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25 October 2013


KERALA
In Kerala, they say “this is God’s own country”  if you have any problems, its easy, its just a local call.

Our flight out of Abu Dhabi was delayed and we arrived in Cochin at 4.30am…   were picked up by the airport hotel car and flaked as soon as we got there. Pretty modest hotel, but a bed!

Our driver Immanuel picked us up at 10am and our Indian-Kerala adventure began
from there on. We set off for Cochin, and in particular for Fort Cochin where our hotel was.   It is an extraordinary set up – a huge port and naval depot, set up around islands and backwaters and fronting onto the Arabian Sea.

We stayed in a wonderful hotel – it felt that it could be set in the time of Somerset Maugham – wood, ceiling fans, planters chairs, wonderful staff and great rooms.  The gardens full of frangipani, banyan and jackfruit trees.  They are a chain of hotels that are eco-friendly, everything recycled, and well thought out for the environment. The food was unbelievable.  The staff were great too, the women wore gorgeous saris, white with a gold band.  The view out of our window was a busy naval passage to the Arabian Sea, and we watched fascinated as huge container ships, tankers, naval ships, fishing boats and ferries passed our balcony and windows.  We had arrived on Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, so it was a dry day in India.  Fortunately we had a tipple with us and were able to have a snort before and after dining etc.

What a busy day.  Walking along the colourful streets, visiting museums, and learning the history of the place.  It seems everyone has been there at some time, the spices a great attraction.  The Portugese, the Dutch, the French and the English all quarrelled over this port and land.   It was a Jewish settlement for hundreds of years, and we walked down Jew Street and visited an old synagogue built in the 1568 containing great scrolls of the old testament and beautiful Chinese hand painted tiles.   It is still active.

Our lovely hostess and staff at hotel
We went on a sunset cruise provided by the hotel for an hour, which passed very pleasantly watching the local fishing boats preparing their nets to go out for the night’s fishing trip.    Then the very best experience – an ayurvedic massage.  Whew, what an experience.  Two young smiling, women masseurs instructed me to strip off everything, then they tied a type of cotton modesty band around me.  It started with me sitting on a stool opposite one of the masseurs who then massaged my head for about ten minutes, before I was told to lie on my front on a very firm massage bench.  Then they started – mon dieu…. Warm oil was poured on me, their four hands started working from top to bottom.  I was slapped, rubbed, pummelled, over every inch, even the soles of my feet.  Eventually I was told to turn over on to my back, which was a relief, and they started again, what a lot of energy and enthusiasm!  After an hour of massage, I was helped slowly – slippery as an eel – into a steam cabinet with just my head sticking out where I sat for 10 minutes. When that was finished they took me to a shower room, covered me in a coconut scrub to get the oil off, shampooed my hair and towelled me down.  What luxury!  I felt wonderful after it was all finished, and my skin was amazing. I think I will become an addict.

Our room looked out over the Arabian Sea and the ships passing by were enormous  – a major shipping lane. We were packing our bags to leave when we noticed that there was no TV – we hadn’t noticed before as had spent our time looking our at the ships and just enjoying ourselves.

We really indulged ourselves with the beautiful seafood, crab, lobster and beautiful prawns.  The waiter laughingly said to John “I have never seen anyone eat lobster like that before”  he was used to people being much more polite, the two of us were in a mess by the time we had finished. Finger bowls saved the day.

In Kerala they speak a language called Malayalam, and several other languages too.   It seems to be very “nature” aware.  A well organised place considering its massive population.  No smoking allowed in public, no betel chewing allowed in public, seat belts, helmets, notices everywhere - don’t throw plastic around, it kills animals.  Pick up your plastic, take away your rubbish.  A number of places are very clean, others not.  Just about every religion you can think of exists here, everyone seems to respect each other, and no one bothers about what religion you are they seem to all live peacefully together.  There are temples, churches, Syrian Orthodox churches, Sikh temples, Mosques, and many colourful brightly painted catholic churches.

Set off out of Cochin on the road into the mountains, the Western Ghats, for Munnar, the favourite summer resort of the British rulers in the days of the Raj.  On the way we passed massive rubber plantations, pineapple farms and rice paddies.  We passed toll roads, signs such as “avoid rash driving” “love head love helmet”  hectic traffic, lots and lots of tuk tuks and horns going all the time.   In some places stands with piles of tapioca and coconuts for sale, we would search later for a coconut stand for a drink.

All along the side of the road cows tethered, and in some places buffalo. The cows are reared for milk and the buffalo for meat.

As we climbed shortly we were amongst the tea plantations, tea everywhere as far as the eye could see, even up steep mountains.  The pickers were all women that we could see, and as this part of Kerala is close to the Tamil Nadu border, most of them are Tamil. They were very happy to have their photos taken.

Managed to find a coconut stand where a guy with a dangerous looking knife sliced the top off a coconut for us and stuck in a straw.  Gosh that fresh coconut juice is spectacular!  After we had finished the juice he sliced the coconut in half and sliced another part of the skin to make a scoop and we enjoyed scooping out the delicious jelly like inside.



Schools teach through English in many places, almost everyone speaks some English although their accent is often difficult to understand, and some are shy to speak and try to understand.  And the shaking head negative can be very confusing!   Hindi is the national language, so everyone has to learn Hindi too.  Our driver was very keen that we should go to a local theatre mime-dance performance, so we went to keep him happy, but could have done without.  It was only an hour, so not too bad.  However the queue for the next performance of martial arts was huge when we came out!!  Obviously much more popular than the performance we went to.    Had dinner in the hotel which was pretty ordinary, but started to chat with two Indian families next to us.  
We encountered many Indian middle class families travelling and staying in the same hotels as us.  They appear to be well healed.  They were travelling together on a tour similar to ours.  We were very amused when one of the men asked John how old he was – he wanted to compare with his father!  We were impressed that their young children could speak fluent English without accents.

The next day we went to spectacular Eravikulam National Park which is a reserve of the Nilgiri Tahr – an endangered wild goat. 
We climbed up high in the mountains,  6,000ft.   We lined up to buy tickets – normally foreigners have to pay more than locals, but it was wild life week and we only had to pay the same!  Small buses came one after the other and everyone piled in.  We were driven up narrow steep roads with incredible views to the entrance to the park.  Then we walked up to the limit we were allowed to go.  Saw several goats – but I guess most were keeping away from the crowds.  All a wonderful experience – the pristine mountains, the views were memorable.

After lunch we were exhausted and both slept.  Then another massage, very good too, but not quite as good as the one in Cochin.  We are becoming addicted to these Ayurvedic massages!


Nutmeg and Mace
Set off out of Munnar and took the road through the Western Ghats.  Spice paradise!!!   Plantations of tea, coffee, cardamon, pepper, ginger and other spices.  The road was amazing and in some places a bit scary.  Many hairpin bends.  Our wonderful guide and driver is very careful, tbtg, but drives on his horn as most others do too.   We were continually passing tuk-tuks, the place is full of them, and trucks, and motor bikes.   Eventually we arrived at Kumily where Immanuel had organised with a friend of his – Sudeer - to take us on a private tour of a spice farm.  There are many farms open to the public, but very touristy, so it was very special to be taken quietly for a wander amongst a haven of spice plants and get a personal explanation about the plants and the processing.   In that farm of 23 acres, owned by a guy called Hakim we saw Pepper vines, coffee bushes,  cocoa,  henna, cloves, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg combined with mace on the same plant, ginger, turmeric, very hot minature chillies, biryani bushes, vanilla and cardamon.   Sudeer explained to us that it was best to grow a mixture of spices as the prices were very erratic on the world market.  For example the price of pepper has increased enormously, but cardamon has plummeted and one compensates for the other.  The processing of all these spices is quite complicated and it was fascinating to hear how it is done.   The plantation had 4-5 permanent workers and provided a crèche for their young children.
Tea plantation
 At harvesting time, they had as many as 40 workers.




We are just about at the end of the monsoon season which lasts for six months.  But means that there are heavy showers every so often, all a bit unpredictable. Where we are staying the rooms are individual thatched roofed huts, but there are lots of monkeys around, so we cannot leave anything outside!



Tomorrow we are going on an all day outing to a wild life park with a ranger/guide.  We have to be up early, but they provide breakfast and lunch (vegetarian) and we will walk through the forest for 3-4 hours looking out for animals.

Set off early for Gavi Tiger Reserve, 975 square kilometres of wild beauty.  Its called a tiger reserve as the tigers are endangered – there are only 48 left in the park.  However there are an amazing variety of other animals and birds in the reserve.  The animals include elephants, leopards, wild boars, wild dogs, amazing monkeys, giant squirrels, bisons, barking deers, and many others. Its an amazing place of mountains, valleys, rivers, streams and lakes.   We arrived at the entrance to register – everything very bureaucratic here – lots of papers to be filled in everywhere we go, and were told to drive on another 18kms to the main park centre.  There we were registered again, given breakfast and introduced to our guide.  Most of the tourists were Indian families, except for ourselves and another two German women.  They put us foreigners together with a guide and we climbed into a small rowing boat to cross the lake.  At the other side we climbed up a track and set off for our trekking adventure. It was beautiful.  The birds, butterflies, insects spectacular.  We were treading on fresh elephant, bison and small deer tracks, but not surprisingly failed to see any of them.  They were well out of the way of the tourist groups by the time we arrived.  However, it was a delight to walk and listen, to hear the stories of the park and the habits of the animals.

The trek was quite a challenge, but enjoyable.  Crossing a river on perilous stepping stones ended up with us all having to wade through the water when we ran out of stones.  Wet boots and pants didn’t dampen our spirits!  After a healthy vegetarian lunch, we set out again in the rowing boat and went up a creek to see a spectacular waterfall.  That done, back to the park centre, and home again to our hotel. 

John had cut his leg on a rock, and although it was dressed beautifully by the guide from his first aid kit, we wanted to get it checked out with a doctor.  We stopped at a hospital on the way home and went to casualty.   How impressive it was!  Doctor reassured us it didn’t need stitches and it was dressed again by a nurse who had worked at one time in Australia!  


Shop at tea museum





Honey (miele) seller


Tea plantations - Western Ghats










Nilgiri Tarh

Nilgiri Tahr



Tiger reserve



Frog - grenouille

Insect



Coconut Fix!

A quiet evening, just getting ready to pack up for the next day’s trip to Aleppo, getting our cases sorted out so we only had to take one small bag on the houseboat for the overnight on the backwaters.


Rubber plantation

We had to leave very early to get to the houseboat at check in time – midday.  The drive was a hard one, not only the road badly damaged by the monsoon, but the traffic seemed to be horrific.   We stopped for our usual coconut drink fix combined with toilet break (spotlessly clean) on the way. We passed through spice plantations, tea plantations and as we got lower down and nearer to the coast, coconuts and rubber plantations.  Nearing the backwaters, we passed canals and rice paddies and eventually reached the boat tie up.  
The houseboats are quite amazing.  The base is a copy of an old style barge with a high jutting prow.  Built into that is a luxurious set of rooms with bathrooms, air conditioning and ceiling fans. Towards the front a dining room and a front deck viewing/relaxing spot where we are spending most of our time.  The driver and wheel are on the open deck in front of us.  The outside of the upper decking and the roof are covered in woven coconut matting, a most attractive effect. Our bedroom has floor to ceiling windows, but we don’t plan to spend much time there.  There are three bedrooms on this boat, but we are very happy to be alone with the crew.

The crew of three, a cook, a driver and an engineer, spend most of the time sitting around on the deck when they are not cooking and serving us beautiful treats (banana fritters fried in cumin seed) for afternoon tea.   Only a few hours ago we had a delicious lunch! 

I am sitting on the deck writing, looking around this large Punnamany Lake, watching cormorants diving.  As we chugged slowly along an inlet of the backwaters, we saw women washing their clothes, and could hear the distinct loud smack as the wet washing was beaten on the rocks.   People were darting back and forth in wooden canoes from one side to the other, some with umbrellas up.

When it came to lunch time, we tied up amongst some coconut trees and had a great meal various kinds of curries, fish and salad, followed by delicious fresh sweet pineapple, after all that effort it was time for a rest afterwards!

Its warmer hear than it was up in the hills, but still very pleasant and a lovely breeze blowing as we chugalong through the lake.  There are many other houseboats and touring boats around, but the lake is so big we don’t disturb each other.

We are heading for some spot to arrive around 5.30pm – apparently we can buy wine or beer and also if we like can buy prawns for our dinner.  We will certainly check it out and most likely will be tempted!  In the meantime we are being blown around by a tepid breeze - delightful.

What a holiday…. So many different experiences. We have to give full credit to our driver Immanuel who looks after us so well.  He is a very caring fellow, we could not have done this on our own.

Now we have tied up for the night and the discussion of how to get beer or wine has started.  Darn it, we should have brought some with us.  However our crew young men assure us that they can “arrange it”.   The most difficult thing to cope with – as they speak very little English, is the negative head shake which isn’t a negative at all.  
One of the crew said he would go on his motorbike to the bar 10kms away.  John tried to explain that our first choice was a bottle of dry white wine, if that was impossible two large bottles of beer would suffice.  He then asked them if they had a fridge, immediately the negative head shake to which John said alarmed “no fridge”  and they both chorused “yes, yes” so we both then echoed “oh good, you have a fridge then” and the circle started again…..

Anyway, he has just gone off in his longi and thongs - at least he is wearing a helmet - on his motorbike with our money, and borrowed a shopping bag from the houseboat next door.  We wait in anticipation for our apero!

The last hotel was dry, so we have to learn to think ahead. Although we are not really missing wine, and we have a backup bottle of whisky with us for aperos or nightcaps.

Lets see how those prawns come out …  John has asked to watch the cooking and take some photos, so we will see.

Wonderful meal and charming chef!  The chinon blanc was fine and we enjoyed it.  We tied up for the night and had a very peaceful sleep on a very hard bed.  Kind of a surprise to find the shower was cold water, so dodged in and out of it, while John braved it full force!   Very refreshing.  Had a little cruise while breakfasting, nice and cool and peaceful.  When we reached the end of the cruise, Immanuel was as always waiting for us. 

 
Houseboat - Maison/bateau




Tiger prawns - enormous

le chef

Prawn feast


Houseboat



Water buffalo


Hindi temple

view from hotel window
Cotton paradise!





A long drive to Trevandrum – hectic traffic, and sometimes nail biting. Full of admiration for our driver.   We stopped to look at cashew and tamarind trees and to have a coconut fix.  Our driver is determined to educate us and give us the full experience.  What a change coming to a hectic city after those lovely days up in the hill country amongst the plantations.  It’s hot and humid and dusty, as well as colourful and noisy. We attempted to visit a museum, but it was full of school children and we gave up.  Instead we did a quick shop for the children, and started to check out some weaving places.

At Kovalum near Trevandrum, we are staying at the Turtle Beach hotel, which is right on the beach.  They greeted us with a dot on the forehead, a refreshing coconut, a towel and a necklace of shells.  We have a very pleasant large room with a huge covered balcony overlooking the sea.   We sat on the balcony after a delicious dinner and watched a monsoon storm – the wind was raging – whistling and screeching around the hotel, waves thundering and breaking against the shore, very dramatic.   This morning everything is peaceful, the temperature has freshened, but think it will be very humid today, and maybe tiring.  We will walk on the beach and visit weaving centres.



Adding up the cost!!



Saris - what a choice
Choosing a sari for Emmanuel's wife
Then the search to find a weaving centre, again happiness and success.  What a place, there were I guess 10 weavers, most of them women.  As we approached I could hear the flying shuttles clattering.  The looms are built into pits in the earth floor, waist high, the weaver stands in front of the loom, just leaning against the earth wall, working the two pedals, tied-up to 4 harnesses, 1-2/3-4.  Double beams and very fine cotton.  Once again these weavers were making dhotis.  White with a stripe down the sides.  Beautiful cloth.  An old lady sitting cross legged on the earthen floor had a primitive skein winder and was winding cotton directly on to bobbins to keep the weavers going.

Sari weaving centre
They were all very happy to see us, I guess we broke up the monotony of the day, and were delighted to have their photo taken.  We asked one women how much she weaves each day and she said 8 metres (a dhoti is about 5 metres).  And then the question how much was she paid for it?  130 rupees for a dhoti – less than $2 for a day’s work. They seemed to be very happy in their work, and curious and full of smiles for us.  It was a great experience, and wonderful to see how they worked.  I thought about the money later.  A hand-woven Dhoti would sell for about 500-600 rupees in a shop.   The cotton has to be harvested, spun, washed and dyed before going to the looms.  Somebody has to wind the very long warps and thread up the looms.  Then the fabric has to be fulled – steamed perhaps and ironed, and packaged for sale.  So perhaps they do get a reasonable portion of the end price, but so little….



Later we went for a long walk along the beach and watched a fisherman mending his nets with a wooden needle and fine twine. I had a swim and John had is final massage, he said the best one!  Perhaps I should have had a last one too…

Good food here – a great selection of food from different countries as well as Indian food.  Once again we find the staff very caring. Everywhere we go it seems to us that they are dedicated to making us comfortable and happy - talk about service with a smile, everyone is very polite, but there seems to be pleasure in helping us. They love to talk and are curious about us, they ask very direct questions which surprises us sometimes.  This is the beginning of the tourist season so perhaps that explains it! 
They told us that over the Christmas period they get lots of Australians and New Zealanders here, its much cooler then.

So our holiday is coming to an end, what an experience it has been.

We had to go to the airport for check in at 1.30am, what an hour, then hang around as the flight was delayed, taking off eventually at 4.40am.  All very uncomfortable and tiring.

We were so glad to get here to Abu Dhabi after our night time trip – apologising for our early arrival at 7.30am! They sent us to the breakfast restaurant until our room was ready, and we eventually got into our room at 9am.  That shower was good!

Tried to rest a bit, but couldn’t settle so went out for a walk despite the heat (kept in the shade).  Went to a market place, or sort of market place, getting out of the heat for a while.  Back here to rest.  Perhaps we will go and see the grand mosque tomorrow afternoon, Friday is prayer day here, so closed to visitors in the morning.

More photos below:











coconut fix again

Mending fishing nets










Frankincense
Frankincense tree


Hornbill





large insect



Leech treatment










creative?

Food for monkeys

monkey pooh

stranded with the leeches



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