Arriving in Alleppey, we were quick to organise a houseboat, which is the main attraction in Alleppey. There are so many options to choose from, all varying in style, price and size (we saw one online that had a built in Jacuzzi for 200 pounds!). After venturing around town and being told by one tourist office that a 40 year old painting of a random houseboat would be our boat, we looked online.
Following the high ratings from trip advisor, we decided to use Elite Houseboats and went for a deluxe houseboat, one bedroom with AC. The boat was for 1 day and a morning with one night and three meals included, altogether for fifty pounds each. A little out of our price range but it is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and so we were allowed to splurge (plus technically it is a tourist activity and an expensive hotel, so really we are treating ourselves twice). Although the boat was an hour late, we found it lovely with leather plush sofas and beanbags, a dining area, as well as a bedroom conjoined with the nicest bathroom we’ve experienced so far (hello posh sinks!). We spent the entire day waving at other tourists on other boats along the river, where we saw groups of lads on holiday drinking beer and mad dancing, couples on day trips on small boats marvelling at the beauty surrounding them, and families- and what looked like extended families, on cruise boats filling up all of the deck chairs.
Cruising along the various rivers we escaped the large amount of traffic that occupied our starting position and drifted past water lilies, meandered through herons, and floated past snapshots of rural life: parents washing soap suds off their children’s naked bodies, men fishing with bamboos and women washing an assortment of stainless steel pans and bowls. Whilst we sunned our pasty bodies, we took in the serene atmosphere around us, blinking our eyes over and over again, recognizing that what we saw was not a facade, but a reality. After having a lunch on banana leaves with rice, poppadoms and a number of vegetarian dishes served by our own personal cook- I questioned how much do they think we eat? I felt I was continuously being fattened up by my long lost grandma, or a wicked witch of the east- so she can cook me in her oven. Although pricey, renting a houseboat is a must do whilst you are in India, let alone Kerala, and if you want to splash out: do so- you won’t regret it. I really recommend Elite Houseboats because of its scope in choice of boats, its delicious food, and its friendly and attentive staff.
Although there is little to do in Alleppey town itself, head to the nearby beach where you pass herds of goats nibbling on the side of the road, attached to one another by string. Passing groups of families in the sand on the beach, watching children giggle and play in excitement, it made me question what life would be like for a woman in India. The daily hardships and struggles they would face because of their sex. I know many of us are shocked and aghast by the level of sexism and harassment that women encounter in the western world, whilst here in India, it is embedded in their culture. Similar to the concept gypsies have whilst meeting their potential partners of “grabbing”, men can be grabby towards young women, ignoring prearranged marriages and family plans to benefit one another.
I would struggle with having an arranged partner chosen by my family, as although they are seen as trying to benefit your social and economical well being, choosing a partner, I feel, is an individual journey. Learning about someone, facing difficult times, various obstacles and growing together. As if flowers, incredibly beautiful to see, but also having strong roots to cling on to. I like how men are protective of their partners here (and there is reason to be), I find it caring. But being a feminist, (yes I said the “F” word), at the same time, I would want my independence. Women here are seen as intellectually weaker than men and the 25 percent of women that are actually working professionally, they are treated as inferior to others, with men making the definitive decisions within that environment. Working and living in this sphere of influence (or lack of) would infuriate me. Being the way I am, and what I believe- that all humans should be treated equally no matter what class, origin, religion, race, gender or education- would confuse and bewilder the people I would work with and around in India. I thrive and relish in new opportunities for everyone, hoping to help others in any form, and If I was held back in a certain way because of my gender- my oh my I would tell others what we all deserve as humans, and try unite us (the Emily Pankhurst of India), so I have come to conclusion, I could not live here.
A recommended place for lunch is the Royal Park Hotel, a suave style of hotel filled with families celebrating a christening. Their thali was enormous; poppadoms, rice, naan and an array of various pickles, chutneys and sauces that differed in colour, texture, taste and flavour. The Kerala spiced fish with lemon rice is also delightful.
We stayed at Johnsons. Nestled in a nice neighbourhood, it was a quirky mansion filled with leafy foliage and a number of animals- which pleased me as I love animals- around the house, where we were welcomed by the British sounding, blonde haired, Johnson. We were taken to our room on the top floor which had its own balcony and hammock, (another big win for me), all for a reasonable price. Johnson was a jovial character, giving us helpful information about Allepppey and telling us all about his edgy abode. We enjoyed our stay, and only having 5 rooms, I would recommend booking in advance as we found many other backpackers at his doors seeking shelter.
Leaving the beautiful backwaters behind, we took a bus to Kochi from Allepey to get to Munnar, as we were told that bus’s from Alleppey run once a day and “mostly” cancel. Rather wasting our precious time, we headed off for a longer distance of a journey, but a shorter one nonetheless. Driving to Kochi, it seemed AC buses were not an option and clambering on to a public non AC bus, we took to this form of transport as a new adventure. With our arms hanging out the bus and the cool Indian wind in our hair, we beeped aggressively at other vehicles, overtaking whenever we possibly could-as it seems our bus driver was a mad man. Because our driver was more of a dare devil than ever, we encountered two minor car accidents en route. When a collision on the road happens in any way, shape or form in India, those involved in it, are furious with the other member of the party, no matter who’s fault it is, resulting in frayed tempers. Here the bus pulled over and whilst both the driver and the conductor lept off to give the young driver who they had scratched a peace of their mind; passengers on the bus peered over each others shoulders, jostling one another to get a better view. Even picking up their belongings and leaving their seat on the other side of the bus to see what happened, gleefully sharing with the others around them, what drama had occurred.
Arriving finally in Kochi, we got on a bus to Munnar, where once again it seemed fate began to play with our future. Our bus winded past death defying drops slowly ascending into the mountains with lush greenery on either side as we gained height. Going around each corner, we held on to the bus til our knuckles turned white, grimacing when other drivers hastily met us around the bend, giving cursory glances to each one. 5 and a half hours later, we made it to Munnar. As soon as we saw the breathtaking views of the tea plantations on rolling hills, it made us speechless. Row upon row of small green leaves on trimmed bushes were in perfect symmetrical union, in front of a backdrop of mountains merging with the horizon.
Walking around the tea plantations is a must whilst in Munnar. Either take the walk yourself or hire a local guide, it is incredible. We began to follow destitute dogs and tired tuk tuks to a back entrance of a tea plantation. Wandering past mist that smothered grass and covered rivers, and spotting dew that clung on to a fragile network of a spiders web, we crossed over rivers and walked through tea. The sun began to rise over the plantation which was a beautiful moment in itself. The warm rays burst through the dense fog, changing the colour of the plants to a vibrant green and warming up our tired bodies. From tea plantations we started to make our way up mountains trying to imitate mountain goats, jumping from one rocky outcrop to another, so we would not fall on scree (a geographical term for loose rock.. hey GCSE geography!) We made it to the top of the mountain, where we were informed it was half the height of Mount Everest base camp, much to our astonishment, where we sat and enjoyed a pleasant breakfast of eggs and fresh fruit.
After recharging our batteries somewhat, we started to descend (what goes up must come down) which was much more difficult and treacherous than anticipated. Steep declines in what seemed to be Jurrasic Park plantation surrounding us, meant that going down the mountain was a long and laborious task, but the trek through the tea was worthwhile.
There are many tea factories that surround the rolling hills of Munnar, and we decided to venture to Lockhart, where we learnt the process of creating tea and the difference between green, white and black tea. Did you know that white tea was once only drunk by the Chinese Emperor because it was classed as a posh tea? Common people were apparently not allowed to drink it. (Fact of the day for you!) It was interesting to see the various levels of process behind making tea and realizing that many things are done manually, with the workers just having their one job. We learnt that Twinnings was a buyer of the Lockhart tea factory, which has made me want to switch from drinking Yorkshire tea to Twinnings because of the sheer amount of time and effort these guys put into the process of tea. Next time you have a cup of tea, think about where its from and how long it would take; from the picking all the way up roasting, I’m sure you will be shocked.
As the other members of our tour got in their vehicles with private drivers, my travel buddy and I waited patiently for the local bus, which many school children, when seeing us would cheer and wave in excitement (also bewilderment at two western women waiting for the bus). A stall owner beckoned us over to his stall and told us when the bus was, placing chairs out for us to sit on and putting music on for our entertainment. Seeing two older women with massive bags, I asked first if they would like to sit down, with which they quickly responded wiggling their head and smiling a gapey smile. I felt guilty as I sat down, and as we watched tuk tuk drivers refuse to pick them up, we realized it was because of their caste they were not asked to sit or were unable to gain a tuk tuk. Although barefoot and balancing bags of rubbish on their head, their colorful saris and attitude to how they were being treated by others, blew me away. Their patience was tested even further when a group of young Indian men, seeing two western women, stopped their car and bought chai at the stall where we were, where they leant against their car and placed sunglasses on their face as if it formed a visible shade of superiority towards others.
As the bus took longer than expected, the friendly stall owner told us to hop onto a open jeep where other random passengers were getting on. Shrugging our shoulders, and being told it would take us to Munnar, we jumped on sitting next to various mothers, schoolchildren, laborers and rural villagers. As we sped around corners listening to what can only be described as Hindu rap, we giggled to ourselves. This car share seemed to stop at various small villages and sides of the road, seeing if anyone wanted a lift, and dropping off passengers and picking them up, (at one point there was 13 people in the vehicle which was extraordinary) til we reached Munnar. Definitely much more fun, exciting and cheap way of getting around rather than a tuk tuk or private taxi.
(Please note, I say Tuk Tuk because that is what they are called in South East Asia, here they are called Rickshaws, but they are the same thing.)
There is little happening in Munnar town, however I would advise heading to the restaurant SM– where I had amazing tasting parotta, because of its doughy texture that is stringy to touch and falls to pieces when you dip it in your chosen sauce or curry. Raspys is also a fantastic restaurant where the dishes tomato fry and potato roast is heavenly.
The old town is where all the guesthouses are based, and we stayed at Green View Inn– recommended by Lonely Planet. Although a lovely balcony with hammocks and writing tables where you can look out around you, we were not welcomed, nor given 17 cups of tea, which the lonely planet suggested, so bear that in mind, that factors which may sway you to a place, may not actually still be in place. Despite this, the owner was extremely good at selling to us his numerous available treks on offer, which we did end up booking with him.