Monday, April 4, 2011

Exploring the Backwaters of Kochi & a German Girl Named Sophie

This photo and two others in this post are courtesy of Kerala Tourism who supplied us with these amazing aerial photos.

Cochin, India - or Kochi, as it is officially called - is famous for its Backwaters. I'm not even sure I can describe it precisely. Kochi is situated at the southwest of the huge Indian landmass, facing the Arabian Sea. It was once "leveled" by a devastating 2004 tsunami, but the resilience of the South Indians has rebuilt Fort Kochi, located at an island off the Ernakulam mainland.

The Backwaters constitute a marshy wetland filled with floating ferns and lush verdant greens that make comparison to the waterways of Venice quite possible. It's really a series of lagoons running parallel to the Arabian Sea , supplied by the conglomeration of 38 rivers, and situated at the Malabar Coast of South India. These backwaters nourish the fauna and flora, and provide the main tourist attraction in most of Kerala, from Kottayam running south to Allepey.


I would be the lone Asian in this particular day tour that takes almost 8 hours to complete if you count the pick-ups and travel time. This has a different dynamics - far from the earlier tours I took in Bangalore with mostly locals. This was a group of 8 tourists - a French couple, 2 British women, a Romanian girl, a tall Spanish girl, a platinum blond Australian guy... then there was me, proudly Philippine-made and doesn't really give a hoot whoever it is I will be thrown in with!


My pick up came at 8:15AM. After two more pick ups, we finally slid past towns from Fort Kochi to Mattancherry; then plied through the bridge connecting Fort Kochi to Willingdon Island (the biggest man-made island in India) until we reached the mainland of Ernakulam (the chaotic city proper). We headed north passing through places called Tripunithura and Putenkavu. An hour later, we were dropped in a place called Puthotta where we were wildly clueless with what to expect. There was a store by the roadside that offered tsai and drinks. The coaster that took us there suddenly left without a word, and we were virtually in the dark. Minutes later, a man wearing a longyi lead (a skirtlike cottony lower garment for men typical in South India and Myanmar) us to a "lakeside" where a boat was already waiting for us. Chairs were scattered and ropes doubled as side rails. How poetic!


Before long, two guys were already "punting" - not rowing nor paddling. This wasn't a motorized boat, thus all its movement is totally dependent on the muscle power of the punters (shown above). They have these very long (and heavy) bamboos that they use to hoist the boat to movement by digging down into the substrata of the "lake bed". And I can only imagine how strenuous.


For the next 2 to 3 hours, all we heard were the rustling of the leaves as they slid past our boat. There were floating lilies and weird-looking lotuses, mango-shaped fruits hanging down endemic trees (that's said to be poisonous). We were literally brushing through lush vegetation in the marsh. I had doubts if our boat would fit the narrow canals, but we succeeded eventually. It was such a thrill! Not a lot of conversation was made. No forced interactions except the occasional polite smile. But everyone would have a glimpse of the personalities herein.

The Australian chap, who was very personable, has been traveling since October, doing volunteer work mostly in Europe (yes, he spoke French). He was inquisitive, and kept moving around. His white skin have turned crisp brown, with white tendrils of hair jutting out of his skin. Traveling does that to people... and he's been at it for the last 6 months or so. "I was in Thailand and stayed with 5 Filipinos," he told me. "Filipinos are the friendliest travelers I've ever met," he added. Don't look my way! Haha. But it was polite chat.

The Romanian girl, whom I earlier thought was Brazilian, was also a seasoned traveler. It would be her second time in India (it's my third, if I have to say so... LOL) and she's known the Ausie guy from couchsurfing (that website for travelers). She later regaled us about this really delicious dessert: "It is made of noodles and cardamom - the green ones, not the black ones, which is rather oily!" I liked her. She was spunky and lively, and she had a genuine smile.

We visited a couple of villages that highlighted cement making and coir (rope made from coconut husks) making. Cement making was particularly interesting as they were made from ground clam shells burned to a crisp then made to transform from calcium carbonate to calcium oxide. Voila! You have a bag of very fine, white cement used in construction. Rope making was done by mostly women, harvesting the husks from used coconuts, then turning them into ropes called "coir".


I would eventually be divested of a "ballpen". A young girl would ask for a ballpen from me. Another 12 year old boy would ask the same from me later before leaving Puthotta. I actually liked the idea. "I don't get it," said the Romanian girl. But I would much prefer them asking for pens which they can either sell or use for their studies.

The French couple looked well dressed; the guy was wearing a cap that he offered later when I declined going on another 30-minute "little boat ride". "It's too hot," I reasoned. This was once we reached an island where we were going to be be treated to an authentic Kerala lunch on a banana leaf. The French guy offered his cap, but I graciously declined.

While waiting for lunch, they offered another boat ride - on a shadeless bangka (canoe-like). I didn't go. It was too hot and I didn't really expect anything new. Their trip didn't take 15 minutes. It was just to cover for the tardiness of food. I just walked around observing them cook our rice. When they got back, I asked how it was. "It's ok, just a little more of what we've been doing this morning... on a smaller boat," said the Australian guy.


Lunch was terrific; one of the more enjoyable Indian meals I have ever experienced, which I will feature here one of these days. After lunch, we would be floating ever so serenely for 2 to 3 hours. I took a nap, like most of us did. It was inevitable, the gentle chirping of birds, the sweet ripples of the waters, the occasional splashes from the lake, and the hummed whispers of my tour mates.


I've read in the Lonely Planet that some have complained of boredom from these backwaters tour, but it's quite preposterous to expect high adrenaline action when the punting of the boat can't take you more than 10 to 20 knots a minute. You pay 750 rupees for peace and calm, and thus you are rewarded with the most tranquilizing form of natural relaxation that money can't buy. This is exactly one of those Mastercard moments. Priceless!


Experiencing the backwaters would make it in LP's "Things To Do Before Dying." Though it's a bit of an exaggeration, I guess its easy to infer the indescribable experience to be had from such activity in Kochi.

By 3:15 PM, we were back in our huge white coaster; everyone seemingly closer to each other. It was a quiet ride back to my hotel, as I would be the first to leave. "Good bye, guys," I waved my hand. And like long time friends, they waved back. Later that day, I immersed myself in the golden sunset of Fort Kochi, even the gigantic Fishing Nets (a gift of the Chinese during the reign of Kublai Khan back in the 14th century) waxed poetic!

In the evening, after a visit to St. Francis's Church (the only structure the Dutch didn't destroy during the colony wars), where Portuguese adventurer Vasco Da Gama was once buried (his remains have been moved back to Lisbon), I went to the Fish & Chips Seafood Restaurant near Santa Cruz Basilica (Asia's first ever European church) . As I was ordering dinner, a blond German girl came. "Are you traveling alone?" she asked. And before we knew it, we were already sharing a table. She ordered prawns and I had garlic chicken. We tasted each other's meals and fell into a pleasant conversation. I liked these meetings, especially when it is clear there are no hidden agendas or romantic trappings.

Sophie has been traveling Thailand for the last 4 weeks. It was her first day in Kochin - in India. She's scheduled to travel to Allepey (the bigger backwaters, which has a 900 kilometer waterways) tomorrow to meet up with some friends. She's a Food Technology student from Munich who's taking her couple of months off. She recommended the Kathathali which I really planned on watching anyway. She looked too well dressed to be the usual backpacker; her top dotted with glittery sequins. And considering her order that costs 280 rupees, I'd say she's not the usual scrimping traveler. But she would be one of my more pleasant encounters in India.

She suggested that we check out Cherai Beach (on Vypin Island) tomorrow but I wasn't too sure of that. She wanted to buy one of those colorful sarees before proceeding to Goa. I was, like the twat that I am, non-committal. We exchanged email addresses and Facebooks, and eventually said our goodbyes. Before bedtime, I messaged her. It would probably be too late by the time she gets my message. But the Germans have made huge points in my book from the kind soul and the sincerest smiles that's Sophie.

I met a nice person today. And the irony would be, she's German!

This is the Eye in the Sky!


Visit and be fascinated with the 8 Lakh fans of God's Own Country from world over. 

Photo Credits: Kerala Tourism,'s cochinjew, alwayswithudr, and (1st photo)


Ola said...

The first picture is just amazing!

eye in the sky said...

Sure is!

Joseph Pulikotil said...


We call Kerala as GOD'S OWN COUNTRY.

I'm glad you enjoyed yourself here or let me say that you don't have too many complaints about the place or people in this post and some appreciation for the good time you had.

A chance encounter with the German girl was an icing on the cake.

I enjoyed reading this post.

eye in the sky said...

@ Joseph:

I did enjoy my time in God's Own Country. I may complaint a bit but it's an objective observation the way I experienced them, and they make traveling quite interesting.

And the Backwaters tour could end up in my "10 Things To Do Before Dying" list! Haha

Jill said...

hello, i want to check out your itinerary in SW India, I will be taking an 11 day trip myself, can you please post it, thanks

eye in the sky said...

@ Jill:

Here's the SW Indian Itinerary (I flew in from Malaysia):

- KL to Bangalore

- Day tour to Mysore: Srirangapatnam, Gumbaz, Mysore Palace, St. Philomina’s Church, Chamundi Hills, Mysore Zoo, Brindavan Gardens

- Bangalore’s new city attractions: Rajarajeshwari Temple, Bannerghata Park, HAL Museum, Nehru Planetarium, ISKCON-Anjaneya Temple, Sri Prasanna Veeran Seneya Swamy Temple, Raja Rajeshwari Temple, Lal Bagh Botanical Garden, Cubbon Park

- Take the night bus at Kalashipallyam to Munnar (Hill Station)- It will pass through a Tiger Reserve

- Munnar sightseeing: Floriculture Garden, Tea Plantation and Factory, Matupatty Dam, Elephant Park, Sun Moon Valley Boating, Echo Point, Top Point

- Munnar to Kochi’s Ernakulam

- Ernakulam's Jetty: Take the boat to Fort Kochi

- Backwaters Tour via Puthotta (all day tour)

- Kochi: Dutch Cemetery, Fishing Net, Kathathali Cultural Show (dance)

- AM: Ferry to Vypin Island, take bus to Cherai Beach, Sri Gowreeswara Temple, then ferry back to Kochi

- AM: Ferry to Ernakulam then back to Kochi

- Taxi from Fort Kochi to Kerala's Cochin International Airport for onward travel

Hope this gives you an idea. I'd say Munnar shouldn't be missed as well as the backwaters of Kerala. Mysore Castle is simply beautiful too.

Not too fond of Bangalore as it is noisy, relatively expensive and hard to go around with so many opportunist tuktuk drivers who will shamelessly charge you 10x the local rate. It's a constant haggle everywhere you go in the city and after a while, it gets tiresome because you can't relax from incessantly watching your back. The advantage of Bangalore is that you can book day trips to nearby towns (at the Tourist Office) which makes visiting sites cheaper, faster and convenient. Unfortunately, many of these tours can't follow their own itinerary right as scheduled. Makes for an interesting day nevertheless.