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Published: March 24th 2015
We were leaving Kerala Backwaters and heading north to Kochi
. It rained heavily during the night, so our sleep was broken, but we woke around 6am feeling reasonably refreshed. We showered, prepared our packs and sat down to idlis
(steamed cakes made from fermented rice and lentil batter), coconut curry and hot tea for breakfast at 8am. I had a slight scare with the netbook, which had lost all mouse and keyboard functionality. No matter how many times I re-booted, it remained unresponsive. I hadn’t backed up, so I felt pretty dejected. I’d resigned myself to the fact that I’d have to buy a new laptop in Delhi, and that I’d lost all the travel notes I’d typed over the past two weeks. It was an awful realisation.
We left our home stay in Karumady at 8.30am and began our journey towards Kochi. We settled on the open top deck of our motorised boat and watched village life unfold from our vantage point in the middle of the Pompa River. We passed men fishing in long wooden boats, children going to school, people washing and bathing and generally getting on with their lives in the Kerala Backwaters. The sun
was rising behind us, and by 9.30am it was getting very hot.
It was our last day in Kerala, and we had a ninety minute boat trip, ninety minute public bus ride and 30 minute auto rickshaw
(motorised tricycles with a passenger cabin) ride ahead. We were leaving for Delhi early the next day, and we were looking forward to our northern Indian experience.
We arrived in Alleppey at 10am, jumped off the boat and walked to the bus station. We clambered aboard a public bus, jammed ourselves into whatever seat was available and settled in for our trip to Kochi. We left at 10.30am, and even though we were packed in like sardines, it was a comfy ride. The bus had no windows, so the open air (at speed) served as a natural air conditioner. It became a little uncomfortable when the bus slowed down, but that happened very rarely!
We arrived in Kochi at 12pm, jumped off the bus, found an auto rickshaw
and headed back to our original starting point – the Kaliveedu homestay. We arrived at 12.30pm, dropped our packs and headed straight to a cooking class. We sat in the kitchen and
watched on as Ambika, the homestay cook, prepared Kerala chicken curry, fish fry, dahl curry, beetroot pachadi
(grated beetroot cooked with mustard, coconut and yoghurt) and cabbage thoran
(a dry cabbage curry with coconut), all of which were served with rice and pappadums . We sat down to feast on this fantastic lunch at 2pm.
The afternoon was hot and we were getting thirsty, so a fellow traveller and I set out to buy some Kingfisher beers. After getting lost on the way, we eventually arrived at the strangely named Munch Box. Unfortunately, they only had two beers left, so we had to make do. For some reason the guy who sold them to us wrapped the beers in newspaper, so we looked like a couple of delinquents as we made our way back to the homestay.
We spent the rest of the afternoon catching up on our travel notes and sitting in the tranquil gardens of the homestay sipping cold beer and vodka. My netbook had started working again, but only every so often. Sometimes the keyboard and mouse would work; other times they wouldn’t. We were in two minds as to whether to pick up a
new laptop in Delhi or keep persevering with what we had. At least I was able to backup and save my travel notes to my USB drive.
We headed out to dinner at The Old Harbour Hotel at 7.30pm. We’d been here a few weeks earlier, but we didn’t eat all that much at the time. We made up for it tonight. The atmosphere was great, and a couple of musicians (including a great dholak player) were performing. I opted for the chicken and beetroot stew with stuffed naans
(leavened bread cooked in a wood fired oven), while Ren went for the Kerala fish curry with spiced rice. My dish was superb – I think I’ve rediscovered my love of beetroot during our southern Indian travels. Ren’s dish was a little too sweet, but it was OK. We finished our meal at 9.30pm, said our goodbyes to our travel companions and headed back to the homestay. We had an early morning flight to Delhi the next day, so we needed a good night’s sleep. We organised our packs, set the alarm for 3.45am and crashed. SHE SAID...
The next morning we were awake at 6am in
our Kerala Backwater homestay, and I quietly let myself out of the room and walked down to the water. The sky was just starting to lighten. We'd been woken by a thunder storm during the night, and everything had that just-rained-on earthy smell. The air was still and quiet except for the swishing sound of the passing canoes and the distant putt-putt of a two stroke engine. I was very surprised that there wasn’t much activity around until the sun began to rise (I suppose I still have a stereotypical notion that village life starts at dawn). Eventually a few birds started chattering in the garden, but they were quickly drowned out when a speaker crackled and the call to prayer from a mosque behind the rice fields started up. Not long after that, the bells of the local temple started to chime.
I sat by our little jetty for a while, watching a group of kids gather on the opposite riverbank. I was surprised when they started a training session and were put through their running and swimming paces. As I sat there watching a hazy sunrise, I tried to absorb as much of the beautiful waterways and
swaying coconut trees as I could.
When the rest of the home’s occupants woke we gathered for breakfast. It was a simple but delicious meal of idlis
(steamed cakes made from fermented rice and lentil batter) and coconut chutney. There was also toast with butter and jam, and pots of tea.
The ferry was back to pick us up for the hour or so 12km onward trip to Alleppey, the main centre in the Backwaters. Our boat trip to Alleppey was just beautiful. Most of us sat on the roof, and my camera went into overdrive trying to capture all the colour and movement of life on the riverbanks.
Alleppey is the starting point for the Backwater houseboat experience, and there were hundreds of traditional reed houseboats docked along the riverbanks, awaiting their passengers. Some of the boats were proper floating hotels, complete with chefs and aircon. If we hadn’t been continuing on to Delhi in a few days, we would have definitely spent a few days on a houseboat.
We docked in Alleppey and walked to the local bus station. There was a very short wait at the station before the crazy scramble, bags and
all, to find a place on the public bus to Kochi
. It was a two hour journey and the bus was full, three to a hard bench seat. Judging by his pace, the driver was clearly a frustrated racing car driver. Fortunately, the windows were barred rather than enclosed by glass, so there was quite a breeze as we made our way back to Kochi. Kim and I shared a seat with a man who was clearly as uncomfortable about sharing thigh space as I am, so that worked out well. When the bus emptied I moved to sit with Andrew. The public bus ride couldn’t have been that bad as I fell asleep for half of it.
From the bus stop in Kochi we caught auto rickshaws
(motorised tricycles with a passenger cabin) to Fort Kochi. Arriving back in Fort Kochi made me feel the joy of the familiar – a rare occurrence when travelling. It was very lovely to be back at Intrepid’s Kaliveedu Lodge, with the gorgeous dachshund Honey wagging her tail and rolling over for tummy rubs.
Instead of going out for lunch, a few of us took up the chance to be part
of a cooking demonstration by the Lodge’s cook. We watched Ambika create a masterpiece of chicken curry, delicious beetroot pachadi
(grated beetroot cooked with mustard, coconut and yoghurt), a dahl with tomatoes and coriander, cabbage thoran
(a dry cabbage curry with coconut), fried marinated tuna and rice.
The cooking demonstration wasn’t what I’d call a brilliant learning experience, but I managed to grasp the basics of Kerala cooking, and I’m sure I would be able to recreate most of these dishes at home. The fundamental ingredient in south Indian cooking is coconut. If coconut milk or grated coconut isn’t used in a dish, there’s still a big chance that the meal will have been cooked in coconut oil. The base method for Kerala curries seems to be as follows: 1. Heat 1-2 tablespoons of coconut oil; 2. Add black mustard seeds, cook for a few seconds until they start to pop; 3. Throw in whole spices or spice paste; 4. Add the main ingredients, meat/fish if applicable, cook through for a few minutes; 5. Add grated coconut, coconut milk or yoghurt if required; 5. Throw in a handful of curry leaves; then serve.
At last it was time
to try all the dishes at the long table in the dining room. The chicken curry was a firm favourite, followed closely by the beetroot pachadi
. The cabbage thoran
wasn’t a hit with any of us, nor was the fried tuna (which had been cooked within an inch of its life).
We spent the afternoon relaxing, re-packing our packs and getting ourselves organised for the second half of our trip in India. We sat on the lawn outside our room and shared a few last drinks in the very hot afternoon sun. There had been a sense of ending that coloured the whole day.
The netbook that Andrew uses to write his travel notes had started to play up, and looked to be on its last legs. We were already quite behind in writing and posting our blogs, and this was going to set us back even more. We discussed buying a replacement laptop when we got to Delhi, but needed to do a bit of research first.
The group gathered in the Lodge’s sitting room for the last time and we walked to dinner at the Old Harbour Restaurant. Andrew ordered the chicken and beetroot stew
(leavened bread cooked in a wood fired oven), and I ordered my last Kerala fish curry with spiced rice.. Andrew’s meal was sensational, and even though mine was ok, it certainly wasn’t the best Kerala fish curry I’d had on this trip. We had an early night as we had booked a taxi to the airport at 4:45am. It was a very lovely end to our 15 day Southern Indian adventure.
It was sad to say goodbye to our old and new friends that night. It had been an enjoyable trip that was undoubtedly made even more enjoyable by excellent travel buddies. On the bright side, I’m very curious to see which part of the world we will meet up in next.
It’s easy enough to fall in love with southern India with all its natural beauty and laid back ambience of beaches, waterways, mountain ranges and rolling green hills of tea plantations; but it was the terrific food that sealed the deal for me. Mind you, if you don’t like coconut your culinary choices are somewhat limited. As much as I loved the Kerala fish curries we had, it was the extraordinarily good vegetarian dishes
that were usually the stars of our meals.
My memories of this southern Indian trip will be of amazingly delicious food, friendly and very welcoming people, and landscapes of tropical fruit trees, rice paddies, spice plantations and horizons rimmed with coconut trees.
Next Andrew and I fly north to Delhi (India’s capital city) to start the second half of our journey.
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