Kerala: Travel through Water, Coconut and Smiles

After the beauty of about 15 hours trip by train from Gokarna, we finally arrive in Kochi. The driver waited for us in the Ernakulam station from our first hotel, which was booked via the internet. Our entire trip from Karnataka to Kerala was organized if I may say so, over the Internet, without having to hire travel agencies, which certainly would have made us spend much more.

Since we arrived here in the early morning, we spend the morning lounging for a moment in the room and doing a walk in the area near the hotel. For the next 2 days, we visit the old town, with its fishing nets and the thousands of crows that fly around. The second day we take an auto rickshaw and visit Mattancherry, the Jewish area, which is not much different from Fort Kochi, where we stop to see some temples and where we ask our driver to take us to eat something. In Fort Cochin, we also went to see a performance of Kathakali, a traditional theater dance of Kerala.

Cochin, also known as the Queen of the Arabian Sea, due to its natural harbor is a really fascinating place that is seductive, which takes you quickly back in time, thanks to its centuries-old churches, its old Portuguese and Dutch colonial houses, who landed here over 500 years ago, the Jewish Synagogue, and thanks to the many fishermen crowding the promenade with the old and famous Chinese fishing nets whose ancient and also very complicated technique was based on a particular system of counterweights, and is still in use today. Vasco de Gama died here and was buried here in 1500 before his ashes were later transferred via Lisbon to the Dutch, who brought out a nice bit of restructuring.

We go into a little restaurant and have traditional South Indian food. The next day, we take the public ferry which takes us to Vypin Island. As we get on the ferry, I do not notice, and I climb the side reserved for women only. However after a chuckle, we change our areas and everything falls into place, between the smiles of other Malayali women who look at me curiously and hilariously.

After a half hour trip, we arrive at the famous beach, a strip of white sand, just along the coast road. Hordes of tourists walk endlessly along the beach. The beach is nice, but it is impossible to swim because the current is very strong and even when standing on the shore we could realize its current. The day passes quickly and for the return instead of the bus, we opt for an auto rickshaw.

We take a small road passing between small groups of houses hidden by vegetation, where there are children and animals in complete freedom. We also see an elephant carrying a bunch of fagots and the image takes us by surprise! Finally, it's evening by the time we come back to the hotel. We start searching for a place to eat and we choose a restaurant popular with tourists, which was really inexpensive.

As the Christmas Eve in India was near, we notice a beautiful hotel and enter to look around. It had a beautiful lobby and pool and we see written that it organized the Christmas dinner, so there we book and in the evening we appear there. The food was good with the band playing around. The evening passes and we take a walk downtown after dinner.

At Cochin, because the Portuguese first landed here with, there is a very high percentage of Christians. At midnight, we go to the St. Francis Church, the oldest Christian church in the area and participate in a Midnight Mass. It was nice to hear the half-Mass in Latin and half in English, with a choir singing in Latin, and above all, it was great when at the end of the ceremony the priest greeted everyone present in all imaginable languages.

During my stay in Cochin, I also took the opportunity to visit the beautiful backwaters of Kerala, a system of large and small canals, which extends over kilometers and kilometers of tropical vegetation and small floating villages.

After three days in Kochi, we take a taxi, booked through the hotel, with a visit inland to Munnar, the land of plateaus with endless tea plantations, where we arrived after nearly 4 hours of travel. Here the panorama changes radically as the heat gives way to moisture and we pull out our sweaters. Our hotel was also a surprise as it was a villa completely surrounded by forest, and nature is everywhere, where you can hear the sounds of birds and other animals, which frankly I cannot say what they were.

After unloading the suitcases in the room, we go for a small trek, following a path and come to a stream with small waterfalls. It starts to drizzle and we return home. Here we meet a guy who leads us to see the cardamom plants, which is the widely used spice in these parts. We request the manager of the resort to have our breakfast ready by 8.30 am and to have a taxi at 9.00. Although there were a restaurant and a bar, the guys who live in another villa in the jungle, prepared the food outside and distribute it door to door. We agree to have our food with them amidst lots of fun.

The next morning, after breakfast we leave for the plantations, and we go to visit a pseudo tea factory where they feature various types of tea to take back home. Our driver was a very young boy in his early twenties, who speaks barely a word of English and had a terrible accent and neither of us was able to communicate properly, with delusional speeches in Hindi-English between him and me. They were unforgettable moments, worthy of the best comedies.

All day we move around the mountains of Munnar and in the afternoon we do a two and a half hour trek through the forest to reach a breathtaking waterfall, guided by a forest kid, who stops to explain the properties of various plants and walked through the forest with a simple pair of flip-flops. In the evening, we return back to our rooms. We get through our dinner meal with chicken curry and rice with vegetables, which was all very good.

The next morning, after breakfast we go on an elephant back on a steep narrow road. We do our tour and take the usual photos and continue our journey for many kilometers. Near one of the waterfalls, we stop to eat sitting on the bench at the roadside and the food was not bad at all, although everything was terribly spicy. With 50 rupees each, we ate our usual rice and chicken curry and an excellent sweet dish.

It's time to leave Munnar and escorted by our faithful driver we head to Kumily, where we stay at a nice Homestay. It was cheap as the most expensive room cost 800 rupees a night, with 200 rupees for breakfast, but there were rooms even cheaper which were very clean and well kept. Next to the forest, from the windows of our room, we can see birds, squirrels, woodpeckers and some monkeys in the distance.

The owner was a fantastic host, who was very nice and helpful and was ready to make a thousand phone calls to find a rickshaw or to satisfy any desire. The next day, the owner organizes us a day in the Jeep in the Periyar National Park. Starting at 5 am by Jeep, we stop to see a glimpse of some wild elephants from a distance, through the trees and some monkeys. We have lunch in an estate and after 2 hours of hiking through the forest, we were disappointed because the guides lead us to walk on a small path beaten already trailed by now many tourists every day and so we can't see even the shadow of the animals.

We politely request our guide, who finally agrees to leave the beaten path and to take us through the wilds. We reached the estate again, and a short trip in a rowing boat, lead us to see another waterfall beyond the lake. We return to Kumily at night, and stop for a bite around and head back to the homestay and we really fall asleep early, because we were tired after the long trek through the woods.

The next day we start our car booked by the homestay owner towards Alleppey or Alappuzha, as they call. After about four and a half hour drive we get to our mini resort. The cottages were attached to the shore of the backwaters, with a large room and the outdoor bathroom, but always included inside the cottage. It was great to get the shower at night under the stars in Kerala.

For the first night, we eat at the resort, we order fish molly, where fish is cooked in coconut juice and my friend opts for the hard fish fry. We also order the usual chicken and rice.

In the morning, after breakfast, we take an autorickshaw and venture up to the port area, where we were informed to hike in the House Boat the next day. We go to an agency, but their offer was not convenient so watching us around, and thanks to the advice of our driver, a small Houseboat for us was just fine and we opt for an excursion next day, while those who want can even book the boat for two days.

We agree for the next day and we go up directly in front of our resort, all day in a boat among a thousand channels, have lunch on board based on fish, chicken, vegetables, and fruit, and in the afternoon visit a small village on an island. When you book the boat, insist that the tour includes a visit to the village, which generally can only be seen from a distance. As usually happens, through the visit to a village, you can see the smiles of children, the little houses in the middle of the waters and if you're lucky like us even have a small canoe ride offered by a local boy, which were the best moments of the whole day.

On the third day at Alleppey, our driver takes us to visit a few temples and then up to a beach paradise, a little out of Alleppey, Marari Beach. There is hardly anyone, it's wonderful, a white sandy beach very large and clean, without the tourist hordes. Under some palm trees, there are hammocks, where we decked ourselves and I fall asleep lulled by the wind and the sound of the sea! Even here, though, we cannot swim, because the current is very strong, and so we just sunbath and walk on the shore.

I have not told you about the New Year's Eve. It was a nice evening. We were like everyone in the main beach in Alleppey, where there were thousands of people. There was a kind of party with people singing and dancing on a stage set up on the beach and a few food stalls. As midnight arrived, they shot some small fireworks.

Next day our next destination is Varkala, where we had arrived late in the evening from Alleppey. This resort is famous for its white beach. It was the ideal time to enjoy the sunshine and water, which was best suited to surfing. On the coast, there is a holiday resort with massage parlors, hippie bars, restaurants, hotels and small shops overlooking the sea from a cliff. As we move away from the more touristy part of the beach we meet the fishermen preparing their nets to go out. Varkala is a beautiful place.

After Varkala, we take a car and head to the south towards Kovalam through Trivandrum, the final destination of our tour. There, we meet with an Ayurvedic doctor. On the afternoon we have our first massage which was very relaxing as they anoint us with lots of aromatic oil and massage with both hands and feet, and then pour hot oil on the forehead for several minutes. After the massage, which lasts about an hour, we take a shower with a kind of mud instead of soap, to remove excess oil. We come out totally relaxed and fragrant, with soft and smooth skin.

The treatment was repeated for the next 4 days, but in between, we take the opportunity to go to the sea. The Kovalam beach is very pretty, well maintained, where we can finally swim, but we did not venture far because of the currents. The water is warm and clean and all along the promenade is full of shops and restaurants to eat vegetarian food or fresh fish, that first take the orders from customers and then start cooking.

The days spent in Kovalam fly away fast. We stayed in a cute Homestay, run by a very nice and friendly guy. The rooms were very clean and cozy and the best thing was that there was a well-kept garden and only after a few steps, we could get to the beach. The interiors of Kovalam is a maze of narrow streets that weave between houses and shops, including several tailoring shops where tailors repackage any item of clothing you want at the speed of light and at prices really cheap.

It's time for us to leave as our plane leaves next day morning to home after crossing a world of people and an endless line for check-in we get on the plane.

Kerala Travel Tips

Thrissur is possibly best known for its annual elephant festival called the Thrissur Pooram. As one of the biggest festivals in Kerala, it is often called the Pooram of all Poorams or the meetings of all meetings. Devotees and spectators from all parts of the state make a beeline to the Thrissur Pooram festival to enjoy the colorful celebration and decorated elephants.

The legend behind the annual elephant festival is believed to trace back to a time when neighboring godly kings and queens met for a day of celebration. Arriving with an entourage of draped ornaments, decorated elephants, and Panchavadyam, the group would celebrate at a local temple for 2 days and end the festivities with a large display of fireworks.

Over the years Thrissur Pooram has evolved into a friendly competition between neighbors of Paramekkavu and Thiruvambadi, which lavishly decorate up to a maximum of fifteen elephants each for display at the festival. Next is the Kudamattam, rapid, rhythmic change of colorful umbrellas and sequins with Pandimelam, the traditional orchestra.

Two lines of caparisoned elephants face each other, each with an umbrella and a peacock fan carrier. When the percussion and wind orchestras standing between the lines reaches a crescendo, the display of umbrellas over the elephants is changed by the mahouts, the men who drive the elephants. This continues until the elephants depart at sunset, and many umbrellas of various sizes, shapes, colors, and designs that have adorned each elephant.

The elephant festival in Thrissur draws to a close in the evening and early morning amid a mind-blowing fireworks display. In keeping with the competitive spirit, both the Paramekkavu and Thiruvambadi, try to make their fireworks bigger and more colorful than the other. There is no match for the visual splendor of the Thrissur Pooram with its assembly of caparisoned elephants, pyrotechnic displays, fascinating and ensemble of percussion instruments and enthusiastic crowds.

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