Friday, March 7, 2008

Dinner on a Banana Leaf: The Highlight Reel from Kerala

Written in Cochin, Kerala, India
Posted from Udaipur, Rajasthan, India

After spending five days in Goa trying to understand the bizarre mix of culture and beach that we encountered there, we were ready to go to Kerala. We were excited for the opportunity to actually SEE things in India, rather than walking along the shoreline watching other people watch things. Just like in Bangkok and Sri Lanka, we were lucky enough to have a friend offer his suggestions on what to do in his home state. Nitin, if you are reading this, we want you to know that you absolutely MADE our trip to Kerala. We followed Nitin's itinerary to the letter, doing everything he suggested doing, even staying in the places he suggested we stay. We had an amazing time there, and I feel sad that there's a chance that I'll never be in the place that calls itself "God's Own Country" ever again. It is indeed a holy place and I'm here to tell you why.

Nitin's itinerary was a whirlwind 5-day tour of Kerala that Matt and I elected to stretch into two whole weeks. We didn't rent a car in Kerala (because we are not that crazy) so we had to rely on public busses and tuk-tuks to get us from place to place. Public transportation adds loads of time into any itinerary, and this is particularly true in India. But even though we added an additional 9 days into Nitin's plan, it almost felt too short, because there is just that much to see.

We started out in Fort Cochin, which is basically a city-within-a-city just outside of Kerala's second-largest city. It's an old place, and when you're there, you keenly feel the history all around you. There is a beautiful Catholic Church and old Portuguese mansions. There are canals and chinese fishing nets. Fort Cochin is also home to the oldest synagogue in a British Commonwealth, a fact that Matt and I found particularly interesting as we walked around the section of the city known as Jew Town, filling our noses with the scent of ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon. Walking around Fort Cochin gives you the sense that you've kind of stepped back in time, to a place where the pace in Kerala slows, and where the religious influences of a lifetime ago still hold strong. Being there was oddly surreal.

east india bicycle

After Fort Cochin we boarded our very first vomit comet in the direction of Munnar. After the heat of Fort Cochin, the cool mountain air of Munnar was so unbelievably welcome. We changed into pants and long-sleeved shirts and headed out in the late afternoon to eat our first truly Keralan meal -- dinner on a banana leaf. Literally. They take a banana leaf, throw some rice in the middle, and then surround the rice with all kinds of daals (which are thick lentils stews, basically), and curd (yogurt), pickle (which isn't like a pickle at all, but more of a spicy/sour/salty condiment that you have to develop a taste for), and curries. Everything is vegetarian and everything is eaten with your hands (sorry dad, I know that makes you shudder). In our case, everything was unbelievably delicious. Unfortunately, we were so hungry that we forgot to tae a picture, so you're just going to have to imagine it.

Munnar is where tea is grown. And when I say that I mean that on every available hilly surface, there is a tea plant. You cannot imagine how green it is. I'm not exaggerating at all. It's just the greenest green of greeness that you can possibly imagine, as far as you can see. And it's so stunningly beautiful that even after spending a day soaking it up in its entirety, you just want to stand in awe at the beautiful green all around you. We met the most fantastic rickshaw driver ever, Manish, and for about $30, he spent the day with us, showing us all the beauty that Munnar has to offer. We could have spent a week there, relaxing in the mountain town, hiking amidst the tea plantations. If only we'd had more time!

tea plantation

After Munnar we got back on the REAL vomit comet and went to Periyar, where we were promised a chance to see wild elephants. Well, the elephants weren't interested in being seen, but we did have a chance to drive beautiful jungles and score a look at the largest squirrels in the world. Seriously. They're called Giant Squirrels for a reason. My general philosophy on viewing animals is that when you're in their home, you play when they want to play. And if they don't want to play, you soak up every bit of their home that you can, because a home can say a lot about a creature. The jungle was no exception and Periyar, with its cardomom plantations, enormous coconut palms, and beautiful lakes, was a wonderful place to have a cup of tea. Or seven.

This is What Happens After Seven Cups of Tea

Our guesthouse owner in Perriyar recommended a place for us to stay in Allepey, and although we were skeptical of his enthusiasm, we had no choice but to take his advice when Jose of Katakayam Guesthouse met us at the bus station in Allepey. And thank goodness he did, because the busride to Allepey was one of the hottest and busiest of all of our bus rides and we were really grateful that someone was there waiting for us with a rickshaw and a friendly face. By the end of that evening in Jose's house, we were even more grateful. We spent that night in the company of Jose's three beautifully intelligent boys, all three of whom were in love with Matt from the instant that they met him. And if that doesn't warm a girl's heart, nothing does.

Jose's Boys

The reason we went to Allepey was to experience Kerala's backwaters, which we did on our final two days in the State. We booked a houseboat tour which enabled us to spend 24 hours cruising the narrow lakes and waterways, getting an up-close glimpse of the people who live there. A houseboat looks like something out of Waterworld, but trust me when I tell you that the scenery is much better. You float by coconut and mango trees and kids call out to you, waving hello and asking for a school pen. And if you're lucky, like we were, your hosts are incredible cooks and they help you pick out fresh prawns when a guy on a boat comes by selling fresh prawns. We DID take a picture of that meal.

Houseboat Meal

Our time on the housboat ended way too quickly and before we knew it, we were back on a bus to Cochin, where we spent our last day in Kerala walking around the city of Ernakulam, checking out the incredible shops selling expensive 22K gold jewelry, and satisfying our cravings of home with Pizza Hut.

try and find these toppings at a pizza hut near you

All in all, our time in Kerala was exactly what we hoped it would be. We saw everything we wanted to see (except for the elephants, but I already talked about that) and I felt like I really got the chance to experience the State. We knew that Northern India exists at a different pace than Southern India, and we were really grateful for the chance to have a laid-back couple of weeks in the subcontinent. And of course, we couldn't have had that experience without Nitin, because he made our guidebook virtually useless, he was THAT helpful. Thank you Nitin! Your home is a lovely, wonderful place, filled with people who love it like you do, scenery that makes you rub your eyes its so amazing, and food that makes you stuff yourself until you think you'll explode!


Amanda said...

The scenery is gorgeous and the food sounds yummy!

heather said...

you guys look SO happy and SO healthy! you positively glow!!!