Our trip to Kerala started at 3am in the morning with the riksha driver making a big detour via the international airport to get us to the domestic airport. I suppose he was assuming that we must be wanting to get out of India, even though we repeatedly told him domestic airport. Or maybe he just wanted to take us for a ride and a little early morning scam. Either way, we were passing hundreds of parked rikshas, most of them with the driver sleeping under a blanket on the back bench. Even Mumbai gets a bit cooler at night at this time of the year.
We landed in Kochi at 8am, and the air was noticeably nicer than Mumbai, even while walking from the aircraft to the terminal, which looked like a repurposed train station. Most men were wearing white lungis, which look very comfortable. It would be nice if one could wear those in NYC, but then again, seeing that all the men in Kerala are constantly playing with their lungi, tucking them in and out, lifting them up or down and adjusting them, maybe not.
The can ride to the ferry for Fort Kochi was a bit of a ride from hell. The roads are much better than in Mumbai, but the drivers are even more suicidal. There was a disturbingly large amount of huge advertising posters everywhere along the 20 miles road, but eventually, we got dropped off at the ferry. Of course it was the wrong ferry, the ones for the tourist, so we got immediately harassed left and right, as we must have been the day’s first prey. But we successfully dodged this second scam of the day and rather than paying Rs400 for the tourist boat, we walked a bit further down to catch the Rs2.5 regular ferry, which had the added bonus of watching the security guy lock up all the passengers behind a steel gate as they were waiting for the boat to come in. Which it did, 15mins late, with another ferry in tow, whose engine had apparently given up.
In Fort Kochi, we had our first of many encounters with riksha drivers who simply refused to turn on the meter. At first, we were rather annoyed, but over the days it dawned on us that maybe this is one of the features of Kerala’s long history of communist governments. Maybe you can’t have the highest literacy rate and lowest infant mortality rate in India, a noticeably more equitable distribution of wealth and a school in literally every village, and still expect the riksha drivers to use the meter. Of course, the rikshas were still pretty cheap, but at two or three times the going rate in Mumbai, one had to wonder whether this was the tourist rate or whether the locals really pay Rs2000 or so a month just for their daily commute.
Kochi is quite nice, but the some of the aggressive sales tactics got a bit on our nerves quite quickly, and almost every riksha driver made the same joke about wanting to give us a ride in his Ferrari, which also got a bit old. One driver tried to tell us that petrol is much more expensive in Kerala than in Mumbai (it is not, as the central government sets the price). A waiter ordered us to sit and relax. And we tried a ayurvedic massage, which Ksenia loved and I found a bit too up close and personal for comfort (I take a Thai massage any time over that).
Somehow the nicest part was to sit in a tea house just a bit away from the main drag. But in the evening we saw a Kathakali performance, and that was great. Yes, there were virtually no Indians in the audience, and it was more an exhibition than the real thing, but it was very interesting and beautiful. We finished the evening with a pretty bad dinner and the next day we had a cold shower and decidedly horrible breakfast in our overpriced hotel – white toast and jam consisting of 50% sugar and 50% gelatin. What the hell happened to idli, we wondered).
After that, we took a two hour bus ride to Alleppey. Ksenia got a seat and observed a very suave guy quietly and slowly slipping a piece of paper into a female passenger’s hands, who took it after fifteen minutes with a coy smile, while I was standing the whole time, watching the communist flags go by. In Alleppey, we got picked up by the cook for the houseboat that we had rented in Kochi, and then we argued with the riksha driver, who also refused to turn on the meter. The cook got quite annoyed with us and said come on, sit down, everything is ready to go, which of course it wasn’t. But eventually our houseboat got moving and we got some food, which was actually quite nice.
We spent 24 hours on the boat, which is about enough for our taste. It’s nice and relaxing at all, but looking at rice fields isn’t really all that thrilling, nevermind the fact that one basically takes the boat through other people’s back yards, where the women wash their clothes, bathe, and brush their teeth, and some children (much better dressed than in Mumbai) ask the tourists for money.
Ksenia and I entered a lengthy discussion about possible explanations for the size of the paddles that the locals use with their little wooden boats. These paddles are basically teaspoon size: they are very small and look almost fragile, with an undersized surface for effective paddling, and they are only one-sided, i.e. they have to change their grip, if they’d like to paddle on the other side of the boat. If they had better paddles, let alone contraptions for actually rowing instead of paddling, they’d be quite a bit faster. After pondering many theories ranging from lack of materials or engineering expertise or rowing muscles, to they aren’t in a rush to get anywhere, to maybe they had never thought about it, we settled on the explanation that maybe they used to use these little boats to go on tiny canals into the rice fields, where rowing would have been impossible and paddling with teaspoons offered the best balance of moving forward and protecting the rice fields.
Anyways, somehow the engine of our own boat gave up pretty much in time for sunset, so we got towed for a bit by another boat, and the next morning we woke up to the smell of diesel exhaust as the cook and the two other crew members tried to repair the engine. Eventually, we got back to Alleppey, where we found a number of touts who didn’t understand the meaning of the word no, but also a bus station attendant with badly deformed legs who pointed us very helpfully towards the right bus to Thiruvalla, our next stop.
Thiruvalla has the only temple in Kerala where Kathakali is performed daily as part of the religious ceremony, and it also has a number of temples in the surrounding villages, so that’s where we wanted to go. But first Ksenia needed another ayurvedic massage, so we went to a place that was listed in our Kerala travel book, but that place really looked more a hospital than anything else. They didn’t seem to have any patients, because the owner/doctor pretty much spent his whole afternoon with us, embarrassingly eager to please us, to make us want to come back tomorrow, and to tell all our fiends. He even reserved a room and drove us to a hotel that he insisted we stay in, even though we had told him a few times that we don’t know how long and where we want to stay and that we might actually leave town altogether.
So instead, we just had lunch at the hotel, pondered our options and called a place outside of town, which sounded much nicer than this hotel in the middle of Thiruvalla. Of course, the receptionist followed us onto the street wondering where we are going, but ah well. We took one of the many HM Ambassador taxi cabs, and even the cab drivers that were immediately surrounding us were laughing with me when I laughed about the price the driver wanted for the 2km ride.
But at least we got there, and we were quite happy with our choice this time, the Vanjipuzha Palace in Chengannur, where it was quiet and green, the food was great and the staff was very helpful. Maybe a bit too helpful, because, since it is more a homestay than a hotel, the staff had no problem asking us all kinds of private questions, insisted on watching us eat while they served us very yummy food, and tried to walk into our room for our wake up call at 7am. Like many in Kerala, they are also Christians, which got a bit annoying when they started preaching about it or acted as if that were a special accomplishment, and downright embarrassing when one of them gave us a tour to a number of Hindu temples while going on about how Christianity is the opposite of Hinduism’s idol worship, as he called it. Strangely, he also was a devout anti-communist, the main reason seemingly being that the communist government was to blame for labor costs being too high and so many rice fields were no longer economical.
Either way, he was quite knowledgeable about the area, and he showed us a lot of things that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. In the evening, we went to the Kathakali temple and apparently he was able to tell us what the story was all about just from reading the hand gestures. Amazingly, the Kathakali performance is almost every night from 10pm to 5am. Not there were many people there apart from us, but it was quite impressive. Later on, there was a bit of a cat fight amongst the staff, because he hadn’t told the others where we were going or when we would come back, so they got all worried and showed up at 2am at the temple to find us and take us back to the hotel. Sadly, both staff members were strongly hinting that they would like to help us get themselves or their children a work visa for the US, again emphasizing that they are Christians.
Anyways, we left after three hours of sleep to catch a 6am train to Trivandrum. We only had time for a quick stop at the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, whose inner square was closed for non-Hindus anyways, as is the case in a number of temples, and then it was back to Mumbai, Ksenia’s backpack enriched with a number of fabrics and a hand-made metal mirror she had bought and me already looking where should we go onto our next little trip.