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Published: February 20th 2017
Incredible India - 3 of 3 Southern India Karnataka, TamilNadu and Kerala
It took most of the day to cover the 275km from the rolling hills and fertile fields of Ooty to the arid plains of Kochi (Cochin) by car, careering past brightly painted lorries, cars and motorbikes on narrow winding roads. There are signs of better things on the horizon as earth-movers and workmen plough their way through the countryside in an attempt to dual the road and hasten prosperity to the masses.
We have finally entered Kerala, the name on the lips of the many visitors who have come before us, the green and fertile land they call, God’s Own Country. Between bustling villages vibrant with colour and clamour, vast rice paddies stretch to the horizon, bordered by narrow water-courses and whispering coconut palms. There is a certain sense of pride evident here in Kerala, a gentle rhythm ruffling the surface like rings on the water as a dragonfly alights. It’s a little tidier perhaps, a feeling of wellbeing, or is it just a touch smarter? I’m not sure. It might have something to do with faith: 25 percent of Keralans
are Christian our Catholic driver, Kannan, tells us, 55 percent are Hindu and 15 percent Muslim, all living together in harmony in a society strongly endowed with tolerance, grace and respect. There are also signs of prosperity in the offing, punctuated by massive hoardings advertising jewelry, fashion, and silk (for which the area is rightly famed), their fine shops dominating the narrow urban streets of otherwise open-fronted market stalls.
Kochi has been an important port for many centuries, founded originally on the lucrative spice trade. The Portuguese first arrived in the late 15th
Century and Kochi has subsequently passed through the hands of the Dutch in the 17th
and then the British in the 19th. Vasco de Gama, that Portuguese explorer we all remember from our school days, came as viceroy to India In 1524. He died here and was buried at the Church of Saint Francis, the oldest European church in India, now undergoing very considerable restoration. There is also evidence of an early Chinese influence, with elaborate fishing nets along the foreshore that appear on every local postcard.
Another picture that springs to mind is that of the dramatic Keralan headdress and
Chinese fishing nets.
costume worn for Kathakali, a traditional classical storytelling, with female characters portrayed by men with elaborate make-up. Kannan, our F1 driver, dropped us off outside Kochi’s Cultural Centre where we sat through a programme of hand gesturing, action-packed acting by two rather well built young men. A fascinating show indeed, though one might say it was rather odd to see a large man with hairy arms in a frock. I have to admit, I was looking forward to seeing a troop of pretty young ladies dancing Indian style, or at the very least a six-armed goddess! There’s a big photo of Charles and Camilla in the lobby recording their visit to a performance here in 2013. Goodness knows what they made of it. I can just see them sitting up in bed with a glass of bubbly discussing it after the show.
A morning walk beside the delightful children’s park revealed a few street people by their shanties on the sidewalk, the first we have seen on this journey: washing and generally preparing for the day ahead. There is little evidence of the poverty we might associate with India here in the south; these are seemingly contented
people going about their daily routine, aware of their lot no doubt, however meager. As Europeans we will attract an occasional open palm from an elderly lady perhaps, a gesture worthy of a short-term solution for the pangs of hunger.
Our South India itinerary came with a rather good cookery-class built in. Maria’s Cookery School is on the first floor of her 350 year-old private house in Kochi Old Town, where our small group enjoyed a superb demonstration of the art of fine Indian cooking by TV chef Maria. Janice is now up to speed on our menu of the day, beetroot and coconut thoran, chicken korma, dahl, and king-fish, which we later consumed for lunch.
The heat and dust of Kochi’s busy streets prompted a mid-afternoon stop at a classy looking waterfront café. ‘What can I get you, Sir?’ the waiter asked. ‘Two beers, please,’ we answered through dry lips. ‘I’m sorry Sir, we only have special tea,’ the waiter responded. So, special tea we had – brought to the table in a traditional white teapot, with two mugs and a nod and a wink. And very fine beer it was too. Alcohol
licenses are hard to come-by in Incredible India in recent times, in the hope of reducing problems amongst today’s youth.
Not exactly labeled with that ‘youthful’ tag, we were looking to buy a few bottles of beer to take with us to our next port-of-call, Alleppy, further down the coast - there were no shops where we were going. Kannan pulled our car over near a Government-run alcohol outlet in a small town just off the highway. Several hundred, mostly young men, were gathered in scattered queues, merrily chatting whilst waiting to be served at open hatchways. Tour guides and ‘visitors’ clearly have some priority in such places and Kannan took us directly to the front of the queue to buy our four 650ml bottles of Heinekin for around £6. Beer, we have found, is a perfect foil for spicy Indian food. It helps to put the fire out! You can forget your Starbucks and Costa's here if it's coffee you're after; you can get a decent black coffee served at the table in a real china cup for 8Rs (10p) - double that for white!
Our crew for the night greeted us on
arrival at our luxury houseboat, setting off along the tranquil waterways of Alleppy within minutes. Children swam near the river bank while sari-dressed ladies scrubbed their washing, fishermen passed in dug-out canoes and men bathed in the shallows with their cows as we passed them by, whilst lounging in the shady breeze on the front deck. We will treasure this deep immersion in leisure forever: watching the passing scenery, tiny houses alongside stately mansions lining the banks, exotic birds in the trees, tall palms bent in the mild zephyr and vast vistas of rice paddies, the many other crafted houseboats gently floating to port and starboard as if on air, the dreamy sunset and the exclusive attention of our three-man crew.
Sunday brought a brief mooring at the delightful St Mary’s Basilica at Champakulum. A Catholic service was in progress and the church was bursting at the seams - men at the front, women at the rear. This is Incredible India, devout and committed. This soporific exploit on water has been truly mesmerising. Don’t miss it if you chance this way. Your camera will love it too.
It’s even hotter on the coast. Right
down at the bottom of this magnificent continent is the beach resort of Kovalam and our rather special hotel on secluded Poovar (Puvar) Island. We’re here for three nights to recover the senses before returning home. Time to get out the swimming trunks and test out the rather tempting hotel pool. A quick look in the mirror confirmed my worst fears: the weight is the same but the shape has changed. There’s more of me to get brown these days, so it might take a little longer to get a tan. Ten minutes each side should do the trick.
The complimentary full body massage also proved too much to resist – another first for me! Whilst face down on the massage table I thought of my old dad. He had a saying that came to me: ‘A bit of slap and tickle’. Is this what he meant?
I’m now lightly toasted on both sides, well oiled and battered.
(I also tried the hotel beauty parlour by the way, but they told me I was beyond help)
As the name suggests, Poovar Island is surrounded by water, known locally as backwaters. This western-facing coastline is
a maze of inland waterways fed by the many rivers shedding their crystal waters from the inland hills of the Western Ghats across the plains. These tranquil rivers, lakes, lagoons and canals also serve to carry tourists in small boats through alluring channels between the trees to get closer to the wilderness, birds and mammals of the region – a magnet for us lovers of nature in all its diverse forms. This magical experience so impressed us, we went again, for two hours and watched the sunset on our last evening at Poovar. Lovely, as we say in England. Our bird-list continues to grow by the day!
A young sari-clad lady from the hotel reception guided us to the water-taxi on our first backwater trip, walking side-by-side with Janice. She was clearly fascinated by Janice’s pale skin, pursing her lips with a deep sigh of envy as she touched her arm. We’ll be working on the tan.
There are ‘dry-days’ (Holy days) at this hotel too, but a cold beer can be delivered to your room, night or day, surreptitiously wrapped in a paper bag. Guests in the hotel were mostly Indian, families and honeymooners, from
the north – and the UK we noticed, drawn perhaps by the promise of eternal life – for the people of Kerala have the longest life expectancy in all India.
You might recall we carry our luck with us. This time it came in the shape of a luxury cabin in the spacious hotel grounds, built entirely in teak, with a patio, shower and toilet in the open air in a small walled garden at the rear. Multi-tasking springs to mind with this opportunity to sit and contemplate, whilst getting a sun-tan and watching the long line of minute ants go back-and-forth up the wall. Quirky but nice!
A short ferry-ride takes guests a short distance from the hotel to a mile-long strand of sandy beach, washed by the gentle waves of the opal Arabian Sea and searing sunshine. There are fishing villages in both directions: kids playing football, tiny palm-trunk canoes and pointed-fronted fishing boats brightly painted in blue, yellow and red and a couple of stalls selling coconuts.
This journey into the far southern reaches of India has shown us an entirely different perspective, not of culture necessarily, nor
hectic or crowded, but there is a subtle change in pace, a suggestion that this fertile area is much loved by its people. It is indeed much loved, though sad to say, not sufficiently cared for. It’s within touching distance of paradise. Time and an outstretched hand will tell.
Yes, the food is spicy but this would not be India without it. As we travel here we have become selective in what we eat, restrained in how much, and careful to avoid the obvious dangers. Bottled water (with sealed caps) is available everywhere and extremely cheap - as is the Kingfisher beer. Delhi-belly has thus been avoided - Delhi itself was not on our list of places to visit this time anyway. There are no mosquitos around at this time of the year either, so Malaria tablets were not required or considered essential. There must be a time of year to avoid when flies and mosquitos emerge; probably sometime around the monsoon season.
The southern states of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have captured our hearts in more ways than we might have imagined. There is much beauty here and outside of the constant bustle of
the towns there’s a mesmerising tranquility and friendliness to which one could easily become attached. It is clear to us that India’s north, experienced on our last visit to India in 2013, has considerably more to offer in spectacular sights that will forever fill your mind with dreams, but, despite our sometimes challenging schedule, we leave Kerala here in the south, refreshed and fulfilled having loved every moment.
Any regrets you ask? We should have stayed longer, and it’s just occurred to us that Sri Lanka is but a stone’s throw away – an extension would have made sense. Oh, and there’s that long journey home from Trivandrum via Dubai, with baggage, book-in, passport control, security, waiting around in airports………........….
David and Janice
Thanks must go to our competent, delightful and supremely helpful driver, Kannan, for his part in this odyssey, threading our car through the eye of a needle in this Incredible Southern India.
Scroll down for more photos - and remember to check out all the panorama slide-show at the top!
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