Tuesday, November 4, 2008

India on one bag... Part 3

Last week, on India on one bag... our intrepid hero and his quirky gal-pal, [NAME REMOVED], had just escaped from the evil clutches of the Coconut Lagoon and were headed into the mountains with their trusted sidekick, Benny...

We started our drive to our next stop, Blackberry Hills. As we rode along, Benny noticed my wrist and recoiled in horror at the sight of pus dripping down my arm. The arm was looking terrible, but was really fine. We slowly drove into the mountains, called the Western Ghats. Along the way we pulled into a small town to fill up with gas. A small car with enormous speakers attached on the roof was driving thru the city center blaring a woman's voice. I asked Benny what she was selling, and he said it was a political advertisement for the Communist Party. Turns out that Kerala has been ruled by the Communist Party for many years. They come and go in power, but it really is communist. More of an idolized "everyone is equal" type of communist... not so much the "red menace" type.

After a few hours of driving, we were deep into the mountains headed to the village of Munnar. Huge waterfalls kept appearing thru the mountainside. Once again, our car was skirting the edges of very high cliffs, squeezing around large trucks and out-of-control motorcycles. Occasionally, Benny would give the car a hard jerk left or right, disturbing my slumber. I woke up and was looking at the magnificent vista that surrounded me when I noticed that Benny's eyes were closing for waaay to long to be blinking. I asked if he needed a break, and he said no. We kept driving, and I kept watching Benny's eyes close and head bounce up and down... he was falling asleep. Not good considering we could careen off a thousand foot cliff without barriers at any time! I told Benny to please stop so we could all get out and stretch our legs... and hopefully not get killed in the process.

Later, we arrived in Munnar. It sits high up in the Ghats at about 5,000 feet above sea level. As we approached, the dark green of dense trees gave way to mountains covered in an almost neon green that was tiled onto the sides of the hills. From a distance, it actually looked as if God had done decoupage on the landscape with little squares of green! When we got closer, we saw that these hills were covered in tea plants, and the grout lines between them were the footpaths of the workers. This landscape continued as far as the eye could see. We drove up one of the mountains and came to our destination... Blackberry Hills.

Blackberry Hills... is a fairly small hotel tucked into the side of a mountain. Unlike our other hotels, this one was not part of the same company, CGH Earth. All of our hotels were promoted as an ecotourism site... very green, recycling, save the whales type establishment. This one was more of a mom and pop place. A tiny lobby awaited us as Benny directed the porters to our luggage. The hotel guy said that the restaurant was upstairs, and that he would direct us to our room, unless we wanted to eat first. We said that we would check into the room, then come back for lunch... very stupid mistake. He walked us to a footpath to take us to our room, then pointed out our room to us... several hundred feet down the mountain! Oh shit. I started down the narrow footpath that zig-zagged down the side of the cliff. I was having trouble slowing my pace while walking! It was so steep I was afraid what would happen if it rained... you could never get down to the room! Then it hit me... I was going to have to walk back up. It took about ten minutes to walk down to the room, on the third floor of a tiny building built into the hill. The room was sparse but comfortable, with a thermos of spiced water for refreshment. The one really nice part of the room was the balcony. Very small, but with an amazing view of the tea plantation valley below, and the Western Ghats expanding away to the east.

After we unpacked and got settled, [NAMED REMOVED] wanted lunch, so we started the hike back up the paths. Now... I should say... I'm not in the greatest shape in the world. I've gained a lot of weight in the past year, and allowed myself to smoke on this vacation, so climbed up steep paths in the thin altitude did not fare well to my well-being. I could only take the paths in stages, having to stop and wheeze for five minutes between fits of coughing. By the time I got to the top, I needed several minutes to catch my breath before taking the steps up to the restaurant; sweating like I just ran a marathon. At the restaurant, we didn't have the huge buffets and world-class chefs like the previous hotels, just some simple hill-country fare. But we did have a special type of Kerala flatbread that was sweet, buttery, flaky... and one of the best things I have ever eaten. We also got a bowl of a curry-type dish with fresh peas that we ended up fighting over who got to lick the bowl. That night we relaxed on the balcony with some books and cards, and watched the purple mist flow into the valley over the hills. The thin air became cold, enough so that we could see our breath... something we had not felt in almost a year. Actually getting chilly and needing a blanket seemed so strange, considering we were sweltering in the humid backwaters not ten hours earlier.

The next morning, we hired some Sherpas and goats to guide us back to the lobby, where I offered to give the manager all the money I had to install an escalator or at least a tow rope. After breakfast, we met with Benny and headed out to a tour of a tea plantation. We met up with our tour guide (let's call him Joe) at the base of the mountain. We were early, and had about twenty minutes to kill before the tea museum opened, so we took a walk through the nearby plantation. The tea plants, which are actually trees that they keep small thru cuttings, were growing into the sides of the rocky path. Joe told us that all tea comes from the same plant, and all varieties are just how the tea is harvested and cut. We walked along a winding driveway with tea on one side, and an open field with grazing cows on another. I couldn't help think that it looked just like The Shire... I was expecting hobbits to come creeping through round doors just past the curve in the road. Joe explained how just the very tops of the tea is hand-picked by an army of workers that are born, live, work, and die in the fields. The plantation were were walking thru was one of the largest in India, and was once owned by a huge conglomerate, TATA; but was now owned by the workers. You might know it as its American name... Tetley Tea. He talked about the history and tradition of tea as we walked under a perfectly blue sky with multicolored dragonflies flowers all swarmed around. I asked him about some signs we saw coming into town about "Munnar Blue." Joe said that there is a huge park on top of one of the mountains that is restricted, people are only allowed access to a small portion of the park. Every twelve years, a special flower, the neelakurinji, blooms for about a week and blankets the entire hillside with bright blue flowers. Joe was very proud to say that he has seen all three bloomings in his life. Benny came and picked us up after our walk, and drove us to the tea museum. We watched a short film on the history of the plantations, how the British planted the first tea, built the first railroads and hillstations, and how the workers came to own their own fields. Afterwards, we got a tour of the original equipment, and watched how the tea was dried, cut, roasted and sorted. The smell of fresh cut leaves followed by the sweet smell of the roasting was thick in the air. We had our complimentary cup of dust-cut cardamon chai (my now favorite tea) and headed back into town.

As I mentioned before, that day was Ghandi Jayanti, the anniversary of the birth of Mohandas Ghandi. In Munnar, and all the small villages we drove thru, the statues of Ghandi were all polished and wrapped in lotus and jasmine flowers. Streamers of paper and blossoms were strung over the roads, and firecrackers were for sale on every corner. We pulled into some shops and bought a large variety of tea for ourselves and gifts, and headed back to the hotel. That afternoon, we followed the path past our room and tried to hike down the mountain side to the valley below. It turns out that the path was more for experienced climbers than simple walkers trying to burn off a fattening lunch. After about half an hour, we turned back and headed up to the room to pass out from exhaustion (or at least I did). Thankfully, I was able to convince [NAME REMOVED] to get dinner delivered to the room, where we feasted on the kerala bread and peas over games of gin. It was really nice to spend half a day just sitting back and drinking in the clean, cool air. We had been traveling non-stop since Delhi, whether in the car, or being shuttled from boat to tour to elephant... just sitting with a book with our feet propped up on the railing was incredibly nice. At least until a vampire bat that could have picked up an ox landed just a few feet from me...

The next morning, I rode piggyback on a porter, and he carried me up the slopes back up to the lobby landing. We met with Benny for our final port of call... Kochi.

Kochi... or Cochi... or Cochin... or Kochin, whatever they call it today, was our last stop. We drove the five hours into the city, and arrived in the early afternoon. Kochi is large coastal city known for its shipping and waterways of about 600,000 people. We pulled into our hotel, and were a little disappointed. After the beautiful, all natural hotels of the spices, waters, and hills, our last hotel was like a very nice Holiday Inn. It was actually located within a dockyard, so our views were of shipping containers and 18-wheelers. The room was very nice, but [NAME REMOVED] got a little miffed with the staff about our reservations, so she was a irked from the start. We ate a nice buffet, and headed to the pool. Since this hotel was in a city, and didn't have the need to recycle its own sewage like the others, we felt the pool water was safe... but still didn't open our mouths. After a little while of sunning ourselves, we dressed and met up with Benny and our new tour guide (we'll make this one... Sammy). Sammy explained the history of Kochi, how it was the first part of India that was conquered by foreigners: first the Dutch, then Portuguese, the British. It was the most important port in the history of India... all spice and trade thru India come thru Kochi. Because of this, there are monuments and customs in Kochi that are not in any other part of India.

We drove thru the old Fort Kochi, and toured some old churches. One of them contains the grave of explorer Vasco de Gama... or at least it did until is son took his remains seventeen years after he died. No offence Dad... but wherever you drop, you're staying. Sammy then took us to Jew Town. This is a long street were... you guessed it... the Jews used to live. Now it is a thriving area of antiques and art stores. We walked along, letting each store's barker try to sell us art, statues, and figurines. Unfortunately, we walked into a rug store. Fifty strong sales pitches and a lot of money later, [NAME REMOVED] and I walked out of there with two new Persian rugs. I told myself that I would only buy one rug on this trip, but I bought two. And this rug was really expensive. I paid more for the rug than my plane tickets. But it is a gorgeous rug. The last stop was the famous Chinese fishing nets along the coast of the waterways. Large square nets are hung horizontally from four corners by a spindly cross of logs. The nets is counterweighted with large stones tied to an A-frame. The entire structure is lowered into the water, then pulled back up to trap any fish. They stretch along the water like spiders waiting to bounce. While we were there, the fish auction was being held, with purveyors bidding on crates of squid and cuttlefish.

From there we walked to a small cultural theatre for a performance of Kathakali, the traditional dance of Kerala. We watched the two male performers paint themselves orange (powerful and evil) and green (good, royalty and godlike) before the show. Next, three men not wearing shirts came onstage with simple instruments and played music while one of the performers went through his pre-show exercises. Most of the story is told through the facial expressions, of which there are 24 only... each expression means one thing. So the performer must sometimes hold the same expression for a long time, and will only move his eyes... and somehow we are supposed to understand the story of an ugly god who disguises herself as a beautiful woman and tries to seduce one of god's sons... makes sense to me. The performance started, and we were treated to a very beautiful, and loud, scene from folklore. Turns out that these guys have to apprentice for eight years before they even take to the stage. A weird way to finish the trip, but somehow fitting.

We went back to the hotel, and had dinner at the restaurant at the hotel, which is very famous for its seafood. Our waiter came to our table with a cart full of fresh fish and lobster, and we let him pick out the best items, and to cook them however the chef wanted. Had some great lobster and prawns, and we shared a very spicy fish with wine. A really nice, elegant, candle-lit dinner for our last meal in India.

Back in the room we packed up for our return trip. At this point, the one-bagging idea started to show its cracks. The one bag scheme works well... unless you buy stuff that won't fit in the bag! Thankfully, [NAME REMOVED] had that covered. Buried in her one bag was a very tiny BIG BAG! A folded up duffel bag big enough to hold all of our souvenirs and two rugs! So we got everything packed and ready to go for our 3:15 a.m. wake-up call.

Unfortunately, the front desk called us at 3:50 a.m.!! We grabbed our bags, ran out the door, cursed the front desk people as we sprinted past where Benny was waiting for us. He hopped in the car, and he burned rubber for the 40 minute drive to the airport. Driving through the docks and over the bridges to the airport, seeing the last of the painted big rigs and autorickshaws swerving back and forth, we realized that we were finally leaving India. At the airport, we said our goodbyes to Benny and gave him an enormous tip (around two months salary) for being a great driver and guide. If you ever book the Kerala trip through Qatar Airways, make sure you ask for Benny.

It was an amazing trip! The polar opposites of the city to the country, the coast to the mountains, the temples and the churches, the rich to the poor... all made India a place to marvel. I know that I will never forget the smell of Delhi, the first glimpse of the Taj Mahal, the shits of Agra, the men of Kerala, the taste of young cardamon, the waters of Periyar and the backwaters, the hands of Rajee, fresh coconut juice, the sound of the flute, the burn of walking up the lobby, the aroma of tea leaves, and the sun cresting over the fishing nets.

I was really worried about traveling through India... and now... I can't wait to go back.



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