The good news is the drive from Madurai to Thekkady takes no longer than Thomas says it will. In fact, it is a half hour shorter. Unheard of for an Indian road trip. The bad news is it’s a gut-wrenching, hair-raising, nerve-wracking, adrenaline-pumping trip. The shoulderless two lane road is a four to five lane free-for-all. The windscreen of the car is continually filled with the front end of trucks and buses muscling their way through the traffic, expecting the rest of us to just get out of the way. And we do. Miraculously.
We arrive at the Spice Village resort http://www.cghearth.com/spice-village just after noon, in time for lunch. The resort is modelled after an indigenous village (no doubt they had a swimming pool?!) and the Wood’s Bar is located in the original lodge of a game warden, named Woods, fom the days of the British. The antiques, old photos, and animal heads all lend a 19th century ambiance. The mojitos are strictly 21st century!
In the afternoon Craig heads off on a boat trip around the lake. I am too shaken by the drive and opt for an Ayurvedic treatment, hoping it will cure my vertigo.
The massage is a test of my modesty. Completely naked while two young women work me over and even accompany me into the shower, where they scrub me with an abrasive powdered soap. Not sure I’ve ever been so clean. And the vertigo has been banished.
Meanwhile Craig is caught on the lake in a ferocious electrical storm. The thunder, lightning and rain continue for hours, making for a moody evening in the jungle.
Thekkady is in the Periyar National Park, a wildlife preserve full of elephant, tigers and a variety of monkeys. As well, there are spice plantations, banana, mango, papaya and avocado farms. On the eastern slope of the Western Ghats (the mountain range running down the south west coast), it’s green and lush and much cooler than where we’ve just been, down on the hot, arid plain.
We are heading to the Malabar coast, to Kochin in the state of Kerala, and Thakkady is just a stop on the way, breaking a long drive into two shorter. The drive to Kochin is another test of patience and nerves. Six hours to travel 145 kms down the west side of the Western Ghats to the coast.
Kochin was once known as the pearl of the Arabian Sea. It’s where Europeans first landed in India in 1498 when Vasco de Gama set foot just north of here and established a Portuguese colony for the purpose of exporting spices, teak and elephant tusk. Over the next centuries the Dutch, the English and the Portuguese duked it out over this part of India. As wars in other lands were won and lost, Kerala and Kochin changed hands.
The ghosts of that past linger in the magnificent, but often crumbling, colonial buildings. Many have been converted into hotels, including the Tower House http://www.neemranahotels.com/the-tower-house-cochin-kerala/, where we are staying.
It is sweltering hot, mid-thirties and humid. We spend the mornings exploring the various sights – a couple of churches, a synagogue, the old royal palace, and Jew Town – and doing a bit of shopping, but the afternoons are just too hot for any activity other than lying under a fan or by the pool.
The first day here we head out for lunch to a restaurant near the hotel. Sitting at one of the tables are Steve & Lisa, our good friends from Kamloops. We knew they were in Kochin and had made tentative plans to connect for dinner, but did not expect to run into them randomly.
An evening performance of Kathakali dancing is entertaining. Especially arriving early to watch the performers apply their elaborate and colourful make-up. The performance itself is a bit opaque in that nothing is spoken and the story is communicated through various eye movements and hand gestures.
We’ve given up trying to learn any of the local languages. There are just too many and it’s too confusing. Hindu is the official language, in addition there are 23 other regional languages. Malayalam is the official language of Kerala but, because of the high volume of tourists, English is fairly widely spoken. Not that it is easy to understand!
Kerala means “land of coconut” in the Malayalam language. The local cuisine relies heavily on coconut milk and flesh, making for some delicious coconut fish curries.
We are not sorry to leave Kochi. Although full of history, it is hot and humid, littered with garbage and reeking of sewer and rotting fish, with few interesting sights. Craig, of course, says I am being too critical and should mention the fact that the city is home to Hindu temples, Muslim mosques, Christian churches and a synagogue. Keralans pride themselves on religious tolerance. As well, the state has the highest literacy rate in India and the highest life expectancy. And, the shops in Jew town are tempting with their array of arts and crafts. But we’ve decided it is too early in the trip to load up on souvenirs.
A two hour drive south gets us to Allepuzha, aka Alleppy, where we board a houseboat and head inland along one of the many waterways that make up the Alleppy “backwaters”, an extensive maze of interconnected canals, rivers, lakes and inlets, a labyrinthine system formed by more than 900 km of waterways, and sometimes compared to the American Bayou. The backwaters are peaceful and feel like the quietest, least inhabited part of India. Birdcall and the soft drone of boat motors lull us into a drowsy torpor in the heat of the afternoon sun, as we sit on the foredeck of our houseboat watching the shore slowly slip past.
Men fishing, women washing clothes and kids swimming are the only signs of life. After the cacophony of the road and the cities – the horn honking, motorcycle motor revving, dog barking, people yelling, loud music – of the past few weeks, the serenity of cruising slowly along the peaceful canals is restorative in a way we did’t even realize we needed.
At sunset we tie up to a palm tree, watch the sun go down, eat the tasty curry that Shanti, our cook, serves and marvel at the silence.
In the morning we motor for a few hours and then dock at the Citrus Resort, which fronts onto a large canal and backs onto a patchwork quilt of rice paddies. We walk along the narrow path between the paddies, past small farms and the occasional tiny stall selling fruit and veg. The local farmers and their families greet us with the usual friendly waves and hellos. One senior lady asks “from which kingdom do you come?”
What a quaint question! If Canada is a kingdom, who is the king? The royal family? How should we answer her question? Yet again, India confounds us!