Note, I’m posting twice, so be sure to read the one below this one first, for chronology.
After a couple days in Fort Cochin, we took the ferry back over to the more industrial, bustling, typical Indian city of Ernakulam and caught a government bus up into the Western Ghats, the mountains here that divide Kerala and Tamil Nadu, bisecting the southern subcontinent.
When I say a “government bus,” I mean a public bus that takes you long distances, a nonexistent entity in the US, and one of the most useful ways of getting around nearly any other country in the world (I did most of my travel in Greece and Spain on them, though the ones there are nicer than the ones here, with real windows and air-con and generally comfortable seats). In India, they get you more places than the trains will, though they do tend to take significantly longer than any other form of transport, as they usually make all the local stops; however, they have the distinct advantage of being insanely cheap. Our 4-5-hour trip to Munnar cost 150 rupees total, which is 75 per person, which is about $1.50. The trip back was even cheaper. The cheapest price we heard for a car up there (with a driver, of course – we’re not renting a car here) was 1750 rupees, which is about $35, which we would consider cheap for that long of a drive, but still compares seriously unfavorably to $1.50.
One thing about government buses in India is that the seats on them – akin to what we would think of as school bus benches – were designed for, as best I can guess, children, or at least small men. In other words, people shorter than either Michal or myself, and with no hips. I don’t know how Indian women do it, except for the very small ones. Any time we found ourselves squished into the two person seats, it was a distinctly uncomfortable experience, and I felt as if half my body was in the aisle, getting in the way, in spite of the armrest technically keeping at least my butt in the seat. And I am not huge as far as Westerners go. The two of us fit comfortably on the three-person seat, and, for the most part, people will not sit next to us (men because we‘re women, and women because we‘re foreigners and clearly occupying more space), so the real discomfort is simply the seat itself (though after your butt goes to sleep, it’s not too bad). The only seriously uncomfortable time was when the bus was quite packed on the way up for about an hour, and so a small, older Indian man was forced to sit next to us, and I think I can safely say that the physical experience was less than pleasant for all involved. I tried to adjust – I was in the middle – so as to give the others more shoulder room, at least, but I was forced to resume my original position after nearly falling entirely out of my seat and being launched at the driver during a sudden stop.
That’s another thing about government buses: they are the largest things on the road, but they drive like the motorbikes and auto-rickshaws, only faster. Particularly in the mountains, this means lots of perilously fast turns (which send the passengers sliding from side to side across the benches) and slamming stops to avoid head-on collisions with other vehicles, as the roads really only have enough room for one bus. And don’t forget the honking. We only had one experience where we found our bus face to face with another bus, both stopping just in time. At that point, it had started pouring rain, the window shades were down (normally the windows are open air, so as soon as the rain shades come down, all ventilation stops and the bus becomes unbearably stuffy and hot), the bus was quite full, I wasn’t sure if we’d missed our stop already, and it all just seemed so hilarious that I hardly noticed how close we’d come to a bad accident. I sort of approached the whole bus-in-the-mountains experience with the attitude that these guys drive these roads all the time, and there’s nothing I can do about it, so I might as well sit back and enjoy the ride and not stress. It was surprisingly easy to do, actually, but I feel obligated to warn future travelers all the same.
Anyway, the bus ride was a fun experience, but we found ourselves unable to find our stop – we were supposed to get off in front of our homestay, but never saw it – so we got off in Munnar and got a cab back to Karadipara, where our magnificent homestay, Rose Gardens, is located. What we subsequently figured out is that there are two routes for buses from Cochin; they follow the same path almost the whole way, and then about 15 km outside Munnar, they can either go directly along the road, or they can take a detour. Had we taken the direct route, we would have found ourselves at Rose Gardens about 10 km outside Munnar, but, alas, our bus took the detour, unbeknownst to us. After too much ado, we did arrive.
I feel like I shall be saying this a lot, but I can’t say enough good things about Rose Gardens and Tomy, our host, and his wonderful family. They were our first introduction to the genuinely wonderful, friendly, and sweet people of Kerala; not that the people in Cochin weren’t nice, but I have found that the people outside the cities are the nicest of all. Additionally, those who run homestays tend to care deeply about their guests – they wouldn’t be interested in welcoming you into their homes if they didn’t genuinely want to get to know you and make sure you get to see the best of their beloved Kerala. As a result, we found ourselves welcomed to the refreshingly cool, rainy mountains with hot cardamom tea and biscuits, to a lovely, clean room in their (at least) hundred-year-old house, surrounded by their garden (they run a nursery), farm, and amazing quiet. One of the nicest things about being up in the mountains was the lack of city noises. Add that to the refreshingly clean air, full of only trees and rain and flowers and spices, with none of the otherwise-ubiquitous pollution, and you think you have found heaven.
We spent the next morning touring the garden and the farm, and then heading out to the tea plantations, cardamom farms, and jungle, guided by Tomy, a botanist passionate about all things green. All of it was absolutely gorgeous, and we learned more than I can remember about the harvesting and preparing of cardamom and tea. The tea plantations are stunning, there’s no better word for it; I found myself thinking how much I’d love to have a tea plantation of my own. I was distraught, however, to learn that the tea grown there is not organic; couldn’t very well feel good about buying tea at the source if it they were using lots of pesticides on it. Probably my favorite piece of information, though, was that there was no tea grown here before the arrival of the British; hoping to reduce their dependency upon Chinese tea, they decided to set up their own source here in India. (Once again, my fascination with colonialism rears its head.) You may initially curse them for having done so, but the fact is that pretty much no one lived in the mountains before the British began to establish their hill stations and farms there, and now, with the British gone, the area is full of farms of all sorts, with tea and cardamom (among other spices) being hugely important to the Keralan economy. Additionally, can you imagine India without tea?? However, once we learned that the coffee at Rose Gardens was actually grown, harvested, and roasted right there in the yard, we had to switch to that drink instead, and it was quite excellent. (We’ve found it rather difficult to get real coffee in India, and, in any, it usually seems silly to drink it when tea is so ubiquitous, but I’ve found it to be much better and more readily available in the South than in the North.)
Our trek seemed nearly complete with a foray into the jungle to look for wild elephants, but then, just before we reached the waterfall and pool where we could ostensibly go swimming, the darkening skies broke and we found ourselves completely caught in a summer downpour. After attempting to wait out the worst of it, huddled under umbrellas, we eventually gave up and Tomy led us back through a shallow river and flooded paths. Needless to say, we were utterly drenched – but refreshingly cold! – and it took our shoes several days to dry out. (We’d foolishly worn our Converses out, when we should have just worn flipflops, but one never knows.)
After an excellent lunch back at the house and after the rain had stopped, we decided to be adventurous and try to catch the bus into Munnar to explore a bit there. The thing about government buses is that, outside the main cities, the way you catch them is simply to flag them down anywhere along the road; similarly, when you need to get off, you just get up and indicate to the conductor that you want to get off now, and he rings the bell, the bus stops, you jump off, and the bus takes off again before the door is even closed. Very efficient system. So we headed up the road to a wider spot – and a picturesque view-point – to catch the next bus. After it passed us – we realized subsequently that we were standing on the wrong side of the road – we waited around for a bit, hoping to catch the next one, people-watching at the view-point as cars of newlyweds, friends, and children stopped off for pictures. Our favorite was the car-full of little girls who got terribly excited as soon as they saw us and all immediately ran over to say, “Hello! How are you? Nice to meet you!” and shake our hands. Some even ventured to ask our names. They were absolutely adorable, and we actually considered asking for a ride into town.
Instead, we headed up the road a bit more, until we saw two women waiting on the side of the road with some bags, and we asked if they were waiting for the bus to Munnar. Through broken English and hand signals, we managed to ascertain that this was in fact correct, that we could wait with them, that they worked in the cardamom farm across the road, and to exchange names and tell them that we were from the US. Presently, their manager and some coworkers came out of the gate as well, and we could tell they were chatting about us; we felt a bit like the strays they’d picked up and brought home, with everyone laughing in an amused, indulgent way. At least we managed to catch the bus that way, allowing us to successfully arrive in Munnar without any further event.
The town of Munnar is itself not much to speak of. It was, from the start, a British hill station town and, perhaps because of the grey skies and wet streets, this felt particularly to be the case. Otherwise, nothing about it indicated its British colonial origins; it seemed just like any other Indian town, just smaller. Still crowded and busy and loud and dirty, except cooler and surrounded by mountains. We did find a Catholic church built in the 1930’s by a Spaniard… The most exciting part of the whole experience was the fact that we managed to successfully get on the right bus back to Karadipara and actually get the bus to stop where we wanted to get off. Perhaps we were a little too pleased with ourselves, but it’s the little things, right?
Two other things stand out about our stay at Rose Gardens: the food, and the people we met. Rajee, Tomy’s wife, cooked all our meals, introducing us to real, home-cooked Keralan food, which was absolutely wonderful. I wrote down all the various meals in my journal, but I can’t remember them all now. What was particularly excited was getting really good beef – much of India is vegetarian, which is fine with me, but, in addition to this, cows are sacred in Hinduism, meaning that if you want meat, you usually get chicken or fish. Again, this is fine with me, because I don’t eat much meat, particularly beef, but in any case you wouldn’t want to eat the available beef because the cows simply look miserable and underfed. In Kerala, however, much of the population is Christian, so cows are actually bred to be eaten, and therefore beef is regularly eaten and really quite good! So that was an unexpected change. In any case, overall it was wonderful to have real, homemade Keralan food for every meal, but we were just absolutely stuffed!
As for the people we met, I mentioned how wonderful our hosts were. They have three sons, though we only met two of them as the other wasn’t yet on summer holiday (yes, it’s summer here); Deepu, the six-year-old, was the craziest little kid ever, but we had such a fun time playing with him. Dilip, the eldest, had his seventeenth or eighteenth birthday while we were there, so that was fun to celebrate with the family; he’s heading to university for engineering in the fall, so we gave him lots of advice about college… In addition to this wonderful, welcoming family, we also met some really cool fellow travelers, as Rose Gardens has two rooms for guests. The first night, a French couple was there, which meant that most of our conversations were in French; this was great, because I love and miss speaking French, but it made me realize how rusty my French has become, prompting the decision (which I’ve been thinking about for a while) to move back to France as soon as possible. The second night, our fellow guests were two young British guys, lawyers on holiday, who’ve traveled extensively, so we traded tips and exchanged stories and just generally enjoyed the good conversation. Since then, we’ve continued staying in homestays, and have thus continued meeting amazing people from all over – just another joy of traveling.
Next update shall be about the Kumarakom/backwater area of Kerala, where we spent the last week!