Our Home Community

We’re about to embark on our 4th visit to Our Home after spending a wonderful few months there earlier in the year. Those of you that know us will know just how passionate we are about the children and we’re planning to return on Boxing Day to deliver them Christmas presents and see in the New Year together, the excitement is real!

Whilst living at Our Home for the first part of 2017 we blogged about our unforgettable journey – you can read about our incredible experiences below:

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Where can we start with Our Home Community? There is so much to say about this incredible place that we really are stuck for words. Firstly, Chacko, Avi and all of the volunteers that make this place a home are now our family. There is something so magical about Our Home, and straight away we had a completely different feeling about being here in comparison to our other volunteering activities. Not that we haven’t loved and thoroughly enjoyed each and every one of them, but from the moment we stepped foot here, we felt this was where we belonged.

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During our three months in India during 2015 we actually visited Our Home twice, we originally found them when searching online to volunteer in India and came across their website. Being completely honest we were both a bit sceptical about volunteering in an orphanage in India, as we have heard horror stories about what goes on in some of them… Truly heart-breaking. So before arriving we both agreed that we would only stay for a couple of days at first, just to suss it out. From the moment we arrived we were, to our relief, completely put at ease. Chacko, who runs Our Home along with his wife Avi, is the most down to earth, forward thinking, beautifully souled, Indian man we came across throughout the whole of our travels. He instantly made us feel so welcome, and once we had met him we were so excited to get stuck in and help.

Our first introduction with the children was in the evening, so we couldn’t really see the land where they are based. We did however, get to visit the girl’s and boy’s homes, which are both fantastic and a lot more developed than we expected them to be. Clean, good toilets and beds for everyone. Yes, it was VERY basic, but these children were being provided with a roof over their head, and the facilities to sleep and live comfortably, unlike so many in India. After exploring the bedrooms, we went to the dining hall to be greeted with a completely fresh, delicious, healthy supper. It was amazing and we must admit, the food we had here was some of the best we have had in India. With what little ingredients they have and can afford, the women in the kitchen cook up some real tasty stuff! We met the children who range from two years to twenty-two years. The older ones do a variety of different things, some are studying, some help with the day to day duties and others no longer live there and have jobs in other towns in India which helps to support Our Home. The first thing we noticed about all of the children was how polite, well-educated and talented they all truly are. Their fantastic skills range from extraordinary artists, chess players, football players, readers, and their passion to study and do well is mind blowing. If they are given the right opportunity, we have no doubt that every single one of those children can make a good life for themselves, despite the awful start to their lives.

The children have lost their parents and been through traumatic life events very early on, witnessing things no child should have to. Some of them have life threatening illnesses including HIV, and if it wasn’t for Chacko and Avi, these kids would be on the streets with nothing.

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The next day we got to see the land that Our Home is on, and it is nothing short of beautiful. They have space to study, play, exercise, eat… whatever they need to do! They are in the middle of a beautiful little town, Vypaddi, which is not far from Kalpetta. Palm trees and mountain views, to us this was stunning; to them it was just their home.

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On site of Our Home they have a small school called the Good Shepherd Public School. It is for ages ranged from two to fourteen years, after that if the children are going onto further education they take a school bus to where they are studying.  The teachers at the Good Shepherd school do a superb job educating the children, who come from surrounding villages, and the funds received go towards the running of Our Home, it is a wonderful concept.

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Over the next couple of weeks we spent our time getting to know all of the children. We became completely relaxed and really felt like we were spending time with family.  We taught English classes, played football, helped with homework, went on walks, visited the local rivers, played games, and genuinely enjoyed every single minute we spent with the children. We grew to love each and every one of them, and as time went on we learnt about how they came to Our Home, it just made us feel so much more passionate about the incredible work Chacko and Avi are doing. The thing that made this place magical was that despite what these kids had gone through; they were all happy, smiling, and safe. The most important thing a child should feel is love and safety, and they have this here. We also became particularly close with a blind volunteer who lived and worked there, Reddy. He himself has had a hard life, and is the gentlest, kindest soul. We quickly learnt how intelligent he was and loved listening to his stories and teaching methods, it was a real joy spending time with Reddy, and we have made a friend for life in him.

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During our time with them we got to know their daily routines and how they dealt with day to day life, and once again it really, truly reiterated to us how lucky we are in the UK and what we take for granted. The boys washed their clothes in a dirty river; they all shared a bar of soap between them. They barely had any personal possessions, very few items of clothing and bits and pieces to their little names. No bed sheets or covers… All of the little luxuries we have here, we just felt we wanted to give to them. Simple things kids enjoy like watching films on a sofa with a hot chocolate on a Saturday night? Do these kids even know that Disneyland exists? No of course they don’t, and perhaps that’s why we loved them so much, they were so happy with the simple things in life, they didn’t moan about having to wash their clothes in the river, they took at is an opportunity to have fun!

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The time quickly passed and before we knew it we had to leave for Mumbai. It was the hardest goodbye we have both ever had to do, leaving these children we had both grown to love like our own family. Being completely honest it was harder than leaving our own families in London to travel the world, because we didn’t know if and when we would get to see these children again.

Over our next few weeks travelling around India we could not get Chacko, Avi and everyone from Our Home out of our heads. We eventually came to the decision that we just HAD to return. There was no other option. At this point we were in Shimla… North India, so we had to fly back to Kerala to make this happen. We wanted to spend our last week of our fantastic year with our family, at Our Home.

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Having told our friends and family in England this was what we wanted to do, before we knew it we were fundraising money so that we could surprise the children and give them an early Christmas treat! We didn’t tell them we were returning, and over a couple of weeks we made each of the 43 children of our home a packaged present and card, containing all sorts! From toys, card games, footballs, clothes, shoes, drawing materials, make up, jewellery and more, we put our heart and souls into giving these children a Christmas they deserved. As soon as we arrived back at Our Home, we instantly knew we had made the right decision. Seeing their faces when we turned up was absolutely priceless. They were SO happy to see us and the feeling was more than mutual.

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We told them we had a surprise for them after school, and with that they were beside themselves all day with excitement. Finally 3:30 came and we were able to give them all their presents. This was probably the most memorable moment of our lives. Watching them all open their cards and read them so intently, and the delight with the gifts they had been given. It was the best Christmas present we could have ever asked for in seeing them so happy. We were so content being reunited with the children, Chacko, Avi and Reddy we felt as though we would never want to leave.

The week flew by and we couldn’t think of a more amazing time to end our 2015 than with our new family. We’ve made a promise to the children and ourselves that we will visit them as much as we can, and do what we can to fundraise and financially support Our Home. These children are beyond incredible and deserve a real chance at life and we want to make that happen. If you’d like to be actively involved in making a difference you can visit their website here or for more information email us directly at khtravels15@outlook.com.

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Classic backpacking errors

We’ve all been a rookie traveller at some point in our lives. Whether it’s trying to get the best deal on your upcoming snorkelling trip or mistaking that your flight is in 1 hour instead of 12 …. We had a few nightmare moments on our first big adventure backpacking and whilst we can look back and laugh now, it wasn’t so funny at the time! Hopefully giving you the heads up will mean you don’t make the same mistakes we did!

  1. That guy at the station 🚂

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Travelling abroad, especially in Asia, can cost you peanuts compared to the overpriced tickets to sit on the delayed, overcrowded central line. However, as with most things when out of your comfort zone, it’s not simple.

You get to the train station and there is a ‘line’ longer than when queuing for your favourite ride at Alton Towers. No one speaks any English and you begin wondering why you ever left the tried and trusted underground.

Out of nowhere, a smiling face approaches you and offers you assistance in accented English. You feel you have found your saviour as he directs you to the “foreign tourist office” just outside the station.

Never be fooled by the tourist desk outside the station, it does not exist and is only a sure way of paying a premium to reach your desired destination or never reaching it at all!

Top tip: Always lookout for the English sign posts. There is quite often is a designated tourist ticket office within the station but will never be outside the station’s grounds.

  1. Don’t assume 💭🚫

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When you’re away from home you can’t help but compare how things are back where you’re from. Whether it’s the mannerisms of the people you meet or simply the colour of the road signs but everything isn’t always as it first seems. As they say; don’t judge a book by its cover.

On H’s first trip to India she was surprised to see so many of the men holding hands along the street. H said she never realised there was such a large gay community in India… she quickly discovered they weren’t gay and that’s just how things are in India! Men often link hands or cuddle each other along the street with friends and family.

When you’re in a new country and they do things a bit differently, it’s always good to wait for a second glance before assuming!

  1. Mixing currencies at the airport 💵💴💶

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Ever mixed up your pound coin for a euro when at home? Tried getting rid of it by unlocking a shopping trolley or hoping the shopkeeper doesn’t spot it? We went one further when trying to get shot of our final few Filipino coins … at a Thailand airport! It was all for a good cause though, we scraped together enough change to get one last Krispy Kreme just before our flight!

Using a mixture of pesos and Baht we managed to scrounge together enough money across two different countries in an international airport. Unfortunately after we had finished the doughnut our tactic was discovered and we were sought out by the Krispy Kreme crew…  luckily we apologised and got away with paying for the doughnuts by card (probably should have done this in the first place!) lesson learnt here? Don’t get tight in an airport!

  1. Mistaking times for tickets 🎟

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It’s midnight and we’ve had one too many Bintangs on our last night in Bali. We decided to treat ourselves with a bit of luxury on our final night with a nice hotel. We’re safe in the knowledge that we have a bit of a lay in tomorrow as our flight isn’t until 13:00 tomorrow… 1.00pm … 1.00 …. 01.00 … 1am!!!

This wasn’t the first or the last time we almost missed our flight and if there is anywhere you don’t want to be overstaying your visa it’s Bali. Our top tip for any and all travelers would be to double, triple and quadruple check your flight times, no matter how organised you think you are, it’s a very easy mistake to make!

  1. Researching the country you’re in 📝

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When you’re visiting a new country you’re likely to have done some research especially if it’s a one off holiday. After a few months of backpacking and making a new home every few nights the easy mistake to make is feeling too comfortable with your surroundings.

When we first arrived in the Philippines we did a bit of research on Google images and thought we knew it all and that the whole of the Philippines was going to be a mixture of Palawan and Manila!

Unfortunately for us things took a turn for the worst almost immediately. When leaving the airport we jumped in a cab and directed the driver to San Jose, he responded by asking why we were going there? This wasn’t curiosity in his tone this was confusion and when we arrived we knew why! It was a very intimidating environment with nothing of relevance anywhere near us. We soon moved on but this wasn’t the end of our naivety.

When on the outskirts in Manila we knew that this was one of Australasia’s largest cities. We could see the skyscrapers far into the distance so we again hailed a cab but this time we felt sure we knew where we were going. To the city we said! The driver gave us that same confused look and asked where exactly we wanted to go.

We literally responded by pointing to the skyscrapers asking to be taken to the city centre – not even knowing the district we needed to get to was Makati! We got in the cab and 45 minutes later were dropped off at a mall. Not quite what we wanted but looking back what did we expect was going to happen? Always research your dream adventure before it turns into a nightmarish reality!

6) Wet washing – not a good look … or smell! 👕👖

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Being a backpacker, having your clothes washed is probably one of the most important yet annoying things to do as it takes a bit of planning! In most countries we’ve come across our hostel / hotel could arrange a laundry service for you, which we strongly advise you to use! Washing in the bathroom sink and hanging your underwear all around the room is pure agg! However, a word of warning is you’re likely to need 2 / 3 days before your washing is returned, so don’t leave yourself too short on clothes and give yourselves plenty of time!

We once had to catch a bus before our washing was ready and asked them to return it as it wa… half finished. That resulted in a screwed up damp pile of clothes in a carrier bag which we couldn’t pack and took AGES to finally dry. When they did they had to be rewashed because they stunk!

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We could go on and on about more of the silly mistakes we’ve made whilst travelling, it’s always going to happen! We just hope pointing out a few of the more obvious ones may help you out even a little bit when you’re visiting a new country for the first time!

 

Returning to Our Home

We’ve been at Our Home Community for two weeks now and thought it would be a good idea to write regular posts (if our limited internet allows us to) on what our life is like living and volunteering in India.

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Our Home is located in Wayanad, a very small village high in the mountains of Kerala. It’s full of natural beauty and we wake up everyday to a gorgeous view as well as going on some amazing walks after school. However, being located in such natural surroundings also has a negative… The first few nights in our hut were terrifying and we even contemplated if we could stay. As well as spotting a two metre long snake just outside our door, we heard constant noises throughout the night which were some of the loudest, strangest and scariest sounds we have ever heard! At one point H was literally crying and sweating with fear insisting K did not move a single muscle, so scared a lion was about to burst through the door! This happened for the first three nights. We think it may have been monkeys, but maybe we are thinking positively and are now slowly getting used to the noises.

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Adding to our animal encounters, but this time not so scary and instead incredible, we experienced something amazing on Day 10. Coming back from an evening in town, we spotted a wild baby elephant! Words cannot describe how beautiful it was to see this little one exactly where it should be and roaming free. We didn’t stay near for too long as we were sure mummy elephant was close by keeping an eye out!

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Our room is very basic but most importantly it’s clean and has a flush toilet which is always a bonus! Trying to shave without a mirror does not go down well so we made it more homely with some basic furnishings including; little plastic stools to use as bedside tables, washing baskets for our clothes, a kettle and a mirror!

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We’re not getting used to the 38 degrees heat yet and as it’s the start of summer it will only get hotter. Our Home is encountering a drought which could be very serious as the children drink this water. We go through periods of the day without water, which for us means no showers and no flushing. We’re all keeping our fingers crossed for some rainfall very soon.

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Our days are spent teaching at the onsite school, going for long walks, assisting with homework and playing games and sports. We’re also teaching them the importance of hygiene and have started with brushing their teeth. Having given them all toothpastes and brushes, every night night after dinner we all brush our teeth together which is the cutest thing, they all look at us with their big eyes for approval asking if they’re doing it right! They’re thoroughly enjoying keeping their teeth clean which is such a joy to see.

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Something else we assist with is the cooking. We aim to cook  once a week to give the children a new experience of different food whilst making it as nutritious as possible. Our first cooking session was an experience to say the least! At the local markets we bought ingredients to make fish, mashed potatoes and salad, a completely new dish and such a change from their usual rice and dhal, we wasn’t sure if they’d even like it! Four hours later and for nearly 60 people we finally finished cooking, so hot, sweaty and stinky, but the result was beyond anything we’ve ever seen before. It was so emotional seeing the children enjoy such a nutritious and healthy meal so much that they went up for seconds. They couldn’t stop smiling and saying how ‘super’ it was. We couldn’t have been happier that the children went to sleep with full tummies.

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All in all we are settling in really well, it’s not easy and is taking a lot of adjusting but being with these children makes it so worthwhile. They really are the kindest, most thoughtful and caring kids we have ever met and every day we get to spend with them is so precious. Thank you so much to each and every person that donated to Our Home, you’ve truly made a real difference in their little lives. ❤

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!

 

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!

 

We’ve got 99 problems but travelling isn’t one!

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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