1 From Kochi, it was a 4 hour drive along winding mountain roads to reach Thekkady, our destination. We got some breathtaking views from the road.
2 We passed through bustling towns and villages.
3 Auto rickshaws are a very common means of transportation, referred to as tuk-tuks. Throughout the week I found myself squeezed into the back of one with my husband, father, and stepmother – quite a tight fit!
4 Many small houses lined the roads, painted in bright colors.
5 Our accommodations for the week were at the Niraamaya Cardamom Club in Thekkady, nestled among cardamom plantations. When we arrived we had time to walk the beautiful grounds before getting caught in a downpour. Our trip fell after the end of the monsoon season, so luckily we had lovely weather for the rest of the week.
6 The resort consists of six cottages, each separated into two rooms, with small porches to enjoy a snack or a drink. Lush vegetation provided lots of privacy and quiet interrupted only by the sounds of birdsongs.
7 The main attraction for our trip was the Periyar Tiger Reserve, a short tuk-tuk ride from the Cardamom Club. It is a protected area covering more than 100 square miles of forests and grasslands and surrounding Periyar Lake.
8 The park is an important habitat for tigers and elephants and is home to numerous other mammal and bird species including many that are endangered. These bonnet macaque monkeys were very easy to spot around the entrance to the park.
9 One of the bonnet macaques up close.
10 Our first excursion was a three-hour walk into the park around the edges of Periyar Lake. We were given “leech socks” to wear over our socks and pant legs – I was relieved that we didn’t encounter any leeches!
11 An avid birder, my father, John, was looking forward to seeing many interesting bird species, as was I. We were not disappointed!
12 Midway through the walk we were lucky to spot a Malabar Giant Squirrel. It lives in the canopy and rarely leaves the trees. Adult Giant Squirrels have bodies around 14-inches long, with 2-foot-long tails. Apparently this was a very rare spotting, as they are shy animals.
13 After our hike, we went to nearby Munnar to an elephant sanctuary called Elephant Junction. Here, rescued elephants are protected from poachers and are trained to give rides and demonstrations for tourists. My husband, Will, and I rode an elephant named Mira. Each elephant has one trainer that they work with for years before they are ready to interact with tourists.
14 My father and my stepmother, Polly, enjoyed their leisurely ride. The elephant and her trainer develop an extremely close bond working together for so long; they even develop a special language so that the trainer can give verbal and tactile commands.
15 After our ride, we fed the elephants large chunks of squash and pumpkin. They were very gentle and seemed to enjoy their snack!
16 Back at the park the next day, as I attempted to discard some rubbish in a very well secured garbage can, I was joined by this small monkey who wanted very much to enjoy my banana peel. I understood why the grate was so tightly tied shut, because his little hands tried very hard to undo it. All he got was someone’s bottle cap.
17 Our day-long trek that day was a hike up to the border between Kerala and the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. The view over the park was incredible.
18 A breathtaking view in the other direction over Tamil Nadu
19 After a day off to relax, we headed back into Periyar Tiger Reserve for the Tiger Trail, a one-and-a-half-day trek that would have us camping for a night in the park. On our way to camp we spotted a large herd of Guar, or bison.
20 We reached our camp in the afternoon and took a break before heading out for another walk. The camp was surrounded by a large trench to protect the camp from any big, curious animals. We were accompanied by guards at all times, in case we met an angry elephant or tiger. We never did, though we would have liked to see them in the wild!
21 Towards dusk, our guides spotted some fresh signs of a sloth bear, and tracked him to a clearing. We were able to watch him from a distance for a little while before he spotted us and quickly headed for the woods. Another exciting and rare sighting!
22 To get back to camp that evening we were taken across the narrow waterway on a raft. All was quiet as the sun began to set.
23 After returning to the Cardamom Club the next day, we took a cooking class to learn how to make some common Indian dishes. Spices and other ingredients were laid out: chopped ginger & garlic, fenugreek, garam masala, turmeric, black pepper, Kashmiri chili powder, ground coriander, fresh green chili peppers, ghee, cumin seed, cloves, cardamom, curry leaves, mustard seed, coconut oil.
24 Chef Nishad demonstrated the preparation of the first dish, Okra Masala. Okra is fried and added to a sauce of chopped tomato, chili powder, ground coriander, turmeric, ginger, garlic, and curry leaves. Cashew nut paste and coconut milk give the sauce a creamy texture.
25 The next dish was the popular Kerala Fish Curry, made from King fish. Fish Masala, a pre-made spice mix of garlic, chili, fengreek, and turmeric, is commonly used to flavor. The black fruit is tamarind, which is dried and then re-hydrated in water. It simmers with the sauce and is removed before serving. It tastes very sour when eaten on its own, but imparts great flavor.
26 We also made Chicken Tawa Masala. Cream is added to the sauce of tomato purée, cashew nut paste, butter, and spices including garlic, fenugreek, garam masala, coriander, and chili powder. In addition to common chili powder, Kashmiri chili powder is also used. It does not add any spice, but it gives the bright red/orange color that is associated with curry.
27 On our last day in India, we visited Green Land Spice Garden, a lush and beautiful garden that is home to many incredible plants including coffee, cocoa, cardamom, cloves, peppercorns, bananas, and many varieties of chili peppers.
28 A flowering robusta coffee plant - Both robusta and arabica coffee are seen growing everywhere in this region of India.
29 This is a cocoa (or cacao) tree, whose seeds are used to make cocoa powder and chocolate.
30 These pink bananas are ornamental, but many edible varieties of banana are grown here, and are commonly used in Kerala cuisine, in stews and curries and fried into chips.
31 This brightly colored variety of epiphytic orchid is one of many that we saw at the garden. We also saw them on our hikes, growing in the wild on the sides of trees.
32 This beautiful flowering plant is Ixora, also known as West Indian Jasmine, which is popular as a hedge in South East Asia and is commonly used in Indian folk medicine.
33 The gentleman who owns the spice garden also lives on the property, and here peppercorns are laid out to dry on his roof. This was also a common sight on flat patches by the roadsides.
34 After the garden, we stopped at the Connemara Tea Factory to see how tea is made. We saw several tea plantations while driving through the region, and were curious to see inside (though we weren’t allowed to take pictures).
The tea that is made here is not the leaf tea that we are used to drinking. Instead it is a powder or “dust” tea. The finer the powder, the stronger the tea will be.
35 Tea plants are really trees that can grow 10-15 meters high, but are pruned so that they stay short to be easily harvested by hand. We saw many of these lush hillsides covered with tea plants as we made our way to Kochi to catch our flight back home.