Munnar, Kerala’s best known hill station, is set in a land of undulating hills blanketed by tea estates. But beware, in this dreamy landscape death lurks at every turn.
High up in the valley, under the cool shade of a cardamom plantation, I asked the guide if we could take a stroll into the rain forest. Nitish swiveled his eyes, carefully avoiding mine.
“Madam, there were wild elephants here yesterday.”
In the white heat of the tea estates women sliced fragile new shoots from the tips of shrubs, their razor-sharp shears specially adapted to catch the crop with each snip. Others heaved sacks as big as boulders onto a truck. A man sat in the shade, perfunctorily supervising the women’s work.
Wild elephants? Aren’t they one of the attractions here? I tried an encouraging smile, my excitement fading as he explained the danger.
“Angry elephants will charge and trample everything in their way, madam, including you.”
Stunted and pruned to within an inch of their lives, tea shrubs are packed tightly in manicured rows, like a green candlewick bedspread draped over the rumpled hillsides. Dotted around the slopes, shade-giving acacia trees perforate the swaddled fields. The women move carefully between the bushes.
I glanced at the forest, now dripping with malevolence under its latticework of branches. Myna birds shrieked and glistening tropical flowers pierced the gloom. A shadow shifted in the darkness and a crazed string-puppet butterfly, the size of a bat, lurched out of the gloom.
Nitish, heartened by my hesitation, warned of foxes in these parts. I shrugged, Fantastic Mr Fox didn’t frighten me.
“If they are hungry they will attack you.”
Unlike the sly tricksters of childhood fairy tales, it seems Indian foxes are wild and ferocious, “like small Alsation dogs.” My naïve Jemima Puddle-Duck persistence faltered.
A muffled shriek from the tea fields stopped us dead in our tracks.
Nitish smiled as he went in for the kill, “also, madam, there are snakes.”
The next day we visited a tea museum where monochrome images of puny white men holding guns, each with a foot planted on a dead tiger, were hung in the corridors. Kerala has the highest literacy rate in India, so it brings in manual workers from the poorer, neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. A sign on the wall told us that schools and crèche facilities are provided for its families by the local tea cooperative. Remembering yesterday’s scream, I asked a manager if labouring in the plantations could be dangerous.
“Certainly, our workers get bitten by the occasional snake, but we carry anti-venom and are able to treat bites immediately.”
He informed us that all visitors to India should learn how to identify poisonous snakes.
“If you are attacked you must tell the doctor which snake bit you, so the correct anti-venom can be administered.”
Now, I reckon I can recognise an angry cobra, but with over 270 species of snake in India I decided I should keep my camera handy. If avoidance tactics don’t work, the only way I’m going to be able to explain which would-be slithery assassin has bitten me is to take its photo. Smile please.
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