From Coimbatore to Cochin, Periyar, Allepey and Home: 31st January – 8th February.
We left the Ooty train and the narrow gauge railway and took a taxi to our serviced apartment in Coimbatore, ready to catch the train to Cochin the next day. It took longer than we thought to reach Coimbitore from Mettapulyam and it was a frightening taxi ride. The driver overtook cars, auto rickshaws, buses and lorries with inches to spare; Jane shouting at him as he pulled out on yet another suicide overtaking mission – all to no avail. I sank into a state of fatalistic passivity. The journey lasted about an hour and took us through an apparently much wealthier part of India, with fewer shacks and huts and more classy outlets selling building materials, polished granite of all colours, porcelain tiles, trucks, cars etc.
The arrangement with the serviced apartment included evening meal and breakfast. All other guests were Indian and did not have our trouble in understanding the menu that was written on a board in the small dining room. With a bit of help from fellow guests we enjoyed good food, having developed a liking for dosas, a bit like pancakes.
The next day we caught the train to Cochin. To our surprise- because we have encountered very few Europeans on our travels – there were a significant number of British tourists of our sort of age who were also catching the train. We struggled with our luggage, which has steadily increased in bulk and weight whilst these tour groups had theirs transported by bus to Cochin. We had tickets for the 13.10, the high tech screens said there were two trains to Cochin, one at 12.45 and one at 13.15. In the end a train arrived at 13.50. It was not as modern as the one we had caught from Chennai to Mysore. The carriages were semi enclosed with two bunks above each bench seat. Visibility out of the window was not good. I was feeling exhausted and attempted to sleep through vendors walking up and down the train shouting their wares of coffee, biriani, lemon tea etc.
At Cochin we had to enlist the help of a porter for our luggage which has grown to two large bags, two medium bars and various random bags of food etc. He hoisted one case on his head and one on his shoulder and wanted to take our two additional trolley bags as well. He was strong but sweating a lot when we got to the taxi rank after two flights of stairs. Well worth £2.20 or so.
We went by taxi to our hotel in Fort Cochin. The Old Courtyard is an old colonial building, very well positioned for the historic fort and port area. We had a great stay there, of three nights. We enjoyed walking along the estuary watching the Chinese fishing nets in action and the fishing boats coming in with their catch and the fish sales on the beach.
We hired an auto rickshaw driver who spoke good English and took us around to see the sights. This included the Dutch laundry, a historic institution which now does laundry for most of the hotels. He also took us to ‘ Jew Town’, with SE Asia’s oldest synagogue and very good tourist shops, the Indo Dutch museum, an art exhibition and a women’s spice cooperative. Cochin was originally governed by the Portuguese, then the Dutch took over, then the English and there is evidence of all these influences.
When we stopped for a drink we looked out over the water to see more than twelve Indian sea eagles all following what appeared to be a shoal of fish and swooping down on to the water. They were a magnificent sight, big birds, white heads dark brown and black bodies
We had an Ayurvedic massage in Cochin which was a memorable experience. I found myself in paper knickers, sitting on a plastic stool anticipating a neck and shoulder massage, when to my surprise my masseuse came up behind me and poured warm oil on the top of my head and gave me a head massage! The massage continued to be very oily, which I love but it ended with the instruction to remove oil from hair and body using a bucket of warm water and a jug, not hugely successful, given the quantity of oil.
On our second evening we went to a performance of Kathakali dance. It was very different from the performance in Ponducherry and there was some explanation of the emphasis on facial expression and gesture which made it almost possible to follow the story. As a dance spectacle it is superb.
We happened to run into the four elderly people that we had met at Gitanjali Homestay, those of ex pat, reactionary viewpoints. They invited us to join them for dinner which we did. We had a fantastic Kerala prawn curry which was so delicious that we went to the same restaurant the next evening.
From Cochin we went up into the mountainous area to Thekaddy, close to the Periyar National Park tiger reserve . We stayed in a homestay which was right in the jungle and was run by a Danish man and his partner from Newcastle, both of whom were vegan. They had built two stone cottages on their land, for themselves and for their guests. The smaller guest cottage was very spacious and well built. It was also very much an eco place. We had two toilets in the bathroom for use according to what function was called for and lots of sawdust! The shower had a limit of three litres of water; when it ran out we had to wait three minutes for the water to reheat, which effectively limited time in the shower! It was extremely cold at night and first thing in the morning, but very hot during the day. The vegan food was delicious and it was interesting to hear their story on how they had come to settle in India.
We took a half hour auto rickshaw ride to the national park, on treacherously steep mountain roads. We had hired a guide, Vino, to guide us through a walk in the reserve. He was a local man and lived in a village just outside the park. The villagers only are allowed into the park to fish and collect fire wood. We met his aunt and grandmother fishing as we walked with him. On the way we saw monkeys, water birds and three elephants who were eating grass in the lake. The walk was a delight and our first real exercise since Ooty. On our way back we came across a herd of wild boar, about 30 in all, on the run through the trees next to us. They stopped and looked at us and and our guide picked up a log as he was concerned they could charge us. They didn’t and all was well.
We had lunch at the reserve’s only hotel, a government establishment that surprisingly served beer – Kerala is a dry state with severe restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol . We were made to feel uncomfortable and not allowed in the restaurant with our beers. After lunch we queued for a ticket to go on a boat trip. They cannot be bought in advance and required completion of forms with copious personal details. This is because there had been a sinking of the boat nine years ago, with 41 dead, all Indians who who were unable to swim. The more elderly European visitors all survived. The details required were for identification purposes should the boat sink again.
There was a very large group of monkeys around the boat waiting area which frightened many of the visitors, for example by running off with babies bottles, water bottles and anything else they could get hold of.
On the boat trip we saw more elephants, a range of deer, a herd of buffalo and many birds. It was enjoyable but very crowded unlike some of the other boat trips we have enjoyed on this trip. The monkeys continued to snatch at bags at the end of a trip and had a tussle with me over a rucksack which I managed to hold onto.
The following day we headed down the mountain to Allepey, with the temperature soaring as we lost altitude. We had a Homestay on the backwater, not far from Allepey. To get there we had to take a canoe across the waterway. It was a great place to end our trip. The old house belonging to George and his family has been in the family for 200 years, passing to the youngest sons, with George being the the fifth generation. Our room was lined with hard wood and had an outside bathroom, which was lovely, as the sun came in first thing in the morning, allowing showers in the sunshine.
On our first day we hired a boat from Sebastian, who took us on a great trip around the small waterways which only the smaller small boats could navigate. We saw some beautiful birds, including a very large kingfisher. We saw local life close up, people fishing, people washing themselves, their clothes and their cooking utensils in the river water ( dark, dank, murky, green…). We stopped at a shack like shop for a coconut, as promised by Sebastian, but they had run out. Jane facetiously suggested a beer and to our amazement – this is dry Kerala- Sebastian went off and came back with a big bottle of Tubourg beer with a ring pull, which I have never previously seen (the ring pull...) We took it back to our veranda and enjoyed a warm beer, the first for some time. The exercise was repeated when Sebastian took us on a a sun set trip the next day.
We spent a couple of days travelling around the waterways, sometimes with Sebastian and sometimes on public boats. There were literally hundreds of rice boats converted to luxury houseboats to take guests for overnight stays. They plough up and down the waterways like large buffalo. We decided not to join one of these as we had been advised they can only navigate the wide channels and miss out on local waterside life. By the time we left we could see that the rice boats were huge business, processing large number of tourists for a quick in and out on the waterways. We stayed on the riverside and were completely unable to locate a café or restaurant as it seems that all tourist activity is centred on the house boats. However we really enjoyed Sebastian’s smaller boat and the public boats. One of these took us to Allepey, which held little charm and again was not at all geared up to the tourist trade, other than rice boat operators. We also walked along the waterways, across the footpaths through the the rice paddies. It was hot but idyllic, a great end to our trip.
So I am writing this from our hotel at Cochin airport where we have been driven today, ready for our flight tomorrow. I had expected to look forward to the end of the trip and my return home but find that I have become accustomed to the nomadic life and, in particular to enjoying a tropical climate during the British winter. I look forward to seeing friends and family but have a feeling that the travel bug has not been laid to rest. Far from it.