The minute I stepped out of Cochin International Airport, I intuitively knew this was a place that will speak to my soul. Mr. Sudhan, our driver and guide promptly arrived with a wide smile, his appearance as immaculate as the silver sedan he drove. Little did I know then that this man would rule our hearts for the next six days. A walking encyclopedia of not just the history and geography of Kerala, he could discuss any topic under the sun. By the time we reached Munnar five hours later, he had become my Sudhan ‘cheta’, meaning brother in Malayalam.
On the way, he pointed out Adi Shankaracharya’s Keerthi stambha, Kalady, the Periyar river and briefly let us out at the Cheeyapara waterfalls. After stretching my tired back as I got into the car, he handed me a small lime and said, “Madam, scratch the skin and inhale. Zig-zag road ahead. Good for nausea.” When it was time for lunch, we were desperate for the famous roasted beef and Malabar parotas, but cheta politely pointed out that we must stick to light, vegetarian food as our bodies were tired and the road ahead was bad. I was charmed.
The next morning, we headed for the Devikulam tea gardens. The small village of Devikulam nestles amidst verdant green slopes, the clouds hanging low on the colorful houses and a lovely chill enveloping the entire hill station. On the way, Sudhan cheta started playing some Hindi music to which I strongly protested. “Only Malayalam and Tamil music please, cheta,” I requested. His face lit up and from there on, all the way to the Flower Garden and later the Lockhart Tea Museum, the discussion turned to our favourite music maestros, Illayaraja, Yesudas, SPB, Janaki, etc. He knew so much about music and movies that it stumped me. At the Lockhart Museum, we learnt a lot about tea, but for me, music remained the highlight of that afternoon.
Later, walking down the Mattupetty bridge in the light drizzle, I met an old woman selling peanuts and fruits. She kept urging me to buy something. “My wallet is in the car, Amma,” I said. She smiled fondly, forced a pack of peanuts in my hand and replied in halting English, “You eat. Money later.”
On the first day, Sudhan cheta had told us that Kerala produces 20 varieties of bananas and that every day he would make us taste a couple of them. As he dropped us back to the hotel, he handed us a packet and grinned, “Today, special red bananas.”
The most scenic and beautiful sight was to unfold the following day. Refreshed from a good night’s sleep, we enjoyed the light drizzle on the way to the Ernavikulam National Park. Munnar is full of tea plantations, but the ride through this one, on the way to Rajamala Hills was the most dramatic. As we stepped out at the foot of the hills, the rain stopped as if on cue. The uphill ramble, with the mountain towering on one side and the valley on the other was the most beautiful walk I’ve ever been on. When we stopped mid-way, the view took my breath away. This is what paradise must look like, I thought.
The fourth day we drove into a dream called, Thekkady. With the quaint Periyar river, the sleepy beauty of the savanna grasslands, the thick deciduous forests and the abundant wildlife, it was the perfect place for a nature lover like me. It is also a heaven for natural spices.
After wafting for a couple of hours on the glassy river, we went on a spice trail. Our guide, Ms. Sheeba instantly won us over with her knowledge, heavily-accented Hindi and a beautiful smile. By the end of the hour-long tour, we had more information about spices and herbs than our little brains could possibly hold. As we said our goodbyes to Sheeba, she scribbled her name on the brochure and said, “I wrote my name so you’ll always remember me. I enjoyed talking to you because very few people show genuine interest like you did. Come back soon”. At our resort, there was another spice whiz called Leeba. She took me around the huge estate, pointing at shrubs and trees, rattling off information and generally making a quick entry into my heart. Leeba means love and it is a perfect name for her.
There was more to unassuming Thekkady. That evening we found ourselves in a small, modest theatre watching Kathakali, one of the oldest theatre forms in the world. The performers were excellent with their expressions, mudras and a short mythological presentation. That was followed by Kalaripayattu, a 3000-year old martial arts form, the oldest in the world. We had been tired that day and had meant to skip these shows, but Sudhan cheta insisted on taking us there. Any other man would have enjoyed the free evening, but he was clearly different. That night I ate little for I was too full of nature, art and love.
With much reluctance, we left Thekkady two days later, to spend the last day in Alleppy. “Cheta, I am in the land of coconuts, and you haven’t treated me to coconut water yet”, I playfully chided. He grinned and nodded. Driving past several tender coconut stalls, he stopped at one. “Only Kerala coconut for you, madam. Best coconut. You’ll know when you taste it”, he boasted. True to his word, the sweet taste of that water was an elixir to my parched throat.
The main attraction of Alleppy is, of course, the boat ride on the backwaters. I enjoyed the ride, but the real highlight was meeting my Ayurvedic doctor, who I’d only communicated with on phone for the past four years. The graciousness and love he and his family bestowed on us was heart-warming. On the way back, we asked Sudhan cheta how he knew even the by-lanes so well without once using GPS. “GPS in my head, madam,” he giggled.
“One last gift from me pending, madam,” Cheta crooned on the way to the airport. As he made a quick left turn from the highway, the magnificence of St. George’s church left me gaping! It was by far the most beautiful church I have seen in India. Going down on my knees, I offered my gratitude for all the beauty and love that had come my way in that past week. Among all the information Sudhan cheta had shared, one thing came back to me in that moment. Driving through the tree plantations, he had pointed to the tall trees that stood out awkwardly among the neatly trimmed tea plants. “Those silver oaks are planted on purpose, madam. Their roots go deep, hold the soil together and help maintain moisture and nutrients. They also provide necessary shade for the tea plants. Basically, the tea plants flourish thanks to the silver oak.”
Kerala is called ‘God’s Own Country’ and every place we went to was bathed in pristine beauty and a natural sanctity that made it feel more like a pilgrimage than a holiday. But what has stayed with me is the memory of some wonderful people who like silver oaks held my ground with the warmth of their love, compassion and humor.