Monthly Archives: February 2012

Kicking back in Kochi

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I know the plane is getting close to Kochi when I see the spiny ridges of the Western Ghats cutting through the clouds. On landing I’m thrilled to find my taxi is an old Ambassador. These cumbersome white cars are the vehicle of choice for the Indian public service (who often add a flashing red light to the roof for extra importance). They were based on the old Morris Oxford, and the engine capacity has improved over the years but, unlike the VW Beetle and the Mini, from the outside there are no discernible design improvements – the only way to tell a new Ambassador from its vintage counterpart seems to be by the amount of rust.

I share the taxi with a young Israeli-American girl that I met during the long wait at Bangalore airport. She’s here for a month-long yoga teaching retreat, and is staying in the city part of Kochi, Ernakulam. After fighting our way through the traffic to her hotel, past billboards advertising condos and silk emporiums and restaurants selling 36 different kinds of dosa, I’m hoping that Fort Kochi will be a little quieter.

Kochi (formerly Cochin) was (like Goa) colonised by the Portuguese after they discovered its rich array of spices. The Dutch took over from the Portuguese, and in turn were ousted by the British. Like Goa, there is a strong Christian community of the particularly Indian variety – roadside shrines draped in fairy lights are as likely to contain statues of the Virgin Mary or St Sebastien as they are Ganesh or Shiva. I pass a vast construction site which, judging from its shape, must surely be a new cathedral.

Fort Kochi is a sleepy peninsula that, I’m relieved to find, feels a world away from the city. I’m staying in a little guesthouse with just three rooms, down a tiny alley that the Ambassador can barely squeeze into. It’s run by a lovely couple who live on the ground floor with their family, and come upstairs every morning to cook breakfast, then sit and chat while I eat – the ubiquitous dosa, or maybe a chapatti, with potatoes yellow with turmeric and studded with black mustard seeds and curry leaves.

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On my first evening, my host insists on escorting me to the local restaurants so that I will know how to find my way back in the dark. Halfway there, the streetlights suddenly go black, and the power stays out for about twenty minutes. I have chosen to eat at Oceanus, a seafood restaurant near the Bishop’s Palace, with a promising young chef who has recently branched out to start his first solo venture. There is a huge window separating the tables from the kitchen, where five or six young men are busy chopping chillies and mixing spices by the light of the gas burners. Just as I am beginning my Kingfish curry the lights come back on, and I am a little startled to find myself sitting next to an installation comprising a paddling pool full of water, about a metre square, which is draped with fishing nets and fairy lights, and in the middle of which sits a big plaster statue of the Virgin Mary lit in red.

The next morning I set out to explore Fort Kochi by day. It’s a little fishing village-turned tourist haunt, with dusty, sandy roads on which the only traffic seems to be a few autorickshaws searching for customers (I’m a prime target), and the occasional bus. It takes about 30 minutes to amble from one side to the other, frequent stops for fresh lime soda excluded.

I wander towards St Francis church and leave my shoes at the door. Inside, the cool stone floor is scattered with headstones and memorials dating back to the 1600s. To one side, an unremarkable stone is surrounded by tourists – this is the original burial place of the great Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, until his remains were exhumed and taken back to Lisbon. Above the wooden pews, heavy material hangs from wooden battens, secured by ropes to the wall. A man walks past and asks if I know what they are, then makes a fanning gesture and says “punkahs” – they are huge fans, the ropes pulled by punkahwallahs to keep the congregation from fainting in the heat.

Another block and I reach the ocean. The path along the sea wall is littered with shells, fishbones and, well, litter. Goats wander here and there, and humpbacked cattle amble along, stopping to nose at piles of rubbish. Ungainly wooden structures rear out of the sea all along the shoreline, draped with blue net and rope. The Chinese fishing nets exist now as tourist attractions rather than viable enterprises on their own account, with fish stocks diminishing and more effective fishing boats taking most of the catch. The ten or so nets in Fort Kochi are still in working order though, and the fishermen call me over to take a closer look.

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I tightrope-walk along the plank leading out over the sea, and they haul on ropes to bring the huge net out of the water. Glistening at the bottom are a handful of silvery fish that would be illegal catch at home, but they are tipped into a smaller net and added to the stockpile for the market. Further along the wall is the fish market, and stalls that will cook your chosen fish for you on the spot.

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I continue wandering along the road, past the ferry terminal (Kochi is a series of islands and peninsulas, and the most efficient way to travel is often by boat), until the sun’s heat finally defeats me and I duck into Cafe Solar, a cavernous old Portuguese warehouse that has become an organic restaurant and performance venue. Coffee comes thick and dark in a delicate porcelain pot, and watermelon juice is garnished with a slice of melon that is nearly as big as the glass. It’s the kind of place where you could spend a whole afternoon, reading, writing and watching the world go by. So that’s exactly what I do.

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Later that night, I meet up with Mayaan, the Israeli girl, for dinner at the famous Dal Roti, where the clientele is exclusively foreign but the food is authentically South Indian and delicious. The veg thali is especially good. After dinner we wander past fancy hotel gardens where guests sit silently listening to sitar music, and the noisy XL bar with cafeteria tables full of backpackers, before climbing the stairs to a cafe on the corner of Princess Street which serves juices and lassi. I don’t think I will ever get tired of fresh watermelon juice – why have I never seen it on the menu in London?

20120219-152924.jpg Fresh lime soda. A close tie with watermelon juice for most delicious drink ever

Princess Street is a tourist hub, lined with tiny shops selling sarongs, postcards, bronze statuettes and memory cards. There are a few Internet cafes, and a couple of good English language bookshops (Kochi books, upstairs above a grocery store, fast becomes a favourite). I’m struggling to resist the urge to pick up a couple of cookbooks – maybe at the end of the trip?

Besides, I tell myself, I already have far too much stuff. I spend the last morning at the guesthouse sorting through my pack and culling as much as I can, then ask my host for directions to the post office. When I ask if I can buy packaging material, he adds directions to the local tailor. Sure enough, just around the corner from the post office, a tiny shopwindow bears the sign “packages made”. Inside a smiling woman gestures for me to sit, and bundles my belongings into a small cardboard box that has definitely seen better days. I’m a little dubious, but she pulls out a tape measure and disappears, returning a few minutes later with a muslin bag that she has made to measure. The box is carefully squeezed into the muslin, which is folded and sewn shut by hand. She lights a candle and carefully melts sealing wax over the thread.

It’s fast approaching midday, so I set out to find the Intrepid meeting point, Kaleeveedu Lodge. When I showed my host the address he laughed and pointed out the window at a tall yellow building in the block behind us – “it’s just over there!”. Locating the lodge is not quite so easy. There don’t appear to be any house numbers, and there are no signs on any of the buildings. After wandering the length of the street I ask for directions, which are equally vague. I’m just about to wander into a compound when a neighbour comes to my rescue – the lodge is just across the road, down a long driveway behind a big green gate, and I have narrowly avoided entering the police barracks. Time to take a deep breath and join the crowd…

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It’s possible that I’m not a morning person.

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Overnight sleeper trains in India travel at their own sweet pace, which often may even bear some semblance to the timetable, though that cannot be guaranteed. This makes setting an alarm clock an exercise in guesswork. So far, my destination has been the final stop, so instead of an alarm clock I am alerted to arrival by the sudden rush for the exit (the train having stopped not being a reliable indication in itself). The effect of this method is that I arrive at my destination – in this case Bangalore – in a state of sleepy confusion.

Shouldering my pack I make my way doggedly through the crowd, one step ahead of the porters who are visibly unimpressed that I should do their job for them and carry my own luggage. The plan is to find the taxi rank, but as I pass a cafe I am approached by a man finishing a coffee, who speaks excellent English (for future reference, if you are a tourist and approached by someone with excellent English, odds are they will be a tout, not a local). He shows me a printed card of taxi rates, and I figure one taxi is as good as the next and follow him to the car park where all the other taxis are parked. Only, his taxi looks more like a minivan, doesn’t have a meter, and has definitely seen better days. We rumble off down darkened streets, which seem to get narrower with each turn, and I begin to wonder if I’ve made a mistake. This is compounded when he tells me that the airport is 40km away, but googlemaps tells me it’s only ten.

Again for future reference, it turns out that the tagging function on googlemaps is a pile of crap. Also, after long train trips sometimes your brain just doesn’t work. After a heated debate about where we are going and where the airport actually is, it dawns on me that the chances of the airport being in the inner city are minimal. Checking a completely different source (the airport website itself) it turns out that the taxi driver is right. He is also not a wily scheming kidnapper. At most he has overcharged me about 200 rupees (£3), which he probably needs more than I do.

After muttering the Indian equivalent of “I told you so”, he drops me right outside the correct gate at the terminal. Behind me, the sun is rising over Bangalore in a fiery ball of red. Perhaps next time I’m here I will have a chance to look around – it’s supposed to be worth a visit. For now I’m about to spend 7 hours in the airport (thanks Kingfisher!), which ranks next to Brisbane airport for lack of facilities (though it does have phone recharging stations, 45 minutes of free wifi, and a small colony of sparrows in the canteen).

Hampi, the ruined city

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I leave Goa in the dead of night – or close enough to, it is pitch black outside and even the stray dogs are asleep as I creep through the compound to the taxi. At the station it is hard to tell which way the train will arrive from. Indian trains are incredibly long, and my train is due to stop for only a few minutes, so standing on the right part of the platform is crucial. I spot a European couple in their early sixties and wander over to say hello; they are retired now but she worked for an insurance company in Bangalore for several years so they are old India hands.

The trains usually follow the same pattern: an engine or two, the luggage car, the air conditioned sleeper classes (2AC and 3AC, rarely First) with tinted glass windows, followed by a string of general, 2nd class and non-air conditioned carriages with windows covered with bars but otherwise open to the elements. This couple are travelling in 2AC, so I stick with them until the train arrives – in theory my coach should be next to theirs. For the first six hours I have the compartment mostly to myself, then three couples pile in and stare at me curiously for a while (I’m getting used to this, and have stopped checking whether there is something in my teeth or down my front).

The usual throng greets me at Hospet station, so it’s a relief to find my pre-booked taxi waiting for me. Hampi Bazaar is only 14km or so from Hospet, but I am staying in a small village across the river from the main part of Hampi, which requires a meandering drive around the long way, in part along the main road to Bangalore which is teeming with trucks. The construction of a new 4-lane highway is in progress, and the fronts of the houses lining the route have been demolished to make way (families continue to live, and shopkeepers to work, in these smaller dwellings, with makeshift fronts). The dust is inescapable. We pass whole families squeezed onto motorbikes – one small boy is peeking out from a balaclava (warding off the winter chill of 20+ degrees celsius), and I see more than one pair of earmuffs, which the driver assures me are for the cold, not the noise. Eventually we turn off the highway, and make our way through a rural landscape of green rice paddies interspersed with huge sandstone boulders, over a wide blue river.

The main entrance to the village is along a narrow, rutted dirt road which dips down to the river (and is, apparently, impassable during the monsoon, when the only access is by boat). Shanti Hampi guesthouse is a series of small cottages set amongst the rice paddies at the very end of the village. Each cottage has a small verandah with a swing, and there is an open sided restaurant with low tables and cushions designed for lounging about and enjoying the view – glistening rice paddies, coconut palms and a path leading down to the river. It would be idyllic if it weren’t for the mosquitos, which are voracious. My room comes with a mosquito net, strung over a steel frame that looks as if it has been borrowed from a gazebo. Unfortunately this ingenuity doesn’t extend to the more fundamental requirements of a mosquito net: there are large holes and a gap of about a metre at one end where the net doesn’t stretch right across the bed. Finally I get to use the mosquito net that I have been lugging around, together with the little bag of pegs, clips and gaffer tape that I have tucked away in my pack for just such an occasion.

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Outside, white cranes are flying above the fields and, just after sunset, a cloud of bats swoop in and around the restaurant, feasting on insects. The rice paddies are lit by moonlight and I can even see a star or two. I fall asleep to the croaking of a frog chorus.

The next morning, Alizé arrives from Hyderabad. We walk through the village and find the river crossing, where a small flat-bottomed motorboat ferries people, packs and motorbikes across the river to the ghats on the other side. This is the alternative route that I could have taken last night instead of the car, if I had arrived when the boat was still running.

Climbing the steps to the road we are immediately surrounded by rickshaw drivers and hawkers selling sun hats and umbrellas embroidered with elephants and glass beads. Just around the corner we find the side entrance to the Virupaksha temple, the tall almost Mayan-looking structure that is visible from across the river.

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This is a working temple, so we must remove our shoes before entering the complex. By the time we return our feet will be filthy. Inside, the complex is buzzing with pilgrims and tourists. Seeking some shade and a quiet corner we follow two young girls up some steps where a blackened statue of a goddess is locked in a cage in a darkened corner. The girls kneel and I notice that they are carrying coconuts and garlands of marigolds. They lay the marigolds on the ground in front of the statue before smashing the coconuts open on the stone floor and letting the milk inside fall onto the ground. After a few moments of prayer, they collect the coconuts again and depart, smiling shyly at us.

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Below, a queue is forming to enter the inner sanctum, watched over by macaque monkeys with an eagle eye for any fallen coconuts or other treats.

In the main courtyard stands the temple elephant, Lakshmi (named for the goddess of wealth). He (the tusks are a giveaway – only the male Indian elephant has them) has learned a clever money-making trick. If you hold out a coin (or a note, if you are not Indian), the elephant will take it from you with his trunk, and lay his trunk on your head for a moment to give you a blessing. It is the first time I have seen an elephant here, so I step forward and take my turn, just to touch his trunk. It can’t be much of a life for an elephant. At least this Lakshmi is taken to the river every morning to bathe, but there are long hours standing on hard stone in between.

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There are elaborate carvings and paintings throughout the temple complex, and to learn more about them we decide to hire a guide. We are a little late in the morning, and the guides are all busy, but one young guy says he will check with his current clients to see if we can join them, and a few minutes later we are walking back through the temple to see paintings of the three main Hindu gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, on the ceiling of the temple. Our companions are two Chinese guys, one in his thirties and the other in his sixties. The younger man has a large SLR camera and an even larger tripod, and is intent on taking timed pictures of himself in front of each monument. I get the impression that our guide is happy to have additional clients who are more interested in finding out about the site.

Our guide, Mr Rajkumar, studied archaeology at university, and is also a devout Hindu, keen to tell us the stories behind the carvings as well as the history of the sites. He takes us into the inner sanctum of the Shiva temple, where we had seen crowds queuing earlier, and we are whisked past the main deity in a cloud of incense, emerging with white tilak marks (white being Shiva’s colour) on our foreheads. In the same complex is a Vishnu temple, and in this we are given a red tilak (Vishnu’s colour), before we collect our shoes and wander along the long avenue in front of the temple, to our next destination.

This avenue is Hampi bazaar (and gives its name to the tourist township between the temple and the river). Historically a market place, it is now lined with brightly painted shops made of concrete block, selling hats, sunglasses, snacks and tourist tat. The IAS (Indian Archaeological Survey) is unhappy with the calibre of the market in its current incarnation. Their solution: to demolish the shop fronts of each building, in an effort to encourage the occupants to relocate. The occupants (like their counterparts on the highway) are having none of this, and continue to live and trade in their foreshortened homes.

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We make our way along the street and down stone steps to the boulders at the edge of the river, where flat round coracles are waiting. Boarding is an exercise in careful balance, and then the young boy pushes off from the edge with his pole and we drift into the current, swirling and eddying down the river. It’s the most peaceful experience, leaving the heat and the clamour behind. There are just a few other coracles on the river – young boys practicing their trade, who begin a noisy waterfight with each other when they see us watching them.

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Before long our guide gives a signal, and we pull into the riverbank, clambering over boulders to see small shrines and carvings stranded on islands in the middle of the river. There is a carved Nandi, or bull, keeping watch across the river, a sign that a Shiva temple is nearby. Sure enough, we climb some worn stone steps to find a grid of 500 small Shiva linga and a small temple on the hill that looks almost Greek.

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We float further downriver, and I am sorry when the little boat finally stops and the ride is over. We appear to have emerged in the middle of nowhere, next to a sign saying “beware of crocodiles”, but either it’s there for scare value or it’s too hot even for crocodiles as there are none to be seen. Nearby a father and son team are crushing sugar cane and straining the juice into glasses for parched passersby. I’ve seen the water they wash the glasses in, so I’m not going near it, but our companions have less qualms.

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We have landed near to the King’s Balance, or what’s left of it – in days of old, the king would sit on a scale here, and his weight in gold and jewels would be measured out and distributed to the locals. Nearby there was a gold market, and in the temple beyond a thriving horse market. Hampi was once a vast city, built by the Vijayanagar dynasty, until the Mughals came from the North looking for treasure, leaving a ruined city in their wake. These days, it’s mostly ruins and dust, but the ruins are pretty impressive.

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Suddenly we realise that the sun is low in the sky – enough sightseeing for one day, if we don’t make the last river crossing at 6pm we’ll be stranded (or, more likely, required to pay the late crossing fee, equivalent to the cost of a full boat and, having seen just how many people they cram onto the ferry, it wouldn’t be cheap).

The next morning at 9am we cross the river again and meet our guide, Rajkumar, and the two Chinese guys (whose names we never actually learn). Yesterday we saw the sights within walking distance of the market. Today we will see the rest of the city, spread over some 20km or so, by auto-rickshaw. But just as we are about to set off to meet the rickshaw drivers (who are, of course, friends of our guide), a tall orange float appears, surrounded by men and boys with drums and cymbals. It turns out that our guide is also a musician, and he is conscripted by the marchers and handed a drum. We stand on the side of the road and watch him disappear into the distance. Meanwhile the young Chinese fellow is still fixing his tripod.

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After a few minutes our guide breaks off from the procession and comes back to join us, a huge grin on his face. The rickshaws arrive and we pile in, heading for our first stop – a huge statue of Narasimha (Shiva as angry lion-man). Our Chinese companion is setting up his tripod again when an old woman rushes over and gestures angrily. No tripods without a permit! So we all pile into the rickshaws again and head for the ASI office. Our Chinese friends disappear inside with the guide, and we wait by the gate. And wait. And wait. Eventually they emerge, the person with the right stamp is not there (our rickshaw driver says more likely they haven’t paid enough money – the unofficial fee, one assumes). The permit will later be delivered to our guide by a passing rickshaw, but for now: no tripod!

We are finally on our way again, but before too long we are waved down by a security guard. Our rickshaw joins the queue of traffic parked on the roadside and we continue by foot, but at the next bend we are stopped once more: up ahead tv cameras glitter in the sun, and a tv commercial is being filmed. A truck bearing the logo of the product, Good Time biscuits, is parked strategically near an ancient arch, and two small children in school uniform are feigning excitement about a packet of biscuits that is positioned to look like it’s fallen from the van. After a couple of takes our guide decides we have waited long enough, so we walk past the cameras (he points out the readilawn that has been laid on each side to make the road look more appealing for TV). The rickshaws will follow later.

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At the entrance to the next temple we are loaded onto golf carts and ferried down a long sandy path lined with ancient stone columns. This is Vitala temple, one of the most famous spots at Hampi. There was once a huge market here, with traders arriving from China and Mongolia to haggle for horses, jewels and gold. In the courtyard of the temple complex stands a vast stone chariot containing a statue of Garuda (the eagle, and Preferred transport for the god Vishnu, for whom Vittala is another name). Nearby is a pavilion with columns surrounded by a series of smaller pillars. This was the Queen’s dancing hall, the outer pillars draped with screens to shield her from view as she danced, and the pillars themselves provided the musical accompaniment. Until three years ago, it was possible to enter the pavilion and try to play them, and our guide has done so, but too many amateur percussionists has led to damage, and the steps are now guarded by stern security guards.

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Beside the pavilion is a large leafless tree, each branch tipped with white frangipani flowers.

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The fragrance is heavenly, but we can’t stay – the day is getting hotter and our guide isn’t finished with us yet. Instead we’re back on the golf carts, into the rickshaws, zooming past the tv commercial and on to the Queens Bath. According to our guide, the king who built much of Hampi, Krishna Devaraya, conquered 7 kingdoms during his reign. From time to time each of the kings of those kingdoms was summoned to Hampi. They were accompanied by their queens, who complained of the heat, and the baths were built for their sole enjoyment. The buildings combine Hindu, Jain and Muslim architecture, and the Islamic-style archways are probably the reason the building was not destroyed by the Mughal invaders (that, and there is only so much you can do to ransack a swimming pool…).

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Sadly the baths are now dry, so we move on. It is searingly hot now, and we’re getting hungry, so we pull over at a tiny roadside stall for lunch. It’s hardly even a shack, and a few rickshaw drivers are perched on a nearby wall with their meals and cups of chai. Our guide tells us to wait in the rickshaw, and returns a few minutes later with a plateful of piping hot fried rice, on which are perched two large green chillies in batter, stuffed with a peanut paste. Mirchi pakoda, apparently, with masala rice. A little greasy but just what we needed, and at only 30 rupees maybe the cheapest meal I’ll have in India.

20120210-224831.jpg Mirchi pakoda with masala rice

Duly refreshed, we wander a little further down the dirt track to a high stone wall. Beyond the wall lies the Zenana compound, where once the Vijayanagara queens spent their days. The palace has been reduced to its foundations, a platform in front of a dry boating pond, and the watchtowers in each corner are crumbling, but on the far side of the complex stands an elaborate pink stone pavilion – the lotus temple. It is open on all sides, a series of arches and passages, the inner parts of which are hollow. When the summer heat was at its peak, a water tank in the roof would be filled from a nearby well, and the water would overflow into pipes laced throughout the structure. The queen and her attendants would retire to this pavilion to enjoy the 15th century equivalent of air conditioning.

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Through a gate in the corner of the compound lie the elephant stables, where the king kept his considerable fleet of four legged vehicles. The only sign of its former inhabitants these days are the stone replicas in front of the adjacent museum, which is filled with statues of various deities who have had the misfortune to suffer a chip or other damage (statues with even minor damage are no longer worshipped, on the basis that, if they cannot protect themselves from harm, there is little hope that they will be able to provide protection to their worshippers either).

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From the palace of the queen, we move to the ruins of the main royal palace. In a corner of the ruins we see the remains of an elephant landing stage, where royalty would descend from their howdahs. Our guide is beyond excited to find a tiny vijayanagara coin amid the stones.

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Nearby there is another Shiva temple buried underground, and surrounded by a moat. The inner sanctum is half submerged, but stepping stones reach just far enough to let us see a little way into the gloom. The cool of the underground is welcome – by now I am just about templed out – but our guide insists there are just two more sites that we need to see. Around the corner and up a hill lies a huge statue of Ganesh. From the front you can see the elephant god (son of Shiva, in case you were wondering), but from behind it appears as if there is a woman’s back, as if Ganesh’s mother Parvati is holding him on her lap.

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One last Ganesh temple, this time with sweeping views of the bazaar, then we are racing in our rickshaws down the steep hill and back to the bazaar, and racing again for the last boat across the river.

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There is just enough time to have a last dinner with Alizé (who is about to embark on an 8 hour overnight bus trip to Goa) and to see one last Hampi sunset, before making my way by taxi along the darkened road to Hospet to board the overnight train to Bangalore.

20120210-225700.jpg Gratuitous puppy shot (a stray that had found a home at our guesthouse).

At the station I find a safe spot away from the crowds next to an elderly woman, who gestures for me to sit next to her. Sumathi has been in Hampi on a pilgrimage – her family are grown, her husband retired, and these days she travels “where the goddess sends me”. We are in the same carriage, and she translates the tannoy announcements for me (the train is delayed, naturally), but I lose sight of her on boarding, and concentrate on heaving my backpack through the carriage to find my berth, before settling in for the long trip.

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Goa! (In which I spend a lot of time sitting around on the beach and doing very little. I’ll make this brief….)

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There’s not a lot to say about a beach holiday really. In the sun, on the sand, in and out of the surf… I was only in Goa long enough to get a brief taste of what this south western state has to offer, but it’s already on my list of places to return to….

My arrival is dramatic – we are about to land, low enough to see into the backyards of the houses we are flying over, when, without warning, the engines roar and the plane pulls sharply upwards. I can only assume that the pilot wanted us to get excited about arriving in Goa, and by the time we eventually land (with no explanation beyond a laconic “we’re going to try that one again”), the passengers break into spontaneous applause.

A driver is waiting to meet me for the 1 1/2 hour trip south to Palolem, through a lush green landscape of bananas, rice paddies and coconut palms. One of the first things I notice is the set of rosary beads hanging from the mirror, and that the usual figure of Ganesha or another Hindu deity attached to the dashboard had been replaced by a crucifix. Soaring painted plaster churches popped up regularly along the road, reminding me of the Pacific Island churches at home in Manukau. My driver tells me that masses start as early as 5:30am, so that they can fit in three full rounds by ten. Such is the legacy of Portuguese colonisation.

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Arriving in Palolem, we turn down a sandy track, dodging some wiry black pigs who come snuffling out from behind a palm tree. Walking down a narrow lane we reach Ciaran’s beach huts – though they’re rather more fancy than the shacks I was expecting, given that they are taken down and rebuilt after each monsoon. A hammock swings from the verandah in front of my hut, and double wooden doors open to reveal a large circular bed draped with a mosquito net, attached to a coconut palm which is growing up through the roof. A tiny bathroom is tacked on behind, and shelves are hung from the walls by thick coir twine. The walls themselves are coconut fibre, the slate floor laid directly over sand.

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In front of the circle of huts is a lawn fringed by hibiscus and bougainvillea, and open sided pavilions provide shade for a restaurant, bar, and a tiny library. Immediately beyond is the beach, a long stretch of golden sand, lined with beach huts, restaurants and small shops. A life guard perches atop a small tower, and wooden outrigger fishing boats make a colourful line-up along the beach.

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English tourists predominate – in the bar at the northern tip of the beach I meet a guy who has been coming here for ten years, and another couple who rebooked for this year as soon as they returned from last year’s visit.

Along the main shopping street are row after row of open fronted shops selling jewellery, spices, jandals and various forms of hippie muslin dresses and pants (trousers, for my English friends). I’ve managed to lose my sleep sheet, so I spend a while hunting down a cheap cotton bedspread, then finding a tailor to sew two sides into a makeshift cocoon, for future use in less illustrious accommodation. Then there is just enough time for a beer and a fish curry while watching the sun set over the water, before sinking into bed and falling asleep to the sound of waves crashing on the beach. Bliss.

Unfortunately, the cold which has been threatening ever since I gingerly handed my passport to a sniffling receptionist in Aurangabad has finally kicked in, and I spend much of the next couple of days ensconced on the verandah drinking fresh lime sodas, with the occasional swim for medicinal purposes.

After a day or two of this I am desperate for movement, so arrange for a car (INR2600 for the day) and set off to explore a little of the interior. I ask the driver to stop at a pharmacy, and he pulls over in a tiny village with two small shops, one of which says “medical”. The girls inside speak no English, so a pantomime ensues (with the questionable help of a Hindi phrasebook – the local language is Konkani), and eventually I emerge with a sheet of ten pills, at least three of the ingredients of which are recognisable, for the princely sum of INR20 (about 40 cents).

Goa is full of mouldering old Portuguese-style houses, and some of these are very grand indeed. The most well-known is the old Braganza house, built in the 1600s by a wealthy land-owning family, and in its day a truly stately home, and the family equivalent to local aristocracy. The land was confiscated by the Indian government after independence, and the house is slowly declining into squalor, relying on donations from visitors to fund repairs.

20120205-071548.jpg The old Braganza mansion

Three other tourists arrive as we pull up, and we ascend the staircase together, to be greeted by a small man with a large tummy and thick glasses. He shows us around one wing, through the drawing room with its chandeliers and sagging ceiling, then pauses significantly at the family chapel, and asks us to gather around to see the item in pride of place, a relic of St Francis Xavier, who died here in Goa. He seems pleased when I ask how the family came by this treasure: “Not many people know this”. It seems that the body of St Francis was, until recently, put on public display for veneration at regular intervals. After one such interval a family member was assisting to clean the tomb, when he came across one of St Francis’s fingernails, which now takes pride of place on the altar.

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Stepping into the house already feels like stepping into another era, but this is reinforced by the attitude of its caretakers. The other wing of the house is in better repair, and is presided over by a stern Indian woman who chivvys us along and makes sure that we are paying appropriate attention and looking sufficiently impressed as she shows us Ming vases and carved wooden chairs “identical to the ones used by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth in Buckingham Palace”, as well as other local treasures, including the shells of two unfortunate sea turtles.

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The fresh air outside is welcome, and for a complete change of scenery I decide to head to a spice farm – this is the Malabar coast, after all! The staff at Sahakari spice farms greet you with a smile, a tilak (coloured powder applied to the forehead) and a garland of flowers around the neck. After a glass of lemongrass and ginger tea, we wander past a group of young girls in colourful saris singing a folk song and dancing in a circle (just until we are out of sight, when they go back to sitting around and waiting for the next bunch of tourists). Our guide takes us through 2 acres of demonstration crops, each of which are grown in greater quantity on the farm – coffee, chocolate, cardamom, cinnamon bark, pepper, turmeric, and little pepper-like pods, the stems of which are the cashew nut.

20120205-071808.jpg Cashew

As we round a corner, we are forced to step aside for an elephant – my first in India! She is here only for the tourists – for a few extra rupees you can ride on her back into the river, where (on command from the mahout) she will raise her trunk and douse you with water.

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At the end of the tour we are served lunch and gifted a small pack of spices (not sure if they’ll get through customs, they may need to be abandoned). Time to drive back to the beach for another stunning sunset.

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Palolem is the perfect place for a relaxing break, which turned out to be just what I needed, but there was so much of Goa that I didn’t get to see – the night market at Anjuna, the turtles on Agonda beach, a boat trip to see dolphins (though there were dolphins surfing through the waves just offshore as I was eating breakfast one morning)…. I can live without the party beaches, but there’s still a lot more of Goa to explore. I have the feeling I will be saying this a lot as I travel through India, but sometimes I leave and I want to go back there…