After the monstrosity of Kanyakumari, India took a surprisingly sharp turn for the better as we started to head north along the west coast. Many people had told us of the beauties of Kerala but our whole outlook and perception of India was about to change for the better.
After spending so long travelling and exploring new places, we were put into difficult situations on more than a few occasions. As we left filthy Kanyakumari , we headed for Thiruvananthapuram (try saying that after a beer) on another long and uncomfortable bus journey. India was the cheapest country we had visited for intercity travelling but as with most things in life, you get what you pay for. That is not necessarily a good thing all the time, but we will have more on perilous bus journeys later.
The real problem we had was that after spending numerous hours on a cramped coach we arrived in Thiruvananthapuram only to find out we had booked a hotel 50km away from our destination! It was gone midnight and we had already had a pretty poor introduction to India since landing in Chennai so we decided to pay up and get a car to our hotel. No more scrimping, we put our money where our mouths were and spent a full £20 for an hour and half journey in a private vehicle at short notice in the middle of the night. Told you it was cheap.
The journey to the hotel was, as usual, full of death defying moments as our 15 year old driver decided to re-enact GTA as he shot through the night overtaking everything from trucks to cows with no headlights on and no perception of potential death.
Arriving at the hotel, we could feel the sea breeze and hear the rushing waves of the ocean and instantly felt relieved. The wonderful staff greeted us in the early hours of the morning and led us to our room which was an utter delight. Falling into our first completley relaxed sleep in India, we knew things were on the up.
It was a lovely little town perked on the cliff overhanging Varkala beach. There were plenty of restaurants that offered western food, just what we needed after weeks of dahl, dosa and biryani. It was clean, the people were welcoming and there were even other tourists, which was a pleasant change! Many states in India have banned the public sale of alcohol but Varkala was the first place we found where we could chill out with a beer and watch the sun go down over the sea. By taking long walks along the beach and kicking back with a movie in the evenings, we had begun to enjoy India again.
The next stop on our list was Kochi and this time we took the train which was far more comfortable. Travelling during the day, we filled ourselves on chai and samosas, taking in the sights and sounds of India as we rocketed along the railway tracks.
We have stayed in more than our fair share of homestays, and this might be some statement but we are certain that Bastian Homestay topped the lot. Bastian and his wife Ginny, are a lovely couple who are not only nice people, but also full of information for travellerts. The room was clean, breakfast was incredible and the whole place just had one of them positive vibes that makes you feel just right. It also had super-fast internet which was something we craved so dearly.
Kochi was a lovely town which was again a fantastic example of what is so great about India. Still keeping that unique ability to assault all of your senses at once, Kochi was full of heritage with a mixture of modern and archaic features. The Kathakali show was something truly unique, and extremely strange. Sitting in an audience of about 20 people, you are in the thick of the action when watching this art piece but that again is not always a good thing. A story based on death and rape, we watched an overweight man turn the whites of his eyes red while giving each member in the audience a death stare which would send anyone with a feint heart to their grave. You have to be see it to believe it, but its more strange than satisfying.
Walking through the streets of Kochi is something we would definitely recommend, don’t worry too much and just lose yourself in the town and stumble across your own favourite place to each or Banksy masterpiece. If you really want some direction then we would recommend a walk to the seafront. Not a beach like Varkala, you wouldn’t want to swim here, but there are plenty of market stalls for you to explore while the historic Chinese fishing nets are also a wonderful example of the magnificent history of India.
If you’re looking for a break back to reality while in Kochi then head down to the Old Harbour restaurant by the seafront for a steak dinner and a beer. Alternatively, you can grab the airport bus and take a trip to Lulu Mall for a blast of westernisation with branded shops from Gucci to Apple, Burger King and a cinema playing English movies in English! We loved Lulu Mall and if you do visit, make sure you pop into Bloomsbury’s Café for the most amazing milkshake you have ever had in your life! Kochi is definitely a must visit if you ever find yourself in Kerala.
Remember we told you we would come back to terrifying bus journeys? Well, now is the time to decide whether you are willing to risk your life in India as we did. Grabbing a bus from Kerala to Munnar seemed like a straightforward journey. We got a great seat right at the front of the bus and the conductor and driver seemed to enjoy having a pair of tourists along for the journey. The usual honking, speeding and dodging went on for the first few hours of the journey but then we entered the mountainous region.
With the rain lashing down and the cliff edges becoming steeper and steeper, the bus driver decided this was the perfect time to lose his mind! Swinging round hairpin bends at 50kmph we saw sign after sign warning us of our impending death if driving carelessly through the mountains. As the bus swung through the roads, diving in and out of pot holes of death we asked the driver for mercy to slow down but we got a cackling laugh in return as he just pushed his foot further down on the gas pedal.
We drove past at least four vehicles that had fallen down the cliff edges on that journey, of which the passengers were sure to have been killed. Mercifully, we finally made it to Munnar and thanked the driver for not quite killing us. He simply smiled.
Once reaching Munnar we were greeted with a strange mist, moisture in the air and a feeling of not being hot… after almost a full year in the sun we had finally felt the cold again and it was a welcome sensation! We were in the middle of a mountain range and that was as far as our knowledge went as the mist was so thick we couldn’t see past our shoelaces.
We had heard of the beautiful tea plantations of Munnar and we had done our fair share of trekking, rock climbing, canyoning and volcano climbing so we decided to do these ones alone. It’s great to get a guide to tell you all about the history and the facts but sometimes all you need is you and that’s exactly what we forged our own trekking routes through the sloping landscapes.
As the days became clearer our eyes widened and we were awestruck by the awesomeness of Munnar in its entirety. Mountain after mountain as far as the eye could see draped in the unmistakable carpet of tea plants. We spent numerous mornings, days and evenings absorbing the purity of Munnar, of course the roadsides were still scraped with litter but take a step away from the beaten track and enter your own Pandora.
We also visited the tea factory in town which was a great insight into the history of Munnar’s main industry but really there is more to see that there is to read in this magnificent mountain town.
We visited Ooty mainly to see a friend from England who also resides in India for part of the year. We arrived straight from visiting Our Home Community orphanage, which was a bit of a shock to the system as we went from living on rice and dried fish to eating five course dinners in a house made for royalty. As a backpacker, our stay here was a world away from the daily routines we had become accustomed to and once again epitomised the extreme diversity that grips India from top to bottom.
Ooty itself was another mountainous region, peaking at 2240m above sea level, and was once again a wonderful place to say. Different to Munnar, Ooty was not about trekking or exploring but rather about immersing yourself in one of India’s most historically scenic towns.
We gained exclusive access to the Ooty Club and entered the room where snooker was invented, yes you heard us right, snooker was invented in Ooty! The club house was built in 1836 by Sir William Rumbold, a wealthy merchant who died almost as soon as it was finished. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take pictures of the club but we can only describe it as one of those buildings where every room has a story of its own to tell.
After a rocky start which included a lot of litter, various culture shocks and a friendly goat, we finally felt at home in India and it was time to let the good times roll.