Bewildered Backwater Boating and Palolem Party People

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February 21st 2013
Published: March 2nd 2013
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Blog 8th - 21st February Kollam - Alleppey - Kochi - Palolem

Bewildered Backwater Boating and Palolem Party People

Kollam is not a place you want to spend much time, but it was a great base for us to board our 8 hour ferry to Alleppey to explore the Keralan backwaters. Unsure what to expect from the journey we bagged prime seats on the top deck of the ferry full of excitement, bags of bananas and cashews to keep spirits high, and ignored the sewage stink of the river.

The ferry passed through such contrasting parts of the backwaters, from large expanses of lake to smaller channels, it was a real eye opener as to how the Keralan people live on the banks of the network of rivers that act as highways for 75km. We passed men fishing alongside eagles, giant Chinese fishing nets with little huts attached, people washing and doing their laundry, local canoe boats carrying parasol toting ladies and kids with bikes. We also regularly began to see giant statues of Jesus waving at us from all the elaborately colourful churches along the river, and concealed amongst the lush palms were loud megaphones that blared out local sermons in the otherwise peaceful afternoon - not necessarily what we had expected!

The lush palm trees then parted as we spotted two very large high rise buildings which seemed ridiculously out of place in the middle of nowhere. Curious to know why people had started to get off the ferry we were informed that it was the Ashram for the 'Hugging Saint'. Amma has gained near divine status for her charitable works. She has become hugely successful worldwide and made a lot of money that she has reinvested into the local area. Unbeknown to us she is visited by hundreds of thousands of people every year seeking out a hug from the smiley guru. Unfortunately, we hadn't heard about her in time to schedule a hugging session so we ploughed on to Alleppey as planned.

We had intended this part of our trip to be a real luxury treat and thought we'd splash out on hiring a houseboat for the night to explore further. Unfortunately it didn't quite live up to our expectations, or the price we paid, but we still had a great time. We probably should have known something was amiss when our first impression of the owner was the information leaflet left in our shabby room the night before we set off which outlined stories of some of the worst guests he's had over the years. This included snippets about a euthanasia practising nurse he branded a 'murderer', complaints about female guests being difficult, and clearly stated how he doesn't accept complaints. We then caught him in the communal area with his trousers down...hmmm not quite sure what to think.

The boat was supposed to be an 'Eco' boat but that was basically an excuse for not spending any money on upkeep and cutting corners. However, in the right light it did actually look amazing. The boat named 'The Pride' was enormous and open plan equipt with woven walls, swinging wicker chairs, a bedroom with an en suite and a viewing platform on the top deck. We also had 3 staff to tend to our every need! This mostly involved food which started with an incredible 11 course lunch, followed by ice cream and banana fritters with chai for afternoon tea. Needless to say when our bellies are full we find ourselves more than satisfied.

Indians are known for their head waggling. We only really began to see it in full use in the south. Keen to get into the local mood I tried to imitate it a few times looking ridiculous, but desperate to get some kind of acknowledgement or recognition. Thinking that I had perfected the art I thought I had better try it out with our boat companions. I finally managed to wangle some time at the helm of our vessel as Charlie and I both had turns to pilot the boat, weaving our way up the river passed water snakes and copious amounts of bird life, trying to avoid the oncoming rice boat traffic. The weather was beautiful and everyone was so friendly, enthusiastically waving from the shore. It was bliss and even in our moving hotel we were still taken aback by the beauty and tranquility of the Keralan backwaters.

We had a peaceful sunrise the next morning over the river with still water, the echoing sounds of the slapping of clothes being washed and an old man dredging for mussels. Behind us umbrella hats began to bob up dotting the paddy fields with colour as women began their day of work. This was before the M25 of the backwaters opened up for action as hundreds of houseboats charged passed us to get everyone back in time for a 9am drop off, causing mini tidal waves that threatened to overturn the small canoes. Luckily we had a couple more hours booked in which meant more food, 'fishing' with our bamboo rods and a canoeing adventure that was supposed to take us on an up close and personal trip down the narrows but ended up repeating where we'd already been as apparently the narrows were closed...

Next we headed off to Fort Kochi for our last few days in Kerala. We tried to be organised and book the rest of our travel at the train station but this proved far harder than anticipated. Personal space is not a concept that is familiar to Indians. As I looked after the bags Charlie tried to book our train tickets for our remaining journeys. Saying that he drowned in the crowd does not do him justice for what he went through as he fought tooth and nail to maintain his position and used his wit and charm to keep some breathing space. Unfortunately an hour later, finally at the front of the queue, he was informed that as it was Sunday they couldn't book our tickets and we'd have to come back to repeat the whole process again. Frustrating as it was we were back again bright and early the next day to face quadruple the amount of crowds!

Fort Kochi was a nice place to stop off for a couple of days and soak up the laid back atmosphere of the town. We walked far and wide to find some non-touristy tasty local grub (followed swiftly by ice creams and card games) and even stumbled upon 'Jew Town'. We soaked up some culture by going to a Kathakali dance show where we arrived to watch them put their make up on for an hour, had a half hour intro into their facial expressions and gestures to understand what the mime meant, and then settled into an hour of the dance. This is normally a tradition that can go on for anything up to 10 hours. Despite seeing a tourist friendly abridged version we ended up being surrounded by people falling asleep all around us! I like to think it was the rhythmic beating of the drums and singing that lulled them into a trance rather than the fact that we were hanging out with the OAPs.

Unfortunately the night descended into chaos as our mosquito net ended up being more of an alluring trap than a barrier. The painful stings woke us at 1am and we ended up having to get up with vengeance and a rather unsightly blood bath followed as we tried to terminate as many as we could spot through our sleepy bleary eyes. The golden sun of the early morning streamed in through the window and revealed the shocking blood stained sheets from the full bellied Mosquitos leading us to promptly move to alternative accommodation.

We left Kochi full of high expectations and desperate for a break. Yes, it does sound ridiculous needing a holiday from our holiday, but after 5 weeks of non-stop travelling with no more than a couple of nights in each place we needed to recharge. We stocked up on plenty of deep fried food for the journey (samosas, dahl fritters, egg pastries and savoury doughnuts) but were so enamoured by the amount on offer up and down the aisles on the train we couldn't help gorging on some deep fried 'veg cutlets', chai and veg biryani delivered direct to our bunks at dinner time!

After much deliberation as to whether to venture to Goa or not following mixed reports on people's experiences from home, we decided to try it as fellow travellers had continued to recommend a smaller beach right in the south of Goa. We arrived at Palolem disorientated in the dark at 5am and completely unsure about what to expect. After avoiding the people touting for accommodation business (they're obviously desperate to be up at that time) we headed to the only 24hour bar 'Cocktails and Dreams' to wait for sunrise. As you can imagine it was full of stragglers and stereotypical loud and lary Brits abroad. We sat in the corner with our chai playing card games, looking very prim and proper half worrying that we made the wrong decision and half wondering if we should just have a beer. Eventually the sun rose revealing a stunning palm fringed beach and forested islands. As the shadows retreated the joggers and yoga enthusiasts swept over the beach and we felt a twinge of hope that we were in the right place.

The first few days were taken up with hours of doing our washing (it turns out all the modern appliances really do save years of your life) and hours walking to find an ATM that worked. We had a couple of nights to recharge watching The Hobbit and Django Unchained in an out door style cinema. It wasn't bad, sitting back in a clearing in the palm trees with stars shining overhead and the sound of the waves in the background. Then we got into a routine and our week on the beach consisted of ice creams, banana lassis, daily yoga, serious bat and ball and some slightly un 'sun smart' moments. We also made some great friends whilst body surfing the waves and trekking over boulders to find the perfect sunset. I know it all sounds like such hard work - we don't mean to rub it in, honestly!

We all took the opportunity to party and went to a couple of silent disco/headphone parties. The Valentines one encouraged us to 'let the music smooch your ears', we certainly couldn't resist that kind of promise! We threw out our best cheesetastic moves on the dance floor whilst wondering about the people who were there without earphones (when there was no ambient background music in the bar) and some with their own iPods! We also trekked to another beach with the lovely Will and Terri and spent one swish afternoon living the highlife at a pool party in a 5* Hotel villa, which was just like walking into the set of 'Entourage', very random but bags of fun.

We had such a good time in Palolem it's definitely firmly on our list to return to one day for a chilled holiday. Leaving our friends and well earned rest behind, it was time to return to the reality and face our first 'sleeper carriage' night train ride to Mumbai to continue our journey to the next destination. A rat the size of a cat (literally) scuttling across the platform made us feel dubious about what awaited us. Despite the hot and sticky carriage and increased personal noises it all went smoothly enough, especially as we were used to sharing intimate spaces with strangers by this point. We thought it was only right to spend our last day in Mumbai in a luxury hotel by the pool (feeling like impostors) and minutes away from the airport for our 2am flight to Bangkok and finally Hanoi. 3 days of travelling would surely take its toll!

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11th March 2013

Fun on the waterways
The description of the boat trip is so evocative early morning noises and all. 11 courses for one meal wow! Impressive !

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