Kerala Frustration and Craziness
We are now out of India. In my last post, we were on an overnight bus to Cochin. I had booked a week long tour with car and driver while we were in Bangalore. I paid for a deluxe package which meant that our hotels would be a little better and would include breakfast, air conditioning and wifi. I guesswe could not truly experience India if we did not get cheated or scammed in some way. Our first month was fine. I mean we probably overpaid for some things but in Kerala it felt more like we were scammed. It was pretty frustrating.
When we arrived in Cochin (Ernakulam), we were met by our driver at the bus station. We were quite tired because night busses, even when you have a sleeper, are anything but restful. We immediately realized that our driver understood very little English and we could barely understand him. He was also very weird. He talked to himself a lot. He took us to the hotel that he though we were staying at but we told him that was not the right one. Not his fault, the travel agent had changed the hotel the day before. He then had to back track to find the right hotel which was out in the middle of nowhere. Immediately we were frustrated because there was no wifi. Oh well, it will get better right?
After checking in, we showered and had lunch. We then headed off for some sightseeing of Cochin with the driver. I asked where we were going and he listed a couple of sites. Namely, Fort Cochin was the main attraction. The next we knew we were at the seaside, a guy came up to the car and our driver said, “you buy a ticket and go with him.” Ummm ummm what is going on? We are going on a three hour boat ride that should get us to about five sites. I think four of the five we only saw from a distance. We went into Jew Town (yes, that is what it is called) and a palace that is now a museum. It was alright but nothing to write home about.
After the boat trip, the driver returned us to our hotel. We were both tired and cranky. We walked up the street to another hotel for dinner and to find some internet. We were close to booking Antarctica so having email access was important. This hotel was much nicer, why didn’t they put us in here? A theme you will hear repeated throughout this tale in Kerala.
The next day, we would drive to Allipi to go on the house boat. House boating in the Back Waters of Kerala is one of the India highlights in the Lonely Planet. Allipi is about 60km from Cochin so about 1.5 hours by car. When we came out in the morning the driver was not in the car. We learned that he was sleeping at night in the car which made us feel a little bad. Might just be his choice to save money though because he is very weird. We drove to Allipi and again he had to stop several times to ask for directions as he had yesterday.
We arrived at the house boat about an hour before our boarding time. That was okay because they ended up boarding us early. We were going for about 24 hours and the driver had told us he lived in Allipi (or so we thought) so we assumed he would go home. Then he told us he was sleeping in the car until tomorrow. That is when we learned that he does not live here but lives in Munnar… So frustrating!
The house boat is the one gem (Nicola’s words not mine) in our week in Kerala. It was so relaxing and the crew was amazing. We left at noon and cruised around for a couple of hours before stopping for lunch. The meals were all very good. It was all South Indian food and was quite tasty. After lunch we set off again and tour about. The experience here is just sitting on the boat as you witness Indian life and culture that lives and thrives on the shores of the rivers. We stopped one more time to buy some king prawns to have with our dinner. Again, we stopped for dinner around sunset and to stay for the night. Dinner again was a mice meal and with the freshly caught king prawns it was that much better. Wash it all down with a cold Kingfisher beer is perfect.
The boat had two bedrooms and then a large covered deck area. The room was quite nice with nice white linen. The shower was not very good so we had bucket showers as we did quite often in India. A bucket shower is when you fill a bucket with water (sometimes hot sometimes not) and then pour it over you to rinse the soap off. The room had air con which the crew turned on around 8pm. We were in bed around 9:30pm.
We were up around 8am the next morning. The breakfast was an Indian breakfast which is not my favourite thing. Curries and dosa. They gave us some white bread and fruit as well. The fresh pineapple was amazing. Dosa is a pancake essentially. So I put jam on it and ate that. Nic was still feeling limited appetite after being sick in Bangalore so she did not eat much. After breakfast we cruised back to where we had started and disembarked by 10am. All in all, we really enjoyed the houseboat experience.
Ugh though… Back with the weird guy. We were now heading to Thekkady. After about half an hour in the car he said he was hungry and had to stop to eat. Why hadn’t he eaten before we got back? Thekkady is a hill station. This essentially means a community built in the hills. There is a man-made lake called Lake Periyar that animals come to for water. There is a chance to see elephants, buffalo, and rarely tigers.
The drive to Thekkady was horrific. In the hills, the roads are very narrow and mostly switchbacks. The driver was driving insanely. So much for sightseeing when you are clutching the seat in fear. It was making Nicola sick to her stomach. The distance was only 120km but it was a four hour drive. We stopped close to Thekkady at a spice plantation. We did a short tour mostly to be out of the car. Kerala is famous for Ayurvedic medicines. These are natural medicines made from local herbs, spices, oils, etc. I bought a powder that I am supposed to take once a day to resolve all stomach issues for five years. We will see!
We finished the drive to Thekkady and checked into our hotel. It was the one we had been promised when booking. We discovered that it was only 2000 rupees per night. I had paid 2500 per night which he had told me was a deal because he was getting me deals on each hotel. We became suspicious of this. As it turns out, this was the most expensive room we had all week. It did not have air con and we did not have hot water. Ugh.
We bought a ticket to go to a Thadikali show at 7pm. Before that we walked around to find a place to get an Ayurvedic massage. That was quite the experience. It started with stripping off all clothes. I was with a man and Nic was with a woman in another room. He put a loin cloth on me to cover my privates. Very uncomfortable. An Ayurvedic massage involves a massage with multiple medicinal oils. I got a more deluxe one than Nic (an extra ten minutes) which focused the extra time on my back and sciatic nerve pain. It also involved some special back medicines. The massage was vigorous to say the least. It was from head to toe and while it stopped short of getting my special areas… I would say not short by much! Following the massage I was coated in oil and I could have just slid off the table. He put me in a box with a whole in the top for my head and pumped steam into the box. The steam and heat opens your pores and allows the medicinal oils to get in. You are not supposed to shower for at least an hour afterwards. After the steam, he dried off my whole body. Again, very uncomfortable. He indeed dried everything thoroughly. I could have done that myself I think.
Overall, the Ayurvedic massage was okay but made me quite uncomfortable. Another experience I guess. It is one of the must do things in Kerala… From everything we have read. I am not sure if it worked but my muscles were definitely relaxed after.
The Thadikali show was interesting as well. Thadikali is a type of play with no words. The actors wear amazing costumes and makeup and convey different Hindu religious stories through hand gestures, facial gestures and eye movement. The first half of the show was a lesson about Thadikali. The second half was a short part of a story. Normally these plays can go on all night. Not sure I would like that because I was lost in the half hour one we saw.
The next morning we were up at 5am to try to get on the 7:30am boat ride on Lake Periyar. You have to get in line early to have any hope of getting on. We woke our driver up in the car and headed to the park. The car got in a line and I ran ahead to get in line to get tickets just to get in the park. That took about an hour. Then once we got inside to where the car would park we had to walk up to where you get your boat tickets. We saw a couple of people start running so we ran as well. We passed many people as we ran up. One man tried to run with us but eventually had to five up. It is a good thing we ran because we barely got into the line before they closed the gate for the 7:30 boat. Next one was 9:30am and that would not have worked for us. The line was crazy. People pushed and tried to sneak ahead. We made it luckily.
The boat ride was okay but not that exciting. We saw elephants, buffaloes, wild boar… But not surprisingly no tigers. The boat was quite big and it Wes not that easy to get up and look around. The ride was an our and a half long.
After the boat ride we went back to our hotel to have breakfast and checkout. Then we started the four hour drive to Munnar. Nic sat up front trying to prevent herself from feeling nauseous. Again, the drive was hair raising. We drove through areas of beautiful tea plantations. Tea trees are pruned almost like topiaries. Our driver told us that in Munnar we would be going to Top Station that afternoon. From Munnar it is 36km up long and winding roads. That would be 1.5 hours there and 1.5 hours back. Neither of us wanted that… Nor could we handle it. We tried to explain to the driver that we did not want to go there. All we wanted to do was stop somewhere nice for lunch and then he could drop us at the hotel.
We saw a sign for a place that looked nice for lunch. It was 3km off the road. He told us we would have to pay him 300 rupees more to go there because it was not on the itinerary. We said no way are we paying him more to drive less time, less distance and do less. He did not understand. We called the travel agent in Bangalore and he told us we would have to pay more. I said no and gave the phone to Nicola. They did not understand what we were saying. No more sightseeing. Just stop for lunch, 3km from here, and then drop us at the hotel. He would be done earlier because he would not have to drive us to Top Station. Finally the driver relented and said okay okay.
The hotel in Munnar again was not what we paid for. It was incredibly hot… No A/C. It was dirty and no hot water. Again, we were frustrated. They said breakfast was not included but ended up giving it to us.
The next day, we were picked up by a different driver. Again, very little English. Before we left, he told us to give him 500 rupees. We said no. We paid for everything in advance and we were not giving him more money. Our entire package was paid for in Bangalore. We did not really understand at the time that the travel agent in Bangalore was passing us off to another travel agent in Munnar, Mr. Praveen. We had met Mr. Praveen upon arrival in Munnar and he organized our accommodation. He was also supposed to arrange our accommodation for our last night near the airport in Cochin. The driver called Mr. Praveen who convincingly assured me that he would be back in Munnar in an hour and if I give the driver 500 rupees he would give it back to me in an hour. I did and as you can figure out by now we were SCAMMED!
The driver was taking us sightseeing in Munnar. He was again taking us on a long drive to Top Station… Which we did not want! We wanted one and only one thing in Munnar, the tea museum. We asked if we were going to the tea museum and the driver said no. We said we wanted to and again were told it is not on the itinerary! Ahhhhhh! Again, we got Mr. Praveen on the phone and he said we could go. We told him we did not want to go to Top Station and he relented and told us we could go to the tea museum and then to the dam but that was all. That was fine by us.
The Tata Tea Museum was very interesting. We learned about the plants, the process, the workers, the company, etc. Nic is a big tea drinker so she was quite interested. We have done coffee tours in other countries so it was fitting to do a tea tour in India. The tea plantations are fascinating. The trees are cut like topiaries and the trees are the same ones planted more than 150 years ago.
The dam was interesting but not that exciting. It is funny that we seemed unable to do anything not on our itinerary but the drivers seemed willing to stop for us to ride an elephant or visit a spice plantation. A sure sign that they would get a kickback. We tried to stop for an elephant ride only because they go through a tea plantation. However, the wait was more than an hour and so we did not go.
Back in Munnar, the driver took us to a restaurant for lunch because Mr. Praveen was still not there. After lunch he went to a gas station and another guy jumped in to drive. We did not know what was happening. We asked him to stop at Mr. Praveen’s office and he said Mr. Praveen was in a town we would get to on our way! LIES! We never did see the elusive Praveen. The driver told us once that we would see him in 10 minutes but it was a lie. He even said when he stopped that this was Praveen’s home but he was not there. They stole our 500 rupees essentially. The driver assured me over and over that I would get it back.
In Cochin, the driver stopped at a tourist home very near the airport. He told us to wait in the car. When we went in, he and the manager were working out the payment. It turns out that the tourist home has been scammed by Praveen before and refused to give credit. The driver kept trying to call Praveen but he had his phone switched off. He tried to get us to pay for the room but we refused. Remember that we had paid 2500 rupees for the room to the travel agent? Well this room was worth only 1000 rupees. The driver ended up paying for it himself. He said that another driver was coming from Praveen with our 500 rupees that night. He would give it to the front desk who would give it to us in the morning before we leave. We never expected that to happen!
In the morning, when we went to the front desk to check, the front desk guy said we had to pay 500 rupees. I started laughing and Nicola was furious. The message on the paper said, guest to give 500 rupees not give 500 rupees to guest. Not his fault but I argued with him until he called and woke up his manager. The manager explained to me that no one ever came with 500 rupees so he could not give it to us. I understood that… He said several times that Praveen is a cheater.
All said and done, we left Kerala feeling cheated. We did not enjoy our last week in India because of the frustration, lying, cheating and crazy driving. Unfortunately, it left a black mark on our India experience. Fortunately, this was our only bad experience and overall India was a positive experience for us. The tourism motto is Incredible India and it truly is.
We are now in Egypt and while internet is not free in many places I am sure I will get a chance to do a couple of updates over the next two weeks or so. So much to see and tell about!