Incredible India: Part One

INDIA: 15th May – 23rd June, Kerala Backwaters, Fort Kochi and Mumbai.
After scoring exit row seats for our flights from Phuket to Kochin (nicely done Katia!) we settled in with our obscene level of leg room and proceeded to watch the inflight entertainment of Malaysian Airlines Staff give not one inch to the chauvinistic Indian guys refusing to a) get off the phone, b) stow their tray tables or c) fasten their seatbelts. We honestly felt like applauding at one point, she was that ruthless.
We landed in Kochin at around midnight, stayed in a hotel by the airport before heading out to the backwaters of Alleppey the next morning. That morning also saw the first of many Thailand Pants casualties we were to experience over the next two weeks. Worst $8 ever!
We spent the next three days at Green Palm Homestay (recommended by Katias friends Kathy and Andy p. thanks guys!), where we had to cross a river in an extremely long and skinny wooden canoe to get to the house. We thought our bags would sink the poor little thing, let alone once we got in it too! Somehow, we made it safely across, bags and all, and were welcomed by the lovely Anna, matriarch of the family we would be staying with over the next few days. She made us feel immediately at home, and instructed us to our private little cottage at the end of their property, after that she arranged for us to float down the river on a canoe (complete with wooden deck chairs) to introduce us to the small canals, greenery and way of life in the backwaters.
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Our next few days in the backwaters were a lovely, serene and and excellent beginning to India. We met Maria, Anna’s daughter, on our first night; she arranged a morning walking tour with a local guide starting at 6.30am. Our guide, Bidju, was very lovely and informative (of a slight Christian zealot…). On our way to our traditional Indian breakfast stop, we got caught up in the mother of all torrential monsoon rains. Sheltering in a little old ladies fruit shop on some back corner of a canal, we struggled to hear Bidju over all the thunder and lightening, whilst trying to avoid getting the spiders on the ceiling onto our umbrellas. After half an hour waiting, and no easing of the rain in sight, we decided to just brave the storm and continue of for breakfast.
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Via The Stick Bridge of Death

Just our luck, all the rain stopped as soon as we reached our breakfast stop; a traditional house still with original thatched roof design, that nowhere else in the backwaters now employs (due to the  high maintenance involved). We had Kerala breakfast and masala tea, and continued to practice eating with our right hands like the locals do. Practice makes perfect!
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After getting so saturated in the pre-breakfast downpour, we gave up on the umbrellas and the effort of puddle dodging and just walked around splashing like five year olds. Along the way, we learned that the area is predominantly Christian; that the islands of the backwaters are all man-made, and actually sink at a rate of one inch per year – the locals refer to the region as “The Venice of The East”; how to make necklaces, whistles, and blow bubbles using of local plants; heard more uses coconut oil than we ever imagine in a lifetime, and tried some totally gross, home-brewed rice wine at the “local pub”.
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At 10 am…

After our walk, Anna showed us how to make traditional Indian Kerala dishes and accompaniments, such as Indian onion salad, coconut chutney, curry fish fry, aloo gobi, and basically anything you coUld imagine using coconut oil for. We then ate all of this for lunch, loving life (Sam tried her darnedest to ignore all the coconut components). The rest of the day was spent enjoying scenery, drinking chai and chatting with Anna and Maria.
Our last morning in Kerala was spent on the canals again, with a two hour motorboat ride. We all sat on the roof of the boat, because this is apparently the way it’s done, with a last minute “by the way” of “don’t sit backwards, you need watch out for low hanging cables, and bridges or *insert violent clothes lining motion here*” aaaaaaaalrighty then. Sure enough, whenever we approached a bridge there was either a scurrying and ‘sucking in’ repertoire, or a whole heap of locals yelling from the banks for us to get down!! followed by a great deal of laughing at the foreigners. A morning well spent.
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We were sad to leave the Kerala backwaters, but wandered through the drizzle, got into the skinny canoe bags-and-all,mane were ferried back to the mainland to get our four hour taxi to Fort Kochi. We arrived at Jolies Homestay, met husband and wife Sofiya and Doyal and all their little kiddies and felt immediately welcome. We got a lovely mug of masala chai and sat around their kitchen table whilst Doyal explained to us all main sights, foods and local hot spots.
After organising all our things into our rooftop room, we wandered into town for dinner of perotta bread (deliciousness incarnate) and vegetarian curries.
Returning back, we discovered his mornings drizzle may not have been as harmless as we thought, when Ashleigh opened up her handbag to find a half sodden passport, from some rainwater pooling in the Smart Traveller Protective wallet.
Incidentally, here’s  how to dry out a passport 101.
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Freak out about all your stamps running, crack the hair dryer out and fry the living daylights out of every page.

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Sure it’ll be fiiiiiine

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Now we wait…

After we dried it out, Sofiya sat in under the most giant book she owned in the hopes of flattening it our again. We weren’t particularly hopeful for the newly pink pages and run off stamps though…
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Open Air Laundry

We spent all of the next day travelling around Fort Kochi in a rickshaw by our new friend Biju. We saw every temple, mosque and church in Fort Kochi, saw an open air laundry with people ironing with an iron full of hot coals, checked out the giant, hand operate Chinese Fishing Nets, investigated Saris, and were involuntarily taken to more carpet shops than we ever wanted to see in our entire lives. Did you know the quality and price of a handmade carpet is measured by how many knots there are per square inch? What’s that, you didn’t want to know? Well, neither did we; you’re welcome. We also had South Indian Vegetarian Thali for lunch, to further practice our hand-eating skills. It was delicious
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Chinese Fishing Nets

That night Doyal and Sofiya arranged tickets for a Traditional Kerala Theatre Show. We arrived in time to see how the actors did their own makeup using natural rock and powder paint, and proceeded to sit through an hour and a half of one of the most elaborate, peculiar shows we’ve seen to date. There is no dialogue, all meaning is conveyed through convoluted hand movements and strange (but usually hilarious) facial expressions.

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Originally, these plays went for nine hours. Although it was definitely a good experience, our numb bums and hungry tummies were extremely grateful we weren’t going THAT traditional.
We woke up bright and early to a private morning yoga session on the rooftop, with the grandson of Fort Kochi’s very first yoga master (also arrange by Doyal, he’s such a gem) and then Biju picked us up and we went inn our merry way to lounge on Mararakulum Beach for a solid few hours…
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Sam got sunburnt. In the shade. No joke.

…followed by some more Thali, accompanied by Biju who showed us photos of his little cutie wife, sons and newborn daughter.
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Biju and his rickshaw

You can email Biju at bijumangalath25@gamil.com or if you prefer ph 08089008010 or 08893009010 if you ever need a tour of Fort Kochi and surrounds!
We were sad to leave Fort Kochi (and southern India) the next morning; Doyal and Sofiya got up extra early to see us off like the lovely people they are, then we all gathered into the RICKSHAW RIDE FROM HELL to Kochin airport. We nearly hit a truck, didn’t slow down over speed bumps, went through potholes, creepy backwards detours and then got on THE FREEWAY for God knows how long.
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Candid photos of our freeway trip.

Needless to say, after making our way through 15 bag, boarding pass, and passport checks, we eventually made it to Mumbai.
First port of call: The Australian Consulate. We basically needed to see if Ashleigh’s passport was still valid, and everyone was a little excited to go to a consulate, as none of us had ever been before.
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Ashleigh did also definitely not take this photo from out the front and get yelled at by guards. At all.

This is where we met the hilarious Consulate Leo who was, ironically, from New Zealand. He basically said it was fine, and he’d seen them in MUCH worse condition than we could even imagine. Basically all you needed was any current visas, your photo page and the barcode at the bottom to be completely identifiable, and the electronic chip to be undamaged, if possible. We didn’t mention the hair dryer…
Our first impressions of Mumbai were: “omg it’s so damn hot!” And “hey, it kinda looks like Melbourne!”. Near everywhere we went over the next few days seems to remind us of some Melbourne suburb or other. We strolled down Chapati beach strip, thinking of St Kilda, wandering passed all the cute, little couples sitting on the rocks watching the sunset, had a giggle at the people with hot water urns attached to their bicycles selling masala chai, and just took in the Mumbai atmosphere.
Our first big day was spent taking the one hour ferry….
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Which was TOTALLY seaworthy, mum.  We promise.

…and going to Elephanta Island to see the famous caves dedicated to Shiva. We hired a guide near the docking area for IR600 (approx AU$4 each), which was honestly an excellent idea. We learnt so much and appreciated them much more than we would have if we’d just wandered through alone. The caves are man made and hand carved from top to bottom, the date of when is unknown (somewhere between 5th-8th Century AD). Many of the mural panels are heavily damaged due to Portuguese discovery in 1953, after which they used the stone carvings and statues for shooting practice. There is only one panel completely intact, the Trimurti sculpture; this is simply due to the fact there was a false wall in front of the mural, which hid it from discovery. Many of the statues have now been moved to various museums or gardens in Mumbai City.
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The Trimurti sculpture; the faces of Shiva.

There are 5 caves, all of which have varying levels of detail. The main cave (vp cave 1) is the most impressive, and houses the biggest temple in the centre for worshipping Shiva. It is a worshipping place for fertility and those wanting a child. The temple consist of a giant phallic stone calls the Lingaa, resting in a round stone basin supposedly represented the “wagina”. There was another such temple in cave 2, if a little smaller…
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Photo inside the tempe ft, The Lingaa in the Wagina

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And here is Katia modelling the Lingaa on her head. teeheehee

And yes; it is 45 degrees celsius . That’s why we look sooooooo attractive. After disembarking our ferry back city side, we decided that selfies with the giant India Gate (featured in the ferry photo above) needed to happen. As we were cracking out the selfie stick, trying to find the least filth angle of our hot and bothered selves, we were approached by a couple of people wanting some token photos with the western tourists. This sort of thing happened extremely often in China; random people wanted photos with you more than they wanted photos of whichever monument you’re standing in front of. One or two people would come up, maybe one more when they realised you were okay with it, then they totted on their merry way to tell everyone of the awesome western friends they met at the Summer Palace (or whatever the Hell they do with them). Anyway, harmless. We said sure, why not. And then we realised “Toto. We’re not in China anymore”. It took less than 40 seconds, and the entirety of the India Gate square was gathered around us, jostling for photos, paying the professional photographers to take photos of them with us instead of with the amazing “arch de triumphe” of India, standing out of shot. Honestly, it was like we were celebrities.
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Sneaky shot taken of SOME of the cameras pointing at us, whilst surrounded by random Indian families, and one slightly creepy guy.

We basically gave up on Operation: Selfies-With-The-Gate, somehow extricated ourselves from the suffocating crowd like long suffering movie stars, and jumped straight into a taxi to the motel.
After our paparazzi gone crazy moment, we freshened up our festy selves, put on some makeup (mascara and lip gloss) for the first time in god knows how long, amazed ourselves at how well we clean up, then headed to the Taj Palace Hotel for a glorious afternoon/early evening of buffet high tea, table service, and a live piano man.
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It was honestly a beautiful way to spend the afternoon, and would absolutely recommend it to anyone needing a little bit of pampering (and for only AU$33!). After sitting there for three hours, we waddled out of the hotel, got into a tiny taxi, rolled into our motel room and proceeded to spend the next two hours in a digestive pose we learnt off our Fort Kochi yoga instructor, and lamented over and over “whyyyyy did we eat so much food??”
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Worth it.

Our second day in Mumbai was jam packed with sight seeing; we hired a driver from the hotel and proceeded to systematically check off every single thing a tourist would want to see. We would have loved to have spent a week or to wander ourselves, and discover all the hidden gems travellers usually do, but unfortunately simply didn’t have the time. It was also approximately 4,000 degrees Celsius and we thought we were going to melt to death, and we’d never been so glad to have hired someone to ferry us around in our lives. Mumbai is a magnificent, multilayered city, rich in history and culture. We highly recommend it to anyone looking for a colonialism with a twist.
Next up: Delhi Madness and our Incredible India tour of the North.
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