Kerala’s backwaters smell unlike any other part of India we’ve been to. The crisp salt water breeze of the ocean and canals blends with the monsoon’s ambient humidity into a sort of lazily clean scent. Fish abound on restaurant menus and homes. A network of narrow, shallow channels chop up the land for a 100 kilometer stretch along the coast, creating a maze of saltwater that works its way inland, supporting fishermen and a mild climate year-round.
“Venice of the East” is the moniker given to Alleppey, the city that serves at gateway to this watery world. We spend an evening in town awaiting a train, but three days in the more rural network of canals connecting villages and rice paddies.
To call the area Asia’s answer to Venice isn’t wrong, exactly, but it doesn’t quite capture the fishing canoes carved from jackfruit tree wood, the striped black and white snakes undulating through green water, the noise of cows and goats and birds calling out into the humid air. It’s a rural Venice. A tropical Venice. A Venice where all the food is seasoned with coconut and you can spend less on three meals, a comfortable room and a two-hour canoe ride than you’d pay for half an hour with a gondolier.
We started in Kochi, the port city illustrated in guidebooks by graceful pictures of Chinese fishing nets suspended just above water in the harbor at sunset. The old historical part of the city is technically an island, with a few bridges stretching to a mainland dominated by tall buildings and shopping malls. It’s not really part of the backwaters, which stretch further south, but it has the same ocean-tropical feel to its wide streets, and a sea breeze that does more to quell my homesickness than any American fast food ever could.
The Dutch came to Kochi before the British, and the city’s centuries of immigration and foreign influence show in its religious diversity (48 percent Hindu, with the rest split about evenly between Christians and Muslims). A sizeable Jewish population settled here around 70 AD following the Roman destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, though many of their descendants left for Israel.
A four-hundred year old synagogue still stands, though its interior is less grandiose than the mosques and temples we’ve been inside. Inside, an old man sits scowling at the tourists, mostly Indian, who venture inside and wags his finger at me when I pull out my phone. I had been hoping to search Wikipedia for a brief history of Jews in India but resign myself to ignorance until lunch. When we leave, we find someone has stolen the umbrella our homestay family lent us for the day.
Close by, there’s a palace with faded but impressive murals showing scenes from the Ramayana, plus placards narrating the history of Kochi and its royalty. The monarchy was matrilineal, I learn, and royal women commonly went around topless until Europeans showed up with their civilizing anti-nipple influence. I’m tempted to argue wearing a shirt is prudent in a climate with so many mosquitos, but the next few days teach me that even seemingly foolproof precautions only go so far. If there’s an upper limit to the number of mosquito bites you can get on your breasts in Kerala, I have yet to discover it.
Spencer and I are given to being lazy tourists, less interested in sightseeing than wandering around, ducking into strange alleys and hiding under awnings when the rains pick up. We find ourselves in a spice shop waiting out a torrential monsoon rain and part with 1100 rupees after a kind, professional and insistent saleswoman helps us fill our basket with sandalwood soap, green tea and star anise. We walk along the beachfront, where half a dozen people stop us to ask where we’re from. We take snapshots of murals and invent personalities for so many goats that we contemplate starting a “Goats of Kerala” blog to parody Humans of New York. We enter a bookshop and leave an hour later with eight more volumes to add to our quickly growing backpacks.
Three days in Kochi and we’re off again, to a backwaters homestay near Kottayam. The bus takes two and a half hours to reach the town, and an autorickshaw takes us the rest of the way. Roads turn to mud a few kilometers before our host’s front gate. George, an energetic 60 year old man, bounds out and shows us to our room – a separate block from his house overlooking a massive rice paddy. “Welcome home,” he says.
This is where there are backwaters, not just waters. Two lines of houses are separated by narrow dirt roads, then a canal through the middle. Stone steps on either side descend into the brackish water, where women wash clothes and men bathe wearing dhotis, the traditional skirt-like cloth worn by most Keralan men that Gandhi made iconic in the west. In the morning, a man paddles down the canal near our house in a small canoe, calling out in Malayalam. He’s a fisherman-cum-traveling salesman letting neighbors know about the day’s catch.
Over meals, we talk to George about the homestay business, which he’s been running for 13 years and swap tidbits about weather and politics in our native states. He attributes Kerala’s good government and health to its excellent education system, for which he thanks foreign influence.
I’ve noticed individual explanations for Keralan prosperity tend to align closely with personal opinions about the rest of the world. George is a former guard for the Sultan of Oman who spent much of his working life around Brits and hosts only foreign tourists. (Indians, he says, don’t understand the homestay concept and expect five-star luxury regardless of the price they pay for a room). Scholars I read in college said Kerala’s success is largely due to its Communist influences. Another Christian homestay family said the state is healthy and well-educated because it’s blessed with good weather and climate.
For two days, we go for short walks and a boat ride, looking at the jagged lily pads in the water, appreciating the cooling effect of the rains and playing basic English tutor to every child (and the few adults) who calls out, “Hello-where-you-from?” as we glide past their homes. (One especially ambitious boy yells, “Hello-how-are-you-I-am-well-thank-you” in a single breath.)
Our laundry dries slowly and we take dozens of pictures of coconut palms and beautiful flowers we can’t name. The power cuts in and out, so we sit on our covered porch and read while trying to fend off mosquitoes and wasps. And then we pack up our spices and our books and board a bus to take us to a train, which winds around the mountains and on to our last stop in Madurai before we begin the long journey home.
Our introduction to the southern Indian state of Kerala – famous for its Communist government, distinctive coconut-infused cuisine and chart-topping rates of literary and other human development indicators – began, as so many good things do, with a bumpy bus ride.
We boarded the state-run bus at the station in Mysore, destined for the hilly city of Kalpetta, the gateway to and capital of Kerala’s famous Wayanad district. The bus was run by the Kerala State Roads and Transport Coalition, which confusingly has identical initials to its equivalent in the neighboring state of Karnataka, where we started our trip.
Having come from Bangalore earlier in the day, the bus’ seats were mostly full when we got on, so we took a middle and an aisle seat next to an older woman who spent the ride alternately dozing and re-wrapping the end of her cream-colored sari around her bald head. She had a somewhat flexible definition of where her seat ended and mine began, so between me, Spencer, and our large backpacks, we were in for a tight squeeze.
Though we gained considerable elevation over the course of the four hour ride, I don’t recall going up any noticeable hills, for which I was grateful. My travels in Latin America have made me more aware than I’d like to be that it is physically possible to drive a Greyhound-sized bus up a partially washed-out steep mountain road mined with potholes at dizzying speeds.
Dizzying speeds were part of this journey, but being near the back of the bus, we remained blissfully ignorant of the many head-on collisions our driver narrowly managed to avoid while swerving around other trucks and motorcycles and women walking down the side of the road. Instead, we were slammed forcefully into the seats in front of us only once, and could pass the time enjoying the views as we rode through fields of coconut palms, orange flowers and eventually a national park where we spotted monkeys and deer in abundance.
Some guidebooks advise against visiting the lush, mountainous Wayanad district during monsoon season, but for people accustomed to the constant drizzle of the Pacific Northwest, it was immediately relaxing. Roads meander through greenery on all sides – tea bushes and coffee plants growing in the shade of carefully scattered palms. It’s not cold by any stretch, but both pleasantly cool and quite humid, a combination I found refreshing even if it left my skin a bit sticky by evening.
Our first night was at a homestay with cousins of the father of a friend in Portland. Though our friend said her dad had called ahead to warn his relatives of our arrival, they seemed confused when we showed up and quickly sprang into action, bringing us tea, providing the wi-fi password and showing us to our room. Dinner was a feast of half a dozen traditional Keralan dishes which I struggle to name or describe (other than the ubiquitous chapati), but all were tasty and left me wishing coconut were a more commonplace ingredient back in the U.S.
The next morning, we set off for the luxurious portion of our monthlong trip: a two-night stay at Tea Terrace Vythiri, a “boutique resort” featuring eco-friendly cottages spread out over a hill of black tea bushes. After a late breakfast, we headed back to Kalpetta on a standing room only bus, which we quickly realized was gender-segregated after boarding. Spencer moved to the back with the men, while I tried to hold onto my swaying backpack with one hand and the railing with the other, all while keeping my billowing skirt out of the faces of the women sitting beside me.
Eventually, I hauled my possessions towards the front in the hopes of leaning my backpack against the wall behind the driver. A woman sitting on a long bench next to the driver took pity on me and offered me a seat with a smile, so I joined the four women already seated there and spend the rest of the ride trying not to fall on anyone, hold my backpack up and avoid having a finger sliced off by the bushes we were driving past at high speed.
From Kalpetta, I figured we’d take an autorickshaw to the resort. The area is small-town enough that most people seemed to know where things were, or at least know someone they could ask for help. The first two drivers we asked refused to take us to Vythiri, while the third acquiesced. “One hundred fifty rupees to Vythiri,” he said. The implication was something like, “After that, I have no idea where we’re going and am not responsible for the fare.” We agreed and set off.
As it turns out, the resort is about half an hour or so from Kalpetta. We didn’t know that, though, so it took us over an hour to get there. First, we got to the town. Then, our driver stopped and asked three people in quick succession for directions before taking us to an out-of-the-way dirt road and pointing to a sign for a different tea resort. No, we told him, that’s not the one. We called the resort and our driver spoke with reception for a while before driving us all the way back to town and down a different road on the other side.
Antics like this continued until finally we went up a torturously steep mountain road and met a guy from the resort in a Jeep, who took us the rest of the way. Our driver remained good-humored throughout and only charged us about $12 for his troubles. And at last, we could relax.
We were completely surrounded by tea fields, something I’d never seen before. The bushes growing all around us smelled more like generic leaves than I’d expected. They can be harvested every two weeks, the guy at the resort told us, but a kilo of leaves fetches only 10 rupees (about 16 cents). The resort was started by a bunch of IT guys who got burned out and wanted to try something new. It catered mostly to domestic tourists coming from larger cities to get away from it all, and we had the distinction of being the first foreign tourists to visit.
The relaxation continued until the next morning, when we set off in another autorickshaw to visit a tea factory and see the stuff being processed. Half an hour of bumping down mountain roads in the the tripedal vehicle treated us to sweeping views down into the valley below, though the high speeds and cloud cover didn’t let me take any decent pictures. We’d been told there was a minimum tea purchase requirement of one kilo per person at a fixed price of 100 rupees. After the road levelled out, our driver pulled over and another autorickshaw full of men pulled up beside us, asking for the cash. They handed two large plastic bags of tea to our driver and demanded 20 more rupees, for reasons I’m not entirely clear on. This deal concluded, they departed and our driver took us the remaining few kilometers to the factory itself.
Our arrival at the tea factory caused some consternation with the supervisor. “You need the manager’s permission to enter,” he said, in a tone suggesting he very much doubted we’d secured the required permission. We tried to explain our hotel had phoned ahead, but he wasn’t moved. After five minutes of negotiation, during which Spencer tried to phone our hotel and clarify things, our driver suggested producing the receipt for our tea purchase, which magically changed the supervisor’s demeanor. “Of course, come in,” he told us, suddenly eager to begin the tour.
I wish I could provide a detailed step-by-step account of the tea production process, but the whir of machinery stretched my hearing abilities too far and I opted to take pictures inside the dark rooms instead. From what I gathered, tea is harvested and left to dry upstairs, then ground down into a paste with water, blown dry with hot air and sorted by grade. Mostly, we walked past a lot of impressive machines that smelled like tea while the factory’s workers either waved or glanced at us with a deer-in-the-headlights look. Our whirlwind tour was over in about 10 minutes, after which we boarded the rickshaw back to the resort.
Spencer and I left Wayanad this morning, saying goodbye to what has to be in the top five most beautiful places I’ve seen in my life. I hope we’re able to go back someday, but if nothing else, we now have four and a half pounds of tea to remind us of our brief foray into the mountains of Kerala.
For all my writing about Mumbai’s history and the challenges of travel, I’ve been rather remiss in writing about where Spencer and I have actually gone and are going. No longer! Here’s the quick and dirty version of our travels thus far.
Our route around India has been rather circuitous. The initial plan was to stick to the south, but you can see for yourself how well that worked out.
The map below shows our route, including what we’ve planned for the next two weeks, though our stop in Agra (southwest of Delhi) isn’t showing up for some reason.
Mumbai, Maharashtra (June 28-July 2)
We started our adventure in Mumbai, the densely packed city of 22 million in central India on the Arabian Sea.
I’d hoped that as a large, cosmopolitan city, Mumbai might be a good way to introduce us to India gradually in a place that still had the many comforts of home. We went on a few guided tours here, which helped make the city seem more manageable, and had a lovely home-cooked meal arranged through Traveling Spoon. The humidity and crowded streets made our first few days much more grueling than I anticipated, though, and both Spencer and I were happy to move on to less chaotic waters.
Nagpur, Gondia and Tadoba National Park, Maharashtra (July 3-6)
Our first experience with the Indian railway system was an overnight train from Mumbai to Nagpur, a city of 8 million with little to offer tourists other than a location in the center of India. India’s rail system is truly incredible, and I loved the feeling of falling asleep on a moving train (though some of the romance was lost when the lurching of the carriage woke me up half a dozen times).
From Nagpur, we hopped in a car to the small town of Gondia, the closest town to many forest reserves in the area. Through a friend of my mom’s, we’d been introduced to the district forest officer, who organized four days of trekking around the land he administers.
Our typical day started with hopping in a car with a driver and forest guide. Some of our guides were outgoing and spoke fairly good English, while others knew some isolated words. (“Madam! Take picture!” was a fairly typical phrase.)
We’d be spirited away for an hour or two of driving to some part of the forest, often with no idea at all where we were headed. Then we’d get out, meet some other forest staff, walk for a bit, take lots of pictures and invariably be invited to have tea in the home or village of almost everyone we spoke to.
It was a lovely and low-hassle way to see what life in rural India is like, though the excitement we caused by getting out of the car took some adjusting to. Spencer and I were briefly concerned on our first day that we’d been mistaken for high-level government officials or partners with some important grant money to award for Indian forestry or something. But nope, we were just foreigners in an area that doesn’t see many tourists.
Our last day took us to Tadoba National Park, about three hours away from Gondia, where we went out in a Jeep in hopes of spotting tigers. We got lucky on our second drive.
From Tadoba, we spent an evening back in Gondia at our ridiculously swanky five-star hotel, the Gateway (highly recommended at $45 or so a night, and they actually make a decent mac and cheese).
Grueling trek to the Taj Mahal and back (July 7-10)
The thing about the Taj Mahal is that you kind of should see it if you go to India just in case you never get another chance to go to India in your life. So we decided to exhaust ourselves in an effort to make that happen.
On July 7, we drove to Nagpur from Gondia (3 hours), got on a plane to Delhi (2 hours), took a bus and a metro from the airport to the rail station (1 hour) and then got on a train to Agra (3.5 hours).
Did I mention that north India has somehow discovered how to defy the laws of physics and achieve a remarkable average humidity of 240 percent?
In Agra, we befriended an English-speaking autorickshaw driver, Haseen, who had a guestbook from his previous tourists and won the auction to take us to our hotel for 100 rupees ($1.58). This, of course, was so he could offer us his services as our driver for sightseeing the next day, which we agreed to because his price seemed reasonable and why not? (This actually did work out, though naturally he took us to a few stores selling fancy souvenirs so he could earn a commission, and we did wind up with some marble inlay pieces as a result. But worse things have happened.)
Anyway, we got to our hotel late, went to sleep, and woke up at 6 a.m. to see the Taj Mahal, a short walk from our hotel. The Taj was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan after his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died giving birth to her fourteenth child. You have to admire a guy who’s so upset that he raids the royal treasury for millions of dollars (in 1600s dollars, so multiply that by a lot) to build the best, coolest tomb ever for his wife. Also, by that standard literally everyone else’s husband is completely slacking off. He was buried in the crypt under the Taj as well following his death.
Everyone has seen pictures of the Taj and its reflecting pool, but here’s one of my favorite pieces of it.
There’s beautiful Arabic calligraphy all over the structure that’s really hard to see until you get close. It’s actually designed with the human eye in mind, so the verses at the top are just a bit larger than the ones near the bottom to give the illusion of everything being the same size. The whole thing is designed to evoke the Muslim vision of paradise and there’s a lot of other really neat symbolism and artistry to that effect.
Agra has more than the Taj Mahal – there’s a cool fort that the Mughal emperors ruled from and several other impressive marble mausoleums as well, plus some lovely gardens.
While there, I read a book called “In the Shadow of the Taj: A Portrait of Agra,” which gives some history of the city plus some perspective from locals who often feel that they’re ignored in favor of the monument (for instance, several factories that wanted to locate near Agra and would have provided good jobs have been forced to go elsewhere because of concerns about air pollution hurting the marble).
Having that context was great, but it didn’t really make me like the city at all. Not content to meet north India standards, humidity in Agra actually averages a shocking 300 percent in July, and the constant cries of, “Where are you going, Madam?” by autorickshaw drivers hoping for a job got old quickly.
From Agra, we boarded and evening train back to Delhi and spent the next day on a fast-paced tour focusing on religion and culture. Our guide took us to a Sikh temple, where rich and poor work side by side as volunteers in a massive communal kitchen to feed thousands of people per day. The temple itself is centered on their holy book, which they view as akin to a person. This means the book is put to bed at night so it can rest. (Did I mention Sikhism is kind of an awesome religion?)
Our guide walked us through the streets of Delhi, and we also visited a large mosque built by the Mughals in the center of the old city. In the afternoon, we went to the Akshardam, a massive Hindu temple founded by follwers of an 18th century guru. The whole place kind of has a Hinduism-themed Disneyland feel, with massive animatronic diorama exhibits explaining the life of their guru and his values.
From there, we went to the airport and took an evening flight to Bangalore in the southern state of Karnataka. Arriving at midnight, we bused to the train station and spend 40 minutes walking around, fending off territorial street dogs and autorickshaw drivers before finally finding our hotel shortly before 2 a.m.
Mysore (July 11-14)
For the past three days, we’ve been in Mysore, a city of about a million people in Karnataka. Mysore is a center of sandalwood and silk production and is home to Mysore Palace, which is literally the most beautiful palace I have ever seen in my life (and I’ve been to Versailles). Photos aren’t allowed inside and the outside doesn’t do it justice, but here’s a quick snapshot anyhow.
Here, we’ve been relaxing at our lovely B&B homestay while planning the rest of our trip. We’ve also been to the local market and seen the Mysore Zoo, a world class place with most of the major mammals from India and Africa, plus a bunch of awesome birds.
Wayanad, Kerala(July 14-17)
Tomorrow, we’ll hop on a bus up to the mountains of Kerala, where we’ll spend a few days relaxing on a tea plantation and hopefully visiting the family of our friend Christine for a day.
Cochin and Alleppey, Kerala (July 17-23)
From Wayanad, we’ll descend to the coast of Kerala, spending time in the city of Cochin and doing a homestay in the backwaters of Alleppey (sometimes called the “Venice of the East,” though our guidebook says that comparison does Venice no favors. I will report back.)
Madurai, Tamil Nadu (July 23-26)
Finally, we’ll spend a few days in Tamil Nadu, the heart of southern India, before flying back to Mumbai in July 26, and to the U.S. on July 28.