In Munnar, Kerala finally started getting under my skin a little bit, both metaphorically and literally, thanks to three lovely people we came across, and a few jungle critters that decided to nibble on us.
After tuk-tuk dropped us off at the Kochin bus station, there was some mild disapointment as the much praised A/C bus that we set our sights on was not to go to Munnar that day, but rather we had to content ourselves with a non-A/C bus, that looked charmingly vintage, sans windows, but with plenty of character.
After boarding, we managed to slightly embarass ourselves as a 60-something lady-prankster (or a staunch gender egalitarian) suggested we take the front seats, from which we were shortly removed as those are ladies-only. The trip was long, and it took several hours for us to snake out of Kochin’s unlovely suburbia and onto serpentine road into the Western Ghats. Road safety was not our drivers priority: he was overtaking a petroleum truck, on a bend, on a small road, on a mountain, in full speed, and managed to even cause a small crash behind us with his abrupt braking.
Smart tourists that we are, we got off a few stops before the one we needed, but it all became much better after our hotel in Palivasal (cca. 10km from where we were) sent a rescue jeep to take us from a mountain village that will remain nameless. From there the blissful part of this journey started. The hotel was a wonderful retreat, currently in the process of expansion, run by a lovely owner, Harish who has big plans from it, Having exited the hectic working life around Mumbai, he opened a hotel in the midst of a misty gum-tree forest. In the hotel, he takes active role, guiding tourists thrugh tea-tasting and yoga teacher.
After decamping in our comfy rooms, we went for a hike around Munnar’s famous tea plantations towards a waterfall. Predictably, we almost got lost in the emerald maze of the plantations, but we enjoyed the sights of local women picking the tea, which F wanted to take photos of, pap-style.
The next day, we started with a 90 minute early morning yoga session in the scenic pavilion overlooking the jungle, which put all the three of my previous yoga sessions to shame. Good tourist is never idle, and thus we proceeded to breakfast, followed by a 5hr trek, followed by a 4hr cooking class.
The trek was stunning, and it was made even more amazing by our guide, a gentle 40ish local-patriot who prefers Munnar to anywhere else in Kerala for its fresh air and lovely climate (much better than in Kochin), and prefers Kerala to all other states in India (socialist, good state education, less dirt – basically, California among 29 Indian states). The walk took us through a jungle where Vijay the Guide explained all the different lovely exotic flora, and made me gasp when he pointed a few leeches that decided to nibble on our ankle-veins, and killed them with salt. A few minutes later a huge leech however appeared on Vijay’s polo-shirt, violently contorting to get some blood. On a normal day, such a sight would have driven me to despair, yet tiredness from the trek made the situation almost amusing. In addition to the leech-horror, I was also struck how the rainforest smells like tropics-inspired soaps and baths flogged by Palmolive et. Al.
After we gained a normal pace and got used to the trail, F and I bonded with Vijay over corruption (there is a lot of it in India, but Serbia and Croatia also have a fair bit) and went on to discussing family. Vijay, great guy as he is, loves his family, and is very proud of them. He got married at the age of 28 (our age) and said that his life only became complete after he settled down, in an arranged marriage. “You only really start living when you find a good wife, and start playing with your children”, the words resounded with some unknown part of myself. He also said that he cannot really leave his wife for a trip anywhere longer than a day. This presented a version of life almost diametrically opposite to F’s and mine. Maybe rather than trying to find myself in Western Ghats, I could have tried just to find a wife in Belgrade.. who knows…
The day continued with a slightly different take on Indian family relations during our cooking class. Although I was a tad reluctant to go initially, F made me, and I can only thank him for the experience, as it was one the more profoundly moving ones. The teacher is a lovely lady who looks 20, but is a tad older, and who accepts visitors in her family home, into her temple of taste, in the back garden. Her story is a fascinating one: after she grew up in the Gulf , and became a blogger, free-lance writer and a keen cook, our teacher met the family of her husband to be while holidaying in Munnar. Shortly she got engaged and married and moved to Kerala where, uncharacteristically for the family she married into, she stared working in the local school, teaching culinary arts. Her cooking ambitions were larger, however: she wanted to preserve traditional Keralan recipes and also raise the profile of local cuisine.
Thus she started writing cookbooks, which again attracted dismay from her elders: “You have no grey hairs and want to write a cookbook!”, she was told. Alas, this determined and amazing woman pressed on, and even decided to start a cooking class. This again caused a commotion: some did not understand how could a woman from a reputable family want to cook in public for money. Thus they tried to dissuade her and forestall her efforts. Yet one day, her drive made her press on and she decided to advertise in the tourist office. The class was a slow but sure success, and so were to books. She won several awards and was invited to present her cookbook at the prestigious Frankfurt book-fair (she could not go due to visa issues). Yet any plans of expansion and popularisation (including putting up simple signage on her “unassuming house”, as described by Lonely Planet) were not exactly encouraged. “But extra income, must be welcomed by your family, no?”, F said, hopefully. “That is one way of looking at it”, our teacher said, smiling, almost embarrassed by the sutuation.
In addition to developing her talent and business, she is also a mother to two great boys, a devoted wife, and a school teacher. All of this, one can imagine, would take a normal person 30 hours of a day, especially given the complexity of Keralan cooking, and the richness expected from every meal, which routinely includes four curries (all can be done in one hour, she said – it took us the two of us three).
Throughout the class her passion for food exhuded from her every move and was simply magnetic: she passionately discussed different spices and their blends, and her explanation of various uses of coconut in Keralan kitchens got our hearts pumping. This is quite a feat as we are the people whose idea of elaborate cooking is pre-made pasta with a pre-made pasta sauce. The way she spoke about her life and her passion for Keralan food, was a mix of honesty, charm and firmness, seldom encountered. Despite the limitations, she presses on: she produced a third cookbook of Keralan snacks, which looks stunning and is entirely self produced. All of it: the design, food photography, printing, marketing.
The next day, we took a bus from Munnar to the Periyar Tiger Reserve. We set off over misty tea and cardamom plantations, the smell of both occasionally wafting from the factories that dotted the winding mountain road.