In Southwest India near the region of Kochin, is the small bustling city, Coimbatore, where I happened to be conducting a two-week teacher training workshop with my Indian colleagues, Dr. Raja, Dr. Vasu and Dr. Sudha. Working with these teachers in this workshop was an amazing life-changing experience for me, a small town girl from Port Orchard, Washington, who never really thought she could make her dream of traveling the world a reality.
BUT (and it’s big), after living in a 2-star hotel where I was being put up for two weeks in this little chaotic city, I was quite desperate to get away for a moment. The suggestion from my Indian colleagues was to visit the nearby hill station of Ooty – beautiful, refreshing Ooty.
Hill stations, so named by the British, are small mountain-top towns scattered throughout India. The Indian people retreat to these places for the cool fresh air and natural beauty they offer. The hill station of Ooty lies in the 8000-foot Nilgiri mountains just outside Coimbatore. Its lush hillsides are covered with tea plantations and wild untamed forests with monkeys, Bengal tigers, Indian elephants and leopards.
There is a quaint steam train that winds through the hills and up to Ooty, which leaves from the tiny town of Coonoor – a train I hope to ride if I ever return to India – but I chose on this occasion to hire a driver to take me up the mountain. His name was Prakesh, and he was young, quite handsome (an added benefit), and spoke enough English for us to converse easily.
The road to and from Ooty would prove to be everything I could want in a small adventure in India.
The name meaning blue mountains in Tamil and most other Indian languages might have arisen from the blue smoky haze given off by the eucalyptus trees that cover the area or from the Kurunji flower, which blooms every twelve years and gives the slopes a bluish tinge. Because of the mountains and green valleys, Ooty became known as the Queen of Hill Stations
The First Stop
Our drive started out in the city of Coimbatore, a chaotic city, as I said, where you might see an old man on a dilapidated bike, riding perilously along a three-foot deep open drain on an insanely busy narrow street, while carrying a 40-foot long piece of rebar. Crazy stuff.
Soon, however, we were out of the city and on a two-lane road winding up into the lush green hills. Our first stop was at a roadside temple dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey god. The legend of Hanuman is that he leapt (in one step) from South India to the Himalayas in order to find the herb that would heal the deity Rama’s brother.
In that giant leap Hanuman embodied his love for Rama. His intense devotion allowed him to do the impossible, and this is the lesson of Hanuman: Power comes from devotion.
Prakash stopped to offer prayers.
While Northern India is mostly Muslim, South India is predominantly Hindu. Hindu Temples are everywhere. Some of these temples are phenomenal structures taking up an entire city block or more, with elaborate towers made up of hundreds of tiny figures, with inner courtyards within sacred courtyards. Other temples, however, are simple roadside places to pray.
As we continued, on the road to Ooty, we passed bushels of tea from the tea plantations on the Nilgiri hillsides amid towering trees with bright orange flowers. The mist and cool air provided a relief from the ever-present heat of the city below and a transition from chaos to beauty.
The driver asks if I want to stop for tea.
“Yes, of course!” I’m starving besides, and we’ve been driving for a few hours.
So Prakesh turns off the main road and down a steep dirt and seriously pot-holed road into the forest, wondering out loud if he will be able to make it back up again. I can’t imagine there is anyone or anything in this thick lush forest, but then we come onto a clearing.
Hidden among the trees are several beautiful and stylish guesthouses of the Kurumba Village Resort, with an open- air restaurant overlooking a rock pool where I am told elephants pass through in the evenings.
No one is staying there, but the owner/manager gives us a tour of the site. I invite Prakesh to have tea and bread with me. At first he hesitates. He’s my driver after all, and is not usually asked to join his clients. India still has a feel of the old British ways where people don’t cross certain boundaries of decorum.
But I insist, so he joins me.
It’s refreshing and lovely. I could stay here.
As we leave, I think that I must come back and rent a room here some day. But of course, it’s only a dream. When will I be back in India? And to the little town of Coimbatore?
I soak in the experience knowing it will probably not happen again, at least in this lifetime.
Driving out, I, too, begin to wonder if we can make it back up the hill to the main road, but we do, and we drive on for several hours, past monkeys lounging on the side of the road, making hairpin turns as we climb higher through the forest.
We finally reach the tiny town of Ooty, and after the spectacular mesmerizing drive through the forest, I feel a bit let down by the chaos of the streets here. I shop around a bit, take photos. There are no tourists here, it seems, other than the local people coming and going.
I ask Prakesh if there is a restaurant he would recommend where I could have lunch. He drops me off at a posh hotel. Not exactly what I wanted, but off he goes and there I am. I have lunch in the hotel garden. I’m the only guest, it seems. Alone at last.
It’s difficult to find alone time in India.
Since most people in this part of India are Hindu, no alcohol is served in most restaurants, so I welcome the glass of wine in this place that caters to ex-pats. I’ve been living in India for six months and being submersed in the culture everyday, so I forgive myself for this small indulgence in luxury.
After lunch, Prakesh meets up with me, and asks if I want to take an alternate route down the mountain. Up one side, down the other, he says, and of course, I agree. This includes a visit to the highest point in Tamil Nadu. We stop at a lookout, the “Film Shooting Area,” where I take photos. Prakesh brings me tea. He’s a very good guide and driver. Prakash in Coimbatore. Write it down.
As we near the road back to Coimbatore, he stops and wants me to get out. We might be able to see tigers, he says. Tigers? I’m a bit weary. I hesitate to go too far away from the car. I could just imagine the headlines: “American Woman Mauled to Death by Tiger in Ooty.” Below are some real headlines from a 2014 BBC article:
The tiger that killed three people since 4 January in Dodabetta has been confirmed as a “man-eater”. But the jury is still out on whether a “man-eater” killed two people in Maharashtra’s Tadoba region. In Uttar Pradesh, a wandering tigress from Jim Corbett National Park has killed seven people since Christmas. Another five people have been killed by a tiger in Karnataka.
Prakesh sees tracks in the dirt off to the side. He’s fearless. We walk a bit, me trailing behind rather sheepishly. I want to climb on his shoulders. I would love to see a tiger, or an elephant or a leopard, but maybe not face to face.
But we see nothing. I’m relieved and let down at the same time. When we get back in the car, I think, what a coward I am. Maybe next time I won’t be such a wus.
We pass through many small towns, past small temples and more lookouts of the green forest below, stopping for tea and for taking photos. I realize that I’m happy and relaxed for the first time since arriving in India.
We arrive back at my hotel in Coimbatore late that night. It’s been a long day, at least 10 hours. I’m tired, but it was a full day very well-spent. Of all the unforgettable experiences I had in India, flying all over the country, working in small rural schools, exploring Hindu temples, and meeting ambassadors and dignitaries, the road trip to Ooty stands out.
Sometimes the journey is better than the destination.
Mary Kay Seales is a travel writer, copywriter and photographer from Seattle, Washington. She has lived and worked abroad in Paris with the University of Washington, in India and Azerbaijan with the U.S. State Department, and in Costa Rica and the Democratic Republic of Congo with the U.S. Peace Corps. Visit her website at www.marykayseales.com