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River Deep Mountain High

I met an Israeli businessman at Shabbat dinner at Chabad a few weeks ago. He told me that he works for a printing company in Israel, and was in Mumbai because he was working with one of their clients here who buys their inks. He explained how their printers work, that there are a set number of different inks used in each production, and the pigments combine to make all of the necessary colours in the prints. He was working with a company that prints Indian wedding albums, who had encountered a problem in that the variety of colours present in the fabrics worn at Indian weddings were too vibrant to be properly represented by the standard range of inks. He was there to develop new inks that would be able to accurately represent the vibrancy of Indian colour.

How radical is that - that the colours of India aren’t able to be represented by our normal societal standards of colour representation? It seems like something so minuscule as the number of inks present in a printer wouldn't have any significance, but I think that this idea of existing outside of a Western point of thinking is something which is very present in so many parts of India.

Last week I took a 10-day trip to the state of Kerala in the South of India. I started off in Cochin, a beachy-tourist town with an airport (more to come on that later), before spending three days in Munnar, and two more days in Alleppey. But apart from the allure of exploring new places and breaking out of routine, my time in Kerala showed me a whole new side of India.

Munnar was exquisite. A hill town located up in the mountains on the border of the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu, the small town center is surrounded on all sides by endless expanses of bright green tea plantations. I arrived in Munnar on a 7-am bus from Cochin, and when I got off with a handful of other backpackers, I wandered around, wondering how to spend my three days in this small town.

The bus station is on the side of a poorly paved road, across from an empty field filled with a few boys playing cricket. I checked the map and the guesthouse I booked was 2.5 km away, which seemed like it wouldn't be too bad. Except when you're walking in India, often you're carrying a heavy backpack and walking in a dusty ditch on the side of a road under the hot sun. After what turned into a 45 minute trek up the side of steep mountain highways, I arrived in Munnar Colony (the autorickshaw ride would have cost less than 50 cents Canadian).

I was wondering how I was going to get myself around Munnar for the next three days, as walking on the side of the road didn't seem to be a good solution. A tour guide on a motorcycle approached me and asked me if I was looking for a guide. In my automatic response I told him that I really wasn't, but chatted with him for a while anyways as a way to put off the last leg of steep highway to the guesthouse. But after confirming with the guesthouse staff that they did in fact know him and sending his phone number to my friends in Mumbai for safety, I got on the back of Raja's motorcycle and spent the next three days having him drive me through Munnar's extensive countryside.

I've ridden on the backs of people's motorcycles in Mumbai a few times, but out in the mountains it was completely different. Being totally surrounded by the nature was an amazing way to experience it, and Raja knew all of the places to stop and walk through the rolling hills. He was also an Ayurvedic masseuse, and would point out which plants could be used as medication for certain ailments. Every few hours (read: all the time) we would stop at dingy roadside chai stalls, and I would drink my little cups of chai, while staring out at the tea plantations where it came from.

On the third day I visited a tea museum, where you go into the factory to learn about the different methods of tea production and how they take the leaves and turn them into the tea we're used to. Apparently white, green, and black tea all come from the same plant, it's simply differences in which part of the plant the leaves come from, and the drying and fermentation processes the leaves go through. And then we would drive past working fields where dishevelled old women would be standing in the hot sun, balancing heavy sacks of leaves on their heads, and handpicking tea branches to send back to the factories. Raja told me that they're paid decently (more than a non-profit worker in Mumbai), and are given free housing and medical care, but it's difficult work, and as a I stood watching them, I felt the inequality of our situations. I'm a huge tea-drinker, and it was really special to get insight into how tea is made, because I think it's important to know where our things come from, and how they're made (and how to make them ourselves). Seeing these tea-pickers in passing was hard, but perhaps seeing these inconsistencies and contradictions are part of learning more about this part of the world.

My second day in Munnar Raja picked me up at 5:30 am and we rode in the total darkness to a sunrise lookout. I've never seen stars in India - you can't see them in Mumbai. Here on the dark highways of Kerala the stars filled the sky, but they didn't look familiar to me. In Vancouver I was always able to pick out certain constellations, but in India I couldn't make out any familiarities in the mass of lights.

As if the space and solitude of Munnar wasn't enough, my next stop in Kerala was Alleppey, the gateway from the Arabian Sea into a mass of rivers and canals that make up the Kerala backwaters. The town centre was a small clump of dosa stands and boatmen trying to sell their tours, but you can board a public ferry for 8 rupees and stop at any number of smaller islands spread throughout the maze of backwaters. My original plan was to take the ferry for two and a half hours to its final destination of Kottayam, where you can take an hour and a half bus back to Alleppey, but after 45 minutes of passing tiny concrete piers where villagers hopped off the ferry, I decided to get off myself on a small island called Kainakary.

The first thing that drew me in on Kainakary was the massive rice field in the centre of the island. I would encourage you to look these places up on google maps, because it's hard to envision what the larger scope of the backwaters looks like, but it's basically many small islands cut at intentional angles to maximize the surface area of the land. The circumference of the islands are built up to varying degrees, with a dirt path and houses along the edge, but the insides are left open for agriculture. Special water pumps allow the farming to be done below sea level. I walked to the edge of the rice field and took in it's extensive green. I continued walking on the narrow dirt path which surrounded the island, taking in the sights of people living their lives.

Kainakary is really not a place where tourists go, and many of the residents were sitting on the ground in front of their houses and were surprised to see me when I walked past. Many came up to me to talk, although most of them only spoke Malayalam, the local language of Kerala. The news of my presence on the island seemed to have spread, and people came out of their houses to greet me. Many asked me to photograph them, and a few even invited me into their houses for chai. It was such a special experience, to be greeted with such generosity and hospitality. The people all seemed so relaxed, many simply sitting outside with their families taking in the air, and it was such a contrast to the people in Mumbai, people who also sit on the ground with their families, but in such a different context. One family even invited me into their home for lunch, a plate of rice with several sauced vegetables, which the wife stood and poured over the rice for me, and watched eagerly as I attempted to eat the rice in the customary way using only my hands. After the meal, the grandmother took me to the back of the house where she poured water from a silver jug over my fingers.