state and we were lucky to have amazing company for both Palolem and Calangue. I wasn’t looking forward to leaving as I had enjoyed my first beach/resort holiday for about five years but with just over two weeks to go until the trip is over for good we couldn’t stick around. Next stop – Hampi!

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To Market To Market

For much of our travel we have been behind ‘the season’ and I can’t tell you the amount of times something has been closed or unavailable because of it. However, now, we are finally in the season! This means we aren’t the only people eating I’m restaurants or wanting to do some activities and something we wanted to do was actually open. This time it was the Ajuna Beach Flea Markets.

Open only on Wednesdays we got to go to the first one of the season meaning that not only did everyone want our business but we had better bargaining power. The markets were placed between the palm trees right next to the beach so we spent our time wandering through the hundred or so stalls that where there. Many of them were selling the typical touristy goods such as ali-baba pants or Jewellery but we did find a few selling something different. Dad discovered that you could pledge money to buy a village a few chickens and we walked past a hippy trying to sell us trance music.

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As we continued on the bargaining and pushy market stall owners got a bit much as they would crowd you, grand at your arms ams tell you to come to their shop next. Many times we heard them say ‘you give me good luck – first customer of the day – buy anything for 50 rupees’. We did get some bargains but it wasn’t long before we retreated to a shady beach front bar to compare our shopping and bargaining.

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With our shopping out of the way we walked down Ajuna Beach which was full of Russian, German and Indian holiday makers that had all arrived on the first charter plane of the season. We snuggled in amongst them on some sunbeds and spent the rest of the morning dipping in the ocean, reading and of course sipping drinks. Its easy to see why this is the place people come for a holiday.

It was nice to check out another beach and get my shopping fix but I much prefer the quieter beaches of Palolem or Candolim. Even Calangute that is a package deal paradise is a bit more quiet. Maybe having the season start isn’t the best thing ever!

Old Spice

After saying goodbye to Mish and Hamish it was only a couple of hours before we met up with more company – this time in the form of my parents. Needless to say I was very excited to see them and after the hello hugs and kisses (and a few happy tears) we settled down with a Kingfisher beer to catch up. They had just finished a week long trip around the Golden Triangle (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur) before making their way down to Calangute, Goa. The catch up continued as we walked along the beach for another amazing sunset and then had a delicious seafood dinner with a few more celebratory drinks.

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The next day was also a pretty exciting day as it was James’s birthday. He woke to presents and cards from friends and family and then got treated to a cake with candles that Mum had brought all the way from home. James wasn’t the only one to get pressies as I received a big care package full of my favourite Australian food which meant we had heaps of Lollies and chips to add to the celebration. It was a pretty good start to the day. The rest of it was spent in true Goa style – relaxing by the pool, reading and grazing on food while sipping beers and cocktails. Followed by an evening walk along the beach for sunset where James tested his new Polariod camera and we watched the locals play beach cricket. We went out for a meal and a few drinks to celebrate and on the way home met a taxi driver who said he would take us to Old Goa.

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The next day our driver, Vas, picked us up and we set off for our day out. As far as taxi drivers go, Vas was the most enthusiastic we had ever come across and immediately nicknamed my parents ‘John the Baptist’ and ‘Jennifer Lopez’. He couldn’t stop talking to us and telling us about the history of Goa, his life there and then asking us lots of questions about ourselves. It made for a pretty interesting drive but by the time we got to our first stop we were all a little ready for some peace and quiet. Old Goa is found a bit further inland and had a cluster of different churches giving it the nickname ‘the Rome of the East’. We first visited the Se de Santa Catarina which is the largest in Old Goa and would have been even more impressive on the inside if all the gold hadn’t been chipped off the sculptures and the paintings hadn’t been stolen. We then went into the Basillica of Bom Jesus which was a huge building and high on the tourist route as we had to scramble through the many other tourist there trying to glimpse the remains of St Francis Xavier that were left on display. Finally we drove to our final view of the Church of Our Lady of the Mount which wasn’t open but did provide some spectacular views across old Goa.

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From there we had the options to visit some temples or head to a Spice Plantation. We opted for the spice plantation as by this stage we had all seen our fair share of temples and churches. We went there via a cashew factory where we saw how they treated, peeled, sorted and flavoured fresh cashews. It looked like repetitive work as we watched women on machines peddaling and pushing to peel the cashews and then more flicking them into different piles for sorting. We of course got a taste test and then couldn’t resist buying a bag as they were crunchy and fresh with a yummy coating.

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When we arrived at the Spice Plantatiom we saw three big elephants at the entrance way so we rushed over to snap a couple of photos. Mum slipped them a few rupees and got to get up close and give one a big pat on the trunk. They were trained and we could have gone for a ride but as they were chained up only under a flimsy tarp we weren’t sure about the welfare of them and decided to let them rest. We headed across a footbridge over to the main reception where we were welcomed with a herbal tea full of some of the spices they grew there. Once we had finished we where lead off on a tour of the gardens where they grew the spices. Our tour guide made it a guessing game giving us samples to smel or taste to help us decide what each one was. As a cook that uses mostly pre packaged seasoning and rarely uses herbal remedies I was rubbish at guessing most of them but I dedinately learned a little along the way. Once we finished our tour we helped ourselves to the lunch that was included and of course it was one of the most spicy and flavoursome meals I have had on my trip. We also tried Fenni which is a cashew liquor made from the apple of the cashew plant. It was extremely potent and smelt horrible but the taste wasn’t too bad. Its not my favourite drink ever but we are glad we tried it.

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We really enjoyed our day out to Old Goa but as the hot day continued we felt the pull back to the pool at the hotel and decided to head home. It wouldn’t be a holiday in Goa without an afternoon at the pool!

Multicultural Kochi

Our final stop in the state of Kerala was Fort Kochi. It was less relaxed then our other stops but that only meant we had more to visit and explore.

We turned up in Kochi and headed to a home stay recommended by the guidebook. It was a cute welcoming place set in a residential area. We were welcomed in with handshakes, pieces of chocolate cake and tea before we got shown to our room. The word room is a broad term for what could be described as a bamboo shack. It was a pretty swish shack with comfortable bed and western bathroom (with a tap and bucket shower) so it was definitely an experience. We were on the top floor in amongst the tree tops so it was nice and cool in the room. We were also next to the roof top area complete with hammock so it was a perfect place to stay.

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After we settled in we headed out to explore Fort Kochi which was one of the most multicultural places I have ever visited. We started our day by walking along the beach and past the Chinese fishing nets. They are left there from the 1400’s and while there are many other ways to catch fish nowadays they still get used occasionally. Luckily for us as we were wandering by we saw four men using them so we got to see how they worked. From there we wandered along the sea front past market stalls selling fresh fish and other trinkets and along to the St Francis Church. Built back in 1503 during the Portugeuse reign, it is believed to be India’s oldest European church. The church is just one of many scattered through Kochi.

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One of the other main sights in town is the Santa Cruz Basillica which unfortunately was closed off to us due to preparations for a procession. We decided to take cover from the heat of the day in a little cafe called Teapot. It was cute little kitchsy cafe with a to die for chocolate cake so it was easy to spent some time in there. Next on our to do list was the Bishops House and the Indo-Portuguese Museum. The museum hosts many religious artefacts from the period of Portuguese rule and we wandered around looking at their beautifully carved wooden crosses and bejewelled head dresses. The friendly curator told us about the special locks that were placed in the doors that each have a symbol of each religion on it so that people from all different faiths knew they were welcome inside. It was not only a really interesting design but such a great idea for tolerance and I was so glad that he had explained it to us.

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We stuck around in town long enough to view the procession. We had been told it would start between 4.45 and 5.30pm so we found a cafe with a second floor window space and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally as the sun had just gone down at about 6.45 we saw the first part of the procession. We watches for about an hour as different groups from the church walked in two lines down the road dressed in their best finery singing and praying. It was interesting for the first few minutes but after a while I used it as a fashion show, checking out all the different sari’s and picking my favourite. The parade was finished off with a long and loud firework display that we watched from the second story of another cafe. The waiter then told us that this had been happening every day for 10 days and this was the final night. It may not have been the most thrilling of processions but I was glad we got to see it on the final night.

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The following day our multicultural tour continued and we hired a rickshakw driver for a few hours. First stop on our tour was Kerala’s biggest laundry where we saw people washing clothes by hitting them against stones, drying them in fields and fields of clotheslines before ironing them with a 6kg iron full of hot coals. It was all a bit of a process really and as much as I hate doing my washing I’m thankful its only wacked in a machine and dryer.

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From there we were taken to Mattancherry which was home to the spice markets. He took us to a few of the larger shops before taking us to a ginger factory. We could smell it even before we got out of the rickshaw and we walked in to find it drying in the sun. We were then shown the sorting room where women were sitting flicking bits of ginger into different piles by hand. It looked like a long and laborious process and I didn’t envy their job for a second.

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Next stop was a Jain temple and was one of the only Hindu temples we have been allowed in to visit. I had to wear a shawl over my shoulders and we had to leave our bags and shoes behind but it was worth it to go in and have a wander. We went from that temple to the Synagogue which was closed due to a Jewish holiday so unfortunately we didn’t get to go in there. We did have a quick wander around the un-politically correct named streets of Jew Town. The area is famous for is linen and tailoring but the streets are also lined with the usual touristy kind of shops. From there we were shown a few more temples on our way out to see the fishermen at work. By this stage it was steaming hot and we were a bit temple out so we decided to leave the tour there and retreat to somewhere cooler. We headed to the waterfront for some cool sea breeze via the Dutch cemetary filled with bodies of soldiers and workers from the time of Dutch rule.

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The next day we skipped the cultural stuff of churches and museums and instead caught the ferry over to the mainland to go shopping. We had lost or used up a few supplies along the way and thought we may be lucky to find them in one of the malls. It seemed to us however that all that malls were filled with mobile phone shops. After visiting three and having no luck and also attempting to wander through the markets we gave up and headed back to Fort KochI to relax in a cafe before our overnight train that evening.

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After a few days of relaxing on a beach or house boat Kochi was a pleasent reminder of a hustly city filled with things to see. It was good to get off our bums and walk around and sight see for a change especially when it is a town filled with places of all different places and religions. It may not be the most picturesque place we visited in Kerala but it was definitely the most interesting.

Sunsets

With three quick flights from Kathmandu we arrived in the south of India to Thiruvananthapuram (I know what a mouthful). Even though we arrived in the early hours of the morning we decided to jump in a taxi to take us to the nearby beach town of Varkala. We thought it would be nicer to wake up at the beach rather then a transit capital but as we arrived at our hostel via tiny dirt roads I wasnt so sure. Thankfully when we woke up the next morning and went into town we discovered we had made the right choice as Varkala was stunning in the light of day.

Set on top of a cliff the main strip was filled with restaurants, shops and ayuravedic health centres all looking out into the ocean. We wandered along until we found somewhere we wanted to eat and had a delicious breakfast overlooking the blue sky and rolling sea. After our meal had to wander to find an ATM. We got a bit lost in the process and spent 45 minutes wandering the local town. The whole place just had a great relaxed and friendly atmosphere – even the men wore sarongs rather than trousers. The locals would greet you with a smile, the streets were cleaner and the houses in better shape. James then told me it may be because it is a communist state but I just think its because they have a beautiful place to live. We spent the rest of the day was spent at the beach under an umbrella with a few paddles in the sea.

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A beach in India is so different then those in Oz or Europe. For staters they are still modest when swimming and go in with most of their clothes on which made me feel scandalous in my one piece and sarong. Also it was surprising that while many people come to wander in the sand and watch the sunset very few of them do actually swim. Which is lucky because the lifeguards are tubby fellows relaxing under an umbrella that simply blow their whistles if someone is too far out.  The beach we were at is also used for rituals for family’s to say farewell to their lost loved ones. We saw many families wandering at the waters edge, holding hands and praying.

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As the sun was setting over the ocean we retired to a beachfront restaurant to have a drink. We ordered a beer not knowing that the restaurant wasn’t licensed and ended up with a teapot and mugs filled with a warm Kingfisher quickly bought from an off licence. It wasn’t the most refreshing way to end the day but the novelty of drinking a beer from a teapot and watching a stunning sunset was a great experience. It was the first of many gorgeous sunsets we watched at the beach and we weren’t alone. It seemed that most of the locals would come down just to sit and stare like we did. Including the local puppies who tried to come close and snuggle or play. Sadly due to risk of rabies we couldn’t play or cuddle but it seems at even in Kerala the dogs are friendlier.

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After our first relaxing sun and sea filled day we got into a rhythm of waking up late, casually eating breakfast, days at the beach, evenings playing cards or reading in our hotel lounge followed by a delicious meal on the cliffside. And delicious all our meals were. There was no shortage of choice for places to eat as we wandered the cliffside we passed many restaurants with their daily fresh seafood on ice outside. You could choose which fish (including shark) or check out the size of the prawns before making your choice. I’m not a big seafood eater but as they say – when in Rome and each night I tried to eat something local and fresh. I had an amazing tiger prawn curry (the prawns were more like mini lobsters they were so big) and delicious calamari rings. I didn’t branch out far enough for the shark though. Kerala is also known for its coconut flavoured meals and cashew production so you can find many options with these on the menu’s. James tried coconut porridge and it is a new favourite along with the cashew biscuits we stumbled across.

We started to lose a bit of time and after four nights I realised we hadn’t done anything we planned to do – no ayurvedic massages, no cooking classes and no further exploration to other beaches – so I decided on a day trip to Kollam. About 30 minutes by train Kollam sounded like another beach side town but with a spice market and lake nearby. Once we arrived we headed over to the rickshaw stand and got asked to be taken to the spice bazaar. None of the drivers knew what we were talking about and perhaps we should have taken that as a sign but we forged ahead. Once we got there the Mukkada Bazaar recommended by the lonely planet was literally just a local market made of rusty ramshakle huts selling pieces of meat covered in flies, fruit and some spices. Many locals were doing there shopping there and it was obvious that foreigners didn’t drop by often because nearly everyone said hello to us or came to the front of their stall to stare. It was still interesting to see a local market but was very different from what we had expected. I guess that’s why we shouldnt always take advice from a four year old guidebook.

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From there we set about trying to find the Ashtamudi Lake as it was apparently the gateway to the backwaters. We jumped in another rickshaw and asked to be taken to the lake. There was a bit of confusion, pointing at the guiebook and discussions in Hindi and English but we thought we got there in the end. 45 minutes later we only just arrived at a random resort in the backwaters. It wasn’t really what we were expecting but they did have a floating restaurant so we stayed there and relaxed over lunch and drinks looking out into the water. It was a fairly scenic place to view the lake but since it was so far away that was pretty much all we could do before having to had back to Varkala. There was no air con seats on the trains so we were packed into the standard section with the rest of the locals. I didn’t mind as it was only half an hour and there is much more going on in these carriages to look at. That said I’m glad we don’t do our longer journeys in that class – even if that makes me sound snobby.

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After a fairly disappointing day trip we had one last cliffside meal as we were leaving Varkala the next day. It was a perfect place to lose a few days and experience the more relaxed and friendly part of India but it was time to move on and fully explore the famous backwaters.