As I touch down in Cochin, I notice the tropical belt of trees that line the runway. As I descend towards the terminal, a small rather horizontal affair, the warmth hits my skins a nice change from the Delhi chill.
Today I’m going to Munnar, a hill station known for tea plantations and rustic beauty. I call the taxi driver who is booked to take me. He cannot understand my Hindi or my English by he tells me someone else, I believe the name was Sujit would pick me up. When I go outside a third Driver named Prateesh is waiting for me. But it’s fine and before I know it we are on our way.
I’ve slept at 1 am and woken up at 3, so during the course of the ride, my eyelids grow heavy, and I drift in and out of consciousness. Prateesh tells me about the people of Kerala, about how the roads are safer and have better drivers.
The tests are difficult, involving manoeuvring forward and backward in an “H” format as well as a proper road test. The police can’t be bribed and are strict on enforcing rules such as drinking and driving and speed limits. And sure enough the roads are quite civilized compared to what I’m used to, especially in Delhi and Gurgaon.
The Kalady district, one of the first we drive through outside Kochi, reminds me of Goa. It has markets of mom and pop shops, restaurants, hotels, punctuated by churches. The buildings are low-rise, and surrounded by clumps of trees growing wild, straining against the boundary walls.
The walls have faded but colourful advertisements painted, I see a disproportionately large stretch dedicated to one Pulkit TMT bars, followed by a brief spell of Ultratech Cement followed by what is presumably a rival bar manufacturer. Palm trees and coconut trees are visible everywhere.
In Kothamangalam, right before we enter the Idukki district we spot beautiful houses with open land peppered with rubber trees bound with bits of plastic, as well as many almond trees.
Once we enter, we stop at a place to breakfast though it is only my driver that wants food. I sit in the open air 100% veg restaurant watching giant dosas on steel thalis floating towards families and tourists. It’s an open-air place with green pillars and low red brick walls and a triangular roof adorned with rolled up blinds hanging all round.
Again at my drivers insistence, we stop at a waterfall for pictures. It is difficult to take photos because there is a massive crowd. He insists that I climb up and stand right next to the waterfall, which unfortunately is the moment that another family decides to do the same. I have a collection of terrible photos of me squinting awkwardly, and trying to separate myself from the other visitors.
It is when we stop at the spice plantation that things crescendo to new levels. My driver insists, but I hesitate, because anyone who knows the Delhi-Agra-Jaipur sightseeing circuit knows that driver suggested stops usually mean they’re getting a cut of the revenues you bring. I also remember it being suggested for another day. But he pushed me and finally I agree.
I pay 100 rupees (beware: most of the tourist ticket booths do not like to give change so change all your 2000 and 500 rupee notes beforehand). My guide is a humourless stout looking aunty clad in a pink kameez and a blue shalwar. She looks me up and down and asks if I’m alone. I say yes. When she asks if I’m married, I say no. I can tell she doesn’t think much of the current state of affairs.
We take a Jeep down to the spice plantation area. She starts with telling me that Kerala farms is the only real spice plantation offering real spices and Ayurveda treatments.
She speaks quickly in a difficult to understand monotone voice, and timbre, and moves from one plant to the other too quickly to enjoy the experience. All around me, guides are speaking animatedly but my lady sounds like a generating – low, humming type pitch with little space for breath between words.
Although some of what she tells me is dubious factually, much of it is interesting and probably trustworthy. I haven’t googled all of it, so I would cross check it against some google research from reputable sources.
She points out what she calls a rosemary or hashish plant (it has several names), which she says is where heroin comes from. I’m so tired, and my ears are so blocked, I don’t have the energy to question her on how an opiate and a cannabis-based thing, and an mediterranean herb could all come from the same tree. Perhaps they can? Perhaps I just don’t get it?
I’m hoping she expands on the heroin bit, but she decides to wax on for a disproportionately long time about what she calls nisoshiradi oil. She goes on at some length about how black my hair could be and how less hair fall could be mine imminently.
Other fun facts: the Neelakurinji plant blooms every 12 years, and the honey collected from bees who swarm them, is supposed to be amazing, and good for your skin.
I see elanji for varicose veins, rushed-ksham for cholesterol, a plant called manthaaram which allegedly eliminates the need for blood pressure medication for five years, savathari for ladies gynaecological problems from heavy bleeding and cramps to infertility. ahova for thyroids,
I see pepper and nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, and Kerala rice. There is a plant called kumizh for fat reduction which apparently eliminates the need for diet and exercise.
Half way through the tour she berates me for writing things down and not taking pictures. “How will you remember what it looks like?” she said. I stare at her and tell her that writing things down works better for me. She accepts this grudgingly, and moves on.
As we wander, and I try to decide whether to strain to hear her or question her on the things that don’t make sense to me, we cross pigeons with their tails fluffed up, in almost a peacock like fashion. When I ask her why that is, she explains that there are rabbits inside. I’m going to assume that was a language problem.
There is a giant emu, and guinea pigs for “English medicine testing”, something that makes me quite uncomfortable, and as we walk ducks and chickens roam around.
Finally, the tour is over, as she pushes to get past a group of middle-aged sari clad ladies, eager to get me into the store. While in the store, she follows me around pointing out things like “this is tea” and “this is coffee.” I smile politely, do one obligatory round of the store, and then make a hasty exit.
It’s not that I do not believe in the power of these spices or herbs to cure or relieve illness or discomfort, it’s just that years of living in the North have prepared me to recognise a tourist trap when I see one. The next day, when someone recommends a government shop in Cochin, I am relieved that I made the right decision.
I also decide never to take recommendations from my taxi driver again.