Update 27/02/2014: Kerala Tourism officially announced I will be part of KBE 🙂 Yay!
UPDATE 02/01/2014: We’re competing to take part into a wonderful blog trip to Kerala. If you want to support us and see us go back to Kerala to take photographs and blog about it, please click the image below and vote for us:
One of the things we were most curious about in Kerala, were the famous backwaters which “are a network of interconnected canals, rivers, lakes and inlets, a labyrinthine system formed by more than 900 km of waterways” (read more on this Wikipedia article).
This is a very touristy attraction and a huge business for locals. Most people who want to do the backwaters, rent a house boat for 24 hours. The prices are very high by Indian standards – about 80€ minimum. Read More
The first thing I remember about Kochi is the heat when we got off the train. We’d been in an air conditioned bubble for 48 hours (that’s how long a Kerala express train ride takes) and while the train had prepared us to the intense green tones of the tropical vegetation, coconut palms, banana trees and plants floating on the water, we couldn’t imagine how hot and humid the tropical weather of Kerala could get to be. As we stood on the platform, trying to figure out what the right direction to go to was, we began sweating, and I felt happy – the last days in the north were fresher and fresher and I was dying for some summery feel.
Once out of the station at Ernakulam, we took a rickshaw to the ferries, where we jumped on a boat to Fort Cochin. Kochi has three urban components: Ernakulam, Fort Cochin and Mattancherry. Many visitors stick to Fort Cochin and we were no exception, as we wanted to stay close to the main sights and attractions.
The relaxed atmospehere in Kochi is contagiuos, and it looks even so unusual if you have started your trip in the north. It may also be the weather, but you feel like you want to slow down. Maybe sit in the shade, drink a fruit juice, and see life flowing in front of you.
It happens that there is no one real India but several “real” Indias – Kochi, and all Kerala for that matter, is the educated, literate India. The India that exports IT brains and engineers (the majority of them work in the Middle East, others work in Europe or North America). The India where the communist party is freely elected every two or three terms. The India where income is distributed more equally among the population. The Christian India (75% of Christians in India live in the south), the India of Catholic devotees going to mass on Sundays, and peacefully sharing the social space, outside churches, with Hindus and Muslims.
Fort Cochin is small and it takes no time to walk through it. The main sights are the San Francis CSI church, where Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer, who died in Kochi was first buried (his body was moved to Lisbon after some time), the gothic Santa Cruz Basilica, the Indo-Portuguese museum, and the Mattancherry palace. Along with this sights another typical part of town to see is the seafront in Fort Cochin, where the chinese fishing nets are. These are photogenic land installations used for fishing. A few meters before the nets you’ll find a spot where Tamil fishermen sell tunafish to fishmongers from neighbouring areas.
Rickshaw drivers will approach you to offer you the opportunity to take a sightseeing tour with them for a low price (between 20 and 40 rupees). But be aware that they’ll also take you to shops where they’ll try to sell you every sort of thing, and where obviously the rickshaw will earn a commission. Nothing wrong with it if you really want to buy something, but if you’re on a long term trip like us you really can’t buy things and you have to find alternative ways to help the local economy. Also, the shops rickshaw drivers will take you to are evidently (and ‘touristly’) overpriced… which takes the pleasure out of your shopping.
Among the many restaurants and eateries in town we found one, called Ocean (in Elphington street – but they have no website) offering a menu of Indo-Portuguese cuisine. We couldn’t avoid trying it. A little more upmarket than our budget but we said, who cares if it’s just for once? We broke our temporary vegetarianism (which we had observed in the north) and indulged in some delicious tunafish (myself) and chicken (Romana) recipes.
We had a walk at the seafront, near the chinese fishing nets, and got invited by a group of fishermen to visit them the morning after very early, and take some pictures. It was a very interesting experience, even though the shooting conditions weren’t the best, and I only got half of the shots to look as I wanted.
The fishermen explained to us that due to some untimely heavy rain (the days before we visited) a huge amount of floating plants (which they call African plant) had populated the sea, jeopardizing the chances of a good fishing conditions.
Always along the waterfront you find a number of stalls selling fresh fish, and promising to cook it for you at one of the restaurants they work for. Another annoyance to be aware of, which we heard from other people, but didn’t experience directly is that even if you negotiate a low price of the fish, once you are at the restaurant they will increase the price of any other item you order (for instance drinks, or side dishes) so that in the end you might have saved on the fresh fish, but paid more on the other components of your dinner.
When it was time to leave, we took a bus to Alleppey, from which we would take a ferry to Chennamkary, where we would experience how life looks like in the Keralan backwaters.
1. The ticket for the Taj is bought at the south gate (there are 3 gates – east, south and west) and costs 750 rupees, about 12€ (this is the price for foreigners).
2. You can visit the Taj on full moon night and also two nights before and two nights after. The tickets cost the same, but you should buy them at another place. We arrived there on the full moon, but we found out these tickets need to be bought always one day in advance (there are no same day tickets), so we decided not to do it and I’m glad we didn’t, because the night after it was raining. For more information on full moon night viewings, click here.
3. Go to Methab Bagh at sunset and see the Taj from a different perspective. You can also walk beside the Taj complex until you reach the river and see it closer, also from yet another perspective, without having to pay for the ticket. To see some of the pictures we’ve taken, check our flickr set here, or our previous post here.
Did you know?
The Taj Mahal was built by Emperor Shah Jahan after his wife Mumtaj Mahal passed away giving birth to their 14th child. When she was lying on the bed dying, Shah asked her if there was anything he could do for her. She asked him to build a tomb over her grave that would be so beautiful, it would remind coming generations of the love they had for each other.
Shah Jahan tomb is also in Taj Mahal with his wife’s tomb, but this was not the plan. It seems the emperor wanted to build another Taj Mahal, in black marble on the opposite side of the river in Methab Bagh, for his grave to be put there, and connect the Tajs with two bridges, one white and one black.
There is a legend that says that the Emperor had the hands of the architects amputated to ensure they would build or replicate such a work of art
The four towers surrounding the Taj Mahal are built at 89 degrees, meaning one degree away from the central dome, to prevent them from falling toward the dome and damaging it in case of an earthquake.
Emperor Shah Jahan also built a new city called Shahjahnabad, which is now known as Old Delhi.
We left Pushkar around 6.30pm to get a bus to Agra. We had bought the tickets from an agency the night before and the guy told us to wait for the bus in his other agency around 7pm.
The streets were crowded for the camel fair and the full moon festival so we had some trouble to understand how to get to the agency and there were too many touts offering their undesired help. Someone in the crowd saw the bus ticket in my hand and said “this is my agency, follow me”. We were so confused, that we ignored this guy, thinking he was also another tout, and decided to go back to the guy that sold us the tickets to show us the way to the other agency.
When we finally got to the agency, the guy we met on the street was there and he was a bit upset we didn’t trust him. We felt bad about it, but sometimes it’s so hard to understand who you can trust, that you end up being rude to honest people.
We apologized to him and he asked us to wait because he was gathering a group of people that would share the bus with us to go to Ajmer, the nearest city.
When everyone finally arrived, we realized that the bus was not coming to pick us up there, but it was 3km away, so we had to walk with the backpacks on our shoulders.
Everyone on the bus was going to different cities, so when we arrived in Ajmer, there was a guy waiting for us that belonged to the same agency, directing people to the correct bus.
He asked who was going to Agra. Apart from us there was also another guy from New Zealand. The agency guy asked us to wait. We waited for over 30 minutes and then he told us we had to go to the side of a main road to get a rickshaw.
We got into the vehicle with the fellow from New Zealand. Minutes later the agency guy came again and asked us to get out of the rickshaw. There were lots of Indians around and the moment we stepped out, they all started to get in the little rickshaw that we just left. A rickshaw should normally take 3 people maximum, but somehow these group of about 20 Indians managed to fit in.
The agency guy asked us to wait again. After another 30 minutes or so, we were still there, left alone on the side of the road, with the other fellow traveller.
I started to freak out, thinking this guy from the agency had forgotten about us and that we would have to stay there for the night. Tired of waiting I decided to go after this guy, but the moment I started to walk, there he was, hanging on the door of a bus that was going to Delhi. He told us to get in the bus that would give us a lift to our bus stop.
When I stepped in the bus I noticed that it had no windscreen. It was a cold night and I was just wondering how the people there would cope with the cold and the wind on their faces on an overnight bus. One thing is certain: the driver would be awake all the way to Delhi.
So, this bus dropped us to our stop. Again, it was an awkward place on the side of a main road. We waited for another 20 minutes until we saw someone pointing to a bus that had just stopped, saying it was the bus to Agra. While we were putting our bags in the trunk and paying 10 rupees for it (yes, in India some buses will charge you a fee to put the bags in the trunk) the agency guy reappeared out of the blue, saying that it was not the right bus and we had to wait. Once more! And so we waited. Finally, 10 minutes after, there it was, OUR bus to Agra.
We jumped in 4 hours after we left our hotel and at 6am we arrived in Agra, happy we had made it after this hilarious experience – yes you have to use your sense of humour in these cases.
We managed to get a nice budget hotel just beside the Taj Mahal, which was very convenient.
We heard from different people that the best time to visit the Taj was early morning, when the sun rises and reflects its beautiful colours and when there aren’t big crowds. So we bought the ticket for the following morning.
But we had to see it that day! With the help of our guidebook we realized there was a great spot to see the Taj from behind, during sunset: a park called Methab Bagh.
So, we bargained a good price for a cycle rickshaw to go to Methab Bagh without realizing it was such a long way. To get there you need to cross the river, but the bridge is a few km down the road and then you need to go up again. Cycle rickshaws are an environmental-friendly means of transportation, and by taking one you also help poor people (the rickshaw drivers, or rickshaw walas) to make a living, nonetheless the experience can be a weird one, to say the least. Our driver was a very skinny guy and when the road was uphill he could barely stand our weight, so few times, Emanuele had to go down and help him to push the bicycle. Also the pollution, the noise and the crazy traffic, contributed to make our trip a little bit more… alive, so to say.
Fortunately, we got to Methab Bagh just in time for the sunset. The moment my eyes met the Taj Mahal I was shocked with the splendour of that building. It was breathtaking! The sun was setting just beside it and I got all emotional. We took some pictures, but I must say they don’t do it justice.
The day after, we visited the Taj, very early in the morning. We were queuing at 6am. While we were standing in the queue, we noticed that no one had daypacks, but just very small hand bags, so we thought maybe daypacks weren’t allowed inside. Because the hotel was just two steps away, Emanuele went back to leave the camera bag and my other day pack (that became part of my body in this trip). He put the camera on his neck and the other lens on his jacket pocket. He came back to the queue to join me and switch on the camera to realize there was no memory card inside it.
The doors to the Taj were opening and the queue was starting to move, so this time he ran to the hotel to pick the memory card. On this way he fell down in the street making a nasty bruise on his hand and slightly scratching the side of the lens he had in his pocket. Fortunately, he’d left the camera with me and the lens he kept in his pocket is still working perfectly.
Even with his hand in bad shape, he insisted not to lose the spot on the queue also because we saw a sign saying that there was first aid assistance inside the building complex. When we got in we asked for first aid assistance but the police man said that first aid was at the south gate and it would open only a bit later.
We got in and visited the Taj Mahal. It was great to be able to be so close, but to be honest this time it didn’t have the same impact as the day before, perhaps because I was more concerned about Emanuele’s bruise and worried it could make some bad infection – you never know.
Also, we were a bit disappointed by the weather conditions. It was foggy and a bit cloudy that morning, so we didn’t manage to see the beautiful sunrise colours reflecting on the building. Only later in the morning it cleared, but just for a little while.
We looked for the first aid inside the Taj Mahal, to find out it was not there, but outside and when we got there it was closed – and it was a medical shop and not a first aid service from the Taj Mahal staff. So, we went back to the hotel and I used my first aid kit (very handy for these long trips) to finally disinfect Emanuele’s hand.
Apart from the Taj Mahal, the fort (that we opted not to visit) and few markets, Agra doesn’t have much more to see, so the day after we took the train and went back to Delhi to meet Emanuele’s ex work colleague Adhir and his brother in law, before getting on a 48 hours train ride that would take us to Kerala, in the south.
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