Periyar is one of the most popular destinations for Indian tourists (Glancy later on told me that a lot of newlyweds also go to Periyar on their honeymoon) and I actually didn’t see a lot of foreigners in town. But those who chose to do a 3 hour walk in Periyar with a local tribal guide were mostly foreigners. The domestic tourists were all on big boats that went around the Periyar lake. Glancy met me at 6:45 in the morning and drove me to the park where I met my tribal guide. We first put on long cotton socks that went up to our knees to protect ourselves from leeches. Since it hadn’t been raining the likelihood of leeches sucking blood from my toes was minimal but I was more than happy to put on the socks. I was also very happy that I got to go on a solo walk with my guide. For the first hour or so, we were basically silent as my guide stopped every few minutes to listen, look, and sniff for animals. We spotted some wild chickens first. They were in a group of 5 or so and were very colorful. After that, we crossed a small stream and started walking in the woods. My guide seemed to just walk wherever he felt like going. There were no trails or paths, and I had no idea which way was up, down, in, or out. We walked under bushes, over fallen trees, stepping in elephant poo, tree branches snapping and almost blinding me, etc. About 15 or 20 minutes wandering around in the woods my guide stopped suddenly. He listened for a second, picked up the pace, and motioned to me to follow. A few yards later he stopped, grabbed my arms to turn me to my left side and pointed. I was a bit disoriented and it took me a few seconds of straining my eyes to see what he wanted me to see. And I glimpsed something rather large in the bushes. It wasn’t a tiger but I did see a huge bison, just for a few seconds… After that, my guide started to talk to me a bit and asked me the usual questions. Where am I from, how old am I, what do I do for a living, do I have a husband, why am I traveling alone, etc. I found out that he is 43, married, and has two daughters who are 12 and 11. His tribe lives just on the other side of the mountain, there are 375 families in his tribe, and 22 of the tribal men work as Periyar forest guides. And his name? Ayappa! He was going to make the pilgrimage himself in the next few days… Really. They are everywhere (see here for my post about Ayappa worshippers)!
The large bison, as it turned out, was the most exciting thing I saw all morning. But I spotted something that Ayappa, my guide, did not. I had to point out this brown animal with a long tail to him as it was disappearing into the forest. Not having had a good look at the animal, he tried to suggest that perhaps it was a baby tiger (he repeatedly asked me about the color, whether the tail was bushy, etc) but in the end, we agreed that it was a wild dog. We then walked to a large clearing that led to a lake where three days ago Ayappa saw signs of a tiger. He said that elephants and bison like to come to this water source in the morning, but this morning there was a group of three tourists that were yapping away (one of them was on his mobile phone!) and there was no way that we were going to see anything. Ayappa was disgruntled by the noisy tourists and quickly led me away; I had to calm him down and told him it was OK and that I was happy that I saw a bison and to be just walking in the woods. Since it was getting later in the morning and we really weren’t going to see any large animals, our walk turned into him teaching me about the various plants, trees, and flowers in the sanctuary. Along the way, he also had me pronounce various words in his own tribal language as well as in Malayalam, the language of Kerala. He pointed out a white orchid with a jasmine like smell, and told me that in his tribe they call this flower the “lover’s plant” because when a man falls in love with a woman he picks this flower for her. He went on to show me giant green spiders, touch-me-not’s, orchids growing on top of trees, he helped me listen for woodpeckers, and find a few gorgeous beetles.
On the way out, Ayappa and I located a family of black monkeys. Under a very tall tree, I observed 8 of them all jumping from the same series of tree branches one after another, as if the leader wrote out clear directions to the rest of the group and they all had to follow the specified route. Ayappa said that as the sun rises and the forest gets hotter, most of the animals retreat deeper into the cooler, denser forest. In fact, the Periyar forest area was a lot colder than the backwaters and I had to put on my fleece in the morning. By 10 AM we finished our walk and said our goodbyes. Ayappa said to me that he hopes one day to open a small business. I wish him all the best…
In the afternoon, my local guide took me to a family spice farm where he taught me the basics of the Indian spices and rubber making. Owned and operated by three brothers, this farm allowed visitors to come by and walk around their property. They also had elephant rides so I had a chance to see an Indian elephant up close. I got to see, touch, smell, and taste cardamom, all spice, cinnamon, Indian basil, and turmeric, and saw coffee beans (I have not yet had any Keralan filtered coffee but will do so soon), and cocoa plants (Keralans produce chocolate). I learned that from one pepper plant, which is a crawler, you get green peppers (3 months), black peppers (6 months), and white peppers (9 months). I also learned that Indian women use hibiscus leaves as natural shampoo; you crush or chop them up, mix with some water, and voila! You have shampoo. And finally, I learned how Keralans produce rubber sheets for export.
Aside from banana plants and coconut trees, there are millions of rubber trees in Kerala. All three products are exported heavily and recently the price of rubber has been increasing daily, making rubber very profitable (the going rate was 210 rupees per kilo when I was at this family farm in Kumily this week ~ about $5 USD for 1 kg or 2.2 lbs). Almost every family with some land has rubber trees and makes these distinctive rubber sheets to sell to larger rubber manufacturing companies. First, the rubber trees are scored and the sap is collected in small cups at the base of the trees. You can collect a cup full in the morning and return in the evening for another round.
Next, the sap/rubber is shaped into large rectangular shaped sheets. Then using a giant pasta roller like contraption, you squeeze as much water as you can out of them and just like pasta, you run the sheets through the machine a few times to make them thinner and thinner. Once it’s the thinness you want, you run it through the machine again, on the far end of the machine this time, where it stamps out tiny little square patterns all over the sheet of rubber.
The sheet is then hung dry out in the sun for a week or two (depending on the weather and temperature) and then finally smoked to finish out the whole process. The end product resembles a car floor mat. As you drive through Kerala, you can see sheets and sheets of rubber hanging out to dry everywhere.
Although Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary proved a bit disappointing, I had an educational and fun two days there. Next up for me, the tea plantations of Munnar…