Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

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Friday, January 13, 2012

Kerala, God's Own Country

In the Southern part of India there are two special states. To the East is Tamil Nadu and to the west is Kerala. Tamil Nadu, two times more people, four times bigger, is drenched in history and has lots of attractions, but we chose for this trip the smaller, much quieter, Kerala (pronounced Kerla). It's nickname is "God's own country" - even the pilot on our flight used that. Two thousands years ago Apostle Thomas brought Christianism here, following in the footsteps of Phoenicians and Romans who traded gold for Kerala spices. To this day Kerala still makes the best pepper in the world. We chose to come here for a couple of reasons, one being the cheap flight to Kuala Lumpur. When I bought the tickets we had no plans for India and this option opened a lot of choices.
Kerala was a newly formed state after India's independence and it's mostly populated by Malayalams. Their language is the most amazing, impossible to describe or understand thing that I've ever heard. It's rolling sounds made us stare in disbelief when our driver took a phone call.
Kerala holds the questionable honor of being the first place in the world where communists won in democratic elections. They remained in power, more or less, over the last 54 years. Maybe because of that there is more equitable distribution of land and wealth and Kerala has impressive records in health and education statistics. Considering our allergy to communism, we might have had a problem with that in the past, but truly is any political party (anywhere in this world) good for anything? At best they might be the promoters of some doctrine (by definition no doctrine has any good value in real life). In the worst case scenario, and unfortunately much more common, a political party is a mere facade to give legitimacy to a clique of opportunists and power grabbers. So communists or not, we arrived in Kerala, even if that might have cost us our lives. We didn't know the price at the beginning and we had a good laugh when we found out.
The North Canal in Alleppey
We landed in Kochi and we decided on the side walk of the airport to give up our plans for the southernmost point of India. We took a cab to Alappuzha and for almost three hours we were in heavy traffic. I used the time to call for accommodations and we found a "family room" at Tharavad Heritage. That turned out to be a full apartment with seven beds, but we needed air conditioning and that was only available in the two bedrooms. The air was very humid, it was hot and actually unpleasant.
Alappuzha (or Alleppey) is a city of some 200,000 people, 60 km south of Kochi. It is nicknamed the "Venice of Asia" - I hope that was never more than a joke. It is the main point of entry to the Kerala backwaters, a network of some 900 km of canals that has been in use for thousands of years and a major touristic attraction of Southern India. There are several ways to visit the canals, one being by houseboat, other by organized tours - several hours to a full day, or even just by regular ferry. We dedicated one day of shopping for the best option, but our search was done in five minutes. Our hotel had a luxury boat with two bedrooms, purchased six months ago, and they were giving us a very good price because we were already their clients. The children were attracted by the option of spending one night on the boat, the parents were excited by the opportunity of a more intimate exploration of the backwaters' way of life.
Before I quit my job, my coworkers gave me a good bye party and collected money for a gift. I asked them to donate all of that to the children's "fun fund", and the luxury houseboat fit the price and the goal. So we used their money and had a fabulous experience. Thank you so much!
The search for a boat done, the temperature and humidity too bad, we choose to spend most of the day inside. The children do school for many hours. We leave at four, walk to the beach and have a good couple of hours on the seaside. The Arabian Sea is warm but agitated, only Ileana and Ioan, the youngest ones, have the energy to get in the water. We catch a nice sunset and have dinner at a good restaurant.

Ileana and Ioan playing in the waves 
Sunset, Arabian Sea

Next day, the biggest and best tuk-tuk would take all of us and all our luggage for the ten minute trip on the other side of Alleppey, where the boats are. We have a glimpse at the city life, pass by canals, no, this is not Venice. A tiny harbor holds countless boats, moored in several rows. Of course ours is the finest, easily recognizable, it has an observation deck on top. We are welcomed by the three man team and immediately served a fresh coconut. The best one so far, it has a lot of juice. They bring bananas and a pineapple, the lunch would be served later. We travel along a canal for a few minutes, then we enter the largest lake in India, cross part of it and we get lost along small canals. We lay up on the observation deck taking innumerable pictures. Ioan gets to drive the boat and has a good talk with the captain while the girls are working on their projects on the lower deck. The captain offers us the choice of going to the market to choose our own fish, but we would rather have what they give us for lunch. When it comes, it is a mirific display of traditional Indian cuisine, along with five fried black Kerala fish. I especially liked the pineapple curry with grated coconut. All the dishes are very tasteful and we enjoy it tremendously. The boat is anchored by a palm tree on the edge of a rice field. After the lunch break, we resume our journey along canals, passing by villages, waiting for a canoe with schoolchildren to clear our way, watching people coming out of church, washing their clothes, working their crops. It is so peaceful and nice, it is complete relaxation on the beautiful Kerala waters. At night we pool by the side, along with some other boats and have a great dinner before playing cards games and retiring for the night. In the morning we catch the first glimpse of the sunrise coming through our window. The boat starts the return journey while we have our breakfast and we are back in port by nine.

Welcome drink
Boat at rest, lunch break
Lunch on the boat

Images on the side

Drinking filtered water, resting on the observation deck

Sunrise in Kerala

Getting ready for the return trip

Of course there is another way to look at things and the whole paragraph could be rewritten. While you want to see your boat before paying for it, there are no good or bad choices of houseboats. There are hundreds and hundreds of identical boats, leaving the port all at once, following each other on some canals where nothing happens. After the first few minutes, when the initial excitement wears off, the boredom settles in. The schedule is made of lunch and dinner. The crew knows minimal English, and there is no program of visiting any traditional village, spice plantation or other attraction. There is no fishing or swimming. When we ask, we cannot be understood, or at best we get a "no problem", standard answer. The unlimited refreshments for the children are missing, they eventually find a small bottle of Pepsi somewhere. When they cut the pineapple, half it's lost, and we only eat two meager quarter slices. Since I didn't get any discount on the boat, I was promised two bottles of beer, free, and they would materialize after my specific request at dinner. The amazing Indian food is clearly not by our taste, it's all too hot and after a couple of bites, you cannot feel the taste or the mouth or both. And I really prefer the basmati rice to the Kerala one. Getting frustrated with the boring ride down similar canals, we cannot wait to move our feet.
The cohort of houseboats taking on

A very nice way to cut the pineapple, we never figured out what happened to the other half
When the boat stops for the night we take the path by the water, eager to explore. The canals were filled with communist flags advertising the next party congress and where we stop there is a loud political propaganda playing on the megaphones. Even in a foreign language it is so disturbing that we turn toward the rice fields and walk for half an hour toward some music. We get a glimpse at the sun setting, but cannot really see it because of some houses. Ileana gets chased by a crazy cow. When we decide to return, Maria discovers the fresh shed skin of a snake. It is about 2 meters long and the family picks it up for pictures. It is still moist and it wasn't there when we first passed. As we get closer to the water a local comes to warns us that we shouldn't be on that path, there are huge venomous snakes, very dangerous. Sorry, you shouldn't have put the communist propaganda on, we were just trying to get away from that. We laugh it off without thinking for more than a moment that we were so lucky, one of us could have been the daftest communist victim in the history of the world.
Another common sight on the side of the road
My family with the snake skin
Taller than Maria - maybe 1.70cm

Meh, I really prefer the first description of our trip, it was a fantastic day, we loved it and we thank my friends and former coworkers for their generous gift, and my kids for wanting and demanding it!
Good bye picture with the crew. Thank you! It was great!

1 comment:

  1. This part of your adventure has the quality of a dream experience in extravagant technicolor. Your boat looks beautiful and posh, the staff so handsome, and the huge skin of a dangerous snake is impressive and not so scary knowing you were all safely out of the fields. If it all was not exotic enough, getting blasted by communist propaganda ... We had our first lovely x country ski in the Hector forest yesterday but rain is coming to take the snow away again. Travel well. Janet and Don


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