I have always wanted to go to Allepey and spend a few days on a house boat, but I was worried that it would be too crowded and touristy in January. And to explore Alleppey and Kumarakom the way I wanted to would also cost us dearly, but by this time, we were in the very last leg of our trip and were running out of both time and money.
As a cheaper and less touristy option to explore the backwaters I had put Kollam on our itinerary, on the banks of the huge salt water lagoon – Ashtamudi lake. I had read up about it on the rediscovery project. Those guys are amazing.
We left Kochi early in the morning to avoid the heat, and had some kerala parottas on the way. They were hot, and the chef fluffed them up and sort of broke them with his hands before he served it to us, they tasted delicious. The curry was good for Kerala food on the go, but not the best I have had by far.I think the best street cooks in Kerala left long ago, I have had better parottas and curry in Bangalore.
We reached kollam around 11 and with some difficulty found ouur cottage – the Ashtamudi Villas, on the banks of the lake. Exposed brick cottages, a common kitchen, coconut trees and hammock by the lake. It reminded me so much of Auroville, another place I love. This was perfect !
Except that they weren’t expecting us and were full ! We officially had no place to go, despite me waving the email reservation on my phone up and down. The confused caretaker I think was scared of my glowering so he called the owner but gave us some good coffee while we waited. The owner, Joseph arrived in a bit and broke my heart. When the crazy crab cancelled her reservation, he cancelled ours too, just like that, as we were another Indian couple with the same dates. He also confided that he never trusts Indian who use booking.com, unless they call and confirm, and offcourse no one let us know !!! This was the third time we had been jilted by booking.com this trip. The first time was at the palace utelia – a haunting experience you can read about here – https://aninsightfulnut.wordpress.com/2017/01/17/off-lions-and-lothal/, and the other was in Surat, where booking.com doubled our price 5 minutes before we were going to check in and we were forced to go and stay at the Taj and spend a lot more than what we had budgeted !!! You can read about that misadventure or adventure here – https://aninsightfulnut.wordpress.com/2017/01/20/hello-maharashtra-goodbye-Gujarat/
Well Kollam is a small place, and apart from the Ahstamudi Villas we had only two choices. I was frazzled, and annoyed and picked the nicer one of the two, Raviz, which was also on the lake. I got us a room and got off the phone, to find the Other chatting and laughing with Joseph and another short stout guy who had joined them. I can’t believe this guy sometimes, we didn’t have a cottage by the lake, we were spending three times what we had planned to stay at another place and yet he was making friends ? I put on my bitchy face and stormed up to them, but was soon won over. Someone gave me another cup of coffee.. Joseph was telling us about his surgery, but the person who disarmed me with his charm was Francis.
Francis is an auto driver, who speaks impeccable english, and fairly good German thanks to all the tourists he ferries around. He is extremely enterprising and organises day trips and was even appearing on a TV show the next day. The Other’s name is very biblical, and there is no hiding it. He hates his name and once seriously thought of changing it to wind beneath the owl’s wings ! Don’t ask !! But Joseph and Francis felt a certain kinship with him and assumed I was Christian too and invited us to a Hindu festival with elephants and drums at a village near by that evening. Francis went as far as to give me a conspiratory wink and told me that it would be really loud because it was a Hindu festival, you know, these Hindus !!
The Other and I both don’t believe or follow any religion, but have been born into a Christian and Hindu family respectively. Very often people just assume that we belong to each other’s communities and share common prejudices / preconcieved notions. It can be funny sometimes and sometimes we have to bite our tongue so we don’t pick a fight. A few months back we were having brunch with my cousin and her friends, whom we were meeting for the first time. As we were passing around food, we realised that the couple sitting next to us had similar food preferences, she was a vegetarian like me and he was not, like the other. They used this as a common factor to strike a bond. The wife gave me an understanding smile and said “isnt it so tough when we go out and eat.. XX will not share anything with me, and we have to order separate food!! ” followed by a big sigh. I didn’t get it, the other had no problems being vegetarian around me, as he anyways mostly likes only prawns and crabs and preferably cooked by his mother. But in the event he felt like eating meat, or we felt like eating different things we just ordered separately.. and if there were leftovers well one less meal to cook. It has never been a point of contention. We go out to eat to enjoy each others company and not necesssarily the same food. I said so and so as to not sound preachy I also mentioned that the other was a very picky meat eater, and preferred his mom’s cooking over anything else. So everytime he went to Chennai his mom would let the fish lady know in advance and there would be a bucket of prawn and crab waiting for him. I am not kidding, he actually eats for 6 hours straight when he goes home. At my statement the husbands eyes almost popped out of his head. He had assumed the other was a Brahmin, because he, his wife, my cousin and obviously me were and he could not understand how seafood was cooked in a Brahmin household. For those of you don’t know, Hinduism is a religion and has many many castes under it. Brahmins are one group of people who used to be priests and have a very puritan view about being vegetarian. Though I am vegetarian by choice I grew up in a house where there was no meat eggs or garlic. My mother finds it difficult to eat in restaurants where meat is served along with vegetarian fare because of her conditioning. So now that the context is set…. The husband couldn’t help but exclaim… that is unbelievably lucky machan !!! My mom allows me to order take away meat dishes at home, but your mom cooks meat !!! WOW !!… I then had to burst his bubble and call the Other loudly by his very biblical name…Oh well, breaking one prejudice at a time.
We took down Francis’ number and said we would call him if we were up for the visit, but I really didnt want to see elephants in captivity, as beautiful as it would have been.
Well after a shaky morning we entered Raviz and were showered with the best hospitality money can buy. Everything was beautiful and the service was amazing. They make you feel special. The resort sprawls the banks of the lake and our room was fabulous. It was huge with a great view and had a jacuzzi too. They had even decorated the bed with rose petals and towel swans, which was a sweet gesture. It finally felt like a honey moon.
We took in the view from our balcony for a bit and then went downstairs to their lakeside restaurant for lunch. I had the ulli theeyal, which is a spicy red coconut curry with drumsticks, red rice and poppadums and other had a malabar biriyani. The biriyani is a spiced rice with meat and eggs which is slow cooked and hence extremely delicious and has a bit of a cult following in the country. Most places have a vegetarian version, but very often it will be a shafted stunted version of the real thing. Do not expect a good vegetarian biriyani everywhere in India. My favourites are from the ITC Windsor in Bangalore, and the layered biriyani from Moti Mahal, Ahmedabad. Each state in India has it’s own version of the revered dish and this was the Kerala version. The other was a happy camper.
The Raviz has a sort of an infinity pool overlooking the lake, lined with coconut trees, where we spent the afternoon before taking a sunset cruise on the lake. This boat ride is part of the stay package and they serve you hot coffee and bhajjis on the boat as you move slowly in miles and miles of blue salty water.
The Raviz unfortunately has very steep laundry prices, I think it was 80 rs for one underwear and a 100 for a bra. We needed to do our laundry now and then as we weren’t carrying clothes for 45 days. If we did it at Kollam we were good till we got home, so we decided to use the Jacuzzi 🙂 We dumped our clothes in and filled it with the bath foam… voila !!! Wish I could post the video here. Recommended only for dire straights, please use the Jacuzzi like a regular person otherwise.
Raviz unfortunately does not have a bar, prohibition in Kerala all over again. I wonder how much it has affected its tourism. The one other hotel however had a bar which served beer. A small town Indian bar is something that needs to be experienced. Drinking is taboo in most traditional Indian families, and it is mostly always only the men who drink. The rich urbanite offcourse drink socially, and at home like most of the western world, and the urban poor drink chronically but not to enjoy, it is mostly violent and a giant social problem. The middle class however are a different ball game, the men drink only with other men, in very dark bars to reinforce the idea that they are doing something wrong. This bar was one of those, dark, with neon lights in the background which just allowed us to see silhouttes of each other. I was the only woman there but it didn’t matter as you really cant make out more that shapes. The nice thing about these bars is the finger food, spicy Indian stuff, some invented for this scenario I think. My favourites are the chilly – paneer / gobi / mushroom, which is one of the three sautéed with lots of green chillies and an unrecognisable mix of spices and sauces, which in the end is something amazingly lip smacking.
Heavy with many fried thingies, beer and chilly this and chilly that we staggered out and were not really sure if we were up for dinner. As we were walking back, we chanced upon a tiny street cart dishing out hot dosas and omelettes, and had quite a good crowd of locals. It smelt amazing, and called out to us. Both of us can never resist a good dosa, and that’s all that needs to be said. Many many dosas and a few omelletes later we made it back to the Raviz and sunk into our wonderfully comfortable bed.
As we were nodding off, at that peaceful moment between wakefulness and sleep, all the lights in the room came on. It was spooky as hell. I felt like I was in a horror movie. We calmed ourselves down, and tried to convince ourselves that it was a glitch. Didn’t really succeed, for someone who doesn’t believe in god I am very very scared of the possibility of ghosts. I let the reception know the next day, and they confirmed that it was a glitch, said that it happens everytime the power goes of and there is a switch to the generator. ummm… I am not so sure but they gave us a late check out so I settled.
The next morning we set of to Munroe island to meet Francis right after breakfast. We needed to take buttercup on the ferry again, and probably for the last time this trip. This ferry was a piece of ingenuity. It was two boats tied together with planks on top to make a barge, it took some expert steering but the boats moved as one.
Kollam is a tiny town, Munroe island is a tinier dreamy village, houses connected by canals – filled with salt water from the lake. Francis set us up with his mate who ferried us around the canals, along quaint houses and fish farms, under coconut trees.
We even saw a few homestays, tiny cottages by the canal built a little away from the property owner’s house which would be a much shabbier older dwelling.. How nice it would be to live there, eat food cooked by the villagers. Unfortunately the villagers don’t know how to use the internet yet, so the only way to book yourself here is by actually going there or location Francis.
Our boatman Sashi was new to the tourism game but extremely genuine. He was just learning English too. As we were urban Indians, me with short hair, the other with no hair he decided we were foreigners, he politely nodded everytime I told him we were from Chennai but went back to treating us like foreigners. He would point out to things like a coconut tree and then smile knowingly, but the Other and I has a barrage of questions on the local canal systems,, fishing practices, the effect of tourism on the environment, where the sewage went etc. Whenever we stopped to admire the scenery, or just sit in silence, Sashi felt like he was not doing his job, he would point and say banana tree. Sometimes you just need to smile and nod.
Half way through the 4 hour ride we stopped for some coffee and hot vadas at a tea shop run by a fierce woman. Boats with other tourists had also stopped here, I guess there is an arrangement of sorts. Nevertheless is was delicious.
One thing I forgot to mention is that you need to be a bit agile, it is a village of canals, but a poor village so they have tiny pedestrian bridges here and there which you need to duck under. It is worth it for the rest of the experience.
We got back on to the boat, canoed under the coconut trees, on the dreamy canals a bit longer, and it was time to leave. As usual I felt bad and looked at the island as long as I could on the ferry back. But it was time to pack and head to Varkala, the beach with the cliffs and that is my next post.