Kumarakom yesterday, Vagamon tomorrow!

If there is one state in India, which has almost got its act together on tapping its tourism potential, it must be Kerala. I say, “almost” and mention Kerala in relation to other states of India. For a relatively small state, Kerala boasts of varied choices for a traveler from beaches to hill stations to back waters to Ayurveda to Culture and more.  In a strange twist of irony, for a state which still has its ideological moorings firmly tilted to the “Left”, it is “smart marketing” that has played a great part in positioning the state as ‘God’s Own Country’ over the years. To its credit, certain gaps notwithstanding, Kerala does live up to this tag line to this day.

I’m certain that there are other states which are bigger in size in India that can provide a better offering than Kerala to tourists. Karnataka, for example. And some of them have now realized the potential, tourism as an industry offers and are boarding the bus, though late.  The tourism circuit of Kerala over the years has evolved from just back waters of Kochi and hills of Thekkady in the 80’s to now Kumarakom, Alleppey, Munnar, and spots in Malabar area like Wynad, Bekal,… Outside of this circuit are a few places that are in the verge of earning their stripes. Of them is Vagamon, a hill station in the Idukki district and closer to Kottayam in terms of access, which I had the opportunity to visit last week.

Being a native of Kottayam, I have had the chance to visit Kottayam many times. It was the default summer vacation option while growing up. And with family roots still entrenched there, social visits have been a regular.  Though Vagamon is just 40 Kms from our place in Kottayam, we never thought of exploring this location in the past. Not just familiarity, but proximity also at times breeds contempt isn’t it?  Having been hearing of this place as an emerging hill station, we decided to visit Vagamon and spend a night there during this trip.

For long, Vagamon was mainly known for its milk – Vagamon milk is popular in the surrounding areas. Like all hill stations of India, though the British were the ones who discovered this place, I understand that it is the Christian missionaries in Kerala who developed Vagamon and among the first to live there. A Dairy farm that still exists was the early business activity to flourish and hence the popularity of Vagamon milk!  So one can say that it is a place where honey and milk literally flows! The road leading to Vagamon from Kottayam is patchy having been battered by the recent heavy rains. For a Mumbaikar used to pot holed roads resembling craters of the moon, they were still bearable, but then Mumbai is no bench mark for a tourist destination! As you near the place, the scenic beauty of the place and the accompanying chill weather just enthrall you.  The views on the way give you an idea of what to expect.

The resort where we stayed (Treebo Adrak Summer Sand Resort) is right at the heart of the town and has fantastic views. Located next to the Pine Valley which is one of the places of tourist interest, is neat, clean and very well maintained. The property is great and picturesque. However, for such a nice property, the staff is inadequately trained and is marred by slow and laidback service. We see this dichotomy in many small towns in India.

All places of visitor’s interest are in a span of 5 Kms which include breathtaking viewpoints, idyllic Tea estates, the Dairy farm, the Pine Valley,… and could be covered within few hours. Being a fledgling tourist destination, the infrastructure is just developing. One of the popular viewpoints has now become a paragliding point where frenzied construction activity is going on. I realized that as of now, Vagamon is more of a one day outing place for those nearby during holidays and long weekends.  The result – all the points of interest were overcrowded and vehicles parked alongside the narrow roads clogging the approach. The Prime Minister’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was tottering, with people who bring food along eating alongside roads and littering the place with plates, cups and left over food! This was sad for a state which I always thought was in the forefront of Swachata. Though declared a plastic free zone, plastic could be freely seen strewn in places where people thronged.

The 3.5 hour drive back to the Kochi International Airport, half of which is through hilly terrain is quite scenic. Airtel 4G connection of mine failed the test, as in many places my phone was out of coverage. On the other hand, our cab driver’s JIO connection passed with flying colours when we need to access Google maps. Not to mention of the equally effective cell phone coverage of BSNL in those far off areas! The drive through also gives an insight on why the “Left” is so well entrenched in Kerala.  Red flags flutter in regular frequency in a gap of 10-15 Kms even in those remote areas.  Even in a non-election season like this, there was a nukkad meeting going on being addressed by a spirited leader with at least a 100 keen listeners!  But one cannot dismiss the flowering of the Lotus here and there.  In fact, the day we were leaving Kochi, BJP was kicking off its “Project Kerala” in Kannur with Modi as the main face in posters alongside the Kerala BJP President Kummanam Rajashekaran, who incidentally resembles Modi in some angles. Yet, it will take years of labour to dislodge the Left from probably its last bastion in India!

With Nature in abundance, Vagamon has immense potential to be the next Munnar or Kumarakom of Kerala. Additional place of interest for Westerners is a place called Bharananganam which is on the way from Kottayam to Vagamon. It is the abode of Sister Alphonsa who was the first woman of Indian origin to be canonized as a Saint by the Catholic Church.  But, to get into the God’s Own Country circuit, Vagamon needs to be developed in terms of its infrastructure. Incidentally, the same day I saw a quote of the new Central minister for Tourism Alphons Kannanthanam who hails from Kerala, talking of Vagamon in the same breath as Munnar as an area to focus for tourism development.

The jury is still out as to whether development happens first and then tourism picks up or the other way about. But there is always a tipping point. Like for Kumarakom, when in the last week of December in the Year 2000, the then Prime Minister Vajpayee decided to ring in the New Year at Kumarakom.  The musings of Vajpayee from Kumarakom still reverberate in the air! Similarly, another event that catapulted Kumarakom to its today’s glory was Arundati Roy’s Booker prize winning novel “The God of Small Things”. Set in the village of Aymanam which is at a calling distance from Kumarakom, the novel made many Western tourists include Kumarakom part of their itinerary!

May be Prime Minster Modi, who in his last Mann Ki Baat address called upon people to explore new destinations in India to boost tourism, could emulate Vajpayee and take a break at Vagamon during Diwali! Who knows, in that calm, cool and scenic setting far away from the political nerve centre of Delhi he may discover some new ideas to bring back John Maynard Keynes’ “Animal spirits” of the country!!!

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Via Wyanad to Bliss!!!

Being born in Kerala, with roots still entrenched there and having worked briefly there too, one would expect to have had enough of Kerala in terms of holidays and vacations. Not for me. Though having been to many parts of Kerala, quite a few places are waiting to be explored. Vythiri at Wyanad in the north of Kerala was one such place.  So for this Diwali vacation we decided to zoom in on Vythiri, a place holed up deep inside Kerala’s lush rainforests that promised a back-to-nature experience.

When we landed at the Kozhikode airport we were welcomed by moist environs from the previous day’s unseasonal rains. When the driver mentioned that the distance of about 85 kms from the airport to the resort will be covered in about 3 hours, my immediate Mumbaikar instinct prodded me to check the condition of the roads. In Mumbai we are well aware of the potholed conditions of the roads during monsoons year after year. The driver who was nonchalance personified mentioned, “Kozhapamilla, edaikku theera mosavaa” (Its o.k. In between its really bad). 3 hours hence when we reached our destination which was the Vythiri Resort, I realized that our driver friend either wanted to keep our expectations low or is a Gulf return with experience of super quality roads! For, to me the road was fantastic all the way up the hill sections until the resort with just couple of uneven patches in between!!! The drive, when you reach Wyanad district limits is simply awesome with some spectacular views. Along the way, the famous “Airtel Open Network” kept indicating the coverage as moderate or non-existent!

On arrival at the resort, we were promptly briefed by the staff on supposedly the most important requisite i.e.  Wi-Fi. There is no Wi-Fi in the room or anywhere in the resort but for the common “Activity centre”. There is no TV in the room!!! Newspaper is available only at the reception area! In my mind I thought – so you pay for a body detox and you get few days of Digital Detox free!!! Vythiri, a fledgling holiday destination now, has more than 80 resorts all named almost similarly. “Vythiri this” and “Vythiri that”!!! So one has to be careful while booking online without getting mixed up with similar sounding resorts.

Vythiri Resort  is one of the older properties there and among the best few. It is expansive with river streams flowing within its premises and a hanging bridge to get across these streams. The whole resort looks green and romantic with many ideal selfie spots if I may add. The sound of the flowing water in the streams which you can hear 24*7 is therapeutic to the mind. Along with this, the sound of the magical flute (of one my very favourite and most talented but lesser known flutists in the country – Kerala’s very own Kudamaloor Janardhanan) which they play in the resort throughout the day relaxes and calms your nerves. The food was excellent even for vegetarians like us, with the Malabari cuisine which the region is known for taking centre stage.  The resort itself is home to different flora and fauna (the Giant Malabar Squirrel, the Benson’s Yellow snail, monkeys…). Also one has to be wary of the leaches as you walk by which are known to make a cut and suck your blood without you realizing the same. It happened to me as well as I was sauntering around taking pictures at odd places in the resort. Apparently, worldwide leaches are used to suck impure blood from the body. While biting, leaches infuse small amount of Hirudin a serum that thins blood and prevents coagulation. This is a base for all medicines used to cure heart bleeding, varicose veins,… So we were informed at the reception!!!

Overall I can say that the resort has positioned itself as an ideal honeymoon place. Since I don’t want this piece to sound like a plug for Vythiri Resort, let me move on by just saying that the place does enough justice to the impressive website!!!

Coming to the place itself, I realized that Wyanad which was home to many coffee plantations decades ago has now morphed to more of a Tea place and of course spice gardens. Many picturesque tea estates abound as you drive by though they are not very vast as in Munnar or Coonoor.

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In and around Vythiri, there are few interesting places to visit which will engage you for 1 / 2 days. I don’t have to write so much about tourist attractions of which Google does a better job. However more interesting to share would be the “Writings on the Walls” which one sees that communicate what’s happening behind the mask!

  • We didn’t realise until we reached Wyanad that the days we chose (1st week of Nov) coincided with “Kerala Piravi” or Kerala @ 60! Nov 1st marked 60th Anniversary of Kerala On such an occasion the tendency is to blast full page ads in all newspapers not just in Kerala but all over the country (a la Kejriwal style). But not in God’s Own Country. The celebrations by the LDF led Govt. were muted, restrained and very business-like showing a level of maturity unparalleled in other parts of the country.
  • The Kozhikode airport is barely a functional airport and for a city which ferries natives and tourists by the troves, it deserves a much better airport.
  • For tourists there is this Kerala’s longest Zip line here which takes you across a tea estate. At 250 bucks per person this is must be the cheapest adventure ride in the world! On a weekend, the guy said that he sells 100 tickets!!! Of course I guess this can function only during Non-monsoon seasons.
  • All along the way one could see the transition our country in general and Kerala in particular is going thro. Few years ago by and large the hoardings you will get to see were of Gold and Garment showrooms. But now you get to see sign boards of BSNL data plans, hoardings for International schools and that of Car salons of course with the Alukkas and Alapatt thrown in between. Am I surprised? Not at all. But this transformation is aspirational and is worth a mention.
  • Even in such remote areas one could see offices of “Kudumbashree” – a mission which Kerala launched for empowering women with credit to promote entrepreneurship.

Clean environs, tourist friendly people, pristine Nature does make Kerala a place one doesn’t feel enough of. And if you haven’t before, take the route via Wyanad to bliss next!

Postscript: The evenings at the resort’s activity centre were buzzing with people. And the activity being – Checking mobiles!!! With Wi-Fi just there, folks were feverishly catching up with the myriad forwards in WhatsApp and of course posting their day’s Vythiri pics. Coming to think of it, today the objective is not to go on a holiday, but to tell the world that we went on a holiday isn’t it?? I just did that.😃😃

Post featured in https://10tips.in/ as one of favourite blogs. 

Back to Roots and Canals!!!

It’s almost the last week of May and the much dreaded Agni Natchathiram (Star of Fire) – the phase which is supposed to be the hottest in parts of India just got over. In India this time of the year usually apart from temperatures, the so called summer holidays also are at its peak. A season when these days most upper middle class folks and above head for the cooler parts of the planet and tick off their bucket lists. When some set on a discovery trail of exotic places within Incredible India – like the North East or Jammu & Kashmir. And when others settle for shorter junkets or IPL watching (abki baar yeh bus hai yaar 😁). But amidst all this, if there is one group living outside who religiously and faithfully return every year to their own Native place during summer vacation and make their vacation incredible, it must be the “Mallus” aka “Keralites”. And as we all know, there are more Keralites living outside than within Kerala itself 😁😁

During my growing up years while in school, our Annual summer vacation of 2 months was invariably spent going to “Native place” which was Kottayam in Kerala. (For a Tambrahm usually suffering from an Identity crisis of Epic proportion, Native place or in more technical terms – State of Domicile is Kerala but the State of Origin is Tamil Nadu 😁😁😁.  Wait a minute – Explaining this will call for a post by itself. Will let that pass for now😁).  And it was similar story for many of our folks too. Annual vacations were time for family convergence in Kerala and spending time together in grandparents’ house in a grand manner at minimum expense to the parents. But what is surprising is the zeal which Keralites show even today to spend the vacation time in their own “Naadu” (place) year after year.

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Unlike others, among Mallus, the conversation about vacations is not about – “Where are you going for vacation this year??” It’s more likely or certainly – “Eppala Naatilottu pogunne??” (“When” are you leaving for our state??) So religiously folks living outside plan their vacation (which essentially means timing the logging into IRCTC site with alacrity😁or grabbing the low cost airfare tickets during airline promos) every year to spend atleast 1 full month in their “Naadu”. It really doesn’t matter for them at all that the vacations end up being repetitive visiting the same place every year.

Even otherwise for a Malayali at heart – his Naadu comes first. Probably one would argue that for all people their homelands come first. But if you have been with Keralites even for a short while you will know what I mean. For Mallus meeting each other for the first time outside Kerala which usually starts with – “Naattil evadaya??” (Where from in Kerala??) usually quickly veers around all happenings back home including LDF, UDF, Mammooty, Mohanlal, Mazha (Rain), Pooram, Gelf,…,…😁😁 It’s almost like their heart and soul are firmly rooted back in Kerala while they physically continue to “exist” in their cities of work. Hence I guess the unflinching urge escape to their Native place – come the vacation time!

Talking of Mallu vacations, I know of many who even today, change to the more comfortable and airy – Mundu (Dhoti or Lungi for the uninitiated) the moment they step into their tharavadu (Family house) from the train/flight😁. Its Bye Bye for trousers, Jeans, shorts and the like for the rest of the vacation. And since summer vacation time usually coincides with marriage season, the one month vacation schedule is planned in such a way that one gets to “hit” minimum 3 sadyas 😁😁(Traditional Kerala feast). And apart from catching up with Amma (mom) and Achan (Dad) usually the vacation package includes spending time “with” Aaru (River), Ambalam (Temple), Ayurveda (these days a “Pizhichil session is a must) and even one’s favourite Aana (elephant)😁😁😁!! A Keralite’s passion for the Elephant is unparalleled in the world in terms of Human-Animal relationships😁. Take my word for it. A true Mallu will identify the name of the Elephant by just looking at the tail that too from a distance😁😁! (My Mallu friend just corrected me – that even by looking at the Aanappindi (Elephant’s excreta) a Mallu can say which elephant passed by😁😁😁)

And these days for the parents it is also a matter of gloating time to show off to their Gen Next Kids stuff which have now made Kerala God’s Own Country – Back waters, Kettu Vallam (house boats), Kathakali performances, Kalaripayattu sessions,… And all these in the form of pictures and videos find their way to so many walls all over the world – Facebook walls I mean😝

Apart from subjecting oneself to this “Naturopathy Detox”, I suspect the annual vacation time for most Mallus is also a time for “Stock taking”. As most of them still own large tracts of land back home where some kind of agricultural cultivation is happening the supervision of which has been outsourced, vacation time is also the time to check what’s happening. Check prices of commodities and decide between going for Kurumilagu (Black Pepper) or Kumbalanga (Ash gourd) in their lands. And review other Buy/Sell/Retain decisions and probably execute.

Ergo, for the Mallus, visiting their home land during vacation every year is a matter of going back to their Roots. And catching up with the Canals (Thodu). Still having doubts – try booking tickets to Kerala during vacation time!!!

P.S: Keralites wear their hearts on their sleeves. Hence even a reference to Somalia in the context of Kerala was after all not a good idea at all!!!

Is Kerala “God’s Own Country”???

Thanks to a family wedding in Trivandrum recently, got the opportunity to take a short vacation break at Kerala. Yet again. With both my parents hailing from Kottayam a district in Central Kerala, I have lost the count of times we have holidayed in God’s Own Country. As a child, our annual vacations would begin and end with sojourns to Kottayam. Throw in atleast one annual visit for some family occasion, Annual Sabarimala trip, 2-3 visits a year to Kerala was a given. That was till I got busy chasing entry to a “professional” course. After that the frequency of visits reduced. But the craving to visit hasn’t.

The initial visits to Kerala were long before it became “the Kerala” of today. It was just one’s own country. Beautiful, Green and generally serene.  The swaying coconut palms, photogenic countryside, colourful Kathakali,… were all there but we were never wide-eyed by those that time, as we are today!!! Swimming in the river, visit to coconut groves, sipping of tender coconuts, ride in the country boat, visit to rubber estates, seeing Kathakali performances in the night, feeding elephants in the house, watching highly traditional rituals in the temple,…,.. were all but quite the usual stuff we did year after year during annual vacations.

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Somewhere in the late 90’s and the turn of this century was when the word Kerala started getting a new dimension. Coincidentally that was the time when my visits reduced in frequency. Am not sure which of these made a difference. Was it the superbly executed marketing campaign positioning Kerala as “God’s Own Country? Or was it Arundati Roy’s Booker winner –‘God of small thingsset in a small place called Aymanam in Kottayam that kick started the romanticism with Kerala? Nobody knows or may be God only knows 🙂  The next we hear was that Kerala has been ranked among the top 10 “Paradises on Earth“ by National Geographic Traveller! After this the Gods haven’t stopped smiling on their own country. Tourists by the millions have been ever since checking-in to the state – both Desi and the foreigner types. The small strips of waterways extending from the sea to the land became the “beautiful backwaters of Kerala”, the country boat which was perched from the roof and idling in everyone’s house transformed into a rustic Vallam (boat) and started fetching money in thousands if you are open to parting the same to hotels and travel companies. Spices like pepper, cardamom,..,… which were grown in the backyard became “Exotic products from the Spice village”!!!

Is Kerala really God’s Own Country? This question has been haunting me for quite some time now.  The last few visits to the state have helped in unravelling the answer to the question.

First up, am yet to locate another place with smaller confines like Kerala with sea on one side, hill stations on the other, a vast of green forest cover in between, water ways which are calm and landspaces which are clean. Having said that even in India, it’s not just Kerala which has been blessed with the bounty of Nature. There are quite a few other states as well. For example, Kerala’s immediate neighbour Karnataka immediately springs to my mind. But no other place has been able to leverage what it has, better than Kerala , “Gujarat’s Khushboo” and “Ajab Gajab Madhya Pradesh” notwithstanding!!!  Having visited quite a few other states in India I can vouch that Kerala is the most tourist friendly state in the country.

For a state with low or no manufacturing activity to speak of, the spurt in tourism came as God’s own blessing. May be for that reason, Keralites imbibed tourism as a possible panacea to joblessness in the state with little production activity. Fortunately tourism being a service industry has been spared of the ills of trade unionism atleast as I write this. The near complete literacy and more than that being a highly NRI populated state, the awareness levels on cleanliness and environment are very high. Tourism in Kerala is well-organized and touts few. Unlike the neighboring Tamilnadu where people have abhorred Hindi as a language for long, Kerala never did that. So the locals manage to speak in Hindi with visitors from the North though in highly accented version.  Plastic free zones are indeed free of plastics. Well, almost.

So gradually Kerala has started upselling itself from a plain vanilla tourist destination to panoply of value added offerings. Ecotourism, Ayurveda tourism, Spiritual tourism, Plantation tourism, Elephant tourism, Wellness tourism… ,.. and what have you.  In a product like tourist state most important is the experience of the visitor and the subsequent word of mouth or in today’s lingo viral communication.  Who is the brand ambassador for “Apple’s I phone”?? Is it a Bollywood actor? Cricketer? Nope. It’s you and me. A great experiential product sells by positive word of mouth of its users. So has been Kerala. Check this thumbs up from CNN!!!

So the answer to that question – Is Kerala really God’s Own Country” could very well be a big YES!!! If you have not visited, plan one asap. No, I am not paid for writing this!!!

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Postscript : The other thing for which Kerala is popular other than tourism are the “Mallu jokes” which is slowly threatening to beat the “Sardar jokes” which have been ruling the party circuit for long. Zimbly because Mallu jokes are vary Zimble, fandastic and vary funny and Goad’s Own Gontry is the best 🙂 🙂 🙂

Also watch – “Water Colour by God” – ad film by ace cinematographer Santosh Sivan