Monday, September 7, 2009

Facebook Security

I recently received an email from a friend asking how safe Face Book is and it inspired me to write this response as I have invited dozens of people to use it. Facebook is becoming more and more popular all the time but I don't think that its security is very safe. I am always careful what I put on FB, however I always apply that to anything that happens online now days, email, blogs, Youtube and even online games.

While we are guarded by our password, there are a lot of 3rd party developers that have access to your data on FB. For instance all those games that people like to play...Farmville, Yoville, Mafia Wars, Pirates and many more. There is also an ever growing list of new applications, the latest of which is 'Deaths Time', where I'm guessing you feed in a lot of information about yourself and it publishes an amusing death for you. Plus there are Birth date gathering applications such as FB Birthday cards, Year Book, Dead Rock Stars and a few others that are gathering names and data. I don’t want to sound alarmist but this seems like a recipe for Identify theft, if the information were to get into the wrong hands, but whose hands is that data in?

Growing gifts, hug and cuddle requests etc. Are fairly innocent, but you still have to grant access to your data. I think it’s only stuff like name, age and other information you put in about yourself, so they can target adds to your demographic. When you join these services, you have to tick a box saying that you grant the developer access to your data. This is a sample of what you are allowing...
“Allowing Birthday Cards access will let it access your Profile information, photos, your friends' info and other content that it requires to work.”

Joining Networks or Groups also grants people you don't know access to your info. I read an Article about a FB photo appearing in a newspaper. The woman was a member of the group 'Australia' or something similar and half the FB community in Australia is in the same group (currently 3.2 million people, the odd journalist among them I suspect!)

There are many privacy settings in FB and by default, they are set to give information to 'Networks and Friends'. The further you dig into this area the more paranoid you become, go to: Settings - Privacy Settings - Applications - Settings, you will discover more defaults you would rather not have known about. Also have a look at the applications that are installed on your Facebook, click the applications button at the bottom left then click Edit application to see the number of applications that have access to your data, I’m sure there are a few there that you didn’t allow, or were there by ‘default’.

Don’t get me wrong I think FB and other social networking sites are an important part of our lives now for communication and entertainment. They are starting to take over from email in a lot of cases. However having said all that most of my settings are on default, but I am careful about what I do and say on FB and I don’t let third party programs have access. So to all my friends, don’t be offended if I don’t poke you back, return the cuddle, share my birthday, collect your unwanted sheep or help you wipe out a crime family. So surf safe and be aware.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

North India Travel

Our journey through the south of India had taken us about a month. We travelled from Bangalore, south to Kerala and then on to Goa. Our plan originally was to head from Goa up to Mumbai and then on to Pune to do some volunteer teaching for a month and then travel through the north of the country. However during the time we were in Goa the Terrorist strikes happened in Mumbai on the 26th November 08. We were due to leave to travel to Mumbai the very next day. Needles to say we cancelled our tickets immediately.

Not sure what to do next, we got in touch with the school we were to teach at and as it turned out, It would be more suitable to start our volunteer teaching at the beginning of the year, the 5th January 09. So that left us with about 6 weeks to fill in so we decided to do our travel in the North of India instead.

As train travel is dependent largely on ticket availability, we decided that this would be our guide. We found booking the trains at least two weeks in advance meant we could usually get seats easily on the day we wanted to travel. Therefore we had to spend an extra two weeks lying around on the beaches of Goa before we could travel anywhere. It was a tough job but somebody had to do it.

We decided that we would do our travelling through the north of the country now instead of after our teaching. Having about three weeks to fill in we simply decided to spent 5 days in each place, Delhi, Jaipur, Agra, Varanasi then on to Mumbai and be in Pune by the 5th of January and giving us plenty of time to see the attractions and surrounding areas as well.

We usually travelled by second class sleeper which provides curtain privacy and the beds are comfortable enough. On the occasion that you can’t get the seat you want we try upgrading to first class. This is what we had to do for our trip from Goa to Delhi. In first class, you get a square of carpet on the floor, the cabin is a bit tidier and you can lock your door and keep the pesky drink wallers from barging in 5 time an hour. So it was a comfortable enough 28 hour journey. We notice the further north you go, the latter the trains tend to be. We were due to arrive at about 4pm, still with enough daylight to find our way to our accommodation. As it turned out, we ended getting there just after dark, about 3 hours late so not bad going we were told.

My experience of India thus far had been relatively on par with other parts of Asia including Thailand and Malaysia in their hectic pace, standard of cleanliness and traffic congestion but nothing could prepare me for Delhi. From the moment the train pulled into the station when the coolies started grabbing our bags, to fighting our way out of the station to be inundated by taxi and rickshaw touts and making our way through the less that walking pace speed of the traffic to the Main Bazaar district where we were staying, it was overwhelming. The full shock of a city with 25 million people hit me like a ton of bricks.

Well it was either that or the dodgy Chicken Biriany I had on the train, because I ended up with a dose of Delhi belly. Not a good start, but 24 hours in bed (and on the loo), a fistful of tablet and lots of plain bread, I was finally ready to get out and see the city. Our first trip was to see the Red Fort and looking at the map we decided to walk from the Main Bazaar through the nearby train station and catch a rickshaw from the other side to save a dollar. I recon it took an hour to walk the 1 km. Walking through the market is interesting, crossing the streets, dangerous and walking through the train station downright stupid. Different train station, same touts.

The Fort is a splendid example of Islamic Architecture and took us 3 or 4 hours to complete. The army protects all the sights around the city now and are set up with high profile security. But this doesn’t protect you from the hawkers and touts when you come out. We thought the taxi and auto rickshaw drivers were bad, but the cycle rickshaw drivers are far worse. They pull their bike up on the footpath and block your path and another will block you if you try to turn around. They also heavy the auto rickshaw drivers into not picking you up, making it very difficult. We made it back to our hotel eventually but it took a whole day to do the one sight.

After our previous attempt at sightseeing, we decided to do a tourist bus journey of the city covering a number of sites including the mandatory Government emporium. We also saw India Gate, Indira Ghandi House, Ghandi’s memorial and the government buildings in New Delhi. We enjoyed it although it was a little rushed. We also went to the Museum which included a Faberge collection much to my Wife’s delight. There are some pleasant places in Delhi but not enough to bring me back without a good reason.

From Delhi we headed to Jaipur, Rajasthan. When we left Australia, we made it a rule not to travel anywhere with a ‘Stan’ in it. Technically it’s not a ‘Stan’ because it has an H in it, but it is very ‘Stan’ like. There are more funny hats here of so many different designs, than anywhere else in the world per capita. However our only real destination here was Jaipur.

Jaipur turned out to be a real surprise. Apart from the chaotic city itself (only 2 million), it has more forts and palaces than anywhere else we have been. The forts are really impressive, built on top of the hills surrounding the city, with huge towering fortifications, they are truly impressive structures. Around the forts lie walls comparable to china that stretch off down the mountain side then back up the opposite side. Within the city walls are more palaces and an astronomical observatory.

In the suburbs surrounding Jaipur are more palaces again. We went to a one of these palaces, renovated by the Taj hotel group (5 star) and had to sit down at the restaurant and have a cup of tea, which cost us $18 but worth every cent just to be able to wander around the palace and beautiful gardens and use the luxurious loos. Also worth a visit is the monkey temple at Galta, actually two temples, a dozen shrines, some sacred pools nestled in a gorge and covered in monkeys. This is the same temple in the National Geographic TV show, Monkey Thieves. We were able to fill in our 5 days in Jaipur comfortably.

Our next stop was Agra, home to the fantastic Taj Mahal. Apart from the Taj, the Red Fort and Fatehpur Sikri, (a deserted palace outside Agra), 1 or 2 days at most would be enough for Agra, we were there 4 days too long. All the tourist hotels are grouped in one area with very few restaurants or other attractions or distractions. All the Rickshaw drivers circle this area with dollar signs in their eyes and a trip anywhere can’t be done without at least one trip to an Emporium. We thought the Taj was great but I wouldn’t recommend staying the night here at all. Get in and get out!

Next stop, Varanasi, wow what a place, another hectic and chaotic town, at least on the outside. Fortunately we had someone to meet us at the train station and guide us to the hotel. It’s just as well because finding our way through the winding streets, Bazaar and alleyways down to the Ganges would be impossible. The city is billed as the oldest in the world and India’s holiest city. It is an incredible sight looking up and down the Ganges from our balcony. A ceremony is held every night celebrating the river. It’s an hour long ceremony, with lots of incense, smoke and fire along with bell ringing chanting, gongs, water sprinkling and flower tossing. It’s a fantastic experience.

Another ‘must do’ in Varanasi is a boat ride up and down the river, preferably at either dawn or dusk. The light being best at that time of day and the perpetual smoke in the air from the cremations ads an eerie sense of mood to the occasion. Yes that’s right up to 80 people a day are cremated on the steps of the Ganges. The boat trip takes you past at a sedate distance, but if you’re walking past, touts will try to get you to pay money to see it up close...mmm. The river it’s self is a hive of activity all day long and a good part of the night too. People come to wash and bath in it believing it will wash away the sins of a thousand lifetimes, but really they are probably poisoning themselves. The river is so dirty it is literally toxic and has a zero oxygen level in it. Having said that, we did see the legendary Ganges Dolphin, a Dugong like creature, said to be blind and swims by sonar. Believe it or not!

We comfortably spent our 5 days, wandering the Ghats, exploring the bazaars and generally chilling out on the balcony overlooking the Ganges. It’s a great place to explore your Zen self.

From Varanasi we took what was our longest single trip yet on our 10 month journey. A hellish 38 hour train trip, Varanasi to Mumbai. The train was late getting to us and kept getting later all the way. To make matters worse the train didn’t go all the way into town but dropped us at a station on the outskirts of town at 4 in the morning. However all the Taxi touts know when the train is due in as they descend on the train like locusts. We had one attach himself to us that we couldn’t shake, even after we found a taxi ourselves, he tried to climb in and come for the ride, unbelievable. Well it gets worse before it gets better, yep we got a flat tyre on the way into town and had to unload all the luggage from the boot, while the vagrants milled about. To give the driver credit, he did have a spare tyre with canvas on it, no rubber mind you but it did stay up until it got us to our hotel.

Next we were shown into what looked like a derelict building, through an abandoned apartment to a room at the back, temporary accommodation until the morning we were promised. It did have a locking door though. Better still it was quiet and had a reasonably comfortable bed. Oh I haven’t mentioned about the beds in India. Most mattresses are made from coconut husk coir and are as hard as a rock, so a real mattress is like gold! As it turned out we decided to stay in that room for the second night as well.

Visiting Mumbai only a month after the attacks was a very safe experience. There were 50 or more police, army and other servicemen on every street. Machine gun bunkers on every corner and there was even a submarine patrolling the harbour, I kid you not. We were staying just behind the Taj Hotel where the now famous news footage of the burning building was taken. Unfortunately the water front around the Taj and the landmark attraction Gateway to India was still blocked off. We went for a ferry ride out to Elephanta Island an hour away to see the cave temples, impressive enough if you don’t get out to see Ellora Caves, mentioned latter. We had dinner that night at Leopold’s a Mumbai institution as far as Restaurants go. It was also involved in the Mumbai attacks as well, when a gunman walked in and killed staff and patrons. Bullet holes are left on display in a way to memorialise what happened. We ate there to pay respect to the staff and patrons who lost their lives there. There is also a donation tin on the counter to help the families affected.

Mumbai is an enormous city, we only spent one day and saw one very small part, so we hope to go back one day and have a proper look at the place. Our time schedule was tight and we had to leave to get to Pune to do our teaching.

We took the train to Pune, still pronounced Poona by everybody. It was only a three hour trip but we had the aircon sleeper as it is the most comfortable way to travel, you still get the pillows and blankets anyway. Pune is a modern city by Indian standards and is also a University town and is only about 150 km from Mumbai and up in the hills so it’s a bit cooler. Like every Indian city it’s very busy and chaotic with the usual touts at the train station.

We stayed the weekend with our hosts, Melinda and Brian who live in a lovely apartment block with their two children. It’s is certainly different here than elsewhere in India. We even attended a Jazz festival, of all things. The festival was held at an amphitheatre attached to a brand new shopping mall, catering for home furnishings. The amphitheatre has a water and laser light show that was going on in the background of the Jazz bands. It was spectacular, but we really never expected to see anything like this in India...Wow!

After some new year juggling, our host Melinda found us some teaching work in Aurangabad, 200km away from Pune, with a Christian group called Youth With a Mission, YWAM. They are a community organisation, helping the under privileged and poorest in their communities. They run a child care centre for street children that live on the railway stations and are providing micro loans and support for abandoned women by helping them own sewing machines and providing lessons in how to use them. We provided a week of intensive English training. Louise took the beginners, mostly women and I was with the intermediates. We also did a children’s class in the evenings. It was a lot of fun and we were welcomed very warmly and given a place to stay, basic but comfortable enough. I got sung happy birthday to in Marathi, the local language and Louise & I were blessed and decorated with garlands of flowers.

Aurangabad itself is much like a lot of small Indian town, chaotic dusty and strewn with rubbish, but it does have its own version of the Taj Mahal (not quite as grand), old city walls and a very long history. It also has a fantastic fort about 20 km away. 100km away is the Heritage listed Ajanta and Ellora caves. It’s a full days trip but well worth it. We got the feeling of Egypt and Ankor Watt from these places.

We then travelled back to Pune to teach for another 3 week. The Gyanankur English School is on the outskirts of Pune, set amongst the rural farmland and local villages. There are about 200 children at the school ranging from 3 to about 8 years, nursery to 3rd form. The children come from the surrounding villages, disadvantaged, orphaned and homeless children and children from NGO’s. Resources at the school are at bursting point and there is currently a 40% shortfall in their budget. Donations make up some of this but more is needed. Please visit their website for more information.

We taught during the week and on the weekend we visited an area around Pune. On the weekend of Australia Day, the 26th January it is also Independence Day for India. We took the opportunity to get away up to the hill station village of Mahabaleshwar. Knowing that it was a long weekend, we booked a room ahead a few days prior to our departure. We took local busses up there, which was adventurous. After our 6 hour bus exploration of the countryside we arrived and found our hotel room had been given away, probably to someone who bribed their way into our room. So I don’t recommend the Hotel Mann Palace at all as the person at the counter was rude when we tried to ask why our reservation wasn’t kept. Being a long weekend we wandered the streets looking for a room, but it was heavily booked out. We did eventually find a room elsewhere at an exorbitant $70 a night for a room we would normally pay about $15 for, we stayed 2 nights.

That aside the town is quite pleasant, although very very busy on this weekend, but it had a good carnival atmosphere, everybody was there for a good time. The area is similar to the Blue Mountains in Sydney in a way and it is close enough to both Pune and Mumbai to attract crowds for weekends and holidays. At 1.3km above sea level it has some very scenic views to admire. There is also a fair amount of tackiness with horse and camel rides, shooting arcades, try your luck type games and slot machines. There are venders of all types selling snow cones, corn on the cob and all types of food. One of the big attractions is the strawberries. You can get huge mugs of strawberries and cream for 50 cents.

In February 09, with our Teaching finished, it was eventually time to head home. Easier said than done. We could have paid $1200 each and flown home from Mumbai to Brisbane in about 14 hours but we were on a very tight budget and found the cheapest way home was out of Bangalore where we had arrived. We managed to get tickets home for about $500 each but it took us 5 days. We left Pune on the Monday and caught the Train back to Bangalore, about 18 hours then over night in Bangalore and flew out at Midnight the following day. We arrived in Singapore in the morning and had a 14 hour wait in the airport and another flight at 9 that evening and arriving Darwin on Friday morning for immigration purposes then finally into Brisbane about 11am.

We really enjoyed our time in the south, the North is so much busier, dirtier and more crowded, but with so much more visible history and architecture, plus our teaching experience has been a thorough education in education. We enjoyed the whole Indian experience and while there are challenging days, people and places to deal with, we realise that these challenges make us better people and travellers.

Post Script: After a 4 month stay back in Australia, we are now about to embark on a 12 month teaching contract in Saigon, Vietnam starting on 21st June 2009. Stay tuned.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The TESOL Experience

Acronyms: TESOL Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages TESL Teaching English as a Second Language ESL English as a Second Language...and there are plenty more.

Before we embarked on our resent overseas journey, we thought of doing a TESOL course before leaving. We had intended to do the course part time through SEA English Academy in Maroochydore from January to June 2008 and then leave in July to travel and possibly do some teaching. As with most plans, things change. My wife Louise and I decided to bring our travel plans forward and leave in April instead. We decided to do the course in Penang Sea English Academy instead. Tana Litowski, the director in Penang, was very helpful in accommodating us with dates to attend the course full time in May 2008. Penang is a fabulous place to visit and we had been there about 5 years previously and thought we would like to stay there a month.

Our trip started in April 2008 when we flew from the Gold Coast Australia to Kuala Lumpur very cheaply with Air Asia. We spent some time in KL with friends and headed to Siam Reap, Cambodia to see the amazing temples of Angkor Watt before our TESOL course started.

We made enquiries in Australia before we left about accommodation in Penang and organised a condo unit in a nice block at the northern end of the Island. The same guy who booked the Unit for us also arranged for a driver to pick us up at the airport and take us to the Unit where he would be waiting. A perfect arrangement. Tana also picked us up the first day to take us to class and show us around to get our bearings.

It was a bit of a shock to be sitting back in a class room for the first time in 15 years or so. The course was fairly heavy for the first week, covering bits of English that most of us forget as soon as we walk out of school for the last time. Homework and assignments came pretty thick and fast. Louise and I wondered if we would be able to manage.

I think the intensity of the course helped to make me focus. If we had been doing this part time, we might not have got through it because of the day to day distractions of one’s regular life. Being in Penang and doing the course fulltime meant we were able to concentrate on one thing only, the course. There were only 3 of us in our class, Louise, myself and a Malaysian man, How Seng Lee. We had two teachers, Tana who is the business owner and Ruth a TESOL trainer and Teacher from England. Their varied styles helped to keep our interest. Their teaching style was also our model to follow.

As the first week drew to a close and we received our first assignments back and passed our first exams, things seemed a bit brighter. However over the weekend we had to prepare our first real lesson plan with the view of delivering the lesson to the rest of the class and our teachers on Monday. This of course made for a nervous weekend. We realised that teaching included a high degree of public speaking.

I have been use to a fair amount of public speaking as a race officer, addressing large numbers of sailors at race briefings and presentations, but Louise was a bit nervous about this and I think it was something she hadn’t thought about. We used the weekend constructively by doing our homework and lesson plans for most of it. Monday came around with a certain amount of dread as this was the big test. We all survived and received a pass mark but with lots of tips on how to improve things.

This was the first of our trials over, we were told that the next day we would be teaching live in the classroom in front of a real class. For our prac work, Tana had arranged for us to teach at Sri Palita International English School, one of many International English Schools in Panang. There would be two classes of 20 students in each class, being; Elementary and Pre Intermediate levels. They were also aged 10 to 15 years, yep teenagers. So as you can imagine the stress levels went up again. Wow... this is when I really thought that this was the deep end and I’ve forgotten how to swim.

Before class each day, we went to the copy shop to make our handouts, laminate our realia and prepare for the lesson. Once again it seemed like walking into a firing squad. We did our lessons as best as we were able, and the kids can be a bit merciless when it comes to green teachers, I think they can sense it. Still with the first one under the belt, so to speak, we now knew what to expect. The next ones weren’t as bad. One thing did become obvious, class management is vital and working out which kids should not sit next to others is the key.

We continued through the next three weeks, having two full days learning in the classroom and three days teaching, although only one class a day. We used the rest of our time preparing our lesson plans, doing homework and assignments, because that didn’t stop, but it wasn’t as hectic as the first week. It really did take three or four classes to get a bit of confidence. By the end of our prac work, I felt I had made progress and finally thought I may be able to do this after all.

We all graduated and got our certificates and celebrated at a fabulous Thai restaurant, no shortage of good restaurants in Penang. We left with a great feeling of accomplishment and happy about our experiences both behind the desk and in front of it.

We travelled for the next 5 months and I searched web sites whenever we had a good internet connection and filled in some online CV makers through TESOL websites sites. I sent off some applications but never heard back from anybody. Small wonder really as I look back on my online CV. It was very blank in the experience department and my work history is in no way related to the Education sector.

We eventually had to head back to towards Australia. Louise had some business she had to attend to back home, but I was keen to try to find work back in Asia somewhere, so we decided that I would wait for her in Bangkok for two weeks and try to find work. We had some contacts that were teaching in Bangkok and they put me in touch with some recruiters and gave me some tips along the way.

I got out the CV again, but the experience section was still looking very bare. I went out shopping in Bangkok to buy some teaching clothes. I got a number of interviews with recruiters who all promised jobs. From the recruiters I ended up with two actual interviews for jobs. My first interview was with a government agency placing foreign native English speakers into schools around Thailand. However one of the prerequisites was a University degree of any type. I informed the recruiter that I didn’t have one, but he insisted I go anyway. Being a government agency they would not budge on the Degree issue, as you need one to be able to get a work visa in Thailand.

My second interview was for a Tobacco company teaching the children of the staff during school holidays on a short 2 week contract. I was very keen on this one, as a short contract would have given me a bit of confidence and a bit of experience to put in the otherwise blank section of my CV. However a quick check of my passport showed that my 30 day tourist was more than half way expired and did not have the 2 weeks left to fulfil even this short contract. By this time Louise was due to arrive and over the phone we decided that we would continue travelling, this time on to India.

After our decision was made and the announcement made to friends and relatives on our Blog, “Postcards to Ethel”, I got an email from Kim Edwards from Sea English Academy, telling my about a volunteer opportunity in Pune India. We followed up the lead and made contact with Melinda Parker from Gyanakur English School and made plans
We were due to be in India for 3 or 4 months. We decided to travel around first, arriving in Bangalore then on to Kerala, Goa, Delhi, Jaipur, Agra and Varanasi, before eventually making our way to Mumbai then Pune.

Melinda had a number of options available for us and we decided to head to a town called Aurangabad for a week as our first teaching stop. In Aurangabad we were working with a Christian Group called Youth with a Mission, YWAM. We held classes for beginners and elementary learners, most were local folks aged 20 to 30 years with little or no English. We held classes daily for a total of 6 days, with a children’s group at night. We taught conversational style English to get them speaking and using words about everyday tasks and objects. This style of teaching was far different to our experience at the school in Penang. Whereas the kids in Penang seemed disinterested, these people hung on every word and were so keen to learn. We had a great week there and were made very welcome by the group and given accommodation and food. We also took the opportunity to do some sightseeing at the famous Ajunta and Elora caves as well.

We returned to Pune where our gracious hosts, Melinda and Brian put us up in their spare room. We went out to teach at the Gyanakur English School for the next 3 weeks filling in for teachers that had either just left or needed time off, or just helping out around the school. We mostly taught standard 1, 2 & 3 classes. We were teaching English grammar, Maths, Environmental studies, Computer studies, Work experience, and even some music, well I took my flute to the Nursery group to play nursery rhymes. The teaching at this school was different again. The children at this school were aged between 3 to 8 years. We also assisted in the nursery and Kindy levels, as they were still not old enough to understand us, and might burst into tears if they didn’t understand us. The std 1,2 & 3 classes were great to teach, once again very keen to learn, like little sponges sucking in the information. They do tend to get a bit boisterous at times though.

We also helped conduct an evening class twice a week for local village folks, but only the women ever came, and only a few of them. We taught them some classes of everyday English and tasks as well.

Our other teaching experience was in the afternoons at the local Marathi school, a state run school. They taught in the local language Marathi, Hindi was the second language and English their 3rd. The teacher who taught them English could barely speak it themselves. We could converse with a few of them. Louise took the younger ones, std 1, 2 and 3 while I took 4,5,6,& 7. Mostly I did some basic reading and listening comprehension. Most could read a little bit, but machine gun style, not stopping for punctuation or really understanding what they were reading. Louise taught some basic directions and prepositions, “the banana is under the table” type lessons. Once again you could not fault their enthusiasm. The teachers seemed as keen to have us there as the kids. However we found it really difficult without having any real syllabus to follow or knowing what level they were up to but we found it a rewarding experience all the same. The other big difference here is the class sizes, up to 80 kids in a class here, whereas as only about 30 per class in the English school.

Well I’m sad to say our teaching experience in India has come to an end here now and we will be heading back to Australia in a few days time. We would like to thank Melinda and Brian very much for providing this opportunity to us. Our experiences here in India and in Penang have been invaluable to our knowledge of teaching. We now feel much better prepared to start applying for jobs, knowing we have a bank of knowledge to fall back on now. I’ll also be able to fill in that blank spot in my CV.

Ric & Louise Noble have been travelling for 10 months and will arrive back in Australia on the 6th February 2008 and will be actively seeking work at TESOL Teachers abroad.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Travel Article - Southern India Kerala and Goa

If you had asked me before I left Australia if I was intending to go to India during my travels, I would have said no way. The thought of millions of people packed into a space the size of a typical Australian suburb is enough to give me claustrophobia, acrophobia and several other phobias as well. Anyone I had ever talked to about India said it is hard work, only for hard core travelers. The poverty, pollution, health and security issues had always made me think twice about India.
However the way things turn out in reality is always different. After traveling for so long, eight months when we made our big decision to take a side trip to India, we had been through Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand Greece and Turkey by that stage and tends to make you somewhat braver.

While staying in Bangkok, I was trawling through the internet, (free broadband and plenty of time) and came across some really cheap flights from Kuala Lumpur to Bangalore, about $300 or so each. And without too much thought I booked the tickets. Here is where I find that at least a bit of research should be done before attempting a trip like this. Firstly we needed a visa before we got there. That bit alone cost us a week’s delay in Bangkok. Travel warnings were current for every boarder shared with India. Mumbai was also mentioned and since the writing of this article has suffered terrorist attacks. That aside, I discovered that November to March is an ideal time to visit and since we now had our six month tourist visa, we figured the time was right to go.

We had booked our tickets to Bangalore by default and luckily enough it is in the middle of the south and not close to any borders. We found Bangalore to be a safe and gentle introduction to India. It is the IT capital of India and where all the call centers are located. The people have a bit more money here and as a result have better facilities and services.

Once again having made no plans we wondered where we would go from Bangalore, so hit the internet again and invested in the Lonely Planet guide. A bit of intensive research brought us to the State of Kerala, which follows the coast up the western side of southern most India. Kerala comprises about 35,000 sq km about half the size of Tasmania and has about 30 million people.

We traveled to Kerala’s central town of Kochi (also spelt Cochin) by bus. You can travel by train which would be the preferred option but you need at least one or two weeks’ notice to book your train tickets online without any fuss or waitlisting. Kochi itself comprises several areas, the main town of Ernakulam where bus Train and airport connection are, Fort Kochi and several beach areas north and south. Fort Kochi is an old fort town area on Mattancherry Island at the entrance to the large bay or lake as they refer to it.

The Fort area is a charming slice of colonial history, small streets lined with guest houses, hotels restaurants and shops all with Portuguese and Dutch architecture. There are also many old churches showing the European stamp of early Christianity in the district. This is a perfect place to stay. You can walk out to eat at a large variety of good restaurants, serving local and traditional Indian food and a good range of European style food as well. A walk around the river and foreshore area is a pleasant walk and you can see Chinese fishing nets in action. These huge wooden crane like structures are operated by up to a dozen men to haul out their catch, although considerably diminished these days.

Close by is Mattancherry, the old commercial district also called Jew Town. There is still a Synagogue there, the oldest in India. Only a few of the original Jewish families still reside here. There are also a number of other attractions to see in the area, including the Dutch Palace.

One of the real reasons for visiting Kerala is to do a Houseboat cruise of the backwater. A large inland waterway system made up of lakes, rivers and reclaimed swamp land make up the Kerala backwater and this is an ideal place to spend a few days cruising in your own private floating losman. We hired the boat for three days and two nights. The boat contained 2 air conditioned bedrooms with ensuite, an open dining and lounge area at the front of the boat and an upstairs veranda and viewing platform. We had three people looking after the two of us for our trip and needless to say we were well looked after with 3 cooked meals a day, morning and afternoon tea that included fried banana. The scenery along the way is stunning with palm trees as far as the eye can see lining the never ending water avenues. It’s great to see how the local people live their lives on the shores of these waterways, children going to school, people preparing food, washing and bathing in the rivers. Other sights not to be missed are the duck herders and duck farms, fish farms, oxen ploughing fields, teams of men running up coconut trees, every time we turned around there was something new and interesting to see. The bird life here is great to see as well, Kingfishers hunting from overhead power lines, flocks of water fowl, Ibis, flamingo and more. Of course the sunsets could not be more romantic or special here.

These waterways are also a real highway, as barges plough up and down the river full to the gunnels of produce, building supplies, sand, gravel and anything else you can think of. Most tourists seem to take the overnight option but we thought it was worth doing the extra day as we saw some much quieter areas that you would not see otherwise. Any longer may become boring unless you are travelling from one place to another as the waterways here span several hundred kilometres.

After reluctantly leaving our houseboat, we stayed in the local town of Allepy where most of the Houseboat tours start and finish from. Although it is a pleasant town it is only a base from which to do your House boat tour. From here you may wish to do a trip to Periyar Tiger reserve.

From here we travelled to Munnar a hill station and tea growing region, one thousand eight hundred metres above sea level. The drive up through the towns is a bit tedious, but then you start through the jungle with views overlooking grand waterfalls and eventually clear the jungle for the splendid tea plantations above, beautifully manicured as far as the eye can see. The town of Munnar itself is not the jewel but the surrounding country side. Our small homestay, JJ Cottages has a fabulous view overlooking the distant hills and tea plantations. There are a number of local tours you can do with a tour company of just with a car and driver. A trip to the top station is recommended as it takes you past two dam walls and their lakes beyond, along the way you pass elephant rides, market stalls run by local ethnic tribes, some stunning scenery and most probably see the women in their colourful saris cutting the tea leaves you will be drinking sometime soon.

Another daytrip option is to visit the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary. However this requires a 4am start and a 4 hour drive to be at the park to do a three hour trek at the right time of the day. On offer are deer, leopards, buffalo, elephants and some rare and endangered goat and the giant grizzled squirrel, however I can’t tell you how big it is as we didn’t see one, or any of these critters. It’s all down to luck I was told, however we did see paw prints of the leopard in the sand and some elephant dung. However having missed the animals, the park is in a beautiful valley some two kilometres above sea level and well worth seeing on its own.

After staying in Munnar and the surrounding district for a few days you probably won’t want to come down off the mountain as the fresh air and the temperate climate is addictive. But come down you must if you want to experience the beaches. There are some nice beaches in the north and the south of Kerala that are worth going to. However, depending on your time limit, a train trip to Goa would round out your southern India experience fully.

We took a second class sleeper train from Ernakulam to the main station in the south of Goa, Margao. The trains in India are an institution and at one time the pride of train spotters the world over. If you have ever travelled one kilometre on an Indian road, you will know why taking the train is such a good idea. Second class sleepers offer bunk beds with curtains, including linen. The trains stop regularly even if you are on an express train, I guess to allow the hordes of tea, coffee and food vendors to step on and off the trains. Our big tip if you are catching the train is to make sure you know when and where your stop is, as there are no announcements on board and staff can’t be relied upon, especially if your stop is in the middle of the night.

Goa is mainly a beach haven. And before you say hey, I come from Australia with some of the best beaches in the world, you would be right, but you should really see these ones as a comparison. Our first stop was Padnem Beach, one of the most southern beaches in Goa and ended up being the cleanest and least crowded. A slower pace means no loud music and fewer hawkers trying to sell you t shirts and beads between entree and main. Yoga, massage and relaxation is the order of the day here with a beautiful beach to stroll on at sunset and don’t forget that the sun falls into the sea here. Night time brings on a fairy land landscape on the beach with a plethora of candle lit restaurants to choose from, all offering fresh caught seafood. Be discerning and look into the eyes of the fish, prawns and lobster.

North to the capital of Goa is the city of Panaji. We stayed in the old part of Panaji town filled with Portuguese houses and churches. We chose a nice traditional house, Alfonso Homestay with peal shell shutters on the windows, a roof garden for serving breakfast and a lovely Portuguese family running the place. The main town itself, on the banks of the Mandovi River, is a compact and clean enough for Indian town standards and has the usual smattering of upmarket hotels, stores and restaurants as well as some parks churches and old colonial Government buildings, lining the river. A pleasant enough town, but half a day will see it done.

The reason for staying here is to visit old Goa, the site of the former Portuguese city and capitol of Goa. The city was abandoned during the mid eighteenth century due to plague and most of the city has since disappeared except for a string of churches in a varying state of decay. The old cathedrals’ and churches are worth seeing and the Church of St Cajetan is based on St Pauls in Rome with the Italian baroque dome on top. The site is a UNISCO protected site.

If you can’t get enough beach, there are several more options available, including Anjuna beach which is home to some fantastic flea markets twice a week where you can buy everything hippie, cool and smooth. There are literally hundreds of beaches up and down the coast here offering the same familiar hut style accommodation at really reasonable prices.

If you decide that the south of India is enough for you at this time or you have run out of money and need to return home, Bangalore is probably your best choice. And since you are going that way you should probably stop in the religious town of Mysore for a few namastes on your way home.

Highlights; Houseboat trip, Allepy; Tea plantations, Munnar; Padnem Beach, Goa
Helpful websites to google for more information; Australian Government Travel Safe site, India Visa requirements, Lonely Planet for tips, India Mike’s travel resources, and India rail information pages.”