Saturday, February 4, 2012

God's Own Country

Kerala’s nickname for itself, which it plasters all over tourism posters is “God’s Own Country.”  And I think there are few who would disagree.  All Delhiites who heard that I would be going to Kerala, sighed enviously, and told me that I would have a wonderful time.  And the state is indeed something special.  It has the highest literacy rate in India, and some of the lowest hunger and poverty rates.  Women also enjoy a great deal more empowerment in Kerala than in many other Indian states.  Kerala possesses beaches, mountains, tea gardens, wild life reserves, and most famously, lush backwater lagoons.  I had been to Kerala once before in 2009, but was excited to return again for a longer visit. 

I felt myself relaxing and feeling happier almost as soon as I landed in the Kochi airport in Kerala.  The weather was warm and sunny, and the air felt clean and fresh.  I quickly peeled off the layers that had been so necessary in chilly Delhi, and found a cab to take me to the bus stop, where I would board the vehicle that would take me to my first destination: Munnar.

Munnar, a small town nestled among the tea plantations of the Western Ghats is described by Lonely Planet as having “a Sound-of-Music-in-India backdrop of rolling mountain scenery, craggy peaks, manicured tea estates, and crisp mountain air.” The Sound of Music reference was especially relevant for me, because in many ways, Munnar wonderfully combines more than just “a few of my favorite things.”  Hiking?  Plenty of opportunities in Munnar.  Good quality locally grown tea?  Available everywhere.  Breath-taking nature and stunning mountain scenery?  Check.  Delicious Keralan food?  Also present. 

After I checked into my hotel, the kindly and helpful hotel owner gave me several maps of the area, and talked about various tours, sights, activities and restaurants to keep in mind.  Armed with this information, I set off for a walk through the tea plantations.  At one point, I found small dirt path leading uphill into some tea fields.  Feeling adventurous, I followed the path.   Every time the path forked, I chose one of the prongs and just kept walking.  Eventually, I found myself above the tea fields, at the base of the hill’s crest.  I scrambled up the almost vertical peak as far as I could, and was quite glad I did, as I was rewarded with the most spectacular view. 

Wandering around Munnar


Before scrambling up the hill crest

Looking down

My reward for scrambling

The next day, I embarked on a hike to a viewpoint and a waterfall that my hotel owner, Satish, recommended, “if you like walking.”  He showed me the route on his hand-drawn map, and it looked easy enough to follow.  Lonely Planet recommended the same hike, with fairly good directions, up until the viewpoint.  After that, the directions simply read “continue on to the waterfalls.”  Well.  Can you guess how many forks in the road there were?  Too many.  I cannot tell you how many times I walked down the wrong road, only discovering my mistake either after carefully scrutinizing both maps Satish had given me, or asking locals, all of whom seemed shocked that I would want to walk such a long way.  Additionally, let’s just say that the “12km” distance that Satish and my guidebooks had estimated assumed that one would take rickshaws and buses from a certain point back to town.  It was a LONG day.  All who know me know that I am not one to shy away from a little walking, but this hike definitely wore me out.  Stubbornly, though, I refused to catch a bus or rickshaw, and ultimately, am glad that I took the whole journey on foot.  And to be honest, I would have missed many of the most beautiful sights had I not gotten lost several times.


Tea fields

A cow eating grass, not garbage

A Government school

Just one of the things I would not have seen had I not gotten lost

The next morning, after an enjoyable breakfast with a friendly group of older men from Kolkata, I hopped onto a bus back to Kochi.  Kochi was where I had been in 2009, so I was familiar with its layout, and it was comforting to walk around the town again, admiring the Chinese fishing nets and Portuguese and Dutch architecture.  I also happened to stumble upon a youth martial arts competition, which was certainly a walk down memory lane!  I spent the rest of the day just strolling, and people watching.

Two of Kochi's iconic cantilevered Chinese fishing nets

St. Francis Church

The Basilica

Kiddie match

Tournament poster

The next day, after my morning walk, I met up with Stephanie and Joanna who had also come to Kochi.  Stephanie and I walked together to the section of town which was once home to Fort Cochin’s Jewish population—a section of the island aptly named Jewtown.  After getting called to by countless hawkers, we made our way to the old Pardesi Synagogue.  Cameras are forbidden inside, but I was able to find a picture on the internet, and I have posted it below.  The guides explained to us that the synagogue had originally been named the “Pardesi” (foreigner) synagogue because the majority of the congregation had come from elsewhere.  The building itself appeared to reflect this fact.  There was an enormous chandelier hanging from the ceiling which had come from Belgium (upon hearing this two Belgian women who were, in my opinion, far too scantily dressed for India, whooped and cheered).  The floor was also covered in blue and white hand painted tiles from China.

Pardesi Synagogue (Photo Credit:

Stephanie and I then went to lunch at a humble looking but absolutely delicious little place called Krisha Café.  We both got thalis (a meal consisting of a sampling of several different dishes).  This restaurant seemed to specialize in the endless thali; every time we ran low on a particular item, a waiter would swoop on down and refill our plates.  Stephanie is far better at saying no (and also knowing her limits) than I am, so the waiters eventually learned to skip Stephanie’s plate and just fill mine, and my appetite soon turned into a joke among the restaurant staff.  I didn’t mind though.  It tasted great!

Soon after lunch Stephanie and I hurried back to the main drag of Kochi to meet Jo and see a Kalarippayat (traditional Keralan martial art) and a Kathakali (Keralan dance theater art traditionally performed in temples) demonstration.  The martial arts demonstration was quite impressive; nowhere near as impressive as the Kalarippayat demo I had seen my last time in Kerala, but impressive nonetheless. 

Kalarippayat, like most traditional martial arts, combines meditation and self discipline with physical training, and I would tell that the performers were very dedicated.  I was minorly irritated by the fact that, in all the partner demonstrations, the same man (who happened to be the little guy) always played the loser.  But this minor irritation did not take away from the performance too much.  I quickly got over my annoyance when, at the end of the demonstration, the emcee announced that the fighters would be happy to teach a few moves to any interested parties.  I jumped up eagerly…then realized that I was the only one who had done so.  After some encouragement from Joanna and Stephanie (who for whatever reason were happy to push me onto the stage but refused to join me) I made my way up onto the stage where one of the artists proceeded to show me some of the ways in which one could use pressure points to escape from various chokeholds.  Let me tell you, he did not pull any punches in order to go easy on the volunteer!  For all you doubters, pressure points exist, and knowledge of them can be the difference between life and death when involved in hand-to-hand combat.  Even with my prior martial arts training, I was astonished at how effective some of the simple grips and escapes were.  I will be sure to integrate them into my repertoire of moves.  After the session, I shook hands with Mansi, the martial artist who had been teaching me, and took my seat again for the Kathakali performance.

Escaping a wrist lock (Photo Credit: Joanna Stack)

Choke hold (Photo Credit: Joanna Stack)

I had seen Kathakali once before at this same venue, but was looking forward to another performance.  I wish I could better explain kathakali for the benefit of my readers who may not be familiar with it, but the truth is that it is so unlike any other art form, that it is extremely difficult to describe.  Kathakali involves elaborate (and often huge and bulky) costumes, and a great amount of makeup, which takes up to an hour to apply.  In fact, the audience was encouraged to show up early to watch the makeup application process, which was a show in itself!  The makeup is still made in the traditional way, from various stones and seeds that have been ground up and mixed with coconut oil.  Each color has significance: green is used for noble or heroic characters; red for villains or demons, black for villagers, and yellow for women, holy men, or other gentle characters. The costumes also looked as though a great deal of care had been put into them.  The performance itself consisted of actors moving to the beats and melodies established by the singers and drummers.  The gestures, as the introduction to the performance had explained, were highly stylized, with each movement  having its own specific meaning.  The story of our show had to do with the killing of a demon by a hero in the Mahabharata.  The performance was long, but definitely entertaining and very interesting.  Again, the theater was too dark for me to take pictures, but I have taken some from the internet, just to give those who are unfamiliar with kathakali a better idea of what I am trying to describe.

Typical kathakali makeup.  Photo Credit:

Typical Kathakali dress. Photo Credit:

The next day, I set off for Kottayam, a smaller city a two hour bus ride away from Kochi, to visit Indu, a friend from my Hyderabad days.  Kottayam, as Indu had explained to me beforehand, is not usually a tourist destination, a fact that made me even more excited to visit.  I spent the next two days relaxing in Indu’s house with her family, and eating some of the best Keralan food I have ever tasted.  It was very nice re-meeting Indu’s parents and sister (we had met once before in Hyderabad) and I have to say I learned a lot from talking to them.  In particular I learned a great deal about Kerala—it’s status as a haven for India’s religious minorities, its cuisine, its universities, and its rivalry with neighboring Tamil Nadu, a rivalry that I had known little about.  Another nice little surprise was the room attached to my guest room.  When I first arrived, the door was slightly ajar, and I could see rows and rows of bookshelves.  Not wanting to pry, I contained my curiosity.  Later however, Indu’s father, who happens to be an English professor, mentioned casually “There is a small library upstairs by your room.  Please feel free to take a look.”  And so I did.  A house with a library? What could be better?  The library was very organized--there was even a catalog!  I enjoyed browsing the titles, many of which I had heard of, but never actually read.  So much to read, so little time...

The library
I spent a very cozy, low-key New Year’s Eve with Indu and her sister, curled up in front of the T.V., upon which several channels were broadcasting entertainment awards ceremonies.  From what I could gather, awards ceremonies seem to be the ball-drop equivalent in India.  I had a nice time watching the ceremonies, during which the likes of Salman Khan and Dhanush danced and sang (or lip-synced) to thunderous applause.  Indu and her sister, Meera, apologized to me several times that I was not back in Kochi enjoying the celebrations there, but I have to say, I was very happy to be spending New Year’s Eve in a home, with family as that is how I usually ring in the new year.  And anyway, I heard that Kochi celebrates New Year’s Eve by burning an effigy of Santa, to signify the end of the Christmas season.  I love Christmas, so I think that would just depress me.  I must say, I am quite satisfied with the way in which I started 2012.

The family Christmas tree

From right to left, Indu, her sister, and her mother

That is not to say, however, that my New Years' was devoid of raucous celebrations.  The next day I was back in Kochi in time to see the famous Kochi New Year’s Day parade.  It involved an elephant, kathakali dancers, bhangra dancers, people dressed as heroes from the Hindu epics, Priests, Nuns, and lots and lots of drag queens.  An unending line of drag queens.  Naturally, the crowds were huge, but, with the help of some teenagers, I managed to climb to the top of the wall surrounding the basilica, and got a great view!


An elephant.  Seems to be a necessity for parades in India

Kathakali dancers

Drummers and dancers

More drums

Can you spot the drag queen?
The next day, January 2nd, I headed off to the Ernakulum train station to catch my Bangalore bound train.  Next post: my adventures in the Silicone Valley of India. 


  1. Bert and Dudam are in Bangalore now to start a !
    Mexican eatery

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.