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Published: February 20th 2010
12th Jan - 3rd Feb
Keralans are very proud of their state and are quick to tell you that it’s “God’s Own Country”, the byline of its tourism campaign. Stepping off the plane in Cochin, it was easy to see why. Having left the cold smogginess of Delhi, we were greeted with a flawless blue sky, a balmy 30 something degree heat, a gentle breeze which ruffled the nearby palm trees and a general feeling that everything was going to become a lot easier from here on. I could hardly contain my excitement - especially when our guest house car arrived - a great big silver 4 x 4 with air conditioning. The contrast between the north and south was striking. Apart from the weather, there was greenery everywhere, the air was clear, the roads not so busy and there was an air of prosperity that we hadn’t seen thus far.
We spent our first night in a Keralan style homestay - a beautifully renovated house that had wooden balconies and balustrades that made it look like a boat. It was pretty pricey for what it was though so the next day we moved to a smaller place
called Henri’s Anchorage which is now run by the late Henri’s lovely wife Joan. It was scrupulously clean and a quarter of what we had paid the night before so we very happily settled in to what was to become a full week in Fort Cochin (we had only planned to stay for a couple of nights). There are quite a few ex-pats living there who, like us, fell in love with it at first sight. Fort Cochin is actually an island connected to the mainland by a couple of bridges. The old town is set beside a quaint little harbour full of old Chinese fishing nets and there’s a Catholic Basilica in the heart of it all. The town played an important part in the spice trade and is still home to a very lucrative export business. Over the years, it was colonised by the Portugese, Dutch and British and so it has a very eclectic Indo-European colonial ambiance. The alleyways are home to some great cafes and boutiques and within a 5 minute walk you can get an ayurvedic massage, a cookery class or a fabulous hand woven silk shawl. The Tuk Tuk drivers all want to take
Kids on Eclipse day
with Matt and the iphone
you in their “Ferrari” to see the sights. They do so for a very low cost but, as is often the case, the real price is the commission they get for what you spend in the “factory” shops they bring you to as part of the tour. Poor Matt was getting very nervous when he saw me taking great interest in a $3000 silk carpet. I was completely spellbound by the sales guy - he had such panache and passion for his carpets; he even kissed each one before unfurling it with a dramatic thud on the ground. I decided though that we should really get a house before considering a carpet! The highlight of our tour was when we bumped into a bunch of smartly uniformed kids outside the local Catholic School. They were on their lunch break and came rushing over to show us the glasses they had made to view the eclipse that was passing over Kerala that day. We hadn’t known about it but we arrived just as it was starting. Matt got out his i-phone to look it up and of course this caused great excitement all round! One small boy shyly offered us his
pair of glasses and we were rewarded with a huge toothy grin as we shook his hand in thanks. We spent the rest of our tour, checking the progress of the eclipse and sharing our new glasses with everyone we met along the way.
Matt surprised me one evening by booking us both on to a cookery class with a lady called Lela. Over the course of two hours, she showed us how to make a traditional Keralan banquet including two curries (one fish and one veggie), sambar, fried rice and raijata. Our mouths were watering by the end and we were rewarded by being allowed to demolish the lot. I did take notes so let’s see if I can recreate some of the dishes when we get back! Other than Lela’s homecooked delights, we ate very well in Fort Cochin. There’s lots of great restaurants including the very posh Malabar House favourite place was a wondeful little restaurant called Dal Roti which serves the most delicious North India Kati rolls. The owner Ramesh won’t thank me for saying this though - apparently he wants the recommendation taken out of the Lonely Planet as the place is getting
more business than they can handle - there’s a picture of us there with Ramesh and a few friends we met along the way.
On our last night, we went to see a Kathakali performance. This is play that’s acted out through music, dance, hand gestures and facial expressions. The make up is an integral part and takes over an hour to apply. We arrived a few minutes early so that we could see some of this being done. The performance was quite spectacular to watch although while I was enthralled, Matt was wishing he could curl up and sleep like the poor Japanese tourist slouched beside us. However, the one hour performance we sat through is just a small taster from the full 9 hour version!
We were slow to leave Fort Cochin - the atmosphere is so laid back and the people that live there are just delightful. Matt had also found some cricket friends so was very happy. However, we eventually decided it was time to move on and we headed 3 hours down the coast to a beach town called Varkala. We arrived pretty late so just checked into a very average
room back from the beach. The next morning we took a wander along the cliff where all the restaurants and hotels are to see if we could find something better. My eyes lit up when we saw a café called Coffee Temple so we decided to have breakfast there. It turned out to be quite a serendipitous pitt stop.
Ramesh (from Dal Roti) had given us a contact called Deb to talk to about Yoga and Ayurveda. She wandered into the café about 5 minutes after we got there and was so helpful and immediately invited us to come and visit her for tea. She introduced us to Les, the gruff but loveable Londoner who runs the place and makes the meanest cappuccino in town. It turned out that he was trying to start a project with an orphanage that a relative of his Indian wife’s was running. He invited me to go and see it with Deb and a couple of others the following day. A few minutes later, we got chatting to a guy who I can only describe as radiant! His name is Jason and he and his equally captivating girlfriend Nicole have ended up
becoming good friends of ours. They had been spending time at Amma’s Ashram just north of Varkala. We had never heard of Amma - also known as the hugging Guru or saint but from what they told us we thought it would be really interesting to check it out. When we mentioned that we were interested in doing some yoga, he told us about an amazing Ienga teacher called Nirendra who sometimes teaches at the Ashram. He had just told us that he wasn’t sure where in India he was when Nirendra came around the corner and told us that he happened to be teaching an intensive course at the Ashram the following week. Within the space of an hour, we had an invitation to tea, I had planned a trip to the orphanage with Les and Debra, Matt and I had made a plan to go to the Ashram and sign up for the yoga course and to top it off, Jason and Nicole had brought us to see their hotel which was perfect and had a vacancy for us…..sorted!
Varkala is a certainly a touristy place but we really enjoyed a lazy few days there making
the most of the amazing selection of seafood, the tasty cocktails and I had the novelty of being able to wear a bikini and short skirt without either offending people or attracting unwanted stares. We also did a few yoga lessons to limber up before our intensive course. We found an evening class which was held on a roof top and it was great to do our yoga stretches and meditation while watching the sun set through the palm trees across the beach. The trip to the orphanage was definitely a highlight for me. As well as Deb and Les, there was a British couple called Jen and Steve who had been living in Varkala for a couple of months. It turned out that they were amazing musicians and we had a very fun sing song - first at the local church and then at the actual orphanage. The villagers were so hospitable. They obviously didn’t have very much but were so proud to offer us all sorts of things including bananas, chai tea, soda and some sort of sticky rice pudding. The teachers and priest are all doing such a great job with minimal resources (there’s only two rooms
with one bed in each to house all of the children - 9 girls in one room and 8 boys in the other). They’re also about to be evicted which is why Les is getting involved - he’s trying to raise awareness and funds so that they get some more support. You would never guess what a harsh history these kids have had though - they’re so smiley, curious and funny. They’re also working hard in school and took great delight in speaking English with us and telling us about their studies and what they would do when they grew up. Leaving was bittersweet - it really made me appreciate even more, all that I have and often take for granted. I was so happy to have met Les and been invited along - his courage and vision are truly inspiring.
After 5 days in Varkala, we set off for Amma’s Ashram. We really didn’t know what to expect. Jason had just told us that we could turn up and that we would be housed somewhere. So, we arrived unannounced and sure enough, they gave us a double room and a booklet to explain proceedings. Basically we could
do as much or as little as we wanted. Amma had been on tour in the south of India and was due back on the following day so we had a chance to find our feet before the place got really busy. A normal day at the ashram starts at about 5am with Archana (chanting), then there’s meditation on the beach while the sun is rising and then there’s a variety of things you can do until evening when again there’s meditation at sunset and Bhajans (devotional singing) in the evening. There’s every sort of body/soul course or session you can imagine from reiki and Balinese massage to devotional dance lessons and Ayurvedic cookery classes. They also encourage everyone to do 2 hours of Seva per day. Seva translates as selfless service and for me that meant washing dishes and for Matt sorting the recycling rubbish. I think if you’re there on a more long term basis you get the glamorous jobs like cooking and working in the gift shop but it was a really nice way to meet people and it actually felt quite good to get my hands dirty! On my first day, I was part of a
Bridge to the Ashram
Amma had this built after the Tsunami so that locals could evacuate if something like this happens again
group of women that washed every plate and cup in the place (thousands!) before Amma’s arrival on the following day - there was a factory line up of 10 of us, all Indian except for me and a Belgian girl called Geraldine. We discovered a mutual love of singing and ended up whiling away our two hours singing everything from Alannis Morrisette to Belgian drinking songs!!
So, a couple of unexpected things that struck me about the Ashram:
a) They have a cappuchino machine! What a result, who would have guessed it!! In fact, westerners are made to feel very comfy here - you can also have French toast for your breakfast, pizza for your lunch and chocolate chip cookies in case you’re in need of a sugar fix! Of course you have to pay for these things but sometimes you need a change from the free Indian food that’s given out 3 times a day.
b) Not everyone there was nice. I think I had this image of everyone walking around all full of love and goodwill (like our friends Jason and Nicole!) but there’s a lot of people who come with all sorts
a sneaky photo inside the ashram
not really supposed to take pics but there you go. that's the beach behind the trees
of baggage and problems. There’s also a couple of long termers who are quite snobbish about being devotees and look down their nose a bit at newcomers who might not be fully converted. I must confess that I had a few moments where I felt like telling them to divert some of their unconditional love of Amma to love for everyone else.
c) It’s absolutely huge!! Amma’s policy is to never turn anyone away so they’ve ended up building a whole town including two high rise blocks to house all the people who come to stay.
We met a few quite nutty people in our first few days and we were starting to get pretty cynical but then we met some truly beautiful people who we hope to stay in contact with. Akalesh - originally from Georgia and now living in London who does therapeutic massage and healing work back home and ended up working on Matt’s back and ankles for over an hour one evening because he noticed that Matt was having problems sitting in meditation. Gina and Jeremy, a French and English couple who spend half the year working in France (she’s an energy healer
and he’s an ex rugby star turned couture weaver) and the other half volunteering in local villages all around the world - what an amazing couple. And of course Nicole, Jason and the lovely Geraldine. Oh I nearly forgot Neel, the very colourful hairdresser from Brighton. What a funny guy. When I asked him why he was there, he said “oh darling, don’t you just love all the drama and colour of Indian religion ….how could I miss it?!” He even had a special rig out made to receive his Darshan. He described it as his Guantanamo bay meets Ali baba outfit - a bright orange creation with ballooned legs and a monk like peaked hood…if only I could have taken a picture!
It was a very very interesting 10 days. We did the yoga course which was amazing - Nirendra really is a top class teacher. It was also fantastic to spend that time in a place where everyone was interested in spirituality and was for the most part (apart from the few nutters and fanatics) open and friendly. The Ashram is situated in a beautiful spot between the backwaters and the beach. We spent pretty much
every sunset on the beach either meditating or just enjoying the peace and quiet whilst watching the sun turn the sea to shades of copper and rose gold as it sank into the water. At the beginning I think we were a little disappointed that we didn’t connect with Amma in the same way that others seemed too. Amma has headed up many amazing humanitarian projects (including a huge clean up and construction project in both India and Sri Lanka following the Tsunami) and she also sits for up to 14+ plus hours on any gven day, seeing her followers and giving darshan (her blessing which takes the form or a hug) often without eating or using the ladies room. We just didn’t feel very inspired by her talks though and the thing we found most difficult was that although she apparently says that God is within all of us, she doesn’t discourage her deification and we found that the singular devotion and belief of some of her followers that Amma would solve all their problems just doesn’t fit with our beliefs. Having said this, we met a great number of people who we respect who have experienced life changing
things as a result of following her as a guru (without being blindly devoted). At the end of our 10 days, we left very grateful to have had the opportunity to experience life in an Ashram and to have met so many beautiful people. I also had two hugs which were very nice!
So what to do after 10 days of spiritual contemplation? We decided to splash out and treat ourselves to a luxury house boat on the backwaters of Kerala. I remember seeing a picture of our friends Jo, Pete, Kirsty and Mark doing the same thing last year and thinking it looked so romantic. It’s even better in real life though. Our guest house in Alleppey brought us to see their little boat and it was so beautiful that we decided to spend two nights on the water. We had our own captain and a cook that dished up the most sumptuous traditional Keralan food we had tasted to date. We spent the days sitting in the shade reading and watching village life as we glided almost silently through the narrow canals. The houses are all along the water and the banks are alive with the
gentle sights and sounds of people washing, cooking, playing, relaxing and generally living what appears an idyllic rural lifestyle (of course it’s easy to think that as an outsider). We spent the evenings sitting on our little top balcony soaking up the golden evening sun and playing cards with a kingfisher in hand. Heaven!
Our last stop in Kerala was a sleepy little sea side village in the north called Kannur. We had a nice hassle-free couple of days there and spent a fun evening playing Frisbee on the local beach before going to Mysore in Karnataka. The train trip to Kannur was probably the most interesting bit though. There were 7 of us squashed up together on a seat made for 3! While Matt was sleeping on an upper bunk, I got chatting to this couple from Calicut. Geeta kept feeding me Chai and every other little delectable nibble that the wallahs were selling. She decided that I really should be wearing a bindi and put one on me and then gave me a supply to take with me. We even got an invite to their daughter’s wedding in June…if only we were still here, my dream
is to go to a proper Indian wedding!
Sorry to have made this such a long blog!!! I’ll try not to leave it so long before doing the next one. We just loved Kerala though - such a stunning state with the most lovely people, food and landscape. We didn’t get to spend time in the mountainous areas or the spice plantations so we definitely have an excuse to come back again….hopefully before too long.
Some recommendations Sleeping
*Home Stay in Fort Cochin - Henri’s Anchorage. It’s right beside the Basilica and only 5 minutes from the town centre.
*In Varkala, we stayed in the Paradise hotel but we don’t have contact details. It was 500 rupees per night for a clean, simple room right on the north cliff.
*Alleppey - we stayed in a little place called Bella Beachside Resort. The rooms are not particularly charming but the owner Bijou and his family more than make up for this. We had a great evening out with Bijou and ‘Uncle” and Bijou ended up ferrying us all over town including a trip out to what he likes to call the Secret Beach. Eating
- Dal Roti is the most fantastic little place in Fort Cochin. I can still smell and taste the double egg and chicken Kati roll….yummm
- We splashed out one of the evenings in Fort Cochin and ate at Malabar House. This really is fine dining and your candle-lit dinner is accompanied to the smooth sounds of live tabla and sitar (thanks for the recommendation Jo!)
- Fort Cochin: We got the ferry and bus out to Cherrai beach on one of the afternoons and it’s a fun day trip. The beach is nothing special but the trip out there is really interesting and it’s a nice place to chill for an afternoon (you can even get a beer or soft drink in one of the restaurants right on the beach)
- Alleppey: The houseboat ended up costing us about 6500 rupees for the two nights including all food and drinking water. Definitely worth doing if you’re in this part of the world. It’s worth taking a look at the boats down in the harbour - you can pay anything from 4000 - 15000 per night …we definitely got a good deal
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