India – Kerala

Sunset at the Kerala Backwaters

Sunset at the Kerala Backwaters

Podcast of Alex remembering our dorky driver:

Our first experience in India was in the Southern port city of Kochi. Suzanne booked a tour which consisted of a private car and driver, reservations at several hotels, a night on a boat in the backwaters, and a few sights.

We had become somewhat acclimated to death-defying driving in Tanzania; however, I still flinched on the drive from the airport to our hotel in Kochi. During the drive to our hotel I also discovered that my expectations for a driver/guide was set very high by Selemani, our Tanzanian safari guide. The kids always give me a hard time because I ask our guides the most BORING questions EVER! For example, when I ask “What is the main industries here?” I can feel the eye-rolling from the back seat – and the whispered comment “who cares?” When I turn around everyone is reading their Kindles or looking out the window. Anyway, when I asked my set of general interest questions I discovered that the driver was not going to be much of a guide. After a few minutes of him talking about the large quantity of coconuts produced in Kochi, I decided it would be much better to just look it up on Wikipedia the next time I was on-line. (Editors Note: According to wikipedia the major business sectors in Kochi include construction, manufacturing, shipbuilding, transportation/shipping, seafood and spices exports, chemical industries, information technology (IT), tourism, health services, and banking.)

We stayed in a business hotel on a main road in town. I was surprised by the traffic noise coming from this road into our rooms at all hours of the day. Indian drivers appear to use their horns more than they use their brakes. One beep means “Heads up – I’m driving here”. Two beeps mean “I’m going to do something dangerous – so look out”. And a long beep means “I’m annoyed that you did something dangerous around me”. The car horns created a constant din in our rooms but in a couple of days it all blended into background noise; like the surf on the beach or the bubbling of a mountain spring – but not so relaxing.

A family picture on a Chineese Fishing Net in Kochi

A family picture on a Chineese Fishing Net in Kochi

The day we explored Kochi our driver started us at the river where big Chinese Fishing Nets are set up on the bank. These nets are dipped into the river by a crew of 6 or 7 men, and scoop up fish moving along the bank. I asked the driver why they are called Chinese Nets and he told me they were introduIMG_7228-001ced to India by Arabs. The look on his face indicated that he had answered my question – so I let the topic drop. (Editors Note: According to wikipedia it was originally thought that the nets were introduced by the Chinese explorer Zheng He – hence the name. Recent research shows that the nets were actually introduced by Portuguese settlers from Macau. I don’t know how Arabs were involved.)

Negotiating for a bucket of fresh crab for lunch

Negotiating for a bucket of fresh crab for lunch

Fish mongers sell fresh fish off tables and out of buckets directly behind the nets. IMG_7111-001Our driver told us we should buy some fish for lunch – even though it was only 10:30 AM and the last thing we wanted to do was eat fish. He explained that we were to take our purchase to a place and have it prepared for lunch. We decided to go along with the program. I asked “How much it should it cost?” Our driver’s answer was “You need to bargain”. Before I could ask any more questions we were standing in the fish monger’s shop looking at buckets of dead fish. Patrick has a love for crab, and he spotted a pot of live crabs and asked if we could have some for lunch. After a few minutes of clumsy negotiation we ended up with a bag of crabs for 900 rupees ($16.60 US).

45 minutes later - the crab cooked two ways at a street restaurant

45 minutes later – the crab cooked two ways at a street restaurant

As we walked away I asked our driver if we paid a fair price, and said “You need to bargain! A fair price is 800 rupees” ($14.75 US). Of course this made us feel ripped off and inadequate negotiators – even though the difference was only a few dollars. Suzanne and I were getting more and more frustrated with this dude.

Down the street we hired a cook by the name of Rasta Joe to prepare a crab feast for our family for 150 rupees ($2.80 US). While Rasta worked on the crab we toured one of the fishing net rigs and a fisherman explained how it works – in concise and accurate English. Two of the fishermen who worked on this particular rig had fished in this same spot on the river bank for over 25 years.

A cobra show on the street

A cobra show on the street

Suzanne and the kids got a chance to operate the rig. We also paid a guy a few dollars to play with a couple of cobras on the sidewalk – that is something you don’t see in Danville, CA very often.

Rasta Joe came through on the crab lunch, preparing it Kerala style with a spicy sauce and cooked vegetables. We polished off the entire batch. I relaxed a little about the 100 rupees ($1.84 US) that we left on the table with the fish monger in our negotiation…

Henna tatoo

After lunch we visited a spice market – which is a small co-op spice store run by a group of women. Alex got a henna tattoo and Suzanne tried on a traditional Kerala sari.

Our new carpet is on it's way home, we will see it in 8 months

Our new carpet is on its way home, we will see it in 8 months

We stopped at a store that sells carpets to use their toilet and ended up walking out with a new hand-tied wool/cotton carpet for our house. The carpets are work of art. Specific families master the different patterns, colors are from natural sources, and the women hand-tie at least 600 knots per square inch.


This iron is heated with coals from a wood fire

Another unscheduled stop on our tour was when our driver stopped to pick up his laundry. It was interesting to see the open washing stalls where laundry is washed by hand in the morning, the field of drying clothes out back, and the iron that is heated with burning coals.

A rain storm began as we pulled up to a cultural dance hall for a show of traditional Kerala dance.


Patrick and Alex pose with the Monkey King

Patrick and Alex pose with the Monkey King

The dance requires very involved makeup that takes hours to apply (we watched make up application for about 45 minutes!) and all parts of the dance are performed by men and involved lots of very expressive eye movements.

After the dance show we found our driver and began the 60 minute drive back to our hotel. Suzanne was sitting in the front seat when our driver suggested that we change our itinerary because there was nothing more to see in Kochi. He called his boss on his cell phone and handed the phone to Suzanne so she could discuss the new idea… we didn’t understand why the driver would suggest this change at this late date… we were tired and wanted to go to bed and sleep in our air-conditioned hotel. After discussing the proposed change with the tour boss – we decided the idea proposed by the driver was not a good one, and we stayed with our original plan. As Suzanne handed back the phone she felt an oncoming migraine headache. It was raining really hard – the streets had inches of water. The roads were crowded with every sort of motor and manual vehicle – and the occasional cow. There were no street lights so things appeared out of the night like flashes in a nightmare. Horns blared, headlights flashed, lightening lit the sky, and thunder shook the car. As Patrick said “It was epic!”. Suzanne closed her eyes and did her best not to throw up in the car. There was nothing I could do but sit there and see how it would all turn out. It ended up OK because for all his failings as guide, our driver was a very good driver and he delivered us to the hotel safe and sound. I’m really glad I didn’t have to drive in that mess. We got Suzanne to bed right away and she slept off the headache. The storm continued through most of the night, and when we awoke in the morning everything was fine and wonderful. The end of days had not yet come.

Bird spotting at the sanctuary in Kerla

Bird spotting at the sanctuary in Kerala

The next day we had been in the car for about an hour when our driver casually asked if we were just going to relax by the pool at our hotel today? Suzanne said “No, we are going to the bird sanctuary”. He replied with a big goofy smile, “Oh, there are no birds at the sanctuary at this time of year”. What! Why the heck had his agency booked us to go to a bird sanctuary with no birds? Suzanne was sitting in the front seat again because she has much more patience with people than I do. I would either ignore this guy completely, or I was going to start getting angry with his antics. IMG_7209-001Since we really had no other option, Suzanne told him to take us to the darn birdless sanctuary anyway. It turned out that the sanctuary is a big nesting site during the season, and we were there off-season. However, we hired a good guide who walked us around and helped us spot the non-migratory birds that live in the jungle year-round. Actually everyone spotted birds but me – I’m brown/green color blind and if the bird wasn’t sitting in the open flapping it’s wings, I couldn’t see it. My blindness was a huge frustration for our guide when he spotted some cool bird, pointed to it and said “Do you see it?”  Of course all I saw was jungle. Eventually I started saying “Oh yes, what a wonderful bird. What color would you call that plumage?” just so he wouldn’t keep trying to walk me into the jungle so I could get closer to something I couldn’t see anyway.

The scene from the deck of our boat

The scene from the deck of our boat

The lounging deck of our boat

The lounging deck of our boat

The backwaters cruise was the highlight of our stay in Kerala. We had a boat to ourselves with two staterooms, an observation deck, and an eating area. The rooms were huge for a boat and we even had air conditioning at night.

The backwaters are very scenic and the boats cruise around at a leisurely pace.

The folks who live by the river use it for washing dishes, clothes, and themselves

The folks who live by the river use it for washing dishes, clothes, and themselves

People live all along the waterways and we saw locals use the river for transportation, baths, shaving, and washing up dishes. By the end of our cruise I had the sense that I was taking pictures of these people’s neighborhood streets.

After our cruise we stopped at a beautiful white sandy beach and spent a few hours lying around. We met a very nice Indian family that was vacationing in Kerala with a little girl about 4 years old. The girl was fascinated by Alex’s blonde hair and asked her parents “Can I get a picture with Barbie?”

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6 thoughts on “India – Kerala

  1. Great write-up Les. It’s good to see that you’re able to take a deep breath and relax. I think your negotiation skills have improved – remember negotiating in Amsterdam! Miss you guys

  2. Enjoyed reading your blog:-) Brings back memories of Kerala. When we visit India, my sons are so annoyed at the honking on the roads too 🙂 I have to do a lot of explanation to them:-). Your pictures are soooo good, especially the African safari ones are very professional.

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