I button my sweater, sink into the first chair on the balcony of Room No. 101, and say out loud, “Still there.” The chair next to me lies vacant and beyond the balcony the silhouettes of mountains stand calm. In between them, the sun dissolves. For the last time I whisper, “Still there,” staring at the red remains of the sun as it sinks further, imagining myself to be a quirky Celine watching the most exotic sunset of my life. It takes exactly fifteen minutes for the sun to succumb and for the coffee to arrive at The Wind, a cosy resort in Munnar perched abruptly on the brink of a cliff. On the other side of my room I hear an upset wife yelling at her husband “Ab to niklo.” (The rooms sure are cosy!) I hear her slam the door and somewhere on the lawn a branch detaches itself from a tree. Thud. If Before Midnight were to be shot in India I have a feeling The Wind would be the kind of resort director Richard Linklater would pick.
Munnar resembles the scenery sketches from a five-year-old’s drawing book. It takes you back to an era when you believed that the constituents of a dream home were mountains, streams, coconut palms, and a thatched hut, adjacent to which stood three stick figures holding hands and smiling with their smudged crayon-red lips.
Rajesh, the cab driver for this trip, is one of these stick figures tapped into life. He wakes up at six in his thatched home, eats four idlis for breakfast and drives the coiled curves of the hills for a living. We meander through the tea-lined roads watching women pluck two leaves and a bud, tossing them in rhythmic swings into their burlap backpacks. On an average day a single leaf picker can gather upto 25 kilos of leaves, I’m told. In the distance, identical houses flash past. Alternately coloured in blue and pink, they all have something else in common: tarpaulin sheets instead of glass for windows. Rajesh puts it plainly: “They can’t afford glass.” ‘They’ refers to the tea plantation workers who are employed in the factories studded along the same steep slopes.
Munnar wasn’t always synonymous with tea. Until the 1870s, it was home to a clan of Muthuvan tribes who only cultivated cardamom, bamboo and ragi. Tea came much later, as a byproduct of British rule. Lockhart was one such estate. The dirt road leading to the Lockhart Tea Plantation has in all probability worsened after the Britishers found their way out. In exchange for a hundred-rupee note I am promised a trip to the factory and also given a steaming cup of tea which is orange in colour and has spurts of lemon in it. A young chap who talks too much explains the various processes a tea leaf is put through before it is ready to bounce and boil in your stainless steel kettle. On my right, a sack of leaves is being dragged onto the bamboo trays for withering. If the word fresh had a smell to it, this would be it — wounded tea leaves. The therapeutic musing is put to an end by a bearded man who with a long barefooted swish sweeps the tea leaves onto the tray. Now, like wine, every time I sip tea I will remember a strange pair of feet.
Though the twelve-page menu of The Wind resort was tempting, the tea has stirred my appetite and there is no way I can wait. At some point even the goats carefully crossing the road turn their heads to my stomach’s grumble. So does the driver and asks, “Is Maggi okay?” I look around in the car for a familiar yellow cover until his thumb points at a roadside stall. A rectangle of a cardboard that says Maggi in voluptuous Malayalam alphabets. The slopes are replete with small stalls selling Maggi for 30 bucks. A recent fad, Sheela, the tea stall owner, tells me as she tucks her pallu onto her waist and breaks the noodle block into two. What is served is a saucier and spicier version with coriander and curry leaves aplenty. On the other hand, dinner at The Wind is an elegant affair, coin-sized candles drifting in the water highlighting the silver of the cutlery and the hazel of the steak.
Echo Point is a ten-minute drive from town. In my head, I am picking a line to shout out loud, a line that will be returned to me in perhaps a huskier tone. On the way we stop twice, first when I have a delusion and spot an imaginary elephant on the byroad and, second, to see this gigantic tree with jackfruit shaped honeycombs dangling out from every one of its branches. Right opposite the tree, a man wearing the brightest blue checkered lungi is seen leaning onto his bicycle with bottles of uncorrupted honey for sale. Echo Point turns out to be a cacophony of excursion-happy girls and boys dressed in navy blue stripes. Echo nor shadow, you should make your way to this spot to browse through the string of shops selling spices, tea, cashewnuts, eucalyptus oil and banana chips. Top Station is next on the itinerary, the road to which turns out to be a discovery.
Little green bulbs attached to the base of long-leafed bushes. Take a guess… Cardamom pods, shy yet seemingly ready to burst growing unnoticed amid the weeds. Next is a pale red local fruit that resembles a shrivelled brinjal and tastes like an overripe tomato. But the biggest find is sweet…or should I say bitter? In my pocket, the Snickers that I carry around for emergencies fails to tempt me as I cup a ripe cocoa pod in my palms.
The climb to Top Station can be exhausting especially if you tend to develop cracked feet in the Munnar cold but to my benefit I race with a European tourist. A binocular looped around his neck keeps knocking his slightly plump belly at regular intervals. Even without a fancy binocular the panoramic view of the Western Ghats is overwhelming. Someone points at a faint trail: “It’s the border line separating Kerala and Tamil Nadu.” As I tumble down the hill, a stranger says, “You heard, they grow opium here.” I maintain a cautious distance yet am all ears. “It is quite a sight, men trekking with opium-filled sacks secured onto their backs. They trek all the way up here,” he says, pointing to where I am standing. If I were given a small share of the opium, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge I too would have sketched another Xanadu in praise of Top Station.
Slightly dizzy after the march through rickety paths yet enthusiastic for more, I quiz Rajesh about Munnar’s nightlife. He gives me a perplexed look that says it all. “We have a theyyam and kalari payyittu performance for the tourists in the evening, but it is already over.” I glance at my watch. 5.15. Munnar tucks in at seven. There are no theatres, no art galleries, no libraries, nor bookstalls. Evenings in a Munnar household are about dinner, television and family. Evenings for lonely visitors like me translate into a tummy filled with golden fried prawns, a blanket and a copy of Penguin Modern Classics.
Find your way to Ernakulam which is the closest major railhead from Munnar or fly into Cochin International Airport. A cab to the hill station will set you back by Rs 3,500. If you’re okay with a wobbly drive you can also depend on the Kerala State Transport buses, easily available from Ernakulam town.
The Wind is situated 23km from Munnar. It has a dozen cliff cottages on offer each assuring a bird’s-eye view of Munnar. It is ideal for those looking for some peace and privacy, especially honeymooners. The room rates vary from Rs 5,000 to 7,000 (call Noby Abraham on +91-9495519624 to book; thewindmunnar.com). If you’re keen on the best view of the sunset then make sure to ask for a honeymoon cottage. Neat rooms, spacious bathrooms, beautiful french windows and a humble crew are the best features of this resort. The hotel also arranges pick and drop, cabs and guides for local sightseeing.
What to see & do
Muniyara, famous for its archaeological assets is a stone’s throw away from The Wind.
A tea factory visit should be high on your itinerary. Note that most plantations and factories have their weekly offs on Mondays.
The Mattupetty Dam is around 12km from the township but is a must-visit if you want an elephant ride.
Echo Point. Note that most places will have cellphone connectivity but the road to Top Station has fluctuations in network coverage.
The Nilgiri tahr, a goat antelope, can be found at the Eravikulam National Park (eravikulam.org). For some more fauna, travel another 13km to reach the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary (chinnar.org).