Homeward Bound

All packed, taxi waiting, and we were off promptly at 7am.  Mr L had been told by our homestay (who organised the taxi) that we needed to allow 90 minutes to get to Cochin International Airport, but we were here in 50 minutes, so nice and early.  There was remarkably little traffic and also possibly something to do with the fact that our driver ignored red lights and used right hand turning lanes as straight ahead lanes much to my consternation as well as that of the traffic who actually wanted to turn right.  A considerable hooting of horns ensued!!

Cochin International Airport was an extraordinary experience.  You couldn’t even get into departures without showing your boarding card/ticket and passport.  Bag drop was quick and easy, but immigration was painfully slow with lots of stamping of passport, boarding card and other random bits of paper. Then came security screening…..all stuff out and in trays for the scanner and then I stand in the separate ladies queue for body scan…..when I get to front I am told they need my boarding card (why one might ask as I wouldn’t have got this far without it!). Told them it was in my bag which had already been scanned.  I was told to get it back.  I had to get the scanner man to give it back to me, boarding card retrieved, and then bag had to go through the scanner again…..boarding card stamped again by the body scanner woman and finally I was out airside where my blue rucksack was then pulled out and I was told to remove all food items…..Kerala banana chips removed and scanner man confirmed they were ok to keep!

Coffee and muffin for breakfast in the departure lounge and multiple failed attempts to connect to airport wifi as kept telling us the connection code that CIAL had sent us was incorrect……we gave up!  Mr L did buy himself a lovely pair of soft black leather shoes, an Indian brand called Doc & Mark, which will complete his Indian wedding outfit and be good summer shoes thereafter.  The equivalent in the U.K. would have been at least twice the price.  I bought a pair of socks to keep my feet warm when we get back to U.K. as I forgot to pack socks…..  We then managed to sit and wait at the wrong gate, 6 instead of 3……it was Mr L who observed the distinct lack of other fellow European travellers which made us check our boarding passes.  A discrete exit and off to the correct gate.  Boarding was actually very well controlled with no rush or pushing, however our boarding passes were again checked by at least 6 more separate people!  No chance of getting on the wrong flight.

Now in Doha awaiting our Qatar flight back to Heathrow.  Excellent flight thus far, and Doha is a brilliant transfer hub.  Certainly my hub of choice for all future flights. Mr L has been a bit of a grumpy old man due to the fact the well spoken English couple sitting in front of us flung their seats back to almost horizontal immediately after take off so essentially our noses were against our TV screens which does make film watching a bit of a challenge; and then when we arrived in Doha our fellow Indian passengers used the same technique as their driving in their attempts to be first off the plane.  Coffee and cake in the transfer area of Doha and all is well with the world again and Mr L a bit more relaxed.

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Our plane awaits us, next stop London….bye x

Final Day

We were up and out promptly this morning with our first stop for breakfast at a cafe called The Teapot which is just down the road (Raintree Lodge does not do meals). The Teapot has good reviews on TripAdvisor but we were not overly impressed.  Mr L enjoyed his bowl of muesli with yoghurt and banana, but I didn’t particularly enjoy my fruit bowl and the so called filter coffee was vile.

We then had a wander around familiar streets looking but not buying, much to the frustration of the store owners.  Once inside a shop it can be difficult to extricate oneself without imparting oneself from one’s rupees!

Mid morning coffee was at the delightful Kashi Art cafe – excellent coffee and chocolate cake for Mr L and a very good lime, mint, honey soda for me.  I did have to help Mr L out with the chocolate cake!

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Hot and sticky with a temperature of 32c we decided to take the ferry to Willingdon Island to cool off and explore somewhere new.  Ferry fare was 16IR (20p) return for both of us.  We did a circular walk on the island around the Port area.  It looks very colonial in some of its buildings, certainly all the ones on the front are lived in by senior officials such as Chief Engineer, Deputy Chairman etc.

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Willingdon Island is the largest man-made island in India. It forms part of the city of Kochi and was created during construction of modern Kochi Port in 1936 with the soil dredged out while deepening the Vembanad Lake to accommodate the new Port. It was named after The 1st Earl of Willingdon, the Viceroy of India at the time, who commissioned the project.  Robert Bristow, the chief protagonist and engineer for the project, owned the first building on the island. The island is home to the Port of Kochi, the Cochin Port Trust (that controls the Port of Kochi), the Customs Office, the Kochi Naval Base (the Southern Naval Command) of the Indian Navy, the Central Institute of Fisheries Technology, a constituent unit of Indian Council of Agricultural Research, and more than two dozen export-import offices, warehouses, a few hotels and business centres.

Once back on Fort Cochin we walked back to our favourite Pepper House for lunch before heading back to Raintree Lodge to start packing to come home, and freshen up with a hot shower before going out for our last evening……..

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We took a tuk-tuk to the Dutch Palace and then walked from there into Mattancherry. It was only about 18.30 but several of the shops in Mattancherry were closing.  We went to a spice shop we knew and purchased a couple of items we wanted but it was hard work haggling over the price (only trying to get an equivalent price to what we had paid elsewhere for something similar).  Mr L gets very irritated with this sort of thing and intensely dislikes having to haggle so wandered off leaving me to it.  The shop owner and I agreed a mutually acceptable price and we were all happy.

We had thought to have dinner at the Ginger House in Mattancherry but when we looked at the menu the prices were extortionate with a single main course costing more than the total bill at Sutra. Mr L and I abandoned the idea of eating there and ended up back at Sutra for our last supper.

We went for a wander after dinner as it was still quite early and were drawn by very pleasant live Indian music to the Old Harbour Hotel where we went in and sat outside listening to the music and I had my second Kingfisher Blue lager of the holiday.  Mr L had an apple, banana and cinnamon shake which he also enjoyed.

The alarm is set for 6.20am and our taxi is booked for 7am.  Time to go home…….

Back to the Beginning: Fort Cochin

Once again all packed up and ready to leave, this time it’s goodbye to Green Spaces and Munnar.  We are sad to leave as this is a truly beautiful place.  Mr L, with the help of Green Spaces, finally managed to get us a telephone reservation on the Kyros Connects coach that would bring us back to Fort Cochin.  All previous efforts at trying to book online had failed miserably.

 

We had time this morning for a quick 2 mile stroll up and down a few hills to take a final look at the beautiful scenery and the cardamom plantations and spot poinsettia plants growing in a garden.

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This poinsettias looks as sad as the remnants of the Christmas one at home!

We got back to Green Spaces just as the rain started.  Thunder, lightening and heavy rain which fortunately stopped before we had to leave.  The tuk-tuk booked for 14.00 arrived promptly and delivered us to a random car park just outside Munnar town centre.  Our tuk-tuk driver checked at the entrance kiosk and assured us that this was where we needed to be. He left, the thunderstorm recommenced, and Mr L, me and our luggage sheltered as best we could under an awning and kept fairly dry.  The Kyros Connects coach duly arrived and it was soon time to board.  Unfortunately the coach parked at the opposite end of the car park.  I made a dash for it and got absolutely drenched, Mr L was more patient and waited until the storm had eased a bit before making his dash.  Wise move as he was considerably less wet than me!

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Kyros Connects provided an excellent service in a comfortable air-conditioned coach with a very good driver.  Sadly the bad weather continued for the whole 2 hours it took to get out of the mountains so we really didn’t see much of the view. Once we got to the towns and more built up areas the traffic was steady and slow at times.  We finally got to Fort Cochin at 19.30 where we were dropped on the edge of town……a bit random…..but the coach driver hailed us a tuk-tuk and we were soon at our accommodation for the next 2 nights – Raintree Lodge.  Mr L and I were very impressed with Kyros Connects which provides a link between Munnar and Cochin (132km) for 350IR (£4.32) per person.  It is a new privately managed coach service that only started in January 2017, but which appears to have not quite sorted recognisable pick up and drop off places as it clearly does not have access to the government subsidised public bus and coach service depots.

We have checked in to Raintree Lodge, our room is spacious with a nice looking bathroom and hot water – yay!! Dinner was a short walk away at our favourite Sutra before heading back to bed with the alarm set for 7.30 tomorrow morning for a full final day of holiday.

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We are now back to the warmer climes of the earlier part of the holiday with evening temperatures of 25c.  We don’t feel cold here!

 

Trekking, Kathakali and Kalarippayattu

We booked a guided mountain trek for this morning, starting from Green Spaces.  Adeed, our guide, met us at 9.45am and off we set.  We went up to our usual view point, as always lots of cloud cover but definitely a clearer view.

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It was reasonably energetic as there is no flat ground anywhere and we were able to walk through the Pallivasal Tea Estate as we had a guide with us and some of those slopes are incredibly steep.  Great respect for the tea pickers who work on these slopes everyday.  Adeed told us that a tea picker works from 08.00-15.30 and gets paid 350IR (£4.31) per day and then earns an extra 1IR for every kilo of leaves picked, they expect to pick 100-150kg per day so daily take home pay  can be 500IR (£6.16).  They are better off than the cardamom workers who get paid a flat rate of 350IR per day and that’s it.  Apparently a lot of the tea pickers come from Bengal as not enough young Keralans available for work as they tend to leave to earn their fortune elsewhere.

We had a brief rest stop to drink water and eat Indian baby bananas which taste very different to our normal bananas. Shortly after we were given long sturdy sticks to act as walking poles – slightly worrying as to what was coming next.  We opted for the ‘less steep’ forest route to get us to the top of our designated mountain, God alone knows what the steep route would have been like!  We definitely needed our sticks, I also needed a helping hand from the guide here and there as the route was very narrow and slippery in places.

The view from the top was impressive, albeit with the persistent cloud cover.  Adeed served us biscuits and cardamom tea, which much to my surprise was delicious with a delicate flavour.  Even Mr L like it, we’ll be buying some of that to bring home.

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After a short rest we started the walk back on a different route, a bit slippy at times but not as steep going down as the up was.  Most of the route home was through cardamom plantations which are all owned by local farmers, unlike the tea estates of which almost all come under the control of Tata.  There are only 2 other small tea plantations here in Kerala which are non-Tata owned.  We had one more rest stop with more cardamom tea and Indian crisps which are thinly sliced banana that has been fried and actually very nice as they don’t taste of banana!

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We got back at 14.00 at the same time as the rain arrived.  We were hot, sticky, sweaty and grubby after our 5.5 mile trek so it was showers and lunch before heading out again at 15.30 with Adeed, this time he was driving his tuk-tuk.

We were off to Punnarjani for some Indian cultural entertainment. The first show at 17.00 was Kathakali and if you arrive early you can watch the make-up being applied to an artist.  Incredibly detailed and takes ages.

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Kathakali is a highly stylised Indian classical dance drama performed by skilled artists.  The artists have to undergo several years of hard core training and the art is a skilful combination of literature, music, costume, elaborate face make-up, acting and dancing.  The idea is (as far as we understand) that each character’s mental quality can be understood by his or hers costume, facial movements, hand movements and body movements. It was very clever, entertaining and amusing.

We had to move into a different theatre area where we were sat in a round looking down into a ‘pit’ where we would watch Kalarippayattu.  Kalarippayattu is an ancient traditional martial art that originated in Kerala, described as the mother of all martial arts.  Many of the techniques of this martial art were later adapted into martial arts like karate, Kung-fu, judo etc.  The Kalarippayattu practitioners are required to undergo several years of rigorous practice to build up the courage, and fitness of mind and body.

We watched martial arts fighting using swords, shields, daggers, sticks.  There were also demonstrations of yoga, acrobatics through flaming hoops, and all manner of highly risky manoeuvres involving fire.  Again, very clever, skilled and entertaining.  Our day was completed with Adeed driving us back, a 40 minute bumpy tuk-tuk ride.  An excellent day.

Munnar and the Tea Museum

We woke to a perfect blue sky with the sun shining on the cardamom plantation outside our bedroom window. Great we thought, we will have a clear view of the hills from the viewpoint this morning.  We had breakfast promptly at 8.30am and headed up to the viewpoint to find that the clouds had already descended and obscured the view by 9.15am.  Its was an improvement on yesterday with the hint of a view.  Nevertheless very disappointing.

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We arranged for a tuk-tuk to pick us up at 10am and take us into Munnar, a 30 minute ride down through the mountains. Munnar is typical Indian town, noisy, full of scooters, jeeps and tuk-tuks and people.

We wandered around the town, into the vegetable market and then tried to find information on the buses for Thursday to get us back to Fort Cochin.  The bus is a much cheaper option than getting a taxi so we have decided to opt for that for this journey.  However, it seems to difficult to find out the necessary information…..

We had a brief lunch stop and then took a tuk-tuk up to the Tea Museum, just 2km outside of Munnar. Our entrance fee was 125IR (£1.53) each. The museum told the story of the development of the tea plantations in this part of India.  Tea comes from the plant Camellia sinensis, an evergreen bush which grows at altitudes of 3,000-7,000ft on slopes at 30-45 degrees. In the beginning, in the 19th century, forested areas had to be cleared in order to plant the plantations but apparently nothing else can grow on the high altitude slopes favoured by tea so tea does not reduce other opportunities for commercial crops. The evergreen tea plantations are impressive to look at and certainly provide a constant green covering to all the hills as far as the eye can see.

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Mr L and I now know the difference between black tea, green tea and white tea. We saw tea from its initial delivery as green leaves being processed into tea leaves and tea dust.  The factory machinery looked as ancient as the museum building!

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At the end of the tour there was a shop where it was possible to buy tea but everything was behind a counter so impossible to look at with no information and no prices on display.  It was a shame as there is huge potential to maximise profits from the shop if only it was organised better. Information books on tea production, the history of the plantations etc would also be good to see but there was nothing available at all.  It was very similar to the spice plantation in Thekkady which also had no information to give out or available to purchase.  So many missed opportunities.

We walked back into town, downhill all the way, and went into one of the many spice and tea shops in Munnar and bought some local tea from there. You could see what you were buying and it was a fraction of the cost the museum shop was charging.

As usual dark clouds rolled in early afternoon and rain looked imminent but it never arrived whilst we were out.  My donated rain mac was not required today! We did have a small amount of rain after we got back to Green Spaces late afternoon but that didn’t affect us as we are very sheltered on our outside area, and nothing like the rain downpours of the past few days. We must be getting used to the lower temperatures, 21-22c, as neither I or Mr L felt quite so cold this evening.

Green Spaces, Munnar

Green Spaces is an eco-friendly homestay high in the hills of the Western Ghats mountain range. We are based at 5,000ft, approximately 1 mile, above sea level.  All roads either go up or go down, nothing is flat.  Everywhere is green, we have views of cardamom plantations from our bedroom window together with lots of tall trees and huge bamboo plants.  We are in the heart of the tea plantation area of Kerala and it is truly beautiful.

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Breakfast is served in the communal outside area downstairs and good to have the option of a normal breakfast of fresh fruit, toast and coffee once again. Mr L and I went for a walk this morning to explore our immediate area.  There is a view point within walking distance but we had a limited view due to the very low cloud cover.

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We then walked up to the Pallivasal Tea Estate, a huge plantation with views of tea bushes as far as you can see.  The female workers could be seen cutting the tea bushes and collecting the leaves in the big sacks which were then carried and placed near the main sign.  You need to be on a guided trek or tour to be able to go into the estate.  We aim to do the trek on Wednesday morning.

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We got back to Green Spaces late morning and the weather gradually deteriorated and we have had heavy rain and thunder and lightening since early afternoon.  Due to the strike we have had limited options today.  It appears that some taxis and tuk-tuks are working but all the shops in Munnar were closed so there was no point going into town. Neither was there any point going on a further afield sight-seeing trip as the weather would obscure any potential view.  So, we have had a lazy afternoon reading and googling various facts about tea, Munnar, Ayurveda etc.

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Mr L has been researching the Ayurvedic properties of some of the herbs and spices grown in Kerala.  Apparently on his return he will be partaking in a daily diet of 2 teaspoons of turmeric in a glass of warm milk (possibly coconut milk), some holy basil, and a bit of guava……all of which will cure all, prevent all illnesses and achieve the holy grail of perfect health!

We met and chatted at length with our neighbour this evening, a young woman from South Korea who is here in Kerala on holiday but has been living and working as a researcher in Delhi for the past 3 years.  She very kindly donated me her plastic mac which she has never used and she departs for Fort Cochin in the morning and won’t need it there.  Really useful as I think I will be needing it over the next couple of days as the weather forecast is not brilliant and I didn’t actually bring a rain coat with me as didn’t expect rain in India at this time of year.  It’s also ‘only’ 21c and we feel cold so have been wearing our fleeces and I have borrowed a pair of Mr L’s socks to keep my feet warm!

 

Periyar National Park and a Quick Exit

Alarm set for 6.20am, but did I need the alarm this morning? No…..as Mr L woke me around 6am telling me the alarm was going off when in fact it was an extremely loud bird noise from outside (which admittedly does sound like a ring tone or alarm).  Anyway we were up promptly after a better night sleep with our extra blankets, and on our way at 6.45am in our tuk-tuk and off to Periyar National Park for a half day bamboo rafting and trekking.

Periyar National Park is also known as Periyar Tiger Reserve and is in the mountainous Western Ghats of Kerala. This wildlife sanctuary is home to Bengal tigers, elephants,  macaques, sambar deer, leopards and Indian bison. We had already booked our rafting and trekking tickets but also needed to get day passes to the park before meeting at the designated area at 7.15am.  As always a great deal of form filling was required by the rangers in the office before anything could happen.  There were 8 of us together with 3 rangers and 1 armed guard.  We were given water and breakfast packs which were warm at 7.30am but by 9.20am when we stopped to eat breakfast the curry was cold.  Strangely Mr L and I didn’t fancy cold curry so passed on this. We had walked for 90 minutes before our breakfast break and then it was time to get on our bamboo rafts.

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We were rowed up the lake and spotted lots of different types of birds – egrets, white necked storks, white storks, kingfishers, herons, to name but a few. We then did a short circular walk before getting back on the rafts and back to the other side of the lake.

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Indiana Jones eat your heart out!!  Time then for the trek back to the start. We saw macaque monkeys, black monkeys and 2 Indian giant squirrels but no tigers or elephants. We did see scat from elephants, wild dogs, sambar deer, and porcupine. Our armed guard didn’t need to use his rifle to keep us all safe. We walked just under 8 miles and were really lucky with the weather. After the storms of the previous night the morning was hot with blue skies and fluffy clouds.  So lucky.

Once back Mr L was in need of lunch and we found a great place with an amazing view of a wildlife area with bison roaming.

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Then at about 2pm the clouds came in from over the mountains, the rain started, gently at first, but was soon torrential with a thunderstorm directly overhead and off went the power.

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We sat it out for a while but then took a dash for shelter across the flooded road and waited for a tuk-tuk home.

Once back we went to find Mama to tell her we would need dinner and to ask if she could book a driver to take us to Munnar on Monday morning.  Sometime later Mama and we think Subish’s brother who speaks good English came to find us (Subish was absent all weekend and had said contact him on WhatsApp if we needed anything but had failed to respond to my message on Saturday, so not particularly helpful). Anyway the long and short of it is that there is a general strike on Monday from 6.00-18.00 so getting a taxi during the day is not possible.  Pity Subish hadn’t let us know on Friday when he checked us in and confirmed our 3 night booking! The options were we could leave at 5am Monday or would have to leave after 18.00 which would leave us stranded at Monsoon Retreats with no access to any form of transport.  We decided the late departure would be a waste of a days holiday.  The other option would be to travel Sunday night if our next accommodation in Munnar could take us a day early.  Subish’s brother advised this as the preferred option as even with the early start we might still have problems travelling.  Mr L called Green Spaces to confirm availability for Sunday night, Mama booked the car, we packed, said goodbye to Mama, had a frustrating telephone conversation with Subish who insisted we pay full rate for Sunday night as it was ‘our choice’ we were leaving early, and we were on our way at 18.00.

Munnar is 105km from Thekkady but took 3 hours on the most horrendous of roads. We zig-zagged up and down through the Western Ghats mountain range, some unbelievable hairpin bends.  Thank the Lord it was dark and I couldn’t see the sheer drop outside the car window! At one point we had to leave the main road because there was an elephant blocking the main route further up and causing lots of problems – only in India! The alternative road was like a badly maintained Norfolk skinny road……our driver did well and we can’t complain.

Green Spaces is yet another amazing accommodation booked by Mr L.  Our room is huge, too dark to see the view but I expect will be stunning, and we have hot water for the first time in a week – bliss to be able to shower and wash my hair in hot water. The staff were amazing, enquiring as to whether we had eaten then willingly cooked us a meal which was served on our outside balcony area.  Access to our room is via a very spirally spiral staircase, almost as precarious as the ladder steps at Monsoon Retreats.

Today has been quite an adventure and not altogether what we had planned or anticipated!