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South India Road Trip: Entering Kerala

'When everything turns green, you are in Kerala'

“When everything turns green, you are in Kerala.” 
-Vicky Chennai, owner of Chennai Motorcycle Rental

Highway 49 West from Teni is straight and boring, the redeeming feature being the encouraging glimpses of mountains peeking through the dust and haze. The land rose gently, and the scenery took on shades of green. Suddenly, the air cleared and the Western Ghats loomed above and ahead, a magnificent green and granite wall.

Turning southwest on Highway 85, my travel buddy Astried Huebner and I climbed into the Bodi Hill West Forest. The road rose steadily and when it seemed it would end a 180-degree hairpin turned us upward again, a sign indicating it was the first of 22 hairpin turns ahead.

Light traffic and a smooth road surface led us to push the KTM Dukes a little deeper into the corners and throttle-on harder exiting the turns. The riding position of these bikes is comfortable, the engine delivers enough power (there is always room for more), and the bike is nimble.

The dry plains disappeared into the haze below and the mountains stretched skyward above. Streams burbled and waterfalls cascaded down granite faces. The haze of the plains gave way to the clear blue skies of the mountains. We stopped frequently to marvel at incredible views.

At a chai stop on the border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, we recalled Vicky Chennai’s words that when everything turns green, we would be in Kerala. And the owner of the motorbike rental business we got the bikes from was right.

The lush Mathikettan Shola National Park and the Cardamom Hills is a life-sized pantone green display. In Pooppara, a side road led to a smaller road and a section of dirt track before reaching the village of Thookkupalam. 

Astried had reserved a room at a homestay nearby that appeared to be rural. Appearances and reality often conflict in this country and when we finally located the place, it turned out to be a construction site a few metres from the road. In Rammakalmedu, a monument sits atop the hill and Indians flock to the site, climbing the steps to view the spot where legend says Rama kept his feet when searching for his wife Sita.

In search of a lodge, Astried followed her instincts and took a left on a narrow road. A steep dirt track led to Punarjani Ayurvedic Resort. The guys working on the driveway alerted the manager who greeted us with a large smile. He took Astried to see the rooms. When they returned, she gave me our covert “enter-the-negotiation-game” signal.

The official rate was six times our budget, but he offered a half-price discount. I balked and he asked what we normally paid. I said 600 rupees, he offered 800, and we agreed.

We scored a lovely roundhouse in the forest with no other guests! Ditching our gear, we hiked up the hill. The forest ends revealing a grassy hilltop with incredible views in every direction. The plains of Tamil Nadu lay open in a vast, hazy expanse below. The ridge to the west had an impressive wind farm. Looking down in the other direction, the last of the tourists were leaving the statue as the sun set on another fantastic day.

There was no restaurant at the lodge, so next morning we descended in search of chai and food. A woman swept a small restaurant and Astried asked if she had chai.

“Of course,” she responded, “I have a special breakfast blend with herbs from my garden.” She smiled. “Fresh cinnamon and cardamon. Would you like it strong, medium or weak?”

“Strong, please,” we replied in unison.

We parked and pulled a couple of chairs to the side of the road to catch morning sun. As we sipped our chai, she asked if we had tried puttu—the typical Kerala breakfast. Being our first morning in Kerala, the answer was “no.”

“Then you must come to my house for breakfast,” she said. So we did.

She was so excited to have us in her home, her first foreigners. She phoned her husband to decry their good luck and told him to come home from work to meet us.

Breakfast was simple, fresh, and perfect. Steamed rice flour rolled into a sausage shape is the heart of it. The accompanying Kadala curry and fresh shaved coconut was scrumptious. She proudly told us there was no oil, sugar, or salt in her cooking. After breakfast, fresh grapes and alcohol-free wine—“45 days in the container”—to digest.

Next came a tour of the garden, full of everything from tea and coffee to pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, banana, jackfruit, and more.

Her husband returned and said it was too bad we had not met the day before as documents granting a homestay licence had arrived and there was a small party. The “Marottickal Homestay” would soon be getting a sign, we were proudly informed.

They told us of a back route that would wind in the general direction of Kootar.

“Please accept our hospitality,” they said, declining payment.

I said it was an honour and made a generous offering “for good luck.” Thanking each other profusely, we rode off on another adventure.

For 28 days in 2017 and more than 2,600 kilometres, Tim and his companion explored rural Tamil Nadu and Kerala, India. Few foreigners ride the back roads of southern India and they certainly attracted a lot of attention, from chai-stall stares to schoolchildren’s cheers and even newspaper coverage. Read more of the series at piquenewsmagazine.com and timmorch.com.