About Andy Jervis

Welcome to my blog site. I've spent 30 years building a business - Chesterton House Group - designed to help people to achieve financial freedom, so that's my main interest and the core focus of my writings. True financial freedom isn't just about having enough money to do the things you want, it's about having a great relationship with money so that you can live in balance and get the most out of life. The best advice I ever had was to 'live each day as though it were your last, but plan as though you'll live forever.' I hope you enjoy the blog. Andy

A Coir Factory, and a Ride in a Fishing Boat

Sue wakes me with great excitement just after 6 am. The sun is coming up, casting a glorious pink and golden hue on the clouds, and the local fishermen are setting off for the day in their long canoe-like boats. We watch as they head out from the shore, dark silhouettes against the morning light. It’s a scene that lasts for only a few minutes as the sun rises, pink turning to bright white, its rays reflecting on to the ceiling of our room through the full-length patio doors, rippling as the breeze gently ruffles the surface of the lake. I’m happy to forgive my unexpectedly early morning call to witness such a sight.

Breakfast is served to our table. I choose pancakes with banana and honey, never too sure what to expect. When they arrive they are two small amber coloured parcels delicately wrapped around a soft slice of banana, with the honey in a separate dipping pot, and they are divine. I’ve always considered breakfast to be my favourite meal of the day, and this is the best yet.

After breakfast we’ve arranged to visit a local coir factory. Our tuk-tuk arrives and Rahul from the Purity Hotel accompanies us on the short drive to the small town of Muhamma, and we pull in to the factory entrance. Buildings are grouped around a central yard in which long red ropes are stretched out, and we cross the road to see an ancient machine used in the process. Around the corner we enter a huge barn chock full of the fibres extracted from the coconuts from which coir is made, as well as large rolls of carpet ready for export. In the UK we probably associate coir mainly with doormats, but clearly there are many places that use it extensively as a flooring material.

Further on we enter the main ‘factory’ proper, another series of large barns. It’s dingy and dusty in here, with a thick layer of coconut dust covering the floor we walk on. We are shown the machine that strips the fibre from the dried coconut husks, how the fibre is spun into string, the ladies stretching out the string into long lengths, the frame with a large circular drum where the strings are aligned into large rolls, and the weaving looms that turn these drums of fibre into carpets. It’s all mostly man-powered, and we stand in awe as four men use all of their weight and strength to operate the coiling frame, and two on a large loom treadle up and down on long wooden blocks, passing the shuttle between them to form the carpet that emerges.

It’s hot, heavy work, and perspiration gathers on the men’s bare torsos as they work. I ask Rahul how much they can earn from their jobs in the factory.

“Up to 1,000 rupees a day,” he tells me. That’s about £10. But that is based on time and production targets so they don’t all receive that much, and the women are paid less. It’s a six day a week 8 till 5 job, the factory is closed on Sundays.

We reflect back on the unashamed opulence of the Karan family museum yesterday, built on the efforts of these people. At their wage of no more than £60 a week it would take years for them to afford even one piece from the Karan collection. I’m better able to understand why the communist party has a significant following in this business-friendly nation.

I spot the name ‘Goodacre’ on the factory wall as we leave. It’s only later when I look up the Muhamma coir factory online that I connect William Goodacre & Sons Ltd with the Karan Group, it’s owner and the family behind the museum we visited yesterday. It looks as though their collection of treasures might continue to grow for a while yet.

We spend our afternoon sitting outside our room at the Purity Hotel, enjoying the stunning views across Lake Vembanad. A local fisherman crosses a few feet away, laying a line of net that sits in the water marked by orange floats. We’ll try to be here when he returns. The crows are raucous and lively, and grebes paddle across the water before diving under, only to resurface soon a few yards away. Unfortunately the insect population also thrives by the waterside, and we are soon covered in red dots as they tuck in. Spraying with the Jungle formula we’ve brought doesn’t seem to make much difference, and then I realise that I’ve forgotten to spray my legs after changing into shorts following this morning’s trip. Oops.

It’s lovely out here, but we’re tempted to return to the sanctuary of our air-conditioned room.

At about 4.30 a canoe passes close by our window and makes for the gazebo in the centre of the area next to the lake. Sue reminds me that we were offered a boat ride when we arrived yesterday, so I go to enquire and find that this is indeed the man. He says the trip is complimentary but I need to go to reception, and they tell me he’ll be leaving at 5.00 and it’s around an hour.

Soon after we find ourselves carefully climbing down into the boat, feeling unsteady as it rocks from side to side. It’s just wide enough for two but the boatman suggests we sit in single file. There’s another young woman coming on board with three young children, and they sit at the front as we set off. She tells us they’re from California, and she’s their chaperone. Mom and Dad have sold their house in San Francisco to travel around the world. The frizzled blonde three-year-old asks questions as we go, but the others sit quietly.

As we punt away from the bank, it’s the quiet that is striking. The surface of the lake is smooth with zero breeze, and we glide along with only the sound of our driver’s pole entering the water as accompaniment. We follow a course a hundred yards or so from the bank, and women washing clothes at the lake edge wave happily to us. Further on we pass the rear of two hotels, one a large elongated three story building with great views over the water. “Lemon Tree Hotel,” says the driver from behind. “Not as good.” I’m reassured by our hotel choice, although the boatman’s assessment may not appear on Trip Advisor.

He points to our right and exclaims “Kingfisher!” We are steering between the shore and a long row of the large elaborate sets of Chinese fishing nets that we saw on the beach front at Kochi. They comprise a wooden platform behind a series of long poles forming a triangulated frame, from which is hung a 30 feet square net. The net is pivoted into the water and lies underneath the surface, then raised to bring up any fish that have ventured into the net. The whole thing is held together with long wires, and naturally birds sit on these. One of these birds is vivid blue, with the distinctive long beak we know from the kingfisher in our local brook at home, although this bird is larger than we’ve seen before. As we watch it swoops from its perch with a brilliant flash of colour.

We go slightly further from the shore, and our driver seats himself and begins to paddle gently in the deeper water, negotiating us to the far side of the fishing nets before turning the boat for our return. Unexpectedly, though, he pulls up alongside one of the platforms and ties the boat to it, then gestures me to step up. I can’t quite believe that he wants me to get out of this rocking canoe onto a stage well out in the lake, but that’s exactly what he wants and I clamber out, followed by children and all. Once we’re all up, he turns and hauls on the rope beside him, slowly raising the net from the water. He beckons the two young boys to follow him, and they walk gingerly along a scaffolding pole out to the net to inspect their catch. They return with a bucket of small fish, including tiny pearl spot and an eel-like fish, only an inch or two long, and our host tips them all out onto the wooden platform. There’s nothing here worth consuming, and he suggests that the catch is better at night-time. The kids are enthralled to pick up the tiny fish and save them by casting them back into the lake with great glee.

We carefully ease ourselves back into the canoe and head back to the hotel. Mom and dad are waiting on the bank to photograph their children’s return, and we thank our fisherman who surreptitiously glides away again before we can say a proper thank you. He’s given us a delightful experience, and one that we’re pretty sure wouldn’t be allowed back home, at least not if the Health and Safety people had anything to do with it.

It’s our last night here, and after last night’s thunderstorms and rain we are pleased when we see dining tables being set out at the lake’s edge. Candles are lit, and they barely flicker in the still calm air. It’s still in the high 20’s centigrade, and we enjoy a super meal under the stars. As we wait for dessert it begins to rain so we all retreat under cover, and we finish our meal inside the hotel’s open inner courtyard.

We reflect on yet another day that, whilst gentle and relaxing, has also been full of interest and surprises. It’s been typical of our time in India so far. We’re setting off for Kochi Airport tomorrow evening to make the two-hour flight up to Mumbai, from where we’ll head back to London. It’s all gone much too quickly.

A Surprising Museum and a Very Large Lake

It’s day 15 of our India trip, and we’re on a houseboat in the Kerala Backwaters. There’s activity outside our door, and we emerge from our air-conditioned room to an offer of coffee from the crew, which we enjoy sitting on the air-conditioned deck (i.e., it has no windows).

It’s soon time for breakfast. There’s fresh fruit, scrambled egg, toast and cereals, and it’s all delicious. We could get used to this.

The crew cast off while we are eating and we slowly head back to base. There’s plenty to see though, with women washing clothes in the lake, children in smart blue uniforms walking along the bank to school, and then the school ferry crossing the waterway in front of us. And then we pass the school itself, a large drab grey building set back from the bank.

Further on we pass along a stretch where the bank narrows on each side to reveal sweeping views of the extensive paddy fields beyond. In one, two tractors tear up and down ferociously, water almost up to their axles, with water cascading away either side in plumes.

Eventually the base comes into sight, and we gradually manoeuvre to a position adjacent to another boat so we can disembark. We take photos with the crew, and before we leave we are asked to fill in the obligatory feedback form describing our experience. They get top scores across the board from us.

All too soon we’re on the road again and heading for our next hotel a few miles north on the shores of Lake Vembanad. It’s still only 9.30 so we’ve got time to kill, and Biju, our driver, suggests a couple of stops.

We drive back through the busy canal town of Alleppey, known as Venice of the East, and Biju pulls over to show us a coconut oil factory. Like many ‘factories’ here it’s a small open-fronted unit on the street. Biju speaks to the man on the desk who clearly has other things on his agenda today, but we’re granted a view into the factory from the street. There’s an ancient machine ticking away and large drums of coconut oil stacked in front. Coconuts are big business here.

Quite how big we discover at our next stop, the Revi Karuna Karan Museum. Mr Karan was CEO of the Karan Group whose principal activity was producing coir products, made from coconut fibres. He passed away in 2003, and his widow decided to create this museum as an act of love for him and in his memory, and to display the many artefacts that they had collected together over the years. I was interested to learn that he was an enthusiastic Rotarian and benefactor, and the museum contained some of his Rotary regalia including several Paul Harris Awards, familiar to all Rotarians as the highest badge of outstanding service that the organisation offers.

We enter the museum to find a 1950’s Buick car owned by Mr Karan. The curator tells us that there were only two motor cars in Kerala state at one time, one owned by the Maharajah, and this one.

We move on to view cabinets full of ethnic treasures from around the world, all very interesting. Then there’s another large room, then another, and another. We walk past cabinets containing Meissen porcelain, Wedgewood and Royal Doulton, Lalique glass sculptures, Fabergé eggs, and the largest collection of Swarovski crystal we’ve ever seen. There are shelves full of exquisitely carved ivory figures, and the curator is at pains to point out that ivory is now banned but this is all certificated.

There are paintings, English and Keralan furniture, and a thousand other things besides. It’s an amazing collection and takes us completely aback in its scale and quality. Biju has dropped other visitors here before but never been round himself, but this time they’ve allowed him in and he is in awe too. He tells us that he thought the 300 rupee entrance charge (about £3) had been expensive, but now he’s seen the treasures within he’s revised his opinion.

A large group of schoolchildren enters the museum, resplendent in their blue uniforms. They are chattering loudly, and the grandeur of the place seems lost on them as they file dutifully past the rows of glass cabinets. They are more interested in us, and we field lots of enquiries as to where we’re from, our names and lots of other questions. Biju chuckles when I tell him that they are like a swarm of blue mosquitoes.

We leave with mixed feelings. It’s certainly a magnificent collection, but we can’t help feeling that it’s been driven by the desire to acquire for the sake of it. There is just so much stuff here that it seems more like an upmarket warehouse than a lovingly constructed celebration of the art it contains. But maybe we’re being too harsh.

We extract ourselves from the school outing and continue our journey. We’ve mentioned that we’re thinking of family gifts for our return, so Biju pulls in again at the Kasavu Aalayam Handlooms shop. We enter to the loud click-clacking of the said handlooms operating beside us. The weavers sit in pits at floor level, giving the appearance of being cast in cement up to their waists, and they deftly manipulate pull cords to flick the shuttles on the looms in front of them from side to side.

A few minutes later we’re inside the shop alongside men buying shirts and women buying saris. I hadn’t intended to make a purchase but Sue likes the look of a handmade shirt on the shelf, so I take off my shirt in the busy shop to try the new one for size. No-one gasps.

The Purity Hotel is not far from the main road, along what I can best describe as a cart track. It’s not the sort of entrance we expect to a top hotel, but suddenly we’re here and we turn into the inauspicious courtyard. Again we are personally greeted and led through to reception. We’re in room 1, and when we get there it has to have the best view in the place. The floor to ceiling glass doors and windows give us an outstanding outlook across the huge Lake Vembanad. We can just make out the treeline on the far bank, about 2 1/2 miles away. The long, slender fishing canoes that are a feature here can be seen dotted over the lake, and in the distance houseboats and other larger craft traverse from right to left and back. The lake is smooth as glass in the still, humid air, and there’s a serenity that’s hugely appealing.

In the evening the thunder starts to roll in the distance, as the tail end of the monsoon season plays itself out. It stays at a distance, but we get the heavy shower of rain that accompanies the storm. We grab a lull in the downpour to walk to the hotel’s dining area, laid out around an inner courtyard, open at the centre over a large square pond. As we eat we watch the raindrops create patterns on the water.

The food is excellent, and yet again we wonder how the kitchen manages to achieve such a high standard in this apparently remote location.

Tomorrow is our last full day in India, and we don’t have anything booked. This place offers great scenery, tranquillity, excellent food and great service. What could be better? Our only concern is the ever-present mosquito population which is also looking for its evening meal. We do our best to thwart them with long sleeved clothes and application of insect repellent spray. It seems to be working but we remain vigilant.

Later, lying our room in bed, we are woken by the most unusual noise. It’s a constant high-pitched note, like a relentless squeal, and it’s loud. We decide it must be coming from the pond beside our room, but we aren’t certain.

It’s been another day full of unusual and unexpected experiences. Picking out the highlights from this trip is going to be very hard indeed.

A Night on the Water

Pretty well everyone we’ve spoken to who has been to India and visited Kerala has been on one of the famous houseboat experiences, and they’ve all said it was a highlight so we have high expectations as we leave Kochi. It’s day 14 of our Indian adventure, and we’re aware that we’re nearing the end.

Our journey takes us south along the coast, and it’s a delightful road. It’s not as busy here and it feels more laid-back for some reason. It must be the presence of the sea, which we keep glimpsing behind the row of properties and woods to our right. I ask Biju to stop and we get out to walk up to the ocean. There’s a barrier of heavy grey rocks all along the front, suggesting that flooding is an issue, but today it’s beautiful, with blue sky, golden sand and swaying palm trees, even here near someone’s back yard.

Later on we stop again to take pictures of a small harbour full of brightly painted fishing boats, men standing within them organising their nets. Further on we take another detour to Mararikulam Beach, a few yards off the main road and a popular location. It’s got the same attractions as beaches the world over, with ice creams, sun loungers and souvenirs available. We’re tempted to have a paddle in the breaking waves, but getting sand in our toes doesn’t seem a price worth paying at this moment.

We continue and turn off the road straight into the boat stop. We make our way to their reception office and are greeted in typical Indian fashion with cold flannels to revive us from our journey, although they seem a bit superfluous today after our air-conditioned car. This is clearly a slick operation, with several boats coming and going, and the office manager explains our route on a map on the reception wall. After completing the inevitable paperwork we are ushered outside to our boat. We have three crew, the captain, engineer and chef, and we exchange ‘namaste’ greetings with them all. Before long we’re off and heading north along the Kerala Backwaters.

We feel like Tim and Pru setting off on one of their Great Canal Journeys as we chug gently along. The Backwaters cover a sizeable area in the centre of Kerala state, with a network of man-made canals and natural lakes. They are surrounded by acres of rice-paddy fields, which are unusual in that they are 2 feet below the navigations, making them lower than sea level. The banks of the waterways are lined with houses large and small, and trees and plots of crops or foliage, and it’s all very lovely. There’s no access by road to most of these, and we pass properties under construction with canoes moored on the adjacent bank loaded with piles of sand, stone or building blocks being unloaded one brick at a time by hand. Some of the homes look modern and attractive and we wonder how they manage to create them working under these limitations.

We pass men and children bathing in the water and women washing themselves and piles of clothes. We can sometimes hear them too as the garments are slapped on the bank stones as part of the process. The people here always look clean and colourful yet the water, whilst not exactly opaque, has a greenish tint to it. The water flowing through the Backwaters is fresh, coming down from the mountains and out into the sea, but there are clearly other users of it before it reaches the local residents, not least the many houseboats just like ours.

Later I do some research into the area, and come across an informative article describing the conflicts that need to be managed here. There are over 1,000 houseboats, half of them unlicensed and therefore strictly illegal. However the tourist revenue that they bring far exceeds the economic value of the local fishermen, whose way of life is under threat from pollution, diminishing fish stocks and loss of habitat, as well as the disinclination of younger generations to follow the family fishing traditions. It’s a problem that is all too evident in many places around the globe. The fishermen are fighting back, though, by creating segregated no-go areas where fish can breed and grow, helping to replenish stocks and nurture their environment.

Wandering the Backwaters in this well-equipped floating home is a delight. These houseboats are obviously built for tourists, with an air-conditioned bedroom with ensuite, a dining room and kitchen at the rear. The main event, though, is the large open area at the front of the boat, looking forward in the direction of travel behind the pilot who steers using a large ship’s wheel in the centre of the bow. The layout affords a brilliant view of the surroundings, and ensures a gentle cooling breeze as we travel, very welcome in the Keralan heat. We feel very grand as we sit in pride of place on comfortable chairs surveying our progress, like Captain Kirk on the USS Enterprise.

We are told that lunch is ready, and we retire to the dining room to enjoy a delicious meal prepared on board. We’re already taking a liking to the Keralan cuisine, and this is really good food. The centrepiece is a whole round cooked pearl spot fish each, and the chef shows us how best to separate the flesh from the bones as we tackle them. It’s a really tasty treat and another unique experience for us.

The crew are locals who know the area well, and one of them tells us we will be visiting his village. We pull over and moor, as do four other houseboats alongside us over the next few minutes. We walk from boat to boat and then lower ourselves down into a motorised fishing canoe, along with two other couples. Our steerer takes us across the wide canal and then into a narrow channel, maybe 30 feet wide. There’s an overhead pipe across the mouth of the channel and we all duck low to glide under it in our already low-profile seats.

We pass more people washing, kids in uniform walking home from school, and a variety of pedestrians on the bank, and share greetings with many of them. A man walks along with a large fish dangling from his arm, and he graciously holds it up for a photo as we pass.

The clouds are gathering overhead, and then lightning starts to flash and thunder booms beside us. As we continue the storm gets nearer and the booms get louder, preceded by loud cracks and vivid forks of light not far away. The rain starts, slowly at first but increases in intensity as we return to the moored houseboats. Fortunately we’ve been provided with umbrellas and they hold off the worst of the torrent, but we’re still pretty damp as we clamber aboard. It passes over as we set off, and we gradually dry off in the breeze as we go.

We pull in to the bank, and it looks as though we are stopping for the night. As we do so, the sky turns a thousand shades of pink, making a glorious end to the day. We sit in the calm enjoying this special moment, until it’s time for our evening meal. We return to the dining room and are served a lamb dish in local spices with the usual range of accompanying vegetable in sauces and rice. The food here is not hot spicy but more subtle, varied and flavoursome. What a treat.

We eventually head to our room for the night, and are pleased to have the benefit of modern aircon and bathroom facilities. The crew sleep on deck after spending the evening playing cards in the kitchen. We feel very pampered, and not a little privileged.

It’s been another amazing day in our Indian adventure.

Crusades and Communists

It’s day 13 of our maiden India trip and we’re at the Eighth Bastion Hotel in Fort Kochi. This morning we’re looking forward to a walking tour of the area to find out more about this historic port.

After an enjoyable breakfast we meet our guide for today, Krishna from Gully Tours, and after the usual introductions we set off. Krishna takes time to explain the history of Kochi and it’s vital importance to the spice trade. Apparently the ancient spice routes that had existed for centuries were lost in the middle ages, known only to the Arabs. As a result they became wealthy, given that spices were hugely prized and often fabulously expensive.

However the wars of the crusades meant that relations with the middle East were not too warm, so leading European nations took it upon themselves to re-establish lines directly to the suppliers and cut out the middlemen. This was the era of the great explorers, one of which was the famous Portuguese navigator Vasco de Gama. His discovery of a route to India from Europe, avoiding the contentious and dangerous Mediterranean, was a hugely significant event and has been described as the beginning of globalisation. De Gama returned with an Armada to conquer the region, and Portugal’s subsequent control of the hugely profitable spice trade helped make the country a major world power. Kochi, de Gama’s original landing place, became a Portuguese bastion and a commercial global hub. Krishna shows us the house where the great man reputedly stayed, just a few yards from our hotel.

A century later the Dutch were in the ascendancy as a militarily powerful seafaring nation, as well as a commercial one. The Dutch East India Company was the world’s first joint stock company, with money raised from investors to finance its operations, and a valuation equivalent to the top 20 of today’s largest corporations. If you think Amazon or Microsoft are large, they are small beer compared to this early global behemoth.

The British got in on the act later as their power gathered, and the era of British rule in India began in the mid 1800’s. The result of all of this international interest in India is a historic Keralan capital, Kochi, that retains many signs of the influences of Portuguese, Dutch and British rule in its buildings, cuisine, language and religions.

Fort Kochi refers to the island on which a bastion once stood, now long gone. Legend has it that there were seven bastions in the area, accounting for the unusual name of our hotel. Krishna points out the distinctly British nature of the architecture around the hotel, especially encircling the old parade ground, now an open space used as a football pitch and local recce. The old Cochin Club sits next to the parade ground too, still open to members only and a typically exclusive British Club in its day, frequented by Winston Churchill among others. Apparently there is a story that Churchill fell in love with a local girl, but on asking her father for her hand in marriage he was rejected as father thought the young man’s prospects were not good. Dad probably had a job in HR.

In that period apparently Indians were not allowed into this area, and punishment would be meted out to any locals so caught. Krishna walked us over the small bridge to the neighbouring area of Mattancherry, the canal below forming a border between the two communities. Here the buildings are more Indian in design, denser packed and with a much busier street scene. These would have been warehouses and storage areas at one time serving the port, as well as living quarters for the local inhabitants. Now there is the typical string of small businesses offering goods and services of all descriptions. Men offer groceries, coffee and haddware whilst others sit behind desks and write in ledgers whilst talking on mobile phones underneath signs describing their role as ‘Merchants and Commission Agents’.

“People here,” Krishna tells us, “are not looking to build huge empires. They just want to make a living for themselves and their families.” That comment seems to sum up much of the India we’ve seen.

Krishna is a well educated and very knowledgeable young man. He is studying risk management at the local university so we have an affinity, with my early grounding in insurance. His father is CEO of a South African company, and Krishna’s travels to that country have clearly given him a perspective not often present in the locals we’ve met. We discuss Brexit, religion and world politics as he points out a familiar icon on the wall of a building. It’s Che Guevara, hero of would-be revolutionaries the world over. Yesterday on the drive into town we had passed a communist rally in progress, a woman’s loud-hailered voice booming out to the marchers, hammer and sickle flags flying in the breeze. That same flag was evident on this building too, and Krishna explained that the communists gained a lot of support as a result of the Soviet’s propaganda activities during the cold war, and they still have a minority but established presence.

If you have nothing, I suggest, communism seems an attractive option. “Yes,” Krishna agrees. “It just doesn’t work, though, does it.”

We break for lunch in Kayee’s Cafe, apparently a highly regarded and long established local restaurant. Krishna orders biryani for lunch, and we are pleased when the waiter brings cutlery. We aren’t yet ready to eat rice with our fingers as is the local norm.

It’s a very enjoyable meal, and an experience eating in a typical local cafe. It rounds off our excursion nicely, and Krishna suggests that we take a tuk-tuk back to our hotel. We’re soon back and saying our goodbyes, having enjoyed a really informative morning in the company of an impressive and knowledgeable young man.

In the afternoon we revisit the sea front and the small beach. It’s surprisingly quiet, and most of the stalls are closed. There are still plenty of souvenir buying opportunities though, and we negotiate with some of the sellers. We can’t decide whether we’re being excessively mean or hugely ripped off with the few purchases that we make. Prices here are whatever can be agreed, and we’ve found that typically the quoted figure will soon halve in order to get a sale. We try to find the ‘real’ price, but we also have a sense that a pound or two extra means a lot more to them than it does to us.

Our evening meal at the hotel is really good and the service is impeccable. We’re well set up for tomorrow when we’re due to spend the night on a houseboat. Hopefully it will be yet another new and different experience on our Indian odyssey.

A Keralan Feast

It’s time to check out from the Spice Tree hotel and continue our journey. We’ve only been here for two nights and we wish it had been longer, it’s a delightful place, but we are heading for Fort Kochi, or Cochin as it’s also known.

We set off to negotiate the local roads, and gradually make our way along the Bison Valley. The roadside is interspersed with beautiful, modern looking homes and small one-room houses more like sheds, as well as the now familiar array of open-fronted shops and cafés as we pass through villages. Napoleon called the British a nation of shopkeepers but we have nothing on this with its streets crammed with enterprises of every description.

A notable feature of Kerala is the number and quality of Christian churches that we pass. Earlier in our trip to the east of here around Mysore, it was the multi-coloured Hindu temples that predominated, but they are much less in evidence here. We’ve heard that Kerala is a Christian centre in India, so we’re a little surprised to learn from Biju, our driver, that Hindus comprise over 40% of the population, Muslims over 30%, and Christians in the 20’s. George and the Dragon are much in evidence, and some of the churches are extraordinarily grand affairs, with brilliant-white painted structures and high facades. We spot several ladies at different times wearing the pale grey habits and white cowls of a nun.

Biju tells us that we are now at sea level. The landscape is busy with shops, stalls, houses, trees and crops, from bananas to coffee and everything else besides. This area is famous for its spices, and numerous establishments along the roadside offer tours of their garden and shop. We pull in to one, it sounds as though Biju has been here before.We’re always a bit sceptical when we are offered a tour which can easily morph into a sales pitch, but we have no need to worry. We pay 300 rupees and are taken on a detailed and informative walk around the grounds by a helpful lady who identifies the many varieties here and tells us how they are used. There is nutmeg, cardamom, ginger, curry leaf and peppermint to name but a few, and it’s all very interesting. At the end we are ushered into their shop. They are doing good business but we’re not in the market for spices today.

A few miles further on Biju pulls into a roadside diner. Earlier he promised us a traditional Keralan feast, and that’s what we get. He orders for us and we are given our banana leaf plate. The staff are attentive and explain all of the ingredients as they arrive. This is another time we begin with trepidation, but actually the food is delicious and we make a good job of demolishing most of it. A central serving of Kerala rice is accompanied by a range of sauces, four different vegetable mixes, poppadoms, and chutneys. Contrary to expectations it isn’t fiery at all, with the exception of one of the chutneys which could strip paint. Especially nice is a pineapple based mix, and a strong ginger chutney that goes well with the rice. It’s a really enjoyable meal, and for 190 rupees each it’s amazing value.

Further on we pull over again as Biju points out the rubber tree plantation next to the road. We get out to view the trees at close quarters, each wearing a plastic skirt halfway up the trunk to protect against rain. A white channel has been cut into the bark below this skirt, spiralling down around the tree and culminating in a small collecting cup. Biju removes the white latex from the channel and shows it to us. Immediately the cut begins to bleed and globules of the bright white sap run down the trunk. We ponder how many such trees are required to feed the global demand for vehicle tyres, most of which are made from this stuff.

We’ve been on the road for several hours now, and we’re getting in to the outskirts of Kochi. It’s a large, busy city, the capital of Kerala state. We cross the water into the old quarter and Fort Kochi, and eventually find our hotel, the unusually named Eighth Bastion. We are warmly welcomed, and settle in to our room overlooking the hotel’s central court and small swimming pool.To get our bearings we venture out for a short walk to the sea front at the end of the street next to the hotel. It’s a lively night-time scene, with souvenirs, trinkets and fast food stalls competing with each other. It’s busy too, this is obviously a popular spot with young people and families. It’s like Alicante on steroids. Despite the numbers though, we feel perfectly safe and relaxed strolling along the promenade.We don’t venture far but return to our hotel and its restaurant for our evening meal. The service is as we are coming to expect in India, very attentive and eager to please. Our meal is excellent, not that we need too much after our feast earlier.

Tomorrow we’re scheduled to tour the area on foot. We’re looking forward to finding out more about it.

The Spice Tree

We’re at the Spice Tree Hotel near Munnar on day 11 of our Indian adventure. We arrived last night as it was getting dark, and after a royal welcome we enjoyed a lovely meal in their restaurant.

The Spice Tree clearly prides itself on its service, and we are cossetted as we dine. We are given a choice of water options, a serving of hot cinnamon tea, and an appetizer as we choose from the extensive menu. There are Keralan specialities on offer together with more familiar continental dishes including pasta. Our food is delicious and cooked to a high standard. Given our arduous journey just to reach this place and it’s location down a steep hillside, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, it’s a standard that seems remarkable to us.

We retire to our spacious room with its large bed in the centre. There is a full size window with drape curtains hiding a private balcony, but our excursion outside yields little in the darkness other than some lights far away in the distance.

Morning tells a different story. We open the curtains to a magnificent view over the Bison Valley, green and lush before us. Breakfast is good too, with a wide choice including tasty coffee.

We ask about activities on offer, and there’s plenty to do with walking tours as well as trips to the local tea and cardamom plantations. We can’t face another drive after yesterday and opt to stay on site. We elect to join a cookery demonstration later, and before that a reflexology session in the hotel Spa.

First though, we go off to explore the grounds. The Spice Tree comprises the main hotel building with it’s reception and restaurant areas, and a series of rooms spread throughout the grounds. Those grounds tumble down the hillside, with paths taking us to lower levels. We come across the Spa nestled into its own space, then further down a library and gym underneath, with a coffee shop and bakery in a separate building a few yards away. The library has a magnificent view right along the valley to the hills far in the distance, the emerald green rice paddy fields on the valley floor complementing the darker greens of the forest trees. We sit for a long time enjoying the scenery and the peace of it all.

Later, after our activities, we return to this spot. The air is full with a million dragonflies, and as the sun sinks the evening light picks out each one below. The view into the hills could have come straight out of a travel brochure, one of those scenes that makes you question whether it truly exists.

This place is quite magical, and our only regret is that we aren’t staying longer. We could quite happily remain and soak up the tranquillity for longer. Tomorrow, though, we’re off again and this time we’re heading for the coast!

Jaggery, Tea Plantations and Broken Bridges

We’re in the city of Coimbatore on day 10 of our first trip to India. Breakfast at the Residency is of the standard we expect from a good business hotel, with a wide range of options. I stay with cereals and fruit, conscious of the 5-6 hour journey we have today.

We’re heading for Munnar, up in the hills of Kerala. We set off through the Coimbatore rush hour amongst the bee-like swarm of two-wheelers and other traffic. We’re getting used to this now, although there are still plenty of moments when we can’t help being astonished at the fearlessness of the participants.

Gradually we ease out of the city, and the traffic thins out again. After a couple of hours we pass through a busy town and Biju suggests a coffee stop, so we swing over to a restaurant on the right and park. The place isn’t serving coffee so we go two doors along to what is obviously a family run cafe, and Biju orders coffee with milk for the three of us. It comes in the small steel beakers that are common everywhere we’ve been, with the beaker sitting in a steel dish itself half full with coffee and hot milk mixture. Biju shows us how to mix them by swishing from dish to beaker and back before drinking, topping up as we go.

The cafe owners are obviously keen to serve us, and Biju tells them we are from the UK. They seem delighted, and when we’ve finished our coffee the son asks if he can take a selfie with us? Mum and Dad squeeze in too, and we all smile. Our three coffees are 60 rupees, less than 60p. We offer a 20 rupee tip, but we almost have to force it on them. They would probably struggle to comprehend that the same 3 drinks would cost upwards of 750 rupees where we come from. They wave to us as we drive off. We think we’ve made their day.

Biju tells us that there is a crocodile farm ahead. After another half an hour we turn off the main road for a few yards to find it, driving past a huge dam installation. The croc farm is closed, but we park and Biju walks us through a gate and up a concrete road. We realise he wants to show us the dam. It’s a huge reservoir stretching into the distance, hills rising beyond, and it’s a lovely sight.

The Amaravathi Dam was built in 1957 and covers 3.6 square miles. It is home to tilapia fish which thrive here and also, I read later, a community of wild mugger crocodiles. We don’t see any of those, but we walk along the dam wall and the coracle boats of the local fishermen are lined up below. We descend back to the simple village, and men sit in a circle slicing and gutting their catch using a tree stump for a chopping board. Dogs fight for scraps at their feet, and beyond them crows hover and strut wanting a piece of the action too. It’s a scene that feels as though it could have been enacted here for millennia, long before the dam was built.

We drive on and reach Animalai Tiger Reserve. There are numerous checkpoints on the route through the parks, and Biju goes to sign in. The Reserve is similar to Mudumalai in its foliage and terrain, and we stare into the forest as we drive hoping to glimpse elephants, or even a tiger. No such luck.

We get to the border and cross from Tamil Nadu into Kerala, and the park becomes the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary. Biju is clearly pleased to be back in his home state. Next to the border is a cafe and information office. We use their toilet facilities and then buy biscuits and 7Up, but Biju has ordered lunch. He smiles as he tucks in to the contents of his ubiquitous silver tray. “Kerala rice,” he says. “Much better!” When we return to the car he shows me his carefully written lunch receipt. “80 rupees,” he says. Even he can hardly believe the bargain price. I ask the lady serving behind the counter if I may take a photograph of her. She is self-conscious but agrees and smiles for the camera.

The road begins to get twistier as we rise through the park, and the views get more spectacular. We stop at the roadside to look down at a roaring waterfall, perhaps a mile away below, but clearly audible from here. A group of three motorcycles pulls in, looking unusual in that they are all wearing proper riding gear. One is a KTM, and I’m interested that they are represented here. We’ve passed a couple of dealerships in the bigger towns. I’ll have to suggest to Tim that he opens a branch here.

We reach the town of Marayoor and Biju pulls in to show us the jaggery factory. Jaggery is a sweet substance made from sugar cane, and it forms the basis for lots of sweets and cakes as well as being a delicacy in its own right. He shows us the machine that crushes the juice from the canes, like a mangle. The extract is captured in a huge metal vat, perhaps 15 feet across, under which a fire burns. Water is added and the mixture brought to the boil. The crushed canes are put out to dry in the sun and then used as fuel for the fire. As the mixture reduces it turns a golden brown colour with the consistency of treacle, and it is worked until it can be formed into large balls for sale. The factory (in reality a large open barn) operation is fascinating to watch, having remained unchanged for many years. We try a taste of jaggery and it’s like a soft, gritty fudge, very sweet. We’re a bit cautious, it’s clear that the Food Standards Agency hasn’t reached these parts yet.

Further on we enter the Sandalwood Forest. Apparently the wood is prized for the oil it produces, so much so that the forest is circled by fencing and sentries are employed to stop illegal removal of trees. The sandalwood trees on the roadside outside the fence are all ringed with barbed wire and individually numbered with tags.

Biju points out the coffee trees also growing here, some laden with berries. But if it’s beverages you’re interested in, there’s only really one option here. We’re entering the land of tea.

As we continue to rise up the mountains, we enter the tea plantations, and we can’t get over how stunningly beautiful they are. Acres and acres of lush green tea bushes roll over the hills, all carefully manicured and tended. Among them grow large trees with lovely red blossoms, a perfect complement to the scene. Biju tells us that they are mosquito killing trees, with nectar that attracts the insects which then become trapped in its stickiness. Set as they are in the gorgeous scenery of the mountains, this is just wonderful to behold. We are utterly captivated by the whole experience. It was worth coming to India just to travel through this paradise of green.

This feast of greenery goes on for mile after mile, the backdrop ever changing. We spot ladies picking tea next to the road and get out to take their picture, reminding us of the illustrations we’ve seen on packets of tea everywhere. They smile and wave, honoured to be photographed. We watch as they use special clippers to shave off the tips and transfer them to their baskets. Apparently the bushes are cut every 15 days. Looking at the acreage of tea here, this must be a monumental operation. We notice tags on each row identifying it, and are reminded of the vineyards we’ve seen in Germany, which must have similarities in the way they are farmed. A significant part of these tea estates is owned by Tata, the huge Indian conglomerate and owner of the Tetley tea brand in the UK, so some of these leaves could well be finding their way back home.

As we travel the roads deteriorate. Our briefing from Audley has warned us that it’s a bumpy ride, and they’re not wrong.

A small dirty red car flies past, and as it does so water sprays from it onto us from one of it’s windows. Biju shouts, he’s clearly not happy.

We reach a traffic holdup, and he explains that the bridge across the river here was washed away in the floods two years ago. It was repaired then washed away again. It’s been replaced yet again, but the road is in a dreadful state.

As we pull up we spot the red car ahead. We’re clearly going to be here for a few minutes and Biju gets out. I follow behind. He remonstrates with the driver about the water throwing and the driving, and the five young men within all look very sheepish. I tell them I am here on holiday and welcome them to Kerala. They look a bit bemused. It probably helps that there’s a policeman standing a few yards away supervising the traffic.

I walk to the head of the queue to see a large JCB spreading granite chips into the road. It moves forward and backwards a few times crushing the stones into the road. It’s a rough and ready repair method, but eventually the digger moves off the road and traffic starts to flow again. We pass over the single lane concrete bridge, the remains of it’s ancestor sitting alongside. The river is shallow here, and it’s easy to see how it would have succumbed to the volume of water that must come down here in the rains.

The road gets even worse as we go further, with progress down to a crawl as Biju negotiates pothole after crater after pothole. We’re feeling pretty jaded and churned by now, and the hotel seems to be buried in the jungle. We both have the same thought – this had better be good!

We are now deep in the Bison Valley, passing through small villages, over rivers and streams, and negotiating the narrow, bumpy road. Finally we spot a sign for the Spice Tree and, with a sharp 300 degree turn off the main road, drop down to the hotel.

We are greeted by a personal welcome as we exit our car, and handed beautiful red flower blossoms carefully wrapped in foil, together with a refreshing hibiscus fruit tea drink. We are shown to our room, to find a delightful flower arrangement laid out on the bed to greet us. The signs are looking good. We’ll find out more tomorrow.

Hairpins, Gardens and a Toy Train

We reluctantly set off from the Jungle Hut, continuing our journey through the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, heading for Ooty. The road starts to twist and turn as we rise higher, and we negotiate a tight hairpin bend. Biju points out that it is bend 36 of 36, and signs at each one record our progress as we ascend.

The views become more spectacular. We stop at a viewpoint and look down over the valley deep below, and the forests of the Tiger Reserve through which we’ve just travelled. It’s verdant land, and it extends further than the eye can see.

The roller coaster ride continues, and gradually the views recede. By the time we reach hairpin one, we’re on the outskirts of town.

Ooty is a typically frenetic Indian town, although at over 7,000 feet it’s much higher than most. It’s also evident that tourism is a big driver here. We stop at the Government Botanical Gardens, one of Ooty’s top attractions. In contrast to the street scene outside, the Gardens are ordered and clean. It’s a large site with a variety of areas, including an Italian Garden, Cactus House, Rose Garden, Conservatory and the like, all well tended and colourful.

The Gardens were laid out in 1848 by architect William Graham McIvor, who had been drafted in by the East India Company from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. The Fern House is dedicated to him, and a plaque proclaims that the building is “a jewel of Victorian architecture.” It’s basically a large wooden greenhouse and potting shed.

We find our way back to our car and make the short journey to Ooty Railway Station, stopping en route for a cappuccino at a Cafe Coffee Day outlet. This is the third one we’ve visited, and their coffee is excellent, as good as anywhere in the world we’ve tried.

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway is a 46 km track from Ooty Station down to Mettupalayam over 6,000 feet below. It was built by the British in 1908, and it passes through quaintly named stations such as Lovedale, Wellington and Runneymede. Its narrow gauge of 1 metre has led to it being known as the Toy Train, although it seems fairly full sized to us.

We get there early and wait for the train to arrive. Our ticket says it departs at 2pm, but in typical Indian fashion it appears that the time is flexible within an hour or so.

Eventually the train arrives and we find our allotted seats in coach F, 7 & 8. Immediately another couple get in to the carriage with tickets for the same seats. Our driver, Biju, takes up our case with the uniformed man on the platform, busy with his clipboard, and we are reassigned to seats 1 & 2. Everyone seems satisfied as we get under way.

We are sitting right at the back of the train, next to the guard’s compartment, and as we progress he is busy working the brake by frantically turning his red handle on the steeper bits. Apparently this is India’s only rack railway, so it’s equipped to tackle the sharp gradients ahead.

The views are spectacular as we proceed further, with the railway clinging on to the hillside in many places, overlooking the valley far below. We pass tea plantations, neatly coiffured in the distance.

At Coonoor seats 7 & 8 get off, and a couple get on to replace them. They’re from Essex, and he tells us that his family came from this area. He grew up knowing the names of the places we’ve passed, and he’s sad that their tickets from Ooty were cancelled yesterday due to a rockfall on the track. His mother was from Loveday and he’d love to have visited it’s station, but it’s not to be.

It’s an enjoyable ride but at nearly 4 hours it’s a long time to sit in a hot railway carriage. We emerge at our destination station to be picked up by Biju who has driven down, as do our Essex friends who we discover are also travelling with Audley and staying at the same hotel as us tonight.

It’s another 2 hours to our hotel through Coimbatore, known as the Manchester of South India because of the predominance of the textiles trade here. It’s a busy commercial city, and travelling through it’s centre at night brings yet another dimension to our Indian traffic experiences. Along the way Essex man and wife pass us in another lane, and we play a game of tag through the chaos, eventually pulling into the hotel behind them. They check in at the next desk, but after that we don’t see them again.

The Residency Hotel is modern and well appointed, and an utter contrast to last night’s stay. We check in and opt for the Chinese restaurant on the first floor, one of its three options. Our meal is really good, and we retire early. We’ve got a long drive tomorrow and we need to make an early start.

A day at the Jungle Hut

After yesterday’s events we decide to take it easy today and enjoy our surroundings. The Jungle Hut is very different from the Mysore Radisson, but now we’ve had a few hours to acclimatise we’re settling in to it.

It’s really quite a special place. Set a couple of miles off the Mysore-Ooty road, inside the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, and in the shadow of the majestic mountains that rise up to Ooty in the south, we feel a long way from civilisation as we know it. There’s a complete absence of traffic noise, but that doesn’t mean it’s quiet.

We are woken in the morning by the clattering of monkeys playing on the roof of our lodge. A group of them sit on the short path to breakfast, one mother with tiny baby clinging to her chest, swinging away as we approach. Around us, multi-coloured birds sing and chatter, and brightly patterned butterflies flutter by. It’s a constant backdrop of sound, but it’s deeply peace enhancing in its own way.

The restaurant area is open-fronted with a view towards our lodge. To the right, the mountains rise majestically, sometimes clouded, and ever changing as the light moves round during the day.

Breakfast is a simple buffet, with a choice of dosas, the small Indian pancakes available everywhere, and chutneys, salads and cooked dishes to accompany them, or cereals with milk, toast and marmalade, and fruit. We can order eggs or French toast but I stick with muesli – I’m not quite ready for morning curry just yet, but Sue opts for it and tells me it’s extremely mild and very tasty, a good start to the day.

Many of the visitors here come for safaris, bird or butterfly watching tours, and other guests arrive at breakfast armed with cameras long enough to spot wildlife on the surface of the moon. A board in the restaurant area lists various species with a date and location of where they were last seen, and among others it reveals sightings of elephants, gaur (Indian Bison), pangolin, porcupine, hyena, leopard and various types of deer. Heading the list, as we might expect, is the tiger. Apparently one was seen in October, a month or so ago.

There’s a comfortable open lounge area next to the restaurant, and we spend most of the day reading, talking and writing. Deer wander through the grounds, as do small wild boar that are common here. At one point we spot a mongoose scampering across the grounds. There’s a redheaded woodpecker in the tree, and then a rustle as a large Malabar squirrel makes its appearance, languidly moving from tree to tree, dark reddish brown with a bushy tail.

We walk to one of the large ponds, and fish flick the surface of the water whilst monkeys watch from the trees opposite. Colourful dragonflies flicker across the water. We can’t see any of the frogs that reign overnight with their calls out of all proportion to their size, but they are here sure enough.

In the late afternoon we find Biju, resting in his car, and he suggests a walk out of the grounds. There’s a Hindu temple a few yards away, painted in a myriad of colours as is the tradition here. We’re not allowed inside, but there are ladies around in elegant saris, tending the temple.

Biju tells us that the villagers meet here each morning to worship. A goat is killed and eaten together. “Here,” he says, pointing to ashes in a clearing by the temple walls, “is where the goat is cooked.” We walk a few yards further, and Biju points to some cords hanging from a nearby tree, each with a noose knotted in to it. “And here,” he explains, “is where the goat is hung to be skinned.” My suggestion to Sue that we come down here early tomorrow to watch the ceremony seems to fall on deaf ears.

After two full days here we’re really enjoying the Jungle Hut and will be sorry to leave this remarkable place tomorrow. But leave we must. We have a train to catch!

Grace Charitable Trust and one man’s passion

The reason why we’ve arranged to meet with Solomon in Masinagudi is because of his work with Grace Charitable Trust, one of the projects sponsored by Adventure Ashram. As we leave the Elephant Camp and head towards one of the tribal villages deep in the Tiger Reserve, Solomon tells us his story.

He is the seventh of nine children, and his father wanted them all to have an education. Solomon enjoyed school and did well. He had his sights set on being a Forest Ranger, and he studied hard and got top marks in his tests. His teacher, though, favoured other pupils to take up the places on offer because of their religion, and his father couldn’t afford to pay for his higher education. Bitterly disappointed, his experience clearly left Solomon with a burning desire to help other children into education.

Whilst in theory education is compulsory here, in practice children who live in remote tribal areas do not have the means or incentive to get to school each day. Parents, mostly uneducated themselves, don’t always see the need for their children to go to school, preferring to allow them to stay at home playing or watching TV. Solomon knew he had a job on his hands.

He found, though, that the children themselves were keen to go to school, and that when they did so they helped encourage their friends to go too. By this time Solomon was working as a taxi driver, and he would visit the villages in the morning and take children to school himself. If they didn’t show up, he would go to their houses and ask their parents why their kids were not in school?

Gradually and persistently he started to get buy-in to his vision for their children’s education. Solomon could see the results of his efforts as the children started to make progress with their schooling. He resolved to put all of the money he received as tips from his taxi work towards helping the children get to and from school. He paid for bus fares or other taxis to make sure they attended.

In doing so he started to get into debt. At one point he owed 11 months worth of bills to people who had worked for him. He didn’t know how he was going to repay everyone.

Solomon also had another job, working at the Jungle Hut hotel (where I’m writing this from now). Simon Smith was staying as part of the India trips he was involved in, out of which had come the Adventure Ashram charity. Solomon took Simon for a taxi ride, and during the trip they got talking. It was a trip that was to change Solomon’s life and the lives of hundreds of the children whom Solomon had been trying to help.

Simon promised to help. As a result of his efforts, Adventure Ashram raised what Solomon described as “a huge sum of money”, and suddenly Solomon’s dreams could be realised. Since then, Adventure Ashram has funded four school buses and their drivers, and tuition centres in several of the villages. Here children can meet, get extra help and lessons from their teacher, and complete their school homework. It was to one of these tuition centres at Chemmanatham that we were headed now. It was dark, and the children would be returning from school.

When we arrived it was clear that the children had been expecting us. They spilled out of their classroom in great excitement, insisting on shaking our hands and introducing themselves. We were swept into their classroom feeling like royalty.

There were 17 children here with their teacher, and we thanked them for their wonderful welcome. The tuition centre comprises two rooms, the main one being around 20 feet square, laid out with metal framed desks and colourful pictures on the walls, including maps of India and their national flags, as well as the Union Jack, and a smaller second room containing computers available for the children to use. With solar powered batteries and phone based wi-fi this is a self contained setup.

The children crowded around us as we took selfie videos with them, and they enjoyed watching themselves on the replays.Solomon told the children a little bit about us and the reason for our visit, and we asked them what they would like to do when they left school. There were several doctors and police officers, two forest rangers and a member of the military among them. We fervently hope that they go on to achieve these aspirations.

We had brought some small gifts with us, including crayons, notebooks and sharpeners. The highlight, though, was undoubtedly the bottles of bubble-blowing liquid, and soon the room was a mass of bubbles streaming in every direction. We all had a wonderful time.

It was all too soon time to leave, and we headed to our second stop of the evening at Bokkapuram. Here the tuition centre was inside the village, and we proceeded on foot past one room houses with corrugated roofs, animal enclosures, young children playing, people cooking, and a lady washing clothes using the traditional method of scrubbing them across a stone on the ground. The paths between the houses were only a few feet wide, and Solomon told us that there were 70 houses packed together here, with about 250 villagers.

The tuition centre was similar to the previous one in its shape and feel. Again we had an enthusiastic welcome, and all of the children fell over themselves to tell us their names and say “How do you do?” Again the bubbles were a big hit and happy chaos reigned as the children did what happy children do, chattering, playing together, and laughing.

Solomon had warned us that these children were a little cheekier than in the previous village, and harder to control. If that was true we saw little evidence of it. These kids were exuberant but polite, well-mannered and a delight to be with. They seemed proud of their education and their achievements, and we hope that their future is bright.

As we left for home, the children’s goodbyes ringing in our ears, I asked Solomon whether he thought that getting more children into education would change the character of the villages. “Yes, definitely,” he agreed. “The kids will have to leave home to get the jobs they want, so the villages have to change. But in a good way.”

I asked how the villagers support themselves. “Life is very hard for them,” he said. “They used to work in the hotels, but many of them have closed due to government restrictions on the Parks. They receive no other help and find it hard to get work, especially if they have to travel. They have no land of their own and cannot farm. Education is the way out of this problem.”

Back at the Jungle Hut, we ask how we can help. Solomon tells us that he doesn’t have big plans for future expansion, just to carry on doing what they are doing at the moment, helping more children. There are the running costs of the buses and drivers to meet, and hopefully Adventure Ashram can continue to support these. But every additional child who goes to school is a success, and the best way to help is to sponsor the cost of a child’s transport, uniform and materials to enable them to attend school each year. At a cost of around £20 a month this is a target within everyone’s reach.

We are deeply impressed and inspired by Solomon. He comes across as a thoughtful, joyful but very sincere man with a grand and life-changing mission. He has achieved amazing things here, and we have no doubt that he will continue to do so. He is justifiably proud of his achievements, and he deserves all of our support. If you’d like to help, there’s more information on the Adventure Ashram website.

It’s been an incredible day.