My time in Calicut drew to an end far too quickly. On our final evening in Calicut, we walked along the boardwalk
that was filled with other families doing the same thing. Several years ago a huge investment had been made in this area with benches, beautiful lighting and a long pier out into the water. Unfortunately over time many of the lights have been broken and the boardwalk shows its wear. I hope that it will be repaired before my next visit.

 


 

The girls I met exuded an excitement that eclipsed the worn, tired boardwalk. They were happy and dancing around without a care in the world. When the group came over to talk to me, each wanted to hold my hand and ask me questions. They were such nice children. I tried to take their photo so I could remember them always but, unfortunately, I wasn’t proficient enough with night photography to capture them well.

 


 

I left Kerala with memories of meeting some of the friendliest people on the planet. Everywhere went both children and adults smiled and waved to me. The children wanted to talk to me (I think they wanted to practice their English with me) and have me take photos of them. I find it funny that these kids wanted to pose for photos they most likely will never see. Their parents were a little more reserved; when I smiled at them, they always offered a huge smile in return.

 


 

Next, I headed to Chennai…

 

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I was recently asked to write a post about South India for an Indian travel blog. I chose my favorite state to visit – Kerala, God’s own country. I hope you enjoy reading it!
 

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One occasionally reads about Indian festivals at which people dress in costumes, musicians play traditional elephants and huge decorated elephants march majestically down the street. I was always impressed by these stories and the photos that accompanied them but, never in my wildest dreams, thought I would find myself in the middle of one, or two.

 

The drive to Palakkad from Calicut was supposed to take four hours so I sat back in my seat for a long drive through small towns and farmland. After a pleasant ride I saw the strangest thing – an elephant climbing out of the back of a truck. What? I asked the driver to stop so I could watch for a few minutes. After at least 20 or 30 photos, I got back in the car so we could get to Palakkkad.

 

Unloading an elephant from a truck.

Unloading an elephant from a truck.


 
A few minutes later three of these dramatic tuskers in formal parade regalia walked by our car on their way to the local temple. Apparently the Mannarghat/Karimba Temple was holding its annual Ayeppam “Utsaram” Festival. Many people were accompanying the elephants to the temple while more awaited their arrival in the temple yard. As the elephants entered, they were greeted by a group of men dressed in white dhoti and playing various drums and horns.  I made my way to the back of the musicians and enjoyed the sights and sounds. I was amazed at the wondrous sights and sounds. After the performance ended I walked back to our car in a daze.

 

Elephants near Palghat are ready for the festival to begin.

Elephants near Palghat are ready for the festival to begin.



I thought my day had been made: Kerala temple festival, traditional music, and three caparisoned elephants on parade! I was very happy as we made our way to Palakkad. I have to confess that we were running a bit late but the traffic did back up due to the reasons I listed above; I wasn’t the only spectator.

 

After a delightful visit and delicious luncheon, we headed back to our hotel in Calicut only to have one more unsurpassable elephant encounter…

 

Half way back to Calicut the traffic on the main road (only one lane in each direction) came to a complete stop. Our wonderfully patient driver told me there was another festival ahead and the car would be stuck for a while. My husband and I jumped out of the car and joined all of the people walking toward the action. As we approached, the sides of the road were lined with vendors selling snacks and trinkets. People were dancing in the street wearing colorful headdresses and costumes; percussionists dressed in white kasavu mundu (traditional garb) played and danced. Hundreds of others watched the excitement with their children.
  

Drummers playing traditional music before the festival.

Drummers playing traditional music before the festival.


 
Soon the main attraction arrived. Yes, you guessed it, elephants. All of them were males with huge, magnificent tusks. This time, eight huge caparisoned elephants marched their way down the street toward the temple. Apparently it is a really big deal to have so many elephants at one event. Some of them are owned by temples, others owned privately. Elephant owners are proud to lend their animals and keepers for the day.
  

Caparisoned elephants are ready for their parade near Palghat.

Caparisoned elephants are ready for their parade near Palghat.

 

 

After the elephants passed by on their way to the Temple Utsavam, young men brought out their stereos and loud speakers loaded in the back of their trucks so dancing in the street could begin. One thing I noticed was how friendly the people were and how they wanted to include me in their celebration. Everyone was so excited by the celebration that the police had a challenge to control the crowds and get the traffic moving again. It took a while for our driver to get to us but we finally found him and headed back to the hotel.

 

 

I had a full day, visiting relatives and three pachyderm sightings in different locations along the Palakkad Highway. I wonder if I had seen some of the same elephants in multiple locations or if I had really seen 12 different elephants. I guess I will never know the answer – it is one of the mysteries of life.

 

 

What an amazing day!



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Palakkad is a town in central Kerala of about 3 million people situated in a gap in the Western Ghats where my mother-in-law’s sister lives with her family. My initial impression Palakkad is that it was a small town. With just a few tall buildings in the central part of town and shops and houses spread out from there, it retains a small town feel.

 

 

 

Since we were in Kerala, we thought we would stop by for a visit. We were welcomed with a magnificent and delicious lunch. My cousin-in-law, Chitra, served us a new dish she had created which we decided should be called Malabar Kofta. She made cabbage kofta (vegetable dumplings) and served them in a tomato and onion curry. I was impressed with her creativity in combining some of my favorite flavors into one dish. I plan on trying to replicate her recipe as my next Recipe of the Month.

 

 

 Oldest Jain temple in Kerala

After lunch, Chitra and I took a walk after our huge feast. Right over their back fence is the oldest Jain temple in Kerala. Built 500 years ago, Digambara Jain Temple is a small and simple structure with some beautiful carvings in the granite columns and unadorned walls. Compared to most Hindu temples that are huge, this one is an intimate 20 x 30 feet in size. The temple is reaching the end of a multiyear renovation project and the idols have been removed for safekeeping. I was lucky to have Chitra with me who knows the groundskeeper and the pujari (the lovely lady who says pujas, or prayers, at the temple) who showed me the beautiful idols. I was greatly moved by their kindness to a stranger.
 

Digambara Jain Temple in Kerala is undergoing restorations.

Digambara Jain Temple in Kerala is undergoing restorations.

 

Palakkad Fort

All too soon, our visit had to end. From the Jainmedu area in Palakkad where Chitra lives, we stopped by an authentic fort before heading back to our hotel. The Palakkad Fort, was built by Haider Ali in the 18th Century, is located right in the center of Palakkad. It was originally named, Tipu Sultan’s Fort, which is the name of the builder’s son. Surrounded by a moat that once upon a time boasted crocodiles, it is one of the best-maintained forts in Southern India. The outside granite wall rises to a very tall height and was certainly impenetrable to invaders.  The interior buildings are in immaculate with the original carvings still clearly visible. Green grass and flowers dominate the ground inside. Today a jail is housed inside the fort.
 


 

Old Palakkad Fort

Old Palakkad Fort

 

 

One would think that I’ve had a very full day. Wait! There is more action and excitement on our way back to the
hotel.
 

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One of the things I had hoped to see was an elephant, up close and personal. During our drive out to Wayanad, we made a brief stop at Pookot Lake. Like most scenic parks, it had picnic tables, a playground and boating on the small lake. The park offered a unique feature: elephant rides.

 

 

 

Elephant ride at Pookot Lake in Wayanad.

Elephant ride at Pookot Lake in Wayanad.

As we walked around the lake to the ride, we noticed that no one was in line and there was no elephant. I was really sad because I wanted to play tourist and have my picture taken on the elephant so I could post it on Facebook and brag about my out-of-this-world trip. Our driver asked the park employees what happened to the elephant. He was told she had the day off. If I had been 5 years old, I would have cried and had a tantrum.

 

 

 

While walking back to the car, our driver made a few discrete phone calls. We left the park to head to our next stop. He told me that he knew where the elephant was – she had the day off and was having a bath in a nearby river. We immediately headed for the river. We left the car and walked through a soccer field down to the river and there she was!

 

 

 

My elephant, named Roopa, was eating a snack of leaves and playing in the water! When her keepers saw me, they yelled out to Roopa a command (in Malayalam since that is the only language she knows) to spray herself with water. I started snapping photos as quickly as I could. When the keepers realized that the bank was too steep for me to climb any closer, they walked her over to me. I stepped to the river’s edge and was able to pet and talk with my new friend.

 

 

Roopa plays in the river at Wayanad, Kerala.

Roopa plays in the river at Wayanad, Kerala.

Since I was too busy playing with Roopa, the driver and my husband had to take the photos. I had the time of my life! I didn’t get to ride her but I had a personal audience with a beautiful 20-year-old elephant named Roopa.

 


 

Ann Vinod and Roopa

Ann Vinod and Roopa

 

 

As we headed back for the hotel in Calicut, I decided this was definitely one day that I will remember for many years to come. Next stop: Palakkad to visit relatives and check out the oldest Jain temple in Kerala and a fort with a moat.
 
 

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Wayanad is a beautiful hill station in the Western Ghats Mountains of Kerala. This area is known for its beautiful greenery and perfect climate. Many people come to see the dramatic waterfalls and caves. With many wildlife sanctuaries, visitors are drawn here to see many different species of animals. It is a very pleasant place to live or visit since it is so quiet and peaceful. 

 

With just one day planned for our visit to Wayanad we had to spend our time wisely. We hired a driver who knew this area very well. He found everything I had on my list to see. His knowledge of tea, coffee, spices, produce and everything Kerala was very impressive. We drove up into the mountains that were covered with a light mist that made the trip more amazing and mysterious.

 

A beautiful morning from the top of the Ghat Mountains in Wayanad, Kerala, India.

A beautiful morning from the top of the Ghat Mountains in Wayanad, Kerala, India.

 

Tea plantation

Our first stop was at the Ripon Tea Estate.  We arrived just as the crew of women harvesters was finishing their morning work. Apparently, tea can only be picked in the early morning and the late afternoon when the juices in the leaves are at their peak. The women pick only the top two bright green leaves and the tiny bud of new growth as they are the most tender. These leaves are collected in mesh bags that are carried back to the central loading dock on top of their heads. Each bag is weighed and then loaded on to a truck so the tealeaves taken to the factory to be processed and aged.

 

Freshly picked tea leaves in Wayanad, Kerala.

Freshly picked tea leaves in Wayanad, Kerala.

 

 

Professional tea pickers have just finished their morning work.

Professional tea pickers have just finished their morning work.

Tea bushes are about 2 feet high and 3 to 4 feet wide. They are planted close together with just enough room between them for the women who harvest this precious crop to pass between them. Fields of tea plants run up and down the hills of the Western Ghats for drainage. The green fields are absolutely gorgeous as the elevation changes. As a farm manager, I have to admit this is just as beautiful as an Iowa cornfield in July.

 

Tea bushes grow up the hills in Waynad.

Tea bushes grow up the hills in Waynad.

 

Coffee plantation

Our next stop was a coffee plantation. The Cottanad Plantation was situated on hillsides to allow the rain from the monsoons to run off and not swamp the trees. 

 

Entrance to the Cottanad Coffee Plantation

Entrance to the Cottanad Coffee Plantation

 

The plants grow to a height of about 10 feet. One thing I noticed right away is that several types of trees, including spices and palm trees, grew right along side the coffee trees. At first glance one would think that various seeds were mixed together when the trees were planted but that is not correct. It was intentional. The intermixing of trees of various heights and the shade they offer, do two things. First, the flavor of the coffee beans is enhanced when planted by spice trees. Second, planting under the canopy of taller trees creates shade that improves the yield of the coffee fruit. When the coffee plant fruit turns red (after 7 or 8 months) it is time for them to be picked by hand as they are gathered in buckets and then taken to the factory where they are dried in the sun before they are roasted.

 

Coffee tree with its fruit ready to be harvested.

Coffee tree with its fruit ready to be harvested.


So much of the land in Wayanad is under production with coffee, tea and spices that it is absolutely stunning.

 

The next stop: Meeting Roopa. 

 

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While still planning my trip last fall, my sister-in-law, Bindi, told me that she was going to be antique shopping when she went to Kerala. I thought that was a good idea that sounded like fun so, when my husband and I were in Calicut, we did the exact same thing.

 

Back again on S.M. Street we stopped in at Indian Metals (yes, that is the real name and, no, it is not very original but it is clear) that sold many different types of metal home products. From the brass lanterns, candlesticks and bowls to aluminum pots, this store was crowded from floor to ceiling with merchandise. 

 

The Indian Metals store sells new and antique brass items.

The Indian Metals store sells new and antique brass items.

 

After we entered the shop, we asked the salesman if he had any paras. A para is a fairly large container (looks like a bucket) that was used to measure rice over a hundred years ago when farmers took their crops to market. I am told that each one would hold about 15 pounds of paddy. They are no longer used for measuring rice since India adopted the metric system. Paras had additional uses as well. They would be filled with rice at the end of harvest and used as an offering to the gods. Also, they are filled with rice and topped with a few flowers to welcome important guests to one’s home. The original paras were made from a single hollowed out piece of wood and decorated with bands of brass around the top and bottom for support. Today they are made out of brass.

 

New brass parras.

New brass parras.

 

The salesman showed us several versions of the modern brass paras in various sizes but only had one antique. I deliberated for quite a while because the modern ones looked like really good quality brass that I would be proud to display in my house. Finally we decided to buy the antique one because it was so lovely and unique.

 

New brass parras.

New brass parras.

 

Now we head to Wayanad for coffee, tea and an elephant…

 

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In the old part of town, S.M. Street (short for Sweet Meat Street) is the center of the shopping district. Here one can buy clothes, household goods, antiques, spices and, best of all, snacks and sweets. Since the street is narrow, it is best to park the car and walk around to get the full effect of the atmosphere.

 

SM Street in Calicut, Kerala, India is a shopping adventure not to be missed.

SM Street in Calicut, Kerala, India is a shopping adventure not to be missed.

 

Sankaran Bakery in SM Street in Calicut has the best banana chips in the world.

Sankaran Bakery in SM Street in Calicut has the best banana chips in the world.

I consider my father-in-law to be the world’s leading authority on snacks and sweets since he consumes them every day. Our first stop was the Sankaran Bakery. There we purchased several different varieties of banana chips. Since my favorites are the whole sliced chips, we bought about 3 kilograms (only about 6.5 pounds). These are light and crispy circular banana slices that are lightly salted. We also bought sliced chips that have been cut into quarter, just like pieces of pie. They are crunchier than my favorite but are just as tasty. The third type we bought was the sweet variety that is coated in jaggery after they are fried. My husband loves these. I will confess now that at least a half-pound of chips did not survive to see the next day. Kerala is also known for other fried snacks as well. As you can see from the photo, mixtures with different types of ingredients are common (like Chex Mix). All are crunchy and crispy but vary by level of heat and sweetness. When freshly prepared, there is nothing better with a beer or a scotch than Kerala snacks!

 

 

Inside the Sankaran Bakery in Calicut, India.

Inside the Sankaran Bakery in Calicut, India.

 

Sankaran Bakery also sells delicious desserts. We bought a few pieces of Mysore Paak (a dessert made with ghee, sugar and gram flour that is so sweet and delicious, it should be illegal) and Laddus (made with flour and sugar, and equally delicious). The owner of the store gave me a few pieces to ‘test’ because I couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel to nibble on them. I wonder if he thought I was an eccentric tourist who needed a sugar fix. He and the staff were very patient with me as I took several photos of them and the shop.

 

Kalpaka Bakery in SM Street in Calicut has delicious halwa in 20 flavors.

Kalpaka Bakery in SM Street in Calicut has delicious halwa in 20 flavors.

Just a short distance from Sankaran Bakery is Kalpaka Bakery and Halva Stores. My husband and I stopped there because of the huge display of dates in the front case. After eating at least a half dozen each day we were in Dubai, I was hooked and wanted more fresh ones. Once we stepped inside the shop, I came to a sudden stop when I saw the entire back wall and side wall were filled with huge blocks of halwa in every color of the spectrum.  Many countries from the Middle East and Africa to Europe and South Asia have their own version of halwa. In India, it looks like a large piece of fruit jelly candy but the flavor doesn’t compare because it is from fruit or nuts, not flavoring. The owner told me they carry 20 different varieties of halva including strawberry, banana, apricot, pineapple, pistachio, coconut and the famous Kerala black halwa.

 

For years I had turned up my nose at black halwa (also known as Kozhikode halwa) because I didn’t like the color. When I was offered a taste at Kalpaka Bakery, I changed my mind and decided I loved it. Made with rice flour, coconut, dark jaggery and ghee, it is a very decadent sweet that melts in your mouth. The flavor is quite unique – my first impression was that it tasted like India: dark, rich, and sophisticated. No wonder it is my husband’s favorite halwa.

 

A small sample of the delicious halwa at Kalpaka Bakery in Calicut, India.

A small sample of the delicious halwa at Kalpaka Bakery in Calicut, India.

 

From here, we went shopping for things that are a lot less fattening…

 

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After our delightful experience on the houseboat, we checked in to our rooms for the remainder of our stay. We were thrilled when we learned that our river view rooms had been upgraded to river front cottages!

 

The rooms were huge. Large enough to require 2 ceiling fans, this air-conditioned cottage was more like a suite with living and kitchen areas, private sit out balcony and a bay window seat. This window, complete with beautiful round pillows is the best place to feel like you are in a tree house, as high up as the coconuts, with the best view of paradise.

 

Our bungalow high up in the trees overlooking the river.

Our bungalow high up in the trees overlooking the river.

I have to admit that the nights I spent at the resort were the best night’s sleep I had since leaving Dallas. The peace and quiet along with a comfy bed…..

 

Gardens at Gardens at the Kadavu Resort in Calicut, Kerala.

Gardens at Gardens at the Kadavu Resort in Calicut, Kerala.

Each day we dined at the Oottupura restaurant that serves traditional Malabar cuisine. The menu offers a variety of food in addition to lovely breakfast and dinner buffets. The food is traditional Kerala cuisine. The dining room is attractive, comfortable and clean offering both indoor and outdoor seating with views of the river. The staff was very helpful and responsive; it didn’t matter if I made a request of someone who was not our waiter, it was handled immediately and courteously. The staff answered all of our questions and knew the menu well. On one occasion, our late lunch seemed to take too long to be served but that may be due to the lateness of our arrival and the fact that we were in a hurry. The menu was very reasonably priced.

 

My only regret is that the restaurant called Uru, which serves Malabar cuisine as well as several international cuisines, was closed for renovations during our visit.

 

In my next post, I will search for the best banana chips and sweets, two items for which Kerala is famous.

Flowers in the garden at Gardens at the Kadavu Resort in Calicut, Kerala.

Flowers in the garden at Gardens at the Kadavu Resort in Calicut, Kerala.

 

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Since my last trip to Kerala, I had wanted to ride on a houseboat. I had learned that people rent them for weeks at a time for a restful vacation. With the luxury options ranging from simple mosquito netting to air-conditioned rooms and gourmet cooks who prepare freshly caught fish for your meals, a trip on one of these special boats would be a real treat. When checking out where we would stay in Calicut, I learned that this hotel offered a houseboat option. I immediately told my husband that we needed to do this for one night.

 

 

Grilled Chicken Cafreal is based on the authentic recipe from Goa India.

Boarding the houseboat at the resort.

 

Upon our arrival at the resort, we immediately checked at the houseboat and placed orders for our dinner. (The food for the houseboat was actually cooked in the hotel kitchen and delivered to the houseboat so I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to worry about food safety.) Our room was lovely with its wooden walls. I was impressed to note that, in addition to a fruit tray, the room was equipped with a full bathroom and shower with fluffy towels. Personally, I think my father-in-law was impressed with the TV and DVD player.

 

One of the bedrooms on the houseboat.

One of the bedrooms on the houseboat.

 

After we were settled, out dinner was served. With the overhead fan mosquitoes didn’t bother us so we could enjoy a delicious meal that was served by a charming and polished waiter. He was prompt and very helpful without seeming obsequious. We dined on who knows what. One dish, Fish Tikka Ajwaini, was superb – lovely spices in the masala and cooked to perfection.

 

After dinner we spent a pleasant evening in our cabin. The beds were just as comfortable as those in the guest rooms as the hotel. I appreciated knowing that the crew slept on the boat in case anything happened.

 

The following morning we dined on tasty masala dosas, sambar, idli, fruit and delicious south Indian filter coffee. Breakfast was excellent. I have to admit that, thanks to my mother-in-law, I am a sambar snob. In the U.S., most restaurants’ sambar is watery and tasteless. The Kadavu Resort kitchen knows how to make it correctly: right spices, thickness and flavor. 

 

After the delicious meal, we enjoyed a restful four-hour cruise up and down the backwaters of Kerala. The ride was smooth and relaxing. If my husband and I had been alone, it would have been a romantic trip suitable for a 25th wedding anniversary (or a honeymoon if we were younger). As the sun rose over the water, I could see the trees try to emerge from the heavy fog. I was stunned with the quiet beauty of the river. Coconut trees fought each other to reach the sun. They grew thickly to the bank of the river and many grew horizontally.

 

A view of the riverbank

A view of the riverbank

 

Many houses had been built along the river. I noticed that many of them were huge, even by Texas standards. I was informed that they had been built with the money earned by people who had worked in the Middle East. I have to admit that they were stunning. Several homeowners creatively planted gardens right along the river. In addition to the houses, we saw several tile factories and their tall smoke stacks. I enjoyed watching the men in several boats haul river sand into their crafts to the trucks that were waiting on the river’s edge. Many of these men waved as we cruised by. 

 

Men hauling sand down river for brick making.

Men hauling sand down river for brick making.

 

We even passed a boat with tourists who were photographing us as we photographed them. I’m sure it was a funny sight.

 

Men hauling sand down river for brick making.

Tourists taking photos.

 

All too soon the trip came to an end and we had to leave the boat. After saying thank you to the friendly and helpful crew we headed back to the lobby to check in to our rooms for the next step of our Kerala adventure.

 

Men hauling sand down river for brick making.

What a peaceful view.

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