The drive to the backwaters of Kerala in Kumarakom was, yes, long! But in part fascinating, as we drove through a small village celebrating a temple festival, and traffic came to a stop as two parades converged from opposite directions on the little more than one-lane road. There were a few police officers standing around waving what we’ve been calling “swagger sticks.” But the traffic didn’t seem to pay much attention at all, and it was to the peril of the parade participants and the bystanders as buses, log trucks, tuktuks and cars tried to wend their way along the route. It took us at least an hour to go about 2 miles – and that after we got out of the car and walked along the parade route. Why sit (even in the cool car) when we could experience the excitement of a village parade? We probably added an element of novelty to the festivities as well!
Young men were carrying enormous pyramid-shaped wooden frames covered with multi-colored foil flowers – in a sort of wooden yoke across their shoulders. As the band of flutes and drums played, the men started twirling, until they got dizzy and passed the contraption to someone else.
We eventually made it to the houseboat dock, (after an amusing elephant in a truck scene and an extraordinary sighting of over 20 eagles soaring over prawn fishing boats) where many traditional boats, known as Kettuvallam, were tied up. The hand-off to our crew of two was rather lackadaisical, and they didn’t speak much English – in a way this was fine as CW and I could just chat and ponder the view instead of asking the unending questions we’ve had throughout the trip. Our 60’ long boat had an open, but covered sitting/dining area with a built in bench running along the side of the boat where I enjoyed reclining and watching the scenery pass by. We had a small bedroom with tiny combined toilet/shower area (this is typical), and there was a kitchen and crew area in the back of the boat. We were really surprised by how many houseboats there were; it felt a bit like “houseboats on parade,” as you can see in the photo.
A backwaters overnight trip is probably not for anyone who needs a lot of movement or exercise! We spent a couple of hours the first day, including the late lunch, cruising the smaller canals and out into Lake Vembanad. There’s not much to do but watch what’s happening on shore and on the water – and it is beautiful and fascinating – village life on the water; women doing laundry by stepping down into the water on old stone stairs, slapping the laundry rhythmically against the side of the steps; children were swimming, old men were fishing, and long dragon-prowed boats were delivering huge sacks of the rice harvested from the paddies all along the back waters. And it was hot. 35 c or 95 F, and humid – so when the boat wasn’t cruising, the air was still, warm and moist, recalling my least favorite part of living in Singapore.
It was disappointing, after having seen all the quiet backwaters and the still lake, to find that we were going to dock and spend the night back at the busy, noisy boat mooring area. (Nothing I’d read indicated that we wouldn’t be somewhere away from civilization for the overnight part…) There was air-conditioning in the bedroom, the sound of which helped to mute music and conversation from neighboring boats – only a foot or two away. After breakfast, we cruised again for an hour and then returned to the dock to continue our journey by car to another part of the backwaters on Lake Vembanad, near the town of Kumarakom.
At the Abad Whispering Sands, we had our first true “resort” experience in India. Our cool, large and simple room overlooked the lake, hammocks suspended under the coconut trees, and sweetly, a number of Indian honeymoon couples. But it was only the international guests who enjoyed the “yoga in the pool.”
The big adventure for this brief resort stay was a long walk along one of the tiny lanes trying to find a coffee shop, and hopping into a convenient tuktuk to ride into the town of Kumarakom, where we had our first seafood in India at the “Hotel Dubai.” Then into a local sweet shop/bakery where we found cardamom chai and a pastry to celebrate this “non-birthday” for Leap Year baby CW.
From the backwaters we drove to Cochin (Kochi), a wonderful old Kerala city that between the 16th to 19th centuries was occupied by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. We stayed at the Koder House in Fort Kochi (the old city), a 200-year old home built by an early Jewish family; various early maharajahs had been both tolerant of and welcoming to other religions, and many Jews settled in Cochin from the 1500’s on – though now, only 7 Jewish residents live in the old city. We visited the lovely and poignant Jewish Synagogue, and strolled the lanes of what is commonly known as “Jew Town.” After the creation of the state of Israel, most Cochin Jews emigrated, leaving behind lovely old homes, and a way of life that had existed in Cochin for hundreds of years.
Cochin is one of my favorite stops on the trip – the history, the culture, the variety of people and ways of life were dazzling. Cochin is famous for its “Chinese Fishing Nets,” of which only a dozen or so remain in the old city. By getting up early in the morning, my stroll on the seaside promenade was quiet, except for the men working the fishing nets, lowering them via lines of suspended small boulders, letting the nets rest in the water for about five minutes, and then levering the huge nets back up with their catch. Stall owners hovered nearby waiting to purchase the fresh catch – and I’m sure we ate some of it later in the day.
We reluctantly left Cochin and flew across southern India to Chennai, driving south to the old French colony (until the 1960’s) of Pondicherry (Puducherry, these days.) This was a real treat, and more about that soon. As I write, we are sitting in a small rooftop restaurant in Mamallapuram, south of Chennai, preparing for our midnight drive to the airport for a 4am flight to London and home, so this blog will be posted after return and a day or two of jet lag. Namaste, and wishing you safe travels and to journeywise.
Other than the real “cold,” we haven’t been sick or had digestive problems…Here are some of the precautions we’ve taken: (some may seem silly, but hey, it’s worked!)
Teeth: NEVER used anything but bottled water, to wet the brush, rinse the mouth, clean the toothbrush…
Eyes: I wear contact lenses so, after cleaning lenses with solution, ALWAYS rinsed with bottled water, and after removing from case, I rinsed the case with bottled, NOT tap, water.
Drinking: ALWAYS drank bottled water, not even the purified and filtered water offered at some hotels and restaurants. We did often have masala chai and coffee from stalls, and were pretty sure the water was safely boiled…and we carried personal water bottles everywhere and refilled them from the large bottles of water we bought to keep in the car.
Cleanliness: Even though I’m not a fan of using antiseptic lotions and wipes at home, they were always by my side in India. I had a small generic bottle of antiseptic spray that I used on my hands frequently, and antiseptic wipes that I’d use to clean my face, neck and arms after any hot, sweaty activity – which was pretty much everything we did except in the highlands. Otherwise, we either did small bits of laundry in the hotel sink or had pieces sent out – laundry prices were incredibly cheap (10 rupees for undergarments, 20 for a shirt. 100 rupees approx. $1.60) And, we were a little dirty and a little smelly some of the time!