Kerala travel experience written by Sydeny Smith (cross posted from New Zealand Herald)
Whoever knew that cloves are little white flowers before they are dried to become the things we stick into our Christmas hams?
We four Kiwis – my sister, two girlfriends and I – found this out while visiting a spice plantation in Kerala, India’s most south-western state. But we were latecomers. Babylonians were already using cloves from the Malabar Coast of Kerala in 3BC.
Kerala is a great state for India newbies. Uniquely, for India, it has almost 100 per cent literacy, is verdant because of its backwaters and mountains, has plenty of clean and reasonably priced accommodation, less conspicuous poverty than elsewhere in the country, and an incredibly friendly people.
A large proportion of the population is Christian, and English is spoken by most people, sparing the need to attempt Malayalam, the official state language.
Our fortnight took us from the capital, Thirivanathapuram (Trivandrum to you and me), to a two-night stay on a houseboat, inland to the cool of the Western Ghats mountains, and down again to the steamy plains and the characterful port of Kochi.
In Trivandrum we easily got about from our mansion-like Wild Palms Homestay with its carved wooden doors and balustrades, four-poster beds, and a statue of Botticelli’s Primavera in the front courtyard.
Until the 1950s Kerala comprised three kingdoms: Travancore, Kochi, and Malabar. The beautiful and rambling teak palace of the Travancore king in Trivandrum, crammed with Belgian chandeliers, paintings, carvings and quiet burnished wooden corridors, had us enthralled on a hot afternoon.
As well as enjoying retail therapy at a craft emporium, we also visited the public gardens and an important temple; met hordes of uniformed school kids (“Hi, how are you?” followed by convulsions of giggles); admired Indo-Saracen architecture; and choked down condensed milk coffee.
A 16km rickshaw ride through villages took us to Kovalam Beach, semi-deserted when I was last there 10 years ago but now a package holiday hangout.
Never mind: the beach still provided lovely swimming for both Europeans in swimsuits and Indian ladies in saris, the fishermen still got their big wooden boats in and out among the sun umbrellas and, best of all, the Moonlight Hotel was still there, as clean and welcoming as a decade ago.
Catching the public bus for the two-hour ride to Kollam was a daring adventure for four ladies heading towards Gold Card age. Finding the right bus turned out to be the biggest challenge, all the signs being in Malayalam, but having waited in the wrong queue for 20 minutes before discovering in the nick of time that the bus wasn’t ours, we sought help from the bus stand supervisor.
He flagged down the Kollam bus as it was pulling out and made sure we heaved ourselves and our luggage on board. Like all Indian buses, it drove flat-out with its horn blaring, mostly on what stuffy Westerners might consider the wrong side of the road, the warm air blowing mercifully through its glassless windows. We arrived in Kollam tousled, exhilarated, and extremely pleased with ourselves.
After a night at a beautiful hotel on a lake reached by a dirt road full of hens and cows, we were off for some pampering – two nights drifting along the Keralan backwaters on a converted rice barge.
The houseboat was luxurious with two twin bedrooms with en-suites, a dining area, wicker armchairs, and a lounging platform at the front. I imagine none of this is good for the environment but it gave us a memorable voyage.
Our cook, Radeesh, produced generous meals of delicious traditional Keralan food; our engineer George kept the boat and the generator going; and our captain Matthew, who is a rice-farmer in the off-season, steered with one hand while holding a black umbrella against the sun with the other.
In the evenings we tied up to a palm tree and went wandering along the bank to meet the locals as the sun set fatly over coconut palms and rice paddies, the egrets, crows and cormorants settled for the night, and fishermen in small narrow canoes threw out their nets.
In Alappuzha, a hot and frenetic coastal town with a beautiful white sand beach on the Lakshadweep Sea, we stayed in the modern brick and tile home of Elsa and Tomy who waited on us hand and foot.
Elsa’s Homestay also provided Keralan cooking classes so we gathered in Elsa’s kitchen, mopping our rosy faces, to watch her prepare our dinner of fish mollee, lacy white crispy appam pancakes, Keralan red rice, and fried okra, all laced with fresh coconut.
The mountains were a real contrast. First stop was Periyar, one of India’s biggest wildlife sanctuaries where our objective was to see elephants. We stayed up among trees at the Cardamom Club, a little collection of cottages in a coffee plantation.
From our verandahs we saw the flash of a hornbill’s wing, the busy head of a woodpecker and lots of drongoes (big black birds). Alas, we saw elephants neither on the hill behind the lodge, where they sometimes graze, nor on the early morning boat trip in the sanctuary next day. However, the spice plantation had three adorable Indian elephants with pink trunks and chocolate freckles so my sister got to scrub the flank of the most endearing, help its mahout feed it, and have a ride.
Climbing to 1450m and colder air, we reached the tea-covered mountains at Munnar. The carpet of tea bushes, all table height, stretches as far as the eye can see like thousands of strips of new turf or, as my friend put it, a bright green candlewick bedspread.
As well as visiting the tea museum and making a two-hour hike from a precipitous lookout point, we visited the local Tata Tea Company hospital. My sister had a “moon boot” to donate, her broken toe now healed and the boot taking up valuable shopping space.
The low white hospital, built around a courtyard of flowers, was spotless and the doctor we eventually found was glad to take the boot. Full of good feelings, we sauntered down the hill into the bustling little town of Munnar and shouted ourselves to yet another fantastic Keralan meal.
Kochi, the centre of the old middle kingdom, is Kerala’s major port. Through the mesh of the Chinese fishing nets whose great wooden frames line the shore of Fort Kochi, we could see ships and tankers heading out to the Arabian Sea, continuing what the Babylonians began.
We stayed in a heritage hotel, Ballard Bungalow, where the four-posters were so enormous you almost needed binoculars to see the other side and the vast bedrooms were furnished with colonial antiques in rattan and teak.
From there we could walk all over the old part of Kochi and visit the wooden synagogue, built in 1567, with its floor of Cantonese willow-pattern tiles, the Mattancherry Palace with its teak and grandeur and interesting photographs of the last Kochi royal families, and the old go-downs of Bazaar Road, once stuffed with spices for loading on to ships.
The Ernakulum airport which serves Kochi was an almost surreal final experience. Because of a recent terrorist threat, only passengers were allowed inside. It was new, gleaming from every surface, and nearly empty … and check-in took only five minutes.