I’ve now finished my world tour and am back in the UK. It’s fabulous to see my family and friends again even if adjusting to the English winter is a bit of a challenge . . . thank you so much to everyone for reading the blog and for all your comments, it’s meant a lot to know that you’ve been following all my adventures! See you all soon xx
I’m writing this from Kochi, a rather gorgeous port looking out towards the Arabian Sea. There’s a tiny beach, a seaside promenade and lots of nice cafes – just my kind of place!
Kochi is near to the region’s famous backwaters, a network of waterways connecting the tiny villages that make up inland Kerala. Travelling by punt along the little remote canals was a completely wonderful experience – drifting under rows of coconut palms, spotting kingfishers and wild peppercorns on the canal banks.
Wayanad wasn’t on my original Kerala itinerary, but I decided to travel there from Tiruvannamalai after getting an invite from another of the houses run by the Grace & Compassion sisters. And I’m so glad I did, as it’s definitely up there on the list of “most beautiful places I have ever visited” (jostling with Norway and Ladakh for the top spot). The landscape is extravagantly, improbably green and covered with foliage – even the main roads look like a botanical garden:
The landscape is dotted with tea plantations, rice paddies and waterfalls:
Quite simply a magical place.
As I head towards the end of my Indian adventures, I’ve arrived at a place that unexpectedly and movingly feels like home. I‘m in Tiruvannamalai (hint: pronounce the “Tiru” and the “lai” confidently and bus drivers will get the gist), staying at the Grace and Compassion Priory. My grandmother has volunteered for many years at a residential home in Bognor Regis run by sisters from this order, and I’ve known the nuns there for as long as I can remember, so there was no way I could come all the way to India without visiting the order here.
I was welcomed with open arms by sisters asking excitedly about me and my family and declaring that they met me in Bognor Regis when I was this high. Since then I’ve visited temples and ashrams in Tiruvannamalai and have been shown round the hospital, nurses’ training college, residential home, crèche and craft training school that the order runs here. I’ve also been spoiled rotten by the nuns and have eaten an enormous amount of delicious Indian food and sweets, all of which is threatening to counteract the effects of my (hitherto very effective) “India diet” . . .
I’ve spent a really pleasant few days in Hampi, alternating energetic bursts of sightseeing by bicycle with a reasonable amount of lazing around by the banana plantations and the river.
Hampi is a World Heritage Site covered with ruins from the 15th and 16th centuries, when it was a large metropolitan centre. The ruins (which are scattered over a weird, boulder-strewn landscape a bit like Jurassic Park) include temples, palaces and elephant stables.
The Hindu festival of Dussehra has been taking place this week, and I’ve bumped into some excitable parades while I’ve been here, involving drumming, dancing, Hindu gods and two extremely glamorous elephants!
I’ve spent a lot of time on Indian trains over the last month or so, including an epic 39-hour and 2147km journey from Delhi to Karnataka. Luckily, Indian sleeper trains are amazing!
I love the sensation of going to sleep in one place and waking up in another. Or not waking up – on more than one occasion I’ve been awoken by a helpful fellow passenger telling me that the train’s arrived and if I don’t get a shift on I’ll be on the way back to where I started . .
The trains themselves are also fab – I am a big fan of the the little berths that you snuggle down into overnight (which are perfectly Fran-sized, although I’m not sure what you do if you’re any taller than me) and of the cute packet of clean linen and blankets supplied to each passenger.
The trains are really sociable places as the sleeping berths are grouped in compartments of four or six beds. I’ve met lots of fellow backpackers to hang out with as well as Indian travellers intrigued by a British woman travelling through India on her own. “Ah,” concluded one guy on my most recent sleeper train sagely. “No friends.”
On lots of the trains, food and drink sellers turn up at various points, each one shouting out what he is selling as he wanders up and down the carriage. More often than not there’s a tea man, intoning “chaichaichaichaichai” like a mantra, and offering tiny, delicious cups of tea for Rs5 a cup. If you’re really lucky, there’s a Dairy Milk man (my personal favourite). On my extremely long train journey this weekend, the food and drink sellers surpassed themselves – on offer to hungry and thirsty passengers were cold drinks, tea, coffee, lassi, tomato soup, samosas, sandwiches, ice cream, chips, crisps, chocolate, pomegranate seeds, biscuits, fried spicy potato cakes (highly recommended), caramelised pumpkin sweets from Agra (not at all recommended), vegetable biryani, vegetable omelette and vegetable cutlets. Yum!
Well, I got a bit delayed in Delhi this week fighting off evil germs. The good news is that I am now fully recovered and setting off on the loooooong train journey to Karnataka this afternoon . . .
I have managed to fit in a bit more Delhi sightseeing as well, including the beautiful Qutb Minar, once the heart of the old city of Delhi in the 12th century:
Jaisalmer is the place to go if you want to jump on a camel and head off into the Great Thar Desert, and that’s just what I’ve been doing over the last couple of days:
We set off in a Jeep from Jaisalmer in the morning and drove into the desert to meet our camels. After trekking all day (with a break for lunch and a siesta), we headed towards beautiful sand dunes where we watched the sun set.
In the evening we ate a delicious (and enormous) meal of vegetarian curry, dhal, rice and chapati, cooked on the campfire by our lovely “camel-men” Abdullah and Harish. We slept under the stars on camp beds, then watched the sun rise over the desert with a nice cup of chai before heading back to Jaisalmer.
Camel riding is very relaxing, if not the most comfortable experience ever! My camel, the rather eccentrically named “Johnny Number One”,didn’t seem too keen on my attempts to steer him but was very happy to pose for pictures:
On the last day of my Rajasthan adventures, today I’ve been visiting Jaisalmer Fort and the Jain Temples, and admiring the colourful pictures of Ganesh painted all over the walls in Jaisalmer:
Tonight I take the sleeper train to Delhi and then on to South India, which promises to be a different world once again . . .
Jodhpur is known as the Blue City, thanks to its indigo-tinted buildings:
It’s also the home of the magnificent and impregnable Mehrangarh Fort:
Another of Jodhpur’s claims to fame is the delicious saffron-scented makhania lassi:
And last but by no means least, it will be forever enshrined in my heart as the place where I got up close and personal with my first elephant!
I’m writing this from Delhi, where we’ve spent the last few days. We’ve managed to fit in some sightseeing in between serious retail therapy, visiting the Bahai Lotus Temple and the Gandhi Smriti (site of Gandhi’s assassination in 1948).
My favourite place in Delhi so far, however, is the tomb of the Mughal emperor Humayun. We visited yesterday evening and watched the colours of the red sandstone and white marble change as the sun set, whilst the sound of qawwali singing echoed from a nearby Sufi shrine.