If places like Varanasi and Agra are the India that everyone has in their minds, Kerala has been the India that we didn’t imagine.
Upon landing in Trivandrum, the sheer greenery of the place hits you straight away. And then driving around: there are no cows and the wall of car and tuk tuk beeping noises isn’t here. Instead of numerous pictures of the prime minister, the hammer and sickle is plastered everywhere. Hindu temples stand alongside large churches. It is completely different to the north.
We were starting our journey through Kerala in Trivandrum, and having stayed at some very basic (yet decent) places in the north of India, we were happy to arrive at a lovely, modern, AC radiating hotel. On the understanding that Kerala was a dry state, we were then overwhelmed at being told we had free beers in the bar that evening. By the time we got to the room, the sight of an in-room kettle with Tetley teabags nearly gave me tears of happiness. And then Giles reminds me – “One night only, one night only”.
In the morning, after an equally impressive breakfast spread, it was time to move into the reality of our trip through South India, starting with the resort town of Varkala. As well as the scenic cliffside location, what struck us was the chilled out atmosphere of the town – our hectic, non-stop travels so far meant sitting in a bar with decent coffee watching the waves crash and monsoon clouds roll in was a good use of our time. It was the kind of place that we could have easily spent a week, but the rest of Kerala (and our trip) was calling.
Kerala is known for its backwaters – huge man-made networks of waterways and canals, home for many Indians whose families have lived by the water for generations and rely on it for farming livelihoods. Whilst there are hundreds of houseboats which travellers use to see the vast networks of water, these are fully docked and stationary for the monsoon season. We did have the opportunity to visit a beautiful homestay for a night, where the family showed us around the village (both on foot and by boat) and cooked us dinner using produce and rice from their farmland. It was a great experience, although we both commented on the amount of rubbish that polluted large areas of the backwaters as we took the boat back. We saw people literally chuck their plastic bottles into the waters, in part simply because they have nowhere to put their trash.
Our next stop in Kerala was Fort Kochi, a town with a blend of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial history and architecture, and site of the oldest and only active Jewish synagogue in India. We were visiting during the festival of Onam, the Keralan harvest festival, with a lot of dancing, drumming and marches happening all over.
The destination in Kerala I was most looking forward to was Periyar, in the unrealistic hope we might get to see tigers or elephants in the wild (and also it’s a lot cooler than anywhere else we’d been so far). Our early morning (5am) trek didn’t start too smoothly as a misunderstanding meant we thought we were crossing a bridge which was actually a bamboo raft which didn’t look too sturdy. Set up with leech socks and water, we walked for hours with our ranger (no gun, no spray in case of attack) to see some birds, monkeys and a few frogs. When our ranger thought he came across a fresh tiger footprint, a slight look of fear crossed his face as he muttered “My god”. It was at that point I realised it was probably for the best that we didn’t see a tiger. Despite the lack of wildlife action, the scenery was again stunning and so different from the India we had in our imagination.
Kerala has been a much needed week of down time in India, which we have enjoyed thoroughly. With our time in India coming to an end soon, we are looking forward to travelling further and gradually making our way up to Goa and Mumbai.