Kerala

Originally published: 21st January 2008

For more ideas on places to visit in Kerala see our other site keralaindiatravel.net which we created after our trip to India.

Varkala

Namaste Comrades,

India! Home to 80% of the world’s dust! India! Where all the traffic stops for cows!

We started our Indian adventure in Kerala, the most Southerly Indian state and the first place in the world to have a democratically elected Communist government, improving literacy, life expectancy, decreasing infant mortality and generally making this green and waterlogged land feel quite smug when compared to the rest of the country while simultaneously proving that Communism does work. Sometimes. On a very small scale.

We spent a few days in Trivandrum getting our bearings before moving North to Varkala, a pretty little beach surrounded by tall cliffs, which were covered with picturesque bamboo restaurants and shoppies. We spent a couple of lazy days at the beach body boarding, sunbathing, listening to the Hello Pineapple ladies sing songs about Pineapples and watching dolphins swim about under the Eagles that soared overhead. Marvellous.

Backwaters By Canoe

After we were suitably tanned, we moved up to Kollam where we started our backwater adventure. We took out a traditional canoe made from wood from the Jack Fruit tree and woven together with coconut fibre before being sealed with fish oil. These things are built to last, at least 65 years with a yearly reapplication of fish oil, are made locally and are totally sustainable. Suji, our guide, was a local Hindu man who was about to be engaged to his arranged wife, and we quizzed him as much about this as about the local flora and fauna. It was a really relaxing and interesting trip, where we got to see village life up close and personal (and learn a bit more about arranged marriages).

Backwaters by Houseboat

The next day was our Houseboat day. We took a large boat shaped like a traditional rice barge through the backwaters from Kollam to Alleppey. We spent the day lazing around on recliner chairs out front and an upstairs viewing deck, checking out the amazingly picturesque backwaters, and being fed inordinate amounts of food by our staff of five. It was disgustingly luxurious but incredibly relaxing.

We arrived in Alleppey in a state of near-bliss only to be confronted by the chaos of an Indian town. This is one of the more difficult things about India – one moment you’ll be in blissful near-solitude, totally relaxed and unhurried and the next you’ll be facing insane traffic and a bazillion people – and it can be quite hard work at times to adjust your mental state accordingly.

Backwaters Homestay

Anyhow, we weren’t due to stay in town long as we were due at our first Homestay. We were pretty nervous about it. We were about to stay with a 100% authentic Indian family on an island miles out of town, not knowing if they would speak English or what we would be fed, but our fears were allayed when we got there and were confronted by this huge mansion of a house and a very softly spoken but very competent English speaking host, Thomas.

In the end, Green Palm Homes ended up hitting the number one spot on our greatest experiences so far list. To be honest, we thought our trip up until this point had been pretty laid back, with lots of beaches and lots of relaxing and none of the hassle that we’d been told to expect, so we were already relaxed and didn’t really think that our pace could get any slower.

We were totally wrong. Early mornings (7am starts) and late evenings were occupied with walks, bike rides and canoe trips where Thomas (this was a Christian village, hence the biblical name), our ever-knowledgeable host, took us around his island village meeting locals (some of whom rarely see white folks) and drinking at Chai (sweet milky tea) shops.

The centres of these islands were filled with miles of rice fields, and they were encircled by palm lined canals, which at points opened up into huge lakes or joined the main river. There were all sorts of interesting birds like brightly coloured Kingfishers and plants, including red pineapple plants and a wide array of Hibiscus flowers, but the best thing about this place was the atmosphere. Thomas told us that there was a zero crime rate and it was easily believable. Everyone we met was friendly and curious and the whole place had a tranquil air that is impossible to describe but made us all feel great.

When we weren’t taking tours with Thomas, we were swimming in the river, chilling out on their veranda which had amazing views of the river, reading or chatting to Jason and Dan. These American dudes were from California and were totally on the same wavelength in terms of philosophy and how they were approaching the trip. Both had spent time at Ashrams doing meditation, were into Yoga and figuring out what to do with their lives other than chase money and things. Jason was escaping the law and Dan the music industry, which was interesting for Simon as they were both industries that he had also spent some time in.

The highlight of our stay was undoubtedly the canoe trip. Thomas took us, Jason (Dan had gone to a concert), and two of Thomas’ Indian friends who were on holiday celebrating their second anniversary on the canoe to watch the sun set and take us around some of the surrounding canals. We both love boats and being in the water and so we were loving it and weren’t worried at all when we saw a water snake powering towards us (it was dispatched with a swift blow from one of our oarsmen).

Then Thomas took us to the toddy shop.

A toddy shop is a kind of local bar, with toddy being the local brew. It is fermented coconut flower sap, which is soaked up into little clay by toddy tappers. They climb the not-small coconut trees carrying water buffalo leg bones and bash the hell outta the flower stems to loosen the sap. Then they use material to soak up the sap which fills the attached clay pots.

The sap is then left to ferment for a day before being served to the local drunkards (and wide-eyed tourists). It’s 4% alcohol and smells absolutely revolting, but slides down surprisingly easily when taken with the chilli omelets they serve as bar snacks. If they leave it to ferment for another 24 hours, it becomes 8% and tastes a lot bitterer. The toddy shop is an invariably male domain, so it was quite something that the wife of Thomas’ Indian friend was in the shop, and she loved every minute of it – a real life trailblazer (though it wasn’t somewhere that initially strikes you as a place you’d take your wife for your anniversary).

We all left the toddy shop on a bit of a high and got back into our canoe and were joined by another of Thomas’ friends who had been at the toddy shop a lot longer than we had. Luckily, he was considered quite the singer and we were then serenaded a capella for an hour as we drifted along under the moon and stars with local folk songs by Thomas, his friend, and our two oarsmen. We have no idea what the songs were about but it was beautiful and we reached home far too soon, stepping off the canoe in a kind of daze, totally blown away by the experience. It was magical.

Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary

Having already extended our stay there by an extra three nights, we decided we couldn’t extend it any longer without being formally invited to join the family so we moved on up to the wildlife sanctuary at Periyar. We spent 6 hours on a rickety ol’ bus going up treacherous mountain roads only to be confronted by rain like we’d never seen before. It was like the monsoon (which was not due for another 8 months) – thick sheets of water that soaked everything it touched in seconds – and it didn’t quit once in the 3 days we were there.

We were planning to do a safari into the sanctuary to see some wild elephants but the idea of walking around in this rain did not appeal so the closest we got to wildlife were some water buffalo and the back of a wild pig that wandered past our window. Our wildlife-watching on this trip has not been successful. Fortunately, our ‘tree house’ (room on stilts) had cable TV so we were able to sit in our slightly damp room and watch movies, before getting the rickety bus back down again to Cochin.

Fort Cochin

Fort Cochin was a pretty little Portuguese fort and we spent a few days wandering the European-style streets and soaking up the atmosphere. It had quite an arts scene too, and we went to see some galleries with work from local artists, including one guy who had a little shack above a wholesale merchant’s shop on this busy industrial sheet. It was all very bohemian and totally cool. We stayed at another homestay (Beena Homestay) with this lovely family who refused to charge us for food because we were vegetarian and therefore ‘didn’t eat anything’, despite powering our way through huge mounds of tasty home-cooked food every night.

While we were there we went to see a portion of a Kathakali show, where the performers dress in elaborate costumes and do intricate dances which represent scenes from famous Hindu epics. The costumes were absolutely amazing and the show was very interesting, but they only did a portion of it for us tourists as the whole thing traditionally goes on from about 8/9pm to sunrise the next day. The performers are supposed to fast before the performance and when they are performing, they are said to be inhabited by the gods they are performing. We think this is the kind of dedication that’s missing in Western popular culture.

And that’s Kerala. We spent Christmas and New Year on the beach, but this email is already too long so we will fill you in on that soon.

Next: Karnataka, Goa and Gujurat

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