It took me months to get over our short visit to Hong Kong. I felt haunted. We returned home in early March. After a week or so recovering from the jet lag I was back at work and starting to think about making new artworks for two summer exhibitions. I found that, although I wanted to get away from photo-based art, I was returning again and again to images of Hong Kong.
Spinning my creative wheels for a month or so I couldn’t create a meaningful image of Hong Kong. Eventually one large digital collage, face-mounted on plexiglass, made it into our Same, Same but Different… exhibition. It prompted conversations but I felt I hadn’t conveyed what I wanted to, whatever that was.
I think what fascinated me most about Hong Kong were the contrasts: nature/iconic urbanity; container homes, coffin hotels/mansions, penthouses; old/new architecture; rampant consumerism/living on the edge.
The three bars in the top left of the image represent the hexagram for ‘good luck’, although it is sideways. I felt Hong Kong might need good luck with its density, economy and geopolitical location. Then the protests began and the world watched as thousands demonstrated for their rights. And now the Covid 19 pandemic. I cannot fathom what life must be like there now.
Eventually last year I got past the haunting. Perhaps it was the effect of the news over the summer. Coming out of the post journey funk and back into island life.
Neither of us slept on the overnighter on a budget airline from Mumbia to Hong Kong via Bangalore (where I think I may have spent the most ever for an airport beer). The sun rose as we approached Hong Kong. I could see the long bridges, islands and ships. We spent a few hours in the airport waiting to check-in to our perfect accommodation for a few nights: City Oasis Guesthouse.
A 10 minute cab ride and we, with all our luggage, arrived at a large parking lot with trucks, a couple of shops in shipping containers and a backdrop of lush green foliage. Our accommodation was conveniently located on Lantau Island, close to the airport and about half an hour by bus and train to the city. We walked off the road and waited on a small bridge over an almost dry water channel. Our host,Terry, arrived, loaded our gear onto a sturdy cart and walked us to a small village, comprised of about a dozen small apartment blocks. Our room, a top floor corner apartment, overlooked the greenery to the tower blocks.
The afternoon of our first day we walked to Ma Wan Chung Village and Yat Tung Estates. Yat Tung Estates, a series of tower blocks with community and shopping facilities at street level, provided convenient dining and shopping.
One of its markets, the Hong Kong Market which replicates an older Hong Kong, is frequently used as a film location.
We walked along walkways and over a small bridge to Ma Wan Chung Village. A collection of picturesque, funky buildings with narrow walkways extends over the waterfront and onto the docks.
We saw several seafood restaurants but we were too early for dinner. We explored the nearby paths and roads, finding an old fort’s location, guarding the harbour and a view of the Ngong Ping 360 cable cars.
We returned to our room and sat on the balcony, watching as the sun set and the lights came on in the tower blocks accompanied by the sounds of water and frogs.
We had two full days in Hong Kong. Terry supplied us with maps, information and suggestions. We decided on town for day one and hill hiking day two.
By the time we sorted ourselves, walked to the Estates for breakfast and waited for the right bus it was noon before we were on the MTR to Hong Kong Central.
While above ground we watched the passing land/cityscapes. A cemetery stacked on a hillside between housing, roads and rail highlighted the city’s density. We disembarked and walked up to street level.
I’d found some vegetarian restaurants on Google Maps so we set off, threading our way along the packed streets. We found an alley with numerous small restaurants but all the signage was in Chinese and the restaurants packed. We settled for stuffed buns from a bakery and walked on. Soon we discovered the elevated walkways, freeing us from street level congestion.
Prominent signage helped us find our way though shopping malls to the ferry terminal where we caught a bus to the Victoria Peak tram terminal.
The ride up was short and steep. We found a coffee shop in the Peak terminus with reasonable prices and a view over the city. We saw folks wandering off down a path to a viewpoint and beyond.
After stopping at the viewpoint we walked down a winding path, stopping frequently to marvel at the views. Surrounded by lush greenery we looked out at the tops of the high-rises while descending.
The streets angled down dramatically. Teslas, Jags, Bentleys etc. lined the roads.
We were in Lan Kwai Fong, close to Soho, hip central in Hong Kong. We stopped for a still pricey Happy Hour beer. While sitting street side we marvelled at trucks maneuvering to make deliveries. As the light faded we made our way back to the ferry terminal where we boarded the classic Star Ferry to Kowloon.
From the the ferry terminal we made our way to the Temple Street Night Market. We walked the length of the market, along with hordes of tourists. Before turning back we stopped for a seafood dinner and watched the passing scene. Colourful signs and shops lit the night.
We walked back to the ferry terminal, along the busy streets, passing endless shops with their brilliant signage. Soon we were back in our quiet apartment, enjoying the night sounds: loud frogs, lashing rain and occasional thunder.
The next day the rain poured down. Although we really wanted/needed to go for a walk in the hills it was just too wet. We spent some time in the local shopping centre, browsing the markets and finding yet a few more things to take home. Then we headed back to the city centre. Eventually the rain drove us into a cinema for the opening of Captain Marvel. After the show we wandered back to Kowloon to watch the evening lights. And walked though more high end shopping malls.
The next morning we rose early and with Terry’s assistance hauled our luggage back to the road, caught a taxi to the airport and began our long journey home. How long? All told: 32 hours. With little sleep. Our flight to Tokyo went smoothly but then our flight on to San Diego was delayed. We arrived with little time to make our connection to Seattle only to discover that all flights in and out of Seattle were delayed by snow. Snow! We were back to winter. After spending hours in SeaTac we finally boarded our flight to Victoria. Only to have that delayed by a medical emergency. We arrived at the Victoria airport after midnight. I was so tired and chilled I couldn’t sleep. Finally, sometime that afternoon, in a semi-hallucinatory state I fell asleep.
For months I was haunted by our short stay in Hong Kong. But more about that in the next post!
(We returned from our trip to India in early March but only now – 6 months later – am I catching up with our blog…)
We arrived back in Mumbai late in the evening, only slightly delayed on the train. Once again we stayed at Travellers Inn in the Fort but were also going to spend a few nights with our friend Arti, once we’d finished shopping and sorting luggage.
Although neither of us are fashionistas it’s hard to resist the bright colours and quality of clothing found in India. Both of us found a few more items of clothing to stuff into our already overstuffed bags.
And, as this window display shows, it’s not just clothing that’s colourful.
And even more spices. Then Sue and Arti spotted wood blocks for printing at the street stand we’d visited on our previous trip.
Really though we didn’t need two more days of shopping. We needed more luggage. So off we went to Crawford Market where a young man at a spice shop guided us not only to more spices but to a luggage shop.
At the luggage shop we bargained hard. So hard we kept getting referred up the line until the owner himself appeared. He demonstrated the durability of the hardshell cases by standing and bouncing on them. Eventually we settled on one, very large, case. I hoisted it on top of my head and we headed back towards the hotel. Folks were laughing as we passed with the large case on top of my head, Indian style.
Along the way we stopped to admire the work of artists at the Multi-Medium National Art Camp, on the grounds of the Sir J.J. School of Art.
Sometimes though brilliant art pieces were everyday objects seen on the street.
Shopping done, bags loaded to the max we wandered the streets of the Fort and Colaba districts. At times the streets were packed with people and vehicles, at other times almost deserted. But always entertaining.
We said “Good-bye” once again to our hosts at Travellers Inn and loaded everything into a taxi for the ride to Bandra West, where we were staying at Arti’s family home for a few nights. On the way we passed one of the most expensive private residences in the world:
(The photo’s taken out the taxi window as we passed by.) I’d heard about Antilia, the private home of Mukesh Ambani. A mere 40,000 square feet it has 27 floors and 3 helipads! And there it was, just off the main street, in the midst of lots of apartment blocks. But Mumbai’s like that: high-end residences side-by-side with slums, often populated by the workers and servants to the rich.
Then over the Bandra-Worli Sea Link to West Bandra. Traffic was alternating between thick/slow and thin/fast.
Staying in West Bandra was a contrast from the Fort. Streets were, for the most part, tree shaded with lots of older apartment blocks and homes. We took an auto-rickshaw to see the film Gully Boy at a Le Rêve Cinema and afterwards walked back with Arti and her mom to their home, passing through several funky, historic neighbourhoods.
The small streets with their eclectic mix of shops and homes were colourful and busy. The architectural influence of Portuguese colonists was noticeable. But then there were the brightly painted ones…
This former bakery had a 2014 facelift during the ST+ART street art festival. We continued walking west, passing the historic St. Andrews cathedral and to the waterfront. We walked down a narrow alley and saw the sunset as kids played on the rocky beach.
We continued along the waterfront, Arti and her mom greeting some of the passersby, including Imtiaz Qureshi; the first Indian chef to be honoured by the Indian government with a Padmashri award for his contributions to the culinary arts.
The next day, Sunday, we started the day with an Indian classical music concert at the Taj Mahal Tea House, featuring the vocalist Pranab Biswas. We found seats in one of the tea house’s small rooms with about a dozen other music lovers.
After the music we sat back, drank tea and ate pastries. On the way out I bought a variety of teas, adding them to our new suitcase stuffed with spices and teas.
We spent the rest of the day touring around West Bandra. We visited the Mount Mary Church (aka Basilica of Our Lady of the Mount) where we had a view out over the neighbourhood to the Arabian Sea. For lunch at Amrut Sagar Fast Food I devoured one of the fattest dosas I’d seen (after all it would be my last dosa of the trip) and an incredible smoothie-like drink. Later we meandered along the seafront by Bandra Fort, built by the Portuguese in 1640 at Lands End, near where the Sea Link bridge comes ashore. Not much remains of the fort but it was a busy spot, with great views of the water around the entrance of Mahim Bay. The Taj Lands End hotel dominates the landscape but next door the picturesque Bandra Fort Garden, a small rocky space reclaimed in the early 2000s, provides a lush respite. Everywhere people posed for selfies, on the garden paths, along the seawalls and under the one remaining upright edifice of the old fort, an archway.
(not a selfie… I asked someone to take our photo)
Later in the afternoon we were alerted to the approach of the Walk for the Future, a protest march organized by the 2020 Group. About 2000 artists, from all fields, marched from Dadar to Bandra. We arrived just in time to see the end of the march at Carter Road with performances, music, speeches and a multitude of costumes and placards. The impetus for the march was the ongoing divisive politics, religious discrimination and the recent flaring of tension between Pakistan and India, with the shooting down of a jet fighter on the border.
We spent about an hour chatting with participants in the march and heard many wise thoughts on the politics of India and the world in general. It was inspiring to see thousands of like minded people raising awareness of the dangerous divisive traits we’re seeing in the world.
On our last day we were treated to an incredible dinner from Kakori House, owned by Ishtiyaque Qureshi, the eldest son of Imtiaz, the chef we’d met on our seawall walk. The meal was capped by kulfi, an Indian ice cream that is both denser and richer than Western ice cream. A truly memorable meal to end our stay in India.
That evening we taxied to the airport, stood in long lines made even worse by the heightened security and flew to Bangalore. Where we stood in long lines, made even worse by everyone having to completely empty their electronics for inspection. Eventually we boarded for the overnight flight to Hong Kong.
When planning at home I’d thought two weeks at Agonda would be a relaxing way to end our tour and a great place to be for Valentine’s Day. But looking for accommodations on the beach I discovered prices had climbed in the two years since our last visit. Eventually I found La Casa de Pedro, an Airbnb, situated on a hilltop overlooking the water.
We were a 10 minute walk from the beach, uphill in a very quiet neighbourhood, removed from the tourist milieu along the waterfront. We had a living/sleeping room, kitchen, bathroom and large storage area. In the above photo the uppermost roof shelters a rooftop terrace on a bigger building, with several apartments for rent. From the terrace we could see all around us: the water to the west and thick foliage with a few buildings poking up elsewhere. We cooked a few breakfasts but often ate beachside, especially after Sue started morning yoga at the Simrose. We also rented a scooter for 10 days to further explore the coast. But still, every day we walked to Agonda Beach, at least once and often two or three times.
We walked past a sprawling, deserted resort project. Clusters of buildings sat abandoned on several acres of land. One night we saw huge flames back-lighting the buildings as caretakers cleared dry brush.
The resort’s been sitting empty for about 25 years and has a distinctly spooky quality. We heard stories and talked to people who’d ventured in, but we only peered over the fence at the faded walls and broken windows.
Although seaside the heat sapped our energy. Scootering along the local, often shaded, roads created a soothing breeze. We rode north to Betul Beach, getting a bit lost (my Airtel service worked everywhere we went except Tamil Nadu, Agonda Beach and the neighbouring headlands). Eventually we made a cell connection and found our route. I enjoyed how we ride slowly, like many locals (conserving petrol?), and let faster traffic find zoom past. We followed narrow roads around the coastal inlets, passing farmlands and villages. Then over a long bridge and onto the peninsula, the southern end of a long beach stretching north to Vasco de Gama. We rode through miles of beachfront tourist zone, noticeably more upscale than Agonda Beach. The road went south than we hit a literal wall: The Leela Goa, a huge resort. We rode along the wall to the beach, past service portals into the resort. Walking onto the beach we passed a red carpet running from the few beachfront restaurants to a Leela land access point. Interestingly from the beach it looked almost vacant. Large resort guests have been hit with high GST taxes in Goa. Business was down in the high end resorts and up in the mid-range, smaller beachfront places.
The beach was busy with a speedboat hauling para-sailors aloft for quick rides and a gaggle of tourists. We walked south and within minutes were almost alone on the beach.
The southern tip of the peninsula beach jutted into the mouth of the Sal River. We decided we didn’t really want to swim there and walked back to one of the restaurants for lime sodas. While sitting, enjoying the refreshing drinks and shade, an egret sauntered in.
Another day we repeated a previous trip to the north, going just a few kilometres to Cola Beach. I knew the turnoff we tricky to find and still missed it the first time by it. The first 100 metres were very rocky and rough, then it smoothed as we drove over the headland to the clifftop overlooking the beach. We spent a few hours on Cola, enjoying swimming in both salt and fresh water. The lagoon water was down since our last visit, making it very shallow.
We drove south and re-visited places we’d seen in 2017. We remarked on the progress of the super highway while driving south of Chaudi, going to Galgibaga Beach.
We re-visited our favourite little bridge…
… over the Talpona River, which we paralleled to the ocean, and then turned south to Galgibaga Beach. I loved driving on the narrow winding road, past colourful homes and beach stays. We drove to the end of the road, parked, ate seafood at a restaurant, walked on the beach, decided not to swim due to the wind/surf and drove back, stopping at the market in Chaudi where, amongst fruit and veggies, we found frankinscence to add to our collection of aromatic purchases.
We re-visited Palolem Beach briefly but finally found Patnem Beach, just to the south. The walk over the headland was fun and we figured out the road connection and parking. Patnem is much quieter than Palolem and Colomb, farthest south, the quietest of all.
Most of our evenings we spent dining on Agonda Beach. Maybe we’re becoming creatures of habit but we ate most of our dinners at Madhu. The staff treated us really well, the food was great and the view perfect. Despite all my grousing about sunsets being cliché we tried to be on time for the daily event. We’d drink lots of fluids: lime sodas, tea (for me), coffee (for Sue), beer and special cocktails on occassions like Valentines.
Due to the heat we did spend some time chilling in our room, with its ceiling fan, or on the rooftop terrace, with its sea breezes. What a great place to play cribbage and savour a cold bevvie while the sun neared the horizon. I found a few craft beers at a small liquor store. The Eight Finger Eddie IPA from Goa Brewing Co. was wonderful.
Yeah, the beer was good but really the swimming is what makes Agonda special. Warm, floaty, water. Still a pretty chill beach. It was possible to plop our stuff down on an empty stretch of sand and swim with no one nearby. Two weeks at the beach. At times I wondered if I was bored? But then I’d realize that sitting, wondering what to do was fine – I didn’t have to be ‘busy’. It was even OK if I didn’t know what day it was.
We arrived mid-afternoon to the city’s rivers of traffic and taxied to our hotel, the Treebo Trend the Quar. Treebo’s a budget hotel chain but we were very happy with the clean, newish building, super helpful staff and our room with its big, comfy bed and modern touches. After the long dusty bus ride our first priority was showering. But no towels. Despite a few conversations with hotel staff we never did get any towels and our quest for towels became a bit of a laugh. Luckily we had travel towels; skimpy but workable.
The hotel’s just a couple of blocks from the waterfront, near the Subhash Bose Park, the ferry terminal and around the corner from an Indian Coffee House. Our first evening we walked south, along a series of backstreets, to a rooftop restaurant with views over the city and shipyards (because of the shipyards no photos were allowed). Our walk took us past this atmospheric building, in the midst of a main street’s bright lights. It looked deserted but the tuktuk out front with its curtain drawn added to its mystery.
Next day we went directly to Ernakulam Station, the smaller of the two train stations in the city. I’d had a text saying my sketchbook etc had been left with the station master so we went to his office first. He knew nothing of my belongings. After checking around he suggested we visit the conductors’ office. There we met a conductor who knew about my sketchbook. He phoned another conductor, who had taken it home to safeguard it. He arrived with my sketchbook, pencil case and Sue’s small notebook. We heard how the he’d taken it home, knowing if he’d given it to anyone else it would have likely been tossed out. His son had tracked me down and contacted me, which explained my confusion as to who was texting me. The conductors turned down my offer of a reward, saying they were happy to see me reunited with what was obviously something of value to me.
We left the station and walked the nearby streets, stopping to buy a large backpack for all the spices etc. we were accumulating. We caught a wild bus ride back to the waterfront where we bought a few more goodies in the markets on Broadway, just a few blocks from our hotel. The toasty temperatures kept us near our air conditioned room and its cooling shower (but no towels). We’d scoot out, then scoot right back. Near Broadway we passed this small chapel, surrounded by lush greenery and set back from the road, exuding serenity in the midst of a busy city.
We extended our hotel stay a few hours and arrived at the train station around 6pm for our 8:30 train only to discover it was delayed and not arriving until 11:30. We paid a few rupees hour by hour to sit, eat, read, sketch and watch the passing scene in the Air Conditioned Passenger Lounge. We couldn’t help but notice a tall, draped all-in-white, hair pulled up, middle-aged English woman talking loudly, mostly complaining, to her fellow travellers (two very calm, elderly women), railway staff and a variety of people caught near her. As the train delay extended she became more vocal.
Shortly after midnight our train pulled in. We waited on the platform with a group of tired but friendly Indian women. When the train arrived Sue and I boarded quickly and found our separate compartments. I was near the door and just as I settled in chaos erupted in the aisle. The English woman pushed her way in yelling at the group of Indian women “Out of my way. Don’t let your luggage touch mine! Out of my way all of you!” Luggage cascaded out of the way as she crashed her way through.
Eventually we all settled in, curtains drawn and we slept. Next morning I pulled back the curtain and watched the new day begin with Goa coming up at a train’s pace. Sue meanwhile was sharing a compartment with the imperious English woman. Fortunately she’d calmed considerably but other passengers were still wary of her.
Mid-afternoon we arrived in Madgaon, disembarked from the train and were met by a waiting driver who drove us to Agonda Beach, where we’d be staying the next two weeks.
We rode a train from Trivandrum to Kottiyam and then continued to Kumily by bus. On our pleasant train journey, we chatted with our seat neighbour, a woman returning home to Ernakulam. Disembarking in Kottiyam we joined with a Swedish woman to continue on to Kumily. We tuktuked to the bus depot, found the bus, bought food and were soon on the road, twisting and turning up into the Ghats. I sat behind the women, squished into the window by my seat companions. My phone erupted several times but in the crush and sway of the bus I could only note that the number looked like that of the woman we’d met on the train. Then I looked down at my electronics bag and realized my sketchbook wasn’t there. I texted back. Through an exchange of texts I found out that my sketchbook, pencil case and a notebook had been found and handed over to a conductor who was going to hold it all for me at Ernakulam Station.
Relieved, I relaxed and enjoyed the scenery as we climbed into the hills. We were met at the bus station by Binu who drove us in his tuktuk to his Periyar Green Homestay, located on the outer edges of Kumily. As we admired the vegetation surrounding the homestay the sun edged down into the gathering massive clouds. By our last day a bit of rain fell, just in time after the coffee harvest.
Periyar Green met and surpassed all our expectations. We were surrounded by lush foliage and the sounds of birds. The more we looked the more plants we identified: coffee, papaya, cardamon…
Kumily’s located at the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. We walked a few minutes to the end of the road and then up to a viewpoint where we could look out to the east, over the plains of Tamil Nadu far below us.
Once again we’d booked based on reviews and Binu and his family at Periyar Green lived up to their reputation. Before opening his homestay full-time Binu, Kumily born and raised, worked as first a guide and then as a jeep driver. He knows all the places and people and set us up with a couple of tours.
The first was a morning tour of the Green Park Spice Plantation. A guide led us along paths lined with plants and trees, identifying and providing info for each. I noticed the plantation’s use of companion planting, recycling of waste, water conservation and bees! The smallest bees I’ve ever seen: about the size of a mosquito.
We were given a quick demonstration of a simple but brilliant device for climbing palm trees without hacking handholds in the bark. The climber lifts one foot and attached trunk strap at a time, climbing a couple of feet with each movement.
Later Binu dropped us at a tea plantation for a ramble along the paths. Few landscapes are more photogenic than tea plantations.
The next day we went on a guided walk in the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. We knew the chances of seeing any elephants or tigers was chancy. However, fellow guests at the homestay had seen elephants on their tour. And we do love a good walk.
The morning mist was lifting when we arrived, disembarking from a mini bus with most folks heading for the short boat tour of the lake. We were a small group, accompanied by two guides and a protector-against-wild-beasts who toted a large gun.
We saw elephant sign…
and tiger sign…
But no elephants or tigers in the flesh. We did see gaur (aka Indian bison), wild boar, mongoose and a variety of birds. The walk and the bamboo raft paddling were good fun and exercise (we all napped after lunch). Low hills, the lake and retreating mist sprawled out around us. The lack of motor noise and the abundance of animal sounds provided a relaxing antidote to the high energy of populated India.
Moving as silently as possible through the forest with our guide, going from spot to spot checking on elephant sign and spooking the occasional gaur, I felt the presence of the elephants. We saw dust and mud bowls where they’d rolled and huge footprints in the soft earth near waterholes and the lakeshore. However, as former kayak guides, Sue and I know the chances of seeing wildlife on a tour can be spotty.
The closest we got to wildlife were some Langur monkeys, at the park centre.
Back in Kumily I went on a spice buying spree. I’d sat in on dinner prep and instructions given by our hostess to a fellow guest, a Dutch chef. When he left I continued attending dinner prep and took notes, including lists of spices. I was also becoming addicted to masala chai and its many flavours. Binu put together a list of spices for me and off we went to Lords Spice Super Market. Binu helped choose the quality and quantities, chatting with the staff who rounded up samples and then packaged all my purchases. I now had enough spices to fill one of our backpacks.
We were only stayed in Kumily four nights but the experience lingers, especially when I use those spices. Although the beaches of South India are very appealing it’s the hills and thoughts of long walks in the (slightly*) cooler green world that call out to us for a return visit. (*we did suffer a bit of heat exhaustion after the trek, even though we wore hats, drank water, etc.)
A huge part of our happy experience in Kumily was our stay at Periyar Green Homestay. Binu and his family provided not only a beautiful place but a wealth of information and a warm welcome.
When it came time to leave we decided to take a bus towards the Cardamon Hills, to see more of the highlands, before turning back down to the coast. A narrow, twisting road took us through the mountains.
Along the way we saw evidence of the destruction from the 2018 monsoons and subsequent flooding.
Because of dangerous water levels in the huge reservoirs water was released causing more damage downstream. Below is a photo, snapped from the bus, of the imposing Idukki Dam, one of the largest arch dams in Asia. (The Idukki Dam did not release water but the two other dams on Idukki Reservoir did. An excellent Reuters Graphic report describes and discusses the impact of record monsoon rains and the reservoir water releases.)
We arrived back in Ernakulam in the late afternoon. My thoughts turned to my missing sketchbook, which was hopefully waiting for me at the Ernakulam Station.
Our visit to Thiruvananthapuram (aka Trivandrum) began and ended with train journeys.
The short ride from Varkala to Trivandrum gave us just enough time to meet a few folks. We disembarked at the large Thiruvananthapuram Central Station and, not wishing to haul our luggage in the heat, took a short tuktuk ride to our hotel. The Safire Residency helped make our stay in Trivandrum a pleasure. A basic hotel but with upscale features, super clean rooms and knowledgeable staff.
The Safire’s close to the train and bus stations but off the main streets on a quiet backstreet. Our first request after dumping our bags: a late lunch. Hotel reception suggested Ariya Niwas, just down the hill from us, serving thalis until 2pm.
That may look like a small amount of food but it’s a bottomless banana leaf. At some point you have to say “Enough!”. And then, as Sue found out, an auntie may try to force feed you even more.
We had no expectations of Trivandrum (I prefer typing the shorter version). It was a transition point – we had to decide where to go next. I’d booked a couple of nights, just enough time to get a taste of the city and figure where to go next.
Trivandrum’s a transportation hub and the two main stations were just around the corner, a 5 minute walk. Our first full day in town we decided that we would find how to get to the south tip of India: the town of Kanyakumari on Cape Cormorin. We bounced between the bus depot and train station comparing departure and return times. Several helpful people pointed us to other helpful people. Eventually we realized that a bus must be out front, ready to depart, so we walked over to confirm the timing. As we walked away talking about how to organize our trip the next day we decided that the best option was to run back and hop on the bus that was there, waiting for us.
Looking at a map you’d wonder why such a short trip would take several hours (2.5 hours to go 85km.) but as we struggled through traffic bottlenecks leaving Trivandrum all became clear. Luckily viewing the ever changing passing scene kept us entertained.
We watched the Western Ghats taper off to the Cardamon Hills and then to the flatlands at the tip. We arrived at the hottest time of the day, so there were few other visitors. We walked the final few steps south and beheld the various temples and statues at the tip of continental India.
We stopped at the little beach where people left their shoes and offerings on the rocks and in the water. We looked at the three bodies of water: the Bay of Bengal, the Laccadive Sea and the Arabian Sea. Colour changes in the water were apparent, even from our low angle. We discussed taking the ferry out to Vivekananda Rock and beyond to the Thiruvalluvar Statue but decided we’d seen what we’d come to see. Even though we were surrounded by the sea it was Hot. We walked back to the waterfront road, intending to get info about our return bus. Although blasted by the hot sun, we found some relief in the local colours.
After stopping at a vacant luxury hotel restaurant for lime sodas we found the bus station and decided to board the next bus back. Perhaps we missed some of the sights but in the this case the destination was hot and the journey a bit cooler, if bumpy. By the time we returned to Trivandrum the sunset lit the sky in rosy hues.
While walking back and forth between the bus and train stations, and mindful of a good cup of coffee, we found the local Indian Coffee House. Located in an eye catching spiral tower, tucked in beside the monumental bus terminal, the Indian Coffee House, provides great coffee, tasty entrees and an interesting angle on dining.
After spending a day on the road we stayed in the city the next day. A number of sights seemed to be clustered just to the north of us so we caught an auto-rickshaw to the park, a calm oasis in a bustling city. We skipped the zoo and visited the Napier Museum, (this NatGeo link includes an interior photo). Although designed by an English architect, Robert Chisholm, traditional Keralan architecture influenced its design. The building features a natural air conditioning system, created by doubled walls with vents, that slowly circulates the air.
We toured the exhibits but it’s the interior structure that draws the eye to it. Like the exterior it is exquisitely detailed and colourful. We spent under an hour looking at the various statuary and exhibits, all dwarfed by a fantastic temple chariot.
Back outside in the heat we sought our favourite refreshment (not beer!): lime soda. We chatted with another Canadian couple, who related their recent experience staying in Assam (one of India’s far northeast states, just south of Bhutan). We tucked their recommendations away for future reference.
Leaving the leafy park we walked south into the city, along narrow winding back streets. I needed to deal with my iPhone’s charging problems and top up my Airtel mobile account for the month. We went from place to place, led on by Google Maps, not always the easiest way to find a small business in a big city. The Airtel office could not accept payments. However, along the way found an ATM, more refreshing water and the resolution of my phone charging in another small store.
The Apple partner (on the left) helped me while his Samsung mate looked on. I got the right adaptor and a better cable for a reasonable price plus some insights into the Indian electrical system. Also I learned that iPhones are cheaper in Canada than India; lucky me the issue was resolved by a cable!
We returned to our hotel and when I asked about Airtel the fellow on duty whipped out an app and had my account refilled in minutes. With business taken care of we had time for an early evening movie at a nearby cinema. The air-conditioned cinema rocked (literally, the sound system probably shook the foundations). Odiyan (in Malayalam – no English subtitles), held our attention for three hours, even though we didn’t understand a word.
We’d discussed options for our next destination (sorry Maldives, maybe next time?) and opted to head for the hills (much cooler temperatures), specifically Kumily near the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. Breakfast at the Indian Coffee House and then onboard a morning train to Kottayam where we switched to a bus. Having just resolved my phone problem I was now about to lose one of my most important forms of communication.
Back on the train again to go from Munroe Island to Varkala, a very short journey south back to the coast.
We arrived before noon, left our bags and walked to the beach. We stayed at a small inn near Janardanaswamy Temple, in a small valley between the highlands that back most of the beach at Varkala. Walking onto the beach we could look both north and south and see the famous red cliffs backing the beach.
The south end was least crowded so that’s where we gravitated. We walked almost to the end of the cliffs going south and gradually left other people behind. We returned several times to this part of the beach and enjoyed swimming in the mild surf. Sunbathing was hot, however, and a couple of times I had to vacate the beach. The smartest people we saw were those who brought a large beach blanket to create a shelter from the sun.
We were aware that Varkala’s a popular tourist beach and for the most part we avoided the crowds at the north end and on the shop-packed clifftop behind the beach. However, we did venture that way a couple of times.
The funniest thing on the north end was hearing the lifeguards’ whistles as they attempted to control the crowds in the surf; something we didn’t hear on the south end of the beach. The saddest thing was seeing rude, intrusive tourists take photos of the priests and their flock mid-beach, where people come to complete end-of-life rites for family members. I personally took fewer photos this trip, partly as I found the ubiquitous cameras to be irritating and a distraction. (I also used my phone’s camera far more than my DSLR this trip, as it’s less intrusive.)
On our second walk north on the beach we met an expat couple who recommended a restaurant on the cliff top. Up we went and found ourselves a table with a view, reasonably priced cold beer and tasty meals.
From our seats on the edge of the deck we could see down to the beach and along the clifftop with its plethora of shops. A string of lights from the fishing fleet extended along the horizon, and some of its catch was displayed in front of restaurants.
Wandering back from the cliff edge was a visual treat in the night; threading through the dozens of small shops with their vibrant lights.
And so the days passed… swimming, tanning, eating and consuming plenty of fluids. Sue went off with our host from Ram’s Gratitude Inn to distribute food in the mornings. She found this both rewarding and an insight into the poverty, even in relatively rich Kerala.
Although the beach and its cliffs were wonderful it was the locals who made us feel welcome, even in such a touristic spot, and made our Varkala visit special.
Would we go back to Varkala? Probably not, as it a bit too touristic for us (e.g. too many pushy vendors, too many rude tourists and that ennui from over tourism). But we’re glad we made the stop and caught a glimpse of the Varkala beach scene.
We’d stayed in Alleppey aka Alappuzha before so we chose a new-to-us route: the public ferry south to Kollam, a seven or so hour ride via canals and lakes. We’d overnight there and then continue on to Munroe Island, just to the north, for several nights in the southern backwaters.
We’d noticed that tourism seemed down, even to us who were last in India during the 2017 demonetization. When we boarded the ferry, generally full of tourists this time of year, there were few and a choice of seats on the upper deck. By the end of the day’s journey most of those folks had stopped off and we had the ferry pretty much to ourselves.
Most of the houseboats, a popular overnight option, are located on the north end of the backwaters, closer to Alleppey. As we travelled south we noticed fewer and fewer houseboats. The ferry putt-putted down large canals to ones just big enough for it to fit, plus crossed a couple of bigger lakes. Once in a while we could see the ocean, just a stone’s throw away across a narrow strip of land.
Captain John, a 16 year veteran of the ferry service, took a short break while crossing one of the lakes to join us. He told us how tourism’s down this year, primarily due to the past summer’s floods. He showed us how high the water got in various locations and told us how the local fishermen and boaters helped with rescue efforts.
We reached Kollam slightly before dark and caught a short tuktuk ride to our hotel. We’d decided to spend the night in Kollam rather than looking for our Munroe Island homestay in the dark. Finding a hotel in Kollam had not been easy but we were very happy with our choice: the Sree Janardhana Residency. Although the hotel was undergoing renovations our room was clean and quiet with all the mod cons. Best was the all-veg restaurant conveniently located beside the lobby.
The next day we caught a cab to Munroe Island, leaving the city and crossing the water to an island idyll.
While on Munroe Island we stayed at Mayookam Serviced Villas, a large riverfront home divided into guest rooms. Once again we ate a stunning amount of delicious food. We’d think we’d finished and more would appear from the kitchen.
Other than eating our days were spent walking, cycling and, on one day, taking a canoe tour along the river and some of the canals bisecting the island.
We started on the river, then turned into narrower and narrower canals, passing temples, homes, farms and eventually stopping to look at some fish farms located just off the canals. We then returned to the broader river and on to our homestay.
Monroe Island is incredibly tranquil. There are a few small shops scattered around, but no major centre or large businesses. We enjoyed the peace and quiet; the prevalent sound was that of singing and instruments drifting from the various temples. Sitting out in the evenings by the river was a transcendent experience as the sounds echoed in the dark.
Once again the heat inhibited some of our activities, such as cycling, but finding a bit of shade and watching the river flow wasn’t tough to take. Once again the people made the place special. Not just our amazing hosts at the homestay but also the people we met while wandering around their island. A beautiful experience.