Sunday, 29 November 2009

Backwaters and Hills

Fellow SISP volunteer Antje and I decided to take off for four days to see some of the south India countryside. Friday was the Muslim Sacrifice Day so, with Saturday and Sunday, I just had to take one extra day off work. It's the first proper holiday I've had since coming here if you don't count the trips back to the UK for visa renewals so I think I was due a break! We headed north to Alleppey by bus, took a ferry to Kottayam, bus to Munnar, taxi to Thekkady, bus back to Kottayam, train to Trivandrum, then bus and rickshaw home.

The first leg of the journey was hellish - of the four-hour bus journey to Alleppey, 3 hours was spent standing. Personal space got smaller and smaller so that in the end we were all standing arse to arse and hip to hip in the aisle. If you moved your foot the vacated space was immediately occupied by someone else's foot. What with the jolting, being unable to move, heat, humidity, lack of forward visibility and limited sideways visibility, the journey was far from enjoyable. At one point I was on the verge of getting off, wherever we were, because it was so claustrophobic and I was so close to throwing up. Somehow I survived, the numbers thinned and miraculously a seat appeared beside me so I grabbed it!

Alleppey is the hub for Kerala's backwaters. The majority of houseboat journeys start and end here, and if you do the touristy thing of hiring a houseboat and staff for one night or more you'll part with tens of thousands of rupees (hundreds of pounds). However, you can do the journey from Alleppey to Kottayam by public ferry. Admittedly it's not quite as scenic but we found it was a quiet route, the boat wasn't crowded and you get to see some genuine backwater life as you glide along. Best of all, the two-and-a-half hour journey costs just ten rupees! That's about 13 pence! Bargain!

Kottayam doesn't have much of interest so we went straight to the bus stand. Buses were constantly coming and going and the place was heaving. We were worried that we might not be able to identify the correct bus so we couldn't really relax there. We also wanted to make absolutely certain we had seats this time and when the bus eventually turned up we jumped on in front of a couple of nuns! But we needn't have worried - we all got seated OK. The road to Munnar climbs slowly up into the hills with constant twists and turns. It's narrow and patches are badly surfaced. You're forever trying to overtake slow vehicles or being overtaken by faster ones, all the time trying to dodge traffic from the opposite direction doing exactly the same thing. The grinding of the gears and engine are accompanied by constant horn-blowing which, amusing at first, soon got very tedious. Anyway, the views were quite good although we couldn't stop to admire them, of course.

Munnar is centre of the area's tea plantations and and much business is carried out there. It's also where a lot of scenic tours into the Western Ghat hills start from. The hotels are mostly boring, grubby, smelly and expensive so it took us a while to settle on something suitable. After we'd exhausted all the places mentioned in Lonely Planet we resorted to using a rickshaw driver to take us from place to place. You're really at their mercy - they probably take you to hotels that they know will be full, expensive or pay baksheesh. Our guy seemed fair so, once we did find something, we agreed that he would take us by car to Thekkady the next day. He told us we'd visit a tea plantation, spice garden, see waterfalls and stop at a lake. His fee was slightly more than what we'd seen advertised but he was a nice guy so we didn't mind. The rest of the evening was spent in the town, around the bustling market area. Relative to the coast the temperature was fabulously cool and the air fresh - a huge relief! Antje said felt the cold and bought some fleece ear-muffs which all the local trendies seemed to be wearing, along with fleece jackets and hats! I was OK and didn't feel the need for any extra layers.

Next day the taxi turned up early, only it wasn't the original driver and this one could barely speak English! The warning bells were loud enough but we crossed our fingers. He took us on the route and it was very pretty as we'd expected. We stopped at various viewpoints and got photos but found that you could only see the local tea plantations from a distance - they didn't accept visitors! The only spice garden on the route was an overcrowded tourist trap so we didn't stop, the waterfall fell right by the road and was surrounded by cars and fences, and we were told the lake was closed as it was Sunday! When we complained, our driver said we had actually seen all the things his brother had promised - we had seen them or visited them, but not actually experienced them! We were some way down the road before we realised what was happening and couldn't realistically go back. We couldn't contact the original guy because he had no phone, and we had no agreed itinerary in writing. When we finally got to Thekkady I cut his charges by Rs.100 which is what it would cost to get a taxi to local tea and spice gardens. Not a huge amount but it made me feel better! Going by bus would have been a lot cheaper but we wouldn't have been able to stop to admire the views - at least we'd achieved that much!

We stayed the final night at the Coffee Inn - a very quirky little hotel in Kumily. We'd arrived early and quickly found a room. In the evening we watched a Kathakali show which is a traditional dance/theatre performance. On the way down the road we'd been tailed by someone who wanted us to buy tickets through her, and wanted us to see 'her' shop too, so the omens didn't bode well but the show was actually better than I'd anticipated.

The journey home was quite thrilling, with the bus racing downhill, round blind bends and overtaking everything in sight at breakneck speeds! And finally we experienced our first Indian rail journey. We travelled in a sleeper class carriage which sounded like it might be a comfortable way to travel. It was OK-ish but a little cramped, and it's only called sleeper-class because the seats could be folded flat at night time. It being daytime, all the seats were upright, somewhat grubby plastic-covered, and a bit crowded. Worst was that the windows were very small which limited the view and the ventilation so I spent a while hanging out of the open door. We survived though and overall it was a fun experience which I wouldn't have wanted to miss.

More photos here:

Backwater and Hills

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