India | Alleppey: January 24-27, 2009

January 24th, 2009

We left Cochin this morning and after a couple of hours passing by charming sights of coconut palms, humble village shacks, quiet rivers lined by rows of palm trees, and generally a lot of greenery, we got to Alleppey. The main part of town was divided by a long canal on which were lots of tourist boats, motorboats, and canoes. The canal was, as understandably being right in the middle of a town, a bit dirty and choked up with greenish plants similar to weeds. There were even ‘boat stops,’ similar to bus stops! It seemed that the backwaters formed an integral part of transportation here, not just being a tourist attraction. However, we’d yet to see a houseboat, something very unique to this area. We got to our resort where we reserved a room and as is practice, we went to check out the room. Pretty bad! No way were we going to pay all that for a fairly dingy room and a dirtier bathroom. So back to the drawing board it is! We proceeded to do what we generally don’t look forward to – search a hotel impromptu while traveling in a taxi (and obviously no access to the Internet).

However, our taxi driver seemed to know the area and of a few places we could check out. Besides, the scenery around wasn’t hurting us, what with being surrounded by the backwaters. The first place we went was right on the backwaters, but was a bit too ‘rustic’ for our sensibilities. There wasn’t even A/C. We’re just into our creature comforts! The next place was right on the backwaters too, seemed a bit more comfort-oriented, but was full! Argh! This part of the backwater was quite pretty, surrounded by tall coconut palms and we even saw a typical houseboat docked by the side! However, the water itself was full of those green plants and although it looked nice, we wouldn’t mind seeing the water too! After this, we had to re-consider our approach – all the mid-range places were either too rustic or not available, so we decided to go check out some more expensive places.

We got there after a long drive, winding through some narrow roads and passing by most of the village life here in Alleppey. The first place was right on what is called Vembanad Lake, the largest lake in Kerala and the source of all the backwater canals. The water here was free of the green plants, was vast, and the resort seemed pretty cool. However, the room itself was not too impressive and the shower area was out in the open. While we experienced something like this in Bali, the bathroom wasn’t completely in the open, having a glass roof and all. Plus, this was quite expensive! The next place we checked out was right nearby and seemed even fancier! However, they had no availability! Then we got back in the cab, wondering what to do. Karthik remembered another hotel, the Lemon Tree, which was super fancy and expensive, but really nice. He called them to inquire on availability and if they could offer a better price. The reservations manager seemed friendly and knocked off a couple of G’s off the tariff! Still expensive (around a $100 per night), but given our options, we didn’t think we could remain sane looking for other places. So we headed over to the Lemon Tree, feeling it’s totally OK to treat ourselves after quite some time doing the right thing and staying in budget hotels or serviced apartments.

It was quite a distance away, and finally, we pulled up into the resort… quite fancy, neatly kept grounds, a cottage-like feel to the hotel from outside, and just an air of ‘niceness’ overall! We checked in, and saw our room. It opened up in the back to a wicked pool, but the best part was… the pool overlooked the Vembanad Lake. It was SUCH a stunning view! The huge lake stretching as far as the eye could see, just a small island in the distance and the shoreline to our left and right ringed completely by palm trees. Well… back to our room. We’re not done with it yet! The room was clean, clean, and clean, and then the bathroom! The shower was ‘Da Bomb’! We haven’t even used a shower like that back home. Wicked! It had all these crazy nozzles and settings and it was one of those glass-partitioned concepts. We were very happy… not all expecting to see this here in India!

We didn’t waste much time after taking advantage of the pool right outside our room. It was one of those ‘edgeless’ concepts (gosh… all these concepts!) where the water just flows off of one edge, that particular edge facing the endless lake. We changed into our swimming gear and hopped in. We asked the pool attendant to turn on the jets and fountains and the works and we just basked for a while. Passing by on the lake were those houseboats (by the way, they cost around $300 a night!) as well as smaller boats used by fishermen. Each time we saw any boats on the expansive lake, it was just such an ‘authentic’ sight… confirming that we were in Kerala… God’s Own Country! After some time, the sun started to set and it got chillier. So we went back to our room and relaxed the rest of the night. The next few days, we plan on doing just that… relax!

January 27th, 2009

The last couple of days were a dream. We woke up to a FULL breakfast, comprised of several helpings: cereal, toast/jam, chicken sausages, grilled tomatoes, pancakes, omelettes, fruit shakes, and of course, coffee! All nice and helping us keep regular! We then lazed about in the pool getting some good color and enjoying the striking scenery. Here and there, Karthik went off to explore the resort property and taking snaps of peaceful hammocks (no one in it, obviously!), towering palm trees, an empty pier, some birds sitting on wooden posts, and such! All in all, it’s also been a photographer’s paradise. Yesterday, he went for a long walk to get us some refreshments, i.e. pop and candy! He took the trail leading up to the hotel, which is about a kilometer off the main road. On the way were little houses, littler huts, big mansions, all of them shrouded in coconut trees and having sloped tiled roofs. Some of them had wells; others didn’t. A few had little kids playing in the front yard; others had older folk resting on the verandah. All cool contrasts in this quaint part of backwater Kerala. It’s nice to get a glimpse of the surroundings outside our resort, wonderful as it is.

Speaking of which, we were religious about being in the pool every day. A couple of days ago, we met a middle-aged couple from Delhi; the man being a doctor who’s trying to write a book blending all the best of Eastern medicine with the West. We talked at length about Deepak Chopra, holistic therapies, spirituality, and the like. He seemed to be a big fan of Sri Aurobindo and gave Karthik a book by him to describe the sort of thing he’s trying to pen himself… something along the lines of Integral Medicine. It was neat meeting them; other than that, the resort seems pretty dead and not many other people frequenting the pool. Our food here has been great, albeit expensive… we’ve tried to minimize having too many meals, filling up on breakfast and making noodles or soup out of packets and using the water kettle! Hey… why not, when we’re splurging on the resort itself! So today, we went on our backwaters boat trip. We took a motor boat provided by the resort and went out on the lake and into canal country. In the spirit of getting sun and feeling the breeze, we had our chairs up on the roof of the boat (as we did in Halong Bay). It was a cloudy day with sunny breaks, the wind was up but not strong, and generally humid and hot… all in all, a fine day to be on a boat. We saw our resort and the shoreline drifting away in the distance as we went into open water. Here and there, there were these tiny boats with no more than two or three fishermen going about their business. A few of them even had sails and looked quite pretty against the waters. We then approached the island that we could see far off in the distance from our resort, at which point the boat driver motioned if we wanted to dock. Apparently, it’s some kind of bird sanctuary that you can walk around and explore. We were enjoying our being-ness on the boat too much to get off, so we just told him to proceed along.

We passed by several houseboats, some of which were absolutely massive! They’re said to have 2-3 bedrooms, a full kitchen, washrooms with showers/Jacuzzis, and large living rooms with TV/DVD player… the works! Literally, a house on a boat! We didn’t feel too bad not having been in one; we love our resort experience too much along with sleeping on solid land. We continued further, veering off towards another long shoreline in the far distance. Eventually, as we neared the shore, we saw an opening we assumed we would enter. We did. As we officially entered the backwaters, we noticed to our left another large resort and to our right another bird sanctuary. This part of the canal was quite wide, however we still were close enough to our side of the shore. There was enough space for two large boats to pass by each other.

The scenery was vivid, lush, and really quite exotic. On either side were huge throngs of coconut palms lining the shore and just a little behind were the houses styled in a unique Chinese-Indian sort of architecture. It actually reminded us of Bali. There were some old women washing their clothes by the river, while all sorts of domesticated animals huddled about near the river. A lot of the canal was choked by weeds and these fleshy, thick water plants, so much so that our boat had to stop once in a while to clear its propellers by reversing in full throttle. Further upstream, it cleared up and seeing the reflection of the palm trees on the river was just awesome! It was obvious that everyone living here used the canals for transportation, so there were a whole bunch of small boats docked by the shore in makeshift piers. This truly felt like “God’s Own Country” or a large greenhouse with a river running through it, evident by all the crazy amount of vegetation everywhere, including banana plants, mango trees, and other fruits we like eating! In the distance, we could also see large rice paddies. All the ingredients around to make some good Mango salad with rice.

We continued our way, taking the scenery and following the course of the canal. A few large houseboats passed us; other locals ferrying goods were row their little boat-canoes past us and smiling; we stopped here and there to “un-choke” the propellers, and overall, had a grand old time on the roof of our own private boat. Our trip through the backwaters continued along, and then we came upon a large portion of the river where they were actually building the houseboats by the shore. That was interesting to see, as we figured they must make them locally, using locally available materials. It was cool to see everything was so organic – very little metal, concrete, or the stuff we’re so used to back home. People here just living off the land and rivers and having it good.

After some time, our boat left the coziness of the backwaters and headed back onto the open waters of the Lake Vembanad. It was time to get back to our resort. It was a great experience and probably the highlight of our South India leg so far, for sure! Back at the resort, we jumped back into the pool that evening and just chilled, watching the lake and feeling all peaceful. Tomorrow, we head off to Kanyakumari… hopefully by taxi, which we haven’t arranged yet. But, as these things are, they get taken care of somehow.

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