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  • Shelley Dark

17. a ride on a bullock cart

We leave Tamil Nadu today for Thekkady in Kerala. We've seen many beautiful temples but I'm looking forward to the spice-growing areas.

It's a fairly leisurely morning's drive with a stop at a vineyard which grows table grapes. The vines are suspended at a metre and a half high and look nearly ready for harvest.

They are also selling a palm tree fruit with a yellow coconut fruit with a soft silky pulpy inside. It's bland and I'd like to spit it out.

This group of boys are on a bus excursion and ask if I'll have my photo taken with them. It's intriguing to be considered so exotic. The boy on the right takes the photo, first with his phone and then with mine. The contrast of their affluence with so many of their country men.

At the rear of the shop, a family is picnicking. They even have a rice cooker. Every grain of rice is separate. I struggle to achieve that result with all the mod cons.

When I say a leisurely drive, I'm not meaning the traffic. Our driver is extraordinarily skilful. However it's the usual frightening experience. There are buses cars motorbikes and bicycles. Everyone overtakes with insufficient room. Somehow they seem to avoid collisions.

Shops line the road and people stand very close to the roadway chatting. Pedestrians cross without looking. They wait for the horn tooting to warn them to move along. One lunatic bus driver overtakes us at an extraordinary speed in an area where pedestrians could conceivably walk across the road and there is oncoming traffic. He sits on the bumper bar of a small red sedan for a couple of kilometres, half way across the centre line where there is one, threatening to overtake again. I'm relieved when he turns off to the left. He becomes someone else's problem.

The sound of car horns is familiar and constant. I used to feel sick with worry in driving situations like this. Now I don't care at all. I don't look ahead very often, except to register a general wonder at the order in all this chaos. I wonder why that is. Whatever it is, I'm grateful that the tiger is tamed.

The land we pass is fertile, with plenty of irrigation water channels. Coconuts and rice, marigolds and corn are growing in small paddocks and large.

There are brick kilns with thatched roofs. The wet bricks are stacked inside and a fire lit underneath to bake them. The thatch protects the bricks before they are hard.

This is small plantation of the drumstick tree, or horseradish tree which is flowering, or moringa oleifera. All of its parts seems to be useful: roots (tastes like horseradish), leaves, immature pods (drumstick), seeds and flowers. Oil pressed from mature seeds are generally used in food. Leaves are an excellent source of protein with 100 g of fresh raw leaves providing 9.8g of protein. The seeds treat allergies, inflammation, bacteria, neuralgia, abdominal tumors, and fever. The go-to tree. And it looks so pretty.

Towards the end of our journey we leave the hot flat plains and climb steeply. We expect some relief from the constant heat of the past week.

But even at this altitude it's a warm day. At our eco-resort hotel, I ask a staff member if he knows the altitude. He consults his watch. 8.40, he says. No, not the time, I say, the altitude. Yes ma'am that's the altitude. He holds out his arm to me. His watch has so many dials it could probably pilot the shuttle to outer space. He means 840 metres or 2800 feet.

There are bungalows dotted over the hotel site, all the roofs thatched in the most charming way with criss-crossed timber holding it down. The thatch is very thick to withstand the monsoons. Training in this skill is funded by the government.

When we arrive three chefs in hats are lined up at reception behind a bar offering herb tea. A choice of mint, spearmint, wild basil or lemon balm. I sip my lemon balm brew briefly. It tastes like mildly flavoured hot water.

I'm looking forward to seeing our room. We wander along meandering paths.

After lunch we get into four-wheel drive vehicles and descend the mountain again to those fertile plains below. On our way down the mountain we see massive pipes which take water down to the hydro-electric power station below. Red-faced macac monkeys play on the roadside but we can't stop for me to take a photo. There are hairpin turns which buses negotiate with difficulty. More horn blowing.

The bullocks are tied up, relaxing. White brahmans with huge upward curving horns. This boy loves his two charges who he calls Papaya and Banana. They seem docile and patient. I think he has put ash on their foreheads at the nearby temple because they looked clean before.

Down a slight hill to a very fast flowing stream, where women are doing mountains of washing. Someone jokes that the laundry we've sent out is being done here. These irrigation channels go for many miles, and are edged with concrete. The women rub the clothes on this rough surface, or have washing rocks in the shallow water. Pretty rough stuff on fabrics. A fellow traveller remarks that she once lived in an Asian country and her clothes didn't last long at all. Clothes and saris are spread out over bushes to dry. Whites are hung on lines.

There are three carts. One has rubber tyres, soft seats and is covered. The other two which we don't see at first have wooden wheels and wooden benches. I am very grateful we are in the first. Some in the second two opt to walk back from the half-way mark.

A woman brings her goats down to the river.

This child carries some washing in an upturned zinc tub. An innovative and cushioned way to do it.

It's a very interesting cart ride along rough rutted tracks, with a stretch of bitumen across the river which is wide and fast flowing. We see so many birds. Egrets of different colours, bulbuls, kingfishers, cormorants, babbles, and something our driver calls a cropasant.

Children are splasing in the water. It's very hot.

I'd like to dive in.

We see many different crops on our way. Fields of rice nearly ready for harvest, cotton trees which have pendulous hanging fruits which open to contain a fluffy cotton used for bedding.

Water buffalo graze contentedly along the river.

The variety of crops is astonishing. We see rice paddies, coconuts, bananas, papayas, snake gourds and bitter gourds suspended at head height, chooks, cashews, mangoes, tamarind, ochra, grapes, corinader, chrysanthemums, and chickoos (a fruit with edible pulp and a black seed). The boy walking alongside the bullock dray picks some tamarind fruit for us. He snaps it to reveal the fruit inside and we scrape the thin covering of flesh off the seed with our teeth. It's absolutely wonderful. Sticky. A little tart, a little sweet. I could eat several. Tamarind is usually dried. I'd prefer it fresh.

These baby bananas have a cover crop to protect them until they are bigger.

We see a goatherder who seems to be having a bad day. His goats are clambering over the river bank. I guess he takes the tops off coconuts with the reaping hook-come-knife.

The bullock boy sits on the wood between the bullocks. His gives the slightest touch on their backs and they respond. His affection for them is obvious. They feel the same way about him. We stop to rest them at the half way mark and he feeds them bananas and skins. We are eating tiny lady-finger bananas which are delicous.

He gives us a coconut tree climbing demonstration.

Our guide says that this land here is held by large landholders who in turn lease small paddocks to farmers. There is much broad-acre farming as well. We see some modern machinery.

Our way back involved going on to the main road again. Buses overtakes us as the bullocks clip clop along the bitumen.

People walk along the roadside. The women have such a quiet elegance and beautiful posture.

Back at the hotel, there is a dancing performance before dinner. The girls move their necks horizontally on their shoulders in typically jerky movements, feet pointing outwards. I marvel at the training it must take.

Dinner is as usual buffet style. It's quite delicious. I'm enjoying the curries, and the wide variety of vegetable dishes. Our guide tells us that the 'lamb' dish John likes is most certainly goat. There is a greater emphasis on coconut in Kerala and we see that already. Pappadams are a nice accompaniment to each meal, and my waistline is showing it. I'm becoming a connoisseur of gulab jamun, a dessert of small balls in syrup which tastes like the old-fashioned golden syrup pudding. Our hotel in Mamallapuram had the best by far - light, a hint of orange in the cakey balls, a beautiful syrup. Nothing has quite matched it yet. Tonight they also had something which they call um-ali, very much like small bread and butter puddings. John was delighted.

Spices tomorrow. I'm looking forward to showing you the plantation. In Kerala they speak Malayalam, so it's veendum kaaaam from me (see you later)

shelley dark, writer 

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