Our time experiencing a different side of India with a new kind of beauty and a bit more chill.
After our rapid visit to the hustle and bustle of Delhi and Agra, we were looking forward to visiting Kerala, a southern part of India which we kept hearing was more laid back and friendly.
The first thing we noticed after we landed was the religious diversity highlighted by the parade of mosques, Hindu temples, Jain temples, Catholic cathedrals and shrines to saints, and even Jewish synagogues. There was symbolism everywhere but it was from so many different origins that it made my head spin. That being said, the people were open and integrated. Our homestay was hosted by a family of three who were Catholic, and we came home one night as they were hosting and laughing with a muslim family that we had bought perfume from earlier in the day. In that shop, there was also an older Hindu woman who helped run their family business. It was refreshing to see so many different faiths interacting happily.
Our hosts were helpful and kind and the wife/mother of the family made us a “Kerala breakfast” every morning. This consisted of various forms of starchy cakes and curries with some uniquely horrible instant coffee. Curry for breakfast is an acquired taste, and I can’t say I’ve acquired it but we appreciated the hospitality and ate up.
The timing for Kerala was not great. On the first day, Kolt came down with some flu-like virus and this took a big toll on our energy reserve. I also got hit with a wave of homesickness while we were there, right on time for the start of our second month away. Being real here, these factors combined with the fact that we were pretty done with curry (Thailand, Nepal and India were all curry-based) and stretching our cultural comfort zone further than it had gone before, made it harder to enjoy this leg of our trip. That being said, we saw and experienced some amazing things. And this is one of the most beautiful things about travel: the good memories tend to swell over time and the bad ones usually fade or become funny stories. So we’ll just let time handle that how it wants to.
There were some great parts about Kerala and it really is a uniquely stunning place to visit. There have been so many foreign occupations throughout its history and each has left its footprint in some way. In front of the old Dutch Fort and dotting the waterway coast, you can find towering fishing net contraptions installed by the Chinese. They are still in use and we got to watch them in action during the day, then see them silhouetted by the sunset at night.
There was once a large Jewish population in Fort Cochin, which left behind a synagogue and a marketplace on the old cobblestone streets. The market is filled with spice shops and perfumeries which make and sell incense and oils behind their eye-catching displays. My favorite international contributions are the rain trees planted by the Portuguese. These vast and aged giants extend their branches over any open area in the city. They are ecosystems to themselves with an array of ferns, moss and vines thriving along their sturdy framework, hosting all sorts of lizards, birds, insects and certainly many more creatures I didn’t see. I like trees a lot more than is maybe normal to begin with so these guys made me catch my breath.
One day we took a trip in a traditional wooden houseboat through the backwaters, which are ever-branching channels of brackish water that weave throughout the landscape. The channels divide and converge in a mind-boggling maze that only the locals could possibly understand. Our boatmen steered and pushed the boat with long bamboo poles, plunging them to the bottom and propelling us through the mangrove and palm tree lined canals. It’s impossible not to be subdued by the peaceful waterworld surrounding you.
After our time on the coast we went to take the air-conditioned tourist bus to the mountains of Munnar. On arriving, there was already a group of backpack-laden travelers looking a bit flustered and we were quickly informed that the bus driver was on strike. Classic. Surprisingly unphased by this, we waited while calls were made and then jumped in a tuktuk with a Spaniard and a Swede, heading for a nearby city. Once there, we easily hopped on a local bus for a fraction of the cost, got a seat by a window and settled in for what turned out to be a gorgeous ride through the countryside and mountains up into the tea plantations of Munnar. It took us a few tries to find good lodging in our budget but once we did we settled into the beautiful scenery.
The next day we went with a local guide up through the tea plantations and into the clouds. Monsoon season in India provided us with shifting layers of low-lying clouds that streamed around us as we hiked, offering a natural coolant while giving the hike a degree of mystique. Our guide brought us homemade breakfast… curry… and some delicious spiced chai. He was knowledgeable, kind and helpful, giving us explanations about the tea, the mountains and the local flora (which I loved). He also kept a close watch on the bushed and ushered us along quickly in places, looking a bit nervous. Eventually he explained this was out of concern for the local wild elephants which we were content to know about without feeling the need to be in stampede range. Damp and happy, we spent the afternoon napping in our comfy bed.
The next day we made our way back towards the airport and embarked what was by far the most death-defying bus ride of my life back down through the rain-soaked mountains. Following the advice of our guide from the hike, we jumped on another local bus and went to a much less touristy town to spend the night in a bare but sleepable hotel and head to the airport the following day. Despite our physical and emotional strugglefest during our time here, we really did experience some unique and breathtaking beauty. Kolt has put Munnar on the top of his list of most beautiful places he’s been and we will both have some stellar memories to look back on from here.