Port Blair, Andaman Islands

My flight from Bangladesh via Kolkata takes me over forbidden and hostile North Sentinel Island to Port Blair, the gateway to the Andaman Islands. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are an Indian archipelago, of nearly 600 islands, in the Bay of Bengal.

Indigenous Andaman Islanders inhabit the more remote islands, many of which are off limits to visitors. Residents of these islands mainly belong to the Jarwa tribe. They are less than 500 in number and do not interact with outsiders. North Sentinel Island is home to one of the most isolated and hostile human populations in the world.

The Indians don’t seem disposed to care much about safety rules. As the plane descends towards Port Blair Airport and several islands come into view the shrill voice of the flight attendants emanates repeatedly from the back. ‘Please sir, sit down, the seat belt sign is on’.

There’s another labyrinth of documentation to navigate before ‘foreigners’ are allowed entry to this ‘restricted area’. I’m staying in Port Blair for one night, in a hotel on the bay, before being transported over the water to Havelock Island. It’s disappointingly windy; although the thermometer says 28 degrees, it doesn’t feel warm enough to sit out. I’ve a shocking cold – presumably it was lurking, waiting for a lowering in my resistance. The bar (alcohol after two weeks deprivation) sells Jameson Whiskey, so I make a hot toddy and sleep the afternoon away.

The Private Ferry to Havelock Island

My itinerary says I have a private ferry to Havelock Island today. I’m picked up at 7.30 am and taken to the dock two minutes down the road, where there is a scrimmage, more document checking, more luggage scanning and a huge public ferry waiting. And it’s delayed. I have two porters who refuse to wheel my bags, humping them on their backs instead, in case it looks as if they’re not doing any work for their hundred rupees. And I’m deposited in a waiting room, trying to work out what’s happening.

There are large signs on three walls that state Keep Silence, for some mysterious reason. Well naturally, no one is taking any notice of that. The opposite wall has photographs of all the local fauna. Saltwater crocodiles and two types of cobra are the highlights.

We finally get underway, an hour and a half late. The ship is delayed due to technical problems. They’ve done a survey. Technical problems? In a boat? The Indians cheer. It’s two hours packed like sardines in premium class and we’re not allowed on deck. I wonder what steerage is like. I’m fed Masala peanuts by, one group of passengers, and am subjected to several more selfies. There’s still no sign of any western tourists. I’ve also realised that it was inadvisable to wear three quarter length trousers on a bug ridden vessel.

Havelock Island, Andamans

It’s advertised as a two hour journey but it actually takes nearer three, so it’s lunch time by the time I arrive in Havelock. The porter I was assured would meet me and unload my bags has gone AWO, but I’m eventually all sorted and underway.

The island is lush, fairly flat, beautiful and very quiet for India. It’s mostly covered with tall bent coconut palms and there’s betel nut drying in heaps by the houses. The roads are increasingly terrible, deteriorating to a very bumpy, causeway like ramp. Nothing to stop you falling off each side, if you don’t concentrate. My hotel is on the opposite side of the island to most of the other resorts, which is probably a good thing.

Rahdhanagar Beach

It’s located just behind Rahdhanagar Beach, yet another of those beaches that is touted as best in Asia, or number three in the world, depending on which list you read. It‘s a really beautiful wide stretch of sand, unspoilt by litter or sunbeds. Or anything, in fact, except some leaves dropping from the trees. In the distance I can see a public section, the water teeming with bathers, (flashback to Waikiki), but my area is almost deserted. It’s a very pleasant place to be, but for me it doesn’t make top billing. The backdrop of tall trees and bushes, is impressive, but there are no coconut palms by the water here and so no bent trunks to soften the view. And the water is warm, but grey, lightly tinged with blue when the sun shines, and opaque.

The backdrop though, is definitely an A-lister; when you step off the beach the jungle is spectacular. Huge badok trees (think mahogany) framed by fragrant flowered creeper, butterflies and birds and the usual accompanying cacophony of sound. My cottage is located in the midst of this, at the furthest point from the restaurant and bar. They’ve given me a torch, though I deploy it with some trepidation, tip toeing down to dinner alone at night. They could use some flares or LEDs; I think this is taking economy to its limits. I’m sure I heard a hissing sound from beside the path. I’m still remembering the cobra poster. There isn’t any Wi-Fi, phone signal or indeed, in-room phone (all excused on the grounds that this is as an eco-resort). I really begrudge the missing in-room phone when I wriggle into bed and find the sheets are damp.

Four Wheels Bad, Two Wheels Good

The locals are as disgusted with the state of their roads as I am, so they are holding a four wheel strike today to pressurize the government into implementing their long term plan to improve them. (They only renovated the one route that the minister took on his last visit.) I’m even more disgusted with the information that the strike begins at 7 a.m. and they want me to leave at 6 a.m. for today’s snorkelling trip. This is so I can be driven to the dive resort, where the boats are moored, on the other side of the island.

Which makes it disgusted plus, when I arrive, to be told that the Local Boat Association have decided to support the strike. So, we can’t make our planned sortie to Elephant Beach and the Aquarium. They offer to take me out just off the beach here, for no charge. The visibility isn’t great and the coral is totally destroyed, but there are a reasonable assortment of fish, including a crocodile fish (better than a saltie) and an octopus. My very attentive snorkel guide, Roy, gives me a lift home on the back of his scooter. I can feel every bump – the accident in Bangladesh hasn’t improved the state of my coccyx, which met its first trial on the rocks in Palau.

Back to my woven mat on the beach. Maybe I will bring my pillows tomorrow...

Dinner is good, but pricey, prawns in every which way possible. Yesterday it was coconut curry, today it’s tempura. The staff, however, are definitely verging on the overly attentive. I’m interrupted ten times during my meal, to be asked if the food is good and if I have had a nice day.

Neil's Cove and the Salties

The strike didn’t work, so today the two and three wheelers are joining in as well. I hope it’s over before I’m due to leave on Tuesday. It was problematic enough catching the ferry here. Anyway, back to today. The upshot is, I’m not going anywhere. I’ve staked out my patch on the empty beach and decide to explore in both directions. North, to Neil’s Cove, accompanied part way by Steve (Zimbabwean) and Susan from the Wirral. They look to be retirement age, are on their honeymoon and have been here 18 days. They’re toting purple bags, which turn out to be inflatable beach loungers. What an amazingly sensible idea, even if they do look incongruous in their tropical beach setting.

The cove is stunning. Driftwood artistically poised, some pretty rock formations jutting into the sea, horizontal leafy displays, sea eagles, kingfishers and turquoise clear water. Unfortunately, I’ve also been warned by the hotel staff not to go into the water here. A tourist was taken by a saltwater crocodile in this bay two years ago. I scurry along to the next point, savouring the views, but becoming increasingly twitchy every time I pass a log in the water or spot a curling brown tree root. There’s no-one around and several sets of dog footprints on the sand are the final straw. I make a strategic withdrawal. Steve and Susan are swimming quite happily; they’ve been told the story too, but have just dismissed it. I have too active an imagination.

Scary Animals at Every Twist and Turn

There’s the usual heaps of plastic bottles washed up by the tide and disfiguring the margins between trees and sand. I follow a jungle path back to the main beach, thinking it will be interestingly different, but I’m now beginning to listen out for rustling sounds. Another English couple, Nick and Sally (there are, as you will have noted quite a few British tourists here-they mostly seem to have Raj or army connections) have already shown me photos of the tree snake they took. Apparently, there are several other types of serpent around. There’s a rumour that the cobras live up by the massage hut, but that’s been pooh poohed by the therapists. (Only green non-poisonous snakes here, they reassure me).

Poo is on my mind again though, as I have had to navigate several patches of elephant dung on the path. Depending on who you believe there are either wild elephants in this forest, or working elephants released  by the loggers to forage for food. Much as I like elephants, I’m not keen to meet one on my own. It seems I’m not doing very well today, scary animal wise, and am pleased to escape and reach my beach mat. I would really like a swim, but the breakers here are large and I’ve been knocked over once. So, it’s not the most inviting of oceans either.

Lots of Crabs in the Andamans

A trek to the bar, where the waiter contrives ice filled bags to transport my canned beverages to the beach and keep them cool. He tells me that Neil’s Cove has a very steep unexpected drop off and strong currents, and that these are a much bigger threat than the possible appearance of salties. I’m now very happy I didn’t go in. Now, time to relax and watch the crabs.

There are several different varieties, mostly tiny, with different methods of digging their holes, creating a variety of spotted designs around each of their holes, like spatter paintings. There’s a sideways cavalcade retreat, when they hear me coming. The ones near the water sink completely into oblivion, while the others scuttle into the centre of their artistic endeavours. The hermit crabs are also in pattern mode, leaving trails across the drier sand, a central line where they drag their shell, accompanied on each side by dotted lines, the imprints of their legs.

Then a reconnaissance down the beach, where there’s public access. The water still teems with bathers,who have more courage than me, and there’s a small fruit and beach goods market. Further on, an attractive river estuary and two small temples. Looking back I’m wondering if I’ve been a little harsh in my beach grading. It’s an amazingly awesome stretch of sand, both wide and long (maybe a mile in all). However, I’d still rate Neil’s Cove higher, if it wasn’t for the salties.

I’m now soothed and rested, until it transpires that the hotel has checked in a very large party of secondary age school children. Suddenly, my tranquil stretch of sand is teeming, just like the public one in the distance. No-one has made any effort to site the students away from us poor keep-it-peaceful-so-no-Wi-Fi tourists. And they have footballs. I decide to go for a massage.

Crocodile Capers

It wasn’t a great night. The noise from the students travels in the night air. I’m told that they are all on a sponsored break. ‘Don’t worry, they leave on Tuesday.’ So do I. Breakfast here is exceptionally tasty. Most of the options are Indian and fried, so probably not hugely healthy. Today, I’ve had masala dhosa and aloo paranthia. The good news - the strike is over. The bad news - all the dive boats are now banned from operating because of some licensing dispute. (Don’t they want tourists here?) So, I’m not going anywhere today unless I use local transport. Anyway, it’s my last full day, before I finally head for home and relaxation is probably a good idea.

Rob and Gillian, from Wiltshire, tell me that the snorkelling close to Neil’s Cove is really good. They haven’t had any problems (or experienced any currents) and I’m welcome to join them and Nick and Sally there today. I’m thinking about it. I can’t get the Jaws theme tune out of my head (substitute crocodile for shark).

My safe has refused to open for the second time, so I’m getting very fit trekking backwards and forwards to reception, not to mention through the jungle to the beach, and back to the resort. I’m pondering my invitation as I gather up my gear. I’ve had clothes hanging on the veranda rail for two days and they are now damper than when I put them out. It hasn’t rained.

Well I’ve been brave and taken to the water, but it’s not so easy to scan the (dead) coral with one eye and check the surface with the other, so I don’t stay out as long as I would have wished. (Steve hasn’t helped by explaining how silently crocodiles attack in the water, when I meet him in reception, as he checks out.) As I set a course back to the beach, Rob is setting off for the horizon quite happily. Back on the sand, the sky is clear today and I’m finding it uncomfortable to walk without shoes. There’s no shade, unless you withdraw right into the jungle. I’m getting roasted to the point where I’m praying for some clouds. In the end, I rig up a little canopy with my sarong and four branches. Maybe not quite Bear Grylls, but it does the job.

Deluxe Travel Between the Andaman Islands

They’ve already started to repair the roads. There are heaps of sand and gravel standing waiting and some of the holes have been plugged. They clearly know how to conduct a meaningful strike here. I’m booked in to deluxe class on my return voyage to Port Blair. (It was premium on the way out, which turns out to equate with economy). I’m upstairs with some leg room and the steward smiles, ’First class’ at me, as he shows me to my front row, window seat. But I’ve noticed there’s a small room at the back with tables and plush swivel chairs; the VIP room - I reckon that’s first class. There’s a great deal more standing in queues (I use the word loosely) and having pieces of paper stamped of course, before I get this far.

As has been the pattern throughout the Andamans the passengers are mostly Indian tourists, many of them clad in western garb. I find this sad, the saris and salwars are so colourful and flattering, the women so graceful in them. Shorts may be cooler (and on some of the youngsters they are very short indeed) but I can’t believe that jeans are more comfortable. Downstairs is almost totally taken over by the students who were at the resort. Deluxe comes with a free vegetable puff and a mango drink. This time I can hear the Andamans video, but someone has quickly changed channel to Indian music.

Port Blair

Port Blair is more frenetically (and normally) Indian and I feel I should take a short stroll before I leave. It's arduous walking (because of the steep roads, it’s very hilly) and stroll isn’t really the correct word. The dhobi (laundry) ghats for the hotel are just round the corner, flapping white towels and pillowcases reflecting in the man-made ponds. There’s just time to reach the Cellular Jail Memorial. The Andamans is where the British kept many of their prisoners and there are a line of bronze statues celebrating the most famous martyrs.

Getting Back to Delhi

I’ve been told I’ll get picked up at 6.30 a.m. (I checked four times) but my phone is ringing at six to tell me that my car has arrived. I’m in the bathroom - I ate too much curry from the buffet on offer last night. The drive is another rally excursion. I have a sense of déjà vu, as he cuts up a white van and is subsequently (rightly) abused by both the van driver and a motor cyclist.

And time for a rant about unnecessary bureaucracy, ridiculous rules and airport behaviour. I have to queue to show my boarding pass before I can be allowed into the arrivals hall. Then, I have to put just my carry-on bag (not my handbag) through the scanner and sign a book to say I’ve done that. Then I have to go to another scanner to get my main case checked. A piece of sticky paper that I will find it almost impossible to remove is stuck over the lock and my name is entered into yet another volume. Then I am allowed to queue for check in.

An Indian family have covered all their bases by placing someone in each column and feel they can push in when my line moves the fastest (for once). I’m not in the mood and tell them politely it’s not very fair. The rest of the queue agrees with me. ‘You have to take your chance like everyone else’ they say. Even a porter tells them to wait.

So I go ahead and check in and am charged 400 rupees per kilogram for each of the six I’m over the 15 kilo limit. It’s a rule introduced purely for money making when international limits are 23 kilos. And even more ridiculous, when I consider that the difference between my weight and many of the passengers is considerably more. So I have to follow the little porter around the airport and outside again to the ticketing desk to get a receipt and back once more. The check in clerk stamps my receipt and then kindly consents to dispatch my bags, having reissued my boarding pass and luggage tag.

As a foreigner, I have to have my passport stamped again at immigration (this is a domestic flight) and then it’s security. There are a list of 71 items one may not take with you posted on the wall. These include ice axes and meat cleavers. Liquids are not included on this board; there’s a separate sign for them. Despite this, no-one picks up on the little carton of fruit juice in my breakfast bag,  or the aerosol in my sunglass case (not one scanner has detected that yet - all round the world.)

As always, in India, there is a separate queue for men and women, and as always the women’s line moves much more slowly, as there is only one female on duty, in the little tented enclosure where the inspecting officer waves a detector around. Meanwhile, my laptop and handbag are sitting in full view of the crowds, out of my reach, as they went through the machine ages ago. The officer stamps my pass when she’s done waving and I move on. There’s another line for the bus to the plane. This involves two more boarding pass checks and two more stamps. Aaaaargh…

Finally, on the plane it’s a five hour journey (via Calcutta) to Delhi. The man next to me is attempting to take half my seat as well as his own. And he’s talking constantly in a shrill loud voice to his companion, right through all the announcements. The flight is so bumpy that the attendants have to sit down for much of the time. I hate this and start to go green. I’ve lost my Rescue Remedy. The woman next door but one tells me I have no need to worry, they are doctors. That’s not quite the reassurance I need.

After days like this I always swear I’m not going to travel again. But I’m pretty sure I will. It’s been another fabulous, if turbulent adventure. And I’ve just been sent an email with a suggested programme for my next trip. Home tomorrow.

A Brief History of India

  • India is home to one of the oldest civilisations in the world. Traces of hominoid activity suggest that the area now known as India, was inhabited approximately 250,000 years ago.
  • The Netherlands, England, France, and Denmark-Norway all established trading posts in India in the early seventeenth century. As the Mughal Empire disintegrated in the early 18th century many relatively weak and unstable Indian states which emerged were increasingly open to manipulation by the Europeans, through dependent Indian rulers.
  • In the later eighteenth century, Great Britain and France struggled for dominance over India, partly through proxy Indian rulers, but also by direct military intervention. The defeat of the formidable Indian ruler Tipu Sultan in 1799 marginalised the French influence. This was followed by a rapid expansion of British power, through the greater part of the Indian subcontinent, in the early nineteenth century.
  • By the middle of the century the British had already gained direct or indirect control over almost all of India. British India, consisting of the directly-ruled British presidencies and provinces, contained the most populous and valuable parts of the British Empire. So, it soon became known as "The Jewel in the British Crown". Russia's aspirations to won this prize led to continued conflict in Afghanistan and a set of political manoeuvres known as The Great Game.
  • In 1947, India gained its independence and was partitioned into the Dominion of India and the Dominion of Pakistan,. Pakistan was created as a homeland for colonial India's Muslims.
  • Tensions between India and Pakistan have continued since partition. The main point of conflict is Kashmir, which both sides claim, even though Kashmir itself would prefer to be independent. It has instead been subjected to a line (Asia's Berlin Wall) drawn through it and constant incursions on both sides. Both Pakistan and India are focused again on border issues and access. India would be happy to weaken Pakistani links with China, if it could close their small but important border. Meanwhile, they have more than 2,000 miles of shared border, over which to maintain hostilities.

Facts and Factoids

  • India is is now the country with the largest population in the world. (Over 1.4 billion).
  • India is the world’s largest democracy.
  • India has three of the largest cities in the world: Delhi, Mumbai (Bombay) and Kolkata (Calcutta). According to the UN, Delhi is now the second-largest urban agglomeration in the world, with over 22.65 million people; it is only surpassed by Tokyo. Mumbai is ranked seventh and Calcutta tenth.
  • India has more linguistic diversity than any other large country. There are over 1,000 languages, but many overlap and are hard to define. Official languages are Hindi and English.
  • India has the second (or third) highest population of Muslims in the world. Even though fewer than 15% of Indians are Muslim, the country's enormous population means that it outranks all Muslim-majority countries, except Indonesia and possibly Pakistan. (There are almost exactly the same numbers of Muslims in Pakistan as in India).
  • The majority religion in India is Hinduism (79%). Minority religions include Christianity, (2.3%) Sikhism, (1.7% ) Buddhism ().7% ) and to Jainism. (0.4% )
  • India was once an island. It broke off from an ancient supercontinent referred to as Gondwanaland by paleogeographers (named after Gondwana, a forested area of central India). Then it moved slowly northwards, from modern day Madagascar, to join Asia.
  • Bollywood, the film industry of Mumbai, produces about 200 films a year. However, more than 1,100 movies are produced, on average, each year overall in India - that's slightly ahead of Nigeria, twice as many as the American film industry and ten times as many as Britain produces.
  • India was referred to, as Golden Bird, in ancient times, when the country was known for its wealth and prosperity.

Is India a Poor Country?

From being a comparatively poor country at Independence in 1947, India has become a fast-growing major economy. It's a hub for worldwide information technology services, and plenty of call centres. Labour is cheap.India has a space programme which includes several planned or completed extra-terrestrial missions and is a nuclear weapons state, ranking high in military expenditure. It has ongoing and long term disputes over Kashmir with its neighbours, Pakistan and China.

Indian movies, music, and spiritual teachings play an increasing role in global culture. India has therefore substantially reduced its rate of poverty. However, it still faces the challenges of gender inequality, child malnutrition, and rising levels of air pollution. The extreme poverty rate in India is now down to 3%. but that is still nearly 50 million people.

Is India Safe to Visit?

There are more road deaths in India than any other country in the world. Officially, about 115,000 people die on Indian roads each year - though a recent British Medical Journal study suggests that the true number of fatalities is closer to 200,000.

What to See and Do in India?

I have a love- hate relationship with India. It is an endlessly fascinating assault on the senses: colourful, vibrant, and wonderfully spiritual. The festivals are joyful and amazing. the landscapes temples and architecture are astonishing

The crowds and disregard for personal space are wearing, the poverty is difficult to deal with, (though numbers of people living on the streets appear to have diminished dramatically over recent years). The treatment of women as second class citizens is still a huge challenge in many places.

I have visited ten times and have still only seen a small part of India’s incredible diversity.

Kashmir

Almost the moment we fly into Kashmir from Amritsar (after crossing the border from Pakistan) the FCO changes its travel advice from 'Don’t go into the town' to 'Don’t travel to Srinagar at all'. There have been incursions on the border and some riotous behaviour. The roads are all barricaded with barbed wire, all the shops are shut, there is no money in the ATMs and there are interminable searches.

Kashmir, the northernmost geographical region of the Indian subcontinent, has been a disputed territory, since the partition of India in 1947. It had previously been part of the Sikh Empire. Now, it is administered, not at all peacefully by three countries: India, Pakistan, and China. We've passed through some of Pakistani Kashmir on our way down the Karakorum Highway. It's a large area, only slightly smaller than the UK, and it's mainly mountainous, divided by rivers and lakes. It's also very beautiful. The Indians and Pakistanis describe Kashmir as 'Heaven on Earth'. Sadly, ongoing conflict has rendered the area off limits to tourists for many years. I had understood that it was now safely accessible, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

Srinagar, Kashmir

Srinagar is the largest city and the summer capital of Jammu (an area now designated as being part of Kashmir) and Kashmir. It lies in the Kashmir Valley on the banks of the Jhelum River, a tributary of the Indus, and the Dal and Anchar lakes. Srinagar is known for its natural environment, gardens, waterfronts and houseboats. So, I'm told. We're not allowed to go and see.

The houseboats are still there. Lake Dal would be idyllic. Everything in upside-down duplicate, the water is so still. The mountains shimmer, the fish tailed boats are colourful, kingfishers dart by and the water flora are abundant.  But it all feels abandoned. The little stilted stalls are mostly empty.

We are told that our boat is the best one. A palace on the water. Eight ornate bedrooms. It has a butler cum cook cum houseboy, who lives on the empty boat next door. There isn’t much food available. He has to scavenge somewhat - most of it is cooked in the house on the shore. Or is it an island?

A succession of uninvited vendors liven things up, arriving in a stream of small boats. They are pitifully persistent – no other tourists here. We are allowed to pootle round the lake in small boats, past some of the almost deserted shops. We disembark at a couple of gardens. The Chashme Shahi is one of the Mughal gardens built in 1632 AD, around a spring, by governor Ali Mardan Khan, under the orders of the orders of the Emperor, Shah Jahan. It was a gift for his eldest son Prince Dara Shikoh.

Agatha Christie Time

So we sunbathe on the roof of the boat. The Portuguese lawyer is considering what might transpire now the five of us are all marooned afloat in Kashmir. Two of the five are deranged. (See Pakistan). This could be murder on the Orient Boat - Arsenic and Old Lace. The teacher would be Miss Marple - even the Christian name is right. We have a butler, but no billiard room – could the weapon be the cocktail shaker?

Eight people died in shootings last night - another lecture at breakfast as our guide rants on about the iniquitous Pakistanis.

Supplies are running low, the food is a weird concoction from cans and we have drunk all the gin available.

One night left to survive. Who dunnit? Perhaps we all did? Now I get to go home.

Goa

After my Tiger Safari I'm heading back to Goa for Christmas. It will be the third time I've spent the Christmas season here. Or maybe not. There's a huge row on the plane about who is going to sit where. It takes fifteen minutes for all the passengers to play musical chairs. I suspect that the happy check in clerk is behind it.

Goa is the smallest state in India, tiny tucked in on the west coast. But it has the best quality of life and the highest GDP per capita in India. And I'm here, along with many others, for the white-sand beaches, nightlife and historic architecture. As well as Indian temples, there's the strong Portuguese influence. The Portuguese conquered Goa in the sixteenth century and it remined a Portuguese Overseas Territory for about 456 years, until it was annexed by India in 1961.

Singles Holiday Baga Beach, Goa

On my last trips here I was on singles holidays at Baga. We spent most of the time on the beach, lazing on sunbeds at Tony's Bar. There's along stech of sand here, which narrows considerably at high tide. The bars behind the beach here are dismantled during the summer, monsoon season, and re-erected every winter, to try and avoid storm damage. We sample the restaurants - Indian and Portuguese and make trips to the markets, especially the Wednesday Flea Market, up the coast at once hippy hang out Anjuna. It's now become Nightclub-land. Curlies Bar, on the beach is the place to go after all the shopping.

At night, there's dancing in the clubs behind the beach at Baga. They're full of Indian men - the women don't come to these. In the morning we have breakfast at Leila’s Swiss Café, nestled alongside Baga Creek. It's a peaceful wander alongside the paddy fields and fishing boats before heading back to our sunbeds.

Panaji

The capital of Goa is Panjim, a port on an estuary, more commonly known as Panaji. It's small (the largest city is actually Vasco da Gama, where Dabolim Aiport is situated), but it has some interesting architecture, churches, temples and art. There's a UNESCO heritage section with churches and convents, to the east of Panaji. The shopping is good. There's even a small department store called Blooming Dales. And there's a great partially covered market.

Just to the south there's an attractive little bay called Dona Paula. The locals flock here. One of the attractions is a whitewashed statue perched on the rocks near the ferry jetty. It depicts the figures of Mother India and Young India, one looking to the East and the other to the West.

Palolem

A trip to the beautiful beach at Palolem, in the south of Goa, for one night, staying in stilt houses. Here it's relatively quiet. They even have silent discos where everyone wears headphones.

Christmas at Calangute, Goa

Calangute this time, a little south of Baga, but on the same long stetch of beach. It doesn't really feel like Christmas. There are large illuminated paper stars hanging in the trees around the brownstone old style Portuguese pousada where I'm staying. The pool has cascades and is also beautifully lit, surrounded by tastefully planted palms. But no Christmas trees. Or presents. The sky is unrelentingly blue and it's lobster on the beach for lunch (the boys wear Santa Hats), followed by curry dinner at the hotel with an American and his daughter. We are the only guests at the moment. I have been upgraded to a huge suite and it's like having my own private villa, with servants on tap.

On the Beach at Calangute

My hotel might be quiet but Goa is rocking, very different to my last visit five years ago. The Hispanic architecture, huge churches and narrow stone walled lanes, with wrought iron gates and intricate bell towers remain. But the streets and beaches are thronged with Russians, huge bellies, ape like arms and teeny swimsuits too small even to smuggle budgies. They say there are three hundred flights from Moscow a week. The sunbeds and gaudy umbrellas stand ten rows deep on the wide yellow sand and even the billboards have Russian subtitles. The lifeguard careers up and down the beach in a van, extorting the crowds to get out of the water on his tinny megaphone. There are strong currents and drownings are common. But no-one takes any notice.

The days merge into a pattern of swim, massage, breakfast by the pool, transfer to a sunbed at the hotel's beach restaurant (a comfortable hotch-potch of mock Greek temple and fishing nets) set back from the main drag. Back to the pool and dinner. The hotel owner is anxious that I do not venture out alone - the traffic is too bad he says. And every day brings a new story of violence or rape. The Americans depart and a family of 13 Portuguese arrive. They ignore me. It's a good job I have a lot of reading matter.

There is a diplomatic row escalating between the USA and India; this might be why one of the headlines on the BBC today suggests that condoms don't work effectively in India as the standard size is too large and they fall off. Apparently 1200 volunteers were measured 'to the nearest millimetre’.

Candolim

Just to the south, at the bottom of this stretch of beach is Candolim. The sturdy walls of Aguada Fort, built in the early 1600s under Portuguese colonial rule, surround a nineteenth-century lighthouse. It allows for good views, but the beach is not at its prettiest here. It's overshadowed by a huge wrecked ship.

New Year's Eve, Goa

The traffic in Goa is now terrible, Partly because the vehicles have to navigate round stuffed guys, displayed along the lanes, Guy Fawkes style, complete with collecting tins. These are the ‘Old Men of the Year’. They will be burned so that there can be a new beginning. This is the only state in India that has late night clubs and the only one that celebrates Christmas and the New Year.

I eat dinner on my own at the pousada and then catch a taxi down to the Taj Resort and blag my way in. I sit in solitary splendour on the decking above the beach drinking a martini whilst Bollywood parties the other side of a curtain. There's a great view of the locally made fireworks and bonfires all the way up the beach on New Year’s Eve, most bars have their own. Spectacular, if not entirely health and safety conscious

New Year's Day

A last day at the beach. A couple of very small clouds drifted past today. Tomorrow's journey home could be hairy. The first leg is via Air India, notorious for cancellations and delays. And I only discovered when I arrived in Mumbai that the domestic airport is 10 kilometres from the international terminal. There are dire warnings on the Foreign Office Advisory about women not taking taxis alone, let alone at night. There are also tales of taxis being hijacked in the early hours on the Mumbai airport road. I'm told that there is a free coach every hour- if I can work out where it is in the usual Indian airport chaos and provided my Air India plane does the necessary. At least they will check my baggage all the way through so I don't need to worry about that.

Homeward Bound

Good news. The plane is going to land at the international airport, so I won't have to worry about being transferred. Bad news. They won't check my baggage through, as it's a different airline and the plane is delayed an hour. I queue at the immigration desk,  only to be told that I have to go back, as I need an exit form filled in. When I try to pick one up I'm told that don't need it (and can’t have it), as I'm only on a domestic flight. Then I'm told that I can't go through security yet anyway, as my plane is late. Wunderbar!

Another great holiday - this is my sixth visit to India.

Mumbai

The road to Nagpur and the airport, for the flight to Mumbai, after my Tiger Safari, is possibly the worst I have ever seen. The pot holes are big enough to create swimming pools.

Mumbai, once know is very different to the rest of India. It's huge, sprawling and increasingly full of skyscrapers, intermingled with Victorian villas and mansions, as well as the inevitable slums. These include Dharavi, (the largest in the world, where Slumdog Millionaire was filmed). Mumbai (over 20 million people) is the second-most populous city in India after Delhi and the eighth-most populous city in the world. It's built on seven islands, which were under the control of successive indigenous rulers, before being ceded to the Portuguese Empire, and subsequently to the East India Company in 1661. They were part of the dowry of Catherine Braganza, when she was married to Charles II of England. Today, Mumbai is the capital of the (relatively new) state of Maharashtra.

Mumbai is also the de facto financial centre of India. But it's probably most well known to us, as the entertainment capital of India. This is the home of the Bollywood and Marathi cinema industries. My room overlooks both the famous Choupati (Chowpatty) Beach (no-one swims, the water is too polluted, they just promenade) and the Mumbai cricket ground. Just beyond is Marine Drive whcih runs along the bay here, lined with shops and hotels and backed by scrapers.

What do Guides Look Like?

My guide for today and I nearly miss each other. The rep tells me that they were looking for someone old, ugly and fat, as I am travelling on my own. (Apparently I am none of those things). I meanwhile, am looking for a young man in a short sleeved white shirt, and my guide is a Parsee lady who speaks immaculate husky English, comes from an old family, knows everyone including the Shah of Iran, the Pope and Margaret Thatcher and consistently refers to Mumbai as Bombay. She runs a design company called Creative Concepts.

Exploring Mumbai

There are a plethora of spectacular Victorian buildings to see in Mumbai. Most notably the Gateway to India Arch, by the sea. It was erected to commemorate the landing of King-Emperor George V, the first British monarch to visit India, in December 1911. The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Railway Terminus almost makes St Pancras look plain. There are other museums and galleries and Gandhi's old house, in once affluent Laburnum Road. The villas here are rapidly being torn down to make way for more skyscrapers. A wander in the Hanging Gardens, home to 83 topiary animals and the Friendship Clock.

You can't miss the Haji Ali Dargah Mosque, on an islet in southern Mumbai. It's associated with legends about doomed lovers, and contains the tomb of Haji Ali Shah Bukhari. the Sufi saint from Uzbekistan.

The Sassoon Dock is lively, lined with fresh seafood stalls. my driver hops about whilst I wave my camera around. You're not supposed to stop here.

Markets are always favourite stopping places and this one is no exception, colourful, friendly and vibrant.

Driving North from Mumbai

We drive across one of the many bays, north to the Kanheri Caves in Sanjay Gandhi National Park. The most interesting sights, en route, are the dhobi ghats and the views across Dharavi. The dhobi ghats, where much of the laundry of the city is done, are fascinating and hugely colourful. About one million people live in two square kilometres of slum at Dharavi.

Needless to say, the traffic is truly appalling. No-one gives way if they can possibly avoid it, even at junctions, and no-one takes any notice whatsoever of all the traffic lights. The journey is made even more eventful by the traffic cops, who seem to have introduced a new rule that all tourist car drivers must have special badges. Unfortunately, no one has told the drivers about this rule. A lot of motoring around to try and retrieve confiscated licences and pay fines follows. The guide then spends the next half hour bemoaning all the corruption in India, while the driver has hysterics.

Kanheri Caves

The Kanheri Caves are on a hillside, up steps cut into the basalt. There are one hundred and nine of them, mainly used as monks cells in a Buddhist monastery, with a rock plinth for a bed. Some. the oldest and plainest, date from the first century. There are viharas, sued for studying and congregation halls, with huge stone pillars and stupas. Some of the walls are carved with very intricate Buddha reliefs

The driver's bad day continues, as he clips a wing mirror and then rams a bus. The bus is visibly more worse for wear than we are, but fortunately the bus driver doesn't seem to have noticed.

Christmas in Mumbai

I had forgotten it was Christmas. There are twinkling decorations all over the hotel (placed by Classic Concepts of course), Santa has been winched up above the porch and a choir is singing carols in the lounge.

Incredibly Annoying India

India is marketed as incredible India. And it definitely is, but the bureaucracy and attitude here are beyond frustrating at times. At airports, for example, there is little signage and staff are very unhelpful. The guy on the Air India check in desk is so surly that I eventually ask him why he does his job if he dislikes it so much. Though I wait till I've got my boarding pass. Then I get sent all the way back to security, when I am about to board the plane, as my small handbag does not have a stamped baggage tag. The guy at security doesn't deem it necessary to tell me that this will happen.

Some of the representatives sent to meet me are plain officious and offer little information. They are only interested in making sure that I sign their job sheets and fill in their feedback forms. The latter are usually pressed on me just as I am arriving late at the airport. It is every man for himself on the road, in the street and in queues, (well, what queues?) I stress that these comments only relate to some of my encounters. Other men (and women) have been extremely attentive, exceedingly gentle and kind. The staff in my safari hotels could not do enough to help (except for providing heaters).

Spoken and written English is littered with English idiom and, too often, cliché, amusingly misspelled. My favourite so far: 'No Thorough Road'. Even Hindi is peppered with English words: ' Garble, garble, male tiger, garble, sighting, garble, garble, alarm calls.....'

I still keep coming back....

Now on to Goa.

Kolkata, India

I have an ambiguous relationship with India. I’m sucked back in to further visits, drawn by the exotica, the colour and the fact that it is fascinatingly utterly different to anywhere else. It’s also, always,  a challenge to my resilience and patience. This trip begins in the most unpromising fashion, as I have dinner with the wrong tour group (mine haven't arrived yet - the plane is late) and I manage to acquire an upset stomach before I’ve even met the other participants. I think it was probably the cocktail in the hotel bar that did it. I fear the barman used raw egg to froth it up.

I catch up with the rest of the group touring Kolkata in the afternoon. They're  not as much fun as last night's group. I'm wondering if it's too late to change my plans. Kolkata is possibly the most famous city in India, it’s definitely the biggest, dirtiest, most sprawling and chaotic. The street outside is filthy and there are a small herd of painted sheep nibbling at the heaps of rubbish.

Kali Festival

We start with the colourful flower market and the clay modeller's village. The potters and papier-mâché artists here spend all year creating a wealth of images and idols for the annual festivals and, as the Kali festival is just finishing, there are ongoing ceremonies and pujas in the streets and at the Kali Temple. Some of the brightly coloured and richly attired idols have accomplished the necessary goals and are now being dumped ceremoniously in the River Hoogli.

Colonial Calcutta

Also on the agenda, of course, are visits to buildings associated with Calcutta’s colonial past, the capital of British India. We visit the Victoria Memorial Building (now a museum), grey Dalhousie Square and the Mother Teresa Home and Orphanage. I didn't know this famous nun was Albanian. (In fact it’s more complicated than that - she was born in Skopje (now the capital of the Republic of Macedonia), then part of the Kosovo Vilayet of the Ottoman Empire). And the Black Hole of course, in Fort William. Metropolitan Building is the number 46.26 building on Chowringhee Road in Kolkata near Esplanade. Formerly known as the Whiteway Laidlaw department store, it was a famous department store in Calcutta during the British Rule in India

Temples in Kolkata

Perhaps most interesting is Kolkata's wonderfully intricate pastel coloured Jain temple, the Shri Trimurti Digamber Jain Temple, at Susner.

Bodh Gaya

Then, onto the train for the first time and west, to Gaya city and the important Buddhist pilgrimage site of Bodh Gaya on the plains of the eastern Ganges. You can’t see an awful lot out of the windows, as they are covered in grime, but the sense of chaos and confusion pervades. Local trains chunter by, stuffed to the gunwales with live torsos hanging out of the windows and doors and clinging on to the roof. No-one takes any notice of crossing gates. Pedestrians  keep moving until the train is bearing down upon them, horn blaring loudly.

Bodh Gaya is the site of the tree under which Prince Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment over 2600 years ago, so it is besieged by pilgrims. The actual Bodhi, (tree where the Buddha sat, for 49 days), is dead. A prominent plaque marks the spot, but a descendant, grown from a cutting, replaces it. This one, in its turn, is so old it has to be propped  up with wooden staves. I’ve lost count of the places I’ve visited elsewhere that claim to have trees grown from cuttings of the original.

Adjacent is the majestic Mahbodhi Temple, built in the 6th century AD, to replace the original temple erected by the emperor Ashoka in the third century BC. This remarkable temple, topped by a towering 50 metre high spire, was declared a World Heritage Site in 2002 and is one of the oldest brick built Buddhist temples in India. We also visit a 25 metre high Great Buddha Statue, financed by the Japanese. I’ve seen more than a few big Buddhas now, but this one is impressive.

There's also a lake, where Lord Buddha spent time after his enlightenment. A statue marks the spot where the king of the serpents (Naga) rose up from the water to protect Gautama from a severe storm created by Mara (the god of chaos), who wanted to disturb his meditation.

Varanasi, India

Another train journey, to the fabled holy city of Varanasi, which is utterly intoxicating. The schizophrenic nature of India is totally to the fore here, with pungent scents, amazing colour, light and atmosphere. It’s believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth and is one of the most venerated Hindu pilgrimage centres in India. Countless thousands come here  to the banks of the sacred River Ganges, to  perform puja and  cleanse themselves at its myriad temples and ghats. The Hindus believe that this is where the material and spiritual worlds meet.

Varanasi by rickshaw is an adventure, a teeming vibrant mass, which we edge around, within an inch of our lives.

On the Ganges

In Varanasi, we have two boat rides along the sacred river, one for sunset and one for sunrise. The riverbanks, teeming with colour, are jam-packed with pilgrims and our boat is an excellent place to watch (from a respectful distance) as the local priests perform the revered Aarti ceremonies, with mystical singing and chanting. The stairs (now thronging) down to the river are called ghats. Dashashwamedh Ghat is the main ghat in Varanasi, by the Vishwanath Temple. Two Hindu legends are associated with it: according to one, Brahma created it to welcome Shiva, and in another, Brahma sacrificed ten horses during the Dasa-Ashwamedha yajna performed here. Ahilyabai Ghat is named for Queen Ahilyabai. This is where most religious bathing rituals are performed.

Further down we can see the cremation rituals and feel the heat of the roaring fires, adding to the glow of the sun: the golden light bathing the ghats is glorious. We are informed that there are several circumstances – such as snakebite and pregnancy – where the dead are not allowed to be burned. On these occasions the bodies are embalmed and thrown into the river. It is at  this point that I notice the cloth wrapped figures bobbing in the water around us.

Sarnath

We make a short side trip north, to another of the four holiest Buddhist sites, Sarnath, the cradle of Buddhism, The massive Dhamek Stupa here marks the precise location where the Buddha preached his first sermon, after his enlightenment, to his first five disciples, and where all five eventually became fully liberated. Here, there is probably the most expansive collection of Buddhist temples and monasteries on earth. It was destroyed by Muslim armies, but two stupas and some towers have been restored, after it was rediscovered by British archaeologists in the middle years of the nineteenth century.

Agra, India

Agra, built by Emperor Akbar, was once the capital of the mighty Mughal Empire. It has a huge red sandstone fort and 20 metre high walls to protect its opulent buildings and treasures: tombs, towers, mosques and a huge fort.

The Taj Mahal is much hyped, but it doesn’t disappoint - even though this is the second time I’ve visited. It is truly an exquisite building. It required the labour of 20,000 men and is estimated to have cost something in the region of three million rupees (at today's prices that equates to around $70 million). Shah Jehan, Akbar's grandson, built it as a tomb for his wife, Mumtaz, and then was overthrown by his son. It’s poignant to think of the imprisoned shah locked up across the river, in the fort - so near and yet so far.

Again, The Taj Mahal has to be toured both at sunset and sunset, for the rosy light and the atmospheric  photos. Little men pop up to lead us to the best spots for pictures - for a suitable reward, of course. And visiting Indians queue up to take our photos and have shots taken with us.

The hotel is the same one I stayed in on my first visit a very long time ago. I don't think they have done anything to it since. We are stuck in the lift for a while - it's not a good experience. Neither is tour leader Rafeequi's announcement that I can come to his room any time. It's conveniently next to mine.

Fatehpur Sikri

There’s a side trip (again covering old ground) to the nearby abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri, lying to the west of Agra and, for a brief time, yet another capital of the Mughals under Akbar the Great. Founded in 1569 it was only inhabited for 16 years later –no-one is quite sure why it was abandoned. There's a pachisi board in the courtyard. The Indian equivalent of chess, except that, the emperor used slave girls as pieces.

It’s brown and ghostly and the deserted arched buildings and squares are interesting. They key sights are the
Panch Mahal, the five tiered place surrounded by water and the Diwan-E-Khas (The Hall of Private Audience), used by Akbar. The highlight (as on my last visit), is the old man with flowing grey locks and beard who dives from the ramparts into a tiny algae covered tank many feet below. As long as he can collect enough rupees from the watching crowds to make the plunge worthwhile.

Delhi, Capital of India

I’ve been to Delhi several times now. It’s not my favourite place, but it improves on each visit. Fewer people are living on the streets and it is less overwhelming than it was. It's a shame, however, that the snake charmers  and floating fakirs round the fort have all been moved on. It's much less atmospheric. Most of the main thoroughfares are blocked by roadworks today, causing additional delay - preparations for the forthcoming Commonwealth Games are in full swing.

More schizophrenia. We have the colonial grandeur of New Delhi; the capital of India, the creation of the British Raj of the 1930s. Its streets are filled with a rich collection of the architectural creations of Edward Lutyens. first, the huge memorial arch of the India Gate a testament to the 90,000 Indian troops who lost their lives during WWI and along the Northwest Frontier. Next, the Indian Parliament, and Humayun's Tomb, a 16th century mausoleum famed for its Mughal architecture. Alongside, is the Isa Khan Tomb

We also visit the towering Qutub Minar, a spectacular thirteenth century edifice made of sandstone and marble and glowing in the mellow sunshine. It was built  to mark the arrival of the Muslim sultans and soars some 73 metres above the city. It's an enormous complex of ruins, including the mammoth unfinished Alai Minar.

Then, a tour of Old Delhi by metro and cycle rickshaw. This old city, is a magnificent fusion of grandiose architecture and vibrant chaos, centred around the Chandni Chowk Bazaar, an eclectic cacophony of noise, colour and deafening barter. The spectacular Jama Masjid Mosque (I have to don a flowery hospital type robe to cover myself up before I’m allowed in) is the largest in India. It was built by Shah Jahan.

Next, a minor kerfuffle as Rafeequi abandons us, amidst remonstrations. He says that only a morning tour is included. If we want to see anything else here we can do it ourselves. He won't take us in the Red Fort, even though we have been to the Drum House (Naubat Khana), at the entrance. Scottish Ken takes over, with his map, and we navigate back to the Red Fort through the bazaar, without getting lost too many times. The Red Fort was the home of the Mogul emperors, when Sha Jahan moved the capital from Agra to Delhi.

Time to do some exploring on my own. You can't miss the gargantuan, bustling and impressive Shri Laxmi Narayan Hindu Temple (Birla Mandir). Laxminarayan refers to Vishnu, , also known as Narayan, when he is with his consort Lakshmi. And then a complete contrast with the serenely beautiful Bahai Lotus Temple.

And another festival to celebrate. It’s Diwali when I first arrive and firecrackers and loud parties keep us all awake, well into the small hours.

Toy Train to Shimla

More trains – this time  to Kalka, just to the north of Chandigarh. There are small mice running up and down the carriage, feeding on biscuit crumbs, strewn under the metal seats. From here we transfer to a narrow gauge track and continue to Shimla on the legendary 'Toy Train' (Shimla and the train were made famous in the TV series Indian Summers). Shimla is where the British went to the mountains to escape the heat. The train negotiates a meandering journey of some 93 kilometres, ascending over 1600 metres through 103 tunnels.

The stations are a dainty blue and white decorated with elephants. Locals try to sell us cookies and samosas at the stations. wave at us from the front carriages, as the train chugs round the many bends, and risk their lives hanging out of the windows to pose for photographs.

Shimla is pleasantly cool and much as expected. Views of snow capped mountains in the distance. The main square is known as Scandal Point, though no-one is sure if there's any truth in the various lurid explanations for the name. There's a monkey temple and the Vice-Roy's Lodge to visit. And there are shopping streets, signposted, Upper Mall, Middle Bazaar and Lower Bazaar. As the trip dossier says: ‘the mock Tudor architecture presents a quite surreal imitation of Old England, against the magnificent backdrop of the Himalaya’. The hotel is a little surreal  too. The swimming pool is full of rubble.

Amritsar, India

Finally, an afternoon train to the Sikh’s holy city of Amritsar in the Northern Punjab. Its magnificent Golden Temple has a dome, covered in over 700 kilograms of pure gold. Yet another festival - I’ve been very lucky - it’s the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak’s birthday. This is one of the holiest Sikh cities, home to the Sikh holy book, The Guru Granth Sahib. The entire work is read in 48 hours at the celebrations.

There are parades through the streets and the grounds of the temple are thronging with the bobbing orange heads of Sikhs on pilgrimage. The temple is strewn with lights and, despite all the visitors, and having been the scene of several historical outrages, is incredibly serene and welcoming. The largest kitchen in the world, attached to the temple, is also fascinating - all those volunteers preparing food and all those chapattis rolling off the machines.

Jalianwalabagh

Amritsar has not been without bloodshed. The memorial garden at Jalianwalabagh commemorates the 1919 massacre of Indian protestors by General Dyer. And there was another massacre in the temple itself, when Indira Gandhi sent the Indian army in to quell protests in 1984,

Wagah

A comedic interlude before I depart is the excursion to the Wagah Border with Pakistan to see the 'Flag Lowering' ceremony. The cockaded border guards for both India and Pakistan make a competitive and overly-dramatic display of closing the border gates each day. It’s like watching John Cleese at the Ministry of Silly Walks.

Read more about India here.

Now I'm going on to Nepal and Bhutan

Thiruvananthapuram

I was going to spend Easter at home writing, but then I read  an article in a Sunday supplement and settled instead for a fortnight having Ayurvedic treatment. So, here I am in Kerala, a state in the far south of India. It's known for beaches, palm trees and its mountains- the Western Ghats. The capital, where I've landed, is Thiruvananthapuram, thankfully often shortened to Trivandrum. It's almost right on the southern tip of India. Gandhi nicknamed it The Evergreen City of India, but it's apparently also known as God's Own Capital.

Kovalum, Kerala

My first stop, at Kovalum, is classic postcard bent palm trees with fine white sand and a line of wooden dhows marching into the sea. There's a striped lighthouse on the main beach, which is packed. It's a favourite meeting place for the locals, as as well as being a home for the fishing boats.

Thekkady

First,  a mini tour of the area. starting with Thekkady. Thekkady means teak and this is very much a tourist town. It is advertised as being home to herds of elephants, sambar, tigers, gaur, lion-tailed macaques and Nilgiri langurs. But it is also famous for its thick forests So, in fact, sightings of elephants and especially tigers are highly unlikely. Tea plantations, myriad fantastic green patterns waving up the slopes, at Thekkady. Spices grown locally, in gardens open to the public and included on every tour.

A boat cruise in the Periyar ‘Tiger Safari’ Park, where I'm told, there is more chance of seeing elephant. And deer and bison coming down to drink. But, as Lonely Planet says, ‘it doesn’t scream wildlife experience’. It’s an artificial lake, made by the British constructing a dam on the river, and the boat is crammed with noisy Indian tourists. Unsurprisingly, we fail to spot any tigers, (except for cardboard cut outs), but we do encounter a small herd of elephant, sauntering down to the water. All the passengers scream and run to the rail, on one side, to see them. For a few moments I fear my time is up. The elephants lumber off, of course.

Afterwards, tea and banana fritters on the lawn of my hotel.

On the Road in Kerala

I am being driven around by a dishy, but very, naive six foot 29 year old who spends the whole journey telling me that he would like to fall in love with an English lady. He drives like a maniac, as does everyone. Only the cows use the zebra crossings. There's plenty to see in Kerala. Mountains covered in lush vegetation, huge flat valleys, abundant flowers. Hindu temples and an ornate Roman Catholic Church with a huge dome to report. Ox carts rolling by. There are also statues of gods being transported. It's Vishu, a holiday in Kerala which, according to the local blurb, ‘is celebrated with much fanfare and energy’.

Coconut Lagoon, Kerala

Now I’m staying on an island resort on the edge of a lake. It’s only accessible by small speedboat. This is what the website says: 'History in Liquid Reflections. There are so many facets to the Coconut Lagoon experience. The heritage of the old feudal villages of Malabar. The vast frolic of the Vembanad Lake. The shimmering waters of the canals that criss-cross the property. The flavour bursts of Kerala home-style cooking'. Coconut Lagoon is located in the Kerala district of Kuttanad, or the Land of the Short People. Someone suggests that this name came about because the folks here are always knee deep in the paddy fields that form most of the island.

I have an ‘antique’ cottage. I get up and have a shower in my open air bathroom, complete with full size banana tree, offering ripe hands of fruit. Eat vegetable dhosas for breakfast, along with water melon juice and fresh mangoes. Amble along the labyrinth of little canals and bridges, Venetian style, that make up the island and take a two hour boat ride through the backwaters, past canoes and flat boats skipping through the channels, all lined with palms and bobbing darters.

Children cavort on the banks playing cricket and letting off loud firecrackers, when we ignore the shouts of ‘Gimme Pen’, the tourist international language. Return, a trifle scorched and clamber into a hammock overlooking the lake. The miniature hump backed cows that act as lawn mowers are butting the boys who are trying to tether them. Eat fresh cashews and pineapple for lunch with coconut and ginger shake. Read till I am even more scorched and then fall into the swimming pool. Sit and read in the Jacuzzi. Then go for another boat ride, this time to watch the sun go down behind the lake.

Finally, my first Ayuredvic treatment. Massaged and pummelled with oil and herbs by two women at once. Blissful, sublime. Then a curry buffet. The food is brilliant. Best curry so far, the unlikely sounding cashew and pea. Stuffed to the hilt (well the Indians love English clichés and it's catching). I can just about manage to type.

It's a balmy beautiful evening and pipes are lilting across the water.

Cochin, Kerala

Cochin, (or Kochi) where I am treated to a converted maharajah’s palace. Polished teak and designer curry. This famous port 'Queen of the Arabian Sea', was an important spice trading centre on the west coast of India from the fourteenth century onward, when a flood fortuitously carved out its harbour. It's a delightful hotchpotch of tiled colonial bungalows, diverse temples and churches and restored mansions. Like the Old Harbour House. And there's a fort. But, the must see here are the picturesque cantilevered Chinese fishing nets, all along the beach.

Ayurveda in Kerala

My ayurvedic centre, the Somatheeram (the one mentioned in the paper) is located on the tranquil Malabar Coast, just north of Cochin. Though very lovely, this hotel is full of meditating Italians and Germans. I exhaust myself trying to speak German (Ach so you have zee British sense of humour!)  The Internet Café has two computers, making it exactly twice as large as the last one, though unfortunately it is not even half as fast.

My treatment proper starts here. I already feel loads more relaxed. I've only one set of bags under my eyes now. I'm put though my paces in the Ayuredvic hospital. Questionnaire and then diagnosis - which mixture of the 3 doshas vata/pitta/kapha am I? They make me vata/pitta which is fine, as that's what I made myself in the book I read at home. Basically I'm too quick for my own good - no surprise there either. Then they tell me I shouldn't sunbathe or eat spicy food. I'm not entirely obedient on either score. The spicy prawns are much too tasty. I’m spending a lot of time in the hammock just outside my room - well it's in partial shade.

The treatments are intended to rejuvenate and purify. The word purgation is rather freely bandied about. Most of it is very wonderful. I'm massaged with herb bundles and dripping jugs of oil (the masseurs use hands and feet). I'm laid in a trough and have warm oil dripped on my head from a clay pot in a pendulum motion. It’s like being on the edge of the sea - very calming. Then I have hot oil drizzled over me (as they say on all the best restaurant menus) for half an hour. I know now just how the turkey feels. All this absolutely stark naked. No inhibitions left now. This is all part of what's called panchekarma. If I'd had longer they would have added colonic irrigation (with you guessed it - hot oil) and used leeches on my skin. Of course I'm madly disappointed.

The resort is built all up the hillside and I have a cottage with a view over the bay. The path is lined with exotic flowers and punctuated with picture stops, so it takes half an hour and a pint of water to get up to the restaurant. I fall down the steps one day and cut my legs, so I arrive in the hospital rather earlier than anticipated.

Otherwise, life is quiet but relaxing. Catching up on my reading before I come home. And guess who turns up to visit me on the beach this morning?

Read more about Ayurveda, when I went to Sri Lanka here and read more about India here.

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