Monday, November 2, 2009
Soon after my husband wrapped up work, we got a ride to the Central Bus Stand in Ernakulam and found seats on the 2 PM bus to Munnar.
The buses in Kerala are small and pretty basic. We got, what we thought were, the best seats on the bus - plenty of leg room for my husband, and enough space for a couple of bags. The glass-less windows made it easy to take in the beautiful sights. It was a 130 kilometer ride (about 80 miles) but it took us approximately six hours to cover the distance. There were a lot of stops along the way to pick up more passengers and the road was narrow and winding, but still. Six hours!
Munnar is a hill-station at an elevation of about 1600 m (~5,250 ft); high enough to warrant cool mornings and crisp evenings. We woke up the next morning to mist covered mountains and 360 degree views of tea plantations. We didn't have much time at hand, so we hired a rickshaw for the day (yes, we know how to travel in style!) visited the tea museum, sampled some tea, and bought a bunch as well.
We headed towards Top Station, famous for the rare Neelakurunji that blooms just once every 12 years. We bought honey from this chap sitting just off the road. He let us try a bit, pouring some out of the bucket, through a sieve, into our cupped hands. It was definitely the purest honey I've had!
We took another state-run bus to Thekkady in the afternoon, arriving well after sunset. It was the most scenic bus journey either of us has ever taken (and we've been on a lot of buses!). As we headed over the Cardamon Hills, we could see tea plantations for miles (looked like a well manicured lawn). We also passed several spice plantations (pepper, cardamom, cloves, vanilla, cinnamon).
The first morning we walked to the boat jetty in the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. We weren't allowed to do anything once inside the Sanctuary, as it was closed to tourists in the wake of a boat accident. It was a very sad and disturbing accident, and easily avoidable (in my opinion). As people grieved, officials played the blame game. So no walking in the woods, seeing wild elephants, or trying to avoid blood sucking fat leeches for us.
Since it is much visited by foreign tourists, the town has several shops selling Kashmiri and Rajasthani shawls and trinkets. While Indian alright, nothing local about it. It was also hard to find authentic Kerala food. Restaurant menus were full of Tandoori and Chinese (Indian-Chinese) options. I guess when south Indians go out to eat, they don't want to eat south Indian food! We looked hard and found a 'mess' that seemed popular.
Served on a banana leaf (the gave us a banana leaf look alike), we had beetroot veggie, a coconut chutney, avial, gooseberry pickle, green beans with coconut, cabbage veggie, papads, rice, dal, sambar, rasam, and buttermilk (last three not in photo). It was a no-frills place, with not a tourist in sight, and delicious food. We couldn't have asked for more.
The plan was to visit a spice plantation after lunch but we had to cancel because of sudden and heavy rain. It was a bit deflating, but our hotel room was nice and had a balcony, so we didn't mind sitting out and enjoying the rain.
The next day, before we got on the bus to Fort Cochin (via Kottayam), we went back to the 'mess' for breakfast. We were served appams with a runny potato curry. Spicy and flavourful.
The bus ride was uneventful and crowded, and we were glad to get to our home stay by sunset. We walked around town, and then went to the restaurant attached to the Old Harbour Hotel for dinner. It is a beautifully renovated 300 year-old building, which is now a boutique hotel. We sat outside and sipped on wine while waiting for our fish curry and talking about everything we had experienced in the past week. Dinner was a treat, especially since the rest of our trip had been pretty low budget.
Kerala is a friendly, relaxing, beautiful place to visit in the cooler months of the year. There is plenty to do and see, and it is gastronomically delightful. My only lament is the slow erosion of local flavour, if you will, in some of the more touristy towns, the loss of the very 'thing' that brought tourists there in the first place.
But enough about Kerala. Up next, some sewing news. Stay tuned.