Falkirk: More than Irn Bru and Football

I had grand plans for my second minibreak from grandmothering. Cycling the Union Canal towpath from Edinburgh to its end at Falkirk is high on my travel wish list. I even brought my cycle helmet from Australia. Come Friday the weather forecast was favourable, but by the time I’d finished up and packed an overnight bag the sun was high in an unclouded sky and it was a distinctly non-Edinburghian 29 degrees centigrade. I couldn’t face five hours in the saddle so I swallowed my pride and hopped on a train from Haymarket. I was in Falkirk in thirty minutes and checked into the Cladham Hotel in forty.

 

Post siesta I ambled the ten minutes into the town centre to catch the number three bus to Helix Park see world famous Kelpies. We’d glimpsed these magnificent steel sculptures from the highway on previous road trips, but to stand and stare and walk around them was mesmerising. They look so alive!

Scottish sculptor, Andy Scott, has captured the essence of those mythical shape shifting water spirits, the Kelpies, and given a respectful nod to Scotland’s horse-powered heritage. Their setting in an expansive green park surrounded by still water and beside a canal is exquisite. Helix Park with its swimming lake, adventure playgrounds, cycle and skate paths and cafes is a terrific family destination.

A wander around the historic town centre, including Tollbooth Street, the shortest street in Britain, and past the steeple followed, then it was time for a Thai dinner.

Next morning I had three more local places on my ‘must see’ list.

 

The Falkirk Wheel is another bus ride from downtown, this time the number six. The Wheel is a massive 2001 Scottish engineering marvel that joins the Union Canal from Edinburgh with the Forth and Clyde Canal to Glasgow. It rotates a water-filled section to lift and lower boats and barges 24 metres. Two locks complete the final eleven metres height differential of the two canals. Previously a series of eleven locks was necessary and took all day to traverse. Sadly those locks went out of use in the 1930s.

Close by the Wheel is a well preserved section of the Antonine Wall, a Roman-built turf fortification that ran east west from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde. The wall, with its 16 forts and many fortlets, was the most northerly demarcation of the Roman Empire’s Britannia. On the other side was Caledonia and the wild northern tribes. 

 

Construction started in AD142 and took twelve years. I walked in the footsteps of legionaries who guarded this far flung outpost of Emperor Antoninus Pius. The wall held for eight years at which time the Romans withdrew south to Hadrian’s Wall. The oldest fragment of tartan cloth in existence today was found buried with some coins by the Antonine Wall. I wonder how they came to be there.

My final stop was Callendar Estate back in town. The Scots do social housing rather differently from what I’m accustomed to. In Falkirk 16-storey identical white tower blocks of flats are dotted along the border of the 170-acre park and woodland. It’s heartening to see mown grass and tidy trees surrounding the towers, but it also seems a bit sterile with no gardens, play grounds or much in the way of amenities near the flats.

 

Callendar Estate has 76k of well used cycle and running paths. On the Friday they hosted a televised orienteering competition and when I visited Saturday morning runners were just finishing up a busy five and ten kilometre park run.

Callendar House is a magnificent 19th century rebuild of a stately home that was already in existence in one form or another for five hundred years. Notable visitors included Mary Queen of Scots, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Oliver Cromwell, and Queen Victoria. Falkirk Community Trust is now responsible for the upkeep of the house and museum and entry is free. I confess disappointment that the permanent museum is series of didactic wall boards covering the social and economic history of the regions with a very few display cases. Nobody wants to stand and read masses of text. The temporary exhibition, entitled “Gladiators” costs five pounds.  

I quickly repaired to the tea room on the upper floor. Decorated in a style reminiscent of the Hydro in Peebles, with velour covered easy chairs in greens and blues and white marble coffee tables, they serve a light breakfast and lunch menu with a range of traditional cakes.

All boxes ticked I walked back to Falkirk High Station for a swift return to Edinburgh and our darling girl. Only six more days until I head home to Gypsy Hill.

In case you are wondering what on earth has happened to Stuart, fear not, he is very well and occupied with supervising the installation of new flooring (on top of the magnesium oxide boards that we discovered were not fit for purpose), continuing the war of attrition on the weeds and keeping our newly planted trees and vegie garden alive. In his spare time he plays competitive croquet and table tennis.

Summer country ceilidh and Cupar Arts EDEN

I’m being whirled and flung about the room at high speed by a handsome young man in a light green and fawn tartan kilt that shows off his slim hips and shapely calves. On and on the band plays and we seem to get faster and more daring each time we take a turn at twirling up and down the line of dancers who clap us enthusiastically. 

 

At last the band stops. I bob a curtsey and my partner, bows. We’re both sweating and gasping for breath but grinning like clowns. Ceilidh dancing has that effect. It recognises no difference in age or ability. If you can move you’re expected to make up the numbers and dance. Hence my boldness in asking young twenty-something Jake if he would partner me for Strip The Willow. To dance it full torque requires a strong and lively partner!

 

And lest you think me some aged marvel at 63, I am completely outshone on the dance floor by a 99-year-old great grandmother who shuffles into the hall with her walker then abandons it to partner her daughter for the Gay Gordons.

It’s summer solstice in Cupar, a quiet country town in the county of Fife, Scotland. I am reliably informed by a resident that Cupar means, ‘a cooper’, i.e. one who makes whisky barrels, but research reveals is to be a Pictish word meaning, “where two rivers meet”. The Eden River (I could not find any signs of a second river) flows through town. A riverside promenade borders a tidy park and the path continues into meadows and wild woods. Folks have lived in this charming place since the 7th century.

 

The community arts festival, Cupar Arts EDEN, is winding up their two-week program with a fantastic, young ceilidh band called Skyrie who hail from Fife. Two exceptionally talented fiddle players, a guitarist and percussionist work hard for their money. The first hour is a performance of original and traditional tunes, then after a short pause we launch into two hours of dancing. Oh, how I have missed it!

For me it’s the perfect break from grandmothering duties in Edinburgh – art, music, and dance with a bit of sightseeing in St Andrews twenty minutes away by bus.

All the festival artists exhibiting are locals, including much-loved comedian Phill Jupitus, whose ironic collages manage that elusive trifecta of being beautiful, clever and funny. Phill’s “Van Gogh Day Off” is coming home to Gypsy Hill with me. Phill had work committments away from Cupar, but all the other artists displayed in the main venue (which doubled as the dance hall), the historic corn exchange, are on hand to chat to and returned in the evening for the Ceilidh!

 

Celie Byrne’s portraits capture local people from all walks of life. Mark Small and Carl E. Smyth’s  ‘Sonic Chamber’ is a mesmerising sensory experience, whilst Mike Middleton’s satirical tapestry project sticks several large pins in puffed up politicians and pious pundits.

‘Van Gogh Day Off’, by Phill Jupitus

Glasswork inset into stage, by Mark Small

‘The Sonic Chamber’ by Mark Small and Carl E. Smyth

Postcard fragment of the ‘Trumped Up Tapestry’ project by Mike Middleton

Strolling the streets almost every shop window and cafe has artworks on display; ceramics, glass, paintings and photography. They’re a creative bunch these Cupars.

2019 was only the second annual festival, but organisers seem to have hit on a successful formula and I expect next year will be even bigger and better. If you’re looking for an authentic Scottish cultural experience Cupar Arts EDEN is the place to be.

And why not buy a kilt if you think you have the legs for it?

There is a sequel to my purchase of the Phill Jupitus collage. The Wednesday following my weekend away a large envelope arrived by post. I excitedly opened it to find this collage rather than ‘Van Gogh Day Off’. Somehow the wrong artwork had been sent. I contacted the organisers and received a prompt reply to say the problem would be swiftly rectified. I had my doubts.

At 6pm the gate bell rang when Tris, Jenny and baby E were in the garden and I was in the kitchen. Tristan called up to me so I went to the head of the stairs as a man came up them. I recognised Phill Jupitus. He was carrying an envelope. I had to look over his shoulder to check there wasn’t a film crew following him!

Phill had brought my collage so we swapped them and he stayed for a chat. Interestingly he’s starting art school at university in September. This is his first chance to study art formally. He is a true gentleman.

Why do you ski?

By Stuart Elliott and Sharon Tickle

It’s the kind of question put to companions to fill spaces between downhill runs. If nothing else, snow skiing provides endless opportunity for idle chat; long, slow double chair lifts, thirty minute sardine queues for the Lagazuoi cable car, and double bubble rides. At some point someone is going to ask, ‘Why do you ski?’ A simple, personal question requiring reflection to answer honestly.

Now, trapped as we are in a mountain refuge in a whiteout at 2413 metres, weather Italians describe succinctly as ‘Brutta’ (ugly), this is the perfect time to answer that question.

 

Why He Skis:

The eternal beauty of the mountains enhanced by the purity of the whiteness of the snow glistening in the sun. The contrast of the strong colours of sky, snow and trees. The unwavering solidity of the rock.

Floating and dancing amongst such beauty is uplifting for the soul, awe inspiring and joyful. 

 

The sense of being on the edge. But what does this mean? It is the thrill of speed, the potential danger, the adrenalin rush.

 

Then there is the sense of freedom, of almost being released from one’s body, gliding. It’s probably the closest I’ll get to being a bird which I hope to return as in my next life.

 

But the complete skiing experience for me in my latter years includes the welcoming and warming mountain huts with their panoramic views, sun decks and hospitality. 

 

As with most experiences in life, all of the above is enhanced by sharing it with loved ones and friends.

Why She Skis:

 

My answer has changed slightly over the thirty-plus years I’ve been hurling myself down mountains. At first it was a key part of our courtship. Skiing was something Stuart did as a winter holiday in Europe when he could afford to. He was 25 and I was 20 when we met. He’d already been skiing fifteen years and I had only ever water-skiied in Australia, but I was game to try. 

 

Of course it didn’t always go smoothly, I’m a hard person to teach and bad weather skiing is testing for any relationship. But weather it we did. I love speed and the exhilaration of being constantly on the edge of disaster is addictive.

 

Ski holidays a deux became ski holidays a quatre as Stuart inducted our sons into alpine holidays. When they became teenagers and more proficient than me I took a step back and encouraged father and son excursions. Both boys loved boarding and skiing and went on to make their own adventures with few, but precious opportunities for skiing en famille.

 

There came a time in my fifties when I had to make a decision whether I would ever ski again.  The economic benefits to communities and whole cities of skiing are indisputable, but the environmental practices and impacts troubled me. Stuart still wanted to ski and with semi-retirement he had even more time to do so. We reached a compromise. Most years I would ski with him one or two weeks and he found ski buddies to ski with more often.

 

My answer now to the question, ´Why do you ski?’ is essentially the same, but with a twist. I ski because I still enjoy spending time with my husband doing what he loves best in the world besides motorcycling (which I choose not to do with him any more – that’s another story), but I have also grown to love skiing more for its own sake.

Every day, every hour, every slope is different. Each time I point my skis downhill is an opportunity to lean down the mountain and submit to gravity, not knowing what will happen next. Time stops. Thinking stops. Responding refexly starts. I try to meld my body with boots and skis and let them find the best way to navigate a route down (without coming into contact with any other skiier!).

 

Most days there will be at least one run that opens the floodgates of joy, that fleeting feeling of intense happiness. Duende. 

 

One morning this week we happened on the perfect black run (normally I only take black runs when absolutely necessary). Incline, snow quality, few other skiers and great visibility. Perfection. 

 

We skiied it three times in quick succession and each time I came as close to flying as an earthbound person can get. I could have stayed and played there all day…..

We skiied the Dolomites again this season. It’s hard to better Italian hospitality, vast, well maintained ski areas and the staggering grandeur of their mountains. The first week we stayed in our favourite Ortizei hotel, The Albion, then in the second week we met up with Australian friend, Michael, in Cortina D’ampezzo to stay in his favourite hotel for three nights, the Menardi, then moved up to the top of Mt Averau four nights in a rifugio at 2413 metres.

We had a mix of glorious sunshine the first week then more unsettled weather the second that deteriorated to a 24 hour blizzard which kept us all off the slopes. The fresh snow next morning was delicious! The difference between icy corduroy and powder is like nails on a blackboard versus the touch of silk.

Unfortunately Stuart hurt his low back pulling off a sudden avoidance manouvre on day eight and, although he got treatment at the rifugio (his therapist, Piero, arrived on skies with his collapsible table) and in Cortina, his back wasn’t stable enough to go on ski safari with Michael as planned for the third week. Hence he is here in Edinburgh with me making more happy memories with the Scottish side of the family. The wee lassie is just over ten months now and a bundle of joy.

Piero Fabrici, the very mobile therapist.

 Goodbye, finally, to Stuart’s very heavy, very long Rossignols!

Pops on duty in Edinburgh.

Driving in India Revisited

Bonus blog post by Stuart Elliott.

I write this from the back of a Nissan Sunny as a distraction from being scared witless by what unfolds in front of me. We are on a six-hour journey from Kochi to Parambikulam Tiger Reserve up in the hills of Tamil Nadu. Personally I was very happy enjoying the delights of the Taj Malabar, but thats how it goes…And apparently we have a purpose so alls good, except…..

 

The Indian road statistics are sobering; a death every 4 minutes. Having said that there are more dangerous places in the world on a per head of population basis.

Selvan, our careful driver, with Sharon in the front seat.

What is astonishing is that there are not more accidents. Indians are ace at putting themselves into dangerous situations and then extracting themselves, and all without road rage. (two Royal Enfield motorcycles have just passed us on the wrong side of the road ridden by Indian hipsters – no helmets of course. As someone put it to me we dont need road rules, the safest way to drive is to find a space and go for it by whatever means, which always involves leaning heavily on the horn, in a Hi Im here sort of a way. Hooting doesnt mean what it does elsewhere; it means you, the vehicle or cow, are occupying the space which I want to occupy, and which I will occupy within seconds, regardless that it would appear, to any sane person, that there is no opportunity to overtake. (We just drove over a field of rubble as a short cut.)

Road surfaces are interesting. Generally they are in reasonable shape, but in some areas they dont bother repairing the road; its just like at home in Byron Bay, where in order to affect traffic calming you just leave holes and undulations in the road.

 

Entering a main road from a side road is unique. If on a 2 wheeler or tuk tuk, looking to see what is coming requires too much effort, so you just pull out and assume that nobody will knock you over. 

 

Meanwhile the best thing to do with a helmet is, in order of preference:

-Not have one

-Carry it somewhere on your bike but not on your head

-Use it as a means of supporting your phone; a sort of hands free device for motorcyclists

-Wear it without the chin strap

-Use it as a football

Most dangerous situation witnessed? On a two lane highway, a clapped out 30 plus year old bus, clearly driven by a dope head, overtaking a car overtaking a truck with a scooter approaching in the opposite direction. I think sometimes they live in an alternative universe and this isnt really unfolding in front of me. So I take a deep yoga breath and silently Om it away. Meanwhile somehow the impending disaster has been averted.

 

Roundabouts; well heres the thing. In most countries you either go round them clockwise or anti-clockwise. In these parts however if theres not too much traffic you just take the shortest route.

We had the misfortune of observing, from our hotel balcony, driving tests. They were being conducted on the local oval with the invigilator standing in the middle under an umbrella; not exactly confidence inspiring.

Most dangerous for us (so far)? Well I have no idea because I am either cowering in the back seat or averting my eyes in the front, admiring the normally immaculate and colourful saris worn by women sitting sidesaddle on the back of motorcycles. But the worst I noticed was approaching a blind right angled bend with solid walls on either side of what, in Oz, we would consider a busy road. Incidentally and relevant to this situation they dont do pavements in Kerala. We were behind, for once, a conservatively driven bus. So we had to overtake it didnt we? What was coming round the corner in the opposite direction was only an expendable motorcyclist. So that was okay then. (Someone please remind me never to ride a motorbike in India.)

We are now driving through a rural village at 50 km/hr with bikes and tuk tuks flying around everywhere, a truck up my arse hooting at us, a bus in front and our driver on the wrong side of the road preparing oncoming vehicles for our overtaking manoeuvre. Oops forget that, a tuk tuk just came out of a side road and… a car appeared from nowhere overtaking us and….

 

I think Ill just get back to my cowering with a purpose.

Parambikulam Tiger Reserve, Kerala, India: Just Monkeying Around

Part six of our six-part Kerala adventure.

With a stable population of 37 tigers, Kerala’s Parambikulam Tiger Reserve is doing well by its big cats. A relatively new reserve of 391 square kilometres, established in 2010, it encompasses three large man-made reservoirs and healthy teak, rosewood, neem and sandalwood forests. Its oldest known teak tree, at 465 years, has been listed as an Indian ‘Great Tree’.

The approach taken to tiger conservation here, which combines ecotourism with tribal community involvement, isn’t unique in India, but it is certainly heading in the right direçtion.

Rather than ring fence the reserve, demarcate a buffer zone between problematic animals (tigers, elephants, gaur and sloth bears), then allow farming and dwellings outside the buffer zone as many other tiger sanctuaries do, the original four indigenous tribes of 2,000 people live in the buffer zone and work to maintain the environment, roads, undertake fire prevention and run the tourism activities and accommodation. And whereas many other tiger reserves fall under the sole management of the Forestry Department, Parambikulam is managed by a group with representatives from all the relevant state departments plus two representatives from the tribes.

 

According to our guide, Jimmy, there haven’t been any attacks by tigers on humans here as they have plenty of prey with healthy numbers of gaur, sambar and cheetal. Sloth bears, gaur and elephants on the other hand pose a danger to tourists who leave their vehicles or wander far from their accommodation.Jimmy and Stuart

 

Under the compact tribal people are able to continue their traditional fishing and gathering to extract value from the land, but each family must have at least one member employed in some capacity. No outside workers are allowed onto the reserve except with special permission. We met indigenous guides, drivers, cooks, labourers, dancers and musicians.

On arriving at the reserve gates after a hair-raising five-hour drive from Cochin we had to first pass through the Tamil Nadu section of the reserve, called Anamalai. Foreigners must reserve accommodation and supply their passport details in advance. At the gate they are checked in by a Tamil Nadu official and pay vehicle and admission fees plus a camera fee (fees are less for Indian nationals). A few kilometres down the road the process is repeated when we pass into Kerala. Essentially if you want to go to Parambikulam you have to pay for Anamalai too as there is no other way in.

I am happy to pay to support the people and creatures of Anamalai and Parambikulam, but I would appreciate being able to drive on an actual road and not on a series of potholes and craters. Most of the single lane entry road needs resurfacing. This is under way but judging by what we saw it will take years to complete. With an average speed of 10k it took another hour to get to the accommodation office then fifteen minutes further to our treehouse. If I go back it will be by helicopter.

Our package comprised two nights accommodation in a basic but serviceable en suite treehouse built on three teak trees beside the lake.

We discovered later this treehouse was the premier accommodation. It pays to book well in advance (Suresh did this for us but you can book single nights online).

All meals were supplied by a lovely couple who cooked for us in a small building across the road. We also had the 24-hour services of a guide, 54-year-old Jimmy who has been guiding for 35 years. Actually Jimmy proved to be more of a minder who made sure we didn’t do the wrong thing or wander off in the dark.

On the first afternoon we took the afternoon bus safari with a load of other tourists on a set route. Besides an eagle-eyed driver we had a guide and four other strong fellows on board. They found us cheetal, elephants, gaur, sambar, giant squirrel, Nilgiri langurs, Bonnet macaques and wild boar. Most of these were some distance away and well camouflaged in the forest, but we all got to glimpse them. No tigers, leopards or jungle cats.

February is well into the dry season, a time when the big cats are deep in the forest. With so much water accessible and plentiful prey they have no need to come anywhere near tourists. Jimmy told us November-December is the best time to visit as the land is green and you can hear the tigers mating.

 

After passing several viewpoints we were dropped by the water’s edge for a bamboo rafting experience at sunset. This involved walking onto a flat raft of lashed bamboo with two bench seats built onto it and stations for four rowers, hence the four extra men. They rowed us around in a circle for forty minutes telling us about the crocodiles that inhabit the lake (translated by some kind, English-speaking Indians present) and the elephants that swim to the island, then dropped us back at the same spot where the guide gave us tea in tiny paper cups and a digestive biscuit.

We had another hour and a half of driving with the guide shining his spotlight into the verges, but no other animals were sighted.

 

The rest of the evening and night passed unremarkably, however I did have an odd experience with my face oil. We’d been instructed to put snack food items inside a wall compartment that had mesh on one side and a glass window on the other. We assumed that was to keep monkeys at bay. We hadn’t reckoned on ants.

 

I went to apply face oil after a shower and found large ants had gnawed away the rubber stopper from the pipette. Having destroyed the rubber they showed no interest in eating the oil so I thought it was safe to keep the glass bottle on the floor until I could decant it into another container. Next evening after returning from safari I found my bed sheet and the floor around the bottle covered in teeny tiny biting ants. It took me a good thirty minutes to get rid of them.

The morning activity was listed as a bird watching walk. At 6:30am we duly waited for Jimmy and at 6:45am he came down rubbing sleep from his eyes. He led us back up the road we’d driven in on. Masses of birds were calling, creating a symphony of birdsong. Most of them were high in the trees and too small to see without field glasses (which neither Jimmy nor we had). We soon became aware that this was a bird listening walk rather than a bird watching walk. We did spot racquet-tailed drongos, a kingfisher, jungle fowl, jungle warbler, mynah, and peacocks and heard a woodpecker and cuckoo. 

 

We walked a couple of K to the nearest village where Jimmy has his home and he led us past his neighbours’ houses. The huts are small and one I could see inside had a dirt floor with a mat in the centre. The villagers seemed unperturbed by us wandering through in the middle of their ablutions, but we were disturbed to hear the groans of a woman in pain coming from a hut with its door shut. Jimmy said she probably had a fever. It sounded worse than that. Three doctors staff a central healthcare centre and visit the seven villages on a weekly rotation.

Jimmy was proud of the new primary school which seemed well built if rather hot with its tiny, barred windows. School is 9am-4pm with a morning break and lunch break. All three of Jimmie’s children went away to high school and college. Now his daughters, his granddaughter and his wife live in Cochin while his son is on a sports scholarship in Trivandrum.

No other activities were scheduled for us until the same kind of safari in the afternoon so we just took it easy and at lunch time I watched the cooks making chapatis and poppadoms over a wood fire (the rest of the food is prepared on a gas cooker). How they don’t burn themselves is a mystery to me.

Stuart found the bumping and lurching of the bus too hard on his back so chose to miss the second safari trip. When I went to wait for the bus outside the treehouse I found we were penned in our room by a tribe of Bonnet Macaques. They’d been looking for ways to get inside and were playing with the verandah furniture and a plastic bottle they’d extracted from the bin. The young ones dispersed when Stuart waved a towel at them, but their large male leader just bared his teeth and wouldn’t budge.

There is no mobile phone signal in the reserve so I couldn’t call Jimmie for help and he wouldn’t hear us shouting. It was time to channel my inner lion tamer. I picked up a cane chair from the verandah and holding it in front of me forced the macaque to back away as I moved forward. He gave up ground reluctantly even with much shouting and baring of teeth by me. I finally got him down the stairs and managed to get past him to high tail it up to Jimmy’s hut where he was sleeping soundly. When Jimmy saw the male macaque, which had taken up a position on the verandah again, he realised I wasn’t fussing about nothing and fetched two long cane sticks. With the sticks in one hand to keep the monkey at a distance, he pelted it with small stones he picked up off the ground. It took him at least fifteen minutes to move the male and the rest of his tribe along. My bus was late so I was able to admire Jimmy’s skill.Back in sole occupancy of the treehouse.

 

The second safari was exactly the same route and routine as the first (and I saw all the same animals again plus a river fishing owl) but with the addition of a tribal music and women’s dance performance in the community hall. Of course I leapt at the opportunity to dance with them when invited. A four-year-old Indian girl wanted to be on stage with them and seemed mesmerised by their circle dancing, happily standing in the centre for several dances.

The bus was fuller the second time, mostly with a group of French tourists led by an experienced French guide who was on his tenth annual visit to Parambikulam. I had to ask him how many tigers he’d seen in that time. The answer was as I had come to expect. None. The only place I would see a Parambikulam tiger would be on a camera trap.

 

There didn’t seem any point waiting around for breakfast before departing next day and Selvan was happy to make an early start on the six-hour return journey to Cochin.

 

Nothing exciting presented itself until we were in Anamalai when suddenly a russet brown creature the size of a house cat with a bushy tail shot across the road. It was a vulnerable (population less than 1,000 and decreasing) Nilgiri Marten that was a split second from becoming our road kill.

PS The food stops en route to and from the reserve were highlights – we ate delicious dosa and idli at the same roadhouse for the equivalent of AUD3 total each meal. And have a look at the size of the dosa!

 

Cochin, Kerala, India: Mattancherry

Part five of our six-part Kerala adventure.

By guest author, Stuart Elliott.

Looking out from the balcony of our sixth floor bridal suite in the Taj Malabar Hotel (no idea how we scored that!) and viewed through my less than 20/20 vision eyes, Cochin or Kochi by its old name, could be mistaken for the lagoons of Venice. This view I should add is a far cry from our previous accommodation in an antinfested, mosquitoridden bambo and reed treehouse surrounded by marauding monkeys. But I digress….

Closer inspection of Mattancherry and Fort Kochi unveils an eclectic mix of old Portuguese, Dutch and British architecture mixed amongst some modern, mainly nondescript, modern buildings and older tatty structures. 

The streets are unusually clean on the main tourist thoroughfares, but veer off the beaten track and you are greeted with the more common Indian street decoration of discarded plastic and other detritus, along with herds of goats, albeit healthy looking ones. Tourists are entreated to enter the myriad of Aladdins dens. There are also plenty of government regulated shops selling all manner of exotic goods. On this occasion we restrained ourselves.

The non shopping tourist trail includes the Synagogue, with its Delft inspiring blue tiles and inadequate numbers of Jews to perform traditions without Hindu ringins, the Dutch Palace with interesting works from the 17th century onwards, a rather dull Portuguese cathedral which both the Dutch and British decided not to destroy in deference to possible divineretribution and the inimitable Chinese fishing nets. The latter are a lazy way of fishing; attach a large net to a Derrick, let it sink and every now and then winch it up. I am hoping the one small part of a fish which I ate did not emerge from these odiferous waters. Having said that, porpoises populate the harbour and fish abound in the back waters which feed into the harbour, which incidentally is home to Indias second largest port.

Women sorting drying ginger (above) and door to door seafood salesman (below).

What is not immediately obvious to the casual observer is thatCochin is a small part of what is shown as Kochi on most maps. The new town of Ernakulam is far larger and the commercial hub of the 30 million strong Kerala state. 

 

Kerala is home to a surprising number of sundry types of Christians, as well as Muslims and Hindus, who all seem to get along with great tolerance. We met any number of smiling, delightful well-educated people from many walks of life. Kochi has to be one of the top spots to live in India. Sadly our next visit, should we be so lucky, will not involve the bridal suite of the ultra luxe Taj Malabar.

Photos by Sharon Tickle, taken with the permission of the humans involved.

Kumarakom, Kerala, India: One of my Less Clever Choices

Part four of our six-part Kerala adventure.

This is going to be a shortish post. Parents admonish their children with, “If you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all”. Our Kumarakom experience fits that category. My fault. I chose the location and hotel based on glowing internet reviews and photos.

Until they clean up their act give Tharavadu Heritage Home in Kumarakom a wide berth. More importantly don’t visit the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary. I won’t give you chapter and verse of the shortcomings of both. Suffice to say we bailed after one night to go to Cochin early.

Lest you think us cutting and running had anything to do with the two-day Murugan Hindu festival at Sree Kumaramangalam Temple on the opposite canalside, it didn’t. Despite the loudspeaker volume being cranked up to defcon five and firecrackers like cannons going off night and day we would have stayed otherwise. Sleeping pills work a charm for both of us in situations like that.

And whilst I abhor the use of hobbled elephants on these occasions, I can see the beauty in the rituals and respect the genuine reverence of many of the worshippers.

If you do go to Kumarakom rent a small, quiet boat in the early morning or late afternoon to birdwatch on the lake and waterways. That way you might actually see the migratory birds the area is famous for.

Stuart’s report on Cochin up next!

PS Mr Suresh managed (without being asked) to get us a full refund on the night we did not stay at Tharavadu HH. Much appreciated.