Welcomed like family on Munroe Island

We would have missed Munroe Island, but for the chance meeting of a fellow traveller and her heartfelt endorsement. She had just come north from staying at a nearby ashram and raved on about the beauty of the area.   Canoe rides through narrow canals. Cycling on flat dirt paths by the river. Losing an afternoon reading in a hammock.
Yes, please – this was everything we had hoped to find in Kerala’s backwaters.

Getting there from Alleppey was easy – we hopped on a regular unreserved train and headed south for 1 1/2 hours. Cost – 40 rupees for two – less than $1. Ambience – priceless. This is an unflattering shot of Stephen, but will give you an idea of the train’s interior. The ceiling fans do a not-bad job, and the wide -open doors also help with ventilation. It hasn’t been cleaned in a while, but that’s what hand sanitizer is for.

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Images of Indians clambering on train rooftops are familiar to moviegoers;  I guess this stencilled notice is here for good reason. This action is apparently  “punishable”, but they’re not saying how. Since no-one came by to check our tickets, I think travelling short distances by train for free is not uncommon.

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The train stops at each station for about 30 seconds, so you need to be ready to roll. Stephen jumped down, grabbed my suitcase and helped me down. Boom – train resumed travel and was gone. We grabbed a tuk-tuk, and 15 minutes later, we arrived at Green Chromide Homestay, to be welcomed by the lovely Sunaina. This picture manages to make her look freakishly short and me freakishly tall.

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Sunaina recently switched careers and lifestyles – she left her job at Yahoo in Bangalore to open Green Chromide Homestay in her husband’s family town of Munroe Island. They built a home with their quarters downstairs and two guest bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs and have been in operation since September. Her husband commutes each week to his job in Bangalore, but is on hand on the weekends, along with his brother, to help Sunaina welcome their guests.  They all pitch in with preparing the fantastic meals. This was one of our dinners – the namesake green chromide fish, along with more food than we thought we could eat – but we managed.

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Sunaina’s little daughter is also thrilled with the move. In Bangalore, she missed her extended family and was confined to an apartment; on Munroe Island she runs barefoot and has the whole neighbourhood watching out for her.  Her self-appointed job is to watch out for her 2-year-old cousin. The little cousin has an older brother – he and Stephen would solemnly fist pound each time their paths crossed.

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Indian kids are the cutest. Almost all the children we’ve encountered are curious, confident, sweet-natured and very well-behaved. “Hello. What is your name? Where are you from?” – they call out to us, and we call back and then they giggle. Stephen has taken to saying,”Where are you from?”, which causes them no end of consternation. (How could he not know they are from India?) The older ones sometimes get it. Steve being Steve, this joke will never get old, so I am doomed to hear it for the next two months.

On our last evening on Munroe Island, Sunaina invited us to join her family at a festival at another family member’s home. We still don’t know what the festival was about, and neither did our host. He shrugged – apparently the whole neighbourhood was lighting small candles and offering food to departed relatives. Most of Sunaina’s relatives and friends did not speak English and needless to say, we were the subjects of much curiosity and also the recipients of tremendous hospitality.

I got to hold this little dumpling – she must be so used to being passed around to adoring relatives, she didn’t bat a (kohl-rimmed) eye.

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Sunaina’s relatives live on a large property with three buildings – the original 100-year-old small home, the much larger family home and a shrine. We began celebrations by slurping a sweet liquid out of our hands (I accidentally ate with my left hand – a huge no-no), and then went back to the shrine for the brief ceremony.  The woman with the pink sari began – offering prayers for about five or ten minutes.

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We followed by throwing flower petals around the shrine and then moved back to the main area. Our hosts had made small sweets – something like a little banana pudding wrapped in leaves and steamed over a fire for an hour. Delicious – plus we got a few more to take home. I got lots of arm pats and looks and giggles – it felt very warm and welcoming, although of course they could have been saying anything about me – how would I know?

We came to Munroe Island for a peaceful backwaters experience and lucked into this lovely new friendship. It was an honour and a privilege to be part of this family gathering, and will remain one of our top Indian experiences so far.

On to the backwaters… Munroe Island is a cluster of eight small islands, covering 13 square kilometres, linked by innumerable small canals, a large lake and a river.

The view close to our homestay:

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We borrowed a couple of bikes at the homestay and took off to explore the island.

First up – a dad and his son skipping rocks across the water.

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This little store is very typical in India – sometimes they carry fruit and vegetables, sometimes cigarettes and toilet paper – others carry jars with small candies and perhaps a few bottles of shampoo. I think they function on a greater level as a hangout.

IMG_0016 During our three days on Munroe Island, we were serenaded day and night with chanting, singing, and prayers – sometimes at teeth-rattling decibels – part of the festival. We cycled by this woman who was reciting prayers from a book, much enhanced by the mic and loudspeaker.

At first, we were aggravated by the noise, especially when it began at 5:00 am. It soon became part of the background and we stopped hearing it – we must be surrendering.

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We arranged with Sunaina for a canoe ride through the backwaters. We were picked up at 4:00 pm for a two-hour tour, on a typical Keralan dugout canoe. I sat in the middle and Stephen sat in the front – he was soon instructed to start paddling as well!

Our captain:

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As in Alleppey, the river life unfolded, but in a much quieter way.

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One beautiful scene after another:

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Birds were a big feature of our trip – we were accompanied by birdsong the entire time, and we did see a hornbill, although my only photo is a bird in silhouette on a wire, so I’ll save you that non-image and give you this video instead.

More boat-and-trees-reflected-in-still-water-shots.

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The birdsong was disturbed by our captain’s nonstop expectorating. Even by Indian standards, he was outdoing himself.  Every five or ten minutes, we would hear a phlegmy, chest-rattling hork, followed by an emphatic pttchoo into the water. I looked back at one point to see him crouched and covered with a towel.
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We passed this happy group twice – here for the weekend and armed with selfie-sticks, they were having a grand time.

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These sturdy wooden boats are called into duty for any number of things, including the transport of household appliances.

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We passed by the simplest of dwellings:

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As well as a more comfortable home, complete with a jaunty Christmas tree.

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And boys – lots of boys. This little crew reminded us that boys are the same the world over – they yelled out to us, with big bright smiles, and then a couple of them felt obliged to climb a tree and hang over the water.

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We approached two young men – one very proudly sitting on his new bike and the other taking photos. They agreed to pose for us.

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Pick-up volleyball by the river. This game was going on every night we were there.

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Stephen heading under the bridge, wearing his new Tilley-ish hat bought in a market in Alleppey.  The days when we would not have been caught dead in a hat like this are over – function over form is our new approach to travel fashion.

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A parting shot – good-bye to bucolic Munroe Island – we are on our way to another beach holiday in Varkala for a week.

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Waterworld: gliding through Alleppey’s murky green canals

The backwaters of Kerala have been compared to the American Bayou and billed as “Venice of the East”. This area of low-lying barrier islands is linked by five lakes, 38 rivers and hundreds of canals, both natural and man-made.

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Kerala backwaters have been used for centuries for transportation, fishing and agriculture; the dykes built to keep freshwater and saltwater from mixing are similar to those in the Netherlands. In places, houses run along a narrow strip of land on one side of the canal with rice paddies,  and fields of bananas, cassava and yams on the other.

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This dreamy, languid region has attracted tourists for years. Drawn by the irresistible notion of rollin’ on the river, (albeit in a comfortable fully-outfitted houseboat, complete with A/C and staff), the hordes have arrived.  Sadly, tourism has grown to the point where there are serious environmental threats from over 2000 houseboats and untold numbers of smaller vessels.

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Alleppey is one of the two main hubs where one can arrange for boat tours. There are half-day and full-day tours on double-decker boats, small canopied Venetian-style boats and low wooden dugout canoes. Heavily promoted as a “must-do”, overnight houseboats come in a staggering range of price points and amenities.  They all offer bedrooms, bathrooms, dining facilities, lounging facilities and on-board staff, and quality ranges from frankly frightening to quite luxurious. Prices correspond accordingly. This was one of the nicer houseboats that passed by – we waved at one another, as you do whenever you are onboard any  boat.

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To step back for one minute – we chose to stay right in the city of Alleppey, instead of one of the more rural canal-side resorts, as we had a number of housekeeping issues to take care of – laundry, ATM, assurance of good wifi, etc.  It was perhaps not as authentic and laid-back as we had hoped, so we are tacking on another few days in the backwaters further south, after we leave here. However, we had yet another fantastic homestay experience with our host, Jose, his wife Tiny and their two adorable small girls – Angel and Annie. Jose and his cousins Jiju and Simpson run the homestay; his wife is an elementary school teacher.

Jose, Tiny and Jiju, heading out for the evening.
A side note here: I want to figure out how Indian women deal with heat. They are unfailingly elegant, unruffled and covered from neck to toe in layers, complete with floating scarves and gold jewellery.  I, on the other hand, am panic-stricken and cannot find a way to calm myself. Red-faced and beaded in sweat;  my damp, wrinkled clothes cling to me like saran wrap – I am not doing a good job of representing western female tourists.

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Our homestay neighbourhood is fun – on our street we have a mosque, a recycling depot, a girl’s school and a ruby financier. One narrow alley leads into another and by now we have figured out the labyrinth.

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On our first day, we wandered around the town of Alleppey without much success. Our bodies were coping with the shock of being plunged back into dripping humidity and temps in the high 30’s. Like a scene out of High Noon,  we arrived at the lighthouse, an Alleppey landmark, only to be urged by the caretaker to “run – we close in 10 minutes.” The purpose of the lighthouse visit was to climb its many interior stairs and enjoy the panoramic view of the city. We could no more have run those stairs than run a marathon, so on we trudged down a shade-less street toward the beach. We became so dispirited by the broad stretch of dirty sand that we hid out in a small cafe and drank lemon soda.

Just prior to that, we had visited the other Alleppey attraction, the Revi Karuna Karan Memorial Museum. The widow of the late wealthy businessman (second-generation owner of a massive coir factory, among other ventures) housed their personal collection of porcelain, ivory, precious stones, furniture, crystal and art  in a spectacular white columned building. She was hoping to create her own Taj Mahal, as a testament to their love.

It was interesting enough ( she has the world’s largest collection of Swarovski crystal), except we were followed by a “guide” who kindly read the plaques on the wall for us (“this is a table with ivory inlay”), and rushed us through, then hinted at a tip.

Note to self: not everything listed in Lonely Planet is worth visiting.
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Back to the main event – our boat trip. We arranged for a half-day tour on a private boat – just us and our captain, Sudo. The sarongs Sudo and Jose are wearing are very common in southern India.  The men endlessly unfurl them and wrap them up to miniskirt level, then drop them again. I’m sure they are cooler than pants.

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We met up at 9:00,  and soon we were underway – happy to sit back in our rattan chairs, a light breeze on our faces and watch life on the river unfold. Contrary to what we had heard from other tourists, we witnessed no bathroom habits, but we did see people brushing their teeth, bathing and washing their hair.

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Many women were washing clothes, scrubbing them with soap, then pounding them against the stone steps.

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Commerce is conducted waterside – we passed a number of boats carrying a variety of goods.

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Homeopathic medicines delivered right to your door

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We stopped for breakfast at Tasty Land, where we were greeted by a very warm woman who brought us coffee and pancakes and watched us carefully as we ate every bite.

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Sudo brought us round the side of the restaurant, where there were two eagles with wings clipped, posting on a perch. This seems to be a thing in India – this is the third or fourth “pet” eagle we’ve seen.  Sudo wanted the eagle to sit on my shoulder, but it kept hopping onto my head – perhaps confusing my hair for a nest.

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Our boat, tied up and waiting our next adventure.

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Like any neighbourhood, there are homes of all types.

A modest houseboat:
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A modern, newly-built two-storey home:
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A luxury resort:
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And most of the services you would expect to find in a small town.
A hospital:

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A school.   Jesus has been thoughtfully outfitted with an umbrella to guard against the harmful rays of the sun.

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Lots of people-watching. This family waved at us as we glided by.

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A stern-looking woman standing sentry.

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And, as we’ve seen everywhere in India, such brutal manual labour. We watched men  fill and carry massive baskets of dirt and stone on their heads, from the boat to the yard behind.

As you would expect in this environment, there is regular ferry service.

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One last beautiful scene before we headed back.

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The entrance to our boat tie-up is pretty grim – where old boats go to die. It would appear that derelict boats are not hauled away – there were dozens like this and it is obvious they had been there for many years.

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This was an extremely interesting introduction to life on the backwaters. We’re heading to Munroe Island tomorrow, which is about two hours south of here. It is isolated, rural, and promises walking, cycling, canoeing and napping. Sounds perfect – expect more backwater photos in a few days.

Feeling the heat in Fort Cochin

We are now in sultry Kerala, one of India’s southernmost states and it is hot. The past few days have simmered in the low 30s, and a sweaty humidity has settled right in. Not that we’re complaining …  We are engaging in that most Canadian of pastimes – commenting on the weather and considering what our friends up north are dealing with, I will stop right now and tell you about cozy Fort Cochin.  Portuguese, Dutch and English settlers have left their mark on this luscious city perched on the Malabar Coast – part of “God’s Own Country.

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We booked into Casa Mia Homestay, run by the gracious and hospitable Usha, who welcomed us with a kiss on both cheeks and a glass of freshly squeezed grape juice. Usha and her husband and son live on the first floor and her guests are on the second floor. We have a clean and spacious bedroom and bathroom and meet up with the other guests   for breakfast in the family dining room. Most homestays are variations on this theme and are an excellent way to mingle with Indians and  foreign tourists. Usha’s husband Antony built this home, finished with rosewood trim on the walls and a small quarry’s worth of marble on the floors. Our room is the balcony on the right.

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Cochin is a small city in Kerala and Fort Cochin is an idyllic section that is charming, walkable and surrounded by the sea. It is full of idiosyncrasies and non-stop photo ops. On one street you will find this – all polished and white – remnants of the British Raj era:

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Right around the corner is this building. At first glance, it appeared to be vacant, but I saw women walking inside – it has become a squat. Elegance and wealth; poverty and squalor – the two worlds exist side-by-side. Fort Cochin is too small to have enclaves.

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Our street is an interesting mix of homestays, small shops and even a tiny church. We appear to be in a Catholic area (our hosts are devout Catholics), and this little chapel is always open, with a candle lit, ready for anyone to drop by.

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Further down our street is this fabulous car – the HM Ambassador. This quintessential Indian car was based on the British Morris Oxford series, with rights purchased in 1956 to be produced exclusively in India.  It was known as “the King of Indian roads” and ceased production in 2014. I would dearly love to have a car like this back in Canada, right-hand drive and all.

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We hear chesty coughs wherever we go. Many tourists, Stephen included, appear to be affected by the daily burning that goes on throughout the country. This is a common sight – sometimes just leaves or papers; other times there is plastic and household garbage burning, which is far more toxic.

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We walk past the ugliness of the burn piles and come round the corner to this beauty:

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Fort Cochin has provided many examples of artistic design against a backdrop of whitewashed cleanliness that is a balm for our souls. This is the first time so far in our travels in India that we have encountered these pockets of calm and it has made us appreciate how restorative it is. We realize our survival and enjoyment of India will depend upon us finding small pockets to escape to, to allow us to plunge in again.

This little canal smells just like it looks. We walked about three kilometres to Mattancherry, the old spice district, which now has many antique emporiums and tourist shops. On the way, we walked through neighbourhoods like this, past people’s front doors that open to the street. This is yet another taste of life in India.

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We passed by a group of men bathing in this water – soaping up their bodies and washing their clothes. The building behind them is the Mattancherry Palace, filled with Hindu murals preserved from the 1500’s. They were impressive, but we were just as happy to be inside a cool building with whirring fans and a window seat.

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Another important building in this area is the 400-year-old Pardesi Synagogue. The inside is simple and elegant, with a gold pulpit, hand-painted floor tiles, chandeliers and glass lamps. Photographs were prohibited and I couldn’t even sneak one, as we were being watched like a hawk. Apparently we had just squeaked in 5 minutes before closing, so we were ignominiously ushered out almost as soon as we sat down. “You go now. Get out.” Probably lost in translation a little, but I did manage to get the guard to tell me the congregation of this synagogue is just five people. “But tourists are welcome.

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This area of Cochi is called “Jew Town” – a moniker I find quite jarring, but apparently it has come about without any ill intent or bigotry. As the sign proclaims, it is still an area for commerce.

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Fantastic buildings in this area – I loved this lineup of shutters, and also loved the still-intact poster of Prince Charles, probably from his end-of-marriage trip to India with Princess Diana, when she famously posed alone at the Taj Mahal.

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We had a wonderful lunch in this art cafe, and watched the world go by from our window seat. The light fixture is made from a metal flare used by ships to act as markers to warn other vessels of their whereabouts.  This is the kind of thing that appeals to me – repurposing items like this. I have a folder of ideas poached from our travels for the day we settle and make a home again.

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Finding hairdressers while we travel is always a challenge and we’re both hitting that shaggy stage. On the way home, we passed by a barbershop and dropped in. It was not the cleanest little place. I’m betting that bottle of Dettol in the cupboard has not seen the light of day for years. Certainly the comb and scissors were not treated to a disinfectant. Oh well, Steve has no open sores on his head and he came out of there with a great cut and beard trim. The barber seemed quite pleased to have a foreigner in his shop and he reminded Stephen that his cut (which cost 200 rupees – $4), would be 2000 rupees in his hometown!

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The Chinese Fishing Nets are another tourist draw – we did not manage to capture the magical, sunset tourist-bureau shots of these nets, but they are a relic of the traders from AD 1400 court of Kublai Khan. There are about half a dozen of these massive contraptions that require four people to manage the counterweights that lift and drop the cantilevered nets into the water. We watched for a while – massive effort for a few flopping fish.

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At a nearby children’s park, we came upon this curiosity – a statue of a mother standing beside her little boy. I’m showing you the rear view, but the anatomically correct front view clearly shows this little fellow peeing. There you have it – a public endorsement of that oh-so-familiar site – males of all ages relieving themselves wherever they want.

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We witnessed another example of behaviour we had been warned about – the dangerous scam of refilling plastic bottles with tap water and selling them again. We have all been well warned about checking our water bottles to make sure the cap has not been opened already and we are careful  – neither of us are keen to experience water-borne illness or dysentery.  We just happened upon this scene – a young man crouched down beside a water tap, filling up plastic bottles. There may be an explanation, but it looks suspicious.

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After that ugly scene, a beautiful one – that’s the rule.

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And back to the not-so-nice. This is from a Western and animal-loving perspective – many Indians would not agree with us, as the elephant is an important part of their culture and is used in a number of festivals. This was the case with these five elephants – they were brought in for a festival where they would be outfitted with elaborate headdresses, but we were not prepared for the chains and the lethargy. One of the elephants had a number of sores and wounds on his body – we had to leave.

Another strange situation played out in the little restaurant right across the street from our homestay. We stopped by for a couple of cold drinks and were quite excited to see an eagle land right in front of us. Not so excited when we found out the young men running the cafe had captured this bird and clipped its wings – they wanted to make a pet out of it.

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More beauty – a permanent installation at one of our favourite art cafes. Our first night there, we split a watermelon and feta salad, followed by fabulous fusilli pesto – after three weeks of delicious Indian food, we were ready for a change.

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One of our favourite drinks in India is lime ginger soda – a couple of ounces of fresh lime juice, fresh ginger and topped with soda water. It is absolutely refreshing and perfect with Indian spices. We have had very little alcohol since arriving here – in many places it is not readily available. There are three dry states in India and we will not be visiting any of them, but with the exception of Goan beaches, restaurants that serve alcohol are few and far between. We are gratified to find we don’t miss it.

As much as I don’t appreciate being stared at, you can’t help but have fun people-watching. As we were walking back home this afternoon, we saw a beautiful young woman taking a photo of her boyfriend. She was a classically gorgeous Indian woman, and modern –  wearing very short white shorts. Her boyfriend was striking a pose against  a wooden wall – the whole thing looked straight out of an ad.

Just beyond them were these two gents, having a good gander at the woman’s backside. Stephen asked them for a photo and they obliged.

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My final shot is of an ayurvedic retreat – Kerala has a number of ayurvedic retreats and hospitals – our host Usha is a big advocate of ayurvedic medicines, but as she warned, “you have to know who are the good ones.”

Our friend Kathryn is still in her 30-day retreat – we are keen to hear how it is going for her. Ayurvedics, yoga, spiritual retreats – these are all important reasons for people to visit India. We are travelling strictly as tourists, to see as much as we can, but our eyes are being opened to so many things we didn’t even know existed.

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Tomorrow, we trade the steamy heat of Cochi for the cool mountain air of Munnar. Time to visit tea plantations and do a little hilltop trekking.