DOWN SOUTH | Why Kerala makes India more inviting for female travelers

October 24, 2017 - 12:15 PM
A family looks at the Arabian Sea waves at the foot of Varkala Cliffs in Kerala, India. Photo by Jona Branzuela Bering.

A lot of women hesitate to travel to India. Oftentimes, India makes it to our top bucket lists, but there is something about its portrayal in mainstream media that dissuades travelers, especially women, to venture to the seventh largest country of the world. Fun fact #1: India is slightly more than one third of the US. Fun fact #2: India is female-friendly. Fun fact #3: this is a lesson on geography.

I personally love the polar extremities of India, the southern and northern parts that often don’t make it to the hard news sections worldwide. Their softness are not wildly known.

When we think of India, what comes to mind is Taj Mahal, vibrant spices, women in their saris, sadhus—real or otherwise—and sadly and the most wildly infamous—the raping of their women. They are all true. But let us go back to the facts presented above.


Local kingfishers spotted in the waterways in Allepey, Kerala

A female friend hesitated to travel to India. She should be. She should not be. In moments like this, checking the map and be reminded how big the country is can sometimes soothe the troubled nerves. There are many female-friendly places in India. And one of them is Kerala.

For Jo, a solo female Indian traveler and the beauty behind Wander with Jo, this breathtaking state of South India, known better as God’s own country, is a prime holiday destination. Nestled between the Arabian Sea and the lush green Western Ghats, Kerala, with its diverse yet harmonious cultures and religions, not to forget the bewitching backwaters, draws visitors in large numbers, almost throughout the year. The locals are down-to-earth, accommodating, and friendly, and English is fairly well-known or understood in Kerala.

Somehow or the other, this popular holiday getaway had eluded her all these years, so when she got an offer to spend a few days in Kerala, she grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Persistent rain greeted her upon arrival at the Cochi airport.

Her first port of call was Alleppey, a two-hour drive from Cochi airport. Allepey was the place where she had heard a lot about the legendary rice barge boats converted into luxurious bedrooms with a butler on call.

One of the many fancy houseboats gliding through the backwaters of Kerala in India. Photo by Jona Branzuela Bering.

Ours was Varkala. The most vivid memory was the familiar smell of the sea—the smell that was a huge part of my life in the Philippines. To smell it again after a month of its absence was a delight. You know that feeling when you didn’t know you miss something until you see, or in this case, smell it again? That feeling.

We arrived in Kerala, minutes shy from midnight. We could not see anything beyond the car window except for some dimly lit houses. But instinctively I knew and felt that we were driving through the coast.

Amidst the far-off chanting from a temple, Jo set out on her own two-bedroom inviting abode to spend a day gliding through the interconnected backwaters, canals, and lagoons. As the bamboo framed boats creaked with the current, she enjoyed her first class four-course lunch of seafood and curries, made by the excellent chefs on board.

One of the many Hindu temples in Kerala, India. Photo by Jona Branzuela Bering.

While in Varkala, we went to the local market, looking for fresh fish, vegetables, and fruits. I wore a boho mini-dress paired with short shorts. I did not feel any forms of harassment in Kerala at all.

Jo was traveling solo. I was traveling with a man. I asked if she felt vulnerable, she said no. An Indian woman traveling solo in the southern end part of her country did not feel threatened for being a woman?

Are you sure this happened in India, you may ask. Yes, it is India.

The coast of Kerala, had at one time a strong Jewish community, which is these days centered around the Jew town in Kochi. It still has three synagogues for the thousands of Jews who finds Kerala their home. Along the coasts, we also drove past churches and chapels. Kerala, aside from Hindu, Muslim and Jewish communities, has a surprisingly big Christian community.

Although we did not have the privilege to experience the luxurious boatride as part of the high-end Kerala tour packages like she did, we saw them humming through the massive backwaters of Alleppey, perhaps with Jo on one of them. What we, my partner and I, personally experienced was an intimate boat ride: just the two of us and the boatman gliding through the placid waters.

Our boat entered smaller waterveins away from the artillery of the river. With this, we witnessed the simple lives of the locals: women washing dishes and clothes by the riverbank, men angling, farmers in their dhotis cutting overgrown shrubs in their fields with a machete, kids somersaulting into the cold waters.

This is Kerala. This is India.

The scene along the coasts of Varkala, Kerala. Photo by Jona Branzuela Bering.

Kerala Travel Guide from a Female Indian Traveler

Houseboat cruise
Imagine moving lazily beneath palm trees, sparkling waters with beautiful painted villages on either side on a houseboat that doubles up as your home. I am naturally referring to the idyllic and romantic private cruise in the scenic backwaters of Kerala. I took a full day tour from Alleppey, considered to be the Venice of the East, and was absolutely mesmerised to witness the way of life of the locals and view some stunning birds along the way, not to forget the fresh and delicious meals served by the onboard talented cooks.

Wayanad Plantation and Adventure Tour
Wayanad, and the neighbouring areas of Munnar and Thekkady are known the world over for three types of plantations, spices, tea, and coffee. I took an early morning spice stroll and learned a lot about the way these raw materials were processed, and even included in the food served to us. For the more adventurous ones, there was an option to stay in tree houses too. Rock climbing, rappelling, and nature walks are other popular activities here.

Wayanad lies 300 km away from Kochi, so a better approach is via Calicut. Sightseeing spots in Wayanad are at a distance, so I will suggest to spend at least 3 nights there.

Historical Legacy
Kerala is one state which is practically overflowing with ancient treasures. A walk through the Jew town in Kochi, brought me face to face with the 1586 synagogue. The reminders of the ties Kochi had with China, was seen by the way the locals still did fishing by using Chinese fishing nets.

The Gothic style Cathedral Basilica at Fort Kochi and the Dutch Palace had murals from the Ramayana and Mahabharata period.

Relax and Rejuvenate
The Ayurveda treatment of medicine, has been around for thousands of years, and Kerala is known to be the home of this ancient practice. After a long day of touring, I found it best to relax and unwind by using some soothing Ayurvedic therapies. Spas and wellness centers abound in Kerala, and most of the properties had an in house treatment center.

Local food
I soon found out that one way to experience the culture of the place was through the food. This coastal state provided some of the freshest seafood. I savoured a local meal on a banana leaf, with appam, puttu, ghee dosa with sambhar and chutney.

Travel information
To enjoy Kerala to the maximum, a seven night and eight day holiday can work wonders. The climate is tropical, with the coastal areas being humid all the time and the mountains much cooler. While winters are the best time to visit Kerala, with November to April being the peak season. In terms of budget, the average expense per person per day including sightseeing, accommodation, meals and miscellaneous costs would come to about 6500 INR without air/train tickets cost.

Jona Branzuela Bering, Palanca awardee and author of the poetry collection Alang sa Nasaag (For the Lost), blogs at Backpacking with a Book. She left her beautiful life in Cebu to pursue her goal of traveling long-term abroad.