[I wrote the following post a eight days ago but did not have the internet connectivity to publish. I am currently in Kochi, an historic port city farther up the coast. -- Shalev]
I just arrived in the beach side backpackers haven of Varkala, a burgeoning town the southwestern coastal state of Kerela. It’s really touristy here, more so that I expected, but also very simple and underdeveloped. The address of my guesthouse is: “near the helipad.” I’ll be traveling in Kerela for the next 10 days.
I spent the last couple weeks exploring the Western Ghats from Kodaikanal and Munnar. These “hill stations” were built by the British as refuges from the sweltering heat and tropical diseases of the plains. Their establishments in the late 19th century radically changed the landscape by creating pine plantations as to Kodaikanal and tea plantations as to Munnar. Today, the misty hill stations, studded with honeymoon suites and budget guesthouse, sustain a vibrant tourism industry catering to a diverse array of Indian and foreign tourists. Hiking and appreciating the scenic views are the main attractions; although, should one not already feel high enough at 2000 meters above sea level, I’ll let it be noted that both hill stations, Kodaikanal in particular, are well-known for their potent magic mushrooms (seasonal).
There is a fair amount of more serious trekking one can do in the hills Stations and there is a surfeit of tour agencies offering guided treks, including treks between Kodaikanal to Munnar, which is how I transported myself from the former town to the latter. I also had a rather bad experience with a tour guide on a day trip. I won’t go into the ordeal here. If you are curious, you can check out my letter of complaint (leave it up to me to misspell “correctly spelled” in the letter). A second guided tour, the one that took from Kodaikanal to Munnar (along with a cohort of acid tripping Israelis) was superb.
I visited several small villages in the vicinities of Kodaikanal and Munnar. The wonder-filled children and animals were my chief interface when visiting these villages. The rest of my interaction with villagers were primarily with inebriated young men and intrepid older men. Grown women were harder to interact with, especially when they are alone. However, in the 100 homestead village of Vellagav located in the eponymous forest a half-day’s hike from Kodaikanal, I was able to gain some insights into family dynamic while I hung out with a family for a couple hours in their home. Their English was not great but I was able to learn that they subsist from the seasonal income generated from growing bananas, cardamom, and coffee; and that their daughter walks the eight and a half mile round trip trek to the top of the hill to attend school in Kodaikanal.
Here's some photos (and video) I took in the villages of Vellagav, Poombarai, and a village near Munnar (which isn't on the map) (click on an image to view the lightbox gallery).