Saturday, February 8, 2014

Backwater touring

The big attraction on Kerala's coast is backwater touring,  and Alleppey is ground zero for it. When you arrive by bus, touts will descend on you brandishing beautiful but faded pictures of houseboats. The iconic Kerala houseboat looks like a huge wicker basket mounted on a barge,  but these aren't actually the best way to see the backwaters because they can only travel the big canals,  like a convoy of monster trucks on a freeway.

We got a Sikkara instead. That's a small narrow boat with an outboard motor on one side,  a sun roof,  and a few seats. It can go where the big boats can't, where village life is undisturbed by the wicker basket behemoths. Sikkaras are slow but quiet; in five hours we could see only a small part of the enormous network of canals,  rivers,  and lakes. Sikkara tours cost a small fraction of proper houseboat tours because tourists are stupid.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The heat of Alleppey

Alleppey is a town on the coast,  south of Cochin. It has nothing to do with Aleppo. Alleppey is mostly known as the best place to explore Kerala's backwaters,  an extensive network of waterways spanning thousands of kilometers. While the hills are dry and cool, the coast is hot and humid.

Getting there involved another six hours in Kerala's crowded public buses,  except this time it was downhill from an altitude of 1000m so it went much faster. The driver didn't drive so much,  we hurtled,  sometimes a hand's width from slower or oncoming traffic. This is easy and safe because everybody has a loud horn. Another one of those essential Indian experiences,  it just wouldn't be the same thing if there were such things as safety distances,  speed limits, or fear of turning into oncoming traffic. Traffic laws are for wimps. Bus drivers are the kings of the road because of their size and mass,  and they know it.

Alleppey is a mid-size city with a layout defined by two parallel rivers,  where the boats wait for tourists.  We'll rent one tomorrow. On the sea side end there's a wide beach with a ruined pier,  good for watching the sunset. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Making tea

Up in the hills of Kerala they are growing tea since British colonial times. Nothing is ever flat here, and tea plantations cover the rolling hills like bright green pillows. Women hand-pick the tips of the plants for white tea and the top leaves for green tea, then someone clips the rest with shears for "ordinary" tea.

Of course they have a tea museum where they crowd tour groups into a small room to show them a movie with sappy music to explain how wonderful life was for the tea workers since the British brought tea and civilization to this poor land.

We actually went all the way to the top of the highest mountain in southern India, named Top Station with a distinct lack of imagination, in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. Everything is very relaxed and pastoral up in these hills -  until we came with our onomatopoeically named tuk-tuk, that is.

Oh, and the tea they serve up there is excellent.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Hill stations

The Coast of southern India is hot and humid, even in February. This was perceived as unsatisfactory by the British when India was part of their empire, because British weather is not like that. So they moved inland to the "hill stations". So did we today.

That meant a long tuk-tuk ride to Ernakulum, the commercial part of Cochin which holds no attractions whatever. Then a bus to Adimali, one of those local jobs, all hand-welded with no glass in the Windows and way too many seats per square meter. Five hours, but it wasn't boring for a minute.

Another tuk-tuk brought us to our resort, which we promptly left for its much nicer neighbor, the Green Shades with its spice garden. Great location and views of the valleys and forests. Banana trees and orchids grow like weeds here.

Cochin in South India

The long tuk-tuk drive from the airport to Fort Cochin early in the morning brings back memories of South India. The long lines of gaudily decorated trucks and tuk-tuks (three-wheelers) with their "sound horn" signs, the stained concrete and rusty metal, and the Indian spices in the air... The ferry that took us across the bay was exactly as grungy as an Indian ferry is supposed to be.

Fort Cochin, as cities in South India go, is surprisingly pleasant, with narrow and uncharacteristically clean streets, and many souvenir shops but it's the end of the season so it's all very relaxed. Apart from the colonial architecture, Fort Cochin doesn't have many monuments, so they make the most of what they have. On the beach are huge Chinese fishing nets suspended from cantilever that are lowered into the water, then raised to catch fish. Mostly they catch tourists now though.