Apart from first arriving to Delhi airport, taking the overnight train to Kerala was the one part of the trip that made me most nervous. I mean I had done an overnight train before but that was in Europe NOT India. However, the long train ride through the night was actually rather comfortable (apart from the toilet which was basically a hot room covered in piss with a hole in the floor to the tracks below). We departed at around 11pm and arrived in Cochin about 12 hours later to some very balmy, tropical weather.
Cochin or Kochi is one of the larger cities in India’s Southern state, Kerala. Again I found this place to be completely different to the other sites we had encountered so far around India. Our plan for Kerala was basically made up for us by Claire and a tour company who were to take us to a few different areas of Kerala over the next seven days for the huge sum of £150.00. Shortly after arriving at the train station we were greeted by Sethu who would be our driver for the next week. We found the fact that he spoke very little English to be somewhat a relief (most of the time) as we could chat about a variety of strange subjects in the van without any awkwardness being felt between him and us.
It took two hours to drive less than 50kms from the train station to our accommodation, which I was quite used to after two weeks in India. We were given an hour or so to freshen up before being taken to see a traditional KathaKali show which really made me feel like a tourist. To give you a comparison I would liken it to going to New Zealand and seeing the Haka or visit Australia and seeing an Aboriginal play a Didgeridoo. It was a little bit interesting and a lot cringe-worthy but made for some great conversations for the rest of the trip.
One thing you may or may not have heard about Kerala recently is that slowly it’s putting a stop to the sale of alcohol. So as a bunch of young, fun people in our 20’s this was a little bit alarming (well I was pretty concerned). When asked, we were pointed in the direction of the town’s one and only bottle shop just a short stroll down the street. When we arrived it was nothing like I expected. Basically there was 50 or so Indian men crowding around what looked like a tin shed with a metal grate separating customers from alcohol. As we were obviously not locals a man at the back of the queue ushered us to the front to be served first. We collected our five large king fishers and bottle of rum for a very small price. The Indian man grabbed our purchases and stuffed them into my bag (apparently it is illegal to be seen with even an unopened bottle of alcohol in the street). Ironically it was a very sobering experience.
We departed Cochin at 9am the next day to travel to Munnar, a small town located high in the India Tea Fields in the Idukki district in south-western Kerala. To be honest I found this place to be a little bit disappointing. The centre of town consisted of bumpy roads, rubbish, intense traffic and not much else. BUT it you drive over all the potholes for five minutes to get out, the views are absolutely incredible. Bright green symmetrical lines of the tea plantations stretch up the peaks and over into the distance. Each line perfectly manicured by hand to present a beautiful site. On our second day in Munnar we were instructed by our driver Sethu how to find a waterfall hidden in between the fields of tea plantations. He basically drew three dots on the back of a business card and told us the walk should take around two hours. Two hours later we were on a thin road heading deeper and deeper into the hills and then even deeper into a field of cardamom plants. We got back to the road just in time to hitch a ride on the back of truck that took us back to the point where we thought we may have taken a wrong turn. Unfortunately we must have taken another wrong turn to end up in a small Indian village which was wrapping up its New Year festivities. They were all pretty interested to see us lost looking westerners and were all more than happy to point us in the direction we needed to go. After six hours of walking we eventually found the waterfall, unfortunately by this time it was dark.
I was slightly relieved to be leaving Munnar the next morning, although a little apprehensive to drive for four hours through the narrow, windy roads (most of the time spent over the centre line). We arrived in Kumarakom just after midday to make another stop in a standard Kerala Bottle store. Kumarakom is home to the Kerala Backwaters and it was here that we would be boarding a houseboat for the night to travel down the river. When I first stepped on board our vessel I could hardly believe just how luxurious it was. There was three bedrooms and bathrooms and a massive outdoor area complete with dining table and couches. We had control of the sound system which our captain urged us to turn up loud and were served three meals made in the kitchen at the back of the boat. In the evening we parked up and drank our beers and rum as we watched the sunset. Our crew made some not so subtle hints about wanted some of our alcohol so we gave them a beer to share in the kitchen. One returned 30 minutes later asking for some of our rum and bought us four cups to fill. It was at that point we decided to call it a night.
Sethu was waiting for us after we alighted our houseboat the next morning. Sadly it was our final day with our driver. I’m not going to lie though I was really looking forward to having a morning where I could sleep in past 7:45am. We arrived in Kovalam late in the afternoon where our accommodation (Travancore Palace) was a complete contrast to the luxury we experienced the previous evening. It was like the Indian version of Fawlty Towers. The rooms were dirty, there was one remote for all three rooms our air conditioning units, the staff only pretended to understand what we would ask them for and were constantly pestering us about upgrading to their other accommodation down on the beach.
Kovalam Beach was very similar to Goa, it was touristy, warm and filled with restaurants that served alcohol which we made the most of. On our last day we sat at a restaurant all day drinking mojitos right up until the sunset when we saw a pod of dolphins doing flips out in the horizon. It was a beautiful site and a nice way to farewell the Arabian Sea.
The next morning I woke up with more than a hangover. I felt nauseous, had a fever and everywhere just hurt, I liken it to having the flu. Clara, Lizzie, Claire and I had to head to the airport to catch a flight to Mumbai where we would spend our last day in India. Due to the girls flight being full I had to book another leaving at around the same time. Unfortunately mine was leaving from another terminal which was a 15 minute Tok Tok ride away. The terminal had one small shop and a million mosquitoes, which seemed about right considering only nine flights were departing from there that day. I arrived in Mumbai and searched for the girls who had said they would be waiting for me at the terminal. About an hour later I heard from them saying that their flight had been delayed and that I should come meet them at a different terminal. I told a Tok Tok driver I would pay him 120 Rupees and he agreed to take me. However, half way to our destination he pulled into the slums and told me I would have to pay 350 rupees. When I told him we had already agreed on a price he told me to get out. I didn’t think it was ideal for a westerner with all their belongings to be dropped in the slums on the side of the highway so said 250 and we were back on our way.
It took over two hours to get to the city from the airport due to the crazy traffic we encountered along the way. What we saw out the window was quite a site. It was like being back in Delhi, just a lot more Slums and even more people. I learned from that drive just why Mumbai is one of the most populated cities in the world. The slums stretch forever filled with people probably sleeping in every corner. We found a cheap hotel close to the centre of town and went for a stroll. Along with my previously mentioned illness I felt a major sense of culture shock hit me once again as we had just come straight from a sandy beach to an extremely intense city. Claire and Lizzie left at around 11pm to catch their flight back to London and Clara and I left very early the next morning to fly back to the Southern Hemisphere.
Looking out the window of the bus from Melbourne Airport to Southern Cross Station it was weird to be home. Home strangely felt foreign after just three weeks in India. I definitely looked at this first world city with a new perspective. It’s so organised, clean and in a way rather baron looking. There’s nothing I would change about the trip but the thing that really made it such a memorable adventure was the amazing people there with me.
To Clara, James, Claire, Lizzie, Kate and Tom. Because of all of you I did something I never thought I would be able to. You made every potentially terrifying or dangerous situation a laugh. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to spend this crazy adventure with.
I love you all.