Off the beaten track...
Our second stop in India was to the Kerala province, here we were hoping to continue some level of beach life perhaps even with a wave or two to surf, but we ended up in a whole new unexpected world of sights and history.
We took a train south from Goa to Kochi, which was a night train with four bunks - it took us eight attempts to book this at both the train station the post office and then eventually at a travel agent. The system is complicated to say the least but the train itself, if you can get on one, is great; it is comforting to have your own space to sleep and a door to close to feel secluded and safe. Arriving in Kochi was a surprise, the city was far bigger and more modern than expected yet we didn’t stop to look except for through the taxi window. We crossed the river and headed towards Fort Kochi with its vast and obvious multi-cultural background; having been transformed from a quiet fishing village when colonised by the Portuguese in 1503 some of whose landmarks still stand to this day. The Dutch destroyed the rest when they took over in 1683 keeping it for 112 years until the English came along. The area was only given back to the Indian people in 1947 and there are lasting influences from all sides.
I strongly recommend taking the walk down through Jew Town, yes it is called that out loud; for the places you will see! The diversity on this walk alone just blew me away. There are luxury boutique hotels, crumbling tumble-down houses, rows of working shopfronts with no fronts and absolutely no technology, streams, local vendors, street vendors, boat rides, I mean I literally couldn’t believe my eyes from start to finish; a veritable banquet for them it was. The Chinese Fishing Nets are a big lure to the tourist in Fort Kochi and there are restaurants and old colonial hotels with an upper class air of yesteryear looming over the local neighbourhoods. We were welcomed like any white person with money! It was weird, but had a smell of excitement about it.
We stayed in a very interesting homestay with an elderly man named Sebastian, he spoke perfect English and told us a lot about the area in the olden days. He had been at school when the English took over, hence his lingual abilities, and spoke of life with a positive tone, not one of regrets, bitterness or resentment. His place was adorably simple, we had to walk through his ‘room’ to get to our rooms, some nights he was fast asleep on his little single cot surrounded by a scattering of books and other belongings, and we tiptoed not to wake him. In the morning he would shuffle up and down stairs to get us tea, coffee and spicy omelettes, refusing our help to permit him to remain proud of his work. We tried our best to oblige. He was eighty-four years old with intermittent teeth and was as slight as a bean!
Just wandering around this place brought such an amazing feeling of history, you can almost imagine the ships rolling in and out bringing goods to build their forts and establishments of note. it was also pretty strange to feel such strong hints and remnants of Europe so far from home.
From here we took a trip to Alleppey, or Alappuzha, where we found a small hotel that helped us to book a trip to the backwaters nearby; we rented a houseboat for ourselves which could have slept 8 people comfortably, we had an onboard crew of a skipper, a chef and another friendly helping hand (they slept anywhere and wouldn't accept our pillows and blankets!), we were served lunch, dinner and breakfast the next morning after having moored up at the side of the river for the night. The food was incredible, the best we had in India to that day. Probably because it was the most authentic we had tasted and refreshingly not altered to the palette of the average westerner. The waters were stunning, serene and peaceful - a far cry from the rest of the very busy country that is India. We did a spot of fishing with some makeshift rods, learned a song on the newly purchased ukulele and played games on the boat; some good old fashioned quiet family time.
We then returned to Fort Kochi to explore some more, the Biennale festival (India’s biggest art event) was just raring to go and the streets were filling fast. Street art was also growing rapidly, some of the new additions were incredibly Banksy-esque with an Eastern nudge. Biennale is an international contemporary art exhibition that runs for four months featuring both Indian and international artists displaying their contemporary art paintings, installations, sculptures and more. There were displays on every corner, in decorated gardens, in colonial hotels; it was an incredible addition to an already spectacle-filled area.
From here we travelled inland to the city of Madurai; I had seen online that there was an amazing temple, named the Meenakshi Temple, there which looked incredible in the pictures. It was not really a ‘tourist’ destination but this ancient Hindu landmark is a major pilgrimage destination; attracting tens of thousands of devotees per day! It was absolutely amazing to be amidst the intensity of these devout people who had travelled, some for days, to get there. It was somewhat overwhelming at times and we kind of felt like we were wrong to be there just to look at the beauty; the true purpose being towards Shaivism tradition, dedicated to Meenakshi Devi and Shiva. Not to stand taking pictures of shiny vimanas and garbhagrihas gilded in gold!
We felt like sore thumbs (we were the only blonde people for miles), and rightly so - this is a working and highly important religious temple - the energy and intensity there was astounding and something I’ll never forget. To give an idea of just how big it is, the temple attracts over a million pilgrims and visitors during the annual 10-day Meenakshi Tirukalyanam festival! Overall I wouldn’t recommend this part of the trip unless you’re a hardened traveller; there wasn’t much else to see in this area so two days was more than enough before we headed North to Bangalore. From here we departed India after a total of six weeks stay, it had been a great host but I have to say it can be exhausting and difficult to navigate so you need to plan your movements well as it is utterly worthwhile exploring this vast and impressive country. Next time I go I’ll be heading North.
Next stop; The Philippines.