2/23/2014 – I’d never really understood the term “hairpin turn” until we drove the road to Munnar. From our hotel in Madurai, we crossed the fertile plains planted with cotton, pineapple, coconut and rice to the foothills of the imposing Western Ghats, which divide the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala in South India. The road ascending the mountain was the steepest, twistiest, most harrowing voyage from point A to B imagineinable. As the single lane road snaked up the mountain side it doubled back on itself repeatedly forming shapes that would indeed have functioned well as hairpins for a giant, ignoring the 50 foot vertical drop between each side of the turn. I noted that our bus had both a figurine of Ganesh affixed to the dashboard and a crucifix dangling from the rear view mirror—we were either very well protected or very much in need of luck…

We were not the only ones on the road, of course. Auto-rickshaws and small cars and trucks slithered by us, either hugging the wall of the mountain or veering dangerously close to the plunging ravine on the other side. Then we encountered a bus—a large, red, public bus piled high with men, women, children, bags and I’m sure at few animals. In any other country this bus would have fully filled a lane of traffic—as would our vehicle—but this is India. Along a tight curve, our bus and theirs each performed a careful dance of backing up and correcting their trajectories. Several times we repeating this, inching closer to the sheer wall until finally, incredible, the busses squeezed by eachother as we and the other passengers cheered and clapped through our windows, literal inches away from eachother.

After a few more white-knuckled manuveurs, we reached the pass and began to descend into Kerala. As the wealthiest state in India, the roads on the Kerala side were significantly better maintained and it seemed an engineer may have actually been consulting in determining the grade of the road. Out the window, we watched the vegetation change—the foliage becoming denser and the trees taller and fuller. Plumes of bright green fern-like plants began to fill in every open spot on the forest floor—we soon learned this was cardamom and we were traversing the evocatively-named Cardamom Hills.

Then at a certain elevation the landscape changed again—this time to a carpet of even green shrubs that composed a perfectly-manicured patchwork quilt across the rolling hills—it was tea! Colorfully dressed tea pickers hovered between the clumps of green in a few places, the green expanse dissolving into the mist behind them. We transferred into open-sided jeeps to reach our hotel near Munnar, nestled deep in the tea and spice covered hills. As we unpacked, it dawned on me—it was quiet—a very rare commodity in India.

In the following days, we discovered a very different side of India than we’d seen so far. A verdant land of plenty, populated by self-sustaining farmers supporting their families handsomely through the sale of cardamom, ginger, turmeric, coffee, cocoa, tamarind and black pepper. Alongside, tea pickers lived in planned villages, provided with their own gardens, sturdy homes and childcare facilities. After independance, Kerala was ruled by the world’s first democratically-elected communist government—and their gamble seems to have paid off…