Day 16 to 24 – Goa, Cochin, Munnar, Kumarakom - The End
Photo of the Day - Kathakali Dancer Applying Makeup Before the Show
Cochin - A Kathakali dancer putting on his makeup in front of the audience
It is amazing how finding time to sit down and write blog posts begins to get harder and harder as the trip becomes more action packed. An extremely busy travel and tour agenda has us in cars, airports, on planes which makes laptop power, internet and typing all the more challenging. I’ve decided to take this opportunity to create a summary blog entry of our last 4 stops, while sitting on the veranda of our room, overlooking the backwaters of Kumarakom, our final tour stop before our homeward journey begins.
Goa is one of the 29 states within India. It is very small and still deeply tied to its Portuguese roots. That said, it packs quite the wallop when it comes to attracting over 2 million tourists every year to its near perfect beaches, that stretch for kilometers along its coast. These beaches are known to be the most exotic in India. The life is truly Bohemian. The beaches are wide, the sand is perfect – no rocks or even pebbles, just pure soft white sand, and they are spotted everywhere with “beach shacks” or restaurants and bars. Goa is famous for its rice and curry dishes with a focus on fresh seafood, and boy did we indulge. Our hotel was directly on the beach and we enjoyed walking the beach, the food, watching the sun go down, the warm breeze on our faces, getting some sun and having a cigar – aaahhhhhh, this is the life. If you want casinos, this place has many – land based and floating.
We toured the local area and visited: a small town with period style homes painted brightly, the Rachol Seminary, Church of Our Lady of Rosary, the Church of St. Francis of Assisi and the capital city of Goa, Panaji. For a small state with a total population of only 1,500,000, the infrastructure projects going on were huge and impressive – all to handle the influx of tourists. Bridges, highways, raised trains (Metro).
Our guide added a very special stop to visit and tour the Savoi Spice Plantation. It was fabulous. Walking through the plantation, we got to see and learn about many of the spices that are grown on this 100 acre working plantation. The many uses of the coconut tree left us speechless. The tour ended with a home cooked meal of chicken, fish, vegetables, rice, breads all spiced to curry perfection as only the Indians can do. Paula enjoyed a delightful conversation with the plantation owner, who is smart and totally focused on making the world a greener and cleaner place.
Goa was a great stop, where we got to take a long overdue breather and recharge our batteries.
Flying via Mumbai, we arrived in Cochin in the state of Kerala, a very busy coastal town that plays a significant role in shipping, cruise liner stops, and India’s Navy and Air Force. Our hotel was located on a man-made island called Willingdon Island. In the mid 1900’s, the British undertook to make this 4km by 7km island, by dredging the harbour – I still can’t quite believe they did it. We enjoyed touring the old town including the old fort, the fish market, the famous Chinese fishing nets, the house where Vasco da Gama lived when he stayed there, the Dutch Palace and the oldest Jewish Synagogue in India (the glass chandeliers were very special – photos not allowed).
A highlight for us was the night we went to a Kathakali dance show. This was fantastic. The performers wore spectacular costumes and painted their faces with vibrant colored and different make-up. No verbal words are used, this was a mime type of performance. They acted out their roles by using very specific and legendary hand, body, face and eye movements. This is something that has to be seen. One hour before each show, one of the actors comes out on stage, sits at the front of the stage and paints his entire face in front of everyone. It was very interesting indeed to see how they do it. The acting was accompanied by two musicians, who set the mood and tempo with their drum beat, small cymbals and chanting.
The people of Kerala love their uniquely spiced foods, cultural and religious celebrations, and fireworks. For their celebrations, they decorate the streets with shimmering silver streamers then parade through the streets with candles aglow.
Our next stop on our journey, was the remote tea plantation region of Munnar, located 1,600 meters above sea-level in the mountains. Getting to this region required a 5-hour car drive, through some of the most harrowing hairpin turns, super steep inclines, potholed dirt and dusty roads and through seemingly hundreds of tiny villages, that after awhile, all looked the same. Huge Catholic churches and beautiful mansions (a vast improvement over what we had seen to date in India) were seen along the way in the middle of nowhere. We just could not get over why these massive, gorgeous houses were located where they were.
We stopped after three hours and took a jeep ride into the forest to see a few additional off-road sights: a dam, some tea plantations, a lake, a suspension bridge and the view from the top of a mountain. I thought I was going to need a kidney transplant after some of the extremely rough stone roads that we traversed. Prior to arriving at the hotel, we stopped by a local government run liquor store, as this state is dry. Two men worked behind a steel fence as they dispensed the alcohol to the patrons that were all lined up. This was a busy place. We were shocked to find out that this hole-in-the-wall alcohol dispensary had some of the great Sula wines we tasted the week before.
The journey to this region and hotel was worth it. When we finally arrived at our spectacular resort built into the side of the mountain, all was forgotten. After a great dinner, we relaxed and got ready for our next day adventures.
On the way to our tea plantation tour, we stooped by to capture the local workers cutting the tea leaves. The visual of this sight was straight out of National Geographic. The ladies were all so wonderful as they enjoyed smiling for the camera. The quilt like patchwork patterns formed by the tea plants along with their bright green colour, were beautiful. The Tea Plantation tour was excellent. Our multi-talented guide, led us for a walk through the hills of plantation where he explained many aspects of the tea leaf growing and production process, along with life in the region. What a special walk we had in this visually stunning environment. He then took us for a tour of the inside of the production facility where we followed the tea leaf through all its process steps of: drying, grinding, separating, grading and packaging. We now know how tea is produced and what is the best teas to drink – 1) white tea (in dry leaf form) and 2) black tea – finely ground with no stems.
We opted to take the afternoon off and relax by the pool. I had a cigar and we enjoyed some chilled Sula Vineyards white wine watching the sun set in the valley below us. Due to a strike that was planned the next day by all the taxi drivers of the region, our wonderful driver Kiran, suggested we should leave the hotel by 4am to avoid getting stopped by the strikers, so we made it an early night.
Kumarakom (our last stop)
Leaving our hotel at 4am, in the dark was more than I bargained for. The roads were steep, winding, narrow and potholed with no barriers to protect you from going off the road and careening into the abyss below – and did I mention it was pitch black? Totally in the dark of night the 5 hour trip had the first 3 hours be nothing but white knuckle driving. Just when you think you’re totally lost in the middle of nowhere and the width of the road can barely fit the car we are in, the headlights of a huge bus are barrelling right at us – the game of chicken begins again – who will win. It’s still hard to believe we did not see or were involved in any form of accident. After 24+ days in India, I have a totally new and admirable appreciation for the drivers of India and their random, no-rules, blow the horn constantly, style of driving.
We finally arrived at our last travel stop, our hotel on the banks of the “backwaters” of Kumarakom. From the porch of our hotel room, we watched the sun set on the water, as we sipped some lovely Sula wine. The next day we took a half day boat ride on the backwaters which took us through the lotus flower laden waters, saw many birds including our precious “Kingfisher”, then we enjoyed a lovely lunch on deck as the cruise boat continued around the islands. After our cruise we then visited the famous and coveted “Philipkutty Farm”. What a great experience. The farm is owned and run by two dynamic ladies; a wonderful young lady named Anu, and her mother-in-law. Anu took over the farm from her late husband who died suddenly at the age of 37. The farm was originally built by her late husband’s grandfather, and it has 7 wonderful villas for guests to stay in and enjoy. The focus of the farm is coconut production. Anu, and the farm dog “Sugar”, took us on a walking tour of the farm and explained how it all operates. It was very fascinating. The entire island sits below sea level, so their biggest problem is having too much water. They have 5 pumping stations that are used to pump water back into backwater when it begins to get too high.
At our hotel we had he pleasure of meeting the famous Dr. Sanjiv Chopra and his wife, Amita. He is a wonderful human being, full of life, humour and passion. He shared numerous stories with us including how to live a better and healthier life following 5 simple principals. 1) exercise, 2) drink coffee, 3) take vitamin D3, 4) laugh a lot and 5) mediate every morning. Sanjiv and his brother Deepak have made quite a name for themselves in the area of spiritual guidance. We plan on looking him up next time we get to Boston.
After they fed us more ginger and lemon drinks, and several banana based specialty foods cooked up by her mother-in-law, we were boated back to the shore where our trusty driver Kiran was waiting. From there we drove by the “bund”, which is a man made and very long wall that is used to separate the salt water of the Arabian Sea, from the fresh backwaters. The salty sea water is about 2 meters higher than the fresh water lake, so keeping these bodies of water separate is critical to the survival of the region.
We returned to the hotel to watch another sunset. This was an excellent opportunity to reflect upon our trip to India and all the wonderful, magical, mystical and spectacular things we did and saw and the people we met, that are permanently etched in our memories forever. The people of India are warm, loving, giving and very friendly and always willing to help.
• Varanasi and the activities along the shore of the Ganges
• The Taj Mahal
• Seeing a Bengal Tiger in the wild
• Riding an elephant into the Amber Fort
• Seeing the King of Rajasthan
• All our hotels were spectacular, and our guides and drivers were fabulous people who were knowledgeable, fun and kept us safe
“Incredible India” – is truly an understatement.