Go local in Kerala
Photo credit: Bart Vermeulen
by Keri Vermeulen
How many of you travellers have returned home from your trip-of-a-lifetime journey to an exotic locale, with photographs, fond memories and souvenirs – but little knowledge or understanding of the people and land you visited? It’s okay, sometimes a resort vacation is exactly what we need. But for the traveller seeking to connect with people and experience the rich flavour of a culture, a trip to Kerala, India ought to be at the top of your travel bucket list. If you come with an open heart and a respectful attitude, and choose a tour package (or build your own itinerary) that takes you into the day-to-day life of different villages and plantations, you can’t help but leave Kerala with not only fond memories, but new friends, and a sense of understanding and appreciation for a different culture.
Being brand new travellers to India, my husband and I decided not to “wing it” and booked a tour with the award winning Marvel Tours, whose expertise is all things South India and Sri Lanka. Our tour, “Go Local In Kerala” was not a resort tour, but a genuine experience, where we interacted with local people; took part in village life; observed religious practices and cultural entertainment; became familiar with the abundant agriculture, discovered history, and made new friends.
One of India’s 29 states, Kerala runs along the southwestern tip, with the Arabian Sea on one side providing 600 km of shoreline and infinite coconut trees; and the Western Ghat mountain range on the east side, where the hilly, lush green landscape is home to tea, coffee and spice plantations. With India’s population tipping 1.2 billion people, Kerala makes up 34 million, about the same as all of Canada. As my husband and I travelled Kerala – through tea plantations on windy roads in of the hill town Munnar, or meandered down the tranquil backwaters on a lovely houseboat converted from a rice boat – I wondered where all those people could possibly be. Kerala, for the most part, strikes a peaceful and laid back note.
Pretty much all of those 34 million people are connected to an active faith life, whether it’s Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, or the lesser practiced Buddhism and Jainism. There are reportedly five Jewish people left in the capital, Kochi City, this last handful are from a once thriving Jewish population who began to return to their homeland after Israel was reestablished in 1948. Most historians agree Christianity was brought to South India by one of the Original 12 – the Apostle Thomas. In fact, we were able to visit St. Mary’s Forane Church, believed to be one of the seven churches established by St. Thomas.
There is a sense of not only religious tolerance among Keralans, but harmony. One of our guides was a young Muslim who is thrilled to be sending his daughter to Catholic school. Our wonderful Hindu driver Shaiju delighted in discussions about religious holidays, including Christmas, and one of our hosts, Jacob was a Christian man (his great uncle Thomas Kurialacherry was the first bishop of the local diocese), who served perhaps my favourite meal in Kerala – a Hindu feast served on a banana leaf. Keralan people, with their warmth and humour, create a creates a perfect space for an outgoing person like me to share how I came to decide on faith in Jesus. The religious harmony is just one reason Kerala is known as “God’s Country.”
Kerala is the birthplace of the Indian “homestay”, where travellers can find beautiful accommodations with a local family, often on the property of a working plantation. With a host family providing just the right amount of attention, information and amazing meals made with local ingredients, the homestay allows for an authentic glimpse into Keralan village life. During our nine-day tour of Kerala, we also stayed at two fabulous boutique hotels priding themselves on eco friendly practices, succulent local food, and care and concern for their community.
Highlights of our experience in Kerala:
• Backwaters cruise in Allepy:
We boarded a lovely two bedroom house boat, modeled after “kettuvallams” – boats that were historically used to transport rice and spices. With a covered, open-air deck for dining and viewing, we feasted on local fish and a kind of freshwater lobster. A captain, a mate and a cook provided a peaceful 24-hour meander down the famous river region of Kerala. We pulled up to villages and met a local master carver, bought our fish from the local market and chose fresh produce with the boat’s chef for our evening meal. In the evening, we moored outside a remote hut, where we received relaxing massages from a certified Ayurveda practitioner, which is something like Kerala’s version of a naturopath and a massage therapist rolled into one. Heavenly.
• Kurialacherry House:
This homestay, on the banks of the river Pampa, and its host, Jacob Thomas, captured our hearts from the moment we pulled up in our little canoe taxi. A rice plantation, the property has been in Jacob’s family for generations. A marketing student in his 20’s, Jacob struck the perfect balance between being attentive and giving privacy. A tour of his property revealed an abundance of fruits, vegetable and spices, including rice, mango, cocoa, tapioca, pepper, cardamom, bananas, coconut and more. Many of our outstanding meals included produce from this land. Jacob treated us to a guided visit to the local Hindu temple, a night fishing excursion with a spear carrying local fisherman, and a morning boat ride that took us off the beaten track for a cup of the best tea I have ever tasted. It was an added delight to visit Jacob in his home one night, and find him filled with joy; he was listening to modern Christian worship tunes.
• Kulukamalai Estate:
Perched on the high peaks of the Munnar Hill Station area, Kulukamalai is the highest organic tea plantation in the world. About 7,100 ft. above sea level, the estate is actually spread out over 1,650 acres and two Indian states: Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Tea, which grows in a bright green bush, covers the hilly region in an emerald patch work carpet. The plantation was established in 1892 and still uses the old orthodox way to cultivate and process the tea leaves. India is the world’s biggest consumer of tea. The only caution is the two hour jeep ride up is extremely bumpy (an understatement). We found it exhilarating, but those with any physical ailments might not agree.
• Eighth Bastion Boutique Hotel:
CGI Earth provided gorgeous accommodations in the Eighth Bastion Hotel in a lovely, Dutch colonial era neighbourhood in Kochi City. The hotel provides only recycled bottled water (totally safe and environmentally friendly – no plastic). Not to be missed is the sister hotel right on the harbour, Brunton Boatyard, also a heritage building. Brunton boasts one of the finest restaurants in the city, fusing traditional Keralan flavours with hints of European culinary style.
• Ecotones Boutique Hotel:
This was a perfect mountain top getaway, in a small hotel that offers excellent local cuisine in an open air dining room, walking excursions to the local village, with information on all that grows locally. The hotel offers treated water in glass bottles, flavoured daily with a different local spice. My favourites were the cardamom and fenugreek water.