A Travellerspoint blog

The fishermen of Chowara

Kerala post-script


View Kerala 2017 on ToonSarah's travel map.

For me, one of the pleasures of our stay at the Travancore Heritage Hotel (as must be true too of others in this area) was its proximity to a beach used not only by tourists but also locals. I have read opposing views on this subject, and clearly some holiday-makers prefer to be sheltered from the daily life of the region they are visiting, but that isn't our style, and as a keen photographer the acceptance of me and my camera by the local fishermen was a real bonus. I was grateful to them and as a result want to share their story, as I understand if from my reading of the Rough Guide to Kerala.

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The life of a fisherman in Kerala is not an easy one. They are among the poorest of the state's people, with lower than average income levels, literacy and life expectancy in a region which generally rates relatively well in these measures than the rest of India. Their living conditions are poor, with home typically a one-room shack with no running water. Child mortality rates are high, while alcoholism and domestic violence are common problems. These are historic issues, dating back to a time (pre 1930s) when fishermen as a caste were barred from temples, churches and schools and were regarded as the lowest in society. They made only the most basic of incomes from their catches as they were unable to sell directly to their 'social superiors' and the middlemen creamed off most of the profits. Those same middlemen were quick to offer to lend money when a new net or boats was needed, but charged exorbitant rates of interest, further impoverishing the borrower.

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Their poverty made them ripe for conversion to Christianity when the Jesuit missionaries arrived on these shores in the 16th century, but with the new religion came new responsibilities that cost the fishermen dear. Forced to pay ten percent of their meagre incomes in tithes, they saw the churches flourish while they continued to suffer. It is still striking today to see such huge and rich-looking churches in such otherwise poor villages.

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In the 1960s conditions improved a little, as co-operatives were established to buy and sell the daily catch, which allowed the fishermen to bypass the middlemen and get a fairer price for their fish, while also giving them access to low-interest loans when needed. But these improvements were short lived, as any benefits of collective action were wiped out by a big 1980s government promotion of mechanised trawler fishing, which decimated fish stocks and led to a fifty percent drop in the catches of inshore fishermen.

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Today there are further concerns that a government scheme to build an artificial reef off Kovalam's Lighthouse Beach, to protect it from the sort of destruction caused by the 2004 tsunami, may cause further problems for the fishermen of Chowara and other neighbouring communities by diverting currents and causing damage to the beaches they use.

I was pleased though that at least the tourist use of this beach does not appear to have encroached on the fishing which remains the prime activity here.

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A walk on the beach first thing in the morning is an opportunity to see these hardy men at work, hauling in the huge nets, sorting through the catch, cleaning and making ready the nets for the next evening’s fishing. Local women join them on the beach to help with the sorting and to then take the fish away to the market in the village. Many birds join them too, in the hopes of snatching a free meal – egrets, crows, kites and eagles, among others.

The whole scene is a hive of activity and will delight any keen photographer I am sure, as it did me.

Posted by ToonSarah 05:57 Archived in India Tagged people fishing beach india kerala kovalam Comments (15)

Life’s a beach – or maybe a swimming pool

Kerala day nine onwards


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Chilling in Kovalam

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View of the beach from our bungalow's private seating area

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The church by the cliffs

The last few days of this trip were all about unwinding in some winter sun before returning to face the last few weeks of an English winter, and the Travancore Heritage Hotel was a pretty good spot in which to do that. Although on the first morning I wasn’t so sure this would be the relaxing spot we had hoped for, as we were woken at 5.00 am by the clanging of a bell. At the time I assumed this was from the church just at the foot of the cliffs but it could also have been from the shrine at the other end of the beach. Either way, the bell was followed by what seemed like an entire service (about 80 minutes) broadcast over a loudspeaker, interspersed with more bell clanging. I respect people's right to worship whenever they want to (though 5.00 am seems ridiculously early!) but why they need to broadcast it beyond the church walls I do not know! Still, this is their home not mine, and fortunately it proved not to be a daily occurrence - the only other time we heard it so early was on the day of our departure when we had to be up at 5.00 am in any case.

Our first day at the Travancore Heritage Hotel

We started our first full day here with a pre-breakfast visit to the beach. This is the best time to go if you want to see the local fishermen land their catch, and we found that no one minded us watching and taking photos. The scene was lively and colourful, and great for photography. We repeated this little walk on our last morning too, and I’ll be adding a separate entry devoted to the fishermen of Chowara, so here are just a few photos to whet the appetite for that!

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Early morning on Chowara beach

Breakfast at this hotel is a fairly extensive buffet, with fresh fruit, juices, lots of bread, cake and pastry items, eggs to order, and several Indian dishes. The coffee isn't too bad either. After breakfast we spent some time by, and in, the large swimming pool, but when the sun crept round to our loungers late morning we retreated to the shade of our own terrace.

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Poolside scenes


After a light lunch (sharing a club sandwich) we checked out the hotel's small gift shop. I tend to avoid these, thinking you get much better value in local shops, but there had been few opportunities to shop on this trip and I wanted to get myself a bit of jewellery as I am slowly replacing my collection following our burglary last year (when I lost so many holiday souvenirs collected over the years). I found the prices here surprisingly reasonable and chose a silver enamel bracelet at 1,500 rupees (less than £20).

Later in the afternoon we took another stroll on the beach, as we’re not ones for spending all day just lounging, and of course the evening found us again dining in the hotel's Open House restaurant where the star dish for me on that occasion was the vegetable jalfrezi.

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Local families enjoying the beach

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Local football pitch / cricket pitch / cattle grazing land / bikers' meeting place

And thus, or similarly, we passed our last few days in Kerala. On the second morning we skipped the beach and instead took a walk in the nearby village, Chowara, where the friendly locals took no issue with my camera, and several willingly posed. Sights such as a small Hindu shrine, different foods on display in the shops, traditional scales and weights, and the people themselves - all are everyday things to them, and it must seem strange that we find them "exotic" enough to photograph. But then, I am often surprised at the things I see tourists photographing in London, where my everyday is their exotic.

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Village life

We left with mixed impressions of the Travancore Heritage Hotel. There was a lot to like here - the adaptation of beautiful old buildings, the lovely pool and grounds, the setting above a working beach full of local colour and interest, some good food in the restaurant (and for those who want it, a selection of Western dishes as well as Indian).

On the downside though, the wifi was very poor compared with other hotels we stayed at in Kerala, even though this is by no means a remote location and only a few miles from the capital. And while many staff were friendly and helpful (the pool attendants and cleaners in particular) a few were rather casual in their manner. One particular incident stands out, when I found a small piece of glass in my ice cream one evening. The blame was very firmly placed on their supplier (fair enough) but the apology was lukewarm and no compensation in the form of a discounted meal was offered.

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Around the hotel grounds

Nevertheless this was a relaxing spot in which to end our tour of Kerala. We flew home, after four nights here, from nearby Trivandrum airport which is modern and well-equipped to handle the amount of traffic it receives, based on our experience at least. Transfer time here from Kovalam is only about 30 minutes, so we were glad not to be flying back from Kochi where we had arrived, the best part of a day's drive away.

As on our outward journey we flew with Etihad via Abu Dhabi. This trip was our first experience of this airline and I was pretty impressed - a reasonable amount of leg room in economy, comfortable seats, pleasant and helpful service and food OK by airline standards. The layover in Abu Dhabi was about two hours - long enough not to have to rush but not too much longer.

We landed on time at Heathrow, the February skies were grey and the air decidedly cool. Already the heat of Kerala seemed a long way away …

Posted by ToonSarah 03:23 Archived in India Comments (4)

From backwaters to beach

Day eight in Kerala


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Winding down by the sea

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Sunrise on the backwaters

We slept pretty well in our bed on the houseboat, which remained moored all night. I woke soon after five when activity on the water meant that the boat moved more. The a/c cut out at six as we had been warned and we were up very soon after. The shower facilities were basic but adequate, and as soon as we were ready and packed we were out on deck again and decided on a short walk onshore before breakfast.

Near where we were moored I spotted two men harvesting coconuts and walked along for a closer look. They kindly permitted photos (in fact the guy doing the actual cutting was keen to pose when he climbed back down). What fascinated me was the contraption he used to climb the trunk, or rather contraptions, one for each foot - a metal frame curved to fit the trunk and strapped to his feet, with adjustable wires which clamp against the trunk as it takes the harvester's weight. Very clever!

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Coconut harvesting on the backwaters

After an onboard breakfast of good omelette, rather limp toast, coffee, pineapple and banana (and the odd and unappetising boiled banana!) we cast off and headed back to base. The morning light was lovely for photography and we saw some more birds including an eagle and several kingfishers. We passed a temple where music was playing - very atmospheric.

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Soon after nine we were mooring again at our starting point. We had to wait a while for the motor launch to ferry us back to the main jetty, and when it came it was a much smaller one that seemed to ride precariously low in the water once guests from a number of other boats had been collected - ten in total, plus their baggage, at least eight crew, their bags plus various bits and pieces such as laundry and rubbish from the boats. Still, we arrived safely and Unni was there to meet us, of course.

Heading south

We then set off on the drive south to Kovalam. With no hills to negotiate this was a faster drive than our previous ones, but also a longer distance so it took a similar length of time - a bit over four hours. Being faster, and busier, the road was also a bit more nerve-wracking, with some crazy overtaking manoeuvres and almost constant sounding of horns. You don't need to be in India for very long to realise that the driving style here is very different from that at home. In England you are expected to keep out of everyone else's way; in India, everyone else is expected to keep out of your way. It shouldn't work but somehow, 99% of the time at least, it does. Nevertheless the many signs along the road exhorting you to drive safely are an indication that this isn't always the case.

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We passed through lots of towns on this journey so there was plenty to look at, but we were glad to eventually arrive at our hotel, the Travancore Heritage, even though that meant saying goodbye to Unni. He was driving straight back to his home in Kochi, with another job waiting for him there tomorrow.

Travancore Heritage Hotel

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Roof detail on our bungalow

When we were deciding on a beach hotel in which to wind down at the end of our Kerala trip, TransIndus recommended the cliff-top Travancore Heritage, near Kovalam, as a good option in our budget, but it seemed to get mixed reviews. In particular the standard rooms, which are located at some distance from the main complex (at beach level and accessed by lift) came in for some criticism. So we decided to pay a bit extra for one of the better rooms up on the cliffs, and our agent at TransIndus, Hari, kindly offered to upgrade us further to a top of the range Heritage Premium bungalow. Thus we found ourselves spending four nights in a large comfortable room, with all the character that comes with having been converted from a traditional Keralan house (hence "heritage"). This isn't a luxury resort so even these best rooms have some downsides (too flimsy dividing wall so we heard conversations in the adjoining room rather too clearly, and a somewhat basic bathroom at odds with the style of the room) but we had loads of space, a large bed, and efficient a/c.

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Our bungalow
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Our room

Best of all though, we had a lovely area to sit out with a partial view of the beach and Arabian Sea beyond. This proved a good spot for watching the various birds that frequent the gardens, including on our first afternoon a black kite, as well as egrets and pond herons.

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Indian House Crow, Indian Pond Heron and Black Kite
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After settling in we took a walk down to the beach, which is reached via a lift/elevator down the cliffs and a stroll across a grassy area that seems to serve as both local cricket and football pitch and grazing land for cattle. The hotel provides the regular services of loungers, towels, sun shades in a section on the right-hand side, while the left side is a working fishermen's beach. As a backdrop the cliffs are dotted with large religious (Christian) statues which seem oddly out of place.

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The beach stretches for miles to the south of here and the views are lovely which, coupled with the interest of watching the local fishermen at work, drew us here much more than the sunbeds. I have read some reviews of the hotel that are critical of this beach and it is true that these aren’t pristine sands, but we liked being on a local working beach much more than we would a purely tourist one – better for photography, for interest, and for the local community too.

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In the evening we ate in the large restaurant overlooking the swimming pool, which offers both buffet and a la carte options. As usual we went for the latter and had a very good meal although the service was on the sluggish side and a little erratic, our cauliflower fritter starter arriving only two or three minutes before our main course choices. But my fish tikka masala was excellent, as was Chris's chicken dish, and the Kingfisher beers were cold, so we were pretty satisfied with our evening.

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Open House restaurant at night, seen from far side of the pool

Posted by ToonSarah 01:35 Archived in India Tagged birds fishing beach india kerala Comments (14)

We take to the (back)water

Day seven in Kerala


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Return to the coast

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As we weren't leaving Kumily till 8.00 we had a chance today to sample the Cardamom County breakfast which we had missed the previous day. Saju was there to greet us and even remembered how we like our coffee after just one previous order. There was a good selection of fresh fruit, hot dishes, bread and pastries, as well as an omelette station, but I kept it simple as I knew we would be likely to eat a lot on our rice boat backwater cruise.

Our drive to the coast took us back through the three zones we had passed through travelling from Kochi to Munnar, in reverse order of course - the High Range with its spices and tea plantations; the middle zone with rubber trees, coconut palms, pineapple and banana groves; and the flat coastal zone with paddy fields and larger towns.

We stopped briefly at another of the huge churches that dot the landscape in Kerala. While these are impressive they come at a price, as the practice of tithes is still alive and well here and Christian church members are expected to give 10% of their income to the church – hence the stark contrast in these villages between imposing church buildings and very small poor houses. Like the one we had seen on our way to Kumily, this is dedicated to Our Lady of Good Health.

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In front of the church people were picking tea, but in the same manner as we had seen in Munnar – instead they had little hand-held picking devices which clip off the top leaves and drop them into the attached small bag.

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Our route took us through a few towns too, where I was able to grab some photos whenever we stopped in a jam, and along roads dotted with frequent warnings of the dangers of speeding and reckless driving, all of which were being ignored by all drivers, as far as I could tell! We stopped at one point for a cold drink and so that Unni could have a coffee - the photo of the sign warning against bringing in food from elsewhere was taken there.

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On the road to Alappuzha

Rice boat cruise

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Near to Allepy, or Alappuzha, we arrived at the departure point for our overnight backwater cruise - one of the reasons for booking the trip to Kerala as I had heard good things about this experience from friends. The boarding process with Lakes and Lagoons was a little chaotic as our boat was on the far side of the water and along with a number of others we travelled there by motor boat. We dropped off everyone else before it was our turn to board a boat, which I was a little bit disappointed to see was rather tattier than some of the others, although with a nice seating area at the front. And of course, once on board you don’t really see your own boat!

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We set off immediately after boarding. Once we had cleared the small village we moored for lunch - tasty kingfish steaks with rice and vegetables, and fresh pineapple.

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We got us a convoy!

After the crew of two had eaten their lunch too, we were off, along with quite a few other boats. This first stretch felt like a bit of a convoy, but it was interesting to see the variety of styles in the houseboats and of course there was plenty to interest us on the banks also. Here a woman was washing the family's clothes, there a man fishing for dinner. We saw small shops, schools, and all the necessities of a daily life lived by the water's edge.

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Life by and on the water

After a while we emerged on to a large lake which was dotted with houseboats and smaller vessels. The breeze here was very welcome, although there was less to see, being further from the shore. On the far side we entered another channel and here we got closer to the banks and also had fewer other houseboats around us. By this time children were coming out of school and it was fun to see them being boated across the water to their homes or catching the public bus which was, naturally, also a boat.

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Travelling home from school

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There was also lots of bird life to photograph. I spotted herons, cormorants, terns, an osprey, a bee-eater (I believe this is a Blue-tailed bee-eater which is most often seen near large waterbodies) and a few I couldn't identify.

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Around 5.30 we moored for the night near some paddy fields. We were able to get off for a short walk to stretch our legs and take a few more photos - coconut trees with coconut shell "steps" tied to the trunk to aid picking, a flotilla of ducks (duck farming is a thing here), the fields themselves.

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Then it was back on board for the evening. The crew had put up mosquito nets in our absence but there were enough gaps around these for it to seem more like a token gesture than a real deterrent - do bring and use DEET spray if you do this trip.

Dinner was served at 7.30 and consisted of chicken curry, a very good okra dish, yellow dal, rice and chapatis. If you want any drink other than water while on board you need to purchase this at the small shop in the check-in office, and we had duly brought a couple of bottles of Kingfisher beer along which were chilled for us and served at dinner.

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Ours was what Lakes and Lagoons term a "deluxe" boat, which basically means you have air conditioning in the room, although only between the hours of 9.00 pm and 6.00 am (it is in other respects quite simple, even basic). Once it was sufficiently cooled we retired to relax a little, read and in my case catch up on these notes, before an early night.

I can't resist finishing this blog by sharing just a few more of the photos I took as we cruised - feel free to skip over these if you have seen enough! NB There will be more tomorrow ;-)

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Posted by ToonSarah 01:29 Archived in India Tagged people birds boats water india kerala Comments (2)

It's all about the wildlife

Day six in Kerala


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Exploring Periyar

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We were up early today for an early morning nature walk, led by a ranger recruited from the local tribe. These are usually small group walks but the local tour company had kindly arranged for us to have a private one. Overall it was a great experience and well worth getting up early for (and missing breakfast) although the one sour note was that our guide was not especially friendly and rather uncommunicative. It took us a while even to be sure that he was our guide, as he didn’t introduce himself and simply set off walking, so we were under the impression he was just taking us from the ticket office to the starting point for the walk.

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The light was lovely as we set out, with a light mist still clinging to the bamboo groves – very atmospheric. Our first wildlife sighting was an Indian pond heron and we were to see several more of these. It seemed odd to see herons in a grassland setting rather than near water. There were also a few langur monkeys in the bamboo.

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Our walk took us across an open area to start with, and on the far side we spotted a small group of wild bison. Our guide led us around the edge of the area, next to the trees, and we were able to get quite close. There was a large male, five females and four young which he said would be about thirty days old.

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After spending time taking photos of this group we moved on and climbed up a little into the forest. Here we came across some Sambar deer including a couple of males with antlers - beautiful but hard to photograph through the trees.

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The various birds we saw were similarly difficult to capture - some eluded me completely, others were out of focus. The same was true too of the surprisingly large (though the clue is in the name!) Malabar Giant Squirrel, but it was fascinating to see him just the same.

Our walk lasted about three hours altogether. Here is a full list of our sightings:

Mammals:

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Blue-winged parakeet
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Indian Pitta

Bison
Sambar deer
Langur monkeys
Malabar Giant squirrel

Birds:
Tree pie
Blue-winged Parakeet
Cuckoo
Pond heron
Golden Oriole
Shrike
Indian Pitta
Cattle egret
Common mynah
Blue kingfisher
Malabar Grey hornbill
Thrush

You will note that there are no tigers mentioned above. Although there are tigers in Periyar (about 100 of them), the chances of seeing one on your visit are low, and the fact that our guide this morning didn't carry any weapon, even a big stock, indicates just how likely you are to see tigers on these walks. And while it was a little more disappointing not see elephants, which can quite often be seen, we were to be compensated later in the day, as you will see …

After our walk we returned to the hotel for a few hours, to relax by the pool and swim. We were excited to be joined for a while by a troop of langurs who came crashing through the trees around the pool and scrambling over the rooftops of the accommodation cottages. We had to laugh at one in particular (in my second photo), who kept falling out of the tree. Each time it happened he would look round to check none of the others had seen his embarrassment, hide behind a bush for a few minutes to be sure, and then climb back up still hoping no one else had noticed - only to fall again a minute later!

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Boat ride on Periyar Lake

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I hadn't expected great things of this particular outing as the Rough Guide to Kerala is pretty scathing about these boat trips, suggesting that the boats are too noisy and sightings of wildlife not that common. But as our tour company had booked us on it we thought we would go, and simply enjoy our time on the water if nothing else. However as my photos will show, guidebooks aren't always right, and we saw more than enough wildlife to make the trip worthwhile.

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First elephant sighting

The highlight came quite early on when we were privileged to see one of only around 100 male elephants in the park (according to the on-board guide, females outnumber males by 9 to 1). This is a young bull of about ten years (above), and he spent some time grazing near the lake before trumpeting at an egret and crashing into the trees. Of the half dozen boats that set off at 3.30 pm, we were in the second so only passengers on the first boat and on ours got to see him.

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We get closer

But it wasn't long before we came across a small group of females with a baby, kicking up some dust near the water's edge, and another group strolling past beyond. More than enough elephants to give the lie to the Rough Guide's disparaging remarks.

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And there were plenty more animal and bird sightings in the next hour or so:

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Darter

Mammals:
Sambar deer
Wild boar
Langur monkeys, both the common Gray and less so Nilgiri
Otters

Reptiles:
A large turtle
Rat snake

Birds:
White-necked storks
Herons
Cormorants
Darters
Kingfishers
Osprey
Egrets

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Nilgiri Langur and baby

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Kingfisher

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Otters

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Turtle

The boat ride lasted about an hour and a half. The wildlife viewings were divided evenly between the outward and back journeys, with more elephants and deer on the way out, more monkeys plus the wild boar and otters on the return leg. The guides were very good at spotting things and pointing them out, although I found their tendency to want to grab my camera and take photos for me a little irritating - while they did get some good shots (notably a video of the otters on Chris's camera), I wanted photos that I could claim as my own.

That said, overall this was a very good experience and certainly outdid my admittedly low expectations. And the path between parking area and boat jetty proved to be an excellent place for photographing the langurs in particular, who of course know that where there are lots of tourists there will also be plenty to eat. Even if people obey the many exhortations not to feed the monkeys, there are always scraps dropped on the ground and bags easily opened to retrieve the treasure within. On our way down to the boat we had also seen a beautiful black Nilgiri Langur, much less common but posing beautifully for our cameras.

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Nilgiri Langur

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Gray Langurs

We had dinner that night in the hotel again, with our super-friendly waiter Saju as eager to please as he had been on the previous evening, and the food as good (with special mention to the lemon rice!)

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Posted by ToonSarah 01:53 Archived in India Tagged animals birds monkeys india elephants kerala periyar Comments (6)

The Cardamom Hills

Day five in Kerala


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South through the Western Ghats

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On our second morning at Bracknell Forest we awoke to the much pleasanter sound of birdsong, so yesterday's generator noise was clearly, and thankfully, an isolated occurrence.

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After breakfast we said goodbye to our wonderful view and to the friendly staff, and Unni drove us south on the winding roads of the Western Ghat. For much of the journey our route was lined with forest but we had plenty of glimpses of the mountain ranges around us through the trees as the road constantly wound down into small fertile valleys and climbed up the other side. From time to time we passed through villages or small towns, the latter especially a hive of activity. We stopped in one as I needed to buy some antiperspirant - the friendly shop keeper was keen to chat about where we came from and handed out free cough sweets with our purchase!

We also stopped briefly to photograph a strikingly large church which Unni told us was built just two years ago, near Mailadumpara. This is the Velankannimatha Church, a shrine to Our Lady of Good Health or Our Lady of Velankanni, who is said to have appeared in the Tamil Nadu town of that name three times. In the mid 16th century she was seen by a shepherd boy delivering milk whose jug she refilled, and to another young boy lameness she cured. He had a chapel built in her name. Later, in the 17th century, she is said to have appeared to Portuguese sailors whom she rescued from a storm. It should be noted however that the Holy See has not approved these apparitions and they are recorded only in oral tradition. But clearly that hasn't deterred the faithful as there are churches in her name in several places in India and elsewhere in the world. I have not been able to find out any details about this particular one - it seems to be too new for any information to be available.

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Cardamom County

Soon after midday we arrived in Kumily, where our base for the next two nights was to be the Cardamom County Hotel. This is a medium sized place with rooms in small blocks built on the hillside. Ours was about two thirds of the way up so necessitated climbing quite a few stone steps - this hotel is not suitable for anyone with mobility problems. Once reached the room was a generous size and nicely furnished, with two single beds pushed together. The bathroom was big too, if a little basic in appearance. We had a minibar with complementary filtered water, a flat screen TV, safe and reasonable wifi. All the rooms have balconies or terraces but I felt the view from ours was disappointing - the hotel website says that these standard rooms have views of the bamboo forest but ours looked out on to the side of another block and a sideways view of the hotel grounds below. But no worries - we don't spend a lot of time in our hotel room, apart from sleeping! And with this one caveat, this was to prove our favourite hotel of the trip, thanks to the excellent service, attractive swimming pool and visiting monkeys!

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Lunch-time view

We had lunch at a shady table next to the pool, sharing a tuna sandwich and fries (an ample sized portion for two).

Spice plantations

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Cardamom and bananas

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Coffee beans and peppercorns

This area is famed for its spice growing - indeed these hills are the Cardamom Hills. Kumily is surrounded by plantations many of which offer tourist visits, and their advertising hoardings lined the road as we arrived. Our tour company had arranged something slightly different for us. Their local agent here, Manu, has his own small plantation, which has been in his family for three generations, and he met us there to show us around.

We had arrived towards the end of the harvesting season for two of his main crops, pepper and coffee, so we only saw limited amounts of both still growing in the plantation but enough to be of interest. We also saw jack fruit, bananas, cloves, papaya, chillies, nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon and vanilla. Our host explained how each was grown and harvested. Vanilla, for instance, has to be pollinated by hand as there are no natural pollinators, and the beans once picked must be fermented for days at precise temperatures - hence the high cost. And cardamom doesn't have a specific harvest time as its berries ripen erratically. Some women were harvesting pepper as we passed, perched rather precariously on ladders propped against the trees up which the pepper vines climb.

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After our walk Manu asked if we would be interested in seeing the small selection of spices they sell directly and we agreed as it seemed much better to make our purchases directly from the vendor (many of the spice shops in town sell produce that isn't local but which can come from anywhere in India or indeed beyond). So we were invited into a room in his house, where we met his wife and daughters, and made our selection - some black peppercorns and dried chillies as these were two of the crops we had seen growing.

We thoroughly enjoyed our walk with Manu and felt this was far better than the sort of commercialised guided tour we would have got at one of the other places we had passed.

Evening at Cardamom County

In the evening our hotel staged a short (30 minute) classical dance performance, with two young dancers. It took place in the rather sterile atmosphere of their conference hall, but the dancers were excellent and we could really appreciate the skill involved in this style of dancing, where not only foot work but also precise hand movements and facial expressions are needed.

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Amuse bouche

We then had dinner in the hotel restaurant where you have the option of a buffet meal or ordering a la carte. We chose the latter - I am no fan of buffets other than at breakfast time, as I mistrust food that has sat too long unattended and also, when paying for restaurant food, like to have someone serve me at table! We had a very good meal, with an 'amuse bouche' of a small vegetable wrap (delicious), excellent shared starter of chicken marinated in yoghurt, then chicken biryani for me and chicken tikka makhani for Chris - both very good and served in far too large a portion for us to want dessert. With two large beers we paid 2,000 rupees - the most expensive meal to date on this trip but still a bargain by UK standards (about £25).

We were also impressed by the friendly service of our waiter, Saju, who was to prove a real star over the next couple of days.

Posted by ToonSarah 04:32 Archived in India Tagged india church kerala spices crops cardamom Comments (2)

Tea, glorious tea

Day four in Kerala


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Around and about in Munnar

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The Bracknell Forest hotel has as its strapline "The sounds of nature" and this is what we had experienced on the afternoon of our arrival. I had looked forward to waking to the sound of birdsong as described in many reviews I had read. But it was not to be. Soon after 6.00 I woke instead to the sound of the generator at the property next door, albeit accompanied by the pretty view of the sunrise through the trees.

Breakfast is served from 8.00 and we were there promptly as we had arranged to meet Unni at 8.30 for the day's outing. Fresh watermelon juice, a fruit platter, eggs cooked to order (I had a very good masala omelette) and OK coffee, and we were set for the day.

Tea plantations

Unni drove us back down the winding road we had travelled yesterday afternoon and on the outskirts of Munnar we met up with our guide Vinid for a walking tour in a tea plantation. You need to be with a guide who has a permit to visit these, by the way, so don't be tempted to go exploring on your own.

As we climbed up through the plantation Vinid stopped to explain to us the different types of tea, white, green and black - which leaves are used for each and how the processing varies. For white tea only the top bud is used, for green tea this bud plus the next two leaves, and for black tea the top four leaves. The bushes can be harvested every 10-11 days, more often in the monsoon season, and a bush lasts for 100 years before its leaves are no longer viable, so that's a lot of leaves and a lot of plucking!

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Paths through the plantations

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He also explained a lot about working practices here and the history of tea growing in Munnar, which we were later to hear more about on a visit to the tea museum. The region was "discovered", as far as the British are concerned, by no less than the Duke of Wellington, back when he was plain Colonel Wellesley in 1790. In those days the mountainsides were forested but the survey teams who followed soon after recognised the potential of the land. Various crops were tried here but it was tea that became a resounding success. After independence the British-owned tea plantations transferred to Indian ownership, most notably the Tata group whose influence is strongly felt in Munnar. But for the last ten years the company here has been largely under the ownership of the workers who all have a share in it.

Despite this and the many worker benefits introduced by Tata and still maintained (free education, health care, housing), it is a hard life for the pluckers in particular. They work 8.00 to 5.00, six days a week. They live in very basic housing and are on minimum wages. Vinid painted quite a positive picture, but my further reading on returning from our trip revealed tensions within the workforce: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-34513824.

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As well as learning a lot as we walked, we also took loads of photos. At this time of day, when the shadows were still quite long, the bushes looked almost sculptural, and the different shades of green formed abstract patterns wherever we looked. The odd splash of colour was provided by the bright red of the Indian Coral (or Flame of the Forest) tree and the bright purple of trailing Morning Glory flowers, and darker accents by the occasional large boulders that dot the fields, while Silver Oaks and Eucalyptus trees provided the light. Vinid also pointed out nearby Anamudi Mountain which has the shape of an elephant and is the highest peak in the Western Ghat range.

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Indian Coral and Anamuni


We were walking for close to two hours, albeit slowly and with lots of stops, and eventually descended again to road level near a small temple devoted to Ganesh.

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Ganesh temple and local shop

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Kitten and tea pickers' homes

Here we were picked up by Unni to drive to our next stop, the Tea Museum on the other side of town.

Tea Museum

Munnar's Tea Museum is housed in a former tea factory. It has a handful of rooms which exhibit old photos from the early days of tea farming here and various objects associated with the business, including old telephones and calculators, a tea grinder, office furniture - a bit of a hotchpotch really. One room shows a documentary of about 30 minutes describing the history of tea plantations in this region, from first "discovery" by Colonel Wellesley through early development and the influx of workers from neighbouring Tamil Nadu, transfer to Indian ownership after Independence, and to the present day. This is well-made and was rather more engaging than I had expected it to be, but, even more so than Vinid, paints a very positive view of life on the tea plantations.

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In the museum

In another building, you can follow the two types of tea processing undertaken here - so-called "orthodox " and the new CTC method. In the former the leaves are rolled whereas in the latter they are cut. This is a faster process but produces lower quality powdered tea which is mainly used for the domestic market or in teabags, while the regularly produced tea is exported. Vinid demonstrated both processes for us from start to finish through the various machines on display. If you are more keen on tea than we are you can also buy some here, and I think I spotted a small snack bar where you can drink some on the spot.

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CTC machine

Srishti Complex

It was at the suggestion of our driver Unni that we visited the Sristi Complex, and an excellent one too. As part of their welfare of the workers initiatives, Tata founded this institute where, as our guide Vinid put it, "differently abled" young people from the community can develop practical skills that will give them employment and enable them to find their place in society - or, as the leaflet we were given puts it, "the Srishti Complex is a unique venture of the Tata Global Beverages Limited for the rehabilitation of the differently abled dependents of the tea plantation workers".

There are several ventures within the complex, of which we were shown two. In the first, Aranya, the young people use natural ingredients, including tea waste, turmeric and eucalyptus leaves, to make dyes and create silk scarves, shawls and other items. A young lady showed us the dyes and the various techniques they use to pattern the textiles. In another unit we visited, Athulya, they use waste ingredients to create hand-made papers which are sold, turned into gift items such as notebooks and boxes, or used for more practical purposes - they make many of the paper bags used in Tata's retail outlets, for instance.

They don’t allow photography in the work areas (I assume to protect the young people working here) but I was allowed to take a photo of the dyes they use. And you can see and read more about the initiative on their website: http://www.srishtinatural.com/

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Both units have small shops attached and given the nature of the work it would have been a bit churlish not to indulge in a purchase, so I came away with a silk scarf dyed with tea waste - much prettier in colour than that perhaps sounds!

On the way back to town we stopped to take photos at a colourful temple set among the tea plantations.

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Munnar

Our final stop of the morning was in Munnar itself, where we took a walk through the markets - firstly the general market where everything from chickens to gold jewellery to flower garlands to saris to lottery tickets, and more besides, was on sale. And then the vegetable market where the goods available were more predictable! We bypassed the fish market however - Vinid hadn't needed to point out that the fish sold was not of the freshest as even at a distance my nose told me that!

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For sale in the market - vegetables, rice, chillis and clothing

It was quite easy to take photos here as Indians generally have no problem with strangers taking their picture and some will actively encourage it, like the lady on the bus below. We were also asked to pose with a local man keen to have something different to share with his friends no doubt.

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After this we said goodbye to Vinid, who had proved an excellent guide, and Unni drove us back to the hotel, with a stop to photograph the jacaranda trees that had caught my eye the previous day.

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What remained of the afternoon was devoted to relaxing on our balcony with its views of the surrounding trees, writing these notes and sorting through the many photos we had taken. In the evening we ate again in the hotel's restaurant (not that there is any option to do otherwise in this remote spot so far from town) and enjoyed a variety of vegetable curries with the excellent mushroom pilau rice and the beer purchased for us on the previous day.

Posted by ToonSarah 03:22 Archived in India Tagged people temple market tea museum kerala munnar Comments (1)

We head for the hills

Day three in Kerala


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The road to Munnar

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After two nights in Cochin it was time to move on. Our driver Unni picked us up after breakfast and we headed for the hills - literally! Kerala can be regarded as consisting of three parallel environments, running north to south down the state - the coastal strip and backwaters, where the emphasis is on fishing and trade; the slightly higher agricultural strip where pineapples, bananas and a variety of other crops are grown; and the so-called High Range, part of the Western Ghat, where tea, coffee and spices predominate. We were headed for the latter, but of course had to cross the middle strip to get there!

The road to Munnar runs east from Kochi, passing through several small communities and a couple of larger towns. Unni pulled over in a couple of spots to show us the crops that grow here - rubber trees, tapioca, bananas, pineapple. As the road started to climb we stopped for a short while to have a cold drink, and then it was on up into the mountains. The road became increasingly winding, resulting in a few hairy moments with overtaking drivers, but Unni drove well and (by Indian standards) very sensibly.

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Tapoca plants and banana leaves

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Tapping for rubber

We passed a couple of waterfalls which in the wet season would be pretty considerable in size but today were just a trickle. We stopped at a smaller one that was rather livelier - so much so that a group of locals were enjoying splashing around in a pool beneath. This being India, they didn't seem to mind at all that we stopped on the bridge above to take their photos - indeed, they waved and posed for us!

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A little further on we stopped at a viewpoint where the main attraction proved not to be the view so much as the family of three monkeys (Mum and two little ones) that came along and also posed for us.

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By now we were in tea country and the hillsides were covered in the squat bushes. A further viewpoint stop on the side road to our hotel, Bracknell Forest, gave us a chance to photograph the scenery. This last bit of road was a challenging drive for Unni - narrow, winding, occasionally pot-holed. But at last we arrived at our destination, about five hours after leaving Kochi.

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Scenery near Munnar

Bracknell Forest - like living in a treehouse

This small hotel (just 11 rooms) is situated among the trees about 10 kilometres from Munnar and makes a good "get away from it all" base in this region. It comes though with a few privations - you will be restricted to eating dinner here (too far to go anywhere else with ease) and as they operate on such a small scale you will be asked to order that meal in advance (at around 6.30 when the restaurant will call your room to take your order). Not that we found this a problem, and the food we had here was tasty enough, if not fancy - I can recommend the mushroom pilau rice in particular. And although they don't have a license to serve alcohol they will helpfully, if given enough notice, send a tuk-tuk to the government shop in Munnar to buy in a few beers for you, as long as you're happy to pay the cost of fetching them (about 20 rupees per trip).

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Our room at Bracknell Forest, and view upwards to our block

Rooms are staggered up the hillside and we had one of the upper ones, 206. It was a really good size, as was the bed, and we had a balcony where we could relax and enjoy the sound of birds in the trees. The air is fresher here than at the coast and sitting outside a real pleasure. With nothing planned for this first afternoon here we took full advantage of the opportunity to chill for a few hours and enjoy the sense of living in a treehouse.

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Views from our balcony


Evenings here are necessarily low key. There is no bar so apart from dinner you will find yourself spending time in your room. But with these being generous in size there is plenty of room to relax, a TV should you want to watch (we didn't) and pretty reasonable wifi given the remote location.

Posted by ToonSarah 02:27 Archived in India Tagged waterfalls road_trip tea kerala munnar Comments (2)

Fishing, worshipping, dancing …

Day two in Kerala


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Exploring Fort Cochin

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Chinese fishing net

A morning tour of Fort Cochin and Mattancherry

On our first full day in Kerala we had pre-booked a private tour in Cochin which took us to some of the main sights including St Francis Church, the waterfront, the Jewish quarter in Mattancherry with its synagogue and Mattancherry Palace. We had an excellent local guide in Mary, who gave us a great introduction to Kerala.

St Francis Church

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We started out at the first Christian church to be built in India, which is famous as the burial place of Vasco de Gama, although his body only lay here for 14 years before being moved to the Jerónimos Monastery in Belem, near Lisbon. His tomb can still be seen in this church - it is a very simple and worn stone set in the floor on the right-hand side. More interesting to look at are the wall-mounted gravestones - Dutch on the right-hand side, Portuguese on the left. These give a clue to the varied history of this church.

Contrary to what you might think, Mary told us, it was not the Portuguese who brought Christianity to this part of the world. Tradition holds that the first to convert people here was the apostle Thomas, who came to this coast just 29 years or so after the death of Christ. He brought the new religion to the educated upper classes, but it was the Portuguese, several hundred years later, who converted the lower caste groups. Perhaps these were the most receptive at that time, keen to shake off the traditions of the by-then prevalent Hinduism which dictated their lowly position in society.

This church was therefore built as a Roman Catholic one and would have been richly decorated. We owe its present sombre appearance to the Dutch, who when they conquered this part of India converted the church for use as a Protestant one. Later still came the British, and the church became Anglican. Today it is under the joint jurisdiction of the government archaeological department (for maintenance and preservation) and the local Indian Anglican community (for worship).

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Dutch gravestone and British 'punkah'

One notable feature that remains from the days of British rule are the cloth 'punkah' fans which hang from wooden poles with ropes attached leading out through the side walls where they would have been operated by men employed for the purpose - the 'punkah wallahs'. Of course today there are electric fans to cool the congregation!

Photography is permitted inside but not video, and you have to remove your shoes as they are anxious to preserve the Victorian London tiles laid by the British when they took the church over.

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Murals near the church

Chinese fishing nets and waterfront

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From St Francis Church we strolled across the road to the main area of activity for fishing in Fort Kochi. On the way we passed some interesting murals, lovely homes, and what remains of the one-time Fort, with a single cannon pointing out to sea. I took a photo of the sign on its walls as an example of the script used by the local language of Kerala, Malayalam - the sign reads 'no posters allowed', I believe.

Here the famous traditional Chinese fishing nets (so-called because it was the Chinese who first introduced this style of fishing to Kerala) line the shore, while numerous small black boats are employed to get further out into the channel to catch the larger fish. These small boats are still made the traditional way, with planks of wood "stitched" together with coir rope (although increasingly more durable plastic covered wire is used in place of the latter). The black colour comes from a mix of turpentine and sardine oil used to make them waterproof. We watched two men engaged in a repair job for a while before going over to take a closer look at the fishing nets themselves.

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Waterfront activity

If you want a detailed look at the workings of these you'll need to tip the fishermen - I felt the 100 rupees we paid for the two of us, at our guide's suggestion, was worth it for the photo opportunities we got and the better understand of the mechanism which came with having a go on the ropes ourselves! The heavy stones on the ropes provide the counter-balance as the large net is raised and lowered, which is done every few minutes. At this time of year (February) the catches aren't usually great (the net we helped to raise held just one small fish and a crab too tiny to keep). The tourist tips help supplement the men's income - another reason to go and get involved!

Mary explained the economics of these small businesses. Each net is owned by a proprietor who pays a fee to the local government for their spot on the waterfront. The proprietor employs four men to work the net who are not paid a salary but instead all get a share of the money made by selling the catch at the nearby market - as does the proprietor of course. With his share (which I am sure is the larger part) he must not only pay the government fee but also maintain the net and the working mechanism. As in so many places, it is becoming harder to attract young people to do this kind of work and there is a real risk that these traditional fishing methods will die out. Already several nets stand idle as their owner can't get the men to work them.

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Cochin fishermen

Fish market

The fish caught in the nets and by the small boat fishermen is sold almost where it is landed, at a handful of stalls that line the path here. Some will be bought by local bicycle salesmen who deliver daily to local families (our guide's included) but the majority will be served at restaurant tables that evening - seafood features strongly on all the menus here.

Among the selection we saw for sale were red mullet, tuna, baby sharks, sardines, pomfret, green-lipped mussels, octopus, squid and prawns both large and small. If you want you can buy some fresh to have cooked at one of the nearby stalls, but I've read that the hygiene at these is questionable and eating at them risky.

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Cannonball tree

Among the trees that line the waterfront here (mainly rain trees and banyans) we came across the striking pink blooms of the cannonball tree, so called because its fruit is round and hard. It is also poisonous to both man and animals, so leave them where they lie!

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Cannonball tree

Dhoby Khana

Our guide proposed an extra stop to see the dhoby wallahs at Dhoby Khana, still using the traditional washing methods employed here when the Dutch Army established the facility in 1720 and brought in workers from Tamil Nadu and Malabar to wash their uniforms here - although the present-day facility was built in 1976 as compensation for land taken to be used as a public playground.

The clothes and household linens washed here come from both hotels and private homes - our guide told us that many who can afford it like to have their white goods washed traditionally rather than by machine.

The area where they work, the dhoby, is divided into three sections. In one are a serious of small stone cells, each numbered and for use by a specific dhoby wallah. Here they do the washing, the first task of their working day.

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Dhoby wallahs

Beyond these cells is a field where the washed items are hung out to dry, the fabric twisted into the hanging ropes with no need for clothes pegs. The third section is a long open-sided stone room with stone slabs along each side, where the pressing is done, usually in the afternoon after the morning's washing has dried. Many of the dhoby wallahs still use the traditional irons which are very heavy at around eight kilos - we were invited to pick one up to feel the weight for ourselves!

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Drying and ironing

You are allowed to take photos here but please do make a donation to their welfare fund in return, as suggested - there is a box near the entrance for this purpose.

Mattancherry - Jewish quarter

Returning to the car we drove to neighbouring Mattancherry, the other section of old Kochi. Here we visited Paradesi Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in Kerala - and indeed in India and the whole Commonwealth. The synagogue was built in 1558, on land given to the Cochin Jewish community by the Raja of Kochi adjacent to the Mattancherry Palace's Hindu temple. Today it is used only by five families as the majority of Cochin's Jews left for Israel when that country was formed.

Unfortunately I can't share any pictures as photography inside is strictly prohibited. As at the church earlier we were asked to remove our shoes - not a religious practice but to preserve the beautiful 18th century Chinese floor tiles - all painted by hand in the willow pattern style and each one unique in its design. The synagogue also has glass chandeliers from Belgium and one of Murano glass.

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Detail of building near the synagogue

From the synagogue we took a walk along Jew Street, clearly the tourist shopping mecca for the city. I didn't indulge, unsure what I most wanted to buy only one day into our trip and also unwilling to trespass too much on our guide's time and goodwill. Had I wanted to shop however I could have chosen from a wide range of clothing (the pretty white cotton tops in particular caught my eye), embroidery, jewellery both high-end and cheap, antiques, old coins, fabric bags, spices and much more. Don't think though that you are necessarily shopping local here - our guide told us that many of those selling had come down to Kerala from Kashmir where tourists are in much shorter supply these days. Do ask if the provenance of an item matters to you - some of the embroidery she showed us was very locally made, the work of a 93 year old lady, the oldest of the Jews that still live here.

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On Jew Street

Mattancherry Palace

This palace was built by the Portuguese as a gift to the ruler of Cochin in the mid 16th century, but is today popularly known as the Dutch Palace because the Dutch carried out major renovation and decorative work in 1663. The Palace is now a museum devoted to the history of the royal family who used to live here. There seemed to be relatively few exhibits - most of the rooms only had a few, with the bulk of the displays consisting of information panels. But you don't really come here for the museum but for a couple of rooms which contain some beautiful old murals. The earliest of these date from the 16th century and depict a series of scenes from the Ramayana - the god's birth, marriage to Sitra, battle with the demon god. Those in a later room date from the 18th century, although they seemed to me to be in less good condition. The colours throughout are all natural, mostly reds, oranges, cream. There was no blue available to the artists who created these works, so sea creatures frolic at the bottom of each scene to denote the water. Photography is very strictly prohibited unfortunately, so you will have to take my word for it that these are really worth seeing! Although if you search for "Mattancherry Palace murals" online you will see plenty of photos by those who have chosen to ignore the rule and managed to circumvent the strict security.

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Mattancherry Palace exterior detail

After our morning's sightseeing we returned to Killian’s hotel for a bit of R&R - a refreshing lime juice and ginger drink, a swim in the pool (which is a good size and well-maintained), and catching up on photo sorting, note-making and messages.

Kathakali performance

That evening we had tickets for a traditional Keralan Kathakali dance show. This form of classical Indian dance originated here in Kerala and, even more than other Indian dancing traditions, relies heavily on facial expressions and gestures, with relatively little in the way of body movements. The dancers use a sort of sign language, with dialogue expressed through hand movements known as mudras, while emotions and mood are expressed through facial and eye movements. The costumes and make-up are equally stylised and symbolic. Performances are based on ancient stories of the gods, and traditionally were very long, although those staged today for the benefit of tourists are much less so.

We went along early, as visitors are encouraged to do, to watch one of the performers apply his make-up - a painstaking task that took him almost an hour. Photos are allowed and indeed encouraged, although the ladies seating everyone didn't always take kindly to seeing guests vacate their assigned seats to take pictures nearer the front (even though during the make-up session this caused no problems that I could identify!)

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The transformation

Following the make-up session there was an English language only brief explanation of Kathakali. One of the dancers demonstrated a range of facial movements and gestures and we were told what each meant.

Finally it was time for the performance. We heard a resume of the story to be acted out, which of course involved gods and demons, and then the two dancers took to the stage with three musicians.

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The dance itself lasted about 30 minutes and it was fascinating to see how the facial expressions in particular were used to tell the story. Hopefully my video gives you a flavour of what we saw:

At the end the dancers posed for photos, inviting audience members up on to the stage to pose with them. That's not really our thing so we left at this point to search out dinner.

Fort House Hotel Restaurant

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I had read good reviews of this waterside restaurant opposite the venue where we saw the Kathakali show, Greenix, so we chose it for dinner after the performance - a good decision! The setting is lovely, with tables placed along a jetty that juts out into the channel. This is a busy working waterway so expect to see large containers ships, dredgers and fishing boats pass as you eat. There are mosquito coils along the jetty too and insects didn't seem to be a problem as a result. Prices are very reasonable here, the menu is interesting, the cooking good and we found the service (despite what a couple of online reviews said) to be well-paced as well as friendly. The only drawback is that they don't have an alcohol license, like many places in "dry" Kerala, but there is alcohol-free beer and some homemade soft drinks such as lime soda and ginger ale.

We enjoyed all the dishes we sampled - a shared starter of sautéed mushrooms with chilli and herbs; my Keralan style squid cooked with ginger and coconut; Chris's pork vindaloo. The latter came with Basmati rice and our only criticism would be that our waitress could have suggested that this would be enough for us to share rather than encouraging me to also order rice to go with my squid. So quite a bit of rice was left, but only so we could fit in a dessert, both opting for the spiced figs with vanilla ice cream - delicious! I tried the ginger ale (lovely) and Chris the lime soda. Our bill was around 1,500 rupees (not including service) - excellent value at less than £20. A good ending to our time in Fort Cochin.

Posted by ToonSarah 11:48 Archived in India Tagged art fishing india palace city dance kerala cochin kathakali Comments (3)

Return to India

Day one in Kerala


View Kerala 2017 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Arriving in Fort Cochin

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Fishing nets at sunset

I have wanted to go to Kerala for some time and somehow this year our discussion of where to go for some winter sun evolved into a decision to follow up on our previous positive experience of booking with TransIndus and use them again for this winter's trip. We looked forward to seeing another area of this fascinating country, spending a night on one of the region's famed rice boats, and winding down with a few days at the beach.

Travelling to Kerala

We flew to Kerala from London Heathrow with Etihad via Abu Dhabi (there are unfortunately no direct flights between the two). Our plane for the first leg was a comfortable Airbus 380 with modern facilities such as power points and (for a price) onboard wifi. The leg room seemed more generous than in some Economy cabins and it would have been a comfortable flight were it not for the young lad in the seat behind who spent most of the journey kicking the back of mine! There were seat back monitors with a decent selection of films, and a rather fun feature allowing you see the view towards the front and below via cameras mounted on the fuselage. This was especially interesting on landing at Abu Dhabi as we had a pilot's eye view of the lights of the runway approaching.

We landed there a little ahead of schedule at around 1.00 AM Abu Dhabi time (10.00 PM London time) and it was an easy transfer process. We had less than an hour to wait for the next flight and took advantage of the airport's free and fast wifi. The next flight was in a smaller older Airbus 321, but the plane wasn't so full and there were no hyperactive children anywhere near us! Nevertheless it was hard to do more than doze as the flight was quite short (less than four hours) and the seats didn't decline at all. A meal was served but we were still quite full from the previous flight's meals and also wanted to try to sleep so we passed on this.

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Seat-back view of the earth below

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Cochin Airport


As we came into land in Cochin I again enjoyed watching the approach via the on board camera as the land rushed up to meet us. There is something about that moment, isn't there, when you pass from the life in limbo sensation of a long haul flight to reconnect with the earth beneath.

We were pleased to find relatively short queues at immigration and to be reunited with our bags. Following the advice of our tour company we changed some sterling to rupees in the arrivals hall - the exchange offices in India currently (early 2017) impose restrictions on how much you can change as they are rationing banknotes following the withdrawal last year of 500 and 1,000 rupee notes, so we were limited to £60's worth each.

As we emerged from the customs area we were met as planned by the company's representative and ushered to a waiting car. The drive to our hotel in Fort Cochin took a bit over an hour and despite our tiredness was, as always in India, full of interest. Colourful local buses, some strikingly bright white churches, an elephant in a truck (en route, we were told, to a temple festival somewhere), beautiful light over the river as we crossed from new town to old …

Just the same, we were very glad to arrive at Killian's Boutique Hotel and be told that our request for an early check in had been honoured. Time to catch up on some sleep!

Killian's Boutique Hotel

This hotel occupies an old colonial building near the waterfront on River Road. We were upgraded to one of the larger rooms - it was simply furnished but spacious and comfortable. In addition to a queen size bed we had a table and two chairs set in the bay window (the view though was just of some neighbouring houses), a large wardrobe with safe and a bathroom with a walk-in shower. As well as the essential a/c there was a ceiling fan, and bottled water was provided in the otherwise empty mini-bar. There were basic toiletries in the bathroom albeit nothing fancy, and a hairdryer, but I thought two thinnish towels between the two of us was on the skimpy side.

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Our stay was on a bed and breakfast basis. The latter was served in the hotel restaurant that overlooks the good sized swimming pool. On our first day it was a buffet which included fresh fruit (the pineapple was excellent) and fruit juices, a selection of hot dishes (Western and Indian), omelettes cooked to order, bread and cakes. On the second morning there was no buffet (I think because there were relatively few guests) so we ordered from a menu but had more or less the same thing - a fresh fruit platter, masala omelette, toast and coffee.

A first stroll in Fort Cochin

After checking in and a much-needed nap we set off for an afternoon stroll around our immediate neighbourhood to get our bearings and grab our first photos. As you might expect in India, we only had to walk a couple of yards to find lots of photo opps - a ferry arriving from the new city, Ernakulam, across the river, egrets and other birds perched on the famous Chinese fishing nets, men shoulder deep in the water, fully clothed (doing what? Fishing for something we assumed), amusing and/or colourful signs.

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First impressions of Fort Cochin

Kashi Art Café

After following the river for a short distance, along the aptly named River Road, we turned and made our way to a café I had heard good things about, the Kashi Art Café. This proved to be a great spot for a late lunch, and is so popular that we had to wait about 15 minutes to get a table in one of its shady courtyards.

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Art at Kashi

That gave us a chance to check out some of the art on display - this is both café and art gallery, and with the Kochi Biennale in full swing they had quite a lot of interest. I especially liked a sculpture of an egret with an egg in its mouth.

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The menu here is Western and has an appealing assortment of light and more substantial dishes. I really liked my hummus which came sprinkled with black olives and pomegranate seeds and was served with doorstep slices of homemade bread, toasted and brushed with garlic butter. Chris had a herby cheese sandwich made with the same doorsteps. My lemonade with ginger was super refreshing and Chris enjoyed his fresh pineapple juice also with ginger. I finished with an iced coffee and the bill for all this was 700 rupees including service which seemed good value given the size of the portions and the quality and freshness of the ingredients.

Harbour cruise

On our first evening in Cochin we took a cruise around the harbour, the main purpose of which was to see the famed Chinese fishing nets at sunset. It was quite a relaxed low key outing, which suited us well after our long journey to get here. The tour lasted about 90 minutes, with the sunset the finale. First we pottered around the harbour for about an hour while the on board guide pointed out a few sights - old colonial buildings, some now in use as hotels; the old sea port and the new; a palace and the marina. The most interesting spots for photography were a group of colourful fishing boats and an area where the egrets and other birds were gathering to roost in the trees.

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Old colonial mansion, now an arts centre
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Fishing boats
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Birds roosting

As the sun started to dip, our boat, and several others engaged the same activity, all turned towards the fishing nets near where we had started. My first thought was that they had left it too late, as this was one of those hazy sunsets when the sun disappears behind the clouds while still some way above the horizon. But in fact the pilot was spot on and we got a reasonable number of shots before the sun was lost to us.

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Once the sun had gone we, and all the other boats, headed back to the quayside and there was some jostling for position before we were able to disembark. It had been a pleasant outing and, as I said, one well-suited to our weariness.

Dinner at Killian's Boutique Hotel

After our sunset cruise on our first evening in Cochin we realised we were too weary from travelling to venture far for dinner, and having read some reasonable reviews of the restaurant here on our doorstep we decided it would suit our purpose well - which it did. Like everyone else dining there that evening we sat outside on the terrace where fans kept the temperature just right - warm enough to be sure we were on holiday but not so hot we couldn't fancy eating.

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We kept the meal simple, sharing a couple of Kingfisher beers (beer and wine are both sold here, unlike many Cochin eating places), some mushroom pilau rice and a very tasty chicken dish, Chicken Mappas, with a coconut sauce flavoured with fennel seeds and cashew nuts.

I'd read a few reviews that criticised the slow service but we felt it was just right, and both friendly and helpful. However had we arrived just after the group of 20 Italian tourists seated nearby, rather than just before, we may have had to wait longer I guess. Prices are very reasonable too, and we paid just 1,500 rupees(less than £20) for our meals and two large Kingfisher beers. The photo of the terrace below, by the way, was taken the next morning when it was light enough to do so.

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Terrace restaurant at Killians

Posted by ToonSarah 08:10 Archived in India Tagged boat sunset city kerala Comments (7)

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