Twisting and turning through narrow one-lane roads 6,000 feet above sea level, we arrived to India’s favorite honeymoon destination and a former summer vacation spot for the British when they occupied the country. Kerala is known as God’s Own Country and with the innumerable terraces of tea trees, plantations, valleys, forests and spices you can understand why.
Barely avoiding another vomiting incident caused from extreme motion sickness, we arrived at a village called Munnar, a Hilltop Station on the Western Ghats mountain range. Jill has taken to calling me a sensitive bunny because every other day I react to food, sun, noise, bugs or pain. In India, you can expect the unexpected. Armed with local anti-vomiting meds and motion sickness pills (sometimes you just need to give it up to the travel gods), we embarked on a sightseeing mission of sorts through plantation villages, dams and the highest mountain peak in the area. The bangled ones, the name we have coined for the female newlyweds marked by red bangles the length of their arms, were out in full force mirroring our path. I am having a hard time accepting how a couple can meet once, marry and then take a lovey dovey honeymoon. Jill won’t let me interrogate the driver anymore about touching since she thinks he is uncomfortable with my line of questioning but public displays of affection are rare in India and I just really want to know if these people are evidence that love (I mean lust) at first sight exists.
The newly married brides are dressed in decorated tunics and elaborate sarees with a hint of red to ensure they receive proper attention. That’s fine but why exactly would one want to rock climb sandy, slippery, steep steps in tunics and high heels. Jill and I could barely manage in sneakers and jeans. It was 85 degrees with higher altitudes than we are used to and dehydration set in quickly. We abandoned the look out point and settled for panoramic views from our perch and acknowledged the women hauling around purses and climbing in two inches heels were clearly nuts or very talented.
In Kerala, women wear lighter fabrics and reflective colored sarees and tunics mostly in cotton since the temperatures are extremely warm. The men wear a traditional garment called a Doti (solid color)/Lungi (mixed color/pattern), which I have taken to calling diapers and loogies. They resemble a sarong or a wrap skirt and the men are constantly unfolding and folding them and I am never sure if they are meant to be showing us their goods. I asked our driver what the men wear under the Dotis/Lungis and after a chuckle he pointed to his pants declaring “trouser shorts” aka boxers. The men working construction sites wear collared shirts, Dotis/Lungis and flip-flops. It’s a whole new concept in ready to wear. Lastly, the locals carry umbrellas to fend off the heat but Jill pointed out the obvious. They carry black umbrellas absorbing the heat not reflecting it.
Our next destination on the Kerala route included Thekkady, a remote village near the Kerala and Tamil Nadu border and a popular safari destination made famous by the Bengal Tiger. Sadly, there are only about 350 tigers left in the country and 52 in Kerala. In other words, we were not seeing any tigers, which left me confused as to why I needed to be here in the first place. We took a very lovely boat ride on one of the lakes that feeds into the backwaters. Life vests a must, I fell asleep with my ready made pillow cushion and darted awake every few minutes when the locals oohhed and ahhed over a deer sighting. We considered the boat ride a success after we saw a few monkeys and elephants and returned safely to the dock. Our guide seemed shocked we actually saw elephants and kept saying, “you lucky, you very lucky.” On the way out of the park, we even caught sight of a Bison(buffalo). We snapped photos more to appease our driver than for our great find.
Half way through our plantation tour with Yunice, our Muslim guide, my body weakened and while Jill was running away from eight inch Charlotte Webs, I was dreaming of food. There is always some miscommunication when you travel but today the driver forgot to tell us lunch was not included in the program. There are only so many bananas and crackers I can eat before my body craves real food. Our guide informed me I looked sick and somehow thought coffee would do the trick. We piled in the car and ended up at a bakery located on top of a storefront. It screamed Delhi Belly but we were starving. Jill ordered a cheese popover and told me if she died I had to tell Bobbi (her mom) she was hungry. Knowing my issues, I stuck with the Indian banana lassi and the chai masala. The good news is we both lived.
Our guide, Yunice, studied spices and tourism in school. He is 34 and married with two children. Unlike most men we encountered, Yunice disapproves of how Islam treats women. He distanced himself from the religion because he doesn’t think women should cover yet his wife does. In this town, most people are Christian with a sprinkling of Islam and Hinduism and pop up shrines appear every few kilometers. Imagine glass enclosed two-storied, brightly colored airport elevator shafts with a Hindu god or Jesus placed at ground level for worship purposes (See below).
A character of sorts, Yunice kept us on our toes all day guessing the different spices and smells at Abraham’s spice garden, which produces excellent cardamon, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, cloves, cacao and robustia and arabic coffee. These incredible spices are exported all over the world. Many of the US spices come from Brazil and Vietnam but a few from India make it to our shores. Europe is the largest importer of Indian spices. With our awakened taste buds, Jill and I visited a spice store and purchased masala for tea and fish, chocolate (more me, less Jill), vanilla stalks and a few home remedies.
The final adventure of the day was not for the faint at heart. We watched a martial arts performance packed with knives and fire. I was more into the men than the arts but the oohs and ahhs from the crowd continued. We walked out on the traditional dance performance, which was more of a dancing eye performance. How many times can I watch eyeballs go round and round at unnatural speeds? The answer: Not many.
Kumily and Thekaddy are small villages known for spices and wildlife and for the annual Shabadi pilgrimage. We enjoyed meeting the people in this area. They were eager to please and more simplistic as village people tend to be. It’s a charming place to spend a few days relaxing and taking in the tastes before heading out of the country.