Friday, 6 March 2015

India: Kerala

After finally dragging ourselves away from Goa (which was not an easy move) we got on the train to Kochi, our first stop in Kerala. As we were pulling into the final station where we were about to get off it started pouring with rain - something we hadn't yet experienced in India. After weeks of extremely hot weather we were almost ready to embrace what we thought would be the cold, showery South. We were surprised to realise it was ridiculously humid outside despite all of the rain and we felt hotter than ever. Standard India - always full of surprises.

We stayed at Vedanta Wake Up! hostel (and definitely felt like we were cheating on Zostel, whoops!) But the staff were lovely and upon finding a lounge area with movies we soon settled in. As it was pretty late when we arrived we had an early night ready for exploring the next day. After wandering around for a while we decided to take a tuk-tuk tour of Fort Kochi which cost us only 50 rupees (50p) for around 4 hours. We weren't expecting much on the basis of how cheap it was but really really enjoyed the day. First we visited a laundry washing place where the entire city's washing gets done every day by a group of workers. Each had a specific task and there is almost an assembly line of washing, scrubbing, drying, ironing, and folding. It sounds rather dull but it was fascinating to see how clean the clothes became - even better than the clothes we had got washed in a machine. Tiny women were using ridiculously heavy steel irons to iron the clothes which we couldn't even pick up without using two hands - such babies! Next we visited a few temples, and our driver was careful to explain the meaning behind each and which people worshipped there and why. Although this was interesting, our next stop was what made our day. Whilst driving along on the way to a temple we heard lots of children chatting and laughing and our driver told us there was a school nearby. We asked if we could stop, and as soon as we did, the whole school started filing past us in the cutest uniforms ever and started waving and smiling at us. We asked the teachers if we could visit and they were more than excited to have us to do so. They were fascinated by us, telling Sam she looked like Barbie, with her blonde hair and pink clothes, and couldn't stop fawning over Sarah's bunny tattoo which has been a real hit in India! The teachers then asked Sam to tell the children a nursery rhyme - Humpty Dumpty obviously - to which the children applauded ecstatically before reciting their own nursery rhyme back to us in English. It was the cutest thing ever. We took the obligatory cute schoolchildren photos and the teachers then demanded their turn haha! After spending an hour or so at the school we thought we should perhaps let the children get on with their work and had to drag ourselves away! Next we visited the Jewish Town where many Jews used to live years ago, but have unfortunately dispersed. The old synagogue still exists and allows visits so we took a look around that before visiting fan amazing Hindu temple filled with murals which were beyond amazing! They took over the entire walls and ceiling of each room and were so elaborate! We couldn't imagine just how much work had gone into creating them and the attempts at preservation and restoration - they were so good! On our way back we passed loads of young people painting the walls of random buildings and were told by our driver that we had come to Kochi at the best time as they were just about to start celebrating Biennale, a festival celebrating the work of young artists all over India. We stopped to talk to some of the artists who told us that this was a big privilege for them because only certain people are allowed to stage their art and so they have to face a selection process beforehand. We later read in the local newspaper that there was an anonymous artist graffitiing across the city as a means of protest to this on the basis that everyone should have the freedom to express themselves, not just those who have connections to those who are part of the selection process. The last stop on our whistle stop tour were the Chinese fishing nets which were rather underwhelming to be honest.

The next day we decided some retail therapy was in order and (coincidentally, definitely not planned) the largest mall in India happened to be in Kochi. What a surprise. Obviously we couldn't waste the opportunity to shop so took a local bus through the city to get there. When we say the biggest mall in India, we mean huge! Inside there was a cinema, bowling alley, ice rink, rollercoaster, fairground rides, and that was just on one floor. There was an entire floor called the Food Court which speaks for itself and spoke straight to our bellies! Haha! The amount of food available was amazing, from Turkish, to Japanese, to good old western classics such as Pizza Hut and KFC. It really did have everything. We managed to find a hypermarket, which again, doesn't sound that great, but in India, most shops are just small family run businesses and so don't have a lot of stock. But this store was huge and was basically like an Asda or Tesco, selling all the home treats we could imagine. We had to pry ourselves away on countless occasions or we would have spent a fortune. When it came to makeup however, we met our downfall. There was a store called Faces, a Canadian brand which had the cheapest makeup but was still great quality and we decided to treat ourselves to a lipstick each, although stopping there was very difficult. Fortunately many of the other things we almost caved at were out of stock! We decided to end the day by going to the cinema, an absolute bargain at £1! How could we say no? Typical westerners!

The next morning, it was time for us to leave to go to Thekkady. Fortunately for us, our hostel was right next to the bus station so getting a bus was pretty easy! Although a pretty long journey (6 hours) on a local bus, we absolutely loved the journey. The bus took us through the mountains and wound in and out of trees the whole way. As the day passed and the sun started to set we saw some of the most spectacular views. At many points we were higher than the clouds and could see the sun peeking through spreading the most amazing colours across the sky. The Palm trees swaying in the wind as we drove past just made us so appreciative of natural beauty, it was unreal! We finally reached Thekkady quite late at night and again stayed in Vedanta Wake Up! After the long journey, we again were ready for bed! 

The next day we decided to do an elephant ride at the local elephant sanctuary. Sarah was extremely excited because she hadn't ridden an elephant before and when we were told it would only cost 350 rupees for half an hour we were sold. We were slightly apprehensive about how the elephants would be treated and decided we wouldn't do it if we could see that they weren't being looked after properly but when we arrived we could instantly see how happy they were! Each ride lasts half an hour and then the elephant is rested, fed, washed down to keep it cool and then left to play for a while before its next ride. The mahouts were really friendly too, talking to the elephants constantly and never once used any sharp objects to prod the elephant or make it move. Our elephant was card Sadu Lakshmi and was the happiest thing ever! Throughout the ride she was flicking her trunk up into the air and it looked like she was smiling, soooo cute! The trek itself was through some lovely greenery as well so we got the best of both worlds! Afterwards we were allowed to play with the elephants and take photos before leaving Definitely well worth the money! That evening however, we managed to get sucked into a 'magic show' by our hostel manager who told us it was amazing and a sell out every night. It cost 200 rupees so we thought why not? It's impossible to explain how shocking it was. The magic was aimed at an audience with an average age of 4 and was staged in the most cringeworthy way. It was just hilarious. One of those, 'you had to be there' moments but certainly something we won't forget for a while, and not in a good way!

Our time in Thekkady was short as we only had a few days to travel as much of Kerala as possible and the next day we left for Amritapuri. Destination: Amma's Ashram. There are around 3000 permanent residents and many more people who visits for just a few days to get Darshan (a blessing from Amma) and to volunteer and meditate etc. We were only able to stay for one night, again due to time constraints so were unable to take part in the meditation at 5pm or the volunteering which was over by the time we arrived. We were, however, able to observe the practices of those staying at the ashram and we were given priority tickets to see Amma because we only had the one night. Priority in India is not quite the same as priority in the UK, however. We still had to queue for over 3 hours to meet Amma! When we finally arrived at the front of the queue, we knelt down before her and she pulled us in close to her and gave us a hug while blessing us. She then kissed us and gave us some chocolate before we left. It was quite surreal, but we definitely felt quite spiritual in that moment. We then sat and watched as a number of the monks started performing the 1000 names of Amma - a recital which takes over an hour to complete and is performed twice daily! We wish we could have spent more time at Amma's to really get involved but it's an excuse to come back one day, hey?

Our final stop in Kerala was Alleppey, a place we had heard great things about. Everyone we spoke to about Kerala told us that visiting the backwaters is unmissable and we weren't ones to ignore such great reviews! We checked into the Seaside hostel which was really close to the beach, a requirement of sea air to cool down in such a humid place! Although this time we didn't stay at Vedanta Wake Up!, we were told to book our backwaters boat with them because they had a reputable tour. We soon realised why. On our way to the hostel to book the trip we passed sooooo many offices selling their boat tour and it would have been impossible to choose which to go with. Although TripAdvisor is usually great at giving us a clear picture of the best things to do in any given place, the sheer number of tours available meant that even the reviews on TripAdvisor were confusing and not very helpful. The next morning we got up early to head to our boat. We first had to take a communal ferry to the point where we would get our own boat. We were sat behind a group of 4 siblings who were using the boat to get to school. We soon came to realise why. Many of the villages in the surrounding area were only accessible by boat and therefore the ferry was full of a mixture of Indian people just going about their daily lives - hopping on one minute and hopping off at the next 'bus stop' essentially. It seemed so weird to us but it actually worked pretty well. People seemed to know what time the ferry would be arriving and so would queue at the little jettys spaced along the backwaters until it arrived. When we got off the ferry at the point where we were to get our houseboat, we were met with a traditional Keralan breakfast at a local family's home. Unfortunately, it wasn't exactly what we would consider delicious - sweet rice covered in sugar, rice cakes, and curry. For breakfast?!?! Just no. We were the first to hurry into the boat to escape. We had a really cute long tail boat which seated four people, single file, but in the most comfortable cushioned, reclined seats. It didn't take long, while floating along the canals, with our boat driver humming quietly, for us to get sleepy. We were so relaxed! And the views were amazing! There was so much greenery surrounding us, from trees, grass, leaves, flowers, and the water itself. We couldn't stop snapping photos! What made it even more spectacular was seeing how people live their lives along the waters. Some were in the water washing their hair, or clothes, or laundry. Others were fishing for their evening's dinner, and many were just floating along selling things. It's hard to imagine being surrounded by water and not being able to just jump in the car/bus/train to get to where we need to be. It just seems so old school but at the same time pretty intriguing. After a few hours floating along, we stopped again for dinner which was much more satisfying than breakfast and consisted of fish, rice, curry, onions, and poppadoms (and also came with a chai so we were sold!) Again, we ate at the family's house and were entertained by their young daughter Sandra, who sang, performed magic tricks, and just generally kept us hooked with her sassy attitude and humour and fantastic English. The family were so giving, and couldn't stop refilling our plates until we were bursting at the seams. Afterwards we were given their photo album full of pictures with tourists who had visited previously, and postcards of thanks which was a testament to how lovely the family were. Time passes so quickly with them and before we knew it our trip was over and we were taken back to Vedanta where we got a tuk tuk back to our hostel, exhausted. We had a cheek considering we'd been lazing all day but those early mornings are a real killer!!

After a whirlwind stop in Kerala, it's now time to move on to Bangalore for Christmas. We can't believe we only have one more stop in India before we leave for South East Asia for 4 months! Where has the time gone?!

Kochi School Children

Kochi Beach

Sadu Lakshmi - our beautiful elephant 

Having her bath

Alleppey Backwaters

The Happy Wanderers 

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