The first line of my diary entry for 24th March reads "Well I survived the 11 hour car journey from Kahangad to Munnar." I've just woken up and the room is still dark. The temperature here, high up in the green hills surrounded by forest and tea planations, is satisfyingly cool and I'm looking forward to breakfast having not eaten for 20 hours.
Thinking back to yesterday I feel so very grateful to my driver Samir and hope that he, by now, is back safely with his family in Kahanghad. If I'm honest I probably was quite apprehensive about taking such a long journey alone in a foreign country with a complete stranger. But as I organised the transfer through the hotel I figured that Mr Jayan didn't seem the type to engage serial killer taxi drivers and that if I was to meet my end then Samir at some point, was going to have to answer some tough questions from Mr Jayan and there was every chance therefore that he would eventually reveal where the body parts were buried. As we reached the main highway thoughts of whether my compadre was going to 'do me in' dissolved and I became rather more fixated on the real potential to meet my end in a fatal car crash. Admittedly I'm not the most relaxed passenger and I'm also not a big fan of those white knuckle amusement park rides. So as we close in just millimetres from the bumper of a large truck whose covered load is swaying dangerously to the right, overtake on a blind bend, slide into spaces that don't exist but are somehow just big enough to slip into before we make contact with the on-coming traffic, I have a choice to make. (Samir can't hear my fear (he most likely thinks I'm practising Ujjayi) and I'm wearing enough deodorant and the Frankincese meditation spray that Susa gave me, to mask the odour of terror. ) I can either put my fath in the universe and trust that Mr Jayan would no sooner tie a friendhsip bracelet around my wrist and wave me cheerfully off with an axe murderer than he would someone with dodgy driving record OR I can spend the next 11 hours with every muscle in my body tightly contracted.
We pass through a number of big cities teaming with both cars and people who in the absense of pavements jostle together negotiating for the same space. Samir tells me he has been driving for 10 years and has never had an accident. This is a good sign, I am liking this sign. He also offers an explanation behind the seeming madness of the roads where there is no let up from the constant cacophany of horns. He tellls me that everyone is actually thinking about and looking after the other person and that noone wants to have a collision because then the police come and well it all gets a bit messy. Armed with this philosophy I work to convince myself it's true and even begin to see examples of it as a space opens up just in time to avoid the school bus that's hurtling towards us, yeay.
Samir clearly wants to praactice his English, so we spend the next few hours covering politics (that's a short conversation), religion (thats a long one) and arranged marriages - that's pretty interesting. He is also curious to find out why I am travelling alone - this is quite amusing, especially as he absolutely cannot understand why my husband would let me! He insists that we listen to western music boasting the he has over 300 songs on his phone. In the end I just give in and let him play last year's top 40.
We stop for food and since I'm determined not to be ill on the journey I decline to eat. I do however help myself to water from the jug on the table, mmm yummy warm ayurvedic water, my new favourite. My heart drops when the waitress comes along and uses the same water to clean the table! I confide my faux pas to Samir who assures me it is drinking water - I guess the next 6 hours wll tell.
The roads and scenery begin to change and as the light ebbs away we begin climbing the winding roads to Munnar which go on for an affronting eternity. Every time we round a hairpin bend I get my hopes up and every time I am slapped with disappointment. Hours later we get a sign, yes yes yes it says Munnar! The hotel is however really well hidden and I discover Samir has a satnaav . We drive up a farm track with no signs of life let alone a hotel, then quite randomly we come across a village where an Easter celebration is taking place. A girl gyrates on a makeshift stage and the small streets are packed with partying youths. Samir manages to squeeze through but the people are so close I can literally see the whites of their eyes, their hands press against the car as they part to let us through. My slightly surreal and ultimately entertaining road trip comes to an end as we chance upon the Olive Brook Hotel. It's almost 11pm. I thank Samir and hand over what I hope is a suitable tip for his care, attention and expertise for which I have now developed a lot of admiration. I fall into bed exhausted, humming a little mantra of gratitude to Ganesh.
The Manager at The Olive Brook http://olivebrookmunnar.com/ speaks incredibly good English and is so helpful and welcoming. He organises for me to do a trek through the tea plantations with a guide and informs me that a taxi will take me to the drop off point after breakfast. The dining room looks out towards the moutains and I feast on fruit, coffee and a toast with a view. The waiter trys to bring me eggs but I'm not up for this.
I've not exactly brought trekking gear so I'm playing it safe and doing the 3 hour trek ... in my converse which I've only worn once before! I meet my guide for the day, Palomba and we start up the track. I discover I'm the same age as his mother, well that's nice! Pretty soon we chance upon some dung on the path, Palomba does a quick inspection and delights in telling me that it's elephant dung and very fresh, certainly from this morning. It's large dung, this is no baby elephant! I ask him what the chances are of encoutering an actual elephant, say round the next corner and he assures me that he is looking out for signs but if we do then it's important not to try to climb up (abra) but to dive into the tea plants and run down the hill fast! He tells me that elephants are large and powerful and have big strong legs that they can use to crush a person. Goodness every day really is a school day. Oh well, there is a lovely clear breeze and the scenery as we trudge our way up the track becomes more and more breath-taking.
Palomba explains how the different leaves on the tea bushes are used for the different teas and the order in which they are picked. The smallest shoots are used for white tea, the long ones for green tea and the fat, more typically leaf shaped ones, for black tea. All the picking is done by hand, but as it's Sunday the plantations are deserted, save for me and Palomba and maybe a rogue elephant! We stop for a brief rest and photo opp - the plantations stretch for miles and are flanked by majestic cloud shrouded mountains. During our trek we pass a honeymoon resort; Natures Rest which has stunning treetop accommodation and a restaurant which rises out of the ground on stilts and soars high above the canopy of the trees - I imagine the views must be awesome not to mention the tea.
After a steep and tricky climb, during which I realise with some conviction that converse are not suitable footwear, we reach the absolute top of the world. Ah no actually there is a bit more to go. A little while later we reach the real top of the world, here I am on the actual top of the world. The views are amazing, you can see the whole of Munnar, surrounding villages and the famous Mattupetty Dam, a hydroelectric power station built in 1940 which provides power for the entire region and is a major revenue source.
As we decend Palomba furnishes me with information about the growing season, how long a plant will provide tea for and the people who work on the tea plantations. Only women work to pick the tea, they earn about 300 rupees a day and have to collect 50kg of leaves. The men work in the tea processing factories. We pass a row of small colourful single story houses where the tea pickers and their families live and as we make our way along the road to meet the tuk tuk driver who is going to take me to the tea museum we pass a small school and temple which are provided for solely for the plantation workers.
I thank Palomba, mumble another Ganesh mantra, grateful that his elephant friend left us alone to enjoy the sights and then climb into my first tuk tuk. The cheerful driver an his friend bomb along the lanes with little awareness of the potholes so I am thrown from side to side on the slippery back seat and once or twice my head makes contact with the roof - such fun though. We drive through Munnar town and I get my first glimpse. It's fairly bustling with families and there is a distinct absence of tourists.
The tea museum is just outside the main part of the town. My tuk tuk driver tells me he will wait and then take me back to the hotel or wherever I want to go.
In the queue to enter the museum a family from Singapore are surprised to hear I'm travelling alone. They tell me how brave I am and I think that for the first time it hits me; I experience a brief moment of panic, but luckily the ticket man is asking for my 120 rupees entry fee and when I step inside we are all ushered into a dark hall to watch a film aabout the history of tea production so the moment passes. This place is a must for anyone visiting Munnar, the fascinating news-reel style film is very entertaining and really contextualises the history of tea production, setting you up to enjoy the museum's exhibits and artifacts that follow. I then wander through the various rooms littered with pictures, photos, posters and timelines. The portly smiling curator latches onto my soloness and proceeds to elaborate on the private army that the original planation owner had to protect him. Somehow we move onto his daughter who is studying in Manchester but I'm grateful for his friendliness. After the history exhibits we get to see how the tea is processed. There is also a souvenir shop and a chance to actually sample some Munnar tea; cost 10 rupees!
I find my tuk tuk drivers and head back to the Olive Grove, looking forward to kicking my converse off. As the hotel is a bit of the beaten track (to say the least) I decide to eat there. The staff are quietly atttentive and able to recommend a mild curry which is delicious and I am delighted to be able to wash it down with a cold beer.
I had planned to stay an extra day in Munnar and there is plenty more to see and do for those that want to explore the stunning natural scenery and wildlife or maybe experience an ayurvedic massage. My top tip, take proper walking/trekking footwear - converse just don't cut it. For me right now, the silence and the sense of being the only white loan female in the village is a but much. I decide to find out if I can arrange transport to Fort Cochin for the following morning. The manager suggests I consider the bus which goes from the centre of Munnar right into Cochin but I decide I'm not quite ready to explore India's public transport network so he kindly organises a taxi, which is 4000 rupees about £40, to pick me up at 8am. The journey willl take about 4 hours but the driver will stop on route if there are things I want to see along the way. Bye bye beautiful Munnar. I have so enjoyed the cooler climate, the friendly people and the lush green mountain views.