Category: INDIA

Taj Mahal – well worth visiting

Taj Mahal – well worth visiting

I wondered if the Taj was worth visiting – after all I’d been before. Yes, for me it was well worth visiting –  but this remains my favourite photo from my first visit.

Water buffalo working at the Taj Mahal – early morning and the marble has a pinkish tinge

Did you know the Taj Mahal gardens are only a tenth of the size they were in the days of Shah Jahan? Designed primarily as Gardens of Paradise, they planted fruit trees for harvesting and which contributed towards the upkeep of the Taj Mahal.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The trees – in the gardens now – are not of Mughal origin but a legacy of the British. During the British Raj, Lord Curzon initiated the restoration of the Taj Mahal after it had fallen into disrepair and made renovations to the lawns and surroundings.

Visiting the fifteenth century Taj Mahal for the second time was just is great as the first time.  As you know it’s a mausoleum, built on the south bank of the Yamuna River in Agra.

A combination of Indian, Islāmic and Persian styles it was commissioned by the Emperor Shah Jahan and he dedicated the building to the memory of his beautiful queen Mumtaz Mahal.  The Emperor died 23 years after the tomb for his wife was competed and he too is buried there.

My boatman

Some of the facts I heard while there were:

  • Over 1000 elephants were used to haul the construction materials.
  • Over thirty different types of gemstones decorate the Taj
  • Many types of marble were used – from Afghanistan, Sir Lanka, Saudi Arabia, and China.
  • The marble walls seem to change colour over the day – in the morning it seems pink, white during the day, while in the moonlight, it apparently seems golden.

I saw the Taj from about four different places: from beside, and on, the river; from the fort;  from nearby gardens, and inside the walls: my favourite view is from the river.

As I’ve said before – you will love India or hate it … this last trip was my fourth or fifth yatra to this diverse, tasty and colourful country

Birds on a misty morning below the Taj Mahal
Our first view of the Taj Mahal from inside the fences
Encounters with creatures in Udaipur, India

Encounters with creatures in Udaipur, India

In India, architectural heritage is often linked to the major religions of the country: Buddhist stupas and monasteries; Hindu and Jain temples in  many styles – many share structural characteristics such as stone columns and horizontal blocks carved with sacred imagery or decorative motifs sculptures of the vast pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses are everywhere the various deities have many manifestations which becomes confusing as their names, like many Indian cities, are interchangeable.

Udaipur, Rajasthan, is a fairy-tale city with marble palaces and lakes – and I will blog about them later. In the meantime, here is a slideshow (23 pics) some of the local wildlife.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

Are there negative impacts to tourism?

When you travel to less developed countries, you might think that just by being there you’re helping give a better quality of life for the locals. Seems you, we,  could be wrong.

Just $5 of every $100 you spend stays local and  after searching I found the United Nations Environment Programme reference to the negative impacts of tourism here.

NOTE Seems the above  UNEP link is broken or has been removed  see  this one instead about sustainable tourism

Tourism is one of the most powerful change agents on Earth and we consumers must vote with our wallets and support local people with local businesses.”

I blogged about this issue (first published in a newspaper column) some years ago and reprint it here. I’ve also written a small book on the same topic A Love Letter to Malaysian Borneo  – and if you have read it I’d really value a review on Amazon or Goodreads. 🙂

Here’s that column I wrote . . .

What is an eco-tourist? Ecotourism?

Like Asians need rice, Italians love pasta, British their curry, and us Kiwi’s love fish and chips, I need to travel and being a traveller who writes means I get to visit where I want to go to rather than have to go the destination flavour of the month.

This means I’m often in places that are not on the tourist trail. As a slow traveller I can stay longer and get to know people, to absorb the local culture and flavour. This also means that although I don’t always sign up for an eco-tour, I practise many of the principles of ecotourism. But what is ecotourism – a word that’s often thrown around and frequently means nothing.

My understanding of the word and the concepts behind it are that’s it an activity that has minimum impact while providing maximum benefits to the locals.

I believe independent travellers are most likely to be the closest to being real eco travellers. They leave much of their travel money in the country while those who travel on tours often have paid for their whole trip before they leave home – giving very little to the country they are travelling in but adding huge costs – in water, sewerage, rubbish, roads.

Worldwide many places say they are providing an ecotourism experience but is that really so? It seems that as long as it has a nature component many claim it to be eco-friendly. That has not always been my experience.

Life on an Asian marine reserve sounds wonderful right? A great eco experience? Yes the natural sites and walks are fantastic; money spent on food and accommodation does stay with the locals providing it. Unfortunately, the big money is creamed the off the islands in diving lessons given by Europeans who come in for the tourist season then  leave, taking the money with them. Because of the lack of a robust infrastructure, the rubbish – that travellers complain about – is bought to the island by them: water bottles are not refilled, plastic bags and straws are left on the beach.

Have travel agents sold us too narrow views of places to visit? Given us a list of sights we ‘must see’ or activities to take part in? This produces problems all over the world with buses arriving in droves, disgorging visitors and fumes to see wonderful pristine or historic sights.

It reminds me of Lake Louise in Banff, Canada, where I too was a body disgorged from a bus to see the great views. I have proof that I was there – a photo of me sitting alone with the lake and mountains as the backdrop – it looks idyllic. However I know that beside me, waiting for their turn to have the moment recorded, is another busload of chattering travellers.

The problems of being poured into these tourist funnels will continue if we rely on unimaginative travel agents (and of course not all are) and the forceful marketing of those who have invested in areas. While it is more economical for planes and hotels to have us arrive together and stay in the same places it also creates problems for them – not the least is the strong chance of killing the goose that lays the golden egg such as the warning in the child’s story.

This is not a new problem. Read books written years ago and the same complaints are made. Tell others you are going to Bali (or Timbuktu) and immediately you will be told “you should have gone there ten (2, 5, 50 years ago,) before it was discovered.”

So, what can we travellers do?  I don’t know what you will do – what I do is travel slow, travel cheaply, and use local products when I can.

So, by combining the universal codes of pack it in pack it out and take only photos, leave only footprints, along with getting off the well-worn tourist trails means I’m able to enjoy my travels with a clearer conscience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Best homestay in Northern Kerala – Kannur Beach House

Best homestay in Northern Kerala – Kannur Beach House

The Kannur Beach House is a genuine homestay and owners Rosi and Nazir are your perfect homestay hosts: eating with their guests, at the communal long table, every morning and evening and willingly share their knowledge about local traditions, Malabari cuisine,  and places to visit when they’re asked. As another guest said to me, ‘this is a little slice of heaven.’ I agree. 

This has been a family home for about hundred years and around 2000 they built a replica building, alongside the original, to use for guests.

This is a must book beforehand stay as they have 6 rooms and many guests  – who often have stayed with them before, and many like me, stay for a week or more – so, for much of the time they are full, which is of course a great endorsement. I will willingly return here to do all the things I missed out on – I was there for a week’s R&R over the Christmas period, so was happy to just, successfully, chill.

My balcony

On the Malabar Coast in Kerala, and overlooking a brackish lagoon and Thalassery beach, this beach-house was perhaps the first in the region.

Kerala is a colourful mosaic of green hills, coconut groves, rainforests,  , backwaters, and beaches. Interestingly, unlike much of India, most of the Hindu temples are not open to non-Hindu.

Watch this space for more stories about the Kannur Beach house, food, and of course, only in this area, Theyyam, a ritual dance glorifying the mother Goddess, and which is a mixture of dance, mime, and music.

See an earlier post of photos of some of the birds I saw from the grounds of this delightful homestay.

Learn Indian cooking – hands on – in Kerala, India

Learn Indian cooking – hands on – in Kerala, India

‘Stir faster’ I’m told –  it seems Indian cooking is not for sissies.  Jacob, my tutor, said he’s not a good cook which didn’t sound promising, but then went on to say he’s a great teacher which was encouraging.

This hands-on cooking course takes one to ten days and there is no standing back and watching – it is a learn-by-doing course.  I’m here for 3 days and a real asset is having Madhu in the kitchen.  He is a great cook – he is also an expert in preparing everything we need: chopping, measuring, slicing, dicing, peeling, blitzing, and blending the ingredients.  Even better, he cleans up after we’ve done the cooking and taken the glory!

But before the reflected glory, I’m still ‘stirring faster’ and now expect my right bicep to have developed centimetres and strength before I leave Kerala.

the kiwitravelwriter tries to stir faster !

Jacob had introduced me to all the ingredients for my first vegetarian curry – and that’s a trick I’m taking home – this way nothing is left out of the dish.

Ingredients are all in order

All the ingredients are lined up in order of use – each container with the exact amount needed.  This happens every time we cook – we know the name of the recipe, the ingredients, and how to cook it before starting.  In keeping with the learn-by-doing method, we’re not given the written recipe until the dish is complete.

A lawyer for some twelve years, Jacob returned to this family land where, as a solo dad, and with his widowed mother, he farmed Haritha Farm for a while and, impressed by Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, Jacob stopped using pesticides. ‘I’m not an ecocentric or big crusader’ he tells me, ‘I’m human first and just thinking about the next generation.’

The 6.5 acres of land had been in rubber for some ten years and he has slowly ‘. . . turned back the clock. I’m recreating the old Kerala – a small holding which is self-sufficient, plus some to sell’.  The land is now producing many fruits, vegetable, and spices, including coffee, coconut, ginger, banana, papaya, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric, and of course jackfruit, a regional, carbohydrate staple.  It’s also growing mahogany and bamboo.  The bamboo is good for holding water and land as well as a cash crop for scaffolding.  He calls it ‘do nothing farming’ and it seems to be working well.

Part of his self-sufficiency and diversified income stream, are four stand-alone bungalows set on the hill behind the main house which he built as homestay accommodation. Sitting on the patio up among the mature trees, birds and squirrels, I realise this is a different type of Indian tourism, eco-agro-cultural. Most cooking classes are show-and-tell, this is a dive-in-and-do-it course.

Over the three days I’m reminded to ‘cook slowly’, to ‘stir constantly’ and, to ‘always have a smile on your face.’  A pressure cooker is essential in an Indian kitchen and I’m also told, ‘cook for one whistle’, or two, or three, depending on the dish.

Evidently Kerala cooking is very much like the state – a fusion state he called it.  Over thousands of years trading and the mixing of diverse cultures –  Egyptians, Romans, Arabs, and Chinese – all who bought their religions and food. Coconut, originally from the Pacific, is an absolute staple in Kerala, while rice, another primary food was rarely grown here. Of course, the various churches, mosques and synagogues alongside Hindu temples also show its chequered past as a spice trader.

Pimenta Homestay is about 1 ½ hours inland from Cochin but a thousand miles away in atmosphere.  Starting the day with freshly ground coffee, grown and roasted there, Jacob ensures his guests have an authentic experience of the culture and flavours of Kerala.

In between eating and cooking guests are taken to various places and saw activities in the area: this of course changes with the seasons.  As well visiting farms and food markets, I also saw rubber bands being made in the middle of a rubber plantation; clay pots being made by hand; and the dying art of cotton-weaving. I especially loved watching men decorate trucks with a riot of bright floral motifs, miniature landscapes and messages such as, Save Oil Save India; Prayer is Power; and the common, noise inviting, Horn Okay or Horn Please.

Unlike many tourists’ tours around the world these day trips are personal with nothing for tourists to buy – just great interaction with locals who are rightly proud of their crafts. Well done Jacob, you exude generosity and warm hospitality along with the mouth-watering food lessons.

©Heather Hapeta 2018

 

 

Birds of Northern Kerala – while at the Kannur Beach House

Birds of Northern Kerala – while at the Kannur Beach House

Just some of the birds I enjoyed watching during my week at Kannur Beach House, with Thalassery Beach, a river, plus a brackish lagoon makes it ideal for birdwatchers.

Glass half full when travelling and the health benefits of a life on the road

Glass half full when travelling and the health benefits of a life on the road

The kiwi travel writer enjoys Fiji cruising

Are you a glass half-full, empty, or full-glass person when travelling?  My glass is full all the time – although on occasional days, minutes, or hours I have had an empty glass in a foreign country –  they are usually associated with tiredness.  A day off from being a traveller,  what I call ‘my housework day ‘ usually fixes it.

My travel-house-work-day consists of taking everything out of my bag, washing, sorting, throwing away unneeded stuff, reading, plus an afternoon nap works wonders.  It’s not possible to be a tourist for seven days in a row for a few weeks – just as if we had to work thirty days in a row in our regular employment.  By the last few days we would not be performing at our best.  Travel is the same – unless you only have a week, in which case you just have to suck it up princess (or prince) and make the most of every, minute, and hour of every day 😊

Those of you who follow me know I’m a great believer in an early and relaxed check in – I don’t want to have to rush to the gate and start that leg of my travel anxious – I use that time with my journal, social media, or a book – or now, my latest must-have, an audiobook.

eclectic reading  – now electronic too

There’s nothing like having a story read to you.  I just shut my eyes and be transported somewhere or even learn something.  I love that my local library has many, many, free audiobooks that I can check out no matter where I am in the world.  On my recent travels to India I listened, en-route, to The History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters ‘ by Julian Barnes. I’m sure I found it funnier in the audio version than I would have had I had it open in my Kobo (e-reader) or had a paper copy on my lap.  As you can see, I’m a promiscuous ‘reader’ in both form and topic.

I’m not alone as I’ve  had many, many people say how much they have enjoyed hearing me read an abridged version of  my book Naked in Budapest: travels with a  passionate nomad ,which has been broadcast on Radio New Zealand – and repeated a few times

Temple elephant: Ernakulam, Kerala

During my last week in Kerala, India and feeling the heat, during most afternoons I lay on my bed, under the fan, having two more books read to me – I can recommend both.  America’s First Daughter, a novel by Stephanie Dray, gave the added layer of a southern American voice and, A House for Mr Biswas by V.S. Naipaul also had a local accent.  These appropriate voices added an extra something which I enjoy.

I recently read a long piece “25 Science-Backed Health Benefits of Traveling” and the first three benefits  resonate with me … my immune system is great because I eat everything everywhere! My mind is pretty sharp – I was in the winning team at a pub-quiz a couple of weeks ago – and my stress levels are low.  Are these because my years of travel have added these health benefits? I don’t know.  It’s a bit like the Mark Twain question asking if travel make you broad-minded or do broad-minded people travel?  So, am I healthy because I travel, or do I travel because I’m healthy?

Who cares!  I’m going to keep travelling – and writing – about travel for the foreseeable future: as I often say “I want to be like me when I grow up!”

Drummer boy, Ernakulam

Upcoming stories, articles, and blogs, in my to-do pile include, a cooking school in India; up to my knees in water feeding stingray in Gisborne New Zealand; ethical travel; a day at the Taj Mahal; and seven days relaxing over Christmas at the Kannur Beach House.

So – watch this space and I’ll be back soon.

 

 

Birds, squirrels, and a monkey in New Delhi

Birds, squirrels, and a monkey in New Delhi

With a couple of free days in New Delhi, and having already visited many of the tourist sites on a previous visit this time was pretty laid-back, relaxing before I went to a conference. But first I have to check out the wildlife!

I left my hotel (and will write a blog about all my various and diverse accommodations I used in India later) and went to Lodi Gardens. My Uber driver got lost despite his GPS and when he dropped me off said ‘I was here last weekend and you will see black swans whites swans – they are beautiful.’  I had not imagined what sort of birds or animals I would see in New Delhi so assumed the swans were left over from colonial days.

Here are the photos of the birds and creatures I saw:

. . . as you can see, not a swan in sight!

Away from Lodhi Park I also saw one monkey, and a gaggle of geese at the cricket grounds at a private school.

hiding out only metres from my hotel

Flowers in Lodhi Garden, New Delhi

Flowers in Lodhi Garden, New Delhi

According to Lonely Planet this peaceful Indian garden in New Delhi was originally named after the wife of a British Resident, Lady Willingdon, who apparently had two villages cleared in 1936 to landscape a park to remind her of home!

True or not, today it’s named after the Lodhi-era tombs of the 15th century Bara Gumbad tomb and mosque, as well as tombs of Mohammed Shah and Sikander Lodi, and the Athpula bridge across the lake, which dates from Emperor Akbar’s reign.

The gardens were re-designed in 1968 and are well worth exploring – although it took my Uber driver his GPS and about three lots of directions by taxi drivers to find!

Evidently it’s one of the best jogging parks in Delhi and I saw school groups exploring, photographers, and people practicing yoga and meditation in the peace and quiet.

Later I will make a blog or two of the birds and other things I saw there.