The weather app had forecast a sprightly sun hiding behind a cloud leaking four pinstripes of rain, for Munnar. It defiantly stuck to its point of view despite the sky blazing an uncomfortably hot shade of blue a couple of hours into our journey from Erunakulam, the closest railway station to our hilltop destination.
The air began to cool as the bus rattled into the winding roads of the Idukki terrain. Munnar was still a few cloud encrusted mountains away. Our rollercoaster ride for most parts had us praying in their direction, as vehicles missed us by the breadth of an elephant’s hair, while the driver lustily swayed to the soundtrack of a Yesudas mixtape. “Welcome to Kerala,” said a co-passenger sitting to my left, making an easy presumption from my appearance that I wasn't from around there. He popped a peanut down the same route from which his next words popped at me: “What’s your salary?” “Peanuts,” I replied. He didn't like me. Nor my joke. I could tell.
And in that way Kerala and Malayalees are simple. It is all very, very obvious here. The land is green, the people frank, the politics red, the women beautiful and the rain falls in pinstripes.
Munnar announces itself to visitors from a few kilometres away with overexuberant tourists congregating at bridges and waterfalls and pools of mountain water, catcalling and howling and littering with abandon. The constellation of lights that the hills are smeared with, have their nucleus in the town bus station. Around here, rooms with a mountainside view come at a premium. We make do with less while aiming to do better the next day. Cheap wine and exhaustion puts us to sleep while a toothless boar keeps me company in dreams.
October sunshine in Munnar has the invigorating power of an early morning shower. Now, for the first time we could see Munnar properly, and although the view was still of a town catering to tourists through even the gaps between its toenails, foreboding patches of black from the night were all revealed to be green; the sky, the envy of sapphires. On our way to Rocha’s (a restaurant with a chessboard for a drive in), an auto veered out of a curve with one wheel in the air, and screeched to a halt right next to me. This was our first meeting with Robin. With very little need for invitation he got out and began to plan our visit to Munnar for us before all three wheels of his rickshaw had touched land. “Sir,” he said with an outstretched palm and a nod of the head. “Four roads. Ok? One. Mattupetty. Two. Coimbatore. Three. Cochin. And Four. Thekkady.” After which he pulled out a laminated pamphlet with a list of sights to visit in each of these four roads. We merely wanted breakfast. “Breakfast,” we told him. He nodded confidently and started “Four roads. Ok? One. Mattupetty. Two. Coimbatore...”
We politely declined Robin, while promising to call him in case we changed our minds. Robin, like most rickshaw drivers around the place, offers a comprehensive sightseeing tour of all the places worth visiting in these parts. Jeep and cars offer the same tour, but fall on the higher side of the price spectrum. Locals and broke travel writers use the more economical, less functional, but no less glamorous option of the bus service. Our destination was en route to Mattupetty, the famed Top Station, the pride de jure of the Munnar sightseeing roster.
The Munnar landscape is the most vibrant along the road to Mattupetty. Along this road, the tale of this enchanted mountain province begins to unwind. The road unspools with leisure, winding knots around tea estates that are more than a hundred years old, and jungle lands to whom hundred-year-olds are like adolescents. The mountain streams of Muthirapuzha, Nallathanni and Kundala flow older still, nourishing Munnar and thus staking control over her name: three rivers, 'Mun-nadi'. Their cold green waters fall like the drapes of a silk sari on Munnar’s supple green landscape, gurgling their will to control more of her. But Munnar is as willful as she is gorgeous. And she loves to show skin.
It was the British who first noticed that among the many crops that they had experimented with along these slopes, the acidic soil of the rainswept mountains showered a special tenderness towards bushes of evergreen tea. Our journey to the Top Station was an ode to this love affair. On the way we cross Mattupetty lake created by the embankment of the Mattupetty hydroelectric dam. Picnickers flock to these parts and the air around here is of revelry. Boats and their speedier counterparts course the lake and although we saw none of them, elephants often get together in these parts, at the end of a long day for a quiet drink.
The Top Station affords a view unlike any other of the valleys below. It was from here that ancient ropeways carried batches of tea down into the markets. And while vestiges of those days still persist, the overwhelming chatter around here is of tourists and groups of pedlars selling wares and trekking programmes that culminate under the stars. Most of the resident population are Tamil, owing to the proximity of the place to the Tamil Nadu border. And I spotted more than the odd local, sporting an unusual redness in their eyes. You could presume it has something to do with the elevation at which they stay. Or you could presume that it has something to do with the Idukki district in which Munnar is located. My calculated guess is that it’s a little bit of both.
At the Top Station, we resign to a homestay which you won't find advertised anywhere in Munnar. The scouts of this place sell tea at the entrance of Top Station. They appraise and inform only those they deem fit, about Manos’ homestay. Luckily we were hip enough for their liking. After a visit to the famed Echo Point at the base of the Top Station, we retired to the homestay, which is a small cluster of three shacks located inside a tea plantation’s territory. The stay is rustic, clean, and just the sort of cosmic diversion that the senses crave when someone plans a vacation.
The owner Manos (short for Manohar) is quite the character as well. He is an old man, unnaturally fit and ebullient for his age, missing a few essential teeth that do little to undermine the beam of his smile, and is magnificent at using no more than a single word to communicate entire pages worth of dialogue. There are several treks that one can embark on from the Top Station, and Manos is, if not the best, then definitely the most trustworthy of all those with whom you can scale the surrounding hills. And if you are particularly adventurous, with the right amount of time and money, he can guide you all the way to Kodaikanal through the forests. We had neither, so we politely declined.
That evening it rained in Munnar. The same pinstripe rain that we were growing all too familiar with. We walked along the road for hours to discover that between all the popular tourist stops, Munnar is still as wild and verdant and solitary as it was half a century ago. And it is by walking these stretches with no particular destination or purpose in mind that you truly understand what it is to be a part of this place. The air feels like lungfuls of balm for pain that you didn't even know you've been carrying. Sunsets that make the sky feel proud of its artistry. And the omnipresence of tea, that magical elixir that paints the hills a ripe green unlike any you will have seen. You hear the roar of vehicles from a mile away, and even if you spot one below or above, you will never guess whether it is coming or going until it passes right by you. And once they pass, the silence that returns like a self-correcting bubble in which if you listen real hard, you can hear your heartbeat, or a stream gurgle. Or the swift release of steam from a kettle letting you know that a hot cup of tea (served with milk in the day, and served only black in the evenings) is always nearby.
At night, Manos organises a campfire for his guests and tells us stories from his treks. Of the people he has met and the places he has been. “Once," he says, pointing at his chest, “I, Mumbai”. “You like?” I ask. He replies with a wince and a dismissive wave of his hands. Suddenly he sparks his flashlight to life and paints it across the hills. “Sometimes animals.” “Deer? Bison? Elephants?” we ask. He nods, agreeing to all three, as his pet dog quietly steals the banana bread from inside our room and takes it back to its kennel. “Sometimes leopard. Bear. One time tiger.”
With fear pulling at our insides, we ask, “Should we be afraid?” He grins his toothless smile and gets up to leave, “No. No. Just no toilet at night. Ok? Ok,” he says and walks off.
At 2 am, the grunt of an animal pawing at our doorstep woke us up. A few seconds later Manos shouts at something. The sound of something scampering away was followed by a stick smacking against the ground several times. It could have been the dog coming for seconds on the banana bread. That’s what we told ourselves. But most definitely, no toilet at night.
Early next morning we head back into town. Munnar’s gastronomical delights do not stray too far beyond her flushes of tea, and a simple array of local food. There is a Saravana Bhavan here that is more Tamil Vadiyar than Malayalee Namboodri. More filter coffee than tea. There are also a bunch of restaurants advertising North Indian cuisine but we weren't brave enough to set foot in them.
We called Robin up that morning to take us to Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary, the extreme end of his “Road No. 2 to Coimbatore” tour. We had ventured a mere three kilometres from town and already the transformation in our surroundings were making their subtle nuances known. We were in the rain shadow territory of the ghats, which meant lesser rainfall, and a much more oppressive sun. The land was green here as well, but not the thriving, lush kind, but of a more resilient, a more gritty variety. Like the not-so-talented younger sibling that grew a tougher hide and a stronger spine to keep up.
Robin shares Manos’ communicative trademark in his one-word breakdowns. But he lacks the toothless trekker’s finesse.
On the way we spot Anaimudi, the tallest peak of the western ghats, that epitomises the strength of the place, in its formidable stature, towering over the valley like some primordial titan, that has seen his fair share of battles and now chooses to sit back and delegate. We make a pitstop at the Nyamakad waterfalls, which is too crowded with tourists and primates, to make for a peaceful retreat. As we go deeper into the Coimbatore bound road, the traffic grows so sparse that one could fancy a nap in the middle of the road. The wildlife sanctuary of Chinnar is a ride through the very same road, and by the end of the trip, we are spent.
As Robin points at the sandalwood trees, that have made the forests of Marayoor famous, we offer our attention to them through half open eyelids. At the apex of this trip lies Chinnar’s Wildlife Sanctuary office. To get through its gates we would need to set forth on foot, and opt for paid treks, that included jungle trails that led to a small shack next to a rarely visited waterfall, and a visit to Dolmens which are archaeological remnants of a prehistoric race that lived in these woods. We chose to head back, depleted in energy and daunted by a sun that had bruised even the Nilgiri Tahr, the most prolific fauna of the land, into hiding. Our journey back felt anti climactic.
Somewhere along the three-hour journey, Robin picked up on our vibes. And just as the 10-kilometre milestone to Munnar passed us by, he stopped the auto, and asked us to accompany him into an obscure jungle path. And with the suddenness of a Munnar rainshower, the foliage just parted to reveal the most private and pristine of waterfalls, that Robin unveiled to us with a wide grin and a magician’s flourish. “My waterfall.” He then immediately stoppered his lips with his finger which had us looking furtively for a Bengal tiger around us, when what Robin really meant was that nobody knows about it. And that he would like to keep it that way. We bathed in the waters and bounced around the laterite of the waterfall for the next few hours. When Robin asked what we thought of it, we didn't reply with words. We hugged hithree-hourim into the waters and dived in after. Like the people, the land, the politics, and the rain in Kerala for those unforgettable few moments, at the place we baptised Robin’s Waterfall, we were soaked and were dripping obvious.
Our next stop was Thekkady, where we met the kings of cool, watched the living crap being beaten out of people in an arena and walked around with a trumpet that gives you powers of mind control.
But that's a story for another time. Read the second part of the Kerala Travellogue here
The author is a freelance writer and contributes to several lifestyle and travel magazines. Follow the author @jokesapaat