Tag Archives: Kerala

India Pt 9: A last lap to Fort Kochi and home

14 Mar
Kathakali in Kochi.

Kathakali in Kochi.

From the stage, a brightly dressed character slathered in canary yellow facepaint rolled his eyes from side to side, then up and down, before bugging them out and causing fits of laughter amongst the audience.

Between my giggles, I turned to the boy and saw awe and confusion writ large on his face. ‘What a strange end to our trip to India,’ I thought to myself.

The brightly painted man was part of a Kathakali troupe, a famous style of theatre which has been going on in Kerala since the 17th century. The actors onstage – who spend years training – use dramatic hand and eye movements to communicate the stories while a sharp-voiced singer keeps the chorus and drum beat going behind them. It was fabulously strange but also mesmerising.

Famous Chinese fishing nets in Kochi.

Famous Chinese fishing nets in Kochi.

It was our last night in India and the boy and I were exhausted. After leaving the luxury of Vaamika Island, we took a speedboat and taxi to our final hotel in Fort Kochi, the city we were due to fly from the following morning.

After a day wandering the dusty streets of the former Portuguese and Dutch town, taking in the crumbling colonial remnants such as St Francis Church (where explorer Vasco da Gama was once buried), the boy and I were officially ready to head back to our damp cool English home. A month on the road had officially taken its toll.

But knowing it was our last night, we also wanted to experience a few final bits of India and a Kathakali performance was one that had been recommended by many books and sites we’d researched.

Makeup in progress.

Makeup in progress.

We arrived in the hot theatre just in time to see the final stages of make-up being applied to each of the actors – a process which can take up to an hour for each show. The audience was then treated to an explanation in English of what the various moves meant – from a flick of the hand to an accentuated eye roll, Kathakali is one of the most expressive things I’ve ever witnessed.

Then, for 30 minutes we watched a few scenes from a story written by king Karthika Thirunal in the 18th century which focuses on the battle between Narakasura (a demon king) and Lord Krishna. A normal Kathakali play would be many hours long, so the shortened version gave us only an oversight but was fascinating the whole while.

An intense battle.

An intense battle.

Leaving the playhouse befuddled at what we had just seen, the boy and I proceeded to Malabar Junction in the top-end Malabar House Hotel to treat ourselves to a special final meal. Earlier in the day, we’d eaten at the fabulous Dal Roti (whose owner is slightly hyperactive and very friendly) so, ironically, we decided to skip a last traditional Indian meal and indulge in a more ‘modern’ choice – odd, I’m sure to hear given these were our last hours in India but after so many Indian meals, our limits were topped out.

The setting at Malabar House was beautiful – a classical music troupe entertained guests spread around an open courtyard and into the swish dining room, while tables were abuzz with the chatter of well-to-do locals out for a night of food and fun.

A final shot - looking much browner than we would a few months later.

A final shot – looking much browner than we would a few months later.

Over our final glass of wine and meal, we reflected on our time in India – from the highs to the very low, lows. It was a beautiful country but it was most definitely challenging and tiring.

We would leave India the next morning with the desire to sleep and recuperate for a week. And while the difficult moments stood out at the time in our minds, these few months later it is much easier to recall all those other times filled with pleasure, something I hope to do for many years to come.

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India Pt 8: Into the land of luxury

7 Mar
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The outdoor pool at Marari Beach Resort

After our experiences in Alleppey and Kollam, I had given up slightly on finding peace and relaxation in Kerala again. When finally we found a place to lay our heads after our less than enjoyable day of canoeing around the backwaters, we were exhausted and even a cold beer did little to assuage that.

But as a new day dawned, I confess a bit of excitement was creeping in – we were off to one of the top resorts in the region for a hotel review I was doing and had two more to experience after it for pieces which will appear soon on The Arbuturian.

Now, I know it sounds terrible – after all, we were there to experience ‘proper’ India, not ‘posh’ India – but the desire to drink a cold drink without fear of poisoning myself on dirty ice cubes and the hope of using a public loo that was clean had overtaken my best efforts to find beauty in the chaos.

A welcoming arrival awaited us in our cottage.

A welcoming arrival awaited us in our cottage.

The boy and I left behind our backwater hotel (the quite nice but very buggy Palm Grove Lake Resort) in a tuk-tuk, to head thirty minutes north to the exclusive Marari Beach Resort. In retrospect, arriving at a gated hotel in a tuk-tuk is not the most logical of transport methods (we were asked four times by the guard if we were sure we were in the right place) but little could bring us down: paradise was close enough to taste.

A stunning butterfly in the gardens.

A stunning butterfly in the gardens.

With access to a white-sand beach and a large outdoor pool, the eco-Marari Beach Resort is all about keeping in tune with the environment. An organic garden supplies much of the produce for the kitchens while an on-site bio-gas plant recycles kitchen waste into energy to run the electricity. Goats and small cows roam the lawn to keep the land trim and a butterfly garden promotes conservation of rare species. Local school children are invited in to be taught about conservation as well.

The perfect lawn mower.

The perfect lawn mower.

After checking into our thatched-roof cottage and washing off days of dirt in our beautiful outdoor shower, the boy and I headed to the crystalline swimming pool to finally relax into the swing of life that the more privileged class lead. Relaxation, it seemed, is possible in Kerala – you just might have to pay for it. Finally we felt like were were on vacation.

The next day, we departed the seaside to head to the nearby Kumarakom Lake Resort, which sits on the edge of the expansive Vembanad Lake. Voted the top hotel in India in the World Travel Awards last year, the Kumarakom took luxury to a new level. Feeling slightly like trespassers with our big backpacks, the boy and I were awed as we accepted flower wreathed coconuts and leis on arrival, and saw the expansive green grounds and shimmering lake. After a day laying by our private pool, we took a boat trip around the lake to watch the sunset (something offered daily to guests) and shared a bottle of wine over a wonderful seafood dinner. It was – it seemed – becoming a lifestyle that the boy and I could adjust to.

The lake at Kumarakom.

The lake at Kumarakom.

After what felt like far too short a time span, we were off once again to head further north to the final review hotel – Vaamika Island Resort. I’d not heard much about this hotel beforehand so neither of us was sure what to expect. Unfortunately, we came into contact with a taxi strike, meaning the trip was doubled in length (and meant we had to go via Alleppey again) as our driver went all the way around the south side of the lake to avoid running into any of his colleagues who he knew would block his way since he was not on the picket line.

A tense, long and hot cab ride ensued but it was all worth it when we arrived at a dock to find a leather-lined Sun-Ray speedboat waiting to pick us up.

Sunset over the backwaters at Vaamika.

Sunset at Vaamika.

Vaamika Island Resort is situated on a private island in the backwaters near Kochi and was built by a slightly eccentric German named Klaus Schleusener who spent much of his working life teaching at universities in India. He sold the island to developers in 2011 and the company was in the midst of building more cottages during our stay.

Upon stepping off the speed boat, we were led to the largest villa I have ever seen – complete with private pool looking out to the lake, large patio and incredible carved wooden features. After dropping off our bags, we were handed a mobile phone. Confused, I asked what it was for. “That is for your private butler Nibin who will be looking after all of your needs.” To say it was all surreal is an underestimation.

The view from the pool at Vaamika.

The view from the pool at Vaamika.

Our next two days were spent lounging by the pool, ringing Nibin for beers and eating copious amounts of food (at least 10 dishes every meal) on our patio. It was a world unknown to the boy and I, and we were slightly perplexed by the idea that people can choose to live like this as a normal choice on vacation.

Ash pots in the museum on Vaamika Island.

Ash pots in the museum on Vaamika Island.

Interestingly, the island also features a private museum, which includes a collection of Kaavada (pronounced: cowardi) – stone or wood carved rectangular blocks that are worn on the shoulders of people taking pilgrimage (most often) to the Palani temple in Tamil Nadu. Pilgrims dance with these on their shoulders while making prayers to Hindu god Lord Subramanya. The collection also includes ash pots used for burying relatives’ remains, with some being 500 years old. Former-owner Klaus collected them all over the years, although he has never made a fuss about it and few art collectors/art historians even know it exists.

We finally had to depart the island for our final night in Kochi before our flight home to London. But it was with lead-heavy legs that we dragged ourselves away from it, knowing we’d be unlikely to experience these levels of luxury anytime soon.

And so, after four days of rest, the sheen of Kerala had returned. And while the relaxation was needed at the time, it is true the boy and I now talk about the hilariously unenjoyable times experienced in Alleppey and Kollam as much as the stunning beauty of these hotels. A bit of both, I suppose, can’t hurt during one’s travels.

In the final part, the boy and I wander the dusty streets of Kochi, take in a bizarre Kathakali performance and say goodbye to India.

India Pt 7: The murky backwaters of Kerala

19 Feb
A kettavullum - what I wanted to take on the backwaters.

A kettavullum – what I wanted to take on the backwaters.

“You’ll be so relaxed in Kerala!” said friends. “You’ll love it, it’s the most relaxing place ever!” said others.

That was just what the boy and I were hoping to hear as we’d booked Kerala to be the last port of call during out travels around India. We couldn’t wait to let the chilled out times take over. And that, luckily, was what we experienced during our first four days in Varkala – beauty, sunshine, heat, friendliness and just pure paradise.

But our relaxing times were not, as we learned, to continue. Instead, I found myself crying into a plate of soggy pasta, ruing our decision to leave Varkala’s shining shores. But more on that later.

You see, I’d had it in my head for months when planning the trip that we would take a Kettuvallam around the backwaters of Kerala. It was the one thing I’d been looking forward to most for the final part of our trip.

You see, a Kettuvallam is a traditional, large Keralan style houseboat with thatched roof and large deck for watching the day go by as you drift up the backwaters, which make up a huge area of the central part of this south western state. It sounded like just the thing to enjoy a day on and I’d built it up so much in my head that I couldn’t wait to leave Varkala (as much as we were in love with it) so that we could go and find one to rent.

I’d done a lot of research ahead of time and found that most guidebooks recommend showing up the day before you want to take a boat and negotiating with the agencies directly. So, we packed our bags, treated ourselves to a taxi journey from Varkala to Kollam and got ourselves dropped directly at the front door of the “highly recommended” District Tourism Promotion Council office, which was supposedly the best place to get a good deal.Lon

Unfortunately, our conversation with the tourism office did not go so well. It went more like this:

“Yes, we have a boat that you can take to Alleppey. It will include your captain, food, water and overnight stay.”

“Perfect – and how much would that be?”

“16,000 rupees.”

“How much?”

“16,000 rupees.”

“You mean, £200? Seriously? No, we’ve done our research and it’s definitely supposed to be around 8,000 rupees.”

This exchange continued for a while until I called them thieves and stormed out. The boy was not, I might add, impressed with my negotiating skills.

The next two hours proceeded to be similar in their frustrations, only we were carrying our heavy backpacks with us too to make things even more awkward. After trying our best, what cropped up was one of those spaces of time that, when you travel, almost inevitably crop up, the “I just want to be in my house where it’s clean and in my city where people are nice” kind of breakdowns. This led to the aforementioned crying into my noodles.

A Keralan bus (photo care of: learn-malayalam.com)

A Keralan bus (photo care of: learn-malayalam.com)

So, we decided we’d cut our losses in Kollam and find a way out of the town sharpish. Our only option was a bus. Which, by the way, turned out to be the best part of our transport travels in India.

You see, buses are large – very large. And ramshackle. And the drivers of these buses seem to have no care for the other vehicles on the road – being the largest things, they can zoom straight up the middle of the highway with no fear of anyone getting in their way. Which is exactly how our driver acted for the two hours we were in his company.

As we plowed our way up the highway, watching smaller trucks and cars swish past the holes in the bus where windows normally would be the boy and I couldn’t help but laugh, especially as everyone looked at us in puzzled form since we were the only foreigners in their midst. It was well worth the £1.50 we paid.

And so after two hours of chaotic driving we arrived into Alleppey. There we headed for what our guidebook suggested was a great little cheap hotel (the Palmy Residency, which people on TripAdvisor also seem to love) to bed down in. Cheap it was. Great it wasn’t. When I tried to explain that for our £5 we were going to need sheets that didn’t have blood on them and the man looked at us like we were demanding, I knew we weren’t going to be in for a good stay. But, we’d already lugged our backpacks down many a dirt road to get there and we couldn’t be bothered with looking elsewhere – so long as he changed the sheets (which he did).

We headed out pronto to try and find another houseboat carrier that would take us the next day. You see, there are dozens of Kettuvallam companies in Alleppey – far more than in Kollam – so we thought we had a good chance of negotiating.

Unfortunately, it was not to be our day. After speaking to a dozen agencies up and down the main drag, they all wanted to do their best to rip us off. We eventually settled on doing a backwater canal day trip on a smaller, hand rowed boat with Antony’s Tours and Travels and I let go of my dream of taking a Kettuvallam for good.

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By the time we’d worked our way through all the agencies, almost all the restaurants were closed. I’d only eaten a few bites of soggy noodles so was starving but despite the boy’s and my best efforts, a restaurant was not to be found. So, we settled on bags of crisps. Yep, that’s how desperate things got. And what’s worse? The fan in our musty room was barely working when we got back.

As we sat down on the bed in our pants, sweating and exhausted, eating crisps and drinking lukewarm beer, I luckily still managed to chuckle. As the boy put it: “At least you always tend to remember these types of moments and we can laugh about it later.”

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The next morning, things seemed to be looking up. The sun was bright and we arrived at Antony’s Tours and Travels with fresh hopes for the new day. But, once more, Alleppey disappointed.

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We’d been promised a great backwater tour with loads of journeys down little canals that the massive Kettuvallams couldn’t get to. What we actually got was one trip down one little canal to get dropped off on the bank where we were presented with coconuts and then (after consuming them) told we had to pay for them, before being badgered by the young tour guide constantly to buy him sweets and water (because he was sooooo hungry and soooo thirsty) and for me to please give him my backpack because he loved it. The young guide kept trying to give the boy and I (and the other guests: two Colombian girls and one French guy) alcohol before graphically flirting with the French guest and telling him some very rude things about what he wanted to do with him.

The boy being put to work.

The boy being put to work.

We then had lunch in a village house that was meant to be followed by a village tour but, instead, found ourselves stuck for two hours in the host’s house constantly being told we’d “move along in a little while” but never actually leaving. And the other guide kept getting the boy to row the boat because he was too tired!

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Okay – there were some good points: the backwaters (as you can see from the pictures) are beautiful and teeming with life.

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But, I can, most certainly, never, ever recommend Antony’s Tours and Travels – all we’d been promised was reneged on and I can’t imagine how that company’s managed to get so many good reviews on TripAdvisor!

And so, our time in Alleppey could not come to a close quick enough for me. We ended up staying at the Palm Grove Lake Resort (after a nightmare of a time trying to find a hotel as every one seemed to only have the most expensive rooms available) and that, at least, was serviceable (except for the army of ants that invaded our room).

All in all, Alleppey and the backwaters stand out for how awful they were. But, that, is sometimes what you get when you travel. Those promises of relaxation were not to be for all of Kerala. I can only hope that others among you have better experiences if you manage to get there!

In Part 8, the boy and I take in some luxury hotels and finally see how relaxing Kerala can be – if money were no option.

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