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.”
And so we had our itinerary. I did spend quite some time investigating possibilities, comparing hotels, and reading about destinations. In the end, we did pretty much what Sandhya had prescribed.
And I fell in love with Kerala. It reveals my Pacific Northwest bias to say that I called it “the Oregon of India.” But if you replace old growth forests with tea plantations in the mountains and fir trees with coconut palms at the ocean, you’re not too far off. Common to both regions is the desire to preserve the treasure that is their natural beauty.
Chennai in the last week of September was still uncomfortably hot and humid when we took the overnight Trivandrum Mail train from Chennai Central to Ernamkulam. (More about the train ride and our lessons learned later). Sandhya had arranged for her father’s driver to meet us at the train station. He didn’t speak much English, but he was steady and reliable all week long.
We arrived impressively on schedule at 7:30 on a Saturday morning and drove for about an hour. We passed out of the city and through a toll booth that amounted to a row of young boys, each tending a lane and tossing his collected coins into a plastic bin at his side. Then we stopped for a long-awaited breakfast at the Royale County Hotel on the KRL Road in Tripunithura. The South Indian-style buffet was quite satisfying; the coffee was the best we’d had yet.
And then we were on our way up into the fresh mountain air of Kerala.
Our driver’s stop at an organic spice farm was certainly a marketing move, but we didn’t mind, particularly as we had signaled the need for a bathroom break some thirty minutes prior. We signed on for a tour of the Kerala Farm spice plantation, which turned out to be both interesting and educational. I’d never before seen coffee trees, cocoa pods, cardamom, clove, allspice, turmeric, and nutmeg growing in the field, or the host of other herbal plants indicated by our able guide, Matthew Joseph.
We learned that red, green, and black peppercorns all come from the same tree. The means of processing them determines the color. Black peppercorns, the hottest, are sun dried. White peppercorns, the least hot, are put into hot water and peeled. Green peppercorns are dried in a dryer.
Nutmeg grows on a tree, below. Matthew told us that the green exterior is used for medicine.
There were plants I had heard of but never seen …
And the totally unfamiliar …
An especially unexpected attraction was the fish massage. For 200 rupees (about three dollars), you can sit with your legs in a tank full of little fish from Thailand, while they nibble away dead skin and generally rejuvenate you. Brianna put her hands in and, to my surprise, was quite keen on the experience. For several days she kept asking to go back for a full foot fish massage, but Kerala Spice Farm was well off our route by then. Next time.
Of course, after the tour we had the opportunity to purchase spices and herbal preparations in the outlet shop.
Alas, the Neela Amari irritated my scalp, and the Ashwagandhadi lehyam gave me a stomach ache. But it was worth a try–and maybe they would help someone with fewer sensitivities. The cocoa powder we bought is quite good, and in the absence of a coffee maker, the instant coffee we bought is … not bad. We still have hopes for the arthritis ointment and headache therapy we bought for people back home.
In any case, natural agriculture is something we consider worth supporting, even if it is a tourist draw. Matthew Joseph told us that the farm has been operating as a destination for fifteen years and that they process all their products themselves in the valley below the hillside on which the farm is located.
We stepped out of the shop into a rain forest downpour. We had enjoyed our tour, but by now we were eager to reach our hotel and some comfortable beds. Next stop: The tea fields of Munnar.