Sunday, November 11, 2012

This is why we went to Kerala

After seeing many India's temples and palaces we were ready to visit its national parks filled with elephants, bison, and tigers. Sighting a tiger was unlikely, but 1000 elephants in a park we assumed that we would see at least one. We didn't. Disappointing, but we weren't visiting a zoo and the animals have a right to enjoy their space in peace. What we enjoyed can't be photographed, including the cool, fresh mountain air and the loud whoosh of giant hornbill flying overhead.

At 5:30 a.m. we were picked up by a jeep from our hotel in Thekkady and driven to Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. Our driver went out of his way to spot wildlife - he spotted two black monkeys that had no interest in the human gawkers and a few giant squirrels (endangered and the size of a large racoon). We ate breakfast at the sanctuary. Then we were divided into groups by language and length of trek. We opted for a three hour trek led by Ramesh, a park ranger. We were joined by Ahmad, a Saudi tourist. Our trek started with a short boat ride across a man made lake. Soon after we started walking we heard giant hornbills. Yes, we looked up and saw them. No elephants, but we saw trees with a thin brown layer; the result of elephants using the tree to scrape off dead skin after taking a mud bath. Unless you count leeches, which were present in huge numbers, that ended our wildlife sightings. (Hours later when Doug got in the jeep he left a bloody seat behind. We wore leech socks provided by the sanctuary, but there was no stopping of these critters. Our Saudi companion fared better. Our guide applied salt whenever any one of us spotted a leech crawling on our legs or arms.  You cannot feel them biting you since they inject an anesthetic.)

An elephant's luffa?
Ramesh has been a guide for 10 years and seen tigers only once. He noted that with full streams  the elephants had no need to come to the lake to drink. He talked about encountering the remains of tiger attacks. Most times an elephant herd will encircled the babies to protect them from attack. But sometimes the system breaks down and the baby is murdered by a tiger.  The rangers can tell when this has happened from the sounds made by the elephants morning their loss.

He showed us the cardamon plantation where his parents had worked as pickers. Ramesh's schooling ended after primary school, because the school was 36 kilometers away. He taught himself English and practiced with tourists. A testament to the efforts some people use to give themselves and their families a better life.
Ramesh - his job involves at least an hour of rowing and
three hours of trekking.

One of the many wildflowers 

A later stop was Mummar to visit the Erevikulam National Park. Its major attraction is a type of ibex, the nandi ibex. True to our Periyar experience we didn't see any. This time our poor luck was due to the overcast skies, they are sun seekers. The park has a narrow tourist zone and the ibex remain in this area, because if they wander into the forest they risk facing predators. In essence the tourists give them protection; it is the humans not the sun that keeps the predators out of the way.

Student queue to take bus into sanctuary
No ibex? Find a tourist to chat up and strike a pose
The park entrance fee is higher for foreigners, so we could go to the head of queue for bus to the sanctuary. No such opportunity for Indian tourists who paid less, but waited longer. Along on walk we chatted with our guide Sreeraj and one of his friends about the problems of monoculture. In Malaysia it is the palm oil estates; in Mummer it is the tea plantations along with their eucalyptus trees. The trees provide the fuel used to dry tea leaves.

Sreeraj ( showing different stages of
tea during processing
At the tea factory - burning fuel`
A new fact for me - weak tea has less caffeine and more flavor; strong tea has more caffeine and less flavor.

For lunch Sreeraj suggested going to a local restaurant where he would help us with our choices.As a result we had a tasty fried fish, chicken curry and a thali-like assortment of side dishes and condiments.

Recommended Mummar restaurant
Tomato gravy is on the rice - yummy

What was left of our fish!
We suggested walking through the market rather than driving to see a dam. Along the way I remembered to take a picture of this poster, one of many we saw for the Indian Communist party.

Can you identify these guys? Our guide could.

At the market
One of many careful displays of veggies

The egg seller
Fish Mongers
These shops are all over - didn't want to know
if selection & killing occurred here
Mummar traffic control -
more relaxed than his Thimphu counterpart

After we returned  Thekkady we went to a Kathakati performance. Before the performance begins, a performer puts on his make up on stage. A slow, careful process. Creating his skirt was no slapdash effort. After the make up is completed the commentator explained the mudra (hand motions used in Indian dance). I wish that I had taken notes; we get more out of other dance performances. The performance was geared for tourists. Even so it was fun and gave us a good taste of the art form. It reminded us of Balinese dance. Next time (1) I'll take notes on the mudra, (2) see more than one performance (ideally not after a day of touring), and (3) try to locate a traditional, long, outdoor performance.

Helping a Kathakali dancer put on his skirt

Made up and ready to dance
The two performers
As I suggested at the beginning of this post the Western Ghat experience cannot be fully captured in words or pictures. (I forgot to mention that Mummar is a honeymoon favorite. We saw a number of new brides with henna designs and impressive arrays of gold bracelets.) Even without the clues of henna and the wearing of gold, new love was evident by their deep gazes into each other's eyes.  We are looking forward to going back, breathing the crisp air, and walking wherever our feet lead us.

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