Thursday December 10th
After spending three days in very large cities we were excited to go to find a more quite place to enjoy nature. To do so we headed out of the state of Tamil Nadu and into that of Kerala. On the way we drove through rice paddy after rice paddy. We were able to see farmers wading in the water planting fresh fields by hand with laser precision. After the rice cultivation we came upon some of the largest vineyards I have ever seen. The grapes were most likely a hybrid of Vitis vinifera and Vitus lubrusca because they had characteristics of both and in such a humid environment, hybrids would likely provide the desired pest resistance needed. The grapes were table grapes and could be found in the markets of Madurai among other places. Another use was for beverages. Jordyn and I tried a grape drink that our driver had purchased and we both had to have one of our own because it tasted so good.
After many kilometers we came back to the Ghats. We had to cross the mountains to reach the state of Kerala. It was very clear once arriving in Kerala that while we had seen tropical forests in Bandipur and Madumalai, this was clearly a tropical “rain forest”. After checking into our hotel in Thekkady we went straight to a local hotspot where elephants give rides through a small plantation. The ride was a lot of fun and gave us an incredible vantage to look out over the trees. Our elephant was very sweet and you could tell well cared for. The plants we saw in this plantation were pepper, betel nut, vanilla, coffee and jatropha just to name a few.
(Jordyn: Who knew that elephants were so hairy?!)
After the ride we went and picked up a guide who took us to spice plantation. Something that I was happy to see was the use of wide spread intercropping in the plantations in the region. Intercropping uses many different crops together and is a more environmentally conscious way of farming than large mono-crop plantations. On the spice tour we saw just about every spice you can imagine. All that I listed above plus, clove, star anise, cinnamon, chocolate, stevia, ginger, turmeric, all spice or pimento plus the spice that is of particular value in this region, cardamom. The tour was of great value as I was able to see how the intercropping was done and I hope to be able to have a small element of this on our economic hillside in the new tropical forest conservatory.
J: After a brief lunch, Ben and I headed to a local lookout point where we could see for miles (or, I guess I should be speaking in kilometers) below us. This point was manned by Kerala’s forest department who also had an ayurvedic demo garden on site that we could walk through. We took pictures of some of the unique structures (thinking ahead for possible TF structures) and signage within the garden. It was small but well maintained and provided a lot of information, including the local names of some of these plants. One of these I remember talking about in our round table discussion is tulsi, or holy basil, which I have seen a lot if in these parts, particularly around people’s homes.
We purchased a ticket for the evening program to witness the art of Kalaripayattu, the oldest form of martial arts. I mean, who can pass up watching guys fight each other with various weapons? No really, it truly is an artform, as these guys moved in synchronized fashion while skillfully fighting in the weapon of choice. They used long sticks, ancient looking swords, and lances, and as the evening went on, out came the fire! Some fought with batons with fire on both ends, and the grand finale was not one but two rings of fire that one guy so bravely jumped through. My goodness! Glad I caught the moment, not sure you would believe me on this.
On Friday morning, we woke early to get a head start on the day and go for a morning trek through Kerala’s beautiful nature. We were greeted by our guide, Raj, who works for the Kerala Forest Department. He instructed us to put on these knee high leggings over our pants but into our shoes. For leeches, he tells us. So we climb onto a bamboo raft, and Raj pulls us to the other side of the bank, over the Periyar river.
On our three hour trek, we got a good sense of the plant communities and the successional landscapes. The annual floods create open grassland which are better to see large animals pass through. We saw more bison and wild boars, and a new animal, the black monkey (I will have to double check on the actual name, but they are in fact large whooping black monkeys). We also saw a tiger print in the mud; Raj says it’s about two days fresh. Ooh, I forgot to mention that we also saw a rabbit deer – look it up, I think it is the smallest deer in existence. Cutie!
Like Ben said, I could definitely tell that this was more of a rain forest, with a high canopy filled with jumping monkeys, and a soggy floor filled with camouflaged leeches. We noted some new grasses with more upright form- almost like a stiff panicum, lots of teak, massive banyons, some milkweed, eupatorium, and very few lantana shrubs. We headed back to the forest station, back over on the bamboo raft, and picked the leeches out of our shoes. Don’t worry, none of them actually got to the skin, thanks to our protective leggings.
Tonight, there was another evening program for the traditional Kerala dance called Kathakali, which has been in practice for over 500 years. There were two main dancers, male and female, and they told their story using facial expressions and gestures while others played Indian instruments and sang. The facial expressions were highly exaggerated and elaborate to get the point across, and it seemed like the art required a real practice in controlling facial muscles. And the ornate makeup and costumes added to the overall emotions; apparently those costumes can weigh up to 100 lbs! It was a truly moving experience.