#16 Over the Mts to Tamilnadu, India

This morning we left Kaivalyam. As there were only 10 rooms, we met many of the other guests, a few of whom we may see in LA. Suresh was at the top of the road to meet us and we begin our long drive over the mountain range (Western Ghats) from Kerela to Tamilnadu. Suresh has his own version of Waze. He checked in with a friend who was on the road ahead of us and learned that there was a one to two hour delay due to roadwork. So we detoured, saved the time, then sat back as he skillfully maneuvered the steep, hairpin tours between areas of rockslides and stretches of unsaved road. At the top, we crossed the state border, left Kerela and entered Tamilnadu.

Kerala is the southwestern state in India.  Tamilnadu is the southern most state. Malayalam is the language of Kerala and Tamal, the language of Tamilnadu. Kerala has been a great spice trade center since 3000 BC. Tamilnadu has been the home for the Tamils from as early as 500 BC and the Tamil language is said to be one of the oldest languages in the world. Tamil literature is at least 2000 years old. Kerala is the seat of Ayurvedic medicine. Tamilnadu is the home of Dravidian (original people of the region) style temples. Kerala’s literacy rate is as high as 94.59%. It is the higher than any other state in India. Although the literacy rate in Tamilnadu is not as high as in Kerala, the state of Tamilnadu has 10.56% of the total business enterprises in the whole of India. Kerala prides itself on acceptance and and harmony between Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. It will be interesting to see what that is like in Tamilnadu.

We sensed competition between the two. They are clearly different. Entering Tamilnadu, I felt like I was entering another side of India. Here there are cows on the streets, more evidence of Hindu culture, certainly in terms of the temples, and in general, less order. Politically, there appears to be much more corruption.

We drove through Madurai to the top of a hill at the edge of the city. There we found the Gateway Hotel. Turns out, it is one do the Taj Hotels (very fancy). It has 63 rooms now, but it was originally built as the residence for the Chief Executive Officer do JB Coats Ltd., in 1890.  That would be the massive textile company. If you have ever bought thread, it was probably JB Coats. The place is so British that our American accents disappeared and we started describing everything as ‘quite lovely’.

We had tea and a light lunch there (way too expensive), met our guide for the afternoon and headed out to Madurai to see the palace. Called the Tirumalai Nayakar Mahal, it was designed by Italians, built, including the carvings, by Tamils In 1636.  Today, only a portion of the palace remains, but what is left is awe-inspiring. there is a sound and light show every evening, and it must look great after dark. We were there during the day and it is evident that funds for historic sites are sadly lacking. The place is partially restored, but mostly in a state of neglect. The museum section is filled with beautifully carved stone deities, but only a few of the brass name plates remain. We were fortunate that we had a knowledgable guide with us. Then it was time to go to the temple.

We asked our guide to find us a tailor in the Marketplace just outside. He said his karma kept him from recommending anyone, but it happened anyway. Pinchas got a few shirts and I got something as well. The tailor said he would have the clothes delivered to our hotel.

The Sri Meenakshi – Sundareswarar Temple is on the banks of the Vaigai River, in the middle of the city. It is dedicated to Parvati who is known as Meenakshi and her consort, Shiva, named here as Sundareswarar. It forms the heart and lifeline of the 2500 year old holy Hindu city built around this incredible huge temple.

There was a long line to get in, but somehow we were put in front of everyone and got through security relatively fast. It would have been quicker, but the woman security officer kept finding cell phones on Ronni, three to be exact! The temple was filled with men on a pilgrimage who walked miles to offer pranam, or prayer. We learned that they are only required to walk the last 7 miles, but we have been seeing them throughout our trip. Only Hindus are allowed into the inner sanctuary, under the gold dome, but we saw much of the central portion. I love that the temple grounds are a place for much more than prayer offerings. You can buy food for offerings. There are families settling in and unpacking food, people taking naps, and others just socializing. There are snacks for sale and souvenirs to buy.

Eventually we made our way out, said goodby to our guide and had dinner with Suresh at an outdoor restaurant. I pressed Suresh about where he stays and learned that he has been sleeping in the car. Ronni knew from her India trip last year, that all the guides sleep in their cars, but it makes all three of us uncomfortable.

When we got back to the hotel, the tailor’s delivery man was there to both give us our packages and to try to get us to buy additional ready-to-wear stuff from him. He was quite insistent, but we were tired of being hustled, annoyed and done for the evening.

#15 Kaivalyam, Nummar, India

It is our second day in Kaivalyam. The rooster wake us around 5:30A, this morning he were followed by an air raid siren which turns out to be the factory blast signaling the beginning of the work day. We went down to the yoga pavilion and about halfway through our practice, Harish’s mother came in. She is in her mid-eighties and practices every morning. I had asked Harish why she walked stooped over and he told us her story:  She was orphaned at the age of 15 and subsequently suffered malnutrition. This was during Gandhi’s time and he was promoting the idea that men marry women beneath them in wealth and status. So, when she became of marriageable age she married Harish’s father. The years of malnutrition took its toll on her spine, but she remains elegant and beautiful. She wears her hair in a tight bun, but loose, it falls below her waist. She generously posed for me, but my favorite pictures of her are candid. If I ever get wifi again, I’ll send Harish the pictures.

After breakfast, we met with the grounds keeper and took a 2 hour walk down to the river. On the way, we saw the herb and vegetable garden on the property, then hiked  through the adjoining cardamom plantation down to the river. The water was clean, cold and a welcome break. We hung out there for a while, climbed upriver over the rocks, then made our way back up to the resort.

We had a light lunch. The food here is so good, but we stuck to fresh salads, fruit and yogurt. We probably won’t be able to eat fresh vegetables for the remainder of the trip. This afternoon, we did nothing….We are still in the state of Karola, and tomorrow, when we leave for Tamilnadu, everything will change.

#14 Munnar, Kerela, India

Kaivalyam, is an organic resort with purified water. Our meals include produce grown on the property. Even the coffee is picked, roasted and ground here. The food is clean, we can eat raw vegetables and it’s a welcome treat. The owners, an Indian couple with one child, left the IT world to fulfill their dream and build this beautiful place. Harish leads a lovely, mindful yoga class each morning.  I have a sitting area with a wall of windows. Early morning, trees are blowing, can’t tell if it’s cold out there. It looks like I’ll be able to see the sunrise from bed. First the roosters start crowing, then the bird calls begin.

We are in Munnar, and traveled through a national park to get here. We saw a couple of monkeys and Suresh told us there are wild elephants. A word about driving and drivers here. I mentioned the incessant honking—it seems to mean a myriad of things: I’m passing you, I’m coming around a curve, pedestrian-please stop standing in the middle of the street. There is no tension, stress, or anger aimed at other drivers or pedestrians. Faster cars are expected to overtake tuk tuks, slower cars amid whatever else is on the road. Most impressive is the level of calm in the midst of chaos.

Then there is the running joke about the weather. Everyone in the south, at least everyone we ran into in the south, warned us that Munar is freezing and to prepare for snow or at least rain, and for sure, cold. We don’t know who is perpetuating this myth, but even Harish is getting phone calls at the front desk asking about the low temperatures. It is beautiful here, warm to hot for a few hours, then the mist comes in and it cools a bit, but it is never cold.

This morning Suresh took us to the tea museum in Munar. It is a most popular destination with every tourist that vacations. I’m pretty sure we were all there at the same time. Along the tour, an older Indian gentleman explained the benefits of green tea. He made sure we were all paying attention, evening instructing an Indian couple to rein in a noisy child. He knew his stuff and admonished the Indian population that their diet, lifestyle and sweet, cheap, milky, black tea is killing them.  One liter a day made with a gram or two of quality green tea, will insure a long and healthy life. I’m convinced, they got me at the gift shop….

From there, we visited the dam and upstream lake, another tourist site popular with Indians from all. Over the country. We stopped on the shore and bought a couple of green coconuts. The guys cut the top open with a small machete-like knife, give you a straw for the juice, then you give them back the coconut. They cut it in half with another small slice to use as a spoon. The flesh is sweet, gelatinous and really good. That, some salted cashews off another cart, and some local chocolate was lunch—my favorite kind of meal. We also met a family on vacation from Calcutta. We chatted for a while, then there were the requisite posing with family members for photos.

We kept lunch light because an hour or so later we were slathered with oil at the Mayura Ayurvedic Center for our 90 minute massage with sirodhara (oil drip at the point of the third eye). The brochure looked pretty slick, but the place is local and very basic. With our hair loaded with healing oils (we promised to keep it in for at least an hour), we went to the produce market and took yet more pictures of fruit and vegetables. We intended to stop for some food, but there was a strike protesting the steep increase in the price of cooking oil. Overnight the government almost doubled the price, and as a result, all the restaurants were closed.

Suresh made a phone call, and and magically, down the highway, a roadside stand was open for us; we stopped for tea and a snack on our way back to the resort.

#13 Munnar, India

Today is January 2nd. We started the day watching the sunrise and practicing again on Ronni and Pinchas’ porch. After breakfast,  Suresh (there are two, one at Aqua Bliss, the other is our driver), Anthony and Pradeep all came across the river with us.  We said our goodbyes to our hosts and reconnected with our driver, Suresh. Leaving Alleppey we drove through small towns, stopping for tea in one, and to buy an Indian spice box in another. Suresh knew exactly where to stop for all our needs, be it food or cooking equipment. Soon we were gaining altitude and started seeing rubber plantations, pineapple groves and eventually acres and acres of tea leaf plants. We went through an area lined with beautiful mansions. The air began to cool down and we stopped for a quick and very good lunch (naturally).

The drive took most of the day and we made one last stop at a spice plantation. Simon was our guide and explained the Ayurvedic (medicinal) properties of each plant, spice and herb. There was something for everything that ails you, from hair loss to kidney stones.  Then he took us into the shop where we could purchase the cures. I did buy peppercorns, black and white, saffron and some oils to make me young again…

Back in the car we headed up the mountain to Munnar. The road got narrower and the potholes bigger. Finally we stopped at the turnoff for the Kaivalyam Retreat. We transferred our luggage to a jeep and headed down a very steep and narrow road. We were met by Haresh, the owner and resident yoga instructor. (Class is at 7A tomorrow. Our rooms are huge, immaculate and the mattresses are stellar. For the first time on our trip, I can’t wait to crawl into bed. We have hot water, soap, shampoo and a view. Dinner was perfect, they make a dessert that is basically a sweet Cream-of-Wheat with cardamom. At 9p they built a bonfire on the patio, played music and served more desserts and hot chocolate. We passed on that—could not eat one more thing. It’s cooler up here at night, the sky is clear and the stars bright.

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