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Spicing it Up in South India

mrkeithy December 10th, 2009 No Comments ,

If there is one rule about travelling I have discovered, it is to do all the booking yourself, or at least pay closer attention to what the agent is doing. My over night stay in DelhI turns out to be the best part of an hour and half drive from the airport. Considering I have 9 hours here at best I am left less than amused. This is also means that I have to experience my earliest wakeup of this trip by far. The hotel is situated in what looks like Delhi’s version of Vegas. There are bright Neon signs everywhere advertising cheap rooms and so forth. The hotel Ajanta is ok, all thought the room is on the small side. I had been pre warned about the area I am in by Liam from my last tour who had stayed in the same place few days earlier. I grab a quick meal in the hotel, not wanting to venture out, before falling into bed.

By 3.45am the next morning I am in a taxI leaving the bright lights of Delhi’s cheap hotel district behind me.  When I pull up at the domestic airport terminal, it turns out to be a small version of Heathrow’s T5, all new bright, new and shiny. Once I have checked in and gone through security, the well equipped lounge gives me a chance to get a real cup of Costa coffee and browse a large book shop. I find a small copy of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Having never read this and facing a 4 hour stopover in Hyderabad, I decide to purchase it and start reading almost straight away.

Just over two hours latter I am walking into my third airport terminal in the past twenty four hours. Hyderabad terminal is also brand new, and the Jet airlines rep who is waiting to transfer me upstairs tells me that is has been open less than a year. After having to get my bag scanned again, I am deposited in a large airport lounge. I discover there is a premium lounge and 300 rupees latter I am able to get the first warm showersince leaving Kathmandu. The lounge also has internet, so able catch up on photo uploading and e-mails.

Eventually I touch down at Kochin airport. Kochin or KochI as its now named is very different to my last destinations. As far as the eye c an see the land is covered in palm trees. There is light rain falling which dose not help the humidity levels. What is quickly apparent, is that this part of India is very affluent. There are many new cars on the road, and the poverty which is readily on show almost everywhere in the north, seems to be all most nonexistent here. Apart from one beggar at a traffic stop, I see no other signs of it. I ask Graham, my tour operator about it. Kerala is one of the most richest states in India. Education is also taken seriously here and all children must attend school until they are fourteen. The language is also very different down here and it is one the most difficult to speak in the world I am told.

I am dropped off at the Sealord hotel in Kochi city. It turns out to be basic but comfortable. It’s on one of the main shopping roads. After settling in, I decide to see if I can get a sim card to call home for cheap as  I am not sure how ready available internet will be. This turns out not to be as simple task as I thought. When I walk in the shop, I am told to take a seat. I am the only one in the shop and it seems that it is not everyday a large white guy walks in trying to get a sim card. The five guys that are in there are either just plain staying or trying to get involved in my task. I am asked to fill out form which soon becomes apparent that I should have taken a PHD in form filling out if i wanted to complete it with out hitch. After much questioning, laughs and sniggers from several guys i mange to fill it out. Next hurdle comes in the form they need two passport photos. Honestly all I want is a pay-as-you go sim card. Getting my contract phone was easier than this. Next I left sititng down why at least 4  of the guys debat something and keep pointing at my form. By this point several more people who apparently work is this shoebox of shop have turned up. Eventual one of them walks up to me. “you have passport” I produce it and alarmingly he promptly disappears out the shop. I look over at the crows of workers, one of them sensing what I was thinking says “Photostat” After several more minutes and much more debating in which I am still not sure what is going on. My passport is required again, apparently for more photo copies. Now two of them seem to be talking on the same phone one which is holding my form. I am then asked for credit card which again man disappears out of shop. Meanwhile the people not involved in this I still staring and smiling.

Eventually after an hour, “”you have phone” I hand one over. Three of them seem to disagree on the best bway to load the sim card into the phone, each trying to take it off each other. Many minutes later and several more Photostats, I armed with one Indian sim and the “special” way to check my balance. At least seven of the workers are lined up all wishing to give me helpful advice before shacking my hand and bidding me farewell.

When I eventually get back to my hotel room it’s been nearly two hours. When I try to charge the phone I realise I have the wrong charger. A huge intake of air and I step back into the mobile shop. Another hour latter I have a charger and my phone is working. By now I am ready to eat. The hotel manger recommends a dinner which I have in my room.

The next day my driver Kanann is waiting for me and we board his Toyota MPV for the five hour drive to Tekady, the spice capital of Kerala, up in the mountains. The drive is long and the roads are not so great, so I elect to sleep in the back. When we arrive at our destination, it is raining again, but at least the temperature is a few degrees colder. According to the itinerary, I am staying in what is referred to as  a home stay. The home stay turns out to be a room above a spice shop. The room is brand new, so it is very clean and has by far the best bed I am been in since my first two days in Delhi. I have a balcony at the back that looks out on to a nature reserve with a line of mountains running along the back of it. To the right is a mass bamboo with a number of monkeys living in it. Latter when walking down the street there seems to be many of them lining the wall watching the world go by and having spats which each other.

Tekady’s main high street is lined with many different spice shops and handicraft shops. In the early evening I am taken to a demonstration of Keralan Marshal arts. This turns out to be a spectacular and involves sword fights and an unarmed guy taking on a guy wilding two swords and winning. After dinner I have several drinks with Graham, Kanann and some others.

The next day the rain is still battering the window and the mornings activities are delayed until the afternoon. Something I am grateful for as I am nursing a small hang over. In the afternoon I am given a tour of a spice farm which turns out to be fascinating. My guide seems to know everything there is to know about the spices grown here. He shows me what the seed in the middle of what looks like a kiwi fruit, the seed turns out to be nutmeg. The shell is known as nut mace. Digest to much of this “about three” he says and it will kill you. A small amount though makes a good sleeping draft. Slightly less, he pauses, looks around “makes a good natural Viagra, but you have to be careful or you will full asleep halfway through the business. Not good” he says shaking his head.

The next day we take a short excursion to the neighbouring state of Tamil ardu . We cross what feels like a boarder crossing, they even need to photocopy my passport. Tamil ardu is a stark contrast to Kerala and the poverty which I had left behind me in the north is back on show. The shops restaurants built out of brick on Kerala side of the boarder are now wooden huts covered by sheet metal.  We start to drop down into this new state. At one point the view out over state is impressive and we stop by a pipe line which runs down into a reservoir at the bottom of the hill. After a drive around a few small towns, I am taken to a deserted temple which is covered by one massive tree. At first I think it is a small forest but I am told what I think are trunks are roots dropped down from one single tree. The sheer size and growth of this tree is impressive to say the least.

We drive back up for lunch, then a storm settles in and the afternoon plans to visit a view point is cancelled. I left to my own devices which is watching movies on Star. The one issue I have with doing this on my own is after been in a big group you miss people and this afternoon solitude kicks in a bit. I miss being around people and make a note that I will try harder with my driver in the morning.

Morning comes around and we are off to Madari. The drive is another long one and I again elect to sleep in the back. On first impressions of Maderi, it is that is like any town I been to in north. But it hides away something special. After lunch I am taken to Madari’s hidden secret. Slap bang in the middle of town is a temple which contains I am told by the guide three million separate statues. I have to walk round the temple bare foot and comfort is not helped by some of the heaviest rain fall on record. Soon my feet are submerged in water. The temple its self has four main towers each containing over 5000 thousand statues in all the colours you can think of. It is quite incredible to behold and even in the pouring rain I can’t quite help been awe struck by the shear detail and extent of this temple.

Afterwards like in so many other places in India, I taken to a “museum” which turns out to be a high priced handicraft shop. The persistent sales man tries all the tricks in the book, but I leave much to his anger empty handed.

The next day is a leisurely one. I spend the time walking around the city, then uploading pictures at a local internet cafe before returning back to my room to catch a movie on what has become my friend here, Star Movies.

The next day we leave for Munnar, back in Kerala. This is the place I have been looking forward to the most. The first three hours are back the way we had come earlier in the week, but when we reach the foot of the mountains it is a different story. We begin to climb up and up. The view over Tamil Nadu is stunning and clear.  Some forty five minutes latter we reach the summit of the mountain. A sign informs us we are at altitude of 8414 feet. We can see right down into the low lands and you really get a sense of how high we are. We are soon travelling through the lush green tea plantations that this area is famous for. As far as the eye can see, tea plants carpet all the hills. Mostly of these plantations are owned by the company TATA, who recently bought Jaguar and Land Rover.

After another hour on the road we pull into the town of Munnar nestled in a small valley. Behind it is an opposing mountain which turns out to be the highest in south India. We stop here for lunch before I am taken to the Shamrock resort, my home for the next four days.  Shamrock is a small resort with only 4 rooms and two cottages situated on the side of a mountain. I have one the cottages which has a bedroom, bathroom and dinning room, and more importantly, TATA Sky TV. At the back there is balcony. The view from which is just awesome. When I first walk out I am presented with a view of mountain peaks poking out of the low lying cloud as far as the eye can see. A tea plantation covers the mountain to the right.

In the afternoon we go for drive out in search of cup tea which even though we are in the middle of a tea plantation turns out to be quite hard. Some hour and half latter, we finally pull up in a small village and I am treated what has to be the freshest cup of tea I have ever had.

As night falls the cloud begins to slowly creep up to my cottage and by seven in the evening we are in total cloud. Still the sun set is amazing and I managed to get some good photos. Dinner is included with the room and at seven thirty a lad turns up with tomato soup followed by rice a curry and couple of vegetable dishes. The food is ok but not regional like I had hoped.

After dinner Graham and co come round for a few drinks. My driver who until now has remained quite really comes out of his shell and ends up staying well into the early morning, chatting about among other things the great topic men world over enjoy, Girls!

The next day we leave early bound for the highest tea plantation in the world which is at an altitude of 7000 feet. We are in a jeep. It soon becomes clear why. The road if can call that is a rocky mud track which climbs up through various team plantations. The going is slow and very bumpy. After forty five minutes or so, the temperature has dropped. I decide I need a break and get out and start to walk. The jeep is going so slow that I managed to easily keep up with it. By the time we reach the top we have been going for just under three hours and we are in the clouds.

The first thing we do is walk down through the plantation to the factory where I get the best cup of tea of my life. Junis, my tour leader for Munnar shows me round the factory. He tells me unlike most of the factories in this area, this one use the traditional method of producing tea. He randomly turns on the machines not in operation, getting the odd look from workers. I am not overly sure he should be doing this.

After half an hour and a truly interesting tour we are treated to a picnic lunch at the top end of the plantation. We are given a small reprieve from the cloud and are able to see right down in to the lowlands. We grab a few Kodak Moments, but before long the cloud descends once more and we begin our long decent back down.

About half way down we find a man blocking the road. Turns out one of the jeeps has broken down and is blocking the road further down. Our driver seemly unfazed by this backs the jeep up a few hundrud yards and takes a different root, which if possible is even more bumpy then our previous root. By the time I reach my cottage I am ready for dinner and bed.

The next day we go down to ton to get some photos printed to send home. We then set off for a national park where we walk up a path and see some endangered mountain goats which the local government is trying to preserve and help. The view is amazing and I get some great pics of the goats.

Afterwards we take a drive out to some lakes where we have a picnic lunch and a ride on a speed boat around the lake. My cold which I have now had for a good two weeks is kicking in again and I elect to return to base. By the evening I am not so great, so decide to have a quite one. At around mid night I am awoken by a lighting storm. When I step out on to my balcony, I am greeted with a spectacular light show over the low mountain peaks. The sky is lights up constantly with brilliant oranges and pinks. I set about trying to photograph it, and somehow manage to get some ok shoots.

The next day I am still not so great so have a quite morning followed by lunch in the local town. After lunch, Junis and Kanann have planned for me to drive a Tuk Tuk, something I have always wanted to do. Once I get the hand of the clutch and gear system, we drive up to and tea workers cafe along a quite road for a cup of tea.  It was great fun and luckily I did not crash it or go to quick something I think Kanann was scared might happen.

My last night is a quite one and I begin the now familiar task of packing my bag ready for tomorrows long drive.

The drive down to our next destination, is long and windy and again I sleep in the back, when we get there, there is real sense of been in the middle of nowhere, the room is basic but clean and has an air con that I have to fiddle with to make it spit out cold air. After a bit to eat, Kanann drives me up to see two water falls. The second is spectacular.  I decide to walk down to the bottom and after a 20 minutes walk I am in amongst the fine wet mist at the bottom staring up as millions of tonnes of water gushing down the expansive rock face. All though these are by no means the highest water falls I have seen, they  are certainly the largest in terms of scale.

After taking a few shoots and talking with some Indian lads who I think had come down to smoke a few cigarettes and have a cheeky drink, I begin the hard slog back up.

Surprisingly all though it is a bit of a slog I make back it up much easier than I thought going down. After catching my breath I am cornered by a group of young local lads. The usual greeting of “ where you from” followed by “ ah England, what football team do support” The lads all follow Chelsea and are very clued up on all the players and take great delight in informing me that they are above both Arsenal and Man U. After a few minutes chat we reach the car and I bid them farewell.

In the evening Graham terns up for a few drinks and to bid me farewell and good luck on the rest of the trip.  I get to bed reasonable early as I know full well there will not be much opportunity to sleep the next day.

We leave at around ten the next day, Kanann has invited me for lunch at his house near Kochi before I board the plane. The house is in a small village, he has to park the car in the neighbours house as there is no road going to his. When we arrive I am greeted by his mother, father and auntie. He shows me round the house and garden. In the garden they seem to grow everything they need from bananas to peppers and chillies. He also introduces me to his four month old black Labrador called Chinu who is very boisterous, but already well trained.

Lunch turns out to be the best food I have had in India. There is fish curry with plenty of coconut milk, some fried fish, and two other prawn dishes, washed down with some fresh pineapple juice. Kanann tells me it is the first time he has bought a client home and I am honoured. We pose for a couple of pictures before it is time to hit the road once more bound for Bangkok.

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