A few days ago l left Fort Kochin in a crashing rainstorm for the most intrepid part of my adventure so far. I was heading, by bus, to the bird sanctuary at Thattekkad in the jungle-clad hills of the Western Ghats alongside the Periyar River, Kerala's biggest. To me, this was so thrilling as I changed to rural buses at chaotic bus stations, where I was the only white face to be seen and indecipherable Malayalam the only language for bus destinations. From among the bemused stares of locals and my imploring stares back, people emerged to help me out and I made it, without a hitch, to the sanctuary; alighting at a point when it seemed the entire bus were yelling, "Get off here you idiot, it's why we've stopped the bus." My accommodation was a homestay in the jungle, run by the kindest, sweetest and most fiercely independent woman I've met here. She lost her husband to cancer at just 33 and has fought poverty, prejudice and her own culture to build a successful homestay and, just recently, bought a plot of land to grow bananas, tapioca and papayas, which she proudly showed me round. She is also a teaching assistant at the local school so she took me for a morning there too. I felt so welcomed and at home there and, as it turns out, I sleep like a baby to the sounds of a jungle. Having grown up right there, her expertise meant I saw loads of incredible tropical birds as well as giant squirrels, tree frogs and had my first close encounters with cheeky monkeys.