Alright so after many days of procrastinating I’ve decided to finally write about my trip… This is going to be a very long post.
So right when it was time for us to leave for our bus it started to downpour. Emily and I went out to South Gate to get a rickshaw, and we collected our belongings and people and piled in to go to the bus stop, which is outside a restaurant. We got there a bit early and waited, Meghan and Jack had forgotten to print out their tickets, but the person who worked for the bus company got it all sorted out. There was a guy there waiting for a ride and he talked to us for a bit, he said he wished he had some food to give us, a very Indian thing to do–wanting to take care of and feed guests. The bus arrived at 5:30 and it was a large A/C Volvo Sleeper bus. The seats were spacious and we had blankets and water provided to us. Two of us (myself included) had chosen seats in the back not realizing that the seats in the back are the worst ones to pick because they don’t recline. It wasn’t too bad though at first. I had a window seat and got to look out. They started by playing very risque music videos and then switched to the classic Tollywood romance/adventure/comedy with a similar plot line to most of the others I’ve watched. The volume was very high, so I just listened to my ipod instead. After several hours we all really had to pee. The bus would stop occasionally to let people on and to let some men pee, but not us women. It stopped at one point and everyone was getting up so we figured this was a pee place. It wasn’t, they made us sit back down and told us it would only be about 15 minutes until we reached the actual place to stop. Three hours later we stopped at a place to eat and go to the bathroom. It was about 11pm.
We got back on the bus and snacked on the food we had brought. Then everyone went to sleep more or less, except me. You see Emily and Meghan were sitting in the seats in front of Xandra and I, and they reclined their seats all the way. Xandra had an extra seat next to her so she laid down and slept like that. I had literally a 1.5 ft by 2ft space to keep my entire body in as there was no space for my legs. I ended up draping my legs over the seats in front of me and try all these weird, contorted positions to get myself comfortable enough to sleep. It didn’t happen. I was starting to get pretty upset and was eying a potentially empty seat in front of me when Xandra sat up and moved over a seat. It was about 2 am at this time so I laid down in the now empty seat next to me. I felt bad that I had taken Xandra’s spot and made it hard for her to sleep, so I told her about the empty seat. Still I figured she had been sleeping most of the bus ride, where I had not slept at all so it was my turn. About half an hour later Meghan and Xandra switched seats so that was good. I woke up at about 5:30 and admired the view of the Western Ghats out my window.
All the scenery was amazing and it made me really want to explore all the places I saw more, maybe even live there for a time. Some of the people in the back row got off the bus so Xandra and I got to sprawl out across the back. I napped for a few hours then we had to switch buses for some reason to a much older, dirtier Volvo semi-sleeper. We drove past a bunch of coconut groves, farms, and other interesting rural places. I really wish I had chosen a place in India more like this, I feel I would be getting a much more in depth cultural experience. So as a side note I noticed when I was buying the tickets that some buses said they would arrive at around 6 am the following morning, and other did not have a time of arrival so I just assumed that we would be getting there around 6 am. This was not the case, after 22 hours of being on a bus we finally arrived in Kochi. It was pouring down rain and Xandra had left her travel book on the bus so we didn’t really know where we were going to stay. Luckily right before the bus stopped I saw a sign for the Cochin Heritage Hotel that was down that street. We set off to find the street, and right when I found it we were stopped by reporters asking us questions. After that we hiked down the road for 3/4 kl and found the hotel. It was quite a bit more expensive that we were looking for, about 1200 per person or $25. We bargained it down to 820 but I still was not happy about it. We had been talking about finding a place that was 600 a night total, but everyone was in agreement so we stayed there anyway. I think most of them get money from their parents so they don’t seem to worry about it too much.
Also, it was pretty cute, it was all of their first time traveling on their own and having to find and rent a hotel, they were all talking about how grown up they felt and how proud they were of themselves. Its pretty cool that they are getting to have that experience. I went through it in Mexico at 17 and have done it several times since so it wasn’t as satisfactory for me, especially since I usually travel as cheaply as possible, but one of them was 22 and it was her first time so that was cute. The hotel was pretty nice, we had two rooms that were connected with a balcony. Xandra, Emily, and I went out to find internet to do research on houseboats because we wanted to get one the next day as it would be Jack’s last day and he should experience the backwaters. We did a lot of research and calling around and came to the conclusion that there were plenty of houseboats available so it made sense just to show up tomorrow morning and find one ourselves. We headed back to the hotel to get the others and headed out to dinner. It was really hard catching a rickshaw. They wouldn’t stop for us no matter how hard we tried. We finally got one, the rickshaws in Kerala are a lot bigger than the ones in Hyderabad and they walla asked us if it would be big enough to fit the five of us! We went to this restaurant in a hotel, we all made sure to order different traditional seafood Kerala dishes.
They were all fantastic, there was fish wrapped in banana leaves, calamari curry, fish with coconut and mango curry, spicy shrimp, crab. It was so good. Afterwards we headed back to the hotel and went to bed.
The next day we got up early to get breakfast, provided by the hotel. And it took forever. Our cab was supposed to get there at 8:30 (which it did), we headed down to eat and ordered at 7:50, the food didn’t stop coming out until 9:10. It was kind of ridiculous. Then we fou
nd out the cab was going to be 1500 rupees for the first 80 km or 8 hours—a completely absurd amount. It made me really angry, nothing in India costs that much, we get cab rides all the time in Hyderabad to places that far away for 600. But we had no other choice, we were running short on time because the houseboats leave at 12 and it takes about an hour to get there. The drive was really nice, this part of India is extremely lush and green. We got to Aleppey and were immediately approached by people who wanted us to get their houseboat. We looked at it, but it was a lit more that we wanted to pay. They showed us a few other house boats, and they assured us that we would not be able to find cheaper because it was getting late and it was a holiday weekend so prices were inflated. We eventually decided to get it, it was a really nice two bedroom house boat with a covered second story upperdeck and lounging area and a nice eating and sitting area on the lower deck.
We payed about 2500 each for the boat, quite expensive but we already knew that we wanted to spend the most on a houseboat during our trip. They needed an hour to buy food and supplies for the 21 hour journey, and we needed to hit up the ATM. The taxi driver charged us 300 more rupees for who knows what reason and we ended up booking him for the next day because we heard that we would not get any cheaper for that trip. It made me really mad how much the taxi was costing us but there wasn’t much we could do. We got back and chatted with the house boat guys for awhile, they were really nice and we soon set sail. The backwaters were quite beautiful, there were many little, brightly colored houses on little islands throughout the backwaters. The fed us a lunch of fried fish, beets, rice, curry, and it was amazing, some of the best food I’ve had yet. We docked to pick up food for dinner…freshwater lobsters…. and Emila broke out her ukelele and we had a huge of Indian men crowded around dancing and clapping. They were getting a kick out of it but kept asking her to play Indian songs, which of course she knows none.
We set off again and it started raining and it was so beautiful. The rain was really hard and it made everything very quiet and peaceful. There were certain points in the backwaters where the land on the other side of them was lower than on the backwater side, apparently the only other place where that happens is in Venice. We sat for awhile singing with the ukelele, and talking and relaxing. The crew members were really nice, and they talked to us for awhile about our families and theirs. For dinner we had fresh water lobster and it was amazing.
Xandra got one with roe on it, they also served us more rice and curry and a lot of the leftover food from lunch. The curry was made of chicken gizzards and was okay but I couldn’t handle eating much of it once I pulled a vertebra out of my mouth. After dinner we went to the upper deck and some of the crew members joined us. We talked to them for a while and it was really interesting getting to hear about their lives. They were the first Indian people I’ve talked to. The told us a little of the culture on the backwaters, how everyone recognizes everyone else’s boats and knows who they belong to. They also told us that we were the most respectful people they have had on the boat yet. Some of the stories were pretty bad: people doing drugs and break glasses; a woman who got drunk and refused to leave when the trip was over; people that go around Kerala in their bikinis; another group that got really drunk and decided to go swimming at night (which puts their lives in danger as the currents below the surface are a lot stronger than the ones on the surface); and other things where the people have no regard for the culture or the crew and act entitled and obscenely. It just baffles me that people could come to India without any thought for respecting the culture they are entering and portraying their culture in a positive light. They had no thought for the people they would encounter or anything. What makes India so interesting is the culture and to come and not try and respect it and learn about it just doesn’t make sense to me. Then they went down stairs, it was dark out by this time and the backwaters were still and quiet.
They were playing traditional Kerala music downstairs that involved really beautiful singing and instrumentals. It started to rain and we could hear a flute being played in the distance. It was so beautiful, for a little bit I thought it was Krishna playing his flute and I understood why he is so popular and enchanting. We laid around on the upper deck for half an hour or so in complete silence listening to the rain and the flute and the music. Lights from other houseboats shown out across the water giving a very surreal feel to it all. The crew downstairs started drumming for a but and we could feel the vibrations on the upper deck. It was very beautiful. After a while we came down and were served tea and then we went to bed.
In the morning the sun was shining and it was an amazingly beautiful day. We had a wonderful breakfast of toast and eggs while we docked. Then we said good bye, met up with our taxi driver and headed back to Kochi. Now I’m going to take a photo break:
Once we were on our way back to Kochi the driver wanted us to stop at the beach so we did for a bout 10 minutes. We waded in the water, which was black because of the rocks and such in the water. It was the Arabian Sea and the currents are too strong for it to be safe to swim in. Anyway we waded in the water and did some sun salutations and then got back in the taxi. Once we got back into Kochi we dropped Jack off at the bus station and said good bye. The driver told us it would be an extra 600 rupees to take us to Fort Kochi across the water! It was too absurd, we talked it over real fast and had him drop us off at a local bus stop so we could take the bus, for a total of 8 rupees each…I asked a woman to make sure it was the right place and the bus came and we got on it. Turns out that the bus wouldn’t take us all the way there, but the woman who I had spoken to was going to Fort Kochi as well and she had us follow her onto the next bus that did take us all the way there.
Kerala, and Kochi in particular, has some of the highest populations of Christians in the country. It was really interesting seeing churches and things about Jesus everywhere. The Portuguese settled there for a while so that is part of the reason it’s like that. There is also a high Muslim population along with a high Hindu population. And on Fort Kochi there is also a Jewish population, about 70 members who worship at a 500 year old synagogue. But, even more interesting, the Jews there have been there for longer than that, about 2500 to 1500 years. Another really interesting thing is that pretty much all the men here wear traditional clothing: the longi and dhoti, which is like a cloth wrapped around their waist. Very cool.
When we arrived at Fort Kochi we were immediately approached by a man who works at a restaurant to try and get us to eat there, we declined saying we needed to find a place to stay first. He proceeded to take us around and ask people for the home stay we were looking for; he ran into a rickshaw walla named Babu who said he could take us to one. We went around to a couple asking prices and finally found one for 400 a night for a room. It was nice and spacious though there was no hot water for the shower, not like that really mattered. Babu offered us to take us on a day long tour of all the interesting place in Fort Kochi for only 25 rupees a person.
So first he took us back to the restaurant we had first seen and we ate there. Then he showed us to a few Hindu temples, one of which was in the middle of a pond and people only worship there once a year. At one point he let me try and drive the rickshaw for a bit, it wasn’t too hard except the fact that you had to change gears and I didn’t understand how to do that, but it was fun. He then took us to a spice store, everything smelled great and they had some perfume and things like that. We tried some raw cinnamon, and candied ginger. After that he took us to a artisan store thing. It was awesome. They had beautiful crafts, tapestries with gold thread and amazing colors, blankets made of 100% pure Kashmir cotton, and rugs that are only 3ft by 2 ft but take several years to make. The blanket was amazing, it was so heavy and so soft, and as Emily said, had good energy, but it was about 12,000 rupees. The rugs were the softest things I have ever felt, it wouldn’t be right to even walk on them I felt. There was a whole room dedicated to the different rugs, but the little ones we were looking at were about 50,000 rupees. Everything was beautiful and waaaay over priced. I saw this tapestry that was a rich purple with gold thread designs it was amazing and there was another light blue one similar to it. They were both over 2000 rupees each. I found smaller ones that were about 1000 rupees…and then the haggling began.
Let me just say that haggling is really really fun, I wish we could haggle in the U.S. I normally hate shopping just because I don’t like to spend money and everything is so expensive, but here I can get things I want down to a more reasonable price. So on to the haggling. The owner started out assuring me that the normal price for the tapestry during the in season (November to February) was about 3 times that price. I asked for 400 for it, he said no way, eventually we settled at 700 for the tapestry, and then I saw another similar one that caught my eye, I asked 1200 for both, he let me have them for 1300. And let me just say they are beautiful. They are both 1×3 ft, one is a light blue the other is a darker blue and they have gold threading. Xandra worked out a similar deal with the amazing purple and gold one. She got it and a saree, originally priced at 2500, for 2500. After that shop Babu took us to another similar, but bigger one that, on the top floor, you could see a good amount Fort Kochi.
The store was huge, on the first floor there were little sculptures, metal work, jewelry, and things like that, the upper floor had a room dedicated to carpets, another one to sarees, and another to instruments. I was looking for a nice saree, so that’s where we went first. I was secretly hoping I could still get one and get it tailored in a day so I could at least where it once since Xandra and Emila got to wear theirs on the houseboat. Well they had a lot of beautiful ones, including one that was blue and white. It wasn’t what I was imagining getting as my fancy saree, but it was so beautiful and the other girls convinced me that it was perfect for me. So the haggling began, it started at around 3500, i got it down to 2000. The shop owner told us that they had a tailor there and if we brought them in the next day they could have the saree blouses done in a few hours. He had already invited us back the following day for tea- saffron and cardamon tea- so we decided to stop by in the morning and drop the sarees off (since both Xandra and Meaghan had bought one (Meghan’s was a beautiful purple slik one)) and then when we pick them up at four, have tea. So we headed home after the store, relaxed and talked for awhile and then got ready for the next day.
In the morning we woke up and headed out to find breakfast. We came upon a little corner restaurant where the locals were eating at and decided to try it out. It was really good. In Kerala they have a type of bread called porotha, its like a flat biscuit almost but really tasty. We made sure to get some to eat our food with when we weren’t using our hands. The food was super yummy, we each made sure to get different things and they were all great. When we finished we sat and talked for a bit and I noticed a pair of baby goats I could not help running over and photographing.
Fort Kochi doesn’t really seem to have any dogs, only goats and cats. They are everywhere and just roam about in little groups eating things. So the locals definitely got a kick of me taking pics with a couple of kids (lol). Then when I went back in the restaurant I noticed one of them had gone under our table. By this time we had paid for our bill and Babu had found us so we went out and a restaurant worker who noticed me looking at the goats just picked them up and put them in my arms.
They were so cute and nibbled on my ears. From there Babu took us to the Chinese fishing nets.
They are how people fish during the high season. They were huge, and maneuvered by large wooden frames with systems of ropes and rocks. They gave us a little demonstration and took our pictures. Then they asked us to pay what we liked. We meant to only pay around 10 rupees each but I didn’t have anything smaller than a hundred rupee note and they kept say that we should pay them each 400 rupees more, that this was their lively hood during the off season. It made us pretty angry, we are not foreign tourists who go and blow their money with no concept of what things in India are supposed to cost and are happy realizing we payed less than we would have in our home countries. More about this later but because Kochi is so used to foreign tourists everywhere we went was like this; they expect us to pay a ridiculous amount more than any Indian would pay and on top of that, this was during the off season. During peak season everything is three times the price. When we got back in the rickshaw Babu gave us some sweets he had bought. From there Babu took us to the washers.
They are the people that wash a lot of the linen and other things from the home stays and hotels in the area. They do it the old fashion way, in little concrete squares filled with water, banging the clothes on the edge, hanging them to dry on clotheslines in a nearby field, and ironing them with coal irons. But the best part was the puppies. As soon as we got in the area we spotted one, and she came bounding over to us, a tiny little thing with green eyes. She was so sweet and friendly. Then just when we thought it wasn’t getting any better her brother comes over. He was a lot shier but really wanted to interact with us. He did the shy little jump sideways and jump away thing that doggies do.
We fed them the leftover crackers Babu had given us. They were so sweet. Then after touring one of the ironers invited us over to use the iron and take pictures of it…for a small price of course…and of course they don’t tell you til after, but we payed only 10 rupees this time so it wasn’t too bad. Then Babu had us stop at another shop where he said if we went in and looked around they would give him free gas. We spend awhile there, they were from Kashmir and very nice people. Meghan bought two anklets from them, sterling silver apparently. While she was haggling the guy talked to us. His name was Sofee was from a small tribe in Kashmir but left because of how dangerous it is over there now. He spoke Urdu so we practiced our Hyderabadi Hindi on him (which is full of Urdu words because of the high Muslim population). From there we went to the synagogue. It was small but very cute. It had painted tiles on the floor in blue and white and each one was hand painted. Every row had a set of different pictures and when you looked at the pictures you could pick out the differences. It was very beautiful.
On our way back we got hailed by many shop keepers. We looked in a few shops. Then we went to the Dutch Palace. It had wall paintings of various Hindu myths and it was really fun for me to try and figure out which god or goddess was being depicted. After all that Babu took us to a place where we could get thalis, a south Indian food where you get rice and many little bowls of different curries and dishes for about 25 rupees a thali. It was great. Afterward he took us to another shop. They had the softest scarves and more importantly for me, singing bowls. I spent the entire time sitting on the floor on a very expensive carpet they laid down for me playing the various bowls. It was so peaceful and I loved they way they sounded. A few times the one of the brothers that worked in the shop would sit down with me and pick one up and play it. There was one that was very easy to play with a gold rim and a depiction of the Buddhist goddess Tara the White in it. The shop keepers were from Kashmir as well and by this point I started to realize that Babu was only taking us to places owned by Muslims: the spice shop, the two artisan shops, the gas place, this place; and it turns out he is Muslim, based on the wonderful arabic prayer on the inside of his rickshaw.
We had been speculating how he made his money since he was charging us so little, so we figured maybe he got a commission from these people who owned the shops. We found out later that that might not be the case when the shop keepers were saying they thought he was a good guy though they didn’t really know him. At this point Babu had to leave because apparently there was trouble with his wife but he called another rickshaw walla to take us around. He took us back to the spot where we bought our sarees/they were getting tailored. We showed up and true to my apparent bad saree luck, Xandra and Meghan’s were about finished, mine was not. While they finished Xandra and Meghan’s we had the saffron cardamon tea, and it was amazing. Afterwards, while they tried them on and got them adjusted mine was being finished, so it wasn’t a huge deal. Emila ran back to the home stay to grab her ukelele and got left by the rickshaw driver. I went down to tell him to go pick her up, and ran into Babu, whose wife was fine and who was taking around a nice European couple… I guess he realized how cheap we are and that when we would have asked us to “pay what we like” it wouldn’t have been very much. Anyway my saree finally was finished and I got it put on. The women at the shop really liked me, they said I looked like a Tamil actress. Anyway the saree looked great:
We all got them on and headed to a Kathakali dance show. When we got their we payed the rickshaw walla, we gave him enough so that Babu got a fair share. It was raining so we quickly ran into the theater, but not before getting a few compliments on our sarees were given. Apparently westerners that come here rarely ware Indian clothing and even less often do they wear sarees so we were a thing to behold. The show is pretty much designed for tourists, though it is a typical Indian dance. They let the audience come an hour or so before the performance to watch the makeup be put on, and let me tell you it is intense.
The dance is performed by all men, and normally is performed from sundown to sunrise. This one was only an hour. The dance portrays a story, in this case a scene or part of the Mahabharata. The acting is done through dance and involves facial and eye movement and isolation, and hand a foot positions. Training as a dancer, drummer, or singer takes about four years. The scene they were portraying was when the Pandavas, and their wife Drupadi, in the last year of their exile disguise themselves and work in the court of the king Virata. The King solicits Drupadi when she comes into his room on an errand, and when she refuses he tries to force himself on her. She gets away suffering only a few kicks and punches and runs to tell her husband Bhima what happened. He consoles her and tells her to tell the king to meet her later that night, but he will be lying in wait for him and kill him. And so he does. Here is Drupadi with the King, did do quite a bit of dancing but we have no video for it:
Here is Drupadi telling Bhima the story of what just happened to her, and him telling her his plan:
After the performance we walked home.
We got a little lost on the way, but everyone that saw us told us how beautiful we looked in our sarees and how they thought we were Indian women at first and stuff like that. We stopped a few conversations and got some thumbs up from people driving by. It was pretty great. We went back and some of us changed, others didn’t and we went out to eat dinner at this cute little place we had seen on the way. The food was pretty good, I ended up ordering a Chinese food dish and it was okay. Emila and I also split a soup and ice cream and those were way better. We went back to the home stay, talked for a bit, then went to bed. In the morning we went out again for breakfast to the same place. Meghan also wanted to return her anklets because one of them had already broken and both left green marks on her ankles…So much for real sterling silver. We called Babu and he came and picked us up and took us to the place. The people were not very happy about taking it back, especially since we were the first customers and it’s bad luck to give back money the first thing you do. They tried to see if we would come back in the afternoon to get the money but we told them we were leaving in an hour so it wouldn’t work. They gave the money back and we went back to the home stay to finish packing and call a rickshaw to pick us up. We got one to come and we loaded up and set out for the bus station. He said he knew where it was but he got lost and charged us and extra hundred rupees to go to the other place. When we got there the bus was already there though we were a few minutes early. We got on the bus and headed home.
The bus ride wasn’t too bad this time, I was in the row before the last one so I had a reclining seat. I got to see a bunch of interesting places I hadn’t seen on the way here, and a lot of places I might want to come back to. Once again they played really loud Indian movies until after our late dinner. Then we all went to sleep nicely. In the morning we got back to Hyderabad around 11 am. Unfortunately we missed the Ayurveda field trip that was that morning, we didn’t realize when we bought the tickets how long the bus ride was.
Now for the last few days since I’ve been back. Went to school for two days, went out for Ladies Night on Friday and went to the mall. Then just hung around the dorm and read American Gods a phenomenal book by Neil Gaiman. Then today I had my first Kuchipudi exam. It was on the different movements we’ve learned so far. I think I did pretty well, but she said as a whole we were disappointing. She’ll be giving us our personal feedback on Wednesday. Today was an extremely beautiful day. The skies were clear, the air was dry and somehow it reminded me of fall. There was a crispness to the air, and it smelled a lot like fall. It was very strange and wonderful, at one point I was walking to class wondering why it felt so much like fall, and then the feeling was compounded by a section of ground I was walking through that had fallen leaves on the ground. It was weird on several levels: I’m in India and I didn’t think they had fall here, and I haven’t experienced fall in three years. Though I do realized that I miss it. On my way back from Hindi things got even more surreal. The sun was just beginning its final decent so it made the colors of everything around me especially vibrant. The greens and reds and blues and oranges were popping out at me. And then as I’m walking back, thinking about fall and the colors I see two guys walking on the other side of the road, and they are dressed exactly like kids from back home. They have the tight, slightly dropping pants tucked partially into high top shoes, tightish solid blue tee shirts, small black north-face looking backpacks, and black, worn off to the side and lightly off the forehead hats.
It was crazy. I felt like I was back in DC. Instead of the light colored bell bottoms, plaid button up long sleeved shirts, and walking down the road holding hands (which is what typical Indian men do) they looked…normal. I’ve never thought anything about the men’s clothing style here before, but these guys just stuck out. And for one of the only times in my life I was homesick. I felt like I was back in High School just starting up school again for the year, which I guess is appropriate for this time of year. But it was strange, I’ve been in school now for a month and a half, and I’m in India, I was a little disoriented for a second but it made me really happy. And then I spent the rest of my day doing this… So there ya go, all up to date… And this concludes the most epicest blog post ever!
P.S. Don’t forget you can view the pictures larger by clicking on them!!