31st March ’10. A few days back, I was mentioning to a friend of mine – Kerala is actually not ‘Gods’ own country’ during summers. Today as I sit by the window of a state transport bus bound towards Ernakulam from Munnar, I take back my statement. The cool gusts of evening breeze from the omnipresent coconut and Banana trees, the winding roads cutting through the Western Ghats, the narrow age old over-bridges on the canals and water-ways, the yellow haze of the sun as dusk sets in and the distinct architectural splendor portrayed by each of houses round the corner – Cruising in 80s on the barely twenty feet wide ghat roads, I realize there’s something ethereal about this place as I’m left to the mercy of the short mustached man behind the wheels.
I just got back home from a long – or should I say, very long trip from deep down south. This for one was way too different from my regular trips. There was quite an element of predictability and specific destinations and timelines were charted out even before I left Hyderabad. But looking back at the places that I’ve covered during this 17 day vacation and more so the short yet invaluable time I got to spend at each of these distinct locations, I’m more than glad things turned out the way they did!
The informal TFI meet at Pune on the 20th, for which I’d made last minute bookings and changes in my itinerary was quite worth the trouble taken. Though only about 30 folks turned up, the diversity in the group was quite evident. The ’09 fellows seem to be as excited as we ‘freshers’ were and I’m sure there’s a lot we’re going to learn from their experiences in the next couple of months. As we get to know a bit more about each other three hours just flew by. At about 19:00hrs I head to ‘Park street’ to meet couple of my old friends. A late evening dinner in a plush restaurant and I call it a day. The next day even before dawn sets in, I head to Deccan Gymkhana to watch a Basketball tournament of a friend of mine and the rest of the day is spent visiting old pals from the ‘Pune days’. At about 19:30hrs I barely make it to the station to board the Kanyakumari Express to head to Palakkad. The 32hour journey begins…
22nd March ’10 – 23rd March ’10 | Palakkad – Pallavur
As the train traverses through the four states – Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and finally Kerala, People move in and move out of the compartment. Apparently it looks as if I’m the only one in the compartment who’s completing the whole journey. At about 01:00hrs on 23rd, the train finally chugs into the Palakkad station. I decide to spend the next couple of hours in the station itself. At about 03:30hrs unable to get some sleep, I walk out. We once used to have a hotel here right outside the Railway station. Given the close proximity, there always used to be a flurry of activity at the hotel. Today as I stand by the land, I see that the place seems to have changed quite a lot and there are no signs of our once ancestral house. It’s a bit disturbing to find the house missing there and the present owner seems to have no plans to renovate the place. Its all shrubs and bushes. I wish we atleast had a photograph of the house and hotel before demolishing it…With a heavy head I walk over to the Olavakkode junction. A rick from here takes me to the Town bus stand.
23rd March ’10 – 24th March ’10| Pallavur – Killakotura
I leave Pallavur that evening after meeting Paruammai at about 18:00hrs and board a bus that I presumed would take me to Palakkad. After about half an hour I realise I was heading in the wrong direction and hop off in a town called Killakotura. A few checks with the village folks and I get to know that the last bus from there to Palakkad just left. I’m left with no other option but to camp at the village. I wander about for sometime and finally manage to find a decent looking lodge. The manager offers a room with ‘All facilities’ for 125 bucks. When asked about food in the whereabouts, he says he could send it over to the room. I happily accept and enter the room. For a small village as this, this was quite a luxurious room with TV and Air conditioning! At about 20:30hrs there’s a knock on the door. As I open it, a lady stands there with a food plate. She keeps the food on the table and asks – ‘Ethra manickura? [How many hours?]‘. I instantly reply back in my primitive malayalam – ‘Night stay aana’ [I'll be staying overnight]. And then it looms on me where exactly all this was going! She walks out of the room and in a couple of minutes comes in with the manager. This chap re-verifies and finally when he realises what exactly has happened, he instantly says – ‘Zhorry..Zhorry’ ‘[Sorry..Sorry] ‘ and walks out with the lady! I gulp the food with a vow to be on gaurd next time when someone says accommodation would be available with ‘All facilities’!
The next day morning I checkout at about 07:00hrs and head aimlessly through the village. At about 10:00hrs I manage to find a bus that would take me towards Palakkad. I change buses in between and finally reach Palakkad at about 14:00hrs. The next checkpoint was Trivandrum which was about 10hrs from Palakkad by train. I decide to cover this distance during the night and explore parts of Palakkad in the state transport bus. It was kinda good to just hop into buses aimlessly and just see where the bus was going. At about 21:00hrs I head back to Palghat Junction, have a light dinner, board Amritha Express and crash for the day.
25th March ’10 – 27th March ’10 | Trivandrum
Nothing much done during these three days. I scrap all backpacking plans and just spend time at my grand mom’s place. The heat was literally beating the pulp out of me and I decided to take it easy. Went out for real long evening walks though, exploring parts of Trivandrum figuring out short cuts only to avoid them the next day! TVM had its first monsoon shower on 26th and it literally lashed the whole town – A much needed break from the heat!
28th March ’10 – 29th March ’10 | Ernakulam – Vaikom – Kumarakom – Kottayam
A friends wedding was on 29th at Vaikom. I decide to leave TVM on 27th and reach Ernakulam on 28th so as to catch up with two other friends of mine – Adi and Abi who were coming over from Hyderabad. At about 07:00hrs we board a bus from Ernakulam. It takes about an hour and a half to reach Vaikom and eventually the Guest house where we were put up. We head out to the Shiva temple and then for Breakfast. As I walk through the streets, a sense of belonging looms in. Despite Vaikom being my Maternal ancestors place, I’ve never been here before. My Mom and her siblings grew up here but I wasn’t really able to trace out our ancestral land.Realising there wasn’t much I could do, I just felt contented that I could visit this place during this year.
Sushma – Another friend and Raji – the bride tun up in an hour or so. Time flies by as we catch up with the latest happenings in our lifes. We were meeting these folks after two and a half years and it already looks as if things have changed so much! As we meet more of her friends and family members we’re humbled by the hospitality we’re given. The day is dramatically wound up with a last minute shopping for ‘mundus‘ and Raji’s mehndi ceremony. The wedding next day is swiftly completed in two hours flat and we’re served a lip smacking lunch at the temple ‘sadya’. This wedding turned out to be one of the best ever weddings I’ve attended till date – short, sweet and no unnecessary fuss. Evening at about 15:00hrs we decide to head towards Kumarakom.
For want of time, we decide to engage a rick. and head to Kumarakom directly. For about 250 bucks, we’re shuttled from Vaikom over to this place in about an hour. We engage a boat for about an hour and a half for 450bucks and cruise through the backwaters and the Vembanad lake. I’m not really in for leisure ‘relaxing’ rides. Such rides would best be enjoyed when you’re with your family or with a big group of friends. Nevertheless the ride was quite a stress buster and helped us wind out from all the travel related strain. A refreshing cup of coffee at the Kerala tourism department restaurant and we head over to Kottayam. Adi and I were to stay put at this place while Abi had to catch a Hyd bound train. We manage to find a decent lodge for 400bucks and crash out.
30th March ’10 – 31st March ’10 | Kottayam – Muvattupuzzah – Kothamangalam – Munnar -Udamalpet
To avoid travel in the hot sun, Adi and I check out of the lodge at about 07:00am and head to the Kottayam bus stand. Some inquiries here and there and we figure out we’d just missed a near direct bus to Munnar. One of the conductors directs us to walk a bit ahead, get on to the other side of the bridge, Board a bus to Muvattupuzzah and figure our way out from there. In about an hour we manage to reach Muvattupuzzah and board the bus to Kothamangalam. Kothamangalam seems to be a bigger bus stand and you’d get to find a number of buses starting out from here towards Munnar. In a couple of hours we reach Munnar and directly enter a restaurant for a sumptuous lunch. For some reason, I do not get to sense the Kerala flavor at this place. Every second person talks in tamil and to add to that there was a new political party meeting with couple of ministers lambasting out on the speakers. Mani – an auto driver approaches us and proposes to help figure out an economical lodge and guide us around the place. We somehow seem to like the way he was taking his case forward and accede. In minutes we check in to a lodge and in about an hour Mani starts the guided tour around the place.
Life in Munnar: Our decision to take Mani’s services seems to be quite fitting. He turns out to be quite an interesting person and the discussion moves on from regular ‘guide’ talk to his life and how he was making ends meet. He tells us that he just enrolled his first kid in one of the finest english medium schools in Munnar and managed persuading the management to let him pay the 10grand capitation fee in installments. Since he had his own Auto, he would ride extra hours when required and could comfortably make 10grand a month. As we pass through the TATA Tea estates, he says he wished his wife could get a chance to work with them. All tea pickers are paid just about 140Rs. per month. But the facilities that TATA provides them is what, he says makes people eagerly look forward to employment with them. Apparently they’re provided accommodation and their kids are provided absolutely free English medium education and Transport. TATA also sends five students of their employees[tea pickers] to pursue their Higher education to Australia – All expenses taken care of! Given all this there was a catch in the employment – You would need to have a lineage to enter the job, something that he feels that wasn’t providing the remaining folks an equal opportunity.
Mani also brings out the dark factor of Munnar – Prostitution and Drugs. There’s just no dearth of both. When asked what kind of ‘guests’ he’d prefer guiding – He promptly gets back stating anyone but for Israelis. For the reason that they generally look out for Ganja and he didn’t want to call for unnecessary trouble.
Since this was a complete off-season, we end up paying 450Rs. for the first day and 650Rs. for the second day to Mani. And I’ve just no regrets about the amount spent! Should you happen to visit Munnar anytime I would highly recommend you reach out to Mani on +91 9495879103.
The winding roads and hills badly remind me of the Jalori pass mountain biking expedition I did early last year. There’s nothing worse than not having your bicycle in such amazing places. As we pass by the Annaimudi viewpoint I vow to get back here for a long Bicycle expedition sometime later this year.
Done with the regular spots for that day, we head back home and crash out. There’s a thick mist setting in and the temperature is about 20deg. I find it hard to believe that I’m compelled to use a blanket even in Summer! The next day we travel a bit more farther and cover about 70kms of travel and sightseeing. Munnar apparently seems to be a proper tourist place. There’s nothing starkly different here but for the roads. I decide to head back to Trivandrum that very day while Adi stays back for one more day. A five hour bus journey to Aluva and then Ernakulam and I finally get to board the Kuchuveli express back to Trivandrum.
02nd April ’10 – 03rd April ’10 | Trivandrum – Kanyakumari
Adi gets back to Trivandrum at about 04:00am. We decide to visit the Anantha Padmanabaswamy temple and then head immediately to Kanyakumari. After a three hour long drive and two hour wait in the queue in the Boat jetty we realise the visit was just not worth it. Without second thoughts both head back to Trivandrum that very evening after visiting the Vivekananda Memorial. It so happens that this was a ‘Good Friday’ and the roads are blocked because of processions happening. As the bus takes detours into narrow town roads, I’m amazed at the skills of these drivers. At one point of time he had to squeeze the bus up a 45deg. incline along with a tata sumo! Man, they can literally drive an elephant up your asshole and get it out without any damage! Finally we manage to reach TVM at about 20:00hrs.The next day is spent whiling away time at home and some evening Trivandrum ‘Dhekko’. Adi leaves for Hyd that very day and I follow suite in a couple of days.
With that ends my 17 day long vacation in Kerala!Despite not having elements of surprises, I would remember this break for quite a few reasons – Meeting Paruammai, Attending Raji’s spectacular wedding , Striking off Munnar from the ‘Places yet to visit’ list and more importantly spending some real good time with my Grand mother and figuring out the family tree.
I’ve been visiting Kerala almost every year, for the past twenty or so years. But it’s just in the last couple of years have I’ve sensed a change in the lifestyle . I probably do not have the rights to comment about the place since I spend just a couple of days every year, but for some reason I sense the people and the place as such is drastically changing. Change is inevitable. Development is very much required. But before we start transforming things for the greater benefit, unless we come up with an organic model to secure the time tested practices that are currently in place, we’re prone to lose out on the valuable and irretrievable balance…