Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Karnataka: Mysore

I dragged myself out of bed and met up with Ajit, the naturalist. We wandered off to the tea plantation where he explained a little bit about how the tea is grown in the area. The scenery once again was sublime, everywhere greenery, in the form of tea, coffee and pepper plantations, and of course thick forest. This was a sight common in Wayanad. I didn’t even know that tea and coffee could even grow in the same region. This place also seems to be a birder’s paradise, and although I myself am not so clued up about the local species, I couldn’t help but notice the amazingly bright colours of some of the birds flitting amongst the trees. After the short walk and breakfast, I had to start the next leg of my journey, into Karnataka.

About 3 hours drive from Wayanad I reached the regal city of Mysore. What struck me straight away about Mysore was that this was a well-planned city and the local Maharajahs had incredible foresight in building wide roads and overall the traffic and people seemed far more disciplined than in most other parts of India. First stop was Mysore Palace, a beautiful building showcasing some of the finest memorabilia in India. Mysore is renowned for its royalty and forward-thinking Maharajahs who planned the city so well, and were greatly respected by the public. Nowadays, there is no Maharajah, but their legacy remains through its grand buildings and rich history.

I was visiting during the festival period of Dusshera, and Mysore has the most elaborate celebrations throughout India. The highlight of this is the elephant procession through the city, where the chosen elephant is colourfully ‘dressed’ and adorned with gold, and the idol of the Goddess Parvati (Lord Shiva’s wife) is paraded through the city. Unfortunately I had to leave on Dussehra day itself, but nonetheless I was able to witness the other festivities and religious celebrations.

Later in the evening I made my way up Chamundi Hill to get an aerial view of Mysore. Dead on 7pm Mysore Palace was illuminated. Apparently over 100,000 bulbs are used to light up the palace! This usually only happens for 30mins on a Saturday and Sunday, but being Dussehra it happened every night during the course of the 10 day festival. Chamundi is also renowned for its statue of Nandi (Lord Shiva’s vehicle – the bull). This Nandi was huge in size and had been immaculately carved out of the natural rock and was black in colour. Devotees showered it with offerings of fruit, coconut and flowers.

It was a nice way to wrap up the day. Tomorrow I head off in the morning to the nearby Somnathpur Temples and hope to have enough time to visit Mysore’s famous Devrajah Market.

Kerala: Wayanad

I woke up reasonably early and was eager to see the view from my window. I was not disappointed. Mist hovered along the brim of the lush green mountain opposite me and the constant chatter of birds and other wildlife greeted me. I had been told that there was a nearby waterfall, so I headed off to discover it. It was only a 10 minute walk and an impressive waterfall cascaded its way through the rocks and headed further down to the mountain. On the way back I stopped off to see one of the local tribes who lived in thatched huts neighbouring the hotel. A cow and dog were her chief possessions along with her husband’s bow and arrow. He had gone out to the field, so his wife was happy to show off his hunting gear.
After breakfast, I set off for Edakkal Caves. It was about an hour and half by car, a journey which passed through villages with views of plantations and palm trees either side. The approach road to the caves was too bumpy for ordinary cars, so a jeep service took me the last leg of the journey to the entrance. I was unaware that a group of school girls, donned in smart white and purple salwar kameez, were on an outing to the caves, so I waited a while before entering. It was a decent climb to the top, luckily one which did not take too long. En-route there were a number of breathtaking viewpoints with stunning vistas over the Wayanad district. One could even look across into both neighbouring states of Karnataka (to the north) and Tamil Nadu (to the east). However, it was not the views I had come to see, although they were a bonus, it was the petroglyphs dating back anywhere between 3000-4000 BC!
There they were, intricate drawings etched into the rock face. One could clearly make out the figure of a man and a lady both wearing what looked like crowns. The official on duty pointed these out and said that they must have been leaders or king and queen of a tribe or civilisation that once lived here. There was also evidence of an ancient script. The mind starts to question all sorts of things – who were they? How long did they live here? What was life like here thousands of years ago? As I made my way back down, these thoughts continued to occupy my mind.
I jumped into the car, only to stop after 15 minutes as all that hard work had made me hungry. Luckily the kind staff at the hotel had packed a delicious lunch of pillau (rice with mixed vegetables and lightly spiced) and mushroom masala. Unfortunately I was not staying at the Earth hotel tonight, as I wanted to check out other accommodation. This time it was a place called Vythiri Resort, located at the end of what must be one of the bumpiest roads in India! The accommodation was a mixture of small cottages and treehouses, set around a waterfall and amidst tropical forest. It was already dark so I was unable to see the surrounding scenery but I could certainly hear it! The room seemed a little dated but was comfortable with balcony overlooking the stream.
What was most impressive was the long wooden footbridge that crossed the stream to the restaurant. After dinner, I sat out for a while before retiring to my room. I decided to call it an early night, as I had a rendez-vous with the on-site naturalist at 6:30am for a walk around the nearby tea plantations.

Kerala: On The Road to Wayanad

Bags packed, I headed to Kochi station to catch the train to Calicut. From there, my driver was to take me further north into the lesser-explored part of Kerala. When people think of Kerala, it’s understandably about its backwaters, but very few people know about or have ever visited its best-kept secret, Wayanad. As I set on the road from Calicut, it was not long before the silhouette of mountains appeared in the distance. As we got closer they were soon brought to life, the mountains sparkled like giant emeralds. The winding roads were dotted with churches and bright green mosques, people grinning as we drove by. The roads were in quite bad condition since the monsoon had been particularly prolonged this year, so repair vehicles were out trying to put them right.
Why have so few people been here? That was the question that struck me as we drove deeper into the mountain. The vegetation was lush green, made up of coconut palms, banana trees and other plantations. Very soon, I came across a line of macaques (monkeys) scratching with puzzlement as we drove past. There was excitement when I spotted some long-tailed langur monkeys (golden face and black body) jumping between trees in the distance. By the time I switched my camera on, they had gone!
The light was dimming and as we drove on, we passed the hustle and bustle of small villages. Eventually we arrived at our destination – Asia’s largest Earth resort – a hotel built completely out of mud! I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the driveway was very impressive and the reddish glow of the building looked very inviting. The lobby area was huge which was completely open to one side and faced huge mountains. I was intrigued to see what the bedrooms were like and as soon as the door opened I was taken aback by the sheer size and comfort of the room... there was a huge king-size bed, flatscreen TV, lounge chairs and table. Given that this hotel was in the middle of a nature lover’s paradise, amazingly there was not a bug in the room.
After eating some simple but delicious Indian food, I decided to call it a night.

Kerala: Cochin

The alarm went off at 4:30am... it was time to say goodbye to the rest of the group as they had to leave for Kochi (Cochin) to catch their morning flight back to Mumbai, and then to London. Although it had only been less than a week together, I felt I’d made some very nice friends and learnt a lot about the travel business in such a short time. I caught up with a few more hours sleep and then it was my turn to leave for Kochi, but I was not quite ready to head back to the UK as yet.
Kochi is just over an hour’s drive from Alleppey and I was immediately struck by the quaint and colourful buildings which echoed of the colonial era. Kochi has seen many European settlers, including the Dutch, Portuguese and British, all attracted to this city because of its strategic location on the coast of the Arabian Sea. Kochi is one of India’s most important ports and is still a key trading port for India. After checking in to the hotel, I wandered around Fort Cochin and its enchanting streets. If ever a city typified religious tolerance and integration, it had to be Kochi. Dotted around the city was an intriguing mix of churches, mosques and Hindu temples. In fact, Kochi also has a synagogue located on the aptly named ‘Jew Street’. The ruling king had welcomed Jews to these shores back in the 16th century and since then there has been a small (and now very small) Jewish community in Kochi.
It was approaching 5:30pm and it was time to take to the waters again for a sunset cruise. Kochi is also famous for its Chinese cantilever fishing nets, which were bigger than the ones I’d seen in Alleppey. I passed everything from small fishing boats to huge barges and the sea momentarily glowed a peachy gold colour as the sun set for the evening.
Since I only had today in Kochi I wanted to check out the various accommodation options in the area. I was very impressed by the variety of places available. I must have seen 12 or so properties, ranging from luxurious heritage hotels to smaller characterful and quaint hotels. Kochi was a refreshing change, and it was a shame I was here only for the one day. Next time, it will definitely have to be for longer.

Kerala: Alleppey (Day 2)

Today was a day of sheer hard work (not!)... it was another early start though, as we had to leave the homestay at 7am to go to the ayurvedic massage centre located some 30 mins from the homestay. This particular place was not as characterful as the image I had in my head, but before long I was lying face-down on a massage bed more-or-less naked apart from a piece of cloth which just about kept me decent! Before I knew it, I was being immersed in ayurvedic oil which was then (reasonably) gently massaged into me. I now knew how it felt to be one of those poor birds marooned on the beach following an oil slick! Half an hour massage was followed by another half an hour in the shower trying to wash the oil off! Nonetheless, I did feel much more relaxed and quite rejuvenated following the hectic schedule I’d been on.
After that it was off to the waiting houseboat for our cruise across Lake Vembanad and its backwaters. A huge houseboat in the style of the typical rice barges awaited us. It was complete with 2 en-suite bedrooms and an outdoor lounge/dining area. I perched myself near the front of the boat as our driver navigated us across the lake. The weather could not have been better, blue sky, glorious sunshine, birds flitting from tree to tree... pretty much the Kerala I had dreamt of. We passed the famous Chinese cantilever fishing nets, boatmen taking their goods to market and fishermen casting their nets into the water. Having drifted in and out of sleep, I was awakened by the cook... lunch was ready! Another platter of freshly caught seafood was brought out along with some tasty veggie options. Life couldn’t get much better than this I remember thinking!
After another hour on the water, we finally disembarked on the bank of the lake by our homestay. The rest of the evening was spent chit-chatting with the others in the group against the backdrop of the moonlit lake. If relaxation is what you’re looking for, I don’t think any place can beat the serenity and calmness of Kerala’s soothing backwaters.

Kerala: Alleppey (Backwater Country)

I was up early and strolled around the estate which contained some impressive spice plantations as well as tea. After another delicious breakfast we set off on the drive to Kottayam, which would make for a pleasant stop-off between the Western Ghats of Munnar and the backwaters of Alleppey. The drive was pleasant enough as we passed verdant hills and bustling markets. After 4 hours we reached the luxurious Meena Chil Enclave farmhouse. It resembled something more akin to the Far East, with its exquisitely carved wooden structure, almost pagoda-like.
The owner was full of life, and after some light refreshments, donning a handmade cap made of leaves and his South Indian style lungi, he took us on a guided tour of his estate. All manner of produce is grown here – cardamom, pepper, nutmeg, tamarind, exotic fruits, figs, vegetables and much more. A vast area is also dedicated to rubber plantations. He demonstrated how rubber is tapped from trees (the stench was horrible!) and the subsequent processes involved in sending the final produce to market.
We then went back inside his home for the best meal of the trip so far. There was a huge spread of other South Indian specialities that I had not sampled to date, including a superb banana curry, bitter gourd, banana and yam fries, a pineapple salad, more appams and a vegetable stew. The meat and fish eaters were also well taken care of!
I could barely move from the table, but forced myself up from the table to the waiting van. Next stop was Alleppey which was about another hour from Kottayam. I could tell I was entering backwater-country, as the glistening Lake Vembanad (one of the largest lakes in Asia) came into view. We negotiated some narrow alleys to get to our homestay, aptly named Vembanad Homestay. The setting was spectacular. Straddling two palm trees, the hammock swayed gently in the breeze, patches of water lilies floated magically on the lake and the smell of incense wafted out of the homestay. We were greeted by the smiling faces of Sandhya and Balakrishnan, the owners, and their delightfully cute son, Danush. We were adorned with garlands and a tikka and welcomed into their house.
The sun was going down, so we crossed the stream in front of the home and hopped into waiting dug-out canoes for some night lobster fishing. We were three to a boat and gingerly sat ourselves down. One false move and we’d all be in the water! It really was a magical setting. The Hindu festival of Navratri was going on so I could hear the sound of Hindu bhajans (hymns) being sung against the backdrop of bells. Stars lit up the night sky and there was a calm serenity across Lake Vembanad. Skilled fishermen showed us the art of supreme balance as they shone their torches in the water hoping to catch the reflective eyes of the lobsters, then tossed their nets into the water and scooped up their catch. When we got back to the homestay, our hosts prepared a mouthwatering meal using the freshly caught seafood. Being a veggie I had to settle for appams and vegetable stew again!
It was time to call it a night, but from the few hours I’d had in Alleppey I could see why Kerala is dubbed as ‘God’s Own Country’.

Kerala: Munnar

The heavens had opened as we touched down in Kochi. Although the monsoon should have been over a few months ago, it seems that weather everywhere is playing havoc. We boarded our minibus and set off for Munnar, the commercial tea centre of India. After three hours we finally arrived at the delightful Ambady Estate, not quite a homestay, but a small ‘resort’ of 8 spacious cottages set amongst lush green vegetation. Although the rain continued to pour down, the mist which formed and clung to the hilltops was majestic. As the night closed in we retreated to the candlelit dining area and sampled other South Indian specialities, including appam, similar to a pancake, but made of coconut milk and rice flour. This is eaten with vegetables and lentil-based gravy. Another full stomach and it was off to bed. We had to be up early for our tea plantation visit in Kollukumalai, the highest organic tea estate in the world.
The following morning, the clouds looked ominous and it wasn’t long before the rains came down again. Nevertheless we jumped into our waiting jeeps and started our 90 min journey up the hills. What struck me straight away was the verdant lush green colour of the thousands of tea bushes making up the entire face of the hill. Now and again a person would appear amongst the bushes, either plucking the tea leaves or carrying sacks of the stuff used to make our fresh brews back home. Perched at the top of the hill was the old tea factory set up by the British but still in use today. Even some of the same machinery is still used. One of the local workers went through the seven-step process of making tea and it was fascinating to see how fresh green leaves are converted to the loose tea ‘dust’ we have in our teabags. The tea here is typically transported to Kochi where it is sold in auction.
As I looked out from the factory window, the clouds cleared for a few minutes revealing sublime views of the Western Ghats and hills on the Tamil Nadu side. It was only appropriate that we finished off with a hot cup of the local tea, and then we were back in our jeeps winding our way down the bumpy road back down to the centre of Munnar. We had a satisfying lunch en-route and then returned to our ‘homestay’, where we spent the evening chatting about all things tea and our impressions of South India in general. Although the weather could have been better, we were all in agreement that there was something quite special about the rain and mist that continued to hang over this enchanting place.


I finally touched down late afternoon in India’s tiniest state, home to only 1.3 million people (which is tiny when compared to cities like Delhi, which has a population creeping over 15 million people!). I had heard much of its stunning beaches, nightlife and unique colonial heritage, but with only one full day to explore I was unsure how much I would actually get to discover.

I was travelling as part of a Fam trip to Goa and Kerala, courtesy of Mahindra Homestays. Whereas the Western world has been used to bed and breakfasts for some time, in India homestays are a relatively new concept. It is a trend that is gradually on the rise, and something that makes great sense given Indians’ renowned hospitality. It allows the traveller to experience the real India which can only be seen and experienced in the company of a local.

My stay was arranged in Arco Iris, a grand building dating back some 120 years and painstakingly restored. As we pulled up to the house, Bennita and her family were there to greet us on the steps. The smell of incense and sound of local Konkani music resonated throughout the house. Although the weather was quite warm and humid, it was did not feel as such given the high ceilings and cross-ventilation. I was shown to my room, which had been simply but tastefully decorated. After a refreshing cup of chai we learnt how the family had shifted from the hustle and bustle of Bangalore for the good life of Goa. The sun had set on the small lake in front of the house, and then Trusha and Trikaya (Bennita’s very talented and friendly daughters of only 9 and 6 years) took us on an impromptu walk around the nearby village. Later they entertained us to the tunes of Shakira’s Waka Waka and sung a few of the favourite English songs. We devoured some excellent Goan cuisine, which consisted of local Goan bread, vegetable curry, bindi (aka ‘lady’s fingers’) and local fish. We sat around the courtyard and learnt a little about the history of Goa and what makes it so different from the rest of India. I’d get a sample of this the following day.

After a much needed good night’s sleep and a delicious breakfast of idlis (steamed dumplings usually made of rice and lentils, but ours were made of semolina and chickpea), sambar and coconut chutney, we set off for the beach. At 10am the beach was relatively deserted, apart from the odd fisherman who had already been out to sea in the early hours of the morning to fetch his daily load. Palm trees swayed tall along the coast, the sand was pristine and the surf was up. There was a small crowd of Indian tourists enjoying watersports further ahead and a lifeguard patrolling the beach. We continued on the beach for almost an hour and then headed to our next stop, the Church of St. Francis Xavier.

Goa was ruled by the Portuguese who set up shop here in 1510. The names of streets and buildings still carry Portuguese names and instead of temples which are commonplace throughout most of India, here churches and crosses were seen everywhere. Unlike most of India which is predominantly Hindu, Goa is mainly Roman Catholic. The Church itself was impressive with some very ornate carvings and a beautifully gilded altar.

After our brief sightseeing, we spent the rest of the day doing homestay inspections, each place very different from the other. One in particular was very quirky with treehouses set in a rock face, with a view of a small lake, and a donkey roaming the premises. We rounded off the day with another fabulous meal and had to call it a night. All in all it had been a brief but exciting introduction to Goa, and I look forward to being back here in two weeks to explore Old Goa and some of its hidden streets. Tomorrow we’re off to Kerala, aka ‘God’s Own Country’.