Week 3 INDIA | Kochi, Allepey, Kollam, Madurai

Image of the week: sunset in Madurai (more images at end of post)
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Where in the world

Two nights in Kochi. An hour taxi journey further south to Allepey where we spent one night in a B&B before embarking on a houseboat for one night. The boat took us down to Kollam where we stayed for two nights. 

We then took our first overnight train to Madurai in the state of Tamil Nadu, where we stayed for one night.

Thoughts

My initial impressions of Kochi – the major port city on the west coast of India – was disappointing. The beachfront is veiled by a layer of litter, a lot of it. Even Chowpatty Beach in Mumbai had a lot less than this one. There’s a promenade to stroll down but I just couldn’t get past the crap that was everywhere, and it made me angry. India would be so much more beautiful than it already is if it could sort out the problem of the all-pervading, ubiquitous rubbish. There are rarely any bins around, certainly no binmen to speak of. It’s a great shame.

But all was not lost. Move away from the waterfront and into the town and Kochi is quaint and entirely charming. It retains its colonial character and old-world charm, seen in the narrow stone-paved lanes and old colourful Dutch and British bungalows, cafés and book shops. It’s possible to have a languid stroll, then stop for a coffee – something us Europeans are so good at and a pastime not easy to indulge in the chaotic towns and cities of India. There were also a lot of Westerners in Kochi, the most I’ve seen so far in the country.

If you ever find yourself in this part of the world, it would be nothing short of criminal to leave before taking a slow boat through Kerala’s backwaters. I’d heard and read about them during my travel research, and well before. Kerala is known as ‘God’s own country’ and it’s not difficult to see why. 

These waters are flanked by a northern entry point (Allepey) and a southern point (Kollam). We took an overnight houseboat from the former to the latter. Accommodation wasn’t luxurious but it was adequate. But then you’re not on it for the room.

The waters are fringed with bowed palm trees leaning over the canals and rivers like flowers towards the sun. Eagles circle overhead, occasionally dropping to the water to dip their talons in, before rising again to enjoy their catch on a nearby branch. Bright red and blue dragonflies the size of small birds dart about, momentarily pausing mid-air, then continuing on in a different direction. The electric blue and dazzling orange flash of flitting kingfishers catch the corner of your eye, flying alongside the boat then perching on overhead electricity wires. Storks and herons wade slowly in the shallows, heads bent, scouring the surface for the ripples of dinner. 

The banks are dotted with small villages where the rhythm and routine of everyday life for the people that call these waterways home can be observed. The cathartic sound of the gently chugging boat engine was intercepted by the smack of wet fabric slapping against stone as women washed clothes in the water. Children ran out of their homes to stand and wave as our boat went by, joined by the adults in tow. 

Everyone waves in Kerala, they’re a happy bunch. We waved back to them all, feeling a bit like royalty whilst doing so.

backwaters between Allepey and Kollam
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Madurai is a flourish of colourful buildings, people in religious dress, roadsides dotted with small shrines around which people light candles, and women selling strings of flowers for husbands to take home to their wives. Slick jewellery shops and polished fashion stores stand out conspicuously against the more rudimentary retail outlets that make up the rest of the bustling streets. 

There are street food stands selling a lot of fried things, and the aroma of freshly ground coffee mixes with incense and flowers and diesel fumes and the occasional waft from a sewer. 

The kids gather round practising the English phrases they’ve learnt at school – where are you from, what is your name, nice to meet you –  then fall over themselves in a fit of shy giggles when you respond and take a picture of them. The urge to stow one of them in my backpack is strong – they are so damn cute.

children in Madurai
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The best things I ate this week


What to eat in Kerala

Houseboat thali lunch. I featured a thali meal in the last week’s post in Wayanad, but this was a show-stopper and deserves recognition. 

The dishes included were typical to Kerala: sambar, okra cooked with garlic, onions and mustard oil, mixed vegetables, bitter gourd, cabbage, beetroot and curd, pineapple and curd, spiced and grilled chicken, piping hot rice, and fresh-from-the-fryer poppadoms. All this was for two *mops brow*. Received on an overnight houseboat cruise with www.southernbackwaters.com 

Payasam. It’s slowly cooked milk reduced to the thickness of double cream and set with vermicelli and cardamom. I’ve found it’s the dessert of choice to accompany thali meals in the south. Very comforting. Came with the above.

Pazham pori or ethakkappam. A type of nalumani palaharam (tea time snack). It’s ripe bananas fried in a sweet cumin and turmeric batter, and here served with a masala chai. This was also provided on the houseboat, as if we could possibly be hungry after the endurance test that was the above lunch. I understand this treat is a weakness for most Malayalees – I can see why.

Allepey chemeen manga curry. Prawns (chemeen) stewed in raw mango (manga), coconut and turmeric. With shallots, green chillies, ginger, garlic, chilli powder, coriander powder, fenugreek, mustard seeds curry leaves. 

Ashtamundi meen curry. Ashtamundi Lake is the second largest lake in Kerala, and this fish curry will have different names across the state. 

It’s cubes of fish (depending on the catch of the day – often karimeen which has black spots), simmered with shredded coconut, tamarind juice, chillies, garlic, ginger, coriander powder, turmeric, fenugreek, curry leaves, and with mustard seeds and shallots. Both this and the above curry were had at ITC WelcomHotel Raviz Ashtamudi Hotel in Kollam.

houseboat thali lunch, Kerala

from top left: payasam, pazham pori, Ashtamundi meen curry, Allepey chemeen manga curry

Street food must-eat 

Street food in Madurai

Saying goodbye to the state of Kerala, we moved east into Tamil Nadu. Our first stop was Madurai, reputedly south India’s dosai capital. Taking full advantage of this status, dinner for our single night here was at Ayyappan Dosai Kadai (Pandiya Vellalar Street), recommended by locals and regarded by some as the city’s uncrowned dosai king. 

Dosai – generally known as dosa in the UK – are thin griddled pancakes made with a fermented batter of ground rice and black lentils.

This is street food in the sense the food is cooked by the side of the road, but due to the nature of the accompanying sloppy chutneys and sambar, it needs a banana leaf and a flat surface to tackle, so people eat seated inside.

dosai in Madurai at Ayyappan Dosai Kadai 
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This particular place owes its popularity to the 25 variations Mr. Karthikeyan provides, and the fact that they are very good. The shop is small, with the unflattering flourescent strip-lighting that illuminates so many of the best places to eat in India, elbow-to-elbow seating, and a cooking station that has almost certainly never seen a scouring brush.
  
Mr. Karthikeyan has six dosai on the go at any one time. They arrive on the table straight from the griddle and scalding hot. From the handful we sampled, my favourite was the mushroom, with cumin, fennel, mustard seeds and the fantastic tangy chutneys. I think this was the first time I’ve come across mushrooms in India.

When you’ve had your fill of savoury (there’s also onion, cauliflower, paneer, egg, potato – a lot more), don’t dare leave before you close with the sweet dosai. It’s made with podi (a ground spice powder), jaggery (unrefined cane sugar) and ghee. It tastes like French toast, with crunchy caramelised sugary bits. This is the only place that does a sweet dosa, says Mr. Karthikeyan. I believe him. 

Here’s a little more about this place from @EatingAsia.

dosai in Madurai at Ayyappan Dosai Kadai 
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Did you know?


India’s cashew nuts. India is the largest producer, processor and exporter of cashews in the world. They export cashew and cashew-based products worth $1billion each year, and Kerala is the biggest producer in India. Big business.

What are backwaters? What actually are Kerala’s backwaters and why are they there (a question I realised I didn’t know the answer to as we cruised along them at the leisurely pace of poured molasses)? 

They’re an interlinking chain of brackish lagoons and lakes that lie parallel to the Arabian Sea coast (known as the Malabar Coast).

This labyrinthine network includes five large lakes linked by both manmade and natural canals and is fed by 38 rivers; the entirety of it extends half the length of the state of Kerala. 

Its presence is down to the combined processes of soil erosion from the uplands during the monsoon rains, the constant beating of the sea, and humans getting in nature’s way. 

The heavy rains eroded the topsoil of the Western Ghats and hundreds of streams and rivers carried the soil down to the seabed. Fast forward a few centuries and this deposited soil on the shore has led to the formation of these world-renowned marshes and backwaters. With such a unique setting, where freshwater meets seawater, you can expect a pretty awesome ecosystem, and the wildlife to match.

And crikey, isn’t it spectacular.

the backwaters of Kerala
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My insider tips

Soap – your best friend in India. You’re never too far from a tap in India. They’re at train stations, in the most rudimentary of restaurants, and even attached to water tanks on streetside food shacks. If there is a place selling food, a tap where locals wash their hands before they eat it will be close. 

India can feel pretty grubby at times, and because there’s a lot of eating with hands, it’s important to keep them clean. When people get ‘Delhi belly’, it’s often down to contamination from bacteria and filth from hands, rather than anything being wrong with the food itself. 

These taps rarely have any soap. So my tip, and something I’ve found to be very useful, is to keep a small bar on you. Always wash your hands thoroughly before you eat, and you may well stave off the gurgle guts, as we’ve managed to do so far *touches wood*.

Also toilet paper. Always keep a roll on you as the public toilets don’t have them – locals rinse with water instead.

Highlight / Lowlight

Highlight. This was the evening and following morning of the overnight houseboat trip. The boat parked up at a little village along one of the waterways called Kovilthottam, and the three crew members told us to get off and walk towards the beach to watch the sunset as the chef prepared dinner. That was a spectacle in itself.

beach sunset at Kovilthottam, Kerala
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Back at the boat we switched off all the lights and laid on our backs. We were near enough to the sea to hear the waves crashing in the distance, but far enough that it didn’t drown out the night chorus from the crickets and grasshoppers. There was the distant murmur and laughter of conversation between old friends as people settled down for their evening meal by the water’s edge.

Once the sun had completely gone, I noticed a pulse of green light somewhere in the dark. I initially thought it was in the distance, then got up to take a closer look and realised it was a glowing fierfly on a nearby leaf. Then there was another, then another. I’ve never seen fireflies before, so I was pretty excited about that.

We woke up to the pink-grey sleepy haze of early morning light, and watched an otter run across the path adjacent to the water. Groups of men were walking along the bank to and from the temple close by for morning prayers, smiling and waving as they passed us basking in the magic of this time of day. It felt like a stolen moment – peaceful, serene – pretty special.


Lowlight. We had our first experience of an overnight sleeper train, from Kollam to Madurai, which as a whole, was a lot better than we expected. Apart from a few difficulties, and ignoring the onboard rat which I thankfully didn’t see, but Matt did.

pretend-sleeping on the train

We got on at 2am to a pitch black carriage which we had to feel our way through to find our seats – in silence so as not to wake everyone sleeping – whilst trying to negotiate two huge bags through the narrow corridor. 

We found our bunks, in a compartment shared with two others. With just the light from a phone, we fumbled about until we eventually found the sheets provided and made up our beds, one above the other. 

The floor space wasn’t huge, so Matt had to put one of the bags on his bunk and lean against it. After a few sweaty minutes trying to be as quiet as we could, we were settled and ready to knock out. Execpt, that was, for the very overweight man in one of the bunks next to us, with snoring that sounded like a wild boar being smothered, then drowned. 

It was the kind of noise that competed with the enormously loud train engine, air conditioning and rickety rattling of the carriages combined, and won. His wife was in the bed above him, and was dead to the world. I can only imagine she has, over the years, become immune to this congested, gasping, reverberating monstrosity, or she’s deaf. 

With noise-cancelling headphones and music blasted to as loud as our eardrums could handle, this man was still the only thing we could hear. Needless to say, we got no sleep, and had to make up for it when we got to our hotel in Madurai.


Next week


A couple of days in Pondicherry, moving onto Chennai (formerly Madras), then revisiting the alluring chaos that is Mumbai.


Postcards

Kochi

Kochi

Kochi

Kochi

Kochi

children in Kochi

Backwaters between Allepey and Kollam

backwaters between Allepey and Kollam

backwaters between Allepey and Kollam
backwaters between Allepey and Kollam

backwaters between Allepey and Kollam



Madurai


street scene in Madurai

religious dress in Madurai

shrine and temple in Madurai

street scene in Madurai

street vendor in Madurai

Muslim children in Madurai



Related posts


Week 0: Gone travelling. London – see you in nine months

Week 1: INDIA – Mumbai → Goa
Week 2: INDIA – Bangalore → Mysore → Wayanad
Week 3: INDIA – Kochi → Allepey → Kollam → Madurai
Week 4: INDIA – Pondicherry → Chennai → Mumbai

Week 5: INDIA – Varanasi → Udaipur → Jaipur → Delhi
Week 6: TAIWAN – Taipei
Week 7: CHINA & VIETNAM – Hong Kong → Hanoi
Week 8: VIETNAM – Sapa → Hanoi → Ha Long Bay → Hanoi

Week 9: VIETNAM – Hue → Hoi An
Week 10: VIETNAM – 6 day / 5 night motorbike tour from Hoi An to Da Lat
Week 11: VIETNAM – Da Lat → Nha Trang
Week 12: VIETNAM – HCMC → Mekong Delta → HCMC

Week 13: CAMBODIA – Siem Reap (and Angkor Wat) → Phnom Penh
Week 14: CAMBODIA – Sihanoukville & Koh Rong Samloem Island
Week 15: CAMBODIA – Kep
Week 16: THAILAND – Chiang Mai

Week 17: THAILAND – Songkran Festival in Mae Rim & Chiang Mai
Week 18: THAILAND – Bangkok → Koh Phangan
Week 19: THAILAND – Bangkok
Week 20: MALAYSIA – Penang → Borneo

Week 21: AUSTRALIA – Melbourne
Week 22: NEW ZEALAND – Auckland → Rotorua → Turangi → Whanganui
Week 23: NEW ZEALAND – Wellington → Nelson Lakes → Hanmer Springs → Christchurch
Week 24: NEW ZEALAND – Lake Tekapo → Mount Cook → Queenstown → Milford Sound

Week 25: NEW ZEALAND & USA – Queenstown → Hawaii
Week 26: USA – Hawaii (Big Island) → San Francisco (Oakland)
Week 27: USA – San Francisco
Week 28: USA – Los Angeles

Week 29: MEXICO – Mexico City
Week 30: MEXICO – Oaxaca
Week 31: MEXICO – Mérida (plus Uxmal and Kabah)
Week 32: MEXICO – Tulum (plus Sian Ka’an Nature Reserve)

Week 33: USA – Postcards from Washing DC & Cape Cod
Week 34: HOME (LONDON) – The best and worst from the past 8 months – Part 1

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7 Comments

  1. January 15, 2015 / 02:53

    Your description of the amazing "highlights" that you described made me want to close my eyes and be transported to that place! Lovely pictures as always. Sher

    • January 15, 2015 / 06:23

      Thanks so much for the kind words Sher 🙂

  2. January 12, 2015 / 16:13

    Great stuff. Loving the photos. Insanely jealous sat at my desk in Clapham…

    • January 12, 2015 / 17:39

      Mr. Massouh, is that you??

  3. January 12, 2015 / 06:15

    nice pics ! i like the detail description of food – pure hard work – kudos

    • January 12, 2015 / 06:16

      haha – thank you Johnny! 😉

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