From Hyderabad to Kochi: Meru Cabs, booked on the internet, showed up on time in the form of well dressed driver plus clean vehicle. When the car went over speed limit a canned voice from the meter screeched “Slow Down” and the driver put his hand on the speaker to lower the sound, apologizing profusely but not slowing down. He has no control over The Meter installed by headquarters, he tells us – prevents tampering – a feature. Otherwise an uneventful ride to the airport and walk to check in counter. Oh yes! My book idea – stolen already. Corporate Chanakya (yes I bought it) is prominently displayed in every bookstore. I think I will call mine Capitalism Yoga or Kautilya Yoga? You know how every book must have Karma, Yoga or Mantra in its title to be found by Google search? And yes I would stoop for search engines. Transit at Hyderabad was a twenty minute mind boggling frenzy: bags checked, plane cleaned, sprayed, passengers loaded. On time arrival at Kochi. Plus bags.
Kochi To Munnar: While landing we called the driver of our rented car. Anish, tall-twentyish, was just driving into the airport. Kochi from the air is green, green, green. As we drove out I thought of Dehradun of my days: narrow winding lanes with semi-well-maintained bungalows (middle-east money clarified Anish) positing an aura of old world gentility. Soon we were in the hills; the first views of Munnar just as advertised – misty, hilly, green, tea plantations, cool breeze. It even sprinkled a few drops though Anish said Munnar is having a drought – waterfalls are dry and the first rain came only 2 days ago. Our resort is 22 km beyond the town. We pass many “manager bungalows” and I imagine if life is for them as described in English books of yore – lonely, boozy, broken by riots. Later, I learn it is not so at all. Tata (Tetley) has changed everything with schools, hospitals, and roads. One amazing thing : I hardly see people – no bent overloaded women plucking tea leaves or stray cattle or even dogs. The journey ended too soon. We checked in and told Anish we would not be needing the car in the evening and he took off. One interesting sidebar: Around sunset, I needed my sweater which I had forgotten in the car. I called Anish and he did not answer. Shivering, I decided to step out and catch the sunset. Gorgeous. Also, I noticed a young man in fashionable knee-shorts and open neck sweater. Guess who? Out of his work uniform it took me a few seconds to identify our better-than-Bollywood-star Anish.
Munnar Sightseeing – Hike to Sita Devi Lake: Our guide’s name is Mr. Douglas. He called at 6:40 AM to ask if we were ready. “Almost,” we said and scrambled to the reception where he awaited. Once I got used to his accent I found him full of information: 90% owned by TATA; five estates; leaves cut every fifteen days and every five years bush cut to the stem (one foot above ground) to renew growth. Munnar tea is CTC – Cut, Tear, Crush – he said proudly. Air dried (no heat). Oxidized (brown color) and graded. Husk is used for fertilizer.
It is a steep climb around the Club Mahindra property and before we knew it we were up he hill. Breathtaking view: row after row of mountain ridges curtained by ever glimmering mist and the lower slopes green tea gardens.
With all his talk, only now does Mr. Douglas tell us that 3 or 4 wild elephants have been sighted and are roaming around in the area. Mr. Douglas added that up to three elephants are okay but four, he said mysteriously, can be dangerous. Just as I was beginning to doubt Mr. Douglas, locals came from the other side and (of course everyone knew Mr. Douglas) with stories of elephants rampaging about (we had been warned on booking the hike that walks can be cancelled, no reason given).
As we got further up the hill it became a dense forest and then we came upon a tall lemon grass clearing. We could hear the waterfall long before we saw it. And we saw elephant dung, and elephant tracks (the pawprint is the size of a large thali), and elephant crushed lemon grass that smelled like heaven, but no elephant. Then around a bend and suddenly there it was: Sita Devi Lake. Like a shy bride, its water rose in a veil of blue mist, perfectly still. The trees and mountains as clearly visible in the water as on the lakeshore. We took pictures. I wanted to go further but Mr. Douglas said, “No. Elephants have retreated there.” Then he showed us the path where they went up. All along the way back we got regular updates on the elephant activity. It felt positively exciting. But as we hustled back, I came to realize that Mr. Douglas had a full schedule and he did not like being late. So maybe that’s why he did not want to go further.
Excerpted from Munnar Diaries – March 25, 2011