Sunday, August 24, 2014

Kerala: Wayanad


After Mysore, we took a bus from Mysore to a small city called Kalpetta, which sits nearly in the center of a large valley in Northeastern Kerala and is quite close to several nature and wildlife preserves. Kerala, where we will spend the rest of our time in India, is a comparatively small sliver of a state that runs along the southern most part of India’s western coast. Kerala is primarily famous for its beaches and “backwaters,” which are a series of beautiful and idyllic canals and waterways that begin just a kilometer or two in from the beach.
However, before hitting the backwaters (which is where I am now), our first destination in Kerala was hilly Wayanad, a captivating green valley that is populated by endless tea and coffee plantations and is surrounded by impressive foggy mountain peaks. I picked Wayanad as a destination because it is a good midway point between Mysore and Kerala’s more southern backwaters, meaning we could break up what otherwise would have been an incredibly long bus/train journey. But Wayanad is a great destination in its own right, and I’m not sure why it isn’t a far more popular destination for foreign tourists.
Our bus ride from Mysore went off without a hitch. It was easy to find the correct bus at the Mysore bus stand, the tickets were cheap (roughly $1 per person for a four-hour bus ride), and the ticket conductor on the bus made sure we got off at the right stop. I tried to ignore the driver's lead foot...
In Kalpetta, we stayed at a place called Olives Homestay, which was run by a couple named Biju and Raji. Homestays, which are somewhat similar to B&Bs, are increasingly popular in India. They are essentially guesthouses where the family that runs the place lives on the first floor, and you spend much more time interacting with your hosts than you would at a hotel. Meals are usually home-cooked and are often shared with other guests and sometimes the family itself. It's a good way to interact with Indian people outside of a more touristy-settings, but the downside is that if the guesthouse is remote, you can become dependent on your hosts for all of your food and travel planning. 
The design of Olives was great. There was a covered outdoor  eating area that offered pretty good views of the surrounding area, and our room had a separate entrance away from our host’s actual home. The room itself was clean and spacious, and even had a separate little sunroom. Here is the view from our room:

View from Olives Homestay, Wayanad, Kerala. 
            All that being said, Biju and Raji managed to make us feel slightly uncomfortable during out stay. I’m not sure how to describe what happened without sounding ungrateful or picky, but it felt like they were essentially force-feeding us absurd amounts of food the entire three days we were there. I should preface this minor complaint by first saying that the food was incredibly delicious. It was my first experience with Keralan cooking, which is spicy, but also rich in creative ingredients such as coconut, ginger and cloves. If you’ve ever had Sri Lankan food, Keralan food seems to have a lot of overlap.
            The awkward food situation began right when we arrived. We arrived at about 2pm and hadn’t eaten since early that morning. We inquired about lunch, and Raji informed us that only breakfast and dinner is provided, but that she could offer us a snack of “omelet.” We said that would be great and sat down at the outside dining area. She proceeded to give us a spiced omelet with onions made from at least 8 eggs, a basket of 12 pieces of toast, and potato chips. Halfway through our omelets, she asked if she wanted us to whip up some rice and lentils, and when we were finished, she gave us each an apple and a plate of papaya. If that’s not lunch, I don’t know what is!
            The dinners, which again were super tasty, had a similar vibe. It was difficult to know how much to take from each dish because new dishes kept coming out. One night we were offered curried fish, fried fish, ghee rice, paratha (a delicious doughy bread that falls apart into coils when you pull at it), a light potato curry, a fresh cucumber and tomato salad, hard-boiled eggs in an onion sauce, a mung bean dahl, all followed by a fruit custard for dessert. On another night, about three-quarters of the way through a similarly extravagant meal, Raji brought out a huge plate of home made French fries. They were actually quite good but we were perplexed by their completely superfluous existence. Across all meals, toast was ubiquitous. Why anyone would ever choose to eat toast when there are half a dozen exquisite Keralan dishes to choose from is beyond me.
I don’t mean to complain, and I probably sound spoiled for even writing about this, but I think the experience taught us that perhaps homestays aren’t exactly for us. Hallie and I are pretty independent, and relying on your hosts for meals can rewarding, but can also be a bit maddening, especially when they are shoveling ungodly portions onto your plate at every meal and passive-aggressively expecting you to eat it all.
            I had read that there is good hiking in Wayanad, so on our first full day, we set out to hike in the area near Chembra Peak, which at 2100 meters is the region’s tallest mountain. To get there, Biju helped us hire a driver, who drove us up to the park’s entrance. The scenery on the drive was beautiful, and although the deteriorating roads made it a bumpy ride, the views of the tea plantations were great.

            Our host Raji had told us that morning that the trekking area was only half open because of the monsoon season, and that we might only be able to do 30 minutes in each direction. Not only did the hike take way longer than an hour, but she also neglected to tell us that the hike essentially went straight up the mountainside. In fact, it was one of the more difficult hikes I can remember doing, and by the time we reached the top, I was dripping in sweat and my thighs were burning.
            To access the hike, we had to pay a park entry fee, but fortunately the fee included a guide who led us up the mountain. Our guide didn’t speak too much English and I didn’t catch his name. He set a vigorous pace though, and as he sprinted up the path we struggled to catch up. We weren’t allowed to hike all the way to the top, but we were so beat by the time we reached the final point we didn’t even care. Here are some pictures from the hike:

Our guide waiting for us to catch up. 
Hallie on a ridge. 
Heart shaped lake at the top. 

The way back down.
            After the hike, our driver took us to a locally-famous waterfall, but there isn’t too much to report. Waterfalls are pretty cool! I also took a video to record the sound of this crazy cicada-type bug that populates the local trees. It sounds like a crazy wind-up orgasm or something. It sounds crazy when a bunch of them are going at once.

            The next day, we weren’t too keen in being in the car all day, which seemed to be a necessary part of seeing many sight around Wayanad. So we decided to limit our travels to just one destination: the Edakkal Caves, a small cave complex that also involved a steep climb and offered great views. There is a saying about caves: if you’ve seen one cave, you’ve seen ‘em all. I agree with this statement for the most part, but this cave was cool because it was up at the very top of a mountainside, and had ancient carvings.

            As seems to have become our M.O., we spent the rest of the day wandering around the residential areas of Kalpetta. Other than having a fair amount of hills, the main drag of the town wasn’t particularly interesting. But once we got off the main road, we found some really nice neighborhoods with beautiful, impressive homes. Unlike Wayanad, which still felt urban, these neighborhoods felt much more removed from the city, even though they were only a few blocks away from the main street. Many of the houses had nice gates and lush gardens. We wandered around for a few hours and then returned to Olives Homestay. I wanted to upload some pictures that Hallie took of this walk, but it's taking too long to upload them, so perhaps next time... 
            I really enjoyed our time in Wayanad. Each afternoon, while we were sitting on the covered dining area, I would watch the heavy clouds roll in from the mountains, and one each of the three days we were there, it would start pouring rain at about 5pm like clockwork. The rain would cool down the valley, and was always fun to watch.

            We’ve been down in Alleppey, Kerala for the past few days (which means I’ve fallen behind on updating this blog). It’s really cool down here and I have lots to share. We did an amazing kayak trip yesterday and in just a few hours we are heading out for a 24-hour houseboat ride, which should be awesome. Hope to make another post soon!

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