My sister Lisa finally arrived in India to join us for a travel adventure in Kerala! It almost didn’t happen. There were the usual travel hassles: finding flights, the unnecessarily complicated visa application, the length of the journey (24 hrs), vaccinations, etc, as well as the jitters that most world travel newbies feel before journeying to a country halfway around the world. (Her trips to Europe hadn’t evoked such feelings.) But after scoring a free flight as a credit card sign-up bonus and receiving encouragement from me and her world-traveling friend, Heather, Lisa conquered all obstacles and showed up smiling and radiant in Kochi with gifts and needed supplies for us.
I’d traveled backpacker-style years ago from Delhi to Udaipur to Jaipur and Mussoorie, and had faced some challenges I wasn’t sure my sister was ready for, so I thought I would ‘ease’ her into India by booking a room for us at the Kochi Marriott, a five star hotel starting at only $75 a night. Split two ways, it was cheaper than our bare bones lodging in Bolivia! (Soon enough, though, she’d be experiencing bare bones.) It turned out to be the perfect place to begin our journey. They upgraded us to a suite, and when the chef learned that Lisa was vegan, he gave her a customized tour of the vegan dishes that where part of their enormous Ramadan buffet. Chef Ganesh then whipped up extra dishes just for her and brought them to our table. We were thrilled. The other Restaurant staff, Front Desk, Concierge, and Housekeeping staff were also all infallibly helpful and friendly. #kochimarriott
The next day, we took a backwaters tours in Kochi where a gathering storm made the light and colors surreal.
There were resorts along the banks, primitive huts, and this post-apocalyptic-looking building.
We traveled overland to see the iconic Chinese fishing nets at Fort Cochin Beach, a subject we would see again and again in paintings on hotel walls. For me, they were interesting because I wanted to try my hand at photographing them, but I quickly realized that, to my gentle-hearted, vegan sister, they symbolized misery and death for millions of fish. Accordingly, my photo is nothing like the idyllic paintings in our hotel.
Whether due to pollution or to freighter traffic, no one swims at Fort Cochin, but there was an enormous crowd milling about on the beach under brooding skies.
As she is much like my sister, Elise hates seeing animals exploited. Instead of asking for a ride on this poor camel, she asked if she could pay to feed it, but the owner had no food so she just petted it instead.
The next day, we set out for Alleppey to do a houseboat tour, but when we arrived, we learned the workers were on strike, so we decided to continue on to Kovalam, the southernmost point on our itinerary. Our driver was more than happy to oblige. Along the way we happened upon a Krishna-Radha festival, where the town was ablaze in all manner of lights. Lisa described it as “1,000 Christmases”. The brash, blinking lights in the shape of various deities were over the top.
But I simply loved the long strands of colored lights hanging from trees in quiet corners which made me think about the magic of childhood. French-Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco’s quote seemed apt: Childhood is the world of miracle and wonder; as if creation rose, bathed in the light, out of the darkness, utterly new and fresh and astonishing. The end of childhood is when things cease to astonish us. I also thought of John Singer Sargent’s painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose in which two little girls light Chinese lanterns in a lush garden at twilight – one of the loveliest representations of the magic of childhood I’ve ever encountered, and I recalled my own wonderment as a kid catching fireflies on balmy evenings in our yard full of fragrant lilacs. I decided that I would find a way to surprise Elise by recreating these lights at an upcoming summer evening party for her.
When we finally reached Kovalam late in the evening, we checked into The Leela, a grand, airy hotel set on a cliff overlooking the beach. There was a poolside terrace restaurant, giant vats of rose petals floating in water, and slate walkways with rock pools in open-air hallways. It was a relief to have arrived at such a place after the 220 km drive, during which our driver overtook hundreds of vehicles (speed up, slow down, speed up, slow down ad nauseam). In the case of one particular truck, however, which reeked of some ungodly rot, we were grateful for his ability to speed past other vehicles.
At check-in, we were given shell necklaces and coconuts to drink, and then we headed out to explore the beach.
Given the incomparable service at the Kochi Marriott, when we sat down for dinner, we felt a wee bit neglected by the wait staff, but Chef Gurudeep more than made up for it the next morning when he gave us a marvelous tour of the many dishes in their breakfast buffet. We had various curries and masala dosas – thin crepes stuffed with potato and chutney, and discovered Kumbil Appams, steamed jackfruit rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves. Unlike the boxed cereals, donuts, and other junkfood you get for breakfast in the US, this was real food and deeply satisfying.
After some yoga on our balcony, we hit the pool, where Elise did cannonballs and then pulled me around on a float (so relaxing), and then we hit the beach. Unfortunately, there were red flags along the shore warning of strong riptides, so we didn’t risk going into the water. There was a lively local scene further down the beach where everyone seemed to be smiling or laughing.
Although The Leela was lovely, it had some quirks such as the heavy, antique-y, wooden bath doors that didn’t close right and a damp smell in our room which did not justify the price, so we decided to move to a guest house recommended by Lonely Planet that offered Ayurvedic treatments.
Our transportation there was comical. The resort golf cart brought us to the edge of the property, and then the three of us piled into one tiny rickshaw with our 4 big bags. We had to get in and out a few times to make everything fit. The taxi drivers watching us looked incredulous and offered to take us instead. I told them it wasn’t a matter of price, it was that we wanted the experience of riding in a rickshaw. It turned out to be fun! and the price was an astonishing 29 cents for .7 km.
After The Leela, our new accommodations seemed dingy, although they had just been scrubbed clean. Instead of a proper shower cabin, there was a faucet on the bathroom wall and a big blue bucket with a dipper to pour water over oneself. Splash too much and you get the entire floor wet and the toilet, too. At the start of our travels when I was unsure how long our funds would last, I’d opted for many such rooms and I think I’d finally had enough. Lisa, though, was surprisingly positive about the room. She told me that she had stayed in very basic rooms when she did her Master Yoga Teacher training at the Kripalu in Western Mass. I shouldn’t have complained…it was soon going to get much worse, lol.
But first, we got to experience an Ayurvedic massage from this wonderful lady with kind eyes. When I learned that she had traveled an hour and half from her village to provide us with treatments, I gave her a big tip and my shell necklace from The Leela as well as some red beads from Fiji which matched her sari perfectly.
In the evening, we set out to find a vegetarian restaurant, but Lisa got nervous as it grew dark so we popped into a German-owned restaurant on the main drag and ordered take out. We had tea while we waited, and Elise showed her Aunty her drawings. It was beautiful seeing their interaction – Lisa was so patient and positive, and Elise reveled in all the attention.