Sunday, 19 February 2017

From The Estuary of the Wolf to The Villlage of the Cow - Travels To Goa & Beyond

Ten hours and some 411 kilometres later the Malabar Express pulled into Mangalore Central station. Although we'd booked the most basic of sleeper classes the journey was comfortable and, being the only Westerners in a carriage of 76 berths, our fellow travellers made every effort to help us, using the torches on their phones to find our bunks in the dark and making sure we were settled before attending to their own needs.

We'd decided to stay at the Adarsh Lodge, described as A bit of a dive, but cheap and clean in the Rough Guide. Trying to find a tuk tuk willing to take us took an age as drivers get baksheesh from the swankier hotels when they drop off guests and there was little chance of a pay-off from a £4 a night room. Eventually someone took pity on us and dropped us off for 50p. 

Despite only being built in 1984, with the institutional maroon and custard yellow colour scheme, granite floor, squat toilet and threadbare bed covers, the Adarsh wouldn't have looked out of place in a 1960s Cold War film. We could have hired a TV from reception but chose not to, so the focal point was the empty glass case where it should have been. 

After a quick shower we set off to explore all that Mangalore had to offer. Within minutes we'd seen a man barefoot, dressed in a loincloth and covered in orange paint walking up the central reservation.

We took a seat in a pure veg canteen, ordered a "meal" and minutes later were served two huge veg thalis for 40p each.

After lunch we found the Cosmopolitan Club and the splendid Art Deco Prabhat cinema, both of which are mentioned in S Reuben's 1939 Travellers In India which Lynn had sent us before we left. 

In a bid to escape the punishing heat and humidity we thought we'd head to the park we'd seen marked on the street map in the Rough Guide. Assisted by what seemed like the entire population of Mangalore keen to help the two fools wandering around aimlessly in the heat of the midday sun, we finally found it, only to discover that it didn't open until 5pm and that most of it had been carved up by a development company.

So what of the historical Mangalore written of Pliny and Ptolemy and so beloved of Ibn Battuta? Sadly buried beneath one of the monstrous concrete shopping malls dominating the city and filled with the likes of McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Subway and KFC. 

Of more interest were the advertisements for astrologers adorning every corner of the city.  If the future is tower blocks and junk food I think I'll stay in the past.

Sweatier than sweaty things we headed back to our room. After another shower and a futile attempt at a siesta, interrupted every twenty minutes by the over-enthusiastic room boy ringing our doorbell and shouting Sir! Madam! Pani, pani*, chai, chai, coffee, coffee! Dinner was a bag of Malabar chips (fried banana crisps seasoned with chilli) and the remains of an over-ripe bunch of bananas we hadn't eaten on the train, washed down with rum and coke from an enamel camping mug. The ceiling fan had two settings, off or blow your eyelashes off so Jon used his trusty Indian Army knife to prise open the paint-sealed windows for some fresh air.  At 3am, we shook the man sleeping on the floor behind the reception desk awake to let us out, found a sleepy tuk tuk driver on the street outside and headed back to Mangalore Central to board a passenger train to Goa.


 The Konkan Railway route is said to cut through some of the most beautiful scenery in all India
What should have been an six hour train journey ended up taking nine but, when you look at the view from our carriage window, it was no real hardship. Could there be a lovelier Monday morning commute?

Finally,  the train pulled into Canacona station in South Goa and we flagged down a tuk tuk to take us to Agonda, the village we've stayed in years before it became the hip, chill-out destination it is today.

Main street, Agonda
Accommodation in Agonda comes at a premium but, as luck would have it, there was a room free at our favourite haunt, Our Friend's Place. Set in lush gardens behind their popular restaurant, home for the next week was a thatched coco hut with a sit-out area, bedroom and a huge bathroom. As we opted for room only (you can have breakfast) it cost £10 a night.

It didn't take us long to fall back into our Goa rhythm.

An early morning walk along the beach.

Breakfast in the tiny roadside cafe, Reshma, where for 30p each, we dip fluffy white bread rolls (pav) into saucers of fiery vegetable curry (bhaji). 

Here's Reshma's boss shopping for fresh veg for the lunchtime thali.

When wandering the shady, sandy lanes behind the beach something interesting always takes our eye - ancestral homes painted in deliciously gaudy colours, garden shrines planted with sacred Tulsi (from the basil family), colonies of fruit bats and quirky, hand painted signs.

I had to laugh at the barefaced cheek of the most expensive hang-out joint in town, they'd only gone and nicked a photo from my blog to advertise their bar. I always knew I belonged in Goa.

Armed with bottled water and a bag of fruit, afternoons were spent basking on the beach...

Being townies, we know nothing about cows, they're simply creatures in fields glimpsed from the van window when we're travelling up and down the motorway on the way to vintage fairs. Until we went to Agonda we had no idea that they loved sunbathing and paddling in the sea or galloping along the shore or even that they had a passion for bananas - several times they've mugged us when they've caught a whiff of banana from my beach bag and we've had to forfeit lunch as they won't take no for an answer. In the evenings they'd wander into restaurants and stand beside the tables, staring dolefully at diners with their huge brown eyes until the proprietor sees them off with a squirt from a spray bottle of water . If I wasn't already a lifelong vegetarian after a week here I don't think I'd ever eat beef again. 

After sunset it's time for a quick shower, a rum and coke on the balcony and ponder upon trickiest decision of the day...where shall we eat tonight?  

Me in action! Jon was trying to take my photo when we were in the bar next door to Our Friend's Place but inadvertently pressed the record button on the camera. Middle-aged people and technology, eh?

 After seven nights in Agonda it was time to move on and, as we'd already travelled by plane, train, tuk tuk and ferry it was time we took the bus. I wish British buses played an Indian filmi soundtrack!

See you soon!

Linking to Patti & The Gang for Visible Monday.

More photos of Agonda & Mangalore HERE

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Cochin On A Budget - Travels To Goa & Beyond

If you watched The Real Marigold Hotel last night you'll have heard the intrepid band of pensioners marvel at how cheap Cochin is. We got by on an average £22 a day between us - that's all our food & drink, accommodation, transport and sightseeing, pretty much the same as we live on in Goa.

I'm not sure what the budget for the Marigold gang is but it's a world away from ours, after all they're celebrities and we're self-employed market traders. Their accommodation* was just around the corner from ours (so you can imagine our squeals of excitement when we saw it on TV last night) and, by bizarre coincidence, we'd taken a photo of its impressive gateway after we learned that it had once formed the boundary wall of the East India Company offices. We even had a spiced, iced tea in the chi-chi arts café in the grounds of their hotel and got clobbered with "luxury tax", two drinks cost more than most of our dinners did!

*Our 2010 edition of the Rough Guide to Kerala lists the tariff as being between $340-450 a night for a suite, way out of reach for your average British pensioner!

The Real Marigold Hotel gang stayed here

I've mentioned that we'd haggled down the room rate for our homestay. Before we left Goa we'd visited an internet cafe and searched recommendations on Trip Advisor for budget accommodation in Fort Cochin. After checking the room rates we selected a few likely candidates and Googled their phone numbers. As we'd bought an Indian sim card when we arrived in India (around £3.50) our calls were charged at local rate. Although many landlords use internet booking sites, most prefer to cut out the middleman and avoid paying commission to a website so, if you offer to stay for more than a couple of nights, they'll usually come up with a better price - we got a 60% discount.

Paper masala dosa (£1), Mysore masala dosa (80p), cardamon chai (20p) and veg thali (£1) and one of our favourite eateries in the premises of an old pepper warehouse.  

Food prices vary enormously and eating in the tourist restaurants in the trendy bit of Fort Cochin can often set you back more than you'd pay at home. These places are frequented by Westerners and the food is either bland, adapted to what's considered suitable for a foreign palate or the tired old Hakka noodles/fried rice traveller's fare. Who wants to travel halfway around the world, hang around with a load of other Westerners & eat boring food? Not us. We look for places away from the main tourist drag, with signs advertising "homely food" or "Authentic Keralan Cuisine" and if the clientele's mainly Indian we're reassured that the menu's going to be more to our taste. 

Taken from our table at The Seagull Hotel. Surly service but ice cold beers and a great view.

Due to Kerala's higher taxes, beer prices are double those of Goa and only hotels are licensed to serve it. Spirits aren't available in bars and can only be bought in government liquor shops for home consumption. As we'd been to Kerala before we were prepared, buying a bottle of McDowell's white rum in Goa (£2 a litre) and enjoying a glass or two in our room before we went out - Thums Up cola is available everywhere. We'll have water with our dinner and share a couple of large Kingfisher Blues in a hotel bar after we've eaten.

Indian Ferrari, Indian Ferrari.....You want Indian Ferrari, Sir? 
Taxi drivers will continuously stop to offer a whistle-stop heritage tour for around £12 but, if you nip into any of the tourist information points in and around Fort Cochin, you can pick up a free walking map marked with places of interest and do it at your own pace (with plenty of stops for lime soda or chai.)

Here's Vasco da Gama's house - now a homestay and a cafe.

Top of the tourist attractions is the historic area of Jew Town. Get there early before it gets inundated by wealthy, snap-happy Americans straight off the cruise ship.

Jews have been trading on the Malabar Coast since King Solomon's times and settled in Cochin in the Twelfth century. Today only 22 families remain.

The Paradesi Synagogue was constructed in 1567,  and it's the oldest working synagogue in India. 

If you've ever read Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh you'll be familiar with the synagogue. I'd just finished the book when we visited in 2007 but stupidly turned up on a Friday afternoon when we should have know that it would be closed for Sabbath. 

I've waited ten years to see these 18th Century hand-painted Chinese tiles, each one of them featuring a slightly different design, and it was well worth the wait!

Both photos were borrowed from Google as cameras weren't allowed
The Paradesi Synagogue is open from 10 - 1pm Monday to Friday and from 2 - 6pm Monday - Thursday. 

No photos, no talking, dress modestly. Admission £1

The creation of Israel in the 1940s led to a mass exodus from Cochin. Many of the Jews chose to leave their larger possessions behind which lead to a plethora of high end antiques emporiums springing up. Although much of the stock on offer these days is reproduction there's still some incredible stuff. Most places forbid photography and assistants follow browsers round like hawks but looking is free and a wonderful way to while away an hour or so.

Not marked on the map is the Cochin Police Museum which we stumbled upon by accident. Free to visit and staffed by a super smiley and welcoming serving policeman, we admired a exhibition of uniforms throughout the ages, starting with the Raja of Cochin's bodyguard's lunghi to the modern day police uniform of khaki green. These days there's even a specialist Women's Squad, who patrol the streets of Fort Cochin in a Barbie pink van.

The autopsy room wasn't for the feint hearted, 3D reconstructions & gory photographs and case notes of machete attacks, strangulations, garrotings, stabbings and shootings as well as pictures of the unfortunates who'd fallen under trains and been hit by lorries. Particularly haunting was a photo of a family with a pretty young woman in a white blouse and hanging up beside the picture was the actual blouse riddled with bloodstains and holes - her husband had shot her shortly after the photograph was taken.

There's some stunning historical churches in Fort Cochin. St Francis was India's first European church, built in the 15th Century with an ancient Dutch cemetery attached, sadly locked up and no longer open to the public. 

 The Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica was built by the Portuguese in the 16th Century and rebuilt in the 1880s.

Both churches are still in use but visitors are welcome between services.

Fort Cochin is connected to the modern centre of Ernakulum via Willington Island by passenger ferry. They run until 9pm, take around 30 minutes and a single ticket costs the equivalent of 5p. There's quite a leap from the launch pad to the boat but the staff are on the jetty to hold your hand and help you across.

Once you've disembarked in Ernakulum you can jump in a tuk tuk and visit the Hill Palace, 14 km south of the city centre (a return journey with an hour's waiting time should cost you around £4).  The royal family of Cochin once owned over 40 palaces all of which were confiscated by the state government following independence.

The Hill Palace (£1 admission) now serves as a museum with some truly fabulous stuff on display including a room stuffed with antique jewellery, bejeweled maharajah's turbans, precious gemstones and antique dresses threaded with gold. Frustratingly, as is often the way in many of India's state-run museums, the information labels on the exhibits are rudimentary to say the least, "Bangle" is the tag attached to an incredibly ancient piece of silver tribal jewellery and "Timepiece, gift from the Prince Of Wales" on a finely enameled & bejeweled pocket watch...Who? When? Why? After re-reading the Rough Guide later we discovered that the wonderfully ornate knife bedecked in decorative bells that we'd admired was used for beheadings.

With the huge groups of schoolchildren , more interested in oogling the funny foreigners than the exhibits, it can all get a bit raucous so once you've done the cultural thing go and wander around the surrounding deer park and do as the locals do, have a picnic beneath the shade of the cashew trees.

That contraption with the cage? That's where the Raja would have his enemies hung and left for the birds to peck to death. Lovely!

Fort Cochin is still very much a thriving fishing port and these 15th Century Chinese nets dominate the skyline, watched by an army of salivating cats. Tourists can buy the day's catch directly from the fishermen and have it cooked at one of the many tiny stalls flanking the harbour. Don't worry, at the end of each day, the cats got anything that hadn't sold.

Typically, with our spur of the moment type travel, when we tried to buy return train tickets to Goa we discovered that there were none available for at least a week but, no need to panic, nothing is ever a problem in India. We saw that there were a couple of tickets available on The Malabar Express and, because it sounded wonderfully exotic, we decided to book two sleeper class seats and slowly make our way back to Goa via Mangalore instead.

 With a history dating back to the Roman Empire and named the Estuary of The Wolf  by Moroccan adventurer Ibn Battuta in 1342, who considered it to be the greatest port of the Malabar kingdom, surely Mangalore had be worth a visit?

See you soon!

See more photos of our walk around Fort Cochin HERE.