I have just arrived back after ten days of fun and hilarity in the Keralan sunshine with my friend Martha. I'm now back in Chennai sitting in my cockroach infested hotel room scrolling through all our photos….it feels like a million miles away….
It all started in Trivandrum just over two weeks ago when the walls of Wild Palms Homestay were filled with the overexcited screams of two reunited friends that hadn't seen each other for far too long. The non-stop chat began then and only ended when we finally parted ways 10 days later.Trivandrum we decided, after a quick walk around the few 'sites of interest', was not worth a second nights stay so the next day we headed straight to Varkala (the Lonely Planet travellers beach location) for a few days of sun, sea, sand and discreet beers. By discreet I mean that half of the bars that serve alcohol in the Kerala don't actually have proper licensing but sell it anyway on the sly. This meant that we spent most of our evenings feeling like complete alcoholics as we supped Kingfisher out of large mugs or newspaper covered bottles. We made it to Varkala by bus and auto without any stress or confusion. Amazed and feeling rather pleased with ourselves and the Indian transport system we settled comfortably into the bamboo hut that was to be our home for the next three nights. 'Kerala Bamboo House' is without doubt the most fun place I've stayed in India so far. Accomodation is a series of fairly upmarket 'huts' that have all the mod cons you could possibly need, electricity, a fan, mozzy net, chaise lounge (!), running water....but the best bit was the open air bathroom at the back; I never realised how fun sitting on a toilet under the stars could be! The best way to summarise our time in Varkala is 'chilled out'. Everything and everyone in Varkala is chilled out, from the waiters to the stray dogs that laze alongside you on the beach. Martha and I decided to fit right in with the vibe and we managed to fill three days with not an awful lot at all; sunbathing, chatting, reading, the odd Ayurvedic massage, drinking unlawful beer and deciding which café on the cliff served the best muesli for breakfast (Café de la Mer: rating 5/5)….It was lovely but by day three we were bored, we had achieved total relaxation and were ready to move on. Our next stop was Alleppey the gateway to the famous Keralan backwaters. Our first 'unforeseen obstacle' to our travels occurred that morning - strikes. Strikes meant no buses, our intended mode of transport to Alleppey. Thinking on our feet we decided it wasn't a big problem and we'd just get the later train. However by a stroke of luck nice reception man (there were two reception men, one nice, one moody) said his friend was driving that way and could take us for 600rs. It was a done deal, door to door bags and all. So we made it to Alleppey ahead of schedule and even got a Rolling Stones soundtrack to accompany the journey!
Alleppey's sole purpose is to get tourists onto the backwaters; everyone knows someone, who probably also knows someone, who can get you a trip cruising through the backwaters on a traditional Keralan houseboat. Despite having hundreds of offers we decided to play safe and go on a boat arranged by Joseph. Joseph was the hilarious old man that ran Sona guesthouse where we stayed on our first night in Alleppey. Joseph was one of those characters that you don't forget in a hurry. Although we'd spoken on the phone the elusive Joseph didn't surface until Martha and I woke up the next morning and ordered breakfast, then he appeared from nowhere…..by the time we had finished our scrambled eggs and coffee Joseph had told us about the history of the Keralan backwaters, his job in the government that he hated because it was "soul-less" (with waving of hands), his move to the steel industry, his life in Kolkata, his time in central India….. Joseph had his well-practiced tourist spiel down to a polished tee, hand actions (for added drama) and all! I'm sure he was a very interesting man but there is something about being part of a conversation in which only one person speaks that quickly becomes boring and slightly irritating. Martha and I tried to ask questions about the origins of the beautiful property we were staying in and how Joseph came to acquire it but they were clearly not part of his practised monologue so I can't tell you. Joseph seemed to have created a little character of himself (based loosely on the 'knowledgable owner' described in the Lonely Planet) that he played for an hour every morning as his guests chomped their toast. Irritating as he was we still developed a kind of soft spot for him because there was something kind of innocent and childlike in the way he relished the undivided attention of his fleeting houseguests each morning.So we left Joseph to go to our houseboat 'Lake Friend'. The general package deal on the backwaters is 22hrs on a houseboat during which you get served all food and drinks and are generally looked after. What Martha and I soon realised is that there are very different standards of house boat. So where as ours had a tiny bedroom with a wheezing fan, faded décor and three staff that decided to spend half the afternoon sleeping, we were passed by luxurious lake palaces where attentive staff waited on well preened guests as they sipped on chilled wine whilst lazing in throne like chairs before retiring to their cavernous bedrooms with fresh cotton sheets and interior designed surroundings. We tried not to look on in green-eyed envy and decided to convince ourselves there was something nicely homely and unpretentious about our scruffy little Lake Friend. And even without a taste of luxury the experience as a whole was quite unforgettable. What you really pay for when you go on a houseboat (because even our low-key package cost a small Indian fortune) is the experience of been taken through the balmy surroundings of the backwaters; hanging palms, hazy village scenes and calm waters….the best part for us was waking up early to see the day dawn over the waterways. It was such a treat to slow down and watch the world go by. Martha and I were so relaxed by the end of it we nearly forgot to get changed out of our pajamas and had to pull on our clothes and pack our bags in the space of ten minutes to vacate the boat. Thinking about it this is where the chaos of the 'bad day' began. The calm of backwaters sunrise was soon a distant memory…..The bad dayThe bad day started in earnest when the 'transfers' that we were told were included in our houseboat package were actually only to the boat and not from the boat; cue my rant about misinterpretation and customer service - the houseboat owner looked about as bothered as an Indian Vicky Pollard. Luckily Martha kept her cool and managed to negotiate us a lift to the bus station for 50rs. This is when the day began a downward spiral. There was an auto strike so our lift would have to be by motorbike, slightly tricky with two rucksacks and all of Martha's shopping from Varkala! Thankfully we didn't fall off and made it to the bus station bags and all. Obstacle one was overcome but what the houseboat men failed to warn us was that when they said 'strike',they didn't just mean the autos, they meant the whole of Kerala! (something to do with price rises) This meant no autos, no buses, no shops…..we were stranded at the bus station hot, sweaty and slightly perplexed. We decided to walk and talk, we had two options, find a private car to Periyar (our intended destination) or change our plans and get a train to Fort Cochin (trains thankfully were not on strike). It was at this point that we bumped into s***bag. Let me explain my unusually harsh description. There we were in the middle of Alleppey with our several heavy bags walking (slowly) away from the bus station when we saw a 'traveller-like' couple coming towards us heading for the bus station. We decided it would be kind of us to warn them about the strike, the lack of buses and also enquire where they were going just in case we could share a lift. The conversation went as follows:Martha and Vicky: Are you heading for the bus station? (Said with a big smile and full of traveller comradery)Canadian couple: yeah (with tone of hostility, no smile)Martha and Vicky: We've been told no buses are running today so you may have to change your plan, where are you heading to? Canadian guy (wife has retreated into background): Fort Cochin. I heard government buses were still running, I just saw one.Martha and Vicky: You can try but we've asked everyone and they said there were absolutely no more buses running today.Canadian guy: Nah, they're s***ting you…And with this they walking off leaving Martha and I feeling, um,a little bit s***ted on! We couldn't quite believe his turn of phrase and stood in stunned amazement for a minute. Soon after we carried on and decided, for our own amusement, to name Canadian guy 's***bag' and coined his phrase 's***ted on' to use at any appropriate moment. The great thing about strikes in India is that even though it may seem like everything is shut and no-one is working this is really just a pretence to maintain the appearance of a strike. What strikes actually provide is a great chance for opportunism and profit making so everyone carries on working but in a very discreet manner. In Alleppey the strike was a great excuse for amateur business men to make a few extra rupees from stranded, desperate and gullible tourists. For example, autos were not in service but auto drivers on their motorbikes were and willing to give you lift anywhere for a very inflated cost! After realising that getting to Periyar was going to cost a small fortune and would also include the risk of, to quote Joseph, "getting stoned so blood pours from your head", Martha and I decided to change plans and head to Fort Cochin on a nice, safe, fast and air-conditioned train. We managed to barter a lift on the back of some motorbikes, got to the station and got our tickets with two hours to spare before the train. The word 'relief' radiated off our faces. Feeling relaxed and positive that we had sorted things right out and were on our way to Cochin I went to purchase some celebratory chai and bumped into s***bag. Obviously I felt quite jammy that we were clearly right about the buses and that perhaps we hadn't been "s***ted" on after all. He - Dave -was a lot more friendly this time but when we exchanged our tales of why we were in India and where we'd been it became clear that 'Dave', was rather competitive. He was one of those extreme survival types and was clearly out to be the most hardcore, penny-pinching traveller he could so he could go back and tell 'hardcore' tales to his buddies about lasting out in India for two months with a piece of string, twenty quid and a penknife. He tried his best to make me feel like the most frivolous and gullible tourist ever and then walked away. I couldn't even be bothered to compete.Later as he and his wife pushed their way into the sleeper class carriage Martha and I once again felt quite jammy!Just 45 minutes later we were at Ernakulam Junction the mainland station you arrive at to reach Fort Cochin which is just off the mainland on an island. Obviously there was still a strike on which meant none of the usual ferries were running to Fort Cochin. It is possible to drive to the island as it is connected by bridges to the mainland but there were only a handful of auto drivers working and lots of tired and desperate tourists wanting to get to Fort Cochin. It was a scramble to find an auto driver and negotiate a reasonable price, we heard s***bag exclaiming 'Bulls***!' behind us as he bartered away and before we knew it we were being crowded by a group of young Indian men..... 'you get this auto madam', 'good price, good price'. There were no other autos around so we got in. I think our worries started when the driver used a coin to start up the engine instead of a key and there was a surge of hilarity from the surrounding group of guys. We brushed this off you get stared and laughed quite often in India. But once he started driving it didn't take us long to realise that the driver was in fact absolutely wasted, he could barely keep his eyes open or keep his hands (which he kept waving about in the air) on the wheel. Obviously we became a little tense and began to fear slightly for our lives; how had we managed to get into the one auto that had an inebriated driver!? Then we realised that he wasn't a driver at all, the group surrounding us were probably his infantile friends and were trying to hide the fact that he was actually stealing the auto. We were in fact part of one big and not very funny joke. We'd been s***ted on!Thankfully soon after crossing the bridge auto man/thief/drunkard decided he needed to stop to have a sleep. We took this as a great opportunity to get out! There was a bit of commotion as he tried to stop us but in the end he was too wasted to care and we managed to get all our gear out of the auto. Once we were out we noticed his auto uniform was actually just held together with safety pins - god knows who this guy actually was! Trying to stay calm we assessed our situation. We were in the middle of a sleepy residential area that didn't appear to be anywhere near Fort Cochin, the pretty Portuguese-style fishing town we were aiming for. We got a bit of attention from some local men that didn't speak a word of English and then luckily a smart young guy on a motorbike (we later named Hero) stopped to ask if we were ok, he must have seen the distress on our faces! We explained the crazy scenario. He told us to wait at the bus shelter with our bags whilst he went to inform the local police. By this point half of the sleepy surburban street had come out of their houses to see what was going on, the men gathered round the drunkard to interrogate him and the women came to see if we were ok. Then Hero arrived back with a jeep and four police men in tow. Standing stranded with our bags Martha and I felt as though we'd suddenly entered into an Indian version of The Bill. The police went to talk to drunkard and the next thing we knew drunkard was driving past us with a policeman in the back…..our day was becoming increasingly surreal! The other policemen reassured us that they were just on their way to the police station down the road and asked if we'd mind coming to make a statement. So we set off down the road to the station with half the local residents trailing behind us. Our day had started so peacefully watching the sun rise over the backwaters and by 3pm we were sitting facing a police cell somewhere close to Fort Cochin. At this point Martha and I really had to hold back the hysterics. There were a lot of police staff with clearly not very much to do, a drunken auto driver and two British girls was an exciting find! We sat and watched as all 8 police officers began to interrogate the driver at once in a rather shambolic fashion. Then the Chief Inspector surfaced from his afternoon nap and things really started to happen, there was a gun salute from the guy at the front and the 8 other officers suddenly stood to attention, the authoratative CI Reji proceeded forward to greet us and to sort things out… he asked us what had happened, spoke to the driver, got back our fare money and asked us where we were trying to get to. Turns out the drunkard was wasted on a little more than alcohol and was driving in the wrong direction, we were about 10km from Fort Cochin in a suburb called Kannamaly. Obviously we must have looked a little tired and helpless, the police took pity on us and an hour later we arrived at our guest house inCI Reji's car with a police escort - talk about arriving in style!! So with ours days adventures over we collapsed on our beds in utter disbelief, I'm not sure quite how we'd managed to get ourselves into that situation, or out of it so well!? In need of wine we decided to treat ourselves to a posh dinner at the nearby Malabar Hotel (ie: the place where comfortably well off and mature types stay). As the sun set and we sat drinking our chilled white wine in a fairy lit courtyard all we could do was reminisce and laugh.NB At this point can I just a big thankyou to Rejeesh (Hero), Constable Jaya Kumar and the Kannamaly police station for helping us to reach Fort Cochin J (I promised them I'd write about how they were the best police force in India in my blog!)
After writing about our crazy day the rest of our trip seems fairly uneventful. We decided we neededto stay and relax in Fort Cochin for a few days. Kochi city is made up of mainland Ernakulam which is the usual ugly, dirty mix of high-rise buildings and shopping centers and a collection of small islands. The main tourist hub is the island of Fort Cochin, a unique blend of medieval Portugal and Holland, with an essence of English country village and a few palm trees thrown in. We spent two days wandering through the narrow winding streets, seeing the sights and frequenting nice cafes. We saw the oldest church in India, some Chinese fishing nets, a Portuguese palace, a 16th century synagogue and some simply amazing curio shops in the jewish quarter. The shops in this area have cornered a market for rich westerners wanting interesting story-filled pieces of furniture and artifacts for their interior designed homes and some of their collections are incredible!. We went into one shop (more like a warehouse) that was more interesting than any Indian museum I've visited it was full of crazy objects like temple statues, alters, solid silver furniture and even a reconstructed Keralan house! It was amazing!
From Fort Cochin we went to the beach resort of Kovalam to finish our stay relaxing on the beach! We had another mild moment of panic when we reached Trivandrum (the train station nearest to Kovalam) to find a big religious festival had just finished and thousands of pilgrims were all trying to head home. The train station and all the streets in the centre of the town were packed with people protecting their baskets of poojas and cooking on their small make-shift stoves. Like strikes, festivals are another chance for opportunism so with no buses working the only way out of the crowded city was by auto at a much inflated price. We succombed to the ridiculous pirce and were a little surprised when on the way our auto driver stopped, Martha and I exchanged worried glances and asked if he was ok. 'I just sleep for two minutes please, very tired, no sleep, festival.' Martha's face was a picture and I believe the words 'You must be joking!' slipped out of her mouth….we let him rest and then sang for the rest of the journey to keep him awake and thankfully arrived in Kovalam in one piece!
We didn't like Kovalam quite as much as Varkala, it is Kerala's most popular beach resort and subsequently has started to pick up a touch of the med tourist scene….sun-burnt bodies and chips spring to mind. But despite this it still had a certain Indian charm and when we'd had enough of the young Indian boys on the beach trying to discreetly take pictures of us on their mobile phones we thankfully had our guest house to escape to which had a nice pool and shady palm trees……So that really brings me to the end of our Keralan adventure, we parted ways at Kovalam after ten days ofa bamboo huts, beaches, backwaters, police stations, historical fishing ports and a huge amount of fun!