Sunday March 1st
I left for Gatwick Airport at my first Emirates flight to Dubai at 7am. At the airport I met two other London-based bloggers, Pedro and Ana and off we took in the high skies towards the #KeralaBlogExpress tour around Kerala, India.
A couple of movies, one excellent vegetarian meal, one cream tea and several sunset pictures later we picked up four more people to our next flight to Thiruwananthapuram. Kerala. Kerala means literally the land of coconut palms, and a fresh coconut drink was out first refreshment upon arrival. What a lovely start for this adventure!
The welcome committee at the airport was amazing, we felt like Bollywood stars with the official photographers taking pictures of us with our flower bouquets, and having private cars from the Kerala State Tourism escorting us. Needless to say that by the time we arrived at our hotel at 430am, we were somewhat tired, yet still pumped up from all the excitement…
Our hotel The Leela Hotel in Kovalam was beautiful with colonial-style semi-open structure. It’s perched on a cilff-top, with nearly 180 seaside views – and the rooms were sunken on the hill itself. And after a couple of hours of sleep I woke up to a beautiful sunny view of flowers, palm trees and glistering sea.
Monday March 2nd
A day to relax! As we are waiting for the whole global group of 30 people to arrive here, we have a day off today. After a lovely breakfast a group of us headed for a walk and a swim on the beach, and we came across a group of community nursing students. They were really sweet and posed for us a for some beautiful pictures on the beach. We felt like we were doing a fashion shoot on the beach!
My first impressions from India have been nothing but positive – happy and helpful people, great food: i’ve tried about 10 curries from the lunch and dinner buffet (which they told me were mild but my mouth was on fire for ages!) plus at least 15 different desserts (kid you not).
I’ve spend this relaxing day swimming in the warm ocean and even warmer hill-top infinity pool while testing the local mojito offering, participated in a yoga session, watched local dance performance and now a pop band – while listening a Bollywood beach disco on the background. What an interesting day! Can’t really wait to see what tomorrow bring alongs….
Tuesday March 3rd
The tour was officially kicked off by the Kerala Minister of Tourism and then we were off to explore the capital of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram (I dare you to try to learn that name!). Everyone’s been saying that Kerala is different from the rest of India – as I haven’t been to India before I cannot make a comparison, but I can say for sure that Kerala is beautiful, colourful – and full of happy and friendly people.
The key things to see in the capital include the Padmanabhaswamy temple, where inside access is restricted to hindu’s only. This ancient temple is famous for its treasures estimated being worth around US$19 billion due to its history of the Travanacore Royal Family maintaining a temple treasure – accumulating assets during the good times, and in return borrowing in poorer times. This exchanges continued until a few years ago when the state took over the assets.
The other must-see place lies right in front of the golden temple: Kuthira Malika, or Mansion of Horses – the royal palace built by Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma (sadly no photography allowed inside this beautiful building). The palace was left empty for nearly a century following the demise of the Swathi Thirunal in 1846 and opened for visitors 20 years ago. Currently the guided tour covers 20 of the 80 rooms in the palace, and one can get a peek of those 122 famous carved wooden horses in the roof structure.
Food has an important part in the process of truly experiencing a new country and a new culture. Almost everyone’s tried the curries and dahls, however, Indian food back home is not quite the same as in India. First, it’s way spicier, no matter how mild locals are trying to make it for us novices. Secondly, the ingredients are of course fresher, which gives added flavour to every dish.
I was surprised by the wealth of desserts there are also: I might have been in India just two days by far, but I’ve managed to sample more than 20 different cakes and puddings and loved almost every single one of them. Milk pudding, delicate coconut biscuits, saffron, cinnamon, mango. I have fallen in love with local desserts!
Wednesday March 4th
Baby elephants and bigger elephants. The morning highlight was a visit to the Elephant Orphanage in Kappukadu, where the bigger ones were having their morning baths in the lake. We got to join in and hep scrubbing their skin, while learning more about the centre and elephants in general. Certain animals always fascinate people and elephants certainly belong to that category!
Yoga and Ayurvedic treatments also originate from India, and we visited the lush lakeside centre home to the famous Sivananda Institute of Health. This is where people come to be certified as yoga teachers, or study casually yoga or get Ayurvedic treatment. This is no luxury camp, but rather the opposite with its strict rules of practice of simple lifestyle and aim to create a more meaningful life.
We had a session on Yoga and a simple lunch at the centre. I am normally more of a five-star kind of a girl, so this was a new experience for me, eating the traditional way with our fingers and washing up our trays afterwards.
Kerala backwaters consists of a large number of interconnecting lagoons and we got to enjoy a short houseboat ride with tea and cakes before taking on other blogger ‘teams’ on kayaking, and thereafter dressing up for the first time ever in traditional sarees for the cooking demos and dinner. This whole day has been a surprise after another!
Thursday March 5th
This is where the real adventure started: we headed to the backwater houseboats or kettuvallams as they are known to cruise along the canals and rivers – and then to moor for the night in a lagoon. The internet wasn’t quite accessible, so we enjoyed a media-free night, telling stories and singing while enjoying amazing home cooking by our three-man crew. House boats vary in size, and ours, by Rainbow Cruises in Allepey, took three people.
Prior boarding our house boats (which actually used to be rice transportation boats), we were welcome with glasses of fresh lemon juice (very typical drink to be served) and local drumming and dance show. I’ve seen several different kind of performances already here in Kerala and loved their energetic and vibrant tones!
The food on the houseboats was very fresh and despite being simple home cooking, the dishes were some of the best I’ve ever had: starting from local river fish to new vegetables (still trying to find out their names…) to coconut rice, fried bananas and spiced Masala tea to finish it off.
It also helped that the dishes were not at all spicy, as on all previous days the locals kept saying “its a little bit spicy” which mean for us tourists that the mouth was likely to burn and eyes cry for a while! The life in India stimulates certainly all your senses – and I’m loving it all despite the occasionally burning mouth -feeling!
Friday March 6th
After the sunrise, we enjoyed on board of our houseboats a local breakfast: a sort of an omelette and pancakes filled with coconut, banana and cinnamon filling – they were simply delicious! Meanwhile, the journey continued towards the end station peacefully and we were watching the fishermen standing on their narrow boats and setting their nets in the water.
Once we reached the end point of the houseboat tour we were picked up by a smaller, hand-punted boats so we could enter smaller canals to visit the award-winning eco initiative of backwater village touring: There you’re shown how the traditional crafts such as weaving thread from coconut, making bags, panels and other weaves, collecting fresh liquor from a coconut tree and more. It’s great that these traditional skills are still actively maintained and shared with the outside world.
Touring alone these inland waterways, which actually are part of a National Waterway route no 3 (altogether168 km long) gives a good idea what the daily life is like for people, and how important role the water plays in it: most waterfront houses have just tiny bit of land behind them before rice fields start stretching out to the horizon. Besides watering the crops and feeding the animals, the water is being used by people for bathing, laundry, washing dishes, transportation – pretty much for everything!
Our programme continued with kayaking and cycling in the afternoon – and kayaking in these plant-filled canals is not easy at all! I also finally got a taste for the Ayurvedic therapy with a massage using hot oils and heated grain bags. It was as good as I had expected, and with the soft sitar music on the background I was soon drifting away to a relaxed sleep.
Although the houseboats were a great experience, I was more than happy to have a bit of resort life with healing treatments, and then finish the day off in the private pool of my waterside villa in the Zuri Kumarakom Resort and Spa. Now I’m recharged and ready to head towards the northern parts and more mountainous areas!
Saturday March 7th
The only way to describe Indian road traffic is managed chaos. Everyone pass each other despite oncoming traffic, just a few honks of the horn is required prior passing, and the one with the smaller vehicle will normally yield to the side of the road or stop altogether. And those brave pedestrians don’t even flinch when a bus veers and passes them with what looks like a couple of inches away…
We are travelling in a comfy, large bus and until now I’ve been quite comfortable with the traffic. However, today we headed towards the mountains – up to 1400m and down to 1000m on the other side until we reached Thekkady, the heart of the spice country. Picture narrow winding roads, no visibility and our bus passing another bus in a tight turn. I think I cried a few times!
The views on the mountains were spectacular with tropical forests opening in front of our eyes – and later on tea and coffee plantations were stretching into the horizon. As much as I love the colourful, busy buzz of the cities, nothing beats the birdsong and chirping crickets in the wild nature spreading in front of you in their fifty shades of green.
During one of our stops we saw how the latex rubber sap started running once a cut was made to the tree, and how it was collected to a bowl for future use. Our spice tour revealed me that cinnamon and vanilla can be made our of leaves too and not only bark and pods like in other regions. I love it how I learn new things during my travels!
I just love it how Kerala people have gone out of their way to create memorable moments for us: we’ve had music, dance, drinks and greetings everywhere and today was no exception. We’ve even had an elephant lead a celebration in Thekkady and even not-so-brave me managed to feed him a couple of bananas. The highlight of the day was the kalaripayattu show. This ancient form of martial arts is claimed to be even older than kung fu – and certainly looked really impressive.
The next few days are all about the sustainable living, spices, teas and tiger sanctuaries. Let’s hope that I’ll be able to say that I’ve spied with my little eyes an wind tiger (the changes to that as big as winning the lottery but you never know…)
Sunday March 8th
Making friends. Hunting tigers. Escaping monkeys. Boat ride in a tiger reservoir. Indian dance show. Today’s been a relatively calm day. I think what made the difference was that we got to stay in the same hotel for two days and relax a bit more rather that packing our bags again at dawn the next day…So my travelling tip of the day is to have every now and then at least two days in same location!
We kicked the day off with an early morning hike in the Periyat Tiger Reserve. That walk was lovely, although we didn’t see too many animals at the time – and certainly not a tiger. I think it’s good to keep in mind that spotting a tiger is about as likely as winning the jackpot in lottery, or finding that proverbial needle in a haystack: it’s most likely not going to happen.
I’d been asking where all the monkeys are, and after spotting about two of them in the park, they started popping all over the resort, town streets, you name it…even in the fellow blogger’s room! As we are staying in an eco resort, we get to hear the monkeys and other animal all night long through the netted, open windows!
Since we have local guides it’s also easier to get to know more about people around us: families, babies, performers. And then this lovely old gentleman who irons things for the people outside on the streets. I was curious to see how the iron would stay warm, so he opened it and showed the interior filled with hot coals. Haven’t seen one like that before!
What I love about larger hotels and resorts is that they have cultural programs pretty much every day. In the evening we got to enjoy yet another dance performance along with some traditional drumming and sitar music. Soothing and fascinating!
Monday March 9th
Celebration of International Women’s Day in India. Happy to see that progress is made all over the world and at least once a year a little recognition is shown to women everywhere. We were gifted these beautiful carved wooden boxes and fresh fragrant jasmine flower bud chains. Hope everyone else had a lovely celebration also!
Our highlands adventures continue with one of the most anticipated areas: the Munnar tea region. Narrow and winding roads cutting though these short-clipped tea bushes, with high mountain peaks covered in blue mist in the horizon. I love hiking through rows and rows of tea bushes almost as much as drinking tea! Those little pleasures of life…
But, there is a price to pay for this kind of adventures: our larger-than-life bus travelling on roads that back at home would barely take one car with people passing left and right – and then there were the oncoming buses…
And why oh why was I sitting on the window side, staring down few hundred of meters while our bus was backing and trying to pass these buses. Yep, see below, we did pass this bus also right here. Indian traffic is chaos but they certainly are good (or crazy) drivers! This wasn’t quite the kind of experience I was seeking, but certainly one of those that make you appreciate better the roads back home…
Tuesday March 10th
Tea factory. Art. More mountain roads and bustling Cochin. From misty sunrise in Munnar to fiery red sunset by the sea in Cochin. And lots of amazing food, a dip in the pool and some sitar music – yet another day of new experiences.
I was surprised how different the tea production is here compared to nearby Sri Lanka – and as well for the fact that Indian prefer their tea milder, in a powdery dust format rather than as bags of finely chopped leaves.
Luckily the roads to Cochin were wider and less scary, yet the views of lush hills, waterfalls and tea plantations were as breathtaking as on previous days. In Cochin we got to visit the Kochi-Muziris Art Biennale. As it only takes place every other year and only runs until the end of March, we were quite lucky to visit there.
The most memorable piece for me was the above compilation of predictions of how our future will be – based on data from older books and movies. Some of these thoughts were quite scary indeed!
A day starts with a sunrise and ends with a sunset. The Cochin sunset by the beach where the ancient Chinese fishing nets are (still) being used, is a perfect backdrop for a memorable moment like today’s. Add there a large number of stalls and other street vendors and you’ll get a good picture of Kerala’s largest city in full swing…
Wednesday March 11th
Water obviously plays a very important role in Kerala from the sea ports to the backwater waterways, and today was all about water again: a day discovering the new hop-on hop-off water taxi service in air-conditioned boats travelling between several boat stations.
This new air-conditioned service aimed at tourists allows the exploration of several sites from Bolgatty to Fort Cochi and explore is what we did today. They say that it’s still winter here in India but I’m feeling like the hottest summer day Italy!
A day by the water always seems a bit more relaxing for me than walking around a city, and combined with tuk-tuk adventures, waterside restaurant stops and learning about the new discovery (and soon-to-be tourist site) of the ancient cities of Muziris.
My trip started from the seaside and it also ended in the seaside – sadly I had to change the agenda and make it a bit shorter, but that’s life. As they say; carpe diem – cease the moment and enjoy it to the fullest and live for the moment! In that spirit I even made a cameo appearance as myself in this last photo, which normally only happens once in a blue moon…
Disclosure: This trip was sponsored and part of the Kerala Tourism #KeralaBlogExpress 2 -initiative. All opinion expressed here are my own and are based on my personal experiences in Kerala.