INDIA: THE WEIRD AND THE WONDERFUL

I arrived in India on a rainy September day at the end of the monsoon season. This year, it had been particularly bad in the south with extreme flooding in Kerala destroying a lot of the towns and land – the worst since the 1930s. The 1.5 hour drive from Goa airport to the yoga school was both a little bit scary and exciting. For the first timer in India (and Asia really), there was lots of new to be observed through the car window – free-roaming cows and water buffalos in fields right next to the road, packs of stray dogs everywhere, the insane amount of traffic and the surprising lack of traffic rules, the lush green hills and palm forests surrounding the country roads of Goa, and the many many people (and this was rural!). For the first three weeks, I stayed at a yoga shala ‘Kranti Yoga’ in Patnem beach in the south of Goa (this blog post is not about the yoga school, therefore I will not elaborate on this further) before Rhys arrived and joined me at the end of October.

Lush India palms

SOUTH GOA

Patnem beach (2)

The whole of the South Goa is famous for its yoga retreats, Ayurveda holidays and the most beautiful beaches in India. The latter seemed true – almost every beach I visited was one worth a postcard cover, and I will discuss them in further detail below.

  • PATNEM BEACH

Patnem beach

Patem beach is a small village with a closed-bay beach, nearby to a more well-known Palolem beach town, popular with Western tourists. The smallest of all the beaches visited, it is a tucked away paradise. Having arrived at the end of the monsoon before the peak season started, it was mostly empty with only a few locals fishing in the mornings, chilling in the shade throughout the day and Indian teenagers playing football at sunset. Having mentioned sunsets, I have to say that I had never seen more beautiful sunsets than the ones in Goa – the sun turning from white to yellow to orange to red as it slowly lowered down into the Indian Ocean, and it looks different every day! Before I arrived, I had an expectation of long sunny evenings whereby it is still light at 8pm (mostly experienced in European summers) and was surprised when I realised that the sun is up for about 12 hours only here – rising at about 6:30am and setting at 6:30pm making it all pitch black from about 7pm onwards.

The small main street of Patnem village leads down to the beach and most of the grocery, souvenir and jewellery shops were opening alongside it throughout my time there. Coming from Europe where mostly things work all the year around, it was crazy to see how everything is re-built each year after the monsoon – the beach cafes, the shops in town, the little huts in the resorts all are painted, refurbished and assembled from scratch each time with only the bare walls of buildings or frames remaining put throughout the summer months. The difference between the village when I arrived and when I was leaving was striking – and the amount of tourists and yoga enthusiasts staying there increased too (nonetheless, Patnem never got too busy to general standards). Whilst there’s a few very cosy cheap restaurants on the beach (our favourite was Round Cube selling garlic calamari for lunch for about 240 rupees (just over £2), make sure you visit Patnem Chai Shop just off the main street – a small authentic tea house serving all the known varieties of chai and herbal teas, as well as local snacks – it is where all the locals hang out and gives you a real feel of an Indian village.

Chai shop

  • PALOLEM BEACH

Palolem is a more famous resort town about a 10-minute tuk tuk drive away from Patnem. The much longer main road offers a variety of goods (including a lot of cheap tack) and cafes to visit – the usual souvenir shops, lots of jewellery stores, specialised yoga shops, more upmarket Indian craft shops (Bunti is the one to note down and visit if you ever go to Palolem), ice cream and juice kiosks and vegetarian, vegan and regular Indian eateries. I would highly recommend visiting Zest (a famous-among-westerners but nonetheless amazing vegan café), Space Goa (similar type of café offering healthy foods and smoothies; slightly out of Palolem town so best reached by tuk tuk) and Ciaran’s (a restaurant right on Palolem beach serving typical Goan foods and amazing cocktails using fresh fruit).

The beach itself is a long flat stretch of sand, full of fishing boats at the centre however more spaced out to the sides. I did not have a chance to wander out of the centre too much, however have been told to visit the far-right side of the beach where it is quieter but very scenic. Overall, a very lovely beach with plenty entertainment in the town itself.

  • AGONDA BEACH

A further 20-minute tuk tuk drive from Palolem, Agonda beach is another idyllic spot for spending a day on the beach or surfing (note this is mostly for beginners as some Australians I met just laughed at the possibility of surfing there). Surrounded by rocks on either side of an approximately 1km stretch of sand, the beach is flat and spacious and you will surely find a nice spot for yourself away from the main crowds. Again, we visited at the very start of the season so I am sure it gets busier in the months of November to February.

Most of the retreats on the beach have cafes or restaurants available overlooking the ocean and I would recommend spending a few hours there enjoying some fresh seafood and a lassi.

Agonda beach

  • BUTTERFLY BEACH

Trek to Butterfly beach with people

On our day off, we decided to go on an adventure and were recommended to visit the small Butterfly beach that can only be reached by trekking through a jungle. Tuk tuks drop you off at the top of a small country road which you then follow for about 45 minutes downhill towards the ocean. We ended up getting lost a couple of times before we reached the beach as there’s lots of paths branching off and splitting the path so my advice is to always stay on what looks like the main road and keep right.

The trek itself was my favourite part of the day – you pass denser bits of jungle and openings that offer a beautiful hilly landscape, you can hear birds and monkeys around you in the trees, which offers a nice change to the beach scenery I was surrounded by every day. We were a little bit disappointed by the beach itself – although set up to be a secret paradise, the small beach surrounded by large rocks on either side was covered in litter, and the ocean was very rough and dirty, making swimming not as enjoyable as you would hope after an almost one hour hike in the blistering heat. Besides, once we got used to the rubbish around us, two groups of teenage boys arrived and played very loud (and bad) music totally crushing our sense of calmness.

You will notice this everywhere you go in India (and even worse in the North) but Indians love taking photos with and of foreigners. They are often very friendly and come to talk to you and are interested in your travels, however they will eventually give away their wanting of a photo together or to add you on Facebook. It is okay to refuse, however there are many of them that try to take sly photos of you on the beach or even have you in the background of their selfies (and they love selfies!). We had some of them photographing us on Butterfly beach and so it was the last straw that made us pack of bags and leave sooner than planned.

This was my least favourite beach in my whole time in Goa, however the trek was still worth it.

Butterfly beach

  • COLVA BEACH

Colva beach

Colva beach is a perfect getaway if you need to stay close to the airport. Only a 20-minute drive away, it is a small quiet village with a long stretch of white sandy beach. It is also a 10-minute tuk tuk drive away from Madgao city which has the biggest train station in Goa, so it was perfect for us as we were getting a train from there the next day.

We were staying at the far right end of the beach and it was amazingly quiet  with it being the start of the season – the couple afternoons spent there was probably my favourite beach time in Goa.

Patnem beach with people

One thing I really liked about Colva is that it was full of Indian tourists and that gives you a better sense of the country and its people – I do not like going to places where there are westerners only. The Indians’ understanding of beach time is quite different however – they all tend to stand. As we were chilling in our quiet spot on the side of Colva beach, you could look to the main area and see a hundred people just standing on the beach, fully clothed (culturally, they don’t expose too much and especially women; they swim in jeans and long sleeve tops) in the midday heat of 33 degrees Celsius – a very unusual sight!

The beach has the standard offering of cafes and seafood restaurants all along it, and the fact that most sign boards were in Russian indicated the place’s popularity among them in busier times.

Overall, South Goa was my favourite part of the two we visited in India (more on Kerala below) because of its chilled and relaxed feel. Even the local traders would stop giving you hassle after your first ‘No, thank you’. The beaches and yoga is what Goa is famous for, and I would highly recommend visiting. We did not have enough time however North Goa is also worth stopping by for a few days – it is supposedly busier and has a popular party scene in the areas of Anjuna and Aranbal, as well as offering more surfing.

 

KERALA

The main aim of our visit to Kerala was to see its famous backwaters and enjoy as much seafood as possible – not a very long list of demands I would say! Even though Alleppey is the most popular hub to experience boating around the Kerala backwaters, due to our next flight leaving from the International Cochin Airport (very impressive that this very new and spacious airport is the first airport in the whole of India to be powered by solar panels only!), we decided to base ourselves around there and make our plans thereafter.

FORT KOCHI

Locally called as Kochi, Cochin city / town is right next to the biggest city of Kerala called Ernakulam. Most likely, you will pass it if you arrive to Kerala via train or coach and even in taxi / bus to or from airport. There is a temple of two to visit in Ernakulam however I would not spend any considerable time exploring the city itself, unless you want to observe the Indian way of life and in general live like a city local.

Kochi itself is on a peninsula which can be reached by road and bridges that stretch over the waterways. At the top of this city island, the lovely area lies called Fort Kochi, where we stayed for a couple of days. This area was once occupied by the Dutch and later by the British due to its convenient location and of course the port. Due to this, the cultural heritage feels very colonial with Christian churches dotted in between the small cobbled streets, a Dutch cemetery being one of the top things to visit and the art scene in the city. In fact, the oldest Christian church in the whole of India is in Fort Kochi and can be visited just across the road from the post office. In general, we started to enjoy the town more as we were about to leave – the small intertwining streets started to feel more cosy, and the local cafes more homely. Kachi Art Café is one definitely worth a visit with amazing artwork everywhere and (very true) the best cold coffee in the whole of India! For food, visit Dhal Roti for some real Indian cuisine at an affordable price and in an authentic setting – be prepared to tear up / sweat (whatever rocks your boat) through the spiciness of the meal so good you cannot stop eating anyway.

Dhal Roti

Undoubtedly the biggest attraction of Fort Kochi is the fort / marina itself – excited to take what was advertised as a long romantic walk on the path alongside the water, we were really upset to see what looked liked quite a derelict marina with stinky water nearby full (and I am not exaggerating) with rubbish in it. I would like to believe it is the result of the extreme flooding Kerala had experienced just a few months ago, however surprisingly that did not stop many Indian tourists enjoying ice cream and taking couple selfies all over the coast. The Chinese fishing nets located just by the port were indeed a very interesting sight (and you can get the local fishermen to show you how they work for a small fee) but once you lower the gaze, the whole of the area unfortunately offered quite a disappointing view.

Rubbish at Fort Kochi with Gabs

Chinese fishing nets

 

BACKWATERS

Kerala backwaters half naked man

Even though we did not make it down to Alleppey, we took a day boat tour from Fort Kochi that takes you to closer waterways in the area of XXX. (Having spoken to the boat drivers and some of the travellers we met along the way, Alleppey is so popular with Indian tourists that the supposedly peaceful boat ride there might become a very busy and noisy affair – due to the amount of visitors, they have started using large motor boats in the area to help meet the demand. I feel like we made the right choice after all!) Whilst you are out for the best part of the day, the actual ride takes about 4-5 hours and it is enough to enjoy the slow rhythm of the water and the green shores surrounding you. The day experience costs you about £8 and included is a lovely typical lunch of Kerala comprised of a few vegetarian curries / sides with rice served on a banana leaf. The slow boat is powered by two men at the top and the back with long bamboo sticks that they push all the way down to move the boat forwards – not for the weakest!

Banan leaf lunch

There is nothing to do here but enjoy the slow pace of the trip and the calming sound of the water splashing against the boat. I felt guilty for involuntarily dosing away a few times whilst I was supposed to be enjoying the extraordinary views of palm trees hanging above the water but it is that serene!

Kerala backwaters

During our ride, we went by a few trees on the shores that had some hanging fruit resembling mangoes and our boat host told us that these fruit are in fact poisonous and used by poor locals as a means to a suicide. They are called ‘othalanga’ and accounts for one death per week in Kerala!

Poisonous fruit

We were supposed to transfer to a much smaller type of a narrow boat for some part of the trip however due to the flooding, some of the smaller canals were not available to access making me wander about the size of the damage the whole of the area had to bear earlier in the year.

We really enjoyed this trip and there are plenty of other options such as overnight and a few day tours through the backwaters. Worth noting that any tour will stop at 6pm for the night as that’s when the fishermen come out to take their share of the vast river network.

CHERAI BEACH

Cherai beach 2

Already missing the beautiful beaches of Goa and having inhaled enough dust in Fort Kochi (cannot imagine what it is like in some of the metropolises of the country!), we decided to spend a few days by what is known as ‘the most beautiful beach of Kerala’, Cherai Beach. Reached by taking a 5-minute local ferry from Kochi to Vypin Island and then a 45-minute bus to the top of it, Cherai Beach is a small village next to Cherai town (about a 4 kilometre walk). The village is on a small strip of land on one side being washed by the Indian Ocean, and only a street and a row of houses away on the other side, opening onto a canal that separates it from the rest of the island. Whilst it sounds more than idyllic (and our guesthouse was located on the mentioned road whereby we could see the sunset into the ocean from our patio), the reality surprised us yet again – after crossing the road and climbing over a low rock wall, you look down to a 3-metre width strip of beach covered (and I mean covered) with seaweed and rubbish. Excited at the sight of the sun, we were in our beach ware minutes after arrival and the beach shocked us – we tried walking towards the busier area where we thought it could have been cleaned up but it went from bad to worse until we came to a dead cat’s body being eaten by crows and we left the beach to spend the remaining two days at our guesthouse or in the village. This is where our short and sad beach visit in Kerala ended and I was gladly taking the bus to the airport the next day having seen enough rubbish and taken in enough dust and stink over the previous few days.

Overall, Kerala did not impress me as much as I would have imagined – the favourite part was the backwaters tour – and I hope this is due to what the area had experienced with the flooding just a few weeks earlier. I would like to perhaps explore more of the hilly inland some people recommended but I think I will need a bit of time before I decide to go back here again.

 

RANDOM OBSERVANCES

COWS, CROWS AND…

India cows

Cockroaches, stray dogs, mosquitos, water buffalos, spiders, geckos, and monkeys – once you are in India, you are reminded that we share the same environment and space with all of these animals and you can’t get away. Cows are chilling on the beaches and middle of the roads, water buffalos are roaming around villages in fields, cockroaches sleep in your drawers and geckos chase after them on your bedroom ceiling (please may I kindly remind you the importance of a mosquito net here), crows steal your fried egg or pancake as soon as you leave your breakfast plate unattended, and monkeys are ready to grab anything shiny off you (watch your sunglasses!). The harmony between humans and nature is much more in tune here than anywhere else I have seen in the world – you have to admire the Indians’ respect for every single living creature and their ability to carry out life around them.

Cat between shoes

The ocean is another living entity that I had no idea about before I came to India – the high and low tides, the change of the rhythm during moon phases all were new to me having mostly visited enclosed seas before. In the few days before and after half moon, the ocean was so rough we could not swim in it at all. The Indian Ocean is also full of what locals call fireweed – these creatures have been described to me as ‘the fleas of the sea’ and it basically stings your skin whilst swimming leaving you with a light red rash for a few hours.

Ocean at half moon

TRAVELLING AROUND

Through train window

Due to its size, larger distances in India are mostly covered by flying however the developed train network can offer cheaper (and longer) alternatives. We took a 14-hour overnight train from Goa (Madgao) to Kerala (Ernakulam Town) and prepared for the worst, were surprised by how good the journey was – the 2nd class AC sleeper coach was divided into four- and two-bunk rooms with curtains and your own light and fan. Even though we did not get a private one, we shared ours with a very polite father and his son who ended up giving us tips on travel around Kerala. The bunks itself were not large but you are provided with pillows, fresh covers and a clean towel. The toilets are quite basic but kept clean most of the time. I ended up getting 9 hours of sleep and so did not even notice the 14 hours fly by! The booking process however was almost as long as the trip itself – having done our research, we went to book tickets on cleartrip.com (and we do recommend booking as much in advance as possible as the tickets sell out fast and I hear 3rd class is not as enjoyable), but found out that we need a foreign traveller’s ID in order to do so. Another website, another form to fill in… None of them are user-friendly and often get stuck because they require a particular field completed in a particular format and this one wanted us to provide an Indian telephone number so it took another few attempts to figure out how to overcome this (we ended up using our UK phone numbers with an Indian extension however apparently you can just make up the number)… You can imagine the rest! All in all, a relatively pleasant experience and you end up saving on accommodation costs if you take a night train.

India train

I don’t even know if they have coaches that take such long trips but I am not sure I would sign up for that. We did take a couple of buses in Kerala and they looked like a square metal bus I imagine functioned in the 70s in Soviet Russia except for (and this is a big one) the amazing colours and decorations inside and out as well as the blasting local pop music which changed the overall experience (I am pre-emptively telling you this quickly turns sour once your journey exceeds an hour)!

Gabs on the bus

Other than train and buses, local taxis and tuk tuks are the most flexible means of transport. Even though cheap to a European’s standard, ensure that you are not ripped off by checking acceptable fares with other locals or travellers who had taken the journey before. With exceptions of bigger train and coach stations that have pre-paid booths (you are issued an official fare ticket in advance so that your driver does not overcharge), you should agree the cost upfront and I also recommend having exact change available (we got short-changed a couple of times and also our driver insisted he had quoted a higher fee than what he originally said and refused to give us our full change back). Other than that, tuk tuks and taxis are very enjoyable and also offer a great way to interact with locals – they are keen to practice their already good English and tell you about their day to day, what’s happening in town and even discuss politics so use the time wisely!

Tuk tuk driver

ENVIRONMENT

Having lived in Europe all my life and generally being conscious about environment, global warming, the plastics problem worldwide, recycling etc., I was quite shocked by how far behind India is with tackling some of the issues and causes of the worldwide environmental crisis. Even though there are lots of posters in most public spaces reminding you not to litter, the reality has not caught up – there are rubbish everywhere: covering the sides of the streets, the beaches, the rivers and the waterways, people’s yards and outside their houses… What really surprises you is their lack of understanding: I constantly saw people just throwing their wrappers on the street right next to them as if it was a normal thing to do (I have to add here that I also saw very little public bins anywhere except for airports and train stations); the locals at Patnem beach would collect rubbish only to dig a hole further down the beach to throw it all down and cover with sand (what do you think is going to happen to them?); and the train steward emptying the toilet bins right outside through the open train door! Furthermore, the high usage of plastic consumables and lack of recycling available makes this an enormous problem in the country with a fast-growing population of over a billion people. Some areas are slowly changing to offer more eco-friendly solutions (e.g. local materials, reusable straws and bags) but there is a need for a major educational programme to be carried out to reach the common masses and local homes in order to change behaviour and habits.

Rubbish at Fort Kochi

FOOD

Gabs and curry

If you like Indian food, you will often feel like you are in food heaven in India – the ingredients are fresh, the spices are delicious and the portions are big. Some of the dishes I would recommend from our travels:

  • Any vegetarian curry (why bother with meat when the vegetables are amazing here) – pumpkin, orka (ladies’ fingers), egg, paneer, courgette…
  • Home-made chiappati
  • Masala fry sea food and fish

India fish stall

Red snapper

  • Samosas (try buying local in the snack counter of chai shops)
  • Banana bread (not what you think it is)
  • Idly (little rice flour pancakes that are usually eaten for breakfast)
  • Pani pouri (puffed pastry filled with onion and chickpea filling and spicy sauce)
  • Masala chai

Chai and rupee

  • Lassi (yoghurt and fruit drink)
  • Fresh juice

(Remember to ask for no sugar (they add it everywhere), no ice (unless it is from mineral water) and no straw for your drinks)

India Spices

Even though the original Indian cuisine is very healthy (they use what we call super foods on a daily basis) and their eating habits are often based on Ayurvedic principles, you will be surprised how the younger generation have taken on the fast and sugary food – they love all the western fast-food eateries (some of the names of local alternatives we liked include Homely KFC, Chick Inn, Chicking and Kerala Fried Chicken), sweet snacks and fizzy sodas.

PEOPLE

Henna

Lastly, I would like to mention the Indian people. You will unavoidably encounter some rude Indians and cheeky traders / tuk tuk drivers that consider tourists as walking piggy banks, but mostly all the locals I have met and interacted with are a very honest, friendly and heartfelt people. Their welcoming attitude, willingness to help and the cooperative way of living is what made us feel safe and welcomed in the country. In general, Indians practice karma yoga in their day to day lives which can be described as a way of living whereby you do good without expecting anything in return. It is engrained in their religion and culture, and it is very evident coming from individualistic western communities. I strongly believe that it is the people that make India a such an interesting and wonderful destination and it is the people that will encourage me to go back there again.

India kids

 

RHYS AND GABS’ INDIA HIGHLIGHTS

  RHYS GABS
Food Grilled red snapper in lemon and masala seasoning Typical Kerala fish curry
Drink Masala chai Mango or coconut lassi
People Tuk tuk drivers always have a hundred questions Kids are always happy to see a tourist and welcome you with big smiles and waves
Place Colva beach in Goa Patnem beach in Goa
Experience Backwater boating tour in Kerala Local Hindu temple visit
Culture shock Babies on mopeds Indian men chewing tobacco all the time their teeth and saliva turn red
Any other Experiencing busy Indian roads for the first time Golden hour / sunsets by Indian ocean

Gabs and tuk tuk driver

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