Kerala-Fantastic birds but a shock to the senses!

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Flag of India  , Kerala,
Saturday, November 9, 2013

 
Kerala,
India 26th October - 10th November 2013



We arrived in Kochi Airport to find a man waving a card with our name on as promised and he whisked us away speedily to the Quality Airport Hotel. We stayed 2 nights to adjust to  India,or so we thought. What we had not realised was that the QAH is an oasis of peace and tranquility in the chaos that is India, but this did not become clear until we returned from our Birding trip. Kerala is meant to be one of the more efficiently managed states in India.



At 5.15am on the 28th Peter, our guide, arrived and off we went towards Thattekad, binoculars and cameras at the ready. Thattekad is a bird reserve. However, it is closed and when we asked why/for how long we were told for political reasons and no-one knows when it will  re-open. Fortunately birds don't stop flying at park boundaries and with Peter's expertise and local knowledge we soon spotted lots of interesting species. I know most of you are not that interested in birds so I will not give a lot of detail other than to say that in the 6 days (3 nights Thattekad, 2 nights Munnar) we saw more than 130 species.



We soon fell into the routine, up at 5.15am, out by 6am and stopping off at various locations, and walking up and down rocks and hills etc until 11 or 11.30am when we returned to camp to rest before lunch. Then off again at 3.30pm until 6 or 7pm when we returned for dinner 




It is a lovely way to spend the time. Our accommodation at Thattekad was Hornbill Camp, a low impact resort on the banks of the Periyar river. We slept in a very sophisticated tent which was larger than many of the bedrooms we have encountered, with a verandah at the front and on the rear tent wall was another zip up door which took you out of the tent and into an ensuite bathroom and dressing area. Quite luxurious!



Thattekad is surrounded by plantations of rubber, pineapples, cardomom, cashew nuts, coffee and spices. But the best thing about Hornbill Camp was the staff. They all seemed to enjoy bird watching as much as we did and if there was even a whisper of an interesting bird around,
instantaneously 3 or 4 of the staff would materialise as if by magic, with binoculars and  cameras primed. A lasting memory for me will be when we were standing by the fields  adjacent to the Camp in total darkness trying to spot Nightjars flying by with the aid of one torch. I am including a picture of one that landed for a second but obviously given it was pitch black apart from the torch it is not a good photograph but for me it is priceless because it was such fun!



Normally Hornbill camp is a serene retreat from the world but not the day we arrived. The Manager apologised and explained that they were expecting a group of 80 people for lunch  and that 20 of them would stay overnight. It was a group of I.T. staff on a team development day and proved quite entertaining to watch. It reminded me of a 1950s party for 7 or 8 year olds. Mostly in their 20s and 30s, they were very polite but noisy in their camaraderie. They played games on the grass and there was much clapping and back-slapping for the winners.
Then they had an hour long session of bingo with great anticipation and excitement, men  sitting on one side and women on the other, before settling down to lunch. Once they left, the Camp returned to it's usual peaceful routine.



Next we moved up into the hills of Munnar, a major tea growing area, and the most beautiful one we have seen so far on our travels. We stayed at Olive Brook, a long bungalow with lovely gardens that would not look out of place in Devon. Soon after we arrived a storm descended and we had a dramatic few hours of thunder, lightning and torrential rain. It was much cooler than Thattekad and despite two heavy blankets on the bed we had to wear clothes as well. It was really chilly and damp.



The next morning we drove up early to the Eravikulum National Park but not before the crowds started to arrive. It was very busy with bus loads of Indians (many from other parts of the  country as it was Divali so a holiday), usually in large family groups. They marched up the hill
and back down again, mostly oblivious to their surroundings, but chatting away to each other at high decibel levels.




The park is home to the Nilgiri Tahr, an endangered species of goat. As we returned in the Park bus to the gates Peter spotted some on rocks in the distance. The driver stopped for a few seconds while everyone tried to get a picture. It was difficult as the bus juddered violently and the goats were a long way away but I was lucky enough to get one. Then as we moved off Peter saw my photograph and showed it to his neighbour, then everyone wanted to see it. When we got off the bus people queued to take a picture of my photograph and then shake my hand! I think this must count as my 15 minutes (but only 15 seconds in my case) of fame.



Peter worked very hard to find birds for us and each evening he listed them all. As we drove around very slowly he would have the windows open listening for certain bird calls, and much of the time he was on the wrong side of the road on blind bends. It all added to the  excitement. He loved to find new species and of course this became more difficult as the days passed. There was one eluding us until he finally heard it and tracked down where the call was coming from. When we found it with binoculars he was so excited he was jumping up and down and punching the air. It was a exquisite tiny woodpecker no bigger than a leaf with a heart shaped pattern on it's back.




We also stopped in at the tea museum where we saw an interesting video about the history of tea in Munnar and the plantations which are now owned by Tata, a huge Indian conglomerate. The video showed how Tata provides a hospital and free medical treatment for its employees and their families. The next day, a young Swiss woman staying at Olive Brook had to go to the hospital as she had an allergic reaction to something she had eaten. She said it was an experience as there was no privacy. The doctors are sitting almost side by side whilst talking to the patients so it is possible to hear everyone's conversation. However they were very efficient and although she had to pay it only cost 70 pence for the consultation and 1.40 for the 2 injections they gave her, which proved very effective.




We were sad to say goodbye to Peter as we could have carried on happily scouring the countryside for birds with him but eventually he took us to our next stop, Fort Kochi, and our first encounter with an Indian town.



Everyone  told us that Fort Kochi was quieter and less chaotic than other partsof India but we received a sudden jolt to our senses when we arrived there and we realised that we had been insulated from the reality of India whilst up in the hills. I can't imagine what the other cities are like if Kochi is considered calm! The noise, piles of rubbish and rubble, beggars and sheer number of people is like nothing we have encountered anywhere else. I watched a crow eating a dead rat in the street. We did enjoy visiting the sights, the Chinese fishing nets, Mattancherry Palace, Jew Town and the Synagogue, The Folk Culture Museum on the mainland across the water, and the fascinating theatre where we experienced two main  aspects of Keralan culture, Kathakali (meaning Story - Play) and Kalarippayat.




We spent more than 3 hours in the theatre, the first hour was an exhibition of Kalarippayat, the martial art, the second hour was spent watching the Kathakali actors preparing for their performance and then after an explanation of the meaning of different movements came the play itself.



Kalarippayat is an ancient tradition of martial training and discipline that is still taught  throughout Kerala. It is thought to date back to the Twelfth Century and be the forerunner of all martial arts. The movements are so swift and smooth that it is almost impossible to see the weapons in use and sometimes difficult to see the protagonists!  As you will see from the photograph, it was impossible to capture their images as they moved so fast! Training can take ten years and requires two hours practise each day to retain the fitness required.



Kathakali also became established about the Twelfth Century and is a dramatised presentation of a play usually based on the Hindu epics, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas. All the great themes are covered – righteousness and evil, frailty and courage,  war and peace.



Preparation is a complex and intense process involving face painting, construction of masks on the face, meditation and decorating of the floor around where the play will take place.


Drummers and singers accompany the actors who tell the story through their precise movements, particularly mudras (hand gestures), facial expression and body language. Words are rare. We were given a demonstration of the movements and meanings before the play started but they are so ritualised they are difficult to remember or identify. For example sadness is portrayed through a whole plethora of exact movements of hands, eye positions, eyebrows, mouth etc, it is not simply a case of the actor looking sad. The drumming is non
stop throughout the performance and becomes almost hypnotic.



Our visit to Mattancherry Palace was interesting because although the building is not that impressive (built by the Portuguese in the Fifteenth Century as a bribe!) inside are numerous information boards which describe the history of the peoples of the area from the earliest times.



Adjacent to the Mattancherry area is Jew Town with the Fifteenth Century Synagogue. It is not certain exactly when the first Jews arrived in Kerala but some believe in was in the times of King Solomon, others that they arrived about 200 B.C. They were welcomed by a ruler of Northern Kerala and given land for their own kingdom with their own ruler where they prospered for a long time. Eventually, Muslims sacked the Kingdom and killed most of the inhabitants. A few escaped and settled in Kochi and were again welcomed by the ruler as they were expert traders and brought needed skills to the area. It was only with the creation of the state of Israel that the bulk of those still residing in Kochi left to go there. It was with great pride that the Ruler of the time said that they had always been welcome in Kochi and that they were leaving only because they wanted to return to what they saw as their homeland and not  because they had ever felt unwelcome in Kerala.



Then we moved to Alleppey and the Backwaters. We had found it difficult to book accommodation there so the Manager of the hotel in Kochi recommended the Pagoda Hotel and arranged our booking for four nights. It is possible to sleep on traditional rice barges called  Kettuvallam which have been converted to houseboats, but we decided that we would prefer an hotel with a pool as you cannot swim in the Backwaters.



The Pagoda Hotel was a mistake, it did have a pool but it was so opaque that we would not have dipped a toe in it. We were the only Europeans staying at the Pagoda (which isn't  usually a problem ) and it was full. The other guests were so noisy, shouting, slamming doors, hammering on doors, children running wild and yelling/screaming up to midnight and the noise starting again at 6am, that it was not a pleasant place to stay, despite the food being very good. I think it is a cultural difference reflected in the way people travel here. They always seem to be in large groups and tend not to close their room doors so there is a constant flow of very noisy people backwards and forwards. Even nuclear family size groups are noisy – added to by the constant Bollywood type videos played in the hotel dining room! It seems that people here do not like silence.



We did spend a relaxing day on a Kettuvallam and enjoyed seeing life on the Backwaters, even though it has its noise too. The women (and a few men) were doing the washing on the banks and all you can hear is slap, smash, slap as they beat the clothes on rocks. Many stand in the water to do the washing. The sound echoes across the waterways. Fields beside the channels have been recovered from the waters and are farmed below sea level. It was very pretty and peaceful.



After seeing the Kettuvallams we decided that as much as we disliked the Pagoda Hotel it was probably preferable to a boat. We saw lots on insects on board and Jim gathered quite a few bites. I think anything brave enough to try and bite me drowned in 100% DEET.




So Alleppey and the Backwaters was worth seeing – briefly! We cut short our stay and retired to the relative peace and quiet of the Quality Airport Hotel where we can swim, chat to the chef and prepare for our trip to the Maldives. We are leaving a bag here at the hotel as hopefully we will not need boots, jackets or sweaters on Meedhupparu. See you there.
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Comments

margaret & John Knudsen on

Very interesting, great photos.looking forward to seeing pics of Maldives.x

jenny on

certainly some lovely birds in india amongst all the rubbish!! xx

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