India: The Arc of the Himalayas–Dispatch 2

We are on our way!!!  Actually, it’s 5 days since we got underway and much has transpired since I last wrote. 

I arrived in Cochin on a flight from Delhi, carrying with me a good strong dose of Delhi Belly, which laid me low for the first 36 hours in Cochin.  So, whatever happened our first day there, I couldn’t tell you. 

Once I was classified as walking wounded and able to shuffle about, Bernard and I took a tiny  ferry across from the Willingdon Island where the Rally group was staying, to Fort Cochin itself, a passage of 10 minutes.  Along the shore there are tall delicate fishing nets strung up on high poles which are lowered into the water right by the shore using a system of pulleys made up of thick jute ropes and big stones. It’s mesmerizing to watch the blue nets, like lacy trampolines, slowly sinking into the water, and then see them slowly rise dripping and glimmering in the sun.  They catch quite a lot of small fish this way, and the small fish markets along the water’s edge are full of a variety of mullet, giang prawns, king fish and more. 

The focus of our day, however, was the puja for the rally cars at 4pm.  A Brahmin priest came and placed a small brass oil lamp in front of each car, along with a mini clay bowl of salt and a lime under each tire.  He then crossed his legs and prayed in front of his own big brass oil lamp in the middle of the car park, taking fingerfuls of marigold and geranium petals which he would flick onto the base of the lamp, alternating with drops of water that had been blessed in the sacred waters at Kanyakumari.  He then went to each car and personally blessed it, tying a garland of marigolds on the front fender, flinging petals every where, including on us, and placing sandalwood marks on us and all over the cars, including the windshield.  All this took about 2.5 hours (one can’t rush a Brahmin priest).  That evening there was an outdoor feast organized by the Indian company that’s in charge of our camping.  There was a buffet of at least 20 Indian dishes, plus fabulous Indian dancing and a display of martial arts.  Since I was still walking wounded, I didn’t eat anything. 

As far as our car goes, I have photos of that andre to send, but haven’t been able to connect to this hotel’s Wifi.  I’m on their business center computer and, well. anyway, as soon as I can send off a few photos I will.  Suffice to say, I have dubbed our car Sexy Beast.  It’s black, has no doors (but does have seat belts) and is a tough looking jeep.   It’s a great car to drive, but loud as hell and gets hot as a pizza oven by mid-day.  Still, it’s fun to jump in and out with having to open a door, and to hang my feet out the side when I feel too hot.

The condition of the car is poor.  By the end of our first day of driving, the fuel tank was leaking significantly.  The following morning the mechanics drained and removed it, put some bondo-type product on the leaking parts and resinstalled it.  The tires are practically bald.  It’s tough to find new tires in India as people are more able to afford re-treads, but we did score a pair which we used to replace the most egregious offenders.  By the end of the second day of driving, the starter had quiet and the glow plugs were dead.  After many people putting some muscle into it, we managed to jump start the engine and the car was driven into a nearby town where those parts were replaced too!!  Is anyone laughing yet?  

The driving and scenery have been fabulous so far. We are not always driving through spectacular country, but it all feels like we are driving through the real India.  As often as possible we are often the major main roads and passing through small bustling villages.  These hamlets are heaped with garbage (plastic is indeed the scourge of the earth).  They are lots of tiny market stalls, selling sweets, cookies, Indian sodas, bunches of bananas, coconuts, household goods, etc.  Mostly we see men in the streets and shops, but once in awhile a bevy of school girls, all in uniform will walk by.  On our first day’s drive, we wound up long twisty roads into the hills where the tea plantations and spice farms are.  Kerala, and the area between Cochin and Thekaddy where we were headed, is known for its cardamom, cinnamon, vanilla, pepper and more.   The tea plantations, though, are the real sight, with tea bushes papering the hills like a green tortoise shell skin.  

We stopped for lunch in a small town called Munnar.  Shortly after we sat down, an indian couple approached us and, begging our pardon, asked if we might agree to participate in a documentary they were making.  Turns out they were filming for the Indian National Tea Board and needed two foreigners to sit at a table in a picturesque setting, sipping tea.  We said we could do that!  Excited at our big break, we drove up to where the film crew was, on a local tea plantation owned by Tata, the huge Indian conglomerate.  Sadly, the crew was delayed in filming the shot they were already working on, and couldn’t get to us for another 3 hours.  So we had to push on.  Drat!!

After Thekaddy, we headed north to the Palani Hills.  We dropped down from the cool Thekaddy heights, into the baking red earth of Tamil Nadu.  It was a short drive to the place where we had a regal camp site set up for the next 3 days, which is lucky because both of us were quickly glued to our plastic Sexy Beast car seats by the heat.  Our camp tents are spacious 12×12 with an attached toilet/sink boudoir.  Hot showers are available any time of day.  The food is OK, but we think it will improve at the next camp spot with the feedback we’ve given.  The main issue everyone has with the camp sites is that we are there for too many days in a row.  The idea is to do loop drives out from the camp each day and then have the ease of returning to the same place at night. Which is nice.  However, with so much to see in this country, everyone feels it would be better to push on to a new spot each night.

In any case, we had two fascinating days in camp.  The first one we spent driving into the hills through teeny tiny villages.  The area is a true banana belt, interspersed with deep coconut groves, rice paddies and other farm crops.  There’s nothing as refreshing as the milk (which actually is the consistency of water) from a freshly split open green coconut.  The second day, we were invited (just B. and me) to visit the farm of a gentlemen we met under odd circumstances the day before.  He lived on the other side of the valley and wanted to show us his place.  So we spent the day with him, mostly sitting under a large shade tree and hearing about all his projects.  One of the things that fascinated us were the 14 Marwari-breed horses he had.  They were all albinos.  What he told us is that Indians love the albino look, so they actually have managed to breed for it.  These horses were the strangest little animals I’ve ever seend and try as I might I couldn’t find anything attractive about them.  The man also had 4 albino dogs.  As well, his cow herd lived in a barn with a granite floor hosed down 3 times a day by the workers…..not a fly anywhere!!!  And he was growing grapes on 10 acres of vineyards. 

Today we have had a long 6-hour drive from the Palani area to Ooty (actually more properly called Ootacamund), which is on the way to Mysore (where we’ll tomorrow). Ooty is considered one of the most desireable hill stations for the Brits (in its day), though now it is of course quite  a busy place. Most of the day was spent on the flat plains, but again our route took us onto quiet side roads with little traffic, that were very attractive.  At one point, we actually cut off from the paved road and drove a narrow dirt road along a broad irrigation canal for several kilometers.  We drove through sugar fields being harvest, past what was essentially people’s back yards, while the green water slipped placidly along beside us and birds twittered overhead.  Unbelievable.  After the heat of the plains it’s a great relief to be up at 6000′ with cool clear air again. 

Off to dinner!!  

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