Munnar, Kerala

Originally published iamnotinengland.wordpress.com 2014

“Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and big trees were kings. […] We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth.” (Heart of Darkness. J. Conrad)

Munnar emerges at the end of a four-hour bus ride at the end of an ascent that commences some distance from my starting point, Aluva. The landscape transforms by subtle increments as the bus continues upwards; the climate begins to cool and the roads narrow. As the crow flies, it’s not far to travel, but the crow doesn’t have to concern itself with switch-backs and single lanes, some of which have half-collapsed because of monsoon rains.

The driver seesaws, yanking at the enormous steering wheel as if the bus were made of rope and pulleys or as if he were a child playing at driving. He has the air of a sailor toying with a slow-to-respond tiller. And then, too, he compels the bus forwards as if it were a racing car, stomp stomping on the large black pedals.

I’m fortunate to have landed the forward most passenger seat. I’m at the front and able to read the lips of the oncoming drivers whom my driver bludgeons out of the way using the sheer size of his vehicle and unremitting forwards motion. Women scarper, darting out of the way of our oncoming, not hesitating vehicle. Motorcyclists holler words of ‘advice’ to the driver yet reverse their two-wheeler out of the way of this blue-white-rusting juggernaut. Might is right. Win at all costs. Overtake at all costs. Happily, occasionally the driver does hold back and pre-empt (a rarity). This happens mostly in places where the government has seen fit to hang “accident prone area” signs. As if an area can be the subject prone to having accidents.

The road jackknives and rises. I see grand vistas of mist; hills fold like copious green fabric embedded with miniature trees, and those same hills blur into the mist that ascends and descends. Soft light all round, then glimpses of blue as the sun burns holes, clouds pass, the day brightens, shadows darken. We rolls onwards, myself drinking in every detail with all the senses I have available. Bouncing, jostled as I am, the pleasure of these buses, at least for me, so frequently travel sick, is that there are no windows, only thick canvas shutters that come down when the rain is too hard. For now, air comes in, clean and moist.  

It’s monsoon season. Water soaks everything. Stone looks as if it is sweating and alive. Waterfalls scratch the surface of faraway hills at regular intervals, plummeting down into the nook of the valley and through infrequent gaps in the trees I am aware of the height at which we travel.

My ears pop, and the bus carries on.

Then comes Munnar. If there were no road signs to declare it so, you would still know you had arrived and that Munnar has been visited and cultivated by the British. There’s no mistaking the manicured parallel line patterns of tea plantations. The trees are larger than bonsai trees, near waist height, distinct with their sharp almond shaped, sharp tipped leaves. Each shrub is of uniform height that makes for ease of picking. Multicolour torsos clad in plastic rain-shield wrap emerge from the tea bushes and pluck, pluck, pluck the top three freshest, brightest green leaves from the tip of each bush.

They do this all year around – come rain, come hot sun – pickers picking for the factories, picking for their homes, for their livelihoods. Within each plantation there are homes for those plantation workers. Small shanty like constructs that abut one another. They might have corrugated roofs and are ground level only but there are satellite receivers placed equidistant. There are places to worship, too. It seems, from what I could tell, that each plantation has its own church, mosque and temple to satisfy their mix of workers’ castes.

Tea. Coffee. Cardamom. Pepper. Sandalwood. Nature’s gifts grow in abundance across many hectares. In the hills and in the trees are animals. Keralans, my taxi driver tells me, are underwhelmed by nature’s riches; in fact, monkeys are two a’penny whilst elephants are so-so. Well, I don’t care. I’m open-mouthed and gawping at the splendour. 

Another day and I’m again open-mouthed, this time panting after an up-hill trek that took us off agreed, safe tourist routes and into territory only guides know; we are in out of bounds areas where elephants and bison go to rest. We see no elephants, but that does not matter for I was primeval explorer, and that is what I wanted more than an elephant, to awaken the nomadic primeval sliver that resides within even after all these centuries. I am animal from a long line of animals that looked towards the horizon and wondered what lay beyond. Craving adventure, we clambered across paths that mountain goats use. I was in flipflops, slip sliding. The thong hardly substantial enough, my toes not strong enough. Occasionally I looked down and the words “English tourist and guide fall to their deaths” flashed through my mind as I read the imaginary newspaper obituary that my mother might have read had something, like the thong on my flipflops snapping, happened. Ascend higher and press on through foliage. Hundreds of years and thousands of feet below us is the valley floor. Look to the horizon and mountains follow mountains and trail into clouds. The trees below us and the waterfall we visited shrink in size and I think ‘this is living.’

I have visited Munnar a few times since the first occasion when I was alone during the tail end of the monsoons, and this was back in 2014, a long time preceding the floods of 2018. We do not know how Kerala shall recover, but I do know that Munnar, sitting near to the border of Karnataka, is a wonderful place, part of the typical tourist trail, sure – Munnar, Wayanad, Kovalam, and so  on – but it is still a sweet destination worth setting aside time and your own vehicle for. Like much of Kerala, the place becomes easier with you own mode of trainsport since so much of what you want to see is spread across large areas. Also, some of the recommended tourist spots require only half an hour, if that, for a visit, so an easy means of access and egress is worthwhile. To make the most of time spent in Munnar, find a place close to hiking trails, too, since, at least in my experience, the place as well as myself came alive when at one within the resplendent nature and breath-taking scenery.

Anna Loewy