The BBC Of Kerala


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January 24th 2017
Published: February 3rd 2017
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ThandorThandorThandor

Our canoe driver.
The BBC in this instance, does not stand for British Broadcasting Corporation nor does it stand for something dirty. In this case, it stands for the three things that I was looking forward to about Kerala, the reasons why it tops many a traveller's list of Indian highlights; beaches, backwaters and culture. Supposedly so different from the north and other parts of India, I was excited about seeing yet another different side to this endlessly fascinating country.

But first, I had to get there.

Already not enamoured by Mysore, my opinion of the place definitely didn't change after a less-than-great last day there. The "best dosa in town" gave me the shits and I should've known better than to drink the water served at the restaurant. But I was thirsty! I also should've asked for another can of soft drink when the can I was served had all sorts of crap on the top of it - even after being given a quick wash, there was still some residue leftover. So in the end I didn't know if it was spicy food, dodgy water or possible rat shit that got me sick. It wasn't too bad but I was
Chinese Fishing NetsChinese Fishing NetsChinese Fishing Nets

Kochi's most iconic sight date back to 1400 and were set up by traders from the court of Kublai Khan.
feeling a little weak, had a slightly sore stomach and I had no appetite - not for any more Indian food anyway. It certainly wasn't what I wanted with an overnight bus ahead of me. To top things off, I smacked my head onto a doorframe before leaving the hostel, leaving a nice little lump on my forehead. It's times like these where you wish you weren't travelling.

I was also annoyed that I missed out on booking my bus of choice. I had delayed booking my bus by about three hours as I wanted to check a few things first and those three hours were enough to ensure I had to catch an earlier bus to Kochi. I would always rather sleep more and arrive at my destination later rather than arriving well-groggy early in the morning.
As for the bus itself, it turned out to be a state-run bus; thus my surprise at the level of service which included a free bottle of water and a blanket!

Stepping off the bus in Kochi, the first thing that I noticed was that it was hot and humid. I do like this kind of weather (it's good for
Varkala BeachVarkala BeachVarkala Beach

Kerala also has some fine beaches, like this one.
my skin) and the rest of India thus far apart from Mumbai, has been pretty dry, meaning that things got a little cool at night.
The bus had dropped me off in Ernakulam from where I had to walk twenty minutes to a boat jetty from where I caught a four rupee ferry over to the historic quarter of Fort Cochin, where the first colonial inhabitants initially settled, where I was staying.

Fort Cochin initially felt like a typical, colonial fishing town, with shades of Belize City but not as ramshackle; and shades of Panaji and Paraty. The colonial feel can be attributed to the fact that the Portuguese, then the Dutch and then the English, all ruled the roost here at some point and there are traces of all three former colonial powers here, in terms of architecture and general influence. It was so peaceful too - miles away from the relative chaos and noise of Mysore.
The rather large bamboo Chinese fishing nets that have been in use for centuries is perhaps Fort Cochin's most interesting sight. They are a dying breed however, as scooping fish up with these wide, twenty-metre, cantilevered nets isn't the most efficient
KathakaliKathakaliKathakali

Traditional Keralan performance.
way of catching fish these days, although there were some big fish on sale at the market right behind them. The Santa Cruz Basilica is impressively large and has one of the more colourful church interiors that I have seen recently; St Francis Church is one of the oldest churches in India and the legendary Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama was initially buried here before his remains were shipped back to Portugal.

Walking around the place it was interesting to note that the majority of men were wearing these thick cotton sarongs resembling oversized tea towels, that were worn like skirts. These men would then walk past walls that were plastered with images of Che Guevara and hammers and sickles; the Communist party rules here and it was fascinatingly weird to see such imagery all over Kerala.
Something else rather different about Kerala has been the availability of beef of the menu. This is explained by the fact that there are a lot of churches in Kochi; the presence of the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English I guess has created a Christian stronghold here - and they eat beef. Having been vegetarian for majority of my time in
MatancherryMatancherryMatancherry

Neighbourhood about a half hour walk from Fort Cochin where the Jewish community traditionally lived and traded.
India, the thought of having beef again was a tantalising one.

About a half hour walk away from Fort Cochin is the neighbourhood of Matancherry, which for some reason doesn't really feel like India but more like South East Asia. Between Fort Cochin and Matancherry are lots of big houses - Kochi seems a bit wealthier than most parts of India from what I have seen so far. Matancherry is where the "Dutch Palace" resides, which contains some really impressive murals on its inner walls. I couldn't take photos of them sadly, due to policy and policing. Also in Matancherry is the Pardesi Synagogue which is beautifully decorated on the inside. Again however, no photos were allowed.

I thought I'd experience the "C" of the BBC by attending a kathakali show in Kochi. Kathakali is a traditional Keralan theatrical performance - like a play or a ballet - that tells a story through music, costume and dance. This felt a bit South East Asian too, particularly the music. The singing sounded like an Islamic call to prayer. There is no talking on stage in a kathakali performance; thus almost every sentence and command used - such as "yes",
Kathakali StageKathakali StageKathakali Stage

The stage and music felt more oriental than Indian.
"no", "go", "come" etc - has its own little dance action with accompanying music and percussion, which was quite funny. As well as providing music, the musicians and drummers also provide sound effects - although I couldn't work out if the music was leading the actors' actions or if the actions were leading the music. The make-up and costumes were probably the most eye-catching thing about the performance; some actors even coloured the whites of their eyeballs. The initial 'eye dance' where a performer moves his eyes in sync with the music, got me a bit restless and cringey - things to do with the eyes freak me out a little and it was like hearing nails screech down a blackboard. The story told by the show I saw, was a ancient Indian fable where a bumbling, hapless Shiva attempts to rid a cocky hunter of his ego, with his wife Parvati acting as a steady Watson. I'm not sure if the actual fable portrays the king of the gods like this or if this was done by the performers for comedic effect. I'm not sure I would go and see another kathakali performance - and I unfortunately missed out
Streets Of KochiStreets Of KochiStreets Of Kochi

There are colonial buildings in Kochi with Portuguese, Dutch and British influences.
on seeing a karali performance, which is a Keralan martial art seen by some as the very first martial art - but it was worth the cultural experience for sure.

I initially wanted to stay a third night in Kochi but the hostel was full; just as I was about to walk out the door, the staff then tell me that there's been a cancellation and that I could stay - but my mind and body was already set on leaving so I decided to make my way to Alappuzha, which for all intents and purposes is known by its old name of Alleppey.
It is here in Alleppey that most tourists take a tour of Kerala's famous biggest draw and one of the "B's" of the BBC; its backwaters. This network of waterways explains why Alleppey is nicknamed "The Venice Of The East". Rather than being completely built on the water like the city it was nicknamed after, Alleppey's backwaters were more organic in their formation and started out as a series of islands. The land and water were then used for creating and irrigating paddy fields. The natural waterways and a few more man-made ones then became
Houseboats On A Grand CanalHouseboats On A Grand CanalHouseboats On A Grand Canal

Houseboats sail down a big canal in the backwaters as the sun sets.
the easiest ways to get around the area and thus the backwaters as they exist today were born. Cruising through these canals is supposed to be one of the highlights of one's trip to India.

The backwaters feel very much like a city except with way, way less population density and where roads were replaced by waterways and cars replaced by boats. Highways would be the extremely wide, grand canals with the majority of traffic consisting of houseboats, perhaps the most popular way of getting around. They're pricey though - you're looking at a minimum of ₹2,000 per person for a 24-hour trip. And that's if you manage to get a group of people together. Some of the one thousand houseboats on the water were mightily impressive though; two storey, bamboo and glass palaces with bedrooms, a lounge full of furniture, air-conditioning and a personal chef.
These were obviously out of my range so I opted for a tour by covered canoe for just ₹1,000; and thus I also enjoyed the advantage of being able to take the canoe down the smaller, narrower canals and getting a close-up view of rural life by the water, as women slapped their
The BackwatersThe BackwatersThe Backwaters

Cruising down a typical canal in the backwaters, acting a like a street with houses on either side of it.
laundry on rocks and men dived under the water for shellfish. The tour also involved a stop for breakfast, a stop for coconuts, a stop for lunch and a stop for toddy.

My tour did not get off to a great start however. A tuk-tuk ride took us to a public ferry which then took myself, Christian (a Dane from the hostel) and Maja (a German girl) to our driver's boat. Within minutes of getting off the ferry, we had to negotiate a building site and I couldn't even manage that, as I slipped and ended up scraping my shin down the edge of a concrete slab, shredding off some skin in the process. It stung, but not as much as our driver's solution to the problem which was to put a whole lotta turmeric on it. It was perhaps the worst time to get such an injury - I now had to be super-careful walking about and had to make sure I didn't end up getting my wound into the green water - and it now preoccupied my mind for the rest of the day.

Our erstwhile driver was Thandor who was quite the character. He couldn't
Backwater LifeBackwater LifeBackwater Life

Locals going about their business in the backwaters; washing and fishing.
speak the best English and there were more than a few communication problems, but this maverick was good entertainment as he paddled us around the backwaters. I wasn't sure if he was giving me shit, but he told me to be careful every time I got in and out of the boat and basically thought I was a clumsy accident waiting to happen.
Not that Thandor himself was particularly careful and this became most apparent on our toddy stop. Toddy, as Thandor pointed out, is an milky-white, alcoholic beverage made from palm trees or coconuts. "All natural", explains Thandor. Trying the tipple at Thandor's local toddy shop, we find the toddy to be drinkable but not perhaps something we'd necessarily order at a bar. It is basically fermented coconut water and is sweet but mostly sour, and has an off-putting smell. To me it was like beer or whisky after the first stage of brewing. It wasn't that strong - about 3%!a(MISSING)pparently, and it seemed to taste like it - but the older it gets, the more it ferments and the stronger it gets. There is even a difference between a toddy in the morning and the same one
LilypadsLilypadsLilypads

At times there were so many lilypads on the canal that we had to help Thandor canoe through them and you couldn't see the water.
in the afternoon. While we weren't particularly fans, Thandor was absolutely loving it. While we struggled to get through 250mls between three of us, he basically downed a whole glass in seconds. And then another in double quick time. And then one more before we left the toddy shop. Which may have impaired his thinking when he took us across a dry paddy field only to encounter an uncrossable canal. He then takes us to a narrower part of the canal which involved a jump to the other side on via a tree root. I was worried about ending up knee deep in mud and infecting my graze from the morning; Thandor wasn't. Therefore I was lucky that Christian went before I did, as he slipped on the tree root and ended up knee deep in mud, his flip-flops gone forever. Well, so we thought - Thandor managed to recover them by thrusting his arms into the mud. He then motions at me to jump across too and in one of those many moments when travelling when you know something is a bad idea but you do it anyway, I jumped - and thankfully made it over unscathed. I was
FishermenFishermenFishermen

Fishermen looking for the next catch in the backwaters.
thankful to have made it to the end of the tour without falling into any mud or water. And the turmeric seemed to do the trick too - it helps haemoglobin to bind and dry and by the end of the day I had already formed a protective scab.
Overall, the backwaters was a peaceful experience; it was relaxing but could have been even more so if it didn't get so hot. Thank God we weren't paddling the boat under the sun like Thandor, then. It was a nice peek into one of the many different and unique lifestyles practiced in India.

As for Alleppey as a town itself, it is annoyingly spread out and nothing seems to be close; you can walk around it but it takes annoyingly long to get anywhere. The beach has nice sand but the water looks to have some strong undercurrents so no one really swims in it; and it's a bit dirty too. Worst of all, they've decided to build a raised highway right along the beach making the area behind the beach a construction site and ruining any sort of nice ambience that might once have existed here.
While in Alleppey,
Punnamada LakePunnamada LakePunnamada Lake

All canals lead to this great lake near the Alleppey boat jetty.
there were a few Hindu temples in the area that spat out some annoying Hindu chanting over a speakerphone that is similar to a Muslim call to prayer, but less a song and more half-singing, half fast talking. Like a horse racing commentator who won't shut up. They would go on for ages too. Like the towels around the waist that the men around here wear, I'd not encountered this chanting before anywhere else in India.
Also in Alleppey - and Kochi too for that matter - were a shit-ton of mosquitoes. This is perhaps unsurprising considering we were in the humid surrounds of the backwaters - the acres of still water being a paradise for mosquitoes looking to breed. Insect repellent was mandatory if you were going to be outside in the evening. I f*cking hate mosquitoes - they are practically useless and should be eradicated.

With the first "B" now done, it was time to take care of the other "B"; the beach. And so to Varkala I went for my final stop in Kerala - where after more than two months in India, I experienced rain for the first time!
Initially, Varkala reminded me of Arambol
Cliffs Of VarkalaCliffs Of VarkalaCliffs Of Varkala

Restaurants and shops line the cliffs that tower over the beach in Varkala.
in Goa with its cliffside shops and restaurants - the beach is scenically set below the cliffs. Having dinner at one of the cliffside restaurants, you could see a shit ton of fishing boats out at sea with their lights on at night. It was quite amazing; the ships aren't out there during the day but at night, there are so many of them that it looks like there is another coastline in the distance.
- Apart from a Hindu temple with a large bath next to it - I didn't know there was a ₹250 charge for taking photos inside and managed to take one good one before talking my way out of paying the charge - there really isn't much else to do but chill out. The waves are quite big and sudden on Varkala Beach which made it loads of fun; you couldn't really catch the waves as they would dump you into the ground instead. One second the sea would be calm and then two seconds later you have to dive into a massive wave to avoid getting pummelled. Sometimes though, a wave builds up right on top of you and you have nowhere to go
Janardhana TempleJanardhana TempleJanardhana Temple

Like Gokarna, Varkala is a somewhat holy town and this is the main temple.
- meaning you had to go under and hope for the best.

Hanging out with me were several people who I had met at previous hostels in India. There is a distinct backpacking trail from Mumbai to Kerala and only so many hostels meaning that I have kept bumping into people - far more frequently than anywhere else I have travelled to on this world trip. First there was Brit Senh, who I had first met in Hampi; then there was Frenchman Ismael and Germans Jan and Bene, who I had met in Alleppey. There was an old Vietnamese man too, who had followed me to each spot in Kerala all the way from Kochi.

With Ismael and the Germans, we went to a "festival" on my second night in Varkala, which was a party that started with an Indian band playing what was ostensibly reggae, with Hare Krishna vocals. It was definitely interesting to start with but got a bit boring after two hours of it. Perhaps getting really drunk might have made it better but having paid ₹500 to get in, they were then charging ₹300 for a f*cking can of beer. You're having a f*cking
Black Sand BeachBlack Sand BeachBlack Sand Beach

Just north of Varkala Beach is this tiny beach backed by rocks and plush hotel resorts.
laugh. That's almost £4. £3 for a plastic cup cocktail made with spirits from a used, plastic bottle, was an absolute rip too. It's almost London prices.
Indians have to be the most excitable lot I've ever seen though; this became apparent when what was mainly a foreign crowd dispersed a little after the band stopped playing and a DJ came on. It was quite interesting; he started off with reggae which gradually turned into drum n' bass which gradually got faster and turned into house, which eventually got even faster and turned into psytrance. The locals in the crowd were absolutely loving it; we were not so enamoured and took off. Psytrance really isn't my thing - it's far too fast.
It was good to drink alcohol again after a couple of weeks but it is irritating for travellers that Kerala is a dry state. That is why the prices were so high at the festival. It's is also difficult to procure - there is no off-licence shop you could pop into to get a few beers like you could in Goa. With everyone hanging out in a badly set up common area on the hostel porch, the lack
VarkalaVarkalaVarkala

Where I spent a relaxing few days.
of alcohol was annoying - no-one wanted to go to bed but there was nothing else to do. We were just crying out for a more comfortable hangout area and some beer for a pleasant night of socialising.

Food-wise, I tried a couple of Keralan dishes while in the state; thoran, which is pretty much a beetroot salad and was a bit light and a bit bland; and fish moley, a curry that had a really rich flavour to it. It was the first South Indian coconut-based curry I've had that has tasted as rich and as tasty as anything I'd had in North India. I loved it. I also had a "Sharjah" milkshake which is tea, banana and ice cream. I loved that too.
I also took advantage of the availability of beef and the multi-cuisine menus in Varkala to have a steak for the first time in yonks. Even though I asked for it to be rare, it was basically leather - heaven knows what it would have been like if I had asked it to be well done! Goodness, I'm not sure they know what rare is.
For the first time in over two months, I
HouseboatHouseboatHouseboat

One of the one thousand houseboats available for rent in Alleppey. Some of them are rather luxurious.
also finally did some shopping in Varkala! I probably paid a bit too much for my Kingfisher singlet but I really wanted one and this was one of the few places where I found exactly what I was looking for. I wanted a beer branded singlet but something that wasn't Chang or Bintang - I thought Kingfisher was more of a connoisseur's choice as far as beer-branded singlets go; your average lad on tour doesn't usually go to India!

I will miss Varkala a little - it's the perfect place to do nothing and everything you need is close by. Unlike in Gokarna, I felt truly relaxed here. I also had a little bit of a crew at the hostel as well, which for the umpteenth time, I had to leave behind; I had had some enjoyable conversations with Senh and fellow Brits Saajan and Jack. In particular, as Asians having grown up in Western countries, Senh, Saajan and I had much in common. Senh and I have also both been on the road a long time - so we shared our similar feelings about travelling becoming a normal lifestyle as opposed to "living the dream" and how things
Washing In The BackwatersWashing In The BackwatersWashing In The Backwaters

The technique to wash clothes here apparently is to give them a good beatdown.
don't blow you away so much after you've seen so much. Perhaps the only regrets I have from Varkala were not going for more swims and not seeing the sunset from the cliffs - the hot weather here makes it difficult for you to motivate yourself to get out of the house though!

So was Kerala all that it was cracked up to be? It was cool and it was enjoyable for sure; but perhaps I was expecting more. Nevertheless, it's definitely mandatory to come down here; at the very least it is yet another different side to India that you have to see.
For me however, it was now time to continue my journey from one coast right across to the other. The east coast and little bit of France awaited me in romantic Pondicherry.

പിന്നെ കാണാം (pinne kaanam),
Derek


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Santa Cruz BasilicaSanta Cruz Basilica
Santa Cruz Basilica

Impressive church in Kochi originally built in 1506 by the Portuguese.
Inside Santa Cruz Basilica, KochiInside Santa Cruz Basilica, Kochi
Inside Santa Cruz Basilica, Kochi

One of the more colourful church interiors I have seen recently.
Princess StreetPrincess Street
Princess Street

One of the peaceful colonial streets in Fort Cochin.
Banana Leaf LunchBanana Leaf Lunch
Banana Leaf Lunch

Our canoe tour included a home-cooked lunch served on a banana leaf and eaten with your hands.
Boat Jetty, AlleppeyBoat Jetty, Alleppey
Boat Jetty, Alleppey

The departure point for public ferries bound for the backwaters.
Bridge On The BackwatersBridge On The Backwaters
Bridge On The Backwaters

Pedestrians and motorbikes still need to get around - that is what these bridges over the canals are for.


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