For newcomers – links to the blog posts in order of publication

The default setting for blogs is for the most recent post to appear first. In the case of IndianInterlude it makes more sense to read from the beginning to the end, so these links are in publication order, and will take you to each post.

You can contact IndianInterlude using the form below the links.

You might also want to look at Indian Interlude II.

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Lifting latches – Kerala backwaters – Fort Kochi

Thursday morning and we have returned to Fort Cochin to prepare for the journey home. During the day, we finally gain access to the Santa Cruz Basilica.  We’ll leave the hotel at 8:00pm for our quarter to midnight flight from Cochin to Singapore. It’s just three and a half hours, but the time difference has us in Singapore just before 7.00am on Friday. Seventeen hours later our plane for Adelaide departs.

Picture yourself – Kerala backwaters

Tuesday, and we are on the houseboat Nest. Known locally as Kettuvallams, these boats were once the transport solution for cargo, usually coconut, rice, and spices. It’s difficult to know if we are on a converted barge, or a houseboat built to look like one. We have a crew of three looking after us, and following our lunch, we have stopped for the crew to have their lunch break. Kerry retires for the afternoon. The crew has difficulty untying the boat from our lunchtime mooring, but we’re underway eventually. In the pre-lunch session we set a cracking pace, now however we have slowed to a crawl. We’re not the only ones on the river, and we exchange friendly waves with tourists going in the other direction.

There is also a piece of earthmoving equipment on a barge of sorts, and whilst in theory it is part of a dredging operation, it looks rather more like the bucket is being used to pull the earthmover and its vessel through the water.

IndianInterlude is pleased to report that Marxism is not dead. Throughout India, and even in Bangladesh, we have seen the occasional hammer and sickle flag on display. In Mumbai we noted a ‘Workers and Peasants’ association. Here in the south, it seems nearly as popular as Christianity. There was even a hammer and sickle flying from a State Government Electricity Office. Maybe the local State Government has a Marxist flavour.

Have we mentioned global roaming? IndianInterlude would have been lost without it, and in some portions of this trip has had more providers inside 7 days than the previous seven years.

It is predictably warm and humid, however when the boat is cruising there is plenty of airflow, and even at rest, there seems to be a fair breeze off the water, making conditions pretty comfortable, particularly when the sun is covered by cloud.

We are cruising what are known as the backwaters of Kerala. Either side of the water are rice paddys, and we are told vegetables are grown here too. There is no shortage of coconut trees, and mangoes, the latter regrettably not in season. The waters continue to provide a transport system for villagers, there are jetties which look for all the world like very large bus shelters, we’ve seen workers transporting rock to repair and maintain the bank outside of village homes, we’ve seen a travelling salesman in his row boat, and other examples. We have passed one school on the bank, and I’m quietly confident all the children caught a boat to get there.

Wednesday, on Nest. We have spent the night in an air conditioned cabin, the heat and the humidity when we open the cabin door is like a sledgehammer. We see the local fishing technique. Two men working in a canoe distribute their fishing net in an indeterminate-to-me pattern, and then row in and around the net, as one man uses sticks to drum on the canoe, the other man uses a large pole to slap the water. And then the net is pulled in. I see only one fish caught, but I’m guessing the method is usually more productive.

After breakfast we are taken for a very short walk at our mooring point, and we are introduced to some of the local produce. We see banana palm, jackfruit, cashew fruit (we’re unclear if this also provides the nut), something we think is called goya fruit, and more besides. We taste some of these back onboard; I don’t see them taking over the Australian market anytime soon.

The boat moves a little before 9.30am, however we back track first to pick up fresh milk and some other supplies from a house owned by the tour company’s owner. Back to cruising we stop near a village called Champakulam. First we see a highly successful boat in the snake boat races. Imagine a really long dragon boat, about 40 metres with over 100 people on board. Extraordinary.

We motor on a little further to the village proper, to see St Mary’s Church. This was supposedly established in 427; although we don’t know to look in the cemetery for the small chapel which is supposedly the original. The church we do see is a more modest 250 years old. Quibbles aside, it is a highly decorated church. It seems to me the Indians have applied Hindu colour and iconography to Christianity. The church interior is a blaze of colour, and statues, and throughout the south we have seen any number of Christian shrines, which is surely straight out of the Hindu playbook. The village also provides another shopping opportunity.

(Too) many photographs here, but there is so much activity and life on the waters, we shot a lot of it.

Fill in a form – Fort Kochi

Saturday we arrive in Kochi, which immediately wins the best looking airport award, at least from the outside, very attractive. It is hot and humid the moment we step off the plane.

Our welcome committee and the car are waiting (our flight has been delayed) and we set off for Fort Cochin which is home for the next three nights. The first thing notice on the drive are the ‘proper’ houses, in many colours, green, blue, pink, red, yellow; you name it, they’ve painted a house in it. The other thing we notice is more Christian churches in the couple of hours our drive takes, than we have seen in total for the rest of the trip. The trip includes a vehicle ferry across the water.

More accurately, we’re staying in Mantancherry, in a ‘heritage hotel’ since 1954. We think the furniture hasn’t been changed since. More alarmingly, the mosquitoes in the room out number us about 50 to 1; although we think we have the gecko’s measure. After lunch, we head into town to buy fly spray and water, but also take the opportunity for a look around. We see and hear a young Australian man, complete with blue tank top, we say hello and swap travel destinations for a while. He’s here with some mates, he’s been living in Melbourne for a year, but is from a small town near Bega. Would you believe he is looking for a pair of thongs to buy?

The streets here are winding narrow country lanes. There is not a lot of traffic, and it is quite flat, so is both pedestrian and cycle friendly.

Kerry has an itch to have some clothes made, having missed out in Mumbai. She has no luck in the local tailors around Princess Street where we are shopping. The local small stores don’t carry the same colours and prints we have seen elsewhere.

The sweat is simply dripping off us, and we negotiate an auto-rickshaw back to the hotel. Note: for the benefit of tourists they are called tuk-tuks here; but we stick to auto rickshaw. We have turned down this driver earlier in the day, if he takes us to a particular store he will get a litre of petrol. On the exchange rate petrol is about $1.40 here, and they are complaining like you wouldn’t believe. He takes us to the shop, we do our duty by looking around, but we will not be persuaded to buy.

At the hotel we use two-thirds of the Mortein killing 44 insects in the bathroom, and Kerry gives up counting the dead in the bedroom. That much Mortein doesn’t do either of us much good either. Happily that is the end of them.

The saving grace of the hotel is the swimming pool, and we spend a couple of hours in it, cooling off. Eating out is more than Kerry can do, so we stay at the hotel.

Sunday, and we head off on our guided tour, by auto-rickshaw. We see the Dutch Palace, which has gorgeous rosewood ceilings, and fabulous Hindu murals in two of the rooms. The palace was a gift of the Portuguese to the local Rajah way back in the 1500s, although the Dutch renovated it about 100 years later, hence the name. No photography allowed. (Fort Cochin was also settled by the Brits, after the Dutch).

We go to St Francis Church, the oldest in India, which may have been re-built a few times too. It started Catholic, became Protestant under the Dutch, and Anglican under the British. We cannot get in, because the morning service is being conducted (in English). Under our own steam we go back later in the day, and Her Majesty visited the church in the late 1990s. Vasco de Gama’s tombstone is in the church, however his remains were long ago taken back to Portugual.

It is worth pointing out that a local Mosque claims a date of 1300 and something, but how much of the original is left, we don’t find out.

We head for the foreshore, and the Chinese fishing nets. These seem as much for show as catching fish, and they operate on a counter weight system. For a price IndianInterlude can help raise the nets. Are they crazy?

The foreshore has some persistent hawkers, but we have long been immune, and can outlast anyone standing still, or walking with us.

Next stop, the Dhobi Ghats, where laundry is washed and ironed. Some of the ironing is with an electric iron (a long way from the latest model, but electric nonetheless), or with older iron filled with hot coals and which weighs plenty.

Kerry takes up the ‘ladies tailoring’ question with the guide. We explain that our efforts yesterday we fruitless, however he takes us to a sizeable store being frequented by Indians, if not locals, and Kerry arranges to have four cotton tops made. They will be delivered to our hotel at 8.00pm tonight.

We head for the area known as Jewtown, which surrounds the local synagogue, which is some 400 years old too. There are less than 10 Jews living in Fort Cochin and the Rabbi sent from Israel has visa problems to conduct religious teachings. Again dating back to the 1500s, the Dutch partly re-built it in the 1600s. It has floor tiles from China, and light fittings from Belgium and Italy. No photography or bags allowed. The clock tower has different numerals on each side, but we cannot confirm this.

The shopping here is tough (note, Kashmiris run the shops, we only have one person identified to us as a Jew). Kerry has her bargaining feet at last, and walks away from a price the shopkeeper won’t match. Ian gets last minute gifts at very nearly half-price, and lower than the price he was prepared to pay. Of course, the store owner is still making money, and quite possibly our guide and driver are in on the commission too. They are both refreshingly honest about this.

Tour over, and over-time, we get dropped in a street where our guide notes say there is a good option for lunch, with real cakes, and great coffee. We cannot find it, and neither of us remember the name. We take the alternative which still has good cakes and okay coffee.

Kerry opts to walk after lunch, and we see more than a handful of cricket games underway, including one which looks almost formal. Most of the team seems to be wearing a uniform, and there are very definitely two umpires.

We go back to the hotel for more pool time.

This night we have tickets for a Kathakali dance performance, which looks to me like Indian kabuki, and we opt out. Our guide, and the driver Salim, have told us there is a temple festival on tonight, complete with elephants, and this we agree to. Salim picks us up at 5.00pm for a ‘performance’ that may start at 6.30pm. We get an alternative tour of Fort Cochin, and are amazed by how much of it there is. We see the elephants early, before they are led off, and then Salim takes us to Santa Cruz Basilica. We can’t get in here, either, but from outside, the inside looks really something, very colourful and with paintings on the ceiling.

We go back to the elephants who have been placed in position, and a small band of sorts makes a complete racket in front of them. We see enough of the elephants, and ask to be taken to dinner, at Oceanus, a very good restaurant indeed. We are there before the kitchen is open, but we are soon joined by table after table of foreigners. We have one of the tastiest curries of the trip. Salim collects us an hour later for the trip back to our hotel, where Kerry’s new clothes await. Shop staff come later to collect the money.

During the day I have been in contact with our tour coordinator to organize a car and driver for Monday. We have agreed to eliminate the risk of excess baggage for the trip home, and visit the DHL office on the mainland. Kerry also wants to see some Indian shopping malls before we go.

First stop however is the Santa Cruz Basilica. We’re confident there is no Mass on Monday morning. The gate is ajar, but the man on security motions to us to go around. We try another gate, but it too is locked. We try the school gate, that won’t get us to the church, nor does the entry to the convent. We go back to the main gate where I notice locals being admitted. I try my luck again. Regrettably we do not speak each other’s language, and he is getting angry, and I am becoming belligerent. More locals walking past me does not help. An earthly voice comes from above. Someone with English tries to explain the church is closed because it is a holy day. I explain because it is a holy day I would like to attend church. This is greeted with some amusement. Our driver appears and tries to get an answer from the man on the gate, but the explanation, whatever it is, I don’t understand.

The DHL experience is a nightmare, or at least feels like one. I have written down the address, but the driver cannot find it, and stops three times to ask before someone knows. We have nearly 12 kilograms primarily of clothes to send home. They need my passport, and this I am ready for. They want my onward ticket, this I do not have. The DHL person wants to come to our hotel to get it, I tell him Thursday at three o’clock, this he will not do. We eventually agree that I can send him my itinerary by email. We have to take an inventory of everything we are sending home, which is written in long hand, and then entered on the computer system.

The DHL person finds someone more senior to deal with us (where have they been?) and the process improves a little, but not by much. I am not allowed to send the items to myself, so we have Kerry’s name attached to my address. We left our hotel at 10.00am, and it is now well after 12.00. I have signed my name eight times.

The driver has checked the location of two malls we have identified. The first, Gold Souk Grande, is entirely mis-named. It is mostly empty, desolate and generally horrible. We take our chances on eating in the food court outside the cinemas. There is nothing in the bain-marie, so we assume the food will be freshly cooked. We leave earlier than scheduled, and head for Oberon Mall.

This at least has retailers occupying the space, and many western brands dominate. We spend most time in the bookshop component of the Reliance Superstore. It is a lot like Borders. Note: books are very inexpensive by our standards here.

Our return trip home is painless, we plan to visit another restaurant recommended by Salim for dinner, before readying our lighter bags for a car journey to Alleppey where we board our houseboat for our last two nights in India.

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The kind of a girl – Mumbai

So, Friday in Mumbai and we visit Dharavi slum. We have a cosseted journey on the Mumbai metropolitan train network to get there. Our local station is small, in the sense that there are only 5 or 6 platforms, however the length of the trains is amazing. At the end of each platform sit 3 or 4 men each offering a shoe shine service.

The seats in the carriage are for three people, in facing doubles on both sides of the carriage. At the end of the carriage they have a bench seat across the width of the carriage. This is where we sit. The hand grips above are all metallic, and must be no more than eight inches apart. We imagine peak hour is pretty tight. Station announcements are in English, and are made multiple times coming up to a station.

About one-half of Mumbai’s population live in slums, and at 1.5 square kilometres, Dharavi has just over one million residents. The first thing you need to do is forget English tenement slums you have read about in history lessons. Slum in this sense means homes built on government land, probably illegally. The oldest home dates to 1840. Dharavi is like most other Indian villages we have seen. There is a video cinema, a supermarket of sorts, fresh fruit stalls, fresh fruit juice stalls, and all manner of businesses. There are doctors and pharmacies, and a public hospital and a private hospital. Whilst less than 1% have their own toilet, there are a number of community toilets throughout the slum. There were no beggars to be seen during our visit.

We see women making and drying popadoms, we see a bakery making puff pastry which they export to Afghanistan. We eat one each.

We see all manner of plastic recycling, and vegetable oil can recycling, and paint can recycling, and people making clay pots. We see the kindergarten and the community centre that our tour company funds.

Kerry climbs two flights of a fixed metal ladder to a rooftop for a view of Dharavi. Kerry later climbs another to see the community centre, where the participants, exclusively young women are working on some Excel spreadsheets about foreign countries (population, geographic area, that kind of thing).

We see our first cow and goats of Mumbai, in Dharavi.

The children going to and from school are impeccable in their uniforms, and the women are all well dressed, and certainly in the Hindu areas of the slums, the saris are as bright as we have seen, maybe without the sparkle of other destinations.

We fill in the tour evaluation form, note: all of the local operators we have used are very thorough about getting evaluation forms for all of their services. I think that’s a great thing, although I might prefer you weren’t asked to complete it in the car on the way to the airport, and mine host reads it there and then.

A taxi back to our part of town, for would you believe even more shopping. We discover that DHL courier is not as expensive as we have been led to believe, so at our next stop we intend to unload a few things we can live without until we get home.

We end the night with a horse and carriage ride, which is half an hour and which we think will take us along Marine Drive on the coast, and which we think is 1000 rupees. It is half an hour, we spend barely any time on Marine Drive, and it costs us 1000 rupees each.

Tomorrow. Leave the hotel at 7.45am for a 10:15 flight to Kochi, aka Cochin. The usual caveat applies, we don’t know what kind of Internet access will be in the hotel until we get there. However over the next week we are spending two days on a converted rice barge on the backwaters of Kerala, and I am fairly confident the boat won’t have Internet access.

No photographs of Dharavi, because it is not allowed by our tour company, but there is a photo of Dobbin. We turned down a photo opportunity with Dobbin, thinking he might charge another 1000 rupees for the privilege.

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The thought of meeting you – Mumbai

This morning at 9.30am we head for film city, 1500 acres of film lot, with existing sets, such as a temple, a village, a mansion, a lake, three islands etc, to sets under construction; to permanent homes for film companies. It also offers some great views of some of the Mumbai skyline.

We see a dance sequence (although not rare in film, apparently now are rare to be done on set and are usually done in a studio with a blue-screen), and in another film, what appears to be a hostage scene. We have good access across the whole of the area, we see the lake and the three islands for example, and the shanty town in which they filmed Slumdog Millionaire. If any reader has watched a film being shot in their street, you will know it consists of a lot of hanging around waiting.

We then visit Trinity Sound Studios, which I think is primarily a dubbing studio. The building it is in houses 25 to 30 similar studios. In Bollywood films, the soundtrack is always completed in advance of the film, and released before the film. The stars of the film generally do not sing, and this role falls to a group known as playback singers, who, in India at least, are as well known as the film stars. What we didn’t know was that 20 to 30 per cent of the dialogue in a film is also dubbed by somebody else! The stars’ schedules just don’t allow them to do all the studio re-records and lip-synching. We hear a new song yet to be released, and the sound engineer gives a demonstration of how the multi-track recording is layered to produce one coherent sound.

We then go for a drive around the stars’ homes – the neo-Georgian mansion seems popular. However, one actor, Kerry’s favorite, has a duplex at the top of a building, with full glass walls for the central part of the living area, offering a perfect view of the staircase and living area – or at least one of them.

At around 2.00pm we head for the Mirador Hotel, which is the first time we experience the ‘mirror under the car’ security. We have an Indian buffet lunch here in a ground floor restaurant called Tangerine. Reader, if you find yourself in Mumbai anytime soon, we recommend the restaurant without hesitation.

Our drive back to our hotel takes around an hour.

A few random observations:

There are no cycle rickshaws in Mumbai.
The auto-rickshaws and the taxis are black with yellow trim, and black with a yellow roof respectively.
Economic rationalism is yet to be deployed in India. We bought some homewares last night. One person helped us with our inquiry, a second took our payment (and dealing with a card had others watching for good measure), and yet a third put our purchase in a bag.
Similarly restaurants. There is a buffet breakfast in our hotel, but someone makes your toast for you. Someone else pours cold milk on your cereal. Someone else makes the instant coffee for you.
At major intersections controlled by traffic lights, one is offered all manner of merchandise. Ranging from that morning’s newspaper, steering wheel covers, towels, to flowers, car window shades, and books.

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