In the blink of an eye our time in the south of India has come to an end. We’ve bid our farewell to the beautiful Elephant Mountains on today’s scenic bus journey from Munnar to Nedumbassery (Cochin airport), back to where we started two weeks ago.
Our airport hotel is clean and comfortable, all we could have hoped for really. We’re having a beer and the Indian take on shawarma on the roof while the sun sets. Then for some much needed rest before we fly out to Delhi tomorrow morning 8AM to get a taste of Rajasthan!
Today is Thiru Onam (Sacred Onam Day), the most important day of the annual harvest festival in Kerala. Yesterday the hotel owner has left to Alleppey for a family celebration so we’re locking up after ourselves before travelling by bus to Munnar.
We hear the legend of King Mahabali aka the Demon King, whose spirit visits Kerala at Onam: Mahabali once ruled the entire world and his reign was one of peace and prosperity: All of his subjects had a roof over their head and enough to eat, and there was no division based on caste or class. He was so loved by his people they started saying Thank the King, instead of Thank the Gods, which naturally didn’t go down too well with the latter. And so it was that Vishnu decided to take on the form of a little boy and visit the King to end his rule.
Upon their meeting, the king, known for his generosity, told the little boy he could have anything he wanted. The boy then asked for three feet of land, which was granted. It was then that Vishnu grew from a little boy into to a gigantic figure, who measured the Earth using one foot, and the entire universe with the next. Mahabali, knowing that his time had come, let Vishnu place his third foot on his head, causing him to drown in the netherworld. The king’s final wish was to return once every year to make sure his people are still prosperous and happy. Today people celebrate Onam by purchasing new clothes for their children and elders and sharing a big feast with family.
After hearing no division based on caste or class, suddenly something clicks. We’ve seen communist symbols all over Kerala: the hammer and sickle, portraits of Che and Fidel. It makes a lot of sense now. And communism to an extent seems to work here. For instance we’re told that poverty in Kerala is less compared to the rest of India. Though partly because of tourism, and partly because a lot of Keralans have jobs in the Middle East, but also because the state creates jobs. The state ferries have been an absolute joy, and every major town has a District Tourism Promotion Council office, but perhaps the weirdest initiative is that the state employs tuktuk drivers, who, for a nominal fee, take you to all the major tourist sights in an area, and receive extra payment in kind if they can get you to agree to enter either a state run spice garden or tea shop. You don’t even have to buy anything, simply stepping in to the shop means rice for your tuktuk driver!
So when we walk to the bus station in Kumily, preparations for Onam have already begun and everyone’s in their Sunday best. Munnar in the Western Ghats is about a hundred km north, which should be about a 4 hour drive over winding mountain roads, but unfortunately, due to heavy rainfall which has caused a landslide to block off the main road, our bus is stopping at Pooppara, a tiny little village about 30km from Munnar. After a few attempts we find a local bus to take us on the scenic 60km route to Munnar where we arrive before nightfall.
Munnar is in the heart of tea country, and nicknamed the Kashmir of South India, but the town (a big, giant eyesore) and the surrounding area (valleys draped in a rich tapestry of tea plantations) are like night and day.
Suffice to say we’re not spending more time in town than we have to and book our tour with the Tourism Council, which conveniently takes us to all the worthwhile sights – and every dam, there are a lot – in the area.
Kerala has been a great start to our India adventure, next up we’re preparing to explore the opposite end of the country: Rajasthan.
A two hour ferry journey, followed by a four hour bus journey takes us from the backwaters of Alleppey to the elevation of the Cardamom Hills. We’re staying in a place called Kumily, which is a small gateway town between the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu and also where the entrance to Periyar Tiger Reserve is.
After the heat and chaos of Alleppey, visiting the cool and quiet hill country is an absolute treat. The name of the Cardamom Hills comes from the cardamom spice that grows here alongside pepper, coffee and of course plenty of tea. Passing by some breathtaking scenery on the way here it’s no wonder this is a World Heritage Site.
Not only the climate is better, compared to our last stay the new hotel is a breath of fresh air too. The balcony has an actual view this time and there’s loads of cheeky bonnet macaques running about in the gardens. Add a hot shower in the mix and Alleppey is nothing but a distant memory anymore.
In September, all National Parks in India are closed for the season, except for Periyar. The protected area covers 925 square km and is home to as many as 40 tigers. Obviously we would love to see one, but given the fact we’re only trekking for one day, we’re still in the rainy season, and the park is humongous, this proves to be too much to ask for. The park is beautiful though and we manage to spot Malabar Giant Squirrels, Nilgiri Langurs, Sambar Deer and Indian Bisons, and a lot of Elephant droppings, but just no Elephants..
We finish off a day well-spent with a lake cruise inside the park, held up by a group of Germans (not so punctual on holiday are they?)
As night falls on the pleasant little town of Kumily we’re preparing for what will already be our final destination in Kerala. Tomorrow is the big celebration of the Onam festival and we’re travelling north to Munnar.
So far our experience with India is that in order to enjoy it you first have to fight it. Our time in Alleppey is a perfect example of this. After our grand entrance on the ferry begins our battle with India’s Little Venice.
Prior to our arrival we had romanticized Alleppey quite a bit. It’s described as a backpacker’s paradise known for its beautiful backwaters as well as its nice beach. We’re staying at a place advertised as beach hotel with a private balcony with a view, but in reality it’s a homestay with a view of the seedy little back street it is on. Though nearby, the nice beach area is more dirty than nice, as well as completely deserted. All of the nearby restaurants are shut and when we finally settle for a cold beer instead of a good meal on our first night, it feels like a pretty big win.
The next morning, in spite of a healthy dose of fresh resolve on our part, Alleppey keeps throwing curveballs. It’s 10AM Saturday morning and all we aim to do is take out cash and eat breakfast – not asking for much here! In the light of day the beachfront is as depressing as the night before so we quickly head into town. Traffic-congested and polluted are words that do not begin to describe the scene we’re walking into when we get to Alleppey town. It’s like the wacky races: a free-for-all of tuktuks, motorbikes, scooters, buses, cars, lorries and worst of all offenders: police patrol vehicles, producing big, billowing clouds of black smoke to the beat of frantic beeping. I will never complain about how busy Edinburgh gets on a Saturday ever again..
In the scorching heat we navigate roads without sidewalks, avoid massive puddles created by rainfall overnight and try to not to die in the onslaught of out of control vehicles, while being hassled to death by touts. For over two hours we try to find an ATM that works. Just when we’re about to give up, Bank of Baruda saves the day! It’s been a stressful morning, but nothing burgers and cocktails can’t fix, we’re still fighting fit.
At this point we’re not sure if we want to stay but decide to power through the final day. We’re told this running joke: The only Indian train ever to arrive on time is one that got delayed 24 hours. Dealing with India definitely requires a fair bit of patience, and, to quote our yoga instructor: (being) in harmony with your surroundings (or simply going with the flow).
Back home when a car beeps violently at you it usually means you’re about to get hit by it, so, constantly, my initial thought is to jump out of the way (about a hundred times a day). I’m now beginning to notice that the beeping here is more like a language: you can beep to say hello for instance, beep because you’re happy, or beep just because you haven’t beeped in the last five seconds. With this in mind it sure gets a lot easier to just ignore it and go about your Sunday (in harmony with your surroundings). Now that we know where the cash is at, we return to the same ATM for another injection (our future selves will thank us), find a great coffee place, hang out in the shade by the water and get drunk with a girl from Poland and a guy from Delhi, who give us some excellent tips for our upcoming visit to the north of India.
So Alleppey, did we beat it, or did it beat us? All we know is, we came there, we encountered resistance, we took control, once again the British and Dutch colonised the shit out if it! Time to trade in the coastal heat for the cooler elevation of the Cardamom Hills when we are travelling to Kumily.
Despite yesterday’s discouraging note we manage to leave Munroe Island train station without an issue. Our train is supposed to be here at 8:00, but when we get to the station at 7:50, the delayed 7:00 train is just ready for boarding. There we go. A measly 10 Rs gets us to Kollam where we hop on the Kerala State Water Transport Department’s (or KSWTD’s) public ferry to Alleppey. The total distance is about 85km, which will take roughly 7-8 hours through the amazing South Indian waterways. We’re in luck: the weather is bright and sunny and we’re about the only passengers on the boat! Private cruise anyone?
Soon we leave the mangroves that protect Kollam’s shores, pass under the bridge at Thevalli Palace and reach the open waters of Ashtamudi Lake. Suddenly loads of birds come flying up to us to catch fish in the motor’s slipstream. We’re on the top deck and get some great views of egrets flying alongside us.
We pass more of the Chinese fishing nets we’ve seen in Cochin and wave at fishermen speeding by in their small boats.
Before long we’re on the backwaters. Between the bright blue skies, the reflective brown-green water, all the palm trees and the colourful boats and houses, this place is something special.
In the afternoon we see herons, and lots and lots of eagles catching fish.
We stop off for Chai tea and a little slice of home: these bad boys that look and taste almost identical to Dutch oliebollen.
After an entertaining day on the water, finally we’re seeing the famous houseboats go past, which means we’re in Alleppey. Thank you KSWTD, we’ve had a blast!
In the late morning we take a short train trip from Varkala to Kollam in the north. The train we’re on originates in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala, and goes all the way to New Delhi, a whopping 52 hour journey. Glad we’re only one stop away.. It’s our first experience travelling in Sleeper Class, which for a short journey isn’t entirely unpleasant. Once at Kollam, a tuktuk brings us to today’s final destination: Munroe Island.
Munroe Island is a small inland island group located at the confluence of Ashtamudi Lake and the Kallada River. It was named in honour of Scotsman John Munro, Resident Colonel of the former Princely State of Travancore and we’re here to visit the picturesque backwaters.
When we arrive at the homestay around mid-day, our lazy morning quickly turns into a rollercoaster ride of Munroe Island’s famed hospitality. We’re greeted by the owner (strangely looking exactly like the Indian version of our downstairs neighbour), who, after giving us just enough time to put our bags down, takes us along the road on the back of his motorbike to his brother’s retirement party!
We’re sat down at a large table in the garden with a group of about fifteen men who are extremely amused to see us, while the women, equally excited, wave at us from inside the house. In mere seconds someone puts a big banana leaf in front of us, another scoops up rice, the next one dishes out curry, then pickled mango, sambal, bananas, and so on. All the while everyone’s laughing, taking our picture and trying to talk to us at the same time in broken English – we smile and nod and pose, trying to eat with our hands like the others (our right hand that is, don’t want to gross anyone out!)
Back at the homestay we think we’re relaxing on the patio, but that’s not happening. First there’s a ton of paperwork to fill out for the Indian authorities (required at each hotel, although it’s always different), and in the meantime the owner has already drummed up a pal of his to take us onto the backwaters by boat. We quickly throw a water bottle and our phones into a wet bag and set off on the waterways!
This is what we came here for and we’re not disappointed: the backwaters are absolutely stunning. We’re the only boat out on the water and everything is totally quiet except for the pole going into the water, birds chirping and the boatman’s uncontrollable coughing fits – he’s old, but hardy.
In three hours on the water we see a lot of birds: eagles, kingfishers, herons, ducks, and loads of other birds we don’t recognize (our guide doesn’t speak English except for the word ‘down’ he yells at us whenever there’s a bridge ahead), plus a water snake, mangrove trees and lots of coconut trees, as well as the odd person washing their clothes in the murky water. We’re enjoying every second of it, it’s peaceful and beautiful out here, so much so that we decide to stay here for a second day.
We’re allowed to relax on the patio now and also go for a bike ride around the island. Tomorrow we will try to get a train back to Kollam (the note below we found stuck on a shut ticket counter today, but the 8AM train is hopefully still running) and then an 8-hour public ferry to our next stop: Alleppey.
It’s September now and we’re officially in our second month of travelling. In every new place it takes a bit of time finding our feet and today we have to figure out our first train journey in Kerala. Unlike Sri Lanka, trains in India are best booked in advance we’re told, at least if you want a decent seat, and after a few attempts we successfully reserve tickets through an app. We get comfortable seats in an airconditioned carriage for our 5 hour journey, God bless technology!
Snacks on the train are as cheerful as they are cheap: we’re having succulent, deepfried and battered jalapenos and bananas. Lauren gets a thumbs up from the other passengers for gobbling down her very hot jalapeno snack like a hungry seagull. So far the food in Kerala has been an absolute treat.
Varkala is a touristy seaside town and we’re staying in a cheap hotel on its red sandstone cliff overlooking the Arabian Sea. In recent years Varkala has attracted more and more visitors, but right now we’re in the low season so it’s pretty quiet. It also means the hotel pool is not operational, but we’ll survive somehow.
A bit templed-out, we’re giving most of the local sights a miss this time, taking it easy instead. We go for breakfast and dinner on the cliff, have a beer at the hotel, get hissed at by a trespassing monkey and watch eagles catch fish.
This time of year the sea is too choppy for watersports and nearby Papanasum beach is a holy site which means sunbathing isn’t allowed either way. The sea water here is believed to wash all of a person’s sins away, and at the beachside temple today we witness a very naughty teenager’s baptism, a ritual sadly also involving dumping a plastic bag full of flowers, or sins, into the sea..
Tomorrow we move on to Munroe Island for a short stay, but Varkala gets top marks since *drum roll* we found a restaurant which does a pretty good mac ‘n cheese, made with actual cheddar! All is well in Kerala.
The end of our visit to Sri Lanka couldn’t come at a better time: The only semi-decent restaurant near our hotel in Negombo is permanently shut. Faced with the prospect of another lentil curry from a dirty shack, and already dealing with some serious mac ‘n cheese withdrawal symptoms, it is here that one of us finally cracks up. Not even Pizza Hut can save us this time, we’re dining on crisps, chocolate and cream cheese on crackers. Goodbye Sri Lanka, India here we come!
Our flight to Cochin in the south of India takes less than an hour. You’re supposed to either love or hate India, and we’re off to a bad start because our travel cards don’t work. A credit card finally allows us to take out a small amount, enough to get us away from the airport at any rate.
We’re staying in the Fort area of Cochin, a pretty cool harbour town in the state of Kerala. Fort Cochin is a bit rough but also has a hipster vibe to it, not unlike Leith back home, rain included. September marks the end of the South West Monsoon, which manifests itself in short spells of torrential rain and it’s humid like a greenhouse.
Once we’re settled in we manage to stretch our funds enough to get in a few beers and a Tibetan meal with new friends from the hotel.
In the mornings we have our very first yoga lessons on the rooftop of our hotel. Sanoj, our instructor, is the friendliest guy you’ll ever meet. Whether it’s the stretches or the breathing exercises (or just his positive reinforcement), we feel fresh and ready to fight the good fight. “Now you are in harmony with your surroundings.”
We sure are, we even find an ATM that works, so it’s time for a bit of sightseeing. Not unlike a few places in Sri Lanka, Fort Cochin is known for its Dutch, Portuguese and British colonial architecture, and its Chinese style bamboo fishing nets at the beach.
The public ferry takes us to nearby Vypeen Island for the cost of only three rupees (about 4 pence). On nearby Bolgatty Island we visit the Dutch Palace, the former home of the commander of the Dutch East India Company, which has been turned into a fancy island resort and golf course. We come rocking up in our flip flops and sweat-stained clothes (mostly me) and are a little surprised security lets us through the gates just like that -white privilege, anyone?
Once inside, we stumble onto a filmset doing a piece on the upcoming Onam festival in Kerala with a famous Bollywood actress and actor, or so we’re told after we accidentally stroll right into the shot! At least the bartender gets a good laugh out of it when we tell him he may see us on the news tonight!
Late afternoon we walk to the nearest harbour to get a ferry back to Fort Cochin. There’s plenty of boats alright, but none of them are ferries. We ask around and end up on a boat we’re told is taking us to the Fort. Once the tickets are bought, the boat takes off, the party music turns on, then a guide comes up to the deck and suddenly it appears we signed up for a party/sightseeing cruise, which evidently will not be going to Fort Cochin. No panic though as India isn’t very regimented and the Indian people are very helpful: The crew go out of their way to drop us off safe and sound where we need to be at the end of the cruise. Lauren even has the pleasure of having our guide, a big guy with an even bigger gut, hold up his belly and give her a private dance show, while I’m away taking pictures in the front of the boat. Don’t get that on the ferry, do you? Lucky gal!