Our last week in South India: Munnar & Madurai

After finally tearing ourselves away from Varkala beach, we headed inland and back up to the Western Ghats.

Another amusing trip on the Indian transport network. We nervously watched several trains come and go from Varkala station, all absolutely full to the brim with people hanging out of the doors and windows, praying that our train to Kottayam would be a bit quieter. In the end it was, but our seats had been double booked and, being terribly British and polite, we ended up standing for most of the journey anyway. Some of the trains that went past us go all the way to Chennai, eight hours from Varkala, and I have no idea how people manage to travel the whole way crammed in like that. Luckily, we only had two and a half hours to go and so made the most of the novel experience of standing in an open train doorway.

From Kottayam it was another long and bumpy six hour bus ride up to the mountains, followed by two local buses to get us to Kunchithanny, a village in the Munnar Hills.

We still can’t get over how amazing the Indian bus network is. The buses themselves are very old , crowded, uncomfortable and hot, but it’s unbelievable just how many there are! Anywhere you want to go, even if it’s in a different state, there will be a bus every fifteen minutes. We’ve (touch wood) yet to experience significant delays – the buses tend to take around an hour longer than they are supposed to, but so long as you go in to the journey expecting it then it’s really not so bad. And the journeys are so beautiful! Admittedly slightly hair raising hurtling around the winding roads at full speed (there’s no such thing as slow in India), but worth it for the breath taking views of the Western Ghats.

The Munnar region is very similar to Ooty, with thick forests and green tea plantations skirting the mountains. We were looking forward to getting some hiking in and had decided to stay in Kunchithanny, instead of Munnar itself, to make sure that we were out in the countryside as much as possible. After three days, we ended up falling in love with this charming little village and the wonderful people who live there.

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M3 Homes is the only accommodation in town and is named after the owner Matthews’ three daughters (can’t remember their names now, but they all start with M!). It’s made up of five little cottages overlooking the village, with balcony views of the mountains behind. It was just us and one other couple staying, so the villagers made sure we were well looked after. Everywhere we went, people were excited to hear how we were enjoying Kunchithanny, and, as well as Matthews, we made friends with Santosh, the highly enthusiastic and excitable caretaker, Tipi, the shopkeeper next door, and his lovely daughter, Dia, who was very excited to practice her English with us (after some not-so-gentle prompting from her mother).

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On our first day there, Santosh took us on a long walk from the village to his own house and spice farm three kilometres away.

A lovely walk over the bridge, past the temple during the morning drumming and up the (very steep!) hill to Santosh’s farm. On the way, he pointed out the various herbs, spices, fruit and vegetables growing on the side of the road, including giant jackfruit, papaya, cocoa, coffee, turmeric, semolina, ginger, lemongrass, cardomam, pepper and, of course, coconuts. No wonder Indian food is so delicious, you could pick up enough food on your walk home from work to make an entire range of tasty curries.

Santosh’ own farm is full of coffee, pepper and cardomam plants, and he took us to his house to show us the pepper drying and to introduce us to his family. His house was very small, just three tiny rooms for a family a four, but what a front drive!

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Not to be deterred by the fact that we’d already had breakfast, Santosh’s lovely wife Sindu plied us with pastries and a delicious batch of fresh sweet coffee from their own yard, before bringing out plates of rice and coconut marinades and her own fresh honey to taste. Santosh’s daughter excitedly showed us her collection of running medals and trophies, while Santosh himself pulled out his prized collection of foreign currency. We spent quite a while going through each Canadian, American, Australia, Swiss and British coin (including a shilling!) while he wrote down how much they were all worth in rupees. He’s such a coin enthusiast that we gave him some of our own British and UAE cash a couple of days later, and he made sure to ask us at least five times exactly how much they were worth in rupees, before drawing pencil outlines of the coins for his daughter to take into school.

He also showed us his adorable twelve day old kittens!

Such a nice family and Santosh is clearly very proud of them. He told us with a big smile that his marriage was a ‘love marriage’ – quite rare out here – and that if he had a hotel it would be called S4 because his family are Santosh, Swari, Sandra and Sindu.

After our second breakfast, Santosh took us up to the Attukad waterfalls. He’s quite the gentleman, and we had to hold back our laughter at his dramatic concern for our ability to walk up hills. He asked us every five minutes if we were sure we were OK and it was so funny walking over the rocks to the waterfall with poor Santosh staring in panic at my feet the whole way, checking to make sure I didn’t trip and refusing to let us get within five metres of the edge.

From the waterfalls, we hitched a lift back into town and spent a few hours relaxing on the terrace (and applying for our first Workaway!) before setting off on a walk through Matthews’ own farmland in the afternoon.

We were starving after all the walking, and headed to the one restaurant in town, which for some reason is called the Apple Restaurant and has adopted the iPhone logo for its own. We ended up as regulars there all four nights in Kunchithanny, but it took us a little while figure out what to order. They have an extensive menu, but only really have two or three meals available each day. Still, the waiter insisted on giving us the menu to peruse every time, before laughing jovially at our orders and telling us that no, of course they didn’t have it in stock. We’d also made the mistake of assuming that Kunchithanny, like every other rural place we’ve been in India, would be mostly vegetarian and so on our first few nights we tried to order the vegetarian food from the menu (neither of us are keen on eating meat if it’s been sat there for a while waiting for the rare goras in town to order it). After a couple of unsuccessful and uninspiring attempts, including a weird mushroom dish which we’re pretty sure was actually Chinese, we figured out that they are actually massive meat eaters here! The next few meals were much more enjoyable – butter chicken and their special chicken masala were particular favourites, all served with Kerala Paratha, which is an incredibly delicious bread that’s a kind of puff pastry/naan bread combo.

The next day we got up bright and early to catch the bus up to Top Station, from where there are normally panoramic views over the mountains and the Tamil Nadu/Kerala border. Sadly, we seem to have a knack for choosing to hike to viewpoints on overcast days so the views weren’t particularly amazing from the top, but it was worth it for the scenic drive up. We also spotted some more wild elephants and some Giant Malabar Squirrels, big bushy black animals which are apparently native to the Western Ghats.

After a bizarre snack from a roadside dhaba – egg flavoured maggi noodles – we ended up freestyling a route through the tea plantations between Top Station and the village of Yellapetty, past the waving tea workers on their lunch breaks and past a few signs warning us that this was an ‘elephant crossing area’ – eek!

With two days of hiking under our belt, we set out for our third day with achy legs and feet but feeling even more aware that we’d better do some training before Nepal. Another beautiful and very hilly route from Kunchithanny, up to the viewpoint at Pothemundu (overcast again, boo) and through some small villages up to the main road just south of Munnar.

Plus we found a nice rock for a ‘tasty’ picnic of leftover biryani and raw veg from the market.

Nearly 20km in total on day three, with an altitude gain of around 900m on some pretty relentless hills, so we treated ourselves to even more of our favourite parathas and an evening spent on the balcony, watching the Shivratri festivities in town. Shivratri mean’s Shiva’s Day and happens once a month, but in February, devotees of Shiva celebrate Maha Shivratri, which only happens once a year and commemorates the day Shiva drank poison to save the world with drumming and music through the night.

From Munnar, we headed down on the bus to Theni, back in Tamil Nadu. Probably our most beautiful (and sickening) bus ride so far.

From Theni, it was on to a less scenic bus to Madurai, where, after an exhausting arrival into hectic city, we made it just in time for an unplanned Valentine’s dinner on the rooftop of a hotel overlooking the temples. Bhindi masala, paneer tikka and more of our favourite paratha.

Madurai is home to lots of famous temples, including the stunning Meenakshi Amman Temple. It’s also the spot where Ghandi gave up his traditional attire and took to just wearing the lunghi.

We did a bit of sightseeing, temple-watching and walking around the town in Madurai, but we spent most of our one full day there stocking up on necessities, including some new flip flops for Jamie and sunglasses for me. Jamie managed to get a local roadside tailor to fix the zip on his backpack which has been threatening to burst for a while, and we even tracked down a Decathlon so that I could replace my own rapidly deteriorating backpack!

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We’re now all set to take on country number five – Sri Lanka! I’m writing this from the tiny little propeller plane that’s taking us to Colombo now. Feels like we’ve only been in the air five minutes and the captain has already announced our descent.

Next update will be coming to you from the sun kissed surf beach of Weligama!


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