Diwali; the Hindu festival of lights. It is arguably the most celebrated holiday of the year in India. With parties, parades and gift giving, it is the Hindu equivalent of Christmas. While celebrated differently much less in South India than North India, the national holiday Diwali still meant that I got a five-day extended weekend and allowed me to take me first trip in India! I set out on my first adventure to the neighboring of state Kerala.
Kerala, commonly referred to by their unofficial slogan, ‘God’s Own Country,’ is a beautiful region known for its rolling hills and calm serenity that clashes with the common chaotic view of India. While the natural beauty and wildlife of Kerala should not be overlooked, Kerala is certainly most famous for its backwaters. Known as the Venice of the East, the backwaters of Kerala make up a labyrinth of canals, rivers and inlets that stretch more than 200 km.
My first stop on my trip was the city of Kochi, or Cochin, by way of sleeper bus. I was lucky, and ended up knowing someone who knew someone who lives in Kochi. Although living in an apartment with her four children, this friend of a friend happily welcomed me to stay with them with only a few days’ notice. Not only did she insist on making me several traditional dishes while I was there, but she also took me around the entire city. Determined to make sure I had a good time, we set out to explore on the back of her motorcycle for the day. We spent the day walking on the beach, visiting the city’s church and synagogue (one of very few still functioning in India), walking through Kochi’s famous spice market and making sure I had all of the local street food. We were also able to see a performance of the traditional Keralean dance, Kathakali, whose costumes, makeup and storytelling were fascinating.
After a full day of exploring, I said goodbye the next afternoon and set off on the local bus to Alleppey, or Alappuzha. I arrived at my hostel and settled in. They were hosting
a small celebration for Diwali so I quickly dropped my bags and headed downstairs. I was handed a sparkler and a beer (one of my favorite combinations) and introduced myself to everybody.
The backwaters did not disappoint. Surrounded by green and luscious scenery, I, along with three guys from my hostel, floated peacefully through dozens of winding canals. Entire villages sit right on the water’s edge. We passed schools and hospitals and women standing waist-deep in the river washing their clothes. Our guide chatted happily with many of the villagers as we passed. Our trip concluded with a delicious meal, served traditionally on a banana leaf. When we got back, my new friends and I decided to walk to the lighthouse and watch the sunset on the beach.
While I made a lot of really great friends in Alleppey and I was sad to leave, there isn’t much else to do aside from the backwaters here in Alleppey. I set off to a new destination, deciding last minute to take another sleeper bus to the town of Kalpetta, which serves as an entry point to Wayanad Nature Reserve. I arrived at 6:00 a.m. with relatively no plans and no place to stay…this should be fun. I decided that the best option would be to rent a taxi guide for the day, I had been told that this was the best way to travel around the area because everything is so spread out. Of course, that was easier said than done. After several failed attempts at trying to find a good number to call for a taxi, I walked into a nearby hotel and asked reception. I have found that this is always a HUGE help when traveling. If you are ever lost, confused, overwhelmed or scared while traveling, finding a nice hotel can be a lifesaver. These hotels have staff that are accustomed to dealing with a lot of travelers and can normally give good advice. I made friends with the manager and he happily called me a taxi and set me up with a wonderful guide for the day. While the cost of doing this in America would give me a heart attack, it is relatively common and reasonably cheap to do in India. I was able to do this for 2,400 rupees, or about 36 USD.
We then took the two hour drive out to Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, where I went on a backroad jeep tour at sunset. While this was beautiful and I’m glad that I went, I was the only foreigner and ended up having to pay an extra fee to take the safari by myself. I usually prefer solo traveling to traveling with others, but Wayanad is one of those places that would have been much easier (and much cheaper) if I was traveling with another person.
My entire trip had run so smoothly that something was bound to happen...after waiting 6 hours in a hotel restaurant drinking chai and waiting for my sleeper bus, miscommunication with the driver resulted in me missing the bus at 1:30 am. Thankful for my friendship I made earlier with the hotel manager, I was able to get a room for the night and book a bus back to Mysore the following day. In 24 hours, I had gone from a very, very cheap weekend to getting a little too close for comfort with my budget. After I was home and told my mom about my escapades, she gave me some great advice when she said, “Well, that’s why you travel on a budget so that when problems occur, and they always do, you have some money and a little bit of breathing room. Breathing and budgeting. That sounds like a mantra for India if I’ve ever heard one...