Gently floating as I currently find myself on a traditional Keralian houseboat near Allepey, it is hard to imagine that just yesterday our Keralian adventure took us to the other side of the state: a land of complete contrast to here.
Our first night in Kerala had found us, or so I imagined, in the high peaks of the Western Ghats – a mountain range stretching down much of western India. Our views were spectacular. Views that stretched for mile after mile of intense greens and rising peaks. Our morning however was to show us that we were far from the high peaks I had imagined the night before.
Our driver, Manoj, managed to rather undersell our morning. ‘Today, we can take jeep and see tea plantation. We drive half way and jeep drives up next half, off-road.’ This was stereotypically Indian – either you get a great over-sell or a great under-sell. Rarely, do you experience an accurate sell.
So we drove up the ever smaller, ever twister and ever (as I thought at the time) bumpier roads. Our driver calm in the face of buses coming hurtling towards him in the middle of the road around blind bends. It was with great shock therefore when I heard him say, ‘Shit!’ This was not the type of language I could ever imagine emerging from his very gentle face.
‘Shit!’ is a good phrase and perhaps the only accurate phrase for when you find yourself going up a steep hill and find a truck stuck on the verge, having failed to quite make it around the tight corner. Several attempts to pass the truck failed, the road simply too steep for the car to cope. Manoj however to the rescue, a couple of quick phone calls and chats with locals led to a perfectly acceptable solution. The jeep came and collected us (after a rather steep 5 minute walk up the hill to get beyond the truck) and a neighbour agreed he could park his car outside their house.
For Manoj however I think this may have been a good day. He too could be a tourist! With his car stuck, there was little more he could do but join us. The jeep careened up the mountainside, flying over bumps and landing with a thump the other side. Upon reaching a village perched on the edge of the mountainside, our driver jumped out to get some diesel. Looking around, I was a little perplexed. Diesel? Where was the petrol station? Moments later he returned with a plastic five litre bottle and a cut up plastic soft drink bottle with a hose attached. Diesel issue solved.
We then proceeded to go higher and higher up a mountain – leaving the ‘high peak’ of our hotel far below us. Eventually, our driver stopped and pointed to a mountain range in the far distance shrouded in cloud – ‘that’ he informed us, ‘is Tamil Nadu state, we are going there!’ Tamil Nadu is where my maid, Maggie, is from so I was excited to be able to tell her I had at least seen the state from up close.
As we rose out of the jungle, slowly a verdant carpet spread out around us. Suddenly, the expression ‘a carpet of tea’ came to mind and equally suddenly – it made sense. Each cluster of tea plants were like a detailed knot on a Persian rug – separate but intricately linked to the knots beside it. Knot by knot creating an image of a flowing softness of colour.
In the village, we had also picked up a lady with truly the most beautiful smile on earth who had gone to the village for her weekly supplies. Her return trip to the tea planation she worked on was dependent on such a lift. Only two hours later, having arrived at her house, did I realise just how far it was to the tea factory: how isolated it was, how isolated her life was. The roads became impassable but for the sturdiest four by four – ours I was not convinced was all that sturdy and its engine needed screws tightening at every photo stop.
Every time I turned to look at the lady she was smiling. Was she too enjoying this crazy bumpy ride to the top or was it just the unexpectedness of finding two foreigners enjoying what she saw as normal that made her smile? Either way, without many words to share with each other, we laughed and both I think will remember that very briefest of friendships for much of our lives.
This lady of course reminds you that amidst this intense jaw-dropping beauty are everyday people trying to live their everyday lives to the best of their everyday ability. These people live in poverty yet always have time to smile broadly at a stranger. The tea plantation workers must pick 31 kilos of tea a day plus clean it, all for a miserable 350 rupees a day (3.50 UK), yet they took the time to stop and recognise your presence with a smile, happily showing you the tea they had picked and allowing themselves to be photographed. There was no sense of the intrusion I feared there would be, rather just a delight in sharing their lives with us.
We reached Tamil Nadu!! Rather, we reached the top of the mountain range representing the Kerala / Tamil Nadu border. Maggie will, it seems, have to wait to see that picture of me with a Tamil Nadu background. Thick fog enveloped us, hiding our view. Our driver did assure us that below was village after village and even large towns. The tree in my nearest foreground was all I got to see!
Our tea plantation claims to be the highest organic tea planation in the world. True or not, it was certainly a very long way above sea-level at 8,000ft. As we ascended the mountain (through switchback after switchback of tortuously bumpy roads) you were left wondering – how in all heaven were these roads ever built, how in all heaven was the planation carved out of the jungle and finally how in all heaven did the heavy machinery (from 1935) every make its way up these roads? My theory is that the reason this factory has still its original equipment is that modern equipment would never get up the mountain!
Our journey down was equally an adventure although of course missing my new friend. To, I can only assume, save diesel our driver shut off the engine and glided down the mountainside. Well, no, glided is definitely not the right word – rather careened over the bumps and around bends. A free massage, the driver jokingly said. Certainly not
a massage I would pay for. When finally we reached a relatively smooth bit of road (well surfaced anyhow!) that was it – brake off and AWAY! We glanced at each other, smiled bravely and…well continued and anyhow it was fun! The thought, I will admit, did flash through my mind, we are a long way from anywhere should something happen. A long way from even a helicopter being able to airlift us out! My husband later reassured me that we would have been fine! ‘Did I not see the ambulance at the tea factory?’‘Ambulance? What ambulance?’ ‘The box on the wall with ambulance written on it of course!’
To be able to accurately describe all that we saw and experienced in those four hours is impossible. No wordsmith or photographer could really capture the true beauty of Munnar. I do not represent any travel agency but if you too want to experience true beauty let me know and I can put you in touch with our travel agents and of course lovely Manoj!
To read more about our Kerala adventure read my last blog and the next few blogs to be published very soon.
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