13 January 2012
written by: Birgit & Don
Two amazing weeks in Kerala left us with the best possible impressions of India. The landscape, the people, the food and the weather - nothing short of magnificent.
The whole idea started off with Birgit reading an article about Kerala in an in-flight magazin on a business trip to some grey cold depressing place - that was about 3 years ago. Ever since, the idea has been spooking around in our minds. Indeed the very physical "Rough Guide - Kerala" was spooking around in our flat too. Now, finally, we have made it, and what it trip is was!
All self-organised, we have very quickly decided that we would try to avoid hotels and opted for the so-called homestays, i.e. staying with local families and eating "at home". This turned out to be a very good idea indeed. From the start we felt most welcome and very much at home, and this feeling never left us throughout our visit. Our plan follows a "three-days-everywhere" theme, which sees us visiting five different places during our 16-day/15-night trip.
View our route through Kerala in a larger map
Cochin (29 Dec 2011 - 01 Jan 2012)
Our holiday started off on a high straight away when we found out while checking in online that we would be flying out on a A380 (awesome) and it got better when we arrived at the house of our first homestay, the Bungalow in the colonial town Cochin. We were received warmly by Prasad, who have travelled the world as the captain of oil-tankers / container ships, and his (very enterprising) wife Neema. We wandered through Cochin, fascinated by all the colonial buildings from the Portuguese and Dutch era and the very very colourful street scenes; we were amazed to learn about the lively Syrian Christian Community in Kerala founded by no one less than St. Thomas the Doubter; we enjoyed New Years Eve on the Cochin Beach watching the fireworks; and we love the delicious Keralan breakfast and the Masala Chai prepared by Neema! Also, Birgit made good use of the half-day of rain to do some power shopping in Kalyan, apparently the shop of choice for Indian Sarees and the likes (see the photos).
Colonel's Retreat (01 - 04 Jan 2012)
Our next stop was further up in the mountains, a place called Mavady Hills not far from Vargamon... but really it is in the middle of nowhere. The homestay of choice is called Colonel's Retreat. Nomen est Omen: it belongs to Jose, a retired Colonel of the Indian Cavalry, and his lovely wife Annamma. They are easily some of the most lovely people we have ever met in our lives, and the retreat itself (a homestay, an eco-friendly farm, an apiary and a rubber plantation all in one) is one of the most beautiful places we have ever seen. Or, as another traveller commented on tripadvisor.com: "I thought I had arrived in paradise when I got here." It really is THAT beautiful!
The Colonel is 72 or 73, depending on who you talk to. The convo goes like this:
me: "Jose, may I ask you how old you are?"
Jose (with quite a bit of pride in his powerful voice): "I am 73!"
Annamma (who doesn't say much otherwise): "No you are not! You are 72!"
Jose (now frowning): "Ah yeah yeah yeah. 72. (Pause) According to her, I am 72."
Annamma: "Not according to me. According to everyone apart from you!"
Annoying, the wife, ey?
We enjoyed every single minute of our stay, all the walks in the countryside, once also guided by the Colonel (who was amazingly fast up and down the slopes while we could barely keep up...). We devoured the colossal amount of delicious food served by Annamma four times a day for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea & dinner (one evening Birgit declined a second helping of rice upon the sight of the six full size dishes meant for just the two of us, only to hear Annamma (who doesn't say much otherwise, as you know) saying: "I have already noticed you are poor eaters." ups... eat more!!!). And we loved all the funny stories the Colonel has got to tell, for example, one of them goes like this:
When the Colonel was still a teenager, he and his brother were sent by their father on a two day trip on foot to cross the mountain (the same mountain where the Retreat is now built upon) to another town for some purpose I cannot remember. They were guided my a (poor) young man from the local neighbourhood to walk through the jungle that still covered those slopes. Their mother gave them just enough ration to last for the two days, but immature as they were, they finished everything in no time. As the trip dragged on and the monsoon slowed them down, they became desperately hungry. Their guide, however, kept his cool and led them, almost exhausted, to a remote place where a friend was living, where they finally devoured the little bit of plain rice he could offer, thus saved their lives. Many years later, after retiring from an eventful career at the military and finally returning home, Jose was walking leisurely along the very same hill side when an old man came up to him and said "Jose, don't you remember me? I am the one who led you across the mountain decades ago." Jose finally recognised him and exclaimed: "Oh of course! You saved our lives! How could I not remember you?" They sat down and talked and when they parted, Jose gathered all the cash he had with him, maybe a hundred rupees, and gave it to him as a gift. When Jose later met his brother (who never left their native Kerala), he told him about the encounter and about the gift. The brother exclaimed: "Oh no Jose! What have you done!" - "Why, what have I done wrong?" - "The man is a millionaire!! And you gave him a hundred rupees?!"
The Backwaters (04 - 07 Jan 2012)
The backwaters is a very serene place. Most tourists, including the Indian tourists, go to Allapey and board one of the many houseboats to travel up and down the large lake for a couple of days. However, the constant diesel motor noise, the smell of diesel fumes and the frequent "house boat traffic jams" on the main river during the high season did not appeal to us at all. Instead, we stayed away from this tourist hotspot and retreated to a cosy homestay in the middle of the network of canals that branch off the lake, used for irrigating the rice fields. GK's Riverview Homestay is run by George Kutty, a former MI6 intelligence officer (!!). The accommodation is rather basic, but the surroundings are breathtaking. The concert of the countless animals and birds, in all their colours and shapes, paired with the dreamlike scent of the blossoming coffee plants... The most enjoyable activity was to take a canoe ride along the canals, taking in the scenery and the birds' songs. The locals, living along the canals, were kind and friendly beyond words.
One little background story about the GK Homestay ought to be told though: on the website tripadvisor.com, GK used to be the undisputed #1 (ranked by users' ratings) in the Kottayam area (Kottayam being the next bigger town) - that was until the Colonel opened his homestay 3 years ago. The Colonel's Retreat is no where near Kottayam, but because it is nowhere near anywhere really, Kottayam is still the next bigger town, so the Retreat ended up in the same region as GK and took over the #1 spot from GK instantly. George is not at all happy about this, but he never found out where the Colonel really was, so the Colonel became a bit of a phantom competitor to him - a fact that the colonel is aware of but takes it with a laugh. It's a bit like Tom and Jerry... When the colonel asked a driver to take us from his place to GK's, the driver called George to ask for directions. (This is now a free translation from the local language Malayalam, I don't know how they have worded it in reality)
George: "where are you coming from?"
Driver: "From a place called Colonel's Retreat."
George: "Arrhh! That guy stole my #1 spot on tripadvisor, damn you! (Pause) Ok, anyway, you will have to drive through a little mud road to get here, big cars can't come through, but small cars can."
After the conversation, the driver (who runs a transport service and owns a number of cars) said: "Ok, He told me that I can't use the big car. I can organise a smaller car, but it is brand new." To that the colonel replied: "Haha!! Let's use the small car, and George will be even more jealous when he sees it is new!!" (To which Annamma only smiles and shakes her head). When we arrived at GK's George greated us warmly. but quickly after the initial warm words, he asked: "So you came from the Colonel's Retreat?! How many rooms does he have, where the heck is this retreat anyway?... wait... this is a brand new car, no? grrrr.... nice car....."
Varkala Beach (07 - 10 Jan 2012)
After the Backwaters, the Varkala Beach was our next stop, and a very welcome one indeed. The beach is bounded by a cliff. On top of the cliff runs a path along which all the hotels/shops/restaurants/beauty parlour/Ayurveda clinics are strung. We stayed in a small hotel (no homestays on the cliff, because it is all dominated by tourism here) called Arabian Soul, interesting enough ran by Naveen, a smart-looking young Indian fellow, and Brygida - a German lady! we enjoyed plenty of sunshine, the big waves on the beach, the great seafood, the incredibly relaxing Ayurvedic full-body massage (they don't leave out much!) and even the very bizarre full-moon party. It was the perfect place to just relax and unwind.
Thiruvanamthapuram (10 - 13 Jan 2012)
Our final stop was in Thiruvanamthapuram (yep, the name really is that long), which literally means the place where Vishnu lied down. The main attraction is hence the Hindu Temple in which the huge golden statue of the lying Vishnu can be seen. Unfortunately, the temple can only be entered by Hindus, but even the exterior of the temple was enough of an attraction to make a visit worthwhile. We also took a bus ride out of town (not a very pleasant one) to visit the Padmanabhapuram Palace (a very beautiful place) and visited a traditional Indian music concert. Our hosts, the siblings Giles and Sylvia of the Graceful Homestay, were also most helpful and very interesting, not least because Giles speaks fluent German! It turned out that their father was the only German speaking Indian officer of the British Army stationed in Berlin at the close of WWII... yet another amazing little tale we have picked up during our trip.
All in all, our trip to Kerala was nothing short of magnificent. We loved every single minute of it (even the bus ride), and we especially loved the warm-heartedness of the locals. It makes all the difference, making our trip the best possible introduction to India.
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Birgit Baumgartner & Don Wu © 2018.
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