A new perspective on our kitchen spice rack
After our recent odyssey to the backwaters, we were ready for a get-away that didn't involve any long road trips. Also of interest was a journey into the Ghats, a spine of mountains that divides southern India and where numerous high elevation hill stations or villages are scattered, many associated with tea plantations. Shortly after our arrival in August at an open house for parents, we were invited to be guests by one of my student's parents to a resort that she owned near a hill station called Ponmundi. The resort is called Duke's Forest Lodge and advertised a quiet, relaxing stay in the beautiful wooded rubber tree plantation situated at the base of the 18 km road that switch-backed its way up to Ponmundi. The timing seemed right for such a get-away, so after the closing ceremonies of Friday's Sports Day, we loaded into a taxi (Jenn organized the transport for this trip) and we headed for the hills. This time we hired an Ambassador, "the king of Indian roads" since it's introduction in 1958 because of it decent suspension over the country's many tortured roadways. It hasn't changed a whole lot in 50 years and these diesel beasts definitely ride a whole lot better than the little Tata Indicas we've frequently used.
The view of the cock-pit - most drivers seem to prefer driving barefooted.
Google maps pegged the trip at about an hour and we arrived shortly after dark within this time frame. The long, rocky, pot-holed dirt road through the plantation on the way to the lodge left me wondering what we were in for. However, I'm learning in India never to judge a place by the road that leads to it. Even in the dark, it was obvious to us that we had found a wonderful natural escape from everything else. The complex includes six cottages and a main building where the reception, restaurant, meeting area, and four rooms are located. Perched just uphill from a very clean, fast-moving river (the first we've seen so far), the small resort in nestled seamlessly into a grove of rubber trees that are among the more than 200,000 trees on the plantation. All of the buildings are constructed in traditional Kerala style - many of the architectural elements reminded us of our visit some time ago to the Padmanabhapuram Palace.
Having dinner in the open air restaurant downstairs
Steps down to the river
Courtyard in typical Kerala style.
Our little cottage
Each cottage has a large porch facing the river, where we spent a lot of free time reading, and a
jacuzzi, though the fact that it was not heated took a little of the excitement out of it
The bed in cottage was massive - we could have easily fit all four us had we needed to
Elena reading by candlelight, not because she had to but because she wanted to.
It was very restful night - the only sounds were the those of the insects and night creatures - no traffic, no blaring political campaign speakers, no amplified mosque calls - only the sounds of nature lightly smoothed over by the soothing babble of the river below. It was divine.
A drive up to Ponmundi provided the main program for Saturday . We made the decision to keep our driver, Sebu, for the weekend since if we hadn't, we would have had to pay for him to return to Trivandrum and then pay to have him come out to get us on Sunday plus we would have had to hire a car to bring us the 18 km distance up to Ponmundi and back again. We crunched the numbers - keeping him around cost us an extra 400 rupees (about 8 dollars). The cost for the car and driver for the whole weekend was $82.00. As drivers frequently do here, Sebu gladly slept in his car.
The road up to Ponmundi was in relatively good shape and featured 22 switchbacks and A LOT of horn honking.
The higher, cooler elevations were prime tea growing climate and the road wound its way through an abundance of tea plants and other crops. With a road cut into the mountainside one can expect an occasional rock slide - apparently, if there's room to get around it, there's no hurry to clean it up.
Making our way towards the top, we could see the Ponmundi visitor's center high on the hill ahead
The road ends in a saddle between two prominent outcrops where a parking lot holds the vehicles carrying many other tourists, mostly from Trivandrum. The views in every direction were spectacular and the relatively cool air was refreshing - it was the first time since being in India that I might have worn a light jacket (air conditioned rooms and cars excluded).
The girls chatting up the drivers.
As the clouds moved in and obscured the view, we decided to stop by the Ponmundi tourist center for lunch at a restaurant advertising a full international menu. We should have known better by now - the place served one dish - chicken biriyani (chicken and rice) and it wasn't looking very appetizing. Just for kicks, we went over to the other restaurant, which was veg and affiliated with the attached rental guest rooms to see what they were serving. The menu offered a couple of options and included local specialties such as massive amount of mold growing on the walls.
Here's the front side of the restaurant which was also a welcome center at some point.
The whole Ponmundi tourist village is a sad example of what we've seen on numerous occasions in India. Buildings that seem as though they were nice facilities upon their completion are then simply neglected and not maintained until they go to ruin. Surely there is a financial aspect to this but still, but how hard would it have been for someone working at the restaurant to grab some bleach and a wire brush and clean the wall? I can only imagine what the tourist rooms on the lower floor were like. It's perplexing - we just can't relate to a mindset that tolerates such squallor. When it comes to religious ceremonies and holiday celebrations, the people here demonstrate an acute appreciation for aesthetics with elaborate decorations, costumes, and beautiful rituals. However, when it comes to day to day stewardship of their facilities, it just doesn't seem a priority. The finishing touch to this short detour was this sign near the door of the police station
If everyone actually followed this advice, the income for many of the police would be reduced significantly.
What comes up must go down - join us for a bit of a ride on the Ambassador rollercoaster. Unfortunately, the actually grade of the road can't be fully appreciated on the video - it's steeper than it looks. (To be fair, Sebu was a very good driver and we felt safe throughout the trip.)
After some casual lounging and another great night of sleep, we were treated on Sunday morning to an hour long walking tour of the rubber plantation which turned out to be growing a whole lot more than rubber trees. We'll start with the stars of the show.
Rubber plantations have replaced many banana plantations for purely economical reasons - a banana tree will only fruit once, then it starts to die. Rubber trees can be tapped for 9-10 months a year for a 40 year period providing a constant flow of cash to the farmer.
Rubber tapping involves cutting a slanting vertical gash into the outer bark and collecting the liquid rubber as the tree "bleeds". The rubber flows along the gash and eventually drips into a cup (which used to be half a coconut shell but are now plastic) where it is collected in the wee hours of the morning. After a few hours, the gash "heals up" and the liquid rubber solidifies to seal the wound. The next day, the rubber collector reopens the wound by slicing off a very thin peel along the existing gash and the rubber flows again.
After collection, it is brought to a processing plant where the collected rubber slugs are sorted by grade and then mixed with formic acid in large pans where they sit for a day or two firming up.
The next step is to run the molded rubber blocks through a pressing machine which flattens them into sheets.
To prevent fungus from attacking the rubber sheets, they are hung in a smoke house for several days to be dried out and preserved
From there, the rubber is off to market to supply manufacturers of various rubber products. Once last image related to the rubber operation - what good is a pond on a rubber plantation without a rubber boat?
As fascinating as the rubber operation was, were just as interested in all of the other crops being grown here. We'll look at our spice rack in a completely different way from now on.
I always enjoy vanilla bean ice cream, but I never gave the term "vanilla bean" much thought until seeing these vanilla vines creeping up the side of an adjoining tree.
We've encountered a lot of white pepper in India which takes away the visual clue as which container is the salt shaker. What we didn't know was that both types of pepper come from the same plant as is explained here:
The pepper plant
Mari and the pepper seeds
One of the big surprises was our first encounter with the cocoa plant, source of chocolate. It was not what I expected - the large grapefruit sized fruits grow not off the smaller branches but develop attached to the main trunk and branches of the tree.
The fruit itself is very gourd-like until you break it open and see the surprise inside.
The cavity has almond sized nuts coated with a white, fleshy fruit that is slightly sweet to suck on. Let Lena show you.
The nut itself is the source of the chocolate and it needs to be fermented and dried before the transformation to edible chocolate can occur. The cocoa nuts are actually very bitter - the sweetness of chocolate comes entirely from the added sugar.
Next surprise was nutmeg - here's cracked open pod from the nutmeg tree, the brown seed that you grind for nutmeg fits inside and the bright red feathery covering is the mace.
Hanging above us in a number of places were bunches of bulbous papaya fruit waiting to let go on some unsuspecting tourist on a walking tour.
With all of these other tropical treats growing here, the plantation would be incomplete without some coffee and they were growing two kinds:
Bamboo is grown here as well - it's a truly amazing plant when considering how fast it grows and how dense is its wood.
Amazing palms everywhere.
Not all of the plantation's wonders are plants. Check out this beauty - it's no camera trick - this thing could easily wrap around your clenched fist, if it wasn't busy catching birds in its web.
Some of a farmer's best friends are bees - homemade bee hives
We walked off the tour and into our car for a relatively short trip back to Trivandrum. A couple of weekends ago, high expectations for a spectacular backwaters boat tour came up a little short. This weekend, we traveled with relatively few expectations and were tremendously surprised and satisfied with our experience. We've been reminded of an important lesson about the proper place of expectations before setting out on a journey.