Waking up to the steady rain of Kochi on the morning of Tuesday 18th June, we caught a ferry across to the old fort for 2.50 rupees. Who ever actually has a 50 paise coin on them? It didn’t matter anyhow seeing as there was two of us.
With ambitious plans in our heads to discover the man-made island in a day, we didn’t arrive at the jetty until lunchtime. As we stood near the eager auto-drivers, I felt a sharp sting on my right shoulder, and turned around to see a huge ant shaped like a spider scuttling away. It was like having a bee sting!
Feeling sorry for myself, we headed to the Dutch Palace, which turned out to be a hidden gem. Lonely Planet didn’t get it wrong for once! Inside the professionally presented artefacts and information boards covered everything from the rajas outfits and weaponry, to crumbling murals of the Ramayana in the other rooms – including one of a demon having her breasts and nose cut off. Charming.
Then in a bid to reach a synagogue (I don’t know why it was meant to be special) in ‘Jew Town’, we became distracted by a myriad of emporiums selling leather bags, brass deities, lotus-shaped incense holders, chess boards, and dressing stands. There was even one hoarding a 30m long, 10 year-old Snake Boat – from the still annual Nehru Trophy Boat Race, where each colossal canoe is powered by 100 men – that dominated the entire shop.
Calling it quits, we grabbed some overpriced tea and cake from a shop-cum-art gallery before heading off to see the Chinese fishing nets. Exhausted, we jumped back on the ferry, and Roy reached new levels of zoologist ecstasy at the giant fruit bats circling round the landing jetty.
To finish where we left off, the next day saw us back on the ferry to reach the Dutch Cemetery (a let down) and the Maritime Museum (it was closed). Taking shelter from the rain inside a convenient ice-cream parlour, we were treated to an eclectic mix of paintings on the walls. Several Hindu deities were painted in a style that I can only say reminded me of the Disney ‘Hercules’ film – but it worked.
To fulfil our tourist obligation of appreciating the local culture, we ventured to the cultural centre. One and a half hours of Kathakalli Dance later, and we were suitably enlightened, if not very bored. Whilst the fantastical costumes were good to look at, the dance itself revolved entirely around facial gestures, eye movements, and hand positioning. A surprise ending helped wake us up again though, as the female character whipped around screaming and holding her hair on her lip like a moustache. More of that would have been made the whole thing far more interesting!
We made it to Alleppey the next day, and after some running around managed to secure a houseboat to take us round the slow backwaters that Kerala is so famous for. Converted from old rice barges, these boats ranged from (our) cheap and cheerful single-kitchen-and-bedroom option, to floating palaces with A/C and separate sunbathing areas, not forgetting surround sound home cinema system!
Though it was still raining our 24 hours on the backwaters took us through narrow waterways and huge open lakes; past paddy fields hovering several metres below the canals; around man-made islands where women washed dishes or laundry and men fished; and to an overnight mooring at our captain’s home.
Jumping between dry patches along the paths almost totally flooded by the monsoon rains, we glimpsed a Snake Boat team drilling for the August race. Roy ‘rescued’ a fish, which turned out to be the supper of two fishermen sat not two metres away. They didn’t manage to catch another one.
Finally, after a delicious dinner cooked by the on-board chef, and a good sleep rocking on the water, we headed to the Funky Art Beach House back on solid land. Not spitting distance from the waves crashing onto the white sandy beach, we spent the next few days lazily meandering up and down the sand, trying each of the different local restaurants, and chasing crabs in the dark on the way back. One morning I woke up to the sound of a gang of scrawny old fishermen heaving their boat towards the shore, and then found a litter of shivering puppies in the sand when I went to investigate!
Thankfully they were still alive the following morning, sunbathing under the protection of an upturned boat. We ventured into town that afternoon on two bicycles so rickety, their handlebars were both on backwards. Navigating the Indian traffic was actually less terrifying than expected, though I guess it helps when you act like you own the road.
Leaving the relaxation and sea air of Alleppey was hard, but we’d already axed so many places from our original itinerary – Munnar, Periyar Wildlife Park, Madurai, Rameswaram – that it was time to move on. Resigned to sharing a single narrow bunk on the over-booked sleeper train, we started towards Chennai that night. Luck was feeling generous however, and a couple doubled up with their children to give us one each. Not to say that it was any more comfortable though.