Rolling hills, a crazy cab driver, the best fish curry in the world and a perfect evening on the backwaters – what more can we ask for in God’s own country!
A few weeks ago, after spending another frigid December day shivering under a thick blanket in Delhi, I decided on an impromptu trip to Kerala. Needless to say, this drew extensive horror and disbelief from my family, my friends, their parents and any one else who had a minute to spare. After all, solo travel for women in India wasn’t exactly in vogue. My cousins had horror stories of being groped, leered and masturbated at on the streets of Kochi, my uncle had premonitions of evil times ahead and my aunt had her statistics ready.
Rape cases in India have steadily increased through the years, she said. In 2013, reported rape cases doubled from the previous year. And this was despite the horrific Nirbhaya gang rape and resulting outcry in 2012! There were several publicized cases of western travellers being physically assaulted and raped, mass rapes in regions of Madhya Pradesh, J&K and UP and young girls being trafficked into prostitution. India was categorized as one of the ‘extreme risk’ countries for crimes against women.
I was being foolish, headstrong and would end up as a statistic in a local newspaper, they predicted. Naturally, I understood the concern expressed by all. Violence against women was a sad reality and while, I admit, I was not entirely comfortable at the idea of travelling alone in India (most of my solo travel experience being restricted to Europe and the Americas), I refused to be cowed down – in my own country – into not doing something that I loved.
So armed with pepper spray and a Swiss Army Knife, I booked my tickets to Kochi. My plan was to fly into Kochi and over the next few days, explore Munnar & its tea plantations, Thekkady & the Periyar National Park and Alleppey with its backwaters. A short and succinct journey that would hopefully capture the alleged best of Kerala. While I would have preferred the adventure of local bus travel, in the interests of time management, I decided to book a local car through a Delhi travel agency.
I land in Kochi
I should have guessed what the next few days would herald upon meeting Madhu, my driver and guide for the next few days. He stood at the Arrivals gate as I landed in the scorching heat of Kochi Airport and we immediately set off towards the hotel in Munnar. The drive was as lively as Madhu was bonkers. He was the sort of driver who would encourage you to cross the road only to run you over. With Bollywood music blaring and the car hurtling at 150 miles an hour over the twisting bends of the Western Ghats, my body froze and my sphincter shut so tight that I gave up hope of ever shitting again.
The drive was absolutely stunning though and I held on to dear life as we passed by rolling mountain scenery, craggy peaks and unending expanses of tea plantations rising from the mist. It was exactly what the brochures touted it to be : Kerala – God’s own country. When we finally got to the hotel (in one piece), it took me almost an hour to explain to the Hotel Reception that the ‘double room’ booked was indeed ‘just for me’ and a husband/friend/partner would not magically appear from the trunk of the car.
Meandering in Munnar
The next day, the uncomfortable check-in forgotten, I was raring to explore Munnar. Let’s get this out of the way first – Munnar is stunning. Tea plantations as wide as the eye can see, rivers swollen with green water, flowers the color of the rising sun. But then there are the tarpaulin tents, garbage and stalls selling souvenir tack. We stopped at Echo Point and Mattupetty Dam; both were crowded, packed with stalls and incredibly dirty. It was disconcerting to see tourists congregate to unload their garbage and then stare at me. Often, they would come up to me to ask me where I was from, whether I was married and why I was travelling alone. At Eravikulam National Park – a national reserve of rolling hills and immense beauty – people took pictures of the Nilgiri Tahr, the Langur, each other and of me! I was surprised to be the center of so much attention.
In the evening, as I ventured into town for dinner, I bumped into two young physics students who –once again- questioned me about my age and marital status. Why was everybody so interested? Had I aroused this curiosity because I was an Indian woman travelling on her own? Would western women have encountered similar questions? I asked the boys if they would have asked me the same questions if I have been travelling with a partner; they were horrified at the suggestion. It would be rude. Then why was it acceptable to question me now? They seemed confused and had no answer. And then they took me to their local for the best fish curry I have ever tasted. I forgave them immediately.
Onwards to Thekkady
The next day, excited about my trip to Thekkady and the Periyar National Park, I bounded down the stairs to the car. I had been especially interested in the Tiger trail since I found out that the trackers were poachers-turned-protectors of the tigers. The journey was intense. Madhu would often abruptly stop just to watch me careening towards the front seat; mumble something about elephants and then speed up before I had a chance to look; or just amble alongside a fellow driver snapping his fingers like Rajnikanth. He chattered incessantly over the music about his wife and children, gushed about his car and assured me that I was safe in his car. Without pausing for breath, he then asked me about my age, marriage, my parents, their relationship issues, blood type, the last time I cried. He was gloriously insane. In the end, I had to pretend I was asleep.
We reached the park in the early afternoon. The information area was a mess; there were two people allocated to handle the 50 or so cars parked outside. These two people were busy looking at their nails, picking their nose and drinking coffee. Naturally there was no line and I had to use my elbows judiciously to avoid being pawed and manhandled. By the time I reached the front of the queue, the park officials gleefully informed me that the tiger trail had been sold out. So I shot them.
Despite my seething frustration, I decided to pop into the Park if only to say that I had been inside. The park is designed in such a way that visitors have access to the forest only via the boat ride or guided treks. I walked towards the boat access point and watched the Periyar steaming under the unrelenting sun. It was a surreal sight; the sun lit the aqua green river on fire, broken trees stood drooping in the water and a greenish haze clung close to the ground. I fought my disappointment and headed towards the town instead.
Unfortunately, I was mistaken for a lone foreigner and hassled every few minutes. Some shopkeepers were polite and invited me into their shops, some stood outside and leered, while others broke out into song and followed me. Not the most patient of persons at the best of times, there was a flash of lightening and a burst of radiant color as I launched into them. I do not remember what I screamed but it was enough to send them crawling back to their shops. I spent the rest of the evening drinking masala chai and eating rice vadas from the sympathetic bicycle chai wallas nearby.
And finally, to Alleppey
The next morning, I was glad to be on my way to Alleppey. My plan was to hire a Shikara and spend the day on the legendary backwaters of Kerala. The owner of the boat was a lovely gentleman who introduced himself and his boat, invited me to relax on a lounge chair and then left me to enjoy my day. Veenu intuitively knew when to feed me information (this is the white throated kingfisher, there are approximately 2000 boats plying the backwaters) and when to leave me alone.
As we moved through the canals, the gentle pace of life in Alleppey unfolded. Women stood knee deep in the water washing and cooking, men worked in the rice fields beyond and children smiled and waved as we passed. A gentle breeze cooled us down and before I knew it, I had nodded off. When I woke up, the shikara was docked at the side of the canal and Veenu had bought me coffee and sweets. We sat and chatted with the locals about the weather, the boat race in August and the plastic pollution of the canals. Despite the fact that I was alone on the Shikara with Veenu for most of the afternoon, I have never felt safer. The boat ride was definitely the best part of my trip and I would highly recommend it.
In the evening, I walked to the beach and sat on an old abandoned pier. It was a warm evening, the sky had turned into a light dusky purple and I took many pictures in the vain hope that I could capture the beauty of the sunset. On the way home, three girls sitting on the sidewalk giggled and waved me over to share their tea and pickled peppers. We sat and chatted about the spiciness of the pickles, the older girls’ upcoming wedding and the inevitable discussion about my lack of a husband. It was an idyllic last day in Kerala. Despite their curiosity bordering on invasiveness, I found the people of Kerala warm and generous. They were always smiling, always waving and eager to share their stories and their food. A smile and a few phrases would often trigger people’s hospitality and barring the incident in Thekkady, I never lost my sense of security.
Goodbye, Mad Madhu!
The next morning, it was time to fly back home. Madhu made quick time by running over several stray dogs, old women and children and we were at the airport 3 hours early. As I sat waiting for my plane, a couple of Chinese girls joined me and we chatted about our experiences, which were remarkably similar. We eventually came to the conclusion that these personal questions were not considered invasive here and were simply a means to classify us depending on our age and marital status. I must admit though, I was (and still am) bewildered at why I needed to be placed in a bracket at all. Was every Keralite working on a secret census of unmarried women in India?
Despite these minor inconveniences, I do not regret my decision to travel alone. I was not maimed or murdered. I may have been the source of immense curiosity and sometimes pity, but I was never disrespected. If I had succumbed to fear, not only would I have missed the emerald backwaters, the lush hills and the magical waterfalls, I would have missed the true magic of Kerala – the warmth of its people, the beauty of its culture and sublime moments that defy explanation.
Kerala has a tropical climate so summers are extremely hot and the monsoons can bring heavy showers. The best time to visit Kerala is in the winter (October to early March).
The state is extremely well connected by Air ( The three airports at Cochin, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) have several domestic and international flights); Train (log onto Indian Railways booking site), Bus (Inter state private and government buses operate between neighbouring states) and Road ( by the recently numbered National Highways).
Visit Kerala for: A cruise in the backwaters of Kumarakom or Alleppey; the ayurvedic resorts peppered all across the state; its festivals (Onam & the Snake- boat race in Alleppey) are especially popular; Trekking in Palakkad and Kottayam districts, Rock climbing in the Munnar mountains, Mountain biking in Ponmudi and Munnar, Para gliding in Munnar and Varkala and Canoeing across the backwaters.
Anuja Ganju is a travel junkie and a real-time experimenter. All images are her property.