Kerala, India: A Week Around Kerla – by Barb

Usually when booking our travels, I try to plan places to stay for about a week. That way we don’t feel like we are constantly on the move. We have time to unpack our bags and get to know the area a little bit. Of course, this wasn’t the case in Australia, when we had the camper van but that was a different situation. Kerala was also a bit different. From everything I had read, Kerala is a beautiful state in India and one that everyone wants to visit. In fact it was a challenge to find budget accommodation there over the Christmas holiday as it is obviously popular at that time. From my reading though, it sounded as though each of the towns in Kerala has something interesting to see or do but you don’t really need to spend a long time there as the towns are quite small. So, I decided we would travel to 4 different towns, staying 2 nights in each. While it did turn out that the towns were small enough to see in a couple of days, traveling between towns, on windy switch back roads for 6 hours every two days did not turn out to be the most fun we have had during our travels! Poor Caleb went through many a sick bag and although I was not physically ill I didn’t feel much better than he did!

Our motion sickness woes aside, we did manage to see some amazing sights in Kerala. We began in Cochin, which is best known for the Chinese fishing nets that dot its shores. It was fascinating to watch these nets. They are set up on bamboo and teak poles and held horizontally by huge mechanisms, which lower them into the sea. They look somewhat like hammocks and are counter-weighed by large stones tied to ropes.

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We stood out like sore thumbs in Cochin (as we did in all of India!) and lots of tuk tuk drivers wanted to take us to shops. You see, they will take you there for free and then they get a commission if you buy something. We did fall prey to one such driver and ended up spending about an hour at a craft shop, with a very convincing sales man!

I had heard great things about the Kathakali Dance Show so we decided we’d go there one evening. They suggested you could arrive an hour early and learn how to apply the make up. The show was supposed to give you an explanation about how the dance is done, including the various facial movements. We needed to grab something to eat so we only managed to arrive ½ hour before the show began…..thank heavens! The two guys were just sitting on stage applying their makeup, so it was like sitting and watching someone getting ready in the morning! Not too interesting for any more than 5 or 10 minutes! But Clay got some good pictures.

Dinner before the show:

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When the show finally began, they had the main character come out and sit on a chair and then they showed us how his eyes move to express different moods…….not just 2 or 3 examples but how his eyes move for about 50 different expressions. Oh my goodness! Then the story began. We had read in the program that it was supposed to end with the killing of the king. Well, at one point I leaned over and said to Caleb, “Just kill him already!!” It took forever! Interesting? Yes! But about an hour too long!

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Watching the eye gestures:

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Nearing the end of the show!

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We stayed at a lovely guest house in Cochin. The owner kept it spotlessly clean and was very helpful. He helped us arrange transportation to our next town and his wife cooked us a delicious Kerala breakfast.

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Before leaving Cochin we stopped at an organic spice shop (I think it might have been owned by our driver’s cousin because he was very insistent we have a look!). We did get some cashews for the trip, which turned out to be good to have since we didn’t stop for lunch.

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We also stopped to see a local laundry facility. The driver wanted us to stop at various other shops but by this point we had learned to be a little more assertive when he asked and replied with a firm “no thank you”!

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Our accommodation in Alleppey began a trend that we were to see throughout our time in Kerala. I had found the best budget accommodation I could. We aim for places that are clean (relatively) have wifi and are in a good location. It would seem that when you get these things, it does not imply that you will also have….sheets, toilet paper, and/or a shower. I’m not sure what people usually do without sheets on beds but we were happy to finally get some good use out of the sleep sacks we had brought along on our journey! We had also already learned that even when you do get toilet paper in many places, the rolls are usually 1/10 the size of the ones we use back home, so we carry any extras with us just in case! So, we were “good to go” with our sparse rooms!

The highlight of Alleppey is the backwaters. You can take a houseboat and stay overnight on the canals (for a huge fee) or you can rent a shikara (covered boat) and go for several hours through much smaller canals to see the villages. We opted for the latter and spent five hours cruising out on the water. It was beautiful and we all enjoyed it. I brought a few books and some cards for the boys and they were happy to relax for several hours. Before we set out, we had to barter with our driver over the fee and finally agreed on 4 hours for 2200 Rps. He promised us he would take us on the tiniest canals where we would see several villages and that we would travel out one way and come back a different way. He kept his word: the canals got smaller and smaller, to the point that we were barely fitting under the bridges. Then we got to one that we definitely weren’t going to make it under! We all sat on the very front of the boat and pushed down but still no luck! We took off the cover on the top of the boat. Still no luck! We had to turn around and take a different route. He told us this would make the trip a little bit longer. Well, it took a whole extra hour to get back…..and yes, that meant he wanted more money! We will never know if this was just a scam to get more money or not but this time Clay held firm – a deal was a deal so we would not pay extra. He was not happy!

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After Alleppey we were off on a 6 hour horrific drive to Thekkady. After recovering from the drive the boys spent some time working on a new game they were designing. It was called Business Traveller and was a combination of Monopoly and Settlers. They were determined to get it finished so we could play it for New Year’s Eve! They had to take a break from their game work for a couple of hours though while we went to see a Kalaripayattu demonstration, with the hope that this would be a little more engaging than the Kathakali show we had seen a few nights prior! Kalaripayattu is the oldest Martial art, known as the mother of all martial arts. It originated in ancient South India.

We were not disappointed! The hour flew by and the whole time we were on the edges of our seats! I was worried I was going to end up with a spear or some other weapon in my eye, since we were in the front row overlooking the “ring” where the show took place. The boys were fascinated and were equally entertained by the martial arts as they were by my facial expressions of “ooh” and “aah” watching them and ducking when it looked like something was heading our direction!

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We walked home after the show and the boys worked for another 3 hours, determined to finish their game. We ended up staying up until 11:30 so we could play it for the first time!

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The next morning after breakfast we were off to Periyar Tiger Reserve, South India’s most popular wildlife sanctuary. This reserve encompasses 777 sq km and includes a 26-sq-km artificial lake created by the British in 1895. The region is home to bison, sambar, wild boar, langur, over 1000 elephants and around 46 tigers. We met our guide, Sujeet beside the lake and took a bamboo raft across to the other side of the lake. We then spent the next 3 hours hiking through the reserve, tracking elephants, sloth bears, and hoping for the very rare sighting of a tiger! We found lots of droppings and saw the claw marks of leopards climbing up the trees to catch the monkeys. At one point our guide thought we were getting close to some elephants but with no luck, although it was obvious they had recently been in the clearing given the fresh footprints at the water’s edge. Still, I thought it was a great morning and we learned a lot about the flora and fauna in the area.

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It was time to hit the road again, this time off to the tea town of Munnar. Munnar was another gruelling car ride through the mountains. Our guest house was quite a ways out of town and was a challenge to find, since it was hidden in behind other buildings. Given that it had been so difficult to find a place to stay in Munnar, we were surprised that it looked like we were the only ones staying at the place. It was perched right on the side of the mountain, with each room several steps lower than the one above it. The views of the sunset were stunning. The room was sparse but adequate. We had blankets this time due to the colder temperatures up in the mountains but our bathroom vented onto the room of the housekeeper behind us. Whenever he smoked, it wafted into our bedroom!

Sprawling tea plantations surround the hills of Munnar and we were keen to learn more about how the tea is harvested in this area. We visited the tea museum and factory on the outskirts of town. Here they explained how the tea is grown, how it is picked, and how it is dried and packaged. There was also a video showing the history of the area. It was interesting to learn about but not quite as exciting as the ride on the tuk tuk to and from the factory!

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The next morning we were off again, back to Cochin. This time we were staying at a house outside of town. We were greeted by Dr. Joseph, who was happy to sit and chat for a while. He had a most interesting story to tell as we learned that he had been a doctor for Unicef and had traveled all around the world. He and his wife had purchased these 2 houses beside the river and were renting them out to guests. His wife enjoyed gardening and had planted various fruits and vegetables around the extensive property. Dr. Joseph made sure we had food to eat – ordering us some dinner that would arrive later that evening. He helped to arrange transportation to the airport for the following day and even asked his housekeeper to travel with us when we walked around the neighbourhood so we wouldn’t get lost (we told her we were OK on our own, but it was a nice gesture!). It was a beautiful, relaxing place to stay for our last night in Kerala.

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