Monday, 13 February 2012

India, AKA paradise.

Oh god, how can I ever take a plane again? The wind rushing through my hair, the smiles and gawks from the locals, the people waiting by the side of the tracks to cross.

But wait. I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's backtrack.

So, final day of Singapore. We jumped on the train and headed off to Bughis for our final day. It was a Saturday, so everyone was out in the streets, market stalls with yelling salespeople, colourful fabrics, great smells from the kitchens. Alleys leading everywhich direction with stalls upon stalls selling everything you can imagine.

We visited a Buddhist temple, and marveled once more at the beauty and cost that had gone into it. Inside it was a mass of moving people, some praying, some beating sticks, incense piled high by the doors. As we were carried inside by the crowd, we did our best to mimic the others and how they paid their respects. I hope I did it right!

After that, we returned to the hotel to grab our bags and head towards the airport. Our flight was at 9PM, and we arrived at the hostel at about 5, having checked out at 12 and leaving our large bags in reception. The manager welcomed us back like old friends, asking when our flight was, where we were going, did we enjoy our stay. When hearing the time of our outbound plane, he jumped into action, insisting we take one final dunk in the jacuzzi on the roof and have a hot shower before we flew off.

"Who knows when you'll next get to use a jacuzzi!" he claimed, practically pushing us towards it. We thanked him endlessly for being so nice, to which he appeared somewhat outraged. "Nice?! This is not nice! This is service! This is what we do here!". That kind of service? For $21 a night? Wow, I need to go back to Singapore.

But I found that everywhere in Singapore. The people were friendly, cheerful, wanting to help us as much as they could, and endlessly nice.

After our hot shower, we jumped on those fantastic trains one final time and headed to the airport. Once again, the people amazed us. Security were polite and cheerful, smiling and helping us through. When I beeped through the metal detector, the guard asked nicely if I could show him my wallet. Wow. Some of the other security guards at other places could learn from these guys!

I also want to put in a special mention to the coffee guy in the airport, who chatted with us as we waited (airport was empty) regarding our stay, what we thought, what he thought we should have seen (Universal Studios apparently) and when we were hoping to come back. I tried to give him the last of my Singapore money as a tip, and I received a confused glance in return. A tip? What for? He was doing his job! He kindly suggested I donate it to a charity in the corner of the airport. God I love the people out here.

I should say now, I'm sat in a restaurant on the upper floor of a building, listening to traditional music, sipping watermelon juice and watching a fishing boat head out to sea. One of the ones that comes back with fresh seafood tonight. More on that later.

So, we arrived in Trivandrum. Immigration was quick and easy (we were one of 6 foreigners in the airport) and then we were through. There's a money exchange counter there (awful rates, jut get enough to get into town), hit up the pre paid taxi stand (good idea) and jumped in a taxi with a friendly driver who took us to the YMCA for 350 rupees. I mentioned we were heading to Kerala, and straight away had a "Need a taxi sir?". Woops. I'm impressed he didn't press me though, I thanked him, but told him we were taking the train, which he accepted without fuss. Awesome.

The guard at the YMCA didn't speak a word of English, which took me far too long to realise. So after speaking to effectively a deaf person for 3 minutes he nodded, had me fill in a form, and then lead us to the room. The YMCA gets a 4 out of 5. It cost us 800 rupees for the night, was clean and spacious, with a fan and air con, a shower and western style toilet. Mattress was painfully hard though.

The receptionist the next morning spoke English, so we paid him (another friendly man) and headed into the main town to book our train and head onwards to Varkala. Our Lonely Planet has been our bible, leading us to fantastic places again and again. The town was dirty, smelly, noisy and busy. Piles of rubbish everywhere. Some smouldering, some just piled high. The people spoke varying amounts of English, and we hit up The Indian Coffee House, shaped like a giant cockle shell. Inside it was literally a spiral heading up, with tables along the outer edge. Amazing, but tiring to get up! Very busy too, we ordered a couple of things, but were a little disappointed with the quality of the food. Coffee was very good though. A couple of local men sat next to us on the table, and recommended a variety of foods we should try, and explained some of the words on the menu.

The train reservation office was manic! A long queue leading up to a single booth. An elderly man was behind me, and let me tell you now, I have never been touched so intimately by a random person before. There is no personal space. His head was on my shoulder, and he was pressed up pretty close behind me. Any time I tried to leave some space in front of me he would put a gentle hand upon my back and push me back into place. I'm laughing to myself as I write this, it was just so funny. As we got closer, a group of about 6 or 7 elderly ladies came up the side and tried to jump in. Elderly moustache (the guy behind me, as I affectionately refer to him as) sprang into action, yelling in Hindi about the queue and for them to get to the back. A wife of one of the men in front was standing by the side next to Aya, and a bunch of us starting hiding smiles and laughs as the elderly all started yelling and pushing each other away from the booth. It was such a crazy and funny sight. I was shoved to the side as he threw himself forwards, and thought that was it for me, another 20 minutes of queueing. But amazingly, after the women had had a decent telling off, the man looked at me in astonishment.

"YOU are in the queue! Come! Come!" He then proceeded to grab my shoulders and forcefully insert me back in front of him. I have been told since that this is a rare occurrence, and if you allow yourself to leave the queue, that's it for you most of the time. Good to know eh?

The train. Oh my, the train. $1 each. For a distance equivalent from Swindon to London. The trains were more comfortable, faster, more interesting, cheaper and all together more amazing than any Great Western service! Why on earth do we strap ourselves into little metal tubes to be flown across the sky when we can peer out of the open window, protected by a few metal bars, watching life flow by outside. And I'm not talking about those annoying things in the west, which are basically planes on wheels. Another tube, sealed from the outside. The inside of the train was double level, split up into a dozen or so 'compartments' with a corridor next to them. Opposite the 'compartments', was another couple of seats facing one another. I call them compartments with the quotations as there were no doors, just 6 seats facing each other, 3 by 3, with thin walls between the backs. Above all of the seats was a bed, where you would find a few sleeping men, a lot of clambering children, and curious eyes peering down. Along the corridor strode men selling coffee (their call turned into a quick repetitive "Coffeee! Coffeeoffeeoffeeoffeeoffeeoffeeoffeeoffeeoffeeeeee!" and at the stations takeaway food was sold through the windows.

When we were moving, the breeze through my hair and watching the huts and trees and water and the smells and the people... God, if there is one thing you do in India, make sure it is travel on a train in the cheap compartment. Sleeper class is good, really good. Perch on a seat, chat with the local people (who will have endless questions. Make sure you start the conversation though, they're a bit shy at first. Once you talk to one though, boom, you'll have 72 brand new best friends who will want to know everything about you), open the window wide and be amazed. A note, though Lonely Planet says the train journey is an hour and a quarter, it only took us 40 minutes. Make sure you read the station signs!

The commission racket is alive and well here in Varkala (to quote Lonely Planet). When we jumped in a taxi, the guy handed us a leaflet and started slagging off the hotel I asked him to take us too.

"No no! Awful place! Here, very nice. Very cheap, next to the beach! Here is bad bad bad! I will take you here."

At that point I went American on his ass. Told him to please take us to the hotel I asked him to take us too. If we didn't like it, I would think about another place.

So he did, grumbling about how the other place was so much better. Told us to leave our bags in the car, as he knew we would not like our hotel and he could take us to 'much better place'. So, we grabbed our bags from the car, I paid him and thanked him for the journey, and he followed us to the front of Santa Claus All Seasons Resort (yeah, it's called that) still insisting we were wrong.

He did us a favour though, as the place was quiet, the receptionist standing outside gave us almost half price on the spot, possibly as thanks for ignoring the endless taxi driver behind us. So we have a nice sea facing double room with a private balcony overlooking the sea with nice wicker seats for 900 rupees a night. About $9 per person. The usual cost is 1500, so score! It's clean, a nice bed, very friendly receptionist (who is always stood around the front, happy to answer questions, help out, give directions or just talk) and all in all, fantastic deal for the money we paid.

I'll try and go into a little less detail now, as if you've read this far, you must either be really bored or have a ton of time on your hands!

That evening, we went for a walk, and were surprised to find fishermen occupying the earlier empty stalls. They team up with the restaurants dotted along the cliff (with small shops in between) and you purchase the fish from the fisherman, who shows you several possible ways to have it cooked, recommends his favourite type, and gives you a price. Boom, freshly caught crab cooked up in traditional Keralan style with coconut infused rice for $5. SO GOOD. Tonight I'm looking forward to fresh barracuda tandoori style. Oven cooked at high heat to get the fish so tender, then dry rubbed with tandoori spices and sliced into steaks. The waiter last night recommended it to us, and the American couple next to us nodded fervently upon the recommendation and handed over some of their sunfish cooked in the same style to taste. Yeah, I'm hooked.

But so much good food at such amazing prices. I could stay here forever, this place is amazing. Pictures when I have my camera and internet at the same time, so not sure! Hoping people are enjoying this, and/or the pictures. Do people think I should upload to Facebook instead of Picasa?

Right, that's all for now, the next few days are us at paradise, eating like kings, drinking beer, and forgetting about everything except for bliss. How I will ever live back home again is beyond me. We realised last night that for the same amount we're paying for our room, freshly caught seafood, beer, lunch, breakfast, fresh juice and paradise, we were spending on 2 beds in an 8 bed dorm, cheese and crackers in Sydney or Melbourne. Sorry Australia.

Until next time. Please, tell your friends about this, let me know what you think, feedback will help me get better at this! Less detail? More detail? Less about me, more about the place? Let me know!

Andy

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