Trip Start Oct 20, 2008
Trip End Oct 20, 2009

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Flag of India  , Kerala,
Sunday, December 14, 2008

Feeling quite confident we decided to go off the beaten track slightly to the small town of Kalpetta in the rainforest state of Kerala to visit a wildlife sanctuary.  The only accommodation in town was a lifeless grey government guesthouse and we met some fellow safarees, a couple from Bristol, Keith and Lucy, who we teamed up with to save some money.

The jeep arrived the next morning at 5:30am and passing dense vegetation, quite enormous houses and a number of working elephants we finally found the entrance to Waynard Wildlife Sanctuary.  I was in the normal state of readiness for outdoor pursuits packing only a spare pair of shorts.  In the park we saw more elephants, langur monkeys, spotted deer, barking deer, peacocks, giant squirrels(!?) and a tiger.............. footprint and although feeling like some tracker in a Wilbur Smith adventure, the time of year was not on our side and we could not see much through the blurred wall of tree trunks

The next stop was to see some neolithic cave paintings up a mountain.  The jeep took us part of the way up and we climbed the last part to the paintings.  The views over Kerala were stunning taking in manicured tea and spice plantations, elephant rock (see photo) and the dark green rainforest all around.  There was an opportunity to climb to the peak and determined to get the full 360-degree view of what Keralans call "God's Own Country" Fi and myself climbed the rocks.  Keith (who was quickly living up to his name) and Lucy stayed on a safe ledge.  About 3 metres from the peak i got the wobbles as things were getting very steep and with floating linen trousers not being the rockclimbers choice of dress i joined Fiona who had stopped further below. Back at the cave paintings a group of about 20 Muslim teenage lads were gathered around as we walked towards them.  Keith fussed and worried around Lucy.   All of them waved good morning and before moving on we had to shake all their hands! Trying to imagine this situation back home with any group of teenage lads.  So far in India there has not been one situation, setting or street where we have not felt safe.

After lunch served on a banana leaf at a local eatery our guide took us to Sunset Valley Point where after a short walk along a narrow path to a rock ledge where the world just opened out in front of us and took our breath away.  Waterfalls and a meandering ice blue river were the only breaks in the thick carpet of green foliage stretched out far below us.  After 20 minutes however the visibility was becoming poor and we could see a huge dark clouds rolling through the valley towards us.  Trotting back to the jeep the thudding dollups of rain increased in verocity.  Worrywort Keith flapped about getting wet and sat dripping in the foetal position as the guide secured the waterproof flaps on the jeep.

Next our guide took us to a waterfall undetered by the now sheet rain.  It was too much for Keith & Lucy who did terrifically well to even step out of the jeep.  It wasn't particularly warm and my t-shirt (already embarrassingly filthy) was now stuck to my skin and my linen trousers more like lead so with nothing to lose and not wanting to miss out we followed our much amused guide to the impressive waterfall.  Back at the jeep i apologised and removed my t-shirt, sneezing. The driver wanted to take us to one more place.  I was now wrapped in Fiona's red and gold shawl so stepping out like an indian lady we walked round the boating lake listening to Keith worries and ignoring the bewildered stares.  Stopping for a quick tea to warm up Lucy suddenly shrieked. A leech had attached itself to her foot.  I had trainers on but checked up my trousers to find three of the critters nibbling away.  Flicking them off and changing into my shorts it became clear that we all had them.  Fiona was panicking thinking they were all over her (she would later fully strip in the carpark behind the jeep!?).  Of course, Keith was traumatised after discovering one on his neck and demanded to be taken home. 

Arriving back at the hotel in the cold wrapped in nothing but a sopping red sari shawl and some shorts with my legs dribbling with blood we settled down for the night ready to dream of leeches and waiting for the blood-curdling screams from Keith & Lucy next door.

The first of 2 buses to Kochi was a 2-hour rollercoaster down the mountainside covering 9 hairpin bends with steep drops down one side and deep ditches down the other.  With Sandra Bullock at the wheel we rocketed through the traffic like a bullet sometimes even on the correct side of the road not slowing for anything or anyone.  The second 5-hour bus again raced without concern to its destination furiously beeping at anything daring to slow it down with Bollywood movies playing on the screens at distorted ear-splitting volume.  The locals, young and old, were obviously unflustered by the whole thing, smiling away and wobbling their heads in amusement and approval at our contorting faces.

In the affluent port city of Kochi (the regional capital) imposing malls, boutiques and mammoth billboards lined the wide roads all imaginatively illuminated at night and was a far cry from the rainforest.  The next day we had spotted in 'The Book' an infinity pool at a smart hotel on Willingdon Island, a short ferry ride off the mainland.  The small island industrial port was in the middle of the arrival of yachts involved in the Volvo World Yacht Race 2008 and busy with new pavements, roads and roadside folliage being added all around. We settled into the 5-star surroundings poolside like rednecks at a society charity bash.  "This here pool sure is purty ma. Ooh. we's got fresh towels too!"  Symbols of corporate sponsorship littered the lawns as we finetuned our lies about being with the media .

At lunchtime we wandered out to find something a little cheaper to eat (one sandwich could have paid for a hotel and 2 meals for us!).  Outside the complex we were treated like royalty thinking that we were part of the yachting community.  I spotted a little place and with the locals (mainly dockers) barely looking up we took our places and were served a tradtional Keralan thali by our waiter who seemed impressed and pleased that we had shunned the glitz our our yacht race.  The food was extremely spicy but beautifully flavoured and with flames in our mouths we settled back at the pool looking out over the lip of the infinity pool at the gas container ships and handmade canoes roll in alongside each other.  Before leaving we power showered in the poolside spa and cleaned them out of complimentary shampoo, shower gel and shower caps.  The hairdryer would not fit in the bag.

The next bus was to Munnar, a hill station and plantation town back in the rainforest with a rather random but imposing and real 50ft cardboard cut out of Lenin stood on a hammer and sickle?!  The journey there, mainly uphill, past many grand houses and the roads were mercifully smooth.  Humanity seemed to settle harmoniously into the vegetation with litter and filth noticeably absent, the lo-rise towns hardly denting the waves of green.  During our stay there we arranged a trek up one of the mountains at 2400m.  We met our fellow trekker, a 50-year old jolly German man named Andreas with a big twirly moustache (but sadly no liederhausen to complete the picture) and after our guide poured a quick early morning chai we steadily started the 2-hour climb.  With regular stops to marvel at the developing scenery creeping out of the shadows created by the red rising sun we could see on one side the tall trees helping to cover the spice plantations that lay beneath and on the other the lazy undulations of an enormous manicured tea plantation set like a lush carpet of green across telly-tubby hills. At the top the far horizon, now under the colourless light of the risen sun, mountain tops as far as the eye could see were poking above the valley mists.  We settled for breakfast while the funny Andreas meditated on the top (see photo!)

After 3 days in the lovely Munnar we took another bus to Kumily.  The usual kamakazi bus team of driver, ticket man and door opener/bell ringer were thick as theives, laughing and joking as we sped at breakneck speed round horseshoe corners with a rude rasp of the horn.  At one point they stopped at a stall at the side of the road and bought some oranges and handed them to us as a gift.  As well as feeling safe we've always felt looked after and protected and whether it's by barman, bus-man or waiter, helping people is integral to their existance and courted by the law of Karma and bring luck.

In Kumily, a friend of the guys in Munnar, took us on a tour of a tea factory and the surrounding bonzai tea tree fields.  He also took us to a spice garden and several plantations where we saw and sampled fresh curry leaves, cinnamon trees, cardamon, turmeric roots, cashew nut trees, coca leaves, ginger roots, lemon leaves, aubergines, a red banana tree, tapioca trees, chilli peppers, wild lemongrass, masla leaves, nutmeg, sandlewood, rosewood and teak trees, papaya trees, vanilla pods, rubber trees and latex wood.  Seeing all these foods and spices at source was quite humbling in a strange way - i was beginning to see why they called these bountiful lands God's Own Country.

Our last stop was Alappuzha which we reached by 2-hour ferry.  We stopped here to relax into the slower pace of Indian life for 4 days before our enormous journey north through the entire country to Nepal.  We hired a houseboat for a 24 hour trip around some of the countless waterways.  We lazed on our chaise longue sipping from a bottle of Goan port (the only take out a bar would give us) sailing silently through the wide channels of calm of water lined by palm trees and small villages.  Moored up in the evening we were offered a ride in a canoe down some of the smaller channels of the backwaters.  Taking up the spare oar we paddled down the river (although in reality i was probably not helping steer at all) feeling like we on an expedition on the Amazon.  We picked up some India University student type straight out of a teen horror flick - all innocent and jokey.  Now fearing for our lives (as Brits always get killed in these films) we turned off the main 'highway' and into a gloomy side channel, the sun setting rapidly behind the thick cloud cover.  We silently scouped at the water anonymously spying on the locals evening rituals and briefly stopped at a local shack for a vile coconut beer.  It was dark by the time we returned, the waterway now illuminated by shy moonlight and an electric storm in the near distance.    

Having been at the guest house for 4 days we got to know some good people in the comfortable common area including a girl from Hong Kong who was happy to meet us when we got there to show us round the city and Kitchu, a young indian guy who worked there.  On our last full day Kitchu invited us to his family home for dinner, taking us to a secret non-tourist beach in the afternoon that had been created by the Tsunami a few years ago.  The baby palm trees stretched out as far as we could see on the deserted beach.  After flinging a frisbee round for a while in the blowy conditions we left for his mum's.  We ate outside the humble 2 room house with his family and one of his friends.  The conversation was fun and flowed as easily as the mozzies bit my legs and the fantastic food tumbled out, the family ignoring our pleas for it to stop.  With our lips burning and our stomachs overflowing with polite scoffing we headed back arming ourselves with sleep before some serious train rides to reach Nepal for Christmas.
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