Boxed in a slick advertising package on TV, the Incredible India message that beams out the country to millions of wannabe travelers is but the tip of an iceberg as our two-state, eight-week long stay enabled us to get under the skin of what is quickly becoming a must-see land.
For all that India stands for as an exotic destination, it is now cosying up to the likes of Turkey in its bid to improve trade and tourism links. While Turks would probably head for the hedonistic delights of Thailand and Southeast Asia, there are those who are ploughing a lonely furrow to India thanks to increased flight availability from a clutch of top flight names.
For many years, European travelers have been heading to the subcontinent to beat the winter blues. These have now been joined by expats from Turkey who, fed up with the constant rain and grey days of winter, are packing up and chasing the sun to the likes of Kerala and Goa for a few months of unadulterated bliss.
Our first destination was to take us to Kerala, India’s most southerly state where it is titled: “God’s Own Country.” Kerala, run by the communist party, is flourishing, but we were warned of its quirks: Alcohol is only sold in government stores, drunk from tankards not glasses and the bottles of beer are hidden in paper under the table.
So we stepped out into the “garden” having flown from İstanbul via Bahrain on Gulf Air and were whisked at high speed -- ala Turkish style -- to our first post of call -- Fort Cochin.
The town, which is on an island accessed by a bridge, is delightful and smacks of history, culture and home stays -- a newly emerging innovation where home owners are throwing open their homes to foreign guests to stay.
Cochin, standing on the Arabian Sea, has been an important trading post since the 14th century, attracting Christian, Arab and Jewish settlers, while drawing European interest from the 1500s from the Portuguese, Dutch and British.
Places reminiscent of England’s lush countryside
We wandered through the narrow lanes, spotting hole-in-the-wall restaurants, quaint buildings, together with India’s first European church, Dutch homes and a village green where Indian teenagers played cricket -- transporting us back to the villages of England’s lush countryside.
We stumbled around spice markets, our noses twitching to exotic smells of the incredibly colorful spices, and on a Sunday afternoon we were beckoned to help a group of fishermen haul in their catch from the ancient Chinese fishing nets.
The nets -- a major tourist attraction -- are 20 meters or more across, with each being at least 10 meters high and consisting of a cantilever with an outstretched net suspended over the sea and large stones suspended from ropes as counterweights. We pulled them in but for the relative effort, our net was pretty empty.
Cochin provided us with our first experience of the intricacies of the classical Kathakali dance moves where artists use their eyes and hands to communicate their messages in drama.
We took a ferry to Ernakulam, a busy port town that is much like many towns or cities in India -- chaotic, hot, sweaty and where your ears get attuned to the affront of honking horns from impatient drivers. The town offered up shopping Indian-style, before we departed for the more tranquil setting of Varkala, a cliff-top resort, a four-hour train ride along the coast.
Varkala’s beaches are stunning, and you can enjoy many hours walking the bylanes of the resort or just soak up the sun at one of the many eateries that stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the cliff. Para-gliders lift on the thermals every other day and glide effortlessly with the eagles that fly even higher in the blue skies overhead.
We moved on after a week to Kovalam, a resort of four beaches; one at Samudra enabled us to lie back and think of nothing much really. A couple of Indians chased the even quicker small crabs around the beach for their fishing bait, while others lazed around or walked the shore as the waves noisily crashed in.
There was a moment of excitement during our stay when it was reported in the English-language newspaper Deccan Chronicle that super model Naomi Campbell was in the resort, but she remained out of sight, and we were content to watch Indian couples and day-trippers being pulled in by the sea’s riptide.
A trip to Trivandrum
As the sun beat down, we managed to crowbar ourselves out of the sand and on to the public transport -- the modes of travel sway between rickety windowless busses to air conditioned buses -- for a trip to the capital Trivandrum (or to give its proper local name Thiruvananthapuram).
The state capital is a kaleidoscope of noise and busyness, but it also has the amazing Shree Padmanabhaswamy temple, a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu. It is only accessed by devout Hindus, but the magnificent building was awesome from the outside as much as it is I am sure from the inside.
The state’s capital is also home to a wonderful zoo, stunning churches and temples, a shopping experience on the MG Road and devotees throwing coconuts at a temple shrine just yards from the city’s main junction.
It was at the zoo and the beautiful gardens, which also house the Napier Museum, where we were greeted by youngsters on their rounds with their teacher. “Hello” and “Where are you from” were the greetings, along with brilliant white smiles.
While I wandered off to the museum, my partner sat on a bench to soak up the sun. When I emerged from the museum I looked round and couldn’t see her. However, there was a scrum of about 20 girl students at the spot where she was, and lo and behold when I got there, she was engaged in a full on conversation with the science graduates. They were eager to put their English into practice and she had been holding court for several minutes. All departed with cheery, “Goodbyes.”
Our days also included a trip on the backwaters of Poovar where at one point the sea is kept separate from the water channels by a sand bank. The one-hour trip enabled us to see villagers, leaving as they have done for generations, and the teeming local wildlife.
We ate at the German Bakery, Beatles Bar and Shivas in Kovalam, but the highlight was to see an elephant festival on the outskirts of Trivandrum. What 20 elephants were doing in a field was anyone’s guess, but we thought it was to do with a celebration at a local temple. Then the rumbling of drums and horns away to our left as devotees marched in with one of the biggest elephants we had ever seen towering over his 20 rivals.
Locals and tourists flee
However, things didn’t go to plan as the elephant decided to bolt causing hundreds of devotees, locals and European tourists to flee. Enough space was given for the bull as he decided what to do next -- but it was obviously a case of waking up on the wrong side of the bed that day. He backed up the road, swung round and then came marching back -- this time chained up -- and was guided into a nearby field to be pampered with coconut leaves by his attendant.
As the drums and horns clashed with each other, the festival seemed to be getting under way, but as the night drew in we decided to call it a day and head back to Kovalam.
At that point and having faced the disappointment of not being able to take a train 15 hours to Goa, we opted to fly via Mumbai to the hallowed lands of Goa for four weeks of more fun in the sun.
What added to the break in Kerala were the people -- always friendly, with a willing smile, helpful and always wanting to talk to you to improve their English!
Getting to and from
For most travelers from Turkey, including British expats, you need to apply for a visa from the Indian Embassy in Ankara or consulate in İstanbul. For Ankara, you can apply by post -- the cost is $58 for a multi-entry six-month visa. We flew with Gulf Air from İstanbul to Kerala via Bahrain. We travelled from Ernakulam, near Fort Cochin, to Varkala by train (A/C first class -- 4 hours); and from Varkala to Kovalam, one-and-a-half hours by taxi; then Trivandrum to Goa via Mumbai with Jet Airlines.
*Andy Probert is the editor of Voices Newspaper, a weekly English-language newspaper in Didim, Aydın.