Of all the years I spent in Tamil Nadu, I never managed to travel west into Kerala. But in recent times, the Malayalam films I’ve been watching and the wonderful people I’ve come across, truly made me wonder what was it that I was missing. And thus we (the husband and I) boarded a train from Panvel to Thrissur. The 26-hour long journey, in a month like August, was like a surreal dream, sliding down endless giant Pantone hue cards of the color green. Several tunnels, 60+ from what I counted barring the ones I missed while sleeping, the faraway forts, full and flowing rivers, quaint agricultural villages, paddy fields and finally Kerala.

Lottery ticket sellers promising that auspicious Onam will bring in more luck. A passenger train, on the nearby platform, with advertisements for the latest Mohanlal blockbuster (Loham, if you care). A cool early morning shower. This is how Kerala welcomed us. The last lap of the journey to Thrissur made me realise that every keralite would surely account for owning atleast 10 coconut trees, even
in a worst case minimum scenario. Just one of the many ways they can get
you jealous.

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Farmers’ day out

If you are from South India, and have watched a considerable amount of tamil films, you would know that most of the romance numbers with the lead pair drenched and dancing, would most probably have the Athirapalli waterfalls in the background. But the latest tidbit that the massive waterfalls in Bahubali, was the same with added layers and effects made sure this went right up on my list. After visiting the Charpa falls, which makes you wonder if its indeed milk or water that’s flowing and the Vazhachal falls en route, we headed to Athirapalli. The short hike down to the  bottom of the falls was all the build up I needed, and when I did reach the falls, I never wanted to return. I even marked out a spot to buy someday, right at the bottom of the falls, to build a little shack and enjoy the perfect mornings
with the spraying water waking me up. We stood gaping at the falls till way past
the closing time. This essentially meant we were among the few to have the falls all for ourselves.

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Athirapalli top side view

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Misty waters, Athirapalli falls
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A fine way to keep clean and green!
Chalakudy, the quiet town about 10kms from the falls was our halt. The narrow lanes, the independent houses with backyards, gardens, coco groves and vegetable patches, take you back to simpler times, with simpler needs. Not to mention the Chalakudy river that is considered a life source by the locals. The Kerala forest department can proudly take credit  for the many boards along the way with meaningful  messages and for the great maintenance of the entire region in fact. The Thumboormozhi eco garden is another beauty and a must visit. Only that it gets a little crowded around lunch time being a perfect picnic spot. I really do wonder how dreamy the place would have been without the cantilever bridge, the walkways and the park area. Nevertheless the flowing river, the rocks interspersing the water and the fresh air make it worth
a visit.

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The bridge near Sholayar dam
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Dipping toes at Thumboomozhi eco gardens

Every other travel list on Kerala, the photos and not to mention the ones who swear by the house boat experience, made Alapuzha (no I do not want to kill it by calling it alleppey) our next stop. First things first – Food; Omanakuttan the cook in our house boat put together a scrumptious vegetarian lunch to welcome us (to all the seafood lovers who just cringed reading this, sorry even Kerala couldn’t change my food preference :D). The Kerala Papadam and the veggies with fluffy coconut drizzles were heavenly.

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Family matters

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The prettiest house boat we spotted
Omanakuttan and Karunakaran (the boat pilot) patiently answered my innocent questions – how deep are the backwaters? is it salty, doesn’t it mix with sea water? how come they allow so many commercial boats considering the fishing needs? how long does it take to reach kumarakom? Omanakuttan, a fair, puny man with one of the most peaceful faces I’ve seen, explained how there is a ‘thaduppu’ near Cochin, where the water flows into the sea. The obstructions are opened only if the water level rises. The house boat timings are controlled and the fishermen have the backwaters all for themselves through dusk up till the mornings. When the man told me, “Every child in our village knows to row a boat.”, I couldn’t help but notice the pride. “It’s like cycle to you folks, these are our bicycles. You will find it difficult to manoeuvre, but not our kids.” but isn’t there an age limit, don’t they need license? “Of course not, you don’t need license for cycles. This is how we commute. It’s our way of life. As soon as the kids are old enough to walk, they are taught to row. Next time, come down during the boat race season.” Seemed legit!

Of boats and boyhood
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The city floats – Vembanad, Alapuzha

We passed through several alleys dotted with churches, schools, playgrounds, houses, piers that served as stops for the govt. waterways boats and vodafone hoardings. Omanakuttan cheerfully listed down the celebrities who owned bungalows, resorts and house boats in this region. I am sure I did hear the name Ilaiyaraaja at some point. I vividly remember imagining the Alapuzha boat version of ‘Valaiyosai Gala Gala’. The only time his voiced dropped in enthusiasm was when he spoke about the poor monsoons with every passing year. “We run the boats throughout the year nowadays without shutting for monsoon. We are well past the heavy monsoon era.” The random conversations continued as we sailed through Vembanad Lake and back to dock before sunset.

Sunsets. the Arabian Sea is known for its Sunsets and being so close to the coast we sure couldn’t miss it. Should we just head to Cochin we wondered. As we resorted to google to check for beaches around, I tumbled upon Mararikulam. It struck a bell, a friend’s friend had mentioned it to me a few months back and it was just about half hour in bus from Alapuzha. Our sunset plan was made.

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There’s a place called Cocomo – Mararikulam Beach,  Alapuzha

Mararikulam is a white sand stretch lined with coconut trees. Though not too far away from the town area, the beach is quite secluded. There are a few homestays behind the coconut tree stretch. The one we stayed in had backpackers from Europe. We even caught a couple of them doing Surya Namaskar at sunset on the beach, synchronised to perfection. A sight that inspired me to go back to my morning Surya Namaskar routine ever since. But apart from the few travellers and fisherfolk, the beach was largely empty. We spent the entire day on the beach. Drowned in the massiveness of the endless blue carpet running in and out, my eyes never wavered from the waves until sunset. But when the sun did descend, the skies took reign.

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Sunset hues at Mararikulam
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The sun has set, the colours not.

A treasure trove of colours was thrown open. Gold, orange, pink, peach, lavender, grey, yellow, crimson, and other shades I can barely peg down a colour to. My camera obviously couldn’t do justice to the visual spectacle. Soon I put it away and lost myself to the sky. The colours slowly culminated into pitch black and millions of twinkles. We even spotted a shooting star. This is why, the question, “Are you a mountain person, or a beach person?” is just too difficult to answer. I still can’t decide. Seas humble me. Mountains elate me.

Naturally, the mountains were calling out to me after the backwater and beach break. I had not heard much about Idukki, except the mention of a dam, how not- so-well-connected the place is and something about a certain type of gold! But when my pre-trip research threw up the words arch-dam, I knew I had to visit. Sometime as a kid I had seen something on Discovery about Hoover Dam and the image remained. Something remotely similar, closer to home. Why not? Trust me, this must totally be on your list if you haven’t visited yet.

It took us two buses to reach Idukki from Alapuzha and it was the best 96 bucks spent. The second bus that took us uphill offered menacing views of the rugged mountains. There was definitely something mysterious about these mountains. You know the kind of people – with deep-set eyes hinting at a well-buried secret, the ones who keep you second-guessing inspite of the warmth and goodness. That’s Idukki for you.

Pre-onam celebrations at Idukki

As soon as we reached the main bus stop, we took an auto to visit the dam. As hard as it is to believe, you have the big autos doing the rounds in these mountains and the drivers were quite helpful despite the language difference barrier. Slow and steady, our driver took us to the dam. The Idukki Dam is treated like a sanctum sanctorium. All your belongings – bags, cell phones, camera – are to be placed outside in the locker room. Water bottles are allowed, though the ones dumb enough to throw them in the water are bound to be punished. From what I realised, Kerala has many dams and this has paved way to Hydel Tourism. Informative fliers were issued along with the entry ticket. The dam itself is in two parts and the best way to experience it is by taking a walk. The ones who can’t walk the stretch can hop on to the electric car. It was a good hour’s walk with stunning views of valleys and deep blue clean waters on either sides. The steady wind made sure we didn’t break into a sweat. The engineer husband in tow was figuring out the workings of the dam and explaining it to me, all at the same time. I just couldn’t believe it when he showed me a trickle of water and estimated the watts of energy it can produce. The Idukki dam on the whole accounts for generating about 780 MW of hydroelectric power.

Satiated by all the beauty we could take in from the dam, we headed back to the town. We had decided to skip the halt in Idukki and head to Munnar instead. A little bit of surfing ended with the prospect of a night safari at Munnar. After the dam visit, we made a couple of calls to a certain Sebin from Route 49 and confirmed the Safari plans and took a bus to Munnar hoping to reach before 8 pm (quick tip for the love of local transport –  even if you don’t get a direct bus, head to Adimali and then to Munnar). Route 49 conducts safaris, treks and much more around Munnar and Thekkadi.

Sebin picked us up from old Munnar and what followed was a 70km ride through the reserve forest areas of Marayoor, Chinnar and Anamalai. We managed to spot black-naped hares, indigenous to western ghats, the inevitable sambar deer, spotted deer, gaur and what I swear was a couple of elephants drinking water from a lake from a good distance. Of course, you need luck and timing to do some serious wildlife spotting. We returned to our hotel with memories of good conversations about the fenced sandalwood area, the guards and their lives, the forest officials and their processes, the system and the lack of it at times, Sebin’s experiences as a wildlife photographer & survey volunteer and his interactions with foreign travellers. One of the interesting bits was, in these areas, you can exchange sandalwood seeds for cash at the govt. post office, earning up to 300 for a kg. A paltry sum in contrast to what the illegal smugglers culling and selling the trees earn. Ironic isn’t it? Like Sebin put it, “Panam Marathula kaaikuma? kaikum.” (Will money grow on trees? Apparently it does!) Our night ended with a hot cup of kattanchaaya and we returned to the hotel at 4 am.

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Kannan devan hills, Munnar

The last day of our trip was spent booking our return tickets and resting for a bit. But after breakfast we headed out wanting to explore the Munnar town. As luck would have it, we found an entertaining auto driver – Shanmuganathan. A Tirunelveli-bred tamilian, his dialect and stories were very much endearing. He convinced us that we had enough time to drive up till Top Station and get back in time for our bus. We sure couldn’t say a no. He spoke about his family, life as an auto driver in Munnar bumping into elephants, he made sure we tasted the freshly plucked carrots Munnar is famous for and did the customary elephant ride. He even narrated the morbid tale of a recent murder than shook the town, and pointed to an isolated area near the lake where the body was hidden. A fellow auto driver had tipped off the police and that was the only reason why the murderer was caught he ascertained. We rode on stopping at select spots for the view and photos. We passed through South Asia’s first frozen cell livestock farm. According to Shamuganathan, the cows can produce up to 100 litres of milk in a day. I was sceptical but nodded. The farm is open for tourists, but only with prior permission. We then drove on to Top Station, a spot where you can see both Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The Kerala side was lush green, while the previous day’s forest fire had burnt the Tamil Nadu side black. The Tamilian in me was saddened. As promised Shanmugam showed us through a binocular, the spots where ‘Mynaa’ the movie was shot. We also spotted windmill farms and Kollukumalai, the world’s highest tea plantation. Shanmugam even showed us the trekking route to Theni, about 6kms, which massively cuts down his travel time to Tirunelveli.

It was time to head back and Shamuganathan dropped us at our hotel. We promised to give him a call the next time we visit Munnar and on his request here’s his number – 9 four 9 five 5 7 two 6 o four 🙂 “Ask  for autokarar Shanmugam, people around here know me.”

After a quick lunch, we boarded the bus to Chennai, and I settled down comfortably into our semi sleeper seats. I knew I was hooked and I would return for more – Kannur, Kasargod, Aluva, Varkala, Vagamon…. soon.

Translations:
Ennike ninne ishtamanu, Keralam.: I love you Kerala.
(Malayalam to English)

 

 

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