Friday, June 28, 2013

Boating in Alleppey

One of the highlights of Kerala is the opportunity to spend some time in the Keralan backwaters on a houseboat. It was for this reason that our next port of call was Alleppey, a small city a couple hours south of the capital. With fervent hopes for cooperative weather, we set off, armed with plans to spend several lazy afternoons drifting along on the backwaters. Although getting to Fort Kochin was very easy, we quickly discovered leaving it was less than straightforward. After a wasted quarter hour at the bus station, a rickshaw, a ferry, and a rickshaw later, we found ourselves aboard a bus to Alleppey with a homicidal bus driver. (En route, we encountered a lovely Turkish guy who was toting a bag I could easily fit into, plus two other backpacks that rivaled the size of our bags. Most ridiculous pack I've seen this trip by a landslide. I would not have been surprised if a unicorn was tucked down in there somewhere.)

Bus disembarked, and bones suitably jarred, we headed off to our hotel to refresh ourselves before finding a suitable houseboat rental company and dinner. After checking some prices with bigger tour operators, we were stopped by a guy whose owned a few houseboats with his uncle. Both Jon and I liked the idea of renting from an independent proprietor, and the fact he clearly took pride in his boats. With that in mind, we arranged to meet him the following morning for a look at his boats with the intention of leaving that afternoon. We were definitely excited about relaxing on the boat after a long walk on noisy, crowded, pedestrian-unfriendly streets (there were some not-so-pleasant Ooty flashbacks).

The following morning was a textbook exercise in typical Jonique indecisiveness. The first boat was very nice but a bit too big. The second boat was a better fit for us, but the furniture did not invite lounging. The third boat had a fantastic upper deck, but was a bit too tall and unsteady. All the boats had a front deck area, an enclosed bedroom and bathroom and a kitchen for the staff to prepare meals. After much confusion, we finally decided to spring for the nice—yet oversized—boat for a single night only. (Our decision-making process consisted of us requesting time to discuss, then sitting on the upper deck of the last boat, staring into space, hoping the decision would simply make itself. I'm sure the rental people—who could see us from the shore—were wondering what the hell was going on.) If we were suitably enamored, we would then rent it for subsequent nights, or we could opt for a non-motorized tour.

Decision finally made, we headed back to our hotel to pack up before heading out to the boat for a 11:30 departure. After a little bit of a faff, we got on the boat and headed off to much to our excitement! It seemed we were determined to occupy every spot available on the spacious front deck, bounding from one side to another, then to the middle, and then back again. It was breezy and beautiful. Finally, we settled down enough to fully enjoy the lounging potential that made our boat a winner, and happily drifted along listening to relaxing music and watching the world go by. 

After a good amount of cruising and sight-seeing (which included several kingfishers), we stopped for a delicious—and pretty massive—lunch courtesy of our personal chef. (I was particularly excited because this meal included a coconut version of one of my favorite Indian beans with caramelized garlic and mustard seeds.) 

After a bit more cruising, we docked for the evening. While it was still light, Jon and I went for a stroll through the nearby village. It was fairly obvious the villagers were relatively used to foreigners, and it seemed possible their experiences may not have been the best. Compared to the other places we have been to thus far, we received a slightly chillier reception; however, this thawed considerably after we chatted with some kids and handed out some pens for school.

After dinner, we had planned to sit out on the front deck and read; however, the insects had other plans. For an hour or so, there was a tense battle of wills that involved much hand-waving and the occasional swat, but when a cricket leaped down my shirt, I knew our efforts were futile and the war had been lost. Jon and I slunk back to our room to read for a bit before bedding down for the night.
The next morning, we headed back to the dock with plans to take a non-motorized boat tour. While our foray into luxury travel was definitely enjoyable, we felt it best to leave our indulgence at the single night. The combination of the bugs and our discomfort with being waited on suggested this was the best course of action. On the whole, the trip had been a really enjoyable affair, and we were really satisfied with our choice. 

After disembarking, we had some R&R at our hotel before we departed for a 4 hour non-motorized backwater tour. The non-motorized boat is essentially a long canoe with side-by-side bench seating and a canopy overhead, which is steered by oar from a boatsman sitting in the stern. By sitting lower in the water and traveling at a slower pace, and with access to some of the more narrow stretches of water, we had a totally different perspective of the backwaters. On the whole, we heartily enjoyed the tour, which featured a stop at a restaurant with the best thali to date, and a walk along flooded rice fields, where we saw jackfruit, bee hives, some crazy looking birds' nests, and a water snake. We saw two other snakes on the way back as well! After our return, we grabbed dinner before making plans for our exit to Wayanad.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Sleepy Kochi

The bus journey from Munnar down through the mountains and West to Kochi would probably have been quite pleasant had it not been for the increasing drama caused by Monique's ill-advised decision to consume copious quantities of water before leaving, producing an urgent need to pass that same water shortly thereafter. This situation wasn't helped by the combination of winding switchbacks and bumpy roads, placing additional strain on Monique's bladder. The world seemed to be conspiring against Monique – the continuous rain outside, the numerous waterfalls we passed, our water bottle sloshing about under our feet and and one person inexplicably pouring a 2 litre bottle of water out over the steps to the bus. Luckily the bus reached a stopping point just in time after a countdown that seemed to last forever; Monique hobbled off the bus and was lead to the toilets by a helpful passenger. I was alarmed to see the bus set off with our bags still on it just after I had disembarked, but thankfully the same helpful passenger informed us that it was just refueling and would return shortly, and then waited with us to make sure we got back on the right bus even though, as it turned out, he wasn't actually getting back on the bus himself – yet another super friendly person we have encountered in India.

After that drama the remainder of the journey passed smoothly. We arrived in Ernakulum and made a quick transition to a local bus to Fort Cochin where we planned to stay. For some reason both Monique and I had assumed that Kochi was a fairly sizeable city, and would therefore include the usual Indian city chaos and noise. We were therefore pleasantly surprised to discover that Fort Cochin is a tiny sleepy little place with plenty of green spaces with with huge old trees and kids playing football and cricket almost around the clock (irrespective of the weather and way past the point at which I would have thought it possible to see a cricket ball).

We had prepared ourselves for the temperature to increase after spending the majority of the previous week at altitude, but what we had not prepared for was the significant increase in humidity as we moved to the coast which sapped our energy. What was slightly more disruptive was our first meeting with the monsoon season. As a Brit I am extremely familiar with rain, however the rain I am most familiar with is the sort of grey drizzle which can, and sometimes does, persist for days on end. In the monsoon season when it rains, it really rains; water falls straight out of the sky in sheets and roads flood within minutes. Luckily the rains in Kochi were fairly predicable – a heavy downpour mid-morning and another in the late afternoon/early evening; consequently as long as you can avoid being out at those times, and you don't mind getting your feet wet in between, it isn't too problematic. We only got caught out once when we got soaked within minutes and were forced to take cover with some vegetable pakoras.

One interesting feature of Kochi that took a couple of days to get used to are the scheduled power cuts to conserve electricity. For one hour each morning, and one hour each evening the electricity goes out completely meaning no lighting inside or out, no power and, worst of all, no internet! In addition the cuts are staggered throughout the various parts of the city so potentially if you are moving in the wrong direction you can go without any power for quite some time (a restaurant owner told us a humourous story of a tourist he met who was strolling through the town and became convinced that there was something wrong with him because the electricity went out at each place at which he arrived). The combination of torrential rain and a lack of street lightening is potentially very dangerous, however we managed to avoid the worst of it by treating the power cuts as nap time.

Our first full day was a bit of an admin day. We made use of the decent internet connection at our guesthouse to catch up on some stuff, and we took a ferry trip back to Ernakulam to order some prescription sunglasses for Monique (to replace the ones stolen by the Goan waves) and bought a watch that I needed (having discovered that Kochi has one of the few HMT watch showrooms in India).

We spent the next few days ambling round Fort Cochin, checking out the few sights, including the Dutch Palace, the Synagogue and the Museum of Folklore (essentially a collection of various cool looking artefacts in a nice wooden building) and becoming familiar with the snail-like pace of life.

Fort Cochin is at the northern tip of an island and has a beach to the West (albeit not a very pretty one), an area of chinese fishing nets at the Northern point, and various harbours and ferry stations going round to the East side. In the middle is a web of narrow streets with various restaurants, interesting shops (where it is actually a pleasure to look at the various handicrafts and where we were actually tempted to buy souvenirs for the first time) and guesthouses interspersed with green areas. 


We also discovered a new negotiating tactic with rickshaw drivers in the area. A couple of very open drivers made it clear to us that if we allowed them to take us to certain government backed tourist shops for a quick browse then they would get a kick-back even if we don't buy anything, and our fare would be reduced. After some investigation it seems like the deal is that they get a token for one litre of fuel, which is worth about 70 rupees. This knowledge gave rise to such successful negotiations as “We're not going to pay you anything but we'll let you take us to one shop”.

Unlike anywhere else we have visited in India so far Kochi has a really artsy vibe with loads of really impressive street art. Those of you who know me will know that street art is an interest of mine so really enjoyed spending a good amount of time trying to seek out the best pieces I could find.

We also discovered a local artist whose work (impressionist street scenes) we really liked, and after some consideration we purchased two small paintings which we then sent home (after a bit of a run-in with a guy offering parcel wrapping services). Unfortunately we don't have any walls to hang those paintings on at present, but that is a minor technical issue at present.

However, throughout the peaceful, relaxed, artsy vibe something just wasn't right. Something that neither of us could put our finger on for a while. And then it dawned on us – there were no cows! After our first couple of weeks when every sighting of a cow wandering down a road was reason to comment and whip out our cameras the sight had become so ubiquitous that we had stopped taking much notice of them any more. However for some reason there didn't seem to be a single cow in Fort Cochin. Perhaps cows aren't allowed on the ferry? Instead of cows Fort Cochin has goats. Hundreds of them. They hang about in gangs (which appeared to be slip between the Black Tails and the While Tails, although a few brave ones seemed to have crossed the divide) playfully milling about the streets before rushing into shops en masse to loot it for whatever edibles they can find (when they're not being fed by Monique that is!).

We spent one evening at a traditional Keralan Kathakali “Cultural Show” which was really unique. Before the show we were able to watch one of the actors first applying his own make-up, and then having the remainder of his make-up, and various curved and layered pieces of cardboard, applied for him by his assistant (a deaf and mute gentleman who had been a make-up artist for many years). The transition from normal person to a larger-than-life cartoon-like character was striking.

The show, which involved two actors and three musicians, started with a demonstration of the traditional eye and hand positions. Next was a demonstration of the traditional ways in which emotions are portrayed in which the actor (a male actor with an incredibly expressive face playing a particularly unattractive female role) singled me out to demonstrate flirting, much to Monique's amusement. They then played out a rather drawn out scene from a play in which the female character is actually a male in disguise and attempts to woo a king but eventually ends up being killed by him. The whole experience was really interesting, but if it takes 40 minutes to play out a scene like that, then I don't think I could handle the full experience.

Later that evening we had dinner at what had become our “usual” (a good restaurant with a super-friendly owner who Monique wanted to take with us when we left) with an American guy named Joe who we had met at the show and who had been working in a hospital in Hyderabad (not the one which Monique had been admitted to) for a month as an eye surgeon. He gave us some really interesting insights into the medical practices he had encountered in India (e.g. regular power cuts during surgery). Suffice to say that the best advice remains not to get ill in India!

The only drama of any note in Kochi was our encounter with a rather inebriated young Indian girl one evening. When we were walking along in the drizzle and dark (power cuts again), said girl coasted past us on her bike, clipped a parked car and fell over. After watching fall over in the road as she tried to re-mount, I went to help her up; given the darkness, there was significant danger of her being run over as she lay in the road. Indeed, two cars were approaching from opposite directions, and it was a tense couple of moments. It very quickly became apparent that she was absolutely hammered after being plied with drinks by a group of guys. After walking with her for a while she assured us that her guesthouse was extremely close by and promised she would not attempt to ride her bike again if we left her to make her own way back. As soon as she could no longer see us, she promptly turned around, got on her bike and (as we stood watching) rode her bike diagonally across the road and into a ditch. We then spent the next 20 minutes of so walking with her along the unlit roads until she found her guesthouse and her grateful friends. In hindsight it was pretty funny, but it could definitely have ended badly wrong for her. After years of living in Birmingham city centre no act of drunkenness should come as a shock to me; I guess the fact that this constitutes drama speaks volumes for how quiet and relaxed a place Fort Cochin is.

Although we could happily have spent another couple of days in Kochi wondering around and napping through monsoon downpours and power cuts we thought it best to move on before our pace of living became permanently decreased to the point at which we would have to seriously reconsider our travel plans.

Monday, June 24, 2013

More about Munnar (and the goats!)

The following day, our first stop was Ernakulam national park, where we were on the lookout for the the endangered and semi-tame Nilgiri mountain goat. In the 19th century they had been hunted down to a herd of only 100, but they have sprung back thanks to intense conservation efforts. To my understanding (which is a bit of filling-in-the-blanks), these species of goats had not been hunted much before that time, thus, they had not developed a fear of humans necessary for their survival. We did discover they were definitely not very shy! Like most of the area, the park was situated in some very striking scenery, and mist swirled continuously around the nearby mountaintops. 

While seeing the goats was awesome, the experience at the park was not so great. We were pressured into purchasing a 5k trekking tour in addition to the 1k walk that was standard with entry. Obviously, this was at a much higher price, partly because they added 'service fees' that were, conveniently, not listed on the pricing sheet. The tour in the park was, frankly, quite bad. Our tour guide was only interested in shortcuts (maybe we walked 3k total at a push), and there was a definite language boundary. It seemed like the only information he could provide was the fact that the park is 94 square kilometers and there are 2000 wild goats. And he provided these facts over and over again. If you tried to ask other questions about the goats feeding habits, the other wild animals in the park, etc., the answer was always “94 square kilometers.” To be honest, it was a bit comical. (A quick look at wiki later on answered a bit of my questions and revealed these animals are genetically more similar to sheep than other wild goats.) However, the price of entry and the hassles of the 'tour' was well worth it, because we did get to spot many of the gentle beasts, an exciting moment to say the least. (As Jon said, this is probably the closest he will ever be to an endangered animal in the wild.) So, let's focus on the best bits now, the scenery and those cute little goat faces!!

The park is also home to the Nilgiri flowers, which bloom once every 12 years. We couldn't have been much farther from seeing the blossoms, as the next season is due in 2018. Interestingly, the indigenous people who lived in the area counted their age and other important life events according to the Nilgiri 'calendar.' The photos of the flowers covering the mountain do look really pretty, and I bet it would make a spectacular sight.

After making friends with the goats, we headed off to some waterfalls...joining about half of India there!  It was a bit of lively fun to watch the families splash about, while others seemed to use the time for a bit of introspection. 

We then spent some time soaking up a few more views until the clouds rolled in. Apparently, we had been really lucky, as it is often overcast at this time of year. So hooray for that! After a few hours of sight seeing, we lazily coasted back to the city centre...our driver always cut the engine on the downhill trips, which was good for gas prices, good for the environment and good for us because it led to a more relaxing pace and a quieter journey!

That evening, we partook of the mediation on offer at our hostel, which was quite nice and relaxing. The accompanying chanting took me aback somewhat, but I was able to suppress my giggles...for the most part. Our last day in Munnar was a bit lazy, which helped us recover from the stress of getting to Kerala (which wasn't entirely minor) and our early morning tours. After sleeping in, we planned our exit before heading off to a tea museum, where—much to our complete shock—Jon discovered he was, in fact, a fan of tea. Cardamon tea to be specific, which is pretty delicious. It was interesting to see how they make it, and we both have an appreciation for how labor intensive the tea making process is.
Tea break!

After we strolled back to our guesthouse, Jon stopped to get a shave and his first Indian head massage, which described as, “being slapped around the head by an is old man, but in a way that is much better than it sounds.” We then booked a room for Kochi and headed off to dinner at our favorite restaurant in town with Chris, an outgoing German guy who was staying in the room next to us. After a few drinks at a bar farther outside of town, we headed back home to pack our things for our departure the following day. As sad as we were to leave Munnar, I was somewhat relieved to leave our guesthouse. Unfortunately, there was a faulty pipe fitting in the shower that meant a steady (and super smelly) stream of air from the drain filled the bathroom. It was enough to give one Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. On that note, I should probably stop talking now.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Magnificent Munnar

In England, on the outskirts of city called Leeds, there lives a man who is not quite like any other man. Or so I once thought. This man possesses a certain ungainly grace of movement, a fondness for 'having a boogie,' a very distinctive dress sense, and a proud Keralan lineage. I very much thought this individual—who we could call Sean N because that is his name—was extraordinarily unique. Then I met Sean's brother and discovered he was not such a special snowflake after all. Ordinarily, this discovery might have made me a bit sad, but the world could certainly do with more Sean-alikes in it.

When we arrived at the airport in Mumbai, Jon discovered that lightning could strike thrice. With a strange glow in his eyes that can only come from either the truly sleep deprived or the very excited, Jon turned to me and whispered, “Guess what???? I saw this guy, and he looked exactly like Sean! Same posture, same eyes, same everything. Maybe it's not a 'N' family thing, maybe it's a Keralan thing!With this exchange, my imagination ran a little rampant. Although my rational mind knew I was courting disappointment, I could not help nurturing a fantastical image of Kerala as one filled from border to border with disco-dancing sartorialists looking for a suitable place to have a drink and a boogie.

As you may have expected, we were—most unfortunately—not greeted at the Keralan border by a sea of miniature Seans wearing snazzier versions of that famous red and white striped sweater donned by Waldo/Wally. Fortunately, the scenery was too amazing for me to recall that I ought to be disappointed. Now that I've rambled on a bit here, let me backtrack.
The second bus we took on our way to Munnar from Coimbatore was absolutely packed. After standing for a bit, Jon and I ended up sitting on the stepwell of the bus with another lady in a space that was suitable for one. However, the locals did their best to ensure we were comfortable, and were kind enough to lock the door to the bus, thereby ensuring we were less likely to tumble out on the winding roads. Once again, they showed a distinct interest in our guidebook and music, and it really helped to make a potentially unpleasant journey rather enjoyable. After asking how long we have been married, a question we've fielded often, everybody next wants to know how many babies we have and where they are (um, the rucksack, naturally). Apparently, most Indian newlyweds procure at least one infant in 1.5 years of matrimony! 
As the rolling hills gave way to mountains, we were treated to some simply astounding views. Waterfalls cascaded into lush green valleys below. Purple mountains glowed hazily in the distance. I'm pretty sure our new friends were highly amused by us, because we kept gasping at each turn, and were so utterly transfixed by the scenery that we didn't really notice them watching our reactions. When it started to drizzle, one of the men sitting near us wanted to pull down the metal screen to block the droplets. However, one of the ladies we befriended gave him a right telling off for wanting to shut out the scenery. I would like to imagine the conversation went something like this, “They came several thousand miles to see this, and you can't leave the window open for them? What are you, made of sugar? Nope, didn't think so, so stop whining!” As we got closer to Munnar, we could see rows and rows of lush green tea leaves, which filled the bus with air that was incredibly clean and fresh.

As we arrived, it was starting to get dark, so we were ready to find a place to stay for the night. Unfortunately, our number one pick of guesthouses was full, as were four others along the same road. Apparently, it was one of the last weeks of school holidays, and a lot of families were making the most of it. This triggered a ten minute drive back into town, where—fortunately--we found a place with one room left. (A couple of days later, we met a guy who was not so lucky and had to fork over the equivalent of 2x our daily budget for a place to lay his head for the night!) Our driver only charged us the fare minimum because he was playing the long game—specifically he wanted to sell us a rickshaw tour the following day. The guy seemed pretty legit, and we liked the idea of having a plan for the following day, so we went for it, even though it was an early start.

It turned out to be a brilliant decision. Our “tour” was essentially an ad hoc day of exploring that our driver tailored to our interests. It was, hands down, the most enjoyable day we've had in India. And I was very grateful for the early start after I saw the crowds later in the day! Our first stop was by a tree filled with bees' nests that were over 100 years old. We then dropped by a dam and a scenic overlook called Echo Point, which had a bit of a carnival atmosphere and some very pretty earrings for sale. :) Interspersed though all of this were loads of photo ops, and we had to fight the urge to ask our rickshaw driver to stop every hundred yards so we could admire the view. It was all so breathtakingly gorgeous. 

The highlight of the day was strolling through a lush green tea plantation that was encircled by mountains and gave way to a valley below. We also had another time for an additional stroll through a village, where Jon bowled a few cricket balls with the local kids. (Cricket balls? Is that what we call it? I don't know much about cricket, I prefer grasshoppers.)

 On the way back to our guesthouse, our driver spotted a family of wild elephants across the river, who were busily eating their dinner. Could the day get any more incredible? That night, our dinner that night was delicious, and the only downside of the day was that in all of the excitement, we had neglected to put sunscreen on, so we were both a little burned. Oops! But we were too happy to care much about it. We retired to bed to rest up for the following day, because we'd opted for another 'tour' with the same driver. (It was a no-brainer really!)