Postcards from India

Trivandrum Tony Boomer

I love India. It wasn't an instant love affair. First impressions after crossing the Nepali border in 1989 weren't great. The Indian customs and immigration officials took an age to let us through. When we were finally underway in the dark we were greeted by a line of people on the roadside defecating. I spent my time in Delhi sweating, cramping and I am sure you can guess, profusely. But then we headed west to Agra, Jaipur, into the stunning Kashmir region and on to the Golden Temple and Amritsar. By the time we crossed the border into Pakistan my first impressions had evolved into a yearning to return. That opportunity appeared a decade later when my wife, Kath, and I spent 3 months revisiting Varanasi, Delhi, Agra and Jaipur adding Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Udaipur and Mumbai (Bombay). Seventeen years on from that journey Kath and I now had the opportunity to revisit with our two boys Alex (13) and Liam (11) in tow. This time we would head south to the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. 

First things first we had to find each other. Kath had spent the previous five weeks in the remoter regions of Nepal working as part of a project run by the Himalayan Trust offering training to local teachers. We were scheduled to arrive in Kochi (Cochin) within a couple of hours of each other. As it turned out we arrived separated by only 25 minutes and that included all of our bags. We had obtained our visas online so had to have a brief interview with immigration officials at the airport. The experience was a stark contrast to that of 1989. We were made to feel incredibly welcome, the process only took a few minutes. Kath had already met our driver and guide and we embarked on the 60 minute journey to the Fort Kochi area and the Fragrant Nature hotel. Kath hadn't seen a proper bed or shower for quite some time and me and the boys had been on the go for 40 odd hours. The Fragrant Nature was a dream come true. Beautiful beds, lush pillows and a capacious bathroom were exactly what was required.  

At this point a cold beer would have topped it off. However, it is important to note the majority of hotels and restaurants in Kerala do not serve alcohol. You can buy alcohol but you do need to be organised, your guide or driver will be able to sort this out for you as you go. The local government controls the sale and purchase at special shops. These often have long queues however you will pay a premium if you get someone else to purchase for you as we learnt by experience. However, sometimes it will be worth it! 

We rearranged our city tour the following morning to depart a bit later given our late arrival. We also wanted the opportunity to linger a bit in the rooms; they really were lovely. Breakfast at the hotel was fantastic. If you have ever come across Masala Dosa you will understand. A crisp pancake stuffed with a spiced potato topped with a Keralan sambal is essential eating while you are here. The boys were instantly converted from pancakes and maple syrup! 

Our guide for the morning, Suresh, and driver, Paul, who would be with us as far as Madurai, met us at the hotel. First stop the Chinese fishing nets which are dotted around the coastline of Kochi and further afield. Nothing complicated here, a unique contraption lowers the net into the water then a bevy of men lift it out counterbalanced with rocks. It was all beautifully simple and compelling viewing. It was a stark contrast to see high tech frigates of the Indian Navy cruising by from their nearby base on Willingdon Island.

Next was the unremarkable St Francis Church where the corpse of Vasco da Gama spent some time before being shipped back to Lisbon. The boys found a football pitch beside the church but weren't that keen to demonstrate their skills on the sandy service strewn with rocks. Muddy mid-winter Dunedin pitches didn't seem that bad. The unexpected highlight of the morning was the Dhoby Khana laundry. It had always amazed me in the days when I travelled a bit rougher how on earth the laundry I inflicted on Indian launderers came back sparkling. Using the model we witnessed the clothes have the absolute stuffing beaten out of them on a concrete plinth before being baked in the sun and ironed with a beautiful iron powered by burning coconut husks. This was fascinating and the undoubted highlight for the boys this morning who handled an iron for the first time in their lives. A former Dutch palace, built by the Portuguese and then adopted as the former Raja's home followed, along with a spice market and synagogue but nothing could beat those fishermen and the people of the Dhoby Khana. We had a very nice lunch at the Fort House Hotel before returning to the Fragrant Nature to blow out some cobwebs in the gym. The roof top pool followed and then one of my bucket list items, a Kathakali performance.  

Kathakali is a classical Indian dance developed in the Kerala region. Colourful make-up, costumes and face masks adorn the male performers who adapt convey stories from the Hindu scriptures. I'm not sure the boys were too enthused about this especially as we took the opportunity to spend an hour watching a rotund chap apply his makeup. However, as with Dhoby Khana, enlightenment and pleasure often comes in different forms. To be fair the first bit wasn't too riveting but then the construction began as a blindingly white substance was applied along the lower jawline. I thought it was just makeup to go with the green, red and black already applied. But then extraneous items were being applied and sticking. The result as we would see was dazzling. Performance underway a young lady danced with her facial expressions as entrancing as her movement. We were then given a demonstration of the moves used in Kathakali, the majority of which were the eyes, face and hands. I have absolutely no idea what the main performance was about. It was introduced as an interpretation of an extract from the Mahabharata. Whatever it was about the scene was an orgy of rapidly moving eyes, impossible facial expressions and flailing hands ... it was dramatic as the final scene played out with the inevitable death of the female protagonist. To cap it off, Liam, a facebender of some note, had the opportunity to test his skills with the performers. To cap off a fantastic introduction to Kerala Suresh pointed us in the direction of the Seagull Restaurant, one of the few that served beer and just happened to be just across the road from the theatre. 

Masala Dosa for breakfast again and a 90 minute journey to a small dock on the shore of Lake Vembanad to board our converted rice barge and a cruise through the Kerala Backwaters. The boats have an alluring presence finely crafted by hand they once plied these waters with rice as their cargo. Now they carry tourists in a good deal of comfort. Our boat had three crew, two bedrooms, kitchen, dining area and viewing area, it was perfect. Taking off we were offered a cold juice to get things underway as we crossed the surprisingly vast expanse of Lake Vembanad before entering a channel and having lunch. Again the food was delicious, we were increasingly becoming fans of the Kerala Sambar which seems to accompany most meals. Taking off again I was a bit perturbed by the amount of boats on the water. One of the crew explained there were over a thousand mainly based out of Aleppey. I hoped we could somehow get away from them, it wasn't long before we did and the magic began. Turning left into a small channel we got close up and occasionally personal with the rhythm of life in these areas. The people living along the channels primarily earn a living servicing the rice fields. We witnessed their end of day rituals preparing dinner, smashing their laundry against concrete plinths, doing a bit of fishing and socialising. Their houses were brightly coloured along with their personalities, all were extremely affable as we cruised by. I am interested in birds as long as they are spectacular. The birds of the backwaters are prolific, some border on spectacular, while the Kingfisher is spectacular, we saw 4 on our journey. As the sun began to set we docked in a secluded spot set aside for the company we were travelling with. Hopeful of a stunning sunset we settled for an ok one. The highlight was the golden hue transcending into darkness on the coconut palms on the opposite bank. Somehow a dinner with 6 options came out from the minuscule kitchen located on the aft of the vessel. This was washed down by a couple of Kingfisher Blues we had requested and very gratefully received. I determined to get up early the following morning to catch the sunrise so it wasn't long after the mosquito nets were drawn that we were in bed for a surprisingly comfortable nights sleep. 

Dawn was around 0630 and it was worth every second of it as the orange globe cast its shimmering light across the Backwaters. Bird life was prolific at this time as were the local fishermen up before dawn to secure their catch before the heat of the day set upon them. After breakfast we again made our way across Lake V to our original boarding point amongst a growing fleet of one and two man vessels casting their nets. I absolutely loved this journey but would suggest one night is enough to capture the essence of the area. Paul, our driver, was waiting at the dock and off we set into the Western Ghats mountain range and the next stop on our journey, the tea plantation area surrounding Munnar.  

Road journeys don't happen quickly in Kerala with 30 kilometres per hour good going throughout the state. It's not that the roads are bad, they are narrow and heavily populated so driving is a constant negotiation with everyone else on the road. Added to this particular journey was the fact that we were heading to 1500 metres so twists and bends complicated matters. Fair to say it was never boring with constant activity happening on the roadside. Notable was a proliferation of very exorbitant churches. Hindu is the main religion of the state but Christians also make up a large proportion. If you were just visiting briefly you would have thought Christianity was the dominant religion. To while away the time we counted monkeys (macaques) which were worth 1 point, elephants 10 points, tigers 50 points and a tiger riding an elephant, game over! 

The Windermere Estate represented the kind of things I liked about north India where Indians had taken some of the better aspects of colonial rule and kind of preserved them. The estate is an extension of the original 'Planters' accommodation overlooking their tea and cardamom plantations. We had a superb lunch on arrival but it would be fair to say we didn't immediately take to the place. Chief concern was being hemmed in to a set dinner which was relatively exorbitantly priced. When you are travelling with kids food is important. Alex and Liam like their Indian food but being able to choose is desirable otherwise their default is rice and naan. If the evenings selection didn't include anything they liked the cost for a bowl of rice and some bread was indeed high. Instead we opted to grab a rickshaw into town that evening. The estate included a 2 hour walk around the plantation. In reality this should have taken an hour but some of the participants to be frank dawdled, can't stand dawdling. I was hopeful of capturing some of those emerald green images associated with tea plantations but the clouds and haze failed to lift. Sunset from a well placed rock in the accommodation also failed to yield the spectacular. Somewhat gutted we embarked on Alex and Liam's first rickshaw ride. As they grinned from ear to ear I am guessing they enjoyed it. Dinner was had in a nondescript restaurant in town and we returned to the estate by rickshaw. 

Foolishly I arose for dawn expecting the mist to lift, I even conned Alex into joining me. The sun rose and the scene across the valley was as bleak as sunset. Breakfast at the estate was magnificent and by now we were starting to get the place and correspondingly started to enjoy it more. The staff were exemplary, they knew as much as they could possibly know about us and were unassuming in their manner. We had a tour of the tea museum planned after breakfast and an excursion to the Matupetty Dam. You would be right if the thought of visiting a museum about tea would spin anyone's wheels but as with everything else on this trip it was the unexpected that delighted us so much. Our guide Baba John was clearly the doyen of guides in the area making things whizz and burr for our benefit and attracting crowds of locals. The tour started with a super interesting video on the area and its connection with tea. The subsequent drive to Matupetty yielded the views I had so wanted to experience. Mile after mile of emerald green fields of tea dotted throughout by rust red rocky outcrops, this scenery is magnificent. The dam is not interesting but the activity of Indian tourists, who are the predominant visitors here, created an exciting buzz as buses competed with Mahindras, rickshaws and the odd Royal Enfield motor bike for road and parking space. Liam found out what looking at iPad screens on twisty roads does to your stomach on the way back to the estate. Fortunately we had stopped to look at some honeycombs attached to trees when the nausea took hold. We stopped in town to buy some supplies and beer and settled in for a relaxing afternoon on our balcony. Our dining predicament was resolved as the restaurant agreed to make some chicken and potatoes for the boys so all was well in our universe. 

Paul advised the 105 kilometres to our next stop Periyar and its Wildlife Sanctuary would take around 4 hours. We knew what we would be in for so Liam was disconnected! The first part of the drive was as exhilarating as any drive could be. My favourite drive anywhere is through Morocco's Atlas Mountains closely followed by any crossing of the Sahara. This one is right up there, just spectacular. As the scenery changed from tea plantations to the less appealing cardomom equivalents I was looking forward to our next destination the Portree Portico by Sarovar. It is connected by an appalling side road that is a journey in itself. The hotel occupies a position overlooking the nearby town of Kamily and the surrounding hills of this portion of the Western Ghats. The rooms had their quirks, Kath particularly enjoyed the opportunity to survey the surrounding hills while having a shower fully exposed ... was actually quite good! The boys loved the horizon pool surrounded by lush vegetation but the main highlight was the food. Not only were the staff amazingly fantastic the Butter Chicken was 'probably' the best Butter Chicken in the world, Alex had it at every opportunity. That afternoon we had a spice plantation tour planned which was conducted by a trainee school master from Dickensian stock. He kept us in line and with it was quite entertaining. He relayed information about the plants with such gravitas that it could only be true even if it seemed he was making it up. We stocked up on wine, beer and snacks on the way for a much anticipated sunset on the hotel roof ... yep another fizzer. 

The main reason for visiting here is the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. It is the only one in the area but not noted for prolific viewing. Nevertheless we swallowed the 0615 departure and entered the parkafter undergoing one of those annoying procedures India revels, queueing for handwritten tickets. It has moved on enormously in this respect since our last visit but there are still pockets of resistance. Tickets procured we headed to the park, were amused by a macaques attack on an unsuspecting visitors breakfast and met Rajiv our guide for our walking tour. We knew instantly that our chances of running into a tiger were remote when he turned up bearing no more weaponry than a stick. Nevertheless there was clearly a chance of running into elephants with fresh tracks and hot poo abundant. We soon crossed paths with a barking deer and a troop of nilgri langur. The majestic Indian Bison followed but this would account for the most significant encounters of our trek. Returning we ran into another troop of nilgri langur whose movement amongst the trees and barking whoops set the hairs on the back of our heads upright. Despite not seeing as much as we hoped this was still an enjoyable excursion and we returned later in the afternoon with some optimism for our boat ride on the lake. That optimism was quickly realised as we immediately came across a pack of wild dogs feasting on a deer, then a few Indian bison and deer and then woe and behold 4 elephant appear. I love elephants and will happily view them for hours but the boat had a schedule to keep to and off we went getting very close to nesting cormorants, numerous kingfishers and snakes of all things basking close to the shore, this was incredible. To top it off a huge Indian bison bull, which we had only seen from a distance or in forest previously, made its way to the shore. I had never heard of Indian bison before but they are surely a magnificent muscle laden beast. Returning to the dock the wild dogs were leisurely digesting their kill in the setting sun. The walk back from the dock to the car park was a very colourful affair as Indian families rejoiced in their day out surrounded by dozens of macaques. Tried sunset again ... sigh. 

Being a sucker for punishment I was up for sunrise again, lucky breakfast provided a highlight. Today we would head in to Tamil Nadu and on to Madurai. Indian states are defined linguistically so we would pass from from Kerala and the Malayalam language to Tamil Nadu where Tamil is spoken. There is also a definite change in scenery with paddy fields, coconut and banana palms dominating the sometimes craggy landscape with the Western Ghats now forming the background to the scenery. The churches also end and it is very obvious we have entered a state where Hindu adherents dominate. Madurai is probably the Indian city we were expecting, busy, bustling but incredibly clean. There is a plastics ban in force which is clearly evident. The Fortune Pandayan Hotel wouldn't be our favourite but it did the job. We had the majority of the afternoon free so headed across to a nearby mall which turned out to be unremarkable. As a tourist I couldn't really suggest anything to buy. There are the usual brass representations of the Hindu deities but these along with any other type of souvenir don't dominate your thoughts as they aren't foisted in front of you at every turn. In fact we were rarely asked to buy anything during the entire journey and shopping certainly didn't occupy our minds. We thought we would have a western meal this evening just to break up the curries for the kids and settled on Phil's Bistro based on Trip Advisor. A word of warning here both Phil's Bistro and the Fortune are generally raved about on Trip Advisor the reality is quite different. Phil's was ok but our expectations were set incredibly high by some of the reviews. The descriptions of the hotel must surely have been somewhere else! We would normally seek the recommendation of our guides or local hotel staff and this experience confirmed it is the best way to go. The meal entailed a rickshaw ride and the old Indian classic where we ask if the driver knows the way, he assures us he does and then takes us to Dominoes, yep the pizza joint. Somehow Phil's Bistro translated into pizza? 

It would be fair to say after our previous day in Madurai we weren't great fans but this day would change all that. First stop was the slightly unremarkable Thirumalai Naicker Palace. However what followed was pure gold. Two aging traditional cycle rickshaw riders transported us through the central Madurai markets. The colours and demeanour of the people were just fantastic. We had a really good time in here even interacting with some jolly little fellows. I didn't know too much about the Meenakshi Temple before we got there. This is the largest Hindu temple in southern India and being pilgrim season was alive with activity. Walid our guide was far more animated in his descriptions and explanations of the temple, impossible pantheon of gods and religious practices. We didn't have access to the inner sanctum but the temple being so massive gave us plenty to ponder upon. This was a riveting experience and we would come back in the evening to observe the daily closing ceremony. The temple was tough going for the boys so an afternoon in the pool in front a large screen pumping out Bollywood music videos was just the ticket for them. We were slightly unsure how the events of the evening would pan out so headed back to the temple at 1930. The towers took on an even more mystical On arrival we were by ourselves and a bit unsure of what was supposed to happen. Not for the first or last time on our journey a local guided us to where we needed to be and wouldn't accept any reward. As I said at the start this wasn't the India I had previously experienced. The kids were flagging on this one, Liam was starting to get the bottom lip of his formative years ready to unleash but held it together. Non-Hindus were only permitted to view the transporting of Shiva's feet to the inner sanctum where his wife Parvati (or more accurately Meenakshi, an incarnation of Parvati) awaited. The feet would spend the night there before returning to the outer sanctum to resume duties as part of the opening ceremony. The closing procession involved burning tridents, drums, horns and a whole lot of smoke, it was all a lot of fun. 

The following day we experienced Indians getting heated over central government policy. Jallikatt (bull wrestling) has been banned as inhumane but the people of Tamil Nadu are having none of it. It would appear given the protests we encountered they see nothing wrong with this ancient tradition. I really don't know enough about it to jump to ill-informed conclusions or opinions. We were due to visit the Gandhi Museum this morning but ran afoul of a student protest, in fact we drove straight into the middle of it. I wasn't really worried but a couple of crowd surges provided brief pulse surges, the boys just drank it all up. We eventually made it to the museum and after a brief overview of Indian history for the boys we entered and were instantly underwhelmed. For such a pivotal figure this was disappointing especially if the aim is to engage young people in the story. However this trip was constantly throwing up surprises, this time it was the flower market. Utter chaos interspersed by vibrant colours as buyers bought sackfuls of flowers that would eventually find their way to temples as offerings. This was fun! 

Due to take the Guyurvar Express to Madurai at 4pm we spent the intervening period at the hotel. We wanted to give the boys an experience on Indian trains. The Madurai train station is modern clean and organised, completely the opposite of what we were expecting. We bade farewell to our driver, Paul, of the preceding week and a half. Once the train arrived an hour late we easily found our berths in the 2nd class air conditioned sleeper cabin. The kids absolutely love the experience of sleeping on trains, not that they actually sleep. There were several drink and food options provided by vendors moving regularly through the train. We settled for samosas and the boys new favourite hot drink, masala chai. As is normal we shared a cabin with an Indian gent who had recently visited New Zealand. I always enjoy hearing other people's perspectives on our country often taking for granted what they find amazing. The train journey took 7 hours which was just enough arriving in Trivandrum at midnight. Arrival provided the only negative experience in our journey. Our driver was waiting outside the carriage with 3 red shirted individuals who grabbed our bags and loaded them into the car then asked for some money. Fine I thought 20 Rupees a head for 5 minutes work. Not enough I was informed, it was midnight and I was in no mood to negotiate so I just put the money back in my pocket. These guys wouldn't let us away without payment so the driver gave them the apparent going rate of 100 Rupees a bag. This is outrageous given a tea picker in Munnar is paid 330 Rupees per day which is clearly outrageous in itself.  

It took about half an hour to get to our home for the next 4 nights, the Vivanta by Taj Green Cove near Kovalam. This was to be the relaxing part of our journey. Set on a hillside overlooking a lagoon and the Arabian Sea this was a perfect way to spend the next few days taking lingering breakfasts, hanging out in the pool, walking around the property enjoying the lush vegetation and bird life, finally hitting the jackpot with the sun rising and falling and utilising the beautiful spa facilities either for the daily yoga sessions or a range of massages. While we were here we had arranged a journey to the southern tip of India at Kanyakumari via Palace and Suchindrum Temple. This was in jeopardy for a while as protests over the Jallikatt ban had spread over Tamil Nadu delaying our excursion by a day. We weren't too concerned, an extra day in paradise would not have been a hardship. We did take the opportunity to visit the adjacent beaches which wouldn't rank too highly compared to those we are used to here or in the Pacific area. However they do attract locals who clearly enjoy the experience. The scene of several saree clad women frolicking around in the surf in full regalia will live long in the memory. 

Fortunately we did get to travel to Kanyakumari and lands end but the highlights for me of the day were again the things I had no idea about. Our first stop was the Padmanabhapuram Palace. This was an excellent example of medieval Keralan architecture constructed by the rulers of Travancore who previously ruled over this part of the country. The dynasty played a pivotal part in the power struggles of the Dutch, Portuguese, British and Muslim invaders from the north and only recently were removed peacefully from power. They still assert some economic influence over the region. The palace is in exceptional condition and Ravi our very excellent guide for the day bought it to life. Next stop was the boys favourite, the Suchindrum Temple where we were required to enter bare chested, very much a first at any religious monument for me. Inside was really interesting again enlivened by the excellent Ravi. Some of the temple pillars were designed so notes could be played on them while devotees sang Durgas. We were very fortunate to be able to experience this especially as one of the temple guardians allowed the boys to have a go, this really delighted them. Some of the intricate carvings in this 2000 year old temple were really something down to near lifelike fingernails. Our final stop on this day was Kanyakumari sight of the VivenkandaTemple and monument to Thiruvalluvar. These were recent additions to the small rocky outcrops and to be honest didn't hold so much interest for me. However the boat ride to get there was quite exciting on the rusting ferries. Everyone is given a life vest on the short journey and I honestly thought there was a possibility we might need one on the return journey as the winds rose. Imagine my dismay when I was proffered a completely unusable life vest ... oh well que cera ... Safely back on the mainland we took a moment to reflect on the southern most point in India. I always find it quite daunting to be in these sorts of places. All that history and people to the north of you and absolutely nothing for thousands of miles to the south of you ... feels almost weighty. 

We spent our final morning in India indulging in the resort before being collected for a tour of Trivandrum and on to the airport. Fair to say that while Trivandrum is nice it doesn't have the same appeal as the remainder of our journey, there were none of the surprises that made the rest of the journey so enjoyable. In fact I would use surprising as the best way to sum up our journey. We visited here because the opportunity presented itself, we came away from here blown away by the experiences. There are no ornate palaces, imposing forts or pressure of heavily populated metropolis that prevail in the north. Kerala and Tamil Nadu are populated by genuinely hospitable people in very functional states, especially Kerala. Getting around isn't fast but it does give you the time and opportunity to take in all that is going on around you. We took this journey to give the boys a taste of something completely different and challenging. As it turned out it wasn't actually very challenging at all, just genuinely enjoyable. If you were thinking of dipping your toes into India but were a bit intimidated I think Kerala would provide you with the perfect introduction especially with kids. If you have visited the sights of northern India previously then this area should give you another reason to visit this diverse country.