Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Western Ghats - a Tortuous Journey

January 19, 2010:

As I sat pondering the many and tropical bugs that a huge bus must run over on a seven hour journey through an Indian jungle, the bus skidded around its 500th hairpin turn of the day, this time nearly shaving a small schoolboy in half. My thoughts shifted to the more pertinent subject of how many human lives a large Indian bus must claim over a 3-week span in the Western Ghats—a mountain range that runs down western India. I came to the conclusion that they just don’t value life like we do back home. That was something that I remembered learning in Julio Videras’ environmental economics class, but had never seen at work. (the image on left is the valley I traveled up...I really got lucky on this one)

I was on yet another Indian adventure, but this time it was much cooler and fair-scented than my previous journeys. I had left the sweltering heat of Cochin earlier in the day and boarded a no frills attached steel bus that—interestingly—reminded me of one of those D day amphibious assault vehicles. This groaning behemoth of a vehicle was transporting me through valley and over mountain crest through Kerala’s hill stations…that’s what the locals call it. I would like to consider these hills as more of mountains, which in fact they are. They are the home of the world’s original supply of fine cardamom, pepper, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. The spice mountains!

They say the smells are what you remember longest. After passing through these mountains, I would believe it. When I left Cochin, the air smelled of items fried in coconut oil occasionally mixed with rancidity. As we graded the mountainside however, the air became lighter—clean and fresh with notes of jasmine and pepper. I couldn’t believe my nose. Yes, I had heard that these mountains smelled unique, but I never thought that it would be this distinct, this…spicy.

As I came to the mountain top I could see hints of river running down a long valley. It seemed as though we were traveling parallel to the water. Sure enough, we were. I passed two different damming facilities with substations, meaning that the people are harnessing the power of the river. All afternoon I (mostly) unsuccessfully attempted to shoot the tropical canopy that sprawled out below me with the neighboring mountainsides as an accompaniment. I guess I’ll be able to keep most of those images in my own head.

We passed by small villages as we ran the length of the valley. Most of the houses were built on stilts or had some other way of clinging to the bedrock. It looked as though people were happy and healthy, surely one of the more sustainable living models I have ever seen. All over, people were carrying bags and baskets on their heads, no doubt filled with vegetables, spices, or rice…perhaps some of the products were manufactured, but mostly the basic necessities. I wondered whether the people in these mountains live longer lives like the people in Georgia who regularly live to over 100. It must be true, because some looked like they were rounding a century. I wished I could stop and interview someone, however based on experience I know that it’s exceedingly difficult to communicate with these people even if I have a Malayalam guide.

As night closed in and the bus ascended, the chill of the mountain air began to pierce my t-shirt and jeans. I was cold! This was the first time in months. The locals were wearing winter caps and sweatshirts. Luckily, my upstate NY upbringing had trained me for the experience.

It was truly a unique experience to see the evening sun glancing off the tropical canopy below; I could see singular plumes of smoke rising through the palms. As it became darker, the valley started to light up with gas lanterns and electric lights and pretty soon that was all I saw, other than the gray outline of the Ghats above. It felt like my journey should have ended at that point, but our bus kept creaking and snorting around corners. I still had three hours left.

As I held on to the metal bar in front of me for stability, I glanced around the bus noticing that I was one of three people left. Everyone else had been dropped off in his or her little mountainside village. The corrugated steel shades were now drawn and the bus was a capsule darting through the night. The smell of cardamom was not deterred by the steel shades, however. It seemed as though it was everywhere, and it was especially pungent as we drove by spice depots in small villages. I put my brain into autopilot and just enjoyed the surroundings until finally we reached Kumily, which is just 2 kilometers from the Periyar Tiger Reserve and directly in the midst of the cardamom hills. I checked into my $6 hotel room for the night.