INTERNATIONAL ECOTOURISM MONTHLY
Year 5-Issue 60, May 2004
India, with spices
In late April, I fulfilled a long-held dream, by visiting our Members in Southern India. After some necessary airport-hoping from Athens, for the best part of a Friday and half a Saturday later, I landed at the southernmost tip of India, at Thiruvananthapuram - the holy (thiru) city (puram) of Anantha (the holy snake god). Previously known as Trivandrum, like many other Indian cities, the ancient name has been reinstated in recent years.
In Thiruvananthapuam I met our Ecolodge Members Tourindia, who are based in the city, and had the great honour of meeting Babu Varghese, a living legend of Indian Ecotourism. He and his able colleagues Messrs. Moorthy and Thomas assisted us greatly with all our travel arrangements, thanks to which Kerala has remained in my memory as a most-user friendly place for tourists. But also, thanks to the fact that people are cheerful and helpful, signs are in English, there are trains, and on time, roads are straight and in good condition. Only buses, especially private ones with name such as "Super Fast" painted on the side, are not recommended for the faint-hearted, as some drivers may aim to be reincarnated (sooner rather than later) as Michael Schumacher.
The food is one of Kerala's highlights. Contrary to some guidebook nonsense I had read, Keralan food is not at all bland. It is refreshing, can be spicy, full of juices, very healthy and light, and the variety is infinite, you can stay a month and never get the same food twice ! The only constant is that meals are served on a banana leaf, which is quite eco, as house pets can then chew the "plate", instead of one having to waste water & energy to wash it.
Unlike the food, the beach is not one of Kerala's strong points, with the possible exception of the north. And when the monsoons come, the beach goes. This is a positive thing though, as Kerala will not be easily spoiled by the sea and sun hordes. And you know, Kerala does not need beaches, it has everything else. Lakes, mountains, rivers, plantations (some of the best tea and coffee in the world plus spices such as the famed Black Gold of Kerala - black pepper, and Cardamom), jungles, monuments, historic cities, museums, temples, festivals - it seemed like a place constantly on a festival. Multiculturalism and tolerance prevail. You can see all major faiths represented, one next to the other, a Hindu Temple, a Church and a Mosque standing side by side, and if this is not peculiar enough in these turbulent times, you will likely spot a hammer & sickle flying in front of them - a reminder that Kerala was the first place on earth to elect by democratic vote a Communist government, and all that back in cold-war 1957.
From the air, possibly from the moon, one can instantly recognise Kerala, by the Backwaters. You can travel for hundreds of kilometres, for days in mostly natural canals, wide and narrow, a true labyrinth, where the sea meets the water from the mountains. There is so much water that it gave birth to legends that Kerala was reclaimed from the sea by the Gods. The best way to see this huge water mass is on a converted Ketu-valam (rice-boat). In the old days, the boats were used to carry produce from the fields inland to the ocean and trading ports, now they carry a more valuable cargo, tourists. The Houseboat, which moves slowly and quietly, is a good way to witness life (and birdlife) in water-side villages, and homes as an unobtrusive, passer-by. Our boat also had a type of roof garden, complete with ceramic pots, and the view was majestic. It is best suited or people that can relax, read a book, enjoy a meal, or two or three. If you are the very active type, or an email addict, there are many more options.
For the active, one such option is attending a frenzied local festival such as Pooram, in Thrissur, joining thousands of electrified others jumping up and down in front of very well behaved (sedated?) elephants. Pooram, a two-day and night festival held only once a year in late April, is a unique feast created deliberately, to unite the various castes (the caste system has strong roots in Kerala), in a non-religious feast. Pooram has preserved its form and secular character over 200 years. We were lucky not to be seated with the tourists in the designated "safe" area, and to mingle with the revelers - some under the influence - right next to the ear-piercing trumpets and drums, and yet stayed sober enough to manage to take some pictures too. The drummers were superb, I wish I had recorded them. But when an elephant felt the need to relieve itself of some extra liquid, it was clearly time to move on.
During Puram, we stayed at "Gramam" (meaning village), in the suburbs of the famous spice port of Cochin, over which the Portuguese the Dutch and the British fought many battles. Gramam, a delight, and a homestay in every sense of the word, has been in Jos Biju's family - one of illustrious agriculturists - for generations. The estate was formerly a toddy preparation facility, toddy being a mild alcoholic drink made with fermented coconut, usually drank on festivals like Puram - and according to a local paper, also served during elections by those trying to attract the floating vote! Jos also took me to his brothers' shrimp farm, where I felt frustrated by the ease that you could catch something, compared to the endless hours required in poor old Mediterranean. The shrimps were delicious, as were the coconut pancakes prepared by Jos sister's in law. The next day was important for the family as Jos's son had his first communion, but our schedule was tight so we sadly had to leave.
On the way to Gramam, we stayed at The Pimenta (meaning pepper Kingdom), an equally charming, deeply ecological lodge / organic pepper farm, strategically nestled between the mountains and the sea. But the highlight at the Pimenta is none other than the proprietor. The wealth of information and knowledge on every possible topic, from organic farming to politics, that Jacob Mathew, a lawyer by training, imparts to the guest is incredible. Jacob does justice to the plentiful ingredients of the plantation, as an excellent cook.
The Pimenta is at the very area where Arundati Roy's famous autobiographical novel "The God of small things" takes place and I now plan to finally read the book. Among many interesting walks within and around his plantation, Jacob also took us to see a nearby workshop where what can be considered the "traditional" art of truck-painting is being preserved and taken to new highs (and not only due to the smell of fresh paint !).
Following a detour, to Mysore and it's huge palace - where the inside is even more impressive than the outside but for some reason no pictures were allowed - we reached the land of the Coorg - high up, a land that no invader ever managed to subjugate. There is even a rather stretched theory that the Coorg descend from Alexander the Great's troops, what is certain is that they have distinct customs (pork eating, worshipping ancestor worship).
What's also certain is that this is a famous coffee growing district, is the superb organic coffee plantation and home of two remarkable people, molecular biologist Anurag and botanologist, Sujata, the Goels, both Doctors. The Goels left behind them the bright lights of Toronto and Delhi, to start their quiet organic and scientific revolution in the Coorg. Their coffee is first quality and we got some back for you. Hurry up, because we could not carry a lot, and we are fast drinkers. The same goes for the pepper, we like our meals hot, and you may just make it for The Pimenta's organic black gold!
Our visit would have still been worth all the leeches in the world (you get a few leeches during the monsoon, but in the worse case they do good to your blood pressure - so my great grand mother used to say), had we only stayed at the Green Magic Resort. Magic does not begin to describe the place, while Green is an understatement. You are beyond green, within green, living on one of two Treehouses, true 40 metre-high ficus not for vertigo types type of Treehouses.
Listening to the night sounds, seeing the fire flies flying all over, watching the mist slowly arrive in the morning, is what makes all the magic, plus the thought that your "house" is alive. At night a semi-resident squirrel will tip toe on your legs - and take your banana if you forget it on the table. Getting in and out, or rather up and down the Treehouse is a great occasion, but don't overdo it, especially if you are overweight, as the ingenious hydraulics work on the way down - but on the way up you have to be pulled up. Even the view from the restaurant to the stream and the jungle was that of a postcard.
Our first visit to India, was unforgettable and we hope to revisit soon. You can find more information about all our Ecolodge Members in India at http://ecoclub.com/india.html And you should also go and visit them and find out for yourself.
The Far East Economic Review in its May 6 issue, featured an article on our Ecolodge Members The Boat Landing Guesthouse, titled "An Eco House in Laos".
Excerpt: "Solar power and guided treks aren't politically correct gimmicks at The Boat Landing. They're the norm in this back-to-nature haven. IT TOOK A WHILE before the people who run The Boat Landing in northern Laos realized what they had built. They thought it was just a small guest house along a bank of the Namtha River, but after hunting around the Internet and talking to some guests they realized it was actually something else. "I had never heard of an eco-lodge before," admits Bill Tuffin, one of the partners in the guest house. "But when I saw the descriptions I said, 'Hey, that's what we are'." Tuffin happily admits that there's a simple reason for The Boat Landing's environmentally friendly policies: "Most of the eco things we do are because, firstly, they're very practical," he says....Tuffin, a 42-year-old American, came to Laos 14 years ago as a development worker, and was based for much of the time in the northern town of Luang Namtha, about nine kilometres from where The Boat Landing stands. To help around his house, he employed a local teenager, Sompawn Khantisouk, and later helped put him through university, where he studied architectural draftsmanship. That proved a useful skill when the men decided a few years ago to build the guest house. Khantisouk drew up the plans for the reception area and guest bungalows, which are built from local wood and bamboo and based on traditional Lao designs."
The Cottages at Spring House Farm has been selected as number eight on OUTSIDE Traveler magazine's list of best hide-aways in the world. We hope they can continue to be a hideaway after this fact ! Also, ROAM magazine included the farm as the main feature in their quarterly magazine.
"Alfombras": A colourful expression of faith
Irene del Pilar Jiménez of our Ecolodge Members Eco-Hotel Uxlabil Atitlán reports from Guatemala:
As every year, during Holy Week the community of San Juan La Laguna on Lake Atitlán, turn their faith into a collective expression. The best expression of this faith takes place on Holy Friday when they paint all the streets in the town with various colourful sawdust designs known as "alfombras". The youngsters are the principal artists, guided by their parents who teach them the basic patterns, show them how to give colour to the sawdust and thus prolong this centenarian tradition.
At eight o’clock on the evening of Holy Friday the Crucifix procession departs from the Church. The "cargadores" take turns to hold in their shoulders the procession and march through the "Alfombras" that disintegrate. Every 100 metres there is an arch (seen on the picture opposite) from which the villagers hang regional fruits, that give the town a joyful look as it prepares for the resurrection. San Juan La Laguna surely matches the famous Antigua Guatemala Holy Week celebrations in terms of the beauty of the “alfombras” and the religious fervor of the Holy Week.
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