The strike and transportation ban in Kerala had been lifted, and we were finally moving on to Munnar. It had only been one extra day in Fort Kochi, but that day had been a relentless string of unfortunate events. Instead of spending a couple days on a houseboat in the Kerala backwaters, Garren and I had been stranded in Fort Kochi and plagued by fever, wardrobe malfunctions, hecklers, and scammers. Combined with the culture shock we were still battling, we were just ready to be done.
Despite the fact that we’d been looking forward to Munnar for months, we began lowering our expectations, preparing for another shock. We met our driver and took the ferry to the mainland, then began our long drive for the hills. I shut my eyes and drifted in and out of noisy traffic-filled dreams.
But then something happened as we got closer and closer to Munnar. I no longer smelled the ripe fumes of burning trash and diesel. The traffic cleared and we had room to breathe on the road. The incessant honking abated, settling to an occasional beep-b-beep reserved for rounding blind corners. We passed by small towns with mobile phone shops and fruit stands, the miles between them getting greater and greater. Rows of concrete buildings were replaced by pineapple plantations and forests of rubber and eucalyptus trees as we climbed higher into the Western Ghats.
As the late-afternoon sun started to dip into the clouds, our driver pulled into the driveway of our homestay, Royal Mist. It was a charming white home with a faded wooden swing out front, a covered patio on the second level, and flowers everywhere.
When I opened the car door I was hit with a blast of cool air that smelled like eucalyptus and rain. Then two people came running out to greet us, hands waving, big grins on their faces.
Our hosts, Anil and Jeeva, got us settled in our room and after a few minutes to get situated, we were out walking the grounds for a sunset hike with Anil. We talked and walked. It helped that Anil’s English was impeccable, but mostly it just helped that he was a genuine, honest guy. It felt nice to just have a normal conversation.
We walked through the trees, Anil pointing out cardamom and coffee plants, the sun casting long shadows on the path. I daydreamed scenes from The Jungle Book as we made our way through the forest. Then we turned to a clearing, and got our first glimpse of the bright green tea plantations that blanket Munnar’s countryside.
We walked right into the tea fields, thanks to an agreement between Anil and the plantation owner. Garren and Anil strolled the plantation while I scampered around, camera at my eye. I felt in my element for the first time since arriving in India.
Before I was ready, the sun dipped behind the Ghats and the air started to cool. I let my camera rest at my side as the three of us walked back to the house. I felt a sense of relief wash over me as I thought to myself, we escaped. Somehow we managed to escape India! It was as if we had been transported to this other place, somewhere quiet and peaceful. My perceptions of what was Indian were beginning to fall apart.
We woke up at 6:30 the next morning, bellies still full from our home cooked chicken curry and pineapple as sweet as honey. Early morning blue light hung in the air as the occasional tuk tuk puttered down the road. Breakfast was a spread of Indian and continental treats and pineapple smoothies.
Soon we were in the car and on our way to Top Station, a high point lookout over the Western Ghats spreading out into Tamil Nadu. We’d been told the mist would roll in mid-morning so our best bet was to get there early. We left at 8am.
We drove and drove, winding through tea plantations interrupted by eucalyptus forests. Ordinarily I’m not big on aromatherapy or natural remedies, but something about those eucalpytus trees perfuming the air almost seemed therapeutic. I could feel the stress and tension slipping away.
The tea fields were sometimes speckled with pickers – women plucking new leaves off the plants and plunging them into big bags. Large boulders the size of elephants were scattered among the fields, and tricked my eyes more than I’d like to admit. The landscape almost seemed unreal. Why hadn’t the rest of the world heard of this place? It seemed like a secret only India knew.
We saved most of our stops for the return trip, racing the mist to Top Station. When we pulled up, a thick blanket of clouds had settled in already. We waited at the lookout for a while, but the most we could see was a slight thinning of the clouds and a hint of the view peeking out from behind.
Discouraged only for a moment, we went back to the car, ready to explore what we had driven past on our way up. Just below top station, our driver dropped us off at the head of a path and we walked into a blanket of green. It was just the two of us, and we felt like we’d stumbled into a fairytale.
The drive back was as beautiful as the way there. I took a video just to give you a sense of the place. Sorry for the shaky cam, I was hand-holding the camera out the window! It was pure luck that a monkey happened to appear on the scene at the end.
On the way back we stopped to admire a couple of lakes and dams. They were calm and peaceful, with a few boaters here and there and some lazy cows napping on the side of the road.
After a quick lunch at a no-nonsense thali joint serving a crowd of locals at communal tables, we decided to check out the tea museum despite some mediocre reviews.
Although there was nothing especially impressive at the museum, it was still worth the visit. Being an engineer, I’ve seen lots of manufacturing processes in the US and even a few in Spain, so I was curious what a tea factory might look like in India. We skipped over much of the museum and went straight for the manufacturing area. It wasn’t an operational manufacturing process, just a working replica, but still cool to see it in action.
We also watched the unintentionally-comical propoganda movie about TATA, the company that owns, runs, and makes pretty much everything in India, including tea. All hail TATA!
We also visited a nearby NGO outside Munnar town called Aranya Naturals – Srishti Welfare Centre (run by… guess who. TATA!). Aranya privides work and support for disabled family members of tea plantation workers. They use tea waste and other natural materials to die cotton, silk and other natural fabrics to make scarves, stoles, and other fabric hand crafts. They also have a paper production center that makes stationary from elephant poop! It was quite interesting to see their little factory and the shop next door provides a nice way to get some hand made items while contributing to the welfare of the factory workers. It was nice to see these people were being taken care of.
Worn out from a long day of exploring, we made our way back to Royal Mist for some homemade Keralan cuisine prepared by our host, Jeeva.
That evening the white fluffy clouds turned dark and heavy, and for the first time during our trip, it poured. Garren and I sat on the covered patio just listening to the rain. Munnar was making me question my perception of India. I realized I wouldn’t be able to figure this country out in this trip or in a hundred. I also realized I didn’t really need to figure it out. I think part of traveling in India is just finding what makes you happy. Some people find that in the big cities. I found it in Munnar.
Where do you go to escape culture shock?
P.S. I was recently interviewed by Rachel Jones of Hippie in Heels for her Backpackers Boutique series! Go check out the interview for a peak into my packing process and travel style!