Letters to Home: Kerala, India

Hello Friends! I write to you from the top of the world.

Alright, not actually… I am perched on a top-level berth of the Mumbai Express – my permanent railway residence for the next 36 hours.  We are traveling across the state of Tamil Nadu, somewhere between my travel week-dream of Kerala, and my home this semester in Pune, Maharashtra.  The veg curry and rice I just consumed from the train’s pantry has my tummy gurgling, and I’m craving of a glass of sweet lime soda.

I’ve been spoiled this past week: the freedom of just a backpack and single mandatory destination has allowed me to discover the southern state of Kerala.  In this letter to CMC, I’ve recorded one of the best days of my journey, which came about while exploring the depths of the mountainous tea fields of Munnar, Kerala.

Piled like four eggs in a basket, my friends and I are on a waterfall hunt.  The hum of the rickshaw’s motor swells as we scoot up a hump in the road, then dies out as we go coasting down the other side.  Back and forth we wind our way, down and down into a misty valley, marked by a spray of water.  Falling from a crevice in the midst of sloping tea fields, the water refracts a rainbow before pooling in a whirl and merging with the river’s current.  We learn that 7 visitors have died at this dangerously beautiful place before us, and stand in awe from the bridge.  Not for long, as a little boy races towards us – trying to retrieve the rubber tire he is playing with, now nearly out of control.  “We’ll be back!” we promise, and hike further into tea territory.  Each layer of landscape is like a colorful curtain: green of tea and forest – blue of sky and mist.  Shrines to both Mother Mary and Krishna hide in this collage.  The green and white flag of half moon and star – representing either Islam or Pakistan – flutters in the breeze.  The plurality of India – religion, politics, history – refuses to hide even here, in the most remote area.

The little boy is back and with him is his toddling younger brother.  We follow them to their home, perched on the edge of the falls, where their mother welcomes us and mixes a few sweet lime sodas.  Conversation brings us to the tea workers – their travels from Tamil Nadu for employment, their daily 130 rupee (2.5 dollars) pay, their lack of time, education and energy to raise a protest against the profiteer, mega-corporation TATA.  This family’s resistance has brought them to court twice: Sweet Lime two, Big Business Indian Government nil.

Little clasping hands make leaving conversation and family hard, but a darkening sky and the unknown distance home pull at us.  As we begin to hike the ascent, TATA’s conscience appears in the form of a friendly truck driver who lets us hitch a ride in the bed of his hauler.  Emboldened, we clamber into the next “Horn OK Please” cabby that passes by and laugh at the rickshawalla drivers gaping empty handed.  Luck carries through and books us the final leg in the back of a friendly jeep.  Walking the last mile or so, we arrive at our homestay dirty, sweaty and singing.

Back in the Express I hang upside down from my bed to take in the landscape.  I would swear it was East Texas if I couldn’t see the small white shrines and brightly colored saris dotting the fields.  Only 7 more hours to go…

Signing off now – wish I had the sustenance (or chai) to record more.  Words are no substitute for experience, however, and I hope at best to have provided an ill-focused picture.  I look forward to hearing of all the afternoons turned evenings I know run parallel to my own.  Missing you, missing CMC.

All my best.  Shanti.

Julia Starr