Dream yourself a dream come true…

A popular Malayalam film dialogue goes “EllathinumAthintethayaSamayumUnduDasa” which roughly translates into “There’s a right time for everything, my friend. And the time has come for Brijesh, our super cheerful and enthusiastic tour leader to fulfil his dream – To own his happy home!

Before I talk about how Brijesh managed to achieve this dream at such a young age, let me give you little bit of an  insight into his life!

Brijesh joined Kalypso in 2011. Born and brought up in Mumbai (known as ‘The Gateway of India’),and working as a sales representative for 8 years, he had seen both ups and downs of the city life. He then had a sudden urge to return to his homeland – Kerala. In his words, “Our people and culture had been calling me to Kerala from a long time. It became possible only in 2011.” Joining Kalypso was another dream come true for Brijesh, who loved the rich culture and tradition of his homeland as he was able to meet new people and talk to them about the rich heritage Kerala possesses. Brijesh in the early years of his job as a tour leader with Kalypso

In 2009, he met his better half Maya and got married to her, which was an arranged marriage. In India, many people follow the traditional practice of getting married to the person found by  their parents or guardians! Interesting right? (I will talk in detail about arranged marriages in future blogs!)

So, once he decided to settle down in Kerala, he realised that he doesn’t have a land of his own. Brijesh, with his wife and new born daughter Aradhya, stayed in a rented house for many years, while he dreamt of staying in his own!Hence, he started saving as much as he can by working passionately as a culture tour guide with Kalypso.

Brijesh with his daughter Aaradhya

And finally, when it was the ‘right time’, everything started falling in place! Can you imagine the time span in which Brijesh’s 6 year old dream became a reality? It just took him 45 days to complete all the required procedures! Through a real estate agent, Brijesh saw the house and he says,one look and he knew the house was made for him. Meanwhile he applied for a loan through Kalypso’s recommendation which got sanctioned easily.I think he has spent less time  making his house than talking about it with me! (just kidding!J). It’s not an easy task to own a house at a young age for someone hailing from a middle class family in Kerala, other than for hard workers and go-getters like Brijesh!

 

House warming function

Brijesh and his cute family

To own a house, and build a home inside it is a dream for many people. So, was it for Brijesh. In his words, “this is a big achievement in my life, a bumper lottery! I never expected this to happen in a short span of time. Heartfelt gratitude to  commanders and Radhika Ma’am and all my colleagues for all the support extended to me. It was our dream to own a simple and sweet home and now that’s possible.”says a smiling Brijesh.

Splashes of beauty by Poorna Shetty

Kayaking in Kerala

The river holds a mirror image of the sky so accurately in its glassy surface that, save for the occasional insect skittering across the skin, it’s hard to distinguish between reality and reflection. A delicate net of wispy clouds stretches across, reining in the hazy outline of mountains wrapped in mist and the emerald green rainforest dipping leafy fingers into the edges.

In the early morning light, my kayaking guide Praveen bobs patiently on the Periyar river, while I cackhandedly negotiate my way out of a tangle of water hyacinth – the weed that is currently the bane of Kerala’s backwaters and rivers. Secretly, I think he wishes I had just opted for the tandem kayak rather than huffily insisting on my own, but no chance. I want to savour this tranquil scene solo – it’s one of those rare moments when it feels as if the earth has been freshly made overnight, emerging from a crisp dawn.

There’s no one else on the water and that could be because the most popular way of exploring Kerala’s waterways – specifically the backwaters in the Alleppey district 50km away – is by lodging on a houseboat: large, converted rice barges. They used to be the only way to reach isolated villages or transport goods, but with the collapse of the coconut farming industry and the modernisation of roads and ferries, it’s a godsend that they’re popular with tourists.

Apart from reviving an ancient form of boatmaking that might otherwise have been lost, their construction provides work for hundreds of local craftsmen. After a trip on one last March, however, I decided I wanted a slower, more intimate way of exploring the tiny fishing villages en route, and one that – for all the houseboats’ ethical benefits – didn’t involve belching out motor oil; which, after journeying through Kerala’s idyllic yawn of coconut groves, made me feel a guilt akin to throwing fag butts at dolphins.

The start of the four-day kayaking trip begins at the Hornbill Camp, some 45km from Cochin airport. Set in 80 acres of rainforest, 10 canvas cottages sit squatly on fat blades of grass. There are no qualms about waking up for an early start – Hornbill is twitcher paradise, being mere metres from the Salim Ali bird sanctuary and a pristine swathe of rainforest. A jabber of hoots, squeals, squawks and creaks fills the air at sunrise, and after a quick sip of sweet spiced tea, it’s time to hit the water.

As houseboats are only allowed on the major backwaters, river kayaking is a good way to begin an introduction to Kerala’s waters. With virtually no traffic to contend with, I have time to learn that reversing the blade in the water makes it turn sharply – perfect for tight corners. The best times for kayaking, Praveen tells me, are early morning, or after 4pm, otherwise the sun is too harsh. “Also no crocodiles,” he states, “but lots of elephants in the forest.”

We continue downstream and then take a left into a small, quiet cove. Overhead, kites wheel from tree to tree and kingfishers leap in lightning strokes between branches and the water. Fronds from overhanging trees weave a green canopy against the sun.

Being this close to the water is incredible. Along the edges of the river I sense a dark, quieter world. A closer look at leaves bobbing on the surface reveal they haven’t fallen at all, rather they’re attached to an underwater forest moving in slow, soothing waves beneath the depths. We emerge to see a fisherman paddling by. Praveen stops to talk to him, in turn he shows us his catch – a catfish, wet, shiny and smooth, jerking energetically on a piece of rope. When our kayaking comes to an end I feel exhilarated. Ha! I could give Praveen a run for his money. Then I get stuck on a tree root and he has to bail me out.

The next afternoon, Das, my escort and driver, takes me along bumpy roads to a meeting point in Alleppey, the start of the backwaters. Praveen’s older brother Unni is going to be my guide, and I feel very privileged – he sports an impressive moustache, is ex-navy and won the Asian kayaking championships in 1989. We putter along in a motor boat to Punnamada, to bypass a giant sea of water hyacinth, and from there we’ll kayak to Akkarakalam Memoirs, an old family homestay along the Pampa river.

The stream of motorised ferries and houseboats makes it apparent that kayaking in the backwaters is not going to be as tranquil as Hornbill, but it offers a glimpse into a different world. Houses line the banks of the river in varying shapes and sizes: crumbling tiny stone buildings flanked by palm trees, larger sprawling estates with gleaming white walls.

All the tiny gestures you miss while chundering past in a houseboat unfurl at a natural pace while you are in a kayak. We pass inches away from old, wizened men in small wooden canoes and tiny children dressed in starched whites being ferried from school. A strong-armed woman, skirts hitched up, beats her washing into submission against a stone. Women wearing powdery make-up hurry along in crisp cream saris, but have just enough time to stare at me – good Indian girls do not gallivant around in kayaks.

Fried pomfret fish and hot dal greet me at Akkarakalam, the 150-year-old homestay built in the Keralan Tharavad style of architecture. Dark knotted wood and tiled roofs have been restored, and the back courtyard opens onto the river, dotted with antique lamps.

The next morning, Unni arrives to lead the way to our next homestay, Emerald Isle. I’m worried about the state of my arms on day three; after two days of kayaking they begin to throb.

The water is a deep muddy brown and smells heavily of people (I pass a man half-submerged, having a scrub at his privates), as we pick our way through the tinier canals. The sun at 11am is not kind. Breaking free from a mesh of clouds, it bears down heavily on our skin, cooking us in our kayaks. Cool spots of shade lent by coconut trees offer bubbles of respite but even Unni looks pooped.

I rub my eyes to make sure they don’t deceive me. In the distance a line crosses the vast stretch of the river, but it appears to be flapping. As we near, a giant gathering of ducks pulls into view; hundreds of them. If they don’t move out of the way this could be the beginning of a new phobia, but, valiantly deciding Unni should be the guinea pig, I wait till he crosses the line well before I make my move. They instantly disperse and Unni yells by way of explanation: “Duck farm.”

Exhausted, we crawl to Emerald Isle, the ancestral home of Vinod, who greets me with a beaming smile. The homestay employs around 15 local families, and is formed from that same beautiful Tharavad architecture, designed to keep the house and its four rooms cool. As I pick my way past the murky pond, home to Pearl Spot fish, a vast jewel-hued paddy field stretches out before my eyes, punctuated by small, lush islands mushrooming from the watery soil and tiptoeing storks. I sink into one of the hammocks and let the peaceful scene wash over me.

After a good night’s sleep, it’s a hot and sticky three-hour ride to Dewalokam, a 10-acre organic farm where wild swimming awaits. Rubber trees herald our arrival to the plantation, as we drive through shafts of light to the heart of the house. Dr Jose and his wife Sinta, the owners, greet me with a garland, and explain that most of the food they serve is grown on the farm – even the meat, as Jose points out the calf ear-marked for Christmas dinner. I can’t look it in the eye. The surrounding garden is like a miniature Eden – papayas, bananas, pineapple patches and spice trees all co-exist on the same soil, as well as Ayurvedic herbs.

A crystal clear river, which is filtered through the forest, runs in front of the main house and is great for shaking off the soporific heat. Tiny fish swim underfoot and the river floor is shallow and spongy. As I dive in and taste some of the sweet, pure water, I feel things have finally come full circle – Kerala’s waters are most definitely a thing of beauty, inside and out.

My bicycle trip to India by Dana Kaplan

January 20, 2017

I didn’t have a chance to do very much this past summer. There was a little bit of upheaval and then I went off to Germany for a conference on American Jewish history. Afterwards I had thoughts of doing a bike trip in Italy but I decided to come straight back to Mobile, Alabama. I told myself that this was just a delay, not a cancellation.

But when I looked for bike trips in Europe in December, I didn’t find very much. Actually I didn’t find anything. I thought southern Italy would be perfectly warm but apparently it’s still pretty cold there and nobody wants to go biking at that time of year. Very specific dates had to be adhered to. It didn’t look good but then I found Kalypso Adventure Tours. I think they spell their name with a K. In any case, they were wonderful. 

I corresponded extensively with Thomas Zacharias, the owner of the company headquartered in Cochin. He was unbelievably patient and answered all of my questions. I had no idea what to expect and so I had a lot of questions. The bike guide Francis was likewise warm, helpful, and made the biking a pleasure.

 I do have to confess that I did not do any training for this bike trip. I just showed up. I was a cross country runner in high school and I guess I still have strong legs. The trip was about 14 days and took us from Cochin east through the West Ghat mountains and then south through the Cardamom Hills and then west again to the Backwaters.

 We were at a different hotel almost every night. There were a few nights at the same hotel in Cochin at the beginning of the tour and two other opportunities to spend 2 nights in specific hotels, the first of which was really luxurious and the second of which was really simple but had the nicest nicest staff. Other than that, we moved every day. And we moved by bicycle.

 There was a biking guide and a driver. The driver was driving a large van so if you got tired you could climb aboard. No, I would never have done that under ordinary circumstances but I did had to take into consideration that at my rather glacial pace they might not arrive at our destination until 3 in the morning so I think there were two days in the first five or six where I had to do a little bit of riding.

I am happy to report that as the trip went on I got better and I was able to complete the 88 kilometers of the longest day without any riding in the car at all. I did get off the bike twice to walk up hills but that was it. It took me about 6 hours.

 The shortest day was 22 kilometers but it was raining and very windy in the mountains and so that they felt like really extreme sports. I loved it. I got wet and I was sure I would get sick but I was healthy as a horse the next morning.

 This was my second bicycle tour. I went with Grasshopper Tours a few years ago to Vietnam. That was so much biking that I don’t remember anything about the country. In Mobile, we frequently go out for dinner after service this Friday night when we first went to the Vietnamese restaurant I was sure I would recognize most of the food. No such luck. It was like I’d never been in the country.

 In contrast, this trip was more interesting culturally in that it was a very well-constructed blend biking with a bit of musical, artistic and historical activities and of course a lot of cuisinary experiences. I can’t rave enough about the Indian food.

 

A Cycling Trip through Kerala India by our guest Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan

Dana Kaplan India Elephant

Two elephant encounters were both terrific photo opportunities but also a bit sad to see such majestic creatures essentially reduced to servitude (Dana Kaplan)

Leading a congregation in Mobile, Alabama, over the past year and a half has been a lot of work. Most of that work is not physical labor, but rather communication. Communication is key. Frequently, that communication takes place in the context of a meal: breakfast, lunch, dinner, afternoon snacks.

The downside of all this communication is that my waistline has been steadily increasing: 34, 36, 38…. When will it stop? That was my immediate motivation for booking a two-week cycling trip with Kalypso Adventure Tours, headquartered in Kochi, formerly Cochin, India.

When one thinks of India, one thinks of a land of exceptional diversity. With some of the most majestic buildings in the entire world, breathtaking landscapes, and culinary creations. In fact, one of my friends in Mobile had been to Cochin about a year ago on a culinary trip. We were going only to Kerala, which is in the southwestern part of the country and, so, many of the “great” sites were many hundreds of miles away. (For example, the Taj Mahal).

Kerala had more than enough history and culture to fascinate us. Known as the Queen of the Arabian Sea, Cochin has been an important port city and epicenter of the spice trade since medieval times. The first couple of days were tourism and shopping. We were taken around the region by Augustine Lopez, a very knowledgeable tour guide, who was able to include no less than four ancient synagogues at my request, as well as a variety of other historical and cultural sites.

The next day we started our trip, heading out from Cochin by van and then getting on our bikes about an hour outside the city. We cycled towards the Western Ghats mountain range that runs parallel to the western coast of the Indian peninsula–one of the eight hottest hotspots of biological diversity in the world. We began to see some of the spices that made the area so important for trade and commerce as well as tasty cooking.

Dana Kaplan IndiaWe cycled towards the Western Ghats mountain range that runs parallel to the western coast of the Indian peninsula–one of the eight hottest hotspots of biological diversity in the world.

Kalypso furnished us with Francis, a biking guide, who cycled with us as well as a van that carried our suitcases and was available to collect any of those who might run out of steam. Francis spoke English very well and was always inquiring as to our welfare.

There were also occasions where we would all deliberately get in the van and quickly transverse an area either because it was just too much to do in a day, or it wasn’t particularly interesting scenery, or yikes because we didn’t have an ounce of energy left.

Depending on the day, we would arrive in the afternoon at a new hotel where there might be activities scheduled for us. This included two Indian cooking lessons, which might be more accurately described as cooking demonstrations; two kayaking excursions, the first of which I was too exhausted to partake of; two hikes, the second of which was through the Periyar Tiger Reserve; and two elephant encounters, which were both terrific photo opportunities but also a bit sad to see such majestic creatures essentially reduced to servitude.

We were shocked to hear that there are probably only 35 to 40 tigers in the whole Periyar Tiger Reserve. The Mannans are an indigenous group which are today the conservators of the preserve. While we didn’t see any tigers, we did come across a family of wild bison and we were apparently very close to a solo elephant who had been expelled from his herd a number of years earlier.

One of the nice things about the trip was how it could be customized to meet each individual’s interests. We had the choice of upgrading hotels and substituting different types of activities. By design, it was a very active tour and there’s no question we all came back in better shape than we started out. There was a good balance of athletic activity, culture, culinary delights, and normal tourism.

From the moment we left Cochin to Thattekad, we were biking most days, almost always in the morning following breakfast. The shortest was from Munnar, a mountain resort area, to Chinnakanal, which was only 22 kilometers, passing through the Grahams Lands Tea Estate and the Lockhart Gap Mountain Pass. The longest cycling day was towards the end of the trip from Vagamon to Thanneermukkam, which was 88 kilometers.

Francis stopped about halfway, expecting to put my bicycle on the bike rack, which was attached to the back of the van, and to have me ride the rest of the way, but he saw how determined I was and, indeed, I was able to complete the entire trip on my bicycle. I walked up two imposing hills but otherwise cycled the whole way. We closed our two weeks near Alleppey on a houseboat, which sailed along the backwaters and then at a homestay near Nedumudi, which gave a different perspective of the backwaters.

There’s something immensely liberating about breaking away from one’s routine, challenging one’s self physically, and immersing one’s self in a completely different culture. India is a fascinating country in the midst of tremendous change. Living an adventurous life can help us enrich ourselves culturally, inspire us to think about things in new ways, and see our own lives from a broader perspective. As Vincent van Gogh apparently said, “Normality is a paved road. It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.”