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South Indian mountains are worth seeing. But don't cross the Ghats by car.

We traveled from Wayanad to Pondicherry by car. Wayanad is in Kerala, the western side of India. Pondicherry is on the ocean on the east coast. In between is the south Indian subcontinent. It's divided by a couple mountain ranges, the Eastern and Western Ghats. The roads through the mountains wind their way up the side of the mountain and then back down. They're medium-small, as mountains go. We still found ourselves looking down at clouds rolling through the valleys below.

The tea plantations were gorgeous. Imagine an entire mountainside covered with lush deep-green foliage. The occasional worker adds a dot of contrasting color to the vertical planes of solid green. There were large carrot plantations, too. These are all at steep angles, with some terracing.

Michael was enchanted by a little mountain village. The rows of houses follow the contours of the mountain, like the villages found on mountainsides in Spain and Italy. We got out and walked around a bit. I watched a construction site, where workers shoveled dirt onto a tarp, four people picked up the corners, and they all scrambled up the hillside. The grade would be too steep to use a wheelbarrow, even if they'd had them.

We saw a nice waterfall and rapids area, similar to the Great Falls area in Maryland/DC. A short 1-km path leads down to some rushing waters. The weren't many people on the trail, but we passed by a few Westerners. No Americans, but an Australian couple and another who were speaking German. Several enterprising vendors set up shop at the head of the trail to cater to the tourists. We had a fruit drink, with something that was either frothy sweet-lime or frothy orange juice, squeezed and frothed right in front of us. I also noshed on a big bunch of chunky orange carrots (washed in mineral water). They were sweet, and amazingly fresh, since they had been in the ground that morning.

We also saw the botanical garden, planted in the nineteenth century. November is the off-season, so the tickets were at a deep discount--even the non-Indian price. Most of the flowers weren't blooming, but there were still some lovely flowers. The topiary was worth seeing too; there were hedges sculpted into squirrels, elephants, and mice. We wasted half an hour trying to get lunch in the town, but left the seedy hotel restaurant after seeing their hygiene standards. Probably a good thing; the service matched the quality, and they had been out of nearly everything on the menu. I went to the shop next door and bought some Lay's potato chips to eat instead.

We traveled through some dense rain forests. The moisture hits the mountains and falls as rain. The rain stays mostly on the western side of the Ghats. That area is supposedly one of the most ecologically diverse areas in Asia. For us, the mostly-nocturnal wildlife was still sleeping, so we didn't see many animals other than monkeys. We passed through a Eucalyptus plantation too; I wonder if there are Indian koalas? It rained for a few hours; not a hard rain but a softer, steady rain. The rain was refreshing to us, because it helped cut the heat.

We didn't know it, but the rain had washed out several roads that weekend. So we went up, and back down, at least three extra mountains. Each mountain takes at least an hour to traverse. There are winding roads that zig-zag back and forth across the mountainside, around some perilously tight bends at the top, then zig-zagging back down. The rain had raised the creek levels. Our trusty little Indigo car forded a couple creeks, mocking the larger vehicles stuck by the side of the road.

That night we pushed on through Tamil Nadu. In Kerala, we'd seen many signs in English. In Tamil Nadu, everything is in Tamil. The Tamil script is not Devanagari; it's a bunch of loop-de-loops that reminds me of Korean. Our limited Hindi was useless there. We ate supper at a hotel; some delicious ginger fish, and South Indian buttermilks with ginger and green onions. Michael also charged up his laptop during dinner, since his presentation was the next morning and we wouldn't be getting to the hotel until late.

As the hours wore closer to midnight, we were glad to enter a well-maintained Indian toll road. We weren't sure how close we were to Pondicherry. We saw signs for Chennai. I was hopeful for a bit when I saw an ambulance marked Pondicherry; we later passed it, parked at a roadside hotel. Several hours later, we left the smooth, well-lit highway, and went on a rickety road toward Pondicherry. Michael worked on his presentation. I dozed a bit, as much as the potholes would let me. Even late at night, Indian roads are active. There were women carrying big metal water-jars on their heads, walking down the side of the road in the dark. The men were relatively few, mostly bicycling, or driving camels or donkey-carts.

We finally pulled into Pondicherry around 4 AM. The theoretically eight-hour trip had taken Seventeen hours. We gratefully thanked our poor driver and went to the hotel.

Kerala

Nov. 22nd, 2009 01:28 am
flora: Photo of a baby penguin chick (Default)
Kerala is a green paradise in South India.  We flew down to Cochi (Kochin) before the fall Fulbright India conference.  More pictures are here: http://blacks.smugmug.com/India/Kerala

We'd booked a custom tour package through Ebenezer Holiday.  I would highly recommend them to anyone traveling through South India. Everything was prepaid and ready for us in advance.  The travel agent personally picked us up at the airport, with his driver. The car was clean and had working safety belts, even in the back seat--the first car in India we've seen with all seat belts working! 

The first day was sightseeing around Cochin, a port city.  The Chinese fishing nets were very interesting, and surrounded by flotsam. 
Kerala fisherman with the chinese fishing nets

We saw the seventeenth-century Dutch church. About one-third of the population of Kerala is Christian, especially Roman Catholic. Michael, dressed in his all-white kurta lungi, could even pass for a priest (one shopkeeper thought he was "a Father.")

Michael in front of the Jewish synagogue grounds in Jew-Town, Kerala

We also stopped by the local Jewish cemetery and synagogue in "Jew-Town," now an antiques district. The merchants lining the street to the synagogue were on the lookout for rich tourists.  We had to shoo them away constantly.  We decided we didn't want to go back for Shabbat services. We had a fantastic dinner at the Grand Hotel instead--delicious fish and chicken.

The next day, we traveled up to the Kerala backwaters. There are dozens of converted rice barges that now act as luxurious houseboats. We scrambled up the gangplank and spent a leisurely afternoon boating down the river, through palm tree forests and dense floating knots of water hyacinths.  We floated past muddy green fields of rice paddies, which oddly enough are lower than the water level.  Our boat pulled over to a local fisherwoman's hut, and we bought some fish and giant prawns for dinner.  We watched the birds swooping around, and the occasional boat-bus or boat-schoolbus zipping by.  The local people waved at us as they looked up from scrubbing their laundry or bathing in the river.  No nudity inhibitions there.

For the afternoon, the boat pulled over and we relaxed. We dined on succulent ginger-curried fish for lunch, served on banana leaves, of course.  There was a several-hour break for the crew's lunch break.  Michael lounged around and studied Hindi vocabulary, comfortable in his traditional South Indian blue-checked lungi. My husband is so handsome when he dresses up Indian!  I took a little nap. It was so peaceful.

There were many birds, swooping everywhere--and I mean everywhere!  The numerous crows have adapted to living with the people; they followed the women around to filch food scraps from their dishwater.  Three crows even invited themselves to our breakfast the next morning, swooping in as soon as we stood up, and grabbing the toast and eggs while they were still warm. There were plenty of semi-wild ducks and domestic chickens too.  We also saw a kingfisher perching and diving into the water, and some other seabirds that might be terns. I heard lots of frogs, too--bullfrogs, even--but I didn't see them.

Dinner was challenging.  After a picture-perfect sunset, the crew lowered the thick liners to shut the windows (never mind the wide-open doorways).  Michael noticed a little gecko snapping up clouds of flies next to the overhead lights. On closer look, he saw they were mosquitoes. Thousands of mosquitoes.  We don't want to get malaria; however, we didn't want to stink up our bedroom with curry either.  At first I tried duct-taping our mosquito netting to the boat's ceiling, but it was dusty and the tape wouldn't stick.  So I grabbed a couple of the chairs and set them up on the table, then draped our mosquito netting over them to form a canopy.  So under our improvised mosquito-tent, we ate our dinner in the main cabin of the boat.  They cooked us some delicious prawns in a curry coconut sauce.  We retired to our well-sealed bedroom.  The air conditioner drowned out the night noises, but the tightly-shut windows kept out the mosquitoes.

The next day, we traveled up to Wayanad, Kerala.  We passed through tea plantations, and spent the night in the Green Gates Hotel.  Rather, we slept in a bamboo treehouse made into a hotel room.  Green Gates was by far the cleanest, most comfortable room out of all the hotels we have ever stayed in throughout India.  Never mind that we could see through the cracks between the floorboards to the ground far below; that treehouse was a two-story luxury hotel room, with hot water and a comfy down comforter. After a tasty dinner, we snuggled in for a comfortable night's sleep.

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