After leaving the laziness of the beaches of Gokarna, we took the local bus and headed south into the state of Kerala (pronounced Carol-a). After a night in the beach town of Kannur, where everything was closed due to a government official having died, we made our way up into the Western Ghats. The Western Ghats are a mountain range that extend along the west coast of India. Per Wikipedia : “The area is one of the world’s ten “Hottest biodiversity hotspots” and has over 7,402 species of flowering plants, 1,814 species of non-flowering plants, 139 mammal species, 508 bird species, 179 amphibian species, 6,000 insects species and 290 freshwater fish species; it is likely that many undiscovered species live in the Western Ghats. At least 325 globally threatened species occur in the Western Ghats.” Pretty amazing spot …
It was our first time heading up into the cool weather and the higher elevations and we were excited! Our first stop in the Western Ghats was in Wayanad where we stayed in our first homestay. The homestays are pretty much the same as AirBnB where you stay in people’s homes. Our homestay at the Varnam homestay was more of a guest house really as each room had a private bathroom but we did share all our meals with the family and other guests. It was quite funny as when we got there we ate lunch with the other guests and over half of them were American. Now we haven’t run into too many Americans since we got to India so it was fun to meet up with so many all at once.
The place was super peaceful with an organic farm and no neighbors plus we had the added treat of being able to play with their 3 dogs (one of which was an adorable puppy.) I think someone should come up with a pet AirBnB concept so you could choose to stay at hotels, guest houses with pets – how awesome would that be? Yes … I admit it, I miss our kitties. I know – I’m such a dork.
In any case we stayed 3 nights in this glorious place, built in the Kerala style of architecture and all the meals were delicious and traditional with many of the veggies coming from the garden. We were lucky enough to arrive when the coffee plants were in bloom (which only happens for a few days every year!) and the blooms smelled amazing! We could smell them on the whole bus ride up to Wayanad but by the time we left there was only the faintest scent left in the air – that’s timing I tell ya! There is also a lot of pepper (the spice) grown in this area which we got to taste in its raw form as well as rice, bananas and various fruit trees. We are beginning to see mangos on the trees which makes my taste buds tingle! I can’t wait for mango season J.
From our homestay, we took a jeep to the Tholpetty wildlife sanctuary. We were lucky enough to spot some elephants on the side of the road on our way to the park – off to a good start! It is quite the deal at 300 rupees per person (about $5) for a 1 hour jeep safari – they only allow a certain number of jeeps in so you have to line up to get your ticket. Now if you have ever been on safari, one hour is pretty quick so the driver just kinda speeds along the dirt road and completes the circuit in the allotted 1 hour and 15 minutes. We were lucky enough to see some elephants and some giant red squirrels and the ubiquitous deer… which none of us were too excited about seeing. Some Chinese tourists who were staying with us went on the safari the next day and actually got chased by an elephant who apparently took a keen dislike to one of them and chased them down on two separate occasions (in the 1 hour and 15 minute period). They came back to the guest house in the evening in quite a state of excitement.
On our way back from the park, our driver, who also worked at our guest house, asked if we wanted to go and see a Theyyam ritual in his village. Absolutey!! He drove us to his village where the temple festival was just getting started. Theyyam is a ritualistic art form performed in Kerala and is believed to pre-date Hinduism. These rituals are performed during the months from October to May and are thought to bring good fortune to those who attend and are blessed by the deity. The performer dresses up as a certain God and will embody that God during the entire performance. The performers are all professionals and most know the stories of the Gods in order to ‘become the God’. It is truly believed that the performer becomes possessed by that God and is therefore considered holy during the performance. We read an amazing book called Nine Lives by William Dalrymple ….. which talks about 9 different spiritual practices or holy people in India. It is an amazing book and one of the stories was about Theyyam so we were really excited to get to experience it.
The following day we walked through the countryside down to the river and enjoyed the peace and quiet (and the coolish weather). On the way to the river we saw a sign for ‘homemade chocolate’ … well you know I can’t resist such a thing so we went in. The lady had been taught to make chocolate by her pastry chef brother and it was AMAZING! Little did we know that on our next 2 stops (Ooty and Kodaikanal) that it is ‘a thing’ to make homemade chocolate and it is available everywhere. However, though I have sacrificed myself and tasted a variety of them, none have come close to being as good as hers. I tried to get her recipe but she told me it was a secret…. Bummer.
After leaving our beautiful homestay we got on the local bus and headed towards Ooty – this was our first true hill station in the Western Ghats. Ooty was established in the early 1800’s as the summer headquarters for the Madras government (the English) and was nicknamed ‘Snooty Ooty’. Apparently in April and May Ooty is overrun with Indian tourists as they try and escape the heat of the plains, in February it was pretty quiet. Ooty is at 2240 meters (over 7000 feet) so it gets pretty chilly at night and none of the hotel rooms have heaters. The other kicker is that the budget hotels only have hot water for a few hours a day – ours had hot water between 7am-9am which was a bit of a bummer, to put it mildly, as after a day of hiking a hot shower would have been very nice. Instead, we just went to bed dirty and stinky because who wants to take an ice cold shower on a cold night? Not me!
Ooty is famous for a few things, it has what they call a “toy train”, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, one of (I believe) three mountain railways in India (Darjeeling and Shimla being the other 2). It was built by the Swiss (but of course), it uses a cog wheel system with the locomotive pushing the train to navigate the steep mountainside. We just wanted to take a short ride so we jumped on for an hour ride down the hill to another hill station called Coonoor. The ride was beautiful as you head down the mountain through tea plantations, farms and beautiful landscapes. The funny thing was that as we had reserved seats we were in the ‘first class cabin’ (which cost us $1.25), they had banquette seating which would probably have fit 4 people comfortably but for some reason they decided that 6 people should be able to squeeze in … even though we were 6 average sized people this seating arrangement defeated us as one person always ended up almost falling off the bench. Lucky for us there were some open seats so 2 of the people moved … if not it would have been a very uncomfortable hour.
The other thing Ooty is famous for (yes, besides the chocolate) is trekking. We hired a guide to take us trekking for the day. We had been told we would go through jungle and see the local Nilgiri tribes. Sounds amazing, sign us up!!! Well that wasn’t quite what we did (which is par for the course for travel in India) but it was nice. We walked through the country, through eucalyptus groves (which I know aren’t jungle) and through tea plantations (which were gorgeous and green.) We did have a delicious lunch in a tiny village (our guide told me that some tribal people live there …. But where were they I wondered?). After lunch we headed to another small village and we could hear the blaring music – he told us there was a temple festival going on and the day before they had slaughtered a goat as an offering. Alright! I thought, now we are talking – some exotic local culture. Unfortunately for us, our guide was Catholic – now there is nothing wrong with being Catholic – but he seemed to want nothing to do with these ‘pagans’ and their many gods and rituals and even seemed a little embarrassed by it.
When we reached the village with the festival, the music was blaring, we could see what seemed to be the whole village gathered in front of the temple. Being foreigners, we naturally attracted some attention and went through the typical round of photos with the people. As we were trying to get closer to watch the festival our guide kept telling us to move on but we wanted to see the action. – I sneaked away to get a closer glimpse but he soon noticed my absence and with a stern “JENNIFER let’s go” we kept moving. I don’t think he understood that to us these Hindu festivals are fascinating and the people are so open and friendly they invite you in to watch. For us that is a cultural experience even if the religion isn’t our own.
As we were leaving town we passed a cylindrical thatch hut with decoration on the door, it was one of the tribal temples. We didn’t linger though as he seemed to speed up his step to pass it. I have to say, we did have beautiful views and it was nice to hike around but next time I would hire a Hindu guide who wouldn’t be so squeamish about the multiple gods and extravagant rituals.
At the end of our trek we took the local bus back into town. We had seen a lot of activity by the Hindu temple in town the last few days so we asked our guide if there was a festival in town. He replied that there was nothing special going on in town, no festivals, nothing out of the ordinary. This is what we found when we had dinner in town later that night, blaring music, nine priests mixing ghee into fire, chants and incense. The whole nine yards. Nothing special going on here …
Where to stay in Wayanad :
We stayed at the Varnam Homestay which was amazing! It includes 3 meals (you won’t leave hungry) and it is close to some nice walks. They also arrange trips to the animal sanctuary. It is a peaceful place with some great dogs.
Where to stay in Ooty:
We stayed at Reflections Guest House – it is centrally located and budget friendly. I booked on booking.com and got a lakeview for 700 rupees – you can bargain the non-lake views down to 500 rupees if you are looking out for your money. The only negative here is the hot water is only on from 7am-9am daily so plan on being dirty and stinky when you go to bed. The food is just ok so I would recommend going to town to eat.