February 11 - February 19, 2013
11.02.2013 - 19.03.2013 31 °C
One of the nice things about India is the relatively bargain priced flights you can book between cities. Although we'd pretty much waited until the last minute, we were still able to find a reasonably priced flight from Kolkata to Trivandrum (official name: Thiruvananthapuram) in southern Kerala. I'm not sure why but everyone refers to the state almost as if it's a city. I don't hear people say I'm going to Uttar Pradesh which is where Agra and Varanasi are but people regularly say I'm going to Kerala which is about 550 Km long. Kerala, besides more hyped neighbor Goa, is where you go when you need a break from the intense hard core cities like Mumbai and Delhi. It is lush with palm trees everywhere and has a higher standard of living in every aspect compared to most other states. Literacy in Kerala is impressively in the high 90s (although it's lower for women) and you not only see lavish homes in the country side and cities, you don't see the level of poverty you do elsewhere.
We stayed in Trivandrum for only a few days before moving on because we had to visit the place that Elmar always talks about with delight, Kovalam beach. We'd booked into “Classic Avenue”, a comfortable and not too pricey hotel not too far from the main train station and took the local bus to Kovalam so we could enjoy the view along the way. It was really hot, about 95 degrees and humid and we were glad for the open windows. The bus dropped us off at the intersection that leads to the beach area so we hiked the couple kilometres down. We couldn't wait to see it but we were in for a surprise. Elmar had described the area as tranquil with only a few huts and restaurants right on the beach and where the white sand stretched as far as you could see into the distance, broken only by the headlands that separate the beaches. What we saw were garish buildings thrown up haphazardly along the beach all linked by a concrete walkway. Tourism was down we later learned so at least it wasn't overcrowded. Elmar was visibly shaken and spent the next hour trouncing from one area to the next lamenting the destruction of a beautiful haven and cursing the ignorance of those involved. He knew that time could not stand still but how could this ugly mish mash of blatant commerce be the alternative. (Kovalam beach, once a tranquil backpacker beach)
He was ready to storm off in disgust but while I empathized with him, I was hot and tired and we would now be facing a long walk uphill to catch the bus without even a sip of water. It didn't take long for me to coax him into having a drink and we spent the next couple hours talking about why it was that India was not achieving the predicted growth rates when there was no lack of talent, resources or opportunity. We'd read a recent article that described China as cramming 50 years of progress into 10 and India as stretching 10 over 50. We were certainly witnessing this every day and juxtaposed to it, places like Kovalam that seemed to be a victim of commercial attempts rather than any real strategy for sustained economic progress. We wondered if they would truly be a super power and how long it would take. We eventually had to check ourselves and think about what we do next. There was a travel agent close by so we decided to check out what he had on offer. We got pretty excited initially because it looked as if he could get us to the Maldives. We had not been able to find anything in our budget in our searches but it turned out to be a tease as nothing in our price range was available. He did however book us on a backwater tour, which is something I had been anxious to do for quite some time. Rather than the typical travel through the backwaters of Alleppey, we would be touring the backwaters of Kollam, which is usually considered the transit point for Alleppey. That took care of our agenda for the next 2 days so we headed back to Trivandrum and had dinner at a very local restaurant called Ariya Nivaas where we enjoyed our typical thalis (one plate with several different curries and bread) and some really good sweet lassi. The next morning after a hearty breakfast we took the train to Kollam and met with the tour operator who would get us to our boat. We had to wait about an hour so we wandered around the town and spontaneously decided to stop at an optician to see if we could replace Elmar' sunglasses which had been lost. We had checked in Kolkata but the wait period was too long. When we asked, the optician said he could have it ready in hours. We told him we weren't in that much of a rush and the next day would be fine when we returned from our boat trip. We were prepared to pay quite a bit for the rush job and couldn't believe when he offered Elmar two pairs of prescription sun glasses for less than $70.00. Being no fool I grabbed a pair for myself and the final price for all three was US$110.00.
The backwater tour was a little slice of heaven. We had the large houseboat boat all to ourselves and in a short while after pushing from shore we sat down to a freshly cooked meal that was very tasty. The rest of the afternoon we did nothing but veg and take in the intense green and calm waters all around us. (Just the two of us on the houseboat in Kollam)
After the late lunch I was sure we would not be ready for anything else to eat but I guess watching a beautiful sunset must be the type of thing that works up a healthy appetite because we certainly did the evening meal justice.
(Sunset in the Kerala backwaters)
(...and more delicious Indian delicacies on the houseboat)
The rest of the evening we sat in the near darkness gazing at the sky and absorbing every bit of the peaceful surroundings. Not surprisingly we slept like logs and the next morning were fed breakfast that had to be intended for a party of 8 there was so much food. (...food didn't stop coming)
After breakfast we were collected by a very nice man named Kennedy in his tiny canoe who took us further into the backwaters and we got a chance to see different villages and how they coped with the marshy environment. This time there wasn't even a motor to mar the silence so we just soaked it all in only breaking the silence to ask a few questions or respond when he said duck, because we were passing a low bridge that required us to bend in half in the canoe to navigate it clearly. (Exploring the small backwater canals and villages)
On the trip back, we passed again a beautiful hotel that the captain told us was 5 star and we could see was very lovely. Elmar decided to check out availability immediately on his phone and low and behold not only was it available but very, very reasonable. We booked it immediately via his phone so by the time we landed and picked up our sunglasses we could direct the taxi to our next destination.
The Raviz is a beautiful property that's set right on the river. The owner took 12 years to complete the construction because he was determined to use the best mostly local products and make it as environmentally compatible as possible. He hit a home run and we again decided to stay a few days. (The Raviz, our 5-star refuge for a couple of days)
Our first two days was a bit of rough going, well rough is an exaggeration but let's say could have been better. It turned out that the hotel really didn't have any rooms available as the entire hotel had been booked by a wedding party. The bride's father in typical tradition was funding the entire wedding and had decided that he would fly his 200 + guests from Mumbai to Kollam, host a 4 day celebration and then fly them back to Mumbai for a final party at another elaborate destination. We had arrived on day 3. The hotel staff were in a panic because the new groom who was not contributing a penny to the festivities insisted that no one else could have a room even if they were not using them. The hotel just happended to have a couple of luxury wooden boats that they use for backwater tours so they put us in one for the night. The next day they moved us into a regular room although I'm not sure what they told the groom. We watched from our window as the pool area was turned into a play ground of water slides, bars, food stalls with American top 40 music blaring from speakers. We were witnessing the affluent Indian life style that other than the many days of celebrations looked very Western. The food on offer was all western, hamburger, french fries and fried chicken. The girls were all skimpily clad and we saw nothing of what we'd been witnessing to date which was girls dressed demurely with definitely no legs or upper body parts showing. The hotel also dedicated a nearby island to them. Everyone was having a good time with activities geared toward the different age groups. India is the world's largest buyer of gold and only spends more money on oil. People hoard it and every decent parent makes sure that for her wedding, their daughter is dripping with gold they've collected over the years. This is true for the poorest farmer. Also, since the traditional dowry goes to the new husband, the gold is her security for a rainy day. We definitely could see the evidence all around us and breathed a sigh of relief that these customs did not exist in the west since we have two daughters who haven't taken the marriage plunge. (Anna with one of the lovely staff at the Raviz)
We decided to make this hotel our home base and visit the mountain areas for a few days. We chose Thekaddy as it had the nice combination of spice farms and national park. We also decided to travel by bus. Confirming an ideal travel route can be a real challenge in India. We made the mistake of listening to an official at the train station without double checking his advice. He insisted that the best way to get to Thekaddy was to go past Cochin then travel across state. It turned out that was the most circuitous way to get there and we ended up riding for 12 hours on different buses for what should be a 7 hour journey. We found out later that there is actually a bus that travels directly to Kollam but it's a private vs public run company and does not pick up or drop passengers off at the central bus station. I'm not sure how you find this out but I guess you have to keep asking questions and always confirm several times. The drive itself took us through beautiful mountain areas and allowed us to see the how different the poor here lived vs in Rajasthan and other northern states. However, keep in mind that these buses are not air conditioned, and the bench type seats are narrow with very little leg room. During peak times as well the numbers will swell beyond what the buses should comfortably hold and you will be tightly sandwiched between tired funky bodies that can't help but lean on you as the bus careens from one sharp curve to the next up and down winding mountains. We were very relieved and very hungry when we finally reached our destination late that evening. On these buses, there is very little communication so if the bus stops and the driver leaves, you get the idea it could be a food and bathroom break but you have no idea for how long. Plus, if you leave your seat you lose it, there are no reservations. We had booked accommodations in a home stay place called Periyar Villa but since it was so late we decided to grab a quick bite right next to the bus station. It was raining and there seemed to be a rally of some sort as we could hear music and a voice yelling through a megaphone. We were to learn later that the communist party, which has a strong following in Kerala in general was running a massive campaign in the area and were targeting the young people in particular. Kerala is one of the very few states in India that has a long history of communist local leaders. We just made it to a restaurant before they closed and ate quickly as we were concerned about finding transportation. It wasn't easy as most tuk tuks didn't seem interested in passengers but eventually we found one who didn't know exactly where it was but was diligent in asking. Elmar is always amazing with directions and logistics and despite it being pitch dark, he recalled what the house was supposed to look like and using a flash light could identify it from the street. The couple were thankfully still awake and warmly welcomed us. It was a lovely home, bright and spotless. Our room was very spacious with a little balcony. One very good thing in India is no matter if you stay at a hotel or in a bed and breakfast or homestay, breakfast is always included. We got to know the family a little better next morning. We didn't eat with them but as they served us we met their cute and friendly little son named Farhan which means ‘joy’ and heard about their lives and dreams. They owned a spice shop as well and while she was taking college courses her heart wasn't really in it because she loved their businesses and wanted to dedicate her time to that. (Our host and little Farhan at Periyar Villa)
During breakfast we also watched from the window as a mahout lovingly bathed his elephant in the forest and prepared him for the tourist rides that are offered. We wanted to do some hiking however so we took off and rather than a hike did a nature walk through Periyar National Forest. It was the perfect thing for us and even though there are lots of offers for car tours, this park can be easily walked. Plus, you are better able to spot the animals and you can get a greater sense of the peaceful atmosphere. (Monkeys in Periyar National Park)
The town is pretty small so we also strolled through just soaking it in. We were not interested in the tourist type events such as kung fu dancing or elephant riding. We also missed out on our tour of a spice farm as it rained all afternoon. Nothing bothered us however as we were feeling pretty mellow after our commune with nature. That evening, we searched for a restaurant highly recommended in our guide book. However, we were intrigued by a little garden restaurant we passed so even after we found the intended restaurant we decided to check out the Cocoanut Garden as it was called. The setting was lovely. They had converted their garden so it tiered and had little nooks that they placed only four tables in. We were very fortunate to get the last table very close to where the cooking was being done. The owners, a German woman and her Indian husband were expanding their tour business with the restaurant. He did the cooking and she did the hosting. She was about 6 months pregnant a looked a bit harried. She was also torn from her hosting duties regularly by their 3 year old son. He was a surprise. He looked very Indian but spoke fluent German. He was very cute, very active and if he didn't get what he wanted right away yelled at the top of his voice over and over until she responded, 'Mamma, Mamma, komm her! We played with him for a while to give her a break but frankly nothing was helping this couple. They are both very hardworking and clearly ambitious but know nothing about the restaurant business. With only four tables to serve, we got our simple meals of curry chicken and rice and curry mutton and rice after two and half hours. Thankfully it was delicious but some of the other guests were not as tolerant as we were. They didn't have beers on hand so they would need to run to a nearby shop to pick up any beer orders. Frankly, they didn’t have a alcohol license, so they asked us to leave the beer bottle under the table in case a nosy law enforcement officer would walk past. They also only bought what was requested so with the long wait, each time a beer was requested, they had to find an opportunity to pause and run to the store. Same was true for the Indian breads as they didn't have a clay oven but offered it on the menu. By the evening's end, she looked even more frazzled and he had taken a few cigarette breaks to help him cope. The final straw was paying the bill. We were leaving at the same time as a very apparent unhappy couple and they had no change for either of us. The shops were now also closed so we stood around looking at each other. We decided to leave a very generous tip and forego our change but the other couple was having none of that. I think they eventually begged some friends for some change as the other couple did not plan to leave any tip and finally left in a huff. We took it all in stride and enjoyed ourselves regardless, but sincerely hope that some of the stereotypical German efficiency will emerge or for sure they wont last long. The next day we said goodbye to our new friends at the homestay and the husband took us to a bus that would take us directly back to Kollam. We enjoyed the ride through the tea and cardamom hills even more and spent most of the time crammed beside a lovely mom and her little girl. (Our bus neighbor for 7 hours)
(Hindu festival along our bus trip back to Kollam)
Our last days in India were spent back at Raviz in lazy luxury. We got massages in their top notch spa and ate most of our meals in their restaurant. The head chef made the best mutton biriyani to date and we had it repeatedly. Our last day, we provided a bit of feedback as with such a top notch place, they had not handled the overbooking with the wedding very well. I've left out quite a few details but a combination of young overconfident managers had led to a mismanagement of the situation and over promising and underdelivering. The hotel manager was stellar. He listened without interrupting and defending – quite unusual for Indians as we learned - and told us he'd heard about the situation as the entire hotel was aware of the dilemma and knew it had not been handled well. He knew we were on our way out as we'd checked out, but he insisted we stay a bit longer since our flight was late that evening and had his chef provide a personal 4 course lunch for us. We appreciated the gesture and recognized a good leader when he promised to make the situation a learning exercise at their regular training sessions so his managers would be all learn from it and be motivated to change and not shamed by the situation.
So now that it was time to leave India, we couldn't help but wonder about the big unknown for us, Africa. We both love India and overall enjoyed our stay but we had also been wearied by it and affected by the relentless poverty, aggression, commercialism but at the same time painfully slow progress throughout the country. Were we ready for Africa?