Sunday, March 30, 2014

Kerala – Part 2: Houseboating around Allepey

This is the second part of a two-part post about out trip to Kerala. Part One can be found here.
So, on day four of our trip, we headed from Munnar back East to the coast. We went most of the way back to Kochi and turned South. There was a lot of traffic, so it took more than 5 hours to get from Munnar to Allepey (a.k.a. Alapuzha).

The area south of Kochi is known as the Kerala backwaters and is famous for its scenic landscapes.  As you can see on the map below, there are a lot of lakes, lagoons, rivers and canals in the area and life revolves very much around the water.

A popular way to experience the beauty and lifestyle of the Kerala backwaters is to hire a houseboat. Houseboats are one of those iconic images about Kerala. Every time you mention Kerala – you see/hear about houseboats. We, however, had heard mixed reviews. The tourist websites are selling the houseboat tours as this incredible, idyllic experience that should not be missed if you visit Kerala. A couple of friends of ours, who had been on houseboats, said that it was nice but overrated. The only way to find out was to try it and decide for ourselves, so we did.

It was difficult to decide which houseboat company to hire because there are so many and their websites say pretty much the same thing. We went with a company called Lakes and Lagoons. It was mid-range, I guess – not the cheapest but not the most expensive either. It cost about $170 for the four of us including the boat trip, our room on the boat overnight, lunch, dinner and breakfast the next day.

The houseboats are former fishing boats, which have been retrofitted for tourist purposes and look like this:
The boat above is not ours but ours was very similar. Ours had two bedrooms but we only had paid for one and were not allowed to use the second one. Each bedroom had a shower and toilet. There was also an open living room space, hallway, a small kitchen and some space for storage in the back. There were three men on our boat – one cook, and two boat drivers, who were alternating.

There were hundreds of houseboats plying the Kerala backwaters. Some were fancier, with second store balconies and other features we didn’t have, some were even more rudimentary than ours.

Observing life from a houseboat was fascinating. It’s a bummer that we forgot our good camera because it was hard to capture the neat, interesting, and strange (sometimes) scenes we encountered. I apologize for the poor quality of the pictures but here are some scenes we found interesting in no particular order:
A couple going about their business in a small round paddleboat,

A little girl, who couldn’t have been more than 6, and her father, crossing the river on a canoe,

an old man going back home in his canoe,

a man transporting hay,

people transporting rice,

then unloading at its destination,

people moving trucks on the water,

loading a digger on a boat,

doing the  laundry,


or washing the dishes,

kids coming home from school on a canoe (in the picture below the kids had just gotten of the boat and most of them are behind the bushes),

and animals bathing.

Not pictured are many people we saw bathing and brushing their teeth in the water (as well as a guy peeing in the water but that’s a whole other story).

We saw very few cars from the boat, and only a few motorcycles and bikes but every house seemed to have a canoe.

A scene, that I really loved for some reason was of this woman, who came out of her home on the water, fished a coconut out of the water and took it back in the house to cook with. Fresh coconut milk or oil whenever you need it – how cool is that?! She didn’t even have to climb the coconut palm tree for it – it was bobbing in the water waiting for her.

As I mentioned in my prior post, Kerala has a lot of Christians and the backwaters is not an exception. We saw many churches along the water:

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In the evening, we stopped in a small village and walked around. It was evening mass time and the village church was full of people, so much so that people had spilled out on the covered grounds around the church. Interestingly, the men were sitting on one side of the church, while the women on the other.

We saw people walking around the church with bricks on their heads. Some had one, others two or three.

We asked why and our guide told that they were making an offering to the church. I guess the church was getting ready to build something and this is how the congregation was helping.

There was also a lot of Christian memorabilia for sale outside the church:

After the stop at the village, our crew drove the boat to a quiet area and docked for the night while we watched the lovely sunset.

Our crew plugged us into electricity and turned the air conditioning on, which was a good thing because it was quite hot. Our room was quite small and there was barely enough space for all of us to sleep. There was a shower and a toilet but they were also quite cramped. The whole boat was OK but not exactly pristine and while it was terrific for watching our surroundings, it was not particularly comfortable as far as accommodations go. It was probably comparable to a one-star hotel. The food was OK but nothing special. In hindsight, we’d probably have been better off doing a 4 hour boat tour and then staying at a nice hotel. But we didn’t know that at the time…

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Kerala – Part 1: Kochi and Munnar

(Note: We stupidly forgot our good camera at home for this trip, so all the pictures in this post were taken with our phones.)

We had an Indian holiday last Monday (Holi), so we decided to take a couple of extra days off and go to Kerala. It is all the way down South and has been on our must-visit list as we had heard a lot about its culture and beauty but it’s quite far from Delhi (about 2700km/1600 mi), so it was not an easy trip to plan. But with less than 6 months left in India, we decided to go for it. We had a total of 5 days which was not enough time but 5 days are better than none. We spent a night in Kerala’s capital Kochi (a.k.a. as Cochin), two nights up in Munnar, which is a hill station (mountain retreat) and a night on a house boat in the backwaters around Alleppey (a.k.a Alapuzha). Many places here have two names – a pre-colonial and a colonial name (as in Mumbai/Bombay, Chennai/Madras, Bangaluru/Bangalore etc). A lot of cities are now going back to their pre-colonial names but enough people know and use their colonial names, so you see both.


We took an early Saturday flight which put us in Kochi before 10 a.m., however, the airport is quite far from the city, so by the time we got to our hotel it was close to noon and some of us were in bad need of a nap. We stayed at Hotel Arches, a small boutique hotel with nice, spacious rooms, good food and very friendly staff. It’s located in Fort Kochi, a charming historic neighborhood with a lot of old trees and buildings dating back from its Dutch and Portuguese colonial days. The Portuguese did massive conversions to Christianity in this part of the world (some of which were actually quite brutal), so Kerala as a state, and especially Kochi, has a lot of Christians. We knew that in theory but it was really interesting to see all the churches around town including some really beautiful brand new mega-churches which were truly impressive.

This part of India is known as the Spice Coast as this is where the spice trade with India originated some 3000 years ago. Initially the trade was with China, Indonesia and the Middle East but later the Europeans “discovered” India too. To this day, a lot of spices such as black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, vanilla, nutmeg, and many others come from here. Kerala is also known as a progressive state. It has the highest literacy rates in all of India (almost 100%) as well as low infant mortality and poverty rates. We were told that’s because they were lucky to have several very capable rulers in pre-colonial times and then the Portuguese, brutal as they were in their conversion practices, built a lot of schools together with the churches, thus providing a high-quality, low-cost education system, which is still the envy of the country.

South India also has a strong matriarchal tradition from pre-colonial times, so women and girls have better access to education, health services, work opportunities etc. We were told that a large proportion of Keralans work overseas (mostly in the Middle East but also in Europe and the Americas), so the economy gets a boost from their remittances as well. It truly seemed like a gentler, more relaxed version of the India we had seen up until now – it looked less crowded, cleaner, the roads were well-maintained, the people more civil. We did not see any homeless people or beggars. And while there were many people selling things, we did not encounter the relentless hawkers and peddlers we have become accustomed to across North India.

We didn’t have much time in Kochi but we did visit the Dutch palace. It was interesting but unfortunately, no pictures were allowed inside . We also did some souvenir shopping mixed in with a little entertainment for the kids:

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We ended the evening with a traditional Kerala dance-drama performance called Kathakali. As we entered the small theater, we saw the performers applying their make-up and getting ready:


An announcer explained that the colors the performers use are all derived naturally, mostly from ground minerals (I wonder if this is where mineral make-up came from, ha!), which are mixed with coconut oil before being applied. Then we had a demo of various emotions and expressions used in this type of art, which was quite amusing. Finally, the performance itself started. It was a story from one of the classic Indian epics, Mahabharata, and was interesting but the kids got restless towards the end, especially the little one, so we had to leave before it was over. Here are a couple of scenes:

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The next morning, we got up early, had breakfast at the open roof patio of the hotel and headed out to Munnar by car. Munnar is about 150 km (less than 100 miles) from Kochi but it took us almost 5 hours to get there because more than half of the way is a winding mountain road (parts of it one-lane) and you really can’t go very fast. IMG_20140317_094532

The drive was very scenic. We drove through many quaint small towns and villages with beautiful homes, churches and mosques. We saw quite a few brightly painted trucks like this one:


There were also a lot of coconut, banana, pineapple, tapioca, and rubber plantations along the way as well as several waterfalls but since this was the dry season, a couple of the waterfalls were completely dry.

About halfway, we stopped at a spice garden and had a tour. The guide showed us various types of spices and medicinal herbs and told us how they are grown and used. There was also a store at the garden where you could purchase spices and ayurvedic (traditional Indian medicine) cures for various ailments. We bought some things and continued on our way. We were quite exhausted by the time we got to the hotel, The Spice Tree, so we splashed in the Jacuzzi and hang out the rest of the day.

Munnar is a big tea-growing area. We saw the sprawling tea plantations on our way to the hotel and they were truly breathtaking but we had been on the road for hours and really wanted to get to our hotel. The Spice Tree Hotel is a lovely new property and the staff went out of their way to please us. They had free yoga classes, guided hikes, tea tastings, and kids activities, which was quite lovely. The only thing I didn’t like about it was that it was not in the tea plantation area. It is in the middle of a cardamom plantation area, which is also nice but not nearly as spectacular as the tea plantations.

The next morning, we headed out for a stroll in the tea plantations and had a glorious time. Tea is an evergreen plant and even though we were there during the dry season, the green in the area is so intense it is impossible not to fall under its spell. Even the kids, who are sometimes unimpressed with the places we visit, loved Munnar’s tea gardens. Nia declared that she wanted to live there and Max was thrilled climbing the giant rocks. Pictures (especially taken with a phone) don’t do the place justice but that’s what we have, so here are some:

PANO_20140317_100328 IMG_20140317_104605 Munnar beauty awesome munnar Munnar family1You will notice some taller trees in the middle of the sea of green. Those are Silver Leaf trees, named so because the bottoms of their leaves are a very light color and they look silver-ish in the wind. We were told that they are planted in between the tea plants because they have the peculiar property of collecting and retaining water during the rainy season and then slowly releasing it in the soil during the dry season, which is pretty nifty because this way the the tea plants don’t require any watering. The tea plants themselves would grow as tall as 2o meters if left alone but they are constantly plucked and trimmed and that’s why they look so well manicured. There’s no season for tea picking – it is done about every 20 days. The tea pickers used to pluck the leaves by hand but now they use these big hedge trimmer scissors (still manual – no electricity or gas is used) with a boxes attached to them where the cut leaves are collected.Nia Munnar IMG_20140317_100631

It was very difficult to leave the tea gardens but our driver told us we could go for an elephant ride nearby and the kids got excited about that, so off we went. The elephant ride wasn’t bad but there was a long wait, which dampened our enthusiasm a little. Our driver was nice enough to take a few pictures of us:

In the picture above the elephant dude is wearing something like a long sarong skirt. It’s called a lungi and it is a very common piece of clothing for South Indian men. They wear it just like in the picture above, when it’s cool and when they are hot, they fold it up in half and it becomes a short skirt. It seems very unusual to see men wearing it everywhere at first but you kinda get used to it after a while.

At the end of the ride, we got to feed Julie, our elephant, pineapples for an additional 100 rupees ($1.5). Julie seemed to enjoy the pineapples and the kids really liked Julie.


Perhaps the weirdest and possibly unmentionable (but I’ll mention it anyway) thing we saw that day was a guy, whose job it was to collect the elephant poop and clear it from the path of the elephants. I suppose leaving the poop in the path could be a safety concern as the path was on a steep-ish hill and an elephant could slip on it. So if an elephant had to go, this guy would just go behind it, grab the somewhat solid but still fresh poop from the ground with his bare hands (no kidding – there were no gloves or tool of any sort involved) and throw it in the bushes on the side of the path, where there was a growing pile of poop. Craziness!!!

On the way back from the elephant ride we had lunch at Mahindra Resort (another nice hotel in the area), took a picture with a this guy…

Me Munnar

… and bought some excellent teas from an outlet at one of the tea plantations. We went back to our hotel for a tea tasting, while the hotel staff entertained the kids with towel origami. It was lovely to try different types of tea and learn more about how they are grown and turned into the drink so many of us enjoy, though that turned out to be a bit too much caffeine for me as I couldn’t sleep all night.

Before dinner we went for a hike with several other guests of our hotel. We hiked through the cardamom plantations surrounding our hotel to a place called Sunset Point, where there were some Stone Age ruins. Here’s a picture of the cardamom plantation:

And here is the sunset at the Stone Age ruins:


I am going to leave you with a song video from a popular (thought not very good) movie called Chennai Express. The song, “Kashmir me, tu Kanyakumari*” was filmed in Munnar last year and features several of the things I talk about in this blog post – the breathtaking tea gardens, the lungi, and the Kathakali performers.

Next up: our house boat adventure in Allepey.

*Translated the title of the song means “I am Kashmir (the northernmost point of India) you are Kanyakumari (the southernmost point of India.)” The movie is a love story between a man and a woman who couldn’t be more different from each other, hence the song title.

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