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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
As in Alleppey, the river life unfolded, but in a much quieter way.
One beautiful scene after another:
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.
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.
We passed this happy group twice – here for the weekend and armed with selfie-sticks, they were having a grand time.
These sturdy wooden boats are called into duty for any number of things, including the transport of household appliances.
We passed by the simplest of dwellings:
As well as a more comfortable home, complete with a jaunty Christmas tree.
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.
We approached two young men – one very proudly sitting on his new bike and the other taking photos. They agreed to pose for us.
Pick-up volleyball by the river. This game was going on every night we were there.
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.
A parting shot – good-bye to bucolic Munroe Island – we are on our way to another beach holiday in Varkala for a week.