We spent 16 days in beautiful Kerala, India in the southwestern part of the country, as a visa run from Bali. We stayed in three different spots as bases: Varkala (beach), Kumarakom (Backwaters), and Munnar (mountains). Each had their own distinct charm.
With the short duration of the trip, our intention was to explore the area, enjoy the food, meet the people, and relax together while connecting more as a family, rather than getting involved in classes or local communities. In short, we were “tourists”, though we did have some very special experiences and interactions that changed us.
In this post, I’ll share some of the highlights, favorite memories, challenges, and photos from our time in Kerala. Also, here is a video summarizing our time there. (Edited by our 15-year old daughter Emily who has her own video editing business, Crystal Cut Studios.)
First Impressions, and Varkala
Among my first thoughts after arriving in India were how excited I was to eat Indian food every day! Even though we got in late to our airport hotel and had already had dinner on the plane, I ordered room service to try some paneer butter masala, and it was phenomenal! This trip proved to me that Indian food is my favorite cuisine! We ate it for almost every meal and I never got sick of it. Not once.
We loved the parottas, dosas, idly, and other breads. The curries, the spices, the chutneys. All so amazing! On a scale from one to ten, most dishes were on the 7-10 scale for me. And so cheap, too! We’d often feed our entire family lunch or dinner for about USD $6-12 total, including drinks (that’s $1-2/plate).
The traffic, on the other hand, seems more aggressive to me than anywhere I’ve been. Lots of honking and zooming ahead to squeeze into open spots. We also saw two elephants being transported by trucks on the road, and huge billboards (mostly around fashion and real estate, it seems). The streets seem dirty. Still, women wear beautiful colorful saris and other clothing, even as beachwear.
The beach at Varkala was interesting. The sand felt like corn starch, squeaking as we walked. It wasn’t very clean, and we’re not really much for getting sandy anyway, but it was a nice place to watch the sunset.
Street vendors were much more friendly and respectful than I expected. Not very aggressive, just personable, with an air of caring and respect, which I think makes them much more persuasive salespeople anyway. We did end up buying a little wooden travel chess set ($5), and a beautiful cashmere scarf ($35), though probably could have gotten them for less with better negotiation.
We also tried a couple ayurvedic massages, and honestly, they’re not our favorites. Lots of oil, fast rubbing, and almost complete nudity in front of a same-sex masseuse. We prefer the deep and soothing Balinese massages at 1/3 the price.
One of our favorites experiences in Kerala was a boat ride we took through the backwaters of Kumarakom. This part of India is connected through a series of canals and lakes that run in between various villages.
In a traditional wooden boat that was big enough to lounge on, but not stand up in, we rode through the peaceful rivers, with only the sounds of nature around us. The water was often completely covered by water hyacinth, making it seem like we were moving through solid ground. We passed egrets, ducks, kingfisher, and many other types of birds. The local villagers and children waved and smiled to us as we passed, while they did their laundry or other tasks.
At one point, when we were far from civilization, I thought it would be fun to fly my drone (DJI Mavic Air) and get an overhead view of the boat with us on it cruising down the river. The boat was moving slowly enough I thought I could launch the drone without a problem, and would just have the driver stop the boat when I was ready to land.
Apparently, my internal physics engine wasn’t functioning properly that day and I misjudged how quickly the drone could rise in the air – and I made the mistake of launching from the front of the boat, while it was moving, despite the strong protests from each of our daughters.
So as soon as the drone took off, it started moving toward us inside the boat, its screaming propellers ready to cut us to shreds. The girls yelped, and out of instinct, I swatted the drone with my hand, knocking it back to the front of the boat (thankfully not into the water!), causing it to land upside down and stop. However, one of my fingers was covered in blood, and another had a swelling blood blister from the propellers.
With sentiments of, “You’re crazy and we can’t believe you did that, Dad.” and “We told you it wasn’t a good idea.”, I almost considered giving up. But I so wanted that shot! And up to this point, Jen had trusted my judgment, too. This wouldn’t be my last attempt.
I put on a band-aid, and asked the driver to stop. I then proceeded to set the drone back up and get it ready for another launch. Even though the engine was off, the boat was still moving slightly with the water, but it was slow enough that I was able to successfully launch the drone into the air!
I tried to explain to the driver that I wanted him to move forward and drive under the drone, but he didn’t really understand, and he just pulled over to the side of the river waiting for me to finish (sigh…). Maybe he was terrified himself, after what he’d seen the beastly machine do to me. Anyway, after a minute or two, I had a decent enough shot, and with some skillful maneuvering, was able to safely land the drone back on the boat.
We continued happily on our way, except for the pain in my hand and my daughters reminding me over and over to never, ever try to launch a drone from the front of a moving boat again.
Still, the girls enjoyed the boat ride so much, they wanted to do it again. But this time – on a house boat! With a bedroom, kitchen, and a pirate-ship style steering wheel – we rode through more open waters as we played games, ate fried bananas, and watched the sunset.
One of the highlights of Kerala for us was the last week, where we stayed in Munnar at a home stay with a very sweet Indian family. We were basically living in the upper floor of their house while they live downstairs. We found this place on Airbnb and booked it because the reviews were so good. And now I understand why.
The accommodations were humble, but clean, and surrounded by natural beauty. What I didn’t expect was that Kuttappan’s wife, Sujada, would be lovingly preparing all our meals – a variety of delicious Indian food with fresh and healthy ingredients. Or that Kuttappan would enthusiastically be our personal guide and concierge for all excursions and activities the entire week, including cultural exchanges made possible only through his help. For example, we attended an Indian wedding, saw elephants in the wild, visited the world’s highest organic tea farm, and received daily instruction in pranayama, yoga, meditation, and chanting the Gayatri mantra from Kuttappan who is quite the guru himself.
To a degree, it feels like we’ve been brought in as part of their family. When their two young adult children came to visit during a recent strike, we were invited to participate in their family’s evening bhajan (a kind of singing ritual). When he introduced us to his friend and pointed out the traditional Kerala henley-top style shirt he was wearing, and I asked where I could buy one, he told me his friend was a tailor and he’d have one made for me as a gift (which he delivered to me the next day). When Marie was having stomach problems, he took us to the clinic, where we paid about USD $2.85 which included a visit with an experienced English speaking doctor and some medicine (and I guess the privilege of getting to cut in front of the line – or maybe that was because the doctor was an old friend of Kuttappan’s.)
Actually, Kuttappan seems to know everyone in his village, and somehow seems to know someone basically everywhere we go. He’s always running into friends, helping them out, and receiving their help, just like he’s constantly going out of his way to serve us. He is a busy man with a lot going on in his life – he regularly needs to take phone calls for work, visit his office, meet with the local village council, or take care of his family, friends, his personal health, home, and spirit. Yet we feel so well cared for.
Such an example of kindness, generosity, and devotion I have hardly ever seen. I tried to give him some extra money once to pay for gas, and it took a lot of persistence to get him to accept it. The next day he told me he doesn’t want payment in money. His payment, he said, is that we would share the things we’re learning with the world.
By Indian financial standards, Kuttappan has a small degree of wealth, with a house of his own, a car, and a few plots of land for growing food (one of which he’s selling in order to pay for his daughter’s wedding). But by the standards of friends, of community, and of love, and the inner and outer riches that flow back from his own devotion to them, Kuttappan is one of the wealthiest people I’ve ever met.
I want to be more like Kuttappan. More generous and giving in my interactions, and with a greater appreciation for the value of other kinds of wealth beyond the monetary kind. These are the kinds of lessons and changes I love to receive through travel.