Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Monsoon Vacation

About two weeks ago I got back from classes and I was bombarded by Trudy and Kaia, "Harper! We have a long weekend the week after next! Let's go to Kerala!"
"Okay!! Let's do it!" says I, not knowing  where or what is in Kerala, but mere hours later we had our plane tickets purchased and our plans set. As I said, I really knew nothing about Kerala, which is a southwestern Indian state, but I was assured that there were beaches and "backwaters" so I grew more and more excited as our departure loomed closer.
Last Tuesday, me, Diana, Alanna, and the Norwegians (Trudy, Kaia, and Marrianne) left for the airport and arrived in Kochi around 9pm. Stepping off the plane was like being back in Nashville. It was steaming hot and we had to swim through the humidity to get to the baggage terminal. As I was standing in line waiting to get a taxi to a guest house we found in Lonely Planet, fate would have it that the others stopped at the Tourist Info desk to grab a few maps of the area. I guess they saw some pictures of house boats going through the Kerala Backwaters, and the guy at the desk asked if we would like to book a private boat while we were there. Obviously we said yes, but assumed that it would be way too expensive. Much to our surprise it was pleasantly within our budget, which is cheap, so we left the airport giddy with excitement about being in Kerala and anticipation of our upcoming private boat tour!!
After an hour taxi ride we got to our guest house. We were exhausted and slightly disappointed; Lonely Planet said that this guest house would have "pot plants" lining the balcony, but there were only "potted plants," but at least there was wifi.
We go up early the next day and began to explore Fort Kochi. The girls did a lot of shopping, but I was more in an exploring mood. We were in a part of town called Jew Town which houses a plethora of antique and craft shops, which start out as tiny store fronts but then went back into deep rooms and passages just filled with old indian artifacts and stuff. It was awesome. I went into every shop and touched everything. I fell in love with these wooden Bull heads and carved Hindu deities, but they were all too large and precarious to travel with and I couldn't talk the prices down far enough (which is saying something because I'm quite an accomplished haggler, if I do say so myself).
I really wanted one of these two, but settled on a smaller blue one

Our first day was a good indicator of our whole trip, at least weather-wise. It's monsoon season in India, which means it rains on a pretty steady basis. In Hyderabad we get rain at least everyday, if not every other day, but in Kerala it rained almost the whole time. Luckily we were able to take shelter in various fish stalls, spice shops, and cafes, but I don't think any of us quite anticipated the amount of rain we actually encountered. On a historical note, Kerala was a Dutch colony before the British took it over in the mid-1700s, so it is a mainly Christian state (well, except for Jew Town) and there were churches everywhere. It was quite different from the rest of india that I've seen so far and by the end of our trip I was real tired of seeing Jesus everywhere. I mean, I get enough of that back home. Also, Kerala is the Indian state with the highest literacy rate, which is great, but we had a difficult time getting around with English and the other girl's minimal Hindi. English is usually pretty universally spoken around India, but that didn't seem to be the case in Kerala. It made traveling even more tedious and confusing, but we made it out all right.
I really wanted this Parvati statue, but
just couldn't justify the Rs 1300
On Thursday we left Kochi pretty early and took a 2hr bus ride to where our private house boat(mansion) was docked. I had envisioned the Kerala backwaters to be small river paths through mangrove forests and what not, but that really wasn't the case. It reminded me a lot of Vietnam, with wide channels surrounded by trees, rice paddies, and some small villages. Our houseboat was great though, it was even similar to the Chinese Junk I went on in Vietnam back in 2009. It was two floors with three bedrooms and a fabulous balcony that we spent all afternoon on. It was a bit rainy and overcast, but we stayed up there anyway, reading and being creeped on by other Indian tourists in their own boats.
We stopped at a small fish market and bought/chose our own fish, prawns, and crabs for dinner, although I was not equipped with the proper "crab" tools, so I felt like I failed my Echo Hill education with our crabs during. We were told that the boats didn't specifically serve alcohol, so in Kochi we prepared and brought our own liquid sustenance along. We had a very enjoyable evening after dinner with our wine, beer, and, of course, gin.
The Backwaters with rice paddy

Our private boat

We started Friday early and left the boat around 9am. In an unusual step for myself, I completely left the planning to everyone else, which was fine. As I've said, I really didn't know what to expect from Kerala, so Trudy and Kaia took the reins and ushered us around the state. We got a 2hr bus ride to another city where we were supposed to catch another 5hr bus to Munnar, a city in the South Indian Mountains. Once we got there we had about an hour until our bus left, so we grabbed a quick lunch and then waited at the bus station... in the rain. In true Indian fashion our bus was canceled or delayed or something, but we ended up waiting around for nearly 2hr, still in the rain... Once we finally got on our bus we sat right up front and settled down for another long haul.
Driving through monsoon floods
However, our bus driver felt the need to pass every vehicle that ever suffered the misfortune of being in front of us, whether it was a rickshaw, car, another bus, or a truck towing a backhoe. He did this for the entire 5hrs, during the monsoon induced floods and on the treacherous mountain roads that only have room for about a car and a half with a sheer drop off a cliff on the other side. It was terrifying, if not exhilarating. Obviously we didn't die, but my knuckles were white and clenched around the bar in front of me the whole ride.
We got to Munnar late and only just got dinner before all the restaurants closed. As it turns out, Munnar is one of the Indian cities where all the tea is grown and produced. On Saturday we woke up, again much earlier than I was comfortable with, and we hired a guide with a jeep to take us to a nearby wildlife sanctuary. Unfortunately Alana was sick, so she had to stay behind, but it was an incredible day. The jeep was all safai-like, so I got to sit in the back and hang my head/body out the side to take in the views. Driving out of Munnar we passed through tea country, where the hillsides were just absolutely covered in tea plants and waterfalls. Our driver stopped every now and then to let us take pictures and stop at the waterfalls, and whenever we passed by a tea factory the air smelled absolutely heavenly. Finally, around noon, the sun actually came out and the day became even more gorgeous.
Neon Carrots in Munnar

Tea in Munnar

Tea with tea pickers

We got to the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary around 1pm and hired 2guides to take us on a 3hr trek (*a three hour toouuurrr*).
Our very lofty goal was to see wild elephants, but it's best to see them in the early morning and even then only if you're lucky. Almost as soon as we began our hike we saw a Giant Indian Squirrel (which is classified as threatened). It was cool, but mostly just weird lookin'. Not too cute. That and a snake that Kaia nearly stepped on (just a teeny-tiny brown one) was the only wildlife we saw. However, we saw signs of elephants everywhere, including elephant poop from that very morning! and tracks leading to the river.

Some Eagley-thing over Coffee Farm
Our trek destination from way off
Indian Giant Squirrel
If you've ever gone hiking with me, or just walked with me outside, you'll know that I'm a very slow hiker because I have to see and touch everything. So me and one of the guides brought up the rear, which turned out to be just fine because he told me neat things about what we were seeing and hearing. one of the coolest things was a low-laying branch that was polished smooth by elephants scratching their backs up against it! Our trek culminated in a beautiful, giant waterfall. Our guides didn't really speak much English, but they made  it clear that I wasn't supposed to go to near the waterfall. However, I thought that was dumb because I was wearing my bouldering shoes and I know how to climb on slippery things. Once Diana said that she wanted to go closer as well I made my move. I don't think I ignored our guides, I just feigned ignorance as they motioned for me not to go further up the waterfall. Then Diana followed me, so we kind of pressured one of the guides to follow us up the whole side of the waterfall until we were way up and behind it. Right before we left I got my first chance to wash my hair since we left the boat (and by "first chance" I mean that I refused to shower in the freezing water in the guesthouse, and by "wash" I mean stuck my head in the river and beat my hair with rocks).

I call this picture "Shroom in [elephant] Poo"

The drive back was equally beautiful but we were exhausted. Alana was feeling better once we got back and we went to a restaurant that had been suggested to us earlier by someone at the tourist station. It turned out to be an all-you-can-eat buffet at this snazzy hotel, which we were not at all dressed for. They let us in when we got there at 7, but it didn't start until 7:30, so we just sat there and started at the food for 30min. We were all so hungry and the food was sooo good, so we didn't leave until around 10. We just sat there and let all of our courses settle until we went back for thirds and fourths.

On Sunday we went to the Munnar Tea Museum, which was fun. It was an absolutely beautiful day and it didn't rain at all. It would've been a perfect day for a trek, but, unfortunately, we can't tell the future, so we had to go ahead and head back down the mountain. This time we weren't traveling at night and our driver was considerably tamer, so it wasn't as bad.
However, once we were down the mountain we randomly stopped at some station and were all ushered off the bus because, "bus is broke down. Move bus," although it seemed to have been working just fine, but whatevs. We got on our way again soon, but we weren't positive that we were going back to Kochi and no one would give us a definite answer. A few hours later the bus came to a final stop, but we legitimately didn't know where we were. Of course, no one spoke English or Hindi so they just kept telling us to get off. I tried asking young people where we were (because young people seemed most likely to speak English), but everyone thought I was asking "where in the city are we?", not "what city are we in?" Eventually we discovered that we were, in fact, in the right city, so we got a rickshaw to a new guesthouse.
By the time we had all showered and were ready for dinner we were all just exhausted, cranky, and utterly spent. Evidently we were in apart of town that doesn't get a lot of tourists, so we were once again the only white people to be found and we got A LOT of stares. By the time we actually found a restaurant, we went in, walked through the fairly crowded dining room and a general silence fell through the restaurant as everyone watched the six white girls make their way to the semi-hidden table in the corner. It was not a happy time. Luckily, the food turned out to be really good and we went to bed in better spirits.
On Monday, our last day in Kerala, we woke up at 6:30am to get a taxi that would take us to an elephant training camp an hour out of town. According to Lonely Planet, if we got there by 8:30 we could help the trainers bathe the elephants in the river, so obviously we made the sacrifice. I think we all fell asleep in the cab on the way there, where we were unceremoniously dropped at the end of a road that dead ended into a river. There were some other white people there, so we just kind of awkwardly hung around for 15-20min waiting for these elusive elephants to show up. Finally they did and it was glorious!... kind of.
We weren't immediately allowed to touch them, so we just hung back and took pictures. Unfortunately all the elephants had chains wrapped around them, which I can only assume was for their own safety (yes, ignorance is bliss). About 15min after the first three got there it became apparent that these three must be female, because this huge bull elephant, ivory tusks and all, came meandering down the road. He was huge. I didn't even know Asian elephants could get that big. He was awesome and automatically my favorite.

Unfortunately we were never invited to help wash the elephants. According to another taxi driver, there happened to be a park warden/inspector(?) there that day, and since technically touching the elephants is illegal we couldn't help out. Also, since Monday was the last day of Ramadan, the training camp was closed to visitors for the holiday, so we couldn't even go and poke around or ride the elephants. While it was very cool to go and see the elephants bathe and play in the water, it was kind of a bust since our taxi ride was quite expensive to go all the way our there to stay less than an hour.
the BIG guy

We went back to Kochi, checked out of our hotel and our little group split up. Some of the girls went to go see some of the old churches, but I went to go do some of the shopping that I was too distracted to do when we were there before. I got some nice tops and this cool, silky, kimono dress thing. When we met back up to head to the airport it turned out that the others had ended up getting an Ayurveda massage because all the churches were closed on Mondays. We got back to Tagore after midnight and I took a badly needed shower, did some laundry and passed the fuck out.
We really did have a wonderful get away and none of us particularly wanted to leave, although we were quite happy to be back. I'm not sure what the highlight was... probably the trek and waterfall, but I also immensely enjoyed just exploring Kochi our first day there. In the animal sanctuary we went to it's possible to see tigers, but there are specific Tiger Treks to take that makes seeing them more likely. Seeing a wild tiger is an opportunity that is just too good to pass up, so luckily I'm already in talks with some of the other students who will also be here for a year for us to go back this spring, in the dry season, to take a 3day trek devoted to tiger spying. 

1 comment:

  1. God, Harper, this looks amazing! I had no idea India was such a gorgeous place!