Posted by: The Only Gringo on the Bus | May 7, 2013

Warning: May contain poo


Episode 36: Kannur/Kalpetta, India

Date: 09th-15th April 2013.

We didn’t know it when we arrived at our beach resort, but if there’s a large group of Indians where you’re staying, you have good reason to roll your eyes and fear the worst. There was a large group of Indians staying at the potentially idyllic beach resort we’d booked. On the plus side, our first night was their last night.

Yes, large groups of Indians are preposterously loud and self-absorbed. We required properly-fitted earplugs and flagons of lager (thank Vishnu they stocked large bottles of strong Kingfisher here) to get to sleep. We didn’t see the worst of it, the English couple we met the following day had insisted on being moved to the furthest room from the group after they had a late night, amplified game of bingo.

Not idyllic, but pretty close

Not idyllic, but pretty close

After they’d left, we had a pretty peaceful, relaxing 5 days on the beach. There is not a huge amount to report.

We ate pretty well – we were in the middle of nowhere, so were at the mercy of the “chef” at the resort, who was generous, although we feared we still weren’t getting entirely authentic Keralan cuisine (apart from the bread; the variety and quality of which was amazing). We knew the food was fresh though, we saw the mussel divers and fisherman daily as we lounged on the beach and there seemed to be fewer chickens strutting around the resort each day.

Something which were not in short supply, but didn’t find their way onto our plates, were the birds of prey. As we lay on the beach each day, tens of these bastards of the sky would wheel away above us, seemingly waiting for me to fall asleep so they could swoop down and pluck out a major organ. I didn’t so much as doze. I was happier with the smaller birds on the beach.

Typical beach view - birds of prey biding their time

Typical beach view – birds of prey biding their time

I believe this one is a sea eagle, I didn't recognise the others

I believe this one is a sea eagle, I didn’t recognise the others

Less likely to tear out my spleen, although the beak was still a cause for concern

Less likely to tear out my spleen, although the beak was still a cause for concern

Thankfully, none of them relieved me of any body parts or defecated on my face.

Talking of which, look away now if you’re at all easily offended, because I’m going to write about poo. You can look again when you see a photo of my sweaty face (you can look away again at that point if you don’t want to see a photo of my sweaty face).

It was on the beach that one of four specialist poo types occurred. I’ll take you through all four that I encountered on the trip (bear in mind an average score of about 3/10 in India for toilet visits and an average of 5 or 6 visits (or “incidents”) a day and you can see how I’ve had to whittle this list down).

1. The Phantom: you’re on a beach and you suddenly, without any warning, desperately need to visit the loo. Abandoning your wife, you sprint up the steps to your room, you sit down, already sweating and…. nothing. Hugely disconcerting.

2. The Titanic: pretty simple – you’re on a houseboat about an hour into your trip, there’s only one loo and you’re in need, you use it and what you produce is still there the next morning when you leave. Unpleasant, unavoidable, unsinkable.

3. The Gentleman: you’re in a bar and the urge overcomes you, so you waddle to the toilet like a penguin who’s late for a dinner-dance. You see the sign for the toilet, but the woman in front of you doesn’t and goes the wrong way, so you’re in front of her when you reach the UNISEX toilet. What? And there’s only one? And you’re about to shit yourself, but the scene that would greet her would surely see you deported? “After you… you were in front of me”. You’ve never argued so vehemently. Thank Shiva for chivalry.

4. The Coward: seriously, look away now, I urge you. You’re in a dingy bar and your bowels are like a washing machine on a spin cycle, so you head to the khazi. The toilet is like looking into the cell of a prisoner making a dirty protest, except with no light or lock on the door (and naturally no seat, paper or sink). You glance around looking for another option and find that some dirty oik has curled one off in the urinal. You suddenly don’t need to go anymore and you spend the rest of the night rocking back and forth, staring into the middle distance and speaking in tongues.

The poo bit is over

The poo bit is over – it’s safe to look

From Kannur, we headed inland and upwards, to the tea plantations, waterfalls and wildlife sanctuaries of Wayanad, specifically Kalpetta, which would be our base for 3 days of these natural delights.

As promised in the last post, I should make a quick comment on driving in India. We saw both sides of it. You get either:

  • the cover-your-eyes, real-life-Mario-kart version in which something almost dies every 14 seconds. It’s a light-flashing, horn-honking, bumper-grazing free-for-all in which nobody reaches their destination with clean underwear
  • the less hyphenated type, where your driver positions his vehicle in the gutter and gets overtaken by everything, including pedestrians. On any incline he will be in too high a gear and will only change down when you start rolling backwards downhill. On one journey it took us 2.5 hours to travel 71km (and the roads weren’t busy or winding)

In neither scenario do you get a seatbelt, which in the first case is terrifying, but in the 2nd allows for easy egress for an ice cream purchase and a slow saunter to catch up to your taxi as it rolls back towards you.

Wayanad was a massive waste of time. Due to the heat everything was closed: the wildlife sanctuaries; the waterfalls; any restaurant serving a dosa at the time we arrived. I’d challenged Jane to either wrestle a tiger or stamp on a king cobra, but sadly she didn’t get the chance.

Wayanad tea plantation

Wayanad tea plantation

In addition to everything being closed, we’d booked into the homestay in Wayanad during a holy day. This meant that at 5.30am on our first morning we were awoken by what sounded like the theme tune to the Magic Roundabout, but with all the notes in the wrong order and played at 4000 decibels for over half an hour. I was displeased.

I have no idea why, when you’re going to be spending the holiday with your family, you’d add a further level of stress by waking everyone up in the middle of the night with Guantanamo-style torture music.

We’d already decided we’d be leaving the next day, but first we decided to go to the only thing open, some caves. Jane fell into the trap of wearing far too little, and as a result was stared at and photographed throughout the day. At one point an old guy said disgustedly, “Why aren’t you wearing a dress?”. This was a bit rich since middle-aged Indian women quite often have their bellies out, which is clearly wrong. If they’re going to enforce nudity, couldn’t they insist on it with the twenty-somethings rather than the sixty-somethings?

The caves were fine, but it wasn’t tiger wrestling.

Cave carvings

Cave carvings

P1000699

Inappropriately attired… again

At least we finally got a dosa on the way back from the caves, much to Jane’s delight.

Dosa!!

Dosa!!

Imagine my delight when we got back to the homestay to find that a family of five had moved into the room next door with a 7-month old baby. Little did I know that these idiots would outdo the Magic Roundabout gang by setting their alarm for 4.30am. I didn’t even know this time existed.

Our time in Wayanad was clearly a little disappointing since everything good was closed, but there was some beautiful scenery and we got chance to tick off another item on our “WE’RE MIDDLE-AGED” list by wearing sports sandals for a couple of days.

Sexy

Sexy

We headed to Calicut wondering why when there’s so much tea they ration it so strictly.

A one-gulp cuppa

A one-gulp cuppa

Next time: beer, a fabulous Abu Dhabi buffet, and Emile Heskey advertising steel.

Posted by: The Only Gringo on the Bus | April 29, 2013

God’s Own Country?


Episode 35: Kochi/Alleppey, India

Date: 04th-08th April 2013.

Well, it’s been a while hasn’t it? We’ve just returned from Kerala (strapline: “God’s Own Country”) and I’ve decided to dust off the old travel blog to deliver some Indian grumpiness.

It was our debut in India and we’d heard wonderful things about Kerala, so we were keen to see if it lived up to the hype. The journey itself was something of an epic – leaving the UK in freezing temperatures and arriving dishevelled to a steamy pre-dawn Kochi after 19 hours travel. En route we’d witnessed first-hand the jaw-dropping expense of Abu Dhabi (where we’d be spending a couple of days on the way back) when we emptied our bank accounts at the airport in return for a couple of pints of lager.

Kochi airport at 4am is pandemonium: hundreds of beeping cars; people running hither and thither; and those guys directing traffic with whistles, who seem to just be doing it for a laugh since nobody knows what the whistles mean. Thankfully we had a taxi booked and the nutter behind the wheel delivered us (somehow without incident, more on the roads later) to our first Indian homestay.

As it was 6am when we arrived, and knowing that our beds awaited us just feet above, we had to work hard to feign interest as our hosts gave us a mystery drink and took us through their spiel. When we finally turned in we slept pretty soundly until 1pm.

To make our first day more exciting Jane had lodged an earplug in her ear canal. Admittedly we’d had to split a pair of those silicone ones as we hadn’t found the proper ones but, knowing that the earplug was smaller than usual, you’d probably avoid trying to force it deep into your brain. When Doctor Tom with tweezers proved unsuccessful (how can you tweeze what you can’t see?), Jane started ferreting around with a hair grip and eventually got the blighter out (although her ear is yet to recover 3 weeks later).

Panic over, we ventured out along the dusty road to Fort Cochin. If you’re thinking of following in our footsteps, I would urge you not to bother. We were expecting something like the beautiful Malaysian colonial towns of Georgetown and Melacca - interesting architecture and tourist-friendly historical sights. What we got was very different.

We should learn tpo always take an autorickshaw when doing a tour of a city's ATMs

We should learn to always take an autorickshaw when doing a tour of a city’s ATMs

We began with our holiday first-day staple of trying to find a cash machine which didn’t hate us. We’d told our banks we were going away, but they’d conspired with the Indian banks to ensure that it took us an hour, 4 widely-spaced and distant ATMs and a call to Sainsbury’s bank to finally get our hands on some rupees just in time to find out that everywhere had stopped serving lunch.

[Why do banks do that automated security thing and then ask you all the questions again when you get through to them, costing you as much in phone bills as a bag of peanuts in Abu Dhabi?]

We found the only place in town open for lunch and dined on coconut pancakes (sounds better than it was), then decided that we’d leave the sights until the following day and headed back to the cool of our homestay. I say cool, but since most of the region uses hydroelectricity and there’d been no rain in weeks, we got used to the regular powercuts.

Dinner was better than lunch

Dinner was better than lunch

Day 2 was the day to see the sights of Fort Cochin and they really, really weren’t up to much. The main tourist attraction is the area with the Chinese fishing nets. Unfortunately it’s also the area with the carpet of litter and stench of rotten fish. I can appreciate the engineering of the nets, but maybe we were missing something, or had approached from the wrong angle.

Large net with foreground detritus

Large net with foreground detritus

According to our guidebook this was the number 2 thing to see in Kerala. Number 2 sounds about right.

Next up was the Mattancherry Palace, an autorickshaw ride away. Please don’t let the name deceive you. Aside from some nice murals, there was next to nothing here of interest and the building itself was very plain.

We decided, with some trepidation, to head for the next “sight” on the list, the nearby synagogue. It was almost a relief when we found it closed, since from the outside it looked like another number 2 sight. I did like the shops nearby with guys outside saying “no hassle shop, I’m not hassling you, please come in and look, it’s a no hassle shop”. I felt hassled, so we repaired to the shade of a nearby cafe for a refreshing ginger and lime soda (only actually drinkable with about a pint of syrup tipped in, unless you want to turn your face inside out).

Unheeded plea: note the quantity of litter in the background

Wanting something a bit stronger than ginger and lime, we sought the local booze shack later in the day. In Kerala drinking is really frowned upon (I suppose it’s a bit like class A drugs in the UK). Apparently if a bar tries to open anywhere near a school, local protest groups will spring up and sometimes the bars are vandalised. Bloody fools!

Buying alcohol from the government-sanctioned official sellers would be enough to put you off booze, if you weren’t a beer-hungry Westerner who’d been walking round all day in 35 degree heat. We queued with around 20 bleary-eyed middle-aged men, all buying half-bottles of whisky, which I assume they do every day/hour. It was quite depressing. As was finding that the only beer on offer was Budweiser – nobody’s favourite tipple, but any port in a storm.

Later that evening we actually found a bar. It was less than accommodating, dingy, hot, slightly smelly. Little did we know that it would be the nicest bar we’d find in Kerala.

Salubrious bar

Salubrious bar

The next morning I attempted to chop my finger off using a chair. I was sitting down to breakfast and unknowingly lifted the seat section whilst pulling my chair into the table. I then sat down with my considerable weight going directly onto my index finger, which was between the seat and the metal legs. I don’t mind admitting that I cursed loudly and freely.

Imagine my despair when I found that: a) there was almost no visible evidence of the injury (a split nail and some minor bleeding), preventing me from garnering the extensive, gushing sympathy the initial acute pain had promised (frankly, I was expecting my finger to be cleaved in twain, affording me a future rugged scar and a heavily embellished story involving a circular saw or a shark); and b) it was toast for breakfast.

We really wanted to sample all the Keralan food we could shovel down our necks in the homestays, but twice we were given dry toast and had to hide our scowls (perhaps it’s a breakfast treat for the locals).

We couldn’t wallow for long, we were due on an eco-friendly houseboat on the much-lauded backwaters near Alleppey.

Our home for the night in Alleppey

Our home for the night in Alleppey

Now, far be it from me to complain about things, but whilst there were some excellent things about this trip, the actual boating was a bit disappointing. We had imagined being punted along narrow, winding waterways, with overhanging vegetation and only the sounds of the local fauna to break the silence. What we got was a man pulling us along a man-made canal, as if he were some kind of pony, and kids begging from the banks: “What’s your name?…… Tom….. That’s a pretty name….. What’s your name?….. [Their name], do you have a pen?….. No, sorry…… A chocolate?….. No, sorry….. Money?….. No, sorry – giddyup horsey.”

I fed him a couple of sugar cubes after 20 minutes

I fed him a couple of sugar cubes after 20 minutes

At the end of the canal there was a lake, where at least our old boy was back on the boat with us rather than pretending to be a horse on the towpath. It wasn’t unpleasant being punted across the lake, but we weren’t exactly in the middle of nowhere – you could constantly hear music from one or other of the local houses and we stopped at a village to take a walk to the beach (nice enough, but not really on the itinerary).

Put your back into it mate

Put your back into it mate

We felt obliged to have a little wander on the beach to work up an appetite for lunch and when we strolled back to the boat we were punted to the middle of the lake and lunch was served. I have to say, it was really excellent food.

I was a little surprised on going to retrieve the punter after we’d finished and been at anchor for about an hour that he was curled up fast asleep in the corridor. When we finally got back underway we retraced our route along the man-made canal and our punting was done.

Super houseboat grub

Super houseboat grub

Whilst we had a really relaxing day, in hindsight we should have clarified the route before we set off. However, with our punter speaking no English this may not have been easy.

We spent the night at anchor on the lake near our start point, had another fantastic meal on the boat and a couple of beers we’d brought with us. Although cramped, we slept well, setting us up nicely for our introduction to the Indian railways the following day.

It wasn’t exactly the authentic railway experience, as we’d booked the air-con car for our 6-hour journey to Kannur and the beach, so we had reasonable leg-room and fairly comfy seats.

Idiot-proof instructions for the fold-down table - perhaps they'd heard about my finger mishap?

Idiot-proof instructions for the fold-down table – perhaps they’d heard about my finger mishap?

Our carriage quickly became like a skip on wheels as the passengers ate, drank and threw everything they had no need for on the floor. In fairness, no bins were provided and it was marginally better than the rest of the train, who just slung any litter out of the window. It’s a real problem and unfortunately it’s done totally unthinkingly, it’s just normal behaviour.

Somehow we got a little sleep on the train, in spite of the chai, coffee, biryani and snack wallahs passing through approximately every 7 seconds; the insistence of all passengers to use the headrest of my seat (and sometimes my head) as a handrail when moving through the carriage; and the chap pictured below, who may be the most disgusting human I’ve ever encountered and made a noise when sleeping like a jet engine.

Louder than he looks

Louder than he looks

In the next post you can look forward to some birds of prey, female nudity, a catalogue of toilet-related misery and Jane failing her challenge to either wrestle a tiger or stamp on a king cobra.

Posted by: The Only Gringo on the Bus | December 23, 2010

The end of the world (trip)


Episode 34: Langebaan/Cape Town/Johannesburg, South Africa

Skin colour (both): Blue

Location: Alsager/Preston

Date: 23rd December 2010.

11 months, 4 continents and 17 countries later, our trip has ended. We are shivering in our respective parents’ houses and the clear skies and hot sunshine of Cape Town seem a world away.

Since my last update, we’ve braved the wild seas of the Western Cape, a cable car with a revolving floor and BA’s airline food. Read the whole post…..

Posted by: The Only Gringo on the Bus | December 9, 2010

Whales, whales and wails


Episode 33: Drakensburg/Queenstown/Hogsback/Addo/Plettenburg Bay/George/Oudtshoorn/Hermanus/Langebaan, South Africa

Skin colour (Tom): Rio Ferdinand

Skin colour (Jane): Ferdinand de Lesseps

Location: Langebaan, South Africa

Date: 09 December 2010.

Of the many, many countries we have visited during our trip, South Africa wins the prize for worst radio hands-down. Not only are most of the presenters unintelligible, incoherent and inane (most can barely string a sentence together), but the choice of music comes mainly from terrible films of the 1980s.

If you’re lucky, you’ll get some South African drum ‘n’ bass, which is like listening to drum ‘n’ bass produced by me. You may also have your spirits raised momentarily by what sounds like a decent track from recent(ish) memory, only to have them dashed by the heavy house track which has been laid over the top, making it sound like you’re listening to two bad songs at once.

Commendable, but not helpful, is the way the presenters switch (usually mid-sentence, always during some interesting news article or the single Ashes update of the day) between English and Afrikaans. It’s enough to make you turn it off and listen to the purr/screech/wail of your Chevrolet Spark’s engine noise instead. Read the whole post…..

Posted by: The Only Gringo on the Bus | November 28, 2010

How fresh is your warthog?


Episode 32: Sanur/Jakarta/Hong Kong/Johannesburg/Nelspruit/Kruger National Park/Graskop/Drakensburg Mountains, Indonesia/Hong Kong/South Africa

Skin colour (Tom): Will Smith

Skin colour (Jane): Will Self

Location: Drakensburg Mountains, South Africa

Date: 29th November 2010.

Joining an ever-growing list of average/inadequate vehicles we’ve used on our travels, we picked up our car for 27 days in South Africa on arrival at Johannesburg airport last week.

It’s a Chevrolet Spark, it’s the cheapest vehicle that money can hire, and it has a mighty 1.3 litre engine and about 1.3 horsepower. Don’t send in name suggestions – it’s called Sparky (by Jane) and Stally (by me).

In all my years of driving (including learning to drive), I haven’t stalled as many times in total as I’ve stalled this tiny metal box-on-wheels in the first few days behind the wheel. Read the whole post…..

Posted by: The Only Gringo on the Bus | November 11, 2010

Getting the travelling groove back


Episode 31: Nusa Lembongan/Ubud/Lovina/Sanur, Indonesia

Skin colour (Tom): Pamela Anderson

Skin colour (Jane): Jimmy Anderson

Location: Sanur, Bali (Indonesia)

Date: 11th November 2010.

I won’t dwell on the last post on this blog, as we certainly haven’t dwelt on the problems of Probolinggo. Instead, we’ve had a fantastic ten days or so in Bali.

Since my last correspondence we’ve seen a manta ray up close and personal, spent four hours looking for a hotel in the most touristy place in Bali (and finding none), and spent an evening (sober, would you believe?) at a Balinese dance show. The worrying thing is that I actually really enjoyed it! The dance show that is, not the fruitless searching for hotels. Read the whole post…..

Posted by: The Only Gringo on the Bus | October 31, 2010

A Javanese Roo-turn


Episode 30: Solo/Surabaya/Probolinggo/Sanur/Nusa Lembongan, Indonesia

Skin colour (Tom): Des O’Connor
Skin colour (Jane): Tom O’Connor
Location: Nusa Lembongan, off Bali (Indonesia)

Date: 31st October 2010.

You know how in my last post I was singing the praises of the Indonesian people in a somewhat uncharacteristic display of nicety? I’m excepting natives of Probolinggo, as they’re all arses.

After nine months of travelling the globe, the journey to Probolinggo and our treatment whilst there made us seriously discuss just jacking it in and heading home to Blighty.

Instead, we’ve regrouped and headed for Bali, where the last few days have been almost wholly pleasant. Read the whole post…..

Posted by: The Only Gringo on the Bus | October 21, 2010

Want to feel famous for a day?


Episode 29: Ko Samet/Hong Kong/Jakarta/Yogyakarta/Solo, Thailand/Hong Kong/Indonesia

Skin colour (Tom): David Dickinson
Skin colour (Jane): David Jason
Location: Solo, Indonesia (Java)

Date: 21st October 2010.

If your mundane existence has you waking up wondering whether there’s more to life than this, let me assure you, there is.

Travel to Indonesia and you’ll feel like royalty. Maybe minor royalty for some of you, but royalty all the same.

Never have we been so in demand as we have been here: we can’t go anywhere without someone wanting to take our photo (at first we were asking each other whether we had food on our face or something to provoke this interest); we are routinely shouted at in the street, in a nice way – “Hello meesterrrrr”; and we have sights pointed out to us and information foisted upon us. For free. Read the whole post…..

Posted by: The Only Gringo on the Bus | October 11, 2010

Do your parents know what Angkor Wat is? Do you?


Episode 28: Sihanoukville/Phnom Penh/Siem Reap/Bangkok/Ko Samet, Cambodia/Thailand

Skin colour (Tom): Jimmy Tarbuck

Skin colour (Jane): Jimmy Krankie

Location: Ko Samet, Thailand

Date: 11th October 2010.

This post is book ended by a couple of unpleasant bus journeys, amongst the worst we’ve had. I’ll spare you most of the details and take you on a whistle-stop tour of Cambodia, which is exactly how we did it in the flesh. You may even see more than we did.

We left Ha Tien on the Vietnam-Cambodia border, bound for Sihanoukville, on a bus with a baby who genuinely hated life. I don’t know what he had against it at such an early juncture, but whether playing in the aisle, feeding, sleeping or sitting, the constant noise was a scream. He was like a tiny human representation of Edvard Munch’s famous painting. Read the whole post…..

Posted by: The Only Gringo on the Bus | September 24, 2010

Panic attack down at Fraggle Rock


Episode 27: Dalat/Ho Chi Minh City/Can Tho/Ha Tien, Vietnam

Skin colour (Tom):Bob Monkhouse
Skin colour (Jane): Bob Cratchit
Location: Ha Tien, Vietnam

Date: 23rd September 2010.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that nothing goes down as badly as a fart in a lift. This is, however, wrong. From personal experience, I can assure you that there are four worse things than the actual fart:

  1. The fart is a particularly bad one, that slipped out accidentally I promise.
  2. The lift reverses direction unbidden at your floor (without the doors opening to facilitate your escape) and returns to the reception area of your guest-house.
  3. A straight-laced couple get in, wrinkle their noses and glance accusingly at you.
  4. The clincher – instead of a hasty and embarrassed farewell when they exit the lift, your wife detains them with polite small talk about their recent dinner until you hammer the door close button, like an over-excited morse code aficionado, just as the green fug threatens to engulf them.

We’ve reached the end of our time in Vietnam and we leave without having asphyxiated anyone. Read the whole post…..

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