A Week in God’s Own Country–Stop 1: Kerala Farm Organic Spices

When we told our friends in Chennai we wanted to do some sightseeing, they all said, “Go West–to Kerala!”

“Never heard of it,” we said.

“It’s beautiful,” they replied.

While we were mulling over this possibility, we met a fellow hotel guest who happened to be from Kerala. I told Sandhya we were thinking of visiting Kerala, and she turned travel agent on the spot.

“You must go. It’s like nothing else you’ll see in India. First you should go to Munnar, spend two nights, then to Thekkady, take a boat ride and stay a night in the tiger preserve, then Marari Kollam, and then a night on a houseboat.” Continue reading

St. Thomas Mount and the Holy Apostles Convent and Baby Home

St. Thomas Mount, situated near the Chennai airport, is the closest historical site to the Radisson Blu Hotel, where we spent the first five weeks of our stay in India. Having visited sites all over the city, it seemed obligatory to tour the Mount before moving to our apartment an hour away.

Accordingly, Brianna and I booked a cab and set off for the hill which is said to be the place where the Apostle Thomas often spent time in prayer and where he was martyred. We shortly turned off the busy six-lane street that runs past the hotel and into the tree-lined winding lanes of the army cantonment first established by the British.

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A Week in God’s Own Country, Stop 2: Munnar

I’m a bit embarrassed to realize that after drafting this post last October, I never published it. So here it is, the continuing story of one of our favorite parts of our India sojourn:

The driver arranged by my new Indian friend living in Moscow met us promptly at the train station in Cochin. We made directly for the mountains, after stopping for breakfast at the Royale County Hotel on the KRL Road in Tripunithura. The servers waited most attentively, and the South Indian-style buffet was quite satisfying; the coffee was the best we’d had yet.

Then on to Munnar, stopping first at the Kerela Farm described in A Week in God’s Own Country, Stop 1. I had read in a guide book that the primary reason to visit Munnar is the tea fields. Without my friend’s urging, I might have left it off the itinerary; I’m so glad I didn’t.

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The tea plantations are stunning, like driving through mile after mile of landscaped gardens. The carefully groomed hundred-year-old plants grow in tightly spaced rows, with tall eucalyptus trees at intervals like gangly adolescents, to provide shade. The sight of so much green, largely undefiled by litter and combined with the cool mountain air, was a balm to my spirits after the heat and bustle of Chennai.

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The Westwood Hotel had been a somewhat blind choice of lodging, based on its reasonable pricing, proximity to the city, and location beside the Muthirapuzha River. It turned out to be a good choice, with accommodating staff, Old-World-style wood interior …

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A sort of faux stairwell under a sky light, looking down from the fourth floor.

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Atrium painting on the fourth floor.

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a wide selection of good food …

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Sweet stuffed rice balls–kozhukatta (I think)

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Good ol’ American pancakes

a secluded garden …

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a touch of elegance …

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Decorative bath towel folding seems to be a feature of Indian hotels.

and a view off our balcony of not only the light of the town but two spreading hills covered with a tea plantation.

Westwood hotel from the rear (on left).

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View of town from our balcony.

Balconey view across the river

Balcony view across the river

We crossed the river and spent one morning exploring the tea fields.

Bridge from the Westwood (on the right)

Bridge from the Westwood (on the right)

In addition to the neatly groomed tea plants, we met with an array of plant and animal life including cows, butterflies, and a profusion of wildflowers.

These butterflies were congregated at the same spot on the path, both going and coming.

These butterflies were congregated at the same spot on the path, both going and coming.

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While we were walking a fog rolled in, and soon we were enveloped in a misty drizzle.

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A lot like Oregon, but warmer.

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Our walk took us up a hill to the Chokanad Tea Factory.

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According to an October 2010 article in one of India’s major newspapers, The Hindu, the Kenan Devan Hills Plantation (KDHP) company modernized the factory to produce the “premium” Chokanad Gold brand of tea in 2010. For more about KDHP, see the next post, on the Tea Musem.

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In addition to trekking excursions of various lengths (including a night safari) and ayurvedic massage, the Westwood offers coaching in at least a dozen different kinds of arts and crafts, all under the guidance of a Mathanlal, who is a definite asset to the establishment. He is responsible for the wall paintings in diverse styles adorning the fifth-floor community room. (See also the “God’s Own Country” painting above.)

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We engaged Mathan’s services after our tea garden expedition, little knowing that we would ultimately end up with two frame-able pieces of fabric art.

This was the second piece, a Kerala houseboat, which you’ll recognize in a later post.

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Mathan began by demonstrating paint mixing methods and painting the left half of the picture.

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He turned it over to Brianna for the right half of the scene.

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The co-artists, after Mathan blended the two halves and added some finishing touches. Note another of his murals in the background.

In addition to his artist talents, we appreciated visiting with Mathan. We learned a  great deal about his family, the tea plantations, and life in Kerala. Mathan’s parents are both tea planters, but his father recently wrote and published a non-fiction book for young people. Mathan and his brother do educational programs in villages for children.

We highly recommend the Westwood. It is both quiet and convenient, with an all-purpose store down the street, as well as a reasonably priced tourist shop for last-minute gifts. If you’re looking for a different kind of experience, though, there was a homestay just down the street from the Westwood. It stood side by side with two other houses featuring Christian motifs of some sort, ranging from Bible verses on their signage to the names on the gates:

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“Joy Villa”

“Emmanuel Cottage”

We stayed close to the hotel for the most part, but a visit to tea country didn’t seem complete without a stop at the Tea Museum. See the next post, A Week in God’s Country, Stop 3.

Dakshinachitra Heritage Museum

Dakshinachitra is a gem–a beautifully executed exhibition of South Indian culture about an hour south of Chennai on the East Coast Road. Brianna and I and two of her friends four hours there. We could have stayed all day, touring the authentic homes reconstructed in the midst of clean, landscaped grounds, viewing the art gallery, doing crafts. And we didn’t even make it to the playground or the bookstore.

The various museum buildings comprise Hindu, Muslim, and Christian homes that formerly belonged to merchants, agriculturalists, and fishermen. Well-placed placards in English and Tamil provide just the right amount of information on the architecture and interiors.   Continue reading

Sunny Sistems, The Art Company

A few weeks ago Brianna and I were wandering about in the vicinity of Gandhi Nagar in Adyar (Chennai) in search of a bookstore and/or ice cream, when we passed a sign for Sunny Sistems, The Gallery. I started to pass by the residential-type building in pursuit of our mission. But, curious, and thinking it could be a good place to ask directions, we turned back.

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Books in Chennai, Part III: Higginbotham’s

This third post on Books in Chennai is a bit delayed, but the visit wound up the week that included visits to two other literary destinations, chronicled in Books in Chennai, Part I: Anna Centenary Library and Starmark  and Books in Chennai, Part II: Kid Lit.

Higginbotham’s, reputedly India’s oldest extant bookstore, was established in 1844 by Abel Joshua Higginbotham. Despite the fact that the establishment looks a little the worse for wear–both inside and out–I made some good book discoveries. (If you don’t have time to read the whole post, skip to the end–I saved the best for last.)

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India-in-Your-Pocket Cookbooks

We’ve enjoyed Indian food so much that I wanted to take some cookbooks back with me, both to use myself and to share with friends. However, a couple of hardcover cookbooks with glossy pages and color photos can really weigh down one’s luggage. So I was delighted to find a collection of pocket-sized cookbooks at the Phoenix Mall Starmark last week. They feature full color illustrations (so you know what you’re making), measurements in American quantities, and a variety of recipes ranging from simple snacks to complex entrees.

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