Notes from the Field: Southern India

Notes from the Field: Southern India
December 2019

Our Regional Sales Manager Ryan McPherson recently returned from an exploration of India’s relaxed southern states – Tamil Nadu and Kerala - enchanted by the many wonders from colonial Chennai to charming Kochi. After taking a deep dive into Hinduism and savouring spectacular coffee and cuisine bursting with incredible flavours, he shared with us his trip highlights and imparted some wisdom for those wishing to explore this diverse region. 

If you haven't been to the destination before, what were you expecting?

It was my first time to India, and I was expecting that chaotic craziness that is often depicted - lots of people, noise and colour. I’ve explored a lot of southeast Asia and had imagined a similar level of activity. With a population of around 1.3 billion people, crowds, mad traffic and endless activity are a given. However, the southern states are a lot less densely populated than their northern counterparts and a lot more laid back, so I was looking forward to experiencing that.

What was your first impression?

I was whisked away by A&K as soon as I landed in a delightfully smooth process. India’s Prime Minister was meeting a Chinese dignitary in Chennai the day I landed, so there was a lot of traffic and detours, but they were well managed. I will have to admit to a bit of culture shock – the traffic, noise and sheer number of people was intense. But thanks to A&K navigating our way from point to point in a comfortable air-conditioned vehicle with outstanding guides, we were able to avoid some of the craziness. Our route was quite leisurely with plenty of time to stop and explore authentic markets frequented only by locals and really immerse ourselves in the day-to-day.

What wowed you?

Without doubt, the people. In southern India, especially the eastern state of Tamil Nadu, it is less common to see foreigners than up north and as we travelled around, we were regularly greeted by smiling locals, waving and welcoming us. Despite tiny earnings, the people I came across were, without exception, happy, hospitable and so friendly with a very strong sense of family and faith.

Was there something about the destination or the trip that you were not expecting?

The variety of food. Travelling in other destinations, I’ve sometimes found the meal choices to be quite repetitive. On this journey, though, the food was extraordinary and always different. Southern Indian cuisine is famously hot and spicy with a liberal use of coconut, fresh green chillies, tamarind, lentils and rice. One of my favourite dishes was vendakkai puli kulambu, a South Indian style Tamil Nadu okra curry simmered in a rich tangy tamarind gravy. It was unlike anything I have tasted and truly delicious. This dish was served up at a lunch buffet and I was guilty of going back for thirds.

I so loved the cuisine that I think this particular journey could be promoted as a stand-alone gourmet food trip.

What was your most memorable experience?

The Meenakshi Temple in Madurai was a highlight for me. Southern India is full of temples and shrines, some are World Heritage monuments and many are living places of worship. Each one has its own unique design, identity and history, and all are so different. As well as being incredibly well maintained, Meenakshi Temple is a hive of activity with devotees worshipping, praying, making offerings and chanting and the temple priests, shrouded in incense, performing rituals all day long. It was an incredibly spiritual experience.

Was there a person/people you met who transformed your experience?

Our guide, Srinivasan, had such an incredible knowledge of the Hindu culture and the way Southern India operated that he drew me in. I became eager to learn as much as I could about the ancient religion. Srinivasan made sure we stopped at small roadside huts to witness mudbrick making and other artisan crafts, eye-opening experiences.

Visiting Phillipkutty’s Farm was a highlight. The farm is located on a small island (approximately 750 acres) in the backwaters by Vembanad Lake. We were treated to a unique cooking class with the charming owners, Anu and her mother-in-law Aniamma, inside the family kitchen before a delicious alfresco lunch on the edge of the lake.

Did you learn something special or interesting?

I learnt a lot more about the Hindu religion. They have hundreds of millions of gods and, unlike other religions, have no common set of teachings, instead encouraging believers to take their own path, and adapting it to suit their own lives. Observing it up close and seeing it day-to-day was fascinating and quite moving.

Did you buy something special to bring home?

Yes - South Indian coffee and a filter so I could make it like the locals do when I got back home. I was amazed by the famous metre coffee (and metre chai) we saw (and drank), where the hot brew is poured from a height to create a delicious, aerated, frothy drink. I also bought some Indian mango pickle, made from green mango, often eaten alongside curries for extra tang and spiciness. I also collected some great recipes in the hope that I can replicate some of those incredible dishes!

What advice would you give to a prospective traveller?

Be sure to incorporate the service of a guide in your itinerary. It’s impossible to grasp all the nuances of a destination without one. With Srinivasan leading the way, I was able to gain a better understanding of the significance and history of each different region - from the British sights of Chennai and the ancient temples we visited, to the ashram in Pondicherry and the dreamy backwaters of Kerala – and the many intriguing local customs. We were able to really appreciate things in depth thanks to Srinivasan’s unique insight. In Kochi’s Mattancherry Palace, for example, the most beautiful murals adorn every wall. They depict stories from the great epic, Ramayana, which were explained to us and even though some were painted as early as the 15th century, they are still wonderfully vivid today.

Having a guide with us also meant that we were able to interact with people along the way in a really genuine, authentic manner stopping off to meet local brick makers by the side of the road, farmers herding their ducks along a canal, basket weavers in their workshop, spice planters on their estate and fishermen hauling in the catch at the water’s edge. These were very real encounters and gave us a unique insight to life in the south.