A weekend in Kochi

Kochi is a welcome break for most travellers in India with its European feel and abundance of restaurants to choose from, it’s definitely more that just “that place with the Chinese fishing nets”.

Where to stay:

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This was our second time visiting Kochi but unfortunately could not return to the excellent Bastian Homestay as it was fully booked. Instead, we stayed at Maison Casero homestay which was just as brilliant and if anything better. The one thing we craved most was a western breakfast so being awoken to tea, toast and eggs made to measure immediately out a smile on our face!

The rooms were very clean, had the option of AC, offered free wifi and a hot shower. You can’t really ask for more than that for £16 a night!

What to do:

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The beach is not so great and really rather dirty but you should definitely head down to Fort Kochi to see the Chinese fishing nets in action. We recommend avoiding the heat of the day and head down at sunset to enjoy the view of the sun descending into the Arabian Sea whilst the locals are bringing in their catch of the day.

Santa Cruz Basilica Church is one of Kochi’s most famous landmarks and although nice to see especially at night when it is all lit up, it wouldn’t be our top reason for going to visit however, there is something else close by that is a must see…

Kathakali is one of the main forms of classical Indian dance. A story portrayed through art, we watched a rather large man turn the whites of his eyes blood red before depicting a story of rape and death. Not the most uplifting of tales but certainly one you’ll never forget. It’s a very strange experience, but one not to be missed!

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On the bright side, if you’re after a bit of western life then Lulu Mall is the place to be. Take the airport bus from Fort Kochi directly to the mall and you get to ride through this quaint town in the comfort of air conditioning without forking out for a private car. The mall itself offers an array of shops to explore, a great cinema with English and Indian movies and best of all it’s very own answer to Nando’s; Galitos! We also experienced the best milkshake we have ever had in Bloomsbury’s cafe, which was reason enough for us to return to the mall during our second visit!

Where to eat:

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There are an abundance of great restaurants to eat in Fort Kochi. On our previous visit we headed down to The Old Harbour and despite being a bit pricey, they serve one hell of a steak! For a cheaper but equally exceptional meal take a stroll from the fishing nets to The Killians Hotel. If you’re in a pair or more we highly recommend getting one of the seafood platters, Kochi offers some of the best seafood in India and this place might just be the pick of the bunch. Despite many recommendations online, we would advice you avoid eating at the many stalls lining the beach as we found they’re often over priced and take an age to prepare your meal!

Finally, the Upstairs Italian Restaurant was like a mirage in the sun when we first visited Kochi and it was just as fantastic this time around. Seated with an open window view of Santa Basilica Church, this might be the only place in India that serves real prosciutto Ham!

So there you have it; where to stay, what to do and where to eat in Kochi. Just remember you won’t be able to claim your free whole chicken on your Nando’s card in Galito’s… it’s still india after all!

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The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel

Luxury at its very finest in India. It was our second time in Mumbai, and although we had visited before, this time we were lucky enough to spend two nights at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.

On arrival we were greeted with the warmest smiles, and of course we couldn’t possibly lift a finger! Our two backpacks, two suitcases and hand luggage were all swept away from us as we were guided into reception where we were seated and didn’t even need to check ourselves in! Welcomed with a lavender necklace, lychee juice, and a good luck ritual, our passports were collected and that was all that needed to be done! The best check-in we have ever experienced.

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We had the cheapest room in the hotel yet it was still beautiful with a bouquet of roses, heart shaped balloons and a chocolate cake waiting for us on arrival. It was very traditional but with all the mod cons you needed and would expect. We loved having enough space to be able to unpack comfortably, and walk around the room … or in our case, dance! The bathroom was super luxurious and bathing was pure heaven having not had one for so long! Would you believe there’s an option to order a custom made bath with chosen oils and scents by the Taj Hotel with the price ranging from 1200 – 5500 ruppees! This was just a little over the top for us and the classic shower gel under the tap worked wonders enough!

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The hotel is so grand, and whether you’re a guest there or not it is definitely worth visiting to have a little explore and grab some great photos. A little tip is that the Sea Lounge has an event every evening called sundowners where drinks are buy one get one free between 18:30 and 20:30, no reservation is necessary but it is on a first come first serve basis and you’re also given a selection of snacks free of charge which is always a bonus!

Again with the restaurants you don’t have to be a guest to dine. On our first night we ate at Masala Kraft and were given the best table in the house next to the live chefs. However the downside was that roti was the only thing they cooked there with everything else made in the kitchen. The meal was faultless and we thoroughly enjoyed the ambience this restaurant offered. We also booked a table at Souk, a middle eastern restaurant for our second night, which is perched on the top floor of the Taj tower and offers a great view of the Gateway to India … unfortunately for us this was the best bit. The service was slow, the food was average and very overpriced. We would recommend just going up for a drink instead to enjoy the view.

Breakfast was probably our best meal with an array of different tastes, smells and colours, we really didn’t know where to start. Eggs to order, smoked salmon, freshly baked cakes, croissants and of course plenty of Indian delicacies. Make sure you go down on an empty stomach and this is more than enough to see you through until dinner. One morning we were even seated privately in the champagne room, we don’t know why, but we certainly didn’t object!

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An exclusive for hotel guests only is full use of the pool facility, such a luxurious setting in the city heat, taking a dip in the cold pool couldn’t be more perfect. It was lovely to take some time out and relax, especially before heading to Our Home Community Orphanage!

We had a fantastic stay at the Taj, yes it was expensive, but it was worth every penny. However, it’s one of those once in a lifetime opportunities. We feel like we’ve seen and experienced it now, and it was amazing but we wouldn’t stay again. When you walk through the entrance it’s like you shut India out, a welcome break you may think, but we like to be in the thick of it when we’re staying in a new country. We want to feel like we’re in India, hear the traffic, the cows and get dusty feet! The Taj Palace Hotel could quite honestly have been anywhere in the world and we wouldn’t have known. Two days was the perfect amount of time for us to relax and take a break before setting off on our next Indian adventure!

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Goa … The perfect ending.

After an incredible journey starting on 4th February 2015 from London Heathrow we had reached the final destination of our yearlong travelling adventure. It’s impossible to sum up a million memories into a few words but Goa was perhaps the perfect way to complete our voyage of discovery.

The beach

goa-2Arriving in Goa we stayed at Veeniola Holiday Home, an idyllic setting offering exactly what you want as a backpacker. The rooms were clean and well furnished, the staff were great, especially the manager Charlie who helpfully answered all of our questions, and most importantly the wifi worked! We kept extending our stay at Veeniola which totalled around two weeks and although it wasn’t the fanciest of places or the most lavish, it gave you everything you needed and made us feel at home.

Most of our time in Goa was spent reflecting and relaxing as we prepared ourselves for the big return to the UK. We were a 10-minute walk from a dreamy white sand, clear blue sea beach and spent our days kicking back with beers, diving through the waves and walking for miles through the sands under a perfect cloud free sky.

We have been to many destinations where there are so many things to do that you never have enough time to do them all but Goa was exactly what we needed at exactly the right time. Cavelossim beach had the perfect balance of beach hut restaurants and natural beauty. Alex’s Beach Shack is a must if you’re in town but you won’t be disappointed in any of the shacks along the beach, each with something different to offer, from fresh fish nights to Karaoke parties.

FC Goa

goa-9Being without football for most of the year, K was desperate to see a live game so we bought tickets for FC Goa vs Northeast United. The Indian super league was in its second season and included some global stars including Roberto Carlos and Robert Pires. On show in our game was World Cup winner and Brazil legend Lucio as well as former Portugal international Simao Sabrosa.

In terms of footballing quality, the game was lacking although it was scattered with some elements of class, including Reinaldo’s equaliser, but the most incredible part were the fans. As with anything in India, people want to be entertained and everyone was in party mood. The football was like the music at a house party, you know it’s there and without it you wouldn’t have a party but you don’t really pay attention to it. The infamous vuvuzelas from the 2010 World Cup were handed out before the game as well as FC Goa flags and everyone was in high spirits. The match ended 1-1 but we doubt the majority of the fans knew or even cared about the score. Fireworks were set off and the stadium was over-crowded but like everything in India, it was so wrong it worked just right.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR2898.Without a doubt Goa was our most relaxing stint in India despite the craziness of the Indian Super League! Our next biggest trip was going to the cinema to watch Spectre, as we’ve mentioned before we adored the cinemas in India, superb quality, cheap tickets and fab range of drinks and snacks, the ultimate movie experience!

Goa was complete and utter paradise, the longer we stayed the more we loved it. We’re intending on heading back in 2017 and perhaps this time we will see more of what this beautiful state has to offer. It might not be as traditional as the rest of India but sometimes we can all have a bit too much Indian, and to end a year of craziness, sleepless nights, long journeys and living out of a backpack, to do absolutely nothing was bliss!

 

Diwali, Moo & Chai!

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Our next destination was Punjab and H had been waiting for this all year, it’s where K’s family live so she couldn’t wait to meet them and see where he spent his childhood holidays. It was also going to be Diwali during our time with them making it extra special.

We spent our time between K’s Uncle and Aunties, the days were filled chatting, eating and of course drinking lots of chai. They live on a farm so we were in our element, spending time with the baby animals, learning how to milk cows, and even driving tractors. We made a special friend on the farm, Moo. A little stray puppy that had wandered in and befriended the baby cows. It was one of the cutest things we have ever seen, and we made a really special bond with him, feeding him and playing. Our only regret is that we couldn’t bring him home with us!

A trip to Punjab wouldn’t be complete without visiting the famous Golden Temple. On our travels we have seen some absolutely perfect things in our world but have also experienced heart breaking moments, and unfortunately at the Golden Temple we witnessed one of the worst. H was expecting marvellous things after the many stories she had heard from K and other travellers but was beyond disappointed.

When we arrived, through the hustle and bustle of busy passing people we noticed a small child, no older than three curled up in a little ball, no adults in sight with hundreds of flies buzzing around. We approached the child and as we got closer noticed she was a little girl and smelt awful. K gently nudged her, asked if she was okay but she didn’t move, continuing to nudge her our hearts sank as we actually thought this girl might be dead on the floor as people were just passing by. One well dressed, religious man stopped and said to us she is fine, he shook her as if she was a toy. Clearly she was not fine. K felt her skin and she was still warm and scooped her into his arms. This was when she opened her eyes and we have never felt more relieved.

punjab-7She did not speak and looked terrified. She had filthy, mouldy old clothes on, and faeces coming out from her trousers. We took her to a quieter area and tried to talk, she said nothing and wouldn’t drink any water that we offered. We got a towel and stripped the clothes from her, washing her with wipes, antibacterial hand gel and water. She was absolutely covered in defecation which was days old and needed scrubbing off. We were extra careful to cover her modesty as passers-by had begun to stare, some just looking, some smiling admirably and some confused. K was annoyed by this and questioned why they were looking, what did they want to see? They were quite happy to walk past this dying girl five minutes ago. We started to get the feeling they were looking at H as if she was a rich foreign woman doing a fantastic thing for this poor child, as they were smiling?

K bought her some clothes and when she was completely clean we dressed her and she started to trust us finally drinking some water, she was so dehydrated. Clinging to H she was obviously upset by so many people staring. We took her to the local police, did they care? No. They laughed in our faces saying you can’t help everyone.

punjab-8We then took her to eat before deciding what to do next. She ate but still did not speak, K went to see if anyone was looking for her or if the police had decided to do anything about this situation and he came across a woman crying, searching with other children. He approached her and discovered she was the child’s mum, informing her she was safe with H and the woman was hysterical with relief, she kissed H’s feet and thanked us. The mum had been begging whilst the little girl was sleeping outside the temple, and explained how the girl had been very unwell and needed to sleep and that she needed money for medicine. She presumed the girl would be safe outside this holy temple. Thank goodness she was.

We’re sure your first reaction will be to judge this mother for leaving her child, it was ours, and we certainly told her she should never do it again. However, before you do judge this woman please think what could have happened to her. Like thousands of homeless Indian women, she could have been raped many times on the street, she herself could have been an orphan growing up as a street kid. For these people there is no opportunity, no benefits, no council housing, no NHS for sick children… nothing. The rich stay rich whilst the poor will always stay poor. We watched so many wealthy, well respected religious people walk past this small child like she did not even exist, and then donate money to a temple made of pure gold? To us we cannot comprehend this at all. Something for sure is that travelling certainly was opening our eyes and experiences like this are the ones that will never be forgotten and truly make you realise how lucky you are.

On a brighter note, Diwali was beautiful. K’s mum took H shopping and treated her to a stunning pink Indian suit, as everyone gets dressed up for the special day. We ate delicious food as all of the family joined together. As the night fell we lit candles around the house and outside, and it looked like a fairy tale come true. Some of the boys lit of fireworks (to our horror with no safety precautions in place!) but looking back it was all great fun. We played with sparklers into the night and it was just as we imagined it would be.

Our time in the north was an emotional one, full of ups and downs, and plenty of different experiences. It was beautiful though and showed us yet another side to India. More memories created whether they were good or bad. Travelling is the best form of learning and we certainly learnt a lot whilst travelling here.

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Marvellous Mountains

3After an eventful time in Delhi next up were the Northern regions of India. A few weeks with cool breezes, mountain views, and peaceful evenings was exactly what we needed.

The plan was to head to Mount Abu, Shimla and finally Punjab to visit K’s family. Mount Abu is a hill station in Rajasthan, and being honest wasn’t actually on our agenda. K’s mum had always wanted to visit, so we decided to stop off for a few nights. We must admit it turned out to be fantastic, and we’re so glad we didn’t skip it! We stayed at the “Babbar Den” home in the hills which offered a great service, friendly staff, and also an awesome cave suite!

Mount Abu wasn’t short of attractions, if you’re looking for something unusual to do we would suggest the Dilwara Jain Temple. Known as one of the finest Jain temples around the world for its extraordinary architecture and marvellous marble stone carvings, this was without a doubt one of the more interesting travelling experiences we’ve had!

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On our first evening we witnessed of the most beautiful sunsets ever, sitting at the top of Aravali Hills with a perfectly clear view and not a cloud in the sky, the welcome chill gave it an enchanting feeling. As we watched the night arrive, sunset point soon filled with tourists, locals and couples, all there for the same thing. We met a young local magician who was entertaining the crowds trying to earn money for his family. We got chatting and ended up taking him for dinner and despite the obvious language barrier he was really grateful and very sweet. We bumped into him again the next day and went on a pedalo ride in the town centre lake, it was great fun and something else we would recommend whilst in Mount Abu. Unlike a most of India, it has a really peaceful feel as the sun shines down onto Nakki lake.

The shopping in Mount Abu was also great, lots of novelty souvenirs, cheap silver and good quality clothes. You also have the opportunity to dress up as a local and have a photo-shoot in the town, which we didn’t do but it did attract a lot of attention! There are plenty of restaurant choices offering traditional Rajasthan dishes or western food, and also lots of great ice cream places! With so much to do whilst you are here we recommend hiring a cheap driver for the day to make sure you don’t miss anything.

5Leaving Mount Abu we travelled to Shimla which is famous for Indian tourists as their holiday destination for the cool breeze. Located in the Himalayas it was actually very nippy, but unfortunately we didn’t get to see any snow. It’s an incredibly scenic part of India, filled with monkeys and all sorts of other wildlife. There are plenty of tourist attractions which are great for families including pony rides, different games and balloons to buy. It almost had a Brighton type feel to it, without the sea, with children running about having fun, parents relaxing and gorgeous views.

6First on our agenda was visiting the ancient Jakhoo Temple and at a height of 2,455m above sea level it offers a panoramic view of the Shivalik Ranges and the town of Sanjauli. It is a moderate climb up a footpath, just ensure you have plenty of water if it is a hot day! There are many cheeky monkeys around looking for opportunities to nab your belongings, so keep them safe, a top tip is to take your sunglasses off your head. H made this mistake and encountered a huge monkey jumping on her for them! The temple is home world’s tallest statue of Lord Hanuman, good luck fitting it all in a single photo!

A little way from  Shimla, we stopped to take a cable car ride through one of the many valleys in the mountains. This was a first for both of us, and certainly something to tick off the bucket list! We would be lying to say we wasn’t a tad scared, but we felt like we were on top of the world. We also took a guided tour of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study also known as Viceregal Lodge, a building made of beautiful architecture, it is located on stunning grounds that you can explore whilst enjoying the view of Shimla. There is a lot of history associated with the building so be prepared to take in a lot of information! The tour guides were great though and catered for whatever language you spoke which is always useful and you will also get some great photos here.

Some of our best times in India were spent in the mountains, including Munnar, taking a step away from the chaotic cities and seeing some of the natural beauty India has to offer. We highly recommend visiting Shimla and Mount Abu if you’re travelling India, and look out for our little magician by the lake!

 

Delhi Belly

2Following on from one of the most incredible experiences in Agra, Delhi was next on the list. We decided buses were no longer an option with K’s mum, once was enough! We hired a car from our hostel in Agra to Delhi where we had booked to stay at Smyle Inn, right in the centre of New Delhi and bang in the middle of Main Bazaar road. The car dropped us at the end of a tiny little alleyway and we made our way through with all of our luggage, passing outside urinals, sleeping dogs, spitting men, whilst attempting to not get run over by motorbikes. When we reached Smyle Inn it was a pleasant surprise and in fact we visited Delhi three times and opted to stay here each time. A very warm welcome, clean rooms equipped with everything you need; wifi, free breakfast, a great location (despite the alley) and most importantly, cheap! This place was perfect for us.

Delhi 3First up was a visit to the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, more for K’s mum being a traditional Sikh, but it turned out we all really enjoyed it. Upon entering we passed an elderly man with a kind face and he was completely amazed when H greeted him with “Sat sri akaal mamaji” one of those moments that will always stick out! The temple was peaceful and we were able to completely relax, dipping our feet in the holy water and people watching the locals doing the same. A delicious meal was served of dahl, chapatti and kheer to finish. We had an unexpectedly good time here, in fact, better than when we visited the Golden Temple, but we’ve not got to that yet.

Delhi 2Something on H’s bucket list was to see a Bollywood show in India, and that we did. We booked tickets to see Zangoora, the BIGGEST Bollywood stage show ever and we were not disappointed! We took the metro and surprisingly it was a good idea. Definitely worth a try and much quicker than tuk tuks if you are travelling longer distances, however we must emphasise one thing; DO NOT travel during rush hour. Imagine being on the central line in London and multiply the people by a hundred! It was unbearable. The show was located in its own little magical world at the Kingdom of Dreams, it’s what you imagine India to be like. Filled with colour, food, bhangra and more, minus all of the bad bits! We loved walking round and exploring this unexpected place. Zangoora was in Hindi but luckily K’s mum was on hand to translate when needed. It was a fabulous show that we all immensely enjoyed. We couldn’t help but be immersed into Indian culture with the music and dancing and we jumped to our feet at the end when the finale was to Jai Ho. The show finished late so we decided to get a tuctuc back to main bazaar and eat local… which was a mistake. Nothing was open and we were content to just go to bed, but K’s mum was insistent that we ate and found a back street veggie place. Now don’t get us wrong, the food was good but little did we know we were all about to encounter the dreaded Delhi Belly!

H woke up after a few hours spewing her guts up and K and his mum came down with it a few days later. Trust us when we say it was beyond awful, we ended up having to go the hospital as K just couldn’t shift it! But anyway, what’s the point in going to Delhi if you’re not going to experience chronic food poising?! All part of the experience!

K and his mum had a day out visiting Qutb Minar and the Lotus Temple which was a strangely relaxing experience (something you don’t often get in India) whilst H was unwell in bed. The striking flower shaped building which is deceptively large is a place of worship which is open to any religion. It is simply a place for prayer which holds no judgements, a rarity when it comes to religion.

1The following day we went to The India Gate war memorial, it is very similar to the Gateway to India in Mumbai but not on the edge of the sea, and as well as being a good Instagram opportunity there is a lot of history behind the famous arch.

Other places we visited whilst in Delhi were Connaught Place, great for little eateries and shopping and we also found a Nandos! Saket Mall had a fantastic Hard Rock Cafe which we couldn’t get enough of, we really lived it up in Delhi trying all of the cultural food. The Jama Masjid temple (yes another temple) was a less peaceful experience than what greeted us at the Lotus Temple. We had a bit of a bad experience here with H, being completely covered up and respectable but still treated unfairly, told to pay a fee no one else was and asked not to take photos whilst everyone was taking photos of her! Unfortunately, this ruined what was meant to be one of Delhi’s top sights, but you just learn to move on from these experiences whilst travelling, it’s all part of it. One place we didn’t get a chance to visit was Rashtrapati Bhavan the presidential residence. We’ve heard how beautiful it was and just simply didn’t get time.

DelhiAfter one long visit to Delhi, and two shorter stop overs we became really fond of it, even the little alley leading to our hotel from main bazaar road started to feel like home. We learnt where to hold our nose and close our eyes and all was fine. Main Bazaar was also great for a bargain, with lots of traditional Indian gifts, cool clothes and very cheap silver, we did lots of shopping here for family gifts as India was our last stop before returning home.

As mentioned before the main cities in India get a lot of stick, and we can understand why, Delhi is absolutely crazy. You have to completely immerse yourself otherwise you will get lost along the way. It’s absolutely filthy, poor, filled with street kids begging in the middle of traffic and people who want to rip you off. However, if you are able to let go and take things with a pinch of salt, it is incredible. We guarantee you will enjoy it and learn so much about the culture and yourself. There is nowhere else in the world that is such an assault to the senses as Delhi, and that’s what makes it so special. We felt something that is pulling us back, drawing us in, and we can’t wait to dive in head first again!

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A tale of two Taj’s

So after exploring the less obvious areas of India, we finally got round to doing the mainstream routes starting with Mumbai and Agra.

Mumbai

mumbaArriving in Mumbai we were back in another bustling city full of extreme heat, overcrowding and pollution and you know what? We absolutely loved it!

However, things did not get off to the best start as accommodation was hard to come by, especially for a backpacker! Paying almost up to £13 a bed in a hostel and £20 for a private room, Mumbai was one of India’s most expensive regions for accommodation but you did not exactly get what you paid for.

FullSizeRenderOn our first night after another long and uncomfortable journey, we were excited for a shower and a comfortable bed. The shower was decent enough (standard dripping taps and stained towels) we rolled into bed and drifted off. Before long we were tossing and turning and itching bites all over our body, we have had more than our fair share of mosquito bites in our time and were almost immune to them by now but these were different. After waking up in the middle of the night to check for gnats we turned the light on and found tens of lumps all over our bodies from bed bugs!

With no one at reception we laid the stained towels down and tried to sleep through the bites and come the morning K had a lump in his eye the size of a golf ball. We reported the issue to reception who were very apologetic and allowed us to change rooms. This was thankfully our first and last case of bed bugs from our travels and it was not an experience we wished to suffer through again!

IMG_3755Mumbai itself was a beautiful city, full of British architecture and incredible buildings, we walked from Central Station, past the Asiatic Society Library and military base and visited the ‘Prince of Wales Museum’, or to the locals Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalay (definitely worth a visit to see the stunning grounds), before eventually reaching the Gateway of India. A major tourist attraction, the gateway was crammed with people and security but it was still a fantastic place to be. The usual fluttering of senses tingled you to your core as you immersed yourself into India’s culture. You look from the street stalls, families living on the streets and animals roaming the roads and then lift your head to the great Gateway of India. Extraordinary.

A stone’s throw away is The Taj Hotel, a lavish and grand hotel which epitomises exactly what India does so right. In spite of the extreme poverty, dangers and various flaws, India enables itself to offer the very highest of standards to those willing to pay for it. K’s mother came to visit us in India and met us in Mumbai in an emotional and long awaited re-acquaintance between mother and son. We decided to go for Tea at the Taj and were not disappointed.

IMG_3758As soon as the air con hits you and the doors close, you are in an entirely different place. A world of designer brands, gold and silver service greets you in such a way that even the most luxurious of Western brands would struggle to match. The walls are lined with marble and gold as you pass through the corridors before finding the grand staircase leading to the restaurant. The Taj Hotel really is all it’s made up to be and if you ever wish to try the finer things India has to offer then this is the place to be.

Mumbai is the perfect example of the wealth contrast and how extreme the casting is from rich to poor in India, going from the Taj Hotel, to the slums of the city…

IMG_3757Normally when you see a film set in another country you’re often told they are not an accurate representation or things are exaggerated. We took a slums tour in Mumbai with the fantastic “Mystical Mumbai Tours” (A great trustworthy tour operator… hard to find in India!) and actually visited the exact locations of Slumdog Millionaire where it looked like the movie was filmed yesterday. The word slum is thrown around a lot these days but this area in Mumbai was on another level. There were mountains of rubbish, children roaming riot, unbathed and underfed, animals around every corner and yet everything seemed to work. The alleys were so small, if you took a wrong turn you’d had no choice but to continue walking as there was simply not enough room to turn around. If you’re claustrophobic, then this place definitely isn’t for you!

slumsDespite the millions of people living in severe poverty the whole place just seemed to click. Everybody knew everyone and each had a role to play in this community. It’s not until you climb onto the roof of one of the seemingly collapsing buildings that you realise just how big the slums are. They go on for as far as the eye can see with each person trying to break through financial barriers in the home of Bollywood.

The main cities of India seem to get a lot of stick from tourists, but we threw ourselves right in and fell in love with Mumbai. Yes, it was sweaty, dirty and busy, but there was another side that we adored. The buildings, the people, the buzz, the food, and learning all about the culture.

Agra

JaipurTravelling with K’s mum we decided to show her a bit of the backpacker lifestyle we had now been living for so long and took her on a rickety old bus journey through the night to get to Agra. Flying round the bends at over 100mph, we must admit she handled it very well!

We spent a few nights in Gujurat, Rajasthan and Jaipur and we would love to tell you every detail but if we did that this would be more of a book and less of a blog. Watch out for the hardback version of KHTravels coming soon!

Agra is famous for one thing and one thing only. We had been looking forward to seeing this monument ever since we stepped onto that first plane when leaving Heathrow and now we were almost there. Stories have been told and a million and one pictures have been taken but until you’re there, until you see the sun rise over it and until you feel the marble beneath your feet you never really understand just how incredible it is. The Taj Mahal.

Hannah and Kieran TajArriving early for sunrise, our hostel was a short walk away from one of the new seven wonders of the world. The number of self-proclaimed tour guides almost outnumber the tourists but this is one of those places where you do your research beforehand and you just come to absorb the beauty. The whole place is huge, as you walk through gates and first set eyes on the marble marvel you gain a sense of accomplishment, like you’ve really done something and you’ve now seen something you’ll remember forever. In reality you’ve done nothing but open your eyes but this magnificent structure has stood strong for almost four centuries and still looks as awe provoking as ever.

The Indian sun is one of the most beautiful sights in the world, it sounds strange to hear that because the sun is the same anywhere in the world, but it really is different here. Rising over the dusty plains and shining through the pollution, it symbolises hope. That another day is here and anything is possible. Combine that with the wonders of the Taj Mahal and you create something that lasts a lifetime and goes beyond words.

 

Kool Kerala

After the monstrosity of Kanyakumari, India took a surprisingly sharp turn for the better as we started to head north along the west coast. Many people had told us of the beauties of Kerala but our whole outlook and perception of India was about to change for the better.

Varkala

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After spending so long travelling and exploring new places, we were put into difficult situations on more than a few occasions. As we left filthy Kanyakumari , we headed for Thiruvananthapuram (try saying that after a beer) on another long and uncomfortable bus journey. India was the cheapest country we had visited for intercity travelling but as with most things in life, you get what you pay for. That is not necessarily a good thing all the time, but we will have more on perilous bus journeys later.

The real problem we had was that after spending numerous hours on a cramped coach we arrived in Thiruvananthapuram only to find out we had booked a hotel 50km away from our destination! It was gone midnight and we had already had a pretty poor introduction to India since landing in Chennai so we decided to pay up and get a car to our hotel. No more scrimping, we put our money where our mouths were and spent a full £20 for an hour and half journey in a private vehicle at short notice in the middle of the night. Told you it was cheap.

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The journey to the hotel was, as usual, full of death defying moments as our 15 year old driver decided to re-enact GTA as he shot through the night overtaking everything from trucks to cows with no headlights on and no perception of potential death.

Arriving at the hotel, we could feel the sea breeze and hear the rushing waves of the ocean and instantly felt relieved. The wonderful staff greeted us in the early hours of the morning and led us to our room which was an utter delight. Falling into our first completley relaxed sleep in India, we knew things were on the up.

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It was a lovely little town perked on the cliff overhanging Varkala beach. There were plenty of restaurants that offered western food, just what we needed after weeks of dahl, dosa and biryani. It was clean, the people were welcoming and there were even other tourists, which was a pleasant change! Many states in India have banned the public sale of alcohol but Varkala was the first place we found where we could chill out with a beer and watch the sun go down over the sea. By taking long walks along the beach and kicking back with a movie in the evenings, we had begun to enjoy India again.

Kochi

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The next stop on our list was Kochi and this time we took the train which was far more comfortable. Travelling during the day, we filled ourselves on chai and samosas, taking in the sights and sounds of India as we rocketed along the railway tracks.

We have stayed in more than our fair share of homestays, and this might be some statement but we are certain that Bastian Homestay topped the lot. Bastian and his wife Ginny, are a lovely couple who are not only nice people, but also full of information for travellerts. The room was clean, breakfast was incredible and the whole place just had one of them positive vibes that makes you feel just right. It also had super-fast internet which was something we craved so dearly.

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Kochi was a lovely town which was again a fantastic example of what is so great about India. Still keeping that unique ability to assault all of your senses at once, Kochi was full of heritage with a mixture of modern and archaic features. The Kathakali show was something truly unique, and extremely strange. Sitting in an audience of about 20 people, you are in the thick of the action when watching this art piece but that again is not always a good thing. A story based on death and rape, we watched an overweight man turn the whites of his eyes red while giving each member in the audience a death stare which would send anyone with a feint heart to their grave. You have to be see it to believe it, but its more strange than satisfying.

Walking through the streets of Kochi is something we would definitely recommend, don’t worry too much and just lose yourself in the town and stumble across your own favourite place to each or Banksy masterpiece. If you really want some direction then we would recommend a walk to the seafront. Not a beach like Varkala, you wouldn’t want to swim here, but there are plenty of market stalls for you to explore while the historic Chinese fishing nets are also a wonderful example of the magnificent history of India.

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If you’re looking for a break back to reality while in Kochi then head down to the Old Harbour restaurant by the seafront for a steak dinner and a beer. Alternatively, you can grab the airport bus and take a trip to Lulu Mall for a blast of westernisation with branded shops from Gucci to Apple, Burger King and a cinema playing English movies in English! We loved Lulu Mall and if you do visit, make sure you pop into Bloomsbury’s Café for the most amazing milkshake you have ever had in your life! Kochi is definitely a must visit if you ever find yourself in Kerala.

Munnar

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Remember we told you we would come back to terrifying bus journeys? Well, now is the time to decide whether you are willing to risk your life in India as we did. Grabbing a bus from Kerala to Munnar seemed like a straightforward journey. We got a great seat right at the front of the bus and the conductor and driver seemed to enjoy having a pair of tourists along for the journey. The usual honking, speeding and dodging went on for the first few hours of the journey but then we entered the mountainous region.

With the rain lashing down and the cliff edges becoming steeper and steeper, the bus driver decided this was the perfect time to lose his mind! Swinging round hairpin bends at 50kmph we saw sign after sign warning us of our impending death if driving carelessly through the mountains. As the bus swung through the roads, diving in and out of pot holes of death we asked the driver for mercy to slow down but we got a cackling laugh in return as he just pushed his foot further down on the gas pedal.

We drove past at least four vehicles that had fallen down the cliff edges on that journey, of which the passengers were sure to have been killed. Mercifully, we finally made it to Munnar and thanked the driver for not quite killing us. He simply smiled.

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Once reaching Munnar we were greeted with a strange mist, moisture in the air and a feeling of not being hot… after almost a full year in the sun we had finally felt the cold again and it was a welcome sensation! We were in the middle of a mountain range and that was as far as our knowledge went as the mist was so thick we couldn’t see past our shoelaces.

We had heard of the beautiful tea plantations of Munnar and we had done our fair share of trekking, rock climbing, canyoning and volcano climbing so we decided to do these ones alone. It’s great to get a guide to tell you all about the history and the facts but sometimes all you need is you and that’s exactly what we forged our own trekking routes through the sloping landscapes.

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As the days became clearer our eyes widened and we were awestruck by the awesomeness of Munnar in its entirety. Mountain after mountain as far as the eye could see draped in the unmistakable carpet of tea plants. We spent numerous mornings, days and evenings absorbing the purity of Munnar, of course the roadsides were still scraped with litter but take a step away from the beaten track and enter your own Pandora.

We also visited the tea factory in town which was a great insight into the history of Munnar’s main industry but really there is more to see that there is to read in this magnificent mountain town.

Ooty

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We visited Ooty mainly to see a friend from England who also resides in India for part of the year. We arrived straight from visiting Our Home Community orphanage, which was a bit of a shock to the system as we went from living on rice and dried fish to eating five course dinners in a house made for royalty. As a backpacker, our stay here was a world away from the daily routines we had become accustomed to and once again epitomised the extreme diversity that grips India from top to bottom.

Ooty itself was another mountainous region, peaking at 2240m above sea level, and was once again a wonderful place to say.  Different to Munnar, Ooty was not about trekking or exploring but rather about immersing yourself in one of India’s most historically scenic towns.

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We gained exclusive access to the Ooty Club and entered the room where snooker was invented, yes you heard us right, snooker was invented in Ooty! The club house was built in 1836 by Sir William Rumbold, a wealthy merchant who died almost as soon as it was finished. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take pictures of the club but we can only describe it as one of those buildings where every room has a story of its own to tell.

After a rocky start which included a lot of litter, various culture shocks and a friendly goat, we finally felt at home in India and it was time to let the good times roll.

 

Luxury, defecation & animal abuse.

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India is a country that grows on you. That can be a positive and a negative but for us, it meant both. As we left Chennai, we felt safe in the knowledge that we knew India now, we’d been there a week so we were total experts and knew exactly what to expect. WRONG.

As we moved towards the southernmost tip of India we stopped off in Madurai for a few days of luxury and normality. We knew the service in India could be excellent once you put your money where your mouth is but we were still awestruck with the exceptional customer service laid on at our disposal.

We stayed at the JC Residency in Madurai, a four star rated hotel with prices ranging from £30-£70 per night which is quite a lot for India and for a backpacker but it was definitely worth it! After a 17 hour night train from Chennai, with half the night sleeping with one eye open and the other clinging to your bed for dear life as the train stormed through the countryside, we finally reached our destination in the early hours of the morning. We managed to get to the hotel unscathed and unharassed but still five hours too early for check-in. Nevertheless, the welcoming staff carried our backpacks through the marble corridors and guided us to our room.

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Air conditioning was the first magical feeling that lifted us off our feet then we slumped into the abyss of a huge super king sized smothering you in glorious silk. After an eternal sleep we awoke to take a look round our new surroundings; oak furniture, flat screen tv, dressing gowns and slipped as well as the almighty air conditioning that we craved so much during our travels. We spent the day relaxing by the pool and soaking up the sun, taking a break from the trials of travelling. It was a real haven yet just outside the large iron gates was the same dusty floor and rubbish littered streets that have become India’s trademark.

In surroundings of such elegance, beauty and sophistication, the rest of the country was still steeped in a hazy dream of what could have been and what it could become. This was true of many parts of India, even the much coveted Taj Hotel in Mumbai which we will talk about at a later date. Still this is why we loved India, we didn’t come for the luxury, we came for the experience, and soon ventured out to see what Madurai was all about.

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We walked a few hundred yards to a local restaurant and were warmly welcomed by a group of Indian women who had clearly never seen tourists before from outside their own nation. After a few smiles we ordered some biryani which came out on a giant banana leaf smothered in dahl. No fancy china, no silver service and not even any cutlery, but we loved it! We chomped our way through the delicious rice dish and gained a few pitiful smiles as the staff watched us struggling to eat the last grains of rice with our fingertips.

Walking through the streets in this small but captivating town, we started to enjoy India again. We decided to visit the Sri Meenakshi temple and were blown away by the incredible colours spread throughout this huge complex. We actually arrived on a Hindu holiday to the temple which meant it was crowded with people but we still had a fantastic time. India is overcrowded in the majority of places you visit so you will soon become used to thinking you live on the Central Line with no personal space and extreme levels of sweat.

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We had a great day exploring the temple, however, the whole experience was violated as we were leaving this wonderful arena of serenity. Right by the front entrance, was a huge elephant that was chained by the ankles and being beaten with a man and a stick to collect money from visitors with it’s trunk. We were shocked. Of course the many Indian tourists, blinded by their faith in religion were helplessly throwing themselves at the animal in a bid to be the next person to have their money snatched from there palms. As each person wielded away in delight, they openly chose to ignore the fact that the money was being pocketed by the evil man behind the elephant with the stick.

As we approached closer, we noticed the elephant was rocking back and forth and clearly agitated and depressed. This was a living creature, clearly torn from its home and family and forced into working for a man in a confined space for such a large and magnificent animal. Kieran is fluent in Punjabi and can converse in Hindi so he confronted the man and questioned him on how putting this poor animal through extreme suffering is of any use to anyone. When told that these animals were near extinction because of treacherous acts such as these, the man merely shrugged and continued to count his money.

We understand religion can bring people hope, peace and sometimes happiness, but it can also bring insanity, depression and oppression. After working in Thailand to help protect elephants, we were devastated to see that in the 21st century people could still not look beyond their phone screens and use their eyes to see that this was an animal that was severely mistreated for their pleasure.

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Moving on from the wondrous JC Residency, we headed further south to Kanyakumari, probably one of the worst destinations of our travels and one place that we will certainly never be heading back to.

Arriving in the town, we had high hopes of a reasonably developed area on the seaside with various restaurants and sights to see including the Thiruvalluvar Statue, a 40m sculpture of a famous Tamil poet. With many shops and a wide range of hotels, we reclined back into our rhythm of budgeting and picked out a reasonably priced hotel which was relatively close to the sea front.

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After checking into to our room, our trip to India took a downward spiral that seemed to have no end in sight. The hotel was filthy, covered in dead flies and the staff were about as useful as sunglasses at night. We decided to explore our surroundings by taking a walk to the ‘beach’ to brighten our spirits but stepping outside the hotel did nothing to quell our worries. The ‘beach’ was gross and full of people washing, urinating and even to our horror, defecating. It was an incredibly poor area and many people had clearly never seen a Caucasian person before. Being a mixed raced couple travelling, we’ve had a lot of stares, but the people of Kanyakumari were something else!

People would openly stare and point at us as we walked through the streets with numerous others expressing their disapproval with unkind words in an unfamiliar language. The whole place was filthy and covered in litter, something of a theme in India but this place was next level. Walking through the town you almost felt like you was inhaling diseases.

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Despite all this, we didn’t let these uneducated and ill-mannered people stop us from exploring the town. There are some wonderfully built churches in the region, while the statue and Vivekananda Rock are, being brutally honest, in our opinion are nothing more than okay and we would not recommend any western traveller to visit this region.

India is a beautiful country, with incredible sights and wonderful people, however, Kanyakumari, just seemed like one of those places you find in most countries every once in a while that you just felt like you should have avoided. If this blog has dampened your spirits a bit, we don’t apologise as we believe in giving you an honest opinion, and honestly, we loved India, stick around to see Part 3 of our Asian adventure to find out why.

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