Our three and a half hour flight from Delhi to the southern city of Trivandrum, India makes us feel like we landed in another country. Trivandrum is in the state of Kerala. Kerala has India’s highest literacy rate at 94% compared to the rest of India at 74% (UNESCO). Coconut trees provide greenery, rubbish is almost non-existent and oddly the streets are cow-free. To our surprise, beef is on the menu! Kerala disproves several Indian stereotypes, heck, Catholic churches dot the landscape everywhere. Not much more than a starting off point, from Trivandrum we head north for Varkala.
Perched high on a 15 metre cliff, Varkala is a destination primarily for domestic tourists. A walkway littered with rubbish (yes, it made a re-appearance) and with shops selling predominantly future rubbish, the walkway provided beautiful views of the beach below and of the Arabian Sea. These roamingtwo are spoiled for having seen the places we have seen. As a result, it was very difficult to get excited about Varkala. The highlight? Hindus spread their loved ones ashes in the ocean at Papanasam beach.
From Varkala, we head north into the backwaters of Kerala. Our boat passed through the network of over 900km of waterways to reach our homestay on the water.
The backwaters just recently made Lonely Planet’s top ten destinations in Asia for 2017, but we quickly learned that we may not be in complete agreement. Although happy to have checked it out, it failed to live up to the hype. Waterways are littered with plastic and water hyacinths, a plant choking out the natural habitat. We were grateful we visited in low season as hundreds of houseboats sat anchored just waiting for high season to begin and tourists to further choke out the waterways.
Regardless, being around water is always so peaceful and we had time to explore up and down waterways discovering local plants such as bananas, cloves, pineapple, cinnamon, pepper, jackfruit, coconut, tapioca root, neem, mango, papaya, coffee and cocoa. The real fascination was watching how locals live off the water. Women do laundry while standing in the water, men bathe with a bar of soap and we see locals brushing their teeth. Yes, brushing their teeth with the polluted water! Meanwhile, our weak western immune systems need bottled water. Pitiful.
After a boat trip out and a three hour van ride, we arrived in Kochi. A lovely little oceanside village, it was inhabited by the Dutch, Portugese, Chinese and the English. Strolling around town, we enjoyed sites of the ocean, giant Chinese fishing nets (require four men to operate), four hundred year old churches, mosques and European influenced architecture.
At this point, our sleeping accommodations have been frustrating. Cold water showers begin the day and the mattresses have been like sleeping on a board. Another reminder of how truly “weak” (no hot water AND I have to sleep on a board! The nerve.) our westernized bodies are, we had to adapt. But one of us was better at it than the other. Can you guess who?
The real gem of this southern leg so far came after driving through beautiful tea plantations and arriving at the 777 square kilometer Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary.
The park is home to bison, elephants (approx 1000), tigers (approx 35-40), wild boar and the cute and fuzzy Malabar giant squirrel. Daytime temperatures dropped from the 30C range at the coast to a very comfortable 20C range and hikes within the park provided a much needed re-connection with mother nature and all her beauty. On an early morning hike (mandatory with guide), the tracker guide points out fresh elephants foot prints, disappears into the forest for ten minutes to find them, and returns to say “we must have just missed them, they headed in a different direction”. Who knows? Massive porcupine quills are found, leeches climb up pant legs and we learn that being the middle hiker is bad. The first hiker wakes the leeches up and gets them ready to latch onto the next poor unsuspecting soul.
Nothing goes down better after a day of hiking than a beer, but Kerala is officially a “dry state” (i.e. no alcohol). Thankfully, if you know to order a “special tea” the waiter smiles, runs out of the restaurant somewhere down the road and returns with an ice cold 650ml Kingfisher beer! We are reminded of the time our beer was served out of a tea pot and poured into dainty tea cups while in a previous city. Smile.
Mark’s ultimate splurge? The Periyar area is where Ayeurvedic medicine began over 3000 years ago. An Ayurvedic massage treatment with oils infused with local herbs is said to be the best in India. For 2700 Indian rupees, Mark books a two hour Maha Karma therapy session. The treatment included:
- A full body massage,
- Kizhi (heated boluses of leaves and herbal powders are wrapped in a cloth and patted and rubbed on the skin exfoliating everything from calluses to nipples – serious ouch),
- Sirodhara (heated herbal oils are gently poured over the forehead for fifteen minutes),
- and finished with a steam bath.
The entertaining part? The (male) therapist says to me in the room, take off all your clothes and I will put this lagoti on you!
… Mark and Christine