Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Trying To Break Bread


According to the map Munnar was just over 160 kms from Ft Cochin; what it failed to show was the twisty curvy road that we had to share with dozens of other motorists, pedestrians, and the occasional sacred cow.  We thought that our early morning departure would put us high in the mountains by mid-morning, but as the kilometers slowly ticked by we realized that we would be lucky to arrive by lunch time. Just after 1:30 our driver dropped us off outside a small roadside stand, and before we could say a word he disappeared. We timidly entered the open door of the dusty, but popular feeding hole and held up two fingers. We were motioned to wait while space was cleared at a shared table. The four men, who sat in a row, briefly looked at us before two jumped up and moved to the other side of the table.
As we took our seat we smiled and nodded. Our dining companions returned the gesture, but for the next hour they acted as though we didn’t exist. A quick glance around the room confirmed that the majority of the other customers were having the set lunch. Since we had a limited time in India, and we wanted to make sure to try as many different foods as possible, we decided to stray from the flock and order from the menu. With “How To Eat In India” in hand we slowly made our way through the menu picking several plates  we were anxious to taste. By the time we were prepared to order, our server, who had already been by our table several times, had disappeared.  We were beginning to wonder if we had made a mistake by not going with the set lunch. Eventually he re-entered the room and we were finally able to flag him down. To assure that there were no miscommunications, Mark held up the menu and pointed at the menu as he ordered. We were quickly and brusquely told we could not order those plates until after 2. I tried to keep a straight face as I checked my watch and saw that it was 1:45.  Unsure of how to proceed, Mark began to randomly point at the menu, and with each request we got a “Not until 2.” Eventually the waiter informed us that we had 2 options--either the set meal or a Briyanna. We decided to go with one of each.
When our food arrived, I had to question whether the server had been replaced by a twin as he had gone from being surly to extremely friendly. He made sure that we understood all  the components of the set meal and how they were supposed to be eaten. Every few minutes he returned to check if we were enjoying the food and he filled  Mark’s plate with more. When he saw me tasting some of Mark’s condiments he brought me a plate of my own. If he had just been this helpful from the beginning, ordering would not have been such a drama. Perhaps it had been some type of test but, whatever the case, we had a full belly and were ready to tackle whatever the afternoon had to offer. As we  left the table we said good bye to our neighbors--who had not once looked at us during the ordering ordeal. Once we were far enough from the table we couldn’t help but comment on the variety of plates  they had been eating, none of which was offered to us, and all ordered before 2.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Only In Western Australia

This week's PhotoHunter theme is fluffy.

While visiting Tasmania we stayed at a B&B where the owner took us out for a nocturnal walk. We didn't come across any Tasmanian devils, but we did meet this fluffy guy--a Brushtail possum. The Australian possum is very distinct than those found in other countries. Supposedly the aboreal marsupials were named because their similarity to the opossum of  South America.  

Thursday, January 26, 2012

I Live In A Barbie World

It is Australia Day here Down Under. The temperatures in Perth will be climbing into the triple digits. However, we won't let the heat stop us from firing up the barbie, and cooking up some tasty chops.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012


When planning our trip to India we chose Bangalore strictly as an entry point to the country--a modernized city to spend a few days and acclimatize to our new surroundings. But it was the historic spice trade that drew us south (well that and the fact that the climate would be mild at the end of December).  As we planned our trip, we figured that since food is such an important part of our travels we needed to learn more about some of the key ingredients that bring the the taste buds to life. 


 After researching our options we decided that Fort Cochin, which according to the guide books is an idyllic little town on the shores of the Arabian Sea as well as a historically important port for spices, was the perfect place to begin our southern travels.
With Fort in its name I imagined an old forted city, something along the lines of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Instead we found a town whose distinctive flavor comes not only from the spices that have passed through its harbour, on their way to distant lands, but also from the colonial influence that has been left over centuries by the foreign traders.


As we meandered though town we passed the oldest church in India, houses decorated with hand painted tiles, a synagogue and Chinese fishing nets--all remnants of the Portuguese, Dutch, Arabs, Chinese and British. We strolled through a park and along the coast with hundreds of Indian holiday makers enjoying their Christmas Day. We were tempted by the freshly made cane juice, and nuts roasted in black pepper, but fears of Dehli Belly made us cautious. We imagined the smells that were locked behind the doors of the closed spice market. We sat on a terrace and enjoyed a fresh fish curry, one of my more memorable Christmas meals. 



As we watched the sun set, my only regret was that we had not given ourselves more time in Fort Cochin. A few hours had only allowed us to taste a small portion of the myriad flavors that the town has to offer. 


Saturday, January 21, 2012

Perfect

This week's PhotoHunter theme is bliss.

Mark and I found an isolated beach in Southern New Zealand for our picnic dinner--perfect!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Are We In The Right Place?

After a delayed flight, we arrived at the Cochin airport an hour behind schedule. We called into the very small tourist office, where after dragging the sole worker away from the television, we were provided a map. Without dragging his eyes from the soap opera on the TV screen the worker asked where we were staying. When we showed him the name of our hotel, he said we would be centrally located and able to walk to all of the sights that he quickly pointed out on the map.
Armed with a prepaid taxi voucher we stopped off at the ATM machine. For the 3rd time in a day I was unable to access any money. We weren't sure if it was because all of the machines were out of money, or if there was a problem with my card--I could only hope that it was the former.
The 30 kilometer ride to the city was another hair rising experience. The driver kept his hand on the horn as he maneuvered around trucks, rickshaws, cows and pedestrians. Before long we found ourselves creeping up and down a deserted street in search of our hotel. In Spanish Mark told me that this had to be the wrong place since there was no way that this industrial area could be the historic Fort Cochin that we had been shown on the map. I scanned the surrounding buildings in search of the India Air logo--the landmark the hotel had provided. Finally, with the help of the lone person on the street--we found our hotel. Perhaps, the hotel needs to update the directions provided to say behind the Shell Gas Station. 
We entered the foyer and were greeted by a decoratively lit Christmas tree and two smiling young men. After giving our name, it didn't take long for us to realized that there was something amiss with our reservation, even though we had our prepaid voucher in hand. I asked, hopefully, if we were at the wrong place.  After all, the foyer of the hotel in which were standing in looked nothing like the pictures featured on their web page, nor did it seem to live up to live up to the stellar recommendations that we had read on internet and we all know that the internet never lies. We were assured that we were at the right location, and were asked to take a seat. Eventually, and, after several phone calls, we were promised a room--but it would take a few minutes to clean up. 
Between the airport delay and this minor inconvenience our time in Fort Cochin kept getting shorter. Normally, we would have just left our bags and hit the road. However, because the 5 day private tour that we would be starting the next morning required payment in cash we were loaded with a two inch stack of rupees that we want to leave in the safe in our room.  So rather than sitting idly we decided to plan out our walk on the map. The Air India building (which I had yet to see) was not labeled on the map, so we approached the men at the desk to help us identify our starting point. To our dismay, we learned that we were not  in Ft. Cochin but 30 km away. Once again, I  asked if we were in the right hotel--a question that was repeated when we saw our safe-less room and also by the couple that arrived shortly after us. 
With money stuffed in every nook and cranny on our bodies we headed back to the desk to try and figure out how to get to the historic center of Fort Cochin. Eventually the driver who had brought the English couple from the airport agreed to take us, along with the English couple, to our destination and wait for a couple of hours. Mark and I were a bit disappointed since we had planned to dine in town; and honestly, the restaurant at the roadhouse--mean business class hotel where we were shad been dropped off at--didn't look too appealing. We asked about returning by public transportation and were told the ferry would be our best bet. I silently questioned why this wasn't an option for the trip there--was the driver in cahoots with the hotel staff?
After 13--not 30--kilometers we arrived in Ft. Cochin. After a quick stroll along the lively water front studded with hundreds of people we knew that we would not be returning to the hotel with our shared car. With a decision made, we agreed to tend to first things first and we went in search of the Ferry Terminal. We wanted to confirm the hours of operation and make sure it ran on Christmas Day.
A kilometer walk brought us to an alleyway that lead to the dock. We followed the dark and dirty passage way and at the end we found dozens of men queuing up to buy tickets. On the plus side, this was a sign that the ferry was running but it also looked like I would be having an interesting first experience with Indian public transportation. We found the schedule and confirmed that the ferry would be transporting people back and forth across the river long after my bed time.
Several hours later, we returned to the dimly lit passageway. The line was not as long as earlier and, to my relief, there were several other women around. We joined the queue and I began to mentally prepare for the journey that lay ahead--I wasn't too fond of the idea of an over crowded boat. I soon realized that the women were standing in another line and began to fear that the boat had separate areas for men and women, and that I would have to face crossing the river without my trusted travel companion. Once the initial panic passed, we realized that it was just a separate line to buy tickets--so I proudly flaunted my femininity (enhanced by the thousands of rupees stashed in my bra) and joined the shorter queue. Actually it was Mark's energetic pushing that got me into the much shorter line.
With tickets in hand we were soon on a crowded platform waiting for the boat. Anticipating the frantic shoving that would come with the arrival of the boat, I tried to situate myself at the edge of the mass of people. My strategic planning was of little use. as we were caught up in the swarm of humanity fighting its way through the small passage way onto the boat. Once onboard, we weaseled our way to the front of the boat away from the exit. We decided that in case of an emergency, we would head for the paneless window just at the bow of the boat.  
The packed ferry slowly made its way across the river. On the other side we did our best to keep back from the exiting surge of people. Unfortunately, since we were two of the last passengers to disembark there were no more taxis and we were faced with a kilometer walk to our hotel. We pulled out the map, hoping that we would be able to find our way to our hotel.



Wednesday, January 18, 2012

We had achieved our goal of visiting one of Bangalore's only touted attraction and were ready to head to the sanctuary of our hotel. We dug deep into our day pack to find a card that included the address and a mini-map. We figured that even if the little alleyway wasn't known, that the cricket stadium would be an icon recognizable by all--after all cricket is one of India's greatest pass-times.
Since we exited a side garden, there were not the hoards of rickshaws, and we were able to avoid any confrontation with our previous driver. There was just one lone guy, lounging in the back of his vehicle, but when we approached him he informed us he was occupied. (I am not sure if he meant he was waiting for someone, or if it was siesta time.)
We headed to the busier thoroughfare in hopes of flagging a ride down. The first guy we hailed took one good look at us, and barely glanced at the map before declining and leaving us in a smokey cloud. Ok, maybe it wouldn't be as easy as we had hoped, or perhaps the word was out on the street about the two westerners who couldn't be conned. With fingers crossed, we hoped we were at least heading in the right direction and we continued to walk down the street. Soon we stumbled upon a hospital, with not one but three rides out front. One of these guys had to be available: maybe, they would even start fighting about who would have the honor of separating us from some of  our stacks of rupee. Driver number one was so engrossed in his newspaper, that we headed towards the tall, lanky gentleman who sported a head of wild grayish hair and a mustache (a vision of a famous spanish literary character came to mind). We told him where we wanted to go and showed him the map. He held it for a brief moment before walking over to the dark, short, pudgy man who stood third in line. For several minutes we watched Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as they discussed the map--turning it left, right and upside down. With fingers pointing in several different directions, the drivers seemed about as confused as we were as to where we needed to go. Eventually they headed over to the first driver. He glanced at us over his newspaper, and he didn't seem too happy to be interrupted. He took one look at the map and though we couldn't understand what he was saying we could tell he was giving directions. When the rapid instructions ended number 2 gave a deep sigh and said "let's go." Of course we had one more question--the dreaded...How much? Once again number one was consulted, and at this point I am sure there was even a plea for him to take us.  But it was lucky number 2, with a 2 dollar quote, that would safely deliver us to our hotel.
We slowly began to work our way through the streets of Bangalore. The Christmas Eve traffic was thick but at least it was moving. As we headed towards the center of town we began to recognize familiar landmarks. At one point the driver turned at what I felt was the wrong direction, but who was I to say anything after a day showing my far from stellar map reading skills.
Thirty minutes into the trip the driver brought us to an abrupt halt, and pointed up a narrow street and said M.G. Street. To our dismay there were no familiar landmarks;  simultaneously Mark and I mumbled "oh shit". I reluctantly began to crawl out of the back of the vehicle, my only consolation being that we were in an upscale "hood" and I hoped we could find someone to help point us in the right direction. Suddenly Mark said "Wait, maybe we should not get out since this isn't where we asked him to take us." All I could say was "Come on, how are we going to get the driver with limited English and map reading skills-who is possibly illiterate--to find our un-kown hotel?"  As I stood on the corner waiting for Mark to settle up the payment, I scanned the area for a street sign.  I couldn't believe my luck; the driver may not have delivered us to our hotel but he had dropped us off right in front of one of the restaurants where I had wanted to eat. Of course, since I hadn't been able to locate the restaurant on the map, we were still lost, but at least I knew where we eating dinner.
In the end finding our hotel was easier than expected. Once we headed up to M.G. Road the iconic Cricket Stadium's lights glowed high above the city, and all we had to do was follow them to our hotel.