Kerala, Fort Kochi, South India
By all accounts our arrival in Southern India, in the province of Kerala, has brought about a change of pace. Still many people, tons of them if fact, though no where near the madness of New Delhi, and though the traffic is still up there in terms of “near chaotic” by all means the Keralans are more relaxed than their counter parts. Kerala is situated near the bottom tip of India on the western coast and is known for the relaxed pace and easy way of it’s inhabitants. They say that days will turn into weeks and one will not notice the passing of time…(I can attest to the truth of that statement as nearly 2 weeks have come and gone as I sit here, now, on the shores of Goa 1200 kilometres away). Some recommend a stay in southern Kerala as an introduction to mad India before venturing up north…it’s suppose to ease you into the the beat of the country.. Too late for us and as they say “been there and done that” but nevertheless we’ve surely noticed the difference …
To give you a little added insight: the province of Kerala has the first and only freely elected communist government in India and also, contrarily to the rest of the country, the culture has it’s roots deeply anchored into a past matriarchal driven society with all the influences that come from it. I, for one, have noticed a big difference not only in my interactions with others but in the more the subtle and quiet way found in everyday life. Perhaps it’s the general mood of the place or the way that a respectful attitude seems to permeated the air and the pace of life. I don’t know but I like it. Women still do the bulk of the work but they are also business owners. I’ve talked to more women since my arrival in the state of Kerala than the rest of my stay in India.
Our first stop in the Province of Kerala is the old British port town of Fort Cochin. We have booked 3 nights at Beena’s which is a home-stay (India’s version of B&B) the new, hip and cheap way to travel in India. Warm, welcoming and quiet it’s a little gem of a place with the owners taking time to chat and clue us in with all kinds of information about the town, sightseeing and things to do while in the region, not to mention the absolute marvellous breakfast and supper she feed us everyday!!! Our three days here are spent leisurely strolling the old settlement town scattered here and there with old colonial style plantation homes, in a maze of side streets filled with small stores, restaurants, internet cafe, travel agents and coffee or ice cream shops. This is also were we saw those amazing “chinese” fishing nets lining up the shore, a performance of Khatikali, (an old Indian art form of communication) and spent a day at Cherrai beach taking in some rays (me) and playing Frisbee with a bunch of locals (the boys)! Short and sweet but left us with many great memories!
Alappuzha and the backwaters of Kerala:
Our next stop is Alappuzha (a couple hours south of Cochi).The call to fame for this little town is the magnificent river boats you can hire for a day or two and meander through the maze of canals that make up the backwaters of Kerala! An experience not to miss! They come with a captain, a chef and an attendant! The boats are as simple or as luxuriant as you are willing to pay! We decide to go over budget (just a little) and opt for a two night stay in a two bedroom mini palace… mind you all is relative n’est-ce-pas? The two bedrooms are small, simple, clean, come with a fan and on-suite bathrooms. The seating area has a loveseat sofa, four loungers, a table and four chairs, flat screen TV and Bose speakers! Along the railing is a sitting area covered with mattresses and cushions that make it the perfect view point and our favourite to sit and while away the hours. It’s absolutely decadent compared to some of the places we have stayed or at least we think so! Upon arrival we are greeted with a welcome drink: a freshly opened coconut with a straw. Quite typical in an area that proliferates with the tree but unusual for us and quite refreshing!
The scenery is like nothing I have ever seen before and comprises a 77 square kilometre lake interspersed with kilometres of waterways, canals, submerged rice field lined with demi bricked in retainer walls and strips of land, along which the smallest have single strands of coconut tree. Those strips of land become more substantial throughout the system of canals, for no rhyme or reason that I can see, and small clusters of very basic bungalow type houses, (that really can’t be called villages as there are too few) are lined up along the bank, in single file with the canal water as front yards and submerged rice paddy for back yards. A very narrow path joins the different houses on different strips of land but to get from one place to the other the primary mode of transportation is by small ferry boats that travel up and down the canals or the more common basic canoe!
They are the most peaceful two days I have spent in a long time with nowhere to go, no plans to make and no internet research to do for our next destination. Camera at the ready, I could hardly pick my book during the day for fear of missing something extraordinary. The scenery so mesmerizing and hypnotizing that my days are spent gazing out in wonder at how a people ever come to live is such a place. Coasting along we had little peaks into the daily life of this watery world where people step out of their front door, walk a few step to take their bath, wash their dishes, do their laundry and where the children are found gleefully swimming around or having water fights! Totally unexpected we come around yet another bend to find a church…a full blown church, right there on one strip also surrounded by nothing but water! Simply amazing! Come to find out it is a private church and for the personal and exclusive use of one family but that they have moved away and only come once a year to celebrate some occasion or another (Christmas perhaps) and leave again.
Tonight in the distance, dark clouds are gathering for what promises to be quite a storm. In the meantime we witness one of the most spectacular sunset I’ve ever seen. Palm trees reflected upon calm waters that surrounds us for miles with a kaleidoscope of colours splashed upon a watery canvas as the sun retreats behind the distant clouds. The odd canoe, seemingly making a break before the impending storm, scoots past us intent on his destination. We are not disappointed when a few minutes later a downpour the likes I have rarely seen ends a very perfect day. It’s an easy night, tonight, to slip into a world of dreams listening to the rhythm of the rain beating down on the canvas of our roof cocooned in our houseboat, very safe and very dry!
My first morning in our new home, well at least for the next ten days…lol! Found this amazing little hotel and for 23.00$ per night per room we have each a balcony with oceanfront view!AMAZING!
Okay! I am IN paradise! There is no mistaking, I’m sure of it: This morning finds me sitting on my balcony staring at an expanse of grey, translucent and almost mirror-like water that seems to have no end as it meets and kisses the horizon in the distance…One can’t tell for sure as there is no way to tell where one begins and the other ends as the clouds and the water are all playing with different hues of the same colours. Barely 50 feet from where I sit is a drop of at least 100/150 feet! The whole village is perched waaaaaaaaaay up high on top of the cliff hugging the narrow path (with no guard rail might I add) that separates it from the drop. Accompanying this visual masterpiece is a full symphony of sounds from the waves as they come thundering and crashing down on the rocks below.
It is barely 7am but the place is slowly showing signs of wakefulness. To my surprise the little restaurant, where we had our meal last night, also serves as sleeping quarters for the waiters and cooking staff. (Wow!!! Can you just try and imagine that done in Canada?) The restaurant is two part: the outdoor terrace which has loads of character and where blue checkered tablecloth, cover plain wooden tables sit scattered amongst palm trees, adorned with flowers and candles at the ready. Smack in the middle, nestled between two of the trees, one single hammock swings back and forth to whatever rhythm the wind decides to play. It’s also Miguel’s favourite spot to while away the hours listening to some tunes on his itouch . Along the four sides, framing this quaint little picture, a small brick wall-come-flower pot filled with flowers and greens alike adds the final touch. The second part is found right next to the terrace on the second floor of a pretty dingy looking building topped with a serrated tin roof that’s probably worn out as a tarpaulin has been carelessly thrown across. A good option (if you can get pass your first impression), to rainy days, too much sun or for better viewing of the rolling waves and crashing surf. You couldn’t find a more basic, simple though very clean and straight forward little place. The staff is warm, friendly, welcoming and we have been the recipient of the most amazing service since our arrival in India. Last but definitely not least and most importantly the food is amazing, presented exceptionally well and very cheap. What more could you ask for? Oh, almost forgot, as an added bonus we come to find out the staff are all from Nepal!
My room, also on the second floor, is in the hotel behind the terrace, and just off to my 1 o’clock is the restaurant-com-bedroom. In the morning I can see them stirring from their sleep, all lined up on mattresses across the floor or on the few tables put together that has become a makeshift bed. At first one arm peeks out from under the covers, then another, followed by a full blown stretch, slowly, almost in slow mode and probably due the hardness of the “beds”, he finally gets up and gives one more stretch for good measure. Soon that little ritual is followed by another and another, then in a flurry of activity everyone is up and about, the mattresses are put away, the tables are reset…open for business! I think!
As I make my way down to ask if they are now truly open for business (I’m seriously in need of a cup of something warm) I come across the owner of the hotel sitting outside at the entrance, still sporting his morning attire: he’s an older gentleman, dressed in the matching white shirt and flowing wraparound sarong that most men seem to prefer, topped off with a sleep turban, wrapped tightly around his head, that he quickly slides of as I approach. Looking at me expectantly I direct my question (of needing a cup of something) to him…”Oh…no worry, they bring to you”. So here I am, back at the beginning of my story about being in paradise and the morning finding me sitting on the balcony, enraptured by the view before me, as I am brought the most perfect cup of tea! Introduced to us during our stay in Nepal and now served to me in India by our new found Nepalese friends. Masala tea: a tea made with cinnamon, cardamon and other spices, boiled with milk for a couple of minutes (so the spices will have time to seep into the mixture) served pipping hot with just a touch of sugar. Paradise indeed! It’s the little things in life that make it so precious and worth living… just like this perfect morning (even though it’s raining) and this perfect cup of tea brought by a very attentive and caring staff.
We’ve spent the bulk of our time here at Hill Top hotel hanging out on our balcony (it’s been raining just about everyday…yet.. it’s still paradise!) sipping tea, coffee, the occasional beer and eating a couple of our meals everyday at this restaurant, which by the way, has become our favourite hang out. It’s a quaint little spot to watch the world go by, people watch not to mention the view that actually is quite spectacular. It’s also fascinating to gaze down at swimmers and surfers alike braving the waves, though, at this particular beach, the undertow and currents are dangerously strong and will pull you out to sea if careless. To that end, unfortunately, every year some tragedy occurs to those who do not heed the warnings to play it safe and keep close to the shore.
One glorious afternoon ( there have been a couple) sitting at our “usual” table (next to the railing of the balcony in the restaurant, no more than 12 feet from the drop), sipping a beer, waiting to be served our meal and for our private entertainment (at least I like to think), crows and other birds (that I can’t identify) flit-er about, while further out, fishing eagle are playing the air currents that embrace the shoreline. In all, we count 15 of those majestic and powerful eagles going around in circles in that up-draft, hardly beating their wings to stay aloft in that unique and effortless way only birds of prey have. At times it seems they are following this one fishing boat, out there on the water but really, I imagine, they are just entertaining themselves in this one air current that’s going the same way. During the course of our meal some strayed so close to where we sat that we got to see them from above ( interesting perspective) yet others still would swoop down at eye level and if you were paying attention caught a quick glimpse of the piercing, searching eyes as they hunted for their prey. I have never seen so many eagles assembled together. Intent and absorb at the display in front of me I am caught totally unawares when a para-glider scoots right in front of me, barrelling along, hugging the cliff and no more than 20 or 30 feet away from us! He was so close I thought for sure he would get tangled up in the few trees that hang precariously here and there along the edge of the cliff, and crash to the ground. Nothing so tragic happenned of course except in the recess of my vivid imagination… for he kept playing along with the eagles travelling up and down that air current seemingly as intent on the game as they, swooping ever so close to the edge only to retreat again.
This morning, for the second time since our arrival in Varkala, we have a sunrise in a near cloudless sky and a beautiful one at that. Sitting on my balcony I’m looking at the morning sky unfolding itself like the un-wrapping of a gift in a tapestry of colour. We are coming to an end of our stay, here in beautiful, rugged Varkala and what a wonderful parting gift! During the past few days I’ve only had a few glimpse at the eagles and only from afar as the weather has not been conducive to proper air drafts nearer the cliffs. Such a disappointment as I’d quite taken to spending hours watching them, trying to capture them on film so mesmerized by their flight. Until this morning, perhaps on the whims of the gods at play, one last display: one cocky crow, surely up to no good, must have angered one of the eagles as it came pursuing the crow with intent right up to my balcony not 10 feet away! I nearly spilled my tea!
And of course no camera at the ready!