Neither the Coorg region nor Kannur in Northern Kerala were on my (admittedly vague) pre-departure itinerary. As a result of my visits to both in the last eight days, I now have a passing knowledge of the world of the apiculturist, and experience of the incredible ancient spirit possession ritual, Theyyam.
Chance is a great mentor while on the road. A fleeting encounter with a crazy American girl Alissa a couple of weeks ago led Swiss Hanna and me first to the Honey Valley “Homestay” in the Coorg region. Coorg nestles in the Western Ghats, the mountain range stretching from near Mumbai down to India’s southern coast. (Apparently it was referred to as the “Scotland of India” by homesick colonials, although as my host Suresh pointed out, there’s not much coffee growing in Scotland).
From his idyllic home (accessible only by jeep), Suresh and his family built a business from scratch as the largest honey producer in Asia. At their height, they produced 7 tonnes of honey, until an imported disease struck Asian bee-keeping in 1991. Since then he has built a business from coffee, cardamom and pepper farming, the homestay business for travelers during the week, and most importantly a regular gaggle of loud Bangaloriloos (splendid new term for Bangalore residents, coined by one of the workers at Honey Valley) who travel for seven hours to escape here from the city at the weekends.
I could have listened to Suresh talking about bees for hours. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the apicultural world, combined with a guru-like ability to draw philosophical analogies from the world of bees, were legendary. I learnt about the wiggle maps that scout bees dance to communicate directions to colonies before migration; the remarkable ability of Asian bees to surround predatory hornets, closing in so tightly that the hornet suffocates; and the sad stories of imported bees from Europe bringing disease, ruin, and hardship in the name of so-called agricultural economics. (“The problem with Agricultural Economists”, he said quietly, “is that they think like a laserbeam. I understand them and know they are needed. But they don’t understand me and my land.”)
In between more fantastic South Indian meals, and my starry-eyed sessions at the feet of the Suresh-guru, we trekked through the beautiful Ghats, swimming in the river, passing over an ancient salt route, and generally getting lost in the beauty of this amazing region. And all this for under a tenner a day.
Apparently everyone stays longer than they intended at Honey Valley, and we were no exception staying 6 nights.
The next adventure started with a fun six-hour jeep-bus-jeep-bus trip which brought us to the virginal Malabar coast of Kerala, peppered with unspoilt beaches, white sand and palm trees.
We stayed in another Homestay (Costa Malabari), with the usual assortment of interesting fellow travelers. This time they included an independent film producer making a series of Channel 4 “Three Minute Wonder” programmes on monkeys, an amateur photographer doing a project on tourists in context in India, a biker traveling to hippy colony Auroville from Goa, a painfully try-hard 50-year-old who we christened “Trendy Dad”, and a cast of other minor characters.
I had read about the spirit possession ritual Theyyam, and it was one of the reasons for heading to Kannur. Kurian, the host of Costa Malabari, is an expert on this little known religious ceremony where villagers are body-painted and don extraoadinary costumes to assume the roles of Gods, pass advice to fellow villagers, and enact ancient stories. If you want to know more about it, click here – I won’t bore you with the details. Kurian arranged for us to visit a remote village where it was to take place that night. It was remarkable, and fantastic to observe a real ceremony rather than see some sort of show put on for tourists.
The return journey by minibus was more than a little eventful. Granted we were literally in the middle of nowhere, and so inevitably got lost as the clock crept towards midnight. The driver, with one hand on the wheel and the other glued to his mobile, tore along palm-tree lined one way roads, often in reverse, like Ayrton Senna at his most daring. On more than one occasion it looked like we all might be joining Senna in the Great Big Car Lot in the Sky.
We made it out alive, and I am now in Cochin, where the Volvo Round-the-world Yacht Race boats are in harbour. Given the remarkable longevity of the Phoney War, I think I might spike their food and see if I can get on the next leg to Singapore.