Into the Keralan Mountains

After spending a couple of days in Kochi, we were ready to get out of even that small city. We were headed out to the spice and tea region of Kerala for what we hoped would be a week of relaxation and isolation. Melissa had worked hard to find activities that got us out in nature and away from crowds, and hotels with a sense of isolation, which isn’t always easy to assess from a website.

We had had a wonderful and huge Indian breakfast at Chiramel Residency, so we weren’t ready for lunch. Ansu needed a bite though, so he stopped at a charming little restaurant mid-way to the mountains called Rasa Restaurant. Two things were clear: first, the food looked great and we wished we weren’t still so full; second, the little stream overlooked by the restaurant was actually clean. This was this first real indication we were truly somewhere different than Bengaluru, where most streams are not only not clean but gag-inducing. It was lovely.

Water fall
One of the many waterfalls along the road up into the mountains of Kerala.

It is a 4.5 hour trip from Kochi to Munnar, plenty of time for our driver Ansu to get to know us a little bit and listen to us talking about what we hoped to do. We talked a lot about how we were excited to go to a spice plantation, that we had heard they smelled amazing. We also knew we were up against a deadline, because Eravikulum, the National Park where we were headed, closed at 4:30, and we wanted to get to our hotel before it was dark. Ansu insisted on stopping at Periyar Spice Garden despite our weak attempt to protest. It was weird. Basically, we paid 100 rupees each for a 15 minute tour through a nursery, and were then asked to sit on a couple of stools for a hard sell. The tour itself wasn’t uninteresting; it just wasn’t what we wanted to be doing at that moment. Mostly, the tour guide described for us all of the Ayurvedic uses for the plants, including several, she was sure to point out to Tom, that grew back hair.

Back on the road to Munnar, we tried out our new-found understanding of just how insistent we needed to be with Ansu. He tried to push four wheeling on us. Hard. We’re guessing that most of the tours he leads in to the mountains love the four wheeling. We had the hardest time convincing him that it’s not our thing, that we were looking for quiet excursions. He even dismissed our explanation of Melissa’s motion sickness. Once we finally convinced him, though, and we made it clear that we were looking for a quiet, slow week, we had a great time with Ansu. He’s smart (speaks 5 languages), kind, and patient.

One tangent about this pushing stuff on us thing. We have struggled with trust issues. It starts with the rickshaw drivers who are insistent that you must you get in their autos, and that you don’t want to go where you’re going but over there to this other really great store instead. If you argue, you’re told (contrary to reality) that your destination is closed so you must do what they say. We have been told that they get kickbacks from the stores every time they bring in a customer. This then gets displaced to nice people like Ansu. Did we stop at the spice garden because he got a little on the side? It was feeling very clear, especially when he pulled over to get a brochure, that he was getting a kickback from the four wheeler outing he was pushing on us. If that was true, what can we trust as honest suggestions? It made us feel icky.

We finally got to Eravikulum National Park. The park is most known for the presence of Nilgiri Tahrs, described as an endangered evolutionary link between antelope and goats. The two hour time limit and early closing time were already signs maybe we wouldn’t be going out to the middle of nature. It turned out it was one big shared experience. After standing in line for their turn, visitors load onto a bus up a mountain, walk about a kilometer in close company with many fellow visitors, and then walk back. Most people seemed to be there for a fun outing with each other, but with very little regard for the nature around us – one group was particularly boisterous and almost kept us from seeing the one thing we were there to see by insisting that we pose for photographs. Our souring mood (mostly Tom’s souring mood) wasn’t helped by a good, steady downpour.

Eravikulum tahr selfieEravikulum Tahr

When we were able to put aside our frustration, it was quite stunning. We got to see a tahr up close, right by the side of the path. The views (what we could see through the rain and clouds) were stunning. This is, after all, the second highest peak south of the Himalayas. And the surrounding tea plantations were sights to behold. We simply had a case of missed expectations (and in Tom’s case, a healthy dose of burnout and sleep deprivation).

Parakkat Nature Sunset (3)
That’s our hotel perched on the side of the hill on the right.

Then it was off to our hotel, Parakkat Nature. It is gorgeous, overlooking a huge tea plantation. Here, we had one small case of missed expectations, where it wasn’t quite the isolated experience Melissa was led to believe. We did have a nice walk in the tea plantation led by an eager if not super knowledgeable staff member who mostly wanted to pose us for glamour shots for our social media.

On Sunday’s drive up the mountain, Ansu broke the news to us that there was going to be a state-wide strike on Monday, and if we wanted to get to Thekkady before dark on Monday, we should leave at 4:00 or 5:00 am, getting us to our next destination before 7:00 am. With our burnout, we couldn’t imagine getting up that early. We got him to reluctantly agree to leave at 7:00 am, still way earlier than we wanted to get moving. It turns out he was exactly right and we regretted not taking his advice, but again we were having trust issues.

The strike was called by Kerala’s Congress Party and its allies over petrol and diesel prices. At the major intersection of every town, there were small groups of men pulling cars over to question the drivers about what was up. All commerce was supposed to be shut down, including taxis and tourist activities. Ansu guessed there were four or five towns we needed to look out for. His worries appeared to come true in the first big town. The group of men sourly directed him over to the side of the road and told him to go get himself some tea — there was no use waiting around; he wasn’t going anywhere anyway. So we sat. And sat. The longer we sat, the more people gathered. The more people gathered, the more worried we got that this was going to be an ugly, all day thing, as the strike wasn’t scheduled to end until 6pm. Ansu came back when they let a couple of other taxis go, but still we sat. Finally, whether Ansu convinced them that he and his dad are proud members of the Congress Party, or they felt like they had made their point, or they just got bored of us, they finally let us go.

A few more strikers in a few more towns pulled us over for a few minutes each. Each time we worried that this was going to be the one that lasted until evening, but each time — once because we were following a car full of police who were instructed to bust them if they disrupted traffic, once because we were five minutes from our resort anyway, once from pure apathy — they sent us on our way pretty quickly with a bit of cajoling by Ansu.

Amaana Resorts pond
The grounds at Amaana Resort that put us instantly at ease.

We got to Amaana Plantation Resort around 10:00, with all day to do nothing but deal with that aforementioned burnout and sleep deprivation. It was exactly what we needed. Finally, the quiet and isolation we came to Kerala to find was ours. The first sign of the kind hospitality we were to experience for two nights was that even at that crazy early hour, they had our room ready for us. All we had to do was kick back, take naps, read books, play games, take walks in the cardamom plantation, and eat delicious food. It was amazing.

You can read about the details of the next couple of days here: Periyar Tiger Reserve, and here: our review of the resort. The end result that sour, burned out moods were turned into relaxed, revitalised, happy folks. On Wednesday, we were ready for our strike free drive back to the coast for a night at Kondai Lip in Alappuzha, followed by a night on a houseboat. The trip into the mountains was exactly what we needed to turn our outlook around.