A Travellerspoint blog

North Kerala

Kannur and Wayanad

Having got the taste for tipping about on my own during my few days in Varkala I decided to head a bit further afield for my second week. This time I set off for the north of the state which I’d heard gets fewer tourists despite having plenty to offer in terms of things to see and do. Kerala is pretty big so to get to the north meant travelling around 500 km from Trivandrum. The great thing about travel in India is the fantastic train network which allows you to cover huge distances very cheaply. It’s especially cost effective if you travel by night as you save on a night’s accommodation. I had very little idea what to expect but was pleasantly surprised to find that the trains are pretty comfortable. The bunks can be a little cramped and the ‘mattress’ wouldn’t be the softest but they supply you with spotlessly clean bed linen and a pillow . There are several classes on the long-distance trains and although it can be a bit confusing at first there are basically two main options – regular sleeper or the more expensive air-conditioned carriages. The regular sleeper is very cheap and most passengers would choose this option but for a pampered Westerner like me it apparently lacks a bit of privacy as the berths aren’t closed off. You also have to bring your own bedding. The AC carriages have a similar layout to the sleepers – six berths on one side of the aisle and two on the other side but each berth has a curtain that you can use to seal yourself off. Security wise it seemed to be fine although I was taking no chances and had purchased a padlock and chain to secure my rucksack. The lower berths are used as normal seats during the day so if you’ve booked one of those you could be waiting for your fellow passengers to go to bed. Most people seemed to climb into their berths more or less straight away though.The toilets are pretty grim but then that’s the case on public transport anywhere. Even though I’ve had better sleeps in my time I had few complaints over the course of my two trips. The fare for the AC worked out at around 9 euro one way. Sleeper would have cost around about a third of that. Incredible value.

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I reached Kannur at 8am, bleary-eyed but glad to be able to stretch my legs after ten hours or so on the train. The guidebook had recommended checking out St. Angelo’s Fort so I decided to visit there before checking in to my accommodation which was located a few miles outside the town. The fort was pretty impressive and extremely well maintained. It was built by the Portugese in the 15th century but changed hands a good few times over the years. Kannur was a pretty important spice-trading port in its day apparently. It’s now a busy town with little to recommend it aside from the Fort. Back in town I grabbed a pretty average breakfast in the local Indian Coffee House and got a rickshaw to take me out to my homestay.

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Kannur Beach House was lovely. It’s located a few miles south of Kannur beside where a small river flows into the sea. There’s a stunning and more or less deserted beach nearby where local fishermen cast their nets. The whole area aound the house is covered in palm trees and my room had a great balcony from where you could look out over the garden towards the sea. It was a pretty fantastic place to just sit and read and while away the hours. The hosts, Rosie and Naseer, were great company and their kitchen staff served up some amazing food. They also organised a trip to a local handloom factory and to a theyam performance (an form of Hindu ritual theatre where an elaborately costumed dancer takes on the role of a god and blesses the congregation).

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I could have happily stayed longer in Kannur but I was keen to visit Wayanad district as I’d heard that the scenery there was stunning and that there was a good chance of seeing plenty of wildlife including wild elephants. Rosie had recommended another homestay outside Mananthavady, one of two main towns in the region, so I hopped on a bus and spent the next three hours gaping out the window at amazing mountain scenery. Kerala is a long narrow state bordered by the sea to one side and the Western Ghats to the other. Once you travel inland for 30-40km you start ascending into the foothills of the Ghats and before long you’re winding up hairpin after hairpin until you’re surrounded on all sides by densely forested hills.Much of the land is taken up by paddy fields and large plantations – rubber, tea, coffee – and everything is green.

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My next homestay was a few miles outside Mananthavady, on the fringes of theTholpetty wildlife reserve. Once again the hospitality was incredible – delicious home- cooked food and great conversations with the hosts who were happy to fill me with information about the local plants, animals and insects. Shortly after arriving they organised a driver to take me on a road safari around the fringes of the sanctuary. It was a far cry from the Masai Mara but really enjoyable in its own way. The fact that it was in a forest meant that spotting animals felt like an achievment whereas in the Mara they were everywhere. I managed to see several types of monkey, spotted deer, bison and, the highlight, several wild elephants. It’s pretty sweet to have now seen elephants in the wild in two different continents. Apparently though, like in Africa, they’re seen as more of a nuisance than anything else by the local population. They destroy crops given half a chance and they will attack humans if they feel threatened. Varghese, my host, was showing me the trenches and electric fences they had to erect to keep the elephants off their land. The local tribal people build treehouses overlooking their paddy fields to keep a lookout for elephants at night so they can chase them off before they do damage.

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I spent the rest of my time in Wayanad hanging around the homestay and gorging myself on their delicious food. I also went for a guided walk arounf the locality. Very scenic but also very hot. Still, I probably worked off some of the food! I also became quite fascinated with taking pictures of the ridiculously large insects that were constantly appearing out of the garden. My favourite is this lad:

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I was really impressed with what I managed to see of northern Kerala. Both Kannur and Wayanad are beautiful areas in their own way, one with amazing beaches and the other with gorgeous mountain scenery. It would be impossible to choose a favourite between Kannur Beach House and Varnam Homestay. The homestay option is definitely the way to go in Kerala because hotels here seem to tend towards the bland, functional business type and hostels are practically non-existent. In all the homestays I’ve visited to date I’ve had amazing food, clean, comfortable rooms and helpful, interesting hosts who couldn’t do enough for me. The only drawback (if you call it that) to travelling at this time of the year is that the season hasn’t really got going so you can sometimes end up being the only guest in the place.

So, it was back to Trivandrum on Friday night to catch up with Ollie who had the whole weekend off for a change. We decided to treat ourselves (well, Ollie) to a night away from the guesthouse and its dreadfully uncomfortable bed so we went out to Kovalam, a beach resort a few miles south of Trivandrum. It’s a proper busy resort, not a million miles away from what you’d find at home. It’s popular with Westerners but also with locals which makes for some interesting people watching. The locals tend to bathe fully clothed and don’t do the sunbathing thing at all. Indians try to avoid tanning and seem to prefer paler skin. The cosmetics section of the supermarket does be full of skin whitening products, both male and female. Kovalam was fun and we had a few drinks some great seafood which was a nice change from all the vegetarian food that we’ve mainly been eating (seems to have worked too as so far neither of us have been sick). We caught a lovely sunset too.

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So that’s it for the moment. I’m writing this from Kumily, back up in the mountains, and there’ll hopefully be a further report from there in the next day or two. Ollie has her final exam on Friday and is studying away back in Trivandrum and she’ll no doubt be back blogging in full effect come next week

Dodging mosquitos status: You win some and you lose some. Though surrounded by insects for most of the week I managed to avoid getting many bites. They made up for it at the weekend though and they wreaked a bloody revenge in Kovalam on Saturday night. They’re relentless!

Posted by ofenelon 09:32 Archived in India Comments (3)

Hanging out in Varkala

Guest entry 1

Hi everyone. Ger here, taking over the reins. I’ll be writing the odd blog entry for the next couple of weeks as I’m doing a bit of travelling around Kerala on my own while Ollie does the yoga course. My first stop was the beach resort of Varkala, one of these places, like Goa, that started out as a hippy mecca and has gradually morphed into a fairly standard Westernised holiday destination with lots of cheap hotels offering yoga and Ayurvedic treatments and innumerable restaurants serving pricey (for India) food that is very much catered to Western tastes. Varkala is famous for it’s red cliffs which offer stunning views of the Indian Ocean battering the coastline. In fairness, it’s easy to see what attracted the smelly hippies.

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Even though Varkala is only a couple of hours away from Trivandrum it’s like a different world. There’s no beeping horns, smoke-belching exhausts or lunatic rickshaw driving. A strip of restaurants, souvenir shops and hotels stretches along the cliffs for about a mile and apart from the half-hearted attempts from the vendors to attract you into their shops for a look (‘looking is free’, apparently) it’s a lovely walk to do. I did it several times. The main beach contains a weird mix of Western holidaymakers and Hindu pilgrims. It’s a popular spot for scattering the ashes of loved ones and even at the crack of dawn one morning there were several dozen people praying, burning inscence and chanting. What they make of the Westereners further up the beach sunbathing and bodyboarding I can only imagine. The monsoon season means that the sea is particularly rough so swimming is not really advised so I didn’t actually bother getting in the water.

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I spent three nights in a small homestay called Keratheeram just off the cliff. It was cheap (6 euro per night), got great reviews on Tripadvisor and offered free cooking lessons which was enough to have me sold. Sure enough, the place was excellent value for money. The rooms were clean with both a net on the bed and screens on the windows. There was also a small terrace with a hammock in which I spent many happy hours with my Kindle.

I was ridiculously lazy in Varkala but, in my defense, it’s that kind of place. There’s very little to do aside from yoga classes and the beach and I wasn’t really bothered with either of those, the beach due to the mad waves and the yoga due to having my own budding instructor at home. I pretty much spent my entire time reading on the terrace or eating and drinking in one of the restaurants on the cliff. The food was fine, if a little boring after Trivandrum and Mumbai. Each restaurant had more or less the same menu, with a huge selection of Italian, Thai, Chinese and of course Indian dishes. They even had a term for this - ‘multi-cuisine’. As you could imagine the end result tended to be rather bland. I had no bad meals in Varkala but had nothing I enjoyed as much as the 50 cent masala dosas in the little café down the road from us in Trivandrum. That said, it was nice to be able to sit in a restaurant and actually take your time over dinner. In Trivandrum they tend to feed you, fire you a cup of chai swiftly followed by the bill, and get you out the door as soon as possible to make way for the next customer! It was also nice to be able to have a beer with my meal. That’s almost impossible in Trivandrum unless you go to a hotel restaurant. Kerala has really ridiculous alcohol licencing laws although judging by the massive queues you see outside the government run ‘beer shops’ they’re not all that successful at curbing the demand for booze.

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The highlight of my stay in Varkala was the cooking lessons with Saji, my landlady. She showed me how to make a Keralan style breakfast one morning – idly (steamed cakes made from rice and lentils) and sambhar (a type of vegetable curry). This was interesting, and tasty, but I can’t see myself ever really making curry for breakfast back home. The following days lesson was considerably more relevant as we were making lunch. Saji put together a veritable feast as myself and another guest looked on (we did help some with chopping the veg). Saji put together a thali, a rice plate with various accompaniments traditionally served on a banana leaf. This consisted of daal (lentil curry), avial (boiled veg mixed with a coconut-based curry paste), two types of thoren (grated veg mixed with coconut and spices) - cabbage and beetroot, poppadoms, a yogurt-based salad, fried okra (lady’s finger) and lime pickle. She also cooked up some fish, diced in a curry and pan-fried in spices. I learned a good few tips from watching her work and chatting to her. While some of the dishes would be difficult to replicate without the fresh local ingredients that she was using, others are definitely ones that I’ll try at home. The thing that struck me the most was how important the coconut is in Kerala cooking. Grated coconut or coconut milk was used in pretty much all the main dishes. That’s probably one of the main things that differentiates it from the mainly North Indian food that we get in Ireland.

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So, Varkala was pretty uneventful, cooking lessons aside, but enjoyable nonetheless. I’ll hopefully have a rather more exciting report to share with you in my next edition as I’m setting off in a few hours on an overnight train to Kannur in Northern Kerala (500 km from here). I’d imagine my first serious encounter with the Indian railways will provide a few tales all on it’s own.

Dodging Mosquito Status: Not a major problem in Varkala. Even the mosquitos in Varkala are laid back, I guess.

Posted by ofenelon 03:57 Archived in India Comments (4)

Do you know your Asana from your Pranayama?

I think I mentioned in a previous post that I was a bit nervous about this latest task I set myself. That task being to complete a basic teacher training course in Yoga. The main reason is that I am not an experienced practitioner of Yoga but something about it seem to make to want to do this. Now, I think I made the right choice.

The course is taking place in the outskirts of Trivandrum in Santhi Yoga School. It’s a lovely place and the classes take place outside (in the shade thankfully). I really had no idea of to expect on my first day but was prepare to give it my best and see what happens. I am now finished my second week and am really loving it. I am finding it very challenging both physically and mentally but its so different that it really keeps my interest .

Each day we have two practical sessions (3-4 hours in total) and a 2 hour lecture on the yoga topics such as philosophy and diet. In between we have a yummy vegetarian lunch served up on a banana leaf. I think I found this the hardest to adjust to as we eat cross legged on the floor and we use our right hand for eating. I have gotten use to it now as everybody here eats this way and have since learnt that all of the foods we are given are there for a reason . Each food and its colour appeals to the different sense organs and we are given just enough to fill us – this is probably a good thing after my gluttonous spree in Mumbai.

One of main objectives of the course is to give you knowledge of yoga in its entirety. In most countries when we think of yoga, we think of various physical positions (asanas) that we move into throughout the class. We mainly use yoga as a physical exercise. In traditional yoga, the asanas are only a small part of the overall aim of yoga. The underlying principle is more spiritual. Its not religious as yoga is older than some organised religions but you can incorporate your religion into it if you wish. The philosophical side of yoga is fascinating and while I’m not the most spiritual of people, I can appreciate the teachings behind it. Its definitely mentally challenging and I’m back to the studying in the evenings (I thought those days were gone) :( .The diet section is also fascinating . It’s quite complex but basically they recommend a vegetarian diet consisting of natural whole foods. There are lots of reasons for why to eat each particular food so it’s a little mind boggling. I’m not sure if I agree with it all but its interesting none the less.

Overall its going great. I wont lie and say that its easy. The heat is very tough and I’m stiff /sore a lot of the time but I can already feel great benefits on my health and my mind is starting to calm down so long may it continue! Ger is going to be my student for me to practice on so I’ll let you know how it goes. If that goes well I’l be looking for students on my return!

Dodging Mosquito Status: Ok but they enjoy a bit of yoga too and seem to strike when your in some awkward posture. Sneaky devils!

Posted by ofenelon 18:46 Archived in India Comments (1)

The Tale of the Freckle

I was at my yoga class yesterday and i had a very amusing conversation with one of the instructors. It was after lunch, i was standing have a glass of water and awaiting the start of the afternoon practical session. The instructor approaches me, points to my arm and asks 'What happen there with those spots' , i initially thought i had been bitten or something when i realised what he was talking about. A bit lost for words I responded ' They are freckles, lots of Irish people have them' . He instructor said nothing, turned and we started the class.

It was only during the class that i realised that we usually consider 'culture shocks' to happen to ourselves. In this case, i was obviously a bit of a cultural mystery to my teacher!!

Dodging Mosquito Status: Lets just say that the mossies are obviously curious about freckles too!

Posted by ofenelon 21:05 Comments (0)

Festivities in Trivandrum

We arrived in Trivandrum from Mumbai where it would our home of the next month while I undertake my Yoga Course. Trivandrum, also named Thrivananthapurum, is the capital of the Indian state of Kerala in India and home to around 750,000 people. We were lucky enough to arrive near the end of Onam festival which is a big harvest festival in Kerala and as such there are many festivities about. The most noticeable being the lights. The town and the various buildings are lit up with colourful lights. It’s a bit like Christmas back home and similarly families all get together for a large feast. We were here for the big final parade as well. This took place down the main road in the town. Its was really good and much like our St Patrick’s day parade except they had a few elephants!!

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Apart from Onam, Trivandrum is a modern bustling city with endless amounts of bookshops and shoe shops for some reason. They also have some great local restaurants specialising in vegetarian food which is so cheap that its easier for us to have dinner out than cook ourselves. Its about 2-3 euro for dinner for 2. We find it best to eat in the local restaurants as the food is very fresh as they are constantly busy . Apparently your more likely to get the famous ‘dehli belly’ from the more touristy places and big hotels as food is sitting around longer. I’m not sure if this is true but so far we seem to have escaped – hopefully it will continue.

A lot of tourists pass in and out of Trivandrum but they do have some good tourist attractions. Last Sunday we went to the zoo as we heard it was meant to be good. It was good but we turned out to be one of the main attractions. It was surreal. People kept asking to take photos with us. At one stage, I was holding a baby in an extended family of about 10 people. We thought it was very strange but it must be the ‘in thing’ to have your picture taken in the zoo with us white Irish! I wouldn’t have minded but if I had of known we would get so much attention I would have dressed up a bit! As it was I had no make up and my hair was a frizzy mess (humidity and fringes do not mix well). It was very funny and we laughed about it for the rest of the day. I suppose it gave us an insight into what it must be like to be famous.

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Ger is doing all the sightseeing at the moment because I have started my Yoga Teacher Training Course. It’s a month long so I wont be doing much sightseeing for a while. I will put up a separate post regarding the course but I‘m loving it so far. Its fascinating as we are looking not only at the physical aspects of Yoga but the spiritual side too. The yoga classes that we know at home consists mostly of physical exercise where we do the different asanas (the postures) but this is actually just a small part of the overall subject of Yoga. It is a very complex subject yet really interesting. I wont lie though, I’m exhausted at the end of the day but I will keep at it and hopefully it will be worth it if I pass the exam at the end. In the meantime, Ger will be doing some travelling around Kerala so he will be guest blogging on his adventures --provided he keeps to my hgh standards of course :)

Dodging Mosquito Status: They are back!!!! Bolder than ever and biting us. They have also been joined by these enormous sized snails that appear in large quantities outside the guesthouse. We have taken to carrying a torch at night as we are filled with immense horror at the thought of stepping on one at night.

Posted by ofenelon 06:42 Archived in India Comments (0)

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