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Elephants, Waterfalls and Seafood – at last!

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Our guest house owners were extremely helpful in offering places that we should visit whilst in Kochi. As we didn’t have long here, the best way to see the most things was with organised tours. We’d never really went for these kind of trips before as our budget didn’t stretch that far, but with the end of our adventure in sight, we loosened the purse strings a bit – much to Dunc’s horror!

Our final day trip was a 3-stop tour in a private hire car, complete with driver. We were picked up from our homestay around 7am and whisked off to watch elephants from the nearby Kodanad Training Camp taking their morning bath in the river. What an experience! I’d never seen so many elephants this close before, and the way they just sat patiently while their trainers scrubbed their skin clean with coconut shells was really quite amazing!

Elephants from the training camp taking a bath

Elephants from the training camp taking a bath

After the elephant bathing, we went on to a Hindu temple that looked like a tower from a fairy tale! From top to bottom, it depicted the story of many of the Hindu gods with elaborate paintings and sculptures.

The next stop was a  rubber plantation, and then a trek to Athirappilly Waterfalls – not an easy task in flip flops! From the bottom, we got drenched with the spray from the waterfall, but from the top we could enjoy the view (and catch our breath from the trek!).

Rubber plantation

Rubber plantation

Athirappilly waterfalls

Athirappilly waterfalls

It was really great to have our own driver for a trip like this. Although his English wasn’t great, he pointed out where his family lived and even took us to a favourite restaurant where we enjoyed a super-spicy thali, and then on to a tea shop for a cuppa before heading home.

For me, a huge appeal of Kerala was the seafood! Until this point in the trip, I had never dared eat seafood since we were always so far away from the coast. But here, we were on an island lined with hand-made fishmonger stalls selling the catch of the day! Each stall was tied into a restaurant in town, so you’d pick out your red snapper, or hammerhead, or lobster, or tiger prawns… then take them to the restaurant to have it cooked to your liking. Yum!

Fresh fish! We catch them, you buy them!

Fresh fish! We catch them, you buy them!

Whilst wandering around Fort Kochi, we stumbled upon an arts and crafts shop with an animal charity stall set up outside. Tempted by the puppies and kittens, we went over to see what it was all about. The owner of the charity, Mad Dogs Trust, is a vet from England who had moved to Fort Kochi in 2007. Her team of vets re-home stray dogs where possible, but more realistically, introduce birth control methods reduce the street animal population. We offered to help on the merchandise stall for an hour or so before catching our bus to Goa, and got chatting to lots of other volunteers and tourists who were keen to help or offer donations.

Mad Dogs Trust Fundraising

Mad Dogs Trust Fundraising

Kerala Backwaters Tour

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Anybody who has been to Kerala – or is planning their trip – will want to go on a Backwaters Tour, and we were no different. We chose the ‘7 Hour House Boat & Country Boat’ trip organised by Destination Holiday, but there are options to go on an overnight house boat to take in more of the stunning scenery and the network of waterways that snake through it. The state of Kerala is extremely luscious and green – quite different from the other states we’d visited.

House Boat on the Kerala Backwaters Tour

House Boat on the Kerala Backwaters Tour

In the morning of our trip, we were 2 of around 15 passengers who took the bus out of Fort Kochi and over to the Backwaters. After we climbed aboard the house boat, we visited a limestone factory to witness the traditional methods of grinding shells down to make limestone. We then set off to see a family who make twine from coconut fibers by using a machine to twists the hairs together – Duncan even had a go, much to the amusement of the locals!

Grinding shells into limestone for whitewash

Grinding shells into limestone for whitewash

Twisting coconut hairs into twine

Twisting coconut hairs into twine

At lunchtime, we were treated to a typical Keralan lunch, served up in banana leaf and with a bottle of Kingfisher beer. Eating with our hands was second nature to us at this point, but Mike who we made friends with, was a bit uncomfortable with this. And who can blame him, he’d only left Australia a week before!

Keralan lunch

Keralan lunch

In the afternoon, we took a lazy canoe down to a peppercorn plantation, which luckily was in the shade of the over-hanging leaf canopy – I was panicing that I wouldn’t have enought SPF50 to last the trip! The boat trip was extremely relxing and a welcome change after the noise and pollution of the city life in Pune and Mysore.

Lazy canoe down the Kerala Backwaters

Lazy canoe down the Kerala Backwaters

First Impressions of Kochi

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Leaving Mysore was a bit of a challenge! We first had to get the bus from Mysore to Hundsur, then figure out the bus station ‘system’, then get an overnight bus to Kochi (or Cochin) – which would actually get us in at 4am! – and then wait on a ferry to take us over to the island of Fort Kochi. As with many things in India, even the worst scenarios actually work themselves out for the best! On this occassion, arriving at 4am worked to our advantage as we were invited onto a movie set of an all-action flick, were given a nice cup of chai, and then wandered down to the jetty just in time to catch the first boat 🙂

The film set we stumbled upon at 6am!

The film set we stumbled upon at 6am!

After being bombarded by keen Guest House owners as we stumbled around the island at 7am, we picked a lovely family-run place in a quieter area of town. The Honolulu Home Stay was fresh, clean, cool, and we even had our own balcony – perfect! Shattered after the long bus ride but keen to make the most of our 4 days in Kochi, we showered and napped then went in search of breakfast!

Before long, we caught the attention of a rickshaw driver who would give us a “good price” for an island tour of the lesser known sights, and of course, visits to the customary arts and crafts shops so he could get share of the commission. We didn’t actually mind this time as the driver was so friendly – it had actually become a bit of a novelty to feign interest in yet another tapestry we had zero interest in buying! Our driver stuck to his word and did take us to lots of places we’d never have found otherwise – like a traditional outdoor laundry that still services lots of the local hotels, and an indoor spice market.

Traditional laundry in Fort Kochi

Traditional laundry in Fort Kochi

A selection of wares at the spice market

A selection of wares at the spice market

The climate in Kerala seemed a lot milder in the evenings, but that was possibly down to the fresh sea air blowing over the island. In the evenings, we’d often take a walk up to the north-most point to admire Fort Kochi’s infamous Chinese fishing nets, or just to enjoy an ice cream as we watched the sunset. There are quite a lot of tourists here so the locals are accustomed to seeing us white folk, which meant that for a change, we got the chance to just sit and relax.

Chinese fishing nets in the north of Fort Kochi

Chinese fishing nets in the north of Fort Kochi

Visiting Dzongkar Choede Monastery

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If you’ve been keeping up with our tales, you’ll know that we had already been to Karanataka during Diwali to stay in Hampi for a week. This time, we travelled 420km further South from Hampi to Mysore.

Map of Karnataka

Map of Karnataka

When Dunc was in India in 2005, as well as volunteering at Deep Griha’s City of Child project, he spent some time living in a Tibetan Refugee Settlement, teaching English to young Buddhist monks. The trip out to the school was do-able in a day from where we were staying in Mysore, so we caught the bus from the station in Mysore out to Hundsur, and then jumped in a rickshaw out to the Dzongkar Choede Monastery.

We couldn’t have been greeted any more warmly by the monks who had previously been Dunc’s hosts. After a mammoth Tibetan lunch, we were given a tour of the settlement and not least of all, their monastery. What a building! As well as providing the residents of Dzongkar Choede with a peaceful place to pray, members of the surrounding Tibetan settlement, and from other Buddhist communities are  also welcome to come and pray.

Dzongkar Chode Monastery

Dzongkar Chode Monastery

The school classrooms, cottages for the boys to live, and an insence ‘factory’ are also in the grounds.

The young  monks studying hard!

The young monks studying hard!

With some of the monks Dunc worked with in 2005

With some of the monks Dunc worked with in 2005

Making incense sticks

Making incense sticks

For me, it was quite surreal to suddenly be somewhere that seemed a million miles from India, but actually still right in the middle of the country. We were soon brought back to Indian reality when we caught a shared jeep back to Hundsur bus station – Dunc was hanging off the back of the jeep with about 10 kids, and I was squished in the back with a crowd of giggling school girls! Although Mysore is quite a busy tourist city, Hundsur is a very small and rural village, so white people (and a ginger, no less!) were quite a novelty! We didn’t mind though, I’d now learnt that the best way to deal with India was to embrace it, and all it’s oddities!

On returning to Mysore, we planned a trip to nearby tiger reserve, Nagarhole National Park. Unfortunately there’s not much to tell from this trip as the tigers were nowhere to be seen 😦 I’ve just recently found out that there is a fantastic Tiger Temple in Thailand so I guess I’ll just have to go there next!

Elephants at Nagarhole

Elephants at Nagarhole, but no Tigers

Learning to Survive India

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After saying goodbye to our volunteer pals in Pune, we were back on the road. Next stop: Mysore.

Our 4-month trip was split into 3 distinct parts (travel, volunteer, travel), and now that we were on the home straight, I definitely felt much more comfortable. I’m not sure if it’s because everything was so new to me in the beginning; or if the hustle and bustle of Pune city life was too much; or because I suddenly found myself living and working with a whole crowd of volunteers I’d never met before (or maybe all of the above?), but now that we were back on the road I almost instinctively found the flow of India and was able to relax.

We stayed in a large family-run hotel, Hotel Dasaprakash, but always ate out in a different cafe or restaurant to get another view of the city. Our favourite was this little place over-looking Ghandi Square where we had our first poppadoms (locally called ‘papads’) since arriving in India! I think this was the rooftop restaurant of RRR Hotel:

Restaurant overlooking Ghandi Square

Restaurant overlooking Ghandi Square. Dunc still sporting his 'tache from Movember!

Ganhdi looks over his Square

Ganhdi looks over his Square

Mysore itself is a really great city, with a good mix of tourist spots, traditional culture, and modern amenities. The market place within the walls of the city centre is a hidden treasure. It’s perfectly visible on a map, but takes a bit of detective and orienteering skills to find the hole-in-the-wall that lets you in. The market is a packed full of vegetable stalls, bags and bags of spices, perfume shops, jewellers and antiques stores. The craft store pictured below is a family-run business that’s been standing for over 100 years, so of course we had to pick up a few gifts from the kind owner who told us all about it’s history.

The nearby Mysore Palace is well worth a visit, if only for the free audio tour for foreign visitors! Tourists never get freebies in India! 🙂 The Palace is huge, with beautifully restored paintings and furniture inside and iron tiger statues outside. We also discovered that one of the architects was actually from Glasgow!

Mysore Palace

Mysore Palace

Perfume store in the market

Perfume store in the market

Craft shop in the market

Craft shop in the market

Goodbye Pune!

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Leaving the World AIDS Day march

Leaving the World AIDS Day march

After the World AIDS Day march, we had one last get together with the Wake Up Pune volunteers in Cafe Coffee Day before tying up loose ends and preparing to leave Pune. We stopped by The Family Welfare Centre on Tadiwala Raod to say goodbye to the staff who had welcomed us so kindly, and to pick up my sari – I couldn’t resist the beautiful colours!

Back at the CC, the task of packing up 3 months of stuff loomed ahead! For Dunc, packing was dead easy and could be done at a moments notice. For me… well, it wasn’t so easy! When we were packing up every 3 days or so, or living out of our rucksacks, I liked to start organising myself  a couple of days before we due to leave. So on this occassion, packing became a week-long event! My rucksack was at bursting point and I even had to invest in another smaller rucksack for gifts (and maybe shoes…). Luckily, we were meeting some of the other volunteers in a couple of weeks time in Goa, so thankfully Gaia kept a hold of my extra bag until then. What a star!

Saying goodbye to the other volunteers before heading to the bus station carried mixed emotions. For some, it really would be the end of our time together – well, until we next meet up in Pune! – but for others, like Eva and Gaia, we would be seeing them again on the beach in Goa. From the remaining volunteers at Deep Griha, we were one of the first to arrive so our deparature made others think, “that’ll be us soon”. I hope they made the most of the time they had left!

Dunc and I were both really sad to leave Deep Griha, but equally were looking forward to the next installment of our adventure. We had an absolutely fantastic time volunteering in Pune and fully intend to return to catch-up with the kids at DIYA in Ramtekadi, the local volunteers who we became good friends with, and of course the staff who made the transition into Indian living so much more comforting. Without the support of these wonderful people (including Dunc!), our volunteer pals, and the sanctuary of Cafe Coffee Day shops all over Pune, my experience of India would have undoubtedly been very different. So a big thank you to all! xxx

World AIDS Day 2010

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Chanting "People of Pune, wake up"

Chanting "People of Pune, wake up"

The lead up to World AIDS Day was very busy for all volunteers and staff alike. Many of the volunteers worked together to create a short street play that would be performed throughout the city of Pune in the weeks before 1st December. Their preparation and rehearsals really paid off, with many local Wake Up Pune! volunteers joining the campaign to spread awareness about HIV and AIDS throughout Pune.

DISHA ladies performing in a rural community

DISHA ladies performing in a rural community

The DISHA ladies would often work alongside the volunteers by setting up a ‘Stigma Tunnel’ that would walk people through a range of scenes and emotions to try to simulate how people diagnosed with HIV are stigmatised by society. Participants would start in a doctors surgery, receiving their diagnosis, and would work their way through into their home where the stigma surrounding the virus can become unbearable.

On World AIDS Day itself, 1st December, Dunc, Kassie and I joined the rest of the volunteers Shaniwarwada Fort to march from this landmark site, through the city and ended up at a school and medical college. The procession included the DISHA team from Deep Griha, DGS and Wake Up Pune! volunteers, clients from the DISHA programme, local nurses who provided medical support in the World AIDS Day campaigns, as well as many other local charities throughout Pune who also work to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS, provide rehabilitative care and social events for those diagnosed as HIV positive. Ella, one of the Development in Action volunteers wrote a brilliant article on the day’s events for the Deep Griha website.

Marching through Pune

Marching through Pune