Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Christmas on Lake Ashtamudi (Kollam, Kerala)

Mr Jules and I have just got back from a very lovely few days on Lake Ashtamudi in Kerala. Never have I been anywhere in India where I have felt so relaxed and so far removed from frenetic Mumbai. Even on Lake Vembanad - the best known Keralan lake, the waterways are constantly teeming with houseboats ferrying tourists around.  But here on Lake Ashtamudi time seemed to stretch easily into infinity, with only a few houseboats and fishing boats traversing this huge lake every day.

View of the Raviz from our houseboat trip

We stayed at The Raviz which was also one of the best hotel experiences we have had in India.  We booked a special offer due to the hotel recently being taken over and upgraded by the ITC group. Our big 'Premium' room (with a huge bathroom with jacuzzi, separate shower and loo; office and seating area) was situated on the top floor - complete with a balcony overlooking the lake. The sunset was visible every evening over the still waters.  The food was pretty good - each buffet breakfast, lunch or dinner availed a variety of cuisines and room service and a la carte selections were all well cooked. The only thing that we found frustrating was the ridiculously slow drinks service - although after five or six complaints about not receiving drinks within a satisfactory amount of time, the service seemed to dramatically improve by the end of our stay...never keep an Englishman from his beer!

Awful view of Lake Ashtamudi from our room ;)
Relaxation time was particularly precious to Mr Jules on this trip. So it was good that the biggest executive decision to be made would be where to while away the hours reading. Should we sit on our own rather elegant balcony? Or perhaps choose to sink into one of the many hammocks to be found in the garden? Or maybe we would be more comfortable on one of the loungers on the Raviz's stationery houseboat? Perhaps we'd be better off on one of the daybeds on the colonial style verandah? So many choices, so little time! 

On Boxing Day, we hired a houseboat from a private company and meandered across Lake Ashtamudi and its tributaries, admiring the birdlife and spying into the every day lives of dwellers living at the edges of the water. Mesmerising sermons, hymns and chanting were broadcast from lakeside Hindu temples and Catholic churches - hurling voices and music across the water wherever you went and forever in earshot.

Our Houseboat - size of the Titanic but thankfully no sign of any icebergs 
The boat was huge - and I thought it was a mistake when we stepped on to it from the Jetty.  There was a seating area big enough for forty people - in the middle of which was a three piece suite that looked like it had just been removed from a Harrow council house.  All that was missing was a 46 inch television.  However, the boat was manned by three very nice chaps, including a very capable chef who served us a delightful traditional Keralan lunch (enough to feed the missing 38 people!). We traversed the lake from 11am to 5pm, stopping only for lunch.  A highly recommended pastime if you are visiting the backwaters - and of course you can stay overnight if you wish - our houseboat had two double bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms!

Traditional Keralan lunch
On the last afternoon of our holiday we made an effort to do something other than lounge on a hammock by taking a mini day trip to see the sights of nearby Kollam. These don't number many but we decided to forgo the opportunity of visiting the cashew nut and coir making factories and instead got our driver to take us to the port.  No stranger to the sights and sounds of Indian fishing docks and fishing villages, I enjoyed taking photos of the local men bringing in the catch of the day and repairing their nets.  Mr Jules attracted quite a lot of attention  being relatively tall, blonde and blue eyed amidst a sea of tiny local people hunched over crates of fish. And just like at Sassoon Docks, it was the (considerably friendlier) women who are left to clean and sell bucket loads of small fish to local housewives.

Men cleaning out their fishing boats
Busy trading activity at the port
Then after a mind-blowingly hot prawn curry at a wonderful local restaurant (Nani Hotel), we visited a Keralan handicrafts shop (selling mostly tat but I did purchase a really useful bell on a long carved wooden chain) and the market area. I came away unusually empty handed from the shopping trip as all I could see were the usual Indian domestic requisites such as plastic buckets and stainless steel kitchenware. 

After this we went on to Thangassery Lighthouse - one of the most interesting landmarks in the area. Of course when Mr Jules said he wanted to 'see' the Lighthouse, I thought he would just want to stand on the outside and look up at it.  But no, I was wrong. Having an unusual burst of energy, he wanted (along with a band of about 20 school children that had just arrived), to climb all the way up so that he could admire the 360 degree view from the top (but what he really meant by this, was to see if any rare birds could be spotted from the top!). Being a sufferer of vertigo, I really was not keen on this idea, especially when I saw that the stairs were a mere foot wide and only deep enough to accommodate the shoe-size of a nine year old. Not only that, but as you peered up the centre, you could see knuckles clenching on to the weedy, spiralling railing all the way to the top.

Thangassery Lighthouse

School children waiting to go into the lighthouse were delighted by the sight of blonde haired Mr Jules
Having been made to feel guilty about walking off our lunch by Mr Jules, I eventually agreed to stagger up the stairs with him.  It actually didn't take as long as I thought although there were a few very uncomfortable moments when we had to pass equally overweight people on their way down on the very narrow stairs. But as we got higher, nausea was rising within me very quickly.  When we finally made it to the top, the only thing that was keeping us from stepping over the side was a two foot walkway and another weedy looking railing. In the manner of a person trying to avoid a suicide attempt, I put my back up to the wall and sidestepped around the very top of the lighthouse.  But then as more and more people piled on to the precipice (with the usual crap Indian health and safety) I decided it was time to make a rapid exit.  Whilst Mr Jules enjoyed a few sightings of bee-eaters and Brahminy kites, I departed back down the tiny stairs, clinging as best as I could to the sweaty stone wall whilst trying to let the coach load of school children pass me by.

...what goes up....

....must come down
Glad to be back on terra firma, we decided that would be the end to our Kollam sightseeing and went back to the hotel for tea.  The next day, feeling regret that we couldn't stay a little longer, we took a packed breakfast for our 7.30am journey to the airport and on to Mumbai.  

It really was a wonderful Christmas week in Kerala.  I hope you all had a great time too. A Happy New Year and see you in 2014!

Traditional Chinese fishing nets could be found all around the lake

Our lovely bedroom at the Raviz

A friendly fishwife at the port

 More Kerala photos will soon appear on the BombayJules Facebook page...please do visit!

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Ubiquitous India : No. 1 - The Squat

Today I am starting a new series on my blog called 'Ubiquitous India', which will be about everyday objects and actions that you commonly see in India, but perhaps you wouldn't notice unless you are an outsider.  Like me.

I have already written several posts about sights that amuse or befuddle me. For example, about the men who sleep anytime, anywhere, any place; about people hanging off vehicles on dangerous roads; about the marvellous uniforms of India's schoolchildren; or the handcart men of Mumbai - who toil in the heat of the traffic to make deliveries across the city. The first subject of my formalised series is 'The Squat'.

A boy washes pots in a puddle at Aarey Milk Colony
The Squat - the seating position of many a working class man or woman - is a wonder to behold.  It's not just about bending down for a few seconds to pick something off the floor or to speak to a toddler. No, it's a lifestyle choice. The squat is about getting right down and resting those haunches on the back of the calves. Almost with one's bottom on the floor. And for very long periods of time. 

It looks painful to me - but for the majority who take part in squatting, it is seemingly the most comfortable mode of seating in the absence of a chair or stool.  Squatters can do anything in that position.  They can just be lounging around, watching the world go by; they can be eating food (alone or in squatting groups); they can be performing daily household tasks such as washing and cooking. People can even do their jobs and earn a wage on their haunches.

Interestingly, if you were to look up 'Indian Squat' on Google, you will find that the Squat is considered one of the best exercises for strengthening the lower body. Of course this involves bending down and back up again in quick succession - perhaps with the addition of weights. 'Hindu Squats' or bethaks have been used by Indian wrestlers for centuries to improve lower body strength, speed and endurance. For anyone trying to rest on their haunches and get up again who is not used to it - it is extremely difficult (just try it!).  You sure do need excellent strength in your thighs to be a good squatter (perhaps I am just feeling my age).

Matt Furey strains to do a 'Hindu Squat'
Let us not forget the Squat Toilet as well.  The thing that puts the fear of god into all of us westerners. If you don't get your squat right....you'll need a cloth.

The Squat is such a common part of Indian daily life, that I haven't even had to go out and take special photos of people in the crouching position. All I had to do was rifle through my photo archive to find what I needed.

Here you go:

A Saddhu in Varanasi washing his clothing on the banks of the Ganges (just noticed his odd shoes!)

A builder squatting on the top of a construction site opposite our building.

Children crouching whilst putting their kites together on Juhu beach

A Dabbawala squats to have a break

Aarey Milk Colony - a farmworker...makes bricks out of cowdung

Aarey Milk Colony

A construction worker at a building site

People sorting their washing on Carter Road, Bandra

Above and below: two men repair fishing nets at Sassoon Docks.

Thanks to reader Stefanie VB for sending in this photo of a guy teetering on the
edge of this wall - in a very fine squat pose!

Follow this link for a humorous hints on how to squat properly: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/how-to-squat-properly/#axzz2npcrnrcn

Please do come back for more Ubiquitous India insights!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Freedom Tree - Quirky & Colourful Interiors

A new interiors find!

On the way back from the pet shop the other day, I noticed that a new interiors store called The Freedom Tree has opened in place of the grocery shop that was on the corner of 23rd and 28th Road in Bandra. As you know, I am never one to pass up the opportunity of investigating an interiors store - so I badgered the management to allow me to come in and take some photos for my readers.

Regular visitors to my blog will know that I am usually one for traditional stuff - colonial antiques, Indian handicrafts and the odd bit of repro-Art-Deco.  But this store has a contemporary, folksy yet innovative style that I have not seen in India before. With its bright patterns, Scandinavian appeal and colourful 50s influences, there is something very different on offer here.   

At first, I thought that this must be a foreign owned brand - perhaps Swedish, Danish or even British. But I learnt from the shop staff that everything is designed and manufactured right here in Mumbai by an Indian company.  There is even a well laid out Freedom Tree website where you can purchase all of their gorgeous products online.

The colours and the patterns will be especially appealing to a well-off, well-travelled younger generation. I can also imagine the excitement of first time home-owners or renters doing up their new apartments upon discovering the Freedom Tree.  And I know that the designs will definitely appeal to the expat community. I suspect that this shop is one of the only places in Bandra/Khar where you can buy decent crockery that actually has a design aesthetic!

There is also a nice selection of Christmassy items such as candleholders, wooden reindeer and hanging snowflakes. Go check it out!

Some images and sample prices (which include taxes):

A plethora of colour and pattern hits you as you enter the store.
The snowflake light in the top right hand corner is Rs 2,460
I love this 50s sofa combined with colonial style rattan  chairs.
Pink Sofa Rs 33,800. Wooden Chair 10,800

Selection of printed and handwoven rugs.
Rs 700 - 3,000 for the printed rugs, Up to Rs 5,000 for handwoven designs

Cushions and cushion covers . Rs 380 - 1,250
Downstairs is the kitchen/dining section.  Lots of beautiful pottery to choose from - mugs, plates etc
Mugs Rs 200-500

This would make a delightful sitting room for a new home-owner

One of my favourite items - the 50s  style desk (Rs 15,800) and chair (Rs 7,200)

The textiles are really eye catching - an eclectic collection for you to mix and match

How cool is this stool and matching cushion?  Love it! (Rs 12,600 for the stool)

Mumbai inspired embroidered cushion covers

Add to your Christmas collection with these candlesticks and glass Christmas tree (starting at Rs 1,080)

Cute Christmassy Camels - Swedish style

Mugs galore (Rs 200 - 500)

You could spend hours trying to choose napkins (Rs 500-700) and tablecloths here!
The patterns are bold and modern.

A good selection of glassware (Rs 100 - 300 each)

Pressed glass tumblers - you could use these as toothbrush holder too.

Funky bedding in bold prints (Rs 1,300 - 2,200 single to king sizes)

Mix and match lime patterned bedding on this space saving sofa-bed.

Candlesticks start at Rs 1,080
Candle jars - Rs 200

Above and below - love these French style bistro chairs - available in four colours (Rs 3,800)
in the shop but can be ordered in any colour from their palette. (Rs 600 extra)

Fabric is also available to purchase by the metre (Rs 400-600)

Lamps and lampshades...

Freedom Tree
Bandra Breeze, Plot no. 57/A,23rd-28th Road,
Bandra (W) Mumbai 400050
Tel : +91-22-26412999
Email: shop@freedomtreedesign.com

Also at:

Unit 3-5, Neeru Silk Mills, 126 N.M. Joshi Marg, 
Mathuradas Mill Compound, Lower Parel (W), Mumbai 400013
Tel : +91-22-24914433
Email: shop@freedomtreedesign.com

And there's a branch in Bangalore!  See website: www.freedomtree.in