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8 December 2016 / leggypeggy

Messing around in a houseboat

Kerala houseboat with palms

A picturesque view of a Kerala houseboat

Houseboats in Kerala

A group of houseboats anchored at the bank

If you’ve read Kenneth Grahame’s delightful book, The Wind in the Willows, you might remember Water Rat’s comment to Mole. ‘Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.’

I can’t argue with his words, especially after several fantastic boat rides we’ve had on this trip in India.

We kayaked twice in Thattekad Bird Sanctuary (didn’t see many birds, but didn’t capsize either), had three boat cruises in the Periyar National Park (more soon about the animals we saw), and lazed away most of a day on a houseboat on Punnamada Lake in Alappuzha (Alleppey) in Kerala.

From the time we started this trip back in October, Deepti said we might be able to spend a day (or even a night) on a houseboat in Alappuzha.

Little did we know that houseboats (and boats in general) are a big industry in the community.

In the past, large boats plied the backwaters of Kerala, carrying people and cargo. They played an important part in trade, making a three-day journey to take rice and spices to the port of Cochin. But as road, rail and air transport improved, the boats, known as kettuvallams, fell into disuse.

Fetching water from Punnamada Lake

Everyone is after some water

Then about 25 years ago, the community realised the boats could be used for tourism. Today the houseboats and allied occupations provide one of Alappuzha’s main sources of employment. About 10,000 families benefit directly from the houseboats, and another 100,000 are indirectly dependent on it.

I was stunned to read that the city reckons 1600 tourists arrive everyday to go cruising on one of the 1200 houseboats on the water.

Not surprisingly, we were keen to be among the cruisers. We had a choice of going for five hours in the afternoon, including lunch, or an overnight stay, with meals and a comfy bedroom.

The backwaters are very calm and there’s not much in the way of birdlife. Plus houseboats are obliged to anchor at a bank overnight and only cruise for an additional hour in the morning. So we opted for the afternoon excursion.

It was amazing to see all the houseboats set out about noon. Every direction we looked, we could see scores of boats chugging along with waving tourists, the vast majority from India.

It tickled me to see that our three crew seemed to juggle interchangeable jobs. They took turns cooking, serving and steering. And they kindly let me invade the kitchen for a few pictures.

It was also fun to see village life being played out on the water and the banks.

Along the banks of the Punnamada Lake

Along the shore of Punnamada Lake

About the boats
As we cruised along we saw a couple of boats being built. Our crew explained that all the houseboats are constructed using ancient principles and techniques, and take about six months to complete.

The materials are eco-friendly, including bamboo poles and mats, ropes and thatch. The hull is made of wooden planks (they use a timber called Anjili) that are cut long and carved. These are tied together using coir, with coconut fibres packed in between. The framework is coated in a black resin extracted from boiled cashew kernels.

Tourist boats are fully furnished and typically include a sitting–dining room, an outdoor deck (sometimes on the roof), one to four guest bedrooms with modern toilets and a kitchen. We even saw a couple of two-storey ones.

Once completed, a boat lasts for several generations. I was interested to learn that no one is allowed to live on their houseboat.

A tragedy
With all these boats in one place, there’s bound to be a disaster. In early 2013, four people died when a houseboat capsized as passengers were being transferred from one boat to another. The boat tipped as the whole group of passengers moved to one side. Those who died were trapped in a room. Another 60 were rescued.

As far as I can determine, measures to increase safety have been recommended, but not implemented.

Oberoi houseboat

Our captain said a bedroom for two on this boat is almost A$4000 a night! Most normal boats cost under A$200 a night for two. We paid A$50 each for an afternoon. Bargain!


27 November 2016 / leggypeggy

Getting juiced up in India

sugar cane juice

Pouring sugar cane juice

Street food is common across India, especially in the north, and so are street drinks.

The two most common drinks are fresh crushed sugar cane and fresh lime soda and, of course, we’ve had both.

Our first one this trip was in a restaurant in Khan Market in New Delhi. Poor John noticed a sign that said 100 rupees for a fresh lime soda. It was blisteringly hot, so we went in and ordered two sweet–salted sodas, which were delicious. But imagine our surprise when the bill was for 333 rupees (almost A$7) instead of 200!

Turns out the posted price applies only to takeaway. The same drink inside the restaurant is 120 rupees and then there are all sorts of taxes in the big city. Sure reminded us that Khan Market is very upmarket!

Last week in Munnar we had lunch at Rapsy, a family-style restaurant, with one of the best sweet–salted fresh lime sodas we’ve ever had. Cost: 40 rupees each.

So what’s this sweet–salted business?

Your drink can be made just sweet, with several tablespoons of sugar syrup, or just salted, with a teaspoon or so of salt. Or you can order what we do, and have a combination of the two.

Our other best sweet–salted sodas were in Malvan near Tarkarli Beach. A woman had a tent set up on the sand and was making sodas to order. I noticed her when we were on our way to the island fort, and suggested we get drinks on the way back.

Making fresh lime soda

Adding pre-made sugar syrup

old ice chest

Derelict chest freezers keep the ice cold

We did exactly that, and I watched her process. First she shook salt into the base of the glass, then she squeezed in the juice of a lime, then she added sugar syrup and chunks of ice, and finally topped up the glass with soda water.

She stored huge ice blocks in two derelict chest freezers that most likely hadn’t worked for many years, and chipped off bits as she needed them.

I no longer remember the exact price but I think each drink was no more than 20 rupees (or about 40 Australian cents). Bargain!

Crushing sugar cane

Crushing sugar cane

We had similar luck with crushed sugar cane drinks.

We bought those the next from a small shop in Malvan.

The fellow ran the sugar cane stalks through a crusher about eight times—each time squeezing out more juice. Geez, that was nerve-wracking to watch, because his fingers often came dangerously close to the crushing teeth.

He then strained the juice through a fine sieve and poured the result into glasses. This was another bargain at about 15 rupees a serving.

We’ll be heading home to Australia soon, and I’ll definitely start trying to perfect the fresh lime soda (hope limes aren’t too expensive) but I have no idea when the next sugar cane juice might come our way.

If you love juices, check out my cooking blog for a recipe for a Brazilian berry juice—colourful and delicious.

25 November 2016 / leggypeggy

Thankful for amazing wildlife sightings

Sri Lanka frogmouths

Sri Lanka frogmouths—the female is on the right

Today was Thanksgiving in the United States (wishing everyone a happy one) and we certainly had a lot to be thankful for in terms of our activities, food and wildlife sightings in India.

It began with our second kayaking trip on the Periyar River in Kerala, followed by a splendid breakfast at our lodge, the Soma Birds Lagoon Resort. The rest of the morning gave us time to get caught up on photos and emails (this was one of the best internet connections we’d had in a month, even though it kept dropping out regularly).

Lunch was another feast (and the lodge staff didn’t even know it was Thanksgiving in the US).

But the best was still to come, and it had nothing to do with food.

Anand and Deepti arranged an afternoon bird-watching tour in the Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary. We arrived about 3:30pm and paid the entry fee. Then Deepti inquired about getting a guide.

Yes, yes, a guide is available for 1000 rupees (or $20 across five people). So the guide, Vinod, was booked.

Malabar trogon, male

A Malabar trogon shows off his colourful back

As soon as Vinod arrived, we set out on foot and he pointed out various kingfishers and cormorants. Marian wisely interrupted and explained that we’d seen plenty of both species. What we really want to see is the Sir Lanka frogmouth and Malabar trogon, she said.

Vinod eyes brightened and he said We need to go in your van. These species aren’t here. We need to travel to the other side of the sanctuary.

So we hopped in the van and raced (as much as you can race on narrow and bumpy roads) the 8 kilometres to the other side of the sanctuary.

We paid a second admission to the place and set out on foot.

Within 15 minutes, Vinod had led us to a roosting pair of Sri Lanka frogmouths.

Turns out it wasn’t quite as challenging a search as we thought. He’d been in the area earlier in the morning and had spotted the pair (and had also been confronted by a baby and mother elephant at the same time!).

According to Vinod, if these frogmouths are not unduly disturbed (especially by humans) they will nest in the same place/area for months at a time. so he pretty much knew where to look.

The Malabar trogons were a different matter. These birds are not endangered, per se, but they are extremely elusive. They live in dense forests and are hard, if not impossible, to spot.

Vinod wandered along the path and, from time to time, disappeared into the dense scrub. All the while he was mimicking the trogon’s cry or playing it on his phone.

Suddenly he motioned us to follow him. Then with whispering, pointing and waving, he managed to show us one trogon perched high on a limb.

So two magnificent sightings within an hour. What a gift of thanksgiving.

pair of Sri Lanka frogmouths

I can see you, but I’ll ignore you—Sri Lanka frogmouths

How clever science is helping frogmouths survive and multiply
According to Vinod, almost 20 years ago, the park rangers in Thattekkad saw frogmouth numbers declining. In the late 1990s, they reckoned only four to six breeding pairs still existed.

Research showed that the women who were collecting wood for cooking were using the bark from a certain branch to tie up their bundles of twigs. These happened to be the branches that frogmouths liked to sit on. This major disturbance affected roosting, mating and more.

So the rangers went to work explaining the situation and handing out strings to women gathering wood. It worked—sort of—but the best solution is that no most people cook with gas (so no need for wood). Frogmouths pairs in the area now number about 80.

A bit more about frogmouths and trogons
The Sri Lanka frogmouth occurs in Sri Lanka (obviously) and the Western Ghats of southern India. They usually live in pairs and grow to about 9 inches in height. They have great camouflage and resemble a bunch of dried leaves, which makes them extremely difficult to spot in the wild.

The Malabar trogons are more widespread in that they occur in Sri Lanka and Western Ghats, as well as parts of central India and the Eastern Ghats. They are brightly coloured, although their front is more colourful than their back (which is all that I managed to photograph). Their populations are declining because of forest fragmentation.

Malabar giant squirrel

Malabar giant squirrel

Other beasties
We saw quite a few other wild things, including kingfishers, cormorants, Malabar giant squirrels (and one being approached by a macaque monkey), interesting mushrooms, a millipede, a scorpion being confused by ants and a green imperial pigeon.

24 November 2016 / leggypeggy

Good news from Pench and sad news from Gir

Collar Valley, Pench

Collar Valley has reared 25 cubs. She was pregnant in this pic

Collar Valley
Collar Valley of Pench Tiger Reserve is going to make it into the next edition of the Guinness Book of World Records. This grand old lady has successfully reared 22 cubs to adulthood (she’s only ever lost one). Earlier this month, she gave birth to another three, bringing her live total to 25. This is a world record for Bengal tigers.

We spent quite a bit of time following Collar Valley last year when we were in Pench. We came upon her in the morning and watched as she padded through the forest. She wasn’t all that happy to see us because our vehicles blocked where she wanted to go. If I recall correctly, she was pregnant at the time with her previous litter.

She got her name from the fact that she was one of Pench’s collared tigers. Her old collar stopped sending signals quite a few years ago, and Anand says it fell off in the last year. Bet she’s pleased about that.

You can read about our time with Collar Valley here.

Male Asiatic lion, Gir, India

Could this be Maulana?

We were saddened to learn that Maulana, an iconic lion in India’s Gir sanctuary, died last week. At age 16, he was one of Gir’s oldest surviving lions. For many years, he and his brother, Tapu, reigned over a pride of 39 lionesses and cubs. He had been under treatment for the 10 days before his death.

We visited the sanctuary in Gujarat last year and were lucky enough to see numerous lions, including one adult male and some juveniles. Our group was travelled in two Gypsy (open 4-wheel drives) and the other group saw three different males: one older and two young ones. I wonder if any of us saw Maulana. The post about our visit to Gir is here.

P.S. There have been several other major losses in India’s animal kingdom since we arrived in early October. Ram, another lion of Gir, died earlier this month. He was also 16. A male, Kingfisher, died in Pench after a territorial fight with another male, Umarrani. But human behaviour takes the biggest toll. Across India, tigers are poached, poisoned and displaced by urban development. I saw a newspaper report that said a tiger is lost every 10 days.😦

P.P.S. On a lighter note. Given that this post covers births and deaths, I thought you might get a kick out of the fact that Australians have an amusing slang expressions for births, deaths and marriages—hatch, match and dispatch.

P.S.S We’ve seen a new tiger on this visit. I’ll be posting about Prince of Bandipur National Park soon.

19 November 2016 / leggypeggy

The gift of language

Indian school children

Language masters by school years 5 and 6

The other day in Bandipur, we had the good fortune to meet a lovely bunch of Muslim school children from Chennai (formerly Madras) in southern India. There were 70 boys and girls in the group (two busloads), chaperoned by 10 or so teachers and parents.

Six girls were especially chatty and approached Poor John for a long chat in English. Yes, these 10 to 12-year-olds spoke excellent English. Actually it’s not all that surprising because English is an official language of India.

But these girls also spoke Gujarat (what they spoke at home), Hindi (another official language of India) and Tamil (the language spoken in Chennai’s state of Tamil Nadu). No doubt, some of the other children spoke different languages as well, depending on their original home state or family background.

I was gobsmacked to find such broad knowledge in ones so young, but they were completely nonchalant about their amazing skills.

And yet this is the norm in much of India.

Sandeep who is travelling with us is from the Gond tribe. He speaks Gond, Hindi and several other tribal languages. He’s driven trucks in many parts of India, so he’s also picked up a smattering of several other languages. He’s only 21. We’re teaching him some English. He’s a quick learner.

Decorating an Indian boat

Sandeep at Tarkarli Beach

Poor John and I studied French and Arabic, and had the chance to use them regularly in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Now we don’t remember much of either. That said, even the basics of both languages have come in handy as we’ve blundered around the world. Remind me to tell you how I managed to beat down the price for decontaminating the truck when we crossed the border into the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

With the exception of Aboriginals, Australians have a long way to go with languages. Many Aboriginals speak their own language as well as several other indigenous languages. The average Australian has just English or a foreign language they hardly ever get to practice. More and more people are beginning to learn Indonesian, Japanese and Chinese—the languages of our geographic neighbours.

I’m pleased to say our daughters are doing their bit on languages. Libby is living in Paris, so honing her skills in French. Petra went on exchange to Belgium at the age of 16, so has excellent French—Spanish too, as well as some German and Portuguese. Now she’s learning Vietnamese to go on posting to Ho Chi Minh City next year with Australia’s diplomatic corps.

Petra’s ear for languages probably developed in her infancy. We moved to Burma (Myanmar) when she was 9 months old and she grew up hearing English, Burmese and Karen spoken every day. I was shocked when I realised that she knew all three languages by the time she was two and a half.

So here’s a tip. If you are multi-lingual in your family or household, be sure to let your children learn all the languages being spoken. Just don’t mix them up between people. If mum speaks English, then mum should be the one to speak English to the child. If dad speaks, say Chinese, let him speak to the child in Chinese. If a grandparent speaks yet another language, let them bring that into the mix. That way the child differentiates between all the languages.

This is not some unsubstantiated brainwave from me. It’s supported by research.

Do you have second or third languages?

Kids in Bandipur India

Kids and a teacher enjoying the swings at the lodge in Bandipur

18 November 2016 / leggypeggy

Enjoying a classical dance performance in Kerala

Kathakali dancer looking smug

Looking smug?

Our Indian adventures are never short on variety, and last night brought the chance to watch the Kathakali, a classic dance form that originated in Kerala (southern India) in the 17th century.

These dances are based on stories from epics such as Ramayana, Mahabharatha and Bhagavatha. Performers train for six to eight years, starting from the ages of 10 to 12. Kathakali is typically performed in temples during festivals, and normally runs from 9pm until the early morning.

We got the short, one-hour version.

Kathakali dancer—upset

Feeling upset

The first half hour was devoted to the first performer showing emotions through facial expressions and hands only. She/he? was accompanied by two musicians—a drummer and a percussionist. It was fascinating to see her/him effortlessly move from surprise to anger to flirting to disdain and more. We could have watched all night.

The next half hour was devoted to a brief version of the story of Jayantha, son of Lord Indra, and Nakrathundi, maid servant to the powerful demon king, Nakarasura. The demon king has ordered Nakrathundi to go to heaven and steal heavenly bodies.

Kathakali dancer and musicians

Jayantha reveals his sword—with musicians

Kathakali performance—Lalitha approaches Jayantha

Lalitha approaches Jayantha

Once she reaches heaven, Kafrathundi catches sight of Jayantha and falls immediately in lust. She disguises herself as Lalitha, a beautiful maiden, and approaches him with suggestive dance moves.

Lalitha (the first performer) offers herself to Jayantha, who declines, saying he needs his father’s approval. Lalitha doesn’t want to take no for an answer and makes a move on him, which enrages Jayantha, who orders her to leave.

At this point, Lalitha reveals her true identity (fangs and all) and Jayantha flies into a rage and chops off her breasts. nose and ears.

This part of the performance was also accompanied by musicians, and the percussionist sang the entire story (we think) in the local language of Malayalam.

Kathakali dancers—Jayantha and Lalitha

Jayantha tells Lalitha to go

Kathakali dancer—Jayantha


Are you exhausted? We were!🙂

But seriously, the performers were so talented and so energetic, even though they didn’t dance all over the floor. Most of the movement was facial or almost in place.

And of course, the costumes and makeup were fabulous. The female in her elaborate jewellery and ornate red, white and gold dress and headdress. It was fitting that the royal Jayantha wore an elaborate crown as well as green face paint, making him seem less earthly.

Kathakali dancers—Jayantha in a rage

Jayantha in a rage

Kathakali dancers—Jayantha cuts off Lalitha's breasts

Off with the boobs!

When the performance ended, the audience was invited on stage to have their pictures taken with the two stars. How could we refuse even if we were underdressed?

An martial arts performance was next, but we didn’t stay for that.

In case you are travelling in southern India, you can see one of these fantastic performances at the Thirumeny Cultural Centre in Munnar, Kerala. Apparently the martial arts show is equally impressive.

Oh, and Poor John’s comment after the performance rather tickled me. He thought it was nice that the dancers didn’t have to have ballerina physiques to make it big on the stage.

Kathakali dancers with LeggyPeggy and Poor John

Curtain call?

16 November 2016 / leggypeggy

India moves to wipe out ‘black money’

India's largest banknotes

India’s 500 and 1000-rupee notes are no longer valid currency

Queues at banks in India

The waiting game at the banks

Last Tuesday in a bold and controversial move, Prime Minister Narendra Modi demonetised India’s two largest banknotes—those worth 500 rupees and 1000 rupees. Suddenly these bills—worth about A$10 and A$20 each—were essentially worthless.

Modi took the step in an effort to curb the spread of ‘black money’ or the financial gains of corruption. Corruption is rife in India, involving politicians, public servants, business people—virtually anyone who thinks they can get away with it.

The Prime Minister is so determined to halt corruption that he made the decision in secret, not even informing members his cabinet or other high ranking government officials. Clearly he did not want them offloading any of their ill-gotten gains.

We were in a homestay near the village of Koppe when the news broke, and luckily Anand and Deepti heard the broadcast as it aired.

Here was the deal. As of midnight on the Tuesday, all 500 and 1000-rupee notes were no longer valid currency, although they would be accepted for some transactions and for exchange until 31 December. Hospitals, fuel outlets, tourism sites and the like were urged to continue to accept 500-rupee notes or credit cards. All banks were to be closed Wednesday and Thursday.

Waiting to change banknotes in India

The honest wait to change their banknotes

Modi made it clear he was not out to disadvantage the poor and honest, but was keen to eliminate the huge stashes of money acquired through corruption.

Starting on Friday, people (including tourists) would be able to go to a bank and exchange 4000 rupees worth of larger notes per day (ID would be mandatory).

Anand and Deepti did the sensible thing on the Tuesday night, and drove into Koppe and withdrew the daily limit of cash. They were hoping the ATM would give them a mix of 100s and 500s, which it did.

I wasn’t particularly concerned for us. Anand and Deepti make it easy for their travellers. The trip is prepaid and virtually all-inclusive, so all our accommodation, meals, admissions, transport and such are already covered. We pay for souvenirs, special drinks, any extra excursions we choose and some tips.

Plus, I am a hoarder of change—more about that later—so even though we had about 20,000 in 500 and 1000-rupee notes (about A$400 or US$308), I had another A$40 in small bills. That would be more than enough to carry us over until the banks reopened on Friday.

1000 rupees, in 10s and a single 1000

I now have heaps of change—a discontinued 1000-rupee note topped by 100 brand new 10-rupee notes

There was overwhelming handwringing and complaints in the aftermath of the announcement. As an example, taxi and auto rickshaw drivers had to decline fares because prospective customers waved only 500-rupees note at them.  The same was true at small food stalls and other small operators. The buyers had small change, but didn’t want to part with it. The reality was that the announcement caught everyone unawares so these sellers simply did not have enough change to cater for so many requests.

But change is an issue most of the time, and especially for small operators. More than a week before the announcement was made, Poor John got a pair of shorts mended at a tailor’s in Goa. The fellow asked for 30 rupees (60 cents). Poor John had notes of 10, 100 and 500. The tailor chose to accept 10 rupees as payment rather than make change for a 100.

But back to the demonetisation.

We had a stroke of luck. Because of the outcry, there was a last minute decision to open banks on Thursday. This news was not widespread. In fact, we were surprised to  find Koppe’s small bank open after we finished a morning safari drive on Thursday.  (By the way, the jerk at the safari ticket office that morning wouldn’t take 500-rupee notes even though tourist outlets had been urged to do so. I could have slapped the smirk off his face.)

Anyway, Anand, Deepti and Poor John sashayed into the bank with photocopied IDs for the four of us. The bank’s photocopier wasn’t working, so a person couldn’t exchange notes unless they had their own photocopy (which the bank kept). Marian only had her passport, but no photocopies.

There were only about five people in the queue waiting to exchange notes, so the whole process went very quickly. The bank was already running low on cash, so only let each person exchange 2000 rupees.

Queues to change notes in India

Huge lines at banks

In an effort to exchange a share for Marian, we drove to the only Xerox shop in town (to get Marian’s passport photocopied) but it was closed. Then it turned out Sandeep (who doesn’t speak much English) got the gist of the conversation and produced a photocopy of his own ID. So in the end, we got 10,000 rupees worth of notes changed with little hassle.

Oh wait, there was a slight hassle. While Marian and I sat in the van waiting for the others to finish the banking, a policeman stopped and asked where the driver was. He said he’d noticed that our van had driven up and down the street four or five times that day and wondered what was going on.

Now Koppe isn’t a big place, but at one end of town are entrances to two stretches of vast wildlife parks. Out the other end of town are many kilometres of homestay places that cater for the tourists—Indian and foreign—who come to visit the parks. I suspect all tourists travel back and forth on that road all the time.

That said, I was so very tempted to tell him they were inside robbing the bank instead of exchanging the large rupee notes.

Bank queues in India

More waiting to change banknotes

It’s now a week later and we haven’t yet had a chance to exchange our large notes. We managed to spend a few in the first days, but now no one will take them. The queues at the banks have been overwhelmingly long—virtually thousands of people are waiting as we drive by.

ATMs are now dispensing only 100-rupee notes and a new 2000-rupee note has been released. A new 500 note is planned and the 1000 is to be scrapped completely.

Today Deepti found an ATM in a small town that was working and had only one person in the queue. Cash-wise Poor John and I are still fine.

Other people haven’t been so lucky! As of Saturday, quite a few banks were being investigated for exchanging large sums of notes without getting IDs, and up to 600 jewellers are under suspicion for taking large payments for goods.

Ah, the corruption continues.

One of the reasons I hoard change

I’ve hoarded change and small bills ever since I lived in Egypt in the 1970s. Shopkeepers loved saying they didn’t have change, so unless you had exact change you were usually out of pocket and sometimes by quite a bit. As a creature of habit, I still accumulate change.

It served me well in Burma in 1986 when U Ne Win demonetised the Burmese currency. He instantly withdrew all the 25, 50 and 100-kyat notes. A huge change given that an Australian dollar was worth 6 kyats.

And guess what? His astrologer advised him on good replacements, so we ended up getting 15, 35 and 75-kyat notes. Did wonders for our multiplication tables.

India's smaller banknotes

These rupee notes were not affected