Episode 35: Kochi/Alleppey, India
Date: 04th-08th April 2013.
Well, it’s been a while hasn’t it? We’ve just returned from Kerala (strapline: “God’s Own Country”) and I’ve decided to dust off the old travel blog to deliver some Indian grumpiness.
It was our debut in India and we’d heard wonderful things about Kerala, so we were keen to see if it lived up to the hype. The journey itself was something of an epic – leaving the UK in freezing temperatures and arriving dishevelled to a steamy pre-dawn Kochi after 19 hours travel. En route we’d witnessed first-hand the jaw-dropping expense of Abu Dhabi (where we’d be spending a couple of days on the way back) when we emptied our bank accounts at the airport in return for a couple of pints of lager.
Kochi airport at 4am is pandemonium: hundreds of beeping cars; people running hither and thither; and those guys directing traffic with whistles, who seem to just be doing it for a laugh since nobody knows what the whistles mean. Thankfully we had a taxi booked and the nutter behind the wheel delivered us (somehow without incident, more on the roads later) to our first Indian homestay.
As it was 6am when we arrived, and knowing that our beds awaited us just feet above, we had to work hard to feign interest as our hosts gave us a mystery drink and took us through their spiel. When we finally turned in we slept pretty soundly until 1pm.
To make our first day more exciting Jane had lodged an earplug in her ear canal. Admittedly we’d had to split a pair of those silicone ones as we hadn’t found the proper ones but, knowing that the earplug was smaller than usual, you’d probably avoid trying to force it deep into your brain. When Doctor Tom with tweezers proved unsuccessful (how can you tweeze what you can’t see?), Jane started ferreting around with a hair grip and eventually got the blighter out (although her ear is yet to recover 3 weeks later).
Panic over, we ventured out along the dusty road to Fort Cochin. If you’re thinking of following in our footsteps, I would urge you not to bother. We were expecting something like the beautiful Malaysian colonial towns of Georgetown and Melacca – interesting architecture and tourist-friendly historical sights. What we got was very different.
We began with our holiday first-day staple of trying to find a cash machine which didn’t hate us. We’d told our banks we were going away, but they’d conspired with the Indian banks to ensure that it took us an hour, 4 widely-spaced and distant ATMs and a call to Sainsbury’s bank to finally get our hands on some rupees just in time to find out that everywhere had stopped serving lunch.
[Why do banks do that automated security thing and then ask you all the questions again when you get through to them, costing you as much in phone bills as a bag of peanuts in Abu Dhabi?]
We found the only place in town open for lunch and dined on coconut pancakes (sounds better than it was), then decided that we’d leave the sights until the following day and headed back to the cool of our homestay. I say cool, but since most of the region uses hydroelectricity and there’d been no rain in weeks, we got used to the regular powercuts.
Day 2 was the day to see the sights of Fort Cochin and they really, really weren’t up to much. The main tourist attraction is the area with the Chinese fishing nets. Unfortunately it’s also the area with the carpet of litter and stench of rotten fish. I can appreciate the engineering of the nets, but maybe we were missing something, or had approached from the wrong angle.
According to our guidebook this was the number 2 thing to see in Kerala. Number 2 sounds about right.
Next up was the Mattancherry Palace, an autorickshaw ride away. Please don’t let the name deceive you. Aside from some nice murals, there was next to nothing here of interest and the building itself was very plain.
We decided, with some trepidation, to head for the next “sight” on the list, the nearby synagogue. It was almost a relief when we found it closed, since from the outside it looked like another number 2 sight. I did like the shops nearby with guys outside saying “no hassle shop, I’m not hassling you, please come in and look, it’s a no hassle shop”. I felt hassled, so we repaired to the shade of a nearby cafe for a refreshing ginger and lime soda (only actually drinkable with about a pint of syrup tipped in, unless you want to turn your face inside out).
Wanting something a bit stronger than ginger and lime, we sought the local booze shack later in the day. In Kerala drinking is really frowned upon (I suppose it’s a bit like class A drugs in the UK). Apparently if a bar tries to open anywhere near a school, local protest groups will spring up and sometimes the bars are vandalised. Bloody fools!
Buying alcohol from the government-sanctioned official sellers would be enough to put you off booze, if you weren’t a beer-hungry Westerner who’d been walking round all day in 35 degree heat. We queued with around 20 bleary-eyed middle-aged men, all buying half-bottles of whisky, which I assume they do every day/hour. It was quite depressing. As was finding that the only beer on offer was Budweiser – nobody’s favourite tipple, but any port in a storm.
Later that evening we actually found a bar. It was less than accommodating, dingy, hot, slightly smelly. Little did we know that it would be the nicest bar we’d find in Kerala.
The next morning I attempted to chop my finger off using a chair. I was sitting down to breakfast and unknowingly lifted the seat section whilst pulling my chair into the table. I then sat down with my considerable weight going directly onto my index finger, which was between the seat and the metal legs. I don’t mind admitting that I cursed loudly and freely.
Imagine my despair when I found that: a) there was almost no visible evidence of the injury (a split nail and some minor bleeding), preventing me from garnering the extensive, gushing sympathy the initial acute pain had promised (frankly, I was expecting my finger to be cleaved in twain, affording me a future rugged scar and a heavily embellished story involving a circular saw or a shark); and b) it was toast for breakfast.
We really wanted to sample all the Keralan food we could shovel down our necks in the homestays, but twice we were given dry toast and had to hide our scowls (perhaps it’s a breakfast treat for the locals).
We couldn’t wallow for long, we were due on an eco-friendly houseboat on the much-lauded backwaters near Alleppey.
Now, far be it from me to complain about things, but whilst there were some excellent things about this trip, the actual boating was a bit disappointing. We had imagined being punted along narrow, winding waterways, with overhanging vegetation and only the sounds of the local fauna to break the silence. What we got was a man pulling us along a man-made canal, as if he were some kind of pony, and kids begging from the banks: “What’s your name?…… Tom….. That’s a pretty name….. What’s your name?….. [Their name], do you have a pen?….. No, sorry…… A chocolate?….. No, sorry….. Money?….. No, sorry – giddyup horsey.”
At the end of the canal there was a lake, where at least our old boy was back on the boat with us rather than pretending to be a horse on the towpath. It wasn’t unpleasant being punted across the lake, but we weren’t exactly in the middle of nowhere – you could constantly hear music from one or other of the local houses and we stopped at a village to take a walk to the beach (nice enough, but not really on the itinerary).
We felt obliged to have a little wander on the beach to work up an appetite for lunch and when we strolled back to the boat we were punted to the middle of the lake and lunch was served. I have to say, it was really excellent food.
I was a little surprised on going to retrieve the punter after we’d finished and been at anchor for about an hour that he was curled up fast asleep in the corridor. When we finally got back underway we retraced our route along the man-made canal and our punting was done.
Whilst we had a really relaxing day, in hindsight we should have clarified the route before we set off. However, with our punter speaking no English this may not have been easy.
We spent the night at anchor on the lake near our start point, had another fantastic meal on the boat and a couple of beers we’d brought with us. Although cramped, we slept well, setting us up nicely for our introduction to the Indian railways the following day.
It wasn’t exactly the authentic railway experience, as we’d booked the air-con car for our 6-hour journey to Kannur and the beach, so we had reasonable leg-room and fairly comfy seats.
Our carriage quickly became like a skip on wheels as the passengers ate, drank and threw everything they had no need for on the floor. In fairness, no bins were provided and it was marginally better than the rest of the train, who just slung any litter out of the window. It’s a real problem and unfortunately it’s done totally unthinkingly, it’s just normal behaviour.
Somehow we got a little sleep on the train, in spite of the chai, coffee, biryani and snack wallahs passing through approximately every 7 seconds; the insistence of all passengers to use the headrest of my seat (and sometimes my head) as a handrail when moving through the carriage; and the chap pictured below, who may be the most disgusting human I’ve ever encountered and made a noise when sleeping like a jet engine.
In the next post you can look forward to some birds of prey, female nudity, a catalogue of toilet-related misery and Jane failing her challenge to either wrestle a tiger or stamp on a king cobra.