February 16, 2008

Getting to Goa...

Returning to Chennai we stayed once again with Krishna and his family enjoying his mum's excellent South Indian cooking. We were lucky enough to be there for the Pongal festival, a three day Hindu farmers festival celebrating the harvest. As it's the most important festival in South India pretty much everything closes down, rituals such as eating the Pongal (sweet rice) take place and the women all get brand new saris. We celebrated Pongal by having a "pot luck" lunch followed by a few competitive rounds of bingo with Krishnas family, neighbours and friends. Thanks again Krishna, and thanks for answering our endless list of questions!

Before we got too comfortable we decided to keep moving and make tracks back through Bangalore and north on to Hampi. Once the capital of the Hindu empire,Vijayanagara, who ruled the south India during 14th to 16th century AD. The ruins of Hampi, as it is known today, is a vast open museum of history, architecture and religion set in the middle of a boulder strewn landscape. We didn't know too much about Hampi before getting there, only that it was a big stop on the backpacking circuit, this was very obvious by the number the guesthouses and roof top restaurants crammed into the back streets of Hampi bizarre. A stroll outside the commercialism quickly brings you out into 25 square kilometers of ancient temples, palaces, market streets and other monuments. What's endearing about Hampi is that the ruins are impressive and spread out over a large area making the area surreal. It's hard to imagine just how impressive all the structures were in their heyday. Vittala Temple was the most impressive, its halls are noted for their extraordinary carved pillars and huge stone chariot complete with wheels. A set of pillars, known as 'musical pillars,' resonates when tapped. The temple supposedly had 56 pillars, each with 16 smaller pillars which produced different notes and sounds. During performances all 56 musical pillars were played together, accompanied by dancers. If you dare touch the pillars today you can expect a customary slap on the wrist whistle from the security guards.

Catching a bus West we travelled back to the coast to the temple town of Gokarna. Lying just below Goa this town gets the lots of visitors spilling down for the attraction of it's undeveloped beach tucked away around a headland - far away from touts and hawkers. The town itself is a pleasant little place lined with wooden shops and bustling with backpackers - it's been a while since we've seen so many fisherman pants. Although attracted by the beach we decided to push on up into Goa and relax there for a couple of days.

Every one has heard of Goa - which is surprising, given just how small this state is. Hundreds of thousands of tourists come here each year to soak up the sun, roam around the old colonial buildings and Churches and sample the fiery Goan cuisine. As a former Portuguese colony the interior of Goa has many charming old towns with ornate mansions. Along the coast are the long sandy beaches, made famous first by the overland hippies of the 70s - the busiest now frequented by package tourists from Europe. Thankfully there still are some quiet spots left - although for how much longer that remains to be seen.

Our first beach stop was Palolem Beach where we hopped off a bus in the middle of a busy street lined with stalls selling sarongs, jewellery, cushion covers etc. We were immediately faced with two options - either to go straight to the beach to procure a romantic beach side hut amidst the palm trees or take a look around town and find a room in a guesthouse. Experience has put us in category number two - the "romantic" novelty of wicker walls, no electricity, sand in everything, rickety steps and an agonising trek across a muddy yard and across a yucky drain to the communal tin bathroom in the middle of the night just isn't pleasant and never was. Well... not when you can be 2 minutes away tucked up within in a proper guesthouse with solid walls with your en suite bathroom and balcony. Some places in this world may have fantastic beach huts but most we've seen are more like shanty towns that have been knocked together at the start of the season. There's no shortage of people clamoring to secure a hut for the week. Palolem Beach's small scale, lack of big high rise hotel developments, idyllic palm fringed beach and laid back atmosphere made it a lovely place to stop for a few days to read a book and enjoy beach life. After a couple of days of "western food" we were ready to sample some spicy Goan cuisine - so it was time to hit the towns where the real Goan's live far away from the toned down menus.

Panjim is the capital of Goa, a beautiful old city with the most overpriced, repulsive accommodation we've seen so far. Arriving mid afternoon we began our usual search seeing absolute dives at mega buck prices. Just when we thought we'd have to hit an all time high on the sleeping expenditure we found something that "sufficed". Marcus came back to me with a grim look asking "Do you remember the movie Seven ..... well some of the scenes we filmed in this guesthouse." Grim is an understatement, for the remainder of the visit the object of the exercise was to spend the least amount of time in the room - the story has a silver lining though as we found fantastic restaurant cooking up proper Goan food. If we could go back there for food tonight we would in a heartbeat.

Heading north we stopped in Anjuna for a couple of days. A chilling beach wind that whipped up the sand wasn't exactly conducive to sunbathing. Those that did brave the beach shared it with the local bovine population. You never do get used to cows weaving their way through the sunbeds feasting on banana skins and pineapple shells. Sadly Anjuna beach didn't host a fantastic array of seafood, and most of the menus were of the "chips and egg" variety so we decided to push on to Mumbai. We did hang around long enough to take in the colourful weekly market which draws huge crowds of tourists each week. It's an amusing spectacle where you can carefully pick out a couple of tasteful goods and leave satisfied or get completely carried away and buy heaps of junk that you'll unpack at home and wonder what the hell you were thinking. If you've even the slightest urge to chill a little, let go of inhibitions and buy a hippy teeshirt then there's a very good chance you'll come away with an entire tie dye wardrobe including a suede gun belt. Fortunately our small bags limit any good or bad decision making when it comes to markets so we left as light as we arrived.

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Beaches, Trains & Palaces

:: Colours in Mysore ::

Our first stop in Kerala was the city of Trivandrum most memorable for it's grand buildings and it's crowd pleasing zoo. We toured the big zoo enclosures along with a couple of hundred schoolkids desperately trying to spot whatever was housed inside it. When we finally reached the back houses where big tigers lounged in tiny cages the excitement of the children boiled over in the form of extremely ferocious growling and clawing actions at the tigers - who were literally feet away. Potential interaction with the specimens rose above comfort level at the caiman alligator enclosure where you could look over a four foot fall and easily reach down to touch one of the 20 caimans basking in the sun. Picture twenty alligators with unblinking eyes fixed on you and blood dripping out of the corners of their mouths, add excited growling kids all up on top of the wall offering any protection to you .... and believe me you get yourself out of there quick smart.

After a quick day trip to package holiday destination Kovalam, we headed north to the laid back version, Varkala. We were very pleasantly surprised by Varkala Beach so much so that it is now a contender for top beach destination of the trip. Varkala is two small beaches with a cliff in between - all the guesthouses and restaurants are perched amongst coconut trees at the edge of the cliff with magnificent views out over the Indian ocean. Add blue skies, a lovely beach with waves, no hawkers, balmy weather and kilos of cheap blue marlin, barracuda, snapper, tuna and giant prawns and you've got the idyllic beach destination (for us). We lost a few laid back days bobbing in the waves; and evenings inspecting and consuming the fantastic array of seafood. At the time we sensibly moved on to keep to our schedule but have since regretted it, as nothing further north compared beach and fresh seafood wise . Fingers crossed we'll go back there in the future and not find high rises, hawkers and a KFC.

:: Dinner - Marlin ... again::

After tearing ourselves away from our paradise, we ventured on to Kollam, a gateway to the infamous Kerala backwaters. Taking a village tour in a little canoe boat we slowly moved through the tiny palm fringed village canals. The pace of the whole excursion was so slow and the surrounds so relaxing that we both almost fell asleep in the boat. Moving into the larger waterways we could see kingfisher and kite birds flying high in the skies. We stopped on a small island where we were almost force fed coconut. I can safely say I have never consumed as much in my life, and even at that half of it went to the family's dog. Many people take a two day houseboat trip through the waterways to fully relax and get some sleep along the way. We curtailed ourselves to a day, after visiting a fish farm, boat making area and seeing a lazy sunset it was time to disembark and be rudely jolted back to reality on the bumpy road on to Alleppey. Alleppey unremarkable save the disproportionate number of umbrella stores it has. It didn't rain while we were there but when it does it most be pretty full on.

:: Backwater Boats ::

Pushing on through Cochin we stopped for a night in the transit hub of Coimbatore where we experienced our tightest accommodation squeeze yet and spent a couple of hours approaching midnight desperately searching out guesthouses down every alley. From there is was on to Mettupalayam where we caught a the "toy train", running since 1889, up to Ooty. The little blue wooden steam engine pushes the carriages up 46km in 5 hours. Seated in the very last carriage, right in front of the steam engine, every time we went through a tunnel we had to close the window or get smoked and embered out of it. Chugging slowly along we stopped every few kilometers to cool the engine and fill up on water. Five hours later the novelty of counting down the kilometers as we slowly gained elevation had long since worn off. An hour from Ooty a diesel engine was put up front and we steamed (well dieseled) on into Ooty.
Ooty is the backdrop to many a romantic scene in Tamil Nadu movies, lying at 2600m it's a hill station that offers a cool respite from the hot Indian summer. Not the place to be heading to in an Indian winter with a limited summer wardrobe! After we'd scooted out some fantastic tandoori chicken and tasty banana shakes the sun dropped and the temperatures plummeted forcing us to take refuge in the hotel room and hide under the blankets - not even daring to venture out for dinner. Wardrobe limitations forced us to reconsider our travel plans and get back down to sea level temperatures fast. The next obvious stop was Mysore in Karnataca state.

:: Prepping for the Next Hill ::

A dusty bus wound it's way down to Mysore and back to warmth. We were lucky enough to be in town for the Sunday night light up of the spectacular Mysore Palace. Other highlights included the colourful market with it's multitude of flower sellers. Extra colour was injected by the market stalls selling powdered face paints heaped in a vast array of coloured pyramids.

:: Mysore Palace ::

Hopping on a 12 hour bus (one of which leaves Mysore bus station every 2 minutes) we headed north for the big city lights of Bangalore. We were in town for the highly competitive India V's Pakistan cricket test match and in one gloriously sunny afternoon, lucky enough to catch a lot of wicket action spectating from the rowdy cheap seats. One thing that became evident en route to the cricket was how crooked the autorickshaw drivers are in this town. Every one we approached without exception suddenly developed a meter malfunction - in desperation we enlisted the help of a traffic cop who stepped into the middle of the road and brought the first rickshaw to a screeching halt. Surprise, surprise.... no problem with his meter.

Unable to resist the lure of the golden arches we ventured in to McDonalds but were bitterly disappointed, without the flagship Big Mac (with it's questionable beef quality) to savour it's not a real McDonalds at all. Not all was bad on the food front though, we found the Majestic Hotel restaurant beside the bus station and managed to squeeze in some spectacular meals. Just around the corner we found a "fresh beer" man something we haven't seen since Vietnam. When we came back after Christmas three weeks later he'd upped his prices by 50% so the idea must have taken off in Bangalore.

:: Gateway to Mysore Palace at Night ::

After a quick hop back to Chennai, (to see KK and indulge in his Mum's cooking ) we took a break from India and her curries and spent Christmas in Ireland with Dee's family. After being so long on the road it was bizarre to back to a life where you could help yourself to the contents of the fridge. Not having to check out , travel all day and find accommodation was also a novelty; not to be underestimated. We had a fantastic Christmas in Dublin with family, catching up with friends and eating all the food we'd been craving for for months. Our three weeks break from the road absolutely flew -thanks for having us, we'll be back soon!

Click Here to see our '2007 - Year in pictures' video if you haven't' seen it already.

To round off the 2007 celebrations off we also got engaged...... see we do intend to stop travelling and settle down at some stage ;-) The challenge now is to organise a wedding from dingy internet cafes along the way.

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