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  • Anand 5:08 am on April 20, 2009 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Brunton Boatyard, Family Trips to India, Fort Kochi, Karnakata, Kathakali, , , Nehru Trophy Boat Race, South India, Tamil Nadu   

    South India: More leisurely, friendly, lush 

    South Indian Travel Experience

    South Indian Travel Experience

    KERALA, India – We had been to the Taj Mahal. We had traipsed through the grand palaces of the Rajput kings. We had survived nerve-wracking days on twisty Himalayan roads with a driver who would chat on a cell phone while navigating dangerous curves at high speeds. My children and I had briefly succumbed to high fevers in Jaipur. And we had gorged on rich North Indian food.

    It was time to step into a slower lane and begin to recuperate. It was time to go to South India.

    When my wife, Cindy, and I began planning a three-week family trip to India, South India was not really on our radar screen. But then Rama Lakshmi, one of the Washington Post’s correspondents in New Delhi, made an emphatic point: We would not have a complete picture of the true India unless we made it to the south.

    It turned out to be great advice. When we arrived in Kerala, one of the South India states, a four-hour flight from Delhi, we immediately felt we had traveled to a different country. The pace was more leisurely, the food was completely different, and the people were friendlier. The language, the clothes (men more routinely in saronglike dhotis, women in natural-color saris), the lush landscape: Nothing was the same.

    It was a real revelation, and it gave our family a new boost of enthusiasm to tackle the last week of a sometimes-arduous adventure.

    South India somehow gets lost in the overall concept of India, as many visiting Americans make a beeline to Delhi, to the towering Moghul masterpieces, and the harsh beauty of the Rajasthan desert, all in the north. The dishes served in Indian restaurants in the United States are mostly North Indian: the ever-present tandoori ovens and food cooked in ghee, or clarified butter.

    South India cuisine, by contrast, is not nearly as filling and uses copious amounts of coconut milk, making it much closer in taste and appearance to Southeast Asian cooking, such as Thai and Malaysian curries.

    Of course, South India is made up of many parts. But we decided to focus on Kerala, a coastal state that stretches almost to the southwestern tip of the country, rich in colonial tradition and home to a unique dance form known as kathakali.

    Terrorism in India is an issue: Bombs went off in various cities almost every day during our first week in India, and, of course, the Mumbai attack in December is fresh in people’s minds. But as far as I can tell, there has never been a terrorist incident in Kerala. In fact, Kerala is so peaceful that it was major news in India when some youths who had been born in Kerala were rounded up in a plot in Kashmir, 2,000 miles away.

    Kerala is famous for its backwaters, a massive network of meandering, palm-tree-fretted canals that intersect rice fields and farms, fed by the 60-mile-long Vembanad Lake, one of India’s largest. The backwaters are the setting for the haunting international best-seller The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy.

    We decided to spend four days in the backwaters area, then three days in the colonial city of Kochi (also known as Cochin). I was especially excited about the prospect of spending a night on a converted rice barge navigating the backwaters under a brilliant, star-studded sky.

    Our driver, Maxi, meets us at the airport with an enormously cheerful face. He shakes his head from side to side when he agrees with us, an Indian habit. He drives carefully and slowly – even, to our shock, stopping the car on the side of the road to answer his cell phone. Once, we were running late, and he apologetically asked whether he could speed up. “Drive like a Northerner,” I declared, earning a huge laugh – and a modestly higher speed.

    Kerala, which has long been controlled by the Indian Communist party, has India’s highest literacy rate (more than 90 percent) and is one of its wealthiest states. It has a booming tourist trade, particularly with Europeans who flock to the swank resorts on the backwaters lakes and revel in the famed ayurvedic massage treatments, which involve heated oils and steam baths.

    Not wanting to be trapped in a lakeside resort, we head to the coastal town of Alappuzha (also known as Alleppey), which is lined with leafy canals. Our lodging is a beach hotel on the Arabian Sea, the Raheem Residency, crafted out of a colonial villa dating to 1868.

    Both of the main experiences planned for this portion of our trip involve water: local boat races and time spent aboard a boat of our own.

    We have timed our visit for a once-a-year spectacular, the Nehru Trophy Boat Race, which combines a fiercely competitive race with an Indian carnival atmosphere. On the second Saturday of August, races across the lake involve massive wooden “snake boats” that are at least 150 feet long and hold more than 100 helmsmen and oarsmen. Some smaller longboats hold at least 40 rowers, making each race a wild, water-splashed run to the finish line.

    Truth be told, we quickly lose interest in the actual races. We have little idea what is going on, which races are heats, and which are finals. But none of that matters, because the ambience is so wonderful. This is no tourist event, but an important local festival. Indians love any excuse for a party.

    Our next watery adventure is the overnight on the houseboat. Some friends have recommended it, saying the boats are very comfortable and the experience quite romantic. It certainly is a booming business, with all of the old rice barges turned into houseboats, scores of them heading off into the backwaters every evening.

    But we learn the hard way that not all boats are created equal. Our travel agent in New Delhi had contracted with a subagent in Kerala for the boat, and somehow we end up with a fully crewed, four-bedroom boat that is neither clean nor comfortable. It’s an exceedingly quiet night, but none of us sleeps a wink. The noisy air conditioning barely functions, the beds are uncomfortable, and the sheets and towels are covered with dust; we all feel – or imagine – bugs crawling over us.

    Overall, the overnight backwaters experience isn’t worth the hassle of the dirty boat. The ebb and flow of river life is interesting: screaming babies being bathed by their mothers, schoolchildren coming home in canoes in drenching rain, young couples paddling home with their daily purchases. But unless you are sure the boat you hire will be clean and comfortable, I would make this a day trip.

    (Houseboat rentals are fairly expensive – $400 a night for a two-bedroom boat – and we complained rather strenuously to our agent. She finally agreed to refund half the cost and sent us an e-mail saying the money had been wired to our bank. But it never arrived.)

    By the time our houseboat makes it back to town the next day, it’s pouring rain. Our sleep-deprived family is thrilled to see Maxi and his grand smile, and soon we are off to Kochi, where overlapping Dutch, Portuguese, Jewish and British cultures have produced a gem of a town.

    The historic district of Kochi, at the tip of a peninsula, is known as Fort Cochin, and many of the key sights are within walking distance. This is a welcome change from most sprawling Indian cities, where a walk around town is a virtual impossibility. The main shopping area is in another, more modern city, Ernakulam, about a 30-minute drive away, but it’s a joy to simply wander in the historic district.

    Our agent makes up for the houseboat by recommending that we stay in a lovely hotel, Brunton Boatyard, about 20 luxury rooms set on the site of an 18th-century boatyard. It’s a grand place, and Cindy and I take a cooking class that helps unlock some of the secrets of South India cuisine.

    The remnants of the once-thriving Jewish community here can be found in “Jew Town,” where a 16th-century synagogue stands amid a welter of antiques dealers and Kashmiri shopkeepers. In keeping with the jumbled culture of Kochi, the interior of the temple is lined with 18th-century blue and white tiles from Canton depicting a mandarin’s love affair, while the chandeliers are from Belgium.

    The highlight of our stay in Kochi is attending an evening performance of kathakali. In The God of Small Things, author Roy describes how the dance-drama has been debased for tourists. Perhaps that is true. But I find the experience quite evocative, even though we see a shortened version; true kathakali can last all night.

    Kathakali depicts highly stylized tales from the great Hindu epics, such as Ramayana. You need to arrive a couple of hours early so you can watch the actors put on their makeup, then their costumes. It is a magical transformation, as various shades of green, blue and red makeup, combined with spectacular masks made of rice paper, turn the actors into what appear to be life-size puppets.

    The version we see includes a brief demonstration and explanation in English of the symbolic eye-rolling and sounds associated with the performance. Frankly, it still doesn’t make much sense when we see the play, but it is spectacular to watch nonetheless.

    After seven relaxing days, it’s time to return to the sprawling and chaotic city of New Delhi. As soon as we land, we call Rama at the Post’s bureau and ask, “Where can we find a South Indian restaurant?”


    Exploring South India

    There are many flights to Kochi (Cochin), the main city, via either Mumbai or New Delhi. You can also connect via Doha, Qatar, because many natives of Kerala work in the Middle East. Continental and Qatar Airways fly to Doha from Newark Liberty International Airport with one stop; the lowest recent round-trip fare was about $1,132.

    Places to stay

    In Alappuzha (Alleppey), the 10-room Raheem Residency (Beach Road, http://www.raheemresidency.com) offers a beachside location with large rooms in a converted colonial villa. The restaurant, with its views over the Arabian Sea, is spectacular, with a new menu every night. Prices range from $115 to $215, depending on room size and season.

    In Kochi, Brunton Boatyard is a lovely hotel right on the harbor, set in an 18th-century boatyard, with prices from $200 to $350 a night. (http://www.cghearth.com/brunton_boatyard/index.htm)

    You often get better prices for hotels by booking through an India-based agent.

    Houseboats

    We had a bad experience, but others have loved it. If you are game, you might try renting a houseboat at the Coconut Lagoon (http://www.cghearth.com/coconut_lagoon/index.htm), which is on Vembanad Lake and offers luxury options.

    More information

    The official government Web site is http://www.keralatourism.org.

    A news Web site that offers booking options

    is http://www.kerala.com.

    – Glenn Kessler

    Cross Posted from http://www.philly.com/philly/travel/20090419_South_India__More_leisurely__friendly__lush.html?viewAll=y

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  • Anand 7:31 am on March 26, 2009 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Gods Own Country, ,   

    Explore Kerala – Visit Gods Own Country 

    A  film on  Kerala  made by noted Indian cinematographer and director Santosh Sivan

     
    • Ram Iyer 7:34 am on March 26, 2009 Permalink | Reply

      Nice Video on Kerala

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