Saturday, June 22, 2013

Magnificent Munnar

In England, on the outskirts of city called Leeds, there lives a man who is not quite like any other man. Or so I once thought. This man possesses a certain ungainly grace of movement, a fondness for 'having a boogie,' a very distinctive dress sense, and a proud Keralan lineage. I very much thought this individual—who we could call Sean N because that is his name—was extraordinarily unique. Then I met Sean's brother and discovered he was not such a special snowflake after all. Ordinarily, this discovery might have made me a bit sad, but the world could certainly do with more Sean-alikes in it.

When we arrived at the airport in Mumbai, Jon discovered that lightning could strike thrice. With a strange glow in his eyes that can only come from either the truly sleep deprived or the very excited, Jon turned to me and whispered, “Guess what???? I saw this guy, and he looked exactly like Sean! Same posture, same eyes, same everything. Maybe it's not a 'N' family thing, maybe it's a Keralan thing!With this exchange, my imagination ran a little rampant. Although my rational mind knew I was courting disappointment, I could not help nurturing a fantastical image of Kerala as one filled from border to border with disco-dancing sartorialists looking for a suitable place to have a drink and a boogie.

As you may have expected, we were—most unfortunately—not greeted at the Keralan border by a sea of miniature Seans wearing snazzier versions of that famous red and white striped sweater donned by Waldo/Wally. Fortunately, the scenery was too amazing for me to recall that I ought to be disappointed. Now that I've rambled on a bit here, let me backtrack.
The second bus we took on our way to Munnar from Coimbatore was absolutely packed. After standing for a bit, Jon and I ended up sitting on the stepwell of the bus with another lady in a space that was suitable for one. However, the locals did their best to ensure we were comfortable, and were kind enough to lock the door to the bus, thereby ensuring we were less likely to tumble out on the winding roads. Once again, they showed a distinct interest in our guidebook and music, and it really helped to make a potentially unpleasant journey rather enjoyable. After asking how long we have been married, a question we've fielded often, everybody next wants to know how many babies we have and where they are (um, the rucksack, naturally). Apparently, most Indian newlyweds procure at least one infant in 1.5 years of matrimony! 
As the rolling hills gave way to mountains, we were treated to some simply astounding views. Waterfalls cascaded into lush green valleys below. Purple mountains glowed hazily in the distance. I'm pretty sure our new friends were highly amused by us, because we kept gasping at each turn, and were so utterly transfixed by the scenery that we didn't really notice them watching our reactions. When it started to drizzle, one of the men sitting near us wanted to pull down the metal screen to block the droplets. However, one of the ladies we befriended gave him a right telling off for wanting to shut out the scenery. I would like to imagine the conversation went something like this, “They came several thousand miles to see this, and you can't leave the window open for them? What are you, made of sugar? Nope, didn't think so, so stop whining!” As we got closer to Munnar, we could see rows and rows of lush green tea leaves, which filled the bus with air that was incredibly clean and fresh.

As we arrived, it was starting to get dark, so we were ready to find a place to stay for the night. Unfortunately, our number one pick of guesthouses was full, as were four others along the same road. Apparently, it was one of the last weeks of school holidays, and a lot of families were making the most of it. This triggered a ten minute drive back into town, where—fortunately--we found a place with one room left. (A couple of days later, we met a guy who was not so lucky and had to fork over the equivalent of 2x our daily budget for a place to lay his head for the night!) Our driver only charged us the fare minimum because he was playing the long game—specifically he wanted to sell us a rickshaw tour the following day. The guy seemed pretty legit, and we liked the idea of having a plan for the following day, so we went for it, even though it was an early start.

It turned out to be a brilliant decision. Our “tour” was essentially an ad hoc day of exploring that our driver tailored to our interests. It was, hands down, the most enjoyable day we've had in India. And I was very grateful for the early start after I saw the crowds later in the day! Our first stop was by a tree filled with bees' nests that were over 100 years old. We then dropped by a dam and a scenic overlook called Echo Point, which had a bit of a carnival atmosphere and some very pretty earrings for sale. :) Interspersed though all of this were loads of photo ops, and we had to fight the urge to ask our rickshaw driver to stop every hundred yards so we could admire the view. It was all so breathtakingly gorgeous. 

The highlight of the day was strolling through a lush green tea plantation that was encircled by mountains and gave way to a valley below. We also had another time for an additional stroll through a village, where Jon bowled a few cricket balls with the local kids. (Cricket balls? Is that what we call it? I don't know much about cricket, I prefer grasshoppers.)

 On the way back to our guesthouse, our driver spotted a family of wild elephants across the river, who were busily eating their dinner. Could the day get any more incredible? That night, our dinner that night was delicious, and the only downside of the day was that in all of the excitement, we had neglected to put sunscreen on, so we were both a little burned. Oops! But we were too happy to care much about it. We retired to bed to rest up for the following day, because we'd opted for another 'tour' with the same driver. (It was a no-brainer really!) 

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