Wednesday, 27 January 2010

On to the foothills of the Western Ghats

I headed to Munnar – a mountainous town renowned for its tea making. Originally I was planning to head there alone by bus but Mark, Phil and Sam decided to come with me (Walt had lost his passport and had had to fly to Chennai to sort it out!). We went by car on the 4.5 hour journey that took us from sea level to 1,900 metres. Hair-raising would be a bit of an understatement to describe the trip: take typical Indian driving, 3 hours of hairpin bends and a lot of overtaking in an underpowered car and you pretty much get to feel what it’s like to be stood outside those pearly gates.

Whilst Indian road rules – or lack thereof – leave many a westerner utterly bewildered, if you observe it for a while, you begin to notice a certain liquidity that enables cars to keep moving and accidents to be avoided. The horn plays an integral part to driving here: you sound your horn at every corner so that a car coming in the opposite direction knows that you’re there (and most probably on his side of the road as you overtake in a bend) and thus slows down; you sound your horn as you overtake someone so that they know you’re overtaking and move to one side; and you sound your horn as you come up to a junction because the chances are you won’t be stopping and others better be warned. When you get to a junction, there won’t be a traffic light to direct you so it’s first come first served, and if you are turning left or right at that junction, there’s no need to look to see if anyone is coming, you just pull straight out. Anyone driving along the road you’re turning onto will have anticipated you doing that and slowed down to allow you to pull out. From the outside looking in, it looks like utter madness but, in reality, as long as everyone abides by the same set of ideals, the traffic keeps moving and most accidents are avoided…there are a fair few very near misses that keep you on your toes though!

We arrived in Munnar about lunch time and found our way to The Rheinburg Homestay (recommended by an Australian couple who also attended Leelu’s cooking class!). It was slightly more expensive (by £2) than other homestays I’d seen but this was seriously stunning. We had huge rooms, a shower with hot water (very rare!), internet and, as we were perched on the hill side, we had lovely views over the town and the peace and tranquility you get from not being stuck in a town centre. What’s more, we were just a short 2 minute walk down a very steep hill to the town; the only downfall being the very steep walk back up! I was staying here for 4 nights whilst the guys were only there for one night before they headed back to Aus.

We’d just sat down to a beer when Ravi – a rickshaw driver cum tour guide turned up, brochures in hand, to advertise the various activities he could offer us. He was a decent enough chap but he didn’t half go on…especially when we were sat enjoying a beer after our frenetic drive! I agreed to do a trek (primarily because I needed to get some practice in before Nepal) in a couple of days time and that seemed to keep him happy.

That evening and the following morning was very quiet as the guys were beginning to wind down at the end of their holiday and weren’t particularly keen on visiting the area. The following morning, after a long debate on the nature of love (don’t ask!), it was time to say our goodbyes and for Mark, Phil and Sam to head back down through the mountains to begin a 28-hour journey to Australia.

The following morning I got up bright and early and met Sasi – my rickshaw driver for the day. He’d offered to give me a tour of the local sights for half the price the local tour operators were trying to charge me and I gratefully took him up on his offer. His rickshaw was very tidy with photos of the local sights displayed proudly inside. He also showed me with great pride a little book in which he’d collected various opinions from tourists on his services as a tour guide, all of which were very complimentary.

Sasi was a wealth of knowledge on the area. We left early at 8am and headed up into the hills. It was seriously nippy and I regretted not picking up my hat and scarf as I left my room. As we wound our way up the desolated roads free from other rickshaws and tourist buses, it was beautifully peaceful. We made our way up to a large lake that had been created by a dam. At this time in the morning it was perfectly calm with not a ripple in sight; on all sides were blue tinged mountains; rising from the surface, a soft morning mist. I took a few photos but Sasi was even more of a happy snapper than I and insisted on stopping every few metres so that I could take photos of the lake from a slightly different angle.

From the lake we headed passed the ‘Honey Bee Tree’ touted by the tour operators in their list of ‘sights’ that you see on their tour. Unsurprisingly, it was just a tree with a few natural bee hives in it – certainly not worth the money some of the operators were asking for.

After half an hour or so, we turned a bend to be greeted with a panoramic view across the deep valleys below, tea plantations spreading out across the horizon. Again we stopped for the all-important photos with the ultimate Kodak moment of me picking tea. Dropping down into the valley below, we passed bright pink and purple houses in rows, small churches and temples, a school, shops – all the trappings of a village except that this ‘village’ was part of the tea plantation. Sasi explained that the workers who work in the field are paid as little as 120 rupees a day (About £1.25) but in return they get a free house to live in, free medical care, free child care until the child reaches 4, free milk, fruit and eggs for young children and the women get 3-months paid maternity and then are only required to work three or four days a week if they choose.

Labour on the tea plantations is hard. New tea leaves are picked from the bushes every 10 days so as soon as one field is complete, another is ready to be started. During the dry season, the workers work in blistering heat; in the wet season they work through monsoon rains and leeches become a big problem. Mostly women work in the fields. Some use sheers to trim away the new leaves; others have large sacks on their backs to collect the leaves, which are attached to them via a headband strapped across their foreheads. When full of tea leaves, these sacks weigh around 40kg – three quarters the bodyweight of an average size 8/10 woman (of which very few of these women would surpass!). Tea plantations are usually on steep hills so the women are picking tea and carrying the leaves up and down very steep inclines making this particularly back-breaking work. After grape picking for only 4 days, I can fully appreciate the amount of effort it takes to get tea onto our tables. Next time you enjoy a cup of tea with breakfast, it’s worth bearing in mind the work that went into it!

We continued our journey up the mountain to reach a point on the border with Tamil Nadu known as Top Station. On a good day, you get stunning views across the valleys and tea plantations; on a bad day, all you see is a wall of cloud as the mist slowly rises from the valley below. I got there just in time. The clouds were still fairly low in the valleys so I got a stunning view across all the mountains. But as I stood there and watched, the wall of cloud slowly rose, blocking any view I had. For the busloads of tourists who were travelling up the mountain as we headed back down, there would have been little to see.

The following morning at 5am, myself and a NZ/Austrian couple met Ravi – our guide for the morning mountain trek we’d booked. I’d learnt from the day before and was fully prepared with hat and scarf as the three of us were bundled into the back of Ravi’s autorickshaw. Even with the canvas sides that had been Velcroed on, it was pretty nippy.

First stop, a chai shop and some very sweet, very milky tea to start the day. From there, it was a 15-minute drive up into the dark, misty, silent hills to reach the start of the trek.

We started the trek and made it up the first slope in time to watch the sunrise. Sitting on the rockface, we watched as the sun slowly peeped over the horizon. As we watched the orange ball rose, transforming the mountainous horizon from jet black to glorious pink. No sooner had the sun, in all its glory, freed itself from the clutches of the horizon than the eerie reverberations of an air raid siren echoed through the mountains: it was time for the tea plantation workers to start work.

It took us a couple of hours to reach the summit, Ravi insisting on stopping every few metres to tell us about a plant, to point out something in the valley below or to position us for the perfect Kodak moment. Ravi also had a mild obsession with finding Neel Thar – a mountain goat that’s only found in the Munnar region – and spent much of his time looking for them, pointing them out and insisting on taking photos of them with our cameras despite our zooms only achieving the vague outline of brown blobs.

At 8am we reached the summit where Ravi proudly dispayed the most amazing array of fruits for our breakfast: passion fruit, red bananas, green oranges (yep…they’re supposed to be that colour), pineapple and a couple of other fruits that I hadn’t seen or eaten before all made an appearance. Perched high (on the summit of the second highest peak in the area at 2500m) we sat and heartily tucked into the fruit with the mountain and the spectacular view across the valleys below all to ourselves.

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