Forward, to the backwaters: India Day 26 (Varkala to Alleppey

our boat pilot Jesus! That took some doing. Woke up in Varkala, though not too early, thank good. Instead of getting up at 5 AM, we decided to take the late train to the bus to Allepey.

The famous slow boat trip along these south Indian backwaters are universally recognized as one of the best excursions you can take in the entire country. After a tuk-tuk to a train to a bus, we arrived about three hours later at a dusty bus station in Alleppey, not 100% knowing how to take the next step. i.e. booking a houseboat to sail us along the Kerala backwaters. We couldn’t even find the boat docks.

And as was our habit, we ended up there during the hottest part of the day. Of course, it didn’t take long for the touts to arrive. Even rested and refreshed as we were, it was still a horrendous ordeal. We were beset by several, and waved them off as best we could. The most persistent one, well, persisted, and we gave in after he offered to hire a tuk-tuk at his expense to take us to the boat docks. Twenty minutes later, we found ourselves in front of several dozen houseboats, all lined up shoulder-to-shoulder.

Our tout, whom I’ll call “Hazel” as he had these crazy hazelnut-colored eyes, called to various boats, apparently taking us to the ones who would work with him. We started with a small boat, captained by Hazel’s cousin, which was ok but not great. We’d stashed our stuff there and tried others, getting farther and farther away from our bags as we went down the line.

The second boat was a good one, but in negotiating, the captain seemed dead set on overcharging and undersupplying us. This guy was also apparently Hazel’s cousin. Uh-oh.

After this point, we set off to get our bags and get rid of hazel. But he—guess what—persisted, and together we found the right boat. Built for a much larger party than us, it was still willing to take us—not least because it was low season and most boats had gotten booked an hour before we showed up.

Hazel negotiated it for us, but couldn’t get the price we wanted. No big surprise, given that his commission probably figured into it. We insisted on talking with the boat’s owner, who showed up an hour later. We got closer, but still paid a bit more than we wanted: around $120. But given that the price covered 24 hours on a 2-bedroom houseboat, a crew of 5, and three meals, we didn’t mind flashpacking a little. Say what you will about India, but the prices are nothing to sneeze at.

Besides, the roof deck on this boat was awesome.

Natacha, backwater pimpin'

house boat fin They call the boat a slow boat for a reason: It travels very S-L-O-W-L-Y. But the slowness really takes you to a different place, or rather, pace. We inched down palm-lined waterways for hours, watching life among the rivers and canals of this beautiful area.

We saw villagers wash their clothes (or themselves), walk down the jetties, sit in chairs watching the boats go by, and turn their heads away when I tried to take their photos.

boy rowing a chest of drawers, apparently

man washing clothes

Birds flew from palm to palm. No one waved, simply going along with their business.

woven boat

At one point from the roof deck, Natacha looked out on the waters and said, “It’s supremely beautiful.” Good a way as any to describe it.

Teatime consisted of fried bananas.

Ken in the houseboat living room

Around six, we watched the sunset from the roof deck. After sunset we walked along the riverbank, running into a brit couple and walking together for a while. Then it was back to the boat for dinner, which was DELICIOUS…not least of which because everything was made with some form of coconut: Chopped, shredded, milk. Note to self: cooking with coconut = yum!



Vaycay from our Vaycay: India Day 22-25 (Varkala)

Five days of rest, relaxation, and bloody hot sun--and boy, did we need it.

Most people traveling in India for any length of time spend weeks in Goa to recover from, well, travel in India. We didn't have any desire to visit Goa, so we found a beach elsewhere.  Varkala was much lower key and had way fewer people--especially in the post-season, when we went. The weather was getting too hot for most, meaning no crowds. Fewer restaurants and stores were open, but who cares? We didn’t go there for the scene.

Avoiding the resorts farther up the cliffs and sticking mostly to the area around our pleasant $28/night a/c room, we found Varkala to be a great place to recharge our batteries. Most of our five days were filled with great views of the beach from the cliffs above, fresh fish every night, and the best body-surfing I’ve ever done. The water was warm and it felt like it genuinely wanted me to have a good time. In low tide, that is. In high tide, it threw me around viciously and it felt like the surf genuinely wanted me to break my neck. Still fun though.

A typical day went as such:

  • Wake up
  • Eat breakfast
  • Go to the beach for sun and swimming
  • Eat lunch
  • Nap or read indoors (out of the noon sun)
  • Eat dinner
  • Go to bed

What’s not to love?

There were a few exceptions, of course, little adventures here and there, such as:

-My one and only Varkala yoga session with a yogi I can best describe as “pissy.” He had supposedly written a book on yoga that was used by the Indian armed forces (what, did you think they did jumping jacks?) . He complained about my not wanting to commit for a full week’s “study” (because how was I going to truly learn yoga?), but I think that he was more pissed that he didn’t have any students, period. I was the only one who showed up for his regular morning practice.

-Planning the next leg of the trip, which required lots of time at the one A/C internet café on the cliffs.

-A homemade thali dinner in the backyard of Kumari, a woman Dani recommended to us, who made a special dinner for Natacha, I, and the British woman who co-ran the Internet café.

last dinner

Varkala also happened to be a vacation spot for Indians as well. We met a lot of nice folks there, most of whom were curious to encounter westerners like us. Lots of families and students on weekend trips.

All in all, we got lots of rest and relaxation, and I read a ton of Salman Rushdie’s MIDNIGHTS CHILDREN there. Good times.


Escape from TVD: India Day 21 (Trivandrum--Varkala)

With Natacha feeling better, and myself on the mend as well, we packed up our packs and headed to the TVD train station. waiter at India Coffee ShopOur breakfast was at a fascinating Indian Coffee shop, actually called the India Coffee Shop. This one had this nutty winding hallway where you literally had to climb higher and higher to get to your table. It was a chain; like an Indian Denny’s. Families went there, people celebrated there, and it was a reliable place to go to get your morning dosa & coffee.

En route to AllepeyA 45-minute train to Varkala was all it took for us to start our vacation (from our vacation). Once we got to Varkala, everything was just easier. We got a tuk tuk from the trains station without any problem. We stayed at the first guest house we found.

our room, our mosquito net We spent the day doing nothing but walking along the Cliffs that overlooked the beach, just checking out the scene. We took in so much, including the sun, that we ended up getting overheated.

Somewhere in there, I got another haircut and shave. Having not shaved nor bathed properly in several days, it just made more sense to cut my hair off. The shave part was just plain indulgent. post-hospital shave

Natacha photographed it, to make sure that there'd be no funny business with the razor. We lunched at an underwhelming place (thanks for the recco Lonely Planet!), where we chatted and played around with a 5 year old orphan who was taken in by the family that ran the restaurant. They had ho money to school him, so they watched over him at the restaurant.

We ate at a vegetarian place with almost no light by which to read the menu, and went to sleep. Lovely part of the world.

Varkala, interrupted: India Day 20-21 (Delhi--Trivandrum)

The morning in Delhi just flew by, what with getting ready, taking it easy that day, and what not. We got to the airport in the late afternoon for our plane from Delhi to Trivandrum, the closest airport to Varkala. Why Varkala? Well, we wanted to see India’s south, and had planed to meet Dani there, but my hospital stay prevented that. But we had the plane tickets so off we went.

Before that, though, we were off to Dani & Ashik’s hotel. Unlike our ten-dollar-a-day diet, they chose a fancy, FANCY resort outside Delhi, close to the airport. So we went to visit them there. VERY kibosh. I think they had marble floors. And a swimming pool! You have no idea how nice a swimming pool can feel until you’ve been in India two weeks.

(Natacha doesn't want me to post those pictures because, you know, bathing suits)

We hauled ass (late!) to the Delhi airport, with the usual hassles and late flights. Natch ate some in-flight food that didn’t agree with her, and was sick by the next morning. That’s right, folks. poor natacha can only eat soupFantastic ThaliIndia is such hard traveling that even the AIRPLANE food will get you.

The next morning I found us an A/C room that she would be more comfortable in and searched for clean bandages for my forehead. It was across from a soccer field and near at least one good restaurant. We had an amazing Thali—um, actually, I had it, Natacha wasn’t feeling up to it and had a bowl of soup instead.

We found our way to the outdoor market, which was a cramped and full of exciting visuals, but Natacha wasn’t feeling her usual market-loving self.

So we walked across town back to our neighborhood for a quiet dinner, spotting the local YMCA along the way, with this unfortunately named class: "Catch them Young."

unfortunate class title

Trivandrum isn’t anything to be excited about…just a place to wait until your wife feels better. Give it a miss.