Kaleidoscopic Kerala

Mar 30-Apr 4, 2017

Despite the heat on our non-AC sleeper train, we arrived in Varkala in the early morning. Kristin had reserved us a room at Blue Marine Resort, and we checked in to our 3rd story room just before 9am. Kristin had secured us an awesome balcony joined to hers, so we could all just hang out together enjoying the amazing views. 

Kristin wasn’t in her room so we decided to go grab some food and look for her after.

When we stepped onto the cliff-side promenade for the first time we were blown away by the absolutely stunning view of the Arabian Sea. It was an open blue vastness that you have to see to really appreciate.

We sat down at Trattorias and enjoyed the view over a delicious meal and admired the massive birds of prey circling overhead. 

After breakfast we made our way back to Blue Marine and reunited with Kristin. I’ve known her my whole life and I was incredibly surprised and impressed that she had woken up early to do a morning yoga class. 

She was raving about how much she loves Varkala and it was pretty easy to see why. The cliff-side promenade seemingly went on forever, with tons of restaurants, bars, cafes, tourism desks and souvenir shops owned by Tibetans, Kashmiris and Nepalis lining its edge.

The beach is located 15m below the cliffs and there are a few precarious staircases that lead down to it. 

The beach itself is nice but not the white sand of the Maldives Tracy and I had just returned from a few days prior, and while nicer than Serenity Beach in Pondy, Indians still felt the need to throw their garbage wherever they pleased so it could have been cleaner as well. The cliff backdrop however made it unique and beautiful nonetheless. 

We found a clean patch of sand and enjoyed the waves for a while. Because of the cliffs, there is absolutely no trees near the sand and consequently no shade so within a half-an-hour we were already roasting and decided to head back up to the cliff. 

That evening, Tracy and I were walking cliff side and she decided to treat herself to an Ayurvedic massage before dinner and, as a consequence, I had an hour to kill before dinner with the ladies. 

I took a nice stroll along the beach and it was really nice seeing all the Indians enjoying the water and some westerners doing yoga or meditating while facing the sea. 

As I was heading back to the room, the sky clouded over and it literally started to piss-pour, quite reminiscent of our time in Mahibadhoo. 

Not only did the rain come down in buckets, but it managed to wipe out the power on the entire cliff-side.

What I failed to mention before was that, while extremely picturesque, some half-assed planners failed to put up a railing along the entirety of the cliff and as a consequence, some portions did not have a guardrail. Combine this with no lights whatsoever and slippery flip-flops on slippery ground, let’s just say the 15-minute walk to meet Tracy after her massage was a little tense, especially with my clumsy sister. 

We met up with Tracy and she said her massage was great, but a little odd since it was performed by a fifteen-year-old-girl and Ayurvedic massages are done naked. 

We had some happy hour beers (which weren’t officially allowed in Varkala because you always had to keep it in a tiki mug and keep the bottle at your feet) in the dark and then walked a few minutes in the dark and pouring rain toward a delicious dinner by candlelight before calling it a night. 

The power did eventually come back on and we didn’t plunge to our deaths on the walk back, so I’d say it was a pretty successful evening. 

The following day, Kristin beat us up again and we had to meet her at Varkala’s other beach, known as Black Beach, for the volcanic black sand that lies at the base of similarly black rocks. 

This “beach” is incredibly tiny, and when it’s high tide, it doesn’t even exist. I had tried to find it the night before but I didn’t even see it due to the tides. 

We spent yet another day enjoying good food, lounging at numerous different establishments and politely declining going into anyone’s souvenir shops. 

Tracy did see one really nice flowing dress/pants thingy on a woman the night before and managed to find a shop that was selling them for a reasonable price. She bought two and they were really stunning on her. 

As we were doing our usual late afternoon walk along the cliff, both Tracy and Kristin were convinced to get massages done at another Ayurvedic spa. They both opted to do a Dhara treatment, where a literal litre or two of oil is poured on your forehead and hair (for some reason) followed by a shorter full body massage. 

While the ladies got their Ayurveda on, I went back to Black Beach to cool down and grabbed a happy hour beer before meeting up with them. 

They were super greasy despite the showers they took after the treatment. I was super greasy just because of a general lack of hygiene. 

We had a phenomenal seafood dinner despite our greasiness and made our way back to our rooms. 

Kerala is known for its laid-back atmosphere and even more so for its stunning backwaters. 

The two main places to visit the backwaters in Kerala are Kollam and Allepuzha. Since we could base ourselves in Varkala and still visit Kollam as a day-trip, it seemed like the best option. 

To get the most out of your backwater experience, some travellers rent a houseboat which covers a greater distance around or between Kollam and Allepuzha but we opted to do just a day tour. 

We took a 45-minute tuk tuk ride to Kollam and were impressed by the massive boat that we passed en route which was stranded at the edge of a beach. Seeing the level of rust and decay already on the ship, I don’t think it was an urgent matter to anyone. 

We arrived at Kollam’s jetty and went into a beautifully air-conditioned office (very rare in India). 

They informed us that the houseboats leave from the jetty but the backwater day trips leave from Monroe Island, another 45-minute tuk tuk ride away (which ended up being longer because a train blocked our passage for 20 minutes).

We begrudgingly got into their tuk tuk and thankfully got to see some of Kerala’s rural countryside on our way to the island and even got to take a bizarre car and passenger ferry across to the island itself. 

Monroe Island is an island measuring 13.4 square kilometres and has around 10,000 inhabitants. What sets it apart is that it is comprised of hundreds of canals and waterways, making it feel like an Indian Venice minus the beautiful architecture or tourist traps. 

Our tuk tuk driver brought us to our boaters’ homestay where we would start our boat ride. 

The water is way too shallow to use a motor and the island’s inhabitants actually use a long stick to push the boat around rather than a paddle. 

The little waterways were really beautiful and it was pretty cool to pass small homes and tea shops. 

The canals were shallow but the bridges were also pretty low, so we often had to duck our heads otherwise we’d get a mouthful of concrete. 

Our boat pusher, Vishnu, was happy to answer any and all questions we had regarding India, Kerala, and Munroe Island.

After we left the more inhabited area and had a delicious chai at a local home shop just next to a canal, Vishnu brought us to quieter areas which were used for local commercial purposes such as tiger prawn farming and coir production.

Coir is fine cord produced from coconut husks and is excellent for making rope and other sturdy products. 

These women that were extracting it were literally sitting in large piles of it up to their elbows. 

To add to this interesting practice, the scenery of narrow canals flanked by beautiful green palm trees on each side made this experience really memorable. 
Before we knew it, Vishnu took a few more turns and we somehow ended up back where we started. 
While not as luxurious as a bamboo houseboat, we all still thoroughly enjoyed our backwaters experience. 

We took that weird ferry back to the mainland and had the tuk tuk driver drop us off at the train station where we took the train back to Varkala (a much cheaper option) and we were back in beach town for one final sauntering along the cliffs and a beautiful sunset over some happy hour beers. What a place, what scenery, what a state! 

The next day it was already Kristin’s time to head back to Cambodia. Our short 12 day tour of southern India had come to an end, at least for her anyway. 

Kristin had booked a flight out of Kochi, the state capital of Kerala and Tracy and I decided to head up to Kochi as well. We took the same train but Kristin splurged on an a\c car while Tracy and I stayed in the cheap boiler room. It was a tough goodbye to say the least, knowing that I may only see her again in a few years, but we both know that the other is happy, and we had a great time together, so until we meet again! 

Once off the train in Kochi, Tracy and I took a rickshaw to Fort Kochi, the most touristically interesting part of the city and had a driver get us there in record time, despite him also apparently wanting to commit suicide with us in the back due to his erratic driving. The ride to Fort Kochi was surprisingly long and had us crossing over two islands to get there. 

We checked into our guesthouse, the ridiculously clean Nichoos Inn Homestay. The owner, Paul, was an absolute dream and helped us arrange everything and had answers for literally any question we had and was even willing to book onward tickets for us without taking commission (almost unheard of in India).

While impeccably clean, and our cheapest room to date, it was ridiculously hot in our room, to the point where sweat was pouring down your face even while doing absolutely nothing in the middle of the night. 

I still managed to sleep but Tracy didn’t sleep for even a minute; she had to douse herself in cold water every 5 minutes to try to cool down but it didn’t help. 

The next day we decided to explore Fort Kochi. A tuk tuk driver approached us and offered to charge us 50 rupees an hour to drive us to all the city’s sites. This equates to 1CAD or 0.75USD, so we thought we’d be dumb not to in this sweltering heat and humidity. 

Our first stop was at the Santa Cruz Basilica, which dates from 1902 and is very Portuguese in appearance. 

From there we went to the church of St Francis, built by the Portuguese in 1503. It contained the remains of the famous explorer Vasco Da Gama from his death in 1524 to 14 years later, before his remains were transported back to Portugal. This church still contains his tombstone, which is incredibly hard to read and is said to be the oldest European church in India. 

We drove past an old Christian school and were then told to step onto some rocks in order to get a great view of a Dutch cemetery, which dates to 1724.

Next to the Dutch cemetery, was a nice boardwalk straddling the ocean, which had some interesting art installations on its grounds. 

As you can see, Kochi has an incredible amount of colonial history and has changed hands numerous times. 

While we were at the church, there was an Italian reality show being filmed at the same time so that made for an interesting experience.

Our next stop was one Tracy and I had never even heard of: the Dhobi Khana. This is essentially an outdoor laundry facility where locals pay 10 rupees to use a small cubical and beat their clothes clean on jutting pieces of rock. We took a little time to admire this dying practice and took some pictures among the colourful clothes drying on the line. 

The driver then brought us to a Hindu temple that we could only admire from the outside and then a Jain temple. 

This Jain temple was pretty interesting and what sets it apart is a daily pigeon feeding. The Jains are incredibly non-violent and respect animals and the environment like no other denomination I have ever heard of. 

A man brought out some seeds and rice and the pigeons swarmed like I have never seen before. They were sitting on the man’s head and hands and he was taking it like a champ. 

He invited some of us to join in on the feeding and we were swarmed by them as well. It was my first time having a pigeon in my hands and those things have some pretty sharp talons! 

After that we went to an old spice market, with beautiful faded reds and yellows and Tracy’s outfit really made for a beautiful picture. 

From here we went to Mattancherry Palace, which was built by the Portuguese in 1555 and renovated by the Dutch in 1663, now acting as a small museum. The building itself isn’t that impressive but the murals inside are kind of nice. 

This “palace” was just around the corner from the bluntly named Jewtown, where Kochi’s small Jewish community has lived for centuries. 

Now, Jewtown is home to numerous cafes and restaurants, boutique heritage hotels as well as the beautiful Pardesi Synagogue.

It was built in 1568, but destroyed by the Portuguese in 1662 and rebuilt by the Dutch two years later. 

Unfortunately it was closed when we went so we couldn’t see the interior. 

Our final stop of the day was to the Chinese fishing nets which were introduced to the region by Chinese traders during the time of Kublai Khan. 

These interesting contraptions are not only nice to look at but require several men to operate a series of counterweights and levers. 

Pretty spent by our busy day, we decided to partake in one final Keralan activity to cap off our wonderful day. 

We bought tickets to Kerala’s famed Kathakali dance performance. 

We arrived one-and-a-half hours early to watch the three main performers apply their thick, heavy make-up and were given a brief history and explanation of the performance. 

Kathakali dates back to the 17th century and literally means ‘story play’. It is a dramatized presentation of portions of Hindu epics, like Ramayana. 

The actors, having to study the techniques for years on end, use a variety of facial expressions, hand gestures, and eye movements to tell a story. They even put a seed in their eyes to make them blood red to increase their demonic appearance. This is accompanied with a syncopated rhythm of drums, cymbals and singing from accompanying musicians. 

The costumes and makeup are absolutely beautiful and the singing is rather emotive; however, the repetitive cymbal was pretty shrill and I covered my ears as I could sense tinnitus was in my future if I didn’t.

It was pretty cool for the first 10-15 minutes, but after an hour we were pretty pleased that the hero killed the demon and we could recover our sense of hearing. I’m happy we went, but one performance is enough for a lifetime in my opinion.

Our second night at Nichoos was no cooler than the night before and Tracy was at her insomniac wits-end and needed to change rooms or risk death due to heat exhaustion. 

I did some local sleuthing and managed to find us a beautifully air-conned room for a reasonable price. 

Tracy didn’t feel so great so she opted to recover in the room while I decided to walk around Fort Kochi and maybe visit the synagogue we missed the day before. 

I went back to the Chinese fishing nets and was really impressed by all the beautiful and interesting street art found around the city. 

I did revisit the synagogue but photos weren’t allowed inside; I can say that it had numerous crystal chandeliers and was really unique, although my experience in synagogues is rather limited. 
On the walk back, I passed some really interesting neighbourhoods and yet more street art, including quite a bit of communist graffiti. 
Kerala is the only place in the world to have democratically elected a communist government, which was in power until 2011. Hammers and sickles can be seen almost everywhere in the state and most graffiti in the state is related to this left-leaning ideology. 

Our time in Kerala was already up and my little patient was feeling rejuvenated after a day of air-con. We decided that after a month in Sri Lanka followed by a heat-fest in the Maldives and our first few weeks in stifling India, we should cool down in one of India’s famed hill stations. 

As luck would have it, Kochi wasn’t that far from one of India’s most famous hill stations, Ooty, as it is colloquially known. 

A little sweater action sounded like a hell of a good idea to us! 

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