It was all over. We cycled the last 10 km slowly because something didn’t feel right. No, it wasnt the saddle sore. It wasnt even the humidity that made the air like custard.
Our mood was flat. We obviously were not expecting fan fares and throngs of people throwing flowers in front of our spinning wheels whilst we clasped our hands triumphantly above our heads; but it felt like an empty ending. We rolled up to the end of Vypeen island, looked out over the backwaters to fort Kochi and tried to smile. It was forced.
Why should it feel like the end? We still had nearly 2 weeks left! We would find that the feelings we expected would come later in the trip, when the cloud of job applications had passed and we had some time to reflect on the tour as a whole.
We had 2 things to sort in Kochi; applications and bikes. Obviously, we sorted the bikes first because, well, its a great way to procrastinate. We needed to dismantle our steeds completely and fit them into large flat cardboard boxes. Expecting great difficulty in sourcing appropriate boxes we called all the bike shops listed on Google and eventually struck gold. Velocity ventures had what we needed and we could get there within the hour.
We walked through the front door and into a cafe/bike shop hybrid. At the back, a couple of young mechanics were tinkering with a mountain bike whilst in the foreground 3 middle aged chaps were relaxing on sofas, conversing cheerily. One of them stood up to greet us; Ajith Varma. He shook our hands and a warm smile emanated from underneath a curt, greying moustache. He was very pleased to meet us and after quickly showing us the (perfect) boxes he had sorted for us, got on with quizzing us about our tour.
We soon found out that Mr Varma and his friends were the soul of the Cochin Bikers Club. A group of avid cyclists that regularly went on trips together, and in the past year had decided that they needed a headquarters. They pooled their money and had bought out the shop that we had just walked into. They slowly refurbished it and injected a completely different atmosphere to most workshops. As it crept towards the end of the working day, a steady stream of cyclists would come through those doors, chill on the sofas with a chai and talk about cycling till their exasperated wives called them home for dinner. They didn’t work here, they came to spend time with like minded people who they had shared hundreds of kilometers with. It was inspiring.
We chatted for hours, finally having to tear ourselves away to get the boxes back to our hostel and promising we would visit again.
That night we decided to treat ourselves to some Indo-portugese fusion food and my oh my…it blew our little socks off! If you are lucky enough to find yourself in Fort Cochin make sure you go to Fusion Bay. We ordered a veritable feast of clams, tuna pepper masala, prawns in green mango curry, kidney bean and pumpkin olan and smoked aubergine in yoghurt. That meal sky-rocketed to take the a place in the food hall of fame for the trip and added a touch of brilliance to an already great day.
We sat down to breakfast the next morning with Bernard, the owner of our homestay, and morning pleasantries quickly became very interesting. Bernard had spent most of his working life working on large cruise ships and had met people from all over the world which he felt gave him license to be opinionated. Very opinionated. In 20 minutes of conversation he informed us that all the rickshaw drivers in Kochi were members of that taliban, that all Germans were 30% Nazi, that doctors should never marry teachers and that Viraj should demand enormous amounts of cash and gold as a dowry when he gets married.
We made a quick escape and got on with today’s itinerary: dismantling the bikes and mantling Viraj’s application. The former took a couple of hours and the latter took all bloody day but finally…FINALLY, the wretched thing was done. The cloud had dispersed and we could properly look forward to 2 weeks of celebrating.
A state bus took us 5 hours inland and climbed the hills towards Munnar. When the Kerala Tourism board describes the state as ‘god’s own country’, they are not alluding to Kochi or Allepy or Kunnar or anywhere else. They are talking about Munnar. Mun-freaking-NAR!
Perched at 1400 metres above sea level, Munnar can boast about many things. Rolling hills, pleasant temperatures, wildlife sanctuaries and no mosquitos. But the defining feature of Munnar is tea-plantations. Hectares upon hectares of tea-plantations. And they are achingly beautiful.
We dumped our bags in our ‘penthouse suite’, donned our jumpers for the first time in 3 months and sprinted back outside to go and explore.
Fifteen minutes later we were at the crest of a hill and steeped in utter silence. You do not find silence in India. Its not a thing. But Munnar hadn’t got the memo. Waves of meticulously manicured tea shrubs undulated away from us for as far as the eye could see. A blanket of clouds descended and formed a mist that lightly shrouded everything. It rolled past your skin and could only be felt if you wanted to. The greens of the tea shrubs spanned from young sprouting emeralds through to deep murky jade. The paths that the tea pickers used cut clean lines that spiralled through the landscape and the smaller paths ran at angles that gave each hillock its own unique finger print. This would do.
We were loving keralan food immensely by this point and were keen to get stuck in and get cooking. Munnar, being the place that just keeps giving, happened to have the most highly rated cooking course in all of Kerala. So we called the number and a meek and very polite lady answered. Nimi. A freelance jounalist, accomplished cook, writer of a keralan cookbook that won international acclaim from the Gourmand society and she lived 500 metres from our guesthouse.
We got to her house at 2 and didnt leave till 830. We cooked in a kitchen that looked over the river running through her garden. Budgies and parakeets flitted in diaphanous cages dotted around the edges. We were introduced to the spicing philosphy of keralan cuisine and used this to make a meal of semolina, kingfish, tapioca, yoghurt curry and plantain. All of it was infused with Nimi and her family’s wonderful company. Her two boys ran in and out of the kitchen and kept stealing glances at us curiously, her husband was happy to advise on any touristy questions we had and Nimi herself gently punctuated the day with the story of how she went from electronic engineer to multi-talented housewife that boldy writes against multi-national companies.
We mentioned at some point that we were planning to go to Chinnar, a nearby wildlife sanctuary. Nimi’s cogs whirred and a day later she called us to ask if we wouldnt mind having a Spanish companion for the trip. Of course we didnt! The more the merrier!
Ruben is a Spanish chap. After that I find it hard to find the words to describe him, but I shall try. We met him for the first time on the night before we went to Chinnar. He came up to our suite to introduce himself and for a drink to get to know each other. One thing became clear very quickly; Ruben wanted to see a wild elephant. He alternated between full-throttle excitment and trying to be zen and convince himself that it was all down to luck and it would be fine if we didn’t see one. But he was terrible liar. He rrrrrreally wanted to see a wild elephant. This excitement was so infectious that despite our initial zen attitude towards wildlife watching, we were converted. By the time he left to go to bed, we really really wanted to see a wild elephant too! This highly contagious brand of enthusiasm would come to define Ruben and we bloody loved him for it.
We are certain that Ruben’s sheer will bent fate in our favour. We met outside our guesthouse and squeezed ourselves into the backseat of a rickshaw, shivering in the the early morning chill. Ruben’s bouncing excitement and the jaw-dropping scenery made the 65km trip whizz by and before long we were trapzing up the hills of Chinnar wildlife sanctuary. We had two tribal guides and told them our objective clearly from the outset. They barely spoke english but definitely got the point. Very soon, three hundred metres and a small ravine separated us from a wild elephant chomping on some leaves. It was amazing but distance and dense foliage diminished the experience somewhat and for Ruben, that just wouldn’t do. We disregarded the warnings of danger and convinced the guides to take us as close as possible. After some cursory warnings of danger and a crash course on ‘how to run away from charging elephants’ communicated in pidgin English we started to close in. We tried to be as silent as possible but the cheap trainers we had bought seemed to have soles made of castanets rather than rubber. Despite this we soon found only twenty metres between us and a lone wild elephant eating his breakfast. We had approached from the rear left of the behemoth and he almost certainly hadn’t seen us, which means he either heard us or smelt us. He turned quickly to center on us and the air filled with the sound of snapping branches and compacting leaf litter, followed by a trumpet that sounded like a war horn. Viraj, who had walked up to get closer just moments before, spun round and had only one agenda: ‘run downhill’. Ruben and one of the guides did the same and skittered down into the undergrowth. Rob who was stood next to another tribal guide held his nerve for a moment longer. He was taking his lead from this guide who didnt seem to be in an rush to move out of the way of a charging male elephant. The guide turned to Rob as the elephant closed the gap and told him to run, so he did, without delay. In the time it took Rob to join the others in the undergrowth we heard the guide shouting and a few loud reports that sounded like a stick against rock. The moustachioed guide appeard through the leaves laughing and giving us an indian head wiggle. The laughter dominoed and allowed us to exhaust some of the adrenaline that we had just overdosed on. The laughing guide had stayed behind to detract the elephant’s charge and had succeeded. The other guide was not laughing. He paced around and shook his head at us angrily, occasionally exclaiming ‘dangerous’. He calmed, we walked on, a plateau resembling Pride Rock opened up in front of us and we were greeted by a truckload of butterflies, a troop of monkeys, one giant grizzled squirrel and one long-tailed flycatcher.
Jovial conversation and multiple allusions to charging elephants filled the rickshaw drive back as well as dinner that evening. All three of us agreed that the day was made better by each others company and that Nimi was the puppeteer in the background that was responsible. Fairly soon we found ourselves knocking on her door to pay her a surprise visit. We barged into the house and had already begun recounting our day before we realised that Nimi was in the middle of a cooking lesson. The interruption was not mided at all as the pupils were Janice and Amber, two friendly Americans who we had gone trekking with a day earlier, and were here following our glowing reports. Nimi was glad to hear that we had such a good day and suggested that if we wanted to go on a longer trek, the Kolukkumalai Tea Esate would be an ideal destination.
Ruben and the two of us were sold. We took a rest day and then got a rickshaw to the base of the range which supported ‘the highest grown tea in the world’. It was a 3 hour hike up a rocky path, in glorious sunshine that provided views that physically winded you with their beauty. Towards the top, after we walked past the point where the mountains pierce the cloud line, we found this.
The view demanded that we gawp at it until the sunblindness became too intense. We were stunned, thirsty and hungry and managed to find the only place that provided food and high-tea. Sat in a log cabin above 2000 meters and enjoying a wonderful lunch we could never have guessed that the day was going to get better.
We chose to go down along a path used by the tea-pickers of old. It descended sharply to the nearest town and allowed them to sell their days pickings to the traders. We couldn’t have known that it was a 3 hour journey that would take us through thick cloud forest, old paths gouged by rivulets and grass-clad hillsides that looked like they’d inspired Jurassic Park. Outbursts of the theme tune and pterodactyl noises emanated at regular intervals, parakeets and chamelons decided to join us on our trip and we made it to the bus station in town with 5 minutes to spare.
As if she knew that she could provide the cherry on top of this near perfect day, Nimi called and askes if the three of us would like to join her for dinner that night to say farewell on our last night in Munnar. On arrival, Nimi’s house was packed with the aromas of beautiful homecooked food and soon enough we sat down and expounded all the details of our day.
It was very very hard to leave Munnar. Viraj kept thinking of reasons to stay and trying to convince Rob that one more day wouldn’t impact on the next few destinations, but Rob wouldn’t cave. Our days in India were dwindling very quickly and we had a lot more to see and do. Regardless of the immense pressure, Rob held his line, and we would both be very very glad that he did.