I have to admit I have a somewhat academic relationship with travel. I do like the idea of traveling but I don’t seem to get out much, or at least not as much as I would like to. It doesn’t help that my wife and I have, well, slightly different attitudes when it comes to travel. I usually want to travel the next day, or maybe the coming weekend if I am in the mood for planning. Maybe it’s because of all those last minute business trips, or maybe it’s just me. My wife on the other hand, thinks of travel from the next month onwards, or when she feels spontaneous, the next weekend. From time to time, we hit the sweet spot of immediacy and planning that works for both of us, and manage to get out. This time though plans were being set in motion, months in advance.
For some time, we had been thinking about taking a road trip to a place where we could see nature and get away from the madding crowd and their frenzied pursuits. You know that feeling when you are watching Planet Earth or some other program about nature and travel, and you think, “if that is planet earth, what planet am I on?” With so much budding desire to reaffirm our earthling-ness, when another family asked us if we could accompany them to Munnar, we agreed immediately. We had spent time together as families earlier, and had enjoyed the company of one another. So that was something nice to look forward to. Besides, it didn’t hurt that the place looked like this:
Munnar is a hill station in Kerala, located about 1600 metres above mean sea level, in the portion of the Western Ghats that lie south of the Palakkad Gap. Like many places in India its spelling does not tell you quite exactly how it should be pronounced. As we learned later after hearing the locals say it, it’s pronounced “moon-aar” and it means the land of “three rivers” in Malayalam. It was clear this was going to be a road trip given that actually getting to Munnar required some amount of driving no matter how you approached the place. We considered three options: flying to Kochi and renting a car, renting a single car with three row seating at Bangalore and driving, or driving together in our own cars. It was a long drive — about 9 hours of driving time and maybe 11 hours of sojourn time with breaks. We also had to contend with two kids aged 3 and 5 and keep their spirits up during the journey. All things considered, we thought we would give it a go in our own cars.
Anyone who has traveled on Indian highways would know how much an early morning departure contributes in making a long drive stress-free. So with all the knack of a street shopper who knows that the list price is just a mythical quantity, I started negotiations for the departure time with an opening bid of 5 AM. We finally agreed to 6 AM and actually managed to set off by 6:30 AM which I thought was a good deal. The highways were excellent, the traffic not too dense and the view just kept getting better and better. Given our estimated 9 hours of driving time, we took several breaks to stretch our legs, to eat some grub or to use the washrooms. Fortunately, the kids were as excited as us and we kept making steady progress. And then we hit the ghat section.
After driving on nearly arrow straight highways, the sight of the twisty mountain roads with hardly any traffic fuelled our enthusiasm for driving. After pushing our cars through several rolling bends we met a sight so spectacular that we had to stop. The pristine mountain air with its distinctive smell, the cool surroundings which were nearly 10℃ cooler than the plains, the mist descending into the valley, it all lit up our spirits and everyone was cracking a big wide smile despite being a bit travel-worn and having another hour or two of driving left.
We arrived at our accommodations, a lovely resort next to the Ponmudi reservoir in Rajakkad, Kerala. We just had enough energy to have dinner and retire for the day. Somewhat anticipating this, we had decided to use the services of a tour guide on the first day, to help us find the best sights and activities at Munnar. We woke up, got ready lazily and had a sumptuous breakfast while looking out to this view.
We were kind of getting used to this pace of things, when our guide arrived. Now, for urban dwellers who are forever dashing off from one place to another in the usual course of their lives, when the time comes for a holiday in the mountains, less is probably more. Evidently, it was not a view endorsed by our guide. In his endeavour to provide maximum satisfaction, we were nearly whisked from place to place so that we could beat the rush and enjoy the sights and activities at the next venue. This especially did not go well with the kids who reminded us of what Newton posited about inertia and external force, every time there was to be a change of scene. Still his local knowledge found us an elephant ride at Iruttukanam, a tour of a spice and herbs plantation, a tasty lunch at a resolutely unhurried restaurant and a lazy boat ride in the beautiful Chengulam reservoir. Well, getting us to Chengulam reservoir was his contribution, but snagging the actual boat ride past the closing time was down to a charm offensive by one of our traveling companions!
We were much less tired at the end of the day than when we had arrived. So we sat down and planned for the following day paying firm heed to the wise teachings of Newton and chalked out a more leisurely time table. We decided we would first go and see Attukad Falls at Pallivasal, then get some lunch at Munnar town and finally visit the Kanan Devan Tea Museum. We navigated our way up to the point where we had to branch off from national highway 85. Then we started descending into the valley with each bend getting tighter till we couldn’t take some turns without reversing and the road kept getting narrower till we reached a single lane bridge across the Muthirappuzhayar river.
We crossed it anxious to find parking and after some tedious manoeuvres, finally managed to lodge the car out of the way. We stepped out of the car in a somewhat pre-occupied state to be greeted by this sight.
The entirety of the spectacle — misty hill tops, tea estates on the slopes and the water gushing through so many different paths proved to be impossible to capture in a single still picture. Completely captivated, we lingered languidly while having hot tea and fried savouries served up by a modest eatery just by the falls. After gloating over the awesome-ness of our planet, we reluctantly left Attukad Falls and proceeded into Munnar town for lunch.
Maybe we were quite hungry by the time we got to lunch, but our meal at Maya Bazaar at The Silver Tips was immensely satisfying thanks to an array of tasty dishes, with a movie set ambience to boot. After lunch, we headed to the Kanan Devan Tea Museum where we learned how tea leaves are plucked and then either steamed and dried into green tea or cut, oxidised and shaken into various grades of black tea ranging from leafy to dusty. It was an interesting place that breathed tea snobbery from the lecture and videos on tea to the various exhibits illustrating the making of the teas, but perhaps it was a trifle too educational for the 3–5 year olds. Ironically, the only tea you could get to drink was from the vending machine! After duly purchasing some tea and spices, we returned to our lodgings.
Knowing it was to be our last evening, we stopped over at the Kallimali viewpoint near the resort to admire another angle of the Ponmudi reservoir.
We had our dinner and talked about when to leave the following morning. We thought we would have a good breakfast and leave by 9 AM or so. We sighed and went to bed at 10 PM. Ten minutes later the front desk called us to let us know that a local protest and road block was scheduled from 6 AM to 6 PM the following day! Wait, what? Road block? We went down to the front desk in our pajamas to understand the situation better. We were advised to beat a hasty retreat at 5 AM in the morning in order to cross the state border into Tamil Nadu, and be out of reach of any potential mischief. Not to belittle the cause of the protestors even in the slightest, but their road block proved far more successful than my bargaining powers in effecting an early departure.
Our morning started with alacrity and we had crossed the state border into Tamil Nadu before we knew it. Then somewhere, reality hit us. Our vacation was going to be over soon. Still with the early start we set our sights on a fancy lunch at a posh hotel in Salem, Tamil Nadu, where we could pamper ourselves with good food and reminisce about the great time we had had so far. The trip definitely confirmed to us the beauty of the planet we live in. But while we may reside on the same planet, we often live in our made up little worlds, running on the seemingly ever-accelerating treadmill of our routines. Routine is good. Acceleration can be good too. Once in a while we just need a breather.
So when are we doing the next one?