Two days in Tea Country
January 27, 2008
For those who haven’t been following my blog, I’m staying in Thrivanthapuram this month. I’m here on business but I’ve been doing a decent job at finding things to entertain myself here in, “God’s Own Country”.
Of course, the company I’m working with has made that task very easy for me. A few days ago they asked if I would be interested in visiting Munnar, the highest region in southern India, and touring the tea fields there. …Naturally I said yes, how could anyone pass up on that?
The ride to Munnar was long, and for me, basically uneventful. We got off to an early start (a car picked me up at my hotel around 5:30am) and I slept through most of the trip.
Occasionally I would wake up to the sound of honking horns and swerving tires as our car narrowly avoided yet another collision with a huge bus. I’d send a few moments wondering at the India highway system and our driver’s well honed Halo-Slayer like reactions, then dose off again. I suppose I should have been more alarmed at the perilous road conditions but by now I was used to it. I trusted our driver.
Below is a picture of one of the nicest roads we encountered. Occasionally we’d hit a sweet-spot like this, the rest of the time we were roughing it on a bumpy narrow roads filled with cattle, bikers, pedestrians pushing carts and huge busses racing around at ludicrous speed.
Between Trivandrum and Munnar we passed countless pineapple fields. I’ve been told pineapple farming is a very lucrative business. By the appearance of things that’s probably true. The lavish homes adjacent to most of these fields seemed really out of place.
Every time I see a pineapple I think about a fable my grandmother/parents used to read me, “The Pineapple Story” by Otto Koning. If you have kids it’s worth a read. Aside from a bit of morality, this taught me that pineapple plants are bromeliads.
Bromeliads are a special kind of flower; fruit pops up in the middle when they bloom instead of a traditional blossom. Another cool pineapple fact; they’re commonly pollinated by bats. …I guess that explains why I’ve seen so many of them flying around here.
I probably already wrote about the local bats but they deserve a second mention. Dusk in Thrivanthapuram ushers in a nightly ritual; scores of huge bats flying into town to raid the fruit trees. And these bats aren’t like the tiny blind variety we have back in the US, these are Flying Foxes. Full grown they have a wingspan in excess of 4ft! And they don’t fly with sonar; they use their eyes (how original).
Almost every night I go down to the lobby to watch them crashing into the tree across the street from my hotel. They look clumsy, but I’m sure they’re in perfect control.
I read online that we used to have lots of these bats in the Americas. Apparently people hunted them for food to the point where they’re very scarce now. That’s a shame because pineapples aren’t the only things bats pollinate. They also do their thing for flowers that open at night, bananas, mangoes and guavas.
Just before ascending the mountains we passed over this beautiful bridge. The contrasting red with the blue sky and green foliage accents was picturesque. My digital camera really didn’t do this justice but this gives you a glimpse at what I saw…
About an hour up the mountain we passed this building (picture below) and I just had to take a picture. I wondered, does this girl realize she’s throwing the universal sign for loser? I later learned that gesture means #1 in India. …Of course that’s what I tell people it means after I throw them the sign to in the US. Maybe this is a global joke only half of the population is in on.
I don’t really want to re-live the memory of our ascent so I won’t spend a lot of time writing about it, it’s sufficient to say that the road to Munnar was quite dangerous. Imagine riding in a small SUV on the road below when the driver starts to pass a huge bus only to find another bus headed towards you in the other lane. We had more hair-raising moments then I care to remember.
We finally arrived in Munnar 13+ hours after leaving Thrivanthapuram. I was thrilled to see that our hotel was situated in the middle of a basin on the top of the highest mountain in South India, surrounded by peaks that soared into the clouds.
The interior of the hotel was nice and elegant, a little neglected but probably only due to a lack of use rather than misuse. …I think it’s very expensive for the locals to stay here.
Walking to my room I noticed a flock of groundskeepers trimming the lawn with scissors. As you can see they do a good job…
After being shown to my room I rested for a few minutes and then strolled on over to the hotel pub where I was met by my German traveling companions for a pint of Sand Piper. …I think already mentioned in my blog about the backwaters that I tried the Kingfisher Preimum, and that it wasn’t my favorite. To be honest, I thought it was lousy beer (much appriciated though on a hot day).
Well, In India I’ve only seen two bottles: Kingfisher Premium and Sand Piper. As I lifted the bottle to my lips I wondered how Sand Piper would compare to Kingfisher. …Moments later I realized the purpose of the Sand Piper. It gives you respect and appriciation for the Kingfisher. Sand Piper, in my not-so-humble opinion, is one of the worst beers I’ve ever tried. Even still we were happy to have it.
After a few minutes I stepped away to use the restroom. On returning I noticed the Germans glued to the window with their camera. “Quick Brien! We found a snake!”. I lept into action racing around the building out onto the lawn and around the corner.
I’d been hoping to catch a snake while in India, or at least touch one. I’d moved as quickly as possible, but unfortunatly the serpent had already slithered into the tea plants before I’d got close enough. I decided not to follow since it had the upperhand in the tea plants which blocked my view of the ground. In hidesight I wish I’d have risked it. Things being what they are, all I have to show for this encounter is a picture one of the Germans took from inside the pub.
Just to give you an idea of how close we were to the snake, here’s a picture of the scenario…
So, after another pint we called it quits and retired for the evening. Before going to sleep I turned on the TV and caught an episode of StarWars (the Indian version of American Idol). That was thoroughly entertaining and almost made up for missing out on the snake.
The next morning we woke up and, after a quick breakfast, headed out for a tour of the tea fields…
In case you’re wondering what those dots are; they’re locals picking tea leafs. In the picture below it’s a little easier to make them out…
Two things impressed me about the tea fields; 1) they are beautifully landscaped with the local rocks, trees, etc. and 2) they are huge, 220 square miles of tea.
In the distance you can see a slick streak running down the solid rock mountain side. Apparently that’s raging river during the monsoon season. That must be impressive when it’s flowing. Pitty it wasn’t while I was here.
Next we headed up to Eravikulam National Park, home of free roaming ibex, elephants, lion-tailed macaque, and the Nilgiri tahr. …We only saw the goats. Though they were wild, they weren’t afraid of humans. I strolled up to one and had a nice little chat with it…
I named the goat below Maddan, after one of my favorite co-workers. Maddan didn’t talk a lot and neither did this goat, so it seemed like a good fit.
Back to my trip, next we headed northeast about 35km to the Munnar reservoir. I wish I had a picture of that, but unfortunately my camera was out of batteries, c’est la vie (that’s life).
A few miles up the road from the reservoir we spotted an elephant. Our driver stopped and I bought a ride.
(Photo courtesy of my German comrade Olaf)
Yes, that’s me on a 5 ton (10,000 pound) elephant. I’ve had the pleasure of riding elephants two other times in my life, but this was the first time I was able to ride on a public road with cars and other elephants. It was defiantly worth the 200 rupees (5 dollars) I paid.
The elephant’s manager didn’t speak English, but somehow I made out the elephants name, Eknath Raja (which means poet king). After my ride I threw down another 50 rupees (1 dollar and 25 cents) for an entire basket of pineapples which I fed to Eknath. That was a little intimidating because he immediately wrapped his trunk around my arm and the pineapple. Suddenly I remembered all the stories I’d read about elephants dismembering people and horrible thoughts flashed through my mind. But an instant later untangled his trunk from my arm and gracefully put the ripe pineapple in his mouth. Feeding him a whole basket didn’t take long, he ate each pineapple in a few seconds. It was so entertaining I had to buy two baskets.
Leaving the elephant we stopped at a roadside bazaar a few km up the road. One of the stands there was a balloon shootout with a .22 caliber BB gun. Target practice was a favorite family activity in the home I grew up in. Even when my parents were first married they had a shoot-offs to see who’d clean the dishes. But even with my extensive experience I knew showing up the locals wouldn’t be easy. I could see the sights were off at a glance. Fortunately the rifle had a long barrel, and I’m comfortable aiming with that. I threw down a couple of rupees and popped all but two balloons, taking only a few seconds to aim between each shot. Mission accomplished, locals impressed.
We left the bazaar and continued driving north-east until we stopped at a dirt trail. We hiked that out of Kerala and into the next state over (I think it was Karnataka). Below is a view from the end of the trail. After the hike we returned to our hotel and retired for the evening.
The next morning we awoke early and headed back for Trivandrum. On our way back we stopped to at the Kuthumkal waterfalls, something we’d missed during our ascent.
(I think I’ve seen this waterfall in Bollywood movies before)
We left after a few minutes and continued our descent. Everything was going smoothly, until our driver decided to pull over for a quick stop at a spice garden. Apparently he missed a cement ledge that was camouflaged with red sand. There was a loud thud as the SUV’s frame slammed into the cement.
First the driver tried to drive off the ledge, the wheel simply spun in mid air. Then, very nervously, he exited the vehicle and inspected the damage. We follow suit.
Once again, this time without us in the car, the driver attempted to drive off the ledge. Seeing the futility in that (and possible destructive consequences) I suggested he jack the car up then stack stones under the tire until it was (near) flush with the ledge so he could just back up.
Noticing the pile of granite rocks behind me our driver took my advice and sent us off to enjoy the spice garden while he fixed the car. I offered to stay back and help, but he insisted so I didn’t protest. So we left him to do his thing and proceeded to check out the spice garden.
A gardener soon noticed us wondering around and proceeded to give us a tour of the garden. I sampled so many spices, fresh from the plant, that I can’t remember them all. I remember; cinnamon, various peppers, vanilla, coffee, paprika, tamarind, curry leaf, clove, kokum and turmeric but I can’t remember the rest.
Aside from spices they also had flowers, these were some of my favorites…
(These flowers are called Cross Flowers because they bloom into little crosses)
(And these flowers are called Cigar Flowers look like little cigars.)
The garden also had fruits. Next we toured those…
(These are Bell Fruit, I loved these! They tasted something like an apple fused with a cranberry)
(These fruit, proudly displayed by our tour guide, are called Passion Fruit.)
(This is a picture of the Passion Fruit I ate just before I sucked the inside out. It looks nasty, but they taste like a blend of Pomegranates and Oranges. I liked it!)
This is the home of the gardeners who gave us our tour, it’s set at the northwest corner of the garden…
Eventually we left the spice garden (apparently the jack/granite trick worked) and made our way back down the mountain. At the bottom we stopped for a quick bite at The Copper Chimney, a nice second-floor open-air restaurant.
(Two of my German traveling companions, Olaf and Mr Schneider pictured above enjoying the view. …Possibly celebrating that they survived the descent.)
I had some kind of “sweet-water” fish for lunch (below). It was sort of bony, but I was so hungry it really hit the spot. The fresh onions and cucumber went great with the spicy marsala fish dish. I’m really going to miss the plentiful fresh fruit when I go back to the US.