How to capture a week in Kerala without stretching to the world's longest review? Well it's a tried and tested technique of mine to force myself to stick to an alphabet structure. We were in Kerala - visiting Kochi, Munnar, Thekkady and the backwaters around Allepey in November 2011. Here's my A to Z.
A is for Ayurveda
Having an Ayurvedic massage in the hill town of Munnar was one of the most painful and uncomfortable experiences I've had in India – only slightly preferable to diarrhoea or a railway station toilet. However the general principles of Ayurveda are sound – and a lot less reliant on mumbo jumbo, mathematical improbability and faith than its more popular and better known cousin, homeopathy. Ayurveda is an Indian system of traditional herbal and mineral healthcare which is also popular in Sri Lanka. We spent a painful hour being beaten up by an Ayurvedic masseur and masseuse in a small centre and it took me about three days to shake off the aches and pains. It's entirely possible that my chakras were beautifully realigned but I felt like I'd done 9 rounds with Mohammed Ali.
B is for Beena's Homestay
When planning my trips to India – or anywhere else for that matter – I'm quite reliant on the recommendations of the tripadvisor website. The top tip I picked up for accommodation in Kerala's major city Cochin (or Kochi) was Beena's Homestay. Beena and her husband let spotlessly clean but simple rooms in their home, feed you 'til you think you'll burst each evening, and offer a lovely alternative to budget hotels. Yes, of course a full review will follow but for now, let's just say this is the best bargain in southern India and a chance to stay with some of the nicest, kindest people you'll ever meet.
C is for Cardamoms
I adore the taste of cardamoms – I put them in rather a lot of my cooking. They're one of those 'crossover' spices that can be used in sweet or savoury dishes, are ludicrously cheap and grow like weeds all over the hills of Kerala. I'd hazard a guess that most people wouldn't have a clue how they grow but if you go to Kerala you'll be told at least once a day and people will stop and point out cardamom plants by the road side. They grow on plants that look a bit like palms and are found on stringy growths near the base of the stem that look a bit like the aerial roots on orchids. I read somewhere that cardamom is the third most expensive spice in the world but that sounds ridiculous, especially since they grow like weeds all over the Kerala countryside.
D is for driving and drivers
The mountains of Kerala have horribly bad roads. If you ask whether they drive on the right or the left side of the road, the answer is neither; they drive wherever the pot holes are less deep. The tracks through the tea plantations around Munnar are shocking even in a four-wheel drive Jeep. Doing hair pin bends in reverse in a vehicle with the threads sticking out of the sidewalls of the tyres is for the brave or foolish.
E is for Elephants
Elephants are the state animal of Kerala and they have three thousand five hundred wild ones wandering around as well as massively more tamed beasts who work in the logging industry and tourism. We had a short ride in Thekkady and it was by far the best elephant ride I've had due to the lovely Nelly we had (her name was Lakshmi) and mostly due to the type of saddle used in Kerala. Unlike the more popular basket-style frames that are used in the tourists traps of Rajastan where you sit sideways in a metal cage that lurches from side to side, or the strange forward facing metal 'sofa' type seats in Thailand, the Keralans let you sit astride the elephant with a leg down either side and your feet on a metal bar with lots of padding between you and the elephant. It helps to be of above average height as short people and children can slip around if they can't reach the foot bars. Being astride the elephant offers some 'interesting' differences from the other seating types – most notably that when the elephant farts (which they do a lot – high fibre diet and all that) you can feel the entire elephant vibrate.
F is for Fishing and Fish
Kerala is a coastal state and they have the most fabulous fish which is typically presented as a spicy 'Kerala fish fry'. Whilst I normally eat strictly vegetarian food in India to avoid the risk of tummy upsets, I ate fish throughout Kerala, even up in the mountains and on the backwaters and I even had the odd prawn a couple of times on the coast.
Cochin is famous for its use of so-called 'Chinese fishing nets' – an historic form of fishing in which large stretched nets are dipped into the water and then raised out again by the use of counterweights. For a small fee the fisherman are more than happy to demonstrate their highly photogenic technique. The fish market beside the fishing nets offers even more good photo opportunities and a chance to get a really fresh lunch of dinner.
G is for Green and Gods Own Country
Kerala is green, very green. Why? Because it rains all the time up in the mountains and quite often down by the coast as well. It's astonishingly lush. The state slogan is 'God's Own Country' because it's a majority Christian state but in reality most of the time God has to share it with the Communists who until very recently dominated local politics. The Communist Party of India seems to rub along surprisingly well with the Church which is more than can be said in any of the other Communist strongholds or ex-strongholds around the world. My guess is that if you're a Christian and your choice of political parties is a bunch of Hindu or Muslim groups, your enemies enemy might just be your friend.