I can remember comments about American tourists when I was a child – large cameras, loud voices, loud shirts. They were soon replaced as the stereotypical tourist by the Japanese – equally large cameras, shepherded by placard-carrying guides. Today it seems to be Chinese tourists, or sometimes Russians that are the stereotype – large cameras often replaced by cellphones but equally numerous.
I’ll make a prediction that the next tourist stereotype will be the Indian tourists. They are numerous enough, with a developing economy and increasing middle class. They have an advantage as travellers too – since English is more commonly spoken, Indian tourists are likely to be more independent than the Japanese and Chinese tourists.
Mostly, they are still tourists around India – with such a large, diverse and fascinating country, with so many regional languages, they can feel like they are in a foreign country without bothering with a passport or visa. Kerala is a popular destination, as I discovered today visiting the tourist spots of Munnar. But on my flight from New Zealand to Singapore, I was surrounded by Indians returning from a New Zealand tour. So it’s starting. Wellington, brace yourself.
I have to say I’m looking forward to the arrival of throngs of Indian tourists in Wellington. Wellingtonians stare at me for my colourful clothes as I walk down the street. I expect this black-clothed city to have some sort of spasm at the colour explosion that Indian tourists will bring.
Of course, tourists tend to do similar things whatever their nationality. Today I watched endless couples photograph eachother in front of the view. Some will ask someone to take a picture of them together – I took a couple of pictures for couples myself. Many feel the need to be photographed against every attraction – the park entrance, the visitors centre, the utterly indifferent Nilgiri thar which just kept quietly grazing at the roadside.
The Nilgiri thar is a highly endangered species and the world’s largest population is found in the precipitous Eravikulam National Park. They’re a wild animal, yet they act as if people are rocks. They don’t respond to voices, shrieking children, movement, bright fluttering saris and dupattas, or even an occasional autorickshaw straining its 2-stroke engine up the mountain. But they show no interest either – clearly, they haven’t been tamed with food or hand-rearing. People are simply invisible to them. Move along, nothing to see here.
My visit to Eravikulam was on a weekend, and so I had to contend with the queues of locals as well as tourists from elsewhere in India and a few foreigners. And I soon discovered that, apart from the views and the thar, that Eraviklam had another tourist atraction that day – the strange white lady wearing salwar kameez. I’ve been somewhat protected from curious attention by the company of locals for most of my time here. But now I was conspicuously alone, and that is uncommon enough for a female tourist, without the novelty of local dress. (I should add here that foreign tourists tend to stare at me more than locals. To the locals, I’m unusual but appropriate, to foreign tourists in shorts and t-shirts, I’m bizarre. I’ve seen only one other westerner wearing local dress, and she was resident here.)
My starring role as a tourist attraction started with one boy requesting a photograph, and before I had left the mountain, I had been photographed with numerous teenage boys and girls. I suppose that thar (which just look like plain brown goats) and scenery are not much excitement for teenagers.
This entertainment continued later in the day when I visited one of the other local attractions, a flower garden. This time, I became an object of great excitement for a group of students on a school visit from St Thomas’s School in Andhra Pradesh. Initially, one of the teachers asked if he and some of the students could be photographed with me, after that every student wanted a picture with me taken on their cellphone. I also encountered India’s legenary national passion for cricket for the first time. The Kerala people seem more interested in football, but the Andhra Pradesh students, on discovering I was from New Zealand, began delightedly shrieking “Brendan McCullum”, “Ross Taylor”, “Tim Southee”.
My presence at the tea muesum provoked no comment or interest whatsoever, and I was a little relieved. The museum is part of the Kenan Devan Tea Company, which appears to be one of the major brands, since I’ve seen Kenan Devan tea at the supermarket in Kochi. I was curious as to how the tea estates work, in particular how they remained as huge estates during the communist government’s land reforms during the 1950s/ 1960s. Unfortunately the otherwise informative documentary about the history of the company glossed over this period, noting that the government had nationalised the estate but then given it back in a couple of years, rather than breaking it up. I don’t know whether this was better or worse for the people.
One thing I noticed was that the houses of the employees on and around tea estates look to be of a much lower standard than the average houses I’ve seen around Kerala. On the Kennan Devan estate, a lot of the homes appeared to be rows of small, single-storey flats. In the roads around my Munnar hotel (on a tea plantation), a lot of the houses seemed to be 2 room cottages, some unpainted and without glassed windows (just metal bars and shutters or plastic). There were electricity lines running to the houses and they were clearly lit at night. But I saw a woman carrying a big water container and balancing another on her head, suggesting that some people don’t have their own well or other access to water at their house. I’m not sure how good my assessment of relative wealth is though, since it’s based almost entirely on what I’ve seen out of car windows. (I’ve since seen houses of similar size and condition around the paddy fields Allepuzha, so it may be more that agricultural workers in general are poorly paid.)
One interesting point about the Kennan Devan Estate is that since 2005 it has been owned as a cooperative by the estate workers, many of whom have been on the estate for generations. So maybe things are changing there.
My visit to the tea museum provided the stunning revelation that in making tea, the tea itself should not be boiled. This was presented to the largely Indian group doing the museum tour as a novelty – first boil water, then remove the water from the heat and add tea. And milk (separately boiled) should be added after adding the tea. This is completely contrary to Indian tea making, where not only the water but the milk is boiled along with the tea (and copious quantities of sugar).
The undoubted highlight of my day as a tourist in Munnar was the Kalaripayattu (Kerala martial arts) show. I’d read somewhere that Kerala has spectacular martial arts, and I was not disappointed. Kalaripayattu emphasises flexibility and agility, as well as the use of an alarming array of weapons. There were wooden and metal sticks, spears, daggers, swords and shields, fist daggers, flaming sticks, flaming rings and a flexible sword. The flexible sword is a double sword, with two long flexible blades on the same handle, whirled around almost like a whip. The noise alone is terrifying.
At times I questioned my choice to pay extra for a “premium” seat – which turned out to be front row, and felt very close to the action. Even with the regular sword fighting, there were sparks flying from the contact of sword on sword or sword on shield. While I didn’t feel that the audience was actually in danger, it was clear that the performers could be badly hurt if something went wrong. They did take occasional safety precautions by putting down a gymnasium mattress when they were doing some of the more spectacular jumps – like leaping head first through three flaming hoops. While I’m at a loss to see how a flaming hoop could be much use a weapon, it was certainly impressive, and I could feel the heat from the flames too.
After the performance, I had another opportunity for tourist-watching, as many went down to the arena to talk to the performers and pose with their weapons. Fortunately, I had ceased to be of any interest.