Friday, February 23, 2007

God's Own Country

Contented after a relaxing stay on the houseboat, we spent the next day leisurely driving around Cochin. Our route included stops at Fort Cochin’s golden yellow Dutch Palace (actually erected by the Portuguese), Cochin Harbor’s tall Chinese fishing nets, the crassly-named Jewtown (where early Jewish settlers were welcomed to live near the king at a time when other parts of India and the world weren’t so hospitable) and the city center of Ernakulum before we made our way back to our guesthouse.

The next morning, we woke up early to make the drive eastward from Kerala’s coast through the Cardamum Hills to the Periyar Wildlife Reserve. Kerala touts this part of the state as “God’s Own Country,” suggesting that God is an avid tea and spice connoisseur, as the lush, magnificent hills are ringed by either the vividly-green, concentric hedges of tea plantations or fronted by innumerable spice trees (most notably, cardamum).

A curvy, back-and-forth but scenic, four-hour drive eventually delivered us to the town of Thekaddy, which sits just east of the Periyar Reserve. After checking into our hotel located within the grounds of the Reserve itself – a converted stone colonial estate – we took a brief stroll to catch a glimpse of energetic, tree-hopping wild monkeys. With a spectacular sunset approaching, we grabbed a good vantage point and a Kingfisher by the hotel pool before venturing back to our room for the night. The next morning, we made our way to the park’s boat jetty to catch the 7 am wildlife boat ride.

When the boat embarked upon its journey, a fierce headwind sliced through us, considerably dampening our spirits and exacerbating our mounting cynicism. Vik noted that the vast majority of the boatride yielded a comparable number of animal sightings as would be customarily experienced on the Staten Island ferry. We were also surrounded by western European and Indian species of the most perplexing animal of them all – the touristus hyperus. The former spent the duration ceaselessly snapping photos with special polarizing filters that apparently had the ability to turn inanimate objects (namely, rocks and dismembered tree branches) into fascinating slideshow fodder while the latter spent the duration loudly bickering over who stole whose seats and who was most likely to have originated directly from a village.

Huddled together to stave off the wind’s chill, we were deeply grateful when the boat appeared to be turning back. Instead, we were taken to a small and seemingly-nondescript inlet. The guide came to the front of the boat and pointed to the top of a hill about 500 feet away. We obediently looked at the spot where he had pointed, but found ourselves staring at only shrubbery. Just as we were questioning the guide’s mental fitness, our angle shifted just slightly and out from the foliage emerged four wild elephants chewing tree leaves for breakfast. It was, without a doubt, the highlight of the excursion. In time, we also saw scattered wild boars, a herd of Indian bison and one or two cormorants. Despite Periyar being a well-advertised reserve for big cats, there were no tigers to be seen anywhere, save for the shivering and not-so-shy Royal Bengal tigress seated at Vik’s right.

On our return trip, we stopped briefly to walk the green-shrubbed maze of a tea plantation and tour its old-fashioned-but-still-operational tea factory. Despite it being the low season for tea harvests, the tour was fascinating, and we reveled in the scent of freshly-cut tea leaves. Upon our return to the coast, we pursued more laid-back activities for the duration, including touring the NTPC Kerala power plant’s control center (where we learned that 30% of electricity sent to north India is stolen, often with the blessing of senior government officials), viewing the sunset from the power plant’s roof (not exactly something that we expected to do on this trip) and having dinner with our host Mr. Sood and his family.

On our last day in Kerala, we drove south on a crystal clear afternoon to the red cliff-fringed Varkala Beach. We wandered down the soft sands and were easily coaxed into the water. Kaberi ignored the numerous leering Indian men, but was a little uncomfortable to be the only Indian woman on the beach sporting a bikini in lieu of a sari. After a thorough saltwater drenching, we dried off quickly and headed to the airport. On the way, we passed a government research facility that was once home to Vik’s namesake, Vikram Sarabhai, the father of Indian space research.

We then continued on to Trivandrum, a slowly-emerging tech hub and the capital of the state, to catch a 40-minute Indian Airlines flight to Bangalore. Ironically, we ended up spending nearly four times as long in Trivandrum Airport (150 minutes) waiting for a delayed plane than on the flight itself. Earlier in the day, government-owned Indian Airlines had agreed to merge with government-owned Air India in a move that will undoubtedly revolutionize the Indian airline industry. Well, maybe not.

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