Monday, September 29, 2014

Scoring 10/10 Kerala - Southern India!

Text and pictures by Barry Greville-Eyres


Disembarking at Kochi, on an in-bound flight from Dubai, as the only pale-face and Western international tourist amongst countless ‘commuting’ Cochinites was, surely, an indication that I was onto something very good! Early evidence of this was that whilst en route I was invited to share a packed dinner with a young Indian couple and although I graciously declined this offer (in favor of some quiet Kabul decompression time) this unbridled act of hospitality and generosity set the tone for a cracking 10/10 – and 10 sublime days in Kerala state.  
My Kerala at it's most vivid best! Little more to be said......
Chai in motion - color, charm, character!
Munnar under monsoon
The fact that I was in the unique position to experience my own lonely planet in India – of sorts, was largely attributed to the fact that, timing wise, we were still in the throes of the monsoon and therefore off-peak tourist season. My driver and tour guide Ossey (contactable directly on email was superb company though and outstanding at his craft. He was particularly attuned to my ‘ridiculously misplaced,’ Westernized road safety standards and concerns when encountering, often head-on, the wild banshee, kamikaze-styled driving of his countrymen. I also had the exceptional experience of ‘cruising’ Kerala in the company of many domestic tourists from throughout India and as consequence of my paleness, mad-dog South Africaness and aloneness was afforded immediate ‘celeb status’ without song, dance or toss of a cricket ball. Of course, my cricket-speak/knowledge and status as an international civil servant cemented this standing.
Lonely planet - India in the midst of a monsoon deluge on the backwaters of Alleppey
Although exposed to a relatively narrow, socio-economic segment of the domestic tourism market, I was nevertheless impressed with their obvious pride and pleasure in all things Indian; their overwhelming wanderlust and environmental awareness/appreciation; and general friendliness and hospitality. All credit to the Cochin-based tourism company Lotus Destinations Pvt Ltd ( and Philip Mathew specifically for putting together a great packaged tour and itinerary that provided diverse yet intimate insights into people and places within Kerala State.  
Riotous profusion - freshly prepared ceremonial garlands  
Southern India’s jewel state, globally branded and affectionately known by domestic tourists as God's Own Country, deserves a resounding endorsement and did not disappoint. Whereas I prefer to let my ‘amateurish’ pictures do the talking, I’ve embellished the posting somewhat with some personal thoughts,WOW insights and experiences. 
Nilgiri Tahr browsing and minding his own business - Eravikulam National Park
Puzzle through this - maze or mosaic of manicured tea - Munnar estates
Variety is Kerala’s spice for life – from a myriad of monsoon-watered falls to misty, montane hill station tea plantations to the beckoning and breathtakingly beautiful backwaters to the surfeit shades of verdant green to the wild and alluring ranges of the Western Ghats to handy hands teasing away gnarly knots to gateways for gastronomic discovery to incessantly sounding horns to the disarming, warming and genuine home hospitality – this is Kerala!  
All creatures small........

and large .... a Spotted deer

Backwater time - Alleppey - a relaxing early morning commute for most!

Going native and off the beaten track – most certainly requires mental and psychological re-calibration particularly with regards to road travel and manageable distances between destinations. There is no such thing as a quick breeze along the autobahn or freeway – bargain on top speeds between 30-40km p/h on average to poor road conditions; take time to smell the curries and drink delicious roadside chai and Kerala’s famed coconut water; crank DOWN the volume on your hearing aid and let Kerala countryside and scenery seduce you.
A pristine river system in the heart of the Silent Valley National Park
Master of disguise! Pompadour Green Pigeon spotted in the Silent Valley National Park
Another favorite icon that resonates many years later
Going WILD! The tip of the adventure tourism iceberg – whereas the state has an abundance of protected areas (IUCN/UNESCO declared) and although generally accessible to the public they remain, seemingly and largely, a hidden treasure trove to hardcore adventure-based tourists – hikers, naturalists or others seeking to ‘lose’ themselves in a totally wild experience and geographical area.  Land-use planning and zoning, in these areas, should seek to open multiple recreational opportunities including overnight hikes (guided or unguided) which should be the bare minimum. A hiking way network also facilitates primary, area access for other recreational options. Guided and popularized hiking in Silent Valley National Park or kayaking on the backwaters at Alleppey would be particularly appealing.
Myriad of monsoon-watered falls

Fractured granite dome on the Kumaragiri Estate

Kerala state bucks the system and is very far from the stereotypical India you commonly hear or read about. Banish previously held perceptions and open yourself to delightful discovery and a decidedly different experience. The state is progressive, prosperous and well administered. Open spaces abound; rural people are resilient and resourceful, healthy, productive and have struck a customary balance (premised on sustainable development) and appreciation for the bio-physical environment. The dominant demographic segment by age, the youth, is vibrant, colorful, hardworking, engaging and eager to learn – providing great hope for the future of India!
Hard at work! A tea-picker trying to meet her daily target at the tea plantations near Munnar
Iconic Chinese fishing net off Fort Kochi
Cuisine from Kerala is distinctive and exquisite – nuanced, scented, eye-catching, seasoned with such finesse and subtlety according to produce, condiments, culture and tradition and regional variations. In my experience - wholesome and healthy; fresh, safe and clean; never boring and always delicious. On our travels Ossey guided me to mostly ‘local’, family-oriented eateries where we shared many, memorable vegetarian dishes. Ossey also contributed significantly to my education, culinary or otherwise, whilst on our sojourn throughout the state and I have to extend thanks and appreciation to him in this regard. Similarly, I am now a lungi/dhuti convert (and will leave this up to the self-discovery, research or imagination of readers) and have, once again, Ossey to thank for educating me and refining my taste in this important area. 
Enjoyed - happily! Standard fare cruising Alleppey's backwaters
Fresh produce market - Munnar
Out of sweetness comes forth strength..... bush tucker
Ayurveda and its associated treatments – with a legacy of 5,000 years of healing and rejuvenation through natural herbs, oils, massages and traditional treatment practices is almost guaranteed to provide one with ‘another or out of body experience.’ It’s also a perfect foil and counter-balance to arduous road travel, an over-exercised and stressed body and super-sparking synapses that simply need to be short-circuited or de-powered altogether.
Mayura Ayurvedic Centre - Munnar highly, highly recommended!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Southern Afghanistan - Snapshots & Recollections

Pictures and words by Barry Greville-Eyres


Saddle-bagged, Afghan styled bicycle against blast wall

  • Weeks on the hop and fly - half a dozen or more beds to add to the growing tally. Flips on RAF rotary (Chinook) and fixed (Hercules C130) wing aircraft - Deep in the bowels of the C130, with countless British service men and women, incredible sense of purpose and solidarity - camaraderie despite being complete strangers. Silent conversations and thoughts passing amongst one another effortlessly with clear intent and understanding - copy that!

  • Old business and fresh money that is war never stops - a 24/7/365 - more than a decade serving and servicing the insatiable, econo-beast. Landing at Kandahar Air Field in the dead of night - hearing and then seeing, in an eerie darkness, as two USAF F16 jet fighters blast themselves from a standstill into the slumbering night sky - full throttle with after burners blazing away, ghostlike bluey-orange - GONE - a tell-tale signature for those watching and waiting;

  • Deadly drones and Marabou storks - hungry and hateful harbingers  - up to mischief and probably not too much good!

  • Receiving VIP US/UK mil treatment - accepted and respected as a peer and professional - having passed the scrutiny test - personality and credibility. Holding one's own in meetings and briefings - dancing with the  civ-mil connect ....  requiring a fleet footed yet bizarre repertoire of 'moves', growing confidence and pragmatism.

  • Suddenly that's that - moving onto a new 'theatre of war' increasingly real and drama-filled probably nearer than further - when will it ever end? Framed backs moving forward without hesitation or directional glances - certainly not backward! Gone and forgotten by most 

  • Something’s that are said to be true are the case especially when experienced first-hand over a life time - even the modern military - massive, mighty and sophisticated has hardly changed when it comes of the age-old adage of 'hurry up and wait;'

  • Social media - sensation and attention seekers - sheer volume of posts responsibility of individuals to be street-wise, sensitive and discerning with what they post. In relation to FB many tend to get emotional and lose sense of perspective and good common sense -  water of duck's back. Ultimately, individuals represent or are associated with an organization - unless individuals go as far as distancing or 'disclaiming' themselves from this connection or association they are part and parcel of the organization. Including insensitive and thoughtless photos and comments. Rule of thumb - think before you post! Think context - think about messages you are sending out - especially to local / national staff and a, potential, wider global audience. Especially if linked to a global brand or organization. 

Containerized accommodation for the Gurkha close/base protection force in Kandahar with their 'green fingers' handy work of sunflowers in the foreground


Flowering mint and marrows


Grapes and vines on Hescos - blast protection structures


Pre-dawn smiles usher in another day in Kandahar .....  IDG's Gurkha close/base protection force gear up for duty
  • Connecting with my spiritual, Gurkha brothers -  feeling, seeing and sensing their alienation - sharing time, space, stories and good humour with all - acknowledging and appreciating their immense sacrifice; 

An Afghan National Army defensive position overlooking the Helmand River - vestiges of another super-heated summer day


Golden silence with the Helmand River floodplain in the mid-ground
  •  Witnessing, daily, the heat build over southern Afghanistan.... blinding, searing, sapping and white hot - finally dissipating at the day end like a long held sigh;
  • September and the slow, steady slide towards winter - the promise of respite.... taking the sting and fight out of warmongers - slipping back into nature's trusty rhythms   




Persian garden on the bank of the Helmand River - legacy of Helmand Valley Development Authority or 'Little America' dating back to the 1950s


A day well done - upper reaches of Helmand River from Lashkar Gah


Riverside Helmand - Lashkar Gah Health and Racquet Club - a work in progress! 


Kandahar desert garden 


A rather pointed, ladies' finger - the commonly used okra vegetable valued for its edible green seed pods


UNDP compound - Lashkar Gah - Helmand Province pioneering regionalization and deconcentration in southern Afghanistan


  • The sum of some very good men is infinite. Met and work with some exceptional US/UK military men - many will be leaving the Afghan theatre within the next month or so as the ISAF/NATO drawdown is completed. The same can be said about the new generation of young Afghan men and women, particularly our colleagues in the Lashkar Gah office, that are enthusiastic, energetic, highly committed and are desperate to see Afghanistan succeed and prosper post-2014.   

Added spice to our lives


Meeting with Governor Naeem - Lashkar Gah - Helmand Province


Flowered sun! 
  •  Flowered and nurtured by Nepalese tender loving care under a relentless summer sun…..



Friday, September 12, 2014

Up Close and Personal with Kumaragiri Estate


Words and  Pics by Barry Greville-Eyres

After a long trip on Kerala State roads (en route from Wayanad to Perinthalmanna) characterized by trying monsoon induced conditions; suppressed road rage and frustration; harangued by incessantly sounding horns the beckoning estate gates were an absolute heaven-sent. The ascent to the hilltop homestead, through skirted rubber trees pirouetting in the swirling mists, was therapeutic in itself as Kumaragiri began working its magic on senses awry and knotted tension. Swimming in a soundless sea of solitude, the estate’s island nature has the ability to ‘transport’ one, for the briefest time, to another ethereal place and time.
Skirted rubber trees pirouetting in the swirling mists of Kumararigi
Enter the larger than life character and the man at the center of Kumaragiri - Mr CA Kumar. In another lifetime and career (both highly successful) Ashok Kumar went by the name and professional designation of CA - Chartered Accountant Kumar (Bangalore). Years later in semi-retirement and as part of a significant, self-imposed sea change the designation has taken on new and equally impressive meaning - challenger and champion in the face of adversity. In short, Ashok together with some incredibly valuable 'assets' at his disposal including the bejeweled Kumaragiri Estate and some exceptional staff, has re-invented himself as an eco-tourism entrepreneur of note.
Kumaragiri Estate accommodation
The A-team (L-R) CA Ashok Kumar, Kunjapa, John Johnson and Anu Johnson
The communal dining and recreation area adjoining the estate accommodation
Comfortably appointed accommodation

At our first fortuitous meeting (courtesy of Lotus Destinations Pvt Ltd - a reputable, efficient and highly recommended Cochin-based tourism enterprise described by Ashok as one destined and 'fated' to happen, I was particularly taken by his vision and determination to not only ‘reinvent’ himself but to also succeed at it. Tack onto that his passion for the environment and nature, at times, assuming eco-warrior proportions. His quest for sustainable stewardship for ‘God's given’ Kumaragiri burns brightly as does Ashok's humility, especially to learn more about this new industry, hospitality and his hands-on approach to most things. The estate, over 1000 acres in land area and nestling near the hills of the Western Ghats, has been in the Kumar family for half a century and nostalgia is rich and heavy in his narrative of those adventure-filled and carefree days spent with his siblings on the estate.
Peppered profusion - one of the estate's agro-forestry crops
It's not all plain sailing though as Ashok relates the countless challenges associated with running a ‘marginal’ agro-forestry business (rubber and coconut plantations together with pepper vines) on a parcel of land that is not exactly economically viable in this day and age. Throw in bureaucratic and contentious land ownership/management issues imposed by government and siblings alike; contract labor peculiarities; the constant summertime threat posed by potentially catastrophic wildfires; dangers of over-capitalization in an emerging enterprise with little or slow return on investment and its clear that Ashok’s vision and niche tourism product – low key and low impact eco-tourism for discerning nature lovers, is a diversified lifeline for Kumaragiri. Guests are accommodated in four comfortably appointed double rooms with an adjoining dining and recreational area. Surrounding verdant canopy views, of planted plantations or natural forest, catch the eye especially when teased by errant tendrils of twirling mist.  
Kumaragiri Estate - an island swimming in a sea of solitude
Ashok, a large than life character,  together with Kunjapa at the cafeteria preparing pre-dinner snacks

Whereas Ashok refers to our chance meeting as ‘predestined’, serendipitous is perhaps a better coined phrase also encapsulating the romance, beauty and mystique of Kerala state - God's Own Country - as portrayed in the global branding of this southern Indian state as a premier tourism destination. Kumaragiri, with its natural beauty, is every bit of that and boasts some interesting recreational and educational opportunities including birding, hiking, herping (for budding or seasoned herpetologists), mountain biking, outdoor camping, working rubber and coconut plantations, swimming and lazing around at the estate’s centerpiece water feature. A stroll around the area reveals countless, unexpected monsoon watered falls and streams – sights to behold and symphonies to the ears. 
Fractured granite domes provide courses for countless monsoon watered falls

The pièce de résistance is the Malabar cuisine prepared by the estate cooks, not forgetting some of Ashok’s own inspired signature snacks including freshly roasted cashew nuts and a spicy cassava-sambal. Guaranteed to create an olfactory and gastronomic sensation - coconut oil is gently heated on a hot plate (infusing the evening air with its wonderfully exotic, silky and fragrant scent) before fresh, local raw cashews seasoned liberally with chili powder, turmeric and black pepper are slow roasted over an open flame. Grown in Kerala, cashews are a high value, labor intensive cash crop yet the state is acclaimed, internationally, for being the leading importer and exporter of the nut. Cashews are processed and finished before being exported around the world. This delightfully fresh and sumptuous snack is best enjoyed with black tea, ever-so slightly sweetened and flavored with a sprig of bruised lemon grass. Another culinary revelation was simple, boiled cassava served and spiced up with a sambal consisting of coconut oil, finely chopped Kerala green chili, red onion and seasoned with salt.
Savory snacks - freshly roasted cashew nuts

A must-do, for adventure-junkies and hard core environmentalists, is a visit to the not so proximate (a full day road and jeep track excursion) UNESCO listed Western Ghats World Heritage site and IUCN category Silent Valley National Park (SVNP). With a mosaic of vegetation types and associated habitats for all manner of life forms; landscapes be it riverine or montane and steeped in anthropological history a trip to SVNP can prove to be highly rewarding and educational.
Listed by UNESCO as Western Ghats World Heritage site and IUCN as a protected national park 

The pristine Kunthipuhza River, once the center of a fierce controversy to dam the system for hydro-electric power in the 1970s,  but saved as a result of intense environmental lobbying via the 'Save Silent Valley' campaign

Jeep transportation into the hinterland of the SVNP

Snapped per chance and unexpectedly - the stunning Pompadour Green Pigeon!

Back at Kumaragiri and at the end of a long yet satisfying day, one has wonderful option of regrouping and reflecting, on the entire experience, at Ashok’s amazing water feature – a natural rock pool with cascading waterfalls designed to soothe, cleanse and rejuvenate. Located in a natural rock amphitheater, that offers commanding and breathtaking views of the valley below, the feature provides an ideal setting complete with nature-surround sounds for any number of trademark Kerala Ayurveda treatments. The highlight, like no other, to an enchanting visit to the Kumaragiri Estate  Website:  Email:

Cascading waterfalls that feed into the natural rock pool at Kumaragiri's centerpiece water feature and recreational area

Kerala Ayurveda available, upon request, to the sound of water cascading into the natural rock pool below



Located in a natural amphitheater the Kumaragiri water feature and cafeteria area overlook the green valley below providing spectacular surrounding views



Take the plunge - visit the Kumaragiri Estate for a decidedly different, eco-tourism experience!