India Part Two— Mettapulyam to Alleppy, Kochin and Home.
And so we move to the final leg of our journey on the West Coast of India into Kerala which I know little about other than catching the odd snippet of the chef Rick Stein cooking in Kerala.
We left the Ooty train and the narrow gauge railway at Mettapulyam to overnight in a hotel In Coimbatore ready to catch the train to Kochin sometimes spelt Cochin on the East coast, so completing our journey from the West to the East side of Southern India. Our taxi driver picked us up at the hotel in Ooty and took our luggage down to Mettapulyam, this taking of luggage on ahead seemed to be the normal practtice for tourists. He met us as we got off the train and took us to our hotel. He was a young man with a good quality car, who drove very fast and overtook cars, auto rickshaws, buses and lorries with inches to spare, on one occasion I shouted “No” to him as he was about to overtake a lorry and a large dubiously maintained bus was coming straight for us. We were very glad when we arrived at the hotel just as it was going dark. The journey of about an hour, showed us we were in a much wealthier part of India.
As we travelled to Coimbatore through the rural areas there was little evidence of poor housing, no tarpaulins or patched roofs and as we approached the town some classy outlets selling building materials, polished granite of all colours and sizes, porcelain tiles, trucks expensive cars etc.
Our hotel was an aparthotel, we had two rooms three balconies and and a lounge area. It was an Indian hotel with half board thrown in, we were the only Europeans but the Indians were all most helpful as we had no idea what was on the menu. We developed a liking for Dosahs which are a sort of deep fried pancake, the Indians have curry in them,mostly vegetarian curry as the south is largely none meat eating,but we often had fruit with ours. Very delicious
The next day we were off to the railway station to catch the train to Kochin, on the platform were a significant number of British tourists who were also catching the train. Clearly this area is a fovourite tourist tour unlike other places we had been.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 the one and only train to Cochin arrived at 13.50. I had a chat with the station master who invited us to sit and chat with him in his office, he hadn’t really got any idea when the train would arrive, but it was good fun talking to him. The train was not as nice as the one we caught earlier in our India adventure, the carriages were semi enclosed with two bunks above each bench seat. Visibility out of the window not as good. However it was a pleasant journey and an experience,with people walking up and down the train shouting, coffee, biriani, lemon tea etc.
We arrived in Fort Cochin at Ernakulum Junction were we embarked. We enlisted the help of a porter for our luggage which has lately become much heavier. 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.
Off we went through the city of Cochin to Fort Cochin, where we stayed in an old colonial building very well positioned for all that we wanted to see.
Whilst in Fort Cochin we enjoyed walking along the water front watching the Chinese fishing nets in action and the fishing boats coming in with their catch and being sold on the beach.
We hired an auto rickshaw driver who spoke good english who took us around to see the Dutch laundry, I thought he wanted us to take our laundry and couldn’t quite understand why he wanted to take us there,but it was an historic monument still in use,originally built to do the Dutch army laundry when they dominated Cochin and now does laundry for most of the hotels. Looked jolly hard work, large majority of men working in the laundrt.
Cochin is a mixture of Portuguese, Dutch and British influence, you can sense it’s historic past as you walk the streets.
We had an Ayurvedic massage which was yet another experience. Found myself in paper underwear, sitting on a plastic stool expecting an immediate body massage to find my masseuse come up behind me and poor warm oil on the top of my head and give me a head massage which was lovely but for one who is not keen on oily preparations the oil was not. The massage was excellent but very oily, it ended with the opportunity for removal of oil via a bucket of warm water and a cold shower, not hugely successful as the oil and soap coagulated! Back to the hotel for a proper shower before I could consider doing anything else.
We enjoyed shopping in the historic streets, I found a shirt I liked, it was too long, no problem tailor on hand to alter it within 15 minutes for just over two pounds.
Whilst in Cochin we went to a women’s spice cooperative and on to an area uncomfortably know as Jew town, with the oldest synagogue in India but only seven members of the Jewish community left in Fort Cochin. We also went to numerous Government tourist shops as every time we entered one, our rickshaw driver got a voucher for taking us, he needed five for a free tank of petrol. So we happy to help.
On one occasion 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 kept swooping down on to the water. They were a magnificent sight , big birds, white heads dark brown and black bodies, we have only seen black fish eagles in Africa and rarely more than two at a time.
Fort Cochin also had a cultural dance school and we went to a performance of Kathakali dance. This. Involved very extensive make up and costumes.Before the dance began there was a demonstration of the hand movements which play a big role in the dance.
Walking along one of the lovely streets full of colonial buildings converted into shops hotels and home stays, we met the people we shared a homestay with in Mysore, who invited us to join them for dinner in a local restaurant called Oceanus,which we did. Fantastic Keralan prawn curry so delicious, we went again the next night.
Fort Cochin was a lovely place, we could lie in bed hearing the horns of the big ocean going ships such as Maersk container ships , yet it had an old world charm of an era long gone, with remnants of the times of the Portuguese , the Dutch and the British. It was also the current headquarters of the Indian Navy.
From here we went back up into a mountainous area to a place called Thekaddy close to the Periyar tiger reserve .The drive up the mountain was fabulous, lush vegetation, banana trees, coconut trees, blooming hibiscus trees, bougainvillea and many more. We then came to the rubber plantations and then mile upon mile of very tidy tea plantations all with very english sounding owners. Lots of employment opportunities for the locals, again very little sign of poverty in this area
We stayed in a homestay which was right in the jungle and belonged to a a Danish man and his partner from Newcastle, both of whom were vegan. They had built a stone cottage on their land which was very spacious and well built. It was also very much an eco place. We had two toilets in the bathroom according to what necessity was called for and lots of sawdust!
The shower had a limit to 3 litres of water, not good for someone with compulsive showering disorder. It was also extremely cold at night and first thing in the morning, but very hot during the day. The food was delicious and it was interesting to hear their story on how they arrived in India. They had a lovely dog they had rescued who became a firm friend. A half an hour auto rickshaw ride took us down a major mountain road with large lorries and buses and sharp hairpin bends and into the National Park where we had hired a guide to take us walking in the reserve. Ther headquarters are around a man made lake and our first task was to take a bamboo raft across a corner of the lake.. Our guide Vino was a local 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, a selection of water birds and three elephants who were eating grass and playing about in the lake. What a delight that was. On our way back we came across a herd of wild boar about 30 of them, all on the run through the trees next to us. They stopped and looked and our guide picked up a tree trunk as he was concerned they could charge us. It hadn’t crossed my mind they would be a problem, too busy looking for anything slithery.They didn’t approach and all was well.
The reserve had one hotel and we went there for lunch to discover they served beer, we had very little to drink as alcohol is difficult to find due to the drink issues India is struggling with, so we headed in there and with some difficulty, two grey haired woman want a beer acquired one.It was then off to queue up for a ticket to get on a boat trip, you cannot buy tickets in advance, you can only buy two and you have to fill in copious details about yourself before you get a ticket, which was printed on a very old computer printer similar to the one we saw when getting our SIM cards.Bureacracy gone made as is the norm in India.The waiting area was quite posh it had a body scanner which was not in use and electronic gates similar to a ski lift key card system also not in use. Looking like they never had been used or ever likely to be.The trusty perforated ticket was all that was needed. There was a very large group of monkeys around the waiting area which frightened the Indians and ran off with babies bottles, water bottles and anything else they could get their hands on.
Our trip on the boat was strictly controlled with wearing of life jackets, rail down the middle so people could not rush from one side of the boat to the other. These regulations were due to a disaster a few years ago when one of the boats capsized and 41 people drowned mostly Indians who could not swim, On the boat trip we saw more elephants, a range of deer, a herd of buffalo and birds. It was enjoyable but very crowded unlike some of the other boat trips we have enjoyed on this trip.
The following day we headed down the mountain getting noticeably hotter and hotter every half an hour towards the backwaters of Kerala not far from Alleppy or Alappuzha as it is called locally. We were off to a homestay which required us to get a canoe across the Pemba River , As we approached our accommodation it was very evident it was a great choice for our final destination, the house belonging to George has been in his family for 200 years and George is the fifth generation. In Kerala the youngest son inherits the family home and cares for the parents.
Our bedroom was lined with hard wood and there was an outside bathroom, which is very well presented, the sun comes in, first thing in the morning and there is something lovely about showering in the sunshine.
Our first day we hired a boat and a boat man called Sebastian, who took us on a great trip around the small waterways which only small boats can navigate. We saw a selection of beautiful birds, including several versions of wonderful coloured Kingfisher. On our trip we saw people fishing, people washing their clothes, washing themselves and washing their cooking utensils in the very very murky river water. We stopped at a shack like shop for a coconut, they didn’t have any so I mentioned beer and Sebastian went off and came back with a big bottle of Tubourg beer with a ring pull, which I took back to our veranda and thoroughly enjoyed a pre lunch warm beer, the first drink we have had for some time.
There are loads of waterways and the majority of people get around by boat, either their own or on the passenger ferries. On the bigger waterways about the width of the river Dart at Totnes there are the famous rice boats which are quite luxurious and take guests for overnight stays. They plough up and down the waterways like large angry buffalo. We decided not to venture onto one of these as the advice is they can only navigate the wide channels and you miss the local life.Many are closed with bamboo panelling and double glazing so limited fresh air.
We took the passenger ferry up to the town of Alleppey, an hours trip for 10 rupees just under 12 pence. Alleppy is a very Indian town, the only luxury goods appeared to be gold and silver, everything else was the necessities of life for those living in a water based community. Alleppy is one of the major places for the Rice Houseboats which Can be seen on the bigger waterways and across the lakes, apart from these boats there is little or no sign of the tourist industry.
Our homestay was on the banks of a large waterway but there was no restaurant or hotel anywhere close by, so we ate with the family and mixed with the locals. We enjoyed our two days, another boating trip with Sebastian and his friend at dusk to catch the birds roosting and the sun going down, walks amongst the paddy fields and along the minor canals. All very relaxing and lovely. From our verandah we could sit and watch the range of boats go by, large passenger ferries looking a bit rough, Rice Houseboats, some smart day boats which look very similar to a small paddle steamer, all in a pale blue livery with hard wood decks, very english in appearance. Then there was the big dug out canoes carrying cement and bricks and gas canisters, small canoes being paddled with fishing nets or a family member holding an umbrella to keep the sun off. We were certainlyin the midst of rural Indian life.
So we left and headed back to Kochin to catch our Emirates fight at 09.40 arriving back at Heathrow at 18.00 the same day and back to Southampton.
It has been such a good trip, I have so enjoyed it, it exceeded my expectations. I feel very lucky to have had the chance to be a traveller for three months and see and experience so many wonderful things and to have had such a great travel companion.