Tellicherry, Kerala, Southern India
January 10, 2006
“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” – Ralph Waldo Emmerson
Four days into my India trip and I was itching to know where to go and what to do next. I’m a planner. It’s my nature. I can’t help it. Up until this travel journey a Palm Pilot dictated my days. Ironic it broke down when I got to India. If that’s not a message I don’t know what is! Now I try to live by a mantra, let go of having to know and go with the flow, but the planner inside of me rears her head from time to time and wants to know the plan. I resist that need-to-know tendency because many amazing experiences, people and places have come into my life over the past four months all because I didn’t have a plan.
Next stop for spontaneous adventure was a cooking school in Tellicherry. I knew I wanted to learn how to cook Indian food in an Indian kitchen from an Indian woman but didn’t know anyone set up to bring a tourist into their home and communicate in English about the nuances of Indian cuisine. A few of the locals I told about my interest in cooking sweetly offered, “Come my home. My mother teach you cook.” I thought about it for a second and maybe if I wasn’t traveling alone I would have gone deeper into the community way of life but on my own, with no one in the world knowing where I was made me opt for the cautious route.
I found out about a cooking school from the owner of Lagoona Davina. She told me about a husband and wife who run a home stay in a beautiful 150-year-old colonial mansion in the Northern part of Kerala. (I’m assuming you’ve heard the term home stay. There was an article in The National, a major English newspaper, in Bangkok, so I figured it’s already been covered in the states. If not, it’s another option for a traveler to staying in a hotel or B&B. In a home stay you’re closely connected to the family who’s home you’re staying in rather than an anonymous visitor roaming around a hotel. Some home stay hosts make you feel like you’re part of their family and you’ve come home for a visit. They might invite you to join in their meals and socialize like one of the clan or they might take you for a drive around town and give you a tour of the local flavors. On this trip, I’ve stayed in two home stays and highly recommend them for anyone who wants to get a glimpse of real life in that region.) The house, Ayisha Manzil (named after the husband’s grandmother) has been in his family for 106 years and the wife teaches cooking classes out of their home. The only other bit of information I had to go on was that this woman had been getting quite a bit of notoriety from the press. The BBC filmed a cooking show in their home and a leading hotel in France invited them to go to Lyon and showcase her traditional recipes for hotel guests.
You won't find Tellicherry (Thalasseri, the region’s name pre-British occupation) on every map of India. In fact, I looked it up in my Lonely Planet India guidebook and it was featured on the main map of India up front but that's the only time it's referenced. (Later, I found out the owner intentionally arranged this) I did some research on the place before making my decision to schlep up state and all I found when I searched the web for Tellicherry was information about the little green Tellicherry peppercorns. Peppercorns are used in cooking so I figured I was heading in the right direction.
THERE'S NOTHING I LOVE MORE THAN GOING OFF THE BEATEN PATH FOR A FOOD ADVENTURE! Some people might think "what a waste of time" but I know there are others, like me, who share this hunger for local experiences and revel in the journey.
CP Moosa, the owner of the home stay, emailed me details how to get from Kovalam Beach to Tellicherry. He said the trip would take 12 hours via overnight train. He also said there was no First Class cabin to Tellicherry so I should buy a ticket for the Second Class AC (air con) cabin. My “man servant” (Not kidding. That’s what the owner called staff.) sent a tuk tuk to the Trivandrum train station and purchased a one way ticket leaving 8pm and arriving 8am in Tellicherry. My first train experience in India turned out to be my last.
Gopi, a very sweet man drove me from Lagoona Davina to the train station. When he found out I live in San Francisco he became so excited and happy. An American man he drives around whenever he's in India lives in San Francisco. He told me his name and gave me his business card hoping that I could connect with him when I got back to San Francisco to talk about our common friend. Gopi referred to this man as “my brother” and told me that he's sponsoring one of his daughters through school. I also told him I was heading to Tellicherry (he hadn’t heard of the region) to take Indian cooking classes. “Come stay with us. You learn lots. Don’t worry. I’m family man. Two daughters and one wife.” I was overwhelmed by the spontaneous generosity and kindness. Gopi walked me to the train and took me to my seat assignment. I felt like a little girl being dropped off on the first day of school. I was a little nervous about my first train ride in India and appreciated having Gopi there to guide me to my seat. People advised me to get into a women-only car so I asked Gopi if this was possible. He said they didn’t have separate cars for men and women on this train. I asked the question again. “Can I sit in a car with no men?” Up until this point Gopi's English was excellent but I hoped he just didn’t understand my question and by asking again I’d illicit the answer I was looking for. I hadn’t heard any train horror stories so there wasn’t any real reason to be afraid. What was contributing to my fear was the fact that I was doing something for the first time. It was dark and late into the evening. To boot, I was going to a place that wasn’t on my map.
Gopi brought me to my seat and we said goodbye. The neighbors arrived soon after and I was relieved to see two women and one man. I liked the ratio. One of the ladies started making up her cot with the bedding that was left out on our mattresses. I had 13 hours in this 6x10 space so it seemed like a good way to kill some time. First I put on the fitted sheet. Then the top sheet. Both were clean. They provided a wool army blanket with an itchy feel so I was happy to have a top sheet. They also left a hand towel in case we wanted to freshen up at the sink located along the window side in the center of the two columns of cots. My hand towel had curry yellow streak stains that made me think it wasn’t a hand towel but possibly a napkin. No food is served on the train. It was just a stained hand towel. I tossed it on one of the open cots. Sobha and Molly were the names of the women neighbors and Vinod was the man. I thought it was a sign of friendliness when Molly took her shoe off and put her foot on my mattress. I wish that were the case. She did it because she saw a rat crawling around the floor space in our little area. That’s not why I made that train ride my last. Vinod, my male compartment mate decided he wanted to stay up late and watch a movie with me or do whatever.............. I blocked him out and ignored whatever he was saying to me and worked on my laptop editing photos. It must have been midnight by the time I finally fell into a tense sleep.
Sobha woke me (actually, she shook me. my experience with Indian woman was that they pushed or shoved rather than touched). It was 7am when my three compartment mates were getting ready to depart for Callicut, three stops before Tellicherry. “If you come to Callicut next time” she said, “stay with us.” Unsolicited and random kindness strikes again.
I thought it best to remain awake until we arrived at the Tellicherry station. Didn’t want to have to use one of the “Good Advice For When...” envelopes Tom & Cassandra sent me off on this trip with in case of emergency. My hands were sore and crampy from tightly and safely wrapping myself up in the sheets and blanket. The ticket man came by to punch my ticket. I was so disoriented I almost couldn’t find where I put the thing. I noticed the sentence ‘Have a Pleasant Journey’ was printed on the ticket. After that sleepless and tenuous night I chose to hire a car and driver for all future transportation throughout India.
See pictures on blog for train setting.