When tourists think of southern India they think of Kerala and it’s famous backwaters, palm trees, beaches and laidback attitude. It’s the place where you can forget for a while that you are in a country with over one billion people; it’s quieter and more relaxed than other places on the subcontinent.
I spent a few days in Fort Cochin or Kochi (every place in India seems to have two names) and instantly fell in love. Mumbai had been great but hot and busy. Goa was nice but touristy. Mysore had a nice Palace but not much else. As soon as I arrived in Fort Cochin I knew this is where I wanted to spend my days.
The Fort area has been under control by the Portuguese, then the Dutch and then the British throughout history as an important trading town and fishing village. The old streets still have beautiful colonial buildings, most of them turned into guest houses and shops selling upmarket clothes and handicrafts.
The waterfront is lined with ancient Chinese fishing nets which are still used today to bring in the daily catch. Every night I walked along at around 5pm to watch the sunset, the fishermen bringing in the last of the fish and the little stalls bartering with their customers over prices.
Kerala is also famous for its food, with lots of seafood, coconut and hot spices (even if I asked for mild I was guzzling water within two mouth fulls!). I had amazing fish curries and by far the best coconut vegetable curry I’ve ever had (I’d go back just to have it again).
I also got to explore the famous backwaters with a few other travellers from my hostel. It’s known as the Venice of the East because of the countless canals and rivers where people live and traditionally got around by canoe. It was such a peaceful day, where for the first time since I’d arrived in India it was almost silent.
I had noticed a lot of red communist flags flying around Fort Cochin and our backwaters guide explained that the Communist Party is in power in the state government. Their investment in social services has meant that Kerala boasts the highest life expectancy, literacy rates and electricity coverage of any other state.
I moved on from Cochin and went somewhere completely different yet only five hours away. The rolling hills of Munnar and its famous tea plantations where the temperature dropped to around 12deg, a far cry from the over 30 I had been accustomed to. It’s been a tea growing area since the 19th century and now hosts India’s biggest tea region where tea plants cover the hills for as far as the eye can see.
I did a six hour hike around the hills with a local guide which took us up over a 2200m peak where we had beautiful views of the plantations. We finished around 1pm and saw some of the female tea pickers stopping for their lunch break. They each had a giant sack full of their morning work and we watched as they had to weigh their bags to make sure they were on track for the 28kg minimum for the day which they would earn around 300rupees or $6AUD for. Our guide informed us though that the companies now provide free accommodation, childcare, healthcare and four years of schooling, which made it seem a little better for their back breaking work.
After a couple of days I left Munnar and headed for the next state, Tamil Nadu. I was told there was a direct bus at 11.30am however when I got to the bus stand at 11am a guy informed me that it would be better to take the bus leaving for a place called Theni and then I could change for another bus to Madurai. “Only one and half hours to Theni, madam!”. I was sceptical but I had all day so thought, why not.
Well in true Indian style it took nearly four hours to get to Theni, but saying that, the road was spectacular, winding down the mountains. It was a local bus, taking most of the back roads which meant skinny mountain roads that are only wide enough for one vehicle. We nearly drove two cars off the road and came to a head with another bus coming up the mountain. Our driver tried to squeeze round but people were yelling, “No, no, no!” as our tyres were just on the edge. Eventually we were able to get passed as the other bus reversed a bit to a wider corner.
I did arrive in Madurai alive and decided that my next journey might be better on the train instead!