The Middle Class Tourism : Munnar and Kochi

In the early days of the internet and Google, all it took was few random searches in the browser to know the reality of a touristy place. But not anymore! The Internet is no longer a neutral place unlike seven to ten years ago. Search after search, you get only the promotional and paid information and articles. More you search, more you get confused. Unless you experience the place by reaching there, you hardly get to know the hidden downsides, and by then it’s too late. You get fleeced, cheated, bored, and have a less than expected experience. I don’t know whether it’ll be helpful or not, but I am going to write a series about the places I have visited across India in last twelve years or so. I’ll try to keep my own prejudices away while writing this series. But, you never know; the preferences often seep in. My experiences are from the perspective of a young couple, a small family with kids, and from a secular, cosmopolitan and culturally tolerant middle-class outlook. The first part is about Kochi and Munnar.

After twice visiting the plantation hills of Munnar, in two different months ( March and November), in 2010 and 2017 respectively, I am in a position to write some meaningful words for the first time visitors to this Kerala hill station, along with some experience sharing about the city of Kochi.

About Munnar

  1. The place is very green, full of tea plantation in higher slopes and coffee and spice plantations on lower slopes where the temperature is little higher. But remember that the tea leaves are bushes and won’t smell like boiled tea. Moreover, they won’t look different than any other garden hedge when you go closer. The beauty lies in the collectivity. Hills after hills of neatly lined and trimmed tea bushes give a garden look to Munnar.
  2. Most of the Munnar is owned by the Tata group which owns most of the tea gardens there and because of this, the resorts and the hotels are far away from each other and are spread around for kilometers from the main small town which is congested, full of fumes and noisy like any other Indian hill town. If you don’t have your own vehicle, getting out of these resorts can be a tricky and pricey problem. I’ll come to it later.
  3. Resorts are generally small but have good views of the hills, valleys and even fountains ( those with fountain views will highlight it on the website). As the land is at a premium, resorts are costly for the services they offer. I have no idea about five-star properties, but even other properties with a good view and decent rooms are not cheap. Expect at least Rs 6000 a day in the season.
  4. Taxis are costly, unionized, and downright fleecing. Taxi union will not let you hire a taxi for a day or on a per kilometer basis. They ask you to choose, half day or full day tours, on one of the three roads ( towards Coimbatore, towards Kochi and towards some other town I don’t recall now), and you’ll get to see the places as per the driver’s wishes. So in short, the taxi union dictates rates, time and even the spots for you ( yeah, you thought right, the commission element is there). And naturally, they avoid going far even on the chosen road to save on the fuel. There are good places to visit but most of them are far away from the town. The taxi driver will show you stupid places like a big beehive, or a crowded elephant ride area full of elephant dung. For going to town, tuk-tuks are cheap but riding in them is slow, noisy and quiet adventures on steep roads.
  5. Few resorts have very bad and steep access roads and need experts drivers and powerful vehicles.
  6. If it rains, the mist spreads in the valley which looks enchanting and beautiful. But, at the same time, it may cause melancholy when the darkness descends in the valley. If you are not a teetotaler, keep a bottle of liquor with you. It will help. Very few resorts have their own bars.
  7. Munnar is all about hills, valleys, greenery, tea and spice gardens, some distant but good tracks. This place doesn’t have any distinct cultural or culinary experience. Surprisingly, in most of the hotels, you’ll get only regular ( or even worse) tea and coffee which is a shame in this tea town.
  8. For families and young couples- Munnar, like most of Kerala, has fewer rowdy characters going around, but you never know.
  9. A rickety auditorium runs decent shows of katthakkali and kaleripayattu. The show is worth the money and time spent.
  10. For medical needs, there is a Tata run hospital which is clean and even has few specialists.
  11. There are various other spots like a dam for motor boat riding, and picture postcard type outdoors. The highest point of Munnar ( where our taxi driver refused to go), some gardens, the coffee and spice plantations etc.
  12. The town as such has nothing much to offer. But, you can buy some touristy stuff and eatables.

Kochi –

  1. The stay options are many, but I preferred two locations- hotels with a clear view of harbour, one KTDC hotel on a small island near the harbour. You can stay near the airport and take taxis to go around. Ola and Uber are allowed in Kochi and this provides big relief.
  2. Fort Kochi beach is not really a beach but just a small crowded piece of land with sand.
  3. The Jewish street has no Jews. All the pale skinned people running shops there are Kashmiris. There is a decent cafe there which shows on the list of tourist brochures. But I have seen in from the outside only.
  4. The synagogue has historical importance, but it is just a big room with old ( perhaps handmade) tiles. There is a museum located in a Travancore kingdom house ( I am not using the word ‘palace’ deliberately).
  5. Cherai beach is wonderful and just 25 km from Kochi. A French gentleman by the name of Andy runs the Chill Out cafe further down the beach where the environment is peaceful, the beach is clean and uncrowded. He doesn’t serve liquor but very good Mediterranean style food.
  6. You can take a boat ride in the harbour and see huge freighters going out of the harbour mouth and sailing in the sunset. Big boats with two decks ply in the harbour. These boats generally have loud music playing in it and may have some not very civil co-passengers. I preferred small boats which can accommodate a small family.
  7. The marine drive Kochi is a walkway with lots of hawkers.
  8. Backwater starts from Kochi and even boat rides are available for the city tour. I hadn’t availed them so can’t really comment.
  9. Backwater tours at Aleppy, for the half day, start at 11 am and the boats return by 5pm. In the humid Kochi weather, it can give a headache in a non-ac boat so try not to get exposed to the afternoon sun.

I hope this information will prove handy. But, every traveller is different. For queries, leave a question in the comments section.

My Two Cents –

Munnar is green, beautiful, clean and looks exotic when the mist surrounds it. But, it is commercialized and overpriced, at least in the season. But you’ll be disappointed if you are looking for things like a distinct cuisine, distinct culture or architecture. Kochi, on the other hand, is huge, clean, and commercial and has some places to visit which are hardly two hours’ drive from the city. I did not get time to explore few of the famous eating-places there. I hope someone will add his experience about this. To really explore the city, drive on the narrow country roads around the city, and you’ll see backwater, river, paddy fields, Chinese nets, and some not so famous but equally good beaches. The people are generally friendly, polite and educated.

                                                         kochi

 

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Varanasi: A City where Death does not Scare

Ignoring the humongous masses in the streets, making your way through the maze of narrow and narrower streets, and jostling through the crowd of the pushy hawkers, the journey to the Dashashmedh Ghat ( stepped bathing platform on the banks of the Ganges) is tiresome, and you wonder about the purpose of all this. But then the street opens up on a red sandstone platform that leads to broad but stiff-high stairs leading you down towards the river to another platform, broad enough to accommodate hundreds of chairs, which is the sight for the Ganga Aarti ( the evening prayer of the river Ganges). For hundred bucks, a broker offers a comfortable seat to watch the spectacle of the evening aarti. You ignore him and take the stairs to the river, while jumping over the minor obstacles like the ropes that kept the boats in place, a puddle of brackish water or a minor stream of drain water. Finally, you put your steps in a traditional oar boat having a capacity for dozen people. Now you notice that it is, in fact, a makeshift motorboat with a country made five horsepower diesel engine and a locally made transmission. The engine does not have a switch to fire the engine, but it is not an issue as the middle-aged boatman, using a handle, gives a ferocious rotation to the shaft of the engine. The engine is now firing on all its cylinders, but the noise is loud and hard to bear, drowning the conversation you are trying to have with your fellow passengers. However, you improvise and learn to shout, and thus making yourself audible to others. The real journey begins now.

The boat goes downstream, passing one ghat after another that lie to your right, crossing the boats that were coming from the opposite direction, few had Indians and others had mostly white foreign tourists as their occupants. Now you realize the grandness of the river and the crowded ancient city that exists on its banks. You realize there are more than a hundred ghats and each has grand old buildings standing over them. You also realize that there is no space between these buildings and all the Ghats and their temples and the inns form a long and continuous skyline of the city. You also find out that though the city and the ghats are ancient, their present structures are mostly late medieval, repaired and reconstructed by the Rajput and Mahratta Kings, and few by the wealthy merchants. Though it was not a King, but a Queen who had gotten the most construction done, more than anyone else. Queen Ahilya Bai, she was the Queen of Holkar Mahrattas, based at Indore in Central India.

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India is present on these Ghats with its diversity. There are poor who throng the Ghats for only spiritual reasons and you have the middle classes who have touristy reasons added to the spiritual reasons. And there are the wealthy and powerful who come to placate the three hundred and thirty million Gods and Goddesses who reside in this ancient pious semi-circular city with a circumference of five yojanas ( leagues?). The poor pray for safety and peace, the middle classes for progress, and the who is who of the world just want to maintain the status quo. The city of Shiva has a place for all, even for the burqa-clad, skullcap-wearing Muslims whom you see in another boat that just passed you, making you search for an explanation. But you don’t as your eyes are now fixed on a heritage building that looks more maintained than the others, with its own private Ghats and balconies, occupied by the rich looking white tourists. ““It’s the Taj hotel,” explains the short middle-aged boatman, Pappu. A heritage hotel right on the banks. The boat is now midstream, the water is cleaner but a fellow passenger couldn’t stop himself from commenting over the pollutants in the water, only to be rebuked by the boatman for his lack of devotion. “It’s not the pollution in the water, but in the heart that matters,” he says. ‘How spiritual’, you think, but do not dare to speak. But the boatman is still speaking, “Over there, the Manikarnika Ghat.”

All the Ghats have their legends of the saints, miracles and of the Gods themselves. In fact, every part, every lane of the city boasts of at least one legend of its own, but it is the Manikarnika Ghat that lives the legend, day in and day out, in the form of burning funeral pyres and the rising flames and ash, which has blackened the exterior of the temple standing over the Ghat. The sun is setting in the western sky and yellow floodlights are illuminating the Ghats and the temples. The view is mesmerizing but you are overwhelmed by the sight of death that looks so mundane, so regular, and so ordinary in this vibrant sea of humanity known as Varanasi. The boatman by his experience understands your feelings and the boat slows down to join a group of a dozen or so other rickety boats already parked in front of the Ghat. You notice that the spectator’s crowd is mostly Western, but there are few Indians with their professional cameras. The other Ghats sandwiching the Manikarnika Ghat show no effect of the burning pyres. People are moving on the Ghats as if those pyres do not exist. You notice the piles after piles of logs stacked neatly on the Ghat and realize that these pyres will keep on burning. It is time to move on.

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The journey continues, and it will be. This is the city of holy Ganges which has carried the burden of a whole civilization for thousands of years. This is the city of Lord Shiva who is unassuming and liberal. He is cool when his wife is the center of the world when she is the mother Goddess, and symbol of his own strength, the Aadi Shakti. Shiva, the God is a Yogi and yet does not hesitate in unleashing the destructive Tandava when his wife is made fun of. He does not desire anything in offering and is easy to please, even with the offering of little water. The God who celebrates life and does not mind getting little high in celebration. Shiva is a Yogi who goes into a trance as easily as he can slip in meditation that lasts for epochs. This is the city of the God who lives on the margins of civilization, either in Shamshan (the crematorium) or on the snow-capped mountains which are the highest in the world. His followers are not only the marginalized and the misfits of the society, but also from the animal kingdom, the snake and the bull, and even those who have no place in any world, the mortal or immortal. Shiva is life and Shiva is death. Varanasi is the city of Shiva.