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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School finishes, “Classes” begin!!!

The usually nondescript commercial complex in my neighbourhood in Mumbai is buzzing with activity this morning.  As I get closer to the same, it appears as if yet another school has opened in that vicinity.  Very young boys and girls with infectious enthusiasm are chattering away as if they are catching up after a long while as they are waiting there.  It is 1st day of their coaching classes during the summer vacation. The schools had closed last week for summer vacation. And the “Classes” have begun.

Closer at home, the situation isn’t very different. The school got over for my daughter who is all of 6. When the school re-opens, she gets into Class 1 and that’s after couple of months from now. Its vacation time now which means well, time for few “Classes”.  In this age of what I call as “Competitive parenting”, there is no dearth for options as far as “Classes” go.  In addition to the usual Drawing class, Activity class, Music class, Dance class, Craft lessons,… you are now presented with some more choice. Maths Classes, Veda classes, Vedic Maths classes, Abacus classes, Phonics classes, Reading skill classes,…,…  I’m yet to see the basic basic foundation course for IIT entrance for 6 year olds as yet.  But ofcourse for most parents attending the orientation session for ‘Abacus’ class, I’m sure the visuals of IIT campuses keep appearing amidst those Abacus frames and beads!  So as the vacation begins, my daughter is busier than ever not to mention of we parents doing the drop and pick up routine.

In our time, the drop and pick up routine of our dad was different.  Almost every year during summer holidays which is a clean break of 2 months from school, our native place beckoned. In those days, Kerala was yet to become God’s own country and our town – Kottayam was known more for rubber.  Today Kerala has become a global product and Kottayam as gateway to Kumarakom its main USP. God of Small things did its job I guess!!!

The countdown to the holidays begins with booking of the train tickets. In the pre-IRCTC days, thanks to the quota system every station had, it was easier booking the tickets if you plan.  On the appointed day, the entire family boarded the Island Express from Trichy to Kottayam to spend another vacation. So dad’s job is to drop us there and get back to work and lead a bachelor life for 2 months.  As the Island Express initially with coal engines and later with diesel engines kept chugging along, remembering and reeling off all the station names along the way was a favourite pastime. And indulging in some of the popular eateries of some of the stations was another. So “Idli/Dosa” at Olavakkode (now Palakkad) junction, “Ethakka Pazham Pori”(Fried Banana Bajji) at Ernakulam junction and “Paruppu Vada”( Dal Vada) at Piravam Road station were never missed.  Though as South Indians we keep eating Idli/Dosa 400 days in a year at home, the excitement we showed in eating that stuff from the VLR (Vegetarian Light Refreshment) stall in the station didn’t amuse our mother at all.  During the hour’s drive from Kottayam station to our place – Kidangoor, the excitement reaches a crescendo as we near the quaint  bridge across river Meenachil, cross the Kidangoor Murugan temple and finally reach our house after a 17 hour journey!! 

In the next few days, the cousins and aunts join while the uncles drop and leave.  For 2 months here on in the lap of nature, we indulged ourselves.  Taking bath in the river every day, those swimming lessons in vain, visit to the temple morning and evening and playing the whole day when not eating, NO TV, no mobile phones and no social media – meant Indulgence was bliss.  Talking of eating – our stomachs must be cursing the holidays. Our vacation time is overtime for those poor organs! Jackfruit, Mangoes, Ethapazham (Banana), Aanikka Vala (sorry, unsure of the English name),… and their by-products all vanish before they are served. The vacation routine always included one trip to the fields by our Grandfather – where we were treated with Tender coconut water. But the ultimate delight was in eating the Tender insides of a tender coconut with Vellam (Gur).  Remember in one of those field trips seeing with awe the making of fresh “Coconut oil” from dried coconut. One of my uncles cultivated sugar cane in his land and we were always eager to visit his field for fresh cane juice. There was one more guy who was extremely delighted to see us during hoildays. The paan shop wala right in front of our house whom we frequented very often.  Even today I don’t think anything can beat his fresh  “Goli Soda” lemon juice for its freshness. 

With no TV and newspaper Ignorance was indeed bliss. Newspaper available was of Malayalam only which I couldn’t anyway comprehend.  I must add here that unlike in other states where the local language newspapers lacked quality, in Kerala the Malayalam newspapers – Malayala Manorama and Mathrubhumi were of high news and literary quality. One of my elder mamas (uncle) made it a point to get The Hindu’ English newspaper even if it was delivered with one day lag and we use to catch up with all the news whenever we go that uncle’s house at Puliyanoor my mom’s place few kilometres from Kidangoor.  On one such catch-up came to know of India’s World cup win in June 1983 by the way!!!.  It was difficult to say if we were indulged more at our Dad’s place or at Mom’s place.

In Kerala, time meanders normally, but as vacation comes to an end one always felt that time flew! As time to pack up comes closer, Dad appears to pick us up again. Grandfather gets busy to pack things up for each of the families.  Individual cartons are filled with fresh homemade Banana Chips, Jack fruit chips, Chakka Varatti (Jack fruit jam), Mango pickles,… Any vacant spaces in those large cartons were finally filled with coconuts!!! Now you know why Dad has to come all the way to pick us up – with all those cartons and luggage pieces to lug, as many extra hands were welcome.  Back to Island Express and back to Trichy – the vacation hangover goes on for a few days till the eateries get over.

I had almost the same vacation routine till my 10th std. when after that the tyranny of “Classes” began. The “Any professional course” obsession consumed my 11th std. vacation and in fact vacations after that. But still the vacation time is etched in my memory as some great time in the growing up years.  A sense of guilt engulfs when you seem to deprive your kid of the same. Don’t know- may be if our daughter were to write a post on her vacations 30 years hence, you never know she may write nostalgically about the Class after Class she attended and enjoyed during her vacation time or so one hopes!!!

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