I have mentioned before that there aren’t many chalkies around these parts and from this vantage point we quickly grasped that we were the main attraction. Everyone who went on that escalator stared at use for the full duration of the journey. I don’t believe that anyone meant to be rude moreover perhaps they thought we weren’t real, more of a ‘dice man’ installation. After a while it was a little uncomfortable sipping coffee with this ever changing audience studying us in the Starbucks fish bowl so we moved on. While strolling around the shops I happened upon a section in a department store which was selling suitcases. Now for those who don’t remember how this started as a student gap year with all the trimmings, hostels, rucksacks, sleeping bags (for the love of God what made me think I could travel that type of budget when I didn't have too!). The last vestige of the student backpack trip was my rucksack and today I was retiring it for a lovely giant suit case with wheels.
Next effort was to actually look for the items we had set out to buy. Now at 58 years I don’t believe I am very old but I do know I’m not young. I don t believe I am morbidly obese but I do know I’m not skinny. I am not small but neither am I particularly tall. I believe I am the average Irish Mammy and all I am looking for is a simple pair of knickers. After looking in many lingerie shops in this very sophisticated shopping mall and only being offered teenie weenie utterly cosmetic pants of no practical use whatsoever, I finally fell upon M&S, such a relief. Well I was relived until I saw what was on offer. Honestly, I was in shock at what was on offer. I don’t know what their target market is but they don’t reside in India. I have seen no expats and if I had they would have had to have been on the vastly rotund sizing to fit what was available. In India, women, at least those I have seen, are mostly small in stature and even if wide in girth these offerings by M&S would house a small family. So I’m stuck between itsy bitsy and a hammock suffice to say I ain’t no itsy bitsy teenie weenie anything and beggars can't be choosers. I was happy with my giant suit case on wheels to carry my giant knickers. Now, I think that’s enough about my very comfortable knickers.
Munnar Tea Plantation
We left our hotel at 6am on a Sunday morning to make the four hour journey to Kerala - ‘Gods own country’ although I don’t know who names it such, I can understand how it came about when you see the beauty of the place. The sun was just raising as we left the city. There were many people up and busy on this very early Sunday morning. On the outskirts of the city I noticed a group of young boys getting ready for soccer practices. It was 6:30 am and these young boys were already on the pitch. 10 am sports practice in Ireland GAA on a Saturday morning used to make me feel heroic, feeling a little inadequate looking at these guys who must have been up at 5:30 am. The driver tells me that soccer has become very popular in recent years and if they don’t turn up these boys are off the team. Many families see soccer as their way out of subsistence and anyone can make it big through soccer despite the caste system as the game is about skill and nothing more. I remember the beautician I met in Goa had said the same about her son and his soccer skills and I really hoped they were right. The cynic in me said money always matters for the equipment you can buy, the training you can buy, even for the slave money can be for disappointment but I kept that thinking to myself and hoped I was wrong. We drove on through the country and passed through a few towns.
In the square of one small town we passed I noticed there were upwards of 100 young men well dressed but casual. It was now around 8am. These men look just like your average student with laptop in their backpacks slung over their shoulders. I asked the driver what was going on and he told me the guys were waiting to be hired. I was shocked. Perhaps my shock was more to do with my naïveté assuming that education protected people from these types of demeaning hiring fair practices but not here. I am back again to realising how lucky we are to live in a location where hiring and firing is not solely the remit of the bosses. Although the zero hour contracts introduced to help Economy’s during the crash shows just how easily gains can be taken away. We passed through that town heading for the mountains when the driver suggested stopping for a bite to eat. I live in mortal fear of Delhi belly and will go without food rather than risk that particular travel experience. We stop in at a road side cafe the driver directs us upstairs and he goes downstairs to join the other drivers. Its a Sunday morning and just like home the cafe is busy with people having their breakfast. We are given the menu and pick the thing least likely to cause damage. Its very clean but I suppose there is no avoiding flies in this type of heat so a few hoover around. I’m having buttered toast and bottled water. Róisín has acquired a taste for Chai tea so she orders that along with toast for her breakfast. Toast arrives already buttered, WHY!? Because of the heat in the places where I have tried butter it tends to be rancid so I have gave up trying. I discreetly try to hide the toast in some napkins and hide it in my bag with the intention of feeding it to the monkeys if we pass any. We get back into the car and the stink of butter wafting from the bag is really off putting. Our driver asks if we enjoyed breakfast and I lie and say it was great. It really was a good place but I am not taking any chances when it comes to food. Up the mountains we go and we pass many colonies of monkeys but there is no discreet way of getting rid of the toast so we are stuck with the stink. Up into the mountains we go and eventually we arrive at the town of Munnar where we meet our guide before heading out into the tea plantation. Our driver drove us up to the walkway through the plantation. Our guide was in his early 20s and this was a part time job for him to help pay his way through college. He was studying law but would have preferred to study medicine however the fees were way out of his family's reach. Everyone who can afford 3rd level here seems to do either Law or medicine. Third level is out of the grasp of ordinary citizens. He was a very nice guy and knew the history of the plantation as his family had lived in the area for generations. He seemed to be running a bit of a temperature as he was sweating profusely and naturally being Irish I was too polite to ask and just hoped he was on the beer the night before. Him being hung over had a better outcome for us than him having covid as we were due to fly to Sri Lanka the following evening. The plantations were truly beautiful and could be seen stretching for miles over every mountain top and up to the edge of the national park and wild life reserve. The climate in these parts is very comfortable it was very easy to see why the English colonised it. We walked around the grounds for about an hour. Our guide explained that the plantations are now owned by the Tata organisation and that the workers were paid less than average wage but they got homes with the job and medical care also. The managers did appear to have lovely homes with well kept gardens and the field workers homes were bunched together with little I could see to commend them. I did ask our guide what happened to the workers when they retire but he didn't have an answer.
We went to the tea plantation museum. Here we got lose up to the equipment used in the harvesting and processing of tea. First we sat in a small cinema and were shown a film of the history of tea and how it came to be in this location. Apparently back in the age dot this English guy came traveling in the region and on discovering the area was perfect for growing tea he approached the local Maharaja and offered him peanuts for the land. The peanuts were accepted as the Maharaja did not believe the land had any value, so he pretty much gave it away. I’m adlibbing a little but not a lot. I’m surprised that this film is clearly depicting the Maharaja as a fool and the English guy as the smart man and this is being played to an audience of Indian people with the exception of Róisín and Myself. It went on to tell us of the great works the English owners did for the people and how they were the very first to think of land conservation. They had créches for the children where the older women would mind the children while the younger women worked the fields. I did start to think that perhaps I was being a little too hard on the colonialists after all they seemed to be introducing supports for women workers. They were also, I was informed by the movie, the first to consider conservation and habitat protection back in the 1900's. Well now I am truly feeling ashamed of myself for judging these English emigrants so harshly by assuming they only came to get what they can at the expense of the local population. They also had education programmes for the children of the workers so lots of good works being done. These interlopers generated enough wealth that they were able to build a hydro electric power station here and for themselves. Can you imagine how much tea had to be sold for that little trinket. When we left the movie the first room I pass through is the trophy room with floor to ceiling of animal heads and walls of photos of trophy hunters standing over every type of animal. The cynic in me suggested that when you have enough money to build your own power station you don’t need more tea but perhaps you need to conserve some land for you shooting gallery hobby. We continue on through the different rooms depicting a life and time that no longer exists but I get the distinct impression was much admired. The good works are being stripped away one by one. Education was for the managers children not for everyone. Heavens forbid that education would be given to the tea pickers they might realise they were getting a raw deal. The last straw falls when in the final room we are shown the money the plantation owners paid their workers. In addition to their hydro electric power station they also had their own mint. Yes they paid their workers in coin tat had no value outside of the plantation...need I say more. The final part of this tour brought us into the processing rooms. Here we learned how tea is processed and quality assigned to each blend. So first cut is white tea and this is the best and most expensive. Its made from the first 3 shoots of the new season and its dried quickly to maintain colour and flavour. The more processing the leaf gets the more its quality diminishes. The guy who came up with the tea bag must have made millions for the Tea companies. Before tea bags this stuff was swept off the floor or brushed out of the drying machines as dust. Yes we who drink so many gallons of tea are actually drinking the worst of the tea production. We end our visit to the plantation with serious reconsideration of the convenience of tea bags.
Processing Tea Leaves
Machinery made in Ireland from the Munnar Tea Plantation
Chocolate Factory and Boat Ride
Heading back to the city we stop off at a chocolate factory which made real chocolate. I hadn’t realised there was any other kind but apparently there is a compound chocolate which replaces cocoa butter with a cheaper fat. Yuck, just thinking about that is off putting. So saw a full demonstration from cocoa bean to finished wrapped sweet and had little tasters of different samples along the way. I am baffled how anyone discovered this bitter little bean, if left to rot for two weeks, then drying it, roasting it, grinding it would deliver the most wonderful irresistible product! We bought a few samples then realised we were flying the next day so of course we had to eat it to reduce bag weight. Final part of this very busy day brought us to a beautiful park with a beautiful lake. Our driver dropped us at the entrance where we made our way down for a boat trip around a lake. Our driver thought to suggest a speed boat but we were happy to wait for the public ferry, no pleasure in tearing around a lake at break neck speed. I decide a bathroom trip was called for before the boat arrived so off I went in search of the loos. I think perhaps most Europeans have a fear of being confronted with a squat toilet, that hole in the floor that we have no clue how to approach. Well in our park visit I was confronted by such a dilemma and it would be a further 3 hours before we got back to our hotel. Luckily there were two mature Indian ladies just ahead of me and here is the trick, you pull the legs of your pants above your knees before you proceed to pull anything down. I hasten to add the toilets weren’t an open plan affair just that the ladies were pulling their trouser legs down from their knees when I arrived. So for all you adventurers out there I hope that was a helpful bit of observation. We are nearing the end of our Indian leg of the journey. We needed to get a covid PCR test for the flight to Sri Lanka and asked our driver if he knew of any place near us. He not only brought us to a test centre but he also waited 40 minutes for us and returned us to our hotel. Now tell me any European taxi drivers extending that courtesy to anyone out there?
Boat Trip in Munnar
Perhaps it's the same in other countries, let me know! No, these men will fight off hustlers on your behalf. Haul your bags into and out of the car and insure that you are delivered safely inside your door or to the concierge of whatever establishment you have booked. So big ‘thank you’ to all our drivers in India. If you are planning to do any traveling in India save yourself a lot of hassle and get a driver, its really not as expensive as you might think bearing no relation to European prices. We are safely delivered to the Radisson Blu which we have booked for 5 nights and that is costing us a total of €260 including breakfast. Just out of curiosity and to save readers the effort I checked to see what Radisson Dublin were charging for a Thursday night in April and it is €162 for one night room only. So if you are thinking of traveling further than Benidorm perhaps think about braving a longer flight. Take the opportunity to travel to those places we usually only see on telly and meet those beautiful smiling people who don’t just smile for the cameras they really are that friendly.
So fair to say we are very happy with the room. Next thing is to check out the restaurant. It's taken me a while to realise that most hotels even those that claim to be catering to a western pallet do not. Most Asian people don’t like our bland food, while most Europeans cant fathom how to eat curry for breakfast. What is a bigger realisation for me is how little accommodation we in Europe give to other cultures yet I pretty much expect a full Irish and trust me I am daily disappointed on this journey. I think I have become that caricature of a holiday maker from a 1980's sitcom looking for my chips and beans. I’d kill for chips, beans and Clonakilty sausages.
Radisson Blu Kochi
We took a day trip to Alappuzha (Alleppey) which is about an hour and a half drive from Kochi city. Our driver picked us up 9 am on another not surprisingly sunny day. We arrived at the town about 10:30 am and met the captain of our little boat who’s name was Manute. Alleppey is a area of low lying wet lands which in the past 200 years has been reclaimed for agriculture use. In doing so the people have created a series of interconnected canals and waterways. Our boat trip was to last 3 hours with confidence say we only saw a fraction of it. We got into our beautiful little boat with roof to keep off the sun and open sides to admire the view. The boat had the capacity to take 7 passengers seated. There were two cushions to the front nose of he boat for two passengers to sit up front. Just in the middle of the boat was a beautiful Chaise lounge for those wishing to recline throughout the trip. There were 4 white plastic garden chairs to the back with towels covering each. If the towel slipped you quickly realised they were not purely decorative as in this heat and humidity plastic and skin are not a comfortable combination. I imagined my cousins, Karen and Annette sitting on those deck chairs, admiring the view and passing out the toffees saying “go on have another one”. As we moved along we noticed that there were many large houseboats docked and empty. Manute explained that these would (pre-covid) have been full and out on the water for week long tours. They had kitchens and bars and all the comforts the western travellers needed but they were sitting idle for the past two years.
We moved away from the bank and made our way down the canal we passed other small boats docked along the canal. These boat owners waved and shouted 'welcome', some ask where we were from and we proudly shouted 'Ireland!'. I am constantly amazed at how welcoming people are to us. Manute said that they see our presence as a sign of hope that covid is over and life may be getting back to normal. There was no envy that Manute had a fare and they didn't, they were genuinely happy to see business being done by one of their own. We head across open water to connect with a canal system a short distance across the lake. We pass a few of the bigger house boats which seemed fully loaded with passengers. Manute explains that they adapted to the lack of tourism by doing day trips on Sundays for locals which meant dropping prices and for most this was their only income in the past two years. Manute told us that he was a general handyman and could pretty much turn his hand to anything. He was also a farmer and so was not totally dependent on the income the boat brought. He was married with two children and for him the income from the boat is an extra. That income makes life easier but he was lucky, he told us, because he was diversified he said laughing. Through the many canal ways we went the boat moving up and down different channels. Its difficult to describe this place. Its called the Venice of the East but you can put out of your mind any idea of ornate bridges and Cornetto advertisements, water is the only thing these two places have in common. Imagine a series of flooded fields with raised banks between each field. The main banks are approximately 10 meters wide on which stand houses. The older houses are brick built and look to be two possibly three roomed homes. The door is open on most so I couldn’t help but see inside. The front door leads straight to the living room with a three piece suite and a television. Beyond that room a door lead out to what looked like an open kitchen come utility area, it was sheltered but not closed in. What utilities these houses had I just don’t know but Manute had mentioned with some pride that his wife had a washing machine. Children played outside running along the banks and between the houses chasing each other reminding me of my own childhood before the advent of hyper caution and play stations.
Boat cruise heading towards the floating village
In recent years, many houses had been flooded and so new houses tended to be built on concrete stilts to approximately ten feet off the ground. The new houses looked really modern, not just elevated and you could tell they belonged to younger or bigger families. The older one- room houses were clearly owned by single older people and it was only by looking in their faces that you could tell their age. I saw a woman who must have been at least in her eighties haul a stack of rice on her back along the bank to her house. The sack had to have been about 20 or 30 kg. Even though this area produced a lot of rice there wasn’t enough to feed all the people, so the government subsidised supplies for those in need such as the older lady I had seen. Large areas of agricultural land had been lost during the repeated flooding. As the water rises it breeches the banks which then allow salt water to wash in and contaminate the land with salt water. Efforts had been made to reclaim the damaged fields but it was happening so often it was becoming impossible to continually maintain the outer banks. It was cheaper for the government to pay the rice farmers not to work than reclaim what was lost.
The schools, temples and medical dispensaries all occupy the wider banks with narrower banks used to walk between fields or to other villages. It looks idyllic. Each house has a small stepped area just outside the front door. There are four or five steps with a brick wall stretching about five feet to support the bank. Here the women wash their clothes or their children or themselves. These travels of mine have made me realise just how much I take for granted. I couldn’t imagine a house without indoor plumbing. Yet watching these people going about their daily activities reminds me of my many relatives who would go to the village well to get there drinking water. A huge barrel at the side of the house collected rain water for general washing. We journeyed along the waterways going by many villages and homes. There were times when rounding a bend we would inadvertently intrude on a family bathing in the water. The laughing, joking and general chatter among themselves would instantly stop and silence would fall like a guillotine, then they would pretend not to see us and we not see them until we awkwardly got out of view. They tolerate us because we bring much needed revenue to the area and that revenue employs many of their friends and neighbours. But I have no doubt that if helping my friends and neighbours required strangers walking through my living room I would not be so accommodating.
Alleppey Floating Village
Around the next bend we come upon the floating traveling shop. Its no Tescos in a giant barge, just a little rowing boat. The shopkeeper sits in the back with all the goods for sale to the front. They travel the canals selling fruit and veg or bread just about whatever you might need from your local corner shop they will bring to your door. As they approach a home they ring a bell and out comes the lady of the house to make her choice. It reminded me of childhood summers in Geesala and the traveling shop which toured the side roads and Cul-de-Sacks of Erris in the days when only a few had cars. Pat Walsh drove the truck for many years and although I cannot remember how often during a week the truck did the rounds I do remember the routine; As he approached a house along the road he would beep the horn of the truck and wait a few minutes to see if anyone was about. The lady of the house would pull back the net curtain with eyes popping and waving her purse as a code to say I’m on my way, hold on there, seconds later she is running down the small pathway simultaneously pulling on her coat. Pat would be waiting at the back of the truck ready to fill a cardboard box with what was requested. The truck was lined on both sides with floor to ceiling shelving from which Pat would gather all the goods required. The ladies would recite from the list they held in their hands the items they were looking to purchase. It was usually simple enough stuff but occasionally they would ask for fancy bits because they had cousins arriving from Dublin or England. All those memories reawakened by a boat on the Alappuzha waterways and that is one of the unexpected gifts of this amazing trip.
Hi, I'm Olive and I am the writer of this blog. I am traveling the world with my 22 year old daughter, Róisín, who has just graduated University. I wanted to document this journey because it is unusual for a woman of 58 years old to go on adventure that most students do on a gap year. I will try to share my insights into this epic journey with you along the way and maybe inspire more people my age to go on these crazy adventures too.