India Kerala Travel
Travel || Lima Does India - KeralaSaturday, June 02, 2018
Hopefully you've already read all about my time in Mumbai, if not, go take a look, then come back! Ok, so now we're all b...
Hopefully you've already read all about my time in Mumbai, if not, go take a look, then come back!
Ok, so now we're all back on the same page again, like I said in the last post, I've always wanted to properly explore India, see all that she has to offer, and part of that dream was to venture much further south, to Kerala. This would take me way out of my comfort zone, because visiting the north really is a cakewalk - I speak the language, and I almost feel like I belong. Even Mumbai, whilst it was different, I still felt quite comfortable.
Kerala would be a completely different kettle of fish.
LANGUAGE & CULTURE
Holi Powder for sale in Fort Kochi - check out those pigments
So in Kerala, the official language is not Hindi at all, It's Malayalam. Of course, it's not like nobody speaks Hindi at all, it's just that the conversations you hear walking around the place are unfamiliar. It felt really strange knowing that I was in India, but I couldn't understand what people were saying. Obviously I know India is a country of many, many languages but I guess it really hit home whilst in Kerala just how big India really is.
Malayalam itself seems just as expressive as Hindi though, and much of the accompanying body language seemed to be similar. In truth, pretty much everyone I spoke with, was conversant in Hindi (though much better than me!), with a few exceptions, but even then they'd go and find someone who did know Hindi.
Entrance to an Italian-Indian Restaurant - the food was equally pleasant
Even within just one state, I got the feeling that the culture really varied quite a lot. Further south, in Trivandrum, whilst it's most definitely a city, you always get the feeling that you're never too far away from nature, countryside and farms. A bit further north in Alleppey, you're almost trapped on a small piece of land trapped between the Arabian Sea and the sleepy backwaters, with houses and roads occasionally punctuating the vast greenery. Even further north in Kochi, it's split across a few islands. Fort Kochi is a laid back, almost hipstery type of area, where you can walk around at 2am untroubled, whilst Ernakulam has much more of a city vibe to it.
Arriving into Trivandrum was really something to behold, gazing out of the windows, gawping at just how green everything was. It was like I'd entered Narnia, before or after the Ice Queen's reign had taken hold. Leaving the airport, at around 9am, the temperature was similar to Mumbai's 35, but this felt different. Whilst in Mumbai, despite their best attempts, the thick smog that hovers above the city mostly blocked out direct contact with the sun, here in Trivandrum, the sun was not hiding.
Kovalam Beach, lined with Parasols and Coconut Palms
We'd came here to see two things specifically, the first was Kovalam Beach, famous for it's red and white horizontally striped lighthouse, almost perfectly white sand and the warmth of the Arabian sea lapping at your feet. Here, we drank in both the scenery, and coconut water, probably from one of the thousands of coconut trees lining the shore. The beach was magnificent, Indian families enjoying the serenity, and the crashing of the waves upon the shore. Again, this isn't something I would typically associate with India.
Miami Beach vibes at Kovalam
There are actually two beaches here though, the Lighthouse beach, but also Kovalam Beach itself, which is littered with old-fashioned, wooden fishing boats, that is sheltered in a small, natural bay, with palm tree-laden hills overlooking it. Here, the sun set beautifully over the horizon, in something more reminiscent of Ibiza than India.
India or Ibiza?
This boat gets my aesthetic
Another great sight to take in whilst in Trivandrum is its famous mosque, Beemapally Mosque. On pretty much all of my travels, I've visited mosques, some pretty amazing ones too, like Al Aqsa in Jerusalem, Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo and Jama Masjid in Delhi, but this one. This one is pink. And I don't just mean pink, I mean, unashamedly, hurt-your-eyeballs kind of pink. Inside, is a reminder really that this is just a normal mosque though, serving it's local community, as it's understatedly plain, but on the outside, it's really something else.
I told you it was pink.
If you really want to get a flavour for what Trivandrum is all about though, you simply must visit Shangumugham Beach. We knew literally nothing about this place, except that it wasn't too far out, the sea was clear and the sand white. When we arrived, at about 2pm, it was pretty much empty, but ice cream vendors were setting up, so we gathered it might get busy-ish later. What was amazing about the vendors, is there's about 40 of them in a row, about 10 metres apart, and they all sell the exact same things at the exact same price - and they'd all ran out of lemon ice lollies.
Getting prepared to head out to sea
Well, we hung around at the beach for a bit and started walking north, towards a gaggle of traditional wooden fishing boats (with less traditional petrol engines) parked up in rows, and a big tractor. We'd arrived just in time to watch the fishermen head out to sea, and it was quite a spectacle. One or two at a time would head out, a group of five or 6 aboard, most of the boats with very Christian names, like 'The Rose of St. Joseph', and the men would pray to the gods of the sea, that they have a good catch, and make it back safely.
A final push...
It was pretty amazing to see this unfold really, and even more amazing, because you'd look out to the vast ocean, and see that most of them had disappeared over the horizon, in these tiny, wooden boats, exposed and almost alone. By now, quite a crowd of locals and school kids had amassed on the beach, in reverence of these guys.
... And we're off
Alleppey is just a three hour train ride north of Trivandrum, cutting through seemingly endless coconut palm forests, tiny villages and towns. The view outside is a constant explosion of green, broken up by the occasional bridge over the backwaters, pretty spectacular in itself. In fact at one stage, the train is on a tiny strip of land that was no narrow it felt like it was specifically raise for just this purpose. Alleppey Station (or Alappuzha as it's also known) lets you know straight away, upon arrival, that you're in a sleepy town, bathed in beating sunshine, and so it was.
A view out into the backwaters of Alleppey
The backwaters are simply beautiful, and it's really difficult to describe just how peaceful they are. The banks are mostly line with yet more palm trees, farmland or tiny villages just scattered around, and the waters are still, only disturbed by the occasional boats carting tourist around, or canoes used by the locals to get from place to place. I could have stayed on our Shikara all day, just laid out on deck, basking in the sunshine, enjoying this brief window into the world of those who live on the backwaters.
Peace, tranquility and life
I have to remark though, that the most fun part of the boat ride, actually came from another boat. All of a sudden, we could hear loud bollywood music booming across this huge stretch of water, and it just kept getting louder and louder. It was a 'party boat', filled to the brim with people over two decks, with a live band playing their own take on some Bollywood classics. It genuinely felt like we were being given our own soundtrack to the backwaters, until it sped past us on its merry way.
Sometimes all you can do is gaze out in wonder
The beach at Alleppey is beautiful, but isn't quite as spectacular as Kovalam, or Shangumugham in Trivandrum, but nonetheless, it was still pretty unreal, pure white shores, deep blue sea, and a famous rusted old pier reaching out into the sea. The one thing really different about this beach is the number of friendly stray dogs that hang around seeking respite from the beating hot sun by rolling around in the lapping waves.
Well, not quite Munnar. It seems like everyone embarking on a mini tour of Kerala goes to Munnar to see the tea plantations, a few dams and some other interesting stuff, but we thought we'd do things differently by staying the night in a treehouse. Yup, a treehouse. And this treehouse also happened to be up in the hills on a tea plantation, within a forest in the middle of nowhere, with pretty much no mobile signal or even link to human life. It took four hours to get there by car, no trains go nearby sadly, and whilst the roads started off in good condition, the further inland, and higher altitude, you go, the bumpier and rockier it becomes.
The treehouse was pretty epic to be fair, basically a two storey house in a tree, with a suspended walkway leading to a communal area in another tree, it kind of felt like that scene in Star Wars with the Ewoks - it was pretty cool, with an awesome view of clean air and forest every time we glanced at the window.
I'd never been to a tea plantation either, so it was quite the experience being literally surrounded by tealeaves. It wasn't quite what I'd expected, as you usually see photos of open fields, lined with little bushes as far as the eye can see, but because we were high up and in a forest and sheltered from the sun, which was only hitting us at 25C, it felt a little enclosed and more natural, almost as if the tea plants were meant to be there. The rows of plants followed the undulating nature of the ground too, so in one corner it was almost like a curved, steep amphitheatre, that I have to say, looked pretty epic.
Not only did the plantation grow tea, they also had jackfruit (which I had never even heard of before), black pepper, cardamom, bananas and cocoa beans. They also had a resident cat and a couple of dogs who were simply adorable, and just wanted to follow us around everywhere, and show us all the good spots.
Staying in a treehouse was quite the experience, I was half expecting it to sway around in the wind and be pretty exposed to the elements, but actually it was pretty sturdy and airtight - which as it turns out was a fucking life saver, as there were spiders in this tree the size of my actual hand, no, the size of the OH's hand, but thankfully the little arsewipes were stuck outside. Having said that, somehow a huge butterfly managed to sneak it's way in, and it looked like the rare exotic kinds you might see floating around at a butterfly centre.
Overall, would totally recommend the experience. It was really secluded and remote, no chance of 4G signal whatsoever, and really at one with nature for just a few short days. Plus, IT WAS A TREEHOUSE!
And so, to the final stop of our Kerala tour. Kochi. After the remote wilderness of the tree house, it was time to head back into the thick of it, but Kochi wasn't quite what we expected either. It's a city geographically fractured by the expansive backwaters, joined together by bridges and ferries, each fractured piece very different to the others.
Ferry from Fort Kochi to Ernakulam - 2 Rupees!
Ferry from Fort Kochi to Ernakulam - 2 Rupees!
Fort Kochi, where we were staying, has a distinctly European vibe to it, which can be traced back to it's Portuguese heritage. It feels ultra laid-back, with continental cafes and restaurants serving up a kind of Eurasian fusion, as well as the inevitable seafood fare you find along any coast. It's such a nice place to go walking around in, after 11pm it gets a little quiet, and you feel like you're the only people around for miles in the middle of a city, the air is cooler than the 35C days, but still very warm.
Lonely Ambassador in Fort Kochi
The sites here are mostly museums and churches, but of course there's the Chinese Fishing nets, which are truly remarkable. I've never quite seen anything like it, so elegant in appearance, and hypnotic to watch them in action, and when the sun sets, you get the feeling you're actually living in a postcard.
Chinese Fishing Nets
A quick ferry ride, or a not-so-quick rickshaw ride will take you to the other fracture of this city we visited - Ernakulam. It's the polar opposite to Fort Kochi, and really feels a bit more 'Indian', with cramped streets full of shops and market stalls as well as malls and upmarket stores. The main street didn't quite feel like India though, more like a futuristic Indian synthwave city, full of bright neon lights, littered with chai stalls.
Chai in Synthwave City
After an eventful week on planes, trains, taxis and rickshaws, constantly on the move, it actually felt really nice just to be in Kochi, sit back and breathe it all in. It really helped that we'd booked ourself into a homestay for this part of the trip, which was ridiculously cheap, and when I say ridiculous, I mean £9 a night ridiculous. The house was immaculate, something I could probably only ever dream of living in. From the outside it resembled one of those white walled dwellings you see in shots of Santorini, with a garden positively bursting with life, and I don't just mean coconut palms and various other plants, I also mean geckos and birds.
It was paradise for a few days, and the owner, Clinton, was incredibly knowledgeable about the area, and just Kerala in general, as well as friendly, and gave us tips on where to go, didn't once try to sell tours etc, just let us be. It was the perfect way to recharge the batteries before flying back up the coast to Mumbai for the final few days. If you're planning on visiting Kochi, I'd 100% recommend staying in a homestay in Fort Kochi rather than a hotel - there are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of them, you can't walk along a street without seeing one. They're far cheaper than hotels, and the owners are generally friendly and looking to make sure you have a great time in their city.
I think that just about brings it to a close now, so if you've managed to get this far, I'm impressed! Also, I'd absolutely recommend Kerala to anyone. There is SO much to see and do, you could probably spend 6 months here and still leave having not experienced everything you want to. On the map of India it looks like a tiny shard, but only when you're here do you realised just how big the place is.
Also, in terms of natural beauty, it has everything. Some of the beaches made me think of the Caribbean, the sheer amount of diversity of plant-life made me think of rainforests, and there's mountains, coffee and tea plantations, spice plantations as well as the cities. The people are warm and friendly, laid back and non judgemental. It was everything I hoped it would be, and much, much more and I just hope I can go back some day, but perhaps for a little longer, to really soak it all in.
My new Eagle friend in Alleppey
Health and Safety aboard the ferry in Kochi
I've got a lovely pile of coconuts...
Pondering on the train from Trivandrum to Alleppey
My new Eagle friend in Alleppey
Health and Safety aboard the ferry in Kochi
Untold beauty... And the beach was ok too I guess ;)
Tangerine dreams (not lemons or limes)
Having fun at Kovalam Beach
Tea and Coffee bike - a startup idea
Palm trees in Trivandrum
At the treehouse
Shopping in Ernakulam
Doll in Kochi
Keralan cuisine, served on a banana leaf
I've got a lovely pile of coconuts...
Is there anything more refreshing?
Boats, sunloungers and parasols
Taking a stroll on the tracks
Bridge over the backwaters, and more coconut palms 😍
I have three memory cards full of photos from this trip, so choosing photos was hard. Everywhere we went was incredible, and we know there are thousands and thousands of places we missed out on, but I hope that gives you a flavour of Kerala and inspires you to visit.