After spending a few days wandering around Mumbai, checking out the massive architectural influences left behind by the British, getting lost in Dharavi, the massive slum I mentioned earlier, and retracing the steps of Gregory David Roberts, the main character in the book Shantaram (a crazy true story that takes place mainly in Mumbai – I finished the brick-sized book on the train ride there), Kate and I said goodbye to the creature comforts of Neeraj’s apartment (where I quickly realized how much I miss sitting on the couch and watching movies..) and hit the road.
We spent the next 4 days relaxing on the beach in the little fishing village of Agonda in the tiny state of Goa, a former Portuguese-controlled area on the Western Coast. I’d only heard of Goa mentioned in the same breath as rave/party scene so we were both pleasantly surprised when we found a beautiful, quiet and clean refuge in Agonda in the southern part of the state. For about $12 a day, we rented a little wooden/thatch roofed hut in the sand run by a guy named Nick, one of the most chilled out Indians I’ve met yet.
The Portuguese left quite an impact in the area and we were more likely to see an ornate church or crucifix around the neck of a local (or tattoo’d on the back of their hands) as we were to see a Hindu temple or the stickers of Ganesh, Shiva and the hundreds of other Hindu gods stuck everywhere in Hindu India. With tons of swaying palms, smiling children in colorful catholic school uniforms, and super friendly local people, we both absolutely loved it.
Hesitant to leave this oasis but eager to see as much as we could before Kate had to mosey on back to the US of A, we ventured south again, this time to the state of Karnataka which adjoins Goa to the south. We’d read about the rich coffee farming in the southern part of the state and wanted to see one of the plantations up close. We found one that took guests and after a enough bus rides inland to ensure we were in the middle of nowhere, we hiked the 2km up a dirt road to the Honey Valley Estate, a former cardamom plantation and apiary. The owner, Suresh, a botanist, had to convert the entire area over to growing coffee when a disease came through about 10 years ago and killed all of the cardamom and all of the bees. Holy devastation, Batman. Kate and I sat and listened as he explained, with incredible detail about the local ecosystem, how he had to start over again from scratch. Now, it’s thriving and producing mostly organic coffee and flowers sold throughout the country. The homestay that they developed as a band-aid during the transition to coffee has grown, taking in 50-60 tourists at a time, eager to relax in the quiet and relative cool of the hill station (a term the British gave to any of the weekend retreats at elevation, where they often went to escape the heat and humidity of India during their time there) and spend their days hiking through the miles of beautiful trails that criss cross through the plantations.
During the transition, he installed a bio-gas tank system and now gets all of the heating/cooking gas the Estate needs from methane created from cow dung and food waste collected on the property. He also designed his own hydro-electric system to deliver most of the electricity needed as well from a stream that bisects the property. Many of the ingredients used in the communal meals all of the guests ate together were grown in the organic gardens on site as well. It was an amazing place. Another sanctuary from the madness of chaotic India. Kate and I rented yet another hut on the property and spent a lot time playing cards and wandering through the nearby hills when we weren’t counting down the minutes for the next grubbin’ buffet of South Indian food and coffee ground from the beans grown right next door.
From Karnataka, we continued the migration south to the state of Kerala, tops on our list for South India. Kerala is an incredibly beautiful place with easily the nicest people in all of India. It’s also the cleanest and most well organized. It also happens to be a communist state and has been for the last 50 years.
With that have come some impressive statistics. The state boasts the highest literacy rate (hovering right around 100%), lowest birth rate, and what seemed clear to be the highest quality of life of any of the areas I’d seen in the country. With a tropical feeling including miles and miles of beautiful coastline, emerald green rice paddies and palm trees, we were quickly seduced by it all and spent most of the next 5 weeks exploring the state.
First, we visited the little twin cities of Kochi/Ernakulam. At first unimpressed, we returned unintentionally for a second go after I realized, in mid-cab ride out of town, that I’d forgotten my passport at our hotel. Returning sweating, sunburned and frustrated, we decided to spend the night to shake it off but ended up finding a redeeming underside to the place we’d originally written off. After wandering around the back streets of town, we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of one of the state’s most elaborate festivals that celebrates its rich elephant heritage. Welcomed into the city’s Shiva temple with the hundreds of barefoot devotees, we watched in amazement as a group of massive elephants were first scrubbed clean outside and then adorned in golden head coverings and colorful fabrics and paraded around in a choreographed performance with men standing on each elephant dressed in equally beautiful costumes.
A group of local school children sang traditional songs while the city’s devotees made offerings to the elephants and the temple’s gods. Outside, someone periodically fired off a canon in a ritual we later learned has something to do with showing one’s devotion to the god Shiva. Just like church on Sunday..
The return trip also gave us another chance to check out a place our stomachs had fallen in love with the first time around. The Indian Coffee House is the closest thing to a franchise I’ve seen in India and nearly enough to make me want to move to India. Nearly.. With waiters in elaborate regal-looking white costumes with colorful sashes and white fabric fan headdresses, a simple, very cheap and super tasty menu including real filter coffee (a rarity – mostly places only serve instant if they serve it at all) and something equivalent to crack called ‘Bombay Toast’, it was funky and tasty enough to get us hooked after one too many mornings eating spicy curry. Bombay Toast, my favorite new nutrition-free addiction, looks like Wonder Bread french toast with the crusts cut off but tastes oh so much better. So simple yet so addictive..
Kate and I spent the duration of our stay in Kerala actually seeking these places out and stuffing our faces with as much of the refined sugary goodness as we could stomach. Sadly, they haven’t picked up the merchandising thing quite yet. When I asked if they sold t-shirts, I only got confused stares.
While the Indian Coffee House and the elephant festival should have been enough to reward my stupidity with the passport, there was one more piece of good news we found in Ernakulam. After spending two frustrating days trying to find a motorcycle for rent in Kochi, we found one not 100 yards from our hotel in adjoining Ernakulam. With a mix of excitement and dread, we packed up our gear and climbed on to our trusty new steed, a Royal Enfield Bullet, 350 CCs of Indian pride and joy, and rattled off down the road and into the pure chaos of the Indian road.
Our first stop on the moto was another hill station, this one called Munnar, a massive tea plantation area a 5 hour ride inland. Carpeted in what seemed like millions of neatly manicured emerald green tea bushes, the landscape looked like a massive undulating moss-covered blanket that ran for miles and miles and miles. The beautiful green color was punctuated with the occasional solitary silver oak tree planted to prevent erosion and retain the delicate balance of water required to keep all of the bushes flourishing. We spent two days riding through the area, amazed at just how much land it took to satisfy the country’s massive tea habit.
One morning we walked from our room in a homestay on a plantation’s edge through the network of trails running through one of the massive plantations. We watched the all female crew dressed mostly in white as they painstakingly trimmed each tea bush by hand, capturing the leaves in massive bags that they carried around the hillsides.
Equipped with a new high tech device to keep the endless clouds of diesel exhaust off my face and out of my lungs (a bandana tied around my head), we set off again to brave the traffic. We rode through even more miles of beautiful tea fields and stopped in a little town called Kumily, headquarters of the state’s massive and very fragrant spice market (many of the world’s spices come from this little area). With a very passionate and knowledgeable retired tea plantation worker as our guide, we toured a spice garden and listened as he showed us the source of all of those things we take for granted in all of the foods we eat in the west. We sniffed and tasted the fruits, barks and leaves of cinnamon trees, ginger and tumeric roots, curry leaves, aloe plants, pepper and cardamom plants, nutmeg trees and a host of other colorful and fragrant plants. It was interesting to hear about the medicinal value of most of these things I’d always associated with a McCormicks bottle in the pantry and how Ayurvedic medicine uses many of them to cure ills throughout the country.