Where Were The Wild Elephants?

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March 10th 2021
Published: March 11th 2021
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The thought of backwater cruise, wildlife at national parks and carpet like tea plantation lured me to visit Kerala. Back in March 2018, I, my sister Nyta and my friend Kiko left Jakarta with Malaysian Airlines, transiting in Kuala Lumpur and arrived in the evening. Our driver, Jotish picked us up and took us to Cochin Marriott.

On the first day of our visit, we had a city tour, visiting Fort Kochi, famous for its spice trading in the 16th century. We could see the legacy of the spice routes from the historical Portuguese architect design buildings, the names of the street and Chinese Fishing Nets along the coast. Kochi is rich in history as merchants began trading spices, primarily cardamom and black pepper, with European, Middle Easterners and Chinese since 1500. Its history was quite similar to that of the Moluccas, Indonesian Spice Islands where they attracted the Portuguese for spice trading as well. Street names like Vasco de Gamma were not unfamiliar to us. The connectivity was apparent with the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814 where the Dutch had to hand over Kochi to the British in exchange of the Bangka island.

First itinerary was to visit Mattahcherry Palace, also known as Dutch Palace, from which we headed towards Prince Street at old town, where many European architecture style buildings were turned into hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops. Interestingly, the remains of spice trading were hardly seen.

Lunch was at a 300-year old building turned into a boutique hotel, Old Harbor Hotel. Built by the Dutch with Portuguese influence, the hotel used to be a residential home of the employees of English tea trading company. It was so cozy as the large yard was covered with greenery that we decided to stay longer while enjoying our coffee. We continued exploring the old town and visited a few souvenir shops and found our favourite store: Fab India. Oh gosh, it was like heaven for us.

We also explored Jew Town, wait, how did Kochi have Jewish community? According to Wikipedia, the ancestors were believed to be the ancient Jews from the King Solomon era. They were referred to as Malabar Jews. After many Malabar Jews migrated to Israel in 1950, it was estimated the population dwindled to 2,400. Out of the 8 synagogues, only Paradesi synagogues still conducts regular congregration. As of today, the Jew Streets at Jew Town Kochi merely consisted of souvenir, art galleries and coffee shops. We found another perfect store: Yoga Art Cafe, which was a clean looking yoga store that sell Kurtas and coffee too!

Before we headed back to the hotel, we visited Santacruz Basilica is one of the eight Basilicas in India. It was built in the 16th century with the arrival of the Portuguese on the island. Known for its remarkable architect design, the Basilica still holds Sunday Mass services. We passed by St Francis Church before heading towards Cheenavala or Chinese Fishing Nets, introduced to Kerala by the Chinese explorers in the 14th century by Zheng He. Now the red dot connecting the the Spice Route between Kochi and Indonesia became clearer, as there were temples built in Jakarta, Cirebon, Surabaya and Semarang dedicated to Zheng He, one of which was The Sam Poo Kong temple in Semarang.

The next day after breakfast, we headed towards the Allepey Backwater, for our overnight cruise. On our way to Allepey, we were lucky to stop by at a temple that held mini Elephant festival. From February to April, various temple held ceremonies with Elephants being part of the events. Most of the Hindu temples in Kerala own elephants, many of them being donated by devotees. As we drove further, we came across a group of men dressed in red robes carrying cross on their shoulder, which turned out to be pilgrims visiting Church, ahead of Easter.

We took two-bedrooms Kettuvallams, the house boat with Marvel. The captain and boat crew greeted us upon arrival. To our surprise, the boat was not only spacious but also very clean. The rooms were equipped with air condition and ensuite bathroom. The Captain took the front seat of the boat, behind which there was a day bed, sitting area and dining table. The kitchen is located at the back of the boat. The crew was attentive, friendly and polite.

We were served welcome drinks as the boat started to cruise and were told of the activities for the cruise: to visit the fish auction place or massage. We opted for the later, while waiting for lunch to be served. For lunch, we were served local food, where fish, lentils and nan were served; they were simply tasty. As we cruised, there were other boats moving along the river as well; some were even have two stories, big enough to accommodate 8 guests! Kerala backwater are network of lagoons and lakes lying parralel to the Malabar coast, consisting of interconnected rivers and canals representing 900 km of waterways. Five large lakes linked by canals, fed by 38 rivers, flew into this waterway. The water has multi functions as it is the primary source of water for the locals, but it's also being used for irrigation and fishery. We enjoyed the cruise very much as we could relax while enjoy the sight of the river and activities around it. Soon, we arrived at our massage hut, and both I and my friend, Kiko, were amused by the sight. It was small, dark and filthy. We could not help smiling and bargained if we could have food massage outside the hut instead; we were convinced it was not ideal. Being sensitive to the local culture, we gave in for the sake of the experience. As the quote says, having mediocre massage is better than having no massage at all.

After the massage, we visited the oldest church in the Backwater, while we were there, a sermon went on. From outside, we could see the people sang religious songs in Hindi accompanied by traditional drum. As we cruise further during sunset, we could not help admiring the beauty of the sun disappearing among the coconut trees on the horizon. Dinner was served at 7 pm, and we were recommended to rest by 9 pm. Later on, we learned the crew slept on the dining room area!

Having restful sleep, we woke up fresh the next morning. After breakfast, the boat started to cruise back, where Jotish was waiting. We drove 3.5 hours drive to Tekkadhy and had lunch along the way. After checking in at Mountain Courtyard, we had a chance to see the traditional dance show of Kathakali, which were originated in the 17th century. Part of the excitement was to see how the dancer was getting prepared for the performance, as he had colorful make up on and had to be assisted to wear the petticoat costume. To our surprise, the dance performance was merely face expression with movements of eyes. The actor, who narrated folk songs in Sanskritised Malayalam, the local language, barely moved. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the translation of the narratives that we didn’t understand about the show.

We also had a chance to see Kalaripayattu, the traditional martial art in Tekkady. It was said that this was one of the oldest martial art, having history for more than 3000 years. Interestingly, the same philosophy in yoga was applied by the performers as coordination between mind and body was a must to maintain agility, flexibility and strength. By the end of the show, we had a chance to get photographed with Chief performer (in the picture) who curiously looked at our hand fan and asked what it was. We could not help laughing at his curiosity. On our way to the hotel, we stopped by at one of the local store which sell pineapple fibre materials at the very reasonable price. Oh gosh, why did we even find this store? we went crazy!

The next day, we left early to go to Periyar National Park which took about one hour and forty minutes. Periyar National Park is a 925 km2 protected area, the home to wild tiger and elephants. We had a choice of taking a half day jeep safari to a wild tiger reserve or full day jeep safari to Pathanamthitta, Kochandy, to see wild elephants. We opted for the latter as we were told the chances of seeing the tiger was unlikely. Our driver picked us up with an open top old jeep and drove us to the park. He said he saw these gentle animals, while taking visitors a few weeks earlier; however, he warned us that this was nature. There was no guarantee that we would be able to see them. Understood, off we went inside the park, hoping it was going to be our lucky day.

As we entered the park, we immediately saw a red tail squirrel on the tree; it must have been our lucky day as it was easy to spot wild animals. As we drove for an hour, no elephants were seen. Another hour, still no elephants were seen. Then, our driver stopped. He spot elephants’ tracks on the dirt. They must be nearby. Hopes ran high. We stood still, ready with our camera, and heard the wooshing sound of elephants grabbing plants behind the bush. Oh, they were so near, yet we could not see them! We waited, but the elephants seemed to be happy where they were. Sigh. Half-hearted, we left and continued the drive. Our driver made a huge effort to spot other wild animals, wild buffaloes on the hill, lion tailed macaques and even a snake, out of guilt. As we drove, we came across the the local tribes who live inside the park. Living in harmony with nature, they are literally the Guard of the Forest as they also protect the wild animals from poachers. Estimated about 2,000 of them, the people still live in makeshift houses and got their food from the forest.

The following morning, we left for Munnar after breakfast. The road was hilly and curvy. Along the way, we stopped by at Periyar Spice and Aryuvedic Garden, where we had a chance to see various spice plants such as Cardamom, Pepper, Cloves, Cinnamon, Nutmeg and many other. We ended up buying herbal products which we hardly used at home. For lunch, we stopped by at one of the vegetarian restaurants. Glad we found a decent place to eat, we ordered food, and when they arrived, we took out dried anchovy out of missing comfort food from home. To our surprise was not allowed! We understood this vegetarian restaurant is strictly vegetarian for religious reasons. How naive we were!

On the way, we stopped by at tea plantation and tea factory at Pattumalay, Harrison Heritage, which was built in 1857. It has a total area of 232 ha, and is owned by a private foreign company. We were given a tour to the tea factory and were shown how tea was made and processed in the factory, which had machines built in the 1940s. It was only then I knew how white tea, Green Tea and black tea were made. Among other things in the tea making process, the main differences were which leaves were used for each category: tea bud, young tea leaves and the rest, all mixed together. We had a chance to visit an old Church, next to the plantation, from which we could see people are riding flying fox down the hill.

Arrived at Munnar late afternoon, we were relieved to arrive at a modern 5 star-hotel, Fragrant Nature, overlooking the hills. It was unfortunate that we didn’t have a chance to explore Munnar further as we had to leave the next morning to Kochi and catch our flight back. In hindsight, we had planned the trip a little bit too short; it would have been nice to stay at least two nights in Munnar to enjoy the activities: trekking at tea plantations and visit waterfall.

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