Tag Archives: Kerala

The Road to Heaven via The Road to Hell!

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.

IMG_0335 2Our 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.

IMG_0346‘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.

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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.

FullSizeRender 9IMG_0386In 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.

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IMG_0385This 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.

IMG_0403We 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!

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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!

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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, sIMG_0377miled 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?’ IMG_0442‘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. 

It is always nice to know that people have enjoyed what I’ve written so please do feel free to follow, like, share and of course comment below. 

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Kerala: Another India / Stunning India

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.

Pune
Pune
Kerala Hills
Kerala Hills

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.

Coconuts on sale everywhere - you drink the water with a straw and then some seem to make the husk into bowls.
Coconuts on sale everywhere – you drink the water with a straw and then some seem to make the husk into bowls.
Lungis - traditional male skirt / trousers
Lungis – traditional male skirt / trousers

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!

Warning - dangerous curves! Too right!
Warning – dangerous curves! Too right!
just a little twisty - if only my camera could have made it clearer!
just a little twisty – if only my camera could have made it clearer!
It's OK, it's only a bus coming hurtling my way!
It’s OK, it’s only a bus coming hurtling my way!

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

Stone Banana Tree - takes three years to grow and as soon as you cut off its one and only fruit - it dies!
Stone Banana Tree – takes three years to grow and as soon as you cut off its one and only fruit – it dies!

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.

Vanilla
Vanilla
Pepper tree
Pepper tree
Pineapple field!! Now don't pretend you realised they grew this way if you haven't seen it in real life!
Pineapple field!! Now don’t pretend you realised they grew this way if you haven’t seen it in real life!

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. IMG_0047Monkeys 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.

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Our welcome garlands!
Our welcome garlands!

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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