“Welcome to God’s own country!” said Mr. Manny, our taxi driver, as we pulled out of Ernakulam station for our week exploring Kerala. We’d planned a houseboat stay on the backwaters and some time in the capital, Cochin, but first, some relaxation time up in the mountains at Poetree eco resort. We didn’t know then that we had a tense 5 hour drive between us and any kind of relaxation.
Mr. Manny was a pretty talkative driver, mostly on his phone as he sped into to a blind corner, one hand on the wheel, but he was also happy chatting to us about Kerala; it has a 94% literacy rate (the highest in India), is a dry state (although we could definitely make a stop at a ‘beverage shop’ if we wanted…), and had the world’s first democratically elected Communist government. The red flag is still flying high in Kerala; we saw socialist graffiti and election posters in Ernakulam, red flag bunting strung between coconut trees along the backwaters, and a party march in a small hillside town on the drive back from Thekkady.
In Kerala, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Jews have lived together for hundreds of years, often sharing festivals and worship styles to create a unique Keralan culture. Diwali lights were being put up, just as Onam, Kerala’s biggest festival ended, whilst people chatted excitedly about the next biggest, Christmas, coming soon. Roadside shrines were just as likely to have a Virgin Mary idol, adorned with marigold garlands, as a Hindu deity.
So, depending on who you’re speaking with, the God lucky enough to call Kerala their ‘own country’ could be Jesus, Allah, Ganesh, Laxmi, or any other god. When we reached Thekkady in one piece 5 hours later, ‘thank god, thank all the gods’ was our only thought after the white-knuckle ride through pitch-black jungle mountain roads, including a detour off the ‘good’ road avoiding a road block from an earlier mountainside pile-up.
Thekkady, Periyar National Park
The view from our balcony at Poetree the next morning made the total 17 hour trip from Bangalore seem more than worth it. From Ernakulam, we’d driven inland, past the famous backwaters and into Periyar National Park, high up in the hills dotted with tea and spice plantations, on the border of Tamil Nadu. We could now see far across the dense teak jungle, home to the animals we’d heard in the night.
Once the clouds cleared, the first thing Timian spotted was Lake Periyar in the distance, home to elephants and tigers. Rebecca’s first spot were the sun loungers by the infinity pool. Given a teeny tiny chance of spotting tigers and a 100% chance of getting a sun lounger (danke very much, T’s German genes) we headed straight for the pool to plan out our time in Thekkady. This proved pretty easy as our main plan was to relax by the pool and explore the grounds of the resort.
One evening we took a jeep down into the local town Kumily to see some traditional Keralan dancing and martial arts. In the dance performance, Kathakali, two men in elaborate costumes and make up re-enacted part of an Indian epic. Before that, there was a short ‘Kathakali 101’ from one of the dancers who demonstrated how the dance is built up from the tiniest jerks and wiggles from every facial muscle. Obviously, they were amazing at it and could vibrate their eyebrows up and down, and pulsate their cheek muscles at superhuman speeds. Almost as entertaining was catching sight of people in the audience inadvertently winking and grimacing (or a violent facial seizure if they really put effort in), as they tried to copy the dancers.
The Kalaripayattu performance was incredible, though thankfully nobody in the audience tried to copy. These guys also moved at superhuman speeds, but in this case leaping towards each other armed with spears, staffs and swords, or leaping head first through hoops of fire. We did try to take pictures… these are the best of a very blurry bunch.
The drive back down from Thekkady was so much better than the drive up. The scary black abysses at the edge of the mountain passes turned out to be panoramic views across the spice plantations and neatly manicured rows of tea plantations along the hillsides.
Alleppey Backwaters and Houseboat Stay
Arriving into Alleppey, Mr. Manny was keen for us to stop at a ‘beverage shop’ to pick up some drinks before getting on our houseboat. We parked outside the roadside shop (one of only 300 in the whole state that sell alcohol) and, whilst Timian joined the all-male queue, Rebecca people-watched. There were basically two types of customers; those who shiftily stuffed their bottles into their lungi straight away and the few who sauntered out, happily flaunting their bottles. Again, feeling a bit like a weird paparazzi taking these photos, these are the best of a blurry bunch taken from across the street.
Having read a couple of blogs about finding a houseboat we knew that if you turn up and choose on the day there is a bit of a lottery between landing either an absolute dreamboat or an absolute rust bucket. We booked ahead with Lakes and Lagoons, not only because they were at the dreamboat end of the scale, but mainly because their boats have the all-important upper deck. From here, you have a great vantage point for photos of life on the backwaters and a bit of extra privacy from the captain and crew working on the lower deck. The boat is based on the traditional Kettuvalam boats of Kerala and is made using bamboo poles, coconut fibre, palm leaves, and a cashew oil coating. Unlike the traditional boats, though, our bedroom had a king-size bed, a hot shower and A/C.
All meals are prepared on the boat and served at the dining table just behind the captain’s wheel. We had delicious Keralan fish moilee, vegetable and chicken curries with appam, and southern Indian fluffed rice.
Cruising along the backwaters was a big change of pace from the frenetic speed at which Indian cities move. The main attraction onboard the houseboat was watching daily life unfold on the water; fishermen casting nets from their narrow canoes, women washing clothes (or cows!), a boy being rowed to school by his dad, people arriving at the church jetty by boat, and the couple who hitched their canoe to our boat to catch a lift upstream.
The houseboat stayed in the freshwater part of the backwaters, but there is also a saltwater section. We got to see this part thanks to our friend’s uncle who gave us use of his boat (and crew) for an afternoon. The captain was a local Keralan who knew the backwaters like the back of his hand. As it wasn’t an official tour, he could make up his own route. He saw his neighbour out on his fishing boat who gave us a couple of freshly caught prawns, we then sped over to his sister’s house where she cooked them for us with spices from her garden.
We washed this down with a nice, fresh glass of Toddy, straight from the palm tree.
Toddy is a drink made from the fermented sap of coconut palms. It’s best really early in the morning (straight after fermentation), and gets sourer and sourer as the day goes on. Timian had his around 4pm so you can judge whether there was anything ‘nice’ or ‘fresh’ about it…
We also passed Sachin Tendulkar’s house (apparently), lots of spidery-looking cantilevered Chinese fishing nets, and an abandoned island resort. The tiny island was fringed with the shells of luxury villas, each with empty pools facing out to the water. The resort never opened, and is now home only to some lonely security guards who sail out each day to patrol the grounds.
Cochin (Kochi in Malayalam) isn’t what you’d expect from a state capital. It felt more like a super-sized sleepy village than a bustling capital city. We wandered past the Portuguese church, through the lanes of Jew Town, poked around some antique shops, and stopped for some cake at a bookshop cafe near the Synagogue. Mattancherry boasts the impressive-sounding Dutch Palace. It’s closed on Fridays so we could only see the outside – the information plaques on the walls make a really big deal of just how unbelievably amazing the inside is, though. Probably because the outside is less palace and more cross between crumbling old barn and battered town hall.
All the action was happening at Mahatma Gandi beach on the north coast in the Fort Cochin area. The edge of the water is lined with the same Chinese fishing nets we’d seen on the saltwater backwaters, and each evening groups of men (and stray cats) gathered to haggle over the day’s catch being auctioned off.
If you don’t fancy shelling out for an entire kingfish, there are plenty of stalls selling prawns and other smaller fish – some places also prepare the fish at the stall and fry them up ready to eat. Having had the freshest prawns possible earlier on during our backwater trip, we opted for a tapas feast at the nearby Malabar Junction before getting our night train to Goa.