Saturday, February 20, 2010

Munnar, India

I wish I’d had the camera handy for our first moments in Munnar.  We were lost, searching for a Lonely Planet lodging   recommendation, a cluster of cottages at the edge of town nestled in the tea trees.  Our taxi driver hailed a woman in a nun’s habit for directions, and she pointed us up a steep hill, a narrow rutted dirt road barely wide enough for a bicycle, let alone a big rambling Ambassador taxi.  I thought perhaps we should ask our driver to wait here, and that we should head up the hill on foot to check it out, but he gamely put the car into low gear and plowed ahead.   In the back seat, we used legs and arms to brace ourselves as the car dived up and down violently through huge holes in the road.  We came to a stop at a metal gate, with a faded sign “Zina Cottages”.  Beyond the gate, every door was shut, every window shuttered, no sign of life, it looked like it’d been abandoned years ago.  Bummer. 

Meanwhile, our driver was outside the car, wiping his brow with a handkerchief and muttering to himself, looking at the car and then at the road back downhill nervously.  He didn’t know how to get us back down.  He couldn’t figure out how to turn the car around.  We thought- no problem, a three-point turn, right?  Maybe five points at most.

Mohit explained, he didn’t understand.   So Mohit pretended to be a car, and drove himself forward, back, and then forward again, see?  (This is the part I wish I’d taken a photo of, since it looked so comical).  Our driver got in the car, skeptically, shaking his head still.  Mohit guided him through each motion while I sat on a stone at the edge of the road, staying out of the way.  When the car was successfully pointed back downhill, our taxi driver threw on the safety brake and stuck his head and shoulders out the window to look back at Mohit with a huge grin on his face “You are a GENIOUS sir!”. 

Munnar the town is tiny, dusty, ugly, and missable.  However, it’s set amidst a beautiful patchwork landscape of rolling hills carpeted in rows and rows of tea trees. It’s high up in the mountains, the Western Ghats, on the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and the elevation results in cool nights.  After the heat of coastal Kerala, we were thrilled to put on jeans and a windbreaker to head out for dinner. 

The room we found was cheap.  The floors were dirty but at least the sheets were clean.  The hot water we’d been promised didn’t work after all, but we had a hammock outside the door with a view of kids playing soccer in a field below.  For breakfast we ordered masala dosas and tea in steel tumblers at a roadside dhaba.  The temperature climbed dramatically as the sun rose in the sky so we loaded up on bottled waters and set off down the road to explore. 

As soon as we turned off the main road, the din of honking cars and roaring buses died away.  As I snapped photos of the scenery- rock-topped mountains, an expanse of blue sky, and nothing but trees as far as we could see, Mohit commented “My parents will never believe this is India”.  Parts of the road were shaded by a canopy of tall trees, and as the breeze blew through we felt like we were in Switzerland or the White Mountains. 

Where the forest ended, thousands of acres of tea fields on rolling hills laid before us.  We asked a man working among the tea trees for directions.  He showed us a winding dirt path leading downhill through the tea plantation, and promised a waterfall about 4 km away.  Periodic signs informed us that we were walking through the private property of the Pullivasal Tea Estate, but we kept passing groups of workers watering and tending the tea bushes, and no one seemed to care.  Most smiled and asked where we were from, and pointed  us in the right direction at forks in the path.

The tea plantation is its own self-sufficient world.  Every kilometer or so, we passed long narrow buildings with rows of doors on the front: dormitory-style accommodations for the plantation workers and their families.  It looked like an entire family lived in each tiny room, judging from the laundry hanging to dry and glimpses of the dark interiors as we passed.

Each cluster of dorms had a small school building, and we could hear kids reciting their lessons indoors.  We passed a small building labeled “hospital”, a few Hindu temples, and a few Catholic churches.  The “Accommodations of the Assistant Manager” were considerably more posh, set apart from the worker’s quarters, and with a wraparound porch to enjoy the views.  All of this was surrounded by an endless expanse of green tea fields.  

After a few hours of walking, we were HOT and psyched to find a patch of the plantation that was being watered with rotating sprinklers- we both let the cool water drench us as the spray rotated past.  At the edge of the plantation, we found a small waterfall, mostly dry this time of year unless the dam above is opened to release more water.  A man and his wife had set up a makeshift cafe in their front yard and we gladly bought two chilled lime sodas- sparkling water with a slice of lime and a pinch of sugar. 

To get back into town, we waited at the side of the road and then hopped on the “bus”, which turned out to be an over-crowded small jeep.  We were passengers 12 and 13 in a car built for four.  We hung onto the steel supports of the roof to avoid being bounced out, and Mohit pointed out to me that the driver was sitting on someone else’s lap as he drove!


  1. Your description is graphically intoxicating to the senses and the photos display an exquisite place that make me want to someday accept the challenge of visiting such a wonderful place.

    Thanks for sharing your adventure!

  2. God bless you both kate and Mohit and posting this magnificent Munnar .Yes you are right about road conditions but I know Munnar was having beautiful roads sometimes back 15 yeas when I last visited and the scenery is wonderful .