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Part 2: Alappuzha and the backwaters

3-4.8: Munich -> Dubai -> Kochi -> Alappuzha
Hotel Tharavada Heritage Resort, Alappuzha. 1200 Rs for a basic room with adjustable, remote-controlled A/C, fan, a TV, almost no furniture. Attached bathroom with shower. The hot water of the shower does not really work, so basically you have to take a cold shower. Relatively basic place, but in a quiet area of Alappuzha.
Weather: sunny with some clouds when I leave Munich. Mostly overcast in Kochi and Alappuzha, but no rain the whole day.

At 2pm I arrive at the check-in counter and thanks to the online check-in, I manage to almost immediately check in the luggage. The plane is an A380. Very spacious inside (lots of leg room to the seat in front, relatively wide seats), big LCD screens in the seats even in the economy class. The two seats adjacent to mine are empty. The seat rows are 3-4-3.

The flight proceeds smoothly and I land on time in Dubai. Here I proceed to the gate (very long airport terminal, by the way).

The 3:20am Emirates flight to Kochi is delayed a bit and only leaves at 3:45am Dubai time. The plane is a Boeing 777, very narrow inside. Same 3-4-3 seat row structure as the A380, but less wide fuselage. Also, there is less leg room to the seat in front. Perhaps Emirates thought that this is a plane for Indians which on average are smaller than Europeans. Lots of checks by the way at Dubai airport - the boarding pass is checked multiple times, and transit passengers have to scan again their bags.

On the plane I manage to catch some sleep, perhaps an hour or so.

Despite the delay we land even a bit early at 8:45am in Kochi. The airport is ok, although not as flashy and new as southeast Asian airports or Dubai airport.

I'm at the immigration queue shortly before 9am and then am one of the last people who get through immigration, over half an hour later. Very slow immigration queue processing. Again all bags have to go through a security scanner.

I retrieve quite quickly the luggage quickly, change some money at the money changer (no ATM inside the airport, i.e. you have to get out first) in order to pay the taxi, then proceed to the prepaid tax counter and get a voucher for a taxi to Alappuzha.

Outside I get a local SIM card for the Smartphone (Vodafone, SIM card costs Rs 100, I buy a 1GB data package for Rs 300 and add some airtime). After getting some cash from an ATM, I proceed to the taxi.

It's 10am when I am finally in the taxi. The 90km trip to Alappuzha takes over 2  1/2 hours. Initially we pass through a city with lots of traffic.

After checking in and taking a shower, at 2pm I catch a rickshaw to a restaurant next to the beach (20 Rs). It's rickshaw driver who chose this place or perhaps the hotel owner. I spend 555 Rs for a meal consisting of fish, some vegetables, chapati bread, fruit dessert and some drinks.

It's 3pm when I finally get to the beach. The beach is not too terrible, the only problem is that the seawater looks dirty and uninviting. Probably there are currents in the sea as stated in the LP guidebook.

It's quite hot on the beach, so hot in fact, that after a few minutes on the beach, I have to start the retreat. I only covered my neck and face with suntan lotion, and the sun is really very strong and I'm still very tired of the last night on the plane.

I decide to get to the lake area and have a look at Alappuzha, initially thinking og walking there. After a few hundred metres I change my mind due to the strong sun (which would even be stronger if there wasn't this clouds layer). So I take a rickshaw (50 Rs).

Once there I walk a bit around the area until I get adopted by a local Indian who will bring me around for 3 hours in the backwaters on his boat for just 1000 Rs (compare that to the 400 Rs/hour quoted in my hotel and the 500 Rs/hour I found in the web). I will be sharing the boat with two other tourists, two French girls).

So, we leave around 3:30pm and head through the channels. The boat has an engine, which the boatsman operates at low power, thereby generating less noise.

The channels in and around Alappuzha are all nice and idyllic. Lots of Keralan houseboats around, in many different sizes. Some are very big and can accomodate large groups. These are actually cruise boats which have been made to look like houseboats.

Tons of houseboats everywhere. This must be really big business here. However these houseboats must be catering to groups of people rather than to individuals.

The backwaters, at least what I see today, are a bit less idyllic than how they have been described in the tourist guides. My initial impression is that the backwaters are a bit overrated.

Still, it's very nice to float around in the channels. After a stop at a cafe we finally are back in Alappuzha at 6:40pm. End of the idyll, we are back in noisy, smelly and hectic Alappuzha.

For dinner I look for the Thaff restaurant, which is listed in the LP guide. I was thinking of finding an elegant and air-conditionned restaurant, but no, this is sort of an Indian eatery: fan only, no A/C, lots of noise coming in from outside. However the food is very cheap here (total bill is only 195 Rs).

After dinner I walk back to the hotel, since it's only 2km according to Google Maps. Well, it's no fun to walk these two km, because there is no pavement and there is heavy and crazy traffic.

In the hotel I settle with the hotel owner a houseboat trip for tomorow for 5750 Rs (leave 12pm, return 9am). The price seems in line with the information I have found in the Internet (around 6000 Rs and more) and includes all meals and the staff. Then I retire to the bedroom.

5.8: Kerala Backwaters trip
Houseboat arranged by the Theravad Heritage Resort. 5750 Rs for the whole trip, which includes the pick-up at the hotel, the houseboat with lunch and dinner (breakfast?). The houseboat is a small one, with just one room with a double bed, A/C (only between 8:30pm and 6am), electricity the whole day, attached bath with shower. The room is small (maybe 3m x 3m), but clean and decent. The boat has an engine (60hp?), a kitchen area, a living room area, a rooftop place with chairs. It is staffed by two people, a driver and a cook. The food is not good (see below) - it appears that the tour organiser tried to save some money on the food.
Poor, cold only shower with little water. Takes a lot of time to rinse away the soap.
Weather: hot and tropical, clouds and clouds layer in the sky, patches of blue sky here and there. No rain.

I get up at 9am, have breakfast at 10am and at 11:40am leave the hotel. The hotel has arranged for a taxi to bring me to Kochi tomorrow after I come back from the boat trip.

The trip starts with a rickshaw which brings me to a place where I get on a first boat, approximately the same size of the one I took yesterday. This first boat brings me to the actual houseboat which is anchored somewhere on the channels. The houseboat is much small than the ones I saw yesterday, in fact it has one room only. It is powered by a diesel engine.

Shortly after 12pm the trip begins. We glide slowly through the backwaters of Alappuzha. There are many polders, i.e. areas which have been reclaimed from the waters, diked and are now used to grow rice and .... mainly rice for what concerns this area near Alappuzha. The channels are fringed by coconut palms.

Every now and then there is an interesting building, a church or temple, but not much else. Lots of other houseboats doing the tour as well.

At some point we stop in one place and the cook suggests I buy some fish. I choose a fish and am asked to pay 430 Rs. A bit expensive for one fish and wasn't it so that the food is included in the price of the trip? Oh well, the cook has already prepared the fish for me, this fish would have been an extra not covered by the tour.

At 1:30pm we stop in a place next to a paddy field and I'm served lunch. This is disappointing, because the fish is only a small fish, all skin and bones with very little meat. What little meat it had has been converted to a hard and sticky mass though some deep-frying. Essentially the fish is uneatable.

This reminds me of a situation I experienced in a restaurant many years ago on Pangkor island, Malaysia. Am American tourist next to me who ordered some sort of crab with big legs and was complaining that inside the legs there was no meat. Telling me that in the USA when you order a crab in a restaurant and open the legs there is lots of juicy meat inside.

Same situation here, but it looks like somebody has tried to save some money on the food. Also the pineapple sauce does not taste well, which means that I essentailly skip lunch.

At 3pm (we stop in this polder for one and a half hours) we continue the trip. I ask if we can make a stop somewhere along the way, for instance in a village or some other interesting spot and am told that this is not planned and that it is late. But they tell me that the place where we are going to stay for the night is an interesting village (Koppapuram) which I can explore.

Shortly before 6pm we arrive at the place where the boat will stay for the night. The boatsman asks three or four times if want to have an ayurvedic massage (which probably you can get here). So I look for the interesting village, but can't fnd one. We are basically anchored next to a dike, together with other houseboats, and there are just a couple of houses nearby. The boatsman tells me that this is the "village".

When I enter my room and try to switch on the A/C, it doesn't work. I'm told that there is A/C only between 8:30pm and 6am., that the boatsman has orders from his manager not to switch in on at other times.

At 7pm there is dinner. This time it's chicken curry with steamed rice. You'd think that nothing can go wrong, but no, they have cooked pieces of bone with some meat on it. I spend a few minutes separating the meat from the bones and when I'm done the bone mass is much bigger than the meat mass. Again the tour operator has saved money on the food.

There is nothing to do here in the evening, but at least it's out of the city in a peaceful area. On the opposite side of the channel several houseboats are anchored, probably with a large group of Indian tourists on board. It seems they are having fun, a pity I can't join them (would have to swim across the channel in the darkness).

The next day we'll be back in Alappuzha at 9am, so I guess we must be leaving early here. The boatsman tells me we are leaving at 8:30am.

6.8: Backwaters near Alappuzha -> Kochi
Poovath Heritage hotel, Kochi. Probably three stars, but four stars feeling due to the swimming pool and all other hotel details. Large room, probably 4mx4m, with nice furniture and wooden decorations. A/C with remote control (which seems to be stuck at the coldest level however), fan, phone, TV, WLAN (included in the room price). Large bathroom with black and white ceramic tiles, with bathtub and modern massage-type shower with multiple nozzles. Convenient location in the historic area of Fort Kochi. 26 Euro/night without breakfast, booked via Expedia. Compared to the place where I've been in Alappuzha (18 Euro) this feels like an order or magnitude or two better.
Weather: blue sky with some clouds but mostly blue, for almost all day. Rain, even heavy rain after sunset.

I'm woken up at 8am by the alarm clock (couldn't fall asleep last night due to the jet lag). I take a shower, pack my things and by the time I finish the boat has already been moving for a while and we are close to Alappuzha. I give tips to both the boatsman and the cook (200 Rs each, would have given more if the food was decent, these people probably depend on the tip).

I change to a small boat which brings me to the taxi. At 9:30am we leave Alappuzha for Kochi. The trip proceeds smoothly, let's say for Indian circumstances, because the driver drives quite aggressively and overtakes in some situations in which I wouldn't have dared.

Shortly after 11am we reach the hotel. The room is not ready yet, but they manage to make it available pretty soon, so I can put my stuff there and start exploring Kochi.

Kochi, or let's say the historic area I see today, is interesting and has a lot of potential, due to its multitude of colonial era buildings. It's a pleasant and green place, not as noisy and chaotic as Alappuzha. For an Indian city it's a very livable place.

Kochi lies on a long island facing the Arabian sea. This island is about 2km wide, i.e. you can walk from one end to the other and the historic area is at the northern end of this island. Walking is possible, but a bit tiring in the heat under the strong sun.

I have to say that from a tourist perspective Kochi is incredibly underdeveloped. If there was a city like Kochi with a rich historic heritage in Europe, the waterfront would be full of cafes and restaurants with tables and chairs where you can sit down and have something while enjoying the view. But here, no, there is nothing. No place along the waterfront where you can sit down and have something. Really incredible, entrepreneurism doesn't seem to exist in this place.

Instead Kochi seems to be a city full of beggars, where people are in constant begging mode. Everywhere I walk I'm approached by just anybody - children, young people, old people, who beg for money or ask for a donation, like the guy whose job was to pull up the Chinese fishing nets and whose left had was full of scars. I barely noticed any beggars in Alappuzha, but Kochi seems to be full of them. Even the rickshaw drivers pull out the story that today there is no business and you have to support them. These people should start by helping themselves, by showing some drive, starting a business, opening some cafes along the waterfront etc.

Anyway, when I leave the hotel I'm immediately approached by rickshaw drivers who offer to bring me around and make a tour for me. All places I want to see are in walking distance or almost and in any case I might need to go from A to B, but I don't need somebody who follows me like a dog (and then charges me for the time he has been waiting for me).

Some discussion with the rickshaw drivers, who by the way offer to lower the price if we stop at a shop. Don't these people understand that we would be cheating the shop owner if I walked into a shop so that they get there commission but I don't want to buy anything?

By the way, tons of souvenir shops everywhere in the historic area. Really incredible, entire streets are full of them, even entire blocks/quarters. I can only guess that souvenirs must be a big business (i.e. lots of people buying them), otherwise there wouldn't be so many shops.

I take a riskshaw and shortly before 12pm I'm in the Mattancherry (Dutch) palace. This is sort of interesting and contains inside a museum with stuff of the kings of Kerala. It appears that older royal women had the custom of walking around topless. There is a photo of a proud old royal woman with big boobs, boldly looking into the camera, like as if she knows how big her tits are and that she can show off.

After the Dutch palace I walk around the area. Lots of tourists, souvenir shops. Photography not allowed inside the synagogue. But no restaurants, really curious.

Suddenly I cut my foot because some glass splinters on the ground pierce through the slippers I'm wearing. I take a riskshaw back to the hotel where I apply some disinfectant. Then I walk to the restaurant near the Poovath hotel I noticed before.

Turns out that the place is elegant and cool but the food is way overpriced and not good. By the way, the Masala fish which they initiallly serve is very, very hot and spicy, uneatable for me. I order something else.

It's 2:30pm when I get out of the restaurant. I walk towards the waterfront, eventually running into the Chinese fishing nets. These are quite interesting devices, large nets which are lowered into the water, left there for a few minutes, then pulled out again, with hopefully some fish.

I slowly walk towards the Mattanchery area. I'm actually still hungry because the lunch was small. I'm hoping to find some 24/7 store or a fast food, but no there is nothing. A bakery with delicious pastries? Not here. Finally I find some kind of cake shop and after some discussion I find something which does not just consist of sugar and milk, but also contains some nuts. I buy a few pieces of these pastries and some bananas later.

At 3:40pm I reach the Jain temple. This is undergoing restoration, everywhere there are carpenters and workers. I continue to walk towards the Dutch palace which I reach at 4:30pm.

The next stop is the Santa Cruz basilica, which I reach by rickshaw. This is a beautiful white old church, colonial era style. Nice decorations inside, with elements from the European style mixed with local Indian elements, quite interesting.

Then I walk towards the waterfront again. The idea would be to kill some time and watch the sunset. Along the way I check a couple of travel agencies for the elephant camp trip. Cost is 1000-1200 Rs, departure time is 6:30-7am in order to be at the camp at 8:30am so that you can wash the elephants.

Once at the waterfront I get involved in a discussion with the local people.They sell fish, i.e. you can buy a fish for 120 or 200 Rs and have it cooked somewhere nearby.

There is no sunset, because some big clouds block the sun. So I just return to the hotel, rest for a while then get out again. I have dinner in an Indian restaurant near the Santa Cruz basilica.

Copyright 2012 Alfred Molon