Kerala: food

First of all, I have to admit I know nothing about food. I like to eat and some things I like, some I don't, but that's pretty much it. Usually when I travel I like to it in places where locals do (including places avoided by "normal" tourists who look at them with horror in their eyes), I like trying street food as well. Once in Peru we got to a restaurant that was just a few tables in a backyard. I'm not even sure how we found it or figured out that it was a restaurant - there was no sign or menu. Fat old Peruvian lady looked at us slightly surprised - we weren't her typical target I guess - and without asking for our preferences she served us delicious dinner and glass full of chicha.

In Kerala every bar is cool:)
I didn't experience anything like that in Kerala. As we were fed mostly in high-end hotels the food was very sophisticated but at the same time standardized and - somehow - adjusted to our needs, especially when it comes to the level of spiciness. So no, I did not share a plate with local people and I did not drink anything that was spitted out and fermented before, but I got to try things I would probably never tried otherwise. And as most of places served the food buffet style I could try a little bit of everything, including fish curry, briyani, my favorite paneer and payasum for desert (which I didn't like that much so I ate lots of watermelon and coconut souffle instead).

Problem is that as I didn't order the food from the menu, I didn't pay attention to what are the names of dishes. I could of course spend a few hours in Google now and write a nice, informative essay on Kerala cuisine but I prefer to recommend you someone who knows more about it than I do. In our group there were a few food bloggers: there was Nelson I already told you about, there was Elsie from Mexico, who looked for Mexican roots in every dish, and there was Roxanne, who not only writes great about the food but also sings the greatest 80s hits and her fake American accent (with matching fake personality) made us laugh out loud.

Neslon and Elsie
Roxanne in the middle, and from the left, next to me is Taufan Gio (http://disgiovery.com/),
Justin and Meruschka (http://www.mzansigirl.com/)
It's not that I want the others to do all the writing, I will add a few words too. The word Kerala can be translated as "The land of a coconut". And you can see (or taste) it everywhere. Coconut is added to everything, I guess everyone has a cookbook "1000 things to do with a coconut"". Coconut oil is used for frying, coconut milk is an ingredient of pretty much every dish, we were welcomed with fresh coconut in many hotels - I loved it, on a hot day it's wonderfully refreshing.

Couple times we got to eat a delicious coconut flesh. I also tried picled coconut - it reminded me of walnuts, and for desert we were often served delicate coconut souffle. We also had an opportunity to try toddy, traditional alcohol made of a coconut. It was... different, not coconutty at all, smoked I would say. Interesting experience, almost like Peruvian chicha:)

In Poland I stay away from coconut, especially that it's used mostly as grated coconut which tastes nothing like a real thing. In Kerala I fell in love with coconut (it's an old flame actually, our first time was in Dominican Republic). And I have to admit, the coconut itself could be a good enough reason for me to move somewhere south. 

We got to see Kerala cuisine in making. We were invited to cookery demonstration by Nimmi Paul. She's been cooking professionally for 20 years and she gives classes and demonstrations in her beautiful house in Kochi. What she cooked for us was quite simple and not spicy at all which surprised me a little, but it was a nice change from all the hotel food - no matter how good it is, even the best curry after a while is just too much. Before I got to Kerala I never thought you can get tired of Indian food. Yes you can. After a week of rice and curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner every single day I had to stop. Luckily it took me couple days (of eating mostly watermelon, which also was everywhere but I didn't get tired of it) and I could go back to enjoying Kerala cuisine.

Nimmi Paul
We also got a chance to eat traditional Kerala dish called Sadya: it's served on banana leaf and the ingridients, of which if you belief in Wikipedia can be as many as 64, are placed on the leaf in special order. Sadya is eaten with right hand without using cutlery. It was not that easy to eat it and not get it all over my face or t-shirt but I managed. And it was delicious too.

Sadya is vegetarian but there is meat in India too, including - which was the biggest surprise for me - beef. I always thought there was no beef whatsoever in India, meanwhile beef curry was quite popular dish on the buffet, and in the last hotel we stayed in - Ramada Resort Cochin, I had a really great steak. I heard that beef is quite popular here in the south. However it's not cows that are eaten but bulls.

I did miss the experience of eating out, even though we got to taste more than just a standard hotel set of dishes. For example in one of my favourite hotels, Coconut (nomen omen) Lagoon, the manager told us he's trying to expend the menu besides what the hotels usually serve and introduce the dishes eaten by normal people at home.

Other than short stops of our bus in strange, cheap roadside diners (when we were really desperate to pee and there was nowhere else to stop) there was I think just one other time I could breath "real" India for a moment. When we were in Calicut we had an hour or two before dinner and I went for a walk on the beach with Justin. He is another person from the group, after Shawn, Nelson and Daniel I made friends with. We had some good talks over those couple weeks. 

Justin and coconut
Justin traveled a lot, recently he spent some time in Central America, and now he's back to California. He writes a blog Justin Was Here, and is a founder and editor in chief of World Travel Buzz. We had a nice talk about this and that and in a tiny shop with sticky tables and crappy customer service we had chai, sweet, aromatic milk tea that smells of cardamom and some other spices. And I have to say that there is no hotel, even the most fancy one, where tea would taste like there on the beach, scalding my fingers through plastic cup…


Travel Blogger Interview

Remember Shawn I wrote about in my previous post? He decided to interview some travel bloggers including Kerala Blog Express participants. I was the first one. You can read the interview on Shawn's blog:

You should check it out regularly too - he'll publish a new interview every week, so you can get to meet more of my fellow travelers.


Kerala: backwaters

There are a few memories that will stay in "Kerala drawer" in my head forever: lush greenery of tea fields, smell of spices straight from the tree, noise of streets, taste of a coconut. But my favorite memory is water.

I mentioned backwaters before when I spoke about getting to the hotel. Well, that was just the beginning.

We cruised the cannals often during those first days, mostly to get to and from hotels, but finally, in Kollam area we went on a cruise being far more than just a way of transport. Cruise was organized for us by Raviz hotel so it was quite fancy - delicious lunch, snacks, coffee, tea, and even beer and local wine!

We cruised Ashtamudi Lake for a few hours so I had some time to relax, enjoy the water and green shores as  much as possible and make some new friends, like for example Daniel, journalist, writer and traveler from Brasil. We chatted about coffee places, slideshows and, of course, traveling. He told me about slideluck which is a really cool idea, maybe we'll do something like that in our coffee place, and we made a deal that when he comes to Poland he'll do the slideshow from one of the countries he visited at Cafe 8 Stóp - and he's got lots to chose from, he's been all over the world!

We also talked about ideas for how to earn living traveling. Daniel worked and still works for different travel magazines, he used to be contracted journalist, now he's a freelancer, published a few books and guidebooks, but still, he says, it's not a way to make a fortune. But at least he gets to travel a lot, Kerala trip was not the first time, he gets invited to different places to write about them a lot.

Traffic on the water was quite heavy - anything from large boats through motorboats to tiny rickety boats. We watched the snake boat race - long, narrow boats, with couple dozen oarsmen, the leader and a guy pounding the rhythm on each boat.

Usually snake boat race takes place in September, this one was organized for us by the hotel, but it was still pretty amazing, not only for us and the crews but also for the cheering crowds.

This was nice. But my favorite Kerala memory will be another one: boathouse. For years the boats were used to transport rice. In the 90s the crisis came and somebody came up with the idea to use the boats as tourist attraction. There were just a few of them in the early 90s, now there are more than 800.

We were divided into groups of 4, 3 and 2 people, according to number of rooms on the boats. I got to share a double room boat with Shawn. I have to admit I'm usually nervous about situations like this - both the groups that are too big as well as being "stuck" with one person I don't know well make me feel uncomfortable. As far as I can just withdraw from the crowd, the one on one situations can be ackward.

Luckily this time there was nothing to worry about. Shawn, who by the way is just as introvert as I am and feels the same about crowd, and I were a perfect match.

We talked all afternoon about travelling (few years back he traveled the world for 18 months with his wife and son, and last year they made it to our part of Europe), but also about life, the Universe and everything.

Boat was rocking us gently as we were resting on the bow enjoying Kerala sun, taking pics every now and then - of a rickety boat passing by, of rice fields, of a church built by the Portuguese, of aguy herding ducks, of boats filled up with sacks full of rice...

In the evening we moored by the shore, we watched another amazing Kerala sunset, we invited our neighbors Nelson and Prasad from the boat next door and we talked some more. Nelson is from Portugal but lives in Germany, he writes about food and traveling and he is a winner of European Blogger Award 2013, and Prasad comes from India and is a very talented photographer with a sharp sense of humor. It's hard to get bored in such an excellent company, it was a great evening.

Next morning we went back to Alappuzha (a.k.a. Alleppey), from where we headed East, saying goodbye to water for a while.

PS. Just to put faces to names of guys I wrote about in this post, here they are. Those pics were taken some other times - I was too lazy to take pictures while chatting over wine or talking about best movies ever on a houseboat.

From left: Nelson, Justin (he wasn't in this post
 but he'll sure make it to some other one), Daniel and Shawn


Happy in Kerala!

While waiting for a new post from India you can see a short video from our trip featuring happy bloggers and beautiful Kerala! I'm in it for just a few seconds at the very end. Enjoy!


Kerala: tea

The plan was to give you daily reports from my Kerala experience. But you know what it's like with plans. Our schedule turned out to be very tight. We spent long hours on the bus, stopping for tea and toilet, snacks and lunches in fancy hotels (Kerala is not a good place for dieting), taking pictures, and last but not least sightseeing. And by the end of the day when we reach our hotel we're so tired that usually we just check our emails quickly, have a beer or two and we would go to sleep. 

On top of that for some strange reason internet is available usually in the lobby and the restaurant, and not in the rooms. And it's a bit slow too, so blogging is not easy. Well, maybe it's for people to socialize more instead of sitting in front of computers all evenings long. If that's the official reason then I have to say it worked:) Anyway, considering all the above this will not be a day-to-day report. Hope you don't mind.

Let's start with tea then. It grows all around Munar, 130 kilometers east from Cochin. It was a bit less hot and humid there than at the seaside, after all we were in Whestern Ghats mountains, but it was still nice and warm. Tea plantations spread all the way to the horizon with extremely green, perfectly cut bushes that look like a soft, green carpet.

We were coming to Munar from Thekaddy with our noses (and lenses) glued to the window.  Every stop on the way as well as our sunset trip ended up with a search for two most avid photographers in our group: Oscar and Edin. Yes, tea plantations are very photogenic.

Around thousand people every day delivers freshly picked leaves to Manupatty Factory, owned by TATA which, by the way here in India makes everything from pins to cars. Tea pickers live in the area, in colorful houses on the hillsides. Management lives nearby too, although they occupy beautiful residences that remember good old times. 

Factory provides not only accommodation but also healthcare and education for children - among green hills there are two schools. One for pickers' kids, the other one for management's. This is not a good place for those who dream of a career from rags to riches. Career path of factory managers is simple: their fathers were the ones in charge too.

Tea picker has to pick 12 kilo of leaves a day and that's for how much they get their daily basic rate: around 4 USD. Anything above they get paid extra, and to pluck the required minimum it takes a skilled worker around 2 hours. We were told that the average for those 1000 people delivering leaves to Manupatty is around 50 kilos daily. Each one kilo of leaves will become 250 grams of tea. Annually factory makes 2.5 million tons of tea.

For the best quality product tea leaves are plucked by hand - only 3 leaves from the top of each plant. Women we've seen working at tea plantation had some kind of scissors they used for cutting leaves.

Once the leaves are delivered to the factory they are spread on a large troughs and left for shriveling for 18 to 20 hours. During that time the water amount in leaves gets reduced from 80% to 60%. Next step is crushing, tearing and curling the leaves. After 15 minutes leaves turn into a green pulp. At this stage it still doesn't remind of tea.

From there green pulp goes to huge containers for oxidation and fermentation. During that process tea turns brown and starts looking like tea. Green tea doesn't go through this process. Drying is the next process - by this stage the the water content went down to some 55%, after drying it'll go down to 3.

Last step is sorting. Huge sieves divide tea bits according to size into dozens of final products. The biggest ones after brewing taste mild, the smallest are the strongest. That dust we sometimes laugh that it comes from sweeping the floor of tea factory, here in India is the most desirable. People in India like their tea strong (and - of course - with milk).

Factory is not open for tourists, although from what we've heard they get many inquiries that they may start doing organized tours at some point. Until then those who want to learn more about tea there is Tata Tea Museum in Munnar.

PS. No photography was allowed inside the factory.


Kerala day 0:

We officialy start tomorrow, today we’re still waiting for few more bloggers to come, so KBE people decided to keep us entertained by taking us around to see resorts in the area. Kovala and Varkala areas are known for their beautiful, neverending beaches. There are many luxury hotels by Kovala Beach, while Varkala is more a backpackers’ destination. We’ll get to Varkala later on, today we focused on Kovala area hotels.

Hotels are close to each other. We walked to the first one leaving our resort by some back gate. To reach next one however we had to take our bus, and to reach the bus we had to take a boat. Thus we had another opportunity to enjoy Kerala backwaters

All the resorts we visited were by the beach, all had perfect-blue swimming pools, service was responding quickly to our every request before we could even think it, there were yoga studios, even a dentist - they told us that dental treatment here was cheaper than in other countries (although price they gave - 100 USD per root canal treatment sounded a bit like in Poland , but I guess it’s nicer to have your root canal treated in Kerala sun instead of, let’s say November rain, in grey Warsaw). 

What they all had in common and what seems to be their specialty is Ayurveda. Each hotel has its Ayurveda doctor, you can get a single massage or a whole package. They say the packages are really popular and all the hotels are full year round, even during the Monsun season.

Ayurveda massage table
Ayurveda massage, as we found out in theory and a few days later in practice, is different from what we are used to. Instead of painful squeezing of muscles massuer (who, as a rule, is the same sex as the patient) rubs in a huge amount of warm seasame oil. It was very relaxing. I fell asleep half way through.

What I really like about the resorts here is that they are not tall ugly buildings. They are usually small houses or bungalows that try to hide among the palm trees. Not too much concrete, lots of wooden elements instead. Hammocks are swinging, swimming pools are tempting and restaurant area is always with a sea view. What more do you need?
Poovar Island Resort
If I ever decided to go on vacation like that I would probably choose Poovar Island Resort with little houses built on platforms on the water, with huge windows. Another beautiful place with breathtaking swimming pools was Leela where we went to see sunset. It's the oldest and the most famous hotel on the coast.

Anywhere we went we got royal treatment. We were welcomed by general managers, we would get a dot painted on our foreheads by beautifully dressed hostess, each of us would get a neckless made of flowers, palm leaves, cardamon seeds or sea shells.

All that would often be accompanied by Katahakali dancers and a glass of lemonade, pinapple or watermelon juice (those who know my affection for watermelon can imagine how much I enjoy it) or fresh coco. Sometimes we also get some paparazzi - either from local press or from the hotel.

KBE bloggers in a local newspaper
In all the places we go to we eat. Lunch, snack, tea (after all we're almost in England). We went to Leela for tea so on top of drinks there were snacks, all beautifully served: little canappes, fruit and typical Kerala sweets. The one I liked the most was sweet snack made of cashew nuts that are grown here. And I have to thank to Leela waiters for not even blinking when I managed to knock down two glass trays full of food when I was trying to retrieve the above mentioned cashew cookie I dropped between them:)

Sunset in Leela
As I mentioned earlier I am not really a target of this kind of places, just like my fellow-travellers, so half way through this resort-hopping and despite this fantastic welcome we got everywhere, people started being a bit unpatient and on our way to one of the resorts few of them disappeared misteriously. Probably any other hotel we see we don't sleep or eat in will cause some kind of rebellion Luckily tomorrow the real Kerala journey starts. Can't wait!


Kerala: day -1

Five hours to Dubai, five at the airport and four more on the plane and welcome to India. I arrived at the airport with a name too difficult to pronounce for a guy at Okecie Airport ("your luggage will fly straight to…eee…destination"). In Thiruvananthapuram (the name was shortened by Brits for convenience so you can say Trivandrum instead) KBE people, Rutavi and Kenney were waiting to pick me up along with two other bloggers: Shawn, American from Las Vegas (when I told him we were in Vegas last March he said he was in…Warsaw at the time!) and Michelle from Denmark, who arrived on the same plane that I did.

I hardly remember anything from our transfer to the hotel, after a night without sleep it was difficult to stay awake. We drove for a while meandring smoothly among yellow tuk-tuks, hundreds of scooters and old buses using mainly horn and a large dose of assertivness. Then we took a boat which soothed our nerves shattered by the traffic and rocking slowly like a cradle took us to our hotel.

Kovalam area is famous for its backwaters, which, as I just learned, in States is a word used for rather low-end areas, here it just means a network of waterways, rivers and lakes spreading for about thousand kilometers along the shore. Backwaters are really picturesque, peaceful and quiet, there are palm trees, mango trees, pineapples, it’s also a good place for birds watching. There are over 300 species of them and our "driver" would stop every once in a while to show us some specimen sitting quietly on a palm tree. 

I managed to notice that for the first time since December I wasn't cold, and I rested on a huge bed with a swan-shapped towel covered by flower petels. The room was huge with huge bathroom and a bathtub looking almost like a pool. Unsure whether it was already a dream I fell asleep right away.

Phone call woke me up after just couple of hours ("would you like to schedule ayurvedic massage?" asked Rajeesh from Big Bang Theory) so I decided to have a look around. I decided to skip the massage for now.

Estuary Island Resort is a very pleasent place, I would probably never go to if it wasn’t for that trip. Huge rooms, clear-blue swimming pools, hammocks hanging among the trees… While travelling on limited budget we usually choose cheap places we use only for sleeping and as a base camp. It’s not only a matter of money, even if we can afford something more we’d rather spend this money on somehthing else. Our selection criteria is easy - there has to be a bed and we need it to be close to places we want to see.

But with every winter more and more I can imagine a week of sweet laziness in luxury, more as a part of longer journey than entire holiday - I wouldn’t like to spend all vacation in a golden cage. If I ever decide to do this, Estuary for sure will be on my shortlist.

Having said all that, let me just say dear readers, that I will do this for you - I will accept all that luxury and give you a detailed report :-)

In Estuary there is all you need - comfortable rooms, delicious food, swimming pools, massages, wi-fi, playground for kids, even a gift shop. Resort is on the island but it doesn't mean there you cannot get there by car - if you miss the last boat there is a way around, it is longer and really bumpy though. 

Boats are  useful not only to get to "the real world" but also to get to the beach situated across the backwater. We went there (there were more of us by then) for our first Kerala sunset. Beach was full of people: families with kids, couple posing to Bollywood-style pictures, young guys showing off with their acrobatic skills.

After the sun went down and after an ice-braking beer (by that time maybe a third of bloggers arrived - I hope to write more about my fellow-travellers later on) there was one more attraction waiting for us in the hotel: Kathakali. It's a traditional dance/religious play telling the stories from gods’ lives. Kathakali originated here, in Kerala in 17th century. The movements of the dancers are very precise and their make up takes up to a few hours. It definitely felt like a good start of our Kerala adventure.