Thrilling Thekkady

We’ve started the new year but there’s so much I left out of the last. I never wrote about Thekkady, did I? How we drove from hot and bright Kovalam and it suddenly began to rain. Like this –

And as the temperature sank, so did my heart. Because a friend had laughed dismissively at my packing queries about Thekkady with a ‘Relax! It’s Kerala. There is no such thing as cold!’ and my bags were full of shorts and tees and winterwear was conspicuous by its absence.

But here’s the thing – we don’t feel about rain like people in really cold places do. We love rain! In our hot and relatively dry country, we need rain! We react like this –

So anyhow. We loved Thekkady. The verdant green. The tiger reserve. The elephants!

The spice gardens I have written about in detail. But we also loved the little hill villages and cardamom plantations we walked through just weeks before they were ravaged by floods.

Also the warm and cosy Niraamaya resort. I loved this place and must put in a word for how homely it was. The food was always freshly cooked, light and very satisfying. And once at lunch when we had leftovers, I asked them if they could put it in the fridge and add it to our dinner and they did. Just like that! Most nice hotels in India are so stuffy about that sort of thing! Oh and did I mention that they practise waste segregation and put thought into little environment friendly details?

Finally, the relaxed place and clean air, not to mention the well stocked library (containing among others an illustrated Jim Corbett), led to me producing the following work of art!

So all in all, a most satisfying holiday!

Advertisements

The truth about mommy

mom.png

While in Thekkady, we had a bit of an ant situation in the bathroom. Not surprising, considering we were practically at the edge of the Periyar wildlife reserve. I was forced to flush them away – for reasons of self preservation, but I was sitting and obsessing constantly when I noticed my niece listening and grinning.

‘What?’ I asked.
‘You are so nice!’ she giggled. ‘My mom crushes ants for fun!’
‘I do not!’ – she, indignantly.

I don’t know if this exchange had anything to do with it but she wrote this decidedly un-filial poem about her mother and singsonged it to the family soon after. Enjoy!


She says she is veg
And she only eats egg
But I have a suspicion
That she eats people too!

Today at noon
I went in her room
And found the remains of
I don’t know whom!

She was riding a broom,
Inside of her room
I think she’s a witch
But I don’t want to be a snitch!


PS. I messed up the drawing by going over it with a thick, black marker because I couldn’t find a regular pen but I really wanted to draw this one. Anyway!

Sun and Sand at Kovalam

The last time I visited Kovalam was about seventeen years ago. I had just moved to Bangalore and started work. My friends and I were discovering financial independence and learning to enjoy it. We traveled by train (second class) to Trivandrum and then took a seedy taxi to Kovalam. We stayed in a small hotel near the beach, ate banana pancakes and fruit salad on the beach, drank tall glasses of fruit cocktails, wore sarongs, took a catamaran ride and enjoyed an Archies comics style beach for the first time ever. Speaking for myself, the only beach I had seen before this had been the Marina at Madras with manga badrai and kadalai. A world apart. Anyway, Kovalam had been cool.

IMG_20170916_201844

Now we are much older, hopefully somewhat wiser and definitely much more jaded. And Kovalam would surely have changed too. I had no idea what to expect. As things turned out, we didn’t really visit Kovalam at all.

We were staying at the Niraamaya Resorts, Surya Samudra which is a relais and chateaux property. From their website:

Established in 1954, Relais & Châteaux is an association of more than 550 landmark hotels and restaurants operated by independent innkeepers, chefs, and owners who share a passion for their businesses and a desire for authenticity in their relationships with their clientele.
Relais & Châteaux is established around the globe, from the Napa Valley vineyards and French Provence to the beaches of the Indian Ocean. It offers an introduction to a lifestyle inspired by local culture and a unique dip into human history.
Relais & Châteaux members have a driving desire to protect and promote the richness and diversity of the world’s cuisine and traditions of hospitality. They are committed to preserving local heritage and the environment, as encompassed in the Charter presented to UNESCO in November 2014.

It sounded wonderful and it was in fact beautiful. They have built cottages in the style of traditional Kerala bungalows. They have lovely nature bathrooms with trees (and lizards of course) and have reused coconut shells to make everything from dessert cups to bunds for raised beds to water pails. I have spoken before of how I love old restored old furniture and artifacts. Surya Samudra has salvaged sculptures and structures from a demolished temple and used them to decorate their property.

Not that it needs that much decoration because the location is simply beautiful. The terrain is not really suited to small children since it is on a hill and there’s a lot of up and down. My boys were not able to play much cricket which was a great disappointment to them.

The sea in these parts is fierce and our beach facing room got the whole sound effects. All night long the waves would roar and crash. It was frightening but also soothing in a fatalistic sort of way. It hardly seemed believable that the same sea turned so magically serene in the afternoons. I would watch the eagles soaring and dipping and drifting at lunch every day. I suppose they were hunting crabs all the while but the lunchtime music and gentle all day breeze put a totally different spin on it.

The rooms themselves are well appointed and beautiful. The beach cottages are all traditional Kerala architecture and simply lovely. The rock garden rooms on the other hand are large and modern and more suitable to families with children needing extra beds.

As you might have guessed from all the hotel-centric descriptions, we did not get out much. The very day after we arrived, news of the Nipah virus outbreak reached us. Even though the district in Kerala at the center of the outbreak was at least as far from Kovalam as from Bangalore, we were traveling with children and with a 90% mortality rate could afford to take no chances. Except for one day outing to Poovar Island, we stayed put at the resort and spent our time playing dumb charades, card games, cricket (losing the ball every now and then and having to clamber up and down) and lots of chatting. I was meeting my baby nephew for the first time. Our days were gently occupied.

The food was nice but what we got at the Niraamaya in Thekkady tasted better. Sacrilege to say this about such a property but true all the same. The staff however were super friendly and their hospitality made up for everything else.

I cannot say much about Kovalam based on this trip but the Surya Samudra is a lovely resort, picturesque with one of the most photogenic yoga pavillions I have ever seen!

yoga.jpg

Spice Route

When we planned this holiday, I had Thekkady tagged in my head as Cardamom plantation. I didn’t know what a cardamom plantation was supposed to look like but if asked I’d have said, like a regular farm, or maybe a tea plantation. Actually, it is closer to a coffee plantation even though there are tea plantations too nearby. Cardamom plants, based on what I have seen, grow on the hillside surrounded by lush undergrowth and towered over by tropical trees.

One of the standard things for any visitor to do in Thekkady is to visit a Spice plantation and take a tour. This is usually followed by purchasing some spices at the store attached to your plantation. This you must not do because they overcharge like crazy but I’m getting ahead of myself here.

We stayed at the Niraamaya resorts – Cardamom County while in Thekkady. They suggested a place called Green Land for the Spice Tour. We went there and spent a pleasant hour or so being shown around the small plantation. So, here you go!

IMG_20180527_121343
An auspicious beginning with an important message

WhatsApp Image 2018-05-27 at 12.17.33 PM
Begonias

WhatsApp Image 2018-05-27 at 12.17.51 PM
Candle Flowers

WhatsApp Image 2018-05-27 at 12.18.15 PM
Ganapathi Lemon – doesn’t the enormous lemon remind you of a Ganesha idol? The fruit tastes just like a lemon though it is obviously much bigger.

WhatsApp Image 2018-05-27 at 12.18.44 PM
Cardamom – itself!

WhatsApp Image 2018-05-27 at 12.19.28 PM
Some variety of hibiscus

WhatsApp Image 2018-05-27 at 12.19.49 PM
Monkey Tail

WhatsApp Image 2018-05-27 at 12.20.11 PM
Heliconia – bird of paradise

WhatsApp Image 2018-05-27 at 12.21.48 PM
Bleeding heart – such a self explanatory name!

IMG_20180527_122946
Rose apple – do you see the pink clusters? This fresh juicy fruit is available in Bangalore at this time of the year, but this was the first I saw it on the tree

WhatsApp Image 2018-05-27 at 12.22.11 PM
Cloves – all green just now.

WhatsApp Image 2018-05-27 at 12.27.10 PM
Coffee Arabica – grows like a big tree

WhatsApp Image 2018-05-27 at 12.27.23 PM
Coffee robusta – grows like a bush. There weren’t too many coffee berries at this time of year but for those who don’t know, a coffee berry is bright pinkish red. It dries and then is roasted and ground to give us the morning fix most of us crave so!

IMG_20180527_123109
Coffee Berries

 

Above: green grapes but they are not the ones we eat. Seemed to be a succulent of some kind. (PS. Google says it is indeed a succulent called Burro’s tail)

IMG_20180527_121555
Pepper – see the long green string of beads type thing? That’s fresh green pepper that dries to become the spice that makes us sneeze

Above: Pineapple

IMG_20180527_121519
Passion Fruit

And that was it! Back at the store, we gave in to temptation fueled by all the lush green and the botanical learning and bought pepper, cardamom, cinnamon and also one herbal oil thing that I had bought previously in Coonoor and totally recommend. Let me take a minute here, this is a bottle filled with herbs that you take home dry and add your favourite oil, usually coconut, to. And let it sit for a few days. The oil proceeds to absorb the goodness of the herbs and turns a dark, blood red. Applying this to the head an hour or so, or even overnight before washing it off reduces hairfall and makes hair thicker and stronger. I am very lazy about beauty treatments but I must say that the month or so I used this, my hairfall was almost negligible.

WhatsApp Image 2018-06-12 at 5.05.42 PM
This one

WhatsApp Image 2018-06-12 at 5.09.53 PM
Neel Bhringadi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also bought a bottle of neel bhringadi oil that cost 20 times as much as the humble plastic bottle and promised much the same thing. I got it only because my sister insisted it was much more expensive in the city and totally worth it. Well, fingers crossed!

Finally, the spice shopping. As I said before, the spices available here are expensive compared to the wholesale shops at Kumili and in fact Viji at Niraamaya had recommended Lord’s to us. The gift packets that were on sale for 150 at Green Land were available at the wholesale place for 100 so the difference was significant. I wondered at this dichotomy. Why do they seem to suppose that tourists must either be sensible, practical sort of folks who visit a new place only to stock their kitchen up at bulk rates or the sort of whimsical fools who wander around lush greenscapes and pay double for everything? Well some of us are whimsical fools with hard headed friends who question us closely on return!

In search of Rasipuram Ghee

Longest time since I posted anything here. I broke my leg and quit my job and enjoyed the summers and began a home improvement project. Now school has started, my leg’s better, I’m trying to figure out my life goals without the safety net of the monthly salary (I needed to feel the fear) but the home improvement’s not done yet! (Will the contractor ever leave?)

Meanwhile, we holidayed somewhat. As a reflection of the upside-downness of my life right now, I have started to write about the summer in no particular order at all!

I read this article (link below) in The Hindu on November 30 last year and since then have had an itch to visit Rasipuram.

An aroma of nostalgia: on ghee from Rasipuram

Not least because both my boys are ghee aficionados. They love ghee with everything. Less in parathas or dal ka tadka or even laddoos and mysore pak. Lots when it is slathered over a hot, freshly puffed phulka. Or when I drop one big dollop on top of steaming hot rice and sambhar. Or when I put a golden brown nei roast, fresh of the griddle, glistening with, well ghee, and then they add some more on top of the small heap of brick red milagai podi even as their grandmother warns them they will get a sore throat if they eat so much podi!

Thus far, the one ghee that has had the special honour of being reserved for these special favourites has been my own home made ghee. Because I do that sort of thing and have been branded grandma for same. But what choice did I have? My kids love it so. However, I have always made a point of buying ghee wherever I see something different. The whitish ghee from buffalo milk as available up North – done it. Random cow ghee from Organic farmers’ market – check.  Online order of allegedly exotic ghee – been there done that.

But read the Hindu article referenced above:

The evergreen vegetation (now getting depleted due to urbanisation) of the nearby Kolli Hills, which serve as grazing grounds for the cattle in Namakkal district, is also thought to be an important contributor to the richness of the milk that farmers use to make their butter.

Melted ghee is first seasoned with a pinch of rock salt to remove the acidity of the leftover buttermilk, and then further tempered with moringa leaves..

The minute I read this article, I wanted nothing more than to get my hands on that ghee. Rasipuram is very close to Salem but the last time I was in Salem was when I visited my aunt at age three or four and recited Mary had a little lamb on stage at the Salem club in front of what I remember to have been an enormous crowd and won a yellow purse for my efforts. Which I promptly gifted to my mother. But no digression. I know no one in Salem. It was not en route to any of the usual weekend getaways. Rasipuram remained a dream.

Till we realized that Salem was on the way from Bangalore to Kovalam/return from Thekkady for such was our holiday plan! A quick Google search revealed Dhanalakshmi traders as the place to buy ghee. I had pictured Rasipuram as the usual touristy place with one USP reflected in a row of shops selling the same thing with the same or similar brand name. Like the spice shops in Coonoor or Thekkady or the nimbu pani in Modinagar. When I reached Dhanalakshmi traders, I found myself in a narrow lane without a shop in sight. This could hardly be it! I got down from the car and bravely entered, inquiring of the first people I saw about the nei kade. They pointed me to a small room. On entering I found one man, stirring ghee on a huge kadhai. There was a churner nearby but I cannot recall if he did anything there. To the casual eye, it might have appeared dingy and dirty (which is why I have decided not to share the surreptitiously clicked pictures) but in fact ghee is melted at temperatures that are sure to be sterile and that is what guarantees their long life. Besides, the aroma of the ghee wafted up even then.

I asked how much. Being disoriented from expectations vs reality, I had completely forgotten the price I was to expect to pay (as mentioned in above article – Rs. 450 per kg). In fact the price he told me was just right but I was unsure by then of what to do. The man then offered to call the Modarali.

He took me to the house next door which belonged to the owner. I was beyond embarrassed and way out of my depth by then. I wished I had the savoir faire, the Tamil, or at least the professional boredom of a seasoned journalist to carry me through because I really wanted to get insights and write a brilliant blogpost on Rasipuram and its ghee. How it’s going out of style, why and then what to do. All I managed was a mumbled, how old is the shop (since 1960) with a stupid smile plastered on my face.

But what lovely hospitable people they were! One Thatha walked in pushing a walker and spoke so nicely, offered a coffee and when my two boys passed by on the street outside looking for me, he called them in and chatted ever so kindly.

I took back ghee for all my friends and I will contact them for more – they have promised to supply in Bangalore. Because Rasipuram ghee is not hype. It is every bit as rich and fragrant as promised, the new number one at home and in fact a drop of pure gold on our culinary landscape.

A Village New Year

IMG_20171230_095121

We brought in the new year in the charming Hoysala Village Resort.  The resort works on a Robin Hood sort of principle, taking from us and using the profits to benefit the neighbouring villages. The proceeds also go towards educating the children of all the employees in English medium, to give them a head start in the world.

IMG_20171230_202816

The evenings are given over to village style entertainment with folk songs and dances.  My boys were a bit unappreciative of this till I pointed out that the performers were mostly kids like them and just like a single piano performance(my boys learn) had months of training and practise behind it, so too did a fifteen minute dance performance. After that they watched most attentively. I was reminded of my own niece who is learning Bharathanatyan and amazes us constantly with her grace and poise.

WhatsApp Image 2017-12-14 at 9.01.39 PM

The highlight of the menu is home-style Kannada cuisine. I have spent seventeen years in Bangalore without eating as much Kannada food as I did in the few days at Hoysala. They had Holige on the menu every single day. Holige is known in Tamil Nadu as Poli and in Maharashtra as Puran Poli. It’s my brother’s favourite dessert and we have made plans to return already! They also had several local roti varieties like Akki and Jowar rotis, Ragi muddes  and other millet based foods on the  menu. These were totally delicious but also important to serve in a resort with such an agenda. Millets are not resource intensive and grow well in drought prone areas. They are loaded with nutrients and are the staple food of our hard working farmers. Bringing them back to our tables helps the farmers and helps us fight climate change. And of course they are totally delicious!

Very close to the resort are the 12th century temples of Belur and Halibedu. I visited the temple at Belur but missed out on the trip to Halibedu. The Belur temple took 103 years to be completed and you can see why in the enormity of the structure combined with the delicate detailing of the carvings. The temple was built by King Vishnuvardhan for his dancer wife Shantala. It is amazing to see such a celebration of the arts as an integral part of worship. And of course the laddoo prasadam is not to be missed!

The touristy outings aside, the children enjoyed the simple pleasures of bullock cart rides, board games (painted on tables) and hours of playing chaos tag and chain tag in the open grounds with not a single second of device time.

Final Summary:

  • Green Quotient – Well there are the millets! And there is the free availability of unbottled water. But multiple tiny bottles are also supplied daily, plastic bags are used to dispose of waste and there is no waste segregation. They had recycled tyre planters and claypot bins, which were charming but more needs to be done to preserve the pristine village setting!
    IMG_20171230_095223
  • Food – Delicious and unique. While there is some generic north Indian curry style food on the menu, the real focus is on promoting local fare. The live counters where they dish these up tend to get crowded so need to factor that in.
  • Accommodation – The architecture and the flooring all have a strong local flavour. Everything is clean and nice, but not in-your-face luxurious.
  • Getting there – Hassan is a three hour drive from Bangalore. The roadworks increased our travel time but this is an easy place to get to, not only from Bangalore but also Mangalore, Chikmagaluru and Udupi.
  • Corporate visits – There is a board room, lots of rooms and eating space to make it eminently suitable for official events. But always with the village touch! Look at this meeting space with beautiful murals.
    IMG_20171229_191616
  • The entertainment – They had a well equipped recreation room. Also, I loved that they had planned shows every evening. Tables are also set up in advance for each room which avoids the sort of chaos we experienced on our trips to Mahabalipuram(will post soon) and Dumduma lake(don’t plan to write about that trip).
    IMG_20180101_083305
    The only negative here was the New Years eve program for which they had a compulsory charge that we paid for per head – not per room –  and the show had no variety and several repetitive performances. The snake dance was frankly unconvincing and looked like something choreographed in Bollywood.

The loud drums were more believable, since a lot of evening village entertainment is focused on keeping wild animals away. However, they were so loud and so relentless that we retired to our rooms long before the midnight countdown. My ideas of bringing in the New Year in a rural setting were greatly at odds with what was going on and I thought it best to retire early and pursue the quiet New Year plans in the morning, which my husband and I did! A quiet early morning walk in the village with not a single other human being around was how our year started and it was a good beginning!

A translation

शहर बसाकर, अब सुकून के लिए गाँव ढूँढते हैं,
बड़े अजीब हैं लोग हाथ मे कुल्हाड़ी लिए, छाँव ढूँढते हैं..

To find peace of mind, we fled the cities that we made*
Armed with our sharpest axe, in search of the nearest shade


*A translation. Not my own. Just an appeal for responsible travel