This time I was hell bent to make at least one part of the journey in train. It’s been ages since I traveled in train. Indian railways running across the country in a way is a miniature India on the wheels. Different classes of people irrespective of caste, creed, religion etc travel together and offer a great opportunity to study human behavior.
So I decided to board the train to Kozhikode (erstwhile Calicut) from Bangalore railway station. The AC two tier one way ticket cost me 886 INR. The train was scheduled to start at 8 pm from Yaswantpur Raliway Station (which is pretty far away from my home) and I started from home at 6:37 pm. Now this was a VERY risky thing to do especially when one remembers the stagnant traffic of Bangalore. I have no clue how the driver managed to reach the station sharp at 8 pm.
In my haste to pack my bags in the eleventh hour and run to catch the train, I forgot to grab something for dinner. So after I settled down and made myself comfortable, I could hear my stomach making those funny noises due to hunger. Now in trains , they do provide meals or snacks or beverages at a minimal cost but this one being a night train presumed that all its passengers ( unlike me ) will stuff their stomachs well before boarding the train. Therefore there was no arrangement for food.
Just when I was planning to pop few pills to fall asleep and ignore the hunger, a man appeared like a messiah. Trust me. At that moment he was no less than God to me. I jumped to buy one of the biryani packets he was selling. The vegetarian biryani along with the sour mango chutney cost me Rs25. The quality of food was not something I would discuss here because at that point of time it tasted like the tastiest food of the world. I even managed to coax one of the railway stuffs to sell me a bottle of mineral water. With stomach full and thirst quenched I tucked myself under the blanket provided by the railways and started to plan my trip. Such a happy woman I was. In no time I was feeling sleepy and decided to call it a day.
I woke up in the wee hours of the morning. It was still dark outside. But I could already see the dark outlines of coconut trees, the very symbol that so much represents Kerela.
I peeped out of the train door to feel the breeze. It was such a feast of eyes and senses.
I reached the station and was kind of hijacked by an auto-rickshaw driver promising to find a very good hotel. What he found was not a very good one but I decided to do with it. However I would not really recommend this place because although they promise to have a Travel Desk, in reality they have none and the second drawback for me was their inability to understand or communicate in English. Now I am not being Anglo-centric here but I don’t understand south Indian Languages so my recourse to the international common language is more of finding a common platform to communicate rather than being colonial.
I paid 1500 INR as an advance and decided to go for the AC room. This is another point to note for whoever travelling to Calicut. This place is hot and humid so AC is a real requirement. The AC room comes with a complimentary breakfast.
At 8:21 am I went for breakfast. The heat was already intimidating but I was so excited to discover this place that I decided to ignore it. Out of many choices in breakfast, I opted for masala omlette ( the slim brother of Spanish Omlette) and Masala Dosa.
Masala Dosa is the south Indian version of pancakes with potatoes and vegetable stuffings in it. It comes with coconut chutney (spicy coconut paste ) and sambar ( kind of spicy lentil or pulses soup ). What was interesting for me was to note the usage of whole pepper and asfoetida which inevitably points towards the influence of the spice trade and its strategic location in the spice route vis a vis the Portuguese. That little pinch of asfoetida amused me more when I started to think about the amount of history that flew into it to land up in the coconut chutney in Calicut. Asfoetida was in fact a favorite Persian flavoring that the Mughals happily embraced in their cuisine.
At 11: 35 am I started the discovery of Kerela through my eyes. I was not aiming to see the hyped Kerela as propagated by the tourism of India. I wanted to understand it in its own historicities and local flavors that is in a way to feel the pulse of the place.
I rented a car and the son of the owner of the Travel Company accompanied me as my guide.
My first destination was Beypore. It’s an old port where from I could still see timber getting transported from Kallai to distant places like Gujarat , Bombay etc.
( Wikipedia : Beypore port is one of the oldest ports in Kerala from where trading was done to the Middle East. Beypore is also famous for building wooden ship, it is called Dhows or Urus in Malayalam language. These ships are usually bought by arab merchants for trading, fishing and now used as a tourist ships.) Beypore teak even went into the making of Lord Nelson's fleet at Trafalgar. The practice continued till the First World War, after which steel ships and boats took over.
My guide book said that Kallai was once a bustling center of Calicut’s timber trade and was perhaps the largest in Asia.From Beypore I crossed the river in a launch to reach Chaliyam. The fare was 2 INR. I was keen to visit the places where ships are still built in the century old ways.
I convinced someone at a nominal fare of 25 INR to take me to a small island where a local guy promised that I would find a family making handmade Urus right from the start. I took a horribly perilous ride across the river in a wobbly boat that resembled like a canoe. It was such a sweet little island. I walked past the family cooking their lunch who greeted me with astonished glare. I had to stash the wild plants and shrubs violently to make my way through the dense vegetation. All of a sudden I was stopped by an amazing spectacle of a handcrafted vessel standing right in front of me out. It appeared right from the pages of history and out of nowhere. It was a splendid sight. A handcrafted huge ship standing in front me like a Noah’s Arc.
I said a quick hello and thanked the family before heading back towards the banks of the river. At the river banks I watched as the khalasis cleaned their boats and dragged them back to the shores while humming a rhythmic song. It was so fulfilling to listen to that song; the language of which I didn’t understand but the rustic tune against the backdrop of sea on one side and the river on another was something touched me beyond words. However I couldn’t appreciate the scene for long when I discovered the obvious discomfort of the men due to my presence. Yes they were not expecting a lonely woman traveler but it was more due to the wet skimpy loin cloth that hid little and revealed more that was the cause of their discomfort in front of me. So I left the poor fishermen and the boatmen to do their jobs and headed towards the famous Kappad Beach.
By this time the sun was already making his presence felt. To beat the heat my guide suggested me to try the Nellikais ( Indian Gooseberry) immersed in some dubious looking water. I was skeptic but after trying it I must say that this is a must try not only to beat the heat but to understand the local food. It turned out to be Indian gooseberries immersed and marinated in chilly water. Perhaps being in city made me too cautious to try the curd water bit with spices but I definitely liked the Nellikais. And I am happy that I ate those available at only 1 INR each ; so simple and cheap but yet so tasty.
It was already well past one o’ clock in the afternoon by the time we headed towards Kappad and therefore we all were hungry.
The distant between Calicat and Kappad is 16 km. On our way we crossed the Elethoor bridge which offers a breathtaking view. Since it was already late we decided to finish our lunch before hitting the beach. The driver was surprised when I refused all the sophisticated restaurants. I wasn’t looking for Pan-Indian food. I wanted to eat the food of the place that speaks of it distinctiveness in an unadulterated way.
Around 2: 18 we ate at a roadside shack. Lunch was a simple meal of rice ( real fat grains), dal, curry , fish and pickles.It was rustic and so tasty that I ate like a glutton. It was the Kerela cuisine I was looking for. The very authentic one served on plantain or banana leaves.
At about 14:35 we reached Kappad. The beach has its own historical significance with the famous Portuguese traveler Vasco da Gama landing here in 1498. Little did he knew that he was about to change the course of this subcontinent. In a way this can easily be considered as the first step of India being recognized in the colonial map.
Even if you are not bugged by the romance of history, you can’t help falling in love with the sprawling beach of Kappad. It’s a beautiful beach with loose sands. I sat on a rock which slowly got submerged during the high tides and there was water everywhere around me. It was like an island. The rock was my own island with the sea water encircling me and the waves kissing my toes. Behind me was the line of dense coconut trees and in front of me was the vast expanse of sea dotted with distant fishing trailers.
I would have had spent the day sitting on that rock and gazing had my guide not called me.
From Kappad I went to Payyoli. I reached there around 16:00. This was an awesome beach with hard black sand. It was hard to believe that such a beach can exist ; so much isolated and devoid of people. It fascinated me with its pristine view and the black sand kissed by the silent waves of sea. I was told that this is where P.T.Usha used to sprint in her hey days. Thankfully there was not a single soul on the beach and I had it all to myself.
Our next destination was another beach nearby. Tikkodi beach. We reached there around 16:30. By this time the sun has mellowed down a bit and it was near the time of sunset. With a cool breeze flowing and a soft sunlight kissed beach, Tikkodi beach had its own charm. I saw there local women and children hunting for mussels. During low tides they come armed with just a knife and scoop down the small crabs and mainly the mussels form the crevices of the rocks. I tried my hand as well along with the mussel hunters.
But I think I was too novice to select the right ones. A local man split open a mussel and informed me that it was a He-mussel. Well, I really didn’t know where to look at to confirm that it was a he. For all that I saw was a semi-liquid glob within the shells. Nonetheless I loved the experience of learning to hunt and pick the mussels. It was so much fun to do that with those small kids who rolled in laughter at my incompetence but was so keen to teach me the skill that came so obviously to them.
Time factor forced me to say goodbye to them while we headed towards the Kadalur Light House. The road to the lighthouse was quite an off-beat track with hardly anyone around and with trees and tall unruly grass everywhere. The lighthouse closes around 17:00 and the view is spectacular.
The sun was about to set and it was time to go back. On our way back I requested to take me to the local market. Visiting a local market is one of must-see things for me to feel the vibes of a place. We went to the fish market which had various kinds of sea fishes. I could spot some fresh prawns and squids as well.
I was silently thanking God when I was watching the sunset on the river from a bridge. Everything was bathing in a soft hue of crimson. The ripples on the water, the distant hills and backwaters, tall coconut trees and a dusk; I was happy to be alive.
Much to my surprise, the Sreesanth’s family or rather his mother invited me for dinner. It was more than I expected and could ask for so although I was really tired, I decided to accept the invitation.
There was an outage when I went to Sreesanth’s house. Winding ways led to his house.
I was greeted with such a warm welcome that I instantly felt at home and relaxed. It was a family of six ; Sreesanth and his parents, his sister and her husband along with their small kid. Sreesanth’s father owns the travel business and his mother and sister run a beauty parlor or salon. The son-in-law or rather Sreesanth’s brother-in-law works in Dubai and was in his month long vacation in India. He was briefing me about life in Middle East. While we were chatting , electricity came back and tea was served along with sweet biscuits ( cookies), fried plantain chips, khara biscuits ( spicy biscuits) and bananas. Now I know serving bananas with evening tea sounds a bit odd but you need to appreciate the fact that we are in Kerela. In fact at this point there are two points which stand out that truly represents Kereal, the land of Malayalis. A large portion of the Malayalis migrate to Middle east every year especially to Dubai (or as their accent says Hubai) in search of jobs. And secondly, bananas and coconuts are ubiquitous and synonymous to Kerela. It’s considered a good omen as well.
It was refreshing to enjoy the tea with spicy roasted biscuits. While I was chatting I could feel the rustle and bustle in kitchen and also could smell the aroma of cooking. I could hardly control myself and asked for permission to enter the kitchen.
It was a sight to watch indeed. Sreesanth’s father was marinating the fish, his mother was rolling out the pathiris and his sister and her husband was taking turns to roast the pathiris. The Pathiris are like thick flattened pancakes made of rice flour and they were roasted in coconut oil on a clay oven which had wood as its fuel. The use of wood gave it a wonderful smoky smell which enhanced its taste and flavor.
Dinner was sumptuous and I really lost my words when I saw all the dishes laid out in front of me ; rice, freshly roasted pathiris, fried papads ( papadams), puttus, bite sized chunks of spicy fried shark, a kind of fish called Irimis-marinated and fried with curry leaves and spices and a fish curry of finger sized fishes called Nethala and ofcourse bananas. Therefore there were nine items to eat. That was really too much for me but the food was so tasty and the people were too nice. A mere refusal to taste any food made them genuinely sad so I made it a point to taste everything. It was a tasty and a hearty meal that I will never forget. And guess what? I got a gift from the family as well. Sreesanth’s sister gifted me a pair of earrings that she handmade.
I came back to my hotel near to midnight , happy , content and all the more thankful to God. I am not sure if everyone is as lucky as I am but the hospitality and the warm welcome of this family will be something I will always remember as a treasure to cherish in my Kerela trip.
Today Sreesanth couldn’t come so I had to rent a car from a different man. The travel desk of the hotel proved to be incompetent and disgustingly callous and late to arrange a cab for me. Just when I was about to lose my temper, the car arrived. Thankfully it was AC which proved to be a great relief to me. The hot humid weather outside and my anger ; both desperately needed that AC.
We started at 12:34pm towards Lakiddi. Yesterday it was plains and sea and today it was cold hills and dark dense forests that we headed into. Tucked in the wild beauty of forests , Lakkidi is 2297 ft atop Thamarassery Ghat Pass and registers the second highest degree of rainfall in the world. We followed the Erinjapalam-Waynad Road and reached near the Chained Tree around 14:11 pm. It was a huge evergreen tree tied with shackles. There isn’t much to see unless you consider the story behind it. The legend goes that a British engineer did not know the road from Calicut to Waynad. A local adivasi ( primary inhabitants or residents of the place) guided him and showed him the way. The engineer killed the poor adivasi to take the sole credit of discovering the way. Soon roads were built but the new roads started to witness a spate of accidents. A local priest was summoned who attributed the accidents to the restless soul of the adivasi. The priest chained his soul and locked within the tree and in turn made the roads free from its uncanny accidents.
On my way to Pookote lake I was greeted by lush rainforests and tea garden on both sides. It was a feast of eyes and senses. We followed the hilly roads often covered my mist to go to Pookote Lake. As I stopped on the top of a hill near a view point and was lost in the various shades of blue and green, I was interrupted by an over enthusiastic guy who wanted to become over friendly and chatty. The lusty look in his eyes and the smirk and the laughter of his friends was enough for me to be cautious and leave the place.
But I was annoyed. A stupid bunch of sexually frustrated guys was about to mar my trip and hinder my mental solace. I didn’t know if I was being followed nor did I knew if the roads ahead were populated and safe enough for me. This constant worry was irritating me and spoiling the trip. So I decided to take a stance and reported about this to the Police Station in Pookote Lake. There were two sub-inspectors over there , Mohd Kutthy and Gopal Krishnan were very helpful , patient and gave me the contact numbers of the all the local and nearby police stations so that I can contact them any time I want while I am travelling.
Now going back to Pookote Lake, it’s a 21ft deep placid freshwater lake with green hills all around. There are resorts in Vythiri where one can stay and take a nice walk to Pookote. Undoubtedly it’s a beautiful place but if you have seen Ooty or Ulsoor Lake or Nicco Park or any of those lakes offering row and paddle boat rides , then you wouldn’t find much great to see in Pookote other than the quiet serene nature all around. Apart from a police station , refreshment or food counters , the lake also has a shop selling local handicrafts and spices. Nudged by my sweet tooth I bought a packet of Nellikai ( gooseberries) marinated in sugar syrup.
Time was running short so I had to resume my journey. This time we headed towards Kalpetta and our next stop was Sulthan Bathery. The name is derived from Tipu Sultan who converted and emptied a 14th C Jain temple of its idols to make room for ammunitions. So the strategic location of this place vis-à-vis its historical significance is definitely worth pondering about. Photography is not allowed here. It’s a small temple without any idol and with only a guide who patiently explained the stone carvings on the walls of the temple. Quiet, serene and left in its own corner, this place is not a typical tourist’s delight but is bound to touch you.
After Sulthan Bathery I went to one of the tourism counters and collected a brochure which listed many inviting places to explore. I don’t know why I chose Uravu centre. It’s the indigenous Science and Technology Study and Training Centre promoting bamboo. Financed by NABARD, its one of its kind that supports training in bamboo.The driver didn’t know the way and nor did I. Moreover it was winding muddy road which restricted the speed and seemed much longer than it is. I liked the place especially the painting workshop section. There were weavers, artisans, painters all around busy in their work. You can also buy the artifacts but credit cards are not accepted here. I bought a cute little visiting card holder and a slim flower vase than can be hung from the wall ; all made and carved out of bamboo and then handpainted. The place is worth seeing but the road took much of my time.
After Uravu , I wanted to check the local museum. I was the only tourist per se there other than a chirpy bunch of school children. The Waynad Museum is not a big one and the collections include few Neolithic implements, ancient statues and old fishing or hunting implements.
By this time, it was already getting dark and we had to head back towards Calicut.
It’s only then I realized that I didn’t have my lunch. I stopped at a local bakery and bought something to eat. Came back to hotel tired and fatigued. I saw my next room being raided by a fleet of cops. I am not sure whether it was due to the terrorist attack in Mumbai but I was really too tired to ask for the reason. I was expecting them to come to check my room as well but I guess they thought I am too naïve , obese and explicitly predictable to be able to do something so terrifying.
I checked out from the hotel today around 10:00 and today Sreesanth was back with me with his car. First I wanted to go to the famous Halwa Street of Calicut. There were shops all around selling solid blocks of Halwa ( a kind of a sweet dish) in varied colors, flavors made with assorted ingredients. There was even a black variety as well. You can taste each one of them before you can make up your mind about which one to buy. I bought two big blocks ; one for my landlady and another one to gift Sreesanth’s mother. It was little I could do to show my gratitude.
After a quick visit to the Government emporium and Mananchira Square , we went to the Pazhassiraja Museum. We reached there around 11:30 am. This is a must see for both history lovers or students and art connoisseurs. The museum has an amazing collection of paintings by famous painter Raja Ravi Varma along with mural paintings and specimens from all the dominant schools of painting and art eg the Rajasthan miniatures, the Flute maker by Nandalal Bose , The Well by Gogonendra nath Tagore from Bengal School of Art etc. The museum also an interesting section on V.K.Menon which apart from displaying his personal belongings also has the different gifts he received in his political career; the ornamental foundation stone travels from different places , address rolls etc.
After this we took an offbeat direction to see a lesser known backwater. We took a diversion from the Atholi-Velur road.The backwaters lived up to its name and fame. It was a beautiful sight with coconut trees everywhere and the waters sparkling with the rays of the sun. We ate lunch over here by the side of the river while I could hear the waves lashing the steps of the ghat. A lunch for three of us cost me only 53 INR.
It was beginning to get hot so we started again towards the famous Drive-in Beach of Muzhappilangad Beach. I reached there around 15:00 when sun was at his best so there wasn’t much people on the beach except few cars racing along the beach. I could manage to take a nice long walk here that I enjoyed very much more because of the fact that my trip in God’s own Country was about to end and perhaps this is the last time I will have some time all to myself.
On our way to Thalassery we crossed Mahe , an erstwhile entrepot for the French East Indian Company. Being it a weekend ,I failed to get any accommodation in Thalassery and therefore decided to come back to Bangalore from Sulthan Bathery. Now this was a long journey and a very long car ride. We stopped only twice ; once when Sreesanth and the driver went for their dinner and secondly.. ummm… when I had to go to restroom. Needless to say the restroom here was open field behind the wild bush under the night sky. Anyways, thanks to Sreesanth , he managed to reach just in time and got tickets for me to come back to Bangalore.
I boarded the bus from Sulthan Bathery around 23:00 and reached Bangalore around 4:30 or 5 in the morning. Although I had to cut short my trip by one day , yet I was happy to see Kerela the way I wanted to. With the unexpected hospitality , pristine sea beaches , lush green hills and amazing food , it was a trip I thoroughly enjoyed.