I am now in a little hill town called Munnar in Kerala. We had a six hour extremely crowded and very bumpy bus journey through the Cardomom Hills to get here. I had to sit in the Ladies section at the back and due to the lack of suspension I spent at least a third of the journey in mid air!
This was not helped by the speed that we drove (or rather flew) at around the narrow roads with hairpin bends on the extremely steep hillsides. I clutched at my seat for most of the journey and made mental preparations of my escape route should we end up going off the cliff edge. I was clearly not alone in my concern about the driving as the whole route was littered with anti-speeding roadsigns saying things like 'better late than never' and 'if you dream then you will scream'.
However, despite my frayed nerves, now painful back and sore bottom I think it was worth the pain as it is really pretty here and is right in the middle of the tea plantations. Indeed my first cup of Masala tea that I ordered in a cafe here is the nicest I've had so far in India. We've also just spent the afternoon chatting to a tour guide who is famous for having been in a Dervla Murphy book about travelling in India and he gave us lots of good tips for where to go from here.
Since my last journal entry in Kovlam I have really been enjoying myself here and finding that travelling in south India is extremely relaxing and not the often stressful experience of tout and con artist dodging it can be in the north.
After leaving Kovalam we returned to Tivandrum for a night as we wanted to go and watch the Kalarippayat martial arts school there. It looked like a chinese building with lots of wooden turrets and had its very own 'fighting pit' in the basement complete with the various weapons they use in this martial art. We watched a class where they were training with bamboo poles and wooden battons and swirled them around their heads and bodies.
We then caught the bus to Varkala, which is a really pretty beach area next to cliffs covered in palm trees and where the restaurants and hotels are all located in between them. It was really nice there and we stayed for just under a week.
Sam showed a great commitment to his sunbathing and has gone several shades darker. I spent the time lying under the umbrella, reading, listening to my Ipod and cooling off in the sea. The waves there were pretty exciting as they were often quite high ones that would just dump themselves on top of you if you were caught at the wrong spot.
Unfortunately every time you entered the water you have to navigate your way through this point until you got to the other side of them and invariably I was thrown sideways whilst my bikini disappeared only to find myself in shallow water and desperately trying to regain some diginity. At other times I would take the waves on and attempt to body surf, however, this too often resulted in injury to both my pride and my body and I have skin missing off large sections where I was unceremoniously dragged along the sea bed after starting off on top of a wave.
I also took up daily yoga classes there and got up early every morning to attend. It was different to the yoga I have done before and included having to chant 'Ommmmmm', 'shanti, shanti....' and putting your fingers in your ears whilst humming. However, apart from that, the exercise was really good and I found myself getting fitter again.
The restaurants were really good here and we enjoyed eating lots of seafood. Also, they had a bakery where I went every morning for freshly squeezed orange juice, tea and chocolate croissants.
I made friends with some of my yoga classmates who were completing courses in massage and I kindly offered my services as a guinnea pig for them to practice on. They were pretty good although used so much oil that the plastic lined table I had to lie on turned into a sea of oil and apart from nearly sliding off it a few times, I also had the strange and slightly worrying experience of my ear becoming suctioned onto it. I had to prise my ear off it and it made a loud squelching pop!
So, I decided to go for an expert massage too and had one which turned out to be with two women massaging me. Despite their diminutive stature, they pummelled and pounded me about on their table in a fashion that made me feel as though I had just entered a WWF wrestling competition. Surprisingly though, by the end of it I was actually pretty relaxed and feeling fully rejuvanated.
We also went to a performance of the local Kathakali theatre, which is apparently in the Guiness Book of World Records for having the most elaborate and time consuming make up in the world. Indeed, watching the actors get made up is part of the performance and this alone takes an hour and three quarters. The three actors had very different make up and one was a king with a green face and white plastic jowels, another was a demoness with a black, yellow and red stripy face and fake breasts that were cut off at the end of the performance and the third was the supposedly beautiful version of the demoness, which was a fairly large middle aged man looking like he would be more at home in a drag act. Anyway, it was pretty funny to watch and had no dialogue, just lots of exaggerated facial expressions and quivering lips like Sharon Watts in Eastenders.
From Varkala, we caught a train to Kollam and entered the backwaters of Kerala. We took a days ferry trip from Kollam to Alleppey and saw the stunning scenery there and the life on the backwaters. This included watching children playing in the rivers, women washing their clothes, men out fishing and the various people going about their day to day business of shopping, catching boat taxis and children going to school.
We had a night in Allepey, which is known as India's Venice as it is a town full of canals and then caught a local ferry to Kottyam. The local ferry went through even smaller channels than the other ferry and we were initially packed onto it with the locals all transporting food and other goods, groups of schoolchildren and women off to the markets. We were a bit concerned about how much the ferry was sinking under the weight of everyone and I also panicked a bit when the captain clearly went for a very long toilet break leaving us going at full speed without anyone actually steering the boat. However, he returned shortly before I was about to jump up and try and steer it myself and luckily before we hit land!
Then after a night in Kottyam we caught the bus to Munnar, which is where I am now.