After a week immersed in tea, spices, and sobriety, we welcomed city life with open arms. We’d arranged a day in Fort Kochi before heading to the backwaters and looked forward to a day exploring by foot. Twenty four hours without a car was a welcome change, as was the abundance of choice. In previous locations the amount of options — where to go, what to eat — was daunting and the idea of spending time scrolling through TripAdvisor reviews and outdated blogs an unwanted time suck. But once choice was taken away from us — the mountainous roads of Wayanad and Munnar were limiting — we were delighted to be back in a maze of experiences.
We ditched our bags at The Old Courtyard and meandered to Farmers Cafe, a small cafe situated in the middle of an art gallery. The menu was designed for Westerners, so we obliged and ordered the hummus wrap and caprese salad. Both were excellent and a welcome departure from curry and rice. And if we’d learned anything from Magic Pizza in Goa, it was that tourist traps shouldn’t always be overlooked.
After a quick stop at Loafer’s Corner for a cardamom iced coffee — another life-changing sugar bomb of a coffee concoction — we made our way back to Princess Street, a stretch of Dutch- and Portuguese-inspired architecture brimming with souvenir shops. “Come look,” they said, “Good price you,” they offered. I smiled but wasn’t tempted. I was looking for ice cream and a pashmina couldn’t cure my craving, even if it was one-of-a-kind, made by locals, and 100 percent silk.
Caramel crunch gelato in hand — and sweet tooth finally satisfied — we continued to the Chinese fishing nets and then toward the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. But first, there was another craving to tend to: cheap lager. We downed a Kingfisher at the first bar we spotted, with only minutes to spare before starting our art tour. It may have been that we accidentally ordered two large bottles, or that we drank both in under ten minutes, or that we hadn’t had a drop of alcohol in a week, but my head immediately felt light and body carefree. “I’m drunk,” I declared.
High on sugar and pleasantly buzzed, we darted across the street in search of the ticket booth. Though there were signs for the show in every direction, there was no ticket booth, and from what we could see, no art. I double checked the address, confirmed its existence on the website, and stared at Google Maps, perplexed — a feeling I’d become well accustomed to.
Tails between our legs, we about-faced and decided to give into the becks and calls of the shops. I still think about Waltons Boutique, a small boutique filled with apparel that was actually made by locals, and was actually organic cotton. The patterns were playful, with neutral and muted colors making them wearable for those who don’t often sport patterns. I’m still kicking myself for not going on a shopping spree, knowing that each item truly was one of a kind, and that I could’ve managed a year’s worth of birthday gifts in under an hour, and at a very low price. Sigh.
As we got ready for dinner, we hit another roadblock: the local spot we’d been planning on for dinner, Dal Roti, was closed. But it didn’t take long for us to pivot and adopt a classic Dom and Tara alternative: gin and tonics at a fancy hotel bar followed by dinner upstairs. Reviews called Brunton Boatyard “extremely overpriced” and "disappointing”, but we found it delightful. Our meal began with a complimentary ginger shot and was nothing short of amazing start to finish, the banana curry being a standout favorite. Yes, it was pricier than the hole-in-the-wall we’d originally planned on, but the local drummers and exquisite flavors justified the cost — which was very reasonable.
The next morning, we were back in a car and off to Alleppey, where we’d embark on our last India adventure.
The reviews of Lake & Lagoons were mixed. Some said the food was the best they had in Kerala; others said it was the worst. Some waxed poetic about the boat itself; others said they hadn’t been tended to in a decade, perhaps longer. We wondered — and worried — what side we’d land on.
When we boarded boat number 22, it was evident we’d landed in the latter camp. “Book with a travel agent to make sure you get a good one,” reviews had advised. “Do a luxury boat. It’s worth the upgrade,” said another. We didn’t do either, and here we were. Though not nearly as offensive as some reviews had suggested, it wasn’t nice either, and considering the houseboat was financially a splurge, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed.
Those feelings only intensified as we set out with a fleet of houseboats. We’d been in India for nearly three weeks, but I hadn’t become immune to the piles of trash that no area seemed to be immune of. Looking at the brown water, my thoughts returned to reviews, and the questions about where the contents of the toilet went when flushed. I turned my attention to reading.
The next time I looked up, our surroundings had transformed. The water was now a deep green, other houseboats were few and far between, birds were singing and posing on floating flowers, and rice paddies and palm trees, both vibrant shades of green made brighter paired with the water, stretched for miles. I fell into a meditative trance, listening to the lapping water and closing my eyes as the warm breeze caressed my skin. This wasn’t so bad.
We filled our day with card games, lukewarm beer, books, silence, and food galore. Some of the dishes were excellent, like the flash-fried okra and blackened shrimp. Some were inedible, like the overcooked kingfish that was more bone than flesh, the steamed rice and coconut rolls (puttu) that can only be described as chewing paper, and the medley of cold leftovers that were thrown together despite their uncomplimentary flavors. Our moods shifted from blissful to restless, and we soon began to look forward to sleep so we could peacefully (and quickly) pass the time.
A day exploring the backwaters was just right, a night a unique but missable experience, two nights enough to make you regret houseboating altogether. Despite our admirable efforts to entertain ourselves — we made up new card games, finished books and started new ones, wrote, talked, did push-ups and planks, and did it all over and over again — we struggled to keep ourselves entertained, and in good spirits.
I started fantasizing about our next destination: Sri Lanka. I even started fantasizing about the car ride to the airport, and having new material for my rapidly flattening bum to sit on. We’d occasionally pass on a colorful church and jump out of our seats to snap a photo, or our guides would point out local fishermen or a duck farm, which were interesting but few and far between. I couldn’t help but miss Fort Kochi, and wish we’d stayed there.
The last night was perhaps the oddest, when we docked early with about 10 other houseboats. The staff congregated on the land, hacking coconuts, chain-smoking cigarettes, and no doubt swapping stories about the stranded tourists awaiting their dinner. We didn’t mind having the boat to ourselves, even as the power flickered on and off, and enjoyed watching the staff enjoy themselves likely for the first time since we’d set out, but floating in what felt like a houseboat mill, I couldn’t help but feel a little unsettled, and even more eager to depart. When music started blaring at 5 a.m., jolted us out of bed, and continued all morning, it further solidified that Lakes & Lagoons was, simply put, not our favorite.
It’s easy to get lost in “we should’ve” and “I regret” when it comes to travel, but we shed our traveler’s remorse at the airport, eyes glistening with images of Mirissa. Tomorrow was a new day — and a new country.