Day 19: ATTRACTING A CROWD
We awoke at 7:30am. I didn’t sleep terribly well because I made frequent visits to the mosquito-infested bathroom throughout the night to pee. Julie suspected it was the wine we drank last night complements of our tour operator (I’m guessing for our wedding anniversary a week ago).
It was a steamy morning as evidenced by my camera lens fogging up the moment I left our relatively drier bedroom (with minimal A/C).
At a little after 8:15am, we had our breakfast. I had read from the guest book that some people had coconut pancakes so I was looking forward to it. But instead, we ended up with fruits and toast. Bummer. But then again, I guess we could’ve asked for the coconut pancakes.
That concluded our Kerala Backwaters houseboat cruise. Now, we met up with Dennis again, loaded up the mini-van, and proceeded to go waterfalling as we were bound for Courtallam in Tamil Nadu state.
The drive was pretty long. It began by passing through the busy streets of Alleppey, and true to its claim as the “Venice of the East,” there were some streets flanked with canals that had boats in them. Julie contended they’re not like the ones you see in Venice, Italy because those canals are so narrow that only narrow rowboats or fancier gondolas could make it through. Here, they got state-run motorized ferries as well as houseboats in addition to the old-fashioned row boats and sportier snake boats.
At around 11:25am, we reached the Keralan town of Kollam. Unlike the rest of Kerala, this place was both big and crowded. It kind of typified the congested Indian streets and cities we had grown accustomed to in other states. I guess even Kerala was not immune to chaotic cities, but then again, the fact that it wasn’t until our 4th day in the state that we encountered this was saying something. Even Cochin didn’t seem as busy as this place (but then again, maybe we didn’t pass through the heart of Cochin so perhaps it was an apples to oranges comparison).
Finally at some time after 12pm, we left the suburbs east of Kollam and starting driving into the winding forested roads of the Western Ghats. Along the way, we passed by quite a few rubber plantations. We also passed by a few small roadside waterfalls, which we didn’t stop for – one of them had some locals bathing in it.
At 1:20pm, we finally reached a turnoff for the Palaruvi Waterfall where a signpost read, “The most beautiful falls in Kerala.” Well, I don’t know about that claim as the Athirappilly Falls seemed hard to beat, but I guess we’re about to find out as Dennis made the turn to enter this falls and visit it. I didn’t expect to see this falls (thinking it’s not Courtallam Falls), but then again, it’s on the way so why not?
The 100m walk went quickly as we approached the falls. As we got closer, we could see it was pretty tall. Too bad it couldn’t be photographed from this far away as the forest canopy kind of blocked views of its upper sections.
A few paces further, we reached a signed fork where a sign to our right said, “Ladies & Kids Only.” So Julie took that path to take photos and movies of the falls. Meanwhile, Dennis and I continued onwards to climb higher up the stairs up to a sheltered viewing platform.
The view from the platform wasn’t the greatest as you couldn’t get the whole falls in one photograph. We were too close to the falls and the spray from the falls kept putting droplets on my lens. Also, the sun was kind of against us further complicating our ability to photograph the falls.
There looked to be a path that once went right in front of the falls. But apparently there was evidence of rockfalls that might have made the authorities reconsider letting people bath right beneath the falls. So there’s no more of a bridge connecting the walking path with the railings right in front of the base of the falls. There were also barbed vines discouraging further progress from the official path.
At 2pm, we had our fill of the falls and returned to the car. And given our experience with this falls, I think that sign saying this was the most beautiful falls in Kerala was probably stretching it a bit. Anyways 15 minutes later, Dennis had to pay the taxes for crossing into the Tamil Nadu state.
At 2:30pm after climbing a few more switchbacks, we could see the mountains here exhibited some scenic rock protrusions as well as lush v-shaped valleys. We didn’t stop to take any photos as it was starting to get late in the afternoon, but I’m sure under a more laid back day, we’d gladly bask in this scenery that you don’t hear a whole lot about outside of India, I’m sure.
Once the road crested and started to descend, we could see a tremendous plains below where windmills were spinning in the distance. As we got to the bottom of the descent, we could see the mountains of the Western Ghats backing the rice fields flanking the road.
The scene reminded me of Kauai, where taro fields were backed by jagged forested mountains of the interior.
Pretty soon, we entered some small somewhat busy towns with the familiar beat up buildings fronted by barefoot locals walking the streets. Not much longer, we reached a signed turnoff leading to the town of Courtallam.
And by 3pm, we arrived at the Saraal Hotel where we promptly checked in, left our bags, and then left 15 minutes later to spend the rest of the daylight hours checking out the falls in this area.
Upon first inspection of our room, it wasn’t as dumpy as we expected. In fact, it exceeded our lowered expectations since we expected Tamil Nadu accommodations to be similar to the Karnataka accommodations. Perhaps it was the relatively good karma started by the mostly stellar accommodations in Kerala?
At 3:30pm, we arrived at the car park for Five Falls. The street vendors lining the car park were giving us stares while trying to get our attention to buy stuff. And some other locals were more forthcoming with smiles while shaking our hands and asking us, “What country?”
The Five Falls were really one waterfall segmented into roughly five strands (hence its name). There were railings and artificial barriers to keep the plunge pools filled with water so people can bathe. In fact, it seemed that this waterfall was all about the bathing experience and not so much about the scenic allure, though it certainly did have that if not for the man-made contraptions around it.
Naturally, being the only non-Indians here, we constantly got lots of stares as we were busy taking photos. Whenever Julie and I took photos off the tripod on timer, some kids would peek into the LCD after the shutter closed.
It’s not exactly a peaceful experience when you have dozens of locals giving you strange looks, but all things considered, this was a pretty fun and happening interactive waterfall. Fortunately for us, the sun was on its way to hiding behind the background peaks of the Western Ghats this late in the day so we weren’t totally looking against the sun.
Dennis decided we still had some time in the day so he started driving us towards the Old Courtallam Falls. During the drive, I was getting a little confused as signs weren’t consistent in their spelling of Courtallam (pronounced court-TAH-lam) as I’d also seen it spelled Courtralam as well as Kuttralam.
At 4:15pm, we arrived at the car park for the Old Courtallam Falls. During the drive, we went through rural roads flanked by swamps as well as rice paddies. Once again, the fields were backed by attractively jagged and forested peaks, and as I write this, I regret not having Dennis stop so we could take photos just to prove that this was reminiscent of something in my mental picture of Kauai.
The Old Courtallam Falls was actually an attractive sloping main drop of perhaps 20-25m and then a man-modified drop of 5-10m below. The man-modification was due to a dam that traps much of the plunge pool from the main drop so locals could bathe. It seems like bathing by these waterfalls was a big deal in these parts because we had read that the streams meandered through naturally growing medicinal herbs further up the mountains. Thus, it’s been said that these waters contain healing powers.
Dennis had told us earlier that November 14th was also the start of Hindu temple praying season, where people would fast for 40 days (i.e. eat only one meal a day, abstain from sex, and avoid foods like onions and garlics) so they’d be worthy enough to make the pilgrimage to specific Hindu temples further up the hills of the Western Ghats and pray. And that many of these males making the pilgrimage made it point to bathe at the falls near the town of Courtallam.
So far, both the Five Falls and the Old Courtallam Falls exhibited the bathing infrastructure. But this one wasn’t as busy as the Five Falls so it was a little more peaceful, but we were still getting stares from the dozens of locals that were still here.
At 4:30pm, we were back at the car. By that time, the car park was littered with mounds of rice, which some local left there for the monkeys to gorge on. I doubt this is good for the monkeys, but I guess locals get a kick out of this.
Meanwhile, Julie and I walked through what looked to be a bustling marketplace. Again, we were the only non-Indians here so many of the shopkeepers and touts tried to get our attention to buy stuff. Meanwhile, other bystanders were staring at us as we were bravely trying to walk straight to the falls.
After passing by a temple blaring some loud folk Hindu music, we went through more of the crowded marketplace before we finally got to the main waterfall area, which was full of locals both bathing, washing clothes, and just being tourists themselves.
But since I came with a DSLR camera along with a tripod, I realized after snapping a handful of photos that we attracted a big crowd behind us. I was beginning to wonder if they think I was doing some kind of professional photo shoot for a magazine or if we were the only ones different from everyone that was causing this behavior.
After having my fill of the attractive two-tiered falls, Julie and I quickly went back through the crowded and noisy marketplace, and made a beeline for our hotel.
Even though it wasn’t exactly the most peaceful experience at these falls and the jaunt through the marketplace was an exercise in self-consciousness as we were getting stared at by the thousands that were here, I had to admit that the scene here had the atmosphere that you probably couldn’t find anywhere else in the world besides India.
I mean, where else would you find crowds of people in both dhoties and lungies as well as modern clothing donned by males while the women wore saris or other kinds of colorful dresses and wraps crowding street markets surrounded by yelling proprietors? And all this is mixed with some blaring Hindu music from the local temple nearby!
Indeed, I guess it was fitting that we’d end our sightseeing in India with this most atmospheric of waterfalls; one that was neither in LP nor DK, and was only made known to me by a contributor to our website from India. And I was sure glad we got to see this part of the country that few (if any) foreigners get to see and experience.
By 5:20pm, we arrived back at the hotel. We’d eventually have one last dinner in the country of chicken biriyani and butter chicken. Sure, they’re Northern Indian foods and we’re in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, but then again we mind as well have some foods we hadn’t had since early on in our trip in Northern India. Not minding the temporary black out (not unusual in the country as there’s a scarcity of power), we enjoyed the very reasonably priced meal.
And as we walked by to our room to call it a day, Julie and I noticed frequent flashes of light up in the clouds over the silhouettes of the mountains this evening. They were flashes of lightning, but we didn’t hear any thunder as I’m sure the monsoonal thunderstorm was too far from us. Still, it was interesting to see nonetheless.
And so ended our last full day in India.
And with hot water in the shower, Julie and I both concluded that this hotel exceeded our expectations (as we expected a dump). This further proved the notion that sometimes you have to manage expectations in order to avoid disappointment or to be pleasantly surprised. And that’s not easy to do in India, because no matter what your expectations are going in, it’s never quite like what you expected…
Tomorrow, we have to get up and leave Courtallam by 6:30am to get to the airport at Thiruvananthapuram (or Trivandrum for short) to catch an international flight to Male, Maldives. After sampling such a broad spectrum of experiences in the subcontinent, we really look forward to just chilling out and unwinding for the last three days of our adventure to the other side of the world…