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Kerala - An A to Z of a Remarkable Indian State
Member Name: koshkha
Date: 14/01/12, updated on 14/01/12 (71 review reads)
Advantages: A wonderful part of India
Disadvantages: Not what you want if you're looking for Mughal palaces and mausoleums
A is for Ayurveda
Having an Ayurvedic massage in the hill town of Munnar was one of the most painful and uncomfortable experiences I've had in India - only slightly preferable to diarrhoea or a railway station toilet. However the general principles of Ayurveda are sound - and a lot less reliant on mumbo jumbo, mathematical improbability and faith than its more popular and better known cousin, homeopathy. Ayurveda is an Indian system of traditional herbal and mineral healthcare which is also popular in Sri Lanka. We spent a painful hour being beaten up by an Ayurvedic masseur and masseuse in a small centre and it took me about three days to shake off the aches and pains. It's entirely possible that my chakras were beautifully realigned but I felt like I'd done 9 rounds with Mohammed Ali.
B isfor Beena's Homestay
When planning my trips to India - or anywhere else for that matter - I'm quite reliant on the recommendations of the tripadvisor website. The top tip I picked up for accommodation in Kerala's major city Cochin (or Kochi) was Beena's Homestay. Beena and her husband let spotlessly clean but simple rooms in their home, feed you 'til you think you'll burst each evening, and offer a lovely alternative to budget hotels. Yes, of course a full review will follow but for now, let's just say this is the best bargain in southern India and a chance to stay with some of the nicest, kindest people you'll ever meet.
C is for Cardamoms
I adore the taste of cardamoms - I put them in rather a lot of my cooking. They're one of those 'crossover' spices that can be used in sweet or savoury dishes, are ludicrously cheap and grow like weeds all over the hills of Kerala. I'd hazard a guess that most people wouldn't have a clue how they grow but if you go to Kerala you'll be told at least once a day and people will stop and point out cardamom plants by the road side. They grow on plants that look a bit like palms and are found on stringy growths near the base of the stem that look a bit like the aerial roots on orchids. I read somewhere that cardamom is the third most expensive spice in the world but that sounds ridiculous, especially since they grow like weeds all over the Kerala countryside.
D is for driving and drivers
The mountains of Kerala have horribly bad roads. If you ask whether they drive on the right or the left side of the road, the answer is neither; they drive wherever the pot holes are less deep. The tracks through the tea plantations around Munnar are shocking even in a four-wheel drive Jeep. Doing hair pin bends in reverse in a vehicle with the threads sticking out of the sidewalls of the tyres is for the brave or foolish.
E is for Elephants
Elephants are the state animal of Kerala and they have three thousand five hundred wild ones wandering around as well as massively more tamed beasts who work in the logging industry and tourism. We had a short ride in Thekkady and it was by far the best elephant ride I've had due to the lovely Nelly we had (her name was Lakshmi) and mostly due to the type of saddle used in Kerala. Unlike the more popular basket-style frames that are used in the tourists traps of Rajastan where you sit sideways in a metal cage that lurches from side to side, or the strange forward facing metal 'sofa' type seats in Thailand, the Keralans let you sit astride the elephant with a leg down either side and your feet on a metal bar with lots of padding between you and the elephant. It helps to be of above average height as short people and children can slip around if they can't reach the foot bars. Being astride the elephant offers some 'interesting' differences from the other seating types - most notably that when the elephant farts (which they do a lot - high fibre diet and all that) you can feel the entire elephant vibrate.
F is for Fishing and Fish
Kerala is a coastal state and they have the most fabulous fish which is typically presented as a spicy 'Kerala fish fry'. Whilst I normally eat strictly vegetarian food in India to avoid the risk of tummy upsets, I ate fish throughout Kerala, even up in the mountains and on the backwaters and I even had the odd prawn a couple of times on the coast. Cochin is famous for its use of so-called 'Chinese fishing nets' - an historic form of fishing in which large stretched nets are dipped into the water and then raised out again by the use of counterweights. For a small fee the fisherman are more than happy to demonstrate their highly photogenic technique. The fish market beside the fishing nets offers even more good photo opportunities and a chance to get a really fresh lunch of dinner.
G is for Green and Gods Own Country
Kerala is green, very green. Why? Because it rains all the time up in the mountains and quite often down by the coast as well. It's astonishingly lush. The state slogan is 'God's Own Country' because it's a majority Christian state but in reality most of the time God has to share it with the Communists who until very recently dominated local politics. The Communist Party of India seems to rub along surprisingly well with the Church which is more than can be said in any of the other Communist strongholds or ex-strongholds around the world. My guess is that if you're a Christian and your choice of political parties is a bunch of Hindu or Muslim groups, your enemies enemy might just be your friend.
H is for Hill Stations
Throughout India when the weather gets hot, those who can afford to head for the hills. With altitude comes respite from the heat and for Kerala the most famous of the Hill Stations is Munnar though Wikipedia lists 16 different Kerala Hill Stations. Munnar is the least overtly 'British' hill station that we've visited and it's not actually a terribly attractive place. However it does have lots of great scenery, some interesting and some ridiculously bizarre attractions and it's certainly a lot cooler than down by the sea.
I is for Irritating Sales People
OK, it's fair to say that this applies to most of India and not just Kerala. There is little more annoying that being followed round a shop by someone trying to be helpful but most of the time just stating the 'bleedin' obvious'. If your eye should glance a moment to long in one direction, they'll be there telling you what it is, whether you're interested or not. I always feel like they think I'm going to shop lift. The fact that you express absolutely no interest and sometimes even state explicitly that you don't care what the price is you wouldn't give house room to the ugly macramé elephant will not come between the irritating sales person and his or her determination to sell you things that you don't want.
J is for Jewtown
Jewtown is the district of Kochi in the direct vicinity of the Paradesi Synagogue, an area which was once inhabited by the wealthy, historic Jewish community but is now mostly filled with shops run or owned by Kashmiri traders. The Paradesi Jews are a dying community with no prospect to make it beyond the middle of the 21st century because they've been so exclusive about not marrying outside their community and the only remaining woman of child bearing age refuses to wed her cousins. We were there on a Friday, the worst possible day if you want to see the Synagogue because it's closed but the best day to do a bit of shopping because nobody goes there when the Synagogue isn't open. We spent a lovely few hours eating, drinking and chatting to the most relaxed bunch of low-hassle shop keepers in the sub-continent. I have a weakness for Kashmiris and their stores because they always have the best stock and as a rule are utterly charming.
K is for Kathikali
If you only take away one piece of advice from this review let it be this - life is too short and too precious to watch Kathikali dancing. It's the most ridiculous form of dance I've seen anywhere in the world and also the most boring (though the Catalan 'Sardana' comes close). We went to a demonstration the first time we went to Kerala and vowed never to do it again. Our driver - the man who bullied us into Ayurvedic massage - worked out very quickly that whilst we were probably the most laid-back and amenable clients he'd ever had, when we said 'NO KATHIKALI' we meant it.
L is for the Lack of Beggars
I know, bizarre, but we didn't see a single beggar in Kerala. It might be something to do with the state having the highest level of education and literacy anywhere in India and a pretty good level of income, and no doubt being on the coast with direct flights to the Middle East means a lot of money comes into the state from families sending a son or two to the Gulf to earn money.
M is for moustaches
Every good Keralan man has a moustache. To be more precise, every good Keralan man has the SAME moustache. It's an excellent bushy thing that goes all across the top of the lip and droops a bit down either side.
N is for the Nilgiri Tahr
The Nilgiri Tahr is a goat that lives in Eravikulam National Park, quite possibly the lamest national park in India and they have some pretty daft one. Despite the park being massive, you're only allowed to walk along one piece of tarmac path which is about half a mile long. So we waited over an hour to get the bus from the ticket office to the park, paid ten times more than the locals, walked half a mile, saw a goat, walked back, waited an hour for another bus and then went back to Munnar. The goat was nice enough - I suspect it was fed in the same spot every day to ensure people got to see one - and it must have been a deaf goat to put up with dozens of Indians shouting "Oy, look! It's a goat, let's shout at it"
O is for Orange Pekoe
The mountainsides of Kerala are coated in tea bushes which look like fuzzy green corduroy. We visited the Kolukkumalai tea estate and were shown around the factory which produces the highest altitude organic tea in the world. The standard quality grade is known as BOP or Broken Orange Pekoe. OK, it's a tenuous 'O is for' but it's the only one I could think of.
P is for Pancakes
Beena's husband at the homestay in Cochin makes the most fabulous Kerala pancakes. We had them on the rice barge we stayed on on the backwaters but didn't realise just how wonderful they could be. Sudi's fresh hot pancakes stuffed with sweet coconut paste were so good that I ate four - I think my husband ate six. If there had been more I think we'd have eaten those too.
Q is for Quiet Places
In a very loud country, it's hard to find quiet places and the most typical sound is that of car horns blaring. We stayed in four different place in Kerala and every one was quiet and peaceful. I slept like a log.
R is for Roman Catholicism
You can almost always tell the religion of a driver in India by looking at what's dangling off his rear view mirror or sitting on the dashboard. Our driver Shijo asked us on the first morning in his broken English "Madame is Arsey?" - Yes, I thought to myself, perhaps she is but that's not the way to go about getting a good tip. Then the penny dropped - Arsey - RC - Roman Catholic. So not quite so insulting after all. The strange thing about Kerala Roman Catholicism is that even the new churches (we saw one built only a few years ago) have all their icons looking distinctly European. I've seen churches in Tamil Nadu where they've changed the skin colour to make the saints look a little more 'local' but oddly in Kerala they don't seem to do that. And we saw a LOT of churches.
S is for Spices
Kerala is the spice state of India, benefiting from lots of sun and rain and a superb climate for things to grow. We visited a spice garden near Munnar and even small towns have spice shops, with the larger cities groaning under the weight of little packets of chillies, cardamoms, pepper, cinnamon and spice mixes like garam masala.
T is for Thekkady
Thekkady is another high altitude town and the jumping off point for the Periyar wildlife park, lake and tiger reserve. We didn't see any of these - I think our driver was stressed about us being put in a crazy hotel over an hour's drive from the town and he wanted to get there before it got dark (because he didn't know where he was going). There are some fabulous luxury hotels, lots of elephant-things to do and plenty of shops. But that's about it.
U is for Unionisation
I already mentioned under G that the communists have run Kerala for many years and consequently a lot of the workers are in unions. One Kashmiri shop keeper told us about his uncle who came to visit and refused to ever return after being royally ripped off by the porterage charges at the airport. He told us that in Kerala you can't haggle about prices for services as much as elsewhere because drivers, porters, dhobiwalas, etc have formed unions and won't undercut each other. We certainly found that a lot of tuk tuk drivers weren't open for negotiation - if you wouldn't pay their price, they wouldn't take you. Fortunately not all were so inflexible but it's good to know roughly what you should pay and then stick to your guns, even if it means having to ask 2 or 3 drivers before you get one that'll take your price.
V is for Vasco da Gama
St Francis Church in Cochin is also known as the Vasco da Gama church. I was surprised to learn that I could see Vasco da Gama's tomb because I had a sneaky suspicion I'd seen it before - in Lisbon. Sure enough, poor old Vasco was buried in St Francis, the oldest church in India after he die in 1524 on his third trip to India. Then a few years later his body was taken back to Lisbon and put in a beautiful tomb in the church next to the Jeronimos Monastery.
W is for Water
There's a lot of water in Kerala - the coast, the backwaters with their islands of reclaimed lands, waterfalls throughout the mountains and rather a lot of rain.
X is for Ex-pat houses
Throughout the mountains we saw lots of enormous fancy houses, often set in large garden plots. Very rarely was there much evidence that anyone actually lived there. We asked Beena in Cochin what this was all about and she explained that most of these houses were built with money sent back to the families by relatives working in the Gulf. She told us that if you build a big house with your money, you can pretty much guarantee good marriage offers for all your daughters. It seems a shame that the best houses are mostly just for show. Ironically, you see similar behaviour in the countryside of Portugal where relatives go to Brazil and send back money to build big villas. In contrast to the grandeur of the ex-pat houses, I saw one little house, not much bigger than a garage with a neatly painted little sign that said 'Lal Bhawan'. My Hindi is pretty poor but I'm pretty sure that means 'precious palace'.
Y is for Yes
If someone asks you if you want to go to Kerala - well that's the answer "Yes, of course"
Z is for ZigZags
Yes, another tenuous one but the mountains do have a lot of hair-pin bends.
So that's your lot. What are you waiting for? Kerala is one of the least hasslesome states of India, the people are friendly but not pushy, the food is excellent and inexpensive and the scenery is spectacular. There aren't too many states where you can spend time on the beach, time on a converted rice-barge floating around on the backwaters, and get to high altitude and see fabulous mountains and hang out with elephants.
Summary: We loved it - absolutely loved it