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Monday, 22 March 2010

Beaches, Ashrams, and Backwaters: Exploring Kerala (& Mumbai), India

Written by Christina Kay Bolton
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When we arrived at Thiruvananthapuram’s (also known as Trivandrum) airport near the southern tip of India our driver, Arun, was magically waiting for us even though we’d given him the wrong arrival time and flight number. Arun works for SITA and was very personable, spoke English well, and was the source of great conversation throughout the Beaches, Ashrams, and Backwaters: Exploring Kerala (& Mumbai), India, Arabian Soul, guest house in Varkala, Thiruvananthapuram, Trivandrum, Claufouty Café, Harmony Restaurant, travel kerala, Amritapuri, Amma ashram, houseboat cruise through the backwaters, Kumarakom, Cocobay Resort, Kochi, Cochin, Malabar House, Kathakali dance performances, Chinese fishing nets, yoga and Ayurvedic retreat centers, Mumbai travel, Bombay tours, SITA, sita tours, Christina Kay Boltontrip. I told him we wanted to do a bit of sightseeing in town before heading out to Varkala beach, so we stopped to look at Sree Anantha Padmanabha Swamy Temple (non-Hindu’s cannot go inside) and then explored the city palace museum which had some beautiful ivory pieces including a basinet made entirely out of ivory, some nice paintings, and a large throne-like chair adorned with huge crystals from Slovakia.

 


Varkala

When we got to Arabian Soul, our guest house in Varkala, Navneen (one of the owners) was there to greet us and help us with our luggage. He was very friendly and showed us to our room, offering us fresh coconuts as a welcome drink. We enjoyed them on the balcony as it promptly started pouring. Arabian Soul’s very kind employee Sanju brought us umbrellas so we could go out and explore. We walked down the dirt path where all the restaurants and shops are, all the while having the beautiful view of the beach below. We ducked into shops when the rain became worse and eventually chose Café del Mar for dinner. The cafe had tasty food and a trendy atmosphere, but was overpriced and served small portions and drinks without much alcohol. We hung around for a while and then headed back to our guest house.

Beaches, Ashrams, and Backwaters: Exploring Kerala (& Mumbai), India, Arabian Soul, guest house in Varkala, Thiruvananthapuram, Trivandrum, Claufouty Café, Harmony Restaurant, travel kerala, Amritapuri, Amma ashram, houseboat cruise through the backwaters, Kumarakom, Cocobay Resort, Kochi, Cochin, Malabar House, Kathakali dance performances, Chinese fishing nets, yoga and Ayurvedic retreat centers, Mumbai travel, Bombay tours, SITA, sita tours, Christina Kay BoltonWe woke in paradise. Our room had a view of coconut trees swaying in front of the sea. We had a breakfast of fruit salad, eggs and toast on the balcony, served by Sanju, who covers his heart with his hand when he speaks. Unfortunately, it began to rain again and we waited for the sky to clear, but when it became apparent it wouldn’t, we changed our plan from a day lounging on the beach to a day of reading books in cafés. Varkala is the perfect place for this activity with loads of cafés overlooking the sea.

We stopped at the Ayurveda Panchakarma & Yoga Therapy Centre to arrange massages for later in the day and then spent a leisurely afternoon at Claufouty Café where we had delicious lemon ginger honey tea and lunch. After a quick trip to downtown Varkala for its ATM we went for our body treatments.

My fiancé had a deep tissue massage while I opted for a traditional Ayurvedic Sirodhara treatment where warm oil is poured over your forehead for 45 minutes. The process itself was relaxing except for the mosquitoes that had a field day on my naked flesh. I told my therapist about it, but she didn’t close the door or cover my arms and legs. After the treatment my hair and body was drenched with oil. The therapist told me to take a shower, but when I asked for a towel I was given a paper thin piece of cloth slightly larger than a dinner napkin. I said “How am I going to dry off with that?” Frustrated, she told me to sit on the toilet, threw the dirty oily towel that had been on the massage table over my shoulders and put my head forward and proceeded to wash my hair. It was uncomfortable as the water was rushing down the sides of my face and up my nose. I definitely was more stressed out after the treatment. However, my fiancé did have a good massage, so I suppose it depends which practitioner you get and which procedure you choose.

We went to Harmony Restaurant for dinner which was excellent – the best meal in Varkala. We had fish tikka baked in a tandoor oven and fish cooked in a banana leaf with spices and coconut rice. The food was delicious and very filling with huge portions.


Beaches, Ashrams, and Backwaters: Exploring Kerala (& Mumbai), India, Arabian Soul, guest house in Varkala, Thiruvananthapuram, Trivandrum, Claufouty Café, Harmony Restaurant, travel kerala, Amritapuri, Amma ashram, houseboat cruise through the backwaters, Kumarakom, Cocobay Resort, Kochi, Cochin, Malabar House, Kathakali dance performances, Chinese fishing nets, yoga and Ayurvedic retreat centers, Mumbai travel, Bombay tours, SITA, sita tours, Christina Kay BoltonWe woke to a partially sunny day, so after breakfast in the garden we decided to go to the beach. Eventually the sun came out and it got hot enough for the water to be refreshing. The waves were rough and the currents strong, so if you’re not a good swimmer you may need to think twice about getting into the water. There was a team of lifeguards keeping a close watch and constantly blowing their whistles if anyone went out too far, or the riptides shifted. The beach is beautiful and relaxing and since it’s hundreds of steps down from the shops and restaurants the only sound you hear are the waves crashing.

We went back to Harmony Restaurant for lunch before our mid-afternoon departure. The people at Arabian Soul were real gems and held our luggage while we were at the beach and let us clean up in their bathroom before we left. Arabian Soul was a very good place to spend a couple days; it is simple, relaxing and comfortable despite its drawbacks like a lack of air conditioning or window screens (there was a mosquito net however), frequent power outages, and a loud toilet that shook violently when flushed.

 


Amritapuri

We headed to Amritapuri (after picking up some of the best red bananas I’ve ever had!) where the original Amma ashram is. Amma, ‘mother’, is the hugging guru who is popular all over the world now – she tours the US and Europe every year.

The ashram is really busy when Amma is there; thousands of people from all over the world stand in endless darshan (blessing) lines to get a hug from her. But even when she’s not there it is worth the visit to get a unique look at life in an ashram – which are much more common in India than almost anywhere else. Many of the people present were residents and dress in all-white. They hail from all over the world and sometimes stay at the ashram for years – living, praying, and working. Many follow various ascetic practices like abstaining from food on a certain days of the week, etc.

We were assigned to a 15th floor room overlooking the backwaters and as soon as we arrived it began to downpour. We got there just in time to grab sheets from the supply room, take showers, and make it to the ethereal chanting at 6:30 – hundreds of people chanting for over an hour in the main temple; we left in a blissful state.

Afterwards we went to the Western Café for dinner which serves veggie burgers and pizza as well as kitcheri – an Ayurvedic healing blend of lentils, rice and spices. You can also eat ashram food for free – it is very soupy rice with a small scoop of lentils, but it is pretty bland unless you spice it up with a lot of chilies. The only issue we had was with the cleanliness of the plates and spoons. There is no hot water at the ashram and there is no soap in the regular eating area, so people just rinse their plates off, but it is not very sanitary. Residents carry around their own set of dishes, but that’s not practical for travelers. We ended up eating mainly at the Café solely because they had soap to wash the dishes (still no hot water). There is also an Indian Canteen where you can buy delicious masala dosa’s (large crepes stuffed with curried potatoes) for about 50 cents, but it was not always open.

Ashram life is quite regimented and the mealtimes are quite exact; dining hall and cafés only stay open for forty-five minutes to one hour at each meal, so plan accordingly. Interesting conversations can last for hours, as most people living here or passing through are on some sort of spiritual quest and are seeking deeper answers. Others are traveling around India and just trying to immerse themselves in as much culture as possible.

A siren sounds in the darkness to wake people for chanting at 4:50 in the temple, but it was too early for us, so we fell back asleep. Breakfast is at nine and is the same rice and lentils at the dining hall, or you can get omelets, oatmeal and delicious baked goods at the café. Most of the work done at the ashram is after breakfast and you need to stop by the seva (selfless service) desk to volunteer for some sort of job for an hour or two – such as drying dishes or sweeping the temple floor. I ended up helping with a mass mailing for a couple hours while my fiancé swept and dried dishes.


After lunch (which is the most substantial meal if you’re sticking to ashram food) we went to the beach. The waves were mesmerizing at 3-6 feet high and crash loudly into the retaining wall of rocks that was built to protect this very vulnerable strip of land. Swimming and sunbathing are not allowed at the ashram’s beach – westerners in small bathing suits does not fit in with the ashram’s policy of trying to respect its neighbors and to not overly influence the local culture. The beach is used for early morning and evening meditation (and there is a swimming pool at the ashram if you want to swim). Next to the beach there is a building with many of the ashrams small business ventures – there is a shop selling Ayurvedic medicinal mixtures made on the compound. Amma has many charitable projects all over India and the world and they are supported by these purchases.


Another thing you may want to do while here is have a Vedic astrology reading (be sure to sign up the day before) – there is a very experienced astrologer who can tell you all about your life stages, strengths and challenges. Vedic astrology is very different than western astrology and most people end up being a different sign.

Rooms at the ashram are basic, with thin mattresses on the floor, but they do have private bathrooms and couples can request their own room. If you come alone you’ll be put with other singles of your gender. You need to bring soap and towels (you can also buy them at the shop just next to the temple), but can borrow sheets, pillows and cleaning supplies. You are required to clean your room when you leave. Ashram life may be for you if you’re looking for an experience like Elizabeth Gilbert had in Eat, Pray, Love. Try to come when Amma is here as a hug from her really does open you up and change you for the better.

*Note: Pictures are not allowed at the ashram, therefore none have been included. Check their website for a few.

Houseboat

Beaches, Ashrams, and Backwaters: Exploring Kerala (& Mumbai), India, Arabian Soul, guest house in Varkala, Thiruvananthapuram, Trivandrum, Claufouty Café, Harmony Restaurant, travel kerala, Amritapuri, Amma ashram, houseboat cruise through the backwaters, Kumarakom, Cocobay Resort, Kochi, Cochin, Malabar House, Kathakali dance performances, Chinese fishing nets, yoga and Ayurvedic retreat centers, Mumbai travel, Bombay tours, SITA, sita tours, Christina Kay Bolton

Beaches, Ashrams, and Backwaters: Exploring Kerala (& Mumbai), India, Arabian Soul, guest house in Varkala, Thiruvananthapuram, Trivandrum, Claufouty Café, Harmony Restaurant, travel kerala, Amritapuri, Amma ashram, houseboat cruise through the backwaters, Kumarakom, Cocobay Resort, Kochi, Cochin, Malabar House, Kathakali dance performances, Chinese fishing nets, yoga and Ayurvedic retreat centers, Mumbai travel, Bombay tours, SITA, sita tours, Christina Kay BoltonAfter a short drive from Amritapuri we arrived at the launch for our houseboat to slowly cruise through the backwaters – an experience not to be missed. The boat had one bedroom, a large covered deck with a comfy seating area and a kitchen in the back to keep us well fed. Upon arrival we were offered fresh coconut juice as our skipper took the helm.

 

 

 

Beaches, Ashrams, and Backwaters: Exploring Kerala (& Mumbai), India, Arabian Soul, guest house in Varkala, Thiruvananthapuram, Trivandrum, Claufouty Café, Harmony Restaurant, travel kerala, Amritapuri, Amma ashram, houseboat cruise through the backwaters, Kumarakom, Cocobay Resort, Kochi, Cochin, Malabar House, Kathakali dance performances, Chinese fishing nets, yoga and Ayurvedic retreat centers, Mumbai travel, Bombay tours, SITA, sita tours, Christina Kay BoltonThe backwaters are canals that are the traditional ‘roads’ of Kerala. You see all of rural life as you meander through; women washing clothes, schoolchildren returning home, milkmen delivering in their handmade canoes. It was so peaceful to just sit and watch as we floated by. After a couple hours we stopped for an incredible lunch: four delicious vegetarian salads and curries with rice and fried fish. We rested there and then continued our journey until just before sunset when we stopped for the night.

 

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Beaches, Ashrams, and Backwaters: Exploring Kerala (& Mumbai), India, Arabian Soul, guest house in Varkala, Thiruvananthapuram, Trivandrum, Claufouty Café, Harmony Restaurant, travel kerala, Amritapuri, Amma ashram, houseboat cruise through the backwaters, Kumarakom, Cocobay Resort, Kochi, Cochin, Malabar House, Kathakali dance performances, Chinese fishing nets, yoga and Ayurvedic retreat centers, Mumbai travel, Bombay tours, SITA, sita tours, Christina Kay BoltonWe walked around the remote area, met some of the villagers and saw the cutest little lamb that scratched the back of its neck by folding his head all the way back and flopping his ears from side to side.

The chef served us a huge feast for dinner that was even better than lunch: chicken in an incredible sauce, the best dhal (curried lentils) I’ve ever had, green beans with coconut, potatoes with cauliflower, and homemade chapattis and rice. This was the best meal we’d had in India and we loved the southern food and its unique spices and flavors. On houseboats they will often stop at local fishermen’s huts so you can buy fresh king prawns if you prefer that for dinner. The prawns are huge – one should fill you up. Most movement in the backwaters comes to a halt after sunset, but we watched some other boats continue by in the darkness with no lights and wondered how they did it.


We were very relaxed, but when we went into the bedroom and turned the lights on and saw three large roaches scamper away, we got very nervous. I was hoping they’d stay away with the lights on, but suddenly a big one rushed by and I screamed. The guys came running and after explaining through gestures, it was clear by their response that they must have dealt with similar situations before. The chef hunched down near the bed and caught the bug between his fingers as it ran past, then took it to the side of the boat and threw it over. What a difference between my reaction and his! Anyways, we kept the lights and AC on all night, but got almost no sleep. If you’re intimidated by roaches you could always go on a day cruise, but I wouldn’t skip the experience all together as this was one of the highlights of our trip despite the infestation.

 

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The crew was up at the break of dawn and we got moving right away. I was surprised by how much was going on so early in the morning. As we headed towards the largest lake in Kerala, Vembanad Lake, all the fishermen were already out there trying to catch shrimp using their long poles with little traps on the end (they lure them in with pieces of coconut). It is a slow process and each one doesn’t catch many.

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We were served the best fresh squeezed pineapple juice you can imagine and a delicious south Indian breakfast of idli (steamed rice dumplings), sambar (spicy soup), and coconut chutney. Normally tourists are served eggs and toast, but we requested Indian food instead. We arrived right at the dock of our resort in Kumarakom in late morning and said goodbye to the crew.

 

Kumarakom

Beaches, Ashrams, and Backwaters: Exploring Kerala (& Mumbai), India, Arabian Soul, guest house in Varkala, Thiruvananthapuram, Trivandrum, Claufouty Café, Harmony Restaurant, travel kerala, Amritapuri, Amma ashram, houseboat cruise through the backwaters, Kumarakom, Cocobay Resort, Kochi, Cochin, Malabar House, Kathakali dance performances, Chinese fishing nets, yoga and Ayurvedic retreat centers, Mumbai travel, Bombay tours, SITA, sita tours, Christina Kay BoltonWe were welcomed at Cocobay Resort with flower leis, fresh juice and cool towels. The resort was beautiful and spotlessly clean. We were given a room overlooking the lake and were relieved that we would be getting a good nights sleep. We started with a swim in the pool and a short nap before exploring the area. In order to get to the parking lot you take a small boat pushed by a long bamboo stick down the narrow canal – it is very relaxing and pretty. It was reminiscent of Venice minus the palm trees, tropical flowers and people bathing in the canals. We met our driver and headed over to the bird sanctuary. On a path through the dense vegetation we heard many bird calls, but didn’t actually see too many birds, probably because of our timing – we went around 4 p.m. and should have gone at dusk or early in the morning.

We had dinner at our hotel and it was great – we had king prawns roasted in the tandoor oven and a curried okra dish with naan (bread) and vegetable pullao (rice pilaf). We turned in early and slept well.

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Kochi

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Kochi is a great place for shopping and there were many good shops in walking distance from our hotel. We were warned against going to the Kashmiri shops because of being overcharged, but were encouraged to go to locally owned shops. We ended up at Indian Industries on Princess Street where we bought well-priced silver jewelry and wood carvings from a man named John at this family owned shop that his grandfather had opened 60 years before. There is also a good bookshop directly across the street with a large selection of books by Indian authors and a knowledgeable owner. As this was our last stop in India we also stocked up on Biotique botanical skin care products – one of the best brands in India and at Indian prices, a real deal on quality creams.

We had dinner at our hotel. The restaurant was packed with people as it is well- known. Though the atmosphere was good, we didn’t think the quality of the food was really up to par with the prices – the lamb was overcooked and the shrimp portion very small.

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The breakfast buffet was good. It included fresh juice, granola, yogurt, frittata, fruit, omelets, and toast. My fiancé had a stomach bug, though, and I went alone. I asked the staff for plain porridge to bring to him in the room which they graciously made. We’re not sure how he fell ill – it might have been the food the night before or the fresh juice from the previous morning, but he spent much of the day in bed.

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Another popular tourist draw in Kochi are the Kathakali dance performances where the artists wear thick face paints and elaborate costumes and perform precise hand gestures and acrobatic movements. Traditional Kathakali lasts all night, so this may be one time you want to take in the one hour tourist version, but if you are up for the all night affair the Margi Theatre (http://www.margitheatre.org/) in Trivandrum is a school that teaches the traditional art and offers shows about once a month.

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Mumbai (Bombay)

Due to flight schedules we left Kochi in the morning, flew to Mumbai (Bombay), and our international flight didn’t leave until evening, so we had quite a long stopover – enough for a half day tour which SITA arranged for us. A guide and driver picked us up and luckily since it was early afternoon there wasn’t much traffic to get downtown.

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Beaches, Ashrams, and Backwaters: Exploring Kerala (& Mumbai), India, Arabian Soul, guest house in Varkala, Thiruvananthapuram, Trivandrum, Claufouty Café, Harmony Restaurant, travel kerala, Amritapuri, Amma ashram, houseboat cruise through the backwaters, Kumarakom, Cocobay Resort, Kochi, Cochin, Malabar House, Kathakali dance performances, Chinese fishing nets, yoga and Ayurvedic retreat centers, Mumbai travel, Bombay tours, SITA, sita tours, Christina Kay BoltonNext we visited Ghandi’s house which is now a museum. It was very interesting to see where such an inspirational figure lived and worked. Many of his letters are on display, such as his letter to Hitler. We drove around the business district and drove past many of the old colonial structures as well – including the grand train station.

 

 

 

 

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We stopped in a small café for chai and kulfi (traditional saffron and pistachio ice cream) Beaches, Ashrams, and Backwaters: Exploring Kerala (& Mumbai), India, Arabian Soul, guest house in Varkala, Thiruvananthapuram, Trivandrum, Claufouty Café, Harmony Restaurant, travel kerala, Amritapuri, Amma ashram, houseboat cruise through the backwaters, Kumarakom, Cocobay Resort, Kochi, Cochin, Malabar House, Kathakali dance performances, Chinese fishing nets, yoga and Ayurvedic retreat centers, Mumbai travel, Bombay tours, SITA, sita tours, Christina Kay Boltonand then went to the waterfront to both the India Gate and the Taj Mahal Hotel across the street from it which was one of the places targeted in the Mumbai terrorist attacks. While most of the hotel is in excellent shape, they are still working on part of it and there is now a huge security operation before you can enter the hotel – every bag is scanned in an airport style scanner and you must go through a metal detector to get through. Once inside you’ll be welcomed by a cool marble lobby with many plush sofas and a series of very expensive shops.

 

Beaches, Ashrams, and Backwaters: Exploring Kerala (& Mumbai), India, Arabian Soul, guest house in Varkala, Thiruvananthapuram, Trivandrum, Claufouty Café, Harmony Restaurant, travel kerala, Amritapuri, Amma ashram, houseboat cruise through the backwaters, Kumarakom, Cocobay Resort, Kochi, Cochin, Malabar House, Kathakali dance performances, Chinese fishing nets, yoga and Ayurvedic retreat centers, Mumbai travel, Bombay tours, SITA, sita tours, Christina Kay BoltonOne of our favorite stops in Mumbai was at a Jain Temple with its incredible marble sculptures and the sound of the Jains’ rhythmic chanting. The Jains are a relatively small group in India, but have been very successful. They are strict vegetarians and follow a tradition of non-violence. While we were there a large group of women was gathering for prayers and it was mesmerizing.

 

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Mumbai is a very alive, energetic, youthful city. The main problem with it is its stand-still traffic. It took us almost three hours to get back to the airport as we went at rush hour (which is tough to avoid as it lasts several hours), but our excursion was definitely worth it.

Kerala is the place to go for relaxation and unique culture, but Mumbai is a place to stop to experience the cultural melting pot of India – with people from all over the country of every ethnic group and religion who’ve come for jobs or schools. With its waterfront location, it is almost an Indian version of New York City.

©Christina Kay Bolton

Details:

Tours and Drivers:

SITA: http://www.sita.in/

Hotels:

Arabian Soul, Varkala: http://www.arabiansoul-india.com/ 500-3000 rs/night (approx $10-70)

Amma’s Ashram, Amritapuri: http://www.amritapuri.org/ 300 rs/pp/night (approx $7)

Houseboat: Lake Land (book through SITA) http://www.sita.in/

Cocobay Resort, Kumarakom: http://www.cocobayresort.net/ 3000-10000 rs/night (approx $70-200)

Malabar House, Cochin: http://www.malabarhouse.com/ Rates change with dates, around $250.

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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