The Best Of Southern India | Week 1

(4-11th April 2015)

Having spent three weeks in the north with my Dad, I then flew South to the state of Kerala and the city of Kochi. Before arriving in India I was really nervous about the people, food… and pretty much everything else. I wanted to see some of the south, but was too scared to do it alone so I booked onto a tour.

I flew from Calcutta to Mumbai and from there down to Kochi. I arrived into Kochi mid afternoon, and had arranged a pickup from my hostel. Once I’d collected my bag I headed outside to find a man holding my name up. I followed him to the taxi and he said to me “Chameleon”. No, that’s not right… I booked a place called Sandcastle. So I said this to him, and he did the funny little head wobble which almost all Indians do. It’s highly confusing as can mean yes or no, but I love it all the same.

We drove for about an hour through incredibly lush and green countryside. Very wet, very fertile. Hundreds of palm trees, coconuts, bananas, mangoes and pineapples all growing locally. Lots of fresh water rivers and lakes. We eventually pulled up to “Chameleon” which was a beach lodge, and nowhere near Fort Kochi.

The german/indian owner came out and told me that I’d booked a hammock on the roof (funny kind of dorm!) in his other hostel (Sandcastle), and there had been storms for the last few nights, plus there were no other customers there, so he’d moved me to this one and put me in a private room for no extra charge. Nice! While I was at it I asked him where we actually were, because I thought I’d booked a hostel in the city, and this was very rural and on the coast. He told me that we were on Vypin Island, about 40 minutes bus and then a short ferry ride to Kochi.

I enjoyed my time there reading, writing and relaxing to the sound of the waves. I went for a walk, met some of the local kids and got some nice pictures. I sat on the beach for a while, enjoying the breeze, the warmth and the sea. I love beaches! In the evening the hostel served up to the two other customers (a Russian couple working with computers in Hyderabad) and I some lovely local dishes – one a pineapple curry which I particularly enjoyed!

Day 1

After a relaxed morning walking round the area of the hostel, the owner drove me to the main road, where I caught a local bus to the ferry port, about forty minutes drive. There were no seats free in the bus and I had no idea what to do with my bag, so I kept it on. It’s not easy to keep your balance on an Indian bus on Indian roads, while standing with 18kg on your back!! Someone gestured for me to take it off – what a clever idea – and so I did, and a seat became free soon after. The boat from the southern tip of Vypin Island only took about 5 minutes across to Fort Kochi. The journey from the hostel to the town cost 16 rupees (roughly 16p), and I was then stupid enough to pay 50 for a tuktuk (the driver seemed to have no idea where to go…) to take me to my hotel which was about 200 metres away. Never mind, it’s easy to fall into traps like those when you arrive somewhere new and you don’t have your bearings yet!

Arriving at the hotel I was greeted by two men, one working at the hotel and the other our guide for the next two weeks. G Adventures (the tour company) call their guides CEOs (Chief Experience Officers), and ours was called Sanjay. It was lucky I didn’t arrive any later than I did, because I had about twenty minutes to settle into my room and then we had our introduction meeting, where we’d find out all about our trip and meet the other people.

There were eleven in the group (myself included), from many different countries and from all sorts of backgrounds. It was a good mix. I’ve never really done a tour before, so didn’t know what kind of people would be on it.

We started off by taking a walk down to the Chinese fishing nets and to the beach to watch the sunset. The beach was really busy, full of families relaxing on the sand, some eating ice cream, a few in the water, and many flying kites. From the beach we went to a restaurant where we all ate. I had a really nice fish dish called peera, which was fish crumbs mixed with coconut, ginger, lemongrass and some other spices – really REALLY nice. It wasn’t too big or filling, which was what I needed because I was STILL recovering from my food poisoning. It was one of the girl’s birthdays and Sanjay had bought her a cake and had her name written on as a surprise.

Day 2

The next day we had a walking tour of the city. We went back to the Chinese fishing nets, where we helped pulling in the nets. We visited the first European church in Kerala, which was also the first burial sight of explorer Vasco de Gama, a traditional laundry house where clothes are washed and ironed the traditional way, the Dutch Palace and the Jewish Quarter. Once we were in the Jewish Quarter we had some free time, so we all stopped for a fresh lime and ginger soda in this incredible antique shop, which looked a medium size from the street, but had about six or seven more rooms at the back by the river full to the brim of antiques (or what they said were antiques).

In the evening we went to see a performance of traditional Keralan dancing. First of all we saw the dancer having his (traditionally all the smackers are male in this type of dance) face painted and then the show began. It was amusing all the facial expressions they make in the dance. There was a voice over which talked us through the different faces and gestures they made. I had no idea you could dance with only your eyes!!

We gave our bags that night to our bus driver, who would meet us the next day from the train. This was how it worked for the rest of the trip, the bags travelled in the bus the days we were on the train to save us carrying them.

Day 3

Wayanad is in the Western Gatz, a range of mountains in the state of Kerala. We didn’t spend much time in the town itself, but we did have two nights there exploring the surrounding areas.

We’d travelled for three or four hours by train that morning, and about the same by bus in the afternoon, but eventually we made it. The trains were different from the ones I travelled on with my Dad in the north. Theses ones were just seats, and not seats that turned into beds.

The first evening by the time we got there it was dark. Our hotel was nice, with our room mate we shared a little studio, with our own rooms within the studio. We headed out for dinner soon after.

Day 4

The next day we started off by driving to a bamboo factory where they use bamboo to make all sorts of things. On the way we stopped at a wetland and saw some big stork type birds and nice water flowers. There was a strike on this day, but we did get to see bamboo blinds being made using a type of loom, and some lampshades being made too. Also in the factory they make sculptures, mats for the floor, key hooks for hanging on the wall, sculptures, mobiles and bowls. They were all really pretty and I was tempted to buy something, but in reality whatever I bought would have driven me mad to carry around for so long before finally finding a post office, so I scribbled down their website so that in years to come and I want a bamboo bowl (as if) I know where to find one!

The next stop was a highlight of the trip (for some – not me). We went to visit a local pottery village where we saw a man making clay urns for carrying water/cooking rice/…and many other uses. He first used a manually spun potter wheel to make the general shape, and then took the half made pot from the wheel and batted the bottom using a small paddle shaped instrument, to make the bottom rounded. I happened to mention that I’d always wanted a try on a pottery wheel, and so once he’d shown us a couple of demos, up I went. On the way to the wheel, my foot knocked against one of the newly made pots. It was still wet, so it didn’t smash, but it DID deform it rather nastily to which I was totally mortified and felt so so bad for this poor man. It had only taken him five/ten minutes to make, but that wasn’t the point. Of course, everyone found it hilarious and it was an ongoing joke for the rest of the trip! The first couple of days it was embarrassing, after that I joined in and we all joked about it for the rest of the time.

From there we went on a nature walk through tea plantations, coffee plantations and different spice forests. It smelt so lovely and was so green and calm. We met some people who lived in this area, in their modest little hut of a house. They were so welcoming and sat and posed for photos – obviously they have a fair number of tourists come and look at them.

Day 5

Our first stop that day were the Eddakal Caves. We knew it would be a bit of hike and I was feeling lazy, I almost stayed on the bus with one the girls who wasn’t walking because of a bad knee. I did go in the end and it was worth it.

We climbed roughly a kilometre on a steep concrete path before then climbing 335 steps through a lower cave first and then out at the top! The steps were mixed, some metal, some rock. The view from the top was well worth it. We could see for miles and miles. Inside the cave we met a guide, who talked far too fast and we all struggled to keep up with anything that he was saying. What I did understand was the caves were discovered in 1894 by a police officer from the Malabar estate called Fred Fawcett. The carvings are from different time periods between 3000 and 6000 years ago. There is some writing among the pictures which I am told says (in Old Sanscrit) “Man who killed a lot of tigers” and “A glorious king Vishnu Varma lived in this cave”.

Our driving on this day took us through miles and miles of tea plantations, and then into forested areas where we were told to keep an eye out for wildlife. At first we saw the odd deer, and then BINGO! Wild elephant, just next to the road. How lovely. It didn’t seem that the feelings were mutual through as it flapped its ears and stomped off into the jungle, in a true Colonel Hathi style.

Our hotel consisted of lots of little bungalows, which has beautiful views towards a mountain. In the early evening we did a tiger safari in Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. We saw more elephants, various types of deer, bison, wild boars, but no tigers!

After our buffet dinner we sat out by the campfire and had a few drinks. Sanjay joked about staying in our rooms if we heard noise outside. He wasn’t kidding, apparently he had been walking back from dinner one night and there was an elephant just beyond his room. They aren’t friendly creatures when they are wild. Most people had gone to bed and there were three or four of us just relaxing with our drinks and chatting. The dogs that were at this hostel suddenly all got spooked, hackles up, growling. We were only a bit alarmed until they ran off into the forest barking!! Where was Sanjay when we needed him? He came back soon after and called over some hotel staff – they suspected it was either a leopard or an elephant. Nothing to be too scared of then! The hotel staff had a big spotlight torch and when we shone it into the trees we could see HUNDREDS of eyes. It turned out just to be a great big herd of spotted deer. After all the excitement we called it a night.

Day 6

In the morning we set off for Mysore, passing again through the tiger reserve and again seeing elephants and deer, but no tigers. We crossed from Kerala into Karnataka state and travelled through another reserve which I didn’t take note of the name and now can’t remember! Once we’d left the reserve we moved into a very green and fertile area where we saw cotton, green chillies, sugar cane, tomatoes, bananas, papayas and eggplants all growing in fields near the road.

Our first stop was the incredible Mysore Palace. It was completed in 1912, replacing the original wooden one which had burnt down 15 years before. My favourite room was called the Peacock room, and had many pillars, with a circle in the centre, which on the ceiling above was a stained glass window with peacocks on. It was absolutely beautiful but we weren’t allowed to take photos. It’s only ever used for maharaja’s weddings now.

After a banana leaf thali lunch we drove up to Chamundi Hill to see a temple for Parvati- Lord Shiva’s wife. The sanctum can only be accessed by the priest, and only Brahmin caste can go as close as the font near the sanctum.

Our last stop of the day was the second biggest monolithic statues of Nandi (Shiva’s bull) in India, made from one piece of granite and standing 17ft high.

The end of this day was seen out in squeals and laughter as two of the girls has put the kettle on before going out for dinner, it had boiled dry while we were out, so when they unplugged it the whole hotel lost power. Sanjay came to try it out and it happened again. I wonder where we’d have stayed if the hotel had burnt down? Not sure that’s in my insurance!

Day 7

Half way through the tour already! It was quite a sad and sobering thought when we all realised it. Most of us chose to skip breakfast and find some fruit at the market.

We took tuktuks (or auto-rickshaws as they’re called in India, though I never got my head round that after so long in SE Asia) to the other side of Mysore to a big market called Devaraja market, where were left to our own devices for the morning. We all split off in our own little groups of two or three. I was with Becky. We found a whole street of bananas, and had some for breakfast. Even I had some and enjoyed them, not normally being much of a banana fan! The market was lovely – so much for every sense to discover. Loads of fruits and vegetables, Indian kitchenware (chapati pans etc), dye stalls with colourful mounds of dye, insense, perfume oils (we spent a while smelling them and hearing about the famous perfumes they are made into, I got a couple in the end- the guy showed us how to make insense sticks too), bangles, and miles and miles of flowers of every colour possible! We explored for two or three hours, then decided to sneakily head back and go for a KFC. Becky had been volunteering in a school in the Delhi slums for a month, and I’d been in India almost that long too, so we decided that to avoid judgement from the rest of the group we’d say we had a thali… They’d all only been there for a few days, bar one other. That was until we found out they’d all been to subway for lunch!

In the afternoon we took a train right across India, from Mysore to Chennai. It took around seven and half hours. It only stopped once, in Bangalore. Having only one stop meant that we didn’t have a constant supply of chai coming round – disaster!

Once in Chennai we didn’t stop there. We drove for another couple of hours to Mamallapuram (also know as Mahabalipuram). We arrived around midnight and all went straight to bed!

✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️

Sorry I’m taking so long keeping this up to date! I will write at the top of each post when the events actually happened, so that you know how much further I might have travelled since then.

Love to you all xxx

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