Sunday, June 16, 2013


Ooty is a cool city. No, it doesn't have a thriving clubbing scene (far from it), nor do its inhabitants demonstrate an ironic fashion sense (at least I don't think any irony was intended); but as a British developed hill station at around 2200 feet above sea level it has a significantly cooler climate than the surrounding area. We thought that Ooty would be a nice place to chill out for a few days while Monique completed her recovery from illness.

The bus journey from Mysore to Ooty was cramped, windy, bouncy and uncomfortable to the point where any entertainment other than listening to music was impossible. In addition, the seat immediately in front of me was broken and would gradually decline until it crushed my legs. The seat's elderly occupier seemed oblivious to his seat declining by 45 degrees until I drew it to his attention, and then required assistance to lift the seat back up every time I did so. However, the stunning mountain scenery from the winding road was sufficient entertainment and made up for the discomfort. A completely unexpected bonus to the journey was when we passed through a nature reserve, where we spotted plenty of monkeys and caught a brief passing glimpse of two wild elephants that were really close to the side of the road as we whizzed past. One of our great hopes for our time in India was to be able to see wild elephants; however, we had no idea that we would achieve this so early in our trip and without even trying to find them. We were quite giddy with excitement after this, and really looking forward to spending some peaceful time checking out more of the scenery at our leisure, and perhaps even spotting more wildlife.

Unfortunately the journey to Ooty was the highlight of this part of our trip.

Our trip so far has taken place in the low season for tourism as a result of the high temperatures and the approaching monsoons. However, as a result of the cool climate in Ooty we were visiting in its high season when Indian people stay there for some respite from the heat elsewhere (and inexplicably purchase and wear ridiculous looking wooly hats and scarves while they do so). As a result everything was very expensive for our modest budget. The guesthouse we had reserved in anticipation of this purported to be extremely basic (which it was) and clean (which it was not). In addition it did not include access to any sort of shower. As a result we spent our first evening in Ooty searching for an alternative, only to either be told that the hotel was fully booked or to be quoted an unreasonably high price for a room not significantly better than we had already. We ended up relocating to the Young Women's Christian Association the following morning, where conditions were much more hygienic and we even had the luxury of a bucket with which to have a cold shower, and a wake-up call courtesy of the morning hymns.

As to Ooty itself, our very first impression was good; the hodge-podge of buildings on the steep slopes looked quite charming from a distance. 

However, up close it was anything but charming. Much of the town suffers from a lack of pavements, and all of the town has open sewers; a pretty unpleasant combination, especially combined with the limited street lighting. In addition, the two roads which pass through the town appear to be permanently packed with honking traffic. This meant that much of our time was spent trying to dodge traffic without falling into the sewers and with horns blaring continually only a few feet from our ears. The shops along the sides of the road mostly sell tourist tat and knitted clothing, including the aforementioned woolly hats and scarf sets, for those visitors who have underestimated how much the 25 degrees centigrade temperatures would affect them and were, therefore, of no particular interest to us. We also struggled to locate anywhere particularly decent to eat. Perhaps it was a blessing that the YWCA was only available for one night before it filled up for some sort of congregation.

Ooty isn't all bad. There are one or two colourful temples mixed in between the shops.  

One consequence of the relatively cool temperatures is that it is possible for chocolate to be sold without it melting; every other shop purported to sell “home made” chocolate that all looked suspiciously similar. I had previously purchased some Cadbury's chocolate in Hyderabad in an attempt to cheer Monique up only to find it very disappointing; I assume that the chocolate recipe has to be changed to prevent it from melting, and this results in an unpleasant chalky texture. Whilst Ooty's chocolate wasn't great by British standards (or even American) it was much better than what we had eaten in India before and a welcome pick-me-up for both of us. Rather bizarrely, one of the shops we came across in Ooty used the Cadbury colours and logo on nearly all of its signs within the shop, suggesting that Cadbury has branched out into jewellery, office supplies, home furnishings, and electrical goods amongst other things. The shop stopped short, however, of using the Cadbury brand in relation to its “home-made” chocolate.

In amongst trying to arrange a way out of Ooty (about which later) we did manage a couple of activities. Firstly, and unforgettably, we visited the Thread Museum which consisted of a large number of synthetic plants and flowers made entirely out of thread. The plants, which apparently took 50 people over 12 years to make (although by my rough calculations that makes each of those 50 people lazy), were described to us by the guide as “miracles”. The only miracle that I witnessed was the fact that they appear able to regularly persuade people to part with their cash to visit the place (although they are probably helped by the lack of open sewers inside the museum).

Afterwards we braved the lakeside crowds and the very Indian queuing style (which will inevitably be the subject of a blog post/rant at some point) to take a short pedalo ride. The 30 minutes we spent slowly peddling our way around the lake in a four person pedalo (having apparently been deemed either too big or too heavy for a two seater) whilst finishing off our stash of chocolate was the highlight of Ooty.

In Ooty's defence, it is quite probably a nice place to visit if you have your own vehicle and use the town only as a base to visit the surrounding countryside. However, without our own vehicle, and in the absence of any organised tours around the countryside, we were stuck in the city centre itself, which leaves a lot to be desired.

Unsurprisingly we were keen to move on to Kerala (a highly anticipated section of our visit to India) a.s.a.p. So we set about trying to make arrangements to descend out of town on the miniature railway to enable us to sample some more of the scenery we had enjoyed on the way in. However, although we had had enough of Ooty, Ooty had not had enough of us and did not want to make it easy for us to leave. After a fruitless visit to the train station in an attempt to secure seats in advance (and which included a now very familiar referral to a different window which was unoccupied by any member of staff), we returned the following day well in advance of the time at which tickets for travel that day opened and stocked up with travel snacks. After a lengthy queue (which, refreshingly, was actually very similar to a proper queue) we were informed that the train wasn't going to Mettupalayam that day and would only take us as far as Coonoor.

Desperate to get away we purchased tickets and took up a position on the platform prepared for the usual scrum for seats (and in particular seats on the side which we understood had the best views), only to be told a few minutes before the train arrived that there was a queue to get onto the train and to find ourselves some way back in that queue which was marshaled by the station staff. The staff proceeded to instruct passengers which of the carriages, with seating for 8 people, they were to occupy; when I was instructed to enter a carriage which already had 12 people in it I referred the gentleman to the size of our luggage, pointed to the next empty carriage which had two people in it and we promptly made our way into that carriage before any objection could be raised. I was quite smug about securing us two window seats for the scenic journey; my smugness lasted until persons 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14 entered our carriage. The cramped journey would have been easier to endure had we secured seats on the other side of the train with what looked like very nice countryside views rather than our side which mostly had a view of the side of the mountain.

We disembarked the (all too) miniature train in Coonoor without any idea how we were going to get to Kerala. Fortunately we then discovered India's local buses with which we have subsequently become well acquainted. After some help identifying the correct bus (which happened to be just about to leave) we proceeded to pay the grand sum of around next-to-nothing on the 2 hour plus journey to Mettupalayam. From there we took another local bus (which, as luck would have it, was also just about to leave) on the four hour journey to Coimbatore for only slightly more. This was a bit of a revelation for us, as up until then we had only travelled between places by train or private (read “tourist”) buses. These government run buses are remarkably efficient and incredibly good value; they leave at regular intervals to various surrounding towns and so aren't particularly crowded. As long as you don't mind hopping from town to town rather than staying on one bus for your entire journey, can identify the correct bus to get on (often without any signage in English) the local buses are definitely the best way to get around India as a backpacker. Despite that, it appears that foreigners are a bit of a rarity on the local buses and therefore attract quite a bit of attention from people eager to enquire about your journey and thoughts on India, and to do whatever is necessary (and often more) to assist you in getting to where you want to go.

We planned to stay the night in Coimbatore, having already had a long day of travel, and head out early for a bus to either Kochi or Wayanad. However, our good fortune was broken by our discovery that nearly all of the reasonably priced hotels/guesthouses in the city were fully booked and none of the multiple travel agents were able to provide transport to Kochi or Wayanad. Buses to Bangalore, however, were inexplicably plentiful. After an extensive and mood destroying search for a hotel we ended up paying over-the-odds for a room which may or may not have had a giant one-way mirror. The following day we modified our plan with a great deal of help from the locals at the city bus stand, we made our way to Munnar, rather than Kochi, by local buses.

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