Category: Outside of cities


Welcome to Sega

So while we were at Sega I was scribbling away in my notebook making comments and illustrations, so I thought they would make a decent blog entry in themselves… In case you haven’t already realised, if you click on each image it should open in a bigger size for your pleasure. Maybe when we get home I will crop them in some cunning piece of software, but for now you’ve got the notebook, ringbinding and all.

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Ljuvelj Ljubljana

My mum says that we sound grumpy and ready to come home, and while she is right about the second part, we have been having a rather lovely and relaxed time for the past two weeks. Some might even call it a holiday… I have been working on an alternative format for the blogs about our time at Sega – its a house and garden, not a game console – so as soon as we have the opportunity we will upload these.

But first, Ljubljana. Josh had been here before, and given that it rained for the entire time, he had not had such a great experience. However, our joint perspective on the place when we visited a week ago was very different. It is now one of Josh’s favourite towns from the trip. When the sun is shining, you can truly appreciate its beauty. So much of the centre is accompanied by river, so there are a lot of chilled out spaces. Quaint yet also active, there is a studenty buzz about the place.

The fort is a strange mixture, unlike any other town ’castle’ we’ve visited. While it was renovated in a kind of dodgy nineties cafe-style and so the actual fort itself is odd, it is used as a space to exhibit local artists. This means that it hasn’t been turned into a tourist attraction for the sake of old forts, but a living space filled with creative opportunity. The comments book in one of the exhibits was rammed with angry statements from shocked tourists who couldn’t understand why there were quite graphic pictures – painted by two people simultaneously, dancing around one another – with skulls and innards etc, inside the Ljubljana Castle. ’It tells me nothing about the city or its history’, complained one. But that’s what makes it different, as the fort is also used as a place to demonstrate the present. And we thought the paintings were kind of cool.

One thing it is not worth visiting if you’re headed to the city is the ’Labyrinth of Art’ – ignore the enthusiastic write-ups in various guide books and the In Your Pocket, as maybe in 20 years’ time it will be worth it. Not now. The plan is to have a maze of trees, with benches throughout so that people can make their way to the centre where there is a reading space, thus celebrating nature, reading, and ’walking as art’. Perhaps such a pretentious aim as the last should have put us off, but I was curious so we ditched the stupid Ljubljana public transport system (you have to buy a 2 euro travel card to then pay for an 80 cent trip, it was rather ridiculous, why not allow people to buy a ticket on the bus?) in favour of walking there. This was a mistake. We had not realised that the trees are newly planted and therefore tiny! You can walk straight between the saplings to the centre. Not very exciting. So, not recommended. Maybe in 2030 it will be a different story.

Our CouchSurfing hosts showed us some much more interesting parts of the city and its surroundings, though. Metelkova is an old army barracks that was squatted after the war – it houses gig spots, bars and a hostel in a converted prison, so during the day it is a hangout for the ’alternative’ types of Ljubljana, and in the evening it continues in this role, gaining live music, club nights and more drinking.

One afternoon one of our CouchHosts and us bundled into the car and drove to Velika Planina, a plateau near to the city, where we walked amongst wooden huts housing cowherds and appreciated the fantastic views over Slovenia. We also sampled borovnica, a sort of Slovenian blueberry schnapps – sweet and tasty.

We were only there for three nights, so there isn’t much more to add – we will update you on our further adventures into WWOOFing in Slovenia when we next get a chance.

Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik! “A place that will be at the front your memory for weeks to come”. Dubrovnik! “The pearl of the Adriatic’. One of the most prominent tourist destinations on the Adriatic, one of the many astonishing places on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites… Having read so much about how its dazzling streets would remain in our memories for days to come, we had very high expectations when we eventually arrived. “Eventually” as in it turns out that outside of Turkey, the shortest hitches have become the hardest.

Dubrovnik is lovely, but we have to say, not really up to all the hype. The main problem with the town, in fact, is all the hype. Foreigners (of the moneyed type) are increasingly buying up the Old Town, and while some locals do still live there, the area is clearly tourist orientated. Rather, “tourist-oriented” is an understatement. Everything in the Old Town is focused around tourists – the sights, the restaurants, the pizza slices, everything has a tourist-oriented price tag, and there are hundreds of tourists there ready to buy. So while the place, with its marble streets and tiny back alleys certainly has a charm, you have to muster the ability to see past a lot of stuff to really appreciate it.

We only had one full day there, which is probably enough, and spent the first half on a pebble beach to avoid the height of the daily guided-tourist influx. Similarly to Montenegro, cruise liners seem to think it’s their right to take up the bay and so instead of having a view of the islands, we had a view of eurgh. When you swam, you could even hear the noise of the monstrosity. On the plus side, it was some of the clearest water that Lucie has ever swum in, and she was thrilled when the fish came to dart around in the water next to her.

Split

On the other hand Split, the second largest city in Croatia, exceeded all of our expectations. It is a very lived-in city unlike Dubrovnik which is much more of a holidayed-in city, with an almost perfect old town and vibrant marketplace. One afternoon we took a free walking tour around the Diocletian Palace. The enormous palace is the retirement pad for “one the most legendry Roman emperors” (that’s what the guide claims), Diocletian, who has a rags to riches story. Never destined for more than farming, he managed to claw his way through the ranks to General, and one day was appointed emperor. That’s the story anyway. The longer version has boars and prophecies and hand-to-hand combat, as you would expect from this sort of life story… He was also the first emperor to retire from emper-ing.

One of the answers for why a retired emperor needed such a fortified palace (the complex has a huge wall surrounding it on all sides), is that he was harbouring one of the first textile factories in Europe. As the palace was situated a little south of Salona, which was one of the Roman’s largest and most fortified cities, Split was very well protected, which is one reason why so much of it still stands. Another reason for this is that Diocletian was scared of earthquakes and so ordered that the walls be built in a way which allowed the rocks to move slightly in the case of tremors. This left the palace much better off than the Old Town in Dubrovnik, which was almost entirely wiped out by the 1667 earthquake, one of the worst to date since records began.

In fact, Split remained pretty well protected throughout its earlyish history. Following the decline of the Romans, the Avars and Slavs (or “barbarians”, as our guide called them) attempted to lay claim to it having conquered Salona. However, because of the handy sea by which supplies could enter the town, the attackers were unable to starve the residents into submission as they had elsewhere. So they made Split an offer it couldn’t refuse. Officially, it would be part of their empire, but they would have autonomy. So Split was protected both by the declining Romans and by this new power, yet they had autonomy from both.

It turns out that Diocletian also had a thing against Christians, primarily as he saw himself as a god and they didn’t. He therefore murdered thousands of them – more than any other emperor. After his death, the Christians came to power in the area and got their revenge the only way they could – by turning Diocletian’s mausoleum into a church. Burn. They also destroyed as many artifacts documenting his existence as they possibily could to attempt to erase him from history.

Our guide seemed more interested in the Romans than really any other period, so every other period was much briefer, and the 20th Century was basically covered in a couple of sentences – “and then Yugoslavia…”.

The rest of our time in Split was very similar to that of Kotor and Dubrovnik. Sun, sea, walking and eating great lunches sourced from the local market. We also went to Trogir where we did exactly the same…

Zagreb

Maybe it’s just the fact that we are, by now, kind of tired of sight-seeing and trying to find the interesting parts of otherwise uneventful or uninspiring places, but Zagreb is probably the most boring capital we’ve been to on this trip (other than Pristina which we are trying to forget about). It has lots of galleries, but you have to pay for all of them; plus our CouchHost’s partner was a curator and thus clued-up on this sort of thing, and she had no suggestions to make for us while we were there. Our plan to walk up the mini mountain near the city was thwarted by the weather, so we ended up going to see Pirates of the Carribean 4 in 3D(!), which was truly terrible, following this with a mediocre gypsy swing gig and drinking mediocre croatian beer. Croatia isn’t famous for its beer. Now we know why.

It’s as if, as we left Kosovo behind, we cut loose the black cloud that had been metaphorically and literally following us. So we had gone from Bosnia to Serbia to Kosovo in four days, and on the fifth we headed to Albania. Being in Albania was probably the closest thing to being back in India since we left, in terms of how we were treated as travellers there. When we stopped to ask whether the road we were on was the right one towards our destination, we were suddenly surrounded by an entire circle of curious men and boys – people were attempting to be helpful of course, but in a way where it’s really not providing much help… Hitch-hiking doesn’t seem to be understood, either, and so everyone who stopped for us would ask for some money – one man suggested 100 dollars to go about 100km. We said we would catch the bus! The roads were the next and completely contradictory bizzarerie – absolutely pristine. After the shoddy state of Kosovo’s roads, which were in desperate need of some additional tarmac, these were even more surprising. Holes have been blown in mountains and perfect asphalt has been laid, yet there are almost no cars to traverse it…

We headed to Lake Skodra, half of which belongs to Montenegro – we aren’t sure if there is a borderline down the middle…We spent some time enjoying the lack of stress while gazing out over the city and lake from one of Albania’s many famous castles.

The following morning, we headed off to Montenegro – our 5th country in 6 days. Hitching provided some of the most scenic spots we’ve held a cardboard sign at so far.

Unfortunately we lost patience with hitching after 3 lifts in lots of hours not really taking us very far at all, and we caught a bus for the final leg of the way to Kotor.

Kotor has a magnificent Old Town right next to a beautiful Bay. The crap side of this is that abominably enormous cruise liners land their humungous selves in the Bay in the mid-morning, spewing hundreds of organised tourists into Kotor’s tiny alleyways, as well as trashing the view in the Bay. If you can bring yourself to ignore the latter, you can take yourself off to a ‘concrete swimming platform’ for a few hours. This sounds grim, but is in actual fact quite pleasurable, and the only way to lie next to the bay and swim.

During the day the fortifications cost however much, but once night falls they are free to climb, so after dark we went up the 1350 stairs, shielding our eyes from the flood-lights. The view over the town and bay was worth every step.

We basically spent these fews days relaxing and enjoying the sunshine which finally decided to show its face.

Efes

From the Med, we headed to another spot which should have a picturesque quality – Efes. An ancient Greek city, which later fell into the hands of the Romans, Efes now belongs to the Turks. The city dates back to 550BC, and a remarkable amount still stands. You can walk the ancient streets to libraries (the most famous site), temples and very interesting communal toilets. Unfortunately, it was raining really hard when we went there, but on the bright side (ha ha) we managed to find a “cheaper” way in. Extremely climbable fences…

On our way out, we were picked up by one of the most interesting drivers so far on this trip. Although he spoke barely any English (maybe 10 words), we managed to have conversations about religion, family and death. During one of his breaks, he introduced us to the guy who had honked his horn on the way past us earlier. Between them they quizzed us on our religious beliefs, and were astonished when we explained that we are atheists. It all became too much for them when they also found out that we aren’t married. “Ingilterre…” they said, shaking their heads at the absurdly heathen English people.

Bursa

Bursa was another uneventful city. The highlight of our stay with our CouchSurfing hosts was when we got to hang out with the Bright Young Things of Bursa. All the young people, rather than downing cheap vodka and hitting the clubs, doll themselves up for a night of tea and backgammon. The atmosphere was strange, one that we would associate with a bar – dark seating areas, slightly dodgy music etc – but with no alcohol attached. Josh managed to beat our host’s friend at backgammon 4 times in a row, even though he only just properly learnt the rules, much to her chagrin.

Istanbul for the second time

Istanbul again, and we finally left Asia for the rest of this trip – Europe here we come.

Unfortunately, Istanbul was less rewarding this time. We were there during May Day, which is properly celebrated as a workers’ holiday and therefore almost everything is closed. On the plus side, it meant we were able to drop in on the May Day demonstration. This was one of the first times that they had held it back in Taksim Square for about 40 years. The government excuse for not allowing this before was that some crazy had gone around shooting people indiscriminately in the 70s. What was most striking about the demonstration was how party-centric the whole thing was. The sectarianism was incredible. Different hats, different flags… It was so organised, but not in a good way, and of course the Communist Party had a massive presence.
The police presence was staggering. In order to enter Taksim Square you had to go past at least 1 line of police, where unless you were a tourist, you were properly searched by people in normal clothes and high-viz tabards, which suggested that they’d recruited a bunch of people especially for the occasion. There were also police tanks with water cannons, armoured riot vans and lines of riot cops just waiting to put their already overused “shields” to use again. Whether such a authoritarian manifestation would be excepted in the UK is questionable…

Edirne

Edirne was our final call in Turkey. It followed the most abysmal day of hitching we had in the country. While hitching East out of Istanbul is easy, hitching West is much more difficult, particularly when you try to do it from near the bus station. The amount of people who stopped in their cars to tell us that the bus station was right behind us was astounding (‘We KNOW!’). On top of this, so many people stopped to explain that people couldn’t stop there (!) that both of us were on the verge of punching the next person who offered such ‘helpful’ advice. In the end, we caught a lift with a guy who tried to drop us on the only real bit of motorway we travelled on in the whole of Turkey, without even a hard shoulder to stand on. Not the best place… The second guy nodded and nodded when we said we wanted to go to Edirne, so we relaxed when we went to a truck stand to get some tea (truck stops are prime hitching spots), but then AGAIN he dropped us bang on the motorway! This was the point where tethers were reaching their ends, and Lucie left both her hat and the map of Turkey in the guy’s car by accident. Luckily, at the exact point where we walked dejectedly down to the other road, a lorry was sitting that was headed all the way to Edirne. It was the first truck we’d seen which had an autopilot where the driver could sit cross-legged on his chair and make us cups of tea without really paying attention to anything…

We only really went to Edirne because we were unsure if we could make it all the way to Plovdiv in one day from Istanbul, but it turned out to be rewarding enough. Our CouchSurfing host had two budgerigars which provided the first hour’s entertainment as they flew around his sitting room, landing on our heads and making friends. We went out along the river to meet a few of his mates who spoke about their climate change-related campaigning and all the different foods we should taste while in their city. A result of this was our dining on beef liver, which was unlike anything either of us have ever tasted – certainly not like liver! Orhan explained that when you suggest to a friend in Turkish, ‘Let’s go eat’, you always say ‘Let’s go eat bread’, which certainly makes sense in the face of how many loaves you get through in a day in Turkey.

Olympos

Neither of us have much to say about the places visited in this blog, not because they were dull but because the photos speak for themselves…

From Antalya we caught our only non-local bus to Olympos. Set in a gorge right on the sea, Olympos is an ancient city right next to the electric blue sea. Josh was ill in bed with a fever for almost the entire time we were there, which meant he missed out on one of the few Turkish destinations we visited in the sunshine.

I have never been anywhere which is so rewarding to explore. Ancient amphitheatres, tombs, Roman baths and old houses complete with mosaic floors lie hidden within the undergrowth. Scrambling past the beach and up a hill brings you to Genovese castle from which you can view the sea and the ruins along the coast. I saw a surprising amount of tortoises and one HUGE snake (uncertain as to the black mamba population in Western Turkey I decided to go back onto the main path…).

If you aren’t ill like Josh was, it is a very relaxing and beautiful place to stay. The entirety of the accommodation in the area is directed solely at tourists – we stayed in a complex as big as a small village complete with ‘tree houses’ which are really just sheds on stilts near trees and other rooms. In the summer I would imagine it gets quite unbearably full of people, but since the sea was still a bit too cold to swim, the influx of tourists was far from its peak. It’s quite backpacker-y, which gave us the opportunity to chat to the hippy-est individual we’ve met on the trip thus far, who eats only raw food and who suggested that I give Josh an enema to make him feel better. It’s all about the toxins in the gut, apparently, although I didn’t follow this particular piece of advice…

There isn’t that much for me to say (I wasn’t paying attention to the signs about the history other than noting that pirates would occasionally ransack the city) so here are some more photos…

The rest of our time on the Western Mediterranean

Basically, it’s really beautiful. Our hitches in this area were astounding in places. Here are some more photos:

At one point we were treated to the presence of a presidential cycle ride – I’m not sure the president was there though…

We spent only one night in Fethiye – it seemed to our brief eyes that it’s a base from which people take cruises around the coast rather than particularly enjoyable in itself, although we later met a guy who testified to its incredible wondrousness which we must have missed.

Anyway, our final photo –

Ankara

Hıtchhıkıng remaıned blıssfully easy (even though Lucıe turned down a perfectly good lıft, but this turned out to be for the best as the next car that stopped was going all the way to our destination) and we arrıved ın Ankara – the capıtal of Turkey. Unlıke Istanbul there ıs very lıttle to see of ınterest ın Ankara – Istanbul would probably have remained the capital of the republic of Turkey if it hadn’t been under foreign rule when Ataturk declared Turkey’s existence – so thıs sectıon wıll be short. There ıs a fascınatıng museum – the Ankara Museum of Anatolıan Cıvılısatıon. The name ıs quıte self-explanatory. The Museum goes through all the stages of the ‘cıvılısatıon’ from really long ago and takes you untıl the Romans. There are loads of old thıngs to look at – lots of stylised stags and figures of incredibly fat women. The latter are used to suggest that maybe society was matriarchal or at least worshipped some sort of goddess (not the same thing, but never mind).

Other than thıs though, Ankara has very lıttle. A nıce enough castle and a really bıg mosque wıth a shoppıng mall attached to ıt, which seemed slightly surreal but apparently, since we saw this setup elsewhere, it’s fairly normal in Turkey – combine your needs for the day with worship and shopping in the same place… We CouchSurfed agaın, and our host, who was the under 16 chess champıon of Turkey, introduced us to Rakı whıch Lucıe lıked and Josh dıdn’t and gave us a potted hıstory of Turkey from the 16th century tıll now.

Movıng swıftly onto Cappadocıa whıch ıs out of thıs world!

Cappadocia

Once upon a time in far-off history there were volcanoes in this part of Turkey, and their ash settled after eruptions and became a very flaky type of rock. Over the years the wind has sculpted the rock into astonishing shapes such as the ‘fairy chimneys’ – tall thin points of rock, often topped with a chunk of a different type of rock which does not erode so easily, leaving ‘hats’ or toadstool-shaped caps on the stalks of rock. The larger rock formations look like sand dunes (or massive dildos) – ripples made by thousands of years of wind and rain. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it. One rock is shaped just like a camel, so there was the obligatory riding the camel photo –

Because the rock is so soft, it is possible to carve out 1 square metre in a few hours (apparently), and so there are many dwellings and also churches carved into the rocks. Our hostel had rooms carved into the rock face. Much more cave-like than the caves in Qikou in China! At the Goreme Open Air Museum there are many well-preserved churches and homes – you can tour around the eating halls and wine-squelching holes, chapels and caverns, although there is an onslaught of tour groups unfortunately, who pack out every available space… In some places you can escape the masses, climb up ladders or even the rungs cut into the rock and head up several storeys to look out over the area.

We felt very smug watching all the expensive package tours in their air-conditioned coaches as we hitched and walked our way from sight to sight – we hiked through unique valleys and wandered from strange rock to strange rock.

One day we hitched out to a tiny village to explore an underground ‘city’ – we decided to avoid the tour groups and the high charge and head to a lesser-visited one off the beaten track. It paid off as we were able to take our torch and explore past the lit areas (which were not very extensive) and feel much more adventurous than if everything had been well-lit and cordoned off. No one knows how many underground networks there are in Cappadocia – some say there is one for each village. At least 40 have been discovered and six are open to the public. Originally the dwellings were created to provide shelter from harsh weather conditions and protection from wild animals, but they were expanded into whole cities with homes connected to one another by tunnels by Christians who would use them to escape persecution by the Romans. Air vents were disguised as wells so attackers would not notice them – maybe they would pour poison in the ‘well’ to try to destroy a water supply, but this wouldn’t bother those hidden below. The earliest source about the cities is from the 4th century BC – it’s quite amazing to be able to wander around in a tunnel network past kitchens and store rooms that have been there for thousands of years.

If you’re headed to Cappadocia and decide to stay in Goreme like us, when you go to restaurants – where you can sample kebabs cooked in terracotta pots and cracked when served, or many different kinds of pide, which gets called ‘Turkish pizza’ in some places – ask for discount! ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get’, as the old saying goes, and in Goreme you get if you ask. You can blag at least 10% in lots of places for being a ‘student’ or even because you’re staying in a hostel where the owners are friends!

Following in the theme of religion, from here we hitched to Konya – spiritual home of Rumi.

Safranbolu

Havıng travelled around Indıa, any form of transport we took ın Turkey was goıng to be fast, even hıtchıng. But we weren’t expectıng ıt to be quıte so easy. Havıng taken a bus to the edge of town and walked along the road for a bıt, we jumped through a hole ın the fence and descended onto a roadsıde lorry park. No sooner had we got our bearıngs and decıded where we should stand than a drıver saıd ‘Izmıt? Yes.’ We were actually goıng further than that, but so was he, so ın mınus tıme we had bagged ourselves our fırst lıft and a free breakfast whıch was brought to us by hıs copper brother and then cooked ın the sıde of the lorry! Our next lıft seemed to be easy too – two guys headed exactly, they saıd, where we were. Unfortunately ıt turned out that they couldn’t read a map and they were goıng ın another dırectıon, but at a loss as to how to deal wıth thıs they went 50km out of theır way to drop us where they’d saıd they could! From there a petrol statıon attendant dashed out ınto the road to flag down a passıng bus and we were ın Safranbolu double tıme.

Safranbolu was even more amazıng than our hıtch was easy. The entıre town ıs a UNESCO World Herıtage sıte, and you can see why – hundreds of Ottoman houses have been lovıngly restoredö so apart from the tourıst tat whıch ınevıtably occurs ın such places, you could be ın the nıneteenth century. We vısıted a home that was restored ınsıde and out, complete wıth mannequıns actıng out people’s roles ın dıfferent rooms. The Ottomans had devısed a partıcularly ıngenıous way to keep theır women oppressed – the house was dıvıded ınto two parts so women were never seen by men who weren’t ın theır close famıly. They could make food and pass ıt through to the other sıde though (lucky them) by placıng ıt ın a revolvıng cupboard – the door closed on one sıde and the men opened the other door to retrıeve theır nosh… The second floor stuck out over the fırst ın an ıconıc sort of way.

Other than the vısually ımpressıve spectacle of the cıty, there ıs very lıttle to do. Thıs wasn’t helped by the fact that ıt raıned quıte a bıt. We managed to snatch some sunshıne ın whıch to clımb up to a vıewpoınt over the houses, and we wandered from sweet shop to sweet shop (there are a lot of them), feastıng ourselves on Turkısh Delıght (lokum). Safranbolu gets ıts name from saffron, belıeve ıt or not, and so everythıng ıs ‘saffron-flavoured/scented’, whether that be soap, perfume, tea or lokum. Lucıe ısn’t sure, from her lımıted experıence of saffron just ın these forms, that saffron really has a flavour or a smell as the perfume smelled of cologne-base and the tea tasted of hot water and honey… One of the guys who owned a shop sellıng woven thıngs and leather thıngs ıs famous ın both Chına and Japan – he showed us wıth clıppıngs from foreıgn magazınes. He’d be tıckled to thınk he’s on a blog from the UK too…

Sun, sand and sea

Skin cancer costs an arm and a leg, man
People on the beach self-harming to get tanned
Laid out flat like an army of dead mans
Red necks, red bellies than expand
Like jellyfish on the wet sand
Very Engurlish, suncream and sweaty hands…

– Dizraeli, ‘Engurland’

When we were in Orissa, there was a sign on the wall with a quote from some wise ancient. It said, ‘A traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving’. This basically summarises our experience of trying to do anything in India… Don’t have a fixed plan, and don’t expect your vague expectations to materialise any time soon either. When you don’t try and do anything, when you spend your time eating fruit salad every morning, swimming in the sea, and lying on golden-sanded beaches, then you’re fine. But as soon as you start trying to organise anything, discuss going anywhere, plan anything, catch transport, in short when you try to achieve anything, it all becomes a bit difficult and stressful. Someone who said they’d email you back by Wednesday hasn’t contacted you by Tuesday the next week, the computer full of your data is broken and won’t be fixed until an unspecified date referred to most days as “tomorrow”, someone advised you not to run for the bus as there will be another “soon” only for you to wait a whole hour for the next scheduled bus which incidentally is running on time… I could go on. Speaking to our Mumbai CouchSurfing host (who we’ll tell you about in a later post), he just nods and laughs – it’s the same for him – and explains that it’s part of the joy (or frustration) of India.

Having basically travelled for six months without really stopping for a break, the stress was starting to mount. Since Josh recently cut off most of his hair, I was beginning to worry that he would start pulling out mine. His mate even emailed us suggesting that we “do nothing, literally NOTHING for a while”, so we thought we should take heed of that advice. So we did, and this is the first time that we actually achieved everything that we had set out to since we entered India.

Having left the hills, we made our way back into Kerala and plonked ourselves on the beach near Kannur. Retrospectively, it wasn’t the greatest of beaches, but at the time it was exactly what we needed. While it takes an hour to get there from town, if you’re after a basically empty beach (literally there must have been three other people on the 100m long beach most of the time we were there), no hassle when you’re there, white sands, palm trees but a rather rough sea, this is the place to go. Josh taught me how to throw a ball properly and I taught him how to do front crawl properly. It was a learning experience for all. One of the days we were approached by a bunch of Indian lads and instead of it being the usual perve-hassle, they joined us in our throwing game – they seemed surprised that I was capable of catching. That was basically all we did for a few days, which was more than pleasant.

Then we made our way to our next beach. Gokarna in Karnataka is definitely THE most touristy place we have been in the whole of India. We spent ten days surrounded by Westerners, which usually would have made both Josh and myself cringe, but it was a welcomed break before plunging back into the sometimes-organised chaos of the next three months travelling (we’ll be home on the 17th June for anyone who’s interested). There was a large contingent of dreadlocked, spiritual, circus-skills, alibaba pants (no Indian actually wears these) types. It was the first time in my life that I’ve ever heard a sentence like this: “Hey! Guess what? She’s an Aquarius with Scorpio rising!!!!” Someone actually said that.

When you choose to ignore such things, the place is lovely. As suggested by the introduction, we spent our days eating fruit salad and indulging in non-Indian food, swimming in the sea and generally chilling out. The most stressful thing that happened for the whole time we were there was that I stood on a sea urchin or something that’s built so that things don’t eat/stand on it, and spent several days trying to remove the splinters from my toes. One day we walked through some jungle to a beach a few beaches along, where we shared the 70m stretch of sand with one other person, and occasionally Indian tourists who would dash in in speedboats, stare at us swimming and then dash away again.

We had arrived at a pretty good time – at the end of the season, just before many guest houses pack up for the summer, so accommodation was brilliantly cheap.

It’s kind of part of the point, as Josh points out, that there isn’t much to say about our time there. It was a time of relaxation and of doing pretty much nothing, which I’d never really done before. I felt like I should balance out the total relaxation by stretching my mind a little, and read about Israel’s war on Palestine in Pappe and Chomsky’s Gaza in Crisis and Ghada Karmi’s Married to Another Man. Made me feel ever so slightly less indulgent!

Our only stop in Goa, the usual stop for beach-seeking India travellers, was a train change. We spent a luxurious few hours in the Air Conditioned waiting room – spend a pound for four hours in light, chill, with cable TV and a western toilet, which was a relief to my legs as I had an upset stomach (it’s never fun to spend long on a squat toilet).

Now we’re in Mumbai, experiencing the contradictions of India at their most obvious – the largest slum in the world, and the world’s largest number of millionaires in one city. We’ll tell y’all about it in the next blog.

Kochi to Kannur

Kochi

We were given mixed advice about the pleasures of this town, ranging from ‘my favourite place in India’ to ‘a bit of a tourist shit-hole’. Our experience is somewhere inbetween, tending less towards it being a favourite… Fort Cochin, which is the tourist bit and on a separate island from the mainland, has an incredible flair for colonialism – Dutch, Portuguese and British. Especially the churches. At first, we assumed they must be Protestant, given the fact that the British arrived in this part of India after the Reformation – this would explain their whitewashed walls and general lack of enthusiasm. Not for all of them, though – the Santa Cruz Basilica instead went for tacky kitsch, with lovely pink statues of Jesus, etc. How Indians can relate to a religion which is based on a ‘white’ man nailed to a cross, I find even more confusing than for white Westerners. What a clever way for imperialists to establish racial supremacy, though, eh?

Having not really gone in for “Experience the Culture” events, we decided to experience one. Kathakali, the ancient dramatic art, was simultaneously fascinating and unbelievably boring. Our friend described it as “a bit like pantomime”, but while this might be the closest thing to it in the UK, it’s basically nothing like it! The performance began with an hour-long makeup session which was actually quite interesting – the men (all men, even playing the female role – got to keep these things traditional…) lay down as someone made fins on their faces made from rice paper and rice paste. These added detail to the red, black, green and yellow of their faces – each colour has its own significance. Green means good, red means bad, black is demonic and yellow feminine.

This was followed by an introduction to the language of gesture that Kathakali uses – facial expressions, twitchy face muscles, eye movement, hand gestures. I think I took in approximately one meaning from the whole thing.

Then we were treated to a grim tale involving betting wives away in games of dice, murdering enemies gorily and then wiping their blood through the reclaimed wife’s hair. Unfortunately, one figures this out from the leaflet provided rather than the action on stage, as Kathakali for us was a bit like watching a play in a foreign language where even the body language means something totally different.

Kumily

Our time in Kumily will be better described in a following blog. It is safe to say that we were hoping for more than we experienced when we were there. We had gone to Kumily to work on an organic farm through WWOOFing – we were going to help with the pepper and coffee harvests. We did help with the coffee harvest, but it was all a bit less enjoyable than we had hoped, so we did not finish our proposed two weeks there and left after 8 days.

On our day off, we went to a Tiger Park, and although of course we didn’t see any tigers we did catch glimpses of wild elephants hainging out around the water. There were unidentified grazing animals, wild boar and of course loads of monkeys.

Having acquired an extra few days, we decided to return to Tamil Nadu as Kumily is literally on the border – Tamil Nadu starts just after the post office – and spend some time in the hills.

Kodaikanal

Great views and colonial heritage.

We met some travellers for the first time in a while – it’s good to have company other than ourselves sometimes! The views here are absolutely spectacular. You can see across the entire plains of Tamil Nadu. This is also apparently why our hotel felt justified in charging Rs500 a night (the expensive end of our budget) for a grim room, although it did have a fire place.

As the picture demonstrates, there is a resounding feeling that you could be in Dorset or something – quaint little cottages, sculpted lake, pine trees. It was a very odd experience.

The nicest part of being in this town was meeting other people, especially a Czech man who had lived in London for four years and is an Arsenal supporter. I think Lucie had become bored of me discussing the fine details of tactics and strategy with her, so this was a welcome opportunity to talk football with someone who actually understood what I was going on about.

Ooty

2,500metres above sea level, Ooty is the highest hill station in Tamil Nadu. It is also refreshingly cool and, outside of the town, extremely beautiful.

We trekked through tea plantations, through villages and up to the top of a mountain, enjoying the company of a Bristolian anarchist whose grandfather had fought for POUM in the Spanish civil war. I had to change my initial impression of him – I heard on the bus that he had come to India just to follow the cricket, which did not gain my immediate respect. However, after classic lines such as, “I always told my kids not to join the army. I didn’t spend money on raising my kids just so they could grow up and kill other people’s kids. It’s a waste of money”, and, “if Pakistan win against India in the final [Cricket World Cup taking place in India], I reckon they [India] might just nuke Kashmir or something”, I changed my mind about him.

One of the ironic highlights of Ooty, and one of the kitschiest things I have ever seen (I think Lucie was more impressed than me), was the Thread Garden – the only one in the whole world, they proudly declare. This is unsurprising. It took a whole bunch of people 12 years to accomplish this bizarre feat – everything in the garden, and they all look pretty convincing as flowers, is made from thread wound around canvas. What a waste of time…

Kannur

Having been in India for over 2 months and having not had a real break since we set off from London all those many months ago (nearly 6 now by the way), we are having a long and overdue break. My mentality in particular has increasingly become overly negative, and as a close friend of mine emailed me to say, I am in need of some time where I just don’t do anything. So we are spending four days on a beach in Kerala, followed by seven days on a beach in Karnataka.

I intend that it be as uneventful as possible and horribly relaxing.