Our second full day in Kerala was devoted to the water. No trip here would be considered complete until you have experienced the calm tranquillity of the Kerala backwaters. If you want to get the complete experience you can hire one of the Ketuvallam boats for yourself, they come in a range of one, two and even three bedroom affairs. You will have your own cook, boatman and spend twenty four hours on board being fed traditional Keralan fare and gently moving along the backwaters. Most go from Alpenny about 70Km south of Kochi.
If you want to get the experience on a shoestring you can do what we did which is take a day trip from Fort Kochi. You will be picked up at 8am from your hotel and driven down to a back water village about 30Km from Kochi and then board your boat for a six hour cruise along the rivers and backwaters of Kerala. We decided to do this and then decide whether we felt we needed the whole overnight experience. In the end we felt this had given enough of a taste of the experience to allow us to forego the full sleeping experience.
Our Ketuvallam was powered not by a motor but by two oarsmen, or to be more accurate two pole men. The propulsion method is similar to punting where a large bamboo pole is plunged into the water until the bottom is found and then the men push you along at a wonderfully serene pace of about 5 Kmph.
You have nothing but the sound of the poles dropping into the water and the natural noises of the animals and bird life around you to disrupt the peace. We were with an interesting group who consisted of two Bristolians from England, a German woman who spoke English with an Irish accent and an Indian Family and an Indian man travelling on his own from New Delhi. He was sixty, worked for an oil and gas company and has a son who is working in Chicago. You find all this out within the first five seconds of meeting him. As is usual in India, your marital status, employment, and childbearing data are compared before you can get onto more general conversation. He loved to have opinions about everything and went on later to call the English woman fat in a roundabout, polite sort of way. His charm just about got him away with the insult.
The boat was steered through some rivers and then out to the largest lake in Kerala, Vembanad Lake, before we stopped at a coir manufacturing family house where you get to see how coconut outer shells are transformed into rope. The good news is on this trip there is very little on offer for sale at these local stops, they are genuine farmers and don’t seem to be in it to sell you stuff.
The weather was reasonable and we were all glad we weren’t at the front or back of the boat trying to haul our bodies and the traditional boat around these waterways. While our guide showed us around some local spice and vegetable plants a veggie lunch was prepared and served on banana leaves. It was included in the very cheap price of the tour and was therefore basic, but tasted OK.
After lunch things got even more relaxing as we headed off the main waterways and into some smaller tributaries which were a little wider than the boat and in some places slightly thinner.
There was one section where we were told that we should not take pictures of the man or his land by the side of the water. We all duly obeyed and then John decided he needed to know the full story to this. After some coaxing he learned that the man used to take pictures of the tourists passing by on the boats and someone complained. He worked as a coast guard and was promptly sacked from his job so now he hates cameras and forbids photo taking near his land. About five minutes later we were warned not to take pictures of the man approaching in a boat and learned it was in fact the ex-coastguard. He mumbled to us as he passed and it was clear that since losing his job and posting up his no photographs sign he had sought solace in drink.
We had tried all day to spot Kingfishers that would stay around long enough to allow us to take a picture that was actually in focus but once they spy the boat coming they do a runner (or should that be a flyer) so I have five great out of focus shots of the birds we saw.
After lunch with the afternoon heat it wasn’t long before the whole boat was lulled into a lovely slumber as the boat ambled along and the peace enveloped us all.
We awoke to John asking the guide where we can find a toddy shop on the way home. He then explained the toddy production process. The coconut tree is bled of sap which ferments naturally and produces a light alcoholic beverage that is free from Keralan government liquor taxation and therefore costs about 60Rupees a bottle. Thus it is very popular with the drinkers of the state and Toddy shops can be found in every village to allow consumption of this local juice. After getting off the boat we all piled into a local shop for a try, much to the amusement of the locals. They stood around watching us, actually mostly the women in the party, have a little snifter. It tastes slightly sweet and fizzy with not a trace of an alcoholic content. We are assured it does, and some of the men watching were clearly very happy in a swaying sort of way.
It was a great day out and if you are on a budget, or in a slight rush around Kerala then this trip will certainly give you a flavour of Keralan Village life without the more expensive overnight trip. The day trip including hotel pick up and drop off, lunch the guide and lunch was 650 Rupees ($12) each. The cost for an overnight stay will set you back 5-8,000 Rupees depending on the quality of your boat and food.
Our remaining time in Kerala was devoted to a bit of relaxation. You will know if you are a regular reader that we both enjoy massage. It has been quite a while since we had one so we were very much looking forward to our first authentic Ayurvedic oil massage. After visiting three places John decided on one that would actually negotiate on price and got 10% off and our massage time extended.
Unlike most massages where your dignity is kept intact either with you leaving on your shorts or being covered by a decent sized towel, in Kerala your therapist will hand you a piece of cloth. This measures 4cm by 8cm with strings attached which you place over your embarrassing bits and he will then send the string up your crack and round your sides and make a nice bow on your buttocks at the back.
Having lost all dignity you then begin your massage where oil is drizzled on your head and beautiful smelling oils applied to your face and temples. From here you get a head massage that ranges from soft to hard and then back to soft at the end.
It then time to hop on the bed which resembles a morticians table, only in teak with grooves to catch the oil and moveable small pads to make your extremities comfortable. The massage then begins soft as you are drenched in oil from head to toe and the therapist begins to work up and down each side of your body. Kneading out aches and pains and bad karma before working them to the extremities of your feet and hands. It seemed to me they were working the toxins out of your body and expunging them from the tips of your toes and fingers. Once this is done they finish with some very sensual light fingertip touch starting at your feet and then upwards across the whole body before flipping you over and starting the process again on the other side.
The massage finishes with another head massage before directing you to a steam cabinet. This is is powered with the aid of a pan on a hotplate next to the wooden box with a tube out of the top of it leading into the cabinet.
You are inserted into the contraption and made to sit amongst the steam and herbs for ten minutes before they take you out and scrub you down with soap to remove the oil from your back before leaving you to do the same on your front.
It really was the strangest massage experience I have ever had, it was sensual and yet managed to undo knots, aches and pains. I did feel as though bad things were being removed from my body. However, this isn’t for everybody as we’ve met several blokes here who found the whole experience a bit unnerving and certainly not relaxing.
This all may be in my mind, but I really did feel good after it. In fact it’s a day later and I still feel amazing and can still whiff the scent of the oils used on my skin. Well be having quite a few more of these over the next few months I think. Lets just hope the thong is a little bigger in the next place.