Traveling in India: A Truly Life Changing Experience

Hampi India

‘India will change you forever’, I would hear over and over again as soon as we announced we would travel to the subcontinent. ‘Really?’, I thought incredulously, ‘what could possibly have such an impact on me there?’ I had traveled through Central America and South East Asia, and had encountered extreme poverty, dysfunctional cities, violence and fear. I didn’t think that anything could still shock me after the things I had already seen, from the child beggars in Guatemala to the limping stray dogs in Nicaragua and the in-your-face sex tourism in Cambodia.

But nothing prepares you for India. Nothing prepares you for the intense smells, the chaos that ensues when a herd of cows decides to take a stroll along a busy highway, the crazy traffic and the constant honking, the homeless people sleeping on sidewalks, not dozens, but hundreds of them, or the dead bodies you’ll see. You can’t block out the begging ladies who seem a hundred years old and look at you with those heartbreakingly sad eyes while they shyly beg you for money with their palms pleadingly open, and by the village kids that run around dirt roads in just underwear and without shoes because they don’t have anything.

Village life in India
Village life in India

India is a lot to take in. And India is hard to take. Even though you might read this now thinking ‘I feel like I know what to expect when I go there’, when you get there, it will knock you off your feet.

I might have painted a pretty bleak picture of India so far, so let me correct this. I did not hate India – quite on the contrary: I loved traveling there. While many scenes you’ll experience in on a daily basis – the countless stray animals, the beggars, the crazy train rides, the deformations on people’s bodies – are hard to digest, especially in such a huge concentration, there are equally as many things that will amaze you. The incredibly diverse scenery for one, which ranges from deserts and mountains in the north to tropical beaches in Goa and the barren moon-like scenery around Hampi. The ornate, grand and mystifying temples, the scrumptious food that bursts with flavors, the wonderfully welcoming people were all things that made me fall in love with India.

Unforgettable India
Beautiful India

Some travelers find it annoying to be stared at or even have their hair touched, but I have to say though that I was just as enticed by the large families I met. Especially the women, all dressed up in colorful saris, painted with henna tattoos, wearing golden little jewels or bindis on their foreheads, and eye-catching golden jewelry hanging from their wrists, necks and sometimes noses, fascinated me just as much as I fascinated them, the light skinned girl with the bright blonde hair. While they wanted to feel my ‘yellow’ hair, I wanted to run my fingers through their thick black hair. The timid smiles and curious looks, and how we tried to communicate despite their limited English to find out more about each others lives are encounters I wouldn’t want to miss.

Meeting Indian families in Hampi
One of the most rewarding experiences in India: getting to know the locals

The way India changes you is how it changes your perspective on the smallest details in your own life. For one, I just cannot complain about anything in my life anymore – no matter how hard something might seem in a specific moment, I am blessed with a great life, a passport that lets me travel anywhere in the world without any bureaucratic hassle – the fact alone that I am able to travel! Seeing the families in Hampi, a sacred site for Hindus which they are supposed to visit at least once in their lives, who have never left their village before but saved every penny to could to make the trip there, sleeping in the streets and living off cheap street food, made me feel ashamed about my complaints about the too thin mattress on the bed in our basic yet clean $3 per night guesthouse. Back home in their villages these pilgrims usually don’t have running water or a solid, concreted floor in their house. Everywhere I traveled in India I saw women with big buckets on their heads, on their way to a well to get the water they needed to do laundry and dishes.

India People
People of India

When I was stuck on an overcrowded train that for the first time I realized what cattle class actually means, with one person in our group in tears and the rest of us on the verge of them, I couldn’t help but think ‘I am so glad that I don’t have to do that every day.’ But it is the reality for hundreds of millions of Indians. I watched women doing dishes and laundry in dirty river water where at the same time an elephant released himself while being bathed; men were shaving and women washing their hair, because this natural ‘pool’ is the only ‘tub’ they have.

India River
Rivers in India: Bathtub, washing machine, dish washer and elephant tub

And there I was, complaining that our guesthouse didn’t have hot water. These things just stick with you and you’ll never take anything for granted anymore: running water, hot water, a toilet with a flush button instead of a bucket of water to flush with, and being able to drink water from a tap. Comfy beds, a kitchen, a washing machine, a dish washer and other appliances seem somewhat absurd after what you see in India. India changes your perspective on everything, and makes the things you complain about in your daily life seem pretty laughable. I came back a different person than the one I was before, and I can’t wait to go back to India. Because if you are willing to put up with the strenuous aspects of the country, you’ll be rewarded with the most memorable travel experience of your life.

Beautiful India

Have you had any life changing travel experiences? Share them in the comments below.

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How to travel luxuriously through India on a small budget

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India has not only been the country that left the biggest impression on me, but it has also been the cheapest country I’ve traveled to so far. I knew it would be cheap, but after spending a month there and seeing what we had spent in total was still shocking: just over $500 per person! For an entire month of travel, including plane tickets, trains, admissions to the palaces in Hampi, splurging on a 3-day cruise on a houseboat in Kerala, eating out three times a day and splurging on coffee whenever there was a good coffee shop.

indian family in hampi

I have to admit that we traveled extremely cheap though because we traveled with a friend who was trying to get by on as little as possible. I often had to fight for the $5 hotel room when a few doors down there was another room for $2.50 – but you can imagine the quality of those rooms! He would also rather take a 24-hour train for $10 instead of a 2-hour flight for $100.

tuktuks in cochin
Rickshaws – the cheapest way to get around!

Here’s the thing though: you can actually get much more out of your India experience, if you pay a little bit more and have a little bit of luxury. Sure, you can easily get by on $20 a day (we even spent less than that), but if you’re willing to budget $30 or $40 per day for your trip to India, you can actually travel in comfort, while $20 per day will buy you a cheap, but not necessarily relaxing and worry-free time there.

kerala backwaters houseboat
Our big splurge: renting an entire houseboat in Kerala

Take train travel, for example. It’s by far the cheapest way to get around, but seats are rare to get and often booked months in advance – so either you risk standing for twelve hours and being pushed around, or you plan smart ahead and book a cheap flight. There are several budget airlines that operate within India (e.g. IndiGo or SpiceAir).

India train second class

If you know your travel dates in advance, you can also use the common international hotel booking websites to find good deals in the places you’re planning to visit. Booking well in advance will get you five-star hotels for as little as $100! Trust me, after a day of sightseeing in a busy city like Delhi, you’ll appreciate a comfortable hotel room to go back to more than ever. I felt the most stressed whenever we arrived in a new city without having any accommodation booked, and will make sure on my next trip to India to always book my hotel in advance. India is not an easy country to travel in, but you can make it a much more rewarding experience if you keep your stress levels low on transportation days and come home to a cozy hotel room.

hampi water buffalos
A common scene in India: cows on the road

Food is by far the cheapest expense in India – we often ate in local restaurants for as little as $1, and we never had any problems, such as the much-feared ‘Delhi Belly’. If you are looking for a more upscale restaurant experience, I recommend checking out which restaurants are the highest rated ones on TripAdvisor. The number of restaurants in a big city like Mumbai or Bangalore can be overwhelming, and I always find it extremely helpful to see which places other travelers liked, and which are worth skipping.

hampi daal fry

Planning ahead can be time-consuming, but trust me when I say that it is well worth it for a trip to India – your experience will be smoother, less stressful and much more enjoyable.

Hampi India

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Despite issues of safety, women should continue to travel to India, by Melody Fears

cow in india

The issue of safety for female travelers has been nowhere more heightened than in India recently. We had a few difficult experiences during our travels to India and wanted to feature the experience of a solo female traveler and avid India traveler. When Melody Fears first traveled through India in 1997, she vowed never to return, based on the unwanted male attention she experienced. Find out how her entire perspective changed on subsequent trips and why she has now based herself (at least for the short-term) in the very country she thought she would never return to.

Violence and sexual harassment against women in India is a hot topic in Western media recently, but this is not a new development. Instead, this treatment of women is so ingrained in Indian society that it has its own name, Eve-Teasing, and specially trained police focused exclusively on combating it.

However, as high profile rape cases of female tourists hit the news this year, the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India estimate that female tourists traveling to India dropped 35 per cent in the first three months of 2013 compared to the year before.

During the months and years I have spent in the country, I have personally experienced numerous occasions where I felt sexualized, demeaned and sometimes threatened. Not by all men, or even half. But it happens far, far more than I would like.

So why would I suggest that female travelers, even solo female travelers, still make their way to India? Because it is this very issue that played a major role in transforming my life.

India beach reflectionI first came to India in 1997. I was 23 and dreamed of losing myself in the sights, sounds and spices of the mystical sub-continent. Instead, I was groped, called names, invited to bed and left feeling shocked when, in Goa, busloads of men would pull up, get out, take pictures of bikini-clad female tourists on the beach, get back on the bus and leave. These instances all added up to dominate the overall feeling of the trip, and when I left India three months later, I vowed never to return as long as I lived.

But I did come back. It took ten years and I was resistant, but the pull towards the Himalayas and the Tibetan Buddhist culture was strong. I knew very little about it but I also knew that there were lessons here that I needed to learn.

In 2007, I spent two months in Dharamsala and Ladakh and cocooned myself in a culture very different to that of the India I had been exposed to before. Even so, I quickly realized I was still hanging on to the anger I had toward the men from my previous experience.

India prayer flagsDespite the anger, that trip was the start of my love affair with the Himalayan people and I knew I would return. My father was ill at the time and I wasn’t able to go back to the mountains until 2011, but it was something my sister said on a two-week holiday to Kerala, southern India, in 2010 that changed everything for me.

It was her first trip to the country and I was amazed with the ease at which she seemed to settle in. We had only been there a few days when she looked at me and said:

‘I get it. I get India. You have to leave it all at the airport. When you fly to India, you must leave all your values, pre-conceived ideas, conditioning and expectations behind. The only way to experience this country is with totally open eyes, open arms, an open mind and an open heart. You get out of India what you put in. If you come with fear, that’s what you get, and if you come with love, you will be shown it in such phenomenal proportions that it will change your life.’

India sunsetA few months later, three days into the New Year, I flew to Mumbai and spent the whole of 2011 in India. Those first few weeks were some of the hardest of my life. Grieving my father, I knew I was being drawn to India to learn how to heal. I was also determined to discover the country that I kept getting drawn back to – and not just Tibetan, but Indian India. And so, for three months I travelled a large portion of the country, first the southern states and then up through the middle, using only local buses and straying far from the well-worn tourist trail. To say that I felt like a second-class citizen would be to say that Noah’s Flood was just a drizzle.

India woman washing clothesIt is not my place to comment on how hard life can be for Indian women, but I saw what they do to keep themselves and their families alive and the way they can be treated as objects or even slaves.

This extends outside of the household into that very tangible public sexual harassment that I, too, experienced. This harassment is widespread and overwhelmingly accepted. The euphemism used to describe it, eve-teasing, might sound innocent enough but in reality, this is India’s curse: full-on gropes, stalking and acid-throwing. In this Wall Street Journal article, the journalist declares that the term ‘eve teasing’, a euphemism of which both parts by definition blame the female herself, must die.

Even just the idea that this is as simple as ‘teasing’ is absurd. It is such a major issue that there are entire police cells embedded as task forces to combat it and signage on major city streets constantly warn against it. But the fact remains that many Indian women put up with this their whole lives, usually without any help at all.

Indian womenSexual harassment is different for Western women in India, but not better. Much of the understanding of western culture comes from film and television, which has far more explicit sexual content than Indian media. This can lead Indian men to believe Western women to be more willing and ‘easy.’  Knowing that this is often how I am perceived makes me more uncomfortable around Indian men that I don’t know.

Feelings like this are common for female tourists, and tourism companies like Thomas Cook India have not only started exclusive women-only tours in India, but also offer services like free cellphones and emergency numbers for police stations and hospitals.

My experiences of unwanted male attention and sexual harassment were so constant, so emotionally draining that when I arrived in Rajasthan seven weeks into my yearlong trip, I holed up in a hotel room for two weeks, leaving only to buy supplies when necessary.

After two weeks in that room, I had a very clear realization that it wasn’t the men that were causing me to suffer, but the way I was reacting to them. This is not excusing the behavior, but my power lies not in changing the behavior of Indian men, but in my reaction to the adversity I feel because of it.

I went on to spend the next nine months in the Himalayas learning about unconditional love and compassion, although putting these lessons into practice was still a challenge.

India mountainsI tried my best to navigate the issue without letting it affect me, and by the time I left India in December 2011, I was totally in love with the country. So much so, that I knew I’d be back as soon as possible.

I spent the next twenty months in the UK, practicing the lessons I had learned in India. Meditation became – and still is – a key part of my life, and I explored all I could about consciousness. I learnt how to live in the present moment and the acceptance and universal love that follows.

Less than two months ago, I flew to India from the UK. I still find it incredible how differently I see and experience the country today to my first trip here. When I arrived, my initial reaction was the same – I felt victimized as I stood in Old Delhi station after dusk, hundreds of pairs of male eyes leering and letching at me – but then I simply stepped on the train, came straight up to Dharamsala and settled easily into my life here.

India cowI put into practice all that I’d learnt about living in the moment and love and compassion that I’d first encountered in the same town six years ago, and it all fell beautifully into place. The huge potential for spiritual growth that India offers women, the consciousness-expanding experience that so many come here for, is not meant to be had despite the men who try so hard to ruin it. The point is to come to India to reach that level of growth by learning to navigate through the challenge that their behavior creates.

IndiaDon’t get me wrong, I’d still rather it didn’t happen, but it does. The situation exists. How I deal with it is of my own free will. I choose to create conflict or to accept it as it is. By creating conflict, I create my own suffering.

Acceptance is not the same as condoning the behavior. It is wrong and measures need to be taken by the individual to ensure their own safety, and by humanity as a whole to bring an end to it. But I’ve noticed the huge difference it makes to me, whether I deal with it with anger or acceptance. Through acceptance – the anger now gone – I feel such a sense of empowerment, rather than being the victim of a hopeless situation, and it is the energy of this empowerment that will bring about positive change within India.

In the short time that I have stopped reacting to the lewd whistles and remarks, I have come to understand, appreciate and love India in a way I couldn’t dream of all those years ago.

Do I think the potential is there for it to be dangerous for women to travel alone to India? Yes. Would I recommend women travel here, even if they are solo travelers? Yes.  But please do your homework and follow all the advice. Stay safe. And if it’s your first trip, stay comfortable. Don’t do anything or stay anywhere that doesn’t feel right. But my biggest piece of advice would be that of my sister. Come with open arms, eyes, mind and heart. Be prepared to have your life changed in ways you can’t begin to imagine.

India dogLife is unsterilized here, unabridged; humanity and nature coexist. Life is lived completely in the present; for so many, it’s a hand-to-mouth existence. As travelers to India, we are so privileged to witness it unfold, to stand and watch cause and effect happen before our eyes. Everything makes sense at the same time as absolutely nothing does.

The lessons we can learn from that are truly life-changing.

India golden sunsetAbout Melody Fears

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMelody first left home with a bag on her back two weeks after her 18th birthday. She spent the next 21 years denying her inner nomad but keeping it satisfied with numerous travels, interspersed with time in the UK trying to do the ‘sensible thing.’ This year, she decided to embrace her nomad completely, packed her home on her back, and set off for a permanent life on the road. At the moment, she is in Dharamsala, India, finishing her first novel and enjoying being a full-time traveller. She spends her days writing, reading, learning, walking, drawing and having beautiful conversations with people. In February, she’ll fly to Thailand, and then she’ll see where life takes her.

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Goa: The best place for a relaxing vacation in India

Indian Idli in Singapore

We have talked countless times about our houseboat cruise through the backwaters of Kerala in southern India, and how it was the highlight of our time on the subcontinent.  We would have never imagined that India could be so peaceful and relaxed as it was in the little villages along the canals we softly glided down on our three-day cruise while enjoying home-made dishes and the silence around us – a welcome change to the noisy and hectic big cities.

However, you don’t need to go all the way down to Kerala to have a relaxing experience like that – much closer to the famous sights and cities of northern India which are on most travelers itinerary is Goa, known for its tropical beaches at little prices.

palolem boatsWhile the heyday of Goa as ‘hippie capital’ and ‘trance mecca’ might be over, there are still remnants of those eras that put Goa on the international map of wide beaches, swaying palm trees and wild parties.

Not only is Goa a fabulous beach destination, it is also the perfect introduction to India. You get the delicious food, spice markets, Hindu temples and cheap markets at a much slower pace than the rest of the country, along with a well-developed tourist infrastructure. Here are five reasons why we think Goa is the ideal vacation destination:

varkala beach sunset1 The price

Since the best time to visit Goa is the winter (November to February), it offers much better value for money than other destinations that offer sun, beach and tropical temperatures at that time of year. There are some great bargain deals for package holidays to Goa, and especially in January and February – high season in Goa – cheap flights from Europe are abound, if you prefer to book your accommodation individually. Once you’ve paid for your vacation package or your flights, you won’t need much more – most restaurant offer a full meal for less than $5, tuktuk and bus rides are usually under $1, and drinks are $2 to $3.

palolem beach bar2 The beaches

Goa has over 70 kilometers of beaches, and there are dozens of little beach towns to choose from. Calangute, Baga and Anjuna are some of the most popular beaches in the north, Palolem and Colva are famous beach towns in the southern part of the state. The busiest beaches are Candolim, Sinquerim and Calangute – if you are looking for more quiet, serene beaches, head to Arambol, Patnem or Asvem. Most beaches offer water sports, as well, and you’ll find kitesurfing, windsurfing, jetskiing and paragliding.palolem beach

3 Scrumptious food

No matter where you’re spending your vacation in Goa, you will find delicious Indian food EVERYWHERE! You will probably come across some of the dishes you know from the Indian restaurants back home (Tandoori Chicken, Chicken Tikka Masala, Aloo Gobi, Palak Paneer, Naan, etc) but also fall in love with new flavors and new dishes that are unique to Goa. Goan cuisine here is known to be influenced much more from the state’s proximity to the sea and most dishes are seafood-based and/or influenced by the Portuguese, who landed here in the early 16th century and stayed for over 400 years, leaving only in 1961. Don’t miss the famous Goan fish curry!

palolem aloo gobi4 Interesting culture and history

As mentioned above, Goa was a Portuguese province for about 450 years, which means that the Portuguese influence is still noticeable throughout the state. There are equally as many Catholic churches here as Hindu temples, and you’ll find beautiful Portuguese architecture in Old Goa, the former colonial capital of the state. It is located about twenty minutes east of Panjim, the state capital, which also has charming Portuguese churches and buildings.

Shree Manguesh temple is the most impressive Hindu temple in Goa, set in the beautiful village of Mangeshi. The temple is located between Margao and Panjim and is easiest visited by taxi.

batu caves malaysia hindu temple5 Markets and spices

Anjuna’s hippie market might be smaller than when the state became a popular hippie enclave in the 1970s and 1980s, but it is still going strong and shouldn’t be missed. You’ll find some amazing bargains for souvenirs, clothes and jewelry here. The market takes place every Wednesday and taxis to Anjuna can be arranged from anywhere in Goa.

elephant figures varkalaGoa is also known for its rich spice plantations, where you can learn everything about Indian spices (such as chili, cinnamon, cardamom) and other fruits that are locally grown, such as coconuts, betel nuts and pineapples. Check which spice plantations are nearest to your beach and go on a tour of a spice plantation – of course you can also buy some spices directly from the farm!

cinnamon varkala

Goa Travel Details


The best time to visit Goa is from late October to early March, when the temperature is perfect and high season is in full swing. The summer weather holds until May and you can take advantage of shoulder-season deals if you travel between March and May. After that, most of the beach downs shut down completely during the monsoon season.


If you book a package deal, flights and transportation from and to the airport will be taken care of. If you plan your trip individually, you can fly into Dabolim, Goa’s only airport, which is served by charter flights from Europe or can be easily reached through connecting flights from Delhi, Mumbai and all other major cities in India.


Candolim, Sinquerim and Calangute can get crowded. Quieter beaches are Arambol, Patnem or Asvem. The most popular beaches are Palolem, Anjuna and Baga. If you are looking to party, head to Morjim, Baga or Vagator.

patnem beach

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Our Top 5 Favorite Beaches of 2012

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This year will go down in history as the year of the beach for the two of us!

All those days in the office before we started traveling long-term, our thoughts would drift to what it would be like to live on the beach and wake up to the crashing of waves on the shore, the sound of seagulls and being barefoot through the sand. Well in 2012 we certainly got our wish in a year that saw us living over five months on the beach. We spend longer stints in Mexico and Costa Rica, and took trips to the sandy shores of Singapore, Malaysia, India and our number one spot that often gets overlooked by its famous neighbor Thailand.

Read on for our five favorite beach experiences of 2012:

5. Varkala, India

While we didn’t see what all the hype was about on the beaches of Goa and Kerala, we did fall for the cliffs of Varkala, about an hour north of Trivandrum in the far south of India. What the laid-back village lacks in culture is easily made up for by walking the paths along the gorgeous cliffs, looking out over the wide beaches below. There are plenty of hotels and restaurants for every traveler’s budget, and the sunsets here were breathtaking.

Varkala Beach India4. Samara, Costa Rica

Long-time readers will know that Samara has been a favorite beach of ours since we first ended up there on whim back in 2011. This October we were lucky enough to return for a few days and were excited to find that this Costa Rican beach hasn’t lost any of its charm. Although the waves of  Samara are perfect for newbie surfers, the long stretch of sandy beach feels empty even in the high season, with restaurants and hotels well hidden behind the palm trees that line the shore. In a country so popular with international tourists, Samara is one of the few secret spots that combines a great selection of accommodation and relatively few tourists.

Samara Beach Costa Rica3. Langkawi, Malaysia

We had never even heard of Langkawi, an island off the Malaysian coast in the Andaman Sea, but somehow we found ourselves promising a Canadian expat we would go there when she so passionately insisted we visit the favorite part of her adopted country. We ended up spending a week there, and Cenang Beach was by far our favorite beach on the island. Powdery, soft white sand, clear and shallow water, palm trees and incredible sunsets. This is really the perfect vacation island for travelers from near and far.

Langkawi Malaysia2. Mahahual, Mexico

Odds are, you have never heard of Mahahual, unless maybe you have taken a short Caribbean cruise. A popular cruise port once or twice a week in high season, Mahahual is otherwise a small, relaxed fishing town on the Yucatan peninsula with incredibly warm, turquoise water. This was the closest place from the remote beach house we housesat this past summer, and we found every excuse to make the trip. Making sure not to be there on ‘cruise ship day’ we would lay in the rows of empty sun chairs lined up along the beach, working on our tans and sipping cool Mexican beer. Heaven on Earth!

Mahahual Mexico1. Otres Beach and Koh Rong, Cambodia

Cambodia takes the crown for our favorite beach in 2012! There are actually TWO beaches here that tie for first: Otres Beach, on the mainland, and Long Beach on the little known island of Koh Rong. Just a quick tuk-tuk ride from the popular beach town of Sihanoukville, a trip to Otres Beach means avoiding the touts selling tourist trinkets, and focusing on what is important: relaxing in your sun chair with a cool coconut, staring out at sea. The few restaurants and bars here are of better quality than in town and somehow it feels like the sunsets are, too!

Otres Beach Sihanoukville CambodiaFor those of you who are serious about your deserted beaches, Koh Rong’s Long Beach was an amazing experience. The small island two hours off the coast of Sihanoukville only has a handful of guest houses and not much to offer in the way of diversion, but with the seven mile stretch of crystal clear water on the other side of the island, we could have cared less. We were particularly unimpressed with the side of the island where the port is and even considered leaving a day early, until we were told about a path that leads over to the other side of the island. It is an hour-long hike across an entirely untamed islands, which included much tripping, a bit of falling, profuse sweating, more swearing and a 75m descent straight down by clinging to a rope that mysteriously appears the minute you need it to finish the way down. Walking out into the clearest water we have ever seen, however, made the hike entirely worth it. Of course, we found out later you can rent a boat, round-trip, for $25 to take you and ten of your closest friends from the port on a 15-minute ride around to the otherwise deserted Long Beach. But we preferred working hard to reach our absolute favorite beach of 2012!

Koh Rong CambodiaNow we want to know from you – what is the best beach you visited in 2012? Better yet where is your favorite beach in the world?

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The hard life of South India’s fishermen

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The sound of chanting got closer and closer as we rounded the corner in Fort Cochin. We had arrived at the famous Chinese fishing nets on the water of this ancient port town. Fisherman stand in small groups on each of the wooden piers, as it takes a team to raise these nets. Little did we know that I would soon be part of one of those teams. More on that in a bit.

fort kochin chinese fishing net
Fort Cochin FishermenWorking on a sort of pulley system, the nets are installed at the shore and operated by sinking them into the water for three minutes at a time and then pulling them out of the water again, catching fish in the process. Big, heavy stones hanging from ropes serve as counterweights at the other end of the nets.

Fort Cochin Chinese Fishing NetsThe huge constructions are around 10 meters high and hold nets 20 meters across. The nets are held by a cantilever that reaches all the water out over the water, and this cantilever is lifted up by a team of five to six fishermen by hand.

fort kochin chinese fishing netThe Chinese fishing nets in Fort Cochin were actually some of the most interesting structures we have seen during our travels. When they were first built in the 14th century, they were entirely made of wood, but some parts on some nets have been replaced by metal. The total weight of what is pulled up and down weighs one ton.

fort kochin fishermenBecause of the intense weight, the fishermen need to be 100 per cent focused every time they pull down the robes. Even between five or six of them, the weight is still around two hundred kilos per person. In total, these fishermen pull down the robes to lift the nets about three hundred times a day. Three hundred times a day!

Fort Cochin Fishermen at sunsetOnce the net is lifted, one of the fishermen walks to the front of the structure and leans far into the net, fishing out what’s in there with a smaller net, and brings it back to the end, where the catch is put into boxes.

Fishermen in Fort Cochin IndiaWatching the fishermen for a while we were shocked to see how little they were actually fishing out of the water – there were barely any fish in the nets, and if there were any, most of the time they were tiny!

Fishermen in Fort Cochin KeralaThe fishermen of each net form a cooperative that shares the money they make every day. The fish is sold on the fish market right behind the nets, and several restaurants even offer to cook any of the fresh catch that you might want to buy.

Fort Cochin Fish MarketThe fishermen are all very welcoming and don’t mind it if you stand by their net for a while and watch them. Some even invite tourists to join them and help pulling the ropes down – for a little tip of course. So I tried my luck, and realized how heavy these ropes are. It is unbelievable that the fishermen do this hundreds of times every day for so little fish. Understandably they are thankful for any tourist tips, which seem to have become a second little income for them.

Dani and the fishermen in Fort CochinHow did these Chinese fishing nets end up in South India, you ask? It was actually the Portuguese who introduced them to India when they settled the country, having settled Macau earlier.

Chinese fishing nets in Fort CochinA few days later, we made our way further south in Kerala, and we stopped in a little beach town called Kovalam. It being off season, there were barely any tourists around, but just like in Cochin, there were lots of fishermen – here, they were using an entirely different fishing technique.

fishermen kovalamEvery morning the fishermen would assemble in their traditional Keralan lungis – kind of a sarong that is worn by the men here – and pull the fishing nets that had been in the ocean overnight, out of the water.

fishermen kovalamA few hours earlier, just about as the sun rises, some of the fishermen would head out in a couple of the simple wooden boats that are lined up on the beach, put the net in the water a few hundred meters off the shore. They then float the net and head back to the beach, each boat hauling a long rope from each end of the net.

Kovalam fishing boatsThese huge nets are so big and heavy that it takes about 30 fishermen to get them on the shore in a joint effort!

fishermen kovalamThe fishermen form two groups, one for each end of the net.

fishermen kovalamWith a similar rhythmic chanting that we heard from the fishermen in Cochin, the men start their sing-song and pull the nets in, moving closer to each other the nearer the net comes to the shore, so that the net forms a circle.

fishermen in kovalam keralaSome of the men are back on the beach, but others are all the way out in the ocean, fighting the waves.

fishermen kovalamThe current is strong, and wave after wave rolls over the fishermen.

Fishermen in the wavesThe closer the net comes to the beach, the louder the fishermen chant. Toward the end they are pulling the heaviest part of the net, holding all the fish.

fishermen kovalam

fisherman kovalamIt takes about thirty minutes until the nets are back on the shore.

fishermen in kovalam indiaCurious, we move closer to see the catch – and are surprised once again to see that there is almost nothing in the nets!

kovalam fishermenSo much work for such little return. The biggest fish is a big blowfish that collapses back on itself after a while. The rest are tiny little fish.

Kovalam blowfishA few shrugs, some disappointed looks, and the fishermen go home, knowing they will be back the next morning repeating this very same ritual.

fish market kovalam

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Riding the Indian rails: A real life roller coaster ride

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From the minute we first boarded the train in Kerala, India, all Dani wanted to do was hang out the door, taking pictures and letting her hair (and cheeks!) flap in the wind as we pummeled down the track at breakneck speed. Relieved that we weren’t on the roof, I was fine to let her hang off one handed all she wanted. Hell, the locals consider the step right in front of that door a prime seat, so why not let her jump right in to Indian culture and enjoy it!

Dani on Indian trainIndia trainBefore the trip to India, we did all the mandatory research about where to stay and how to get from A to B. This inevitably led to images of hundreds of Indians piled on top of massive trains, exposed to the elements for better or worse.

The experienced traveler in each of us knew that we wouldn’t be sitting on top of a train, but what we didn’t know is just how much of an adventure the Indian train experience would actually be.

train locomotive
indian train with boysRiding the rails in India is an experience unlike in any other country and although there is a method to the madness, the method (like all methods and matters of official transportation business in India) only make sense in a roundabout way.

When everything goes right, we had a great time immersed in culture of Sleeper class. We sprawled out on periwinkle blue plastic cushions encrusted with a layer of permanent dirt and watched the countryside whip past.

India train
Dani & Jess Indian trainTrains are the best way to visually digest massive amounts of Indian countryside as they pass through the backs of cities and across sweeping landscapes filled with palm trees. Buses, on the other hand, plow through the most congested areas of India, the main thoroughfares and city streets. Looking out the window of the train, breeze blowing in, India feels like a patchwork of wide-open spaces held sewn together by train stations and railroad tracks.

jaime on train

india train trivandrumFrom the (relative) comforts of Sleeper class, we listened to the sounds of the Chai Walla boys, carrying their heavy steel jugs of steaming hot chai tea through the narrow aisles, and breathed deeply whenever the food vendors passed with their baskets of idlies, a savory lentil donut, or full plates of curries and rice covered in plastic wrap and ready to eat.

Chai Walla Indian train
Indian railways cupDespite warnings that booking ahead was a must, we were able to hop on comfortably for our first few trips down the Keralan coast from Kochi to Trivandrum and then back up as we made our way to Goa.

And then our luck ran out.

indian train compartment

india trainWinging it doesn’t work in the Indian train system, which feels counter-intuitive considering that so many other aspects of life seem to be hanging on by a thread. Indians (the middle class at least) book weeks, even months ahead. Suddenly, there was no extra room in the Sleeper wagons for us and we were forced to run to the very front or very back of the train to the Second Class.

india train bangalore kanyakumarum
india train windowThis is an entirely different experience, and the term Second Class does not mean one step down from First. This is not the railway’s equivalent to flying coach. Instead, hundreds of people sit, stand, lean and hang inside the same space that seats no more than fifty during a busy day in a Sleeper.

It was when we were squished into Second class that we started to realize how entirely unsafe the train really is. Massive pushing and shoving ensues at every stop. Hanging out the door is not a playful little adventure like in Sleeper.

Here is means hanging on for your life hoping that everyone inside doesn’t all breathe in at once, puffed lungs eliminating every last centimeter and sending you flying out the door.

The more expensive the ticket, the closer to the center of the train you will find your car. So First Class is in the center, the many levels of Sleepers and air-conditioned classes more toward the outside on either side, and then at the very end, the Second Class wagons. When the train crashes, these are the cars and the people who are hit. When a wagon flies off after the train approaches a corner at breakneck speed, Second Class are the wagons that flip off into the night.

India train stationIn case of an emergency, chaos would ensure. Several iron bars cover every single window, save for one single window in each wagon aptly named the Emergency Exit. But rather than the determined order it would take to evacuate, picture four Indians shoving heads and other limbs through the tiny space. Crushed and unable to move anyway, the only passengers who could even get out would be those lucky enough to land a seat next to it.

indian train emergency windowShould a fire break out, how would these fire extinguishers possibly manage the fire?

India train station fire extinguisherThese journeys in Second Class revealed how little some lives are considered to be worth. Some sleep in beds with blankets in air-conditioned cabins, are served food and given water in First Class, and out here, at the end of the train, a man slept face down on the tin floor of the train one foot from the bathroom, with its overflowing water and intense stench. Even on our longest journey of seven hours we chose to only sip on water rather than risk having to use this ‘facility’, and sat with sarongs and scarves around our mouths for much of the journey to avoid the battle our noses and stomachs would otherwise have to endure.

family on trainDespite the smells, the sweat, the many little cockroaches scuttling along the floor, endearing moments did indeed shine through, like the family of Muslims who squeezed together to make room for us and our luggage on two overcrowded benches. Another was watching some of the goodbyes. The price of $4 for a long distance ticket is so prohibitive, many of our fellow passengers were undertaking epic once-in-a-lifetime journeys, crying at the door with their parents or families at a stop in a random village before hopping on while we sat guessing and writing our own scripts to understand the scene played out before us.

india train station
trivandrum central train station
train food vendorRiding the rails in India is an intimate way to experience Indian culture and we would recommend it to anyone, but for your own sake, for your own sanity, reserve your Sleeper tickets in advance!

Indian trains
indian railways
cochin train station
train station office

india train
indian railways warning sign
kollam train stationThanks to Jaime, the Breakaway Backpacker, for taking the first two awesome photos of Dani!

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Mystical Hampi: Where I fell in love with India

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People who have been to India seem to always say, with that all-knowing nod, either you love India or you hate it.

We had been in India for a few weeks already, however, and I couldn’t make my mind up how I felt about the country. I knew for sure that I didn’t hate it, but that didn’t mean that I loved it, either. I knew I liked it – the smells, the colors, the people, even the chaotic scenes in the streets: tuktuks whizzing around cows while a herd of goats is shooed across the road by a wrinkly old lady in a bright orange sari forcing an overcrowded bus to swerve out of their way.

Streets in India with goats buffalos tuktuksOnce I got used to it, I even began to enjoy the 50 cars, tuktuks, buses and trucks at any given time holding a huge concert of honks.

And of course, I liked the food. Jess and I would name Indian as one of our absolute favorite cuisines, and being in southern India meant sampling dishes we had never had, like curries with coconut or mango which are uncommon on menus outside the southern sub-continent.

indian foodBut did I love India? They say that if you don’t know if it’s love, then it’s probably not. There were certain things that I definitely loved, like our incredibly relaxing Keralan houseboat cruise, but I wasn’t blown away by any of the towns we had visited, or the beaches. We had even seen prettier Hindu temples outside of India than the ones we came across in Kerala and Goa. The same went for the food; despite mouthwatering food on the houseboat, back on land we had better Indian cuisine outside the country (I am looking at you, Malaysia!).

And then I went to Hampi.

I was feeling blue when we arrived there because I had left Jess behind in Goa with a knee injury and endured a bumpy 10-hour ride in a rickety old bus which, ten miles outside of Hampi, was bombarded by shouting touts, all trying to get us into their guest houses in town. Once we shook them off, the bus continued on to Hampi, and as we drove this last stretch, my mood changed drastically.

hampi sceneryWe passed oxcart after oxcart, some transporting goods, others groups of people to work the fields. Farmland morphed into a landscape that looked as though it had rained boulders, all perched on top of each other as far as the eye could see, glowing bright orange in the morning sun.

I loved everything I saw.

The people
The town of Hampi is located on the ruins of Vijayanagara, the capital of the former Vijayanagara Empire, and home to the significant Virupaksha temple, one of the holiest temples in all of India. Like Mecca is for Muslims, every Hindu must visit Hampi at least once in their lifetime. This means that Indian visitors are pilgrims, not tourists. Many of the large families, who camp by the river, have come from such remote parts of India that they have never seen a foreigner. Until they see us in Hampi.

Indian families in HampiTheir curiosity and excitement to see a white person is so honest, and heartwarming. They loved us – and our dSLR cameras. Most had never seen a camera before and were ecstatic about seeing their own faces on our camera screens. In some of the temples, the crowds gathering around us were uncomfortably large, but we always left our new friends with a big smile on our faces, wondering how many random Indian family photo albums our faces might end up in.

Even when I was a silent observer, not the center of attention, I loved watching the families camping by the river get ready in the morning: their daily ritual of showering and brushing their teeth, mothers washing their daughters’ hair all right next to the temple elephant Lakshmi as she got her morning scrub. The town barber, with his shop on the hill overlooking the scene, must have the most scenic view of any barber in the world. The chai wallah would go around on his bicycle selling hot masala chai tea to the men and women who emerged the river freshly soaped and sparkling clean. A couple of street vendors served breakfast chapatis with a potato stew and coconut sauce, while the families who had come to Hampi to worship made their way to the temples.

Hampi RiverThe temples
Until I arrived in Hampi, I had not seen any impressive Hindu temples, but that quickly changed. The temples in this holy city are spectacular, especially the Virupaksha temple in the center of town with all of its carved images and 49m high tower, and my personal favorite, the Vittala Temple, with its incredible stone chariot, elephant stables and the underground shiva temple.

I could have spent days visiting all the ancient temples that are spread out over miles across the incredible terrain.

Hampi TemplesVillage life
As we walked through the village, we were stunned by the amount of ruins – we had expected temple ruins, but not the ruins of houses. Apparently, in an effort to reduce overcrowding of such a holy location, the government had come in and demolished half of Hampi’s houses, but made no effort to clean up the rubble. The parts of the village that were still intact were charming though, with the smiling children playing in and around colorful houses out-numbered by cows, who were more populous than all human villagers combined. Women were sitting together sipping masala chai teas watching their men play a game with bottle tops, girls did laundry and vendors of baskets and other goods shuffled up and down the streets. The scene felt magical and I knew as I took it in that I was in love with Hampi. Plus, I think these puppies, who lived right outside of our guesthouse, might have had something to do with that…

Hampi villageThe scenery
Hampi is home to other-worldly landscapes that felt like being on an entirely different planet. Sometimes (especially near the river) I felt like I was in Sedona, Northern Arizona, surrounded by red rock boulders, until a banana plantation would come into view and it felt nothing like arid Arizona anymore. With rows and rows of bright green palm trees swaying in the wind, I was reminded once more that this was definitely India.

Hampi landscapeSeveral restaurants have rooftop tables to enjoy the views, and these are the perfect spots to chill out after a morning of exploring the temples. I indulged on incredible Indian food and great lime sodas. My favorite was the Bamboo Chill Out restaurant, which had comfy beds surrounding low tables. As I laid there one afternoon, sipping my soda, I felt some of the harder moments of traveling in India slip away and I felt revived, refreshed. In Hampi, I found the India I was looking for.

I will be back, Hampi, and next time, I am bringing Jess with me.

Hampi IndiaHere are my favorite shots from Hampi:

[flickrslideshow acct_name=”Globetrottergirls” id=”72157631069397528″]

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How to book a houseboat in Kerala

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Exploring the backwaters of Kerala on a houseboat cruise is truly a once in a lifetime experience (you can read about our three-day Kerala houseboat cruise here), but how you plan for this trip can make or break your experience.

backwaters kerala houseboatWe spent over two full days in two different cities trying to sort out our houseboat. The experience is a bit DIY, with the quality varying greatly. We looked at seven different boats and considered several others, and discovered that no boat / owner / tour operator is quite the same. That is why we put together these tips on how to book a houseboat in Kerala in order to make your cruise out on the backwaters the magical experience it can be.

Know your options

Regardless of your budget, there are a few things that should come standard in this experience. There are day cruises or overnights. We would definitely advise a two-night cruise. One night is too little, but we found three nights to be unnecessary.

Your boat should be a traditional kettuvallam, the ones with thatched roofs, and ideally it has an upper deck with at least one sofa. Several boats we saw only had chairs, but a backwater cruise is ultimately about relaxation. Having an upper deck gets you more space; privacy from the captain/crew and the higher perspective is perfect for snapping incredible pictures and watching villages go by from above.

backwater houseboat sundeckThe following things should be included in the price:

  • Three meals per day, plus an afternoon snack – make clear whether you want western style of Indian breakfasts
  • Tea, coffee and water
  • Welcome drinks
  • Fruit basket
  • Towels and soap
  • A working fan in each bedroom

kerala houseboat fruit basketThe boat won’t stock alcohol or soft drinks for you, so stock up on however much you’ll need. We brought snacks on board as well – but never got around to eating them since we were so incredibly well fed.

Start your trip in Alleppey (not Kollam) 

Houseboats in Kerala are not regulated and therefore the quality of boats can vary widely. We looked at seven boats before choosing one, and while this is extreme, we suggest you look at least three houseboats before committing.

Travelers to Kerala might start off from Fort Cochin, and this quaint little town has plenty of tour operators offering days and overnights in the backwaters. However, with the huge difference in quality, you need to see the boat. If you have pre-booked, you have lost all your leverage to re-negotiate if you do not like your boat.

Some people (and guidebooks) suggest setting off from less popular Kollam for better luck than popular Alleppey, also known as Alappuzha.

backwater houseboatsTo this, we say that there is a reason Kollam is less popular: it is a basic, unremarkable city with little to offer visitors (terrible hotel selection) and limited selection of houseboats. In addition, the tours offered that leave from Kollam tend to head to and around a lake and back, while tours from Alleppey, a 1.5 hour drive (or 8 hour water taxi ride) north has more flexible trips and over 350 boats to choose from in the off season alone.

Skip the water taxi option

When shopping around, at some point, there will be mention that there is a water taxi between Kollam and Alleppey. This is true – there is a 300 rupee ferry ($6) that leaves everyday between the towns, and you will see the same sights as on a houseboat cruise. However, the ferries are rust buckets, loud, smell of gas, packed to brim with commuters and there are no bathrooms. If you are a terribly strict budget this might be an option, but for everyone else, we advise you to opt for the infinitely more relaxing houseboat.

backwater cruise companiesShow up at the dock on the day you want to sail (Off season)

If you are in India during the off season, choosing a houseboat is much easier than high season. Simply take a tuk-tuk to the dock on the morning you would like to depart and start shopping for a boat. You can look at several, choose one and go back to your hotel and get your things. In that time they will go buy all supplies and get ready to welcome you abroad. There is no point planning a day in advance, because unless you get there that day around 9am, all the good boats are gone out on the backwaters until the next morning anyway. This way you can avoid being smooth-talked into reserving a boat you’ve never seen.

In the high season, we still recommend getting to the dock yourself and looking at the boats, but it might be best to do it one day in advance. Just make sure to show up before 9:30am so you have the chance to see many boats to book for the next day.

Golden Rule: you must step aboard the boat and approve it before setting sail.

Bargain your booty off!

Kerala tourism is well-developed and the houseboat operators are well aware of the top price that foreign and Indian tourists are willing to shell out, but they are also ready to bargain with you. This is India after all.

We paid 7,000 Rupees ($125) per night for a two-bedroom boat with all food and transportation costs included. This works out to just over $30 per person, all daily expenses included, though air-conditioning will double the price to $250 per night at least.

backwater houseboat bedroomThis means that in total for a two-night cruise, we paid 14,000 Rupees. But we were initially quoted 20,000 Rupees for the same exact experience, meaning we reduced the price by 30 per cent. If bargaining makes you uncomfortable and you have the budget, we are not saying that this is essential. However, the profits on these houseboat trips are extremely high for the owners of the boat and we prefer to cut the overall cost and then give the chef and captain an extra large tip at the end instead. Just haggle, stick to your price, take their card (oh, they all have business cards) and walk away. After a while, you will get your price.

Extra tip for the bug squeamish
You have chosen a well-maintained houseboat, so there should be no big issues, but when docked at night you are open to the elements. While we ate there were many bugs flying around the lights, even while we ate. If this will bother you, consider specifically requesting a houseboat with a downstairs patio enclosed in glass. We are not sure how many have that and what the price differential is, but saw quite a few float by, even in the low season.

india kerala backwatersWe hope these tips help you find the perfect houseboat for your backwaters cruise. This experience was the highlight of our five weeks in India and we wish the same for you!


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Our India highlight: A three-day cruise through paradise

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It was Jaime who broke the silence.

The four of us were reading or staring out at the water. Val hadn’t spoken in hours, not that Dani or I would have heard. Taking in the view consumed all our attention.

“Oh my god…” Jaime said, stretching his legs like a cat. “I’m soooo relaxed.”

kerala backwaters palm treesWe all agreed, nodding dreamily. Having spent two full days on board our houseboat, we had entered into a prolonged state of calm usually reserved for the end of an intense hour-long massage.

The houseboat cruise in Kerala was easily the highlight of our time in India, and we didn’t want it to end. In fact, although we originally scheduled two nights, we extended to a third night to keep this relaxed feeling alive. We were very aware that this might be a major highlight or could be an utter failure, so choosing wisely was our main goal. After searching for the right boat and crew for a couple of days prior, we couldn’t have been more satisfied with our choice.

kerala backwaters houseboat and local boat1When I first heard ‘backwaters’ I imagined dark, brackish water muddled with mangroves. Instead, this area is made up of miles and miles of dark blue water, as far as the eye can see. The backwaters cover almost all of the state of Kerala. The water is laid out almost as if it were fields, like a patchwork quilt, sewn together into squares by single rows of palm trees growing out of land not more than a meter across, where the next ‘field’ of water begins.
backwaters kerala palm treesAt other times, the water becomes more like a river or narrows into a brook, surrounded on either side by dry land dotted with two or three houses, a few schools, shops, even bright pink catholic churches are sprinkled into the view, and occasionally we pass an actual village.

Our boat is somewhere comfortably between the surprisingly luxurious options and the rust bucket rip-offs we were shown for the exact same price as ours. For $35 per person per night, our houseboat has two double rooms, both en-suite bathrooms are no smaller than what Dani and I had on our Mediterranean cruise. The downstairs has a nice table where we eat our meals, but most our time is spent upstairs under the thatch roof, where we have a chaise lounge of sorts, a couch, two chairs and the rounded front is also fully cushioned.

backwater houseboat sundeckOur crew is made up of a captain and a chef, neither of whom speak any English at all, so we speak only to say thank you for the amazing meals. The three days we spend gliding through endless palm trees feel like a series of moments woven together by the glide of the boat and our meal times. We wake up around 8am and are served coffee and tea while we wait for an authentic Keralan breakfast. The boat sets off around 9:30 each morning, though we wish it would leave earlier so we could have more time watching this incredible world go by. At 1pm the boat stops wherever it is and we eat lunch, the largest meal of the day.

kerala houseboat dinnerWe are served two or three curries, a soup, vegetable dishes, both cold and hot, plus rice and chapathi bread. Just as the heat breaks, around 4pm, we are served coffee and tea again, with a sweet snack and then, after crossing the lake, we head back into a quiet little inlet and are served dinner just after the sun sets, around 7.30pm.

The rest of the day is punctuated by intimate moments, like the exotic bird that lands on the railing upstairs, flirts with our cameras and then flies away or the group of bright yellow butterflies that flutter alongside the boat until we slowly but surely outpace them. Kids with big smiles and wide eyes wave at us as we pass, their mothers standing on steps that lead into the water, smacking the water out of the clothing they beat on the laundry stone.

kerala backwaters guy doing laundryIn the mornings, we pass people standing on those same steps, brushing their teeth or lathered in thick white soap which they wash right off into the water. The water is their source of life, and where everything takes place: washing, fishing, bathing, and every so often a motor boat nearly sinking, stocked bricks, or steel or sandbags speeds by with the materials to build one more house somewhere out here.

One morning before we set sail, two boys came by with a rabbit and her tiny bunnies in a box. We rubbed the bunnies’ furry little bellies and laughed with the boys and the captain of the boat, who we think is from here, but since he doesn’t speak English, this is the most time he spends with us the whole trip. The moment was so simple and sweet, and ended with a polite ‘Bye, bye!’ and off they went.

In the afternoon on the second day, we were tooling along and approaching a smaller water channel, when suddenly thousands of ducks started pouring out of the channel into the main river alongside our boat. Not much faster than these ducks, we were able to watch as the last of the thousands of birds rounded the corner and floated together in a unified migration wherever it was they were headed.

kerala backwaters ducksThe first night, before the relaxation seeped into every cell of our bodies, we stayed up drinking and talking until late. The second and third nights we spent watching Modern Family, swapping stories or just relaxing. If it weren’t for the bit of caffeine we drank twice a day, I am not sure I would have made it out of sleep mode by the third day at all.

It feels like nothing could go wrong the in the world, which is shocking considering that most of the time we spend in a moving vehicle in India the hectic pace, incessant honking, brake slamming and near misses make me hyper-aware of just how many things could go wrong at any moment. But that is India, a land of contrasts, of extremes.

houseboat captain dani by valIn fact, it makes sense that it is here, in India, where the pendulum could swing so far away from the mania in the cities over to such an utterly peaceful place.

Read our tips on how to find the right houseboat for your own Kerala backwaters cruise here.

Here are some of our favorite pictures from our houseboat experience:

[flickrslideshow acct_name=”Globetrottergirls” id=”72157630915663556″]

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