Ok, this could be a long one and I have to go and ride an elephant in an hour so I will tell you as much as possible of what I have been doing...
I am in the south western state of Kerala at the moment, which translates to "land of coconuts" It is a communist state, in fact was the first communist elected government in the world in 1957. It is relatively affluent and well educated compared with a lot of the other Indian states but prices are still cheap for westerners: dinner, drinks and tip in an air conditioned restaurant was 1.40GBP the other night.
After I emailed I went and met my group - they are all very nice. The girl I am sharing a room with is called Marine, she is French. She studied law in Sheffield and has just qualified with ... Pinsent Masons! What a funny coincidence. We get on very well which is excellent. There is also a middle aged Australian draftsman who drew the plans for Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield! A small world indeed.
On our first day out we went and visited Fort Cochin, which is misleading really as the fort was destryoed by the British many years ago. It is a very multicultural region, with a synagogue, and Dutch palace (built by the Portuguese and renamed after the Dutch invasion) and a 16th century Portuguese church there. Amusingly it has been modified with a corrugated iron roof - perhaps the British churches should consider this when strapped for cash.
In the evening we went to see a traditional Keralan dance. The dancers train for four hours per day and use their faces and bodies to convey ideas. We watched them putting on their make up - I have lots of pictures but I have to upload them another day as internet is far too slow here. The dance was amazing and quite hypnotic, it was a Hindu story of the triumph of good over evil. There are a lot of Hindus in Kerala but also a lot of Christians, which surprised me.
On the following day we were to travel to the Keralan backwaters. We spent 3 hours on a bus. I sat with 2 of the girls in the women's seats at the back. Every time we went over a pothole we were catapulted inches off our seats, and believe me there were a lot of potholes! We then transferred to a boat to travel down the backwaters. The Whole area used to be submerged bu the land has been reclaimed by hand, by piling mud up and building houses on it - some of the area is up to 6metres below sea level! It is now illegal to reclaim land but the locals are still doing it. There are a lot of houseboats on the backwaters but this is purely for the tourists and has sprung up in the last ten years. We don't use them as they are bad for the environmen - they pollute the water. We were staying in an Indian family's home for this part of the trip. His name was Matthew and he had a wife and 3 children. They were all charming. While we were there we ate a lot of Keralan home cooking which was delicious. The Indians have a custom of watching you eat (because they want to be able to make sure you are enjoying it) which is quite unnerving at first.
In the evening we went for a walk and learned about the area. It is fresh water in the backwaters and used to irrigate the paddy fields (we ate rice that was grown in Matthew's fields with our meals). However, once a year after the rice harvest, a damn in a lake connected to the sea is lowered and the backwaters are flooded with salt water. This kills off all the weeds that have grown in the fields and the waterways. Local workers live together in groups and help each other out. One of the jobs is toddy tapper. Toddy is the local alcoholic drinks made from the sap of shoots on coconut trees. they climb the tree and harvest the sap each day. After 2 days it is about 2% alcohol, after about 4 it is 10-12% and then becomes vinegar, so needs to be harvested regularly.
The walk was beautiful and I am absolutely certain that the Keralan backwaters is the most beautiful place I have ever seen and the most peaceful, and that evening was one of the best of my life. We walked through rice paddy fields at sunset and watched women harvesting the rice in bright sarees. They were all really friendly and asking to have their pictures taken - they were so delighted to see the pictures of themselves and I have some beautiful ones. We then climabed into dugout canoes and glided through the waters as it got dark. It was fantastic to smell the sweet hot air and see the families on the banks washing clothes and pans in the river, and sitting around chatting. It must be the most peaceful place on earth. After we arrived back at the homestay the children showed us a load of card tricks which were outstanding (I have learnt one of them). Their cards are from a school in Wakefield and their English is exceptional - having guests to stay is clearly mutually beneficial. I was so sad to leave this place in the morning. One of the things i liked most about it was the fact that it is still relatively untouched by the tourist industry - we saw very few other travellers. This means that we got to see it in its unspoilt state, which I'm sure won't eb the case in ten years' time.
Yesterday we climbed onto a boat for a three hour ride, and then transferred to private cars for a four hour journey up into the mountains. The scenery is unbelievably different here. We drove through cofee and tea planations, with women picking the leaves and putting them in baskets on their backs. This is the kind of thing you only see on BBC programmes and it was incredible. We stopped at Mr Abraham's Spice Gardens which was recently on the BBC's Around the World in 80 Gardens. He showed us around and taught us about the spices, we got to try some of them growing on the tree. I have lived to regret the green chilli! We also saw plants like cocoa plants and banana trees. I never knew that banana trees flower only once, produce a bunch of fruit and then die. After that we ate a home cooked meal containing all the spices we had seen, eaten with our hands off banana leaves. We travelled on to Thekkady and arrived at our hotel.
This morning it was a very early start for us - 6am for a walk in the Periya National Park. There is sometimes the chance to see tigers and elephants, although this is very rare. We didn't see them but saw monekys in the trees, wild boar and a bison. The walk was stunning and was beautiful even without the animals. After a late breakfast Marine and i then went for a traditional Ayurvedik massage which is specific to this are. The young girl spoke very little English but was lovely. She must be the only woman to see me naked since my mum when I was a little girl (slightly disconcerting). She massaged my whole boday including my face and head and feet (it took all my willpower not to kick her in the face). I was covered in oil, i felt like a basted turkey! She then put me in a medicated steam bath until I almost passed out and dried me all over. It was 90 minutes and cost me a tenner. It was fantastic, I feel amazing and my skin is glowing. I would really recommend it. In a few minutes i am going to have a ride on an elephant, then dinner with the group - what a packed day.
Fashion here amuses me greatly. The women make a great deal of effort and some of the sarees are stunning. I may buy a new suitcase just to transport a load of saree silk home to decorate my new bedroom. It is criminally cheap. For the men, a loincloth round the waist is a viable and attractive alternative to a pair of trousers. A highly patterned loincloth teamed with a totally clashing patterned shirt tends to be the norm.
I have also had more time to marvel at Indian driving. You are supposed to drive on the left hand side of the road but this appears to be optional and it is fine to overtake on blind bends of mountain roads or even when you can actually see an oncoming car. The task of all drivers is to then sandwich together to avoid anyone falling off the unguarded cliff. Miraculously I have seen no accidents and very few dented cars. It really is a kind of organised chaos. I recently learnt that you don't need to have ever driven a car to obtain an Indian driving licence, which I think explains a great deal. This is surely the only country in the world where a police billboard for safe driving also displays an advert for Kingfisher beer.
Anyway, so ends my blog for today. I shall keep you updated, hopefully with photos, very soon