“Any thoughts on what you’re planning to do for your parents’ 50th wedding anniversary? It’s kind of a big deal.”
“How about we take them on a trip somewhere they’ve never been?”
Finding a new place in India where your Indian in-laws haven’t been can be kind of a challenge. Even more so when they’ve spent the better part of their retirement making a point to visit new corners of the country.
There was one area that had been on their list for a while (and ours too, frankly) that we just had to make happen: green and lush Kerala.
Where the boys get blessed by an elephant and the blond curly-haired dude gets volunteered to participate in a traditional warrior exhibition.
The Indian state of Kerala is located in the lowest southwest corner of the country.
This, by far, was the furthest south I’ve been and it was interesting contrasting the life in this hilly area of tea and spice plantations to what you see in the north.
We flew into one of the larger coastal cities of the region: Kochi. While still being a bustling city, it felt cleaner and a bit more organized than some of its northern counterparts.
There are parts of the large metropolitan cities in the north where you can see real-life scenes that make Slumdog Millionaire look like a movie set.
In Kochi, I don’t remember seeing any stray dogs or cows roaming around. Very few people looked like they were living in complete destitution on the streets or under bridges. I think the population density is just a lot less in this part of the country as well.
There are also churches everywhere. Our guide mentioned something like one-third of the population in Kerala practices Christianity.
When we visited the oldest European church in India, we saw the gravestone of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, who died in Kochi in 1524 on his third visit to India.
The crazy part is his remains remained at this church for 14 years until they shipped them back to Portugal, where I had seen them in Lisbon about a year earlier! (In probably the most beautiful Monastery I have ever seen).
From Kochi, we headed inland through hilly and lush landscapes toward Munnar – the roads lined with wild poinsettia.
Between the road and the mountain tops off in the distance were terraced tea plantations. The most brilliant of greens were only interrupted by the light colored smocks worn by the field workers dotted throughout the landscape.
Tea is big business these days and was brought to this area by early British settlers. I guess wild tea bushes usually grow to tree height but these are purposefully hedged waist-high so they can be easily plucked by hand.
We even did a tour of a tea factory.
It was hard not to be completely transported into an idyllic fairy tale world given the endless green and blue hues and lack of civilization or industry.
From Munnar we headed south to Thekkady. There aren’t any highways in this part of the country so travel by car, while full of gorgeous scenery, remains a slow and winding affair.
One of the highlights was taking breaks at roadside stops and getting fresh fruit and lassi shakes of mango, banana, or pineapple.
Thekkady is home to the Periyar National Park. I think they changed the name from Periyar Tiger Reserve because while they boast a huge number of wild tigers, elephants, and a whole host of other big game animals, our tour and boat ride left us largely bird- and monkey-watching.
I kind of got the feeling that this was very much a tourist town for natives. We really didn’t encounter many non-Indians or Westerners. Instead, we met people from other states who were just on holiday during their winter break.
As a result, there is a little tourist park area that caters to a variety of interests. You could take a jeep safari, visit an elephant park, or attend special artistic performances. One is a sampling of Kalaripayattu – apparently the world’s oldest martial art that gave birth to Shaolin kung fu and jiu jitsu.
Our hotel was in the middle of a cardamon field where I overheard staff complaining that the night before a herd of wild elephants had tromped through and destroyed a large swath of their spice fields.
Within this area, it’s apparent that the most valuable resource are the things that grow from the fertile ground. Our guide spoke about and pointed out examples of wild honey bees, rubber tree forests, the whiffs of eucalyptus, and the variety of birds that lived in the area.
We opted for one of the more memorable experiences to round out the last days of our tour. Kerala is known for its scenic backwaters and houseboat tours.
You can hire a crew and stay overnight in one of these bee-hive looking houseboats.
It’s great fun and the crew does everything from drive the boat, to serving all meals, down to the nightly turn-down service.
Be sure to watch the video for the full effect. These giant boats, each with their own silhouette, lumber past each other and the rice paddy fields.
Kerala is a nice change of pace from the bustle and hustle of other more northerly states. The entire state is green, lush, and generally unspoiled.
The food is top notch. You can find excellent dosa, idli (for breakfast) and sambars. And the weather is absolutely perfect, if not a little on the warm side. Averages are low 70’s to upper 80’s through most of the year. The buses in Kochi were open air (no windows) with nothing but curtains to shade from the sun.
Overall, I’d give Kerala a giant thumbs up and would definitely recommend a visit if you ever find yourself in India.