Heather here. After three weeks of travel throughout northern India and Mumbai, we were ready to take it down a notch in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Kerala is renowned for its laid back style, and for us, that sounded like a perfect way to spend our last week in this otherwise frenetic, energetic country.
We took a quick flight to Kochi, a convenient starting point to reach some of the iconic areas of the smallish state of Kerala. Homestays are quite common in these parts, and ours, located in Fort Kochi, had an amazing local feast for us both for dinner and breakfast. We immediately noticed how different the food was here. It’s a very tropical area with lush greenery and coconut trees everywhere. Coconut was reflected in the cuisine, and the spices were aromatic and intoxicating. Being along the main spice trade, everything was fresh and local, from cardamom to anise to curry leaves to mustard seed. And being coastal, fresh fish and seafood were always available. We also noticed beef on the menu, a direct result of a large Christian population. The dishes were not as creamy and heavy as many of the dishes we had in the north; frankly we couldn’t get enough of the food in the south!
Though the culture is more relaxed in Kerala, we still set a relatively fast pace to see the area. We had one day in Fort Kochi, 2 days in Munnar, a day in Thekkady, 2 days in Alleppey, and a day in Kovalam. This final week in India was going to be productive! And we could tell from the outset that this part of the country was going to be one of our favorites.
We spent our day in Fort Kochi just wandering about town seeing the sights at our own leisure. We bought freshly-caught fish and prawns from the local fishermen and had it grilled to our liking for lunch. We watched a dance show called Kathakali, which was occasionally hysterical with the many theatrical faces the dancers make, not to mention extremely loud! I found an amazing souvenir shop that had a stash of beautiful jewelry and vintage rings that I couldn’t help but buy. I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff. Luckily I didn’t feel bad negotiating down the price though. That’s a must in India.
Our initial thought was to take the trains around Kerala, but we found that most of them were booked, so we opted to hire a car and driver again, like we did through Rajasthan. Our first day on the road heading to Munnar was a soggy one. Sheets of rain came down and some of the roads started to flood. The drive took a while longer than usual due to the conditions, as well as a few detours due to washed out roads. We just wanted to get there safely, and we asked our driver to take it easy. He was very obliging.
The homestay we were linked up with in Munnar was amazing. Probably one of the best accommodation experiences we had in India! It was called River Rock, and is a guest room built in a separate, private building on a huge boulder, overlooking the mountains and river behind the main house the family lives in. It was gorgeous.
And the family only takes one pair of guests at a time so they can spend quality time. They prepared our dinners and breakfasts from scratch the traditional way, and ate with us, explaining what everything was, how life in Kerala is, and just being as generous and gracious of hosts as we could have possibly asked for. They reminded us of Fred’s Italian grandmother, in the way they took such care in preparing the meals and insisting we keep eating more.
The countryside around Munnar was stunning. It is a hill station town in the midst of acres and acres of tea plantations. Never having seen tea plantations, we were entirely awed by the site of the rolling hills covered by cropped tea trees. It was almost surreal in its beauty. And visiting the tea museum was interesting, learning how the tea is turned from leaf to powder – not to mention the price of admission included one of the best cups of tea we had, rivaling “India’s best chai” in Jaisalmer.
The only downside of the day was how cold and rainy it was. We weren’t prepared for the cold. Thinking an Ayurvedic massage (world-famous massage practice originating in Kerala) and steam would fix us up and help my fledgling cold subside, we signed up for an hour and a half treatment at a “locals place” recommended by our driver. Bad idea. The rooms were so cold, that we were shivering the entire time and just couldn’t relax. And cleanliness left a lot to be desired. I ended up with a worse cold after all. That would be our last Ayurvedic treatment unfortunately.
Between Munnar and Alleppey, we made a one-night stop in Thekkady, close to some beautiful parkland and wildlife refuges. We sadly learned that the wildlife viewing boat trips were fully booked so we missed that part of the town. But since I was feeling under the weather, we took it easy and just did a spice garden visit where a guide showed us all the local spice plants in their original, plant form. Our homestay in this town was adjacent to a forested area, just a stone’s throw from the Tamil Nadu border. Cheeky monkeys raided the jackfruit trees in the yard and left us with hours of entertainment.
Next stop: Alleppey. This is “the” place to be in Kerala, and possibly the main reason for such tourism, foreign and domestic, in the south. Alleppey is the epicenter of the Kerala backwaters, an expansive network of tropical water canals. Rice farmers and fishermen make their homes here, but the rice barges-turned-sightseeing-boats have taken over in the main areas. We didn’t want to miss out, so we rented a boat, equipped with a bedroom, a lounge area, a kitchen, a captain, and a chef. It was a similar concept to our Halong Bay excursion in Vietnam. This was all about relaxing and enjoying the scenery. We only regretted not planning for more time.
Suddenly our week in Kerala, and month in India, was almost over. How did that happen so fast? We were scheduled to fly out of Trivandrum, so we opted to spend our last night on the subcontinent in Kovalum, a quaint (but touristy) beach town close to the airport.
India was a challenge at times, and absolutely awe-inspiring at others. Ups and downs, highs and lows. For me, India was about the history and the humanity, with such rich cultural heritage, and such gut-wrenching human conditions to be exposed to. We were often perplexed, outraged, saddened, exhausted, but on the other side we were humbled, amazed, appreciative, and warmed by the many beautiful and kind aspects as well. India doesn’t put on a veneer for visitors; she shows herself as she is. Take it or leave it. Truthfully, there were moments when we didn’t think we could handle the stress and sensory overload, but as I watched Keralan life pass by from the car on the final trip to the airport, I felt a surprising kinship with India, a sadness to say goodbye.
Fred and I felt closer than ever in our relationship, having now been on the road together experiencing the diversity of the world for six and a half months. I suppose this could be like an intensive test of our compatibility! We felt like we had passed the test with flying colors. But truth be told we were starting to feel a little worn out – travel fatigue, if you will. Good news is, we had a whole week of rest and relaxation in the Maldives coming up! One final splurge.