Posted in travel

Venice: A Pleasant Surprise

I hadn’t heard much about Venice that was very kind, at least not recently. Years ago, the famed city on the water was world-renowned for its beauty and sophistication. Nowadays, it is swarmed with tourists, plagued by criminals, and the once-glorious canals stink to high hell.

Or so they said.

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My flight to Venice was painless enough, particularly when you consider that the airline was six-time winner of the dubious “Worst Airline Award”, Ryanair. I loathe Ryanair, but when you get see a flight to a city you’ve never been before for just £10 (ok, £40 including bags), it’s hard to say no. I’ve sat on Indian buses for whole days at a time, so I figured I could just about cope with two and a half hours on a plane.

Ryanair actually doesn’t fly into Venice… In fact, Venice doesn’t exactly have an airport; the neighbouring cities, which are not built on water, have them instead. As such, I flew into Treviso, and from there took a bus (which was far nicer than the plane) to Mestre. Mestre is another neighbouring city – the one directly across the water from Venice, and joined by a bridge and a number of boats. I had found a well-reviewed hostel for much cheaper than you’d get on the island, and so that would serve as my base.

In the morning, I hopped a train to Venice. The train cost a euro and took about five or ten minutes. When I stepped off, I was still not expecting much. But when I got out of the station and saw the Grand Canal for the first time, I was nearly overwhelmed. It was a shimmering turquoise, busy with little boats, and surrounded by regal old buildings.

As I ventured over one of the bridges and into the labyrinthine passageways of the city, I found the streets to be quiet, largely devoid of tourists. I was able to meander at my own pace along the sides of smaller canals, and over quaint little bridges. Where were the hordes of screaming tourists, pushing and shoving? This was far more charming than I expected. Most of all, I loved the old buildings. So many “ancient” towns and cities are completely restored so that very little of the past actually remains. Venice is a real, functioning city and some buildings have just fallen to bits. That actually adds to the charm. (Though maybe not if you live there.)

Eventually, I came to Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), which was much busier than elsewhere, but still not as bad as I expected. I took more photos and moved on, finding a bench near the sea to sit and rest for a while.

Colourful houses on a canal
One more image: Some very cool looking buildings near the Venice Arsenal.

Wandering back through the city to the train station took most of the rest of my day, and when I returned to my hostel in Mestre, I had clocked up 16km. That’ll help shift some of that Christmas weight!

My brief visit to Venice has been a real unexpected pleasure. Tomorrow morning I’ll head for Florence, a little south of here and towards the opposite side of the country.

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Posted in Photography

Best Photos of 2018

Last year, in late December, I made a list of my favourite photos I had taken over the year. It was an enjoyable experience to look back, and I encountered many photos I’d actually forgotten about. In this age of social media, it’s easy to put a good photo online and then just never think about it again, but it’s nice to look back and relive old memories.

My year started off in India, where I spent several months travelling. I had a new camera (Nikon D5600) and I used it to capture all sorts of photos, with mixed results. Of the thousands that I took, some really stood out. Here are a few, with some explanation:

Colourful houses at Mamallapuram

This colourful street is in Mallallapuram, on the east coast of India. I shot this simple photo and someone later told me it was like a scene out of a Wes Anderson movie.

Indian gang

It was difficult to choose this photo because there were so many I took in one afternoon at a small park. For some reason, people kept lining up to ask me to take their photo. I didn’t understand it at the time, but later a boy told me about a rumour that there was a Scottish photojournalist taking pictures for a newspaper.

Gandhi Statue

I didn’t particularly enjoy my time in Puducherry, but I liked the way this shot turned out. The statue is of Mahatma Gandhi.

Pilgrims at Indian Temple

This is possibly my favourite photo of the year. In fact, I used it on the cover of a book I wrote about India. It’s called Crossing India the Hard Way.

Old Man at Brihadishwara Temple

One of my favourite places in India was Thanjavur, where I visited the incredible Brihadisvara temple. I arrived just before sundown, but was struggling with my new camera and all the photos I shot that evening were blurry. I went back the following morning and got lots of great photos, including this one of an old man. There are loads more here.

Indian ladies praying

This photo of women praying was also shot at Thanjavur.

Wild Boar crossing path

During my time in the middle of India, I saw many incredible sights at the hill stations and national parks, including a lot of wildlife. However, upon reflection, none of the photos were particularly outstanding. I did, though, quite like this picture of two wild boar crossing a path in the early morning light.

Fishermen in front of giant cargo ship

When I arrived on the western coast of India, at Kochi, or Fort Cochin, I visited the beach. I was shocked to see this massive tanker travelling past the beach, almost within throwing distance. I have no idea how it could come so close without getting grounded.

Close-up of black kite

My final stop in India was Varkala, where I stayed for about a week. There were hundreds of huge birds constantly flying around the clifftops, and I spent countless hours trying to shoot photos of them. This was one of my favourites. My camera has poor zoom lens, so you can imagine how close this bird flew.

My selfie with the stars

Also at Varkala, I shot this photo (an “advanced selfie”, I suppose) of me and the nightsky. As you can probably tell from the shape of the trees, it was shot on a GoPro.

Colorful bee-eater

This is one of my absolute favourite photos of the year – perhaps joint first. It is now the background pic on my computer screen. Shot in Sri Lanka, this was just one of many incredible animals I was privileged to have seen this year. I also saw a leopard, but the resulting pictures weren’t particularly good.

Lizard in tea field

I saw this cool lizard in a tea field near .

Monk in Kandy

I liked this picture because the colour of monk’s robe stands out. It perhaps could have been edited better, though.

Rainy street leading to the mountainsThis was one of many photos I took at Zhaji, in southeastern Anhui province, China.

Boats at sunset

This shot of long-tail boats on a beach near Krabi, Thailand, was shot on my iPhone.

Me looking out over Ao Nang

Another “advanced selfie” taken after a long hike in Thailand.

Tree in sunlight

I think this photo of tree bark was taken in Thailand.

Beautiful carving

I used to live in Cambodia long ago, and this summer I returned. I was saddened to find the country overrun by Chinese people, but there was still plenty of beauty left comparatively undisturbed.

My favourite picture

This photo of ruins at Angkor Wat is now the background to my iPhone. It is another of my favourites of 2018.

Bangkok sunset

After visiting Cambodia, I returned to Bangkok and shot this photo of sunset over the city from my hotel. It may look heavily edited, but it in fact isn’t. The light was simply sublime.

A handsome beach dog

The island of Koh Phangan made for an enjoyable holiday, but I didn’t actually do much photography whilst there. I did, however, see this rather majestic-looking dog.

Vera swimming in waterfall

In nearby Koh Samui, I shot this photo of my (now ex-) girlfriend. We found this isolated waterfall and spent a few pleasant hours swimming in the cool jungle waters.

Me look at the view

Oh look, another selfie. 🙂 What can I say? I like hiking and am determined to overcome my fear of heights. Contrary to what it may seem, I’m still terrified and every time I shoot this sort of photo my knees turn to jelly.

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I spent four and a half years in Huainan, Anhui province. It was not a particularly photogenic place, but every now and then an opportunity would present itself. I took several photos of sunsets over the city or the nearby hills, including this one.

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At the beginning of December, I quit my job in China and returned to Scotland. This was the first photo I took, while walking in the fields around Balmullo. It was icy cold, but after months of breathing toxic air in China, I was happy to take in that fresh Scottish air. I have spent time exploring the local area, but this first photo reminds me of that feeling of being back home, and having escaped the dank, grey hellscape of eastern China.

Posted in Photography

Winter Photos from Edinburgh, Dundee, and St. Andrews

At the beginning of December, I left China and came home to Scotland. I’ve been enjoying the fresh air and beautiful scenery that I always took for granted living here. After many years in polluted, grey China, it really is pleasant being back home.

Since my last post, I have visited Edinburgh to see an old school friend. I didn’t take a camera, but I did shoot one nice photo on my iPhone 7:

Edinburgh Castle from Princes Street Gardens
The newly painted fountain in Princes Street Gardens, with Edinburgh Castle looming in the background.

Next, I headed over the Tay to Dundee, where I spent more than four years living prior to my move to Asia. Dundee is exactly known as a beautiful city, but I have always loved it in its own weird way, and it was nice being back. Waves of memories washed over me as I walked about the West End, along Perth Road, Magdalen Green, and so on.

In addition to that, I have also been walking around the village and nearby St. Andrews. Here are a few photos I shot on the West Sands yesterday:

Posted in Photography, travel

From Bangkok to Koh Phangan

As recounted in previous blog posts, I spent most of July and early August travelling alone through Thailand and Cambodia. However, after four or five weeks’ solo journeying, I undertook a long and painful bus ride to Thailand’s vast capital, Bangkok, to meet my girlfriend, Vera.

I arrived first, a day ahead of her. On my first visit, some weeks earlier, I stayed at the ultra-cheap Khaosan Art Hotel, but this time elected for the comparatively pricey Rambuttri Village Plaza, a place I’ve stayed before. I had a whole night and a day to wait for Vera, and as I’m not particularly fond of Bangkok – or cities in general, come to think of it – I chose a hotel with a rooftop pool so I could spend my time reading a book and soaking in the sun.

Of course, I did manage to fit in a little sightseeing:

Vera’s flight was meant to arrive around 8pm but it was delayed and she didn’t arrive until after midnight. That gave us about three hours’ sleep before we had to get up and hit the road, as I had booked bus tickets with Lomphraya for the following morning. Alas, bleary-eyed, we ventured out into the darkness before sunrise and off on a day-long journey to Koh Phangan.

The journey was actually not bad, as we were so tired we slept through most of it. By early afternoon our bus had decanted us at the Chumporn ferryport and we were soon skipping across the pristine blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand, headed for a tropical paradise.

When we arrived, I walked about looking for a hotel, and stumbled upon the oddly-named but rather pleasant Lime ‘n’ Soda, where we spent a few pleasant days. After that, we moved to the nearby Hacienda, to a much cheaper but much better room.

Our time on Koh Phangan was spent mostly on the southern coast, looking out at Koh Samui to the south. We awoke each morning to stunning views over the waters, and long walks on the empty beaches. There were a few kitesurfers on the waters but it was exceptionally quiet.

Sometimes we rented a motorcycle and ventured to other parts of the island, but nothing really matched the loveliness of the area we had randomly stumbled upon that first day. The hilly roads provided an amusing bike ride with stunning views, but we didn’t venture off the main roads onto the rather intimidating-looking dirt roads leading to remote waterfalls and other sights. Instead, we went to little beach areas in the northwest and northeast, including Haad Mae Haad and Haad Yao.

After almost two weeks on Koh Phangan, it was time to leave. My visa expired and the immigration office was on nearby Koh Samui. I had never really wanted to visit Samui, but it seemed like the thing to do – a quick jaunt across the water and then a day at the immigration office, followed by some time exploring the largest of the three main islands in the Thai Gulf.

Well, that’s where I am as I write this… I’ll post more next week.

Posted in travel

Long Bus Rides Through Thailand

After visiting Phuket Island, Krabi Town, and Ao Nang, I decided to head on over to the other side of Thailand – the east coast. I have been to Koh Tao several times and each time I passed through a place called Chumpon, which always looked really attractive from the bus and ferry. From what I had seen, it was just long stretches of white sand beaches with no one around. All the tourists just passed through without stopping.

I bought a bus ticket in Ao Nang and got up early next morning for my pick-up. I was crammed in the back of a tiny mini bus which drove to Krabi. From there, I was put on another mini bus to Surat Thani, and then on another mini bus north to Chumpon. The total distance between Krabi/Ao Nang and Chumpon is only about 270 kilometers, yet the journey took nearly a whole day. I was exhausted by the time I arrived, although conveniently the bus stopped only 50 meters from my hostel.

The next day, I rented a motorbike from my hostel and asked the owner for tips on finding a good beach. He wrote down several places on a map, each of them about 40km north of Chumphon. He called them “real secret” beaches that no tourists no about.

I was delighted, and jumped on the bike, zipping off north past the airport and along the coast. It was a long drive but a pleasant one, as the roads were not particularly busy. I stopped off along the way at one random beach, which was completely deserted, but didn’t stop. Instead, I pushed on in search of my “secret” beach.

In the end, I only found one of the beaches because they were incredibly hard to get to. I support that’s what made them so secret. I followed a series of small roads and then footpaths to come to a small bay with nothing there except perfect white sand, clear blue seas, and coconut trees lining the beach. It was everything the guy had told me.

Thailand Secret Beach
My own private beach.

I was about to jump in the water for a swim when a dark cloud suddenly appeared and almost immediately it began to rain. Another cloud joined it, and another… and another… and soon it was pouring with rain and the sky was black. I hid in a cave at one end of the bay, and read my book.

An hour passed.

And then another hour.

Eventually, the rain slowed somewhat, but the skies were still ominous and no longer felt like swimming. It was actually a little chilly with the wind, and I didn’t fancy getting out of the water and not being able to dry off before a long drive back to town.

Instead, I gave up and headed back towards the main road. Along the way, I found that the storm had blown a tree down across one of the footpaths. I had to drag it out of the way, hoping that it had no venomous snakes or spiders hidden in its leaves and branches.

At the main road, instead of giving up entirely and going back to Chumphon, I headed further north in search of another beach. This was not one of the “secret” beaches that the hostel owner had listed, but instead a small, remote public beach. I found it easily and just as I stepped onto the sand, the rain stopped and the clouds began to part.

Secret beach, Thailand
Another private beach.

The water was impossibly still – not even a ripple on the surface – and the beach was just about perfect. There was no one about here, either.

I hopped in the water and then lay on the beach for an hour, reading my book. A few people came and went but it was very quiet and pleasant. When I finally drove back to Chumphon as darkness began to fall, I was pretty satisfied with the results of my day. It had been an adventure of sorts, and pleasant in spite of it not going exactly to plan.

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That night, I realized the sand flies had got me. On the second beach, I had noticed maybe a dozen of them and brushed them away, but evidently they hadn’t gotten a good few bites in first – maybe a few hundred, in fact. I was covered in what looked like giant mosquito bites.

Mosquitoes don’t generally bother me. They bite me, sure, but if I ignore the itch for a few hours, it goes away entirely. Sand flies, however, will cause itching that is 10x worse and lasts for days and days and days.

After an itchy night, I moved over from my cheap hostel to a less cheap hotel along the road. It was about $22 per night, which I suppose makes it cheap in the grand scheme, but it was more than double what I usually pay in Thailand. The reason I chose this place was because it had a pool, albeit a tiny one:

Cool hotel design, Thailand
My funky hotel.

I didn’t feel like driving for an hour back up the coast and risking getting caught in more heavy rain, and then getting a few hundred more sand fly bites. Instead, I’d just sit by the pool and sip on a cold beer.

The Retro Box Hotel actually turned out to be very pleasant. It is a bizarre design – the whole hotel is made out of shipping containers that have been fitted out as hotel rooms. It sounds awful, but is actually very funky-looking and comfortable.

I explored the town one last time. Chumphon is really not a very interesting place at all, and is only worth visiting if you can get a bike and head out to the beaches. The beaches are all, I believe, utterly stunning. However, the town is a bit drab and boring. On my walk about town, I booked another bus ticket – this time to Bangkok.

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The next morning, I hopped on big, air-conditioned bus towards the capital. Again, it was a short ride, but again it took an astonishingly long time. The total was, I think, 9 or 10 hours! Much of that was spent battling traffic in Bangkok itself.

Pretty soon I was back on old Khao San Road – the backpacker heaven (or hell) at the heart of Southeast Asia travel. I have always sort of detested it, but this time I finally admitted it wasn’t so bad. It was cheaper than I remember, for one thing. In fact, food and beer were cheaper than any place I’d been in Thailand. Funny, you wouldn’t expect that in the capital city, and I certainly don’t recall it from previous visits…

I spent one night in a tiny hotel room (for just $3) and then hopped a bus to Cambodia then next morning. The ride was supposed to take 7 hours but took 14. By the time we arrived in Siem Reap, I was thinking I’d be happy to never take another bus again in my life.

Posted in travel

Weekend Trip to Zhaji

I’ve been living in China on and off for almost eight years and sometimes I forget that it can be a beautiful place. Between the pollution, the people, and the government, there’s a lot here that’s just plain awful. The cities are vast and unpleasant, and the countryside is being swallowed up at an alarming speed. Even when you take the train from one city to the next, all you see are mountains being torn down, forests devastated, and rivers that run grey with filth.

Where I live is especially bad. The air is thick with coal dust and the people utterly uncivilized in the truest sense of the word. Most of northern and central Anhui province is like this, unfortunately, and as the giant metropolis of Hefei grows and grows, it simply swallows up more of what was once pleasant land, and turns it into what Chinese people desire most – bland, grey swathes of land covered in huge buildings.

If this all sounds unpleasant, then imagine travelling on a national holiday, when hundreds of millions of people (I’m not exaggerating) take to the roads and rails in pursuit of somewhere to take a selfie. Venturing outside at these times is just foolish, although I have done it on several occasions (Jiuhuashan, Dali, Meilixueshan). Lacking the capacity for creative thought, the Chinese all go more or less to the same places, but even if you find somewhere with fewer of them, you still have to contend with the small matter of getting there on jam-packed roads and train stations crammed with screaming, spitting, shitting morons.

Thankfully, we accidentally purchases tickets for business class and were delighted to find a small cabin with four luxurious reclining seats. It was utterly silent in there, in stark contrast to the rest of the train. What a wonderful beginning to a journey:

Vera Enjoying a Business Class Seat from Hefei

We arrived in a small town called Jingxian, and from there took a local bus for an hour and a half up into the mountains to Zhaji. On the way, we saw some incredible birds and I regretted having not brought a longer lens. In packing my camera equipment, I had assumed Zhaji would be as utterly devoid of wildlife as everywhere else in eastern China. Boy, was I wrong. There were eagles and huge colourful birds with long tails. Yet I was never able to shoot any of them with the camera stuff I’d brought.

Oh well, c’est la vie.

Zhaji proved to be scenic enough to get some good photos:

Zhaji is unlike other historic towns in China in several ways. The first and most important is that it’s not at all well-known. Others, like Sanhe, are swarmed with idiot tourists year-round. People move there just to sell souvenirs, and all the buildings are renovated to make it more tourist-friendly. The result is that it becomes very fake and rather gaudy. The beauty of old China was that it revered subtlety – something utterly lost on modern Chinese, who prefer things loud and obvious. Zhaji, by contrast, retains the pleasant charm of old dynasties, and the fact that it has been largely left to fall apart keeps it looking as authentic as it is. The people there seem like good, honest folk who go about normal lives in spite of the small number of tourists that visit, rather than the greedy snakes who inhabit other tourist spots. As a result, Zhaji is a relaxing, pleasant place to visit with no scams or related pitfalls.

Old woman washing clothes
All the woman in Zhaji wash clothes in the stream that runs through town.

We didn’t have much time but we made the most of it, even exploring the town and its surrounding areas at night:

On our second day, we took a taxi further into the mountains to a place called Peach Blossom Lake (Taohuatan) and went rafting on a river there. The national park (or regional forest park, whichever it was) was pretty small and pleasant, with not too many tourists due to its remote location. In fact, aside from rafting it’s best-known for a Li Bai poem. We walked around for a while and admired the surprisingly clean water before renting a raft and drifting peacefully down the river over the course of about an hour.

IMG_1471It was so nice, it felt like being in another country!

After a brief trip, we had to leave little Zhaji and head back through the miserable transport system to Huainan. Unfortunately, I’d made a mistake in buying the train tickets and it took a complicated series of buses and taxis to get home over 14 long hours… Back just in time for a few hours’ sleep before work.

Oh well, at least I have the memories and photos to remind me it’s not all bad here.

And hey, China will always be funny because it’s so damn weird. After all, where else in the world do they teach children fire safety like this:

Chinese fire safety for children

Posted in travel

Beaches, Animals, and Mountains: Why Sri Lanka is the Greatest

I love Sri Lanka. It is absolutely one of my favourite countries. Back in January, 2017 I spent two weeks travelling around the south of the country and had such a great time that after my long journey through India, I thought I’d pop back over for another visit, this time bringing my girlfriend, Vera.

We arrived separately in Colombo and stayed at the beautiful Canes Boutique Hotel. After more than a month of hostels and cheap guest houses, it was pure luxury. I had some time to kill before Vera’s flight arrived, so I spent a day exploring Colombo by myself. I had totally dismissed it during my first visit, but it was actually quite a nice city – though it indeed doesn’t offer much more than a day’s worth of sightseeing.

Colombo Waterfront

The next morning, we headed south to the beach town of Unawatuna. On my previous visit to Sri Lanka, I’d taken the bus from place to place. It is outrageously cheap and, honestly, it was quite fun. However, this time we had time-constraints and so opted for taxis.

At Unawatuna, we spent two days exploring the beaches, finding that Jungle Beach was far superior to the main Unawatuna Beach. It was pleasant for swimming and snorkelling, whereas the main beach (as with almost everywhere else in Sri Lanka) was quite choppy. While swimming, we were lucky to see a number of small sharks enter the bay and scare the hell out of the Russians who were swimming there.

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Unawatuna Beach

Nursing some minor sunburn, we opted to move on from Unawatuna to our next destination – Yala National Park. Actually, we were heading to the nearby town of Katharagama, which is a pleasant little place right by the entrance to the park. We took another taxi, this time driving for four hours across a big chunk of the country. It was a beautiful drive, though.

In Katharagama, we went to the Katharagama Homestay, where I’d stayed last year. The owners are really friendly and the room is very clean. I had no qualms about going back again, and would definitely recommend it to anyone visiting the area. We explored the town for one evening:

The following morning, we set off to explore Yala National Park. Not long into our safari, we had a very, very close encounter with a leopard:

Of course, there were numerous other incredible animals in the park:

After Yala, we took another taxi north to the little town of Ella, where we spent a couple of days walking around the hills on the train tracks. The town itself isn’t much, but the surrounding mountains are beautiful.

Finally, we spent a day in Kandy on our way back to the airport at Colombo. We explored the forest park and the lake, and walked about the bustling little city.

Finally, our time came to an end. We hopped in one last taxi for the ride to Colombo airport and journey back to China, stopping off for a day in the southern city of Guangzhou.

Posted in travel

Final Stop in India: Varkala

My trip through India took me from the east coast (Chennai, Auroville, and Pondicherrry) through the temples and hill stations of the central south, to stop finally on the west coast at Kochi and then Varkala.

Along the way, I had many adventures. India is a great country and I saw some incredible sights. I also met many very cool people everywhere I went. However, it is an exhausting place to travel, especially when you travel – as I do – very cheaply, going by local bus and staying in hostels. Although I had enjoyed seeing the country, by the time I  got into my final week there, I had lost the interest to venture further. I had had my fill of temples, of mountains, of culture. I was ready to sit by the beach and relax.

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Varkala Beach

Fortunately, the beaches on India’s west coast are far nicer than the ones on its east coast. On my journey, a few travellers suggested I visit Varkala (emphasis, contrary to what you might think, is on the final syllable). I took my last long bus journey south from Kochi to Varkala, and holed up for two nights at Pagan’s hostel, not far from the beach. It was very nice but I soon switched to a private room at Sunrise Guesthouse on the cliffs.

Varkala is a tiny town on a series of cliffs, with a few small beaches dotted here and there. Getting down to them means finding the steep steps, if there are any, cut into the sides of the red cliffs, or walking until the land naturally slopes down to meet the sea. The main part of town is located above a nice white sand beach and  divided into North Cliff and South Cliff. Most of the businesses there are run by Tibetan exiles and a few folks from Kashmir or Nepal. Stretching out along the eroding coastline are rocky beaches and little fishing villages that meet stagnant backwaters – a famed type of scenery in Kerala state.

Backwaters north of Varkala
The backwaters.

The wildlife captivated me from my first day to the last. Where in Scotland you might see seagulls or pigeons, in Kerala there are huge brahminy and black kites swooping overhead. They are majestic animals, yet common enough to almost be pests. You simply can’t go anywhere without seeing them. I spent much of my time shooting photos of them along the cliffs:

In addition to these huge birds of prey, I saw a number of other cool animals. While watching the birds one day, a dolphin jumped clear out of the sea in front of me! I spent the next days hoping it would happen again so I could shoot a photo, but it never did. I did, however, repeatedly see up to 15 dolphins swimming near the beach. While swimming at a beach five kilometers north of town, I also saw a small shark being washed onto the beach by a large wave. Thankfully, it managed to wriggle back into the sea without my help.

Mostly, though, I walked around town meeting nice people, admiring the scenery, watching the fantastic sunsets, and reading my books.

I also enjoyed big breakfasts looking out over the sea each morning:

Although it was tempting to push on and explore further, once I arrived in Varkala I realized I would be there until my time in India came to an end. India is a huge country, just amazingly vast in physical size as well as cultural diversity. I’d only seen a small part, but it really does take a lot of time and effort to get about. Besides, as I’ve said in previous posts, sometimes when you travel, you need to leave things behind for your next trip.

And so, early one morning, I set off in a taxi (no more buses for me) to the airport at Trivandrum, heading for my next destination: Sri Lanka.

Posted in travel

Confusing Colonialism in Cochin

I have long been interested in colonialism, and in particular the history of British India. Perhaps it was being raised in a culture that – although it no longer celebrates colonialism and, in fact, often looks back with shame – still venerates certain products of the era, like Rudyard Kipling and his beautiful stories from the subcontinent. Or perhaps it was because I studied history at university. Although it goes without saying that I cannot support the occupation of one country by another, there is still something oddly romantic about that time in history, and I often find myself thinking about it. I have travelled a great many of Britain’s former colonies, from the United States to Myanmar, and from Zimbabwe to Sri Lanka. I always find myself wondering what it was like back then.

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Much has changed, but the sunset would have been just as beautiful centuries ago.

Of course, it was not just Britain that had an empire, and it’s easy to forget that when looking very briefly at history. We tend to think of “British India” and of pompous white men in pith helmets and absurd mustaches teaching the “natives” cricket. Yet the French were here, too, and the Portuguese. The Dutch, naturally, had their own outposts, and even the Danish tried their hand at the colonial game. In fact, the British were merely the winners in a scramble for influence and power in a part of the world that was already being contested by various forces.

One can feel this mix of history in Kochi, formerly known as Cochin, and sometimes even known as Ernakulam. Its role as a port city, from which India’s bountiful supply of spices were shipped out to the world, goes back centuries to trade with the Arab states. In 1500, the Portuguese showed up, and three years later they took Kochi by force. It wasn’t long until the Dutch leveled the city and took it from the Portuguese, and later the British sent the Dutch packing and took it for their own – or rather, they manipulated the local rulers to make it essentially a vassal state. The result is, at least in the historical center of the city, a bewildering mix of cultures and monuments to the past. There are mosques, churches, temples, and synagogues. There are Muslim districts and a long street called “Jew Town.” There is British colonial architecture and a Dutch Palace that is neither a palace nor was it even built by the Dutch! It is schizophrenic town, a place with serious personality disorders, and yet it is absolutely charming.

My arrival in Kochi came after – you guessed it! – a long bus ride. By now I was very much used to these sorts of journeys and I actually quite enjoyed watching the scenery as we zigzagged through Kerala, a state that calls itself “God’s Own Country.” I arrived on the outskirts of town and needed to transfer via a local bus and a ferry just to get to the historic old town, where my hostel was located. Again, I was beginning to enjoy the hassle as a means of seeing more of India. At the ferry port, I was treated to the sight of a man beating a two meter long snake to death with a bamboo pole in front of a group of stunned children. Only in India…  or to put it in a more modern way, #indiaproblems

After checking in, I set out for a stroll along the waterfront, first admiring the huge Chinese fishing nets at the north of the island, and then watching the sun go down over the Laccadive Sea. Brought to India centuries ago by Mongolian traders who passed through China, the fishing nets are lowered by massive wooden levers into the water just off a small beach. It takes several men to lift them back out of the water, even if there are no fish inside. They are still operational, although it doesn’t seem like they actually catch many fish. Several operators charge tourists to help out with the lifting as a way of making some extra cash. “Come do my fishing for me, white man! It’ll make a great selfie for your Instagram!” Tourists cluster to take photos, although the background now is of a giant oil refinery, which rather ruins the ancient allure of the scene.

On the beach, people all pose for photos. I hate to sound like a crotchety old man, but I don’t understand why photos are now the point of any excursion, rather than a happy by-product of it. All across India, as well as most of Asia, it seems people now simply go to a beach or a park in order to take photos of one another. I watched a group of ten young men pose for more than an hour before leaving. They did nothing except take photos of each other. Half the time they were pretending to walk along the beach while a friend shot this nonchalant image, and yet no one actually bothered to do any walking just for the sake of walking! Back in Kodaikanal I saw families putting their children on trees and taking photos that will look oh so fucking adorable on Facebook, but it was all set up to make it look like they just caught the kid playing on the tree and captured the moment. The kids never actually got to play on the trees, though. I read recently that we are now in an “experience economy” where rather than collecting things, people collect experiences. This all sounds true until you realize that they aren’t even experiencing anything; they’re just getting photos to show off on social media the same way the previous generations bought new TVs and ornaments for their house.

The next morning I took a stroll around the town. Kochi is very different from other Indian cities in that its narrow streets are rather clean and quiet. They are not clean and quiet compared to, say, most cities around the world, but they are more relaxing to explore than most of this hectic land. Having already seen the northern tip of Fort Kochi, I ventured into the middle of the island and then over to the eastern shore. While the north is very touristy, most of the rest is just a normal town and most of the buildings are occupied by companies that deal in small-scale manufacturing. Halfway down the east side is an area called Jew Town, centered around Jew Town Road. I thought the name was rather offensive, myself, but then perhaps that is my delicate liberal sensibility. It just seems like they could’ve gone with something more neutral, like “Little Israel” or even “the Jewish Quarter.” Jew Town sounds a bit blunt to my ears.

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At the top of Jew Town is a rather non-descript building called the Dutch Palace. I wasn’t hugely interested, but when I saw that entry was only five rupees – incredibly, it was the same price for both foreigners and Indians – I ventured inside. It was now a museum, but once upon a time it was built by the Portuguese as a gift for the local nobility. (That’s right, the Portuguese; not the Dutch. They just restored it many years later.) This was intended to keep the peace between the Europeans and the locals, after the Portuguese and looted a temple and pissed off the Kochi maharaja. The building then is a mix of 1500s European and Indian architecture and art, and while it looks like a contender for World’s Most Boring Building from the outside, inside it is rather charming. It is also furnished with enough information, displayed in three languages, to keep you there for an hour or more, even though it is quite small.

As I walked around, I noted how each of the Kochi maharajas became less and less powerful as European influence grew. In the beginning, the Portuguese were eager to appease the local powers, but by the time the British came onto the scene, they had figured out how to play the politics game, and soon had the royals fighting among themselves while clamoring for British support. In the portrait gallery and other photographs, you can see how the royals became more influenced by British trends until, in the late nineteenth century, everyone took to wearing British clothing. It is funny that this actually occurred after the notorious Indian Mutiny, and not long before the move for independence began to take hold. It seems that the Brits were reluctant to Anglicize and Christianize India, and yet that’s exactly what happened, even after they took an official policy to avoid it happening. Independence has only sped up the process. Looking around India today, or at least the south where I have travelled, one could be forgiven for thinking that it is a Christian country more so than a Hindu one.

Posted in travel

On the Tiger Trail – Periyar National Park

From Munnar, I took yet another overcrowded bus on an unnecessarily long journey south to the town that is known as both Kumily and Thekkedy. All across India, I had encountered towns with multiple spellings or pronunciations, and even ones with names so difficult that they were normally just abbreviated (like Tiruchchirappali, which is thankfully just known as Trichy), but here at the gate to Periyar Tiger Reserve, two names are given for the one little town.

Kumily, as I shall call it, is a tiny little town comprised of gift shops, tour guide offices, and hotels. Pretty much all private residences also function as homestays, and anyone not employed in the above places drives a rickshaw for a living. The reason is simple – Periyar Tiger Reserve, which is located right on the edge of town, is a huge draw for tourists across India and abroad. Although your chances of actually seeing a tiger here about as great as the likelihood of seeing the Dalai Lama while wandering through the Himalayas, people nonetheless flock to this little national park that straddles the border between the states of Kerala and Tamil-Nadu. With a population of around forty tigers, as well as some one thousand elephants, it is certainly the region’s premiere destination for viewing wildlife.

I arrived and walked about two kilometers to my homestay – a nice little house on the edge of the forest, run by a polite elderly couple. From the offset they seemed utterly determined to help me enjoy my time in Kumily. They were almost aggressive in their friendliness, in fact. After being shown to my room and told that I must take a rest, they attacked me with cups of tea and advice about what to do, and then booked four days of activities for me after negotiating slightly lower prices than advertised. “You just tell me whenever you’re hungry, David,” the old woman told me. It sounded like a threat, and I got the impression that I might end up being held down and force-fed at some point during my stay.

The first stop on my itinerary was a spice garden. Kumily – and in fact much of southern India – is covered with these little plantations. They are basically just spice farms that have been turned into tourist attractions in order to boost profits since the Kings and Doges of Europe tend to go to Tesco for their cinnamon instead of having it shipped directly from India. Nowadays, friendly tour guides will take you around and show you where your cloves and cardamoms come from, and what pepper and nutmegs look like when they are growing. It is, in fact, absolutely fascinating, and visitors are encouraged not just to look but to grab a handful of each plant and have a good taste or sniff.

A heavily pregnant woman, who told me she was on her last day of work before maternity leave, guided me and two Indian families around the garden, giving us copious details about every plant. Her knowledge of botany was rivaled only by her ability to deal with the Indians, who treated her with the sort of rudeness I’d never before seen. It was so unbelievably casual that they were almost friendly in how they abused and belittled her. It was India’s infamous caste system in action.

The next morning, I was up at four o’clock for a full-day tour of the local national parks. Bleary eyed, I stumbled into a jeep with my guide – a young man who spoke relatively little English and sped off into the night with awful music blasting from the radio. We tore through the dark country roads until we arrived at the entrance of a neighboring national park a little before six.

“The office opens at seven-thirty,” he told me. “You want to sleep?”

I wondered why we had to leave at four o’clock if we were going to arrive an hour and a half early. Couldn’t I have just slept longer at home instead of, as he seemed to be suggesting, the back seat of a small jeep?

I sat patiently until seven-thirty, at which point the guide went in to get my ticket. He came back out and told me that we just had to wait a little longer – for what, I had no idea. Next, he asked if I wanted breakfast, which was really code for him wanting breakfast. Why couldn’t he have eaten during the time we were waiting for the office to open?

It was nine o’clock by the time we got moving. I had been awake for five pointless hours. This had better be a bloody good tour, I thought.

We set off into the park, a vast expanse of dense forest with only tiny roads and a number of reservoirs to remind you that humans sometimes come here. There were two tour jeeps and four private cars. In the other car was an elderly couple from Scotland who liked to complain about anything and everything, which was fine because I have the same hobby. The other cars were filled with friendly but idiotic Indians who I think were disappointed that the park was not divided up into enclosures like a zoo.

That was it for visitors; the park only allowed six vehicles each day. The cars took off at speed, beeping their horns as Indians are inexplicably wont to do, chasing away all the wildlife to ensure that no one would see a damn thing. It probably didn’t matter, though. My driver drove too fast and had little in the way of a knack for wildlife spotting. This was a skill I’d developed during my many safaris in Africa. I saw several sambar deer by the road that he missed, and a number of interesting birds. When we did see something, he was unable to tell me what it was, and gave me all of five seconds to have a look before he took off again. I was decidedly unimpressed.

Thankfully, during the day my driver had the idea of closely following the other jeep, whose driver spoke fluent English, had a wonderful sense of humor, and knew the flora and fauna of the region as you might expect from someone employed as a guide. We were able to latch on to his finds and whenever we stopped, I would strain to hear what he told the elderly couple in his vehicle. Instead of “It’s a bird,” he would explain the mating and migratory habits of the Malabar hornbill. He would point out tracks and scents, and lead us off trail to spectacular viewpoints. Meanwhile, I was surprised my driver could manage to operate the vehicle at all. He didn’t seem to have the requisite intellect for moving different limbs at once.

By the end of the day, we had seen a number of fascinating birds, a family of bison, and honestly not that much else. The park was incredibly beautiful, but the thick forest that protected the animals made it hard to actually see them from the road. I didn’t mind, of course. I was happy to see that such a place existed in an otherwise grossly overcrowded country. There were places where wild animals could live as they were meant to, and I was honored to get close to them – even if I couldn’t actually see many.

The next day I went on a trip into Periyar itself, where my small group hiked for about ten kilometers to a little lake, and then rowed a bamboo raft for half an hour. Along the way, we got within a few hundred meters of some elephants and saw various signs of tigers – like scratches on trees and paw prints in the mud. We were accompanied by several former poachers who had an intimate knowledge of the local wildlife and showered us with useful information. There was also one man who, thankfully, didn’t have a background in poaching as he was armed with a pump-action shotgun. He explained that if we were attacked by a rogue elephant, he would fire it into the air.

“Have you ever had to use it before?” I asked.

“Oh yes!” he laughed, looking very proud.

Later that day, in another part of the park, a ranger was caught unawares by a sloth bear, who was evidently quicker than its name suggests. The bear snuck up behind him and ripped one of his eyeballs out. Everyone seemed very excited about this and not at all worried for the ranger or indeed the possibility of it happening again.

On my third day I took an even longer hike around the park with a group of four other tourists. We mostly climbed over hills on the border between the two southern Indian states during an enjoyable six hours of walking. Again, we got up close with some elephants, saw more bison and sambar, and a huge variety of birds. But, as was expected, there was no tiger sighting.

I didn’t feel much frustration at not seeing a tiger in the wild. I have been incredibly privileged in my life to go on a number of safaris, nature hikes, and even just boat rides into the world beyond human habitation. I have seen lions and leopards, sharks and whales, and a great many of the most amazing species on our planet. Tigers are elusive. They are good at hiding, and that’s probably the only thing keeping them alive right now. All over the world, wherever tigers live, they are under threat. If it were easy to see them in their natural habitat, they would have been wiped out long ago to make fake Chinese medicine and provide trophies for men with small penises.

I would still like to see a tiger in the jungle, but it would not happen on this Indian trip. That’s ok, though. When travelling, you should always leave something unseen or undone. That way, you have a good reason to come back in future.