Before I begin to describe this part of the journey, let me describe a few things so that you have a picture when I take you through my trip. These things had become a routine and hence requires a mention:
- The ticket-collector sits at the penultimate seat on the left towards the moving direction of the bus. A rope hangs over him that leads all the way to the front where a small bell rings each time the conductor pulls the rope. It is a sign for the driver to stop/move the bus when a passengers alights/boards the bus. I can still feel the ting-ting in my ear everytime I reminisce.
- There are no window glass on the local buses. There are shutters held open by two hooks. So let the wind caress your hair.
- The local intra-state buses run at perfect timings. They are rarely late and they don't wait for anyone. If you need to pee then pray that the bus stops for lunch or else you would have to get down and catch another bus after you are done taking a leak.
- You can literally walk up to any restaurant and they will serve you good food. Vegetarians beware! There is plenty but at select places. Very small hotels near the bus stands serve you thaalis. Since the food is dirt cheap, they offer you fat-rice. They are okay in taste but for some who judge by sight, they can be a little off-putting. The food is spicy.
- If you can't think of anything, ask for biryani. They make it like pulao and it's very tasty and less spicy too. Since the rice is cooked separately, vegetarians too can enjoy the biryani rice.
Kerala Public Toilets:
- The public toilets are not free to use. They charge you a minimum of INR 5 per leak. On the upside, they are relatively clean.
- We spent a fortune to use them while on this trip.
Breakfast, backpacks, bath in the rain and bus hopping to Munnar from Kumarakom. Though it was a bit trickier than that and a lot more buses were involved. Our bus drove through zig-zag roads decorated with tall trees on either side and we came across a few majestic waterfalls by the side of the road. Pashyanti seemed to be the most excited of the lot though she usually sleeps through most of the journeys. We chose Zina Cottage, a secluded property around the Munnar town, amidst tea-gardens, to escape the weekend tourist influx and wake up to beautiful home gardens and surrounded by tea-plantations. It was cheap too, INR 900 for a large room for 4 people. We dined at Sarvana Bhavan in the heart of the town and absolutely loved it. Don't miss the filter coffee. The coffee powder is specially brought in from Madurai.
Hunted for some gearless bikes the next day, walked and photographed at the surrounding tea-gardens and headed out towards Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary. As soon as you cross the borders of the Munnar town, sprawling tea gardens await you; neatly crafted and wrapped all around the hills like a blanket. Monsoons bring out the best views of the tea gardens with dark clouds swooping down from the mountains high above and the rains wash the leaves for a brighter shade. We stopped at every corner to witness the beauty of the gardens and the waterfalls along the way. Marayoor sandalwood reserve was fenced on either side of the road to Chinnar. We felt the heat as soon as we crossed the reserve and drove in the mountains overlooking great plains and forested land. It was a scenic ride but our timing was wrong; we reached 30 minutes past the last entry to the park. Though it didn't hurt us that much since the drive through the mountains, tea plantations and a part of the park itself was very satisfying. Oh and the reason for the heat was the fast that Chinnar lay in a rain-shadow area.
Rode back, drank coconut water (had become a norm since the arrival of Shikha), covered over 120 kilometres and dropped the girls at an ayurvedic massage centre. I exchanged one of the gearless for a 125cc bike as it gave us a lot of trouble. Drenched in oil and a white towel wrapped around their heads, we headed to Rapsy Restaurant and oh, what a delight it turned out to be. They had the best parottas, one of the best biryanis and chicken and beef too. We slept early since we planned something crazy for the next day; A 100 km one-way ride to Periyar/Thekkady on our scooters.
Filled up our stomachs at the trusted Sarvana Bhavan, we left for Periyar at 8:45 am. We could never get enough of the picturesque tea gardens and stopped many a times to rub our eyes and waking up to them. As soon as you cross the tea gardens, the road through the other side of the mountains turns narrower and the fog restricted the visibility to around 100 metres. The fog remained until we crossed over to another patch of tea gardens. The winding roads through forests, tea gardens, villages and small towns made our journey less tiresome then what it should have been. We reached the gates of the Periyar Tiger Reserve at around 1:15 pm. Parked our scooters, stood in line for the tickets to the last boat ride around the park. This is very touristic and if you want some better fun then go for a tiger trek that lets you camp inside the reserve. It was a 90 minute boat ride through the waterway in the reserve. We spotted some elephants, foxes, pigs, sambar deer and snakebirds (anhinga). Beware of the monkeys near the ticketing area, they'll snatch anything that remotely resembles food.
The adventure begins now! We are late and there are more than 100kms through mountainous terrain to ride back. Evening grows darker, the last lights are out and the rain start pouring. Slippery to manoeuvre, I am driving at a slow speed. Incoming headlight beams blind us momentarily, we slow down again. Uphill ride is easy but downhill is tricky and I am cautious of the deep fall on one side and the mountain wall on the other. Great! Now the fog comes in, and in pitch darkness, my headlight beam is scattered as if at any moment now ,God will pop out of it. Visibility is now reduced to around 30-40 metres at the maximum. I can't see the tea-gardens on the right side along the road. Sahil leads the way as he now follows a car. This improves the visibility a bit. 235 kms on the metre for the whole day and the clock reads 9:30. We are alive and excited and exhausted.
We left for Kochi the next day (undoubtedly on a KSRTC). Sahil and Pashyanti had a flight back and we parted ways at the Kochi KSRTC terminus. Shikha and I took a 4 rupee/person boat-ride to Fort Kochi since we did not intend to make Ernakulam (the mainland of Kochi) a hub for our travel. We rested for the day and went out to a little cafe for dinner. Fort Kochi had a different feel to it. Empty roads, quiet surroundings, cobbled lanes, architecture laden with history and culture, quaint beaches and small cafes make Fort Kochi a must-visit place.
First I thought that we would hire a bicycle to see around Fort Kochi but since we were short on time and also the fact that one of our destinations, Cherai Beach, lay 40kms away, we hired an autorickshaw. We visited the old-spice market, the jew street and the synagogue, the chinese fishing nets and the Dutch palace at Mattancherry.
An interesting person our driver was. He took us on a spree of window shopping to high-end places so that he could earn a litre of petrol from each shop for bringing in tourists. He also tried to convince Shikha to present herself as a German since some of the shops only gave petrol if they bring in foreigners. Despite his antics, he was pretty helpful. He took us to his home since Shikha wanted to use the washroom and even made us meet his humble wife. We then drove to Cherai beach. As soon as we reached the beach, the wind started picking up and sand grains flew into us, pinching like needles on our skin. It rained quite heavily for a while but it stopped and we climbed the tetrapods to gaze at the sea. A group of boys were ogling at Shikha and then keeping her at the backdrop, started clicking photos. I guess they probably watched too much of internet porn or none at all.
After spending some time on the beach we returned to our hotel. Next day, Shikha had some shopping to do for her mother, so we packed our bags and left for the mainland, Ernakulam. Had some pretty good biryani at Thahoor and roamed the markets. Kochi was a lot busier than Trivandrum. Though still at ease with life, Kochi was bustling. We stopped by at my favourite brand ice-cream parlour "Naturals", which we stumbled upon by chance, and ordered myself a scoop of tender-coconut ice-cream. Pure Bliss!