India, almost: Backwaters to the Western Ghats

After nearly half a month in Holland and a month-and-a-half in Sri Lanka, we've finally made it to India… kind of. After a short early morning flight from Colombo, we arrived in Kochi (Cochin) in the southern Indian state of Kerala. A two hour drive from the airport and we were in Fort Kochi, our home for the next few days.

One of the colorful streets of Fort Kochi

Our first impressions of Fort Kochi were all positive- the weather was hot and sunny, the guesthouses were clean and cheap, the food was delicious. But it just didn't feel quite like India. That's mainly because Fort Kochi is one of India's colonial towns. The Portuguese came first, followed by the Dutch, and finally the British. They all came and stayed-put for various reasons, but the search for, and trade of, spices was high on their agendas. As a result, Fort Kochi is a town chock-full of memories of the past. Ramshackle colonial homes, churches and government buildings make up the modern-day Kochi. However, the air is still heavy with the smells of the old colonial commodities. The coffee is good and strong and you can get a better Western breakfast than you can get in the West. Today, Fort Kochi is home to many artists and free-thinkers and a walk around the fort is a good way to see their creativity spread across various walls and buildings. At the moment they are hosting India's very first Biennale as well. Goats roam freely throughout the streets and eagles by the hundreds circle the skies overhead. Its northern shore is even lined with massive Chinese fishing nets which are still being employed. Even though Kochi is a place easy to linger in (and many people do), four days and it was time for us to push on. Portuguese, Dutch, and English architecture? Chinese fishing nets? Goats, not cows? We needed to find something a little more Indian!

Kerala's backwaters

As many people do while in Kerala, we headed slightly south of Kochi to the town of Alleppey- the gateway to Kerala's famed backwaters. Long before you get to Kerala you hear about how beautiful it is to float down the narrow waterways that make up its collective 900 kms of 'backwaters'. It was early enough in the afternoon that we arrived in Alleppey that we could take a three-hour boat ride through these backwaters. It seems that Kerala's clever marketing of its backwaters paid off in full! It's not quite as romantic as it probably once was. These days, hundreds of thatched houseboats ply the system of canals everyday. Sometimes you see only a couple of people on a houseboat capable of carrying three times as many people. The result is not pretty. The water has become quite polluted and the views of the villages and palm-fringed riverbanks are obscured by the many floating homes. We took only a small inexpensive boat and were glad by the end of the trip that we did. These houseboats charge in excess of $200 per day and I''m sure most people would grow pretty bored after the first few hours. I'm glad we got to see the Keralan backwaters- see what they're all about, but I'm even happier that we didn't commit to anything longer or more expensive. The backwaters remain a good example of what can happen when tourism isn't responsibly regulated. Everyone builds a boat, becomes a guide, and everyone will soak tourists for a substantial amount of money without any real regard for their clients' experiences or the environmental consequences. We left very early the next morning to take the direct bus to Munnar, high up in the Western Ghats of the state.

Rolling hills of tea, Munnar

In stark contrast to the backwaters, Munnar is not a place you hear that much about. Perhaps it was our lack of expectations, maybe our thirst for tea country in Sri Lanka was left unquenched, or maybe Munnar just is one of those places in the world, but we were blown away by its beauty. Sri Lanka's tea country is much grander in scope, but the sheer beauty of Kerala's tea-covered hills and mountain slopes is in a league all of its own. We rented a motorcycle and put 160 kms on it exploring the area in full. One of the nicest rides you could possibly take. But Munnar is a high-altitude destination. It's easy to get sunburned by day and by night you freeze in near zero degree temperatures. However, you really can't leave the state of Kerala without visiting the greenery of its Western Ghats region.

We had to spend one more night in Fort Kochi in order to catch the early morning train to Goa the following day. This, by the way, is not Hyo Jin's and my first time to India. Ten years ago we travelled around this country for almost four months. At that time we flew into Mumbai and headed down to Goa from there. We never went to Kerala on our first trip so this was all new to us. Once we reach Goa though a lot will be the same for us. We will be following a similar path with some additions and a few omissions as well. Because India is such a large country and it takes so long to get around it, we kept a tally of all our time spent on public transport during our first tour through. This time we intend to do the same. Our current journey through India is just beginning and we've already spent a total of 15 hours on buses. We got off lucky in Kerala!

 

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