Monday, 21 February 2011

A little trip on the backwaters

My dad handed me a copy of '1001 things to see before you die' this Christmas and I had a quick browse. There were quite a few Indian spots including a recommendation for cruising on the Keralan backwaters.

So when we were planning our trip we hoped to hire a twenty four hour houseboat during which we heard included a chef for the duration of your private cruise on the waters. Why not? When I looked into the cost of this before booking it was a hundred pounds for the day and this was almost a quarter of our budget for the month!! Although it was not ridiculous by western measures, it was incredibly expensive by Indian so we thought again. We decided to take the cheaper option and booked a group day trip which included a cruise around in a houseboat with a guide and then a canoe ride through the manmade canals.

Kerala backwaters

The group we were in included an annoyingly vocal and boastful Mexican guy, a quiet Argentinean couple, quite a few Americans, an English man and his Swiss wife and little girl and a few others. The Indian tour guide literally spoke in riddles. He would start a sentence and then start a new one before ending the one before. It was rather hard to follow! He pointed out a number of canoes on the water and told us the men hanging off the sides were all collecting fresh water mussels from the water bed. He said that we could later ask the fishermen's wives to cook us up a few steamed mussel snacks.

We docked the boat on a very green looking island and were led through the palm trees where we met a man carrying a cleaver strapped to his bottom. He climbed (or should I say ran) up a palm tree barefooted to demonstrate how he tapped the trunk with the massive knife at the top and collected the liquid to make 'toddy' (an alcoholic drink which is left to ferment for 3 days). It was really interesting the first time, but then the guide told us the same thing about the toddy tapping after every third palm tree so it kind of became a bit ridiculous how much I knew about the subject!

The guide also showed us lots of wild herbs and cashew trees and talked about any special uses they had. This was more interesting.
On the way to the smaller canoes, we were able to sample the steamed mussels as promised and they were delicious! Big chunk of ginger would usually scare me but in this banana leaf with tomato, garlic, fresh herbs and of course the mussels, it was absolutely amazing.

Tom and I shared one food parcel as we were back on the houseboat heading to lunch- a Keralan thali. This was much like the northern thali in that it involved little samples of a number of curried vegetables and soups. The entire thing was vegetarian and very rustic. There were dried carrot shavings, pumpkin and marrow vegetable curry, sweet potato soup, fresh home made chapatis, rice, yoghurt and a spicy sauce or two. It was the best thali we had the whole month and we ate it on the boat. :)

We made our way to the canoes where we sailed down the quiet and beautiful narrow canals, spotting cocoa plants, kingfishers and water snakes eating fish heads! The only thing spoiling this was the Mexican guy chatting very loudly as we passed him on another boat when we came to turn around and head back. He was explaining something to his (completely oblivious) new best friend. Luckily our boat driver pushed on quickly and got us back to tranquil waters. We drank chai at a little house on the canal bank and headed back to the car after a very satisfying afternoon!

Gorgeous experience. Would you believe we saw that Mexican man a week later some 500 miles away. I hid. ;)

Tea potty

I was a little disappointed when we found out there was a beautiful tea plantation not far from where we were staying in India's Fort Cochi, as we knew didn't have enough time to visit. It would have taken us three days round trip which involved two day time trains of several hours. We only had 5 days to spend in the area and we had travelled pretty intensely in North India so wanted a bit of a break. The tea farm further east in Munnar, sounded like a wonderful place. Green lush fields and warm temperatures. I could imagine spending the day leisurely picking tea leaves and tasting a variety of fresh infusions before hiking the rolling hills...
I would definitely head up there if we were to visit again, but this time it was not to be and I was both relieved and disappointed that we did not make the journey. However, we did find Kerala's Fort Cochi, a haven for tea and cake lovers. There were cute little cafes and galleries in amongst gift shops and book exchanges throughout the town. The British, Portuguese and Dutch buildings lining the streets and coastline, made for a colonial setting and you could almost smell the tea leaves as you walked through the Jew Town area on the east of the island.

We were out walking when I saw this poster. Although it was very random and I am unsure what the poster actually intended, it instilled a feeling of urgent tea requirement...

We found a gorgeous little tea shop called 'TPOT'. The rundown barn had rustic washed walls which were overhung by a very rickety upstairs area. The staff were incredibly leisurely with their service and the sunlight streaming through two tiny skylights helped you relax into your surroundings. There were teapots of every imaginable design and a list of cakes to match!

I settled for a banana bread slice which materialized as a slab and Tom ordered the death by chocolate which was a major plate of cocoa. I had a Jasmine pot and Tom an ordinary black tea.

I really appreciated not only the tea and cake, but the quirky décor, especially the old merchant tea transport boxes which had been recycled as tables. We ended up coming back here for breakfast two days in a row. Clearly it was adorable and if you are ever in Kerala, this place is a must!!!

Friday, 4 February 2011

They know how to eat in Goa

Well, we arrived in Goa on Tuesday night and have not looked back since. The sun, sea, sand and surf were like paradise compared with the noisy bustle and constant hassle in north India. We had seen some eye opening sights in the north. For example, I saw a fair few street cows eating cardboard  and was beginning to wonder whether there was some nutritional value in this. I was secretly a little weary of India at this point and the 24 hour train journey from Kerala was almost unbearable. I was reading an extremely good book though (The Help) which passed the time. We checked into a place called Namaste (Hello) on Patnem beach which we read was the nicest in the area and it is. There was a group of old English geezers playing on a bunch of guitars, it was open-mic night.

Anyway, as I was having a bit of a grump, I was not expecting much when we ordered Mexican at our beach hut restaurant. Turns out I was very wrong. Not only has the food in Goa been cheaper and quicker than anywhere else in India, it has also been the freshest and widest in variety including superb curries and western food better than some places at home. Of course, it also has the best scenery and most nights we ate looking at the setting sun.

This was a big contrast even to both the north and Kerala. Although the food in the north was very quick and tasty, eating out seemed to be more of a chore and the restaurant turn over was very quick meaning you could not relax and enjoy your surroundings. In Kerala we had to wait most evenings for about an hour for our food. Sometimes we waited for a menu for up to 15 mins. We soon discovered this was the laid back attitude of the state and although it was frustrating we got over it.

One really funny thing about eating on the beaches in Goa, is that they are filled with very tame, but hungry and territorial dogs. They go around in packs and wait patiently for someone to slip them a snack. If another dog gets too close they go completely mental and start running up the beach chasing each other, but wagging their tails behind them. It is mainly just a carry on for no reason.

In Goa, each meal has gotten better and better. Here is a snap shot...

We found a place called Home which is run by an English couple. The breakfast here is to die for. Porridge so rich it tastes like ricepudding. Mixed in is banana and black grapes which dye it purple. Muesli with curd and fruit salad. The best discovery of all was warm home made cinnamon and raisin bread with jam. We had to go back the next day for more.

Plus look at the view.

One other breakfast time was astonishingly made a highlight of our time there, when we saw a lone dolphin swimming in the very shallow water right in front of us. We laughed that it would not have been such a good sight if you were in the water. I think I would have had a heart attack. Tom already came out the morning before because he was paranoid there was a shark. I said it was comeuppance for eating a shark steak the night before.

We also enjoyed a couple of nice curries, the best fish tikka masala I have ever had. I have not been partial to fish curry with the veg curry and butter naan... :)

No doubt a diet will be in order on my return. I must share one more tasty tale with you. Sleeping in a wooden hut with walls that have a 3 inch gap from the roof can make you a little jumpy during the night. Well this one night, there was this weird flapping sound in the bathroom (which has no door it is pretty basic) and Tom woke me up saying he didn't know what this noise was. He started rustling around with the light but he wouldn't get out from under the mosquito net. Tom doesn't like moths and flappy birds and I think he thought that is what it was. Well he made such a fuss I ended up wrestling my way out the net to turn on the light. I did not expect to see a small lizard whacking a half eaten and still moving cockroach against the plastic lining on the bathroom walls!! Lizards don't bother us much and it was clearly taking control of the other so we just went to sleep.

The end.