We began our descent into Kochi at 7:30 pm. There wasn’t much to see outside – it was almost dark – but from what little we could make out, the land seemed to be dense with trees, and the air heavy with moisture. Narrow streams, which we decided were the famous backwaters, snaked through the land. And judging by the thick clouds we’d just dodged moments ago, it was raining. Perfect.
This was an accurate description, we would learn the next day, when the bright morning sunlight made everything look like it was out of a travel catalogue. And it would be an accurate description of not just Kochi, but most of God’s Own Country we would cover in the next few days.
After the obligatory 10-minute, hyper-nervous wait for our bags (“Please, please let them be in Kerala, and not in Ladakh”), gazing unblinkingly at the conveyor belt as an expectant family would at the door of the delivery room, we walked outside, and dialed a number.
We’d booked our flights three months ago, a move that probably saved us thousands of rupees. And shortly after that, we’d arranged for a car. It would remain with us – for the almost unbelievably reasonable price of Rs 750 per day – for the six days we would be in Kerala. The man we were calling was supposed to bring the car to us.
We dumped our bags in the boot, discovered that the almost unbelievably reasonable price of Rs 750 per obviously didn’t cover an auxiliary cable (local radio would have to do – for now), and utterly famished, set Google maps to the only establishment we’d heard of – Pai Brothers’ Dosa. It’s located bang in the middle of the town, a few minutes away from Lulu Mall – which appeared to be a landmark of sorts, considering the busloads of people being dumped at its gates. It was virtually overflowing with people – both the dosa place and Lulu Mall. It was Saturday night, after all. The air was getting hot.
But this story isn’t set in big cities like Kochi or Thiruvananthapuram. It’s set in two small towns on the outskirts of those big cities, and on a highway – serendipitously called the national highway 66, an almost legendary number most travellers would immediately recognise.
After eating a ghastly amount of dosa, and thanking the one Pai brother we could spot, we made our way towards what would be our base for the next two days: Fort Kochi, the small seaside settlement roughly an hour away from – sorry, couldn’t help it – Lulu Mall. But in the 16th century, it was where the Portuguese made their base – the great explorer Vasco da Gama was buried there for some years, but his body was later taken to Lisbon. It was controlled by the Dutch for over a century, until the British took over until 1947. It was Fort Kochi where, centuries ago, the descendants of King Solomon landed, and built a synagogue that stands to this day – the Paradesi Synagogue in Mattancherry, a neighbouring town that, if word on the street is to be believed, has produced some of Kerala’s finest gangsters.
As you walk along Fort Kochi’s narrow, tree-lined streets, not knowing what lies behind the next turn – it could one of the many centuries-old churches, or a tiny café, or one of the inexplicably large number of tattoo shops – you notice this history, this mishmash of cultures that could only come together under the binding force of India.
Feeling slightly adventurous, and slightly conspicuous – we were an odd group; a lawyer, a pianist, and a ‘journalist’, all old school friends, two of whom were city-bred Malayalis returning home – we entered our Airbnb. Admittedly, the Rs 900 per night price had raised some suspicions – which unfortunately proved to be well founded after we’d taken a look around – but we didn’t know that we’d be scarpering to find better accommodation only a day later, so we stayed. Out of respect for the kind gentleman who ran the place, I won’t name it. But honestly, he needs to get his washrooms in order.
There is, however, no shortage of Airbnbs, and high-end hotels, in the area. To the untrained eye, it would seem that virtually every homeowner had assigned a few rooms for guests. Only churches seemed to be in greater density than homestays, and we made a mental note of saying a silent prayer at the first one we spotted for choosing to come after peak season. It was late August, so we found a new place to stay almost immediately. It was called Niyati, a spectacular boutique hotel that – and we were kicking ourselves for this – cost only a couple hundred more than our Airbnb. Highly recommended. Don’t make the same mistake we did.
And while you’re taking notes, remember to visit Kashi Art Café, the warmest, coziest place in town for coffee, desserts, and stray cats that’ll eat half your food. They won’t steal; the cunning devils will make you give it to them.
But there were no cats at our next stop: Varkala, a beach town roughly 50 km outside Thiruvananthapuram. Told you it wasn’t going to be a story about big cities. Getting to Varkala is a 5-hour drive from Fort Kochi – including stops of course; there is no way you’d be able to pass up on one of the dozens of Indian Coffee House outlets that pop up every few kilometres on the highway. There are, of course, local buses that ferry people from Kochi to Thiruvananthapuram. They range from about Rs 300-Rs 700 per head. But we had our car, now loaded with a hastily purchased USB with randomly selected entertainment dragged onto it at the last moment.
And so we drove, stocked up on fresh pineapple, bags of Cheetos, and fully charged phones. Having spent almost 10 hours on the road, it’s fair to say that the drive became a big part of our trip. Thankfully, it was wonderful – the sort that you read about, but somehow, even better.
After a brief pit stop at Alleppey (now Alappuzha, 60km from Fort Kochi) – a town where garish construction has all but ruined what surely used to be a stunning beach (an ugly elevated expressway was being constructed, thanks to the most imbecilic idea of the year, mere feet from the beach) – we entered one of the most scenic stretches of road any of us had ever driven on.
Set to a strange playlist that included Twenty One Pilots, the musical Hamilton (out of order), and the podcast Serial (absolutely in order), we entered the last leg of our journey, with startling green backwaters on our left, and endless blue ocean on our right.
Varkala, like Fort Kochi, is a backpacker town – that’s code for hippie paradise – like Old Manali and Dharamkot up north, and Paharganj back home in Delhi. Our Airbnb – yes, we’d booked an Airbnb again, and we didn’t have the budget at this stage to cancel – was mere yards from the famous cliffs and beach. In any case, the room was perfectly fine. Even brilliant, considering the Rs 800 per night we were paying for it. The location alone was worth ten times that. A word of advice here: Savour your first look at the cliffs. It’s a stunning sight, unlike anything you’d’ve ever seen before.
Our two days in Varkala turned out to be even better than Fort Kochi. There are backwater boat rides if you want them, just a few kilometres inland, but somehow, we didn’t. Thanks to our perfect timing, the beach was nearly empty, save for a few stray European tourists, many of whom we kept running into – you know, like you do in places such as this. And a good book was all we needed to pass the time.
When the sun became too harsh, we’d climb up a flight of stairs onto the promenade that runs for about a kilometre along the cliff-side. There, we would gravitate towards the stuck-in-time Café del Mar for an iced latte and a light snack, and then, it would be back to the beach for the sunset. You’re probably going to scoff in disbelief at this photo, but it’s 100% real. Shot on iPhone in fact, not even a fancy DSLR.
Having a firm plan and a fixed itinerary is the worst thing you could do to yourself in either of these two towns. Wandering aimlessly through unexplored lanes, only to realise you’d been there before; drifting in and out of cozy cafes, often enough that the waiters greet you with smiles; and most importantly, slowing down, and taking in the almost surreal beauty our country has to offer – that’s the key to enjoying places such as these. Never letting bad weather get you down, trying new foods, saying hi to people you’d never normally look at is basically all you have to do. It’s all you can do.
And even though we’re all back in Delhi now, and a cult leader’s arrest has put three states on high alert, the trip isn’t over yet. All I need to do is to plug in the last few episodes of Serial, and the dusty city will be swept away. I’ll be transported back to Kerala’s roads, the green backwaters on the left, and the blue ocean on the right.