19. from mountain to sea
We are early at breakfast this morning. John is looking forward to bacon. The boys in the dining room have told him that it's one day bacon, the next day sausage. Yesterday was sausage.
He says to our waiter, 'So, is it sausage or bacon today?'. The waiter laughs heartily, as if John has made the funniest joke he has ever heard, and walks away. We start laughing ourselves. Of course it turns out to be a sausage day. A case of bacon yesterday and tomorrow, but never today?
We are leaving the mountain town of Kumily to descend the western ghat to the ocean. It's very steep, our driver Selvam at the wheel. Three vehicles abreast happens as a matter of course. John says that he wouldn't drive a Jaguar down Cunningham's Gap at this speed, let alone a bus down this vertical descent. No one seems nervous. He's a capable driver. And very handsome.
At the beginning we are in the clouds, with hairpin bends.
We stop on the side of the road for photos of a tea plantation. The women workers are so close we can see them cutting the tips of the tea plants, camellia sinensis. But it's too dangerous for us to park the bus there, so we drive on.
I'm still lamenting the tea-pickers that got away when a few kilometres later we stop again. This time the parking is perfect. So is the scenery.
Cover for infant tea plants is provided by the silky oak, grevillea robusta. These specimens are tall and spindly and give no cover at all. But the hedged tea shrubs are mature.
Even tea plantations have scarecrows. Looking more like a fencing tutor, this one carries a bouquet of silky oak.
We see some tea-pickers far in the distance.
They wear umbrella hats. This is the first time we've seen sun hatsworn in India. Mostly it's only headscarves in the blistering heat.
We stop at a roadside stall. A child is sitting on his father's knee. I love saying namaskaraam (Malayalam for hello). I can tell the father is telling his child to say hello. The little mite puts his hands together as a mark of respect. Couldn't you eat him?
As we descend, the road is lined by handsome tall trees with dark trunks and lime green foliage. They're rubber trees.
Score marks do a barley-sugar-twist around the trunks. Latex drips into coconut shell bowls attached to the trees with wire.
Many of the posts used agriculturally are actually solid granite. We saw them in the vineyards in Tamil Nadu, 6 feet out of the ground and we guess another 2 or 3 at least underneath. So granite posts at least 8 feet high. Amazing.
You may know that the Indian elections are imminent. There are lots of communist flags in the small towns once we hit the coastal plain. Someone says they think that there is a communist government in Kerala governing co-jointly with another party, but they're not sure. In Chennai we saw election posters where the candidates looked like movie gangsters. Voting is voluntary, and the election turnout rate is about 66%. On election day, the political parties provide bollywood music and party food as encouragement.
We drive through the town of Ponkunnam. George announces on the microphone that this is the setting for the book, The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy. I think it's my favourite book of the past decade, if not longer.
I see a sign in a town saying 'Office of the Circle Inspector of Police'. A police chief who inspects circles? I have visions of circles going oval without official permission.
Another sign announces 'CRASH'. On the next line, 'MARCH 29th'. I'd quite like to see it.
We have lunch at a Taj hotel on the Kerala backwaters in a lovely old colonial building.
I sit with George, whose phone rings incessantly. He's the manager of his national tour company and is in high demand. This is one of his annual tours of duty. The chilli in the grilled fish masala nearly blows my head off.
After lunch I wander a little.
There is a special yellow paint used in India. Another traveller tells me Windsor and Newton have it in their range, and call it Indian yellow. George calls it marigold yellow. A heliconia against this background is so electric it almost looks fake.
In the shop I greet the shop-owner again with namaskaraam. Stuart, the partner of Sue, our specialist English tour guide, tells me the owners of these curio shops are always Kashmiri. I say I must learn some Kashmiri words. The shop-keeper says with a dazzling smile that he will teach me.
It's very hot and humid at sea level in Kerala. Even the walk along a covered way to the shores of Vembanad Lake has us red in the face, shirts wet with sweat. The edges of the lake are clogged with water hyacinth. Sticky with sunscreen, we cruise into a huge lake then along a canal for a couple of hours. We're grateful for the breeze.
Some of the boats are covered in the most beautifully woven thatch.
It's breathless in the covered lower area, and breezy but blasting sun on the deck above. A few of us stand in the small covered breezeway between the captain's wheelhouse and the cabin behind. People live along this canal, and wave lazily to us. This man does his washing.
You could be on any tropical island.
There are many boats on the lake. This man is casting a net. He's painfully thin.
Even dugouts have engines.
We see many different types of birds. Some travel from Siberia and the Himalayas. I'm not a twitcher so I have no idea what I am photographing. We have a bird enthusiast in our tour group, and later she identifies our photos for us. The white-throated kingfisher, darter, Indian pond heron, brahminy kite, red-whiskered bulbul, little cormorant, lesser whistling duck, black drongo, asian open bill stork, intermediate egret. I'm glad people aren't classified as lesser and intermediate. But then, we call it something else, don't we?
John bags a male and female kingfisher.
This boy is met by his mother from a ferry and throw his school bag up in the air. It lands heavily in the dust. She picks it up wearily. He runs and leaps along the side of the canal in high spirits. This was taken on our return journey. Complete with water ear-rings.
People cross the canal in dugout canoes.
When we get off our boat, we pass a school where the students are just coming out. This little girl is wearing eyebrow pencil and kohl eyeliner. It's thought to ward off the evil eye. It's thought to look pretty too, I'm sure.
In a shanty town, this fence stands out. I wonder what happened to the buidling it must have once enclosed.
We arrive at Cochin at dusk. It's nice to be back in civilisation. Our hotel room looks across an expanse of water at the setting sun over the old city. It's a busy waterway with boats of all shapes and sizes coming and going.
It's always fun to see the hotel flowers.
Dinner is at the hotel grill overlooking the water. The menu is announced at our table by a delightful Indian man whose English I cannot understand. I hear enough to know there is tenderloin. I ask if it's beef, and when the answer is affirmative, I ask where it comes from. Oh, it's local, is the answer. The only beef we have had in India comes in big lumps in a curry. To my surprise, it tastes like tender Aussie grass-fed beef.
When we came up from dinner, the view from the window had turned to blackness apart from a few lights across the river. I've been writing for a while. You know how you suddenly get the feeling you're being watched? I looked up a second ago, and saw this. It seemed much closer than it looks in the photo. I'm not dressed for company.
Did I tell you that John has set a fashion trend in India? Women's hats are now all the rage in Kerala.
Tomorrow we see the old town of Cochin, now Kochi. Until then travelling buddies....