Alleppey Houseboats

After the absolute insanity that is Delhi, Kerala held some of my more relaxing experiences in India, albeit still full of surprises.

After haggling at the dock in Alleppey, we rented a private houseboat overnight on the backwaters with a crew of three. The two-story residence featured a dining area on the upper deck and striped cushions we aptly named the “tiger bed”. Lying there in the sun, isolated from the grind of the motor at the back of the boat, we floated tranquilly through the trees and out on to the lake (just check your head when you stand up, or you’ll get pole-axed by live electrical wires running the breadth of the river).

It was dubbed a “luxury” boat, but easter eggs included: the biggest spider I’ve ever seen in the bathroom, no toilet seat or paper, and a twin bed with a very generous tilt towards the edge of the boat. And the motor broke down.

Our cook went renegade too, demanding money, changing his mind that we couldn’t fish, said we weren’t allowed to watch TV after 8:30pm, and pushed again and again to drink our beer. When we docked and he demanded a tip, I shot my mouth off at him and the tour owner.

It did make the experience stressful, but that aside, as was often the contradiction in India, it was a very replenishing experience, largely because of the privacy of having our own boat, and not having to move bags around throughout the day. The food was spectacular (I just assumed the cook added his special sauce at some stage).

It was wonderful to wake up in the morning and watch people’s lives unfold around the river. Everything happens along its banks – washing clothes, brushing teeth, merchants selling food from boats, even hunting fish with a crossbow!

After our stay in Alleppey, we moved on to Verkala – a touristy beach town on India’s south-western coastline (we didn’t have time to make it north to Goa). The restaurants along its cliff walk were brimming with fresh fish each night at great prices.

I remember Verkala as the most relaxing place I traveled in India, so much so I don’t have any pictures to show you! So, instead take a look at life on the backwaters of Alleppey.

Munar Tea Plantations, India

During the month of May I will revisit the photographs from my trip to India. I took over 3,000 photographs on my month-long trip in December 2012, and finally I am getting around to posting some of them!

First stop is Munar, the beautiful and shapely hills of tea plantations in the south of India. I rented a motorbike with my girlfriend (she took a little convincing) and alongside some newly made friends from Germany, braved both the heat and cold of the mountains.

Munar tea pantations, Kerala, IndiaOnce outside the busy streets of the town of Munar itself, traffic was more relaxed, and the view spectacular! Tea bushes are pruned to English garden perfection, their cell-like structures coiling through gullies and up the slopes of the hills. I was surprised to find eucalyptus forests breaking up the vibrant green of the tea plantations – a sight, and a smell, transporting me to the Australian south coast.

It was so warm in the valley that morning that I had departed with only a t-shirt, but now high in the mountains I froze as I rode through the clouds themselves. The wind picked up at this altitude and I could see the white wisps washing through the trees. At the summit we pulled over to seek refuge with an Indian family who had stopped to build a fire beside the road. They didn’t speak English at all, so we could only offer plenty of smiles as we wedged our way into their group.

Down the mountain and into the next valley, my blood began to run again and we turned off the main road to explore a little village. I guess the townsfolk don’t get visitors that often with the way they stopped their work to stare at us. Again, no one spoke English, so it was with big gestures and smiles that we interacted with some kids who were hanging out their laundry on the best clothesline possible: floating across the top of the tea bushes themselves. A kindly looking old lady stopped to give me some fruit and pause for a photograph, as did another man carrying a giant blue loudspeaker.

20121216_IMG_7893_900My most striking memory of that day was watching workers build the road by hand high up in the mountains. Torrents of thick black smoke gushed from the furnace heating the tar, to which women dumped baskets of gravel scooped up and carried on their heads. All wearing flip-flops.

Distances in India often end up being much further than they appear on a map, given the dense traffic, livestock and just general hazards in whatever form you can think of. We finally found a waterfall that we should have, according to our “not to scale” map, encountered half a day earlier, and, since the light was fading, declared that we had successfully reached our destination. The truth was, we never had a destination in mind. With perfect, endless rolling green hills like those in Munar, you’re just there for the drive.

If you haven’t visited my website in a while, I’ve updated my films and photography, so take a look!

Desert Safari in Abu Dhabi

When I mentioned to a friend of mine in New York that I was going to the Emirates, his reaction was sharply aghast.

“Oh….I hated the Emirates.”

My heart sank. Why so bad? Was I wasting my time visiting the country?

“I went dune bashing. The driver thundered along the edge of a cliff and I was thinking, ‘No, surely he wouldn’t…’ but then, yes, he does – yanks the wheel to the right and we go flying over the edge. It was the scariest thing I’ve done. I hated the whole experience.”

I was somewhat hesitant following this account, embellished by Megan’s propensity to throw herself from high places.

I’d imagined our tour as simply a cocktail of sand and fuel. Instead, it was a complete “cultural” experience. I place “cultural” in inverted commas because it was a little rushed and box-ticking:

Now you ride camels, now a dog show, now a falcon show, now look at the goats, now drink Arabian coffee and eat dates, now pat the eagles, now dress up in traditional garb, now watch a 7-minute doco on the history of the Emirates…”

Nevertheless, in a short space of time, I felt I had a glimpse of desert life, and retained an experience more holistic than just adventure sports.

On to the main event… It was somewhat amusing to see our guide, having just demonstrated traditional activities while wearing a Thawb, don a pair of shades and jump behind the wheel of a 4WD.

Dune bashing is a freeform roller coaster, the vehicle’s trajectory materializing in the glint of the driver’s eyes scanning for a suitable embankment. Only once did I feel unsettled: with the weight of the vehicle sliding forwards into a downhill slope and sand kicked through the window.

Overnight I camped under the stars, with a fireplace and chai tea, and in the morning woke to tackle the dunes barefoot. You really can just throw yourself down a near-vertical decline: giant, sliding steps, cushioned by the pillowed sand.

My remaining time in the Emirates was spent visiting a few of the sights of Abu Dhabi: The Grand Mosque, Emirates Palace and the Heritage Village. Again, Abu Dhabi is not really made for walking – so many footpaths have craters from construction, or simply end for no apparent reason.

I’m also discovering Megan’s hangriness – that sudden evaporation of energy that makes a girl wilt unless food be applied immediately. I guess in New York there is food on every corner, but traveling brings irregular mealtimes. I’ve learnt to carry snacks at all times…and that some things really do run on peanuts.

Dubai: I’m on a bus!

I’m on a bus! And it’s heading from Dubai to Abu Dhabi. With free WiFi. How times change.

Dubai is an architect’s dream. Futuristic buildings line the Persian Gulf in competition for the tallest, most unique design. Surrounded by desert plains, it’s a cleaner, more serious Vegas, where Internationals come for big business and luxury lifestyles.Dubai

It’s almost too clean…the streets below the Marina’s high-rise apartments where Megan and I are staying are designed for cars rather than pedestrians, making it a pristine ghost town. The most prominent bustle is from the hundreds of migrant construction workers trekking to their meal break, prayer time or back to the multitude of busses that will carry them to their accommodation.

Construction abounds in Dubai. Everywhere you look, new railroads, skyscrapers and other fantastical I-don’t-know-what-the-hell-that-is space-aged structures are forming. The metro looks like something out of Star Wars. Sneaking to the 97th floor of the Princess Tower (the world’s tallest residential building), I could see from The Palm to the Burj Al Arab (a hotel shaped like a ship’s sail), past Internet City, all the way to the Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest man-made structure, at 829.8 m (2,722 ft)) in the hazy distance.

DubaiOver the next few days, we will go dune bashing and kayaking in Abu Dhabi. Then it is on to Delhi, Pushkar, Kerala, and wherever else takes our fancy in India over the next month.

I hope to have more updates soon!

Dubai Dubai

Dubai

NYC From The BQE

With my mind still saturated with the feature film edit I’d been working on, it suddenly sparked that at some point I’d catch a great view of NYC. I glanced out the taxi window and sure enough I was in that exact spot where the BQE rises above cemeteries with a line of sight through a clear night to a perfect New York cityscape: buildings jet black, windows vibrant, and iconic structures such as the Empire State, Chrysler, and Freedom Tower, glowing.

It was in that moment en route to JFK it hit me – that New York, that seemingly endless year discovering and rediscovering all aspects of the Concrete Jungle, had come to a close.  That chapter has finished. What’s next?

For the immediate future, it’s Dubai, Abu Dhabi, India, and Australia. After that, we’ll see…