Munnar

Munnar, India

After a stint in the tea plantations of Sri Lanka, Munnar felt very familiar though it was missing a key ingredient or two. The bus ride up earned a place on the highlight reel: a winding 5-hour ascent, breezing past waterfalls and monkeys alike. Amidst the mist and monoxide, thousands of acres of tea & spice plantations buffered the damp village on all sides; Here was a place where it did not take long to feel drenched down to the very soul.

Embarking on a guided trek through the hinterland, I was accompanied by an upbeat crowd of Germans, Brits and Israelis all marching merrily into the hills. As the day wore on, however, a dark and brooding silence fell upon our intrepid platoon. Exhaustion had us firmly in its grip and even the discovery of Elephant tracks was incapable of breathing more than a moments energy into us. Like the end of a particularly nasty game of Monopoly, we began to despise our jubilant guide as if he held hotels across the board. Seemingly unaffected by the arduous, knee-clobbering descent he had led us on, he chirped on about this spice and that while we longed for rest and sustenance. At the walks end we sat in perpetual silence, collectively defeated, as food was served.

I moved on from Munnar quicker, perhaps, than one should. Having only intended to visit the south briefly, I had accidentally spent more than a month there. The time had come to make my way north.

Firewood stacked high in a shed deep within a tea plantation Every 12 years, this flower blooms in the hills surrounding Munnar
Hiking down through the clouds One of the many botanical delights on display in a tour of the spice plantations
The view from Top Station, a hilltop overlooking the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu

A timelapse of the clouds rolling off a nearby cliff at Top station, an outlook on the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu

Kochi

Kochi, India

It’s a rare occasion that you stumble upon graffiti of merit in India, though if you started in Kochi you would find this hard to believe. Fort Kochi, nestled just off the coast of the main metropolitan area, serves as an almost Shoreditch-like canvas for artists; Evidence of this is littered everywhere and, arriving off the back of a hazy night’s sleep in a Sri Lankan airport lounge, I was pleasantly surprised to find such a colourful scene.

Galleries serve art with a distinctive eastern influence and curators will eagerly photograph you as you peruse their wares. In the hopes of collecting a commission, rickshaw drivers will fall over themselves for the opportunity to drop you at one of the many art stores nearby.

More than just an outpost of creativity, Kochi serves as the gateway to Kerala: a lush, green state along the southwest coast of India. Hundreds of miles of palm trees & tranquil backwaters beckon and it’s hard to argue that the experience of punting along the myriad canals isn’t wonderful.

Graffiti on Princess Street, Fort Kochi Graffiti on Bazaar street, Fort Kochi
A face peers out onto Burger street at night in Fort Kochi A sculpture depicting the painted face of a Kathakali actor
Chinese fishing nets at the entrance to the Cochi harbour

Chinese fishing nets line the entrance to the harbour in Kochi. These enormous, spider-like structures take a crew of people to operate them as they are dipped into the ocean to retrieve fish sold on the spot to locals and foreigners.

Punting down the tranquil backwaters in Kerala At a cultural centre in Fort Kochi, a man plays his Sitar skillfully

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka

Ten days in Sri Lanka felt like a dream. I floated in from India and drifted gradually up into the mountains. Nothing travels too fast here, least of all the traffic. In Madulkelle, a village high in the hills of the countries interior, cool wisps of cloud crept through the surrounding tea plantations. There was a sense of deep, forgiving calm shaken only by the occasional shower of rain: loose and without ambition as if the weather had been a mere afterthought on the days agenda.

At night, a different story: Thunderstorms to humble Zeus himself would tumble overhead, occasionally reaching out to fork at the ground. Rooftops provided little comfort in what was a staggering demonstration of the weather system’s grip on the world.

An expensive alternative to India, it was a 5-star departure from what I had become accustomed to. After a month in Indian hostels it’s funny what you begin to appreciate from accommodation: there’s toilet paper, hot water — holy shit they even provide towels! Naturally, it was over too soon and, despite having had a delightful visit, the brevity of it left me fearing I hadn’t really gotten a handle on how things are done in Sri Lanka. Upon returning to India, I swear to god I let out a sigh of relief: this was a place I knew my way around. How things do change.

A gigantic Bhudda rests in the cave temples of Dambulla
The exterior of the cave temples in Dambulla inset into the surrounding cliffs Dawn over the tea planatations of Madulkelle
The imposing, club-house like structure of Madulkelle Tea & Eco Lodge — offering possibly the most wonderful stay I've yet to experience
Torrential rain fuels a waterfall amidst tea plantations in Madulkelle Tea leaves are dried in vented troughs, releasing a pungent aroma of tea into the surrounding neighborhood

On the left: Torrential rain fuels a waterfall admist tea plantations in Madulkelle. On the right: Tea leaves are dried in vented troughs, releasing a pungent aroma of tea into the surrounding neighborhood. This particular factory produced near-on 3 tonnes of tea from 13.5 tonnes of leaves every single day.

Firewood, stacked and drying, used to fuel the boilers at the tea factory The indoor-outdoor flow of Kalundewa Retreat's lobby
Cheerfully colourful scenes dance their way around the walls of the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy A couple rest on the train from Kandy to Colombo

Pondicherry

Pondicherry, India

In India, it pays to ask as many people as possible where a bus is going before you board it. In doing so, it occasionally happens that you end up where you had hoped to get to. So, as I board a semi-sleeper from Madurai to Pondicherry, I proceed to question the passengers already on board. Each inquiry is met with firm agreement. The driver, too, confirms we’re headed for Pondicherry. You can imagine my bemusement, then, when after spending the night aboard I wake to find we’ve arrived in Chennai: 3 hours north of our intended destination. I’m confused, the driver’s confused and the only recourse seems to be to laugh at the absurdity of it. Hastily they pile me into a rickshaw and, in hot pursuit of the appropriate bus, we wind through rush hour. I am unceremoniously thrown aboard, wheels still in motion, and we make our way down the coast.

For any sheltered westerner looking to travel here, myself included, Pondicherry offers an excellent starting point: Blending the chaos of India with European tranquility. This peculiar mix affords the visitor a chance to dip in and out of the mayhem at their leisure – an impossibility in bigger cities.

A French colony until the 1950s, the architecture of Pondicherry is striking, colourful and wonderfully dilapidated. The fact that there isn’t much to “do” here only adds to the charm. Of particular relief is Paradise beach a few kilometers down from the French quarter: perhaps the only beach in the whole region of Tamil Nadu where a westerner can swim without attracting a crowd of onlookers.

The promenade of the French quarter. A popular stroll for locals and tourists alike, the road is closed to traffic at both sunrise and sunset
The public works building in the French quarter: A relic of Pondicherrys colonial past Beautiful metalwork adorns a gateway down Rue Labourdonnais in the French quarter
You don't often see graffiti in India, but when you do it's kind of a downer A statue of Ghandi marks the centerpeice of the promenade in the French quarter
Like a group of old, rather portly gentlemen sat about smoking, I came across this casual meeting in the botanical gardens

Like a group of old, rather portly gentlemen sat about smoking, I came across this casual meeting in the botanical gardens

The sun sets over Osudu lake, near Pondicherry The Eglise de notre Dame des Anges faces the ocean, near the promenade

When I wasn’t consumed by the arduous task of relaxation, I ventured to learn a thing or two at the local cultural centre “SITA”.

Drifting from cooking classes to art & massage, I can say with conviction that I hadn’t felt so at home in a long while. No doubt my departure came as a relief to the staff, having had to put up with my countenance continually over the duration of my stay.

Learning about Kollam, a local art-form, at [SITA](http://www.pondicherry-arts.com/en/) cultural centre Fish await sale at the open-air Goubert markets

On the left: Attending a course on Kollam, a local art-form. 10 minutes into the lesson a parrot emerges from her handbag and spends the rest of the time perched on her shoulder, passing judgment on my awful technique

The fruits of a Souther Indian cooking class on display

Here, the fruits of a Southern Indian cooking class on display. Cooking Chapatis is a high pressure situation if ever there was one

Madurai

Madurai, India

I barely stepped foot in Madurai before I had to leave again. To make matters worse, the steps I did take were plagued by an almost total loss of leg function owing to the previous days hike.

Madurai is home to perhaps the largest temple in India, the Meenakshi Amman. Thousands of granite pillars hold over 45 acres of inner & outer sanctums together. As the faithful pray to an incalculable number of shrines within, a festive elephant plucks donations from the hands of visitors, tapping them on their heads as a blessing afterward.

Each night the central statue of Siva is delivered in a ceremonial procession from his sanctuary to his wife Meenakshi’s chambers. There they rest together until dawn, whereupon the procession is reversed. Tireless, this ritual continues day in, day out, matched in perseverance only by the horde of tourists following in its wake, camera phones waving in the air. Incapacitated or not, I do my best to hobble along with them.

The West Tower of the Meenakshi Amman temple stands tall above the city at sunset
The Thirumalai Nayak Palace, a 17th century palace designed by an Italian architect
A familiar indian scene: Cattle rummaging for food in front of a bookstore on a dusty back street The entrance to the Theosophical Society Madras Library, a place to seek some peace among the choked city streets