We wake early and discover our humble lodgings are in a lush part of the forest near the river. Sreejith goes down for a swim before we go to the village. There is a small shrine in the centre of the village playing spiritual music. A priest walks round the shrine holding a coconut and bowing at each side of the building. After a few circuits he hurls the coconut against a stone.
We have breakfast at the same cafe where we ate last night and hear that the elephants did appear last night but somehow the message failed to get through. Another man says he saw them on the road that we will be driving on later.
Our first activity of the day is a tour by Jeep into the forest. We meet a Jayen, a fearless driver who takes us up steep roads and then into the forest where there are no roads and the path, such as there is, is so uneven that we rarely have all four wheels on the ground at the same time. We stop at a tribesman's hut, which is largely constructed from woven coconut fibres. He is not very talkative but happy to let us look round his humble home.
We drive on and meet another local man who we give a lift to. He introduces us to murrukkan or paan. I'm instructed to chew a red nut, areca I believe it's called. It tastes very bitter. I'm them told to add some betel leaves which do nothing to improve the flavour. When there is nothing left to chew I spit jets of blood red saliva. It's supposed to be a stimulant but I'm told I didn't chew long enough. Probably just as well, it's an unhealthy habit.
When our companion leaves he promises to join us for lunch and bring some toddy, an alcoholic drink made of coconut water which we previously came across on the river cruise. We drive on, deeper into the forest along a track that gets steeper and rougher. As we heave and roll down a rough slope Jayen turns the wheel and we leave anything vaguely resembling a path and plough through undergrowth for a few yards.
Having parked we unload the vehicle and make our way through the forest until we come to the river. We enjoy a tentative paddle in the rough waters before preparing a camp fire on which to cook lunch – spicy chicken cooked in bamboo. Our companion keeps his word and arrives with the drink and creates a cup from a bamboo trunk. We work up an appetite preparing the food which soon cooks over the fire. The bamboo adds moisture to the chicken making sweet and succulent. For flavour, setting and originality it is the best meal I've eaten in India.
It is early afternoon when we set off again. We continue to drive down the path until we come to the river. Jayen gets out and walks into the water. It is soon above his knees but he continues until he reaches the other side. On his way back he pushes one or two boulders out of the way and we realise he really does intend to drive across. Sreejith takes position on an island in the middle and between us we film the escapade.
After a short drive we find ourselves at the gate to our apartment. Within half an hour we have checked out and hit the road to our next destination. Munnar is a town up in the hills famous for its tea plantations. As we drive in we see huge expanses of tea bushes stretching above and below us in the hills. We will see more of them tomorrow. There are other things on the agenda today.
We visit Punajari traditional village where we watch two traditional arts from the region. The first is Kathakali dance which features performers in dramatic masks and costumes. Most of the show consists of one of the performers demonstrating the range of expressions and emotions they can convey before a second actor comes on stage for a short performance which is very expressive and quite violent, with one character repeatedly stabbing the other.
The second show is a demonstration of the local martial art Kalaippayattu. A troupe of lean young men perform in a pit with the lights out, brandishing swords and spears and twirling flaming hoops and sticks in fast and complex routines. It is a much more compelling show but not everyone seems to appreciate it. There are three austere looking Muslim women sat next to me dressed from head to toe in black and looking after a little girl. When the show starts one of them films it on her phone. After a minute she stops and they begin watching it back while the show is still going on.
After the show Sreejith persuades me to join the performers for some action photos. I might have looked more the part after my full body massage at the centre next door which is the next item on the agenda, and worth a post of its own.
When we are refreshed from the massage it’s the end of a long day and we check into our hotel, with comfy beds and en-suite bathroom. We binge on hot showers and free wi-fi until we fall asleep.
November 17 Munnar
As I get out of the vehicle I wish I had brought an extra layer. It is distinctly chilly at this altitude but the walking keeps me warm, even as we become shrouded in mist at the summit. We see more pickers at work in the plantations. The newest tips are picked by hand and used to make green tea. I hadn't realised that green tea came from the same plant as other types of tea. They then use hand operated cutting machines to trim the top of the bushes collecting huge sacks of leaves for processing in the nearby plant. We take a tour, watching how the green leaves gradually become the fine brown matter found in cafes and kitchens the world over.
Before we leave we try a cup. It's the lowest grade of tea, described as dust, but it still tastes good. It requires no time to brew; the man simply pours hot water through a tea strainer filled with the leaves and it’s ready.
We make our way back down the hill until we’re met by the Jeep which takes us back into town. We start to head back to Kochin and the end of our trip stopping just outside Munnar for a lunch including various fried vegetables and pineapple served with chilli powder, which gives it a satisfying kick. We continue back along the winding roads into land that becomes more and more urban as the sun goes down. It’s getting late in the evening by the time we reach the suburban area outside Kochin where I am to spend the next couple of nights. I bid a fond farewell to Sreejith, Agnese and Agata at the end of four days we will never forget.