Dreaming In Colour, First Impression of Kerala, south India
iii) New Year’s Eve, Cardamom Hills, Western Ghats
The taxi driver takes us up 1600m from sea level to hill station. When the hills stop rolling and we start climbing properly something strange happens. My fingers, which for days have looked like little pumped up plastic bananas, start to deflate; the outside temperature is dipping into the low 30s and my body is adapting fast; moving from tropical survival mode with as much water as possible in the skin for cooling, to European mode, something closer to normal rest. Something more like me.
As we pass 1000m it actually feels like I am shrinking, Alice in Wonderland style. Presumably my brain is contracting. Perhaps there is room for more thoughts to spark, for more feelings to be felt. I am definitely more me than I was by the sea.
It’s not often that you get philosophical in a taxi, but when it’s a seven hour ride up a mountain there is surely enough time for a little self-examination.
I think about Vishnu’s definition of the self not being the shirt on your back, which you can take off and discard; not being your finger, which you can cut off and live without; but being something other, something outside or more than your body. This of course is some kind of definition of a soul, a consciousness that is not tied to the earth. I think that the self is very much connected to the body and physical awareness and well being. This ascending, this shrinking, is a fine example of that idea in action.
In this new coherent state, even the monkeys in the trees I can see out of the window don’t stop me from feeling that I am in the Alps; that this area is more familiar, more European of course. In fact, the climate is a little more friendly but we are still passing banana trees. This is still the Alps gone wild, bursting green in a thousand shades. Morning glory climbs the power lines and wraps it in flowing robes of green and purple; Angels Trumpets flow like white linen sheets over the rocks and pour down the hillside to meet the rising tide of cardamom plants lapping at the too small safety wall at the edge of the road.
At points we come to a complete stop, then the car creeps forward, on all fours, over the pot-holed, pock-marked teenage skin of a road surface; at others we speed past a slow moving milk lorry, on the wrong side of the road, horn screaming – I am here, I am me, please do not be a large bus or lorry traveling, without screaming horn and without due care, on the right side of the road in the opposite direction. We have been to the temple and said the correct prayers and we have a small picture of Shiva on the dashboard and a little paste from the temple on our foreheads, so let our separate consciousnesses, and more importantly our separate and ever so fragile human bodies, remain intact inside this beautiful car, cleaned this morning, especially for the trip; and not splattered all over the not really at all European looking vertiginous slopes of this jungle hillside.
Yesterday we watched the sun fall into the mist above the Lakshadweep Sea on the Malabar Coast. Today we saw the same sun, this time tinged deep pink, sink smiling into the mist over the Cardamom Hills. Over there where the sun is setting is the coast; to our left the unexplored lands of Tamil Nadu. We are 170km from Madurai; 1.5km from the Perikanal tea factory; 500m from S.J. Tea Stall where sweet, milky tea with cardamom in tiny china cups costs ten rupees. S.J. makes it on his gas burner and pours it long, from one pan to another, to get the blend just right.
This morning we were swimming in the ocean, tonight we are watching whole thunderstorms in the mountains. It’s the last day of the year and it feel like such a privilege to be here. To have been lucky enough to have been born somewhere with enough technology and with enough opportunities to make enough cash to allow us to explore another part of the world purely for our own pleasure; just because we want to and we can; even though filling our heads with these images is ultimately pretty pointless, unless perhaps we can share this feeling that life is a privilege with our friends and family back home.
Who needs a new year party when nature is laying on a celestial light show, right there, flashing through the leaves of the banana trees? Who needs anything more than this and a cup of S.J.’s tea?
Tea, tea, it’s all about tea. It is possible that this whole adventure was formulated over a cup of tea and pivoted around the idea of seeing a place where tea comes from.
Tea, that delicious drink that we drink every day; that delicious, stimulating drink that we take for granted; that delicious, stimulating, social drink that is the beginning of every conversation at the beginning of every visit to everybody’s house – would you like a cup of… – that delicious, stimulating, social, soothing drink that we reach for in times of stress and crisis, – have a cup of… , that will make you feel better – that delicious, stimulating, social, soothing drink that is part of the fabric of life.
So, after a light breakfast in streaming sunlight and a little light walking up hill and up muddy hill through the cardamom plantation, we are there, at the source, in a sea of tea leaves; perfectly good tips. We step into the green waves, waist deep in lush leaf and scratching branch; understanding now why the lady tea pickers wrap skirts of plastic round their waists when they take to the waves. Two leaves and a tip, two leaves and a tip, into the bag, or snip snip, give the plant a haircut with some oversize scissors with high sides to hold the crop till it is time for it to flow into the matÃ© sack.
Two leaves and a tip, we wade deeper, following a cow who seems as lost as we are, further into the flow. The patterns become strokes of the rake of an imaginary japanese bonsai zen gardener, the cow and me are bonsai too, shrinking, miniatures in this epic manicured landscape; tiny glitches in the mountain wide topiary, hand snipped by gangs of hired scissor hands.
The tea climbs the hills in avenues set at ridiculous angles, spilling out of the cup in more green waves; into the saucer. We are wild elephants heading for a break in the fence, searching for the Kerala / Tamil Nadu border. We are the tea in the cup; we are the spoon stirring the tea; we are are the mountains and the sky.
We are green peppercorns drying in the sun; we are red coffee beans drying in the sun; we are black cocoa beans drying in the sun; we are green chillies drying in the sun; we are brown coconut husks drying in the sun; we are rice seeds flying through the air; we are long beans hanging on the vine; we are cardamom picked and packed in sacks; we are forest green saris drying in the sun; we are the cockerel eating rice next to the dog outside the tea stall; we are peeled tapioca in a plastic pot; we are eagles on the thermals; we are dissolving into the green tea; we are disappearing into the plantation; we are lost in the leafy green tea leaves; we are tea dust; we are star dust; we are ten drummers drumming our new year beat; we are sparks from fireworks in the tea green sky; we are evergreen; we are tiny; floating like tea leaves in time and space.
This is it, the pivot point, the whole point, the perfectly good tipping point, the tip top of the trip, 1700 metres high and feeling leafy and green, ever so leafy and green.
Every year, in January, there is a tiger census. The wild tigers who spend most of the year roaming through the forest, hunting and sleeping and being generally carnivorous carnivores with very sharp teeth, make their way to the state government tiger census office at Perikanal to fill in their census forms. The tigers use a claw, dripping in ink made from goats bloods and thickened with curry powder from the Malabar Food Stuffs Company factory down in the valley. They try not to rip the paper when they make their scratchy crosses on the census form.
There are questions about appearance:
Do you consider yourself to be:
not that stripy at all
There are questions about reach (where the tigers have been traveling in the past twelve months):
Have you been to:
Eravikulam National Park
And there are questions about diet:
In the past twelve months have you eaten:
This trick question always makes the tigers snigger a little. They all know the consequences of putting a bloody cross in that particular box.
Prinil is leading us down into the valley, the one we can see from the verandah; the rice paddies, the coconut palms, the orange and blue and pink houses; tiny boats bobbing on a sea of green. The long night of the soul has been replaced with dreams of a different hue. Verdant, fragrant, spicy, like bitter sweet lime chutney.
Down through the deep, dreamy shade of the cardamom plantation; down past coffee plants with their red fruits, ripe and ready for picking; down past olive green pepper seeds cascading down vines wound tightly round choking trees; down past granite rocks blasted to make the houses in times long past; down to the cardamom seller in his breeze block shop, small desk surrounded by fat, white, fragrant bags of green gold. Past the paddies, flat and still in the shimmer of mid day sun; split into portions big enough to feed a family, with two harvests a year; past a ripe crop of bitter gourd, so pale green it is almost white, like the last block before pure white on a paint colour chart, bitter gourd, all mandalas and spirals spinning outwards and outwards.
Beyond all this, the best ever 3D geography lesson, a trip to the long defunct Commonwealth Institute, now damp and covered in purple morning glory, lies something special. Prinil’s plan is parked in the drive of a freshly painted, bright orange house. It is a jet black bus chassis, bare and raw metal, freshly purchased from the Ashok Leyland factory, at a very good price for such a piece of quality engineering, body and wheels and engine and cab and everything.
In 42 days he, or his partner, or his uncle, or his uncle’s brother will drive this hulking chunk of steel back up the mountain, from the valley floor, and down the other side to Kochi where it will be fitted with the most beautiful, well made, hand crafted bus body in the whole of Kerala and Tamil Nadu combined. And once attached to the extremely solid base with an excessively powerful engine, this bus will carry tourists around the sights of the hillside and the valley floor, the plantation and the farm land.
And maybe, just maybe, one day, on such a trip, fully booked and sold out weeks in advance, tourists packed tight in the seats clutching their freshly wrapped packets of fragrant cardamom and double strength tea; one day, one of the tourists will look out of the bus and shout – tiger! – there, in the trees, extremely stripy, no more than a kilometre from Matupetty, eating a human, the census was wrong, he really is eating a human.