Canoeing and Christmas in Kerala

After some beach time in Gokarna we headed south to Kochi, in Kerala, one of the southern most states which is famous for it’s backwaters.

Gokarna station was tiny, but the train arrived only an hour late, and we’d opted for 2nd class as opposed to our usual 3rd class ticket. This looked really promising, there were only 4 berths in each section as opposed to 6 and each section was divided by a curtain for added privacy. The toilets were also remarkably clean so I was looking forward to getting a pretty good night’s sleep.

Our train arriving into Gokarna station

Of course when we boarded the train there was someone in our seat, there’s always someone in our seat, I have had to wake people to throw them out of my seat. I’m not sure why this is but he turned out to be pretty friendly and bought us Chai and snacks. He left us after about four hours and a family of three got on in his place. They were also friendly, offering us food again but as we started to settle down for sleep the baby started crying and this went on for about three hours. I say baby – he was actually three years old and he just would not stop crying. In fact he only stopped when I turned on my light, sat up and gave him a serious hard stare. I’m sure the rest of the train carriage will be forever grateful to me. (I’m sure none of my friends babies would have done this!) so we arrived into Kochi at 3.22am, shattered and homeless. Train stations in India are well set up though and you can pay for a dormitory bed or a waiting room. We opted to pay for an AC waiting room for three hours until we could arrive at our hostel at a reasonable hour.

In Kochi we’d planned to visit the Jewish quarter, taking in a synagogue. Kerala is a predominately Christian state so we visited our first Indian church as well, meaning that we had then ticked off religious buildings of 7 major religions in India. Kochi is also home to the largest shopping centre in India so we spent a day there, taking some time out from sightseeing to have some fun. It was a great way to take a break from feeling like you have to see everything. The other must see is the Chinese fishing nets – best viewed at sunset and quite a sight!

Chinese fishing nets in Kochi

After Kochi we headed to the mountains to a small town called Anachal, near to the more famous tea plantation area of Munnar. We’d booked into a hostel that had newly opened and was a little out of town. Who did we find staying at our hostel upon arrival but Ellie and Jake, the English couple that we’d first met in Agra and had subsequently bumped into in Goa (twice), Hampi and Gokarna! It’s a small world when you’re travelling. We took a trek to a tea plantation the next day which was good fun, with tea bushes as far as the eye could see. It was a hard climb but worth it. We went with two other British girls from the hostel, one of whom had cycled from Bristol to Kazakstan and flown to India from there to continue cycling. Just when you think you’re doing something extraordinary, someone else pops up to blow you out of the water! Along the trek as well as seeing tea bushes there were pineapple bushes. I actually found this to be the highlight of the day! I knew how pineapples grew, but I’d never actually seen a pineapple bush before so to see some up close was amazing and one off the bucket list! As we were walking I could see the guide staring intently at my trainer and it seemed it had spotted two little leeches on my foot! Something made me lift my trousers up and lo and behold there was a huge one on my ankle – cue lots of girly screaming and the fear for the rest of the trek!

The tea plantation
Pineapples – who knew seeing them grow would be on the bucket list?
Tea as far as the eye can see

The next day we took a bus to Alleppey, we’d set off early from the hostel with another girl and waited patiently for the bus. There was a quick toilet break, but the ladies was locked so I had to wait for the men’s to become free which delayed me a little longer and when I emerged the bus was starting to pull away so we had to quickly jump on. I got on first and swapped seats with Joey who had patiently guarded the toilet for me and who then ended up sitting next to the woman I’d been sat next to for the last two hours. Less than five minutes later the woman was promptly sick all down Joey’s leg and rucksack. Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up. I breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t me as that would have started a domino effect for sure! Luckily Lou who we’d travelled with from the hostel had some face wipes so we were able to clean up most of the sick before it dried.

Alleppey is a major gateway to Kerala’s backwaters and is known as the Venice of the East. We arrived on a Saturday afternoon and it quickly started to pour down with rain and I mean pour down. It lasted hours and by the time we ventured out four hours later all the streets were flooded. The next day we arranged for a tour of the backwaters by bamboo canoe which was amazing. It was so peaceful and serene as you quietly sail past villages along tiny canals, rice paddies and people going about their daily life in the backwaters. We started the day being taken to an Indian family’s home for breakfast and chai which we had to eat with our hands. To get to the home we had to wade through water in the front yard. There was one stop along the way which was chance to go to the toilet but to do so you had to walk along a narrow plank to get there – it was harder than it looked and we were definitely all waiting for someone to fall in. After the tour we went back to the Indian family home for lunch, this time served on a traditional banana leaf! The backwaters canoe tour was definitely one of my top five Indian experiences.

Our bamboo canoe
The plank we had to walk to reach the bathroom

One thing that we also wanted to do was hire a houseboat for the day and sail on the backwaters. It was an expensive thing to do as it cost over half of our weekly budget for one night but if you are going to do something only once in your life, you may as well do it properly. The boat was amazing, luxurious with two sun decks and we had three members of crew looking after the two of us! We were served a welcome drink of coconut juice, followed by a huge lunch, then banana fry for afternoon tea, then dinner and breakfast the next morning! We docked up in a quiet spot which was surprising as earlier in the day we had seen so many houseboats it was akin to an armada! The next day we got up super early to watch the sunrise over the backwaters, such a beautiful setting.

The armada of houseboats
Sunset viewed from the houseboat

From Alleppey we headed south to Varkala, a holy beach resort. Varkala is also the only place in Kerala where cliffs can be found adjacent to the Arabian Sea. We’d book some pretty low budget accommodation here, it wasn’t the worst place we’d stayed but every night in the bathroom there was some sort of insect gathering. I wasn’t well during my time here and having to fight with army ants and cockroaches to use the toilet wasn’t my idea of fun. In fact it was so unpleasant I actually chose to find a spot outside to be quietly sick rather than use the bathroom!

Varkala

It was a joy to move onto Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala. We had an initial two nights here and just visited the shopping centre where we found the Salvation Army singing Christmas carols which we thoroughly enjoyed and I found quite moving. We also took the opportunity to go to the cinema. We picked a film at random which was screened in Malayalam, the local language, with no subtitles. We got the gist of the storyline and there was some helpful sinister music every time the bad guy appeared on screen and some incredibly graphic violence. All films in India start with the national anthem and have intervals. Everyone gets terribly involved and shouts at the screen so it was definitely a fun thing to do.

We stayed within Trivandrum for Joey’s birthday and Christmas, treating ourselves again to a nice hotel with a pool where we did nothing but eat, drink and hang by the pool. Christmas whilst travelling is always a little odd, but we managed to have turkey and carols so it felt a little Christmassy but it seems that even if you have 30 degrees and sunshine you can’t avoid the Christmas cold and I spent most of the day feeling ill!

We’ve only a few short days left in India, how quickly time moves when you see so many new things and places.

For now it’s our chance to wish you all a very Happy New Year!

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