Ello again. Ooty, a hill station in Tamil Nadu, is an ugly-beautiful kind of place. An overdeveloped, mid-sized town-pretending-to-be-a-village in Tamil Nadu surrounded by ludicrously green tea fields. We liked it very much. We got out of town with the help of a guide called Vincent who led us across the beautiful plantations, past grazing buffalo and to a little village where we met a man with six toes. While in Ooty, we stayed at a hotel owned by a Bahai guy (there's a five-year waiting list for Bahais to visit Israel, apparently), visited a tea factory, and met a lovely pair of drunks in a local bar - a very charming, very sloshed-up older guy from Goa who teaches just enough French to pay for his whiskey, and his football coach friend from Tamil Nadu who talked with fierce pride about the fact that no one in the south speaks the so-called "national" language of Hindi. (The variety of languages in India, and the fact that English is often the only common one between Indians, has been a surprise.)
We then headed to an awful place called Pollachi as a springboard to get into another national park. The park, Parambikulam, on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, was disappointingly barren at this time of year and quashed our hopes of more excitin elephant spotting. In Pollachi, the locals stared at us, and stared and stared. We went to the world's grimmest bar, which was bleak and interesting in roughly equal doses, with variously depressed and boisterous men (only men) sitting in a dirty white breeze-block room, with glaring striplights, sticky plastic furniture and plenty of staring. We drank a hideous 8-percent beer called Commando and then left quickly.
Our tea-plantation experience left us hungry for more, so we headed back into Kerala, to another hill station called Munnar. The tea plantations are such a special sight - waist-height bushes of vibrant, shiny leaves that are so dense they look like they've been knitted onto the hillsides. And they roll over the hills for vast stretches. In Munnar, we stayed out of town, in a homestay overlooking tea on one side of the road and cardamom plantations on the other. We did nothing except eat and wander round the hills.
Then we descended from the bearable heat of the hill station down into the less-bearable humidity of the city of Kochi, which the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch and then the Brits have left a decidedly European stamp on - resulting in a cute, touristy village with artsy shops and trendy cafes alongside run-down port-side warehouses. Luckily, we were in town for a big old biennale and saw some top-notch contemporary Indian art. I also ate a great deal of fresh fish, which made me very happy.
And then came the reason we've been travelling further and further south on this trip: the Keralan backwaters, which we opted to explore in no less than three different ways. The first way was an overnight trip on a private houseboat, exploring the canals of a village called Kumarakom that involved such embarrassing and pointless luxuries as our own private chef and the privilege of sleeping in the boat's air-conditioned bedroom as we floated past villagers doing their laundry in the water outside their canalside houses. Like I said: embarrassing. The second way involved getting a public boat to the town of Alleppey - a watery bus that went through rather less tourist-friendly parts of the backwaters, including bits in which you couldn't see the water for the weeds (and the occasional shoe). The third way was our favourite - a quiet canoe ride round some more narrow backwaters near Alleppey, gliding past houses, temples and palm trees and spotting a coupla kingfishers.
Kerala was a magical experience but, to be frank, it's just starting to get too damn hot. To save our sizzling skin, we've come up with the idea of getting back up north, to reasonable temperatures, as fast as possible. And when I say "as fast as possible," I mean as fast as possible when you're travelling from the southern tip of India to the hilly north without taking a flight. Now we're in Madurai (back in Tamil Nadu), preparing to make our mammoth U-turn.