My Kerala Trip: Discovering Sankar

Another India post – a much delayed one!

On our final day in Sopanam, we had a plan. It was a plan borne out of the desire to see Kochi city, at least before we flew back to KL. Towns and such are located a distance from each other so we left Sopanam with our luggage all packed on top of our Innova. We would go to the airport directly after entering Kochi.

Sopanam to Kochi was about 1 hour's drive
Sopanam to Kochi was about 1 hour's drive

We didn’t have a plan for Kochi – Uma deftly instructed our driver to drop us off at M.G Road. In the end, we didn’t get to M.G. Road for traffic reasons.

It was a Saturday but traffic entering Kochi was as bad as on a week day. Even the trip from Sopanam to Kochi took us more than an hour.

We were angsty from all that sitting in the car and with the way our driver drove, we were dicing with death at every sharp turn! In the end, we vent our frustrations by conversing with each other in Bahasa Malaysia.

See? Our national language is very useful overseas because you can bitch in that language and no one will know.

Finally he dropped us off at a busy part of town where a few shopping complexes were. Everyone had a stare fest at us because we were different. Some thought we were Japanese and tried to tempt us with “konnichi wa?” There we were, Yvonne who was Dutch, Uma was Malaysian Indian and me, Nic, Faye and Gwen were Malaysian Chinese.

Mobile phones are very big in Kochi too!
Mobile phones are very big in Kochi too!

We were hungry too and the first shopping mall we entered had a Marrybrown outlet! I have only eaten once in Marrybrown when it was in Penang and despite it being a Malaysian franchise, I had no desire to eat Marrybrown in Kochi. Uma then went off to buy her Enthiraan CD while we hung around, waiting for her.

A quick prata lunch in Kochi
A quick prata lunch in Kochi

Once she was done, we decided we really had to have lunch. Off we went in search of food. We landed at a typical Indian restaurant selling dosa (thosai to you and me) and roti prata (roti canai). We wanted to shop and look around more so having prata was the fastest way to gulp down our food. Though it was the last day, we still didn’t take any chances and decided to have hot drinks like milk tea instead of the plain water served to us in typical stainless steel cups.

Again it was funny to be stared at. In the restaurant, everyone looked up at us as we entered. It was a 2-storey restaurant with upstairs seating. However, the rule was, if you wanted to eat banana leaf rice, you sat upstairs. If you wanted to eat other stuff, you sat downstairs. After taking the stairs up and learning of this quirky rule, we all came downstairs again. Indian restaurants seem to run low on electricity – they’re badly lit and very dim.

Spent some rupees in this Himalaya Herbal shop inside the airport
Spent some rupees in this Himalaya Herbal shop inside the airport

Finally with our meal done in super fast timing, we trooped out. Already it was past noon and we had 30 more minutes before we had to get back to the Innova. Our driver seemed intent on hurrying us and worried that we’d not make it to the airport on time. (We had plenty of time except that the AirAsia staff in Kochi took a heck of a long time in checking the 5 of us and our luggage in.)

In the end, we didn’t buy anything at all due to the time constraints though Gwen tried some ice cream and vadai.

We still each had lots of Indian rupees and thought perhaps we could have some McDonalds at the airport. After all, how much of prata and dhal curry can one eat right? I was excited at reaching Kochi Airport and the thought of biting into a luscious beef burger made me cheer up.

This unassuming building is the Kochi airport!
This unassuming building is the Kochi airport!

The Kochi Airport is fairly large but we had to show our passports in order to enter! Unless one was legitimately travelling (taking a plane that day), one could not simply waltz into the airport.

Waiting for the driver to unload all our luggage
Waiting for the driver to unload all our luggage

I didn’t know if the security was high as it was nearing the New Delhi Commonwealth Games (which would be held in a couple of days and no one wanted to jeopardize the security of the host nation). Once inside, I spotted a shop where I knew I could spend my rupees. (It was the Himalaya Herbals shop where they sold their products comparatively cheap.)

A familiar brand greets us!
A familiar brand greets us!

But first, where was McDonalds?

There was none. Not a fastfood outlet in sight! The airport had food kiosks which sold masala tea and snacks like vadai at reasonable prices (and were mighty tasty too unlike the crappy sandwiches we get at the Penang airport food kiosks).

An Indian touch at the Kochi Airport - at least it is not crowded like LCCT Sepang
An Indian touch at the Kochi Airport - at least it is not crowded like LCCT Sepang

As we reached the airport earlier than the others, we had plenty of time to spare. I spotted Sankar’s, an unassuming bookstore near the departure lounge. It was small but its size did belie the selections! The books were incredibly varied, from business to Ayurveda (this is Kerala we’re talking about) and even some eclectic books which I think I will never find in Borders. As the books are printed in India, the prices were comparatively cheaper. Novels were going for RM20 to RM28. Thick autobiographies selling for RM35. It was a gleeful time as I went from shelf to shelf picking out books. Then I realized I had already checked in the luggage and how many books could I carry into the plane?

What a conundrum isn’t it? To come face to face with the loveliest little bookstore in Kochi Airport and have to DECIDE which books NOT to buy because we had some constraints in carrying these books! (Sankar’s is found in most major airports in India so if you are going to India, stop by their bookstores. They’re very worth your while.)

I heard that there were more well-stocked bookstores in the city but Sankar’s would do for me. The Indian salesman was polite and smiled happily as we complimented his good selection. It seemed I wanted every book. Kerala, a friend told me, has the highest literacy rate in the whole of India.

I had to tear myself away from the bookstore as I had finally spent all my available rupees!

My Kerala Trip: Arriving in Bangalore, Day 1

Never in a million years would I think of going to India.

Not because I’m snooty or anything. It’s just that I wouldn’t know if I could survive Mother India, after all the stories I’ve heard about “don’t drink the water”, “don’t get ripped off by porters” etc. My best friend travelled to India many years ago and she told me that they had to do their toilet business somewhere in some bushes, covered only by opened umbrellas!

So I didn’t really have that much expectation when Nic and I went to Kerala, India recently with our client, the team and management of Paul Penders Co. We were invited to tag along as they were doing a feasibility tour of a new business they intend to embark on in the state of Kerala.

I wasn’t even excited. I was thinking, OK, this is for work. Hopefully I won’t get dysentery or some stomach bug.

Paul and his team ready to get off the plane at Bangalore
Paul and his team ready to get off the plane at Bangalore

The AirAsia flight from KL to Bangalore took 4 hours. The thing is, we travelled to the west so we gained time. Though we left KL at 3.05pm and the plane actually took off much later (after some dawdling on the runway), we arrived in the ultra-modern Bengaluru Airport about 6pm India time. Bengaluru is the local name for Bangalore. For our Malaysian stomachs, it was 8.30pm and we were thinking of dinner.

Inside Bangalore Airport, before the arduous form-filling!
Inside Bangalore Airport, before the arduous form-filling!

Before we could exit the airport, we had to fill in the immigration forms. I felt a bit peeved because the form asked for so many details. Fortunately the Indian customs officers are not as rude or curt as the HK ones.

Have to fill up the Incredible India arrival card!
Have to fill up the Incredible India arrival card!

It was here that we met an Indian national who had completed his work contract in Malaysia. He was smart; he heard us speak BM and pounced on us in a friendly way. He wanted me to help him fill in his entry form because he was illiterate.

More forms to fill before they let you get out of the airport
More forms to fill before they let you get out of the airport

Anyway, what with the form filling and etc, we finally got out of the airport and Joji and Jegan, our Indian hosts for the one-week trip welcomed us with fresh roses. So there we were, a huge group of different nationalities – Dutch, Malaysian, Indonesian, Indian. We were going to be travel mates for the next 6 days, exploring the Ayurvedic-herbal route.

According to Joji, we were going to travel in a convoy of 4 Toyota Innova’s from Bangalore to this place called VanaMoolika in Wayanad district, Kerala where we would be staying for 3 days.

What we didn’t know was the car journey from Bangalore to Wayanad was going to take 6 hours. In the end, we found out that it is possibly 6 hours if the roads are like our PLUS highways. On Indian roads which are pot-holed and narrow and in some places, without adequate street lights, the journey took us 12 hours!

(At this point, I am glad we gobbled our ‘dinner’ aboard AirAsia. A travel tip: Eat first if possible. One never knows how long some journeys are. It is better to eat dinner twice than not to have one at all. Even going by local time, we figured we would arrive in VanaMoolika at midnight. Someone said there was going to be a feast for us! By Malaysian time, that would be 3am. Could I even eat at that hour?)

As we left the airport, we headed straight into the city and by that time, it was the evening rush hour where people were getting off work. Jegan, who sat in our car, told us that some 27 million people lived and worked in Bangalore. That’s like the entire Malaysian population in one city.

The most eye-opening experience for me was the fact that honking is very much a driver’s pleasure and pastime. The second was their utter disregard for traffic. Cars, autos (resembling tuk-tuk’s in Thailand), lorries, buses and animals all wove their way on the roads, honking, swerving and driving too close to each other. I didn’t know if it was our driver who drove badly or the traffic was horrible but the start and stop jerks of our Toyota Innova made Hong car-sick.

The third eye-opening experience was everywhere is your personal rubbish bin. When Hong puked into a plastic bag, she was gripping tightly to it and told us she was going to throw it at our next toilet stop. Our Indian guide told her to wind down the car window and chuck it out of the car! (Over the next few days, I found out that it is so hard to locate a rubbish bin. You see people throwing rubbish everywhere!)

The Atria Hotel where we stopped for tea
The Atria Hotel where we stopped for tea

Finally our Indian hosts decided to make a quick stop at a local hotel so we could go for our toilet break and have some tea and snacks before the really long car journey. I thought, “OK, this is where we get some food!” By then we had all but digested our airplane food.

A quick stop at the hotel coffeeshop for samosas and tea
A quick stop at the hotel coffeeshop for samosas and tea

They still insisted that we would be having our ‘dinner’ some 5 hours later so some snacks would be good. In the end, we really had tiny morsels of food, samosas which were tasty but too small to make a dent in our tummies. Luckily I downed it all with a cup of masala chai, a very silky smooth milk tea scented with cardamom.

We packed ourselves back into the Toyota, bracing ourselves for the next 5 hours.

To be continued….