Yelagiri – The lake and the landscapes

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I walked around the periphery of the Yelagiri lake on a Wednesday afternoon when its surroundings were pleasantly free of any touristic activity. A stray family or two were paddling in its waters and the only people around were the people who lived and worked in the town. The place had an air of lethargy about it and I half felt like taking a cue from the people running the canteen and slumbering on the bird-shit stained benches lying about.

Part of the periphery of the lake was embellished with a walking track of sorts. A little ahead was a bridge where I idled for a while watching kingfishers leap into the waters for a meal. Also fishing for a lunch by a cabin near one end of the bridge were two fishermen whom I managed to distract from their routines by pointing a camera in their direction. They signalled me over to sit by their side to watch them fish and take their pictures. When I began talking to them, they indicated with their hands that they were mute. So I sat silently watching them fish. Their technique was crude with a long line of string and a bait at the end of it. But judging by the catch they had accumulated, it must be highly effective.

Further down the trail, I came by a small straw-roofed shack where the woman running it was on the verge of packing up. I asked for a cup of tea which the woman gleefully made. I was her only customer for the entire day, she said sorrowfully. It was only on the weekends that she made any money but since it was her only means of livelihood, she lugged her shop all the way here every day. A sombre-looking man was watching our conversation from the sidelines and when the woman went away, I tried engaging him in conversation. But he began pestering me for money and I scooted away as quickly as I could.

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One of the more adventurous things to do in the Yelagiris is to take a rickshaw to the village of Mangalam and climb Swami Malai, the holy mountain that’s also the highest peak in the area. I read a few blogs which claimed this place offered panoramic views of the entire region. I wasn’t witness to these legendary views because I was a cheapskate. I went alone without a guide and had to abort the climb halfway after two snarling dogs blocked my way. Back in Hotel Aruvi, the manager looked at my depressive shell pitifully and offered to escort me to a point which he insisted had the best views this side of Swami Malai.

So we rode on his bike, stopped at the Tourist Information Center and crossed what looked to be a broken fence wall to enter a dense forest area. The climb was gentle over a rocky terrain punctuated with rocky shrubs. When we reached the top, the sweeping views down to the plains made me swoon. The manager beckoned me to a ledge at the edge of the precipice. I have vertigo and avoid all edges as a rule but he pulled me over and made me sit on a rocky shelf.

From the ledge, one could see all the way from Jolarpettai on the left to the larger town of Vaniyambadi flickering in the haze on the right.  In the deep distance in front of us, we saw the Andhra Pradesh border bisected by the Kothur Hills with their misshaped heads and abstract outlines. Sunset was a couple of hours away and I told the manager that I could be done with my pictures and make a move in case he wants to get back to work. But he was insistent that I stay until the sun goes down.

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While I was clicking a ton of pictures from the precipitous ledge, I tried to learn more about the manager and where he came from. He wasn’t from the Yelagiris, he said, but from a village much further south. He came here a few years ago with his friends for a holiday. While they were having fun, he got to speak with the owner of the property.  The owner offered him a job and he never left. With time, the owner became so comfortable with his work that he let the manager handle everything from bookings to housekeeping. His mother too lived in the property now and whenever he had to take guests like myself on an excursion, she took care of the people who arrived in his absence.

I couldn’t converse with him for too long because he was bombarded with phone calls from people looking for rooms on the weekend. Soon, he climbed a spur to sit and answer the barrage of calls in peace. Judging by his side of the conversations, everyone appeared to want a cheaper deal than the already ridiculously inexpensive rates the Hotel was offering. I admired the calm resilience with which he dealt with these requests.

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I sat quietly by the ledge the rest of time. Having taken exponentially more shots than I needed earlier, all there was left to do was to sit quietly, stare at the hills in the distance and wait for the sunset hour. My attention was momentarily distracted by a gecko which peeked out of the rocks. It slid, jumped, tumbled between the holes and crevices of the terrain. I watched it lash its elastic tongue and catch a fly out of thin air. It must have been a satisfying meal because it disappeared back into the cracks in the rocks after this bit of action, presumably back home.

Sunset was quite spectacular. All the haze in the distance meant the sun turned orange long before it hit the horizon while the hills and the plains turned bluer and murkier. As the manager and I were enjoying this spectacle, we heard noises behind us. A group of two boys and two girls came huffing and hurrying up the rocks. “See? I told you. It’s beautiful, right?”, yelled one of the boys as soon as they made it to the ledge. “Wow”, screamed the girls, “this is amazing.” They were from Bangalore, I learnt in a minute’s small talk, and it was a long weekend owing to an Id holiday. Since the serenity of the moment had been well and truly destroyed and I’d had my fill of peace and quiet, I climbed down and let them have the ledge to themselves.

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The next morning, when I was checking out, I realised I hadn’t paid the manager anything to guide me up to the viewpoint. I quit my budget traveller mode and whipped out a couple of hundred rupee notes as a tip. But the manager refused to take it. I was a friend, he said, and the next time I visited, he would happily escort me to Swamimalai.

Beyond alluring places and landscapes, it reminded me why I still traveled over 9 years on. Being on the road makes you less cynical and believe genuine goodness and humanity still thrived in the world.

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Yelagiri – Getting there, the Streets and the People

Yelagiri, about 90 kms south of Vellore, is an unassuming cluster of villages at an altitude of over a 1,100 meters providing welcome respite from the heat to people living in the scorching plains around. It’s the closest thing to a hill station around Chennai and the hotels and restaurants, I heard, are packed to droves with people on holidays and weekends.

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I took a train from Chennai to Jolarpettai, a town about 13 kms from Yelagiri. Here, at a junction on the highway, I had to wait for hours for a Yelagiri bus to come by, hours that felt like an eternity in the bright summer heat. Rickshaw drivers saw my unhappy face staring cluelessly in the distance and asked if I wanted to go with them for 500 Rs. But I was playing in extreme budget travel mode and absurdly controlled my urge to take the easy way out. Matters were made considerably worse by the fact that, when one of the buses did arrive, I had been taking a respite from the heat in the shade of a tea stall and before I could leap over to where the bus was, it had bolted away. After this fiasco, the rickshaw guys appeared even more willing to give me a ride but my resolve had only toughened. After pointlessly wasting another hour by the roadside, this time not moving an inch, eventually I found myself in a tottering bus on the winding road to Yelagiri.

Since I went on a Tuesday and left before the alleged crowds hit on Friday, I wasn’t witness to the spectacle of mass tourism I had heard about. In fact, in my case, the opposite was true. Many of the restaurants were shut, the tourist sites felt forlorn and unloved and the hotels were vacant and lonely. It was difficult for me to imagine the place overrun with tourists because there was so little infrastructure to support such an influx. Nevertheless, I was assured by the amiable and moustachioed manager of my hotel that come the weekend, I would find it difficult to find a room no matter how much I was willing to pay.

My hotel was called Aruvi and appeared to be custom-built for cheerful families, complete with a garden, a play area with slides and swings and a big, gaudy sculpture of snow-white swans with yellow beaks perched on a bright-blue platform adorning the entrance. At 500 Rs. a night (thanks to fabulous discounts on goibibo), my room was a steal. It was impeccably clean, there was a western commode and a geyser for hot water. The manager apologetically informed me that they had shut down the in-house restaurant on weekdays because of a lack of clientele. If only I had arrived on a weekend…

Food, was a problem. The closest place open was 200 meters down the road and was filled with what appeared to be locals and people working in the area. Generally everyone eating here knew everyone else and as the protocol went, they had to stare suspiciously at the one person who didn’t belong. On the first night, the man I was sharing a table with proudly announced to everyone assembled that he had had a fight with his wife and was thrown out to fend for himself. The food was terrible and the only edible options were (extremely greasy) dosas and parotas accompanied by (extremely oily) omelettes. After two days of eating here, I wondered how I hadn’t collapsed with a heart attack.

When I told the manager how terrible my meals were, he suggested I walk down to Hotel Hills, a somewhat fancier dining place. The restaurant here was so desolate, two of the waiters had slumped over the table catching a siesta. Neither of them looked happy when they saw my hungry face staring expectantly around the room waiting for someone to get a menu. I waited patiently at my corner table until a more senior staff walked in and nudged one of the dozing waiters in my direction. They didn’t have any of the thalis or the South Indian dishes and only served the more expensive Punjabi food. Thankfully, it wasn’t entirely the catastrophe I thought it would be as (and I’m sure it had something to do with the terrible food I’d been eating) the vegetable korma was, if not delicious, certainly satisfying and the rotis to go with were soft enough without being chewy.

I spent my first day walking around Kottaiyur and Athanavoor, two of the main settlements in the area. There was an informal market at the junction of the two near the main entrance to the lake. Here street vendors selling colourful trinkets and fluffy, obscenely gaudy dolls sat glumly waiting for customers to show up, women laughed and gossiped by the fruit stalls selling locally grown guavas, pineapples and watermelons in front of the bright red and yellow striped temple walls, tourists tested their plastic gun skills by taking shots at balloons hung on a white cardboard wall and the pungent odor from a cluster of street food stalls that lay cluttered on the pavements selling fried fish fresh off the lake filled the air.

Here are some of the shots I took of the people I observed in the markets of Yelagiri –

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Street Stories from Chennai

Georgetown, Chennai is one of the few pockets of the city that still bustles with an old world charm and character. These are some of the shots I took while walking in and around the streets and the flower markets in this atmospheric corner of the South Indian metropolis.

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Mamallapuram

“All good?”, enquired the large John Goodman lookalike seated on three tiny stools by the chai stall on Othavadai Street, the defacto backpacker’s corner of Mamallapuram. The chaiwallah replied with a characteristic Indian head wobble. JG imitated the action and asked mockingly, “What does that mean? Yes or no?” He then looked at me and chuckled uncontrollably saying, “I love the fuck out of that head wobble.”

He was large in every sense, over 6 foot tall and probably 4 foot wide, with a deep booming voice. It must have been difficult for him to get hold of the gaudy T-shirt printed with a massive face of Shiva that he was wearing, I said. He tugged at his shirt and answered, “Oh, this. This was custom-made for me by a friend who lives in Rishikesh. He lives with a baba who dabbles in black magic and dark occult practices and everything evil that you can think of. He reckoned it was sure to bring me good luck. Well, I don’t know about luck but it sure looks good, don’t it? What about you, young man? Do you live around these parts?”

No, I said, I’d been on the road for over 8 months and didn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.

“Oh, so you’re a backpacker. An Indian backpacker. You should become famous.”

Feeling delighted at having discovered an exotic species in the Orient, JG proceeded to tell me more about himself. He lived in North California, and was riddled with all the clichés associated with that region. He grew weed in his garden, practised Hinduism, cribbed about environmental degradation, hated “those fucking oil companies” and abhorred the Catholic Church. He had been traveling for over 4 years and two of those had been in India and Nepal “because it’s so fucking cheap.”

“I like the spirit of the people here. Even when they are rude, it’s not because they hate you. They just don’t know what to say to you when you ask stupid fucking questions.”

He broke a little piece out of a blackish lump and started pounding it on an empty chair with his credit card. In two minutes, he had carved himself an expertly rolled joint. “You don’t mind, do you?”, he asked, taking a puff and passing the joint over to me.

“This is some strong stuff”, I said, “Where’d you score it?”

“I’m glad you like it. I got talking to this mathematician that I met in Hampi and in no time at all, I was lying in a sofa in a beautiful bungalow right in the middle of a forest, eating the delicious food his beautiful wife was cooking for me. He had a huge fucking weed garden in his backyard. We have been soul mates ever since.”

While we were tripping on the joint, a tall, dusky girl joined us with her Italian boyfriend. Hugs went all around and JG made the introductions, “Our friend here is that rarest of species. An Indian backpacker.” And then he looked at me, pointed at the girl and said, “Don’t get fooled by her looks. She may look Indian but she’s not. Where are you from, S? Tell my friend here.” S, in a decidedly American accent, said, “I’m from everywhere!” JG shook his head, chuckled and said, “She’s from everywhere.” S and the Italian guy kissed each other while the chaiwallah pulled a stinkface and shook his head in disapproval.

When S took out a cigarette and began to light it up, the chaiwallah thought he had had enough. He ran over to where we were sitting and said, “No smoking please.”

This infuriated JG. “What do you mean, no smoking? I just sat here and smoked a joint in front of you.”

The chaiwallah appeared non-plussed. He waved his hands and said angrily,“No smoke, no smoke. This holy place. You want smoke? Get out.”

JG refused to budge and challenged the chaiwallah to evict us from the shop. The chaiwallah rounded up 3 of his friends from a shop nearby. Far from looking threatening, they stood blushing by his side having been intimidated by the sheer size of JG, S and her Italian boyfriend, all of whom were at least a foot taller than they were. They seemed particularly perturbed at the sight of S in her sunglasses and sleeveless shirt casually lighting up her cigarette.

But the chaiwallah remained adamant. He wouldn’t let a woman smoke a cigarette in his shop and provoked his friends by calling their masculinity into question. The 3 meek men, seeing as they were caught between a rock and a hard place, came up to me and asked me to mediate. “We don’t want any violence, you see”, one of them said while scratching his neck, “Please ask your friend to stop smoking. This is not right.”

JG got very angry when he saw that the three men were speaking to me in Tamil. “Speak in English, you bastards”, he growled and they scurried away to the shelter of their shops. Then he turned to me and said, “Okay, my friend. I am never coming back to this place again. We should go hit the beach, don’t you think?”

And that’s what we did. The Mamallapuram beach looked decidedly lived in and was cluttered with colourful fishing boats, sticky fishing nets, all manner of fishing equipment with not a soul around in the mid day heat. This was the cue for S and her boyfriend to strip down to their essentials and go for a swim. JG, who wasn’t much of a “swimming man”, changed his mind about chilling on the beach and suggested we go to a rooftop restaurant he was fond of instead.

The rooftop restaurant was on top of a two storied building gaudily painted in bright yellow and green. There were mattresses laid out under an awning and the soporific beats of some Buddha Bar soundalike droned from the speakers. Three backpackers had passed out in a corner and JG chose a spot by the verandah where one could smell the fishy scents off the beach below and feel the drifting wind from the Bay of Bengal.

The menu, like all rooftop restaurant menus in India, was 100 pages long comprising of every cuisine known to the world. The chef, I found out from the lanky waiter from Allahabad wearing a Jimi Hendrix T shirt and a Jamaican flag as a bandana, was a Nepali. I played it safe and ordered momos while my large, adventurous companion went for a Quattro formaggi pizza that he had to spell out and explain 5 times for Jimi Hendrix to understand.

The momos took 40 minutes to arrive and the pizza around an hour and a half. During this time, I was treated to JG’s theories on why he considered archaeology an evil. “I’ve lived in this town for over 3 weeks and haven’t been to any of its stupid temples. They don’t matter to the world I live in. You know why? Archaeology, that’s why. Archaeology is a Western science. I come from the West, so I know what I’m talking about here. They tell you, because they found some “evidence”, that these temples were built by men, by kings. But just the other day, I was speaking to a Brahmin priest and you know what he told me? He told me that these ancient temples were built by Gods, not kings. And you know what? I believe him because he lives here, his families have been living here for centuries. Science comes from the West, and by its very nature, is skewed to reflect a Western hypothesis and to be suspicious of Oriental traditions. You know where I like to go? To that gaudy new temple they built just 10 years ago because that’s the authentic shit. None of the barricades you find in ticketed monuments where all they want is your money.”

The thing about serial bullshitters is, you let them talk and don’t refute any of their arguments and once they finish talking, you patiently jot down what they said in the hope that you’ll get to write about it someday.

By the time the pizza arrived, I was done with the momos. It looked positively sickening and quite possibly the most obscene pizza I’d ever seen. The base was made out of the cheap pizza breads you get at grocery stores and the four cheeses oozed out of it like four different species of parasitic fungii mixed in with a bit of tomato sauce. I went up to Jimi Hendrix and asked him what his chef had done with the pizza. He said, “Ye sab unke samaj mein nahi aata hai. Jo haat me mila daal dete hain bas. Foreigners ko waise bhi kuch farak nahi padta. Ye buddha yahaan roj aata hai aur kuch naya try karta hai.” (He doesn’t understand any of this food. He just puts whatever he could find. These foreigners don’t care anyway. This old man comes here every day and tries something new.)

For all his bullshitting, JG had been very nice to me and I was incensed that he was being taken for granted by the callous people running the place he had been patronizing so passionately. I began to argue with Jimi Hendrix about his indifferent attitude towards his customers when JG came up from behind, still licking his fingers off the remnants of Amul cheese.

“What’s going on, guys? Is everything all right?”, he said, looking a bit worried.

“No, everything is not all right”, I said, and began telling him about how careless the staff at the place were being about his food and how he was being taken for granted by Jimi. But he interrupted me in the middle of my narrative and said, “Hey, hey, hey. Slow down. Take it easy, my friend. This man is my brother. He is a very precious soul. We love each other, don’t we, my man?”

Jimi said, “Yes, yes, we good friend.”

“Give me a hug, my brother. Don’t let what people say upset you”, said JG with infinite compassion, and while he was stuck in the big embrace, I could see Jimi giggling from ear to ear and throwing a wink in my direction. I was amazed that JG, who had adopted such an abrasive tone against the innocuous requests of a chaiwallah, was now tenderly caressing a grown man who had been taking him for a ride. It was enough for me to leave the money I owed for the momos at the table and get the hell out of the place.

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Nilgiri Journals – The End

“…so the stuff you wanna do is the stuff they don’t wanna do and you make plans for the stuff you think they wanna do but you don’t wanna do and then they ditch you and you end up doing what you think they wanted to do and you didn’t wanna and you end up in a place like this, all alone and miserable.” – S, sitting by the spectacularly odorous (and poisonous) Ooty lake, enumerating her reasons for ending up there.

The ugliest hill-station in India?
The ugliest hill-station in India?

Ooty, to me, was primarily a transit town, a place to access good 3G, eat pizzas and drink coffee at the Sidewalk Cafe, use the great library at Willy’s Coffee Pub, buy books, get permits for Mudumalai and chill out in the spacious lobbies of the YWCA. The rooms at the YWCA Anandagiri were a penny pincher’s paradise with clean, spacious rooms that came with high ceilings, ornamental fireplaces and a writer’s table (you really cannot ask for more when you pay 400 Rs.) They were also a sonic nightmare where you could hear everything that went on, not just in the adjacent rooms, but also the ones way down the cavernous corridor. So my ears were treated to much sex, drugs and wedding music during the fractured couple of weeks I spent there. Despite the illusions of privacy, the feel was more of a luxurious hostel in Khao San Road frequented by a curious mixture of holidaying Tamil boys, big families, wedding groups and thanks to the Lonely Planet, lots of backpackers.

The restaurant downstairs, where I ate all my dinners thanks to Ooty’s utter lack of night-life, was a paradise for earworms. Every evening, I would be treated to midi versions of Boney M’s greatest hits, annoying songs from the Grease and Saturday Night Fever soundtracks, Eye of the Tiger and other such sweet and cuddly songs that refused to leave my head and had me humming them while walking on the streets of Ooty thus making the desperate men on the sidewalks take a break from leching at hot tourists and stare at some idiot mechanically humming “Tell me more, tell me more, was it love at first sight?”

The colonial part of Ooty where the holidaying Englishmen probably had a few beers and thought of hilarious nicknames like "Snooty Ooty"
The colonial part of Ooty where the holidaying Englishmen probably had a few beers and thought of hilarious nicknames like “Snooty Ooty”

I met S because she wanted to take a leak. She stayed in the room next to mine. The toilets to our rooms were exclusive but lay across the corridor. She had forgotten to lock hers and the wedding party, who had colonized YWCA for 2 days, had shitted, littered and turned her loo into a muddy wreck. Mine was the only relatively cleanish one around and she begged me to allow her to use it. I could hear her humming “Eye of the Tiger” in her room and that initiated a long conversation that never really ended, mostly bitching about the need to get a lobotomy to put those stupid songs out of our heads.

The Ooty lake is a spectacularly odorific place and it’s a miracle that a mutant monster hasn’t emerged out of all the sewage pumped into the lake. It was the perfect place for S to pour all her frustrations out. She didn’t really want to be here and had planned this hilly detour only to meet a Swedish couple she had become friends with in Varkala, who ditched her at the last minute deciding to go to Goa instead. Being two single people, we bitched and joked about “couple” behaviour for a few hours and came to a conclusion that the “couples” enjoying their paddle boats and splashing filthy, septic, toxic waters on each other certainly belonged to a different species.

The Ooty Botanical Garden on a foggy day
The Ooty Botanical Garden on a foggy day

The Ooty Botanical Gardens are a de rigueur for anyone who goes to the Nilgiris but de rigueurity is well-deserved. It’s among the handful of tourist hotspots that are actually worth visiting. Once you dodge the noisy group of kids rolling down the knolls and weave your way past innumerable couples doing it behind the bushes, it’s an oasis of peace and calm that teems with all manner of faunal and avian life. Yes, they could have done without the kitschy art and the artificial falls that look like rejected backdrops to mythological serials, but for a place that sees thousands of people every day, it’s clean and well-kept. We made it all the way up to the Toda Mund at the top, housed within a HADP complex will a group of bulls staring at us threateningly.

The Toda Mund outside the Botanical Gardens
The Toda Mund outside the Botanical Gardens

Ooty is not a heaven for a foodie (which I pretend to be every now and then) but it has a fair share of good eateries. The Sidewalk Café is certainly the place to go for wood-fired pizzas and pastas (whose quantities can be truly enormous and with the garlic bread, could almost qualify as a smorgasmabord) There’s a splendid Marwadi restaurant called Pankaj Bhojanalaya right opposite, which is quite popular. Run by Marwadis, it’s the real deal and the guy who runs it is very friendly. The only “kadak chai” I had in South India was here. Ask him nicely and he would even do a dal bhati churma for you. Shinkows is highly rated and very popular but I found the food disappointingly bland. Willy’s Coffee Pub doesn’t do great coffee but is a wonderful place to hang out thanks to its well-stocked lending library and homemade cakes. If you like having over-priced watery coffee in plastic cups, you can try the Café Coffee Day on Garden Road.

One of the trails within the Botanical Garden
One of the trails within the Botanical Garden

One evening, I finally found the mushroom and soy manchurian place in the Upper Commercial Road that everyone and his brother in YWCA kept raving about, thanks to a meticulously drawn map given to me by J. It was incongruously called “Pani Puri Center” and was packed to the gills with people waiting for their Manchurians. By street food standards, this was spectacularly good, a juicy, tangy, lemony snack that melted in your mouth. It had just the right amount of spice and made one crave for chai later. It was when I was having a watery tamilian chai at the stall next door, shivering in the chill triggered by the wind and drizzle outside, that I knew I would miss the town terribly. For all the misgivings I have about Ooty and the Nilgiris in general and there are quite a few – the noise, the pollution, the plastic littering once-pristine grasslands, the stink, the unchecked development, the toxic waters, maniacal bus drivers, the touts, the touristiness etc. – it has something most other hill-stations south of the Himalayas in India don’t, altitude. At 2245 meters, it’s higher than Manali, Shimla and Mussoorie and has year-round chilly weather, something that’s an extreme rarity this far south. Of course, most Tamilians know this and it explains the plunder and exploitation Ooty has had to endure over the years. Nonetheless, feeling the quasi-Himalayan chill after traveling for months in the heat and dust of Tamil Nadu and Kerala was an incredible feeling. And as I packed my bags to leave Ooty and meet SS in Mysore, I knew I would miss snuggling out of thick blankets for a morning cup of tea and feeling that nip in the air.

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Nilgiri Journals Part 5 – Languid days in Mudumalai

One of the many peacocks around Sylvan Lodge
One of the many peacocks around Sylvan Lodge

After calling a few ridiculously expensive “resorts” in Masinagudi and deciding that I certainly didn’t need to spend several thousand rupees a night on a place with a f’ing swimming pool (!) in the forest, I went to the unusually friendly Project Director’s Office in Ooty to see if I could book a room at one of the forest rest houses (FRH). My idea was to spend a few days in each of the FRH’s, taking long walks in the jungle and clear my head in network-less peace. My idea was resoundly rejected by the booking officer, because in his opinion, there was a danger of me dying of boredom if I spent more than a couple of days within the park all alone. I laughed and told him of the many lonely, intrepid days I’ve spent in desolate places only to find a cold, battle-hardened face staring back at me. Finally, after 3 trips to the office, he let me book 2 nights at Theppakadu and one at Abhyaranyam.

Shady sylvan glades at Sylvan Lodge
Shady sylvan glades at Sylvan Lodge

The man had a point because there is not much one can do around the FRH’s if you don’t have your own vehicle. Sylvan Lodge, where I was put up, was a clean enough place with a great location by the Moyar river but I was only allowed to walk the 100 meters to the bridge or around the property grounds. I am not the restless type and could easily spend days doing nothing but usually even those tranquil days involved a little walk on the beach or a traipse up the hill. After a few hours sitting by the river, I got stir-crazy and even my attempts to walk along the highway were deterred by a stern forest ranger who scared me off with many tales of unsuspecting amblers getting charged by a tusker or mauled by a leopard or gored to death by a gaur.

A gaur on the road
A gaur on the road

The reception center ran bus tours of the park every time there were enough people to fill the bus (20 to 26). It was the monsoonal off-season and in the afternoon, I had to wait for hours at the office for a jeep full of day-trippers or a big bus-full of package tourists to arrive making it the only time in my life that I was hoping such a mass of cheerfully loud humans would come my way. That evening, I felt incredibly fortunate to have seen any wild animals at all (a few gaurs and chitals) considering all the hooting and squealing that was going on behind me. A restful time in the jungles of India, this was not.

A cormorant luxuriating on the waters of the Moyar
A cormorant luxuriating on the waters of the Moyar

On the way back, I saw more animals in 15 minutes at the Sylvan Lodge (wild boars, flying squirrels, peacocks, babblers, woodpeckers, eagles) than I did in an hour in the core area of the forest. In the evening, some entertainment was in store as M and his family checked in. M was from Chennai and had taken part in many a tiger census in Mudumalai. He was understandably dismissive of the bus tours run by the Forest Department and was here only to show his daughter (who runs a biryani restaurant in Edinburgh) and his grand-daughter (who squeaked Adele songs in a Scottish accent) a good time in the woods. He told me that I was wasting my time here and it was only worthwhile coming here if my aim was to gain access to walk or safari deep into the core areas of the forest. The trick, in his opinion was, “Come often, tip well, praise everybody. You never know where money can take you”.

Chitals. Many of them.
Chitals. Many of them.

Despite his pessimism, M was very excited about the bus tour the next morning. We went to the reception center at 6.30 a.m. to catch the first bus into the Park and as I expected, we were the only people around. M was understandably agitated but being a man of “soft words and hard deeds” (in his words), calmly asked a forest ranger how he expected 25 tourists to show up that early in the morning in extreme off-season. The ranger had barely reacted when two jeeps, one with a Gujarathi family and another with young Delhiites zoomed in. We had enough time to chat and know each other because the man at the ticket window arrived more than half an hour later, having been chased by an elephant on the way.

Anna, the camp elephant, musthing in the rain
Anna, the camp elephant, musthing in the rain

It was raining very hard and this time, even the gaur and chital visible to me yesterday weren’t around. M was sad that all little Adele could see were “water and trees”. Later, we went to the Theppakadu Elephant Camp where she was thrilled to bits watching tamed tuskers being fed and bathed. M was vehemently against domestication of wild elephants in theory but was glad they were being domesticated momentarily for the sake of his daughter’s happiness.

More Chital
More Chital

In the evening, I was joined for dinner by SJ and LK. It was Ramzan, they were Muslims and having fasted all day, were stuffing themselves silly with kebabs and biryanis. SJ was a rich, young politician from Bangalore who also dabbled in real estate. LK worked under him and SJ wanted to show him “how wonderful Mother Nature was”. He had been coming to Mudumalai for more than a decade, bought many properties in and around the area thanks to his rapport with Forest Officials and was being pampered and hero-worshipped by everyone around. He had been to “every corner of Mudumalai” and when asked how he managed that feat, he said (with a wink and a smile), “Add an extra 500 Rs. and you can get anything you want here.”

An Indian Robin
An Indian Robin

The next morning, SJ took me on a drive to the Moyar river and Singara Reserve Forest, where I saw more birds and animals than I did from the rumbling tourist bus. SJ wasn’t a bird-watcher but was impressed by my ability to identify many of the (easily identifiable) birds. He had been in these parts many times but was always on the look-out for big animals, which he seldom saw. I was excited too because, although the Mudumalai NP teems with bird-life, the bus would never stop to look at any of them. SJ was a patient man and at the end of our 4 hour trip, was very happy that he now knew what a Green Bee-Eater and an Oriental White-Eye looked like. In his Hyderabadi hindi, he told LK, “Dekha kaise parindiniyon ka majaa le re hai. Politics ke jungle me aise parindiniyan dikhti kya?” (Look at how he’s enjoying watching birds. Can we see such birds in the political jungles?)

Wild jungle fowl on the Singaara Road
Wild jungle fowl on the Singaara Road

SJ dropped me at the Abhyaranyam GH, where he was given a princely welcome by the staff there. After ordering them to show me around and take good care of me, he took his leave. I had known him for hardly 12 hours of my life and he had already made an impact with his extraordinary generosity. My days at Abhyaranyam were decidedly low-key because I was the only guest here and the staff were not very keen to make conversation. I walked about the little patch of grassland around the guest house, scaring whole herds of chital with my presence and watching little worker ants go about their business. I did enjoy the peace and quiet here, but I also felt very happy to take the bus back to Ooty the next morning.

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Nilgiri Journals Part 4 – Busy Days in Kotagiri

...and the best is the one you get from an open toilet
The view from an open toilet

Day 1 – A bus parks noisily behind me honking at me unnecessarily as it does so. A passenger jumps, whips out his willy and pisses into the valley below. Two more people slither out and follow his lead. 5 young boys (who probably think I don’t know Tamil) are staring at me and are wondering in hushed whispers which country I’m from. I stare back, they blush, laugh and walk away. Another man jumps out from his vehicle and relieves himself. Standing in the middle of this frenetic activity, I’m trying very hard to ignore the stench of urine and garbage and focus my attention on the magnificent landscape in front of me because this open toilet cum dumping ground opposite the Kotagiri bus stand commands the best views to be had in the town.

The Wesley Church
The Wesley Church

Day 2 – After spending an entire afternoon in peaceful solitude on the steps of the Wesleyan Church, I walked down the steep steps that lead from the Church to the little village of Kannerimukku. Here, in the 1880s a Mr. John Sullivan had the brilliant idea of building a bungalow, growing tea and kick-starting a tourist industry. It is now an impeccably maintained building that looks as good as a well-restored film print and is taken care of by an ex-Hindu scribe Dharmalingam Venugopal, who has also penned a guide-book on the Nilgiris. I didn’t meet him but I met M and G, the friendly Badaga brother and sister who showed me around the little museum whose “before-after” exhibits and picture galleries with shots of Indian politicians looking at the building were livened up only by M’s scrambled, incoherent yet enthusiastic commentary.

Sullivan's Memorial in Kannerimukku
Sullivan’s Memorial in Kannerimukku

Later, M (who was certainly a bit inebriated) took me to his home, served me awesome coffee, discussed football and Badaga rituals, introduced me to his kids who were just back from school, showed me off proudly as a “friend from Bumbaai” to all the people we met on the way and offered to hang out with me for the rest of my days in Kotagiri. His sister seemed embarrassed and apologized for her brother’s “openness”. I didn’t know what to say and mumbling some thank yous, walked back to Kotagiri.

Tengumarada village
Tengumarada village

Day 3 -The wind was lashing my face with what seemed like a lot of wrath and anger but I was finding it very hard to look away from the spectacular landscape that lay before me. On my left were the Talamalai Hills beyond which one could see the villages of the Mysore Plateau. Down below was the village of Tengumarada, remote and isolated, hemmed in by the walls of Talamalai on one side and the winding Moyar river on the other. The women who ran the tourist café seemed bored and started filling me with anecdotal information like how Bharathiraja, the Tamil film director, loves to shoot in Tengumarada. In front of me rose the insurmountably tall Rangaswamy Pillar and the Rangaswamy Peak which fell steeply to the plains below where the waters of the Moyar river had been dammed to form the Bhavani Sagar reservoir. This was the Kodanad view-point, among the best of its ilk. During a conversation with an idle forest guard, I mentioned that the views were somewhat hazy and he advised me to come at dawn when they are much clearer. I mulled staying at the desolate Deccan Valley View Hotel near the view-point but couldn’t muster up the courage to do it. Lonely nights in a lonely place are just not my thing.

The Kodanad Viewpoint
The Kodanad Viewpoint

The view was still extraordinarily beautiful though and as I was taking in its beautiful extraordinariness, a Gujarati family led by a patriarch trotted up purposefully. He was a businessman who had lived in Coimbatore for the last 50 years and certainly preferred the life there compared to the one he had in Ahmedabad when he was a young man. He spoke to his wife in Tamil but in Gujarati to his brother and sister-in-law and gave me crucial life-lessons (in Tamil) – “Marry a girl who wants to live here, not in Mumbai”, “Better still, take a girl from here, get married and show her to your parents. It’ll be a load off their shoulders”, “Youngsters these days think sex is everything, but you have to love first”, “We Indians are still backward and afraid when it comes to making moves, that’s why rapes happen so often nowadays”, “When we were young, the women used to do all the household work. They used to get a lot of exercise. Now, everyone has a maid in the house thanks to feminism and all that. That’s why they’re so weak. Women of my generation would fight back boldly.” etc. etc. He promptly took his leave when his wife yelled at him to get back into the car so they can go shop for tea in Kotagiri.

The few remaining shola forests in Kotagiri
The few remaining shola forests in Kotagiri

Day 4 – I took a walk to the Longwood Shola which is one of the only shola forests that exist close to Kotagiri. As I walked in some general direction, I thought I had lost my way. So I asked a gentleman who was just parking his car where the Forest Office was. After enlightening me of its location, he asked me if I’d like to have some tea. So, instead of going ahead and taking a nice walk in the forests in good weather, I spent the whole afternoon drinking tea and talking to him. He was a pharmacist and Kotagiri being a small town where everyone knew everyone else very well, started filling me in on unnecessary details about the life of the owner of my guest house. After a few hours of idle gossip about his family life, adventures in Sharjah and Dubai, more cups of tea, plans for the new house he’s building, some cookies, lunch, a tour of family albums and a lot of other nonsense, I bid farewell. It had started raining by now, very heavily too, and it was getting late. Yet, I soldiered on to the Forest Office, met C, the super-friendly caretaker of the Forest Rest House there and drank more tea with him. He laughed when I said I wanted to see the Longwood Shola saying I should have been there earlier because the whole track would be covered with leeches after the rains. I told him very quickly about my little time-wasting session with the gentle pharmacist and he shook his head and agreed to take me on a little tour. We walked for a little while inside the thickest forests I’d walked this side of Taman Negara and C very excitedly showed me some Malabar Giant Squirrels, leopard tracks, bison shit, porcupine squills, some mynas and some red-whiskered bulbuls. I’m definitely going back to Longwood Shola someday.

I wouldn’t have made any of those trips if my stay at the “Heavenly Stay” had been truly heavenly. It was a little lodge-like place, very clean, overlooking a not-very-busy road but the hammering noise from the construction site next door made sure I didn’t spend any time in my room during the day (the nights were quiet and peaceful). At 750 Rs. a night, it was also the most expensive place I’d stayed in the Nilgiris with little of the homely atmosphere that even an institution like the YWCA managed. The family was friendly and helpful enough but I wish they were visible more often. D, the care-taker, was among the more annoying people I’d met. If I spent even a couple of hours in the room during the day, he would either look very suspiciously (I don’t know why) or very pitifully (because I was alone). His typical “Good morning” message went something like this – “Good morning (beaming smile). So what are you doing today? It must be very sad being alone, no? Where are your friends?” My trips out of my room were primarily a way to convince him that I was “doing something” in Kotagiri and was “happy”. And, just for that, thank you, D! Caveats aside, it certainly is a good value place to spend time when you’re in Kotagiri.

Climb a few meters above Heavenly Stay to Luke's Church and you get this view
A small, clean, open and charming place, like all hill stations ought to be

Kotagiri is the smallest, cleanest and the most pleasant of all the Nilgiri Hill Stations. It doesn’t have the polluted haze of Coonoor and Ooty and the people (even D!) go out of their way to be open and friendly. My favourite haunt here was the Friend’s Bakery which was hugely popular with locals. It had a little café where the evenings were spent discussing World Cup matches, politics, DMK-AIADMK wars, movies –why Rajnikant is awesome, why Vijayakant is awesome, why Tamil movies are the best movies in the world, gossip – why so-and-so person working in the PWD didn’t get his pension, how this man was ruining his family by piling on debt, more gossip and more politics. In a way, it made me feel warmly nostalgic for the small Himalayan towns and villages in that, in many ways, the people in these hills weren’t so different from the easy-going, affable people one encounters in the Himalayas. Once the altitude drops and the population rises, the smiles start to disappear and the faces appear more tense and unhappy.

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Nilgiri Journals Part 3 – Coonoor Days

The rest of my days in Coonoor were spent relaxing in the upper storey verandah of YWCA Wyoming and drinking a lot of tea. A colonial building over 150 years old, now converted into a guest house, it’s probably as good a deal as one could get in the hills. My room, which would have cost an arm and a leg in more business-minded hands, cost only 414 Rs. It was the perfect place to linger without the pressure of making the days count and the fear of losing my bank balance. My regular visitors were the house sparrows and red-whiskered bulbuls that chattered endlessly in the green surrounds. One day, a herd of gaur (wild bulls) made their way into the pastures of the property compound. Another day, V showed me bear’s paws marked on the building wall. It was a wild and remarkably peaceful setting, in perfect contrast to the cacophonic mess of Lower Coonoor Town.

A Gaur grazing in the compound
A Gaur grazing in the compound
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Marks of a bear’s paws (if V is to be believed)

By the end of my 3 weeks in the YWCA, I had come to know everyone who lived and worked there. V, who worked at the reception, was a Coonoor boy and would march me off to his favourite eateries in the town. His suggestions were unfailingly good. So, thanks to him, I got to taste the masala varkeys and biscuits at Crown Bakery (the oldest bakery in the Nilgiris, possibly even in Tamil Nadu, still run by the same family from 1880), veg rolls at the New Bangalore Bakery on Mount Road and the twisted varkeys and Nendrampazham (Plantain) chips at the New Indian Bakery near the bus stand. He also made me go to Hotel Ramachandra on Mount Road, which became my favourite restaurant in all of Nilgiris, to gorge on their biryanis and parottas that were served with spicy curry and watery raita and wash it down with splendid coffee from Tamizhagam. I made a trip all the way to a small bakery in the Barracks area called Needs only because V told me it was the best black forest cake he had ever tasted and he wasn’t far off the mark on that one either.

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The dirt track to my home in Coonoor!

G, the cook at YWCA, had worked at the Fernhills Palace with the Mysore Maharaja and had a knack for making one crave for even basic dishes like chappati and dal that were cooked simply yet tastefully (and with a lot of pride!). His meals were always delicious and healthy and made sure I never got sick when I was there. S, one of the security guards, had served in three wars for the Indian Army, got hurt multiple times and yet was having to work post-retirement to earn a living for himself and his family because the pension he received was a pittance. V’s principal obsession was tracking prophecies and conspiracy theories and his many weird, surreal youtube video recommendations kept me entertained days on end. Thanks to V, G and S’s appetites for long conversations, my days at Coonoor were never lonely and when I left, it was with a feeling of sadness and a promise to return some day.

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The Wyoming building

The evenings were invariably spent in a couple of cafes in the Bedford area. My personal favourite was Dew Drops, a cafe which served supremely well-brewed tea and succulent snacks like cheese sandwiches, veg cutlets and uh, stuffed capsicum. This was a new place but seemed to have already developed a loyal customer-base. It was a convenient stop-over for my trips to the Bakers Junction where I shopped for locally-made jams, bread, honey and Acres Wild cheese.

Sim's Park
Sim’s Park

Apart from gastronomic excursions and the jaunty ones I wrote about in the previous post, my only trip out in Coonoor was the one I made on the first day, to the beautifully wild Sim’s Park. After getting exhausted wandering its many labyrinthine tracks for hours, I settled down for a meal at La Belle Vie, known for its French cuisine. It’s housed in an old colonial bungalow nestled amidst tea plantations on a cliff-side that commands a stupendous view of the valley below. These were early days, so I still wasn’t jaded looking at tea plants everywhere. I wish I had just looked at the view and left though because the food was an inedible, expensive and oily mess. I know nothing about French cuisine but I’m pretty certain they don’t dunk their veggies in 3 inches of oil. When I narrated my Belle Vie ordeal to V, he told me of an old French couple who had gone there after hearing rave reviews. The exchange went something like this –

“Did you like the food?”

“It was okay.”

“So was the food really French?”

“A little bit, yes. The names were French, the food very Indian.”

I felt vindicated.

The best thing about the restaurant is the architecture...
The best thing about the restaurant is the architecture…
...and the views from it
…and the views from it

My favourite place in Coonoor though wasn’t Sim’s Park or Dolphin’s Nose or Lamb’s Rock or the Tea Museums. The place I loved the most was the terrace of the Ayyappa temple that served as a short-cut for the steep yet peaceful hike from Lower Coonoor to the YWCA. It was an ideal location to break the journey which worked both as a rest-stop and as a place which gave unobstructed bird’s eye views of the Lower Coonoor town below.

Sitting on the steps on the terrace, I could spy on a hundred roof-tops, get a perspective on the urban mayhem down below, listen to the chaotic symphony of honking cars, hooting trains, the hammering and drilling of construction work and the chirping of countless red-whiskered bulbuls and oriental white-eyes and watch the clouds decapitate the hills in the distance as they find a way through the valleys enveloping entire villages in opaque mist in the process, and all of this in good privacy. Barring the few who used the stairs of the temple to cut across to the town, I had the whole place to myself. I never took my phone or my camera with me when I went there and it was a blessed relief to be disconnected, if only for a short time, from the trigger impulses of checking and clicking and being busy.

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Nilgiri Journals Part 2 – Being an account of two days spent around Coonoor

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The view from Lady Canning’s Seat

Of the 5 weeks I’ve spent in the Nilgiris so far, 3 have been in Coonoor. Thanks to ennui, laziness and the peaceful confines of the YWCA Wyoming, only two days out of the 21 were spent traveling around the town and they too happened only because of coincidentally timely visits by a few friends.

One of them was a drive around Wellington with A and P (you know who you are if you’re reading this), through the military area and the golf course, to a little puddle with paddle boats they called the “Wellington Lake” and then to a nice property they had stayed at called Tea Nest which had big rooms, friendly staff and delivered gorgeous views, sprawling tea estates, massive hills in the distance, good tea and a story about a bear that likes to pay a visit every now and then.

The cloudy drive to Dolphin's Nose
The cloudy drive to Dolphin’s Nose

The other was a trip with D to Dolphin’s Nose, Lamb’s Rock and Lady Canning’s Seat two days before I left the town for good. We could see nothing but walls of clouds around us when we were on our way and I began to think it was a terrible idea to do the trip in that weather. But thankfully, once we reached Dolphin’s Nose, some of the mist had cleared and while the views were still somewhat hazy, one could see all the way down to Mettupalayam and Coimbatore in the plains below. M, our rickshaw driver, insisted that there was a map of India imprinted in the landscape somewhere. I squinted hard but couldn’t see anything so cartographically precise but when he started getting agitated and directing my eyes to every hazy outline decipherable below, everything I saw started resembling a map of India in one way or the other. I pretended to see whatever he wanted me to see to get rid of him momentarily and break out of bizarre illusions.

"They haven't evolved much, have they?", says the monkey watching humans litter
“They haven’t evolved much, have they?”, says the monkey watching humans litter

While we were standing there admiring the view and ignoring resident primates and trigger-happy tourists, M started telling us about a traumatic incident he witnessed a few years back. He had come here with some gullible tourists and was showing them the landscaped map of India. A young couple were sitting on a rock behind the view-point having what he felt was a leisurely chat. Suddenly, the boy (of the couple) walked down calmly and jumped into the valley below. I asked him if this is what passed for “suicide point” in this area and he laughed and said that the suicide point was on the other side of the hill where even more gruesome events were known to happen. I discovered that vertiginous suicides were one of M’s pet obsessions when he tried to convince me that Lamb’s Rock was so named because a certain Mr. Lamb jumped from his eponymous rock, which is utter nonsense as I learned from a little google research later.

Stopping jilted lovers jumping over
Stopping jilted lovers jumping over

Our next stop was Lady Canning’s Seat and I could already sense a fidgety impatience in M when he started playing loud Tamil songs and telling us that there was nothing to “see” there. But we wanted to tick all the boxes, so up we climbed the desolately mossy steps to a “seat” that was scratched and scribbled with notes of people who must have wanted to record their memories in stone. D wondered why it was called “Lady Canning’s Seat” to which I cunningly replied that it must have been because a Lady Canning sat there. We had the whole place to ourselves and the clouds were doing a ballet in the air waltzing over the villages and estates below creating a dreamscape that stays in your head long after but is impossible to photograph (with my limited skills anyway)

Watching reptiles at Lamb's Rock
Our reptilian friends at Lamb’s Rock

We then merrily hopped towards Lamb’s Rock, where M issued a stern warning to us to make it quick because we were going regularly over the “time limit”. But Lamb’s Rock proved to be the place we lingered the most, not because of the views, which were just a slight variation of the views you get from Dolphin’s Nose, but because I started developing a sudden interest in herpetology. Down on the rocky cliff were many multi-coloured reptiles basking in the sun safe in the knowledge that no human being would be stupid enough to venture where they were. After spending an inordinately long time watching and taking pictures of the many lizards on the rocks (some extremely well-camouflaged), we remembered M’s grumblings and hustled back.

More herpetology
More herpetology

M’s rickshaw started rebelling against him as it sputtered and stuttered to a halt. He rather somberly shut the music down and started focusing on solving the problem at hand while we were solemnly contemplating walking the 8 kms back. D had foreseen this much earlier but we hadn’t done anything about it. Would our inaction bite us in the ass? Fortunately for us, M solved the problem soon enough and we romped home.

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Nilgiri Journals Part 1 – Getting there

The beginnings
The beginnings

There is a 3 year old kid emptying his bladder in the seat next to mine. His brother is busy jumping from one cabin over to the next, screaming every time he does a hop. Their mother seated diagonally opposite is juggling between taking pictures of her son’s adventurousness on her smartphone, scolding her younger ‘un for soiling his neighbour’s pants and exchanging itinerary notes very loudly with another family. Her bored-looking husband, sitting glumly and despondently opposite to me, has just finished eating a packet of jam roll and drinking a cup of tea he was conned into buying at the chaotic stall at the station by enterprising vendors who told him nothing was available in the jungles beyond where the train was going. He vengefully dumps his plastic wrapper and foam cup outside the window so they could join millions of their cousins littered among the green slopes of the valley we were slumbering through.

In the adjacent cabin, another big family from Chandigarh has a septuagenarian patriarch boasting about the devious means he used to convince the ticket collector to give him a first class ticket for a second class price so he could join his noisy family in the same coach, a remarkable feat where he saved a princely sum of 100 rupees. A group of young college boys and girls have taken over another cabin and their atonal cacophonic screams and wails could have killed many an endangered species in the forests outside.

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This wasn’t an ordinary train. This was the more than 100-year old UNESCO-certified world heritage mountain railway from Mettupalayam to Ooty which offered an opportunity to travel by the old romantic way of getting to a destination, behind a chugging steam engine on a narrow-gauge track. It’s a trip every guide-book tells you to do when you visit South India. When I successfully booked the only seat available on the train a month ago, I felt triumphant and for days dreamed of the quiet valleys of the Nilgiri foothills, of the dense forests with hundreds of endemic bird-calls and of the hooting steam engine that would transport me to a different place and time. The imagination, as always, trumped reality.

Frenetic picture-taking at Hillgrove
Frenetic picture-taking at Hillgrove

Was it worth enduring all that mayhem to take a supremely hyped up and romanticized mode of travel to reach my destination? In a way, yes. For one, the ticket cost 25 Rupees. And as the train wound up through the forested valleys of the Nilgiri foothills, I whipped out my Sansa Clip Plus mp3 player, started listening to Rain Dogs by Tom Waits, drowned out the ambient noise, began ignoring my cantankerous neighbours and started enjoying the journey. The names of the stations, Hillgrove, Runnymede, Adderley, belonged to another, more oppressive (now faux romantic) time and so did the pace of travel as the train jogged along for 3 hours to traverse the 17 kms to Coonoor. We would get down at every station, drink some tea, dutifully brandish our DSLRs to take pictures and get back in. Some of the scenery was spectacular and different in perspective from the ones you would get from the road that you could see winding down below. There were bridges so high you felt as if you hovered in the air. As the jungles got thicker, the air got cooler and clear streams flowed hundreds of meters below. Thanks to the altitude, there was a nip in the air and every now and then, an expansive landscape would open up where one could see miles and miles into the plains, making me (almost) forgive the kid who peed on my pants.

The view from Adderley
The view from Adderley

So yes, I’m glad I took the train. Will I do it again? I’m not so sure. Maybe once in a lifetime is more than enough.

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