This new year I visited Kerala for the first time with my family - given what I had heard/seen/read about it, this was shamefully overdue. We took advantage of the very convenient invention of the travel gurus - aka 'package tours' which have completely invaded the tourism landscape in the past 10 years. They get you to enjoy all that is great about traveling minus the hassles, essentially all the non-fun stuff is transferred to the tour operator for a good compensation.
We left the cold confines of delhi weather the moment we entered the portals of the brand new IGI airport and then there was no looking back, at least for the coming 5 days. The flight on the spicejet airlines was quite smooth (even the overpriced coffee served in the aircraft was reasonable) except for the boring one hour 'inside-the plane' stopover at Mumbai's chhatrapati shivaji airport. But that's the charm of traveling with ma's- and-pa's - it never ceases to amaze me how much food the deceptively little bag carried by my mother can accommodate! I employed myself gainfully by eating all that I can for a substantial part of the hour long transit. For the remaining time on my flight, I fought hard to keep up with my reputation of a 'phoren-returned desi' and cover my almost rudimentary (non-existential might be more appropriate actually!) knowledge of angrezi songs in front of my highly informed brother who oblivious to the pleasures of food and my plight, kept asking me about rock bands which I had never ever heard of in my mortal life!
The next whiff of fresh air was at the Kochi International airport. It is a really small but functional place. The first glimpse of Kerala lifestyle was just there- `keep it simple' - and this way of living made itself evident to us in varied ways in the coming days. After getting our boria-bistar (Indians can't travel light!), we had a driver waiting for us with a car. He was a shy and soft-spoken guy named Joseph. As we drove to our first stop located in the Munnar hills, we discovered that he belongs to kochi itself and drives tourists like us around in peak seasons. Our drive through the coconut-trees lined roads was a very charming one. As we went up the hills, the coconut trees made way for shorter and thicker shrubs which were finally replaced with the beautiful and dense tea gardens. They are really a site - entire slopes of these hills are covered with carpets of tea leaves which were in full bloom then. The aroma could be felt even in the air and it had a quality of freshness which a delhite like me finds difficult to describe. Our resort was the topmost one on the hills and completely enlivened its name 'Misty Mountains'. From the hotel porch, we could actually see the clouds almost touching the lush green carpet of tea gardens underneath making the horizon one continuous fabric. A plaque in the reception area announced that the resort owed its exotic location to the tastes of British officers who frequented it during torrid summer months in South India. We had a fantastic pair of rooms to ourselves which were equipped with all the good saas-bahu channels besides a string of `Sun-TV', `Vijay TV', 'Surya-TV'...all showing south Indian songs. I settled for the latter kind just out of curiosity initially and was contemplating the natural resonance frequency of the jarring pelvic thrusts of dancers before my brother opened revolt and switched to sports...how unimaginative !
We shelved our plans to roam around the markets in the evening and instead decided to relax for the remaining part of the day. The only other thing which rivaled for attention with the beautiful locales surrounding the hotel was the brilliant food (I love south indian food anyways,!) . The dinner comprising a cocktail of chinese, north indian and south indian cuisines was great. The following morning an even better meal awaited us - I had a mouthful of the soft idlis and amazing chutneys and dived on the crisp dosas subduing all internal protests. After the delectable breakfast, we drove to the Eravikulam national sanctuary which is the only home to Nilgiri Tahr - a kind of horned deer. We left our car with Joseph and took the shuttle ride which ferries tourists to a point on the hilly route leading up to the reserve. This ride gave some breathtaking shots for our memories. Post this, we walked up the remaining distance to reach the park, where contrary to my expectations and their endangered status, Nilgiri Tahrs were not only easily visible but seemed pretty interested in getting photographed with the tourists. (I have been to N number of national parks doing crow watching and came back believing that the rare specimen I actually wanted to see was asleep around some corner!). Our rendezvous with the Niligiri tahr was followed by a drive to Mattupetty lake and dam, located 13kms from Munnar. It is a nice touristy site with lots of small shops and a beautiful view.
Following a drive through the markets, where my father stocked the specialties of the region (spices, tea, sandalwood, banana chips etc. etc.) for himself and at least 10 links down the family bloodline we came back to our rooms after a long and exhilarating day. The following morning, we started our drive towards our next stop - the town of Thekkadi. We almost felt a sense of surreal attachment with the nature's bounty around us while driving out of Munnar. Joseph informed us that Nilgiri range or the blue mountains (of which Munnar forms a part) are called so because of `Neelakurinji' - a kind of rare blue flower which blooms on these hills every 12 years. After a drive of around 4 hours we reached Silver Crest - our abode for the next 24 hrs in Thekkadi. It was on the opposite end of spectrum with respect to our experience in Munnar . Located in the busiest place of the city, buzzing with people, and different shades of life all there - together and disparate at the same time. It was quite a remarkable contrast and we thoroughly enjoyed it. Our hotel too contributed to this flavor of life - while the misty mountain resort had the kind of elegance of a resort of an erstwhile empire, the hotel at Thekkadi with different blocks of rooms sharing a common square courtyard felt more like a large family home in suburban India.
Our last and final stop was the village of Kumarakom, located in the world-famous backwaters. The resort where we stayed was called waterscapes - located on the banks of Vembanad lake inside the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary, it draws migratory birds from as far away as Siberia. We did not spot any siberian intruders, but the resort was breathtaking - yes just the resort! For a government owned and managed resort, it was surprisingly well kept. The 'rooms' were actually independent huts which stood on stilts and gave the impression of tree houses amidst the surrounding mangrove vegetation. We had two neighboring huts booked in our name with conveniences to match the most elite hotels I have ever been to. Still, it never obscured the charming simplicity intricately woven into the Kerala lifestyle. After a short and amazing north indian lunch (both men in our family are ardent admirers and begin to show withdrawal symptoms from food if kept away from their staple diets), we went for a boat ride in the backwaters. It was a lazy ride in the almost still waters lined by local villages on each side. Looking at the simple villagers going around with their usual daily tasks, untouched by the fact that their haven of existence can be a tourist attraction to millions around the world and exchanging a smile with any face that cares to look upon them was the most unique experience. It was like seeing a live panorama of life at its simplest and probably the happiest too.
After pulling ourselves back up to the hotel (unwillingly), we enjoyed a very nice musical program organized by the local artists. They played some very famous old bollywood tunes on different kinds of flutes and mridangam which made them sound as melodious or more than the original. It is amazing how talent sprouts in most unassuming and unexpected places.
I had a very good sleep that night but was a bit grumpy to leave the next morning. Alas, time to say a goodbye to god's own country. I know I am definitely coming back though!