|I was up quite early and on the 10.30am train leaving Varkala heading back north to Cochin. After arriving in Cochin at 2pm I then went straight to the bus station and boarded a bus to Munnar, a hill station. It was to be a four and a half hour journey on a local bus which is a pretty intense experience and I made sure to go to the toilet beforehand as I knew that there would be no opportunities for the next four and a half hours! The bus rapidly filled up leaving Cochin to the point that it was completely rammed with people, but gradually people got off and then we would reach another popular hub and the bus would become rammed again. Eventually we started heading into the mountains but then it beacame dark so I could see little of the view and could only feel the constant violent swerving of the bus and the horn being liberally applied. I was very relieved to arrive.
After finding a reasonably cheap guesthouse that was, unfortunately, a little out of town, I headed to the local (and only) restaurant that was withing easy walking distance. There was a table with other western people so I sat with them and got chatting. There were two girls from Sweden, a Danish/Finnish guy called Esben and a French guy called Vincent. After some excellent food I headed into town to grab a beer with the guys, the girls deciding to have an early night.
The reason why I had bothered making the side detour to Munnar was that it is the home of many tea plantations. The scenery is also amazing as it is high in the mountains and due to the elevation it is considerably less humid and hot then down by the coast. It is about 1,500 meters above sea level. Also when I was there was the annual festival, called "Munnar Mele," which was a celebration of the town and involved a concert of sorts, a funfair and a week of activities. This meant that the normally quiet town was bursting with people and when me, Ebsen and Vincent went off to find a bar for a drink, we found the bar to be full of Indian men who had clearly been drinking for some time.
It is something I have come accross a few times in Asia now, but whereas for example in Europe people tend to drink gradually, and quite possibly get very drunk, over the course of an evening; in Asia it seems more normal to either not drink at all or when you do drink to drink as much as possible in the shortest possible time, so that you go from being sober to completely drunk in the space of a couple of hours.
Anyway the bar closed very quickly at 10.30pm and there being only the one bar in town (a crazy concept), there was nothing else to do but go back to the guesthouse. On the way home we were passing an old stone church that would have looked more at home in an English village in the Cotswolds then in India, when it started to chime. It was definitely not the sound of normal bells, in fact it sounded like a really annoying mobile phone musical ringtone! That was the sound of the "church bells." Very strange...
We all met up for brekky in the same place that we had met the previous night, the girls left on a bus for Cochin and I went on a tour of the area with the lads. We tried to book onto a tour with a rickshaw driver who the girls had booked with yesterday, however we had left it too late and he was fully booked, so we ended up getting on a larger tour bus that was organised by the tourist information place.
What followed was definitely not the best tour I have been on but the countryside was spectacular. There was lots of tea plantations, to the extent that the hills would roll away in a never ending panarama of tea. We saw the highest mountain in Southern India, or at least we would have if there was not a big cloud in the way. Then there were a couple of dams and resulting beautiful lakes that framed the surrounding mountains nicely. Unfortunately there was very little commentary throughout all of this and there were so many people squeezed into the small mini bus (mostly Indians here for the festival) the journey itself was quite uncomfortable.
We had lunch back in Munnar and then headed off on the second leg of the trip out to a national park. When we arrived there was a nasty shock in store however as we had to pay to get in. We had been told when booking the tickets that extras were not included and certainly there had been the option to ride an (old and depressed looking) elephant and do some speedboating on one of the lakes, but we expected that. To be taken up to the top of a hill in the national park was to cost us each an extra 245 rupees, which considering that the entire tour cost 250 rupees in the first place was excessive to say the least. Everyone else went up the hill except for me and Ebsen who refused on principle, not so much because of the cost but because we felt that we had been lied to when sold the tickets. (The Indian people all went up as for them the cost of entry amounted to just 35 rupees - there normally is a different price for foreigners). Anyway me and Ebsen sat chilling out at the base of the hill for a couple of hours until the others returned.
Most of the people rejoined the bus within a couple of hours at the agreed meeting time, however there were four people missing. We all sat waiting in the bus for another hour and a half until every single person had left the hill and it started to get dark, before the driver assumed that they had just gone back into town with a local bus without telling anyone (they did not look like real nature types who would want to spend hours on a mountain). When we arrived back into town me and Esben complained at the tourist information place about their not telling us about the high cost of seeing the view and we managed to get half of our money back! Result!
After some food and a large firework display that heralded the start of Munnar Mele, me Vincent and Esben decided to head down to the funfair to see what was going on. Im so glad that we did because it was highly entertaining. First we passed by a large round wooden structure supported by metal poles and which had a precarious looking viewing gallery round the upper edge. We soon realised that it was a Circle of Death where a guy with a motorbike rides round the side of the structure, with the g-forces stopping him from falling. We then realised that through the cracks of the structure we could see cars driving round as well! This seemed totally crazy and so we paid the 20 rupees admittance fee (about 25p!) and waited for the next show.
What followed was one of the craziest stunts I have ever seen; definitely the craziest I have seen for under a pound! First there was one guy riding the circle of death on a motorbike and doing tricks. The guy beside me held out a low value note and the guy managed to grab it as he went past on the bike! Then there was a short break and you had four motorbikes and two cars going round the circle. No-one was wearing any helmets and everyone had a blatant disregard for safety. The guys in the car would lean out of the window and drive with their feet, other people would grab money off people viewing from above, the cars at one point locked themselves together as they went around and two of the motorcyclists held hands as they went around! It was thrilling, noisy stuff. Afterwards I gave the people in it a 100 rupee tip, which they seemed thrilled to get.
Still buzzing from the show we explored the rest of the funfair. The main rides did not look amazing but we did find a hoopla stall where, bizarrely, all you could hoop was different types of soap. As Esben found out when he got very lucky hooping stuff, all you could win was different types of soap as well. Esben was now the proud owner of three bars of soap! At least he will be clean...
Then we decided to check out the "Golden Wonder Dog Show." From the outside it looked truely awful. You could peek over the outer fence to a small ring inside and on the outside of the tent were a number of cheesy pictures of people with dogs. Confusingly there was also a picture just of a woman (not doing a sexy pose or anything) and of a half naked, extremely fat man. What did that mean? Who knows! Anyway we paid the 10 rupees to see the show (a whole 12p) and waited while more customers came.
It was quite possibly the worst dog show I have ever seen. Thankfully it was so bad though it was actually amusing. The first couple of dogs performed a couple of tricks, which were moderately interesting, all of the time compared by an old Indian guy in old rags of clothing in Hindi (at least i assume it was Hindi). Whenever he was not speaking we were blasted with awful music at maximum volume from poor quality speakers, which made us automatically wince. The last two acts were extremely puzzling. I think what was meant to happen was that a watch which was produced from someone in the audience, then presented to the dog to sniff and then given to someone else (Vincent), should have been tracked by the dog (who was wearing a sort of blindfold at the start of the trick). It completely failed however as the the dog just walked around ignoring everyone. The last trick appeared to involve just another dog walking round in circles. Very bizarre.
We left the show quite amused and after walking half way across the funfair discovered that the owner of the dog show had followed us and seemed to be really happy with us. He started kissing our hands and everything, despite our protests. It was odd and slightly embarrissing, but that faded quickly when we saw a sign for the "Internation Acquarium Show." Curious to what may be inside we headed in and were greeted with a load of small fish tanks, most of which contained various tropical fish which were very pretty; although some were blatantly mis-named. For example some tiny fish were labeled as "Tiger Sharks." Hmmm...
After all of the fun of the fair we head off to the bar we went to the night before only to discover that it was already closed and so there was no option but to head for home. The night at the fairgound had provided the best nights entertainment in India so far.
I set my alarm for 6 the next morning so that I could catch an early bus back to Cochin, however the alarm went off, I turned it off and just fell asleep again immediately. As I was running late I headed into town for a haircut which amazingly cost just 30 rupees (about 40p!). Thats a record for cheap haircuts around the world. Eventfully I found myself at the "bus station" (small concrete covering by the side of the main road) and a friendly local helped me find the right bus.
Munnar had proved to be a bit of a pain to get to as it involved over 9 hours on a lurching, horn blaring, heart stopping local bus ride, however I do think that it was worth it. I actually found myself cool, if not even cold at night time, which was a new experience for me now. Also the scenery was amazing, the tea plantations were really interesting and the funfair was brilliant in its own way.