Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Invading God's Own Country - 3

continued from part 2...

With a crew of three, we set off accompanied by at least 15 other houseboats of various sizes and designs. Considering the fact that it was past New Year’s Day, most of the occupants in the other boats were either foreigners or NRIs.

After cruising through a fairly narrow channel, flanked by paddy fields and small dwellings, our boat reached the vast expanses of the main water body. The traffic in the channel included local fishermen’s boats and other locals heading off for business. Many ferries, and tourist boats could also be spotted.

Kerala is one of the few places in the country with an organized water based inland transport system. In and around Alleppey, boats are as good as buses with their own stops complete with a tea and knick-knacks stall!! I could spot people from all walks of life on these boats, office goers, students, tourists, priests… they were all there. The waterways, even had signposts marking distances to nearby towns just like the roads.

We slowed down our pace after entering the main part of the lake, and out came the beers. Just about then, the guy manning a small blue colored boat cruising next to us opened up the throttle of his powerful outboard Yamaha engine. The piddly looking craft roared to life and simply disappeared into the distance. It was probably the fastest watercraft I had ever seen in my life.

We stopped for lunch around 1400. The meal was typical Malyali vegetarian fare. For me, the large grain rice was a novelty and the whole thing was gobbled up with relish. The post noon session was devoted to photography. Flocks of egrets kept us company and nearing sunset, the water turned an amazing shade of gold. We docked once again, this time for the night.

Our skipped arranged a small boat ride in one of the dugouts, which ended up in a major argument as the boatman started demanding an obscene amount of money after the ride. However, the dipping sun and the sound melodious hymns from a nearby church carried over the waterways by an ingenious system of loudspeakers made the whole evening a memorable experience.

The evening drink was vodka mixed with Brite, a local rip off of Sprite and dinner consisted was simple but delicious. However, the rotis were a big disappointment, but this wasn’t Punjab after all. Some night time photography followed under the light of the rising moon, but a cloud cover produced mixed results. We retired to bed around 11, while the boat gently rocked by the swells created by the occasional late night ferry.

Day 5, Jan 4 2007

Got up early morning to get some more moonlight shots - the rest of the boat woke up around sunrise. The loudspeakers this time were playing Hindu bhajans, another proof of Kerala’s multi-religious harmony. Breakfast consisted of idlis and we set off for our final run back to Alleppey. We docked back around 9 AM along with a dozen other boats. After saying our thanks to the crew, we headed back towards town where a black Mahindra Scorpio waited for us.

The Scorpio was driven by Srikumar, a small wiry guy with a cheerful smile and with a good knowledge of Hindi. For the first time in 4 days, we did not need mom’s blend of Tamil – Malayalam to get us around. After hefting our luggage, we set off towards Ernakulam, on our way to Munnar.

On our way, we stopped at the palace museum of the erstwhile Kings of Kochi. The Palace charged hefty admission fee, especially for cameras. But I wonder where the money went, as the whole place was in abject disrepair and neglect. The condition of the buildings made them look far older than they actually were and the less said of the exhibits the better. The only interesting thing in the entire museum was the royal crown, made of a pot load of gold and wisely kept in a vault with a door which would take at least a 50 kiloton nuke to blast through.

There was this group of foreigners in the museum whose guide was speaking this funny language faster than a Gatling gun. Her pitch and tone was constant for every word she spoke, and no emotion showed through. The language sounded very East European, but I have never come across a language spoken so strangely.

We packed off from the museum soon and headed straight to Munnar. On the way we halted at Adimali for lunch. The hotel, the meal and the service – all three were downright atrocious and we wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. We made another stop at a waterfall enroute, but there wasn’t too much water as it was too late in the season. We finally made it to Munnar at around 1500 and checked into our hotel, which had been booked courtesy a good friend.

After some chai and rest, we headed out to the nearby Madupatty and Kundala dams. The route was pretty spectacular, as it wound its way through tea estates. The lakes looked pretty in the fading light, but the icing on the cake was provided by the appearance of a large tusker in one of the tea estates. The pachyderm was merrily tearing away at the branches while my camera shutter went mad trying to capture him in the fading light.

We had a light meal upon our return to the hotel and then retired to our rooms. The Tv wasn’t playing too much in the languages that I comprehend, and the internet wouldn’t work as Airtel has no signal in Munnar. With not much left to do, I crashed out for the night.

Day 6, Jan 5 2007

Next morning, after breakfast we headed for the Erivakulam National Park – home of the famed but endangered Nilgiri Tahr. Private vehicles are not allowed inside, so we drove up the gates of the park from where we took a forest department bus inside. The bus dropped us at the base of a kilometer long trail. On the way we saw some interesting sidelights like the Anai Mudi peak, the highest in South India. In addition, we saw some natural rock faces which resembled an elephant and a horse head !!

As we walked up the trail, our fellow companions started shouting excitedly. Looking up, we saw a herd of the tahr, grazing peacefully along the trail. The animals seemed oblivious, or maybe used to the presence of tourists and chose to ignore and chomped grass merrily.

We walked up to a sign which simply said “This is the end” and turned back, with not much else to see, except endless tea gardens of which I was growing sick by the minute. The whole tahr setup felt like a sham. It seemed that the forest department had domesticated a herd of the tahr and let them loose near the tourists, it just didn’t feel like a national park at all!!

We came back around mid-day and shopped around Munnar town for its specialties - tea, spices, chocolates and my favorite – strawberry preserve. After lunch, we headed to Bison point, which offered great views of what else but tea gardens, and to another view point around sunset from where you sea more tea gardens!!

Back at the hotel, we saw a remake of Amitabh’s Deewar in Tamil with Rajnikanth in the lead. Needless to say, it was fun despite the fact that most of the dialogues went above my head. The night was really cold, and the blankets were not too much of help. Luckily, I had some vodka left over so that really helped.

Day 7, Jan 6 2007

In the morning, there was a substantial layer of frost on the cars parked in the lot. The drivers were seen queuing behind the hotel’s kitchen for their bucket of hot water with which to clean their machines. Post breakfast, we left for Cochin and its sister city of Ernakulam, our last halt on the Kerala leg. We reached Kochi past noon and headed for the Dutch Museum, which was in much better shape than the one we saw a few days back. The armoury was of great interest to me and my brother.

A look at the list of Cochin Rajah’s through the year revealed another interesting fact, more than 90% of the kings in the clan’s 500 hundred year plus history were either named Rama Varma, Ravi Varma or Kerala Varma !! The reason well - In Cochin Royal Family all the male Thampurans (sons) were named according to the following methodology - Eldest Male Son To A Mother - Rama Varma, Second Son - Kerala Varma, Third Son -Ravi Varma, Fourth Son - Goda Varma. Since I did not find too many Goda Varmas on the list, I presumed that there weren’t too many fourth sons J

Of more interest to me were the famous Chinese Fishing Nets of Cochin. These nets are found in the Fort Kochi area and are proof of Kochi’s illustrious maritime history. It is believed that these nets, which are otherwise found only in China were introduced to India by trader’s from Kulbai Khan’s court from the 1450s !!

It was interesting to see the fisherman walk along the narrow beams of the nets to make necessary adjustments, but the meager catch I saw each time a net was dipped made me wonder how long would these nets stay as a means of livelihood and not end up being just a tourist attraction. We had a very nice buffet meal at a nearby hotel and then went back to Ernakulam for some shopping and to catch our train to Chennai. We were met by my friend Jimmy, who had so graciously helped with the planning of the trip and making bookings for us.

He dropped us at Ernakulam South station, where we got dinner packed while waiting for our train – the Alleppey Chennai Express. It arrived dot on time and I spent some time on the door catching up on the last glimpses of Kerala as the sunset.

The train is hardly an express and stopped at ten stations till Palghat, merely 151km away – you work out the math. On our way, we crossed the new Cochin Airport which actually is kilometer or so away from Alwaye station!! As we crossed, I spotted an Air India Express flight lift off in its enticing livery.

Day 8, Jan 7 2007

We tucked in early, and I got up at the crack of dawn to find ourselves at Arrakonam – just 67 kilometers away from Chennai. We had made fair progress in the night and the train was running more or less on schedule, thanks to the slack built into the timetable. We pulled into the platforms of the famed Chennai Central and trooping out, I got a pre-paid taxi slip to the airport, only to find myself facing the most rickety Premier Padmini one could ever find. The car was so rusty, that I was wondering if it would not break into half if we and our luggage were to be loaded onto it.

We somehow managed to squeeze everything in it and set off. The engine though was in a good condition and the car climbed flyovers with aplomb. We stopped at a fuel station on the way and the driver asked us to help him remove the luggage. The reason for this strange request was found out soon !! The car had no petrol tank, instead a five liter can of cooking oil had somehow been hooked up to the fuel line and that served as the fuel tank !! The guy simply unhooked it, took it to the attendant, got it filled to the brim and stuck the tube back on …. Brilliant one would say !!

We reached the airport without the car blowing up or leaking petrol onto my rucksacks, and then settled down in the lounge for a 3 hour wait before our flight. Chennai airport, like any metro airport in India is struggling hard to cope up with the boom in passenger traffic, and everywhere there is chaos and long queues. The free Wi-fi internet refused to connect and I had to use my own, so I managed to catch up with mail after quite a few days. The Taj outlet in the waiting lounge served delightful bakery at very reasonable prices. The burger for 40 bucks was better than any McDonald’s burger I have had in this country.

The three hours we managed to pass somehow, and then boarded our flight which was a hopping Indigo flight via Hyderabad. The flight was fairly smooth but the stopover at HYD was way too long, and fatigue took over. I somehow slept all the way to Delhi, and since I had forgotten my car keys at home. The car had to left in the office parking, and we all took a taxi back home.

It had been eight days, and we traveled nearly 10,000 kilometers by over land, sea and air, by road, river, rail and by bus, boat, train, plane, car, auto and god knows what else. I was happy to be back home………

pics from the trip can be seen here


chandni said...

whoa!!! sounds amazing....and more amazing is ur write up through which one feels like its a personal experience!!!

the pics are even better :)

Sidhusaaheb said...

I wonder how frequently the Premier Padmini would require refuelling, with that kind of a set up!

lemonade said...

brite..??!!! ha ha ha...there's seriously a fake sprite called 'brite'..now thats something i would love to taste..!!!
good to see that u had a great trip! :)

Anonymous said...

Excellent narration