The Kerala Backwaters and Periyar National Park

46 days travelling and still finding ourselves battling leeches

5th November 2018 (Kerala Backwaters)

Today we took a local three-hour train along the Keralan coastline to a place called Alappuzha, which used to be an important trading port before becoming famous for the annual ‘Snake Boat Race’ (which looks like loads of fun). The seats on the train were remarkably spacious and made a nice change from the 3 berth sleeper trains we had previously taken. From here it was a short tuk tuk ride to the boat boarding point, which marked the start of our 1.5 hour journey through the backwaters to our local homestay.

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As usual we made sure we were the first to board and like two school kids, we jumped at the chance to sit at the back of the boat. For once we actually picked the best spot, elevated above everyone on what was basically a big comfy mattress – a perfect place to relax. The next hour and a bit was spent bird spotting, people watching and dozing off in the heat of the day. It was definitely up there on the best things we have done during our time in India and would love to come back again sometime and stay on one of the traditional house boats. The backwaters go on forever and pictures just don’t capture how beautiful it is.

The stunning Kerala backwaters
The stunning Kerala backwaters

We didn’t think we’d get the chance to visit considering the recent devastating floods in the area and it was incredible to see how much work had been done to get everything back up and running. I’m well aware that we had a pretty sheltered view of it all and focus is likely to have been given to the tourist areas to help generate income, but nonetheless it was nice to have the opportunity to visit. It was still clear that a lot of house boats (and houses on land) were damaged and were still being repaired.

Adorable ducks during feeding time
Adorable ducks during feeding time

Once we arrived at our homestay I popped out for a quick walk along the small island to nose on the locals, as you do. I came across a gentleman that I nicknamed the “duck whisperer” (he’s actually a farmer) as with a rather unexpected call he could summon a couple dozen ducks out the lake for feeding. It was adorable hearing them stamp their feet as they ate their food before retreating to the lake.

An evening orientation walk took us around the garden of our homestay, focusing on the various spices and fruits in their garden before walking through the community. From here we took a sunset pole boat ride (think Venice, but less intimate) back the accommodation. The only place we could eat was at the homestay itself and it was great to sample some traditional Southern home cooked food. I didn’t realise it earlier, but the entire downstairs floor of the house was submerged during the flooding and we were the first guests to stay once they had reopened.

Sunset over the Kerala backwaters
Sunset over the Kerala backwaters

6th November 2018 (Kochi)

After a hearty breakfast at our homestay, we waved goodbye to our temporary family and did yesterday’s boat ride in reverse. It was still just as great a second time round. We then had our first experience with a windowless local bus, which I enjoyed far too much – think of a dog leaning out of the window and you will get the idea of how I passed time. One thing I hadn’t quite imagined was that Kerala would be an active communist state, with red flags literally around every corner – an interesting fact for you there. Two hours later, and a quick hop on a private bus, and we had arrived in the town of Kochi, an old Dutch colony.

Like a dog with its head out the window
Like a dog with its head out the window

We had the usual orientation walk after which we split off from the group and made a bee line for a relatively new vegan cafe (I can hear my dad grumbling). Here we risked our first proper salads of the trip and it was totally worth it – it didn’t make us sick and tasted amazing. That evening we went to view a traditional Kathakali dance. Think of a story being told through a combination of music and exaggerated facial and hand gestures. Its performed entirely by men (they also play the role of women) dressed in elaborate costumes and make-up. I’d definitely recommend looking it up, as it is fascinating. It started with a quick demonstration of the various gestures and how tones could be conveyed through mime and music alone. Having said that, most of it went over my head and I was glad the demonstration was only a single act – I had heard they can go on for hours.

A man preparing for a traditional Kathakali dance
A man preparing for a traditional Kathakali dance

7th November 2018 (Kochi)

My wife got up early for a brisk walk around Kochi with our travel-partner-in-crime, I on the other hand did not. I was enjoying a nice cold room and comfortable bed. Later in the morning we went to visit the Dutch palace, which had some interesting history but is not what I would call a classical palace. It was ridiculously hot, so we were glad we didn’t spent too much time there. There was also a never ending conga line of school children, which felt like some sort of comedy sketch – going out one end then running around back to the start again. There must have been at least a hundred (or more) of them. We also visited a nearby synagogue, which was apparently the oldest in India.

The fishing nets in Kochi
The fishing nets in Kochi

After all the excitement of the morning we went back to the same cafe as yesterday for more salads (there was a power cut so we couldn’t have the smoothie bowls). I have never sweated so much in my life from simply sitting still, that’s the only draw back of being somewhere so hot and humid without any breeze. That evening we celebrated Diwali with our guide, which meant the world to him as he was away from his family for it. He bought a load of fireworks and went to town lighting them all. It was great fun, albeit incredibly sketchy. We lit some sparklers and an ember landed itself between my toes. It hurt, a lot, and left a bit of a bad burn. I kept that quiet as I was a bit of an idiot for not wearing shoes, my own fault really. It was a complete ‘I told you so’ moment for my wife.

8th November 2018 (Periyar)

We took (wait for it..) an 8-hour bus ride from Kochi to Periyar National Park, visiting various things along the way including a rather bizarre church, pineapple plantation and some rubber trees – it was the first time I’d seen natural rubber, which was pretty cool. As you can imagine, we were all getting rather fed up being stuck in a bus for so long and were getting a bit agitated. Thankfully we made one last pit stop that made up for it.

I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but I was absolutely fascinated by our spice plantation tour. Our local guide was so knowledgable and made it really engaging – so much so that I can’t wait to get back home and try to grow a few things myself. I half expected it to all be neat rows of different spices and fruits, but they were all intertwined and packed together as many of the plants benefitted off each other (provided shade, etc). To the untrained eye it just looked like a jungle and you could easily walk by things without realising how interesting they all were.

Extracting natural rubber from a tree
Extracting natural rubber from a tree

We ate loads of the chocolate they made on site and bought a bag that ended up being a little overwhelming – the nutmeg had a pretty hard hit to it. Shortly afterwards we pulled up at our accommodation and I had to let out a huge moan. Everything in the room was damp and it stayed that way the whole time we were there. Guess it’s to be expected in the middle of a National Park. At least they had some swinging chairs outside (not quite as good as the one in Paxos, but it would have to do) for us to curl up in and read.

9th November 2018 (Periyar)

We had a slightly early start to our day today to do a hike in the national park. We stumbled across a few animals, mainly deer, birds and monkeys – no tigers, sadly. Once again though, it was attack of the leeches! I was grateful for our leech socks, which were essentially giant sacks that came right up to our knees, but it didn’t stop us stressing out at the endless onslaught of the pesky things. At one point I counted 20 leeches on one shoe alone. It made me laugh as the one person who wasn’t fussed by them was the only one who ended up getting bitten. It was still a really enjoyable walk and was really beautiful, with lots of interesting scenery.

A massive tree in Periyar National Park
A massive tree in Periyar National Park

I managed to convince my wife to try a dosa for breakfast. Let’s just say she’s not a fan of the fermented batter. As the rest of the group went for massages, we kicked back in the rope chairs for the afternoon, reading and watching Netflix. I think we really just needed the time to ourselves.

Until next time.

P.S. That hanging chair has really made me want to go back to Paxos.

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