Sunday March 22, 2015

Exactly one week ago we waved goodbye to our mobile railroad home, the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels … took a bus to Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport … and flew down the map to the greener, cleaner, more scenic state of Kerala in India’s south-western corner. Like New Zealand, Kerala is hailed as ‘God’s Own Country!’ It was once a supply centre on the ancient Spice Road used by Romans, Greeks, Arabs and sundry others. It has a population these days of 39 million souls (give or take a million or two). It is rated in the top three tourist destinations by the World Travel & Tourism Council – and it featured in National Geographic Traveller’s ‘50 greatest places of a lifetime’.

In short, our expectations were high – and we were not disappointed!

Accompanied by the delightful, intelligent, ever-helpful Vijesh (we called him VJ) we Kiwis enjoyed five quite different stopovers in this quite different corner of India – and I’m gonna attempt to cover the lot in this blog. So fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentle persons …

  1. COCHIN (also known as Kochi) is a vibrant seaside city of three million located on India’s southernmost coast. It was a British colony for 150 years, and unlike the rest of India where the majority are Hindus, the majority in Cochin are Christians – so the place is riddled with churches. We were treated to
  • a theme-dinner, featuring some weird, incredibly costumed Kathakali dancers …
  • a local laundry, India-style, where skinny men were beating the heck out of hotel bed-linen, and other equally skinny men were ironing them with coconut-husk-fired irons …
  • the Santa Cruz Basilica (built by the Portuguese in 1557), burial place of explorer Vasco da Gama …
  • some monster cantilevered fishing nets originating with the Chinese (we even got to lower one down and haul it back up, no fish though, sorry) …
  • and a tiny Jewish synagogue in the heart of ‘Jew Town’.
  1. MUNNAR, 150km up an ever-winding road, is a popular hill-resort surrounded by thick forests, panoramic views, and the highest tea plantations in the world (150 metres above sea level). Imagine valley after valley, mountainside after mountainside, smothered in row-upon-row of ground-hugging tea bushes. From a distance it looked like a beautiful moss-green patchwork quilt – broken only by occasional rocks and trees and clusters of tea-pickers, intent on collecting just the top green tips.

A day or two later we toured a real live tea plantation, watched the precious leaves being processed (into black tea, green tea and most-expensive white tea), drank some of the tasty brew ourselves, and snapped our women (promptly nicknamed “The Tea Bags”) wearing the required face-masks and caps!

  1. PERIYAR, our next stop, is set high in mountains at the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu – and a visit to one of the local spice plantations is a must for anyone who cares about taste and flavours. We did just that, and came away with a better understanding of how spices are grown, harvested and processed – before they find their way to our supermarkets. We also came away with truckloads of those same yummy spices which will, hopefully, be cleared by NZ Customs upon our return to Auckland International Airport! (Check out our women – renamed “The Spice Girls”!

Remember our elephant-ride last week? Well, we enjoyed another one here in Periyar – a leisurely stroll atop half a dozen well-behaved jumbos, uplifted by the lush spice-forest below, and refreshed by the gentle breeze. Magic!

That same afternoon we bounced off on a three-hour jeep safari through the rich farmlands that lie just over the border – learning about various crops and fruits, and interacting with the toothless watchman in a local vineyard. Then, in the evening, we sat in a dimly lit theatre and watched a fiery demonstration of Kalaripayattu – the oldest and most scientific self-defence system in the world.

  1. ALLEPPEY gave us all a special treat – a lazy afternoon-plus-overnight canal-cruise on a fair-dinkum thatch-roofed houseboat! The backwaters of Kerala are a complex network of lagoons, and the best way to experience them is the way we did it: drifting slowly along the fertile shoreline, past ripe-yellow rice fields, coconut groves, and the occasional temple or church … stretched out on the back deck with a refreshing drink in our hands … while the onboard chef served up delicious Kerala-style dishes.

Our flotilla of houseboats came in different sizes, mostly three bedrooms with ensuites, and comfortably furnished with open lounges and dining areas. And our Mad Midlifers had more fun than they were legally entitled to!

  1. KOVALAM, on the shores of the azure Arabian Sea, is known for its white sandy beaches (separated by rocky outcrops plus a lighthouse or two), its frothy surf, its elegant coconut palms and its sleepy holiday-mood township. And this is where we’ve just spent the past two days – accommodated (appropriately) in what was once the site of a Royal Palace – the Travancore Heritage Resort, set amongst lush gardens and shady groves on a cliff-edge overlooking the beach below.

I’m not sure I should tell you this, but we’ve been flat-out doing as little as possible – roaming the beach, watching local fishermen haul up their longboats, shopping in the town, getting oiled and greased and massaged in the  Ayurveda health spa, and cooling off in the lovely pool. (Temperatures here in the tropics have been in the very high 30s!)

Let’s face it: we’ve earned it, we’ve worked for it, and we feel a lot better for it! So eat your heart out!

PEOPLE NEWS: It’s never too late to earn one of our Yellow Quacky Ducks – and people are rushing to lodge their last-minute nominations:

  • Bruce got the “Caught in the Shower with Mary” Award – for a hilarious something that happened aboard their houseboat. However, if you want to know more, you’ll have to ask Bruce or Mary – because, once again, our lips are sealed!
  • Gail got the “Technologically Challenged” Award – for not knowing how to make the air-conditioning work in the hotel room she shared with Sherrol. They spent the first day and night sweating it out in unbearable heat – and finally called a hotel staff member who showed Gail how to push the “on” button. Duh!

FINAL BLOG: A wrap-up. A futile attempt to ‘summarise India’. And some hindsight-reflections about this truly remarkable tour.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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