After getting our fill of the Kerala coastline, and the sticky heat that comes with it, we were ready for some mountains and a cooler climate. As we drove East out of Alleppey on our first tourist class bus, I reflected on the people I had watched. One of my favorite sights, unfortunately never photographed, was of the young girls in uniform heading to and from school. Almost every young lady wore their hair in two braids, parted down the middle, black and shiny, straight or curly, with two matching ribbons tied into two big bows at the top of the braid, near the crown. The color of these ribbons would compliment the school uniform, whether they be sky blue, or marigold yellow. It was a look from the past, old-fashioned and innocent, making me wish for a similar style amongst little girls in the US. Another look that made me smile, was that of the bandy-legged Southern Indian man. Often darkly tanned, and barefoot, with a short skirt, exposing the full length of his skinny legs. This “skirt” was a sari-like plain cotton fabric, folded high, or tucked between his legs like a loose diaper. It looked very comfortable in the humid heat, although I always feared that the wrapping would come undone, leaving the poor man completely exposed.
Munnar, a town known for its’ tea plantations and spice gardens was our next destination. We arrived in the evening, just in time to take advantage of a local presentation of kathakali and Indian martial arts, called kalaripayattu. This was another opportunity for us to learn more about the kathakali performance art, like what we had seen in Cochin, and to see the steps and postures of kalaripayattu for the first time. Although I appreciated the finer professionalism of the actors and their authentic theater in Fort Kochi, we were still entertained by another excerpt from the Mahabarat or Ramayana. Gabriel was mesmerized by the physical combat of the martial artists, as these athletes displayed different skills for particular weapons, acrobatics, and some flashy tricks, like jumping through fire rings.
The next day, not really knowing how to tackle the sights of this region, we ended up hiring a driver, who drove us on a standard round tour of the area. He lacked passion for his job, and was relatively mute about the prescribed sites and view points that he took us to. The day ended up being a bust, highlighting some of the frustrations that I often feel as a tourist. Namely, this feeling like I am a consumer of sights, without any real interaction with locals, or purpose to our day. Unfortunately, despite all the beauty of this region and other parts of Kerala, we had hit this road bump in our travels, where I was feeling far removed from the meaning of our journey. Instead, we were ticking places off, collecting destinations, without creating any significant connections or ties to these experiences. I don’t know if much of this had to do with our means of transportation. There is something about sitting in a car, viewing the world from your window, with brief steps outside to take a photo, or eat, that seems to insulate you from any interactions of substance. We had to figure out a way to connect to where we were.
I knew that being more physical, i.e. hiking would be a more visceral way to explore, so the next day, we hired a guide to take us through the mountains. The minute we began our walk through a colorful village and via a working tea plantation, we knew that this day would be different. Our guide was connected to his environment, and knowledgeable about the plants and animals of these hills. He readily shared information about the local fauna, and challenged our fitness by climbing upward through jungles to the mountain peaks. He was ever ready to drop a pinch of salt on any blood seeking leech that made its way onto our shoes, to the great fear of our children, and encouraged us all to bushwhack higher. The views were stunning, and I felt my eyes tear up with the joy that comes from witnessing great earthly beauty. Everything about this hike, from the burn in my thighs and the sweat on my brow, to the occasional sweeping of rain, was all worth it for the majestic views of emerald hills. We needed this day immensely, to set all right, and remind us of the beauty we were being gifted. A day outdoors brought to us an appreciation of Munnar, that would not have existed in our hearts after the touristy road trip of the day before.
From here, we began some of our longest road trips, in the effort to cover the huge expanse of both Kerala and Karnataka state in a timely manner. We had chosen Wayanad as our next destination, but it was over 11 hours drive from Munnar. There was no easy or efficient way to do this journey by bus or train, so we had to hire another driver to get us there. Knowing that the children could not handle this journey in one day, we decided to break up the road trip with a quick stop at a spice garden, and then a night in Athirapelly. Here, we planned to see some famous waterfall (the only decent stop we could find on the way), and get a good night sleep. This truly felt off the beaten path, as we did not encounter a single westerner at the falls, once again becoming a source of entertainment for the Indians we encountered there. Day two was super long – perhaps seven hours of driving. For lunch we were hankering for pizza, and invited our driver to join us at some random pizza restaurant to sample his first pie ever. We first asked him if he even liked cheese, and he said that he was the only person in his family who did. I still thought that it must have been a strange meal for him, what with the cheesy smells, bready dough, and mixed toppings. It wasn’t the best pizza in the world, but cured us of our craving.