During 40-year of career with the Government of India, I was privileged to travel most parts of the world, having served in eight countries for a period of three to four years and also having covered another 30-odd countries on short spells. In India also I had travelled to some places but I had not gone to Kerala – God’s own country. I have always been enchanted by sheer name, Kerala, and having read and heard from colleagues about Kerala’s natural beauty and as it has much to offer, by way of traditional massage, sea-food, spices, tea, wild-life, etc. I was looking for opportunity to go to Kerala and had made enquiries from a couple of places. Having used to pampered travel and hotel stay, I looked for comfort on any journey. What I was looking for was beingreally taken care of during visit. I am alone and without companion, naturally, was looking for some assistance during journey and stay in Kerala. It was then that I came across a post in my Facebook page of Senior World. The package looked attractive for it was offering exactly what I was looking for. I contacted Nishant Chaudhury of Senior World. He not only promised but paid a visit to my residence to explain the whole plan. It fitted my will and bill. I paid 50% and booked for November 2016 trip.
In the meantime, I came across some other offers also, which seemingly appeared cheaper but on enquiry and finding details, I found some hidden charges or lacking in services. In service industry, especially travel, one wants comfort, if not luxury. Possibly, someone might have been able to match the Senior World in this regard, I preferred to stick with them to find out for myself whether whatever was being sold by them is translated into practice or not. I got proper information and on given date went to their office for a get-together with fellow travellers. Only half of them had turned up but the co-travellers appeared friendly and were indeed looking forward for the trip.
As was planned, we assembled in Terminal 3 of IGI airport on November 13,2016, where for the first time, I met Deepu and of course Nishant of Senior World. On half way to airport I realised that I have left my phone at home and was in a dilemma what to do. I had decided to buy another phone for trip use but when I told Deepu, I was assured that it should pose no difficulty for he will arrange regular information about me and trip to my daughter and I will be able to make calls from his phone as and when I require. Additionally, the co-travellers also offered to help me in this regard. Some familiarisation with co-travellers had started. The baggage and check-in was taken care by Senior World Team and we proceeded towards the given gate number to board Vistara’s flight to Kochi via Mumbai. After a pleasant journey, we reached Kochi. The crew was helpful and the service was pleasant.
As a few days ago, order of demonetisation of high vale notes had come, I was able to muster limited cash and was a little apprehensive whether I would be able to manage or not. Yes, of course, I had my Debit Card but was not sure whether it would be acceptable or not. However, during the entire journey, this factor did not pose a single problem and everything went smoothly. Firstly, there was hardly extra expenditure and whatever if at all there was, my purse had sufficient to carry on. Additionally, the debit card made me really rich, as it was accepted almost at every place. I may share here that unlike in the north, in Kerala people showed not undue haste and would not waste time in queing up. Knowing well that banks generally open at 1000 hrs people will place, there pass books only in advance in orderly manner and would start assembling only at around 1000 hrs and not like in the north from 0400 in the morning or even overnight. Patience did pay and there was no unnecessary clamour. Debit card acceptance made things even easier. Limited acceptance of old notes for full value was also seen as the shop-keepers really wanted to assist and had no craving to fleece. Also, the number of the banks and ATMs is much more than here. Perhaps, the small population and self-ordained discipline also paid the dividends. Others will be well advised to take some lesson from this.
Now, let me proceed with the journey further, as it too had interesting instances and memorable moments. In Kochi all the 25 (including the 2 coordinators of Senior World) sat in a comfortable deluxe bus, which had additionally a guide and PA system. Cold water bottles were given to quench the thirst and the guide started giving narration of various high points, like he pointed to back waters, port area, beaches, roads leading to other places. Coconut trees were in abundance. It took a little over an hour to reach hotel. Welcome drink was served and the check-in was taken care of and in the meantime briefing of the programme for the remaining day was given. In this while, I used Deepu’s courtesy to inform my daughter about my safe arrival in Kochi. She confirmed that she had been getting regular periodical feed back about our joueney. Rooms were comfortable and after a wash and hot tea, we assemled in the lobby for visit to Chottanikkara Temple, for which we were briefed to be better attired in Lungi. In the temple vests/shirts/belts are not allowed. The Darshans were done in an orderly manner and everyone qued up. The devotion and reverance were visible. The evening prayers were being offered. Drum beats and bells were making melodious sounds. Sandal paste and lotus flowers were being offered to the deity and duly blessed bundle to these were given back. No commotion and only devotion was visible. Prasadam one could buy. The temple also had a lot many people sitting all around and perhaps seek alms during day. We felt blessed and started on way back for dinner and in the bus we were briefed about the next day’s programme, which briefly was to assemble in lobby after breakfast around 0830. I slept like a log, feeling tired after almost day long travel. As the following day was going to be eventful, I wanted to take real rest and feel fresh when I awake. Exactly, this happened and I felt lily fresh the following morning and finishing daily chores after bed tea, was ready to start my second day of the trip, which had so far gone as I was looking for. As advised, baggage was kept outside room for collection and taken to bus for onward journey.
Like dinner, the Breakfast too had good mix spread of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes from the south and north and being plentiful provided more than needed calories. On assembly, we started with Hi, Hi-Ha, Ha sessions. These were indeed Camera-Click sessions for the group. Where Deepu, who mainly served as the main photographer would call out ‘Ha-Ha’ to be responded with ‘Hi-Hi’ thus making being snapped as an experience while getting the right focus and click. After initiation into ‘Ha-Ha, ‘Hi-Hi’ we alighted bus for morning sight-seeing or rather guided tour with local guide on board. Plenty of cold bottled water was available, which Nishant would dutifully give to everyone as also make sure that head-count was complete.
The tour-day started with our first halt at the Dutch Palace. The local guide was well versed with history of the places and explained to us in detail that it was actually built by Portuguese and given to the local King to appease him. It is a two-storey building. It is the first floor which has all the artefacts, paintings etc. Raja Ravi Varma’s creations are excellent. Paintings on walls are full of details of subjects from Hindu mythology. The robes kept there are spotless. It presents a mirror of glimpse of the time. Close-by is a temple. We were also joined by another co-passenger, by the name, Shree. He had worked in Saudi Arabia and could spell magic with his mathematical skills.
Our next stop was the Jewish Synagogue built in 1568. It is well kept and spotlessly clean. It is the only Synagogue which has regular service. It is not very far from the Dutch Palace and the area is known as Fort Cochin. It has been decorated magnificently with blue tiles, which are hand painted and only a discerning eye will notice that each tile is somewhat different than the others. There are Belgian chandeliers adorning the Synagogue. On way one can find a number of shops carrying artefacts and antiques. Of course one can also find other shops selling Kerala silk scarves, sarees, dresses, spices and fragrances. Some of us did get a few items.
Thereafter we went to see St Francis’ Church, which was built in 1503 by Franciscan Friars and is known to be the oldest European Church. Vasco de Gama had landed in India in1498 and within 5 years it was raised. The church also has the remains of Vasco de Gama’s grave without his remains, which were taken back by his son to Portugal. I recall, mention of this coming during our trip to Portugal in 1998. Renovation work was going on. The compound also has a Sandal tree. Though seemingly small, if one were to see it from the perspective of the year of its coming up and the number of faith followers at that time, it is really grand and definitely had futuristic vision behind it.
Close-by was our next target of the forenoon in the form of Chinese fishing nets. It is said that these were introduced by the traders from the court of the Chinese ruler, Kublai Khan. The nets are helpful in increasing catch of fish. The local fishermen have ever since adopted these nets reaping benefits. Fresh catch of various species of fish and others, like lobsters, prawns, crabs, one could see displayed for sale by fishermen. We, however, settled for fresh coconut water feeling warm and thirsty and felt refreshed thereafter.
Before bidding good-bye, the local guide took us to a nice restaurant for those caring for lunch before embarking on more than 4-hour bus ride to witness much talked about scenic beauty of Munnar, our next destination and night halt. Munnar is famous hill station and supposedly the heart of Kerala. After lunch, we started on our drive of the day. For a while, it was plains and before starting for hill journey, we stopped at a way-side cafeteria and enjoyed one the best hot masala tea. Both aroma and taste were really refreshing. On way we had seen rubber being tapped. After having been refreshed by tea, now it was fun time. The journey time was well utilised in introducing ourselves on PA system in the bus and the rest of the time was used in playing Tambola, where again Deepu became the Master of Ceremonies and lo! I was lucky to win full houses twice besides other side prizes. The time was spent so fruitfully and with a lot fun, that ordeal of journey was never felt and in fact developed into a bond. Some traits of the co-passengers came to be known. Surprisingly, Deepu proved to be an entertainer and a good singer. Rays, Mrs. Vishwanathan – Doctor of Music, Ashok – running Hotel, Mrs. Ganguli, Mr Roy were good singers too. Col Ganguli was practising Medical Doctor, Anjana Jacob had been a banker. Mr. Vishwanathan had worked for Nestle. Mr. Gupta had worked for Delhi Government. Vishwanathan a good Cricketer. Roys had love marriage, Bengali boy having met his soul-mate in a Sikh girl. There were builders, architect, Mrs. Kuldeep Kaur, whose daughter is with Ethiopian Embassy. Of course, everyone was out to enjoy and have a merry time. Touch wood! everyone was caring and sharing. What more to expect.!
As the hotel is perched on hill, we were carried to the hotel on jeeps. There is a narrow bridge and the distance is just about 1 Km but cannot be negotiated by bus. Welcome drink, check-in completed. After freshen up, I was joined by Shri. He proved to be an excellent room-mate and a good companion. We both enjoyed our evening drinks and went to have well-spread dinner. After a fitful sleep, awoke next day around 6 am. We had our morning tea and settled to finish morning calls so as to be ready, after breakfast for exporing Munnar, in reality.
The hotel in which we had stayed in Munnar belonged to the same Omani Sheikh whose hotel Abad we had stayed in Kochi. The hotel presented a class for selection of location, scenic beauty, running stream, flowers, furniture and furnishing, well-behaved friendly staff. In brief comfort was assured. Naturally, breakfast, not lacking in any respect, made us fit to commence our day. Again 1 Km journey across the bridge close to main road was by jeeps and the bus awaited us to pick up. There was well coordination. A little later we were joined by local guide Rosy, who is originally from Tamilnadu but has spent time in Kolkata and was training herself to be a professional guide. In the meantime, we got tempted to attempt home-made chocolate, signs of which were displayed just across the road. Believe me, we would have missed something if we had not tried nuts and raisins filled chocolate, fresh and tasty. We took express coach, as there was long que, to go to Eravikulam National Park to see rare NilgiriTahr – a Mountain goat and the Museum there. What a scenic beauty was spread for miles and mainly made of well maintained tea plantations. In itself it was worth the entire visit. So soothing and oxygen filling or rather cleansing our polluted lungs. Tahr obliged to be snapped. On way back after a short pedestrian trail, from where Tahr could be seen, and where leaves and takes for backward journey, is a small museum, describing about mountains, species of flora and fauna. People of a local tribe work on those mountains and generally do not mix with the general public, maintaining their tribal culture and customs. In the time tea and cold drinks were available from the local stall. Way back again was very pleasant.
It was time for tea museum and we could see the process of tea making of different kind. The plantation shop was selling different varieties of tea and was explaining also as best to acquire the aroma. A percolator type device was also available. We purposely skipped the film show on tea. Most of us bought different varieties of tea. The factory and plantation was owned by Tatas and in fact nearly 90% tea plantation is owned by Tatas. For workers there were houses with need facilities, like sanitation, water and electricity.
It was time for lunch in a local restaurant. The Thali system is much in vogue but La Carta arragements are there. Experience has shown Thali works out better, as ordered by most. This ensures consumption of cooked food and daiy fresh preparations. I also tried Kerala rice, thick but tasty and goes well with Sambhar and Rasam.
Now eyes were looking for something new and marvellous spots. Our next destination was about an hour’s scenic drive to Mattupetty Dam. It is not to be compared with Bhakra but the scenic beauty visible for miles is another matter. Filled with charm of natural beauty and having treat for eyes and soothing fresh air for mind, hesitatingly made us for return journey. Tea plantations, bamboo and other trees were in abudance. We could also spot an elephant, though we were told at times, there comes a herd.
On return to hotel we were told to assemble in a lounge after about an hour and a half. We thought there must be something cooking up. On arrival in the Lounge we learnt it was birthday of Kuldeep. However, before cake cutting ceremony, we played a guessing game. In this the entire group was divided in two equal parts and each one of us was given a slip and pencil to write down some peculiarity about oneself, which in general may not be known to the group. The coordinators, distributed the slips. I was able to recognise the ‘Badmington Champion’. Mrs. Anjana Jacob, however, could not pick me up, as I had scribbled ‘mischievous’ and all along she thought me to be a simpleton and thus did not even dare to ask me. It was a great fun. (Incidentally, on recent NE trip again, I could not be identified, as I had written ‘ Man for All Seasons’ as my trait.) With proper candle light, the cake cutting ceremony was done. Songs were sung by many and Nishant gave a very good dance and was joined by group members. Shri came out with his mathematical magical tricks and made people spell bound. On the whole, the fun was unlimited and made us forget the tiredness of the day. However, some of us, as usual struck to their style of combating tiredness.
I had seen Tapioca plants on way and was wondering whether these are made use of or not. In Tanzania it is called Casava and serves as staple diet. Charcoal-Roasted Casava was available on roadside there. Deepu brought Banana chips, which I knew are plenty in Kerala, but he also brought Casava Chips, which are crisper than even banana chips. Perhaps, moist climate of Kerala is not that suitable to Potato chips as to Banana and Casava chips. Freshly crackled and grounded spices were being used by the hotel kitchen, making food more aromatic. The dinner was again a treat and especially roasted fish in banana leaf was very tasty.
Some of us tried traditional Kerala massage in hotel before dinner. We retired to our rooms for night’s sound sleep, as the next morning we were to assemble again after breakfast and leaving our packed baggage outside rooms for onward journey to Thekkady.
After getting ready for the day, I could not believe that three days have already passed. Busy time in enjoyment had not left any clue that it was the 4th day. Healthy breakfast had assured that we were fit for 4-hour drive to Thekkady. Hi-Hi,Ha-Ha session was repeated and in the meantime, our bag was placed in jeeps for journey further. We switched to bus and Nishant after his drill of having head count, gave signal for go-ahead. Watching scenic beauty of Munnar, once again we were taking a long drive on circuitous hilly roads. For spending time, we took shelter of Antakshri and believe me, how time passed pleasantly, I can hardly explain. There were teams, yet no teams and the idea was to just have fun. Songs after songs, some old, some new and also songs with which memories of some of us were associated were sung. Baritone voice of some made the melodies even sweeter. On way we stopped for some beverages and some of us bought bottles of herbal oil for own use and gift. On reaching Thekkady, we entered a restaurant for lunch. The place was typical Malabari. The food was fresh, hot and reasonably priced.
We then arrived at the hotel and were served welcome drink and retired to our assigned rooms and after wash re-assembled in the lobby. The hotel again was of Abad group and instead of on plain plot, its living rooms were on sloppy hills, with well maintained garden, full of flowers, which made the view more scenic and after sun-set the lights added to it even more charm. The architecture of the lobby also gave feel of welcome, as it was spacious and open with comfortable sitting arrangement.
The bus took us to Periyar Sanctuary. The sanctuary has lot of monkeeys and quite used to human folks. We took boat ride to Periyar Lake. We were accommodated in 3 boats for one and half hour ride, with proper lifeguards. On shore one could see various animals grazing. We could identify mainly elephants, bison, antelopes, monkeys aand sambhar. I wish we could have binocculars, as it would have helped to see wildlife more clearly. In water crocodiles and otters one could notice. There were also a lot many types of birds. It was enjoyable as the boats sailed smoothly and virtually glided on the water.
On return to hotel, we enjoyed our evening tea and re-assumed for a Kathakali performance nearby. Our seats were reserved in the front. The show started on time. The artists were in their large colourful consumes and elaborate makeup. Without speaking a word, hand gestures, thumping feet and facial movements were used to narrate the story, taken from Hindu mythology. The artists were definitely adept and their facial expressions, mainly eyes were doing the talking. To add comic twist, the artist who was performing the role of lady, called the most eligible looking bachelor of the group, Nishant on the stage. Through gestures, Nishant was made to admit that he likes her. She then demanded a gold chain (Mangla Sutra) for her. Nishant was in a dilemma and on refusal was pushed to side hut to exit. It was hilarious and got good applause from the audience. Thereafter some of us got photographed with the artists. The show ended. Some of us wanted to also see Kalaripayatu – an ancient form of martial art from kerala. However, unfortunately, that day the show was fully booked. It was left for some other time. Some went for body massage and shopping. I was told that spices be bought best in Alleppey, our next destination.
Of course late evening was open for sun-downers, after enjoying which we had our dinner, which was well laid out as expected. The hotel is divided in three main sections; the living area, lobby and the dining area. All separate but passing through well adorned garden, thus giving a look of vastness of the property, displaying richness as against stinginess to save small spaces to accommodate one thing or the other. Duly briefed for the next morning to be ready for assembly after breakfast, we left for our respective rooms. Pleasant nice sleep made us to awake fresh and relaxed. After finishing daily routine and packing our baggage, we were ready for another eventful day.
On 5th day, the 17th November, we assembled in the lobby after breakfast and before saying goodbye we had our group snaps taken. It was 4-hour scenic journey to Alleppey. Time in the bus spent cracking jokes, songs, listening music! we reached Spice Garden, close to Allepey. We were taken round to spice garden and explained, as to how spices are collected, from Cardamom (black and green), cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, black pepper, etc. The most interesting is Green Cardamom, which grows on cane like sticky plants, close to roots, akin to sugarcane seeds. Of course, I knew this having seen for myself, in another spice island, Zanzibar, which incidentally, took spice plantation from Kerala and was taken by Arab traders. Omani King was then the ruler of Zanzibar. Zanzibar is the setting of stories of Arabian Nights and now forms part of Tanzania (with mainland Tanganyika). The spices were definitely fresh. We were explained that good quaality black pepper is small in size and cloves when plucked must ooze oil, otherwise cloves are not fresh. There was hardly any difference in prices but definitely the quality and freshness, which in the matter of spices is the soul, were par excellence. The place also had herbal soaps, oils, medicaments and other products. We did carry these for their worth and being produce of the source, guarantying satisfaction.
Our bus took us to a village on the shores of Lake Vembanad. It was no longer check-in in a hotel but turn to enjoy night stay in Kettuvallam, the luxurious deluxe air-conditioned houseboat. After crossing a couple of house boats, we reached our houseboat, which was one of the three in which the group was accommodated. Beer was there to quench thirst and serve as appetiser, before freshly cooked lunch, on cruising boat. Clicking, chatting, sipping beer time passed and after meal, the boat ride on the lake made many dreams fulfilled. Past 5.30, the boat anchored near a village. The facility of traditional massage was available, which I also availed. In the meantime, Deepu picked fresh King Prawns and fish for the dinner. Both were sweet and tender. The massage done, I got herbal bath and came on the boat. After change over, it was about time to think of evening drink. On another boat, Kuldeep showed her culniary skills. Songs, music and snapping made the time to slip away unnoticed and again freshly cooked dinner made the evening divine. Sea breeze and a little rocking boat made the night sleep relaxing.
About sunrise next morning we awoke. Deepu and Nishant got busy in clicking and capturing the best and we gave visual treat to our eyes.
After finishing morning chores and a satisfying breakfast, on day 6, November 18, we started our journey back for the village. Birds, coconut trees and morning light on the shores were presenting unforgettable spectacle. In village small Kerala bananas and coconut water we could enjoy and alighted bus for return to Kochi.
On way we stopped at Marari Beach in Kochi. White sand beach is one of the best in Kerala. Again some of us chose to at least wet our feets. Every one enjoyed moments in one’s way and got clicked. In Kochi we had our lunch. Again the food was freshly cooked and served with butter milk and Rasam, both enjoyably tasty. Some of us thereafter went to one of the famous departmental store to buy silks. Shree bid good-bye here.
On way to airport we stopped at one place to buy freshly prepared chips, bananas and casava; coconut oil and also tasted Kerala Halwa, which was then being made, oven-fresh or cauldron fresh.
Being a group of 25, the airline, allowed priority checking and ensured on time departure. After enjoying hospitality of airline, reached Delhi airport around 10 PM. The Senior World coordinators collected baggage and handed over to us. It was time to say good-bye, with promise to be in touch and if possible meet again, preferably, on another trip. Telephone numbers were already exchanged and we continue to exchange greetings, messages and welfare and thus a bond has got created. Life becomes easier, when one has someone to seek welfare and more so when you look forward for a reunion. It was God given opportunity in his own country and facilitated by Senior World. To the extent of being accused of eulogizing Senior World, I would not deter to pat them for performance and would be the last to hesitate to try them again and again. In fact, one of my known person, Sadhna Jain was encouraged after seeing my album, provided by Senior World to undertake Sri Lanka trip and indeed thanked me for a wonderful experience. God willing, I shall be on one of their next trip. My advise to them would be to add, a few more destinations, like Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. Audieu for now!