Upward Bound (To Western Ghats, Kerala)

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Just in case you are wondering, we did not die and go to heaven last night, although it feels like that right now. (Well, a bit.)

We have ascended (in a very competently driven car) about 5500 feet, and instead of being in a beautiful hot always-muggy leafy place, we are in a beautiful cool and only-muggy-right-before-a-rainstorm leafy place.

It is useful, if you travel mountain roads in India, to be in a competently driven car. The margin of error is thin – make that the distance between the sides of cars is thin. Less than an inch sometimes.

Driving basically means (i) passing, while (ii) avoiding vehicles going in the opposite direction that are also passing. (All this, in the mountains, on a one and a half lane road.) Avoiding also–and this is important–large buses that careen front and center even when the road curves. In other words, there is a reason one reads about terrible bus accidents in India.

To be fair (i) there are vehicles of all speeds on the road, and (ii) some of our 4 1/2 hour drive was spent on a toll road freeway in which everyone stayed absolutely on their side of the divide.

But, by and large, the process takes either (i) a careful combination of concentration and calculated nerve (I like to think this is what our driver had), or (ii) full-bore recklessness spiced with an unshakeable belief in predestination (as in – don’t worry, you will not die till your time has come.)

Signs like “Accident Prone Road” don’t seem to hush all the internal yikes.

But enough of that – to catch you up, my daughter and I both managed fine in our ceilingless bath last night. Of course, in the darkness necessitated to avoid mosquitoes, I did not figure out how to get water to go through the shower head, as opposed to the knee-high spigot, until I had almost finished my personal bath. “Hurry hurry,” I shouted to Christina when the shower head suddenly began spurting. (We had spent part of the day with no water, so haste seemed imperative.) (Also, process note – most showers/spigots in India pour out directly onto the floor with no division between shower space and toilet space, except perhaps a bucket. There is typically a drain in the corner.)

On the good side, there were no heavy thuds and squeaks from the bathroom during the night (as there had been in the afternoon). The fireworks across the river did sound like someone endlessly tapping on the door, but no one actually was, and we woke up to a fine muggy morning in which the very sweet Manu, who’d helped us so much with the computer the night before, told us that he absolutely intended to choose his wife (rather than have his marriage arranged), the little hot calf was tethered (entangled) in the grassy shade right outside our room, the crazy red ant that bit my arm did not leave a sting, and the hotel owner refunded in full all the money I’d prepaid for the second night (which we were canceling). (Though he was so doleful that I gave him a big tip back.)

In other words, all was more or less right with our particular little Indian world.

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“Did I take you from your family on your holiday?” I asked our driver when he arrived promptly from Cochin, as it turned out to be not only Sunday (he is Christan) but also pretty big holiday here today. (A Hindu holiday but celebrated by all Kerala.)

“Yes,” he replied curtly. But pretty soon both Christina and I decided that he didn’t quite get the tone of my question, as he was an incredibly good guy, who did not seem to feel overly put out, and had even brought back a small canvas bag of books that we’d left in his car when he brought us to the Backwaters the first time.

The fact that I’ve taken over the tipping in the last couple of days (and probably give crazily high tips) may also have had something to do with it. Tipping in India is difficult. Though one understands that service people probably depend upon it to some degree, when you are here awhile, you can at moments develop almost a knee jerk reaction against it, just as you do against being over-charged. (My daughter, for example, is fine with the tipping, but she can get into longwinded arguments with rickshaw drivers over the equivalent of a quarter. I remember behaving similarly in the 80s, after I’d been here for a while, inspiring, at one point, such a fierce fight between two competing bicycle rickshaw drivers that one went after the other guy’s tires’ with a hat pin.)

But when you have been away and are freshly here again, you feel a little differently, especially in a place like Kerala where people really do not seem to angle much for tips, and receive them with seemingly genuine pleasure. (It is kind of wonderful to be able to please someone with such a relatively small gesture.)

At any rate, on our driver drove; on we rode. Over backwaters and under palms. Through something that looked rather like a true toll booth and through another one that just looked like some guys hanging around on the road in rolled-up lungis and golf caps. (Lungis are the draped cotton skirts that men wear traditionally in the south, long rectangular swathes of cloth, often plaid, that are wrapped towel-like around the guys’ waists, and then doubled into short skirts all day long –again and again and again. Refolding and tying their lungis seems to be a favorite pastime of many men)

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Through horrible little quikie-mart type towns, past newly constructed and immense villas (Kerala’s booming in the IT age), little green mosques, Hindu temples, and huge multicolored Catholic Churches with big painted plaster-of-paris sculptures of Christ and Mary and various saints in large niches. From palm trees to bigger trees, taller trees, still jungly sort of trees, twisting and passing and just cutting in front or around or beside.

And now we are sitting on a balcony on a mountain side in the Western Ghats, with a very lovely room with attached bath AND ceiling, surrounded by extremely tall trees, tea plantations, spice groves, and much lower temperatures. Banana bhaji (fritters) and tea have just been served and a very sweet, very cute, but worrisomely garrulous little boy wants to race his plastic cars with us. (Wants to, a lot, all the while telling us about Bugattis and showing us all the different tricks he can do with his nostrils. My car, the smallest, keeps getting taken off by his fire truck for a tire malfunction, though the repairs always take less than a hour, he says, so that I can soon join the race again.)

So maybe it’s not completely heaven.

But close enough.

(The photos are as follows: above – my feet in socks and body draped in pants, against mosquitos and ambitious A/C, under mosquito net this morning; the little hot calf; one of the toll booths – note the “Bride Church”. Below -our driver’s very neat and religious dashboard, me photographing the ceiling of our bathroom, our balcony here outside of Munnar.)

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3 Comments on “Upward Bound (To Western Ghats, Kerala)”

  1. hedgewitch Says:

    You have very photogenic feet, I thought I was looking at the mysterious hunched shape of a woman in full lotus meditating in purple gauze clouds–but no, just feet-(-very neat ones.) I love the Bride Church–an exotic experience, I’m sure, indeed, and the calf does look quite healthy and happy despite his tether. Your description of the Death Race 2000 aspect of the roads reminded me again of Mexico–very similar and terrifying. I was in a race between two Conejos(they call Greyhound buses Rabbits) where neither driver intended to give in–apparently they had a regular meeting on this route each week, and some of the passengers were taking bets while the gringa turista was trying not to faint. Enjoy your moments in paradise K–it sounds really lovely, and lord knows, you’ve earned them. ;_)


  2. what an exciting trip! Fabulous pictures ! I love the narrative ! thanks k!

  3. Helen Dehner Says:

    Great reading, everything from crazy driving to cooking lessons to sightseeing … sorry about the ‘under the weather’ part. Stay safe.


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