South India: Marari & Munroe Island

(Note: due to wifi issues photos will be posted later. Meanwhile some can be found on my Instagram feed, located at the bottom of the page.)

Wednesday, January 23: Marari Day 3
Leap out of bed for another feast to start the day. Back to the beach. Swim, tan, laze. Go for refreshments at Coffee Temple, an expanded version of the coffee shop we visited two years ago. Sue loves their coffee. I’m happy with my masala tea and a masala lassi. Back to the beach… A little rest break back at the Homestay in the afternoon and back to the beach for sunset. Lots of locals come down for the sunset and it’s a great vibe. Fishermen going out, locals playing with kids, taking selfies, mingling with the few tourists.
We go back to Siva Homestay for an earlyish dinner, then…. We’re off to the Saint Sebastian Festival in Arthunkal with Prajeesh, his wife and daughter. He takes us in his tuktuk and as we get closer traffic thickens. We walk the last bit and what a sight it is! Lots of neon and LED lights, whirling and glowing in the dark. A huge crowd outside St. Andrews basilica (founded in 1516). Stalls line the courtyard in front. We circle around, take a peek inside the church just as an evening mass starts, and continue around the sides and back. We pass a series of dioramas, and a large ship sculpture bearing a glass fronted vitrine with a prone statue of the Saint, arrows piercing his body.
We come back around front, pass many more vendors and I think that’s it, all done in under half and hour. But, No! We head down a street leading away from the basilica. First we stop to watch some totally frenetic drummers at the street corner. It’s hard to believe how fast they’re drumming, sweat pouring off their bodies, as they press back and forth, leaping to the beats.
Continuing down the packed street we pass endless stalls selling everything you could imagine: food, plants, medicines, jewellery, clothing, sweets, electronics etc etc. We’re almost the only Westerners there (I saw one other) and get lots of “Hello, where you from”s. We meet Prajeesh’s sister and her family and the families all engage in a bit of clothing/footwear shopping while Sue and I watch the passing crowd. The street goes on for at least a kilometre, ending near the waterfront. After ice cream cones we start back. Prajeesh stops at a watch stall and I’m right in there; I enjoy buying odd, cheap watches. I pick up a ‘Sport’ watch for IR250 ($Cdn5) and have the seller program it for me (it actually works!). Once again we’ve happened to be at the right place at the right time to enjoy a local spectacle.
Marari, Day 4
Our last full day and we maximize our beach/swimming time. Straight to the beach after breakfast with one pause for refreshments at Coffee Temple. We chat with our waiter about how Marari is changing, becoming similar to the Goa beaches. We feel so lucky we’ve been here twice before it goes completely nuts.
Travel Day, Friday, March 25
We get some family photos, have breakfast and then go to Alleppey via tuk tuk, arriving at the State ferry dock with time to spare. We sit in the top deck, under a low tarp roof, with four other travellers and a couple of Indian families.
The ride south on the backwaters lasts around 7 hours and go across lakes and down canals big and small. We stop twice: once for lunch (we don’t need!) and once for chai. The ride’s wonderful; slow moving, relaxed, a nice breeze and great scenery. A couple of times we’re able to see the ocean across a 50-100 metres isthmus. These backwaters are known as the Venice of India and it’s easy to see why. We pass many older Christian churches, gleaming in the sun, a variety of watercraft, ruined docks and pilings. Seabirds and eagles cruise by. We spend an hour or so in conversation with the captain, John, who’s worked on the ferry for 16 years.
Arriving at Kollam we catch a tuk tuk to our hotel for the evening. For a city of roughly 300,000 we could not find many options, as most people head straight for Munroe Island. However, we didn’t want to risk trying to find our home-stay in the dark so opted for the hotel, which seems to cater to the Indian business class. Our room’s comfy, clean and modern with air con and fan. The attached vegetarian restaurant provides good food and we seem to be the centre of attention with waiters hovering and other diners glancing over to see how we’re doing.

Munroe Island, Day 1
We have dosas for breakfast, walk to an ATM and then check-out. The railway station’s a short walk but we end up slogging along a rugged verge to get around a train. By the time we enter the terminal we’re sweating. The train’s not due for over an hour so we opt for a tuk tuk to Munroe Island. The journey takes about an hour, including a short ride on a very small (six cars, a few scooters and passengers) ferry. Although our driver is from Munroe Island he stops a couple of times to sort the location of our home-stay. There are many on the island and ours has only operated for a couple of years. It’s down a small windy lane and on a calm river.
We meet our host and hostess, park our stuff and relax. It’s so quiet, other than some music drifting over the river from a temple. This day, January 26, is Republic Day in India, celebrating the creation of the Indian Constitution. Although we hear a few fireworks in the evening the ambience is very chill. I lay in a riverside hammock and work on a small watercolour.

In the evening we have an excellent dinner, all created with local, fresh produce. What a difference having fresh food makes. As we finish dinner other guests drift in from the same boat we caught the day before. First an Indian couple, a film director/actor and his actor BFF. Later a UK traveller drifts in, a bit late, as his tuk tuk ran out of gas. We eventually all gather riverside for beers and conversation. The UK traveller, Stuart, had last been in India 50 years ago when he and a friend drove overland in a VW bus they picked up in Germany. They stayed for 3 years. The film director, Praheep, is awaiting release of his first full-length film (Sita On the Road) and we view the trailer. It looks great and we’re hoping to see it in a theatre before leaving India.
Munroe Island, Day 2
Up early for a morning canoe tour. We down a quick breakfast and are impressed by a hand cranked noodle maker. By 8:30 we’re on the water. The tour lasts a bit over 2 hours. We travel on the river and canals wide and narrow. We stop once to look at an inland fish farm but otherwise kick back and enjoy the peace and quiet on the water. Music from a temple we pass follows us as we twist and turn through the waterways. A great way to start the day.
Mid-day we lounge around the waterfront and then go for a walk to the east, along the main road. We reach a bridge, cross it and turn down a small lane we’d seen from the canoe. We walk awhile with a local young woman. We meet a small group of people and a man gives us each a fragrant rose. Reaching what seems to be the end of the road and we retrace our steps. On the way back to the home-stay we stop and buy two soda waters from a small roadside stand. I notice the bottles look questionable: Sue’s says Soda but mine is a Fanta bottle. And very used looking bottles with ingrained stains.
Back at the home-stay we play cribbage and then to go for a swim in the river. It’s pleasantly warm and slightly brackish. I don’t see any obvious floaties (unlike the previous evening when I noticed a suspicious scum along the riverbank). When we shower though, it feels gritty and our towel turns a shade of brown.
More people show up: three young men from London and another from Bangalore. We sit by the river as the sun sets and the temple music wafts over the water.
After another fabulous dinner Sue and I go to our room and fall asleep listening to the London lads playing cards (laughter, whistling and singing!)
Munroe Island, Day 3
After breakfast Sue and I take a couple of bikes for a spin. The seats are hard and mine keeps tilting back. We rde west, then south to the little ferry landing, and then east and north again back to the home-stay (frequently stopping to ease the butt pains). Sue buys a pineapple which we share with Stuart on our return to the riverbank.
I spend part of the afternoon lazing in a hammock; we chat a bit with the London boys. They’ve all recently graduated from Winchester. They are quite footloose and making their plans as they go.
Sue returns from a nap and we go for a walk along the river, across the main road, along a small lane, past a Hindu temple that pours music out, and then back to the main road and home again. We sit and chat more with Stuart, a charming source of interesting stories. He saw the Who ,the Stones and more in their early clubbing days and booked bands like Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull into his university. As we sit by the river music floats, echoes and soars; gradually becoming more and more psychedelic as the sun sets and echoes add to the effect.

Our dinner is truly amazing and delicious. I can’t believe how this can be. But the tuna, in a smoky sauce, the various veggie dishes, curries and dessert are to die for. All followed by a drink they clears the nose and throat in a stunning mix of spices. Stuart is so moved he stands and sings several English music hall songs he’d learned from his grandfather. Great food and entertainment!

Munroe Island, Day 4
We had the place to ourselves. Stuart left early for a train north and yoga. A completely lazy day for me; I hadn’t slept well and was still feeling a bit of a cold. So while Sue biked around I snoozed in a riverside hammock. With the music continuing from across the river I totally relax. Later Sue and I play Bananagrams followed by another fantastic seafood meal. One dish featured tiny clams, about 1 or 2cm across, purchased from a vendor in a canoe.

And so ended Week 3: calm, relaxed and well-fed in a sea of green. I tried to capture the sounds of the temples with my iPhone but none of the recordings do justice to the mesmerizing sounds. Meanwhile we’d no wifi and my iPhone seems to have charging issues. Luckily it’s hanging in there and I hope to resolve the problem when we reach the city of Trivandrum.

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