Most Inspirational Moment
I'd have to highlight the morning walk in Madurai with guide Rishi - an optional extra excursion which involved getting up painfully early but so well worth it. The tea plantation trek ( not that strenuous at all - more of a longish stroll really with a bit of an optional climb at the end) was also delightful. And I loved the afternoon boat trip on the backwaters - again and optional excursion but very well worth doing. The 'putting Shiva to bed' ceremony and the Madurai Temple and the Kathikali show (again both extras) were a touch puzzling - not through lack of explanation but just because they were so different - but made a tremendous impact. Loved all the temple visits - we actually got prayed for twice, which is not something you can put a price on! And I loved our guide Biju's many talks on the coach - he is such a natural storyteller and has such a sweet way of explaining things. A couple of minor low-lights. The rooms in the homestay were definitely not 'cosy' - more spartan and grim - though our hostess Grace was cosy, and gave us the best breakfast of the whole trip. It was a pity that our final night meal together in Kovalam was the deeply uninspiring and over-priced hotel buffet when there were so many lovely restaurants around offering lots of choice for everyone. And the houseboat trip - see below.
Thoughts on Group Leader
Superb. See above - he was massively informative and entertaining. But he also looked after us like a mother hen. If anybody showed the least sign of concern about anything - the slightest change of expression - he would be at their side sorting things out in an instant. How he managed to eat while makiing sure everyone else had everything they wanted I can't imagine. And he just seemed a naturally sweet-natured guy. A tremendous advert for Kerala, Hinduism and of course Exodus. I'm not sure how to vote him 'Guide of the Yea; or whatever it is, but he totally has my vote!
Advice for Potential Travellers
Pack something warm - a fleece and maybe a scarf or shawl. The air conditioning can be surprisingly fierce, particularly on the coach! We also hit a couple of serious days of rain. I'd packed a plastic mac but an umbrella might have been a better choice - the locals often carry them anyway to use as sunshades so you won't look out of place. Bring lots of cash - at least £200 to cover excursions and tips as well as enough for food each day and for shopping. My group all did nearly all the excursions and they're not expensive but do need to be paid for in cash. ATMs will only let you take out £100 at a time, and you get a much better rate by exchanging sterling . The 'shoulders covered' for women advice wasn't followed as much as I'd expected, though it's probably worth carrying a scarf if you're going to be bare shouldered a lot of the time. Do leave space in your packing for stuff - like tea, spices etc - you'll end up buying. Bring a beach towel if you intend to go on the beach - hotel with swimming pools provide towels for this Hotels provide a coffee-making in the room, usually with powdered milk and often just tea only. Coffee is served weak, and often milk is included flasks of both tea and coffee . Nobody'd heard of decaff so it's worth taking your own if this is an issue.
Cruising in and overnighting in a Kerala houseboat is promoted by Exodus as the climax of the holiday, ‘No trip to Kerala would be complete without the wonderful experience of the backwaters aboard these traditional vessels’. but in the event it proved a profound disappointment. The group was divided into 4 houseboats and I was one of six people – two couples and two singles – in the only 4 bed houseboat – the others all being 3 bedroom. Two of the houseboats, provided by Lakes and Lagoons, were particularly elegant, with spacious decks, beautiful basket-work ceilings, arched windows, elegant teak sofas, and large lounging areas. The third, providing by another company, was a more enclosed, but also featured plenty of relaxation space, elegant sofas and padded seats lining the deck. Our houseboat’s main deck was very small – presumably in order to accommodate the 4th bedroom - and seating was a 1980s-style 3 piece black vinyl lounge suite, held together in places with staples, crammed in front of the dining table and chairs, together with a large (out of use) TV and a large blue rubbish bin. The whole thing was like something out of The Royle Family, or a set for a very cramped, low-budget version of Abigail’s Party. The boat was very obviously of a different standard to the other three, and this also extended to levels of service. We were given an okay lunch and a cup of coffee, then ignored for the rest of the cruise. At one point the captain saw something interesting on land and called to the rest of the crew to come and look, which they did, but we were ignored completely then and throughout the afternoon – I assumed the crew didn’t speak English. It felt more like travelling on a ferry with local people pursuing their own agendas, rather than on our own boat with our own crew. The Royle-family style lounge suite only sat 4 comfortably, so we had nowhere for all six to sit, and some of us ended up lying on the benches (which had no backs and were too thinly padded to be sat on comfortably for long). It was obvious as we travelled that our boat was worse kitted out than any other we passed on the backwaters, and when we finally moored it became equally clear that our whole experience had been very different than those of the other 3 boats. Most of us had already agreed to complain to Exodus on our return to the UK, and I felt it only fair to approach our guide Biju and let him know this – I knew that he had not been involved in the selection or allocation of the boats so would not take this personally, and I didn’t want Exodus to be in a position to say later ‘Well, everyone seemed perfectly happy at the time.’ I hadn’t expected or intended Biju to do anything about this, and there was nothing to be done - the afternoon cruise was virtually over and that was that. However, action was taken. I was invited to change boats with Sarah, the Exodus Product Manager travelling with us, which I eventually agreed to do, though this felt like ‘placating the ring-leader’ and still left the other 5 paying travellers stuck in the sub-standard boat. 3 of them were given bedrooms in a new boat overnight – solving nothing as the bedrooms on our boat (though pretty ugly and basic compared to the other boats) were not the problem and again the damage had been done. Unfortunately, one of the consequences of all these rearrangements was that the guests staying in one of the luxury-end boats felt that our boat was making trouble for everyone else, and an atmosphere of hostility developed which didn’t fully dissipate for the rest of the holiday – the group dynamic had been upset, and I profoundly wish I’d said nothing and left my comments unspoken until now. On reflection, I think I understand what must have happened. A few days earlier, someone who was sharing a room requested a single room instead for the rest of the trip, paying a supplement for this, and this was agreed. I would guess that this meant that one of the 4 3-roomed boats had to be changed to a 4-room at short notice, and it may have been very difficult to find any 4-room boat that had not already been booked. All that was left would be the boats that nobody else would want, like the one we had. The crew, too, were not used to running cruises to Exodus standards of service, and hadn’t understood what was expected on them. Presumably the local office allocated 6 people to this boat on the assumption that a 4-roomed boat it must be roomier, rather than less spacious because a 4th bedroom had to be fitted in, which was the actual case – they cant have seen the boat or wouldn’t have made this mistake. So they ended up allocated only 3 guests to each of the two boats offering spacious decks equipped with luxurious seating for 6 and more plus lounging areas, 4 to the slightly less spacious third boat, and the remaining 6 to our badly cramped and fitted-out boat. As well as allocating only 4 single-room people to the boat with the smallest and least comfortable deck space, rather than including 2 couples, it would have made sense to have pu the two Exodus employees in the substandard boat, so that at least only two paying customers would be stuck there. In the event, with an uncommunicative crew and no Exodus representative on board, we felt very isolated. It would have made even more sense not to have rented this boat at all. Somebody could easily have doubled-up to fit us all into 3-roomed boats – I would have been totall prepared to do so, and the Exodus itinerary makes it clear that single rooms aren’t always available on the houseboats. It’s only fair that when travelling as a group, members of the group should be provided with roughly similar standards of accommodation and facilities. This can’t always be possible of course, but the contrast here was extreme. The company ‘Lakes and Lagoons’ who provided the most luxurious boats and their lovely crews has a total fleet of 20 craft, and it’s a pity that the local Exodus office was only able to book 2 of them. I was just glad that the boat trip happened late in the holiday, as this whole business and its ramifications left me looking forward to the trip being over so that I could put it behind me. As it was, I enjoyed a wonderful holiday full of amazing experiences up until that moment, and I am grateful for these. It’s such a shame that a trip that was at least 90% stunning, beautifully put together and hosted by an amazing guide should be let down by something like this. But the fact is that if you’re going to position an activity as the highlight of a holiday, you very much need not to muck it up. I have travelled with Exodus before so my expectations were pretty high, and as one who is newly retired I was looking forward to working my way through your portfolio in the coming years. However, I now expect to be using Exodus only for short-haul trips, where I feel it’s less likely that something like this could happen again.
Reply from Exodus
We are grateful to Alison for taking the time to leave a review and are thrilled that she enjoyed her time in India overall and particularly the performance of her tour leader, Biju. On the other hand, we were regretful to learn that she was disappointed with elements of the houseboat cruise. Unfortunately, due to the composition of Alison’s group, which featured a disproportionately large number of solo travellers, we had to hire more boats than usual, some of which were supplied by a different company. Whilst we are satisfied with the general quality of these boats, we accept that the service they provided varied somewhat from that of our standard boats, which we recognise is not ideal. We discussed this at length with our local operator and put measures in place to prevent a similar situation affecting future groups. We hugely appreciate Alison’s feedback, as it has allowed us to look to make changes to this tour and ensure that it is as organised, informative, and enjoyable as our customers expect from Exodus, though we remain apologetic that this was not her experience on day 11 of the trip.
Sarah Puttnam, Product Manager