[posting this from Alleppey, but everything below was written two days ago, on Friday night]
My last update left you on Wednesday morning, waiting for the toy train down the hill and out of Ooty. Well, the train turned and carried me away. Despite my allocated seat being listed on the ticket as a “window” seat, it turned out to be nothing of the sort. But that wasn’t really a problem, because the carriages were very narrow (no central aisle, just pairs of benches facing each other) and I could easily see out of both windows. The only real downside was that my photos didn’t turn out very well, because they were taken through the window from a distance, so show odd reflections from inside the carriage.
Sitting on one side of me was an Indian family, and on the other side a group of four Dutch travellers. A couple of the Dutch guys and I alternated in keeping the young Indian son entertained. He was particularly taken with our earphones – wanting to listen to the music we had – and our cameras, which he wanted to borrow and take photos of us and his parents. One of the Dutch guys seemed a natuaral father, too, playing the usual games you would with a kid.
The view going down the hill was brilliant, as expected. It was the usual Ooty / Nilgiri Ranges view: tea plantations, gum trees, cows, little villages and (oddly) an abandoned-looking explosives factory with a big “NO PHOTOGRAPHY” sign outside it (which I took a photo of). About an hour into the trip, we stopped at a station and the diesel locomotive was swapped for a steam locomotive. Judging from the trip distance listed on my ticket, I think we averaged about 12 km/h for three hours down the hill, before picking up a bit more speed for the final straight section. What a fantastic way to travel! Clickety-clack-whoosh steam train noises, an old-fashioned horn blasting at regular intervals, wonderful scenery, and … a very cosy carriage.
The toy train terminated at Mettupalayam and I changed trains (along with everyone else) to the overnight train to Chennai. But I only went one station further, to Coimbatore, where I was told I could get a bus to Munnar, my next destination. After arriving at Coimbatore a bit before 10pm and catching a rickshaw to the bus station, I was told that there were no more buses to Munnar tonight, but I might be able to get one from Pollachi. So I got on the bus to Pollachi, which turned out to be quite an experience. It felt like a party bus. The driver had music playing incredibly loud – I could still hear it clearly through my earplugs – and there were blue and green coloured lights. It was also very, very cramped. For about an hour and a half I shut my eyes and hoped the ordeal would be over soon.
After arriving at Pollachi, I was told that the next bus to Munnar would be leaving just after 9am. Disheartened, I set off to look for accommodation, along with a German couple and an American who were also intending to move on the next morning. After visiting the hotel recommended by the Lonely Planet and discovering that its prices were now double what was listed there but the rooms were pretty mediocre, we took a rickshaw driver’s recommendation for the “best cheap hotel”, which also turned out to be right next to the bus station. At some point around this time, all of the lights in the turn went out. No electricity! We arrived at the hotel, where they had no idea when the power would be back, but did have rooms available for $6 a night. The rooms smelled funny, and didn’t even have showers – let alone hot showers – but by this point, especially given the price, we didn’t care. The hotel manager told me he lived in Sydney for a few years, working in some kind of IT-related field. Goodness knows how you go from that to running a shitty hotel.
On Thursday morning, I rolled out of bed, checked out, and hopped on the first bus to Munnar. This bus was a lot more civilised than the last, with room for my backpack under my seat and sufficient room for me to be able to read a book. I also got chatting briefly to the chap in the seat next to me, who was a very friendly pastor in a Pentecostal church. At some point, the awkward topic of my religious beliefs came up in conversation, and then with no regard for the awkwardness, the pastor started to ask me why I wasn’t Christian, and told me I should always love Jesus. I put my earphones back on and returned to my book for the rest of the trip.
I arrived in Munnar around lunch time, found somewhere to eat and a place to stay. Munnar is a little bit like Ooty – insofar as it is a hill station and surrounded by pretty scenery and tea plantations – but even more overtly touristy. Interestingly, the tourists here seem to be mostly domestic – I’ve seen surprisingly few white people around the place. I spent the afternoon wandering around town, checking out the “bazaar” (actually a very small market), and making futile attempts for a couple of hours to top up the 3G internet quota on my phone.
One of the first things I noticed about Munnar was how much Communist Party propaganda there was everywhere – red flyers with hammer and sickle insignias and information about CPI (Communist Party of India) meetings. Apparently the area used to have a democratically elected communist government!
I got up fairly early on Friday and wandered into town to have breakfast (super tasty appam with (?) sambar curry) and check out the small Hindu temple at the top of the hill. Heading back into town I bumped into the Pentecostal chap from the bus again, and then the rickshaw driver who took me to my hotel the previous day spotted me and said hello. And by “hello” I mean “would you like to go on an afternoon-long guided tour of Munnar with me?”. It seemed like fun, so I did. It ended up being quite a long trip, from about 11am through 6pm, but I got to go on a couple of very brief hikes through tea plantations, ride an elephant, see monkeys and bison, and even got to drive the rickshaw myself for about 10 minutes along twisty mountain roads. It’s rather fun – just like driving a go kart, only incredibly underpowered, with only three wheels, and a distinct feeling that you’d topple if you even thought about going around a corner at speed. So actually not much like a go kart at all, really, except for the engine that sounded like it belonged in a lawn mower.
After the usual stuff the guy did on his tour, I asked to be taken to the spice garden where you can see all the spices used in Indian (and other) cooking in living, non-powdered form. It was actually quite interesting to see, if only because I had no idea where most spices came from. I was particularly surprised to discover that Allspice is an actual plant, not just a mix of other spices.
In the evening I went to see a Kathakali dance performance. It was quite interesting to watch, although I knew absolutely nothing about it or what to expect. There was supposed to be some kind of story being acted out, but the brief synopsis at the beginning was rendered completely incomprehensible due to the announcer’s thick accent, rapid pace and terrible PA system. It seemed to be something about a mother and her baby, but beyond that it was hard to tell. There was music and singing accompanying the dance, but of course it wasn’t in English, so it didn’t aid my comprehension at all. But I didn’t really mind, it was still entertaining.
I’d originally intended to stay in Munnar for a bit longer but I’m now completely hill-stationed-out and will be moving on tomorrow morning. Undecided yet whether it’ll be to Madurai (largeish Tamil city with a big temple) or Alleppey (coastal backwater town, supposedly a bit like Venice only probably won’t actually be anything like Venice). Juliet SMSed me saying that she was in Madurai and finding it a bit meh and Indian cities sucked, but it still sounds like it could be quite interesting. On the other hand, it’s a bit out of the way: it’s to the east of Munnar, but my plans involve heading up the west coast of India through Kerala and Goa. Hmmm.