I don’t know about you, but as an expat living in India, I do have a tendency to travel around India in a bit of a bubble. Flights take us from point to point, we run to the tourist spots in air conditioned Inovas and stay in palatial five star accommodation.
There is a movement against this form of fast tourism. Instead, some travel companies are advocating slow tourism –
where you spend more time immersing yourself in the culture and getting to know the people living in that area rather than checking off all the tourist hotspots. Airbnb started it, but I think they are losing their way now. People just rent out their second property and prefer to not have too much interaction with their guests.
Today, you can book “homestay” accommodation in a variety of hill stations (towns and villages located in mountainous regions across India). These homestays are large family homes with independent living quarters for guests to come and stay. The allure for some people is that they can be cheaper than local hotels, or may be the only option if you want to stay outside the main hill station.
Go to Kerala!
Kerala is my favourite state in the whole of India. I know Tamil Nadu has been good to me, but the thought of travelling to Kerala fills me with joy. The food is excellent, the towns and cities are clean and for the country bumpkin in me, it’s a very green state.
I thought I had seen most of Kerala, but it turns out that I have barely scratched the surface. An email landed in my inbox one morning from a lady called Menaka who wanted to promote responsible tourism. She wanted people to come and experience the village way of life in Wayanad instead of rushing around to see all the tourist attractions.
A quick Google around and I discovered exactly where Wayanad was. It’s right at the top north-eastern corner of Kerala. The fact that it was in Kerala just about sealed it for me. It was a done deal when I learned that it was near to a large tiger reserve and elephants are known to roam the area.
Getting to Wayanad
Reaching Wayanad is an adventure in itself for expats. The quickest way is to take a flight from Chennai to Kozhikode (formerly known as Calicut) and take a taxi up the hairpin bends. A better route, and the one that we took, was to fly to Mysore from Chennai on a Trujet flight. The route to Wayanad passes through the tiger reserve so if you’re lucky you might get to spot some of the famous wildlife of India! The flight lands in the evening so we stayed at the Southern Star Hotel overnight and then took a bus from Mysore Suburban Bus Stand to Sulthan Bathery.
The bus station in Mysore is quite chaotic, and it’s advised to purchase your tickets online well before you travel. Tickets are just Rs 150 each. Menaka can help you out with the arrangements if you’re apprehensive about taking a bus. The other option from Mysore is to take a taxi, but since it has to cross state lines, it’s a little expensive at Rs 3,600 for a one way trip.
Staying at Aham Anubhava
As Menaka explained to us when we arrived, her wish for Aham Anubhava is to give people a personal experience that they’ll never forget. Throughout your stay, Menaka, her family and the household staff will help immerse you into the local way of life.
You’ll be taken on a tour of the plantation that grows rubber trees, coffee plants, pepper vines and just about every fruit and vegetable that you can imagine. You’ll be introduced to the people that live in the area, welcomed into their homes and shown their farms. You’ll be taken to the local temple, the secluded rivers where the children would learn to swim and treks through the forests. You’ll discover the footprints of wild animals that passed through the farm the night before and, if lady luck is shining down upon you, you might even see one for yourself.
The best part of all this? You won’t see a single tourist taking a selfie.
(Yes, I have an irrational loathing of tourists with selfie-sticks!)
Menaka’s massive family home has been renovated to split it into two independent living quarters. Her guests stay upstairs where the three bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms can sleep upto five people.
The bathrooms are brand new with excellent ‘rain’ showers.
Each room has its own balcony that looks out across the green farmlands. It’s tempting to just sit here all morning, sipping on locally grown coffee and reading a book! If it rains, then it’s just magical to sit here and listen to the water bouncing off the roof and gushing down the steep slopes of the farm.
If it does get too cold for you outside, then you can retire to the cozy living room. It’s been jam-packed with books of all genres, so don’t fret if you forgot to bring yours!
Food & Drink
Breakfast, lunch and dinner is served on the roof terrace. It’s like alfresco dining that you pay a small fortune for at the five star hotels in Chennai that have rooftop restaurants. The food is all freshly cooked by Menaka’s mother who is a walking encyclopedia of south Indian cuisine.
Throughout your stay, you’ll experience a whole variety of local dishes from recipes that have been passed down through generation upon generation. Most of the food is locally sourced, even grown in Menaka’s farm. If you have a taste for Indian pickles, then each meal will be a treat as you try, amongst many others, gooseberry, pepper and mango pickles.
All the food is vegetarian and there’s honestly enough to feed a small army so you’ll never be left feeling like you wanted more!
An extra special treat was the pepper infused locally grown coffee. It had a spicy kick to go along with the caffeine – I wonder how long it will be before Starbucks picks this up and markets it as a new health drink!
Things to Do During Your Stay
Menaka’s vision for Aham Anubhava is to create an experience that you wouldn’t get if you stayed at a hotel, hired a car and zipped around all the tourist spots. Instead, it’s about exploring the local area and meeting the people that live there.
On our first morning, we walked around with Menaka as she did her daily rounds on the farm. Every day there is work to be done, plants to be fixed and harvesting to be done. On our walk we came across footprints, a boggy puddle and uprooted banana trees. It meant that the night before, wild boars had come through this way and had a grand old time at the expense of the plants.
The rubber trees and the milking of the rubber that they produce was particularly fascinating. A skilled farmer has to make small incisions in the bark and the tree excretes a white milk for a couple of hours afterwards. This is the mixed with acid, compressed and then cured in a smoke room to produce raw rubber.
We trekked through the forests, being typical city folk, losing our balance every few seconds. Menaka will tell you the stories of things that have happened here as you trek to secluded areas.
In the absence of swimming pools, the children learn to swim in the local river! But watch out, because anywhere you get rocks and water, wild animals come to drink and sunbathe. Tigers have been spotted on these rocks in the past! If a tiger was in the area, then the locals will quickly come to know about it, so it’s quite safe!
Menaka took us into the local village to meet the people that live there and visit the tribal school that was named in honour of her grandfather. The village is so sleepy, the dogs can just lie in the middle of the road and no car bothers them!
But just because the village is sleepy, doesn’t mean the locals are cut off from the rest of the world. Indeed, a morning ritual for the older men is to gather at the local chai (tea) shop, read the paper from cover to cover and then discuss global politics. Ask them what’s happening in America or about the elections in Germany and they’ll have an opinion on it! We even tried it out for ourselves, drinking the tea with the village elders.
There are plenty of walks and neighbours to meet. As you walk down the narrow, empty roads, Menaka will continue with her stories, like the time a farm worker got drunk and tried to milk a roaming elephant instead of the cow!
A short drive from the home, you can watch the sun set over the local cricket ground. The ground looks out across the dramatic landscape of the western ghats.
At the local temple, which is one of the only Hindu temples dedicated to a Goddess, you can take a moment to drink in the spiritual surroundings. If you’re feeling particularly daring, you can wander over to the shrine where people worship snakes. This is the real deal because within the shrine, a cobra has made its home here and is often seen sunbathing on the rocks near by.
Menaka will be your companion throughout all of this exploration and immersion. If you did want to go further afield – the famous Edakkal Caves are close by – Menaka will arrange for a taxi to pick you up, take you where you want to go and drop you back again.
Whether you want to spend a few days relaxing on the balcony, meet all the local people or use Aham Anubhava as a base to explore other parts of Wayanad, it’s all up to you.
What You Need to Know About Staying With Menaka and Her Family
Wayanad is really out of the way and takes several hours to reach by road from either direction. You could stay for one night but you’ll really get the most out of it if you stay for two or three nights. The costs are less about the accommodation and more about the time Menaka and her family spend with you to help you have a truly unique experience.
From morning to evening, Menaka will take you around the local area and regale you with stories of things that have happened to her family and others around her.
If you plan to use Aham Anubhava as a base to see the bigger tourist attractions in Wayanad, Menaka will gladly arrange for a taxi and ensure that you are well taken care of.
The whole concept of Aham Anubhava is responsible, immersive tourism. It’s about bringing people who are respectful of the local area and want to learn about the way of life there. There’s no alcohol served (and you are requested not to bring your own). The family is vegetarian, so if you absolutely must have meat with your meals, you can visit a restaurant in the local town, but it won’t be served at the home.
If you’d like an experience in India like no other, and have memories that will last you a life time, get in touch with Menaka and book your retreat to the secluded farmlands of Wayanad! You can reach Menaka at: meenramanan ‘at’ gmail.com (replace ‘at’ with @).
(If you want to read about my personal experience with Menaka and Aham Anubhava, click here).