Hill Country

Day 741 – 11 March, 2017

After a short(ish) bus trip from Mysore to Bangalore, Mel and I booked a double bed on an AC sleeper bus while Jill booked a single on a non AC bus. Both were scheduled to depart in the evening and arrive around the same time in the hill country of Munnar. In spite of the winding and bumpy mountain roads, I slept relatively well. Morning condensation beaded on the windows but I could still make out the rolling green hills of the Kerala tea plantations. Cows, dogs, and pedestrians shuffled through the dust clouds thrown up by buses and auto rickshaws.

Mel and I were dropped off by a fruit stand on the southern edge of the small town around 7am. We had not booked a place to stay yet, but we dropped our bags at a tea house where we could order breakfast and a hot drink while we waited for Jill. The tea house didn’t have its own toilet so I went for a walk to find a place that did. The Green View Inn was two doors down on a side street. They offered me the use of an outhouse with a western toilet that barely fit the room. I had to prop the door open to have room for my feet. Besides, the lightbulb was burned out so I needed the natural light anyway. The front desk clerk possessed that wide smile and infectious good humor so typical of Kerala. I noticed they were displaying a flyer for trekking adventures so to kill time, I inquired about the cost and options as I was pretty sure that both Mel and Jill were game for a trek. The gentleman was so kind and helpful that I also asked if they might have any rooms available. He bobbled his head, “Well, yes, yes, of course we do. Would you like to see the room?”

The building was narrow but had 4 floors. Rooms were on the second and third level and a covered roof patio, free library, and meditation area were on the fourth level. The man showed me a few different rooms that cost 750 rupees/night (just shy of $12USD). I was convinced. It seemed that I should wait and check with the other two if this would be ok, but I was comfortable paying the full price myself if they didn’t want to split it. I decided that if they didn’t want to stay here, that was fine and I would just go it alone.

I retrieved Mel from the tea house and she was agreeable to the room and location. Meanwhile, a few hours had passed and we were still waiting to hear from Jill. We had each messaged her a few times, posting her on our whereabouts and plans to no avail. We could only assume that she was still en route. By the time we finally connected with Jill, we had already moved in and Mel was elbow deep in removing the box braids and extensions from her hair. Jill had been dropped on the north end of town and feeling kind of bad for not consulting her about the room first, I began walking toward the main hub of town to meet her.

I had a renewed sense for us to start fresh. She thanked me for meeting her. I was optimistic for the next couple of weeks together. I excitedly told her what I had learned about trekking and I gushed about this cute cheap guesthouse I had discovered, but I wanted to be clear that she did not have to stay there if she didn’t like it. She did not object, but opted to sleep on the hard tile floor, the reasoning for which never really became clear.

We had dinner at an oft-recommended restaurant with a delectable traditional thali. A banana leaf was draped straight on the table in front of each of us while the server spooned heaping mounds of curried eggplant, turmeric-infused okra, and a rainbow of chutneys and pickles before topping us off with fiery sambhar (lentil stew), a generous helping of steamed white rice and papadum (crispy fried lentil bread) balanced on top. There’s no point in ordering thali if you aren’t hungry. Refills are endless as long as you keep eating. We had grown adept at scooping up mounds of rice and a pinch of veggies with our greedy fists and clumsily slurping the food through our lips with only minimal mess. We laughed every time the attendant came to refill our plates and only knew to point to which accompaniments we wanted to see more of. An obviously upper class family of Indians at the table next to us, who were probably only in Munnar on a vacation of their own, ate their thali with proper utensils and looked down their noses at the sticky curry-covered gluttonous white girls nearby. Regardless, it felt good that we seemed like friends again.

The next day we rose bright and early to join a trekking group straight from Green View Inn through the tea plantations and the early morning mist snaking its way through the hill station. Our group was about 8 people, but I was feeling introspective so early before dawn and I chose to wander along alone (which I suppose only an introvert understands). Compared to the bustling city streets of the cities, the atmosphere was so quiet; only the chirping of birds and the gurgling of a shallow creek filled the silence.

Mel said she had never been hiking before so Jill and I encouraged her along to the top of our route, where our guide unpacked cheese sandwiches, pineapple, omelette, and baby bananas for us to share for breakfast. From a metal thermos, he poured steaming cups of chai. It was idyllic and hard to imagine the cacophony of city noises from so far out here.

We continued further into the valley, through tea plantations and family farms. Lazy cows and weathered dogs alike swatted flies with their tails and watched us with apathy. It was surreal to feel so isolated in rural life in such a populous country. Finally completing our trek at a sister guesthouse to Green View Inn just in time for lunch, our hosts served us steaming lentils and curried vegetables with rice while we rested our tired, dusty limbs after the day’s hike. Jill, Mel and I were in good spirits. The fresh air had really done some good.

Back in town, we separated for awhile so I could do some writing while they did some shopping in the winding markets of herbs, essential oils, tea, and home-made chocolates. Later on, we met back at the same restaurant as the previous night for more thali, where eventually the discussion turned to what our plans would be after leaving Munnar. We knew we wanted to go to both Alleppey and Varkala, but disagreed on which one first. Mel would have to leave for her flight home before we had visited both so ultimately, the decision was up to her. I briefly considered doing the opposite of what they decided so that I could be on my own again, but it would have been a blatant jab and besides, we were getting along fine as far as I could tell. Reluctantly, I agreed to take a sputtering municipal bus with sunken collapsing seats overnight to Trivandrum where we would transfer to a local train to continue one more hour to Varkala.

The next day, our last in Munnar, we woke up to a light rain. We had been thinking of hiring an auto rickshaw to take us to some viewpoints and maybe a waterfall or two, but abruptly Jill changed her mind and didn’t want to go. Mel seemed noncommittal and I was just tired of constant activities so we each went our separate ways. I spent most of the day on the covered terrace lost in my own thoughts, save for the bit of time when I indulged in a variety of chocolates at the market. When we all met at the bus station in the afternoon, I gathered all the resolve I could muster to endure another uncomfortable night on a bus. Jill seemed annoyed with me again for some reason, but I just couldn’t be bothered to care why anymore. There wasn’t a place to stow our backpacks underneath the bus so we carried them onboard and hefted them overhead to a bin over our seats. The bus wasn’t full, although we stopped several times in the night to load or unload passengers, arriving in Trivandrum just at dawn.

The three of us were the last to disembark and just as I tried to wrangle my pack from the overhead bin where it had become wedged between two pegs in the night, I felt my shoulder pop. Likely, my rotator cuff didn’t agree with the tight angle in which I was wrestling with a heavy backpack. And just like that, after two years of carrying around this beast, every unit of gravity became my arch nemesis. I winced with pain during every step as we hustled across the street to catch the next train to Varkala. My companions knew no sympathy.

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