Finally we are at another hotel with WiFi. It is raining heavily and we are glad to be in a nice hotel with TV, WiFi and a nice restaurant. Three days left to go on this tour and we are still enjoying it. I am trying to catch up with the travelogues, so here are two more.
India Travelogue #8
Started out early again and drove a short distance to the town of Munnar, where we stopped to buy some snacks and see some tea shops. They sell lots of tea in these parts, and spices too. As we continued our drive, heading for Periyar, we were still passing lots of tea plantations. Today we noticed that they had tall trees scattered amongst the bushes, trees from Australia. The shade is good for the plants and the roots help keep the soil from eroding, as well as releasing some water to the tea bushes during the dry season. They can use the wood to make plywood also. They are also experimenting with planting orange trees among the tea bushes.
We were very high in the mountains and the road was very narrow. When huge buses came along we had to find a wide spot (sometimes backing up) and get way over and then they would pass us with inches to spare. When we reached Periyar, near the Periyar Tiger Reserve, we entered the gate for Greenwoods, our nicest hotel yet. The grounds were beautiful with a swimming pool, badminton court, lots of trees, some of them with jackfruits on them, a big teahouse built high in the trees on stilts, a weight and exercise room, a theater, and an open-air restaurant. Our room was spacious and had every amenity. This was welcome because Elaine still wasn't feeling tip-top, and there was excellent English TV while she was laying around. Once again we were greeted by the staff with paint on our foreheads, flower leis, and this time a coconut with a straw in it so we could drink the water inside.
Good thing Elaine rested in the afternoon because about 4:30 we went to Mr. Abraham's spice garden. His grandfather planted it in the 1950's and it was amazing how many spices and fruits are planted in such proximity to each other, and how much he told us about them. To name just a few, we saw cardamom, vanilla bean, cocoa pods, nutmeg & mace, ginger, clove, mango, pineapple, breadfruit, basil, many kinds of bananas (23 grow here), and many more that I can't remember. It was starting to rain so we went into his house to have an authentic banana leaf dinner, which was cooked by his wife and we ate with our hands, which is the Kerala custom. We had chicken curry, dal curry, excellent parathas, tapioca mash, fish curry, rice, cooked veggies, and we made a sweet dessert with rice, curd, sugar and mashed small bananas. Afterwards we took pictures of the couple and saw their family pictures and heard about their history. Mr. Abraham and his garden have been written up in a book about the 80 best gardens in the world, and he is very proud of it. Surprisingly enough, he has big black tufts of hair sticking right out of his ears and he is proud of that too! Upon returning to the hotel we went up to a dance performance in the theater by a Tamil Nadu girl which was excellent. Her makeup and costume were very intricate and colorful, yet only 5 people attended this. What a shame. She was better than some of the dancers we saw in Khajuraho at the big dance performance.
Wednesday, 11/17/10 there was an early morning jungle walk in the Periyar reserve but we elected not to go. Shanji had said that there would be lots of mud and leeches and we expected that they wouldn't see much wildlife because he said he has been here 30-40 times and never seen a tiger. Also, Elaine needed the rest. When they got back we were glad that we hadn't gone because mostly they saw trees and leeches, plus a couple of deer. While they were cleaning up and having breakfast, we went into town to change money and go to the internet. Then we decided to walk back to the hotel, missed seeing the gate, and ended up walking way out of town, then back again. So we got some exercise after all. Later we went to a performance of Karala martial arts. It was a very choreographed show of 6 guys fighting with various implements, such as daggers and shields, long sticks, some metal whip-like things, and ending with batons with fire burning ends, and a guy diving through burning hoops. The fumes from all the burning kerosene were overwhelming. It was performed in a pit that looked like an empty swimming pool with a dirt floor. It was packed, and cost about $4 per person, so they were doing well. That was the night that Shanji had a cake to celebrate Anna's birthday after dinner, but we opted out. We are finding that the group dinners take way too long to get service and we aren't enjoying all the Indian food, so we are waiting until we are feeling really fit again before we rejoin the group for meals.
India Travelogue #7
This was our travel day so we had the morning free, but because I was having the runs, we didn't dare go very far from our hotel. During the morning, Elaine watched TV and I worked on the netbook, but there were frequent power outages. At noon we moved out to the lobby to wait for the cars to arrive. There was a young couple out there who were traveling by themselves and who were trying to get plane tickets to go to South India. They had made arrangements with a travel agency in Delhi when they were there and had only just learned that their tickets were bogus and they now had to pay (again) for new ones. Sadly, these kind of travel scams seem to happen often in underdeveloped countries. The cars arrived and we went to the airport, only to learn that our plane was going to be delayed. We all went to the restaurant and had a beer and some food, and then cleared security and entered the waiting room. It was packed because there was another plane that was delayed also. After a 3 hour delay, we finally got on the plane and headed back to Delhi. By the time we got to our hotel in Delhi, it was late and we all were tired, but it was our last night together and our departure dinner was scheduled. Mayur took us to the restaurant on the corner which had been saving a table for us for hours, and which was loaded with Indian families, so it was really noisy. Interestingly, the men were all sitting at one long table and the women and children at another long table. The kids were running all over and making a lot of noise. We ordered drinks and some Indian food, and were served amazingly fast compared to everywhere else we had eaten. David had collected tips for Mayur from everyone and did an eloquent job of presenting it. Mayur has been one of the best guides we have ever had, perhaps THE BEST, and we were all happy to give him a good tip. In this country that means 150 rupees a day (about $4). It was after 11PM when we finally got back to our room, after saying goodbye to the people leaving for the airport early. We will miss them – this has been a great group.
On Sunday, the 14th, we said goodbye to Mayur and took a taxi to the airport with Warren, the only one who will be continuing with us in Cochin. He left from a different terminal, so he got dropped off first. We left from the old domestic terminal because we were flying Spicejet, but quickly learned that this was also a very nice terminal and even has WiFi. Our flight left on time and arrived early in Kochi. A car was there to pick us up and we learned it was usually an hour and a half drive to the hotel in Fort Cochin. On the drive it became immediately obvious that the vegetation is very tropical, the weather is hot and humid, there is much less traffic and garbage strewn about, and the socioeconomic level seems much higher than in the north. It reminded us of being in Bali or Thailand. There were lots of billboards along the highway. Everything is very green because it rains almost everyday by late afternoon or evening.
Because it takes about 1 ½ hours to drive from the airport, by the time we got checked in at the hotel, it was 6:30PM and time for the group meeting. Our new guide was Shanji, from the state we were now in called Kerala. The group is made up of Jasmin & Peter, from Adelaide, Australia, Paul & Allison from Sydney but they now live in Singapore, Anna, from Ireland, Tom, from Melbourne, Ed from London, Warren from Australia, and us. We all had beers during the meeting, and then headed out for dinner. Warren stayed at the hotel and we should have too because by the time everyone ordered and ate, it was very late and we were exhausted. The restaurant specialized in fish which is quite prevalent here because we are on the coast. Elaine had seafood pasta which turned out to be in a sweet sauce, and I had prawns that were in a coconut sauce and would have been good but they had cooked it with capsicums (bell peppers) which I had specifically requested them NOT to use. The food here is different than in north India although there are similarities. Shanji told us that each of the states down in the south have their own language, and when people from northern India come here, they have to communicate in English, the only common language. He also told us that southern Indians are much darker due to different ancestors. In Kerala, there is currently a communist government, the only freely elected communist government in the world. Apparently a long time ago when only a few people owned all the land, the communists promised land reform and when they were elected, they made sure the big estates were broken up and local people got some land. So they have been in power off and on ever since. But Shanji said they currently aren't doing much for the people and they won't be elected in 7 months when they have a new election.
Because there aren't big cities down here, as there are in the north, the people are spread out all over the place, and the best way to get around is by bus. We have a small bus/van for our group and it will stay with us for most of the next 11 days. The driver is John and he is a friendly, helpful guy. We left the next day at about 8 to drive to Munnar. Just as we left we saw a sign that said it was only 118 km to Munnar, yet Shanji said it would take about 5 hours. Quickly we learned that there are no big highways, just convoluted streets to get out of Fort Cochin and narrow roads once we got into the mountains. There were lots of waterfalls and we stopped at one to take some pictures. Then we hit the area where there were tea plantations; the fields were full of small bushes that were very well trimmed. Shaji stopped to explain some things and let us take pictures of the ladies who were working on the tea shrubs, trimming off the tender leaves on top with a shearing device that had a box underneath to catch the cut leaves. Sometimes they pick the leaves off by hand so they can get them whole, but that cuts their production from 150 kg a day to 50 kg a day. They wear something like a tarp around their bodies so the tea branches don't poke them or catch their clothing and they can move easily among the bushes. Tea bushes would grow into a tree if they let them; they trim them every 8 to 21 days to make sure the leaves have the right amount of polyphenols, and they can make lots of different kinds of tea from the same leaves, depending on how they process them. Tea originated in China and then came to India, and it is BIG here. We passed so many areas where tea bushes were planted, sometimes on very steep slopes, and even in very rocky areas.
Finally we reached an area where we had to get out of the van and ride the rest of the way in jeeps because the road was so steep to our hotel. It was a beautiful hotel and we were greeted by the staff, one of whom put a colored marking on our foreheads with red and yellow paint, the next guy put a lei of fragrant flowers around our necks, and a third guy gave us a cold fruit juice drink. We had a light lunch while waiting for our rooms, and then the others went for a short hike while we rested. That evening we met the others in the “bar” where Shanji had a fire going because it was chilly due to the high elevation. He gave us all Indian rum and coke and we learned that India rum is good. The only thing the hotel serves is Kingfisher beer, which tastes good but always seems to give us a headache.
It was a quiet night in a beautiful setting.