Friday, 28 February 2014

Flashback Fridays: Amazing India

Here it is... The first installment of Flashback Fridays, a look back at our past adventures around the world. It's a long one (unlike the trip itself) so make yourself a hot drink and be prepare to look at a tonne of photos - followed by hours of researching Indian vacations online!

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Back in October 2009 we were lucky enough to be able to take the trip of a lifetime to India with a group of friends. A good friend was getting married in Kerala, a tropical paradise in the south of India so we all tagged along for an amazing cultural experience.

Despite the fact that she was only two and a half years old, and that everyone thought we were absolutely crazy, Ava came along for the trip with us. It turned out to be the most wonderful experience for her and more than five years later she still talks about the trip regularly.

Ava in India


Here's a look at our week long adventure in India. Prepare for lots of photos...



Our first stop in India was the city of Kochi (also known as Cochin) in Kerala. We traveled with a group of friends and all stayed together in a homestay called Le Royale, a palatial mansion in the Ernakulam district. Our hosts, Jenny & Jose, provided us with the most amazing Indian meals - the start of a week of non-stop curry, even for breakfast! The Ernakulam district is an odd mish-mash of colonial era mansions and shanty houses. The streets are small and winding with a lot of traffic. Auto-rickshaws, trucks, buses and cars weave in and out of the small streets at terrifying speeds. It's amazing we didn't see any accidents! On our first morning in Kochi we headed out for an early walk around the neighbourhood before breakfast. First up we headed down to the water to see the Chinese fishing nets that Kochi is known for. We then took in the sights of the busy streets. Small shops and businesses line the streets and it seems that almost every second one is a coffin maker. It's a reminder that in this part of the world where poverty is rife and where the locals deal with diseases that we never see back home death is much more of an everyday part of life.

Chinese fishing net

An election was coming up. Interestingly, Kerala is a communist state!

Coffin works signage

Day and night coffins

Love these little trucks!


Apart from sightseeing, our main task for the first day in India was to organise our outfits for the wedding. Our hosts organised a couple of cars with drivers for us and we were taken to Seemati, a massive store selling every piece of Indian clothing possible. While the boys went to buy their sherwanis, scarves and pajama pants, us girls headed to the sari department. Sari shopping is an amazing experience. The walls of the store are covered in shelving housing thousands of saris. We told the staff which colours and fabrics we liked and they selected saris for us to look at. When we'd decided which ones we liked best we were brought up onto a platform to try them on. This involved having a staff member or two drape the fabric around us as required to make it fit and pinning it in place. The colours were all so beautiful that it was tempting to buy more than one (which a few of our friends did) however I knew that I would most likely never wear it again so I restrained myself from going crazy! Saris pretty much always come in a standard length with some excess fabric on the end which is used to make a bodice. A plain petticoat skirt is also provided to wear underneath. Ava and I left the other girls to go choose outfits from the children's department. Ava chose two outfits each consisting of a silk skirt and matching bodice. One in pink (of course) and one in blue and green. She also chose a few extras for friends back home. She likes to call them her saris but they're not really. After we'd made our purchases, our drivers took us to a tailor where we were all measured up for our bodices and had our petticoat skirts adjusted. A few hours later we were surprised to discover that the bodices had already been delivered back to our homestay. 

From the tailor we headed to a jewellery store to buy our bangles, earrings and bindis. Unfortunately this is when the lack of sleep hit Ava hard. We'd arrived in the early hours of the morning and after only 3 or 4 hours of sleep we were all wide awake again thanks to our body clocks thinking we were still in Australia. Ava had coped pretty well all day but had a complete melt down in the jewellery store. If her blonde hair, pale skin and blue eyes hadn't made her enough of an attraction to the locals, her incredibly loud non-stop screaming now did! Luckily she calmed down after a while (although it seemed like an eternity at the time) and was happy to try on bracelets and buy pack after pack of bindis.  

A wall of saris

Choosing sari colours

Trying on a sari


That night we took in a traditional Kathakali performance after dinner. The performance was incredibly loud but somehow Ava managed to sleep on Kim's lap the whole way through it. She must have been pretty zonked! We were also pretty lucky to be in India during the festival of Diwali. When we got back to our homestay after the Kathakali performance we were treated to fireworks in the backyard thanks to our hosts. Ava had woken up by this stage and she was pretty excited to see the fireworks so close.

The Kathakali performance

Look at that squidgy belly!


The following morning we said goodbye to our hosts and headed off on our way to Kumarakom Lake Resort, the venue for the wedding. On the way we stopped at Fort Cochin and Jew Town, the more touristy parts of Kochi. We "helped" out a fisherman on one of the Chinese fishing nets, visited the historic synagogue, watched the locals play cricket and ate the most delicious ginger ice cream. Indian sweets really are just so scrumptious.

With our hosts at Le Royale

Watching the locals play cricket at Fort Cochin

Colourful art on the walls in Jew Town

Chinese fishing nets

Helping bring in the catch

On one of the Chinese fishing nets

All that work and we caught just one little fish!


A two hour drive later and we had arrived at Kumarakom Lake Resort, an absolute paradise on earth. Well, paradise apart from the heat and humidity! Kumarakom Lake Resort sits on the banks of Lake Vembanad surrounded by lush vegetation. The accommodation includes resort rooms with doors that lead directly into the meandering pool, and villas with private pools. We were delighted to find out that we'd been upgraded to a villa (although the regular rooms were nicer than anywhere else we'd stayed before too). Ava really enjoyed having her own private pool to swim in and made as much use of it as possible. 

Lake Vembanad - covered in masses of water hyacinths

Kumarakom Lake Resort

Swimming pool bordering on the edge of the lake


The next best thing to swimming to cool ourselves down was sipping on a freshly cut young coconut. We drank so much coconut water while we were in India. With the intense heat and humidity the coconut water was just what we needed to stay hydrated.

We drank a lot of coconut water


After we'd settled into our rooms (and villas) it was time for the girls to take part in the mehndi celebration and have our hands painted with intricate henna designs. Ava was super excited about her mehndi and sat perfectly still while it was applied. Even more surprising than Ava sitting still during the application was the fact that she then sat patiently by the pool waiting for the henna to set. It was so hot and she desperately wanted to swim but she didn't want to destroy the beautiful design on her hand. She was rewarded about an hour later with a nice long swim before dinner.

Getting my henna on

Ava waits for her henna to set

Showing off our designs as we wait for the henna to set

And here's the other side

After the henna had set we started the task of rubbing it all off to reveal the design underneath

Ava shows off her finished mehndi


The next day was the wedding day. The ceremony was held early in the morning and even at 9am the heat and humidity were pretty stifling, especially given that we were now draped in layers of fabric! Those freshly cut young coconuts definitely came in handy and there were even pedestal fans set up outside to keep the guests cool! 

A little more colourful than our usual wedding attire!

Ava and I on our way to the ceremony

Fans set up outside to keep us cool!

Here comes the bride and her family

Keeping cool with coconut water

The ceremony

Offerings left at the alter as part of the ceremony 

Part of the ceremony involves the guests feeding the bride and groom

Kim's turn to feed the bride and groom

Can you tell that Kim is feeling a little hot and uncomfortable?!

Ava with the groom. Her skirt was so long we had to tuck it up into the waist band!

Me all dressed up


After the ceremony the bride and groom left to take care of all the official paperwork and the guests were treated to a traditional lunch. The lunch consisted of an assortment of sauces, pickles and condiments served on a banana leaf. We were each given rice and poppadoms to eat with the sauces etc. There was no cutlery and instead we ate with our hands as per tradition. Actually, we ate with our right hands only (which was tricky for left handed Ava and Kim!) as the right hand is for food and the left hand is for the toilet!

Banana leaf lunch before the rice was served up


After lunch we all cooled off in the meandering pool which winds it way through the resort and is apparently the longest pool in all of Asia.

The Meandering Pool

Having fun with inflatable tubes!


The next morning we split up into separate groups and headed out onto the lake for an overnight Back Waters trip on kettuvalams, traditional houseboats that look as though they are woven from wicker. Our houseboat belonged to the resort and despite the wicker look of the exterior, the interior was pretty much on par with the villa that we'd stayed in. Our houseboat had two bedrooms so we shared with friends. We had a driver and chef on board as well. The trip took us through the winding waterway that is Lake Vembanad. At some point in the past much of the lake was transformed into farmland with rice fields and coconut groves. The coconut groves form long islands with rivers of water snaking between. We relaxed on board and took in the views of everyday life along the lake as our houseboat made its way through the Back Waters, as this part of Lake Vembanad is known. We stopped a couple of times to have a look around and to buy the largest prawns I've ever seen from a local vendor. Ava enjoyed being on the houseboat but loved having the opportunity to get off and run around a little more, especially when she found local children to play with. The local children were mesmerised by Ava's pale skin, blue eyes and blonde hair and she was equally mesmerised by their dark skin. While they didn't speak a word of the same language they still enjoyed chasing each other around and sharing candy. 

Our Kettuvalam

Life on the lake

Life on the lake
 
Ava shares candy with some local children

Giant prawns for dinner. Prawns are Ava's all time favourite food so she was pretty excited about this!

Kettuvalums line the waterway

Ava takes the wheel. It's ok, we were moored for the night - tied to a coconut palm with a rope!

Heading home after a hard day

Working the rice fields


Back on dry land the following day, and with our time at Kumarakom Lake Resort at an end, we said goodbye to our friends and made our way to the tiny town of Kumily. Here we caught up with other friends (who had been on a different kettuvalam) and stayed with them at another homestay. We spent a quiet afternoon and evening walking around Kumily and taking in a local martial arts show. We needed plenty of rest that night as we had an extremely early morning ahead of us.

Water buffalo outside our homstay

School children stopped by to meet us

Ava "drives" an auto-rickshaw


At 5:30am the next morning, well before the sun was up and while the cool mountain air was still rather chilly we jumped into a Jeep like vehicle with no roof or sides (brrr!) and headed to the nearby Periyar Tiger Reserve. While we knew that the chances of spotting an actual tiger on our little safari were pretty slim we had high hopes of seeing wild elephants and we were not let down. We reached the reserve as the sun came up and made our way slowly along the winding roads as our driver kept a keen eye out for wildlife. We found elephants (including a calf!), buffalo, monkeys, bats and plenty of birds. The elephants were definitely the highlight of the trip.

On safari

Elephants!

Buffalo

How adorable is that elephant calf?

Green rolling hills as far as the eye can see

Our safari included a hike after lunch. Ava tried her best to walk as much as possible but it was nap time so we ended up taking it in turns carrying her which was not always an easy task with the slippery wet hills we traversed! We saw some of the smaller wildlife along our hike including one of India's most venomous snakes. We were warned to keep our distance from this tiny snake curled on a tree trunk but that didn't stop other people in the group in front of us from getting up really close (as in maybe 20cms away!) to take photos of it. Ava woke around the time we came across the snake and after being told she wasn't allowed to go near it she asked "But can I poke it with a stick?". Hmm... maybe not such a good idea! Our hike took us to the top of a hill with a little waterfall. Ava was keen to wade in the water as it was now quite hot but that wasn't such a good idea either. We were wearing those lovely leech proof "socks" over out pants for a reason!

Kim puts on his leech sock

Ava and I on our hike

Ava and Kim on our hike


On our way back into town after our safari we came across many people carrying all sorts of things on their heads, many of which just seemed to defy gravity.

Carrying goods to sell

Carrying firewood


Back in Kumily it was time for Ava's highlight of the trip. The thing that she had been looking forward to the most. An elephant ride! At first she was quite terrified when she saw just how tall the elephant was and I was worried that she wouldn't get on at all (she'd had a bad experience riding a camel not too many months prior). Once she realised that I'd be holding her and we were all safe she was happy to give it a go. And I'm so glad she did as it was a wonderful experience. Our ride took us through a small coffee and spice plantation. At the plantation we also met a pregnant elephant - in her 20th month of pregnancy! Apparently an elephant's gestation takes around 2 years! And after all that she gives birth to a 120kg baby. And here I am complaining about 9 months of pregnancy with a 3kg baby at the end of it!

On our elephant ride. Ava looks super grumpy but she was enjoying it.

Ava pats the pregnant elephant


The following day was spent on a long drive back to Kochi for an evening flight home via Singapore. On paper the drive between Kumily and Kochi doesn't look that far, maybe 160kms, but the road is windy and rough so the drive actually takes around 5 hours. We took in the views of mountains, tea plantations and locals in rural villages going about their day as we made our way back to the city and eventually the airport.

Tea plantations and women washing clothes in the river. 


Our stay in India was short but we had such a wonderful time and managed to fit in so many amazing adventures. Ava's highlight was the elephant ride, the houseboat trip and her mehndi which she was so incredibly proud of. The houseboat trip would have to be at the top of my list and our stay at the resort was just heaven - apart from the heat and humidity of course. All of our friends had such an amazing time on our Indian adventure and we were all so pleased that we got to experience something so wonderful together.

It really was the trip of a lifetime and it opened my eyes to the possibilities of venturing further afield and experiencing cultures so vastly different from our own.

The memories of this amazing trip will be with us forever.

2 comments:

  1. I've been reading your blog for a while and I but never left a comment. I like your Little Adventures and I like even more your first flashback Friday! Pictures are beautiful and what a fantastic experience for Ava. Traveling is so important for kids.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ah bringing back some great memories Sally! xxK

    ReplyDelete

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