Plunging into Village Life in the Heartlands of Wayanad

Plunging into Village Life in the Heartlands of Wayanad

It was serendipity that brought us to Wayanad, a mountainous region in the north-eastern part of Kerala. With the long weekend coming up in the early part of October 2017, we wracked our brains for something to do. It never occurred to us that we should go and stay on a working farm until an email landed in my inbox.

This is what the email had to say.

The Invite

An opportunity for guests to be one of us in our quaint little village; an opportunity for immersive living.
– Menaka

Hi Peter,

I was searching for people who consider travel experiences precious and have blended in to the color of India. That’s how I came across your blog, and so happy I did.

Living in the city made me realize the real worth of my small village. After all, the soul of India still lies in the villages. I missed my simple life.

After considerable contemplation, I decided to move back to my childhood home and started taking care of our ancestral farm. I started a new life, an exciting one.

The concrete jungle was replaced by real wilderness.

My workplace spread over 15 acres of fertile land instead of feeling claustrophobic in a cubicle.

Clutter gave way to simplicity and new learning won over monotony.

My life changed and along with it came in the desire to share all the charm that it brought, with those who can appreciate it.

Thus, Aham Anubhava (which literally means “I Experience”) was born.

An opportunity for guests to be one of us in our quaint little village; an opportunity for immersive living.

We are very happy to invite you to spend a couple of days with us any time in the next couple of months. From the time, you arrive at our home to the time you leave, we take care of everything.

Looking forward to hearing back from you,

Menaka


Wow! Firstly, self-hi five for writing a blog that is read by more people than my Mum and wife!

I replied (after checking with aforementioned wife) with an emphatic, YES! We’d love to come and stay with you and experience village life from a local person. For me, it was a double bonus. Our wedding anniversary was coming up and I could present this as my thoughtful anniversary gift – a unique getaway to the heartlands of Kerala.

Flight tickets were hastily booked.

And then subsequently cancelled and rebooked because someone, who shall remain absolutely nameless, entered the wrong name of his wife. Bu@@er!

The Journey

Getting to Wayanad from Chennai is a bit of a pain. We were advised to take the road from Mysore as flying to Kozhikode (formerly known as Calicut) and driving up the hairpin bends can be a bit hazardous. And anyway, driving from Mysore means that you have to drive through Bandipur National Park, a famous tiger reserve and you might get the opportunity to see tigers, elephants, deer and other wildlife.

Crazy hairpin bends or tigers? It was a simple decision. Luckily for us, Mysore has literally just opened its airport. The only carrier to fly there from Chennai is a small regional one called Trujet. Mysore airport is the dinkiest little thing you’ve seen, comparable only to the Uluru airport that we flew to a few years back. There is a single gate, single baggage reclaim and you must walk from the plane to the terminal – no buses here!

Mysore Airport can be described as “Cute”

To get to Wayanad from Mysore, there are two ways to go about it. You can book a taxi, but since you have to travel across state lines, the cost is quite high at Rs 3,600 for a one way trip.

The alternative, and the one we decided on, is to take a bus. However, we found out that turning up to a bus station in India without pre-booked tickets is like turning up to the airport without your passport.

We thought we could wing it and get a couple of seats but ended up looking like naive tourists as we begged the conductors for a seat on the fully booked buses! Eventually we did get a bus though. It’s a little bumpy. It’s a little scary. But if you’ve never done anything like this, then it’s an adventure!

mysore suburban bus stand

Mysore Suburban Bus Station – Bustling & Chaotic

As we entered the tiger reserve, we got a Whatsapp message from Menaka.

Keep your camera ready in case you seen any animals!
– Menaka, via Whatsapp

So I did. Not taking my eyes off the overgrown jungle for a second. My finger was poised over the shutter button. I saw a lot of trees. I saw some rivers. At one point I got really excited when I saw a four legged creature, only for it to turn out to be a goat that belonged to a tribal person that lived in the forest. I didn’t see any tigers 🙁

Staying at Aham Anubhava

It’s a little bit tough to describe exactly what Menaka’s Aham Anubhava is. Translated, Aham Anubhava means “I experience”. It’s not a typical home stay, which is becoming increasing popular for domestic tourists in India, nor is it a bed and breakfast. It’s like an experiential stay.

stay at aham anubhava

The Home of Menaka & Her Family

From the moment guests arrive, Menaka is on hand to help immerse you into the local culture and surroundings. Staying at the Aham Anubhava is not about having a base to go off exploring the far corners of Wayanad. It’s about coming to experience a different way of life, meeting the other farmers, the farm labourers and the local villagers.

It’s definitely not a place for people to document their entire stay on social media via a non-stop stream of selfies.

Sitting on the roof terrace for tea, we learned about how the land came to be in the possession of Menaka’s family. Incidentally the roof terrace is the perfect place to hear all the stories and history of the local area. Over one hundred years ago, the whole of Wayanad was forest land, inhabited by tribal people. The nomadic tribes would move from area to area each season until one season they came back and found that a bunch of outsiders had setup home on the land.

aham anubhava roof terrace

Dining Room, Meditation and Reading Area on the Roof Terrace

Today, the tribal people are not as nomadic and some wrongs have been righted in that they’ve been given land of their own to cultivate.

Menaka’s ancestors took possession of around 100 acres of jungle and they set about turning it into a farm. For decades the farm was productive, but being in such a remote area, luxuries like electricity didn’t reach the village until the early 1980s. Even the little stream which separates the village from the road leading to Menaka’s farm had to be forded and the bridge that stands there now is only a few decades old.

Slowly though, the cost of labour rose and the price of cash crops dropped as cheaper imports flooded the market. Today, the farm stands on around 10 acres with rubber being the primary source of income. Of course, we couldn’t stand just hearing about it, we demanded to go and see the plantation for real!

“Wait, I need to get my sickle and stick!” Menaka said when we asked to go and have a look.
“What do you do with them?” I asked, thinking they might be important for agricultural reasons.
“The stick to check for snakes on the ground and the sickle in case a tiger comes along.” She said it so cheerfully as if it is was routine for a tiger to turn up unannounced on its morning walk. I wasn’t sure if she was being serious. I think she was!

menaka female farmer of wayanad

Farmer Menaka Ready to Tend to Her Farm

The rubber trees were all planted about a decade ago. It then takes them about five to seven years to become productive, so it really is playing the long game in farming. This whole area in the photo below used to be full of coffee plants, but when the price of rubber went up, a decision was made by Menaka’s father to switch to rubber.

Now the family is kicking themselves after hearing about civet coffee being a sought after commodity in the market. Apparently they had civet cats in the coffee estate all the time a few decades back and they were thought of as pests! How times change.

walking through a rubber plantation

Row Upon Row of Rubber Trees (But Not Trees Made Out of Rubber)

To extract the rubber, you have to milk the tree like a cow. A skilled farmer makes a small incision in the bark and the white milk flows like, well, milk. It’s collected in a little cup which is decanted into a bucket after a couple of hours.

milking a rubber tree

How to Milk a Tree

From there, the rubber milk is poured into large trays and mixed with acid. Currently, a kilo of rubber fetches around Rs 120. When the government reduced the import duties on rubber, the market got flooded with rubber from Indonesia so the prices have plummeted. Until a few years ago, farmers in Kerala were getting as much as Rs 250.

Preparing the Rubber Mixture

After the rubber and acid mixture has set, it’s put through a compression machine to squeeze out all the moisture. The final part of the process is for the rubber to be hung up to cure in a hot smoke room. After a day of being smoked, you have raw rubber ready to be processed into whatever rubber is used for nowadays.

smoking rubber

Curing the Rubber in the Smoke House

Further along our farm walk, we came across a muddy pit and banana trees that had been uprooted. This was the work of a wild boar that had come through the night before.

If you see a wild boar, try to climb a tree to escape.
– Menaka (while walking through her plantation)

“When the farm workers see a wild boar,” Menaka said, “they climb into the coffee bushes to escape. The boar can’t reach upwards. So don’t run if you see one, try and climb up a tree.”

It seemed like good advice that I never knew I needed. Fortunately, there were no wild boar sightings for the remainder of our walkabout. Maybe they were scared off by the sickle. We did, however, come across said coffee plants that the workers would use to escape the boars. Who knew that your Starbucks coffee started out life as a green berry on the branch of a small tree.

coffee beans on the plant

How Your Starbucks Coffee Looks Before it Reaches You

This is where the tigers sometimes come to drink and sunbathe.
– Menaka

“Over there,” Menaka pointed, “on the rocks by the river, is where tigers come if they are in the area. Anywhere you get rocks and water, you’ll get animals coming to drink.” I double checked that she still had her sickle handy. “Ah, look at this!” she exclaimed. We’d come across a pepper vine that had been torn down. “Every day I come through here and there’s always something that needs fixing, it’s non-stop work on the farm!”

Farming is non-stop work.
– Menaka (while attending to her crops)

Nothing goes to waste though, even the unripened pepper pods are taken and used to make pickles with.

repairing the pepper plant

Menaka Tending to Her Pepper Crops

We continued through the plantation with Menaka stopping every few minutes to explain what a particular plant or tree was and what fruit it grew.

farming cash crops in wayanad

Farming Turmeric and Other Cash Crops in Wayanad

For sunset, we headed up to the Wayanad cricket ground. It’s perhaps the most spectacular cricket ground you’ve ever seen. Set on a plateau, the players and crowd look out across the dramatic landscape of the Western Ghats. The vista is dominated on the left side by the Kolagappara rock.

wayanad cricket ground

The Most Spectacular View From Any Cricket Ground

The weekend we were in Wayanad coincided with the Navartri Pooja. After the sun went down, Menaka took us to the Purakkadi Poomala Paradevata Temple to see the pooja taking place there. Years ago, her grandfather would carry great sacks of food grown on the farm as offerings to the temple.

We took the car 🙂

He is a human, isn’t he?
– Temple Priest (while referring to me)

At first we were worried that I wouldn’t be allowed inside the temple being a foreigner and all. Some temples in India have strict rules about non-Hindus entering. However, our fears were allayed by the priest who proclaimed “He is a human, isn’t he? Why would you ask such silly questions.” So yeah, non-Hindus are most welcome in the Wayanad temples!

Inside, the pooja had just started, which meant the rhythmic beating of drums by half a dozen young men. The ceremony must have gone on for at least 30 minutes and culminated in the doors to the main shrine being opened to reveal the Goddess Sita inside. Legend has it that Sita, from the Ramayana, took refuge in Wayanad, on the land that this very temple stood upon.

Another legend said that when Sultan Tipu conquered the area, he tried to tear down the sanctum sanctorum but was foiled. A garland, sword and eagle flew out of the temple and chased the soldiers in to a deep well where’s believed their remains are still there to this day.

One more fun fact: in the corner of the temple complex, there is a shrine for people to worship snakes. This is not just for show, an actual cobra lives within the shrine and can often be seen basking in the sun. Needless to say, I didn’t hang around long enough to get a photo after I found out about that!

village temple in wayanad

The Lamps of Purakkadi Poomala Paradevata Temple

The following day brought more exploration and meeting of local people. One neighbour, who kept cows, had rigged up an in-genius crane and pulley system to quickly fertilize his crops with the slurry from the cow shed.

natural fertilization irrigation

All Natural Crop Fertilization

We also walked into the local village. It really was a village in the truest sense of the word. A single road lined by a small grocery shop, a post office, a tea stall, a school and a few homes. Dogs sunbathed in the middle of the road, begrudgingly moving to one side when the occasional car or jeep rumbled through.

villages of wayanad

An Idyllic Village Scene of Wayanad

Keen to immerse ourselves into the area, we gladly stopped for chai at the tea shop. From here, Menaka told us, the older men from the village, all of whom are literate, would read about global current events covered in the newspapers. From Trump’s latest tweets, Merkel’s election win and Australia’s vote on gay marriage, they spend the morning discussing global affairs from a place that couldn’t be more far removed from New York, Berlin and Sydney.

chai in a wayanad village

Drinking Chai at the Local Tea Shop

Closer to Menaka’s home, there is a tree known as the paper tree. It’s not made out of paper, it’s where the papers are delivered for everyone in the area. For those that don’t want the hustle and bustle of reading their paper in the village, they can sit on a bench overlooking the fields, and discuss world politics with each other from there.

We used to have cows and a worker who looked after them. He got too drunk one evening and decided that the cow needed to be milked at three in the morning. He went to where he left the cow and paused, because it seemed it had grown a lot bigger over the last few hours. He decided that he needed help to milk this huge cow so came home and woke up my father. They went down to see this cow that was too big to milk and it turned out to be an elephant!
– Menaka (one of her many funny stories from the local area)

The following day we woke up to the intoxicating aroma of freshly brewed, locally sourced coffee. It had been infused with pepper from the plantation to give it an extra kick. Together with the caffeine it sets you up for the day ahead.

We had planned to explore Edakkal Caves today. Knowing what we know about tourist spots in India, we knew that we had to get there early. Really early. Fortunately the caves are just a 20 minute drive from Menaka’s home. Calling the Edakkal Caves a cave system is a misnomer, they aren’t actually caves, but large rocks that have fallen on top of each other to create a cave like space.

Reaching Edakkal requires walking an awful lot of “up”. (Our way of referencing anything that involves climbing or steps after seeing a sign at Golkonda Fort in Hyderabad which had an arrow with the text “Way to up”).

Be Ready For Lots of Steps Upto Edakkal Caves

Once you’ve reached the ‘up’, you’re rewarded with rock carvings that are thought to be thousands of years old. (Re)-discovered, as all great discoveries in India were, by a British chap who was on a tiger hunting party (because what other reason could there be for a British man to be roaming the jungles of India), it is now open to the public.

Entrance to the Main ‘Cave’ of Edakkal

Incredibly, given it’s thought to be one of the best examples of Bronze Age art, it’s not a UNESCO or even Archaeological Survey of India site. It’s run and maintained by the local authority.

Can You Spot the King in the Carvings?

You really do need to get to tourist places in India as early as possible.

Maybe it’s the same the world over now, but we’ve found that most tourists seem to visit these places as an opportunity to take selfies and upload it to Facebook & Instagram. Often, you can’t move or are waiting impatiently for a group of boys and even middle-aged men to finish taking the perfect selfie before you can move in and start appreciating the magical history.

The Endless Forests of Wayanad Seen From Edakkal Caves

After 11am, the empty steps leading up to the caves begin to look like this, so good luck if you arrive after that!

Traffic Jam on the Steps

In the afternoon, Menaka took us on a trek through the local area, large stick in hand to push away any of those cheeky little cobras. A couple of her friends joined us and we could only marvel at the way they nimbly navigated the bushes, branches and hidden ditches as us city folk slipped, tripped and stumbled through the undergrowth.

another walk through the forest

Just a Walk Through the Forest for the City Folk

Eventually though, we came out on a secluded rocky platform with the river running past. In her childhood days, Menaka would swim with friends here. Any tigers? I asked, nervously looking around at the thick jungle on all sides. The answer was yep, and elephants too.

down at the river in wayanad

The Secluded River Where the Children Learn to Swim

Alas, all good things must come to an end and in the afternoon we were back on a bus heading to Mysore. Although it wasn’t before I had picked up a year’s supply of the greatest snack available to mankind: banana chips from Kerala!

Delicious Banana Chips from Kerala

As we entered the famous tiger reserve, once again, my camera was at the ready. Menaka told us how once she was driving through this jungle and came across a couple of tiger cubs playing by the side of the road. Surely we’d see some wildlife this time?

Nope. Just a lot of trees. Maybe one day I’ll see my wild tiger in India.

About Aham Anubhava

Peter with Menaka

Our stay was sponsored by Menaka and her family as she looked to understand how she could offer an immersive, altogether unique experience to guests. We were her guinea pigs 🙂 Responsible tourism is something she’s passionate about and she would love to have like-minded people come to stay with her and her exceptionally warm and welcoming family.

To Menaka, responsible tourism means a willingness to learn and immerse yourself in a culture, even for a few days. It’s about being respectful to your hosts, the local people, the culture and to the environment. It’s not about being more interested in taking selfies, posing for photographs with the tribal people and expecting to be waited on for your every need like at a resort.

What you are paying for is less about the food and accommodation (which are both excellent) and more to do with the time you get to spend with Menaka and her family. She’ll tell you stories about the local area, take you on treks through the plantation and surrounding areas, show you all the places where all the locals go and be your personal guide & chauffeur throughout your stay. For anything you want to do outside the local area, she’ll arrange a taxi and ensure you are in good hands.

For anyone who wants to see a completely different side to India beyond the regular tourist haunts, this might be what you are looking for. You can reach Menaka by emailing her at: meenramanan ‘at’ gmail.com (replace ‘at’ with @).

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