The guides from Tropical Spice Garden, Penang visit Kerala for a enrichment study holiday.
Day 1 : 24 Sept 2012
Off to Kerala! so excited…and so it was a huge disappointment when we arrived at the airport to be told that the flight to KL was cancelled. The long and short of it was we missed flight to Cochin – all very grumpy and tired – got put up a night at the ‘exclusive’ Nilai Hotel – ate ourselves silly – and were back on to the flight to Cochin 24 hours later! Yay, all was somewhat forgiven and we were off to India!
Day 2 : 25 Sept
Not much to show here…arrived in Kerala at 11pm and whisked off to a nearby hotel. Early call 5am the next day guys! Remember to use bottled water to brush my teeth, remember to use bottled water to brush my teeth, remember to use bottled water to brush my teeth…
Day 3: 26 Sept
So we bundled into our traveller van at the crack of dawn with Vivek [Koh-Koh to Nat] at the wheel and Suresh as our guide in front. We were off to Thekkady, what I learnt much later in my research that this was the more commercial spice growing region of Kerala. Suresh informed us this was going to be a 41/2 hour journey. Little did we know…
The roads exiting Cochin steadily became narrower, less tarred, ascending and literally 20km from Thekkady the roads deteriorated to one, dusty lane with juge crater-like holes we needed to manouvre through. A few things struck me as we were travelling:
1. Indian drivers use their horns completely indiscriminately and flashing on coming traffic is a way of life on the road [aggressively flashing and horning a slow driver in front is completely acceptable]
2. Kerala is very overtly pious with Catholic churches, shrines and statues everywhere. There is still a large orthodox Syrian/ Martomite Christian community also
3. Keralan lorry drivers are lorry-proud with intricate and festive designs painted all over their lorries. Each lorry was inscribed above the windscreen in ornate lettering MESSIAH, JESUS, JESUS IS LORD amongst others
Along the way to Thekkady we stopped to buy bananas which were more like plantains, stopped for lunch, stopped to snack on coconuts and vadai and to view a lovely waterfall
So after what turned out to be an 8 hour journey, we couldn’t have been happier to arrive at Pepper County Homestay, greeted warmly by the proprietor, Uncle Cyriac. His one-storey bungalow home had 4 double rooms set in a 7 acre spice garden. Immaculately kept garden, wonderful crisp air and a clean, cosy bedroom greeted us all – there was immense sense of relief and joy felt all round.
Within 30 mins we were all rejuvenated and wanting Uncle Cyriac to take us on a tour of his 7 little farm. He started by showing us his fruit trees which newly included rambutan, nutmeg and mangosteen! We promised we would send him seeds when we returned. And then down he brought us to his spice farm where he grew cardamom, coffee, chillies, pepper, ginger, and more cardamom and more pepper and still more cardamom. The soil was so rich and fertile and the garden so well managed without weeds and grass.
We were so delighted to see cardamom growing so abundantly and to be given the time of day to ask the mountain of questions we had for Uncle Cyriac.
Day 4: 27 Sept
After a simply scrumptuous dinner prepared by Aunty Doly from Pepper County which had thrown in for us, appams, beetroot chutney and fried fish fillets, we all had a sound sleep completely refreshed for another lovely breakfast. What crowned the menu were surely the cardamom, coconut and sugar crepes! YUM!
Uncle Cyriac advised us to visit Abraham’s Spice Garden located about 10km down the road followed by spice market shopping and possibly to view the cardamom spice auction houses. Thankfully Abraham was there to personally meet us in his dhoti and we were so fortunate that he was able to show us around his plot.
First stop was his little cardamom drying room where cardamoms are placed for drying. 200kg of cardamom after drying outputs approx. 50kg of dried cardamom. So in we went past the watchful eye of Mother Mary above his door to view drying cardamoms for the first time.
Abrahams collection of herbs and spices was more vast than Pepper County and in many ways its concept was more like Tropical Spice Garden’s. Some of the more interesting plants were the Manjal ginger used for cosmetic purposes, mango ginger used for chutney, a variety of chillies that were round shaped and one even a deep dark purple.
He grew gherkins which we munched on and his cocoa tree had one huge yelow fruit waiting to be harvested. Abraham was in himself a character to behold and a point of interest throughout the tour in his wise, weathered ways.
After our goodbyes we headed into Kumily town to have a look at some of the spice shops and have lunch. The spice shops weren’t quite the dusty, organized mayhem I was looking for but an experience nonetheless. Lunch was at another ‘hotel’ [the Indians buy licenses for hotels at the same time as restaurant to make it easier for expansion later] and needless to say the food was gorgeous. The ladies took the opportunity to buy some silver jewelry.
Towards later part of the afternoon, some of the team decided to try out the Ayurvedic massage whilst the others crossed into the Tamil Nadu border [Yes! Kumily, Thekkady is a border town into Tamil Nadu] to view farmers vineyards and other vegetable crops.
Re-grouping again at dinner, the group was feeling very pleased with how the day had proceeded and how well looked after we felt. We were departing from Pepper County the next day and I was already missing the home-like feeling 🙁
Day 5: 28 Sept
The ensuing evening saw much discussion from the team as to what to do next. We finally decided to take the ‘risk’ and drive to Munnar – the tea plantations of Kerala. We were dreading another 8 hour journey but were reassured it wouldn’t take too long. OK so they were right, it only took 6 hours!
On the way we stopped by another Spice Garden – one for the road we though. Suresh was most amused and quipped that he had never hosted a group that only wanted to see spice farms and gardens day in and day out. He said the normal traveler is quite content with viewing one!
This farm was more touristy in nature but the little Indian guide dressed in a pastel orange saree was lovely. Gave me thoughts about our guides dress code! Sari’s and dhoti cloths and batik sarongs!
We felt all we were seeing and hearing was a repeat and more lacklustre compared to Cyriac and Abraham’s tour. But good nonetheless to be shown their vanilla curing room and to be given a warm cup of lemongrass tea!
But the view was breathtaking and the air cooler and crisper – we knew we had made the right decision. Miles and miles of rolling tea hills lay sprawled around our resort. The hordes of Indian travellers at dinner time reminded us that we were very much in holiday hill resort town but once out on the narrow country roads looking over the plantations, it was just you and the tea bushes and the great big Indian sky. It was beautiful.
Once settling down, Vivek and Suresh drove us into Munnar town which was located around 20km away from the resort. There were some heart stopping moments, when our ‘ice -cream’ van passed through the Heart Stop Gap – a passing in the road that is so narrow and the cliff so steep to the side and then it suddenly reverses with the cliff on the right – but Vivek handled it great.
At Munnar, we traipsed through their wet markets and marveled at how well displayed they laid out their produce – in neat geometric patterns and rows that made it all very pretty and organized.
Lots of great colour splashed every where and the feeling of a real local buzz. Little tea shops selling fresh Munnar tea and coffee was my highlight!
An early night ensued for a tired Kat. I believe the guides stayed up a while longer with some card shuffling taking place…
Day 6: 29 Sept
All arose at 6am to take a walk down in the tea valley. Sun was breaking over Munnar and the workers were all starting for the day.
It all seem to pass so quickly and we were back in the van headed back to Cochin.
The windy roads down and Vivek’s unusually fast driving made CE feel a bit ill but after another 5 hour journey we descended into Cochin city.
Along the way we drank more coconuts, ate more delicious food at a restaurant that served giant cannonball cokodok that differed in the inclusion of shaved coconut. Delicious!
Into Cochin we pampered up and were out again for dinner in Fort Cochin. A long jam awaited us as we paused for the trains. And on to Fort Cochin for a seafood dinner. Although it was already dark, it was clear that Fort Cochin was the real charm of the city. It’s quaint streets, boutique hotels and a plethora of designer and souvenir shops made a big impression on us.
By the end of dinner, we were all rather beat and looked forward to a good tuck in ready to tackle the streets of Fort Cochin the next day – our last day 🙁
Day 7 : 30 Sept
I managed to find a church called Grace Community Church pastored by Philip Arun. It was fun to worship in Cochin in a simple church with a lovely congregation. We were offered a simple lunch later and Nathanael enjoyed Sunday School for the first time. He came back with a cloud – to depict the resurrection of Jesus into the clouds! Happy to have Kenny, CE and Uncle Lim with me too.
The other guides happily did more shopping at Marine Drive.
Picking us up after lunch we headed out to Fort Cochin to do a historical tour. Or at least those were our good intentions until we got a bit sidetracked with the shopping!
We told Suresh we would come back the following day to view the Jewish synagogue and other historical buildings.
Day 8 : 1 Oct
Jewish Synagogue closed. But Jew Town shops and market open! More shopping. It was absolutely here that depleted all our funds on all the gorgeous silk/ wool carpets, lampshades, cotton garments, silk, special interest books, jewelry – you name it!
We also went to see the Chinese Fishing Nets and bought some fresh fish and had it cooked at the nearby restaurants. I must say it was great to eat un-curried fish that was simply grilled. Prawns, fish and lobster alongside masala chai and pratha and various kinds of rice. The Indians sure know how to cook their rice by the way – ghee rice. jeera rice. lemon rice, tomato rice – fluffy, never sticky and soggy, just perfect.
We returned to Cochin happy and content and Kenny and I went straight to our rooms to sort out the packing of all our wares.
Vivek was ready to pick us up at 7pm and we whizzed off to the airport.
This has been an fabulous trip for us in many ways. There’s just nothing like experiencing spices in a different country in how its grown, harvested, dried etc. There’s just nothing like being there amidst wonderful people in a different land so different and yet so similar in many ways to us. It was a wonderful bonding trip for all who went. Came back more united and eager to strive for more and share our knowledge. And it most certainly left us all asking, Where and When next??