22nd January 2005 - Kottayam

The ride into Cochin, where Vasco de Gama is buried was through the town of Ernakulam and gave us the expected problems in finding our way. In theory we could have taken a ferry, but finding the bridge should be easier than finding the ferry terminal. It wasn't.

Eventually after a 10 mile detour, we found our way over three bridges to Cochin, a "must see" place in the tourist guide. As usual, any hotel listed in the Lonely Planet was overpriced but we eventually found a reasonable room. Our search was not helped by a local lad on a bike who kept saying, "follow me" and leading us to the most unlikely looking places.

We couldn't see why Cochin was so popular. True, it did have some old fashioned decrepit buildings, but that was all. The tourist spot consisted of 100yds of tourist stalls near the so-called "Chinese" fishing nets, which operate on a cantilever principle. Behind the nets, were stalls selling fish which tourists would buy at exorbitant prices and then have cooked at another stall for another high price. It didn't seem to occur to them that the large fish that they bought had come from trawlers as the Chinese nets only caught tiddlers.

As in other places, rubbish strewn everywhere spoiled the effect. The very small beach was like a rubbish tip. We took a ferry to an island a mile away at a cost of 5p each and wandered along a much better beach where tourists never venture.

Leaving Cochin, we cycled south along minor roads through area's reminiscent of Holland, or the Norfolk Broads, until we reached Alappuzha.

The countryside in this area is known as the "backwaters" and is a large area of reclaimed mangrove and marshland with canals, dykes and strips of land sometimes no more than 50ft wide on which people live and work. Most of it is polluted and covered with floating Water Hyacinth a pernicious water weed which apparently is only kept under some sort of control here because it dies off once a year when very high sea tides turn the backwaters slightly salty.

We found a very quiet spot a few kilometres out of town that had a bungalow next to one of the backwater canals and situated in very nice gardens. Although expensive at eight pounds a night we stayed there for four days. It was very pleasant watching all the local folk go about their business on the water. They all used canoes instead of cars or bikes. Even a trip to the builders yard was by canoe returning with sand, cement and bricks.

Tourists in houseboats passed by frequently and although at first it looked appealing we resisted the temptation as we realised we would see no more than we had already seen and would see on a ferry trip to Kottayam, our next destination.

David had another go at fishing and caught small catfish and two other species, which the locals eat as a speciality. We tried one of them but it was very bony. We saw several snakes swimming in the water but had no idea if they were venomous.

Ordering food at a local restaurant, we asked for our usual "bottle of beer and two glasses" only to be told "sorry, but we do not have a licence to sell beer, but if you order our special tea you won't know the difference". We ordered "special tea" and along came a tray with a large teapot and two mugs. He was right.

The tea was cold and tasted just like beer. There was only one problem - the tea was rather expensive.

In town, the touts were offering tourists trips around the backwaters for ten pounds for a couple of hours, but we chose a three-hour trip on a public ferry to Kottyam. It cost 20p each and our bikes went on top.

We saw as much as any tourist would see on an expensive trip and it saved us a 70-mile trip by road.

The lonely Planet guide recommended a beautiful scenic spot in a bird reserve ten miles from town. When we got there it was nothing of the sort and the owner immediately riled David by asking how much we could afford to the question "how much is a room". The final price was ridiculous even though the owner reminded us that it was recommended in the Lonely Planet. Back in town we found a nice place on the edge of a lake at a reasonable price. It seems that anywhere that is mentioned in the Lonely Planet feels they can charge what they like.

David again tried some fishing and this time he caught a catfish, another fish and six turtles after which he gave up as they fought like house bricks. Needless to say, they were all put back carefully even though the restaurant manager said he could put turtle soup on the menu.

We intended to stay only one night, but Joan's toothache, which had been nagging her for a week, got worse.

Next morning we arrived by Rickshaw at the local dentist who was very good and didn't hurt a bit according to Joan. A temporary filling cost 150 pence.


Dave and Joan Wooldridge