Paradise lost: Munnar

Munnar is a hill station that is one of the key centers of tea production in India, the other being the northeastern hill ranges. Hill valleys alternatively filled with the uniform green of the tea plantations and the many hued green of natural forests, Munnar has remained an important tea region and a much sought after summer destination right from the British colonial times. Technically a part of Kerala, one tends to hear as much Tamil spoken as Malayalam, the state language of Kerala. A sizeable portion of the current inhabitants of Munnar trace their ancestry to the Tamilians settled here by the British to work in tea plantations.

This misty tea station has become a hugely popular Sommerfrische destination for local and international tourists. Whatever charm it may have had decades ago is being rapidly lost to randomly placed squat concrete block hotels, scruffy little shops with the usual chaotic mix of over-dimensioned, rusty signboards, metal sheets and wildly arranged cables, all covered in dust; the budget version of Disney Land; and loads of mobbing rip-off “tourist guides”.  A key contributor to this loss is also the hordes of inconsiderate tourists who use the entire scenic roads to and from Munnar hills as their personal waste disposal zones. Sad to say, but the truth is that with every busload of tourists, Munnar dies a little, suffocated by the loads of plastic, the fumes of Diesel as the vehicles negotiate the upward climb and the noise pollution of the horn-blasts.

However, if you manage to find a residence on the hills of the tea estates a couple of kilometers outside Munnar town, then you are in for a real treat in terms of majestic views of green valleys and hills, partly concealed by the ever-rolling mist. By design, we had chosen our stay in a place that could be as remote as possible and yet close enough to reach Munnar town by a quick auto drive of 15 min. Our residence Misty Green Views was located on the cliff face of a tea plantation, literally above the clouds with a spectacular view overlooking the valley. The name of the residence was exceedingly apt as the view was very dynamic and presented new surrealistic scenes every time the mists rolled in or receded in different degrees during the entire day.

Just as we started our climb of the hills at Adimali (a town on the way to Munnar), we noticed the hot, clammy wind of the Keralan summer was replaced increasingly by a cool, fresh breeze. Belonging to the Western Ghats, the hill ranges were as green as we had seen on our trip to Wayanad, the only difference being while the hills ranges of the Wayanad were predominantly filled with natural forests, the hill ranges on our way to Munnar alternated between natural forests and tea plantations. At about 3500 feet above sea level, Munnar was definitely cooler than Wayanad. For the first time since Anna stepped into India, she had to wear a cardigan – the temperature difference between Munnar and Ernakulam must have been around 15 degrees. What gave additional pleasure was that the night we arrived we were the only guests in the cottage, giving us a wonderful feeling of isolation and silence.

At this point, we would like to brag a little bit about how we saved a lot in our Munnar leg. Anna found out about Misty Green Tours, operated from Fort Cochin through tripadvisor. It charged the unsuspecting Western tourist 4800 rupees per person for a two day/one night trip, including some touristic activities in Munnar. This meant, for a couple it would cost 9600 (about 140 €). However, we decided to only book the residence of Misty Green Views at the rate of 1750 per night, inclusive of breakfast and dinner and decided to travel by bus and also arrange our own sightseeing in Munnar. This resulted in us paying only 50% of the tour price, even though we stayed for two nights. These savings were Rama’s secret highlight of our trip to Munnar.

The next day we behaved as any tourist would behave in Munnar: Having hired a friendly auto driver (Anna’s favorite mode of transport in India), we visited the picturesque Mattupetty dam, despite the attempts of tourist shops and hawkers to make the experience unpleasant. This was followed by an elephant ride: The much marketed (by auto driver) and steeply priced ride amounted to nothing more than a bumpy 300 meter walk on top of an aging elephant (going by the rather pretentious name of Vigaya Lakshmi) along a totally disgusting trail of garbage left by the indiscriminately picnicking Indian tourists. Upon ending the walk, we tried to make up for the sin of riding the apparently exhausted elephant by feeding it a bunch of bananas (the honor went to Anna, who was repeatedly reminded by Rama that the holes at the end of the elephant’s trunk were her nostrils, as though fearing that Anna might stick a Banana up her nose).

This was followed by a scintillating, but short speedboat drive on the Mattupetty lake. We also visited the so-called echo point, where even the voices, leave along the echoes would be drowned in the sound of vehicles and the shouts of roadside shop owners trying to rip-off the unsuspecting tourist.

A very important experience that has to be recounted was Rama’s efforts in making Anna eat “meals”, the meal of the day, at Saravan Bhavan “hotel” (a famous restaurant chain). Given that the meals at this restaurant were very modestly priced (at < 1 € for an unlimited lunch) and offered good quality stuff, the patrons who visited this eatery during the lunch hour were numerous and can be found often waiting outside the restaurant on the streets.  With such low margins on the food, the hotel owner obviously relied upon turnover of the guests and thus speed was the watchword of this eating establishment. This involved rushing to a free table, deciding for a dish within 5 milli-seconds and then shoveling the food with one’s hands from a Banana leaf. The waiters endeavored to refill your banana leaf as fast as you ate, so that you would soon vacate the place for the next customer.

Oblivious to the above working parameters of the restaurant, Anna treated the restaurant just like any other European restaurant, taking her time to decide on a dish and trying to confer with the waiter on her choice. However, both the waiter and Rama soon made clear to her that it wouldn’t work that way and rushed her into a decision, which resulted in Chapatti with some strange-looking Curry. (Despite the required speed of her decision-making, the Chapatti was deliberately picked out of fear to fail in transporting the rice grains by hand to her mouth). Rama did not spare her the experience of eating a rice meal with hands and made her share his “meals” – an awkward and clumsy attempt followed which Rama promptly recorded on camera for posterity.

The adventure of the banana leaf was followed by a rather tame but interesting visit to a spice garden, where the guide explained various spice plants and when asked for some details regarding a plant, innocently professed his ignorance with an oft repeated statement ‘I am new for this work. I joined here only one month back…’. The more interesting part of the trip was the brief encounter with the spice garden owner at her ‘shop’, where she thrusted one spice product after other at the nose of Anna, expecting her to be captivated by the smell into buying it. After the first couple of sniffs, Anna’s nose buds were no longer capable of differentiating even the most distinct perfumes… But she valiantly went through sniffing the next 20 or so bottles in a manner that would have done a pedigreed bloodhound proud.

We returned to our stay in the evening and found a group of people sitting at “our” dinner table – 4 of them, western tourists who were participating in the Misty Green tour, and a young Indian family of two with two children who had booked a room for one night only, without the full tour package.

Of the international tourists, the Italian/ French couple were on a south-east Asia tour and as part of their India leg had visited Mumbai and were visiting their other destination, Munnar, before flying out of the country to continue their tour. We were truly surprised that with limited time in India, the couple had selected Munnar, that too a steeply priced package at that.  This confirmed that just as there as well-researched tourists visiting India, there are also a fair number of tourists such as our Italian/ French couple who are quite gullible and are often guided by the eloquence of tour operators in India. When Anna tried to gently hint that Munnar was not probably among the top ten destinations in India, the reaction from the couple indicated that they would rather not prefer to hear some truths. So we wished them a happy voyage and retired rather early.

Anna had lengthy discussions with the wife of the Indian couple, while Rama was fully occupied with her 6-year-old daughter who seemed quite besotted by him (“funny girl you are, funny girl”, repeated by the girl about 50 times). Overall, they were quite a pleasing couple who exchanged their contact details and invited us over to their place whenever we were visiting Bangalore.

With these little fairwell episodes, we arrived at the KSRTC bus depot courtesy (paid of course!) of our friendly auto driver.  As our bus sped out of Munnar, we looked fondly once more at our home-stay cottage, which could be seen as a small hut on an impressive cliff space. Soon the bus driver negotiated the first hairpin bend with alacrity and the cottage disappeared from view,

The bus drive from Munnar to Allepey was an experience that we would not forget very easily. The driver, who seemed otherwise mild mannered with a smiling face, transformed into a road-rage maniac the moment he took the wheels. Fully intimate with the hairpin bends on the route down the hills, he negotiated them with such speed and exaggerated turns that soon both of us started feeling queasy and out faces gradually turned into a shade of green comparable to the green of the valleys and cliffs. When the bus pulled into the KSRTC bus stop at Kothamangalam, an intermediate town that comes after two hours from Munnar and which signifies the end of the hill roads, we were surprised as to how the bus arrived safely without any incident along the winding hill roads which were negotiated by the driver with disdain both to the bus as well as the oncoming traffic.

The overall bus drive to Allepey lasted about 6:30 hrs, with us scrambling to get our bags out of the bus at the Allepey bus stand where the commuters were not interested in waiting for the disembarking passengers. Upon hindsight, we agreed that 5 hrs is the maximum duration that one can take in Kerala buses, before we started becoming extremely uncomfortable.

Exploring our favourite Indian state Kerala, my boyfriend and me travelled from Chennai to Palakkad, Kalpetta, Kannur, Ernakulam, Munnar and Alleppey in April and May of 2012 and wrote this travel documentary on the way.

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