While many people will have spent Boxing Day enjoying their Christmas Day leftovers or going for a walk to shift that slightly comatose feeling that comes from eating too much and moving too little, James, Milly and I spent it on a bus. A fancy AC bus with windows that did not open, which wound its way up through the hills to the tea plantations of Munnar. A bus on which I was sat next to an elderly man who obviously suffered from motion sickness as he proceeded to throw up about 45 minutes before we arrived at our stop. Unfortunately he did not reach for a bag in time and his sick splattered, only slightly, onto my feet. Delightful. At this point I slightly envied Brennan who had chosen to remain in Kochi before heading straight to Alappuzha (which I’m going to refer to as Allepy because it’s easier to spell). Thankfully the phrase “things can only get better” was highly appropriate as the three of us spent a great couple of days trekking through the hills and drinking copious amounts of tea.
Considering we’d spent over a week doing very little, my body was slightly surprised at being pushed into hiking boots and sent on a 17km hike through the tea, coffee and spice plantations of Munnar. We started our morning at 7:00, when it was still pretty chilly, and walked our way through the tea as the sun was starting to rise and burn away the morning mist. Treks in Munnar have to be undertaken with a guide because all of the plantations are technically private property, so to walk alone counts as trespassing. To start with we all found our guide rather sweet and endearing, but by the end of the day he had revealed himself to be less endearing and more self assured, bordering on arrogant. Still, he was a wealth of information and told us a lot about not just the plantations but the culture of living in this part of India. The majority of people who work on these plantations are women, because they are the ones who do all the picking, while the men are mainly employed in the production factories with a few working out on the plantations to distribute the fertiliser. The women work from 8:00 in the morning to 4:00 in the afternoon (the men finish at 1:00) and are expected to pick 20kg of tea a day for which they receive 301 rupees. If they pick less than this their wages are docked and if they pick more they receive 1 rupee extra per kilo. They then go home and cook dinner for the family, despite the fact their husbands will have got off work many hours before. No wonder they were striking about pay! And no wonder Tata, the company which owns the majority of the tea plantations in this area, is so wealthy.
2 hours after we left our guesthouse we arrived at the highest point of our walk, over 2000m about sea level, where we stopped for breakfast and chance to take in the stunning scenery. The air up here was so refreshing compared to the pollution we had been breathing in the big cities and there was greenery as far as the eye could see. Sadly for my knees we spent the remainder of the day going downhill- weird I know to prefer uphill but I have old lady knees and they ache like crazy when going down for too long. Thankfully there was a lot to distract from the pain as we made our way through coffee and cardamom plantations, tiny villages growing all sorts from cocoa to bananas and multiple spice plantations. Our guide kept trying to shock Milly and myself by pointing out huge spiders and asking us to try weird and wonderful things he picked along the way. He totally underestimated his audience as neither of us are particularly afraid of arachnids- a snake or a bird and it would have been an entirely different story. We’re also not adverse to trying weird things- I ate a tarantula in Cambodia for goodness sake- so trying a cocoa bean before it has been dried really didn’t bother me. Not something I would recommend though as it’s much more pleasant when it’s been turned into chocolate.
Apart from our slightly controversial conversation about religion over our lunch, the whole day was extremely enjoyable, although I was pretty knackered by the end of it and my legs were crying out for a sit down. Thankfully we timed our arrival back in the main town better than the day before so all the tea shops were open. Our local tea shop, serving 20 different varieties of tea, sat opposite a bakery, so we rewarded ourselves with tea and cake accompanied by multiple games of 7s. We had visited the Tea Museum the afternoon we arrived, a rather stressful experience involving a massive row with a rickshaw driver, but the highlight was definitely the trekking (we all fell asleep in the museum giving an indication of how interesting we found it). Munnar as place however, is a must, and JJ Cottages a great place to stay if you’re on a budget- it’s bright pink so can’t be missed!
After 2 nights of mountain air it was back to the coast to pick up Brennan in Allepy and see what we could get in terms of boats on the famous Keralan backwaters. We’d decided a houseboat was probably out of our price range so went for the canoe option offered by our hostel, which allowed you to get off the main river and see the smaller waterways and the way people lived. Potentially this would have been more enjoyable had I not had so much Old Monk the night before, which meant the last thing I really wanted to do was sit in a little canoe all day and float around in the sun. Despite feeling a tad queasy for the first half an hour, it was a very relaxing day and the beauty of the backwaters cannot be denied. Apart from a minor mishap where we got stuck under a bridge, it was pretty smooth sailing, which is surprising considering our boatman let Brennan take over the punting for a while.
We spent a full day on the river, before heading back to dry land where Milly and I had an evening of Ayurvedic therapy to look forward to. We’d booked ourselves in for a Patra Podala Sweda massage, which involved being covered in oil and pounded from head to toe with balls of herbs, wrapped in cloth and heated, before being put in a wooden box for a steam. Yes it may sound totally random (because it was) but it was also extremely relaxing and much needed by my aching calf muscles which were struggling to cope with going from sitting on buses to long walks in the hills.
The plan after Allepy was to head down to Kovalam to spend New Year on the coast before we went our separate ways. After bumping into our old friend Tom however, we were persuaded that Varkala was the way to go and decided to try there instead. We almost did end up in Kovalam as none of us were paying proper attention and didn’t realise the station we’d been sitting in for 2 minutes was where we needed to get off. Thankfully we managed to get ourselves and all our stuff off before the train left the station because I think jumping from a moving train with all our luggage would have been beyond all our capabilities! All the excitement was too much for Milly who lost her balance when trying to pick her water bottle off the floor and ended up in a pile of laughter and backpack on the platform. Recovered from our hysterics she was able to get herself up with is a good thing because the boys had walked off in embarrassment at our breakdown. Chivalry is so dead my friends.
The small seaside town of Varkala is set along the top of a cliff with a wide sandy beach which offers absolutely no shade and was therefore not somewhere I could spend much time (the curse of ginger skin). We had hoped to have a go at surfing but the waves were slightly pathetic over the few days we were there so Milly and I had a go at paddle boarding instead. I have done this before, but only on a lake, and what with my centre of gravity issues I was unable to stay standing for more than a few seconds. Even Milly struggled as although the waves were pitiful, the current was fairly strong. It was good fun though and definitely counted as exercise which provided the unnecessary justification for all the cake we consumed while staying here. We also found ourselves a beauty parlour run by an adorable woman who kept giving us discounts on everything, so we decided to treat ourselves- it was New Year after all and to be honest our feet were so disgusting a pedicure was long overdue! Tinted, threaded and covered in beautiful henna we were ready to see in the New Year.
I always find New Year’s Eve never quite lives up to expectation, so this year I was trying not to have any and yet it still managed to disappoint slightly. Not that we didn’t have fun, but unfortunately there was a #metoo moment early on in the night which put a slight downer on the rest of the evening. Please don’t think I’m jumping on the bandwagon but I think it’s important to highlight that sexual harassment can occur anywhere, even in extremely public places where there are many people around. I remember having a conversation with a boy on my Spanish Course back in May whose reaction to finding out I was coming to India was “ha, you’re going to get raped”. Not only is this a horrible thing to say to someone but it’s always making a massive generalisation about an half the population of a country, and from what we had experienced so far, totally unfounded. Yes we were constantly harassed for photos but I’ve felt more uncomfortable on night’s out in Newcastle than I have anywhere in India. Until New Year’s Eve that is. It wasn’t so much that I felt someone touch my backside (that, I am sadly used to) it was more the fact that the hand aggressively pushed its way through my legs and attempted to go up inside my shorts. Yes I was wearing shorts. Yes I was also wearing a backless top but I don’t believe my attire warranted such invasive action by a man who was simply walking down the street behind me. Now I am totally aware this may seem like a mild incident compared to what some women go through but it left me feeling extremely uncomfortable and a little bit dirty that someone felt it was OK to touch me in this way. I have never been more grateful for the people I was with as Milly and Brennan made enough of a fuss that the guy in question was barred entry from multiple bars and restaurants along that part of the strip. We did manage to see in the New Year with a bang and I realised how lucky I was to be travelling with this amazing group of people.
Sadly our time together was coming to an end and after a final day together of playing cards and eating in order to feel less like death warmed up the boys left early to catch their multiple trains back up to Goa. After a month of being a foursome it felt weird going back to being just the two of us but Milly and I had decided the New Year started on the 2nd and planned to see it in in style. What better way to throw yourself into 2018 than by throwing yourself off the cliffs attached to a giant parachute?! Obviously we didn’t really throw ourselves, we were more guided by the French guy who ran the paragliding and actually knew what he was doing. Still, the whole sensation makes you feel like a bird and is a lot more relaxing than sky diving once the initial stomach churning has subsided. Said birds get slightly confused as to what your doing in their sky but it’s amazing to see from their perspective for once and the Keralan coastline is fairly stunning.
Our time with the boys had come to an end and so, as it turned out, had our time among Western tourists for a while. We were making our way into the relatively unknown state of Tamil Nadu to the Southern most tip of India and I was excited to get going again after the fairly slow pace of the past month. I’m not sure however, that we were quite prepared for how different Tamil Nadu is in comparison to very much set up for tourists Kerala.
TOP TIP FOR KERALA: Arm yourself with plastic bags when heading up to Munnar and make sure you sit next to people you know so as to avoid surprise sick sessions.