A Travellerspoint blog

Perumbavoor and Thrissur

(a pronunciation quiz is pending!)

sunny 34 °C

Once back in the Kerala lowlands, we took the risk of stopping where The Lonely Planet hasn’t been! Perumbavoor was a rather non-descript town… but our hotel was clean and that’s always a big pleasure to me! (My kids think I’m ridiculously obsessed, but I think I’m pretty flexible and tolerant… I’ve only been abhorrently grossed out once, and slightly disgusted once or twice. Not that I mean to imply that everywhere is dirty, it’s just that it can be hard to face yet another bathroom where the shower is squished between the sink and toilet and everything gets wet in the process… and then ½ an hour later when you go to use the sink, the floor gets dirty cause the mat outside it isn’t quite clean and the floor is wet, or if you decide to use the toilet the seat is wet…. You know those kind of annoyances? I really try not to complain. Compared to all sorts of folks, I’m lucky to have that as a problem!)

But, back to my story of Perumbavoor: we decided to stop here because of a film maker we met in Munnar who showed us an interesting movie about an elephant shipped from Kerala to Austria via Portugal in the 1500’s. Much of the Kerala footage was taken at an animal rescue centre near Perumbavoor where rescued or born-in-captivity elephants are trained to work in the forests or in temples.

On his advice, we headed to the sanctuary early in the morning and had a great time watching the elephants being bathed by their mahouts. The 5 and 6 year olds reminded me a little of 5 and 6 year old kids, not always wanting to do as they were told! The mahouts were very patient and kind. I kind of wished I could have had a nice coconut fibre scrub down too, and a good old roll in the river (if only it wasn’t full of elephant pooh and other delights)!

Later that day, we made our way to Thrissur, the cultural capital of Kerala. The good thing here was that shortly after arriving we found another Indian Coffee House. We saw the temple and a grand old church but didn’t linger long. The real coast was calling, and the kids have seen enough Kathakali Dance (and other culture) to last them a lifetime (though I imagine someday they may appreciate it a little more than they did in Trivandrum!)

Posted by MogenStoft 04:25 Archived in India Tagged ecotourism Comments (0)

It’s Time for Tea

Exploring Munnar’s Tea Plantations

sunny 27 °C

Switch-backs and the slowly decreasing intensity of heat helped us realize we were indeed heading into the hills. On the way up we enjoyed far more forest and greenery than we’d previously seen in Kerala, and Emil befriended Biju, the assistant manager of one of the several tea factories in the area.

Munnar is a long narrow town – on first impression it looks like a real outpost with lots of corrugated tin stalls lining the roadsides and no apparent centre. After a little more exploration, we did find a busy central area… but it definitely wouldn’t win a contest for most beautiful city. On the other hand, the gorgeous green tea plantations that stretch for miles around in all directions are a true feast for the eyes.

Once again, we found a guest house with very friendly and helpful staff. On our first day, they sent us on a 12 km hike past a small cardamom plantation, through a vast tea plantation, to a waterfall and home. We ran into a bunch of tea pickers who were in the process of unloading kilo after kilo of freshly picked leaves. They kindly shared some of their delicious tea sweetened with jaggery (homemade, smoky tasting sugar.) Pretty soon, their supervisor noticed the party and began yelling at the workers to get back to their shears. They seemed to take his barks with a grain of salt, taking their time to head back down the narrow windy pathways between the plants. Most were women dressed in saris, with rough canvas aprons and shirts on top. It may not have been as hot as Kochi, but we were sweating in the 28C sun as we hiked. Imagine how warm they were!

I can’t say we loved visiting the Tea museum – A phenomenal multi-tasker, our guide wasn’t not great at capturing our attention! With a wonderfully monotonous tone, he recited rote information about the curing process while gesturing instructions about moving here and there or waiting outside. On top of that, the rollers,dryers and conveyor belts made so much noise we could barely hear him, let alone decipher his Malayalam English. The real message we got was that he was completely bored with his job! But, it was cool to see the rollers and the drying trays and to smell all the lovely fresh tea.

A third day we hired a couple of rickshaws to take us about 35 kms higher in the hills to visit Biju and family at an operational tea factory. This time we thought we’d get a proper tour… but unfortunately the factory was shut down for maintenance work and we weren’t allowed inside! A little detail Biju forgot to mention (or perhaps that Emil misunderstood.) We did have a lovely lunch and visit with Biju and his wife Anitha, and learned both a little about life in a company village in India and something of the tea process… for example that tea can be harvested year round, but the best harvests are during the monsoon season. Then the pickers often go way over and beyond their 18 kg per day quota (and earn bonuses, which I’m sure they deserve since they must also get total “prune” fingers, toes and perhaps even noses!)

Anitha’s chapatis were the best we’ve had, and her vegetable korma (coconut based curry) was scrumptious! For dessert she served the usual bananas along with strawberries – the first on our trip and a testimony to the cooler climate of the area.

The landscape between Munnar and the small town is absolutely gorgeous with its endless green - mainly of tea plantations interrupted by the odd natural forest and a large experimental cattle farm (they’re cross-breeding Swiss cows with Indian cows). There is a large reservoir nestled in the valley – it reminded us of Shuswap Lake with its gentle mountains rising all around!

But, there were differences. For one thing, I’ve never noticed elephants in the Shuswap area. Here, we were able to stop at a roadside stall and find out how what it feels like to ride one! The two elephants we hired could easily carry all six of us astride their backs. We considered ourselves fortunate that there was no sitting box, only a blanket between us and the big gentle beasts and, for a short kilometer, we felt very exotic!

On the way back down we took a “back road” passing through the company elite’s private golf course and then still another small company town. Contrasts, once again!

The kids thoroughly enjoyed the 23 and 18 year old guest house employees (don’t worry; they were far too short for our girls!). They joked around lots, taught the two young men card games (they’d never played cards), and were delighted when the owner suggested that his employees could take our kids for an early morning hike one day. He had taken Christian and me on an 8 km hike the morning before… again through tea plantations and company villages. Our destination was a dark and smoky little “social club” for company workers where we sipped tea, what else! The kids headed up a different hill, past several small temples and shrines and saw a couple of Nilgiri Tahr (small antelopes) along the way.

Tea workers are relatively well paid (somewhere in the neighbourhood of 130 rupees or $3.50 per day.) As well, they get subsidized housing and free health care. Of the people we spoke with, a number had one adult employed on the plantation or in the factory and the other adult at perhaps a slightly more lucrative job (such as rickshaw driver, who might pull in 200 rupees or, on a lucky day, more). Seemed like smart planning to us.

On our way back down from Munnar, we again hired rickshaws (the one driver was such a smooth talker, it was hard to resist!) About 20 kms down, we stopped for an Agri-tourist experience of the smelly kind. Good smells that is. This was a spice plantation… we saw something like 52 usable plant species from cloves and oranges to coffee and “diabetes plant” to neem and pointsetta (trees) to cinnamon and lemon grass. Totally my cup of tea!!

Posted by MogenStoft 04:22 Archived in India Tagged ecotourism Comments (0)

Birds and Spices at Thattekadu

sunny 35 °C

After Fort Kochi and Ernakulum, it was wonderful to visit this quiet, natural area. Our accommodation was a “homestay” in a lovely, newly built, old-style Kerala house on the shores of the lake. Two real bonuses were the delicious home cooked meals and the chance to see a small spice farm up close. Our host tossed nutmeg fruit at us, helped us extract a few cocoa seeds from the pods, insisted we try freshly dug ginger root with a sprinkling of salt and allowed us to sample fresh turmeric as well.

To visit the bird sanctuary, it is mandatory to hire a guide. This is not simply to boost the local economy, but mainly to protect the unknowing bird-watcher from the wild elephants that frequently visit the sanctuary. They had been there the evening prior to our visit, but all we saw were their “calling cards.” We were lucky to see all sorts of beautiful birds, some of them very rare: such as the Sri Lankan Frogmouth (in the night-hawk family), a Black-crested Baza and a White-Breasted Tree Pie. Most of the others may have been “common,” but were pretty exotic to us – like the Racquet-tail Drongo and the Paradise Flycatcher.

Afterwards, we met the chief biologist of the park and learned all sorts of interesting tidbits, for example about the complex relationship between the Gray Hornbills and the nutmeg farmers: The jist of the story is that the hornbills need nutmeg to stimulate the hormone production necessary for successful breeding. Fortunately, there is lots of wild nutmeg in the sanctuary and the Gray Hornbills have made a big come-back. Unfortunately, they can’t tell the difference between the wild nutmeg in the sanctuary and the cultivated trees just outside. Now that there are large numbers of these birds, they need to look outside the sanctuary to satisfy their appetites and they devour lots of cultivated nutmeg making the farmers rather unhappy! It’s a story not so unlike the ones we know from Canada, with geese and deer wreaking havoc in farmers’ fields. Christian and Sugathan could only agree that wildlife biology is a complex subject!

Posted by MogenStoft 04:21 Archived in Denmark Tagged ecotourism Comments (0)

Medieval Portugal on the West Coast of India

Fort Kochi

sunny 38 °C

We found a guest house made for us, with three small bedrooms off a central living room all to ourselves for a very good price (~$23 a night)! The only problem was that the fan in our room seemed to do little but blow hot air around, even through-out the night. We’ve since been told that the modern flat roofed buildings are notorious for being uncomfortable in the heat. No wonder the old style gabled roof is making a small come-back!

Despite the heat, we had a great time. Christian and I enjoyed early morning walks, each day more or less following the same route. The seaside neighborhood features narrow roads peppered with churches and the odd palatial home dating back a few hundred years. By 7 am the public beach was already busy with local men swimming and playing soccer in the sand. The walkway heading north from there was the site of some of the first fitness buffs we’ve seen in India – though I can’t say any were running very quickly with the 28C/ 90% humidity of the early morning air. (We certainly have adopted more of a “stroll” especially by mid-day when the temperature is around 35C or so, with the same high humidity.)

Without as much as a thought about fitness, many fishermen in the area keep their torsos lean and firm raising and lowering huge cantilevered Chinese fishing nets on ramps built over the water. They chant as they pull or release the long ropes, and then race out to scoop up the catch with smaller, handheld nets. Other fishers raise and lower their nets from boats whose lanterns suggest they are probably out most of the night. All of them bring their catch to a small auction area where fish, squid and shellfish make an enticing display. We could have bought some there and brought it to a nearby stall to have it cooked - I’m not sure why we didn’t do that!!! Except that the kids were never with us and we didn’t want to exclude them (traveling as a crew of 6 has its challenges!) Or maybe it’s because it was such a tourist thing to do, and Christian has an aversion to following the guidebook.

On the other hand, we didn’t resist stopping at a wee tea stall near the Chinese fishing nets. There, we could get masala chai (rather rare in South India) and a delicious rice flour crepe (appam) rolled up around a mixture of freshly grated coconut and sugar. Now you know the real reason we took the same route each morning!

Later in the day (each day there), we enjoyed exploring other historic areas of the city – the old bazaar, the Dutch Palace and Jew’s town were all constructed around 500 years ago. I especially enjoyed walking through the district of Mattencherry, past the somewhat decayed cream colored buildings with their red tiled roofs. Huge portals leading to dark passageways and large courtyards were full of mystery and intrigue. Other shops were busy with the same activity of selling coir products or ayurvedic herbs (for example) that has presumably gone on in their premises for decade upon decade. Many others were overflowing with sourvenirs.

One day we tried (unsuccessfully) to visit the Jain temple but far better than that was the sweet shop we happened upon a little further down Gujarati Road (many of the Jains here originate further north in Gujarat State). It was the only bakery we’ve seen with a visible workshop. We found ourselves mesmerized once again, watching men shape, stir and deep-fry all sorts of sweet ladoos, julabs, halvahs and other delights. They were generous enough to pass samples through the latticed walls and eventually we made our way into the shop next door to purchase more. Christian and the kids make an effort to taste at least one Indian sweet a day and these fresh ones were the most delicious we’ve had (a tiny pinch of the super sweet stuff is generally enough for me!)

We were successful in visiting the Synagogue – the inside is beautifully tiled and has all sorts of gorgeous Belgium glass hanging lamps. It’s pretty remarkable that as long ago as the 1600’s, the maharaja took great pride in the fact that there was a Jewish synagogue, an Islamic mosque, a Christian church and a Hindu temple within a few kilometers of his palace.

Fort Kochi sits on a peninsula separated from the mainland by Willingdon Island. We appreciated the peaceful, historical flavour of Fort Kochi all the more after we took the ferry across to Ernakulaum - a huge, crowded, busy and noisy urban area - the largest city in Kerala and the industrial hub. But it seems that cities never really end along the coast of Kerala, at least in the south. The population density here is 900 people per square kilometer and that is the average. On the coast it’s even higher! After several bus trips, we determined that we’re really in the “sticks” when there is more than one paddy field or coconut grove separating one village from the next. The train moves more through rural areas, and just after I wrote this, we were happy to pass through lots of farmland a little further north.

Our main reason to head to Ernakulaum was to visit Gopi (I’ll tell you more about him in a minute). Our second reason was to check out the India Coffee House. This cooperatively run chain began in the 50’s – workers wear white uniforms reminiscent of the raj era with fan embellished turbans and serve by far the best coffee we’ve tasted in India for less than $0.15 a cup. We’re only sorry we didn’t discover the chain a little earlier in our trip!

In Jew’s town itself we were happy to look up Thomas, friend of Jo Turton who now lives in Victoria. He runs “Little Queen Embroidery Shop” selling the incredible Belgium lace and other fine hand work that women here have been producing for at least a few hundred years. Much of it is sold in Belgium, but there were many gorgeous pieces in the shop. It’s a dying art - most of the women who do the work are getting on in years. The exceptions are Thomas’ two daughters who help him both in managing the workers and in doing some of the embroidery themselves.

When Jo lived here, she set up a charity to aid the children of parents with disabilities. Thomas, Gopi and several others sit on the board and now keep things going at this end (Jo fundraises in England and Canada). We enjoyed meeting Gopi, the president of the board, who says that Josephine is like a tree that protected them all. Now that she is gone, board members are feeling the heat of the sun! Jo hopes to get back to visit Kerala soon, and perhaps she’ll get a volunteer program going to support the project on site. We wish we could have been of more help, but we didn’t plan the exact time of our visit to Kochi quite well enough (so that we could let Thomas and Gopi know). And, after more almost three weeks in Kerala’s coastal lowlands, we were feeling a need to have a break from the heat by heading inland and to higher elevations.

Posted by MogenStoft 04:18 Archived in India Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Paradise, Palm-leaf walls, Choirs and Coir

The Backwaters of Kerala The Backwaters of Kerala

sunny 35 °C

We came to Allepey by the state ferry boat - more or less the same route through meandering canals that the houseboats take (for about 100 – 200 times the cost and, of course at a far slower, more luxurious pace). It’s an amazing landscape of endless green where people live very close to nature. Yesterday, as we putzed through early in the morning on a much smaller, slower boat, people everywhere stood on the steps (ghats) leading down to the water in front of their homes, washing clothes, brushing teeth and/or chatting with neighbours. Vast paddy fields stretch out behind the narrow dykes where homes perch and, before the advent of a major tourist industry with the houseboats, most people made their living that way. Apparently now it’s hard to find people willing to work on the farms (anywhere in India.) According to more than one local, the average Santosh (or Joe) would rather open a small shop or work in someone else’s. At the same time, the media is full of articles about how to boost rice production in Kerala and elsewhere.

When we decided that we didn’t want to join the huge flotilla of houseboats, we were happy to find an agreeable guest house with a top floor constructed using the same palm leaf weave as is used on the boats. We took rooms there… and by the next morning we realized there were some disadvantages to the charm. There is a festival going on in one of the local temples… the drumming begins at 5 am and chanting or other music continues until about 8 am. At 5:30 am and again at about 8, the Muslim call to prayer adds a certain dissonance to the clamor, all of it being broadcast over loud speakers to help the sound carry for 100s of meters in all directions. The choirs of paradise!

But speaking of paradise, we’ve enjoyed a couple of very different beach experiences here. On Sunday afternoon, we took a city bus to the edge of town and the far end of the popular local beach. The fishing boats were beached, people were relaxing and so were we. As we walked, a man we’d been chatting with suddenly motioned for us to stop and watch. We soon realized the several people making a b-line for the water were there for funeral rites. We watched as ashes and bits of burnt wood were dumped out of a sack into the water… and then all the priests and one family member (presumably the brother or son of the deceased) dove into the water. Within about 5 minutes, everyone turned around and headed back to their cars. And we jumped to avoid bits of charcoal and ashes as the waves suddenly swept a little higher!

Later we moved to the end of the beach where the throngs were gathered. Sarah bought a small kite and we had fun watching it sail ever higher - after a couple of kind kite vendors rescued the kids’ rather unsuccessful start.

The next day, we hired a rickshaw driver to take us to a “secret” beach… and discovered yet another paradise of coconut palms and endless sand. We spent most of our few hours there in the water, which was pretty close to body temperature. What a tough life!

We visited a coir (coconut fibre) weaving workshop (in the weaver’s front yard) – very cool to see where the mats outside many of our doors come from and how they are made. Allepey also has umbrella factories and though we tried to visit one, it turned out the directions we were given lead us to a shop instead! We find that we always have to be prepared for misunderstanding in our communication with people!

Dillip, one of the hotel characters is happy to risk being misunderstood. His goal is to learn as many idioms as possible… and though I told him to “hang on to his horses” no sooner had we arrived than he had his notebook out ready to take notes. Another lovely employee at the hotel is Menon – who is incredibly knowledgeable of traditional Indian stories and poetry. We were delighted to listen to some of his tales and his wisdom. Emil hit it off so well with all the guys that by our third day, he was offered the job of manager and they were very sad that he declined!

Posted by MogenStoft 07:44 Archived in India Tagged ecotourism Comments (1)

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