Saturday, 3 March 2012

7300ft. into the sky & back down to Sea-level!

This entry begins way up amongst The Nilgiris Mountains of western Tamil Nadu. 
These are a part of the larger Western Ghat range that borders Karnataka & Kerala. Also known as the 'Blue Mountains'(Nilgiri in Tamil means Blue), verily so as it boasts some of the most abundantly dense eucalyptus, cedar & pine forests I have come across traveling India thus far. I am still uncertain as to why they are called the blue mountains though, whether being associated with the bluish hue that the eucalyptus trees emanate or if it is associated with the kurunji flowers that bloom every 12 years which also release a bluish frequency. Alongside these cloud kissing peaks, rushing rivers, undulating emerald green mountainsides of tea/wattle plantations, countless exotic species & breath taking panoramic views easily remind you to take one step at a time when you are traveling here. The sudden dropping cliff-sides may not seem so appealing when you see them to 'close' for comfort... unless you come prepared for rock climbing & repelling - as some travel here to do so!

This Land is Highly revered for many reasons!
The Nilgiris Biosphere reserve is being considered as a UNESCO World Heritage site. 
Contained here by the soaring mountains, is The Mudumalai Natural Wildlife Sanctuary & Tiger reserve(321 sq. km). It is home to many endangered species like the Indian Elephant, Bengal Tigers, Leopards, Guar (the massive Indian Bison!) & hundreds of bird species. It was one of the first wildlife sanctuaries established in India & rightly so considering the biodiversity cradled here.

A soaring eucalyptus forest~
Breatheeee Deep :)

On our way up into the mountains, the sides of the valleys are covered with tea plantations. Black & Orange Pekoe are the main varieties that are grown here. The majority of the crop is from small family plantations(100-200ha) with over 50% of the annual crop exported, a portion as very high quality tea & some of it is used for blending purposes (usually lower quality tea).
The union of the long needled pine with the sprawling cedar leaves~
Oh how it reminds me of western canada!

On one of our day trips around Ooty we took a tour out
through the tea plantations, Mudumalai Wildlife reserve & various
other scenic lookouts and places of interest.
I did not see any tigers on this excursion, though wild elephants, peacocks,
one crocodile, countless types of unidentified birds & spotted deer.
Traveling along from site to site, it always seemed as though when the
tour guide was explaining things it seemed like 10 times longer when
he was speaking in tamil/hindi than when he gazed over and offered
a quick sentence in english. Another aspect of living across the language

I came across this specimen that looks suprisingly like
 milk thistle, a plant I am quite familiar with.
Traveling here in india my perception of taxonomy &
biodiversity has significantly expanded, I frequently see plant
relatives with no definitive identification.

A close-up of a Eucalyptus variety, which is a commonly cultivated
tree in the Indian sub-continent. It is largely used for the essential oil
content within the leaves, which could be frequently seen being
collected by indian ladies on the sides of the roads, in parks, in the forests
& in any other random location where leaves might happen to fall!
If there is anything I have learnt about the people here, its of they're
'opportunitarian' like tendencies!
beautiful flower..
stretching beyond
my idiosyncratic
ideals of
Up high in these beautiful mountains is
where I have breathed the cleanest,
most refreshing & uplifting
air in India~ sofar...
The abode of the Gods ~ this place is certain to be..

A cultivated variety of what I believe to be part of the Sedum genus.
A relative of those 'hens & chicks' that some of our parents grew in the
gardens as we were growing up. There are many subspecies here - there were easily
35-40 different ones in this one garden center! The biodiversity here in india is astonishing.
I am learning about new plants nearly everyday & experiencing a constant
sense of being humbled by how rich this country is.
Yup - you guessed it... it seems like another sedum variety!
During our stay in Ooty (Ootacamund), which is the most popular mountain station town in the Nilgiris. There were a number of nights where it was actually fairly cool, considering we were equipped for tropical traveling. Temperatures ranging from 15-20c during the day and down to 3-5c in the evening, making this place the coldest place visited thus far in india. Slightly chillly, nothing that my comfort zones from living through many Canadian winters cannot handle.
One of the cleanest rivers I have come across.
Beautifully rushing rapids, with school children on a day trip all around
playing games, laughing, singing while soaking ones feet & being
 refreshed by pure mountain waters.

downwards from
these high mountain peaks..
We move westwards towards the Arabian Sea,
 to the Town of Kochi.

We found ourselves a quaint homestay in Port Cochi, hosted by an upper middle class
Catholic familywhom embodied quite the hospitable vibe. We spent a number of days
here, my sister was recently recovering from a bout of food poisoning which we are still
uncertain about the origins of. She speedily made her recovery & we spent our time
exploring the rich market places, the constantly active port with fisherman &
trades-ships busily moving about. We also found an adventure journeying into the
Backwaters of Kerala. On a day-trip moving along the channels we had the opportunity
to explore how they fabricate rope from coconut fibre, the process of heating/reducing
seashells down into calcium carbonate powder & a family garden growing a variety of the
local spices. South India is host to some of the worlds most diverse spice & incense markets.
Chilis, peppercorns, vanilla,  cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, cacao, cardamon,
frankincense, sandalwood, rose, & eucalyptus
are a small fraction of what is available locally here.
A contrast between the ripened red chili peppers & the unripened green chilis, originating from
the same plant the main difference is the harvest time. Frequently used in many traditional indian
dishes, it can offer quite the suprising explosion of spicyness especially if one was not expecting
the burning sensation. I have come across a number of moments such as these while casually
 enjoying a delightful new dish of which India has an overwhelming menu to offer. The conspicuous
texture & pre-spicy flavor are immediately distinguished as they arise, foreshadowing the incoming
rush of endorphins surging through the blood which is accelerated by the increased heart-rate
& perspiration. Some may find this experience of extremes to be quite appealing, I can certainly
empathize. Each state here has its own style of dishes equipped with complex textures,
flavors & sensations. A certainty which allows for perpetual originality, sometimes
appealing while others not so much so!
One of the common dishes found upon many of the menus here is called thali (ta'li).
Varying from one region to the next, they oftentimes include a portion of rice, dhal,
vegetables curry, roti/padadom, curd (yoghurt) & chutney. Available in both vegetarian
and meat based styles, they are traditionally served on a freshly harvested 'halved' banana leaves.
Which allows for an easily disposable & biodegradable cleanup!

Mingling throughout the markets, there are many marvels awaiting exploration.
Seen here are 'star of david' shaped pasta! Sold alongside a variety of of legumes,
a plethora of different styles of rice (in one market I counted upwards of 12 varietes!)
& countless vegetables/fruits known and unknown to my palette.

The work of a local artist I met alongside the ocean
in Port Kochi. Portraying the countryside of Cochi
in an idealistic sense. This is a beautiful part of Kerala though
it is a major port-city which comes along with a modest degree
of garbage & pollution. With trailing piles of detritus alongside the roads
& frequently floating bits of plastic in the ocean, it is still significantly cleaner
than many other places in India.

Across the bay from Port Kochi is Vypeen island. The western
coastline here has one of the cleanest & longest beaches in the area, Cherai beach.
During my short visit here (on a sunday, which made it one of the busiest days of the week),
large crowds (thousands) of Indians were found taking day trips here. There were many playing
games I did not quite grasp & other groups sharing meals with countless children playing in the water.
Laughter & joy was being experienced in many different ways.
The adventures into the backwaters revealed
 beautiful & oftentimes primitive aspects of the lives of those
who live here. Seen above is a load of sand enroute to some
distant construction site. While appearing to
be inundated at the same time this boat
was moving about with suprising control.

Ever wonder where all those coconuts come from?!
Here is a sprouting coconut with outstretched roots making a run for it!
Coconuts have been a source of solace for me here in india. It has not been unusual
for me to sit down and enjoy 2 or 3 or 4 of them in a sitting! My favorite coconuts
are usually the young immature ones which are full of water & have soft gelatinous
fruit, in contrast to the mature coconut where the majority of the water has solidified
into firm coconut meat. The alkalizing, nutrifying, hydrating & satisfying nature
of these precious seeds of life certainly do not go unnoticed!

Our maiden voyage into the Backwaters of Kerala began here.
This trusty vessel was constructed from wild jack fruit wood, bamboo & banana palms.
Adding to the authenticity to this rustic adventure. Where ever we 'docked', the boatsmen
would haphazardly place a board from the bow to the shore, frequently shifting with the water
currents & the wind. We were traveling with a group of 12-15 others, a number of them older
european couples whom seemed to be unimpressed by the lack of hand rails & security
features for boarding & disembarking! Another aspect of india where you travel at your
own risk, well for some atleast..
Seen here is a container attached to a coconut palm flower that has been incised.
The collection of the sap of the tree can be readily drank (known as toddy or neera) or it can
be fermented (simply known as palm wine), and distillation can further produce another
traditional alcoholic drink(known as arrack/coconut vodka) it is frequently flavored with anise.
Generally it was recommended by locals to be avoided as there is no regulation in its production. 
On the backwaters tour, we boarded another smaller boat in the afternoon.
With this one we went into another section of the backwaters that were
significantly smaller with a crew member whom spoke broken english at best.
A blissfully relaxing way to spend a day right before we went off traveling
to our next destinations. Aya went north to Rishikesh to study yoga & pursue her
passions, while I went south to Varkala to spend time soaking
up the sun, swimming & surrendering to the cosmic ebb & flow.
A view of the overgrown backwaters are seen here.
Traveling along through these narrow channels, we
often came across 90degree turns, other incoming boats
 and shallow portions that appeared to be no deeper than 12".
The boatsmen skillfully navigated utilizing the traditional
tool of choice - the 10' bamboo pole

Our visit to one of the homes along the canals
brought us to a number of magical different plants.
Peppercorn, vanilla, tapioca, nutmeg/mace
& cacao were seen. Above is a nutmeg tree
which is an evergreen & is also one of the
only tropical fruit plants which yields 2
different spices. 'Mace' is the powdered
reddish covering of the seed &
nutmeg is the inner portion.

Here it is, one of my favorite plants on earth.
Theobroma cacao pods produce 20-50 chocolate beans that are suspended inside a white
pulpy fruit. Raw chocolate is one of my favorite medicines & it is among one of the most
complex foods that we know of. It has a pharmacological profile that is well beyond
the scope of  this blog. Many have revered this plant for thousands of years & the range
of uses for this plant is extensive. Simply put:
"Chocolate is a divine, celestial drink, the sweat of the stars, the vital seed,
divine nectar, the drink of the gods, panacea and universal medicine."
- Geronimo Piperni, quoted by Antonio Lavedan, Spanish army surgeon, 1796

Stay Tuned, an update from Varkala, Kerala is coming up shortly!
This land is referenced by the locals as
~"Gods own country"~

1 comment:

  1. My wandering son, your exploits are very inviting I wish I could be there to experience some of it with you, you're in my thoughts. Stay well and happy.