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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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 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.

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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 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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It’s all about the view in Yercaud

A view from Yercaud

After spending a year on the coast and the cities of the plains and enduring the resultant heat and dust, it felt great to head back into the hills again. As the bus wound its way into the Shevaroy Hills from Salem, the air felt crisper with each of the 20 hair-pin bends that wound their way through the forested slopes. But the minute the bus screeched to a halt near the market by the Yercaud lake, I was swept over by a wave of disappointment. There was garbage strewn everywhere I looked around and loud Tamil film music was blaring from (very) loud-speakers amid the chaotic squalor to the rhythm of non-stop honking traffic. The only consolation was that the air was, if not cleaner, certainly cooler.

I walked around looking for a place to stay and after being rejected by a whole line of hotels for being a solo traveller (excuses ranged from “manager is on leave” to “where is your recommendation letter?” to “sorry, we only take tourists”), I went up to the lonely, decrepit, over-priced and depressing Tamil Nadu Hotel. It was a cheerless, inflexible and downright rude Government-run hotel. During my 3 days there, I could see only a couple of couples in the entire sprawling complex and yet, the manager insisted that the season was booming and asked me to leave if I wasn’t willing to pay the extortionate rates they were charging for their extremely basic rooms. At the end of a lot of haggling where I lost and he won, I coughed up 1100 rupees per night for a dank, mouldy, cob-webbed room with a bathroom that hadn’t been cleaned for weeks. There was a little verandah that over-looked a terraced lawn that was strewn with rum and vodka bottles and a fabulous view of the dusty, broken windows of the buildings to the left and the right.

To avoid getting too depressed at my sordid fate, I took a walk around the lake. It was supposed  to be one of the very few natural lakes in the hills of the south but one that somehow managed to pull off the stupendous feat of looking kitschier and uglier than its more popular artificial cousins in Ooty, Kodaikanal and Mount Abu. The road that sloped along the lake started off with a touristy cluster of stalls selling omelettes and chai opposite the “Deer Park” and soon became an open gutter that one had to dodge to walk further to the part where the sweet odours of a massive open garbage dump welcomed anyone who dared to walk that far.

But one had to walk that far to reach the point where the road bifurcated up into the newly constructed Botanical Gardens that lead to a series of viewpoints, first the Children’s Seat, then the Gent’s Seat and finally the Ladies’ Seat that showed spectacular views of the towns of the plains and the hills and the valleys beyond. I spent hours just lounging there, taking siestas in the afternoons, speaking with the odd tourist or two who was up for conversation, listening to Bach and Sabbath on my earphones or reading books on my Kindle. In the evenings, a chilly breeze and the cacophony of a hundred bird-calls lifted my spirits and everything that had to be endured to get here felt entirely worth the trouble.

Another view from Yercaud

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A break in Kallidaikurichi

Back in the village (Explored 12-05-2013)

Four years ago, I had travelled to my village in Tamil Nadu after more than a decade. It wasn’t the village I knew or remembered, having transformed or “developed” into something of a shanty-town over the years. The clear waters of the Tambaraparani river, the source of drinking water for much of this region where people used to bathe and swim, was an unrecognizably muddy and polluted mush that was being used to wash a line of trucks. The main road, whose structure remains intact from the days of the Chola kings who built it, was now a noisy, honking mess.

Nevertheless, after a few weeks of experimenting with extreme low budget travel, where many a room was shared with the roaches and the rats, it felt good to be back with my grand-parents in their ancestral house. One evening, we went for a ride to the fields we owned near Singampatti. After wandering for a couple of hours, watching the many herons and egrets and the odd migratory crane gliding over the paddies, I found it to be a perfectly rewarding sort of de-tox from the troubles and hassles of backpacking. And boy, what a view!

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Tracking Spirituality in Thiruvannamalai

“I like him the best of all the old gurus but I don’t need him”, bellows an old American man to a young German girl at the chai shop opposite the Ashram. At Shanti Café, a bearded man dressed like a rabbi is giving a sermon to a group of faithful backpackers about the beauty of mundanity and the triumph of positivity over negativity. One young boy with beaded dreadlocks has the temerity to point out the poverty and garbage that he saw everywhere in India and the “rabbi” cuts him short vehemently saying, “Beauty! It’s all beauty! You are ugly, everything else is beauty! Look at the garbage like you would look at rose petals and smell it thinking you’re smelling expensive perfume and you’ll know it’s all beautiful! It’s all in your head!” At the Mango Tree café, a young Japanese woman is clutching a book by Paul Brunton called “Inner Reality” and explaining her newfound spiritual connections to a tall Indian man with curly hair who’s dressed like a Rasta. “I feel like, I’m reborn, you know? In Yoga, guruji says…” In the table next to them, there’s a raging debate going on about materialism, “At the end of the day, isn’t money just a piece of paper with numbers on it?”

Thiruvannamalai, the chaotic temple town with its holy hill (they call it Mount Arunachala but since it’s only 800 meters high, calling it a “mountain” seems a stretch), a massive temple complex and the renowned Ramana Ashram was guru-made for these new-agey neo-spiritual scenes. I hadn’t planned to come here. After 7 days of croissants and hot coffee at Pondicherry, I knew I wanted to leave but didn’t know where to go. I decided to go to the bus-stand and take the first bus that went anywhere. That bus went to Thiruvannamalai.

After wandering for a bit, I found a room at the Arunachala Inn, which was right next to the big temple. For a pilgrim lodge, it was surprisingly clean and well-appointed. The speakers in the hallway sang the Tibetan Buddhist hymn “Om Mani Padme Hum” which made me go WTF every time I entered or left my room. It also brought back nostalgic memories of Spiti, Ladakh, Sikkim and Tawang. In the blistering heat and choking traffic of the Tamilian plains, a part of me wished I was up in the mountains of the North staring at endless spaces at high altitudes.

I wasn’t allowed inside the big temple because of irrational rules that don’t let people wearing shorts go inside (when asked to point out where such rules are stated in Hinduism’s labyrinthine scriptures, I only received befuddled, angry reactions and I knew I had to leave when both a watchman and a priest pointed wrathfully at the exit and yelled “Get out!”) So I went to the Ramana Ashram, run by the same religion as the temple, where I was allowed to walk around wearing the same clothes that so scandalized the people at the temple.

The area around the Ramana Ashram was a little bubble of peace and quiet amidst the chaos of the rest of Thiruvannamalai.  With its sea of white faces, a peaceful vibe that feels a world away from the India most Indians live in and all the religious paraphernalia and the orientalism that go with these, it was a no-brainer that a backpacker scene was expanding here. There’s yoga, organic café’s, spiritual bookshops, Western-oriented menu’s serving everything from pancakes to pastas, Indian dishes with their spice quotient tuned down to zero, an ashram that’s internationally renowned and all the utopian and idealistic conversations that go with these. It’s no different from the scenes I had encountered in Rishikesh or Pushkar or Varanasi and after just a couple of hot and sweaty days here, attacked by the hostile, narrow-minded people of the temple on one side and the fake Western-style infatuated spiritualism on the other, I knew I had enough. It was time to leave for the hills where the pleasures are simpler, the altitude is higher, the air is cooler and life, easier to cherish.

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