Monday, November 14, 2011

The Mountains of Munnar-“God’s Country”…Kerala, India

Well, here’s how it happened. I was walking down the street in Goa thinking to myself, “I must leave Goa.” I had already taken a long bus ride to the capital of Goa and gone to a travel agent there, who said he would call or email me with plans for trip to Kerala and then never did, but at the time I was walking I didn’t know he wouldn’t contact me. I just saw this sign for a travel agent on my walk, and went into this nice little office with two women. I explained to them what I was doing, my trip; and what I wanted to do – go to Kerala. They were so nice and helpful, in the next few days they had booked my airfare, hotel, and driver for 5 days in Kerala. They made the suggestions, and I told them what I could afford, and we worked together.
We have a saying, my friends and I, “don’t quit before the miracle.” There have been several times during this trip where I have considered going home. The first time was in Budapest, Hungary where I felt very alone and in a not friendly place, and then again in Goa because I felt like what the f**k am I doing here. Each time, I made a decision to move on, and each time I moved on I encountered a new and wonderful experience.
I flew from Goa to Chennai to Kochi on India Air. Sad that Kingfisher Airlines is in money trouble, because they are a much nicer airlines than India Air. One of the nicest things about booking a tour is having someone waiting at the airport, holding a sign with your name on it, and ready to drive you to your destination. This is when I met my driver, Bennie. We then went on a four hour drive from Kochi to Munnar. Munnar is in the mountains of Kerala, and is one of the most beautiful, special places I been to in my life. As we were driving up the mountains and I saw the waterfalls and lush forests which so reminded me of Hawaii, I knew I had made the right choice and come to the right place. Benny lives in a small town in Munnar, so he knew all the special places there to show me on the way. I met his wife who works in a fabric shop, and on my way back to Fort Kochi, we stopped so I could meet his very young son who was going to school. Benny and I became friends during our four day trip. The people in Kerala are so different from anywhere else I’ve been. They are friendly, and funny, and very kind; at least the ones I’ve met so far.
Let me go back to my first impressions of Kerala. After Goa, I could not believe how clean, modern, efficient, and organized Kerala is. The roads are better, the food is delicious, the towns are cleaner; and everything seems to work well here. There are hardly any foreigners here, and the ones that are here seem to be mostly young trekkers, and older European couples.  In short, I have decided for now to spend the rest of my time in India here, at least as a home base. They have places here called “home stays” where you can stay in a home with meals for a very cheap price. Kerala is a bit more expensive overall than Goa, but it is absolutely worth it. Everything I have done here has been amazing and wonderful.
We arrived at my hilltop resort at the very top of the Munnar Mountains at about 5pm. The resort was small duplex bungalows in the midst of lush greenery, with trails and water flowing throughout the property. I had a nice room with bath, and an incredible view of the forest.  The dining room where I had a buffet of Keralan dishes (some very hot and spicy) was this cozy, warm candlelit room with a glass dome. I could sit at my table and look up through the glass to see the tall green trees surrounding the roof. It reminded me of the special dinner Kent and I had at Volcano House for Valentine’s Day one year. An especially romantic place, and except for one bohemian lady with her two noisy children, all the rest of the guests were couples. I had a few tearful moments there, but overall it was calm and peaceful and the food was delicious.
I had a long day, leaving Goa at 4am for the long taxi ride to the main airport; and then to Chennai to change planes after going through customs twice, then one to Kerala and the five hour drive up the mountain, so I went right to sleep and slept very well. I felt so much better, safer, more at peace since I reached Kerala than any of the time I spent in Goa. The energy in Goa is not for me. It reminded me a lot of the end of the Haight, or the last wonderful days in Amsterdam, and Kabul before the Russians, or even in some ways, Maui now for me…places that were wonderful until they became corrupted, either by outside influences or by my own personal experiences.
The next day in Munnar, Benny had a full day planned for me. I told him I really wanted to go on an elephant ride, and he was able to include that in the day. In one day we drove by a monkey sitting in a tree, visited a special bee reserve that is protected by the Kerala Forestry Department. There are five or six bee hives on each tree, and the hives are as large as a regular desktop. Long, hanging combs with thousands of bees hanging from them which I stayed well away from as I was taking pictures because I am deadly allergic to bees. We went to the main dam for Munnar Mountains, which is a popular site for Indian tourists. There are very few foreign tourists up here right now, which is actually pretty nice. Then we went to the Elephant riding place which was filled with families and excited children. It was really a fun experience, even though it wasn’t like a real “elephant riding through the jungle” trip. I had fun talking with the Indian women, and it seeing the children ride the elephants. The ride itself was pretty awesome. You only think you know how big an elephant is. You have no idea how big an elephant is until you have actually sat on one. Also, we went down a small slope, and that was the only time I had a small twinge of fear, going downhill on the top of that huge animal.
After the elephant ride, Benny took me to a small place in a small, dusty village for a traditional Ayurveda massage. It was a bit weird at first. I had to strip off all my clothes in this dusty, cluttered room and the young girl put only a little cotton strip over my privates. First I sat on a stool while she poured warm oil on my head, and massaged my head and neck. My shoulder is still sore from my scooter fiasco in Goa, so she paid some special attention to that area. Then I lay on a long carved wooden table and for one hour I had warm oil massaged all over my body, and I mean over every nook and cranny of my body…this is serious massage, and they rub and oil every part of you, including between your toes and in your ears.  I was told the massage included a steam treatment, but I was so surprised when that turned out to be a large wooden box which opened in the front. I sat on a wooden bar, and then the doors were closed with my head sticking out of a hole in the top of the cabinet. It was a tiny, individual sauna. The steam was coming from the bottom of the cabinet; from hot coals and herbs. I had been getting a bit chilled during the massage lying on the wood table, so the heat felt so good. After too short a time, the girl took me out and wiped me all over with a small cloth. My oily hair was tied up. She told me to wait a few hours, and then shower all the oil off. I went back to the Treetop and had a rest. Later, I showered, took a walk through the property, had another delicious meal, and went to bed thinking how glad I was that I had made the decision to continue my trip to Kerala!
I also visited a tea factory where I was shown the whole process of making black tea from tea leaves, and visited the museum of artifacts from the tea plantation in the early 1900’s. The British who lived up in these remote mountains have all left now, but there is much evidence of their stay in the local communities.
I only had two nights in Munnar, and then we had to get an early start for another four hour drive back to the river so I could board my riverboat for a ride through the “Venice of the east” waterways. On our way down the mountain, Benny took me to a spice farm and I had a tour with the fastest talking Indian ever who knew absolutely everything about every plan on that farm. Of course, my video had run out of battery, so I was unable to film him but I did get some good pictures. He told me stories about the origins of tea, ginger, cardamom, pepper…did you know there are three types of pepper (black, white, and green) that all come from the same plant. The plant is just processed differently. Americans and Europeans use black pepper, Chinese use white pepper, and Arabs use green pepper. Indians use all three. It was an amazing tour. At the end I bought some spices to send to my friend, who has been such a good friend to me in the past few years. She is a cook, and she will love these fresh spices from India.
I was sad to leave Munnar, and I definitely would love to return. It was an eventful couple of days filled with such a variety of sights and experiences. I also loved the scenery, the people, and the food; but most of all how much it reminded me of home in Hawaii and how serene I felt being in such a beautiful place.

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