Kristi never wanted to go to the mountain town of Munnar. I could see it in her eyes when I spoke of hiking there, I could hear it in her voice when she asked questions about it. I like hiking, the outdoors, the mountains. Kristi, not so much.
But Kristi never said anything negative for she understood that I really wanted to go and she was allowing this one without argument. I am, after all, going to Disney World with her in three weeks.
We were in the lobby of our guesthouse in Cochin making arrangements for Munnar and I inquired about the bus to the front desk agent.
“Why don’t you ask about the train?” Kristi asked.
“There is no train, only bus,” I replied. “But on the bright side, the guidebook says the road is terrible.”
I could see her spirit was crushed a little.
I know most people really enjoy the sea-side city of Cochin but we were hating it. The heat was tyrannical. The air was so stagnant and humid it felt like Satan’s breath. All day long sweat gushed from my body, leaving behind a glutinous residue as if I’d been doused with Mountain Dew.
The power grid in Cochin, like many other parts of India, was not up for the task and failed routinely. For long periods of time the fans sat idle, unable to stir the soupy air. When the power was out we had to leave our oven-like room, exposing us to swarms of mosquitoes that feasted like obese tourists at the lido deck buffet. We were miserable.
After 24-hours in Cochin, I typed two words into the computer that simultaneously changed Kristi’s outlook on Munnar and hastened our trip to the hill country town. Those two words: Munnar+Weather.
Google pulled up the 7-day forecast and it showed identical days of overcast skies, highs of 81 and lows of 61 at the mile-high city. Kristi looked at the computer and light flooded into her eyes, like the way an atheist might look if they found God. Suddenly, our plans changed – we decided to flee Cochin a day early.
Kristi was happy to get out of Cochin, but still daunted by the bus ride.
“Can we take a taxi?” She asked.
“If it is less than 3000 rupees,” I told her, not really expecting it to happen.
That evening we were walking past a travel agency that was open but no one was around. I looked on the agent’s desk and saw a sheet with taxi prices for the region. My eyes followed the alphabetical list from A through to M and then I saw Mangalore, Mumbai and finally Munnar. Next to Munnar it listed the price: 2800 rupees. Kristi was ebullient.
What at first seemed like a luxury, a big fat splurge, turned out to be a great value, if not a necessity. As promised, the mountains roads were horrible in spots, not so much from a lack of maintenance, but mainly due to the physics of building a road on a precipitous mountainside in a region that gets pummeled by monsoon rains. Some sections were filled with tuk-tuk sized potholes and edges of the road were washed away. The road was super narrow at spots, one-lane traffic only. I would have been nervous driving a golf cart down some of the spaces that were handling trucks and buses. At times, our driver had to pause and let oncoming traffic pass on winding corners. It must absolutely tear apart an Indian driver’s soul to have to stop, for they are the most impatient drivers anywhere.
The trip took four hours door-to-door, and it likely would have taken eight hours going by bus. Plus we saved ourselves the wear-and-tear of riding on the nauseating roads, packed into the overloaded bus, stopping anywhere and everywhere to pick up passengers on the roadside. And we were spared the hassle of the tuk-tuks and ferry connection the bus trip would have required.
The drive took us through Jurassic lushness, an area more verdant than anywhere I can remember being. I kept expecting exotic zoo animals to burst from the preternaturally green jungle. The air was refreshingly cool, dramatic waterfalls tumbled down steep cliffs, expertly manicured tea plantations spread along rolling hills. Our personal driver stopped for toilet breaks when we wanted and pulled over at scenic spots for us. We found a little slice of Indian tropical heaven in Munnar and we didn’t have to take a rattletrap bus to get there.
Kristi Makes Peace with the Mountains
Once I got her to Munnar she agreed to go on a trek without fuss – she was resigned to her fate. We hired a guide from the local tourist office and he took us on an incredible hike. We climbed a 6600 foot mountain that started with a winding ascent through verdant tea plantations, and then up a steep ridge to a summit that afforded stunning 360 degree views. We descended through a thick jungle, hiked more tea plantations, and walked through a peaceful flower-filled valley. We could have never done the hike on our own.
Having lunch atop the summit, Kristi said, “This is awesome; I’m glad we did this. I let you drag me on these things because I know I will enjoy it.”
Kristi had made peace with the mountains.
It could also have been the thin mountain air or exhaustion confusing her, so there’s that. But she seemed to really have a good time.
Jeff Makes Controversial Comments at a Communist Rally
In Munnar, we were witness to something that might cause Glenn Beck’s head to explode if he saw it. In a political anomaly, the state of Kerala has the only democratically elected Communist government in the world. We watched what we at first thought was a festival, with a marching band, dancers and booming drums, but quickly figured out (once we saw hordes of people with red flags sporting the hammer and sickle) that this was a Communist rally. The procession stretched for miles and I reckon at least 2000 people were marching. Some people were dancing as if high on ecstasy and some carried banners and made chants.
We ate at a restaurant as the rally raged outside and I made some controversial statements that I will paraphrase. Luckily no one reads my blog so I don’t have to worry about being put on any FBI watch list.
I don’t think communism is always that bad. Take Cuba for example: they have a great health care system, one of the highest literacy rates in the world and absolutely no crime. Compared to its neighbors – Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic and Miami – it enjoys less crime and is mostly absent of drug trafficking. If I had to walk through Miami, Havana or Port-au-Prince late at night, I can tell you which one I’d pick. And if I had kids, I’d rather them be educated in Cuba than Haiti, inner city Miami or Kingston.
Communism seems to be working in Kerala. They have the highest literacy rate in India and the state is clean and prosperous. Capitalism is still the best system, but for some people in certain situations Communism might be better. Just sayin.
The Bells go to Fat Camp
We stayed at the Dew Drops Guesthouse which is only 12 miles outside of Munnar in a lush, peaceful valley, but it is a one-hour tuk-tuk journey on a winding road to the nearest restaurant. Therefore, guests of the lodge are more or less captive to the on-site restaurant.
There is no menu; guests are served what is on offer that day. Breakfast was good; they served us a fried egg, toast and fruit. For lunch we were treated to rice mixed with green beans, pineapple and raisins. It was as good as it sounds, which means it was disgusting. Dinner was served at 8-ish PM and consisted of some melancholy veggie dishes, a dreary curry, stale chapati and rice. We attempted to fill up on as much rice and choke down as many veggies as possible, then tried to fall asleep before our bodies realized we were still hungry.
One night we were ravenous after a day of hiking and they were tardy in opening the restaurant. We were pacing outside, on the verge of a meltdown. I cried out, “THIS IS FAT CAMP!” It had all the makings of fat camp: the meals were small, dismal, and spaced out at long intervals, there was nothing to do but hike in the area and the closest place to buy beer was in Sri Lanka. We were forced to be healthy, or at least emaciated.
After two days of suffering, we smuggled in Snickers bars to sustain us until dinner. We prayed that the hotel owners (aka camp counselors) did not perform room checks and find them.
Note: the first thing I did after leaving the Dew Drops was buy a big fat roll of Oreo cookies and a 7-up. Take that Fat Camp counselors!
The above photo sums up what I love so much about India. India is so safe that we took off hiking in the hills by ourselves with our big cameras with no worries. The worst thing that can happen to you is for the locals to kidnap you for a photo and an exchange of addresses, like above.