The differences between Rajasthan and Kerala could not be more marked. Rajasthan is hot, dry, dusty, noisy and crazy. Characterised at this time of year by dry river beds, brown rocky landscapes, red hilltop forts and golden wheat fields, it is a palette of autumn colours, punctuated by the vibrant colours of people’s clothing and household decorations. I’m sure at other times of year, after the rains, it is a different place, of different colours. On the streets in Rajasthan you see cows wandering at will everywhere, along with buffalo, dogs, pigs, camels and sometimes goats. As a foreign tourist, every minute you are on the street there is someone trying to convince you to buy their goods or services. It is a constant barrage of competition for your dollar. The people here have a hard life, they work hard in the unrelenting heat. They are primarily Hindu, and Sikh with some Muslims.
Kerala is green, lush, humid and feels abundant by comparison. On arrival at Cochin International Airport, you are greeted by a newly renovated shiny modern space. Once outside you notice an absence of touts. To get a taxi here you go to a booth and pre-pay, then you are allocated a taxi. No bargaining, no discussion, no tuk-tuks. This airport is fully operated on solar power as can be seen by the large arrays of solar cells in fields as you leave the airport.
We were booked into a hotel close to the airport as we arrived late at night and the drive to Fort Kochi as about 2 hours. I approached the pre-paid taxi booth to see about a ride to our hotel, a mere kilometre away, and was told by the officious woman at the booth that it would be 500 rupees. This was outrageous for such a short trip, so we called the hotel, that fortunately supplied their own complimentary car for pickup. Having realised that the fare to Fort Kochi the next day would likely be very high in a taxi, we made enquiries about other forms of transport to the city, and found there are buses running every half hour, so the next day we took the hotel car back to the airport and caught the bus to town. This was a comfortable airconditioned bus, that made a few stops along the way, including at the famous Lulu Mall, and arrived in the heart of the Fort area in about two hours, all for 88 rupees each. Along the way we saw the new high speed rail metro, some of which is now open, and some still under construction, which will eventually also connect to the airport. The metro is characterised by its overhead carriageway, stations with solar power and vertical gardens, and its mission of assisting disadvantaged women and transgender people by preferencing them for employment. The metro is managed exclusively by women.
While driving along here you notice the absence of animals by the roadside, few dogs, no cows, no pigs, no camels, no buffalo. The houses are more solid and cared for, there are no signs of roadside shanties or makeshift housing; this area is noticeably more affluent than Rajasthan. There are many churches and also mosques, as there are bigger Christian and Muslim communities here.
There is water everywhere, growth everywhere, creepers grow on anything left still for too long, houses have huge roofs sitting above the top of the house to provide a cool, rain proof space on the rooftop. The shops have a more permanent look and are cleaner and selling more upmarket goods.
When we got off the bus in Fort Kochi, we were only about a kilometre away from our hotel, but with heavy bags, we decided to get a tuk-tuk. We actually had to look for one and ask him to take us, he seemed ashamed to charge us 50 rupees ($1) for such a short trip. Our hotel is in a 350 year old building built by the Dutch East India Company. It has huge rooms and high ceilings made of dark timber and white solid plaster walls, with a lovely courtyard area which now houses the restaurant and pool.
We settled in then walked into town; the humidity was extreme in comparison to where we had come from, and it was hard for me to get acclimatised. We sat in an open air bar and had a beer and some chilly prawns – we had been looking forward to seafood as there is none in Rajasthan.
That night I began to feel unwell, and found I had succumbed to the dreaded ‘travellers diarrhoea’, so spent much of the next day lying in my room, with the aircon, rehydration solution and bathroom proximity being my only requirements. The Wise One went out and explored a little, and took some lovely photos of the sunset and the Chinese fishing nets.
The following day I was feeling somewhat better, so we decided to take a car down to Alleppey (Alappuzha) to take a boat cruise on the backwaters. We found a boat and it was decided we would cruise for 4 hours with a lunch stop along the way. This area of backwaters is a complex of river, lakes and canals which are plied by houseboats and water ‘buses’, longtail boats and some canoes. People live alongside the water in simple but sound and well kept houses, with the river or canal at the front and paddy fields behind. Suffice to say there is water everywhere, and this is not yet the wet season here, there is growth and a kind of green bucolic abundance. Some of the houses are also shops, selling food, drinks, ice creams, and other necessities.
We saw a few water birds and lots of eagles, which are Red Backed sea eagles or Brahmin kites whirling around above us. We stopped for lunch at a little restaurant and there was a tame eagle sitting on a stump at the restaurant. As far as I could tell it was free to fly away, there were no bindings on it and its wings were not clipped, and it seemed happy enough to be photographed sitting on people’s arms or shoulders. We had a basic lunch of curry on a banana leaf and we also had a few fried fresh water prawns, which were quite nice. On the return journey we stopped for a coconut water which was very refreshing. The boat ride was slow and relaxing, with just the two of us on the boat, we could lay out on the lounges and just chill out as the world glided by.
On our return to the hotel we headed down to the beach to watch the sunset, which we missed, but found instead that the whole foreshore was full of people just out enjoying the Sunday evening. As was walked along the promenade, there was an array of little carts selling exotic pickled vegetables, and pineapple with chilly in little paper plates, men roasting and selling spiced masala peanuts and what looked like home made Cheezels, there were young men with fairy floss in little cellophane bags on a stick ringing their bells as the went, and of course ice cream vendors. We looked for an ice cream place that was busy and found one where the man was so run off his feet selling his ice creams, we figured they must be the best and lined up for ours. Neil had mango and I had chocolate, and they were very good, smooth texture with clean flavours. It was so pleasant strolling along eating ice cream in the evening along with hundreds of other people with their families, just enjoying the atmosphere.