One’s vision of India before you first get here is of a chaotic teeming mass of people in a chaotic world of rundown buildings within which small enterprises of all descriptions take place. You also imagine vast poverty and slums. You may also envisage the Indian man / woman as the stereotypical image of an Indian propagated by Hollywood and indeed our own restricted ability to see Indians as ‘Indians’ who don’t fit into our rather limited image of well an Indian.
Flying into Mumbai seemed to very much confirm this image of a teeming mass of people. Poverty in Mumbai is quickly shoved in your face for you to try to begin to come to terms with – if indeed that is ever possible. The vast wealth of certain sections of Indian society also becomes rapidly clear.
Quickly, however, it also became clear that you can be Indian and not look my ignorant vision of ‘Indian’. You can look ‘Chinese’; ‘Tibetan’; almost white; extremely dark and every other colour and ethnic make up you can almost imagine. India is far from a homogeneous country of one ethnicity and one culture.
Our first attempt to begin to see for ourselves the great diversity in India beyond the bounds of what Pune can show us began today. Kerala has proven to be a complete contrast to Maharashtra. Both states on the Indian western coast; both states emerging from this year’s monsoon but utterly different geographically.
So what are my first impressions of Kerala? Without a doubt I love it and I have yet to see Kerala beyond the 4 hour drive from the airport to tonight’s hotel.
Kerala: lush forests wrapped around rolling and also at times precipitous mountains and hills; solid architectural houses rather than the more blocky housing seen more commonly in and around Pune; bright houses painted every colour of the rainbow – sometimes several colours of the rainbow at the same time; clean (for India) and quiet (for India) streets; men in lungis – imagine a long skirt that can, through ingenious wrapping, be turned into shorts, palazzo style trousers (above the ankle), short skirts – some men wear these in Pune but here more do than don’t; spectacular scenery; good god it is humid (at least until you are very high up in the mountains); narrow twisty roads ascending mountains and dropping down the other side; and crazy driving – hair-raising overtaking around blind corners and equally terrifying, being overtaken while you can see a bus hurtling towards you from around a blind corner!
Our journey from Kochi airport led us up through the spice gardens and onto the tea plantations of Munnar. A brief stop at a spice garden led us around a whistle stop
tour of a ‘sample’ spice garden. Within 20 minutes, 30 plants were pointed out; the local name and botanical name given; and what the Ayurvedic (Indian herbal medicine) properties were. Needless to say none of which has stayed in my head beyond the fact that Stone Banana trees are huge and only have one fruit, vanilla is a creeper as is the pepper plant and that some plant of whose name I have thoroughly forgotten tastes both disgusting and gorgeous simultaneously – should I remember the name – it is great for stabilising sugar levels in diabetics! Oh and you can’t forget the bamboo plant that produces seeds that look and taste exactly like rice. Only issue being it only has these seeds once every 42 years so I’m guessing it’s never really going to take off commercially.
Our journey also saw us (I kind of feel embarrassingly) discovering how a pineapple grew. Now I couldn’t tell you exactly how I would have drawn a picture of a pineapple growing but I can assure you, it would not have looked like what it actually looked like. We also saw mile after mile of rubber trees all of which were tapped to collect sap. Monkeys were to found at the side of the road everywhere and some were clearly quite content to be approach and photographed – I, on the other hand, was happy to keep a wary distance. An elephant was even spotted around the back of a house as we passed by.
Turning off the main Kochi – Munnar road (for UK / Ireland people – a B road at best) we continued down (or should I say up) a road that got narrower and narrower, passing through a few very small towns and villages. Along the route the terrain got steeper by the minute. Our final ascent to our hotel was signified by a sign saying – 1st gear needed – as the driver took us up a near vertical hill.
Our relief to have arrived before dark – seriously that road would have been terrifying at night – was countered by our stunned silence upon seeing the view. Sunset had lit up all the valleys below us catching the fog that drifted out of the forest. For miles we could see the Western Ghats spread out below us. Without doubt it has to count as one of the most spectacular views of my life.
We were warmly welcomed with garlands of flowers (my first in India) and a blessing. While the hotel may not be anything special – really no more than just a log cabin in the mountains, the scenery and the staff more than make up for it.
There is something weird though – something really weird I haven’t really got my head around yet – its just a little chilly here. Now it’s still t-shirt weather, don’t get me wrong but up here in the mountains it’s not hot! Very strange experience.
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