Kerala, India – 28th March to 9th April 2015
After a sensational first leg of our trip, we headed south on our Kerala adventure. Scrambling off another long, adrenaline pumped, local bus ride, we were met by an army of smiling rickshaw drivers. At times it feels like we are simply cattle ready to be slaughtered or just juicy pound signs with legs, scuttling along the street, ready to be caught in some sort of fishing net, come loot bag.
Having walked a hundred metres or so away from the madness, we select a driver and agree the price. After a very short journey we arrive at our cheap but clean hotel. We had finally arrived in Thekkady!
Thekkady – 1st to 2nd April 2015
We were stopping in Thekkady for the sole purpose of visiting Periyar wildlife sanctuary. South India’s most popular wildlife sanctuary, Periyar encompasses 777 sq km and a 26-sq-km artificial lake created by the British in 1895. The vast region is home to bison, sambar, wild boar, 900 to 1000 elephants and 35 to 40 hard-to-spot tigers.
Tonight we were taking a rare break from eating the usual local Indian cuisine. It felt like I had consumed more rice and bread in the last three weeks than that of the previous twenty seven years of my life. As flavoursome, fiery and succulent as the Indian dishes are, it felt as though my belly was beginning to resemble that of the Hindu God, Genesha.
Walking for twenty minutes or so down the bustling main street, we eventually found a little, hidden, rooftop restaurant called ‘Our Place’. Ran by a slightly camp and welcoming British man, he explained we could tweak the menu or ask for anything bespoke using his array of ingredients. We selected a ‘catch of the day’ fish dish and a very English, hot pot. Both meals were succulent and satisfying. The hot pot in particular was the slice of Englishness we craved. It was a shame he didn’t offer a Sunday roast!
While in the restaurant, we had a brief conversation with an older travelling couple. The man was in his late forties and was from Brighton, while his partner of a similar age, was from the USA. They had both travelled extensively around the world. Our short backpacking résumé was child’s play when compared with their jam packed, nomadic CV. They simply worked for two months a year and travelled for ten. Imagine that! They were very sketchy with the employment details but we did extract that they worked in the state of Alaska. I’m still convinced it was some sort of drug smuggling operation. Maybe they were transporting cocaine around on husky pulled sleighs. I wish I prodded the question a bit more. Maybe I could have got myself a job!
Anyway, I digress…
Our quiet abode was suddenly disturbed by the onslaught of loud music and thundering bangs of drums. An explosion of celebration was making its way along the street like a wave crashing among the shore. Looking downwards onto the street, herds and herds of men, women and children wearing vibrant clothes, colourful body and face paint were marching on mass. I believe it was a Hindi harvest celebration.
Every so often, a shirtless man would appear among the crowd. He would stumble forward, with sharp, skin piercing spikes going through his mouth. He bounced off other people as if he had drank ten pints of Somerset cider, being held up and pushed by the surrounding mass. His eyes flickering and rolling with every step. In all honestly, it didn’t look like he was having much fun. We were told he was in the midst of a spiritual journey kick started by marijuana. Whether or not this is true, I’m not entirely sure.
The next morning we set off for Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. Meeting our well spoken, armed guides for the day, we trekked into the park. They carried ancient looking guns, just in case we had a rare sighting and subsequent attack from a tiger or found ourself entrapped within a stampeding herd of elephants.
We trekked quietly for a few hours until we reached an elegant and peaceful lake. The water shimmered off the sun rays that managed to peak through the overcasting clouds. Here we jumped on an alternative mode of transport, bamboo rafts. They looked like they could sink at any moment with nothing but rope securing the structure. We decided to put our trust in the local craftsman and hopped aboard. I’m pretty sure they know more about bamboo boats than I do.
Volunteering to paddle, I copied the guides stroke style and rhythm and we glided across the glistening water while various wild birds flew majestically above us, the occasional one swooping low to steal a fish from the hands of the lake.
It was the first time I had ever seen elephants in a wild environment. Apparently this was a very rare sighting as the wildlife park was so big and the number of elephants living there was relatively low.
A herd of seven, strutting their stuff at the side of the lake. It must have been a whole family as there were huge elder elephants plodding along and younger, energetic children running around them.
We admired from a distance as the elephants bathed in the lake. Submerging there whole bodies under the water with just their trunks appearing they looked as if they were the mysterious Loch Ness monster. Some would dip their long, grey trunks into the edge of the lake to suck up the cooling mud and water and fling it back up over their bodies to clean and refresh theirselves. Others would just roll around in the sloppy mud, slipping and sliding and having a great time.
Alleppey – 3rd to 4th April 2015
After another treacherous and thrilling local bus ride we reached our next stop in Alleppey. Home to the infamous backwaters. Any tour of Kerala would be incomplete without a boat ride on these captivating water worlds.
With a brief encounter of a ‘hotel from hell’ we checked ourselves out of cesspit and into a bamboo hut with the rather outrageous name of ‘Funky Art Beach House’. Ran by two welcoming brothers, these huts were ridiculously cheap, clean and comfortable. They taught me how to play the Indian board game Carrom, a “strike and pocket” table game of Eastern origin similar to pool but played by flicking your fingers.
Like I said, a trip to Alleppey without a boat ride on the majestic backwaters is literally a sin. We booked a small, well built, private boat for a fraction of the cost of a houseboat with Sreekrishna’s. We left the land behind, boarded the vessel and entered this new, wonderful world.
It was off season for tourism here, so we were treated to relatively low volumes of boat traffic and noise pollution. This helped us feel the true enchantment of this special environment.
We passed tiny, wooden, hand made, rowing boats..,
Like all good things our two hours on the brilliant, bespoke backwaters of Alleppey had to come to an end. We were glad to have visited at such a good time of the year and that our boat trip was such good value for money.
As an added bonus to the trip, Divya, our friend we met in Munnar was also in Alleppey. We met her and a friend for an evening meal. Divya ensured we had plenty of tasty Indian food to go round by selecting various dishes for us all to share. It was delicious! The butter curry was particularly tasty and Divya seemed to be surprised with our ability to handle the spicier dishes. As a treat she even picked up the bill after we reluctantly let her. If you’re reading this Divya, we appreciated the gesture very much and if our paths cross again then we will take you out for food. With a great way to round of our trip to Alleppey complete, we said our final farewell to Divya and her friend.
Varkala – 5th to 8th April 2015
With our one month trip to India drawing to a close, we decided to take some time out to chill, relax and reflect on everything we had experienced. Varkala was the perfect place to do this. With a touristy / backpacking beach vibe the area was more relaxed in terms of dress which meant we didn’t have to cover up as much.
Checking into MK Gardens Guesthouse, the owner, Ruth, instantly recognised my Bristolian accent. Ruth was originally from Bristol and had recently taken on the job running MK Gardens. She was very friendly, welcoming, chatty and energetic. I highly recommend this place in terms of location, cleanliness, service and cost.
Apart from sunbathing, reading books (if anyone wants to get a feel for what India is like then I recommend the book ‘Holy Cow by Sarah Macdonald’) and eating, we didn’t do a lot in Varkala. In fact, the only new experience we did partake in, was Yoga!
We approached the Yoga class entrance bright and early, it must have been around 7:30am. We waited anxiously outside the wooden framed door, sitting on the small stools to the right of the beckoning entrance.
We heard a strange, powerful and loud humming noise dissipate from the opening in front of us.
“Now breath in and exhale”
They were meditating. I didn’t realise mediating was so loud.
We tip toed sneakily into the class, grabbing a mat and a pew wherever we could find a space. The class was filled with western women wearing spandex or loose clothing and at the head of the session sat a lean, young Indian man with a closely shaved head, baggy hareem style trousers and a dark block coloured vest.
I sat down, crossed my legs and dropped my arms over my exposed knees and waited for the meditation class to end and the yoga to begin. To my right sat a Russell Brand-esque looking man, with a skinny figure, long black tied up hair and various tattoos and in front of me a very loud “Ommmm-ing” women. I couldn’t quite bring myself to “Ommm” yet so I just closed my eyes.
I quickly buried my Yoga preconceptions into the depths of my mind and promised myself that I would give this exercise / art form the attention and respect it deserved.
The class began. I wasn’t shocked by how hard it was as I expected it to be strenuous by drawing upon comparisons I had made with Pilates (I know faithful Yoga participants will probably want to kill me for that statement). We carried out basic movements such as the ‘downward dog’ and various other named positions I can’t quite remember.
The instructor or ‘Guru’ as they are titled, explained and pushed me into some of the positions I quite couldn’t get. I came out of the session very sweaty, realising that my flexibility and core strength isn’t quite up to scratch. In all honestly, I prefer my exercise a little more intense but I can totally appreciate how something like Yoga would help improve my overall fitness and health and I will definitely do another class in the near future.
I’ll just touch on one of the more favourable meals I had while in Varkala. I had an excellent sea food platter at the oddly named ‘ABBA’ restaurant for a great price. It consisted of fresh tiger prawns, squid and king fish.
We left Varkala on a day of auto rickshaw driver strikes but luckily Ruth offered to drop us to the train station and we headed to Cochi airport in anticipation for our first flight to Delhi and then to Bangkok.
I have never really experienced a long airport delay before. Seeing as India had brought a lot of new experiences to the both of us, we were about to embark on the worst ever airport experience of our lives. I won’t bore you with the details but if I ever die and find myself somewhere between heaven and hell, I’m pretty sure I’ll end up in Cochin International Airport. Whilst in the depths of purgatory we were stranded between various Air India customer service and check in desks with little or no help for 32 hours! At one point I even thought the airport security were going to shoot me or at least roughen me up.
In the end, we totally gave up and lost faith in the competence of Air India staff so we just booked a new flight from Cochin to Delhi with a different airline. What I’m basically trying to say is, be wary of booking flights with Air India. Their customer service is lack lustred to say the least.
We finally made it to heaven and our flight took off from Cochin and subsequently Delhi. As our Boeing 747 plane drifted somewhere over the Andanaman sea I took sometime to reflect on our magical journey through India.
What can I say about India. It’s hard to some it all up in just pictures and words. From what I’ve seen, it’s an incredible country of contrasting and breathtaking environments. From the luscious hills of Munnar to the towering skyline of Mumbai.
It’s a mixing pot of eclectic religions and fascinating people. From the most popular faith of Hinduism to religions such as Jainism, that I didn’t even know existed.
It’s a country where one minute you can be stressed, overwhelmed and anxious and then the next minute you can be completely captivated by a monument or by the scenery that lay in front of your eyes.
It can be very hard at times when you’re confronted with limbless beggars or child sellers but at the same time you can feel warmth and gratitude from cyclo drivers, local restaurants or people you randomly meet.
Some people will talk to you with the sole aim of tricking you or scamming you (this happens all over the world) but others will offer genuine advice or simply just want a good conversation.
My highlights of the trip have to include our one on one with the mighty Taj Mahal, the exhilarating views of the lakes in Udaipur, star gazing in rural Tordi, the unfathomable skyline in Mumbai, my conversation with the Jainy man, climbing the heavens in Munnar, seeing elephants in Thekaddy and trailing the back waters in Alleppey.
“If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine, it’s lethal”