Being the only train we'd taken so far where we weren't getting off at the end of the line I woke with a start slightly panicking that we'd slept through our stop, and also slightly miffed at the fact there was a random man sitting staring at me at the end of my bunk… Thankfully though it wasn't even 8am and we had a couple hours left, and seeing the look I gave him the man got up and found another random spot to perch. Despite this however we were well into Kerala which is freaking huge, stretching 300 miles or so down South West side of India. Following the route of the train on the map we had a rough idea of where we were and how long we had left. The scenery was incredible, huge drenched fields sprawling out all over the place, buffalo and cows dotted amongst them - some being used to plow the fields and as we journeyed deeper into Kerala the sky darkened and it actually started to rain - the first rain I'd seen since leaving England! As it started to get heavy I stuck my hand out the window, it was a refreshing break from the hot humid conditions usually experienced riding sleeper class. As we got towards Cochin, the second largest city in Kerala we passed the airport - it was strange to think we'd be flying out of it in just a few days. As we pulled into the station I yanked my bag out half expecting to see a herd of cockroaches scuttle away but this time I was gifted only with strange sticky stains and what looked like wig hair… The rain had stopped, the sun was back out and once again it was baking. Had a gand at the guide and picked an area to start our room hunt, and so after sorting out a rickshaw from the prepaid booth headed into the city. 3 of the main budget places were practically across the road from each other so after having a look around checked ourselves into one. It was no Goan beach hut but with a nice new bathroom with a power shower and a TV it did the job. Shattered from the journey we crashed in the room and watched some TV, all the news channels were carrying the ongoing situation in Mumbai and it was the first real footage we'd seen of it all… seriously crazy. Did little else for the rest of the day apart from have a bit of a walk around Cochin and get food in a random little place up the road from the hotel. It seemed popular with the locals but it was filthy with flies buzzing about, and like a lot of places in India everyone ate with their hands.. messily. Another part of Indian culture I just can't get my head around, shoveling curry and rice down with their hands, bits dropping all over the table, almost as hard to comprehend as the squat toilets, but I guess that's just how things are here! Whilst walking around downtown Cochin I immediately began to notice a few nice buildings and cars dotted around, and from what I could see, no beggars. It seemed by Indian standards it was a reasonably wealthy city. Later in the evening not wanting to brave the fly infested curry house next to the hotel we got a nice fattening fried chicken box from Chic King - essentially the Indian version of KFC, and then found Casino Royale on the TV - sorted! Or at least it was, until we found out there was a nightly powercut between 9.30 and 10!
The next morning I took a look at the touristy stuff that you could get sorted at the hotel. Two caught my eye - a day trip around some of the Keralan backwaters surrounding Cochin, and then a 2 day trip up to the mountains of Munnar. Seeing as thanks to spending longer than planned in Mumbai and Goa we had 3 full days left in Kerala before having to hop on a plane to Sri Lanka we decided to do both and maximize the amount of the South we could see in the short time we were here. So booked them up. We had a day to waste, and waste it we did. After spending most of the morning sorting stuff out we decided to go on a food hunt, and after seeing a Pizza Hut sign on our way into the city it soon turned into Pizza Hut mission! It was a long walk, and it even started to rain but it didn't weaken our resolve and finally we spotted the glowing sign at the end of the road, beckoning us in. When we got inside it was all nice and new and everyone looked pretty wealthy.. and we soon found out why, it wasn't cheap! We were also slightly gutted by the sizes of the pizzas, I'd got one that apparently fed 2 ppl.. yet the thought of it feeding 2 people was almost as ridiculous as the state of the British economy.. but maybe that was just the fat westerner in me coming out! We attempted to slightly salvage the day by checking Fort Cochin out. The city is divided across a huge river mouth, and the only way to get from Ernakulum to Fort Cochin in a reasonable amount of time is to take the ferry - and at 5p it doesn't exactly break the bank. As usual in India it was insanely busy and everyone pushed and shoved for no reason to get on board. The sun set during the 20 minute journey over and when we actually got to Fort Cochin it was getting pretty dark, and with no real idea where we were we started aimlessly walking. Opposite the jetty was the strangest internet café I'd ever seen, it was clean and plush and looked more like a bathroom than an internet café. Randomly stumbled upon the backpacker district and after having a wander and finding a giant toad the highlight of our nighttime visit seeing as everything except restaurants were closed we decided to head back to the jetty. As we did there was another power cut, they seemed to be pretty common here. In the darkness it was almost impossible to find the jetty but phone light helped and when we got on the boat we were delighted as ever to see dirt everywhere with giant cockroaches milling about. The Cochin skyline at night was actually surprisingly impressive, full of high rise hotels and apartment buildings (of which most had just been built and were being advertised all around the city). The contrast however getting off the cockroach infested boat and passing a ditch full of pure effluence was huge. Handily our hotel was a 2 minute walk from the jetty and after grabbing some cheap snacks we found the Newcastle - Boro match on TV, minus most of the 2nd half due to the nightly power cut..
The next morning we headed out on the backwater trip with a few other travelers, and after driving for about an hour outside of Cochin swapped the bus for a house boat moored on the side of a huge river. Everything was quiet and relaxed, and the scenery was incredible. Pristine rivers and trees with air that wasn't laced with toxic fumes for a change! We cruised around the backwaters for a while passing several different islands, there were a few fishermen dotted around in the waters fishing for muscles which was cool to watch. Got chatting to a British girl who'd just got to India, Kerala is not a bad place to start at all - much better than the insanity of the big cities, especially Delhi. After a bit we came to an island where we hopped off and saw a few things including a man up a Coconut tree harvesting the flower juice. Apparently at first it is a sweet tonic and then after fermenting becomes an alcoholic spirit drank by many. We also saw a factory used for converting muscle shells into fertilizer before having a lesson on Keralan flora which to be honest bored us almost to tears but thankfully we headed back to the boat after a bit for some more lazy explorations around the rivers. We got an incredible free lunch which consisted of thick white Keralan rice surrounded by a multitude of different flavours, mixtures and spices. It tasted amazing and I decided that I could actually become a vegetarian in South India, it was easily the best meat-free meal I'd had.
For the 2nd part of the trip we transferred to a smaller boat that was sort of like a thick long canoe maneuvered by a guy punting - but this wasn't pansy British punting, the punt went about 20 meters deep! We slowly glided around funky little streams and occasionally saw the illusive Indian kingfisher, I'd so far failed to get a picture of it.. and this it seemed was no different! Hopped off after a bit and walked down a lane lined with coconut trees with a few goats running around. It was a local coconut plantation and one of the guys scaled about 40ft up one and starting hacking away lobbing them down one by one with a huge thud. We moved slightly backwards not really wishing to die in such a painful yet comical manner. The coconut man then nicely hacked the coconuts open with his giant machete and gave us a straw to drink the milk fresh. The taste was a little odd but it was nicely refreshing in the afternoon heat, and after we were finished he sliced up the insides for us to eat. Definitely no bounty bar, but not too shabby none the less.
On the way back down the almost jungley waters the clouds began to grey and there was the definite crack of thunder. It was strange being in a tropical climate with regular rain after not seeing any for so long, and sure enough the heavens soon opened with almost monsoon like ferocity. We had to take shelter in what seemed to be the only building in sight, a barn that also apparently double as a mans home. A Buffalo opposite us was obviously loving the rain, splashing about in a saturated rice field. After a while the rain showed no sign of relenting so the mini bus back the hotels was called to come and pick us up from wherever the hell we actually were, and eventually we made it back to Cochin. After using the internet briefly until a power cut cut me off we crashed back at the room with a crazy early start ahead of us.
Alarm went off at 5.45am, had to leave at 6.15am to leave for the Munnar trip - seriously brutal. Stumbled bleary eyed into the lobby to check out and was seriously not in the mood when the guy accidentally tried to overcharge us due to his apparent complete lack of skill with a calculator. Were half expecting a mini bus or something but it turned out we had a nice-ish white car and a driver called Bonny just for us. The car had a seatbelt which was the first I'd seen in what seemed like months, buuut nothing to plug it into. Oh well, the thought was there at least. After quickly passing out in the car we drove for a while out of Cochin before arriving at what was apparently a baby elephant camp where they were just about to take them for their morning wash. As we entered we almost literally ran into a couple of guys leading a (still huge) baby elephant down a sloping path towards the river side, so followed. After a serious bit of persuasion they got it to lie down in the water and proceeded to start washing it, scrubbing away with coconut shell husks. Being so preoccupied with just one elephant we hasn't even noticed 2 more had appeared down the hill behind us - presumably young adults who were led into the water along with a teenager-esque looking one - 4 in total. We had a go at washing them, feeling the deep slow breathing of a huge elephant as you rest your hands on its chest is an awesome feeling. The teenaged one was a cheeky w*** and kept splashing everyone and feeling us up with his trunk! After a while they led the elephants back up the hill apparently to the training camp, but we had to continue our epic mission to Munnar. Before hitting the road again though we had a quick breakfast that consisted of a bizarre circular rice/what bread, a couple of spices, a hard boiled egg in curry sauce and a super sweet cup of Chai. We drove and drove through rural Kerala, interspliced by the occasional town. This is another very different thing about India, there aren't really any multi-laned roads of any kind outside the cities, let alone highways or motorways. So long distance journeys by road consist of winding your way through towns, countryside and jungle on the same single laned road that everyone is forced to use. It takes forever, and an 100km journey can easily take 3-4hours. We passed a couple of awesome waterfalls, and even here I was shocked and saddened by the amount of human pollution. The foot of the waterfall below the bridge overlooking it was covered in rubbish of all kinds, and as with anywhere even remotely touristy there were a half dozen or so stalls selling water & snacks to touristy trinkets, possibly the main source of the rubbish. I couldn't believe here in such a beautiful landscape there existed such a reckless disregard for their environment. As we drove on gradually getting higher and higher we passed pineapple, mango and even coco plantations before the roads got so steep and windy that we were clearly in mountainous territory. Eventually up a steep rocky side road we came to where we were apparently spending the night - British County Lodge. A new-ish place situated on the side of a valley it had a view all the way over to the other side which was incredible. The place only had 3 rooms in total and seemed to be run by just one guy who was a jack of all trades who did everything including cooking and serving the meals - which were included, woop. Read a bit of the paper before having lunch and then heading out with Bonny again up into the mountains. As we approached Munnar Tea Plantations began popping up all over the place, and soon they stretched as far as the eye could see neatly arranged into estates and then sections with gaps between the bushes just wide enough for the workers to move amongst them picking the leaves and piling them into their large sacks. The air was incredibly fresh and noticeably cooler. Munnar is one of the highest towns in India and sort of acts like a base camp for some of the tea estates as well as effectively being the communal spot for the houses and estates that line the mountain roads sprawling up and down out of Munnar. Christianity seems to be everywhere and is something I noticed when we got into Cochin, South India is supposed to contain the majority of India's Christians and sure enough in Cochin there was the odd church dotted about between the Mosques and temples, as well as shrines to Jesus or Mary amongst the extravagant Hindu shrines to Vishnu etc. Up in the mountains however it was even more prevalent and I would venture as far as to say it made up the majority. The busses that sped round the winding mountain roads were usually adorned with Bible verses or Christian imagery and large crosses at the road side indicated the presence of a church up a dirt lane branching off the main mountain road. As we briefly drove through Munnar on the way up there was definitely some Christmas stuff in a couple of the shop windows. Not the commercial Santa/reindeer stuff that now contributes the majority of Christmas imagery in our society, but rather traditional nativity scene pictures. Nearly everyone in and around Munnar and the surrounding mountains seem to drive old-school jeeps presumably as they're the cheapest 4x4's you can buy. After Munnar we continued up through tea plantation after tea plantation, winding corner after winding corner. The scenery was unreal and we occasionally stopped at the odd dam or viewing spot including echo point - a 1500m above Sea Level Lake that even had Pedalo's! The logistics of getting so many all the way up here in the mountains was crazy. Echo point has its name unsurprisingly as if you shout on the edge of the lake you get an incredible echo that reverberates around the different sides of the valley. As we headed further up and past the occasional plantation settlement we got up into the clouds so that when we reached the highest point in South India - "Top Station" - sadly it was so foggy and misty that there was no view at all. It was also cold and wet, something I hadn't experienced at all since leaving England. We headed back down and as we got under the cloud level once more the sun was setting, Bonny suggested we stop briefly at Munnar's botanical gardens and I only knew that because he stopped the car and pointed, if I hadn't mentioned already he spoke virtually no English whatsoever, which made for some fun car ride conversations! I won't lie; flowers aren't exactly our forte and so laughing at some of the dirty sounding flower names helped pass the small amount of time we spent there. Was pitch black by the time we got back to the lodge, and had dinner with a couple of Germans - the hotel manager/cook/waiter looked a little offended when I asked if he had any beer… whops. As with seemingly everywhere here in Kerala there was a nightly power cut like clockwork, this time at 7.30pm. Looking out over the valley we could see different sections of the mountain settlements going dark at different times.
Had breakfast with the Germans again in the morning, had decided to be adventurous and opt for a traditional Keralan breakfast instead of omellete and toast. Had no idea what I was getting myself in for, and it ended up being very strange. A thick bland roll of rice-y bread was accompanied with a spicy pea curry & a cup of hot chai. I wasn't a massive fan but it was certainly something new! Bonny took us up to the Munnar tea museum which ended up being hilarious purely because we couldn't understand anything anyone was saying, although there was a small cinema section in English all about how the British had originally founded the tea plantation settlements and I also imagined they brought Christianity with them which still lingers so predominantly in place of Islam and Hinduism. We wandered around Munnar a little bit before heading on the epic journey back down to Cochin. There was a shop selling the most hilarious and ridiculous Christmas cards ever - probably found nowhere else on the planet, and I seriously regret not buying any. 2nd of December and still no sign of advent calendars..
After lunch back at the lodge and one last look at the incredible view over the Keralan Mountains we got back in the car and headed back down past a regular stream of Jeeps going the opposite direction. The cold misty tea plantations soon became hot humid jungle and after about 5 hours started approaching the city of Cochin once again. Our flight out to Sri Lanka was nice and early so sorted out a taxi to the airport for 6am, that would now be the 4th mental start to the day in a row.. I'm not sure my body was a fan.
Headed out at the crack of dawn, the drive to the airport took about an hour and on the way we saw a crowd of people surrounding a truck that was imbedded into a telephone pole with a motorbike crushed underneath it, the first evidence I'd actually seen of an accident in this country despite 5 weeks of insanity and near death experiences (Altho Steph did mention to me in Goa that while I was asleep on the mental bus down to Palolem that she'd seen an overturned burnt out bus at the bottom of a ditch!). As is the norm here in India even bright and early the airport was crowded with huge amounts of people - but this time not inside, just waiting outside the front entrance for family members, taxi customers etc. Security was quite tight, we weren't even allowed into the airport until they'd checked all our documents, and then all of our bags were x-rayed before we could even get to the check-in desks. In departures they had Christmas trees! Admittedly they were pretty crap bland Christmas trees but they were the first we'd seen! All in all Cochin airport was immensely dull and boring and after blowing my remaining rupees on breakfast our plane finally arrived. It was a small plane but strangely less than half full - something I hadn't seen since flying on the 1st anniversary of 9/11 - and especially unusual considering it was out of India, the very definition of over-crowed. Obviously not many Indians want to go to Sri Lanka. It was our original plan just to fly straight from South India to Kuala Lumpur but when it turned out cheapest to go via Colombo Sri Lanka we turned the couple hour stopover into a 5 day stopover to see another country for free - why not!
Took one last look at India out the window before we took off up over the mountains and then the sea toward Sri Lanka.