Taxi at 10.50 to Calcot. It was bright and cold, after a very cold February.
The sun was hot as we waited at ‘Savacentre’, despite the freezing temperature. The bus was a bit late, but we made good time to Heathrow. It was a long and weary trail through all the formalities, until we reached the departure lounge. We were flying with Qatar airlines, and were glad of the sandwiches I had made, as the plane left an hour late for its 2 o’clock departure, and lunch wasn’t served until about 4.30. Service on the plane was good, and included complimentary booze, which was nice.
We were both feeling a little apprehensive of this ‘venture’, and as the last part of the tour, to Kathmandu, had been cancelled because of problems in Nepal, Adrian had spent a great deal of time and energy finding alternatives.
A couple of statistics about India – the population is 1.2 billion : 50% women and 25% men are illiterate.
We had individual viewing screens on the plane, although the flight map left a bit to be desired! We were given another snack (which we didn’t really need) before landing at Doha airport in Qatar around midnight.
Nothing could prepare us for this busy and crowded airport! There were people of every nationality sitting around all over the place. There was nowhere near enough seating, so most people were sitting on the floor! There were a few spare seats in the cafeteria, right outside the inadequate loos! We had an hour and a half to wait before our flight took off for Trivandrum. It was unbearably hot, and I wondered if I would last! We joined the long queue for our gate, surrounded almost entirely by Indian people, almost all were men – we presumed returning home from working in Qatar. There was no order, and unlike at Heathrow, when rows had been called out 5 at a time for boarding, it was just one mad rush!
Luckily we had 2 seats at the rear of the plane, which wasn’t full, and we tried to doze for most of the 3½ hour flight. We refused the large meal which was served, but both had a drink.The plane had taken off late, so we were late in arriving at Trivandrum, but by now we were confused with time anyway, so I’ll continue this as
Sunday 5th March We arrive in Southern India
We had flown in over the sea, but descended over green coconut groves, backed by a mountain range. There was lush vegetation, with tropical flowers. We were greeted with a card ‘Mr and Mrs Bower’, and our driver took us to Kovalam beach, where we had to walk along by the beach until we reached our hotel Pappakutty Beach resort. All kinds of images had passed by us on that 14km journey! Shades of Mexico, Bangkok, Malaysia, Timor – countries where life is lived on the street. All the women were wearing saris, and looking very elegant, even when sweeping up. Some of the men were in western dress, but most wore a ‘loincloth’ – a piece of material wrapped around and pulled up a bit like a nappy. Stalls were everywhere, some of them really ramshackled thatched shacks. There was lots of fruit for sale, in particular bananas. I had seen a spiderman mask hanging from a kiosk at the airport! Cars drove on the left, but with the abundance of tuk tuks dashing everywhere, it was not always obvious! Drivers lived on their horn! Cows, a sacred animal here, were tethered by the road, and there were piles of rubbish everywhere. Homes were of many kinds, but most were very humble. It was a lovely sandy beach that we walked beside to the hotel. A fishing boat had come in and crowds of people were surrounding it. Boats on the beach were covered by attractive coconut ‘shelters’. Our room was very simple, with just a fan above the bed (air conditioning seemed to be extra), and the temperature was 92ºF - 33ºC. The room looked clean, but the presumably clean towels looked grubby. It was now 4.30 am by our time, and we felt pretty exhausted, so crashed out for a while. We needed something to eat, and found a place next door called ‘Beatles’ (where tonight there was coverage of British football!) We ordered scrambled egg, and a tea and coffee, and had just finished eating when a chap came up and said that they were filming for TV, and wanted to film the man doing a magic card trick to tourists. We wondered what it was all about, especially as there were people touting for every kind of business – selling material, cigarettes, sunglasses, as well as the beggars – but it appeared to be OK. The chap performed a card trick in front of us while the cameras rolled, and then another chap did a trick of making a feather stand up on a plate. All good fun, and maybe we will appear on Indian TV! We took photos too, then made our way back to get our swimming things, so that we could refresh ourselves in the inviting looking sea.
All the women were wearing saris, and looking very elegant, even when sweeping up. Some of the men were in western dress, but most wore a ‘loincloth’ – a piece of material wrapped around and pulled up a bit like a nappy. Stalls were everywhere, some of them really ramshackled thatched shacks. There was lots of fruit for sale, in particular bananas. I had seen a spiderman mask hanging from a kiosk at the airport!
The beach at Kovalam
The waves looked quite big, so we walked along a bit to what we thought was a calmer area, but even then a wave knocked me over as I entered the sea! The water was lovely and warm, so after our ‘dipping’, we came back to our room for showers, before our 3 o’clock briefing about our tour.
This took place in a thatched hut in the hotel grounds. We met our pleasant tour leader Vipul, and the other people who are going to be on this first, southern Indian, tour. They were
Robert and Hilary from Belfast
Rick and Kevin from Calgary!
Bill from Australia
Sara from Oxford
Danielle from Switzerland (she had just lost her glasses in the rough sea!)
Jane from Chard, Somerset
Richard and Joanna, also from Canada - Edmonton.
There was also another tour guide present called Felix! He was from Goa.
We spent a couple of hours filling in forms and hearing what Vipul had to say, and arranged to have a meal together tonight at the hotel’s restaurant by the beach while thunder rumbled all around (didn’t last long).
We enjoyed a meal – calamari for me and kingfish for Adrian, sampling the local beer and enjoying much chat.
We walked along beside the beach before coming up to our room for our first night.
Monday 6th March Experiencing the sights, sounds and smells of Kerala
I had slept well, but Adrian had been awake a lot. Later he paid for us to have air conditioning tonight – last night was very warm, and we had had the sound of the adjacent room’s air conditioning right by our balcony, but none of the benefits of it!
We were up late, and made our way to the so-called Swiss restaurant for breakfast, looking out from the first floor to the lovely beach below. The coffee was good, but I had finished it before the breakfast (scrambled egg and bacon (R) and egg ham and rosti (A)) arrived.
After that it was time to meet up with Vipul to pay our money instalment for the trip and for the ‘tip kitty’.
Late morning we left with a few of the others to walk along the beach and over the hill to the next little fishing village, Vizhinjam. This village is totally untouristy, so we were able to experience the ‘real India’ of this area. So many images invaded our senses, and my camera was doing overtime with the sights that we saw – the fishing boats, the fish the men had caught, the local people, the humble dwellings. Perhaps the nearest place to compare it to is Soweto, for the impressions that we got.
People were very friendly, and the children abounded, with their cry of ‘school pen’, or ‘money’. There were some fascinating religious temples – a mosque and a catholic church looking really atmospheric with their pastel colours against the blue sky.
We had become really hot, so began our kilometre walk back to Kovalam, where we couldn’t wait to get into the sea to cool down. We had to wait longer than we wanted though, as this was when Adrian went in to ask about the air conditioning. When we did get into the waves, we found that they were bigger than I liked. We walked along to the next beach, burning our feet on the hot sand. Initially the water was calm, but soon the large waves appeared and curtailed our activities!
We ate a late lunch of chapattis at a restaurant called The Coconut Grove, overlooking the beach again. Then it was time for our 3.30 meet up to go for a boat ride on the backwaters of Kovalam. We are having another backwaters trip in a few days time, so this was an ‘extra’. It was fantastic!
We walked out behind the hotel along a levada type path beside a coconut grove, before being taken by several taxi cars – actually Ambassadors, the BMC Morris Oxford circa 1950’s which are still made here – to the embarkation point for the dug out canoes, which was several kilometres away. The drive itself was an experience – reminiscent of being driven through Malaysia with the craziness of the driving, and the colourful villages which we passed through.
Then it was a couple of hours of peace and serenity as we were poled along the wide backwater between a sea of coconut palms. The water was very close to the sea, and the mixture of salt and fresh water led to a variety of wildlife. We enjoyed seeing numerous birds – I was annoyed to have forgotten the binoculars.
We saw egrets, fish eagles, kites, kingfishers, a sanderling and a brown heron – apparently really rare. At one point we stopped, and were given freshly cut coconuts to drink the milk from. We also ate the soft young coconut flesh. Later we stopped by a brightly coloured catholic church, looking atmospheric amongst the palm trees. A man was lying fast asleep on the sand outside it, and hardly stirred!
As we returned, the sun was setting as a vibrant red ball, and young lads were performing amazing acrobats on the shore. With the palm trees and the boats silhouetted against the billowing evening clouds it was a sight to remember, (with many photos to help!).
The sun goes down behind the Kerala backwaters
Back on the bank, we were driven back to Kovalam, passing through a village where a festival was being set up for this evening. It was 7 o’clock when we walked back along the beach to our hotel.
We ate our evening meal at an open air restaurant overlooking the sea.
We both ate fish – each restaurant has its catch of the day on display outside – and enjoyed a couple of beers. We walked back along the alleys, and called into an internet café but it was soon closing, and very slow, so we weren’t able to send any messages.
Tuesday 7th March Our first long day of travelling.
I hadn’t slept, as I found the air conditioning too noisy and breezy, but we were able to catch up on the long minibus journey. We got up at 6 o’clock, and had breakfast at the Coconut Grove, along with some of the others.
We gathered at 8 o’clock to leave, and marvelled at the way the porters carried 2 or 3 large bags on top of their heads to the minibus at the end of the road. We were all disconcerted to see how small the bus was – we just about fitted in, with all the luggage – some shoved under the seats.
The bus had no air conditioning, but the breeze from the open windows kept us cool.
We passed through endless villages and small towns, seeing constant images of India all the way!
After an hour and a half, we stopped at Padmanabhapuram palace in Thuckalay and set off to explore this vast palace with its masses of intricate carvings, many of them Chinese. The interesting thing was that we had to tour the buildings barefooted! Often, on the marble floors, this was pleasant, but it wasn’t so good on the rough ground in between the buildings!
At 11.30 it was off again for a couple of hours bus travel before lunch. We passed an impressive mountain range, with tall, steep peaks, and often drove through rural, flat semi desert landscape. In one area there were hundreds and hundred of wind turbines. We had passed the turn off to the southernmost tip of India – we would like to have gone there. Later we met a group of Indian ladies from South Africa, who were making their way there.
At one point it rained heavily, and the water spurted up through holes in the wheel hubs beside us.
We stopped at a typical Indian restaurant for lunch, which consisted of a spicy vegetable soup followed by a plate of about 9 different little pots of sauces set on a large banana leaf. We were given chapattis, popoudums and rice to eat with these. It was interesting – I only wish that I had a cast iron stomach!
We still had several more hours driving, stopping once more for a drink. We were now in a different state – Tamil Nadu.
Just before 6 o’clock, we reached the large town of Madurai – the oldest in Southern India, where tomorrow we are going to visit the palace and the temple. We drove through ‘India in the raw’, so it was a lovely surprise to pull up outside the very smart looking Hotel Residency, and to be welcomed into the foyer and given an ice-cold towel to refresh us, followed by a drink of real lemonade.
Our room here was more upmarket than last night’s, and we lost no time in showering off the day’s heat, while people were called to prayer in the mosque.
We enjoyed a meal at the restaurant on the roof with Vipul, Hilary & Robert and Richard & Joanna and later went to a bar with Vipul and Sara, where we chatted until it closed up!
Wednesday 8th March Temples and palaces in Madurai
We had slept well, and were up early as we were meeting at 8.30. We had a lot of trouble finding breakfast – the roof restaurant was closed, but unknown to us the ground floor restaurant was open! We ended up there, but not until we had worn ourselves out wandering the streets and trying to find a café which was open! It gave us a chance to savour early morning life on the streets! Even when we got to the restaurant, service was very slow, and I had to ask repeatedly before I got my black coffee!
This morning we had an Indian lady guide, Meenakshi to show us some of the sights of Madurai. These included the attractive but incongruous looking Portuguese Catholic Church, Mariamman Teppakkulan Tank – a palace which we viewed across a large moat (full of water for the recent yearly festival), and the Tirumalai Palace which contained rows of tall columns, apparently the only one of its kind in India.
The main purpose of today’s visit was to go into the enormous Sri Meenakshi Temple. This vast temple is a place of pilgrimage for many Hindus, and is always thronging with people. Once again we had to walk around in bare feet. This is the only temple where the female god (Parvati) is worshipped before the male god (Shiva).
Sri Meenakshi Temple
There were rooms where non Hindus could not enter, but there were many, many shrines which we could see. People rubbed ashes onto the statues as a sign of ‘dust to dust’. There was one statue which signified child birth, where women came to ask for safe deliverance before a birth, and to give thanks afterwards. Also it is a place where weddings are performed, and we were lucky enough to see one. Today there was a religious parade, with decorated elephant, camels and cattle, as it was a holy day.
Rituals abounded, and we could see some similarities with the Latin American catholic rituals.
There were 5 enormous ’stepped’ coloured towers surrounding the temple, plus several others too. Our senses were saturated by the time we had finished, and my camera had done overtime again.
We stopped at a ‘Temple viewpoint’ on the way back. This was almost an exact copy of a place we visited in Morocco, where we were given a drink of tea, while beautiful carpets were displayed to us, in the hopes that we would buy one! Luckily we had Vipul and Meenakshi and several others with us this time, so didn’t feel so threatened!
We stopped off to have lunch at a local type restaurant, with a few of the others. Our meals of dosa (a bit like crepes – mine filled with a mushroom sauce) and dressings, plus a bottle of water came to a total of 52 rupees (75p)!
We had just time to have a cooling shower and look through my plethora of photos before we set off with a few of the others to visit the Gandhi museum. This rather old fashioned museum told of some of the history of India, and of Gandhi’s influence of it. It included his shawl, and the loin cloth he was wearing when he was killed. There were many groups of Indians visiting, particularly schoolchildren. The young girls looked delightful, and some wanted to chat to us. We get many stares and giggles as we walk around!
We were driven back to our hotel, having had a real fill today of images of life in an Indian city.
At last we were able to get to an internet café, and send a message to our ‘kids’. This cost a total of 10 rupees! We had been disturbed this morning to hear the news of bombings in Varanasi (Benares), which we are visiting before we return home, so we hoped that no-one was worried for us.
We walked out in the evening, trying unsuccessfully to find a restaurant mentioned in Lonely Planet. Once more we experienced the frenetic life of India ‘on the street’ – bikes, scooters, rickshaws, pedestrians, buses and cows, all vying for a bit of road! Beggars abounded, and some were distressing to see.
We returned to our hotel, and ended up having our meal at the rooftop restaurant with some of the others, enjoying the breeze up there.
Later we walked out with Vipul and a few others, back to the palace to experience the nightly closing ceremony. This is where they carry an image of the male god Shiva to the room of the female god Parvati. This is all done with much ceremony and reverence.
We were barefoot again for this, and after the long walk there, we were glad to have a ride back to the hotel by bicycle rickshaw, which was good fun.
We went straight to our room- it had been quite a day!
Thursday 9th March Up into the hills and an Indian massage
We weren’t leaving until 9.30 today, so thought that we had plenty of time to go down for breakfast – we opted not to go in search of anywhere else this morning. Time disappeared anyway, as food took ages to come as usual!
I ate the local Indian meal, with some bland tasting items and a strong sauce, but I did get my black coffee! Adrian had cereal and toast, but had to wait ages for his tea, and when it came it was sweet!
We had heard a tremendous resounding crash in our room, and discovered that the metal ashtray had fallen on to the stone floor! I pulled back the curtains, and they pulled right off the rail!
By about 9.45 we were on the road again, heading out of Madurai westwards, back into Kerala. We drove through many atmospheric villages, stopping at one (Virapandi) after a couple of hours so that we could use the toilets in a hotel bedroom! A man in the street outside, insisted in giving me a coconut, to drink the milk and eat the flesh. We took lots of photos of him and his grubby but bright little girl. Mostly we marvelled at how clean and smart everyone looks – the ladies in their beautiful saris and the men in shirts and trousers, or often loin clothes.
The scenery was very attractive – fields of rice backed by attractive mountains. We passed lots of places where bricks were being made, and stored under roofs, often thatched. In other places whole groups of people were winnowing the rice and gathering the ‘hay’ into stacks and we also saw them twisting grain stalks into long pieces of rope.
There were lots of palm trees, and also a few cacti. In the towns and villages, bullocks with horns painted in green, red or blue pulled the carts.
Eventually we wound up into the hills, where the vegetation changed, and a stream gushed down. Groups of monkeys ran along the road. We crossed back into Kerala. This is a spice growing area, particularly cardamom, and many of the shops in Thekkady village reflected this.
We arrived at our hotel, near the nature reserve which we are visiting tomorrow, at 1.30. We were dismayed to find that Adrian’s new bag had split right across the top.
We went almost immediately to have lunch in the restaurant – we had soup and chapattis, which were good. We sat chatting for a while, before our afternoon visit to a spice plantation. The weather up here was cooling, and it soon rained heavily.
We were driven a few kilometres to the spice plantation, looking first at the coffee trees and then being taken through the lush rainforest where our guide showed us various different spices growing. There were some surprises as we saw peppercorns (growing on a vine up a tree), nutmeg, vanilla pod, cinnamon (the bark is used) and cardamom (grown on straggly little stems below the thicker plant stems).
A ‘local’ at the spice plantation
We visited the small shop afterwards – a haven of spices of all sorts, then returned to our room briefly before going for our ‘Ayurvedic massage’.
An added bonus is that we were taken there and back by tuc tuc!
Neither of us knew what to expect from the massage, but the experience was very pleasurable as we were covered in oil and massaged all over by swift, deft fingers for over an hour, before sitting in a cupboard type steam bath, with our head protruding from the top!
We were in individual rooms, so afterwards emerged with our oiled hair which would do credit for a Brylcreem advert!
Back at the hotel we had been looking forward to a beer with our meal, so were disappointed to find that the hotel didn’t sell beer! We had to drink a lime soda with our prawn and rice dish, and after some chat returned to our room for a fairly early night, with another early start in the morning.
Friday 10th March A walk and a boat trip in the Periyar Reserve
We were up at 6 o’clock, so that I could wash some of the oil out of my hair before we left at 7 o’clock for our guided walk into Periyar Wildlife reserve.
It was cooler up here than at Madurai or the coast, which was lucky as we had to wear long trousers to guard against the leeches. Even so, 2 of our group acquired several leeches, and also a couple of wasp stings.
It was quite a strenuous 3 hour walk through the jungle, often struggling through thorny undergrowth and across stony streams and up and down steep inclines. Our guide pointed out a lot of the natural plants – it was interesting the black eyed Susan had the same name here, and we saw huge teak trees and edible fungi. The big animals (tigers, leopards and elephants) had gone into hiding, but we saw much evidence of the elephants – in their droppings, and the crashed- through vegetation. We saw plenty of very long tailed monkeys, high up in the trees, some of them really huge. We also saw 2 enormous Sambar deer, and wild pigs and domestic buffalo.
We saw and heard many birds, notably gigantic Greater hornbills and a colourful woodpecker. Butterflies flitted about, and we saw 2 small frogs mating.
Altogether it was a pleasant, if mucky, walk, but it would have been nice to have seen more wildlife!
It was 10.45 when we got back to the hotel, and after a quick inspection for unwanted leeches, we had a very late breakfast in the restaurant. I ordered cheese and pineapple, and got just that – like a party plate of cheese and pineapple on sticks!
We walked up through the village, and Adrian was able to buy a new travel bag to replace his broken one. We ate at a small local restaurant – cashew nut soup and chapattis. On the way back we saw lots of monkeys, including mothers carrying their babies.
We met for our afternoon boat trip at 3.30, and joined the crowds of other people who were setting off on various boats on the large lake. We didn’t enjoy the crowded atmosphere, but the highlight was seeing a large group of elephants, including 2 babies, on the shore. Behind them was a herd of Sambar deer.
We also saw a white necked stork, a snake bird, and several cormorants, including young ones on the nest.
Back in the minibus we set off on a trail to get some beers, and when we had succeeded, came back and enjoyed them, sitting outside in a group.
Then it was time for supper, and we ate ginger/ sweet & sour fish. On our way out we chatted to the man in the souvenir shop. He came from Kashmir. He was very well educated and intelligent, and we shared a wonderful conversation with him. Both he and we felt sad at the amount of corruption in India.
Saturday 11th March Through the lovely Western Ghat Mountainsto the Kerala backwaters
We left at 9 o’clock for a long drive westwards, out of the mountains and down near the coast. The hilly slopes looked lovely, as we wound round and round, gradually making our descent. The slopes were covered in tea bushes, which made an attractive textured pattern – very photogenic!
We stopped at a tea plantation and were shown around. Only pekoe tea is produced here, as the climate isn’t suitable for better quality tea. We saw how the fresh tea leaves are chopped, sorted, graded, fired and bagged. It was all very low key, but we weren’t able to take photos inside the factory part.
Rosie in the tea bushes
Later we stopped for coffee at a scenic little café overlooking the slopes, and soon afterwards we stopped at a rubber plantation. This time our driver Krishna took us around, and we saw how the rubber trees have ‘slices’ made in the bark for the rubber to drip out. This is collected in half-spherical shaped pots each day, and made into rectangular latex ‘bathmats’, which are then smoked. Again it was very low-key and ‘local’ – none of your ‘tourist stuff’!
Today is Krishna’s last day with us, as we are leaving the bus and travelling by boat. Krishna was looking forward to seeing his wife and children, aged 12 and 15, in Trivandrum, after his 6 days away. He has been really pleasant and an excellent driver on these long drives.
About 2 o’clock we stopped for lunch, of typical Indian food (what they call set dish) rice, popodums, dips and chutneys. We also bought a tasty choc ice afterwards from the shop downstairs (13p), before continuing through the lowlands beside the backwaters for a couple more hours.
We were near to the coast, about 100 miles north of where we started out at Kovalam.
We stopped by a backwater at Thrikkunnapuzha, and our bags were unloaded from the van, and loaded onto a boat for us to be taken for the short ride to tonight’s accommodation – Coir Village on an island in the backwaters. We said our goodbyes to Krishna, and enjoyed our ‘micro cruise’ in this peaceful setting.
At the ‘hotel’ we were greeted with a cool drink, and then poled across a backwater to our bungalows on the opposite shore, on another small island. Surrounded by palm trees, it certainly looked idyllic, and an added bonus was that we could have a refreshing swim in the muddy water. We think that we will like this place!
Being ferried across to our rooms
Originally we should have stayed here for 2 nights, but as the accommodation is heavily booked, we were told today that we will be spending tomorrow night on a houseboat, which sounds equally exciting!
We were poled across the backwater to the other side, where we all had a meal sitting out under the stars, with the almost full moon up above. I had fish molee and Adrian had a vegetable dish, with rice and a beer (or 2!)
Sunday 12th March Houseboat on the Kerala backwaters
A beautiful morning, in this lovely setting. I had an early morning swim before we were ferried across for breakfast. Afterwards we were poled along the peaceful backwaters, passing the nearby village where they make the coir rope out of coconut fibre. We could see the women hard at work twisting the fibre into rope. All the villagers, and particularly the children, were very happy and friendly.
Passing a coir village
As we silently moved along, we could see birds – ducks, herons, a huge fish eagle and beautiful kingfishers. Brilliant red dragonflies hovered around. It was quite delightful. We felt hot on our return, so had another swim, and I had a short laze in a hammock.
We had lunch of sea food chowder and chapattis, then boarded the boat to take us to the place to pick up the houseboats. There were 2 of these attractive boats with their coconut woven coverings. We were assigned our rooms – a delightful surprise, as they were pleasant rooms, each with its private bathroom.
We spent the afternoon cruising down the river between the palm trees, while locals called and waved to us from the shore and kingfishers and drongos flew overhead. We stopped once to visit a local store to buy water, and went into a small coconut oil plant next door.
We moored at sunset, and enjoyed supper all together, prepared by the crew, and enjoyed a couple of beers and rum & coke.
We returned to our floating room for the night.
Monday 13th March From peaceful backwaters to urban Kochi
It was lovely to wake up and see the early morning light and then sunrise on the water and rice fields. We were given tea and coffee and later a good breakfast of bananas, pineapple, omelette and toast.
We left at 9 o’clock for our short boat ride to Alleppey. There were about 60 similar houseboats lined up at the ‘quay’. While the bags were unloaded, a young teenage lad came to chat to us, asking where we were from, stating the capital of that country, and the relevant cricket team. He seemed very worldly, and we thought that he would go far.
We had a 2 hour drive to Kochi, where we are staying tonight, and it was nice to see Krishna, who had driven up to take us for this part of our journey.
The drive was in complete contrast to the peace and tranquillity of the backwaters. We were bombarded with the noise and frantic traffic of Indian urbanisation, and the driving was slow.
We arrived at Sealord Hotel, in Ernakulam at 11.30. This is on the mainland, with several islands closely offshore and connected by ferry. From our room on the seventh floor, we could hear all the noises of the street below.
We soon went out to discover the local area, stopping at the nearby bakery where we were spoilt for choice of things to try for lunch, but settled on a pizza and choc cake (A) and halva (R).
We wandered around the untidy and rough surfaced back streets, filled to overflowing with little shops and street traders. The place didn’t appeal to me nearly as much as Madurai. It seemed to have the worst of western trash, and the goods weren’t as attractive as others we have seen. Many of the Indians seemed more affluent, and the shopping mall opposite, while not being as anaesthetised as many in the west, had lost the Indian feel.
We managed after a while to get some money from an ATM, and to use the internet to send a message home. I even bought some postcards and wrote them.
Later on we returned to the bakers and enjoyed a cup of tea and cake.
We met up early evening to visit Art Kerala – a small theatre where we could see this ancient local form of acting. We all travelled by tuk tuk, and arrived at the little back street where we found the theatre. We had arrived early so that we could see the artists make up their faces, which took a long time. There were only 3 performers – the ‘narrator’ and a ‘goodie’ and a ‘baddie’. It was all performed to loud Indian chants and percussion, and although not quite ‘our thing’, it was good to experience.
We travelled back by tuk tuk, then all enjoyed a meal on the rooftop of this hotel, chatting for a long time with Vipul about world matters, and marvelling at the astuteness of this remarkable young man who is our tour leader.
Tuesday 14th March A day on Fort Cochin
We all left at 8 o’clock to walk to the ferry to Fort Cochin. It already felt quite hot. As we approached the island, we could see the Portuguese influence, with the red tiled roofs. We had caught a glimpse of a dolphin on the way. We dashed through the hot streets, passing many fine buildings, to the ‘Art House’, where we all had breakfast. It was a delightful place, with a selection of interesting paintings and photos on the walls, and with the tables and beams made of coconut wood. It was a sort of ‘alternative, arty organic, café’ with little nooks and crannies, and frequented by several young backpackers. There was a set breakfast of omelette and toast and melon, which looked good, but would have been too much for me, so while Adrian enjoyed that, I had a large piece of walnut cake and nice coffee.
Vipul was acting as our guide, and led us next to St Francis’ Church, the first European Church in India. Vasco de Gama had died on this site, and was buried here for a while, before his body was removed to Lisbon. Inside the church was a plaque marking the visit of the Queen in 1997.
Outside the church we had been besieged by the first of the hundreds of street traders, and bought the first of today’s many purchases. These first two were a plastic tuk tuk for Felix and a colourful elephant mobile for Manolo. Other things we got today were a blue and white Indian ‘trouser suit’ for me, a lovely ‘hanging lantern’, a wooden cat puzzle with secret drawers, a gourd flute, several sandalwood necklaces and some ‘cure all’ tiger balm.
We now all had tuk tuk rides to the Jewish synagogue. It was a bit like a guided tour, as the driver pointed out all the sites on the way. Fort Cochin was an early trading area, and had influences from the Dutch and British, as well as the Portuguese.
Our luck was out at the synagogue, as it was a Jewish holiday, and closed today. The outside again showed Dutch/Portuguese influences. We wandered around what is known as Jew Town, with dozens of quaint shops and stalls. This had been an early spice trading centre, and we could see plenty of evidence of this in the buildings.
We visited the so called Dutch Palace next. This had been built originally by the Portuguese as a gift to the local Indian people, but had been rebuilt by the Dutch. Inside there were murals telling of the complicated Hindu legends and beliefs – a bit like having murals of the bible.
We left the others now and took a tuk tuk back to where there are lots of evocative looking huge Chinese fishing nets set up beside the water.
Chinese fishing nets
This area was fun to walk around and photograph, and a bit cooler because of the breeze. We spoke to a large family gathering of Indian Moslems, who were enjoying a paddle, and saw a film set-up of an advert for icecream, with the lady all done up in red finery, and a chap in stars and stripes!
There was a fish market here, and you could choose your fish, and have it cooked for you. We chose some large prawns and calamari, which were delicious. The others had all gathered here now, but after a while we left, as we wanted to visit Willingdon Island, where we had been told that you could swim (for a fee) at the grand Taj Malahai Hotel. We wandered back to the jetty – a long way in the heat, and managed to catch the right boat, as the first one was going to a different destination, and there are no signs!
At Willingdon Island we caught a tuk tuk to the Taj hotel, but on wandering in (in our scruffy state) we were told that the pool was no longer open to non residents. Feeling hot and frustrated, the receptionist came after us and said that another hotel on the island had a pool. This necessitated another tuk tuk journey, but this time we were in luck! There was a pleasant pool, and it was lovely to cool off (although the pool was really warm!), and relax for a while on sunbeds, in the shade.
Suitably refreshed, we made use of the showers before getting yet another tuk tuk to the next jetty where we could catch a boat to Ernakulum, on the mainland, and where we are staying. Again ours was the second boat to pull up, so luckily I had asked someone, as nothing told you the destinations of the boats. Willingdon Island is mostly one large port area (with these two incongruous hotels), and all the workers were returning home.
One more short tuk tuk ride, and we were back at our hotel, and sorting through our purchases, before getting ready for our ‘last supper’, as three of our group, Bill, Rick and Kevin, are leaving the tour tomorrow.
Adrian was having a bit of a crisis, as he had found that the tiny ants which have been bothering us for the last few days had been gathered in his swimming trunks, so he was trying frantically to eradicate them from the rest of his things!
We all took tuk tuks to a smart looking hotel restaurant which Bill had sorted out for tonight’s meal. Despite being rather plush, the place didn’t have a drink licence, but we were able to get some beer. Unfortunately my curry dish turned out to be much too spicy, despite being ordered as ‘no spice’. They replaced it with something which was just as spicy, so I sufficed with the rice and chapattis!
Bill and the others had bought us gifts – a tiny wooden elephant and a bead bracelet each. We will miss them, as the balance of 3 ‘single’ men and ladies, apart from the couples had worked so well. We all exchanged email addresses, and spent a pleasant evening, returning late to our hotel.