Today we are heading into the hills to the spice capital of India, the Periyar National Park, specifically to Thekkady our next stop on this amazing tour of southern India. Sadly there is a problem with lack of water in this area due to Tamil Nadu taking off too much of its fair share before the water reaches Periyar and it is suffering as a result. There is little wildlife able to survive without its usual watering holes so there's little likelihood of spotting any interesting animals here these days. Human beings being rubbish yet again. One day we will all learn to live together fairly, sharing the world's resources between states, nations and with our planet and its many, no less important inhabitants the birds and beasties.
We get another joke of the day from the person sitting in the allotted 'joke teller' seat in the bus. 'What do you call a row of rabbits walking backwards?'... 'A receding hare-line!' After the requisite groans we settle in for another long drive watching the scenery change along the way from the advertising hoards and bustle of the outskirts of Madurai to the lush greenery of the hills. We stop off
at another strange little journey breaker at a hotel this one having some little budgies in a cage that we take pity on, one of our group giving them some Keralan greenery to eat. And then it's back into the bus climbing, climbing. There is evidence of India's first forays into renewables when we pass wind turbines marching off in regimented rows into the hazy distance. When we are winding up the hair-pin bend roads we see huge black pipes running down the side of the hill and wonder if this is something to do with water transportation or even hydro power. With the Tamil Nadu water stealing issue this seems unlikely. I'd also seen fields full of solar panels earlier in the trip. It's a long road to freeing the world from is choke hold on fossil fuels and the resultant climate change and pollution it causes. Glad to see baby steps from India who churns out its fair share of noxious fumes.
Soon we are pulling up alongside a roadside spice shop and there's a sign to the 'Green Land Spice Garden'. We begin to wander down the track lined with gorgeous plants, flowers and fruits. We
come across a massive wrinkly yellow fruit the size of a rugby ball and wonder what it is. Someone tentatively suggests a lemon. It can't be, surely! It's so huge! I stick my nail in the pithy outer covering and sniff. Yep, it's a lemon! Now that would make one hell of a sacrifice!
Around the corner we are met by Shinod who lives and works at this spice plantation. The plants, flowers and fruits ID comes thick and fast now we've got an expert with us. We see some beautiful yellow blooms that point upwards with a small white petals coming out of the top. These are aptly named candle flowers. We see cardamon which we find out is collected every 40 days and sent off to be dried. Shinod pulls down a branch and points to the little yellow buds and I recognise the shape straight away as cloves! Again these buds are collected and then sent off to be dried when they become either the black/brown cloves we are used to (80% are this variety) or the better quality reddish brown ones (20% are this variety).
Next we are shown a flowering plant that looks
a bit like an upside down, red and yellow foxglove. Shinod gets us to hold out our hands, takes a petal 'cup' off the plant and then pours the nectar from the petal into our palms for us to taste! It does indeed taste sweet. We see green passionfruit and mini aubergine hanging from branches twisting around the trees. Next we are given something to sniff and we all come up with suggestions of various spices it could be - clove? cinnamon? nutmeg? In fact it turns out to be all of these as it's none other than 'All Spice'. I hadn't realised this came from one plant, thinking it was a blend of spices (which it is in some places who con us into thinking their blend is the real thing). We see rose apples (tiny white berries that look like knobbly apples), vanilla which we find out has a very complicated drying pattern involving being wrapped in blankets over various timings. We again see coffee with its white, jasmine like flowers. The variety here is robusta which produces coffee with 6% caffine as opposed to the coffee made in Colombia which yields 12% caffine.
Our next surprise
comes from something we can recognise the smell from but it doesn't look like the little pots of basil we have on our kitchen windowsills - this is a basil TREE! Rather than being used for cooking it's used for its medicinal properties. We also learn about the Steria plant whose leaves provide an alternative sweetener to sugar. It is 300 times the strength of sugar but has no calories. It is dried and made into a powder.
Next we find out about the hot, hot, hot plants. There's a small, red, peri peri chillie and then we learn about the pepper plant. The different types of pepper, black, white and green (nope, I'd not heard of that either!) are all taken from the same plant. Green is the earliest pick fruits taken from the plants in December and January and then dried. To get black pepper the corms are picked in February and March and have to be cooked and then dried, but for the white pepper a wait until April/May is needed when the fruits are fully ripe when they are dried. Shinod showed us how the skins of the corms are taken off revealing the colour
My daughters would have loved the next plant because when you squeeze the berries out comes juice that looks just like a big drop of blood on your hand. Sadly I can't remember the name of this one so we won't be able to try and grow it in our garden back home.
We see a cocoa plant and a big bean in its husk that a squirrel has had a go at. There is a big hole in it, but we don't see the squirrel. If we had I'm sure it would be denying everything whilst simultaneously wiping chocolate from around its mouth!
An innocuous looking gnarly root showing above the ground near the path is our next fascinating find. We are shown a single leaf spike sticking out of the ground about a metre or so away from this exposed root and it is actually the same plant. It's the root that is used and turns out to be tumeric. We also see a cinnamon tree and find out that the inner bark is taken and rolled to make the cinnamon sticks we use in cooking.
So now comes a list of other
plants, fruits, flowers and spices that we saw: Cocoa, gardinia, henna tree, avacado, collandiar, jack fruit and nutmeg.
We learn from Shinod that there's not been any rain all year, none! It's hard to believe when you look around and see how succulent and green everything looks. Despite the water shortages his plants get quite a bit of watering. We all agree this has been one of the most enjoyable visits of the trip and absolutely fascinating. We all buy quite a bit of stuff at the spice shop back at the roadside, enthused by finding out about all the plants and their uses.
We get back on the road and are very soon at our next hotel in Thakkedy. Bizarrely a couple of hours later the heavens open and there's a complete crashing, flashing thunder storm! After Shinod saying it hasn't rained all year we feel we have brought him good luck from rainy Europe.
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