MUNNAR & THE WESTERN GHATS
Some more tea?
Our last stop in India – how sad to pronounce it – led us out of the tropical heat of Kerala’s coastline, deep into the fresh hills of the Western Ghats mountain range. As we passed on doing a safari in Sri Lanka, we however wanted to try spot some wild animals and so first headed towards Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary near the small town of Kumily, on the border of Tamil Nadu and a four to five hours drive on a local bus from Kottayam (where the ferry out of the Backwaters had left us).
Periyar is said to be one of the most famous and most visited national parks in India. The sleepy town next door doesn’t show it and neither does the offer of bad serviced, overpriced jungle tours, which even in comparison to the houseboat rental were a complete rip-off. After the camera lens and the flight rescheduling, our budget was not prepared for such extravagances, and so we decided to continue directly to Munnar, our last stop before taking the plane from Cochin to Bangkok. But then we didn’t consider that we were in, Kerala, the Communist state of India, where the people rises its voice more frequently than elsewhere. So the day we wanted to leave we got caught in a state-wide strike, shutting down any service, transport, restaurant, etc. everywhere. No bus moving, no auto-riksha hunking, no Chai-boy walking around, just some sleepy strikers lingering at the shop frontsides, looking somehow bored by the lack of city life. The strike was scheduled (!) to last from 6am to 6pm and 6pm sharp the normal life started again: all restaurants opened, the auto-rikshas started looking for some late passengers and the spice traders tried to catch some straying tourists.
The following day at 6am we could finally catch the bus to Munnar, another five hour ride through the winding roads of the Ghats, on a bus rattling like a tin can full of screws with each unevenness of the road. Once you forgot about the steep precipice right on your left, the panorama views were absolutely spectacular and more we approached Munnar, the rainforest gave way to infinite extensions of lush green tea plantations.
Munnar town isn’t much of a sight, a small village framed by rectangular concrete hotels, packed with souvenir shops and spice malls – Indian style tourism. So there is a clear separation between the locals’ and the foreigners’ area, on the town borders, close to the hills covered by tea plantations. Same about the tours offered: while Indians content themselves with driving to the tea plantation, doing some steps inside and taking the respective pictures, hiking tours into the steep hills seem to be offered exclusively for the crazy Westerners.
So crazy Westerners as we are, we obviously did one of the hiking trips, six hours walking through the hills, starting at 7am and having an awesome breakfast at the highest point of the trek. A spectacular, if tiring experience, as the ascents were quite steep and we once again convinced ourselves that our physical condition still leaves some room for improvement. At 8am the plantation employees enter work, so we could even get a close glimpse on the process of tea picking – a damn hard job, so it’s even more stunning that only women do it and even carry huge bags weighting 30-40 kilos around the plantation, on their head (not surprising then that most of them have permanent headache and bone problems by the age of 40).
Part of our trek led us through the forest, where we had the chance to spot two of the most emblematic animals of the area, the giant squirrel and the wild goat – both protected and in danger of extinction.
With our last tourist activity in India finished, we dedicated the remaining time to the preparation of our onward trip to Bangkok the following day. One part of those preparations was to put Javiers hair into a civilized form again, so that we passed by a barber shop in town to get him a proper Indian haircut and shave. The barber shop was overcrowded on a Sunday afternoon, so that we had to wait for quite some time until it was his turn. Two white Westerners inside a not more than 8 sqare meter hairdressing salon was already an attraction and that on of them was moreover a woman (obviously, male and female go to separate places for hair cutting in India) was certainly the event of the day and the three hard working hair dressers seemed to openly enjoy it.
As with many other services in India, the furnishing and equipment of the salon was absolutely basic, with three hairdressers sharing one hair dryer and one electric cutting machine. However the pace and precision of the cutting process was absolutely stunning, as the scissors were moving to fast that I asked myself how they could know what they were actually cutting. Javier hadn’t been to a proper hair dresser for three years so for 80 rupees his head and beard looked so neat and organized that he could have walked straight into his first job interview.