Author Archives: nataliehelen

Tiger!

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It seems as if I have barely fallen asleep when my alarm goes off at 5am. Well, I did wake up at 3am and 4am, just in case… My partner in crime and I stealthily dress and get ready to leave, all efforts at silence proving utterly pointless when the security guard who will escort us to the jeeps starts banging on the door and calling “Good morning!” in a badly disguised stage whisper. We hasten out and gesture to him that we are ready, but he’s not going anywhere, and instead settles down in the chair outside the door. After a few minutes we realise he’s fallen asleep. When roused, it seems that he is under the impression that our group leader was coming too – actually, so were we, but then we’re pretty sure he didn’t get to bed until well after 1am (more like 3am, it turns out), so our hopes aren’t quite as high. Apparently Charles told the guard last night to be sure not to leave without waking him, but he’s not brave enough to march into the smaller dorm himself, and makes it clear that he thinks we should be up to the task. Creeping inside, I follow the snores to our Intrepid leader and shine my torch on his face, but there is not so much as a murmur.

After twenty minutes or so, we manage to convince the guard that it will be just we two, and set off for the jeeps, pausing for a quick cup of instant coffee on the way. We are to drive through Mudumalai to the border with Karnataka, where the park continues under a separate jurisdiction and another name: Bandipur. Having started late we are not quite the first at the gates to Mudumalai, which open at 6am, but we are not far behind. Our guide, John, is looking keenly at the jungle as we drive along, and stops suddenly when he detects some movement. There in the undergrowth is a female sloth bear, its cub clinging on tight – it has just crossed the road and is disappearing into the trees.

We cross the border and turn down a side road, where we stop, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and wait until another jeep pulls up (from a friendly resort on the Karnataka side). We are duly transferred, and bounce down the road to the visitors centre. But wait, there’s more – this was just the delivery vehicle: there is a further transfer to a larger jeep/small cantor, with seats for nine. We are in the front, and I am a little dismayed to find that behind us is a small boy who looks about three years old. Finding a tiger is a tricky pursuit at the best of times – they are solitary creatures, and well capable of blending into the jungle and avoiding the paths that our jeep is bound to follow. The best hope of finding one is to listen for alarm calls from animals in the park, then stop the jeep in a likely place and wait silently in the hope that the tiger chooses to pass your way. Which is rendered fairly unlikely if you are accompanied by a three year old. It’s not looking good for tigers.

20120314-175846.jpg Bandipur at dawn

The jeep sets off through the park as the sun rises, and the sky changes from grey to pink. There are peacocks on the side of the track and, high in a tree, large brown birds which, to my surprise, the guide names as peahens – I don’t think I realised that they could fly so high! There seem to be hundreds of spotted deer, and I’m told there are sambhar here too.

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A little further along the driver stops, leans over the side and mutters to the guide: there, on the sandy path, is a clear pawprint – a tiger’s pug-mark!

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The prints follow the path for a while then disappear, but the guide is on full alert. Suddenly we turn a corner and there he is. A young male, sitting with his back to the path, on the other side of a clearing. He glances back over his shoulder at us, sits still for a few minute, then lazily gets to his feet and slowly wanders towards the trees, vanishing into the scrub.

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I can hardly breathe, I’m so excited!

After a few minutes, the jeep sets off, in the hopes of catching him again on the far side, but there is no sign of him, so we drive aimlessly for a while. The park is teeming with birdlife – kingfishers, green parakeets, an eagle and several others that I can’t name.

Then, up ahead, we see another jeep parked by the side of the track, its occupants staring to their right. Our respective guides exchange glances and the first jeep drives away. We take their place, and become aware of a crashing noise just beyond the tree line. “Wild elephants”, whispers the guide. A few seconds later, a large female elephant crashes into view. She is followed by three more, and there between them, sheltered from view, is a baby, doing its best to keep pace with the grown-ups. They pull leaves from a tree nearby, then rumble off to more interesting ground.

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We park near a small lake and watch the birds for a while, until the guide hears an alarm call from the spotted deer. We head in that direction and stop to wait, but we have reached the three-year-old’s capacity for sitting quietly (or, more to the point, the capacity of the three-year-old’s father, the little boy is actually doing pretty well), so, after sitting for a while listening to the birds and the whispering increasing in volume behind us, the driver decides that that is our lot and cranks the engine to return to the visitors centre.

Poring over our photos on the return journey, we notice that our tiger has an injury on his back – a fight with a rival or with a less than compliant bison perhaps? Maybe this is why he allowed himself to be seen sitting in the open for so long – and I hope that the wound will heal. At the same time, I am still buzzing – and John, when he arrives to transfer us back to Masinagudi, is visibly thrilled, giving us both high fives and bear hugs.

We return triumphant to the Jungle Retreat, where the others are just waking up, having unanimously skipped the early morning bush walk that was the alternative option. I may have gloated, just a tiny little bit. But it was a TIGER!

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Elephants, monkeys and bears, oh my!

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After the concerted nausea that greeted our upward journey, Charles has very sensibly decided to take a shorter, steeper route down from Ooty, and has promised that we can get out and walk for a while over the steepest section: approximately 36 hairpin bends.

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The walk proves to be the highlight of the morning’s journey – the sun is shining, we are far enough from the city that the air is fresh (apart from the occasional cooking fire), and it is so good to be doing some form of exercise again. We make good time down the hill, passed by jeeps and motorbikes (no buses or trucks on this route, which is probably just as well), passing tea plantations, bougainvillea and all sorts of other mysterious plants for which my father could no doubt rattle off the Latin names.

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Halfway down the hill we arrive at a small village – a temple on one side, a few small houses and a single tiny chai shop. While we wait for the chai to brew, I notice a small girl peeking at us from around the corner. We play a game of peekaboo, and her mother gestures for me to come and sit on the bank with them. When the chai is ready, I notice a few jars of sweets on the counter. I buy a handful and offer them to the little girl. She takes one, eyes widening when she realises they are all for her. I wish I had brought something a little more tangible to give.

Around the next bend two cars are waiting with our bags, and we drive deeper into the jungle and the beginning of Mudumalai national park. We stop for a few minutes at a lookout point, a couple of birds of prey coasting lazily above, but the only other wildlife are a few macaques hoping for a treat.

It is afternoon when we arrive at the tiny village of Masinagudi, and turn down a track towards the Jungle Retreat. We are staying in dorm accommodation tonight, but we have the two dorms all to ourselves (though there are also cottages and a treehouse, which looks like fun – who doesn’t love a treehouse?!).

Before we can explore, there is a briefing to sit through. Although the retreat is surrounded by an electric fence, the government has recently forbidden its electrification. There is a long running dispute between the relevant ministry and the owners of the few resorts in this area, the government claiming that they are built in the path of an elephant migration zone, a claim which the owners vehemently dispute. Whatever the truth of the matter (and one’s opinions of electric fences in national parks generally), there is no way to stop wildlife from entering the resort. We must not attempt to walk between our dormitory and the other public areas after dark without a local escort. The owners of the resort have set up motion-sensor cameras around the resort, and later that evening they show us a selection of the images that have been captured, including leopards and the unpredictable wild boar (the most likely danger). The isolated treehouse might not be such a great option after all…

After lunch there is just time for a swim in the infinity pool (oh, did I mention the amazing pool?), before we jump into jeeps and head for the river. It’s elephant bath time!

20120312-165344.jpg ahem… I may not have told you about the pool…

On our way to Ooty we had passed open trucks bearing elephants in varying states of comfort. We had stopped to take photos, but after a close up view I just felt profoundly sad. The elephants travel like this for up to ten hours to reach the elephant sanctuary at Mudumalai, which takes in orphaned and abandoned elephants, and runs a kind of respite care (“elephant camp”) for temple elephants, who stay for about a month at a time. I guess trucks are an improvement on forcing the elephant to walk so far on asphalt roads, but whatever standards of care exist are employed in such a haphazard manner, and the restraints used are so variable, that it cannot be an easy journey for them.

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Now, we are going to meet some of the permanent residents of the sanctuary. Along the shallow riverbed are two or three elephants with their mahouts, all getting their daily wash (mahouts included). From the trees behind us a large female emerges – formerly a temple elephant, she had killed three people and been abandoned by the temple. Here, where she has the freedom of the jungle much of the time, she has shown a calmer nature. Once, we are told, each elephant had a single mahout, who lived with the elephant full time. A number of years ago, there was a case of a particular male elephant who would listen to nobody but his mahout. When the mahout died unexpectedly, the grieving beast would not cooperate with its new mahout, and went on a rampage, killing a number of people. Ever since that time, I’m told, there is a policy of two mahouts for each elephant, as a kind of insurance policy.

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When bath time is over, the elephants sway back up the river bank and into the jungle. They each have a chain around one leg, which trails on the ground behind them – the mahouts use the trails left by these chains to find them again in the morning. For now, they are easy to find – we return to the jeeps and drive the short distance to the feeding centre, where huge cakes of elephant food are being prepared to precise nutritional requirements. Opportunistic langurs perch in the trees above, and wild boar appear to make sure not a crumb is wasted.

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20120312-170423.jpg Feeding time

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Across the yard, a tiny trunk is testing the air through a window. It’s an orphaned baby elephant, only a few months old. It’s being cared for by a local woman, who lives in the same building (separated by a half wall). I feel sorry for the baby (I’m a regular softie today) – elephants are sociable creatures and it can’t be much fun being penned up – but it may not be safe around the other elephants without its mother to provide protection.

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As the sun sets, the larger elephants are heading back to the jungle.

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There is just enough time for a slow drive through Mudumalai, an unofficial “safari”, keeping a keen eye out for its animal inhabitants. There are large signs at regular intervals bidding drivers to go slow, and to watch out for elephants crossing – in an odd quirk of planning, the main state highway cuts right through the park, and at this hour there are convoys of trucks racing to get through before the gates are shut for the night. Our driver and guide, John, seems immune to the traffic noise though – he has ears only for the animals, and the slightest crunch of leaves has him parking the jeep and gazing intently into the jungle, stopping the jeep every so often just in case. Around a bend, his attention is rewarded: there is a wild elephant feeding on leaves just out of sight. Then another appears – it’s a whole elephant family, looking both ways before they cross the highway and disappear back into the gloom.

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Not satisfied with this, John waits until the other cars have gone, then takes a side road and parks the jeep. He has seen a sloth bear around here, and thinks there is a good chance we could see it at this time of day. Sure enough, about fifty metres away there is movement, and in the headlights we can see a big black shadow as the bear noses her way through the undergrowth. There’s something else beside her – a civet cat, perhaps – it’s hard to tell in the dark, but we have definitely seen a bear! Time to head back to the campsite, but I tell myself that this bodes well for tomorrow.

20120312-170019.jpg Sloth bear!

After dinner, some of the group sit around the bonfire that has been lit in the centre of the compound, but for two of us it’s going to be an early night – in the morning we’re going over the border, on a tiger safari!

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The Ooty Tea Party

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This morning we are under strict instructions to be ready for departure as scheduled – we’re taking a trip on the famous toy train, and it’s usually packed, so arriving early to collect tickets is a must. Unfortunately the hotel staff have other ideas, intent instead on setting a new record for service at pace of snail, though we are the only patrons.

20120309-233723.jpg The choice of emblem should in no way be taken to represent the author’s opinion of the hotel

We arrive at the station in a mad rush, and hurry onto the platform – only to find, when the little train puffs up to the station, that at least two carriages are completely empty. We abandon our allocated seating (to the palpable relief of the local tourists who had the misfortune to be sitting next to us), and settle in more comfortably for the hour-long ride to the tea plantations of Coonoor.

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Along the way we make a short stop in Wellington (only similarity to the NZ version: it’s built on a hillside), and take advantage of the platform catering service: one beaming fellow with a huge basket of deep-fried chickpea patties.

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At Coonoor Charles takes us on an impromptu tour of the railway workshop, where several steam engines are lined up looking as if they’re waiting for the Fat Controller to arrive. We can’t wait though – it’s back on the bus, and on to our next stop: a nearby tea factory.

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The factory is mostly closed for cleaning today, but the manager gives us a tour of the plant, from sorting to drying to packaging the tea. In the bowels of the factory a woman is operating some kind of noisy machine which emits orange-brown tea dust – she is covered in it, but manages to stop and smile as we squeeze past.

20120309-232652.jpg This fellow was also working in the plant. A minute later when I showed him his photo he collapsed in paroxysms of laughter

Down the slope from the factory there is a demonstration of the picking process, and they have thoughtfully provided brightly-coloured ponchos and tea-pickers’ baskets for the obligatory photos (pretty sure the ponchos are their own private joke, as there’s nothing traditional about them!). One or two of the group take to the task as if born to it. I forget to tuck my hair in the scarf and manage to look more like a seventies hippie. For others, the chance to break into dance is too much to resist…..the hills are alive?

20120309-233013.jpg Any excuse to tap dance…

Finally it’s time to taste the sponsor’s product, which comes in plain, masala, ginger or chocolate (tea aficionados may wish to avert their eyes). There is expensive white tea as well, but this has to be taken on spec as they’re not handing out freebies. The chocolate tea is surprisingly good (some nameless cocoa brand mixed into the leaves), though this may also be related to the amount of sugar in the mix…

We are nearly back at the hotel when the bus makes an unscheduled stop. Our guide mutters “back in a minute”, and disappears. He returns a few minutes later and says “Would you like to go to an Indian wedding?”. It seems the driver had seen the crowd at the temple and, being from around this area, took it upon himself to pop in and arrange impromptu invites. For twelve. Plus Charles, of course.

The formal part of the proceedings has been completed, apparently, but we are just in time for the official photos. We troop upstairs to the main hall, where the bridal couple are standing centre stage as a long stream of relations and well-wishers line up to have their photo taken for the record. The groom is looking pretty stoked about the whole thing, while the bride is doing her best to stifle a yawn. We are hustled to the front of the queue, and before I know it I am on the stage, as the official photographers – and quite a few unofficial ones – snap away. I can only wonder what the newlyweds will say to their children years from now – “who are they, Mum?” “Haven’t the foggiest”. I doubt they’d have such a friendly reception if the position were reversed, but here we are, photobombing, then ushered down through the dining hall, where we only narrowly escape crashing the wedding breakfast as well. As it is we are plied with plates of bhajis and sweets, and one of us is even given a gift bag on the way out – I hope there isn’t a wedding guest somewhere cursing us for depriving them of their blessed coconut and string of marigolds….. We meet the father of the groom at the door; he is grinning from ear to ear and generously bids us welcome, handing us someone else’s invitation to make it all official – it’s all a bit surreal!

20120309-233227.jpg The groom’s father brandishing “our” invitation

After the morning’s excitement the afternoon is pretty laid back. A quick thali for lunch, which I manage to eat entirely without cutlery, though having mastered the skill I’ll be quite happy if I don’t need to use it again (I was never one of those kids who liked to spend hours playing with fingerpaints). Then a few of us wander back into town, and stop in at a small pharmacy for assorted supplies (though don’t ask for a pharmacy: try “medical” shop instead). One of our group is a dentist, and is a bit like a kid in a candy store, having discovered that pharmacies here will dispense pretty much any drug you like without a prescription and for little more than 20 rupees. Cough and cold remedies, anti-nausea pills and anti-emetics for the downhill journey tomorrow (which apparently also work as a foolproof hangover remedy, though I couldn’t possibly comment) – we consider asking for sleeping pills and valium while we’re at it, wondering if there is any limit to what they will dispense.

That evening we board the bus for the short drive to Fernhill Palace. If I were coming back to Ooty with unlimited funds, this place would be at the top of my list. At the end of a sweeping drive, the summer palace is a grand old colonial relic, its walls lined with photos of maharajahs past. We take a walk through the grounds, past outbuildings and cottages (the more reasonably priced accommodation is, sadly for us, under restoration), and pause on the terrace to watch the sun sinking below the hills, before we are ushered inside to the bar.

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Again, I’m afraid we are not suitably attired – this place is crying out for a sparkly evening gown or, better yet, a safari suit, as it is lined with stuffed animals and sepia-toned pictures of tiger hunting parties, polo matches and maharajahs on elephants.

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An unofficial guided tour reveals palatial suites and a huge ballroom with grand piano. Like yesterday’s hotel, it appears to be completely unoccupied, though I suppose this is the off-season: this is traditionally where one goes to escape the summer heat, and it’s decidedly chilly once the sun goes down.

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We settle in at the bar, which is not as well stocked as the huge selection of bottles and decanters behind it might suggest. In fact, our options are Kingfisher, or Kingfisher: the bottles are just for show, and they’ve brought in a few beers just for this evening. There are masala peanuts to go with the beer, a spicy mix of nuts, raw red onion and sharp green chillies.

Then dinner is announced, and it is delicious – the first time I have tried a goat curry, and I suspect I won’t try one as delicious again (be warned: if you see mutton on the menu, it is far more likely to be goat). After dinner there is warm carrot halva, which is now on my list of must-learn recipes before I leave India – I know there is grated carrot, condensed milk, and probably ghee and cardamom – the rest remains a delicious mystery.

There is a slight air of abandonment and decline about Fernhill, but this only adds to the atmosphere – it would be an unforgettable place to spend a day or two. One day…

Formerly Snooty, Ooty.

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It is another early start, though my alarm doesn’t stand a chance between the various muezzins and church bells competing to call the faithful to prayer. Our packs are loaded into and onto a convoy of autorickshaws for the trip to the station in Ernakulam – my rickshaw is having technical issues (though I’m not sure how technical a tricycle with a motormower engine can get) and we trail behind the others. At one point I am tempted to get out and help to push it over a bridge, but eventually we reach the station and find our seats in AC chair class.

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Once the train has started moving, Charles takes a few of us through the general cars and down to the pantry car, to see how it all works “backstage”. The catering for each train is put out to tender, and the caterer for this train keeps anything that he earns above an agreed price, which goes some way to explaining the constant stream of attendants proffering chai, coffee and snacks up and down the aisle. In the pantry car the heat is incredible. Huge vats of veg and chicken biriani are being prepared on gas burners, and in a small compartment two men are chopping onions.

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The external doors remain open throughout the journey, and the path back to our seats is an obstacle course of stray legs, as passengers in the non-AC carriages enjoy the breeze from the doorway.

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On arrival in Coimbatore we transfer to a minibus, and zoom through the outskirts of the city. Coimbatore was devastated by a series of bomb blasts back in 1998, and has undergone considerable reconstruction, including a road network that seems to be a labyrinth of concrete barriers.

We stop for lunch at a roadside diner on the edge of the city, part of the Annapurna chain. It’s a vast cafeteria, and the service is quick: metre-long paper dosas with coconut chutney and sambhar, and black coffee served in metal tumblers nested in shallow bowls. Charles shows us how to tip the boiling coffee from one to the other until it has cooled enough to drink.

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On the road outside, a street vendor is selling guavas, greenish-yellow and fragrant. I pick out half a kilo, and the vendor gestures for me to take a photo. Well, if I must… :).

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The bus takes us from Coimbatore towards the foothills of the Nilgiris, then begins a tortuous series of hairpin bends up into the hills towards Ootacamund, or Ooty as it’s more commonly known. The view is stunning, but those of the group prone to carsickness are feeling miserable as the bus winds back and forth, overtaking trucks and jeeps at every opportunity (did I mention that the signs forbidding overtaking on blind corners are really just for show?).

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On first glance Ooty doesn’t seem to be an especially pretty town, with the usual crazy traffic and random concrete buildings in various states of construction. It was a popular summer retreat in the time of the British Raj, famous for polo, parties, and making an extreme sport of clique-dom and snobbery (hence the sobriquet “snooty Ooty”). These days, there are a number of expensive “international” schools (where the children of the privileged sit the International Baccalaureate in lieu of local exams), and an inordinate number of chocolate shops. There is also a botanic garden (which is apparently quite lovely), a small boating lake, and a racecourse which looks to be completely abandoned and overgrown save for the shanties in one corner. Charles assures me it’s just the offseason and that races will re-commence in the summer, but I have my doubts.

We check into our hotel, which is uninspiring. It’s clean enough, but pretty soulless, and the bathrooms have odd little open windows that face directly onto the internal corridor, so that your screams of shock when you duck under the icy water emitting from the “hot” tap can be heard by whoever happens to be passing.

We head for the markets in search of some local colour, and find it in abundance. The market is buzzing with activity, even though it’s now late afternoon. I hold my breath down the lane of butchers (which is also buzzing, for a different reason), and past the sole fishmonger. Bearing in mind that the sea is some hours away, it seems best to avoid the fish (and apparently he was selling the same sorry specimens when someone went back to the market the next day).

The floral market is easier on the nose – though I’m careful not to sniff too overtly: apparently it is bad form to inhale the fragrance of wreathes meant for temple offerings before the gods have had their turn.

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There are baskets of limes and pomegranates, garlands of bananas in green, yellow and red, huge piles of raw peanuts ready for roasting, and, just around the corner, a chai wallah who serves us all a sweet, hot cup of masala chai.

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Across the lane from the chai shop is a small shop filled with huge sacks of rice – a local government scheme, apparently, to provide affordable rice to those who could not otherwise afford it. It’s the first example of any kind of state safety net that I’ve seen, and it’d be interesting to know how far the scheme extends. Based on the volume of political advertising and the number of photos of the Chief Minister surrounding the shop, it appears to be a key part of her re-election policy.

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The sun is starting to set, and there is a general consensus that it is fast approaching G&T o’clock. Charles knows just the place, and leads us through town and up a short sharp hill towards the Government Rose Gardens. It is getting dark now, and I can’t say I notice any roses, but we are passed by a couple of riders on smart-looking thoroughbreds (the effect is ruined somewhat when one bellows “you want ride? Horse ride?” – an opportunistic out-of-work jockey, perhaps…). At the top of the hill we saunter past a security guard and into the bar of a fancy five star hotel, which appears to be almost entirely empty but for the staff, who don’t bat an eyelid at our – shall we say informal – appearance. A few G&Ts, pints of kingfisher and assorted hot bhajis later, we barely notice that the temperature has dropped to about 2 degrees as we tumble back down the hill to our own, less salubrious, accommodation.

It’s all in the eyes

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It’s nearly dark when we reach the entrance of the Kerala Kathakali centre near Santa Cruz Basilica. I buy banana chips fried in coconut oil from an old woman sitting by the door, and we file in to find our seats. On the small stage, three men in sarongs are carefully applying thick makeup with the aid of tiny wooden mirrors.

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A man in white is lighting oil lamps around the edge of the stage. He carefully stamps intricate designs along the aisle with white powder. We tourists pull our cameras out, try to reach our seats without dislodging the designs. There is an audible groan from the (mostly foreign) crowd when one man stomps right through them, oblivious.

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The man in white takes the stage, and two men line up stage right, strapping drums around their waists and beginning a gentle rhythm. The man in white begins to chant, then breaks into halting English to welcome us, and to introduce the evening’s performance.

Kathakali is a highly stylised form of dance that dates back to around the 17th century. While there is occasionally movement that is recognisable as dancing, the real art lies in the finely nuanced expressions of the performers, and the series of hand movements known as mudras. Before the performance starts, an actor is summoned to demonstrate first the eye movements, and then the mudras. His eyes are bloodshot red, an effect achieved by putting a particular kind of seed into his eyes for several minutes. My eyes squint shut in sympathy.

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One of the girls in our group is a dancer, and has taken lessons in classical Indian dance while she is here in India. She reports spending the entire first lesson practising moving her eyes in a complete circle, from right to left and then back again. After an hour she had yet to meet her teacher’s demanding standards – but then, it can take 10 years to master this form of dance, so I imagine it must take at least a year of that to perfect a good eye-roll!

After the eyes come the hand gestures. Some of these prove to be less subtle than I had anticipated – there are multiple ways of saying “come here”, from a suggestive raise of the eyebrows to an emphatic pointing gesture accompanied by a stamping foot! The gestures become increasingly elaborate. My favourite (and one which two members of our group have developed into a superb and slightly risqué party piece) is said to represent the bee landing on a lotus flower.

At last it is time for the performance proper. Two uninterested-looking pot-bellied men in sarongs enter, and turn out to be the official curtain raisers – they hoist a rainbow coloured quilt between them, and for the first ten minute or so all of the action appears to be happening behind it. The man in white turns out to be the singer, alternately chanting, singing, and providing short explanations in English.

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As seems to be the way in South India (and maybe the North too, for all I know), the gods are ever-present and each performer conducts a small ritual when entering the stage, before bowing to each of the singer and the musicians. The story is an excerpt from a longer play – in the days when villagers would travel huge distances for religious festivals, the performances would last all night, and would be attended in lieu of finding accommodation. While that must be quite a spectacle on the rare occasions that a full play is performed, I’m a little relieved that we are only being treated to an excerpt. It’s fascinating, but the more subtle details are lost on me, though the ritual-like aspects remind me of Japanese kabuki on a smaller scale.

20120304-184110.jpg The villain

I can tell you that the plot revolved around the anti-hero (indicated by a bright green face marked with red, and an elaborate skirted costume) attempting to abduct a beautiful lady (played to hammy effect by a man with bright yellow makeup, in stark contrast to his dark brown hands), who escapes and returns to her husband with the ruse that she will meet the bad guy later.

20120304-184149.jpg Continuity fail

The husband hatches a plot for revenge, lying in wait under his wife’s robe. When the evil-doer appears and tries it on, the husband leaps up and slays him. There is no sign of a lotus, let alone a bee flying anywhere near it, but this in no way reduces the campness of the evening.

20120304-184323.jpg Revenge!

The performance lasts an hour and a half, plus makeup time. The cost was approximately 250INR. It’s a glimpse at a unique part of South Indian culture which, while it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, is certainly worth seeing at least once.

Intrepid Kochi

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After two weeks of travelling entirely at my own pace I have mixed feelings about joining up with a group, so I’m relieved to be allotted my own room for the first night at Kaleeveedu Lodge. The lodge has about 8 rooms, including the sleepout that I’m in, each with its own bathroom, and is surrounded by lawns studded with an eccentric assortment of garden ornaments, a huge mango tree that is beginning to bear small green fruit, and a pond where a couple of white ducks are doing their best to swim in the two inches of mosquito larvae-laden puddle at the bottom. The rooms are clean and tidy, there are mosquito screens, the hot water works and there is actual toilet paper – what more could a girl ask for. I’ve been on a few trips with Intrepid Travel, but this is the first time I’ve come across accommodation that is run directly by Intrepid itself. It might even be the only one, but with new trips starting and finishing weekly in Fort Kochi, and the relatively low cost of a lease, it makes sense to have a permanent base. It also means that I can cull a few more items from my pack and leave them safely in storage for the next two weeks – I swear I have a good reason for everything I have brought with me, and it’s all going to be useful – but there MUST be a way to travel with less. The sooner someone comes up with a common charger for all of my electronic devices (without all the different fiddly cords and connections), the better.

The trip kicks off with a meeting at 6p.m. sharp. We are a full complement of twelve, from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, the UK and even a token American, all the way from Boston. The age range is from early twenties to early seventies, with just two couples in the group. It’s going to be interesting to see how we all get along! Our guide is the delightful Charles, a Madurai native (we’re going to be visiting his home town in a few days) with a keen sense of humour, a love of food and a genuine pride in showing us around “his India”.

We head out for dinner at a tourist dive (which has the single advantage that it also serves beer, not as easy to track down as you might think), then it’s back to the lodge for more beer and a bottle of the local rum (which, I seem to recall, was actually pretty good), and a surprise birthday cake for one member of the group. It’s fair to say that some of us are looking a little sleepy the next morning at breakfast.

The day starts with a walking tour of Fort Kochi, retracing my footsteps from yesterday. At the fish market, a huge mess of eels is being packaged into crates and covered in ice for shipping.

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We pass the local trade union office and arrive at the ferry terminal, where Charles has a word with the crew and we are first to board the old wooden ferry, for a sea-level view of the city.

20120304-182013.jpg Workers of the world…

Men in wooden canoes piled with fishing nets skim past, narrowly avoiding larger vessels (even a huge, slightly decrepit-looking cruise liner). In the distance we can see the tower blocks of Ernakulam, but after a brief stop the ferry crosses back to Fort and we follow the stream of old grandpa bicycles off the ferry at Mattancherry, to visit the “Dutch” palace.

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No photos are allowed inside the palace, ostensibly to protect the vegetable dyes used in the ancient wall murals (other places just forbid flash photography, but maybe the temptation to flick on the flash has proved too much for some, so a complete photography ban has been imposed). The murals are impressive though, depicting mostly religious scenes – Krishna is a favourite subject.

20120304-182302.jpg Entry to the Dutch Palace

The rest of the palace is old, wooden and dark, with some fairly staid exhibits, but the history of the local aristocracy is an interesting one, quite different to the Northern states – and to the rest of India, as far as I can tell – in that the line of inheritance is matrilineal, so that the mother of the ruler becomes hugely important. There are a series of black and white portraits of the former royal family in both Western and traditional dress, including some slightly spooky baby photos.

One room is full of weapons – it turns out there is also a traditional form of martial art unique to Kerala, known as kalaripayattu. I had been laughing a couple of days earlier at a letterbox nameplate under the name “Panicker”, but apparently a kalari panicker is just someone who teaches kalaripayattu. It would be good to see kalaripayattu in action before I leave Kerala, though some of the weapons look pretty fierce.

When I emerge from the palace, there is a small scrum of people around the American member of the group. He’s brought a small cache of family photos with him, which are proving to be a great hit. Note to self for next time…

We jump into rickshaws for the short journey back as far as Bastion Street, and find a table at the back of the garden in Kashi Art Cafe. Set in a quiet lane, the cafe is reached through a quirky art gallery, and serves espresso made in stovetop pots, fresh salads washed in filtered water (I have been dreaming about salads for at least a week now), and homemade chocolate cake to die for. Heaven.

The rest of the afternoon is free, and I’m determined to track down a 3G sim for my iPad before we leave. I tried yesterday, but forgot to take a passport photo and a copy of my Indian visa. This time I have all of the necessary paperwork, but I don’t know how to activate the sim, and my iPad is stowed safely at the lodge. The thought of walking all the way to the lodge and back is too much, but the boy behind the counter is horrified that I would consider paying as much as 50 rupees for an autorickshaw, and volunteers the use of a friend’s motorbike. After extracting a promise to drive carefully, I am treated to my first ever ride on the back of a bike (though I draw the line at riding sidesaddle). Even at slow speeds (the driver is true to his word) I can see how this could become addictive, and it’s almost worth it just for the look of surprise on the face of the lodge manager when we pull in!

At long last the sim is activated (pretty sure they just wanted an excuse to play with the iPad…), and I head back to meet the rest of the group at the lodge. On the way, I pass a community hall with colourful banners outside – it’s an exhibition by the Handmade Collective, a non-profit organisation providing support to artisan craftspeople throughout India. Stalls have been set up around the edge of the hall, and in the garden cafe behind, selling clothing, toys, paintings, handmade paper and homemade herbal remedies. I buy a handprinted dress marked at 700INR from a trio who spent 30 hours on a train from North India to get to Fort Kochi for this three day event. More expensive than the local tourist markets, but at least a little closer to a fair price. In the next room a woman is selling scarves and saris made from Ahimsa silk. Ahimsa is the principle of non-violence, and the weavers are careful to leave enough silk on each cocoon so that the silkworm inside is unharmed. It is nearly the end of the final day, so she has dropped her prices and gives me a further discount on a block-printed cotton salwar kameez set. Clearly I don’t look like I know what to do with it, so she writes careful instructions on each piece for delivery to the tailor, labelling the salwar, kameez and dupatta fabric in case I mix them up.

20120304-182543.jpg Ahimsa silk

Walking back across the park, I dodge a women’s softball team mid-practice. Marquees are being erected for the Colonial hockey tournament the next day. In the distance I can hear drumming, and two streets away I stumble across a small stage with rows of chairs set up in the middle of a large park. A group of twenty men in sarongs are playing for an audience of three or four tourists and a couple of children, so I perch on a seat in the back row for a while to listen.

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This evening’s programme includes a kathakali performance at a neighbourhood theatre, and one last dinner at the fabulous Oceanus (I don’t know what goes into a Syrian Catholic Fish Curry, apart from the obvious, but I can report that it is spicy and delicious). Tomorrow there is an early start tomorrow as we head for the hills of Ooty.

20120304-182702.jpg Syrian Catholic Curry and “pregnant pancakes” (aka appam). No connection.