Sunday, 13 January 2013

Southern Sunsets

Going through the photos I took in Goa and Kerala, Steve's and my last stops in India (and our travels together :( ), I found a huge number of sunset photos. These were so painfully stunning in reality that I couldn't resist putting lots of them here, even though they're unprocessed and straight out-of-camera.

Goa was, well, pretty exactly what we had expected and had been looking forward to for some time: gorgeous beaches without the overcrowding and concrete slabs so common on European beaches and in most holiday resorts. Palolem, near the southern tip of Goa, was to become our home for a few days - its temporary nature is due to the fact that all beachfront buildings have to be dismantled for the monsoon season. This means that all beachfront structures are made from wood, bamboo and canvas. 
Palolem Beach - fairly built up, but incredibly charming nonetheless. We were lucky in that there were unusually few people there for the Christmas season, meaning it was nice and quiet. Will most definitely be returning here - what a place to avoid all the Christmas build-up and cold!
 Most poignantly, we had a palm tree growing through a hole in our room, out onto the balcony and beyond - while admittedly somewhat inconvenient, it was actually thoroughly enjoyable that they simply built around it instead of just chopping it down. 

Steve and I on our £5/night beachfront balcony, with our personal palm tree growing through the wall from our room and many, many rum & cokes. Steve's holding the sign we wandered up and down the plane boarding queue with, looking for taxi-mates. We found some, although we ended up sharing a taxi with completely different people. Such is Goa. 
It was hot without being humid, and we had enough motivation to go for runs on the beach most mornings despite the occasional slight hangover (bottles of rum for £1.50 each, what can I say...). Most of the remainder of our days was spent with scooters, which we managed to hire for £3/day for two and with no documentation or drivers' license required. Having never driven any motorised vehicle before, this proved daunting at first but, thanks partly to Goa's quiet and gorgeous country roads, extremely fun very soon after. 

One of our trusty mopeds, en route to Turtle Beach.
 It was thus that we discovered Turtle Beach, or Galgibaga - not unlike Palolem Beach in size and nature, this place was completely devoid of people. Picture a mile-and-a-bit of pristine white-sand beach, and not a single person on it. This is thanks to the fact that protected turtles lay their eggs here, and all infrastructure is prohibited; the only restaurant and guest house had to be set up behind the trees lining the beach so as to be completely noninvasive. As such, Steve and I shared this little piece of paradise with large numbers of hermit crabs (and a topless sunbather).

Not actually Turtle Beach (hence the surfer in the background), but another quiet-ish beach we came across during our forays.
Galgibaga's other main strength was the ride there and back - this 30-minute ride was chock full of stunning scenery. This was one of the few places where I genuinely struggled to imagine ever being unhappy, simply because of where you are. Not easy to put into words, actually!
On the way to Turtle Beach...
And another, from a somewhat incongruous truss bridge in the middle of the jungle. Possibly the best non-sunrise/sunset colours I have ever seen, and sadly rather failed to capture here...
Our evenings in Goa were, for the most part, spent drinking cocktails, eating incredible seafood and moving on to rum and coke later. The Himalayan sunset from a few posts ago aside, I don't think I've ever seen any sunsets quite like the ones here, and certainly not with such regularity. Each evening was different, but all stunning - I've put together a quick selection here. Ion't think captions would add much - these all seem pretty self-explanatory...

This one just might be my favourite, almost looks like Jupiter has suddenly moved really close and taken up the entire sky. This just might have to be the giant photo print Helena got me for Christmas...

Not a whole lot to add here, I think. It probably comes as no surprise that we tried to prolong our stay in Goa by changing train bookings, but sadly this proved impossible. Still, we ultimately did look forward to heading down to tropical Kerala, even though our journey was hampered by a glacially slow (extremely stoned?) taxi driver who delivered our panicked selves to the station 15 minutes late. Of course, we needn't have worried - by this point we should have known that the train was almost certain to not be on time. Indeed, it ended up some 3.5 hours delayed so we had plenty of time to hang around the station, calm down and munch some Samosas.

Following a 16-hour train journey to Kochi in a carriage with the loudest gossiping, cackling gaggle of old Indian women you could possibly imagine, we headed straight up into the foothills of the Western Ghats range, to Munnar. Having escaped the muggy, tropical heat (or so we thought) on a deathwish bus ride up a narrow serpentine road, we decided to go for a little trek the next day. Munnar is famous for its seemingly endless tea plantations, mostly owned by the Tata corporation (which, aside from its better known steel and automobile branches, seems to dominate almost every conceivable industry in India). 

A standard road in Munnar - tea and tuktuks.
These are surrounded by cloud forest (higher-elevation rainforest) which, as the name implies, provides less-than-ideal conditions for taking photos. Or maybe it was just me that struggled with the omnipresent hazy mist that made strong colours all but impossible - trying for even slightly better lighting just washed out all colours even more. My best efforts (below) don't quite get across just how much like a slightly more rugged version of the Shire this landscape was, with its rolling hills and impossibly vibrant greens.

Tea everywhere - it grows quickly enough that each plant is harvested every 15 days. No wonder everything looks so lush!
Along little paths and through tea plantations and dense forest, our steps took us to a little homestay up in the hills where we spent a tranquil evening stuffing ourselves with fantastic curry and fruit and chatting to an Italian hippie and anthropologist-turned-documentary maker. This vegetarian fellow had spent the previous summer filming with a documentary crew in remote southern Siberia, where they'd apparently run out of food in the middle of nowhere and had to adjust their diet to include badgers, herons and other critters they happened to find and kill. I'm going to go out on a limb here, but I'm pretty this is the best travel story I'm likely to hear on this trip...

Some pretty jungle flowers - I like how these look like their middle is aglow, presumably due to the sharp difference in colour.
I like to think of this one as a compositional win, although it was mostly accidental!
Following Munnar, we returned to sea level to spend our last few days in this mad, maddening, beautiful country in Kochi. Southern India on the whole is a little less in-your-face and blatantly money-grabbing than the north, which made wandering around the touristy bits of this otherwise industrial city much more bearable. Here you can get into a tuktuk without much haggling and rest assured that you will be paying no more than 150% of the lowest tourist price, as opposed to the 500+% you'd be charged somewhere like Varanasi. This contributes to the generally more tranquil feel of Kochi, which retains some of its old-world charm in the tourist districts and the seaside. 

Old Chinese fishing nets in Kochi - horribly inefficient but endearing. They have been thoroughly replaced as the city's economic mainstay by whatever industrial contraption stands in the background.
A cool bit of street art in the old city - either one artist has been very busy there lately, or this is actually one of a series of street art made for tourists to take photos of; the colourful feathers appeared in a suspicious number of alleyways all around. Still - thought they looked pretty cool!
 So, that's that from India - with any luck I'll be able to catch up in my writing and be reasonably up-to-date from now on. 3-and-a-bit weeks was nowhere near enough to properly explore most of a country this size, but it has been a fantastic way of figuring out what parts of the country to revisit or devote more time to on future trips. For now, though, the return to the Western world was an extremely pleasant one. More soon - stay tuned!

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