This was an unaccustomed luxury, a hired car and driver. At about £30 a day it’s an extravagance by India standards but there is no train up into the Western Ghats where we were headed. The bus would be a tedious and crowded slog and would leave us without transport to get around once we were up there. Our driver was Michael and he had just finished a 25 day tour around southern India with a French couple. Having a car and driver means we travel in comfort and can reach otherwise unreachable places, stop en route and pick the driver’sbrains about the countryside we pass through, but it can also be a bit of a fencing match. The car doesn’t belong to the driver but the company he works for. He gets only 15% of what we pay for hire and so here in India as elsewhere in the world he is looking to supplement his income with commission from the shops, attractions and hotels he takes us to, which are not always where we want to go. We don’t want to be taken advantage of but we don’t want to lose the driver’s goodwill either.
So it was, we thought, with our first stop on the road to the Munnar Hill Station, four and a half hours’ drive from Cochin on the coast high up in the Western Ghats. We pulled into the Vrindhavan Spices and Ayurvedic Garden. We anticipated a quick tour and a hard sell in the spice shop, from which the driver would get his cut. In fact, it was a fascinating tour of the garden by a well informed guide and no pressure to buy at all. We’re getting too cynical. There were all the well-known spices, cardamom, cloves, pepper, arrowroot, cinnamon, nutmeg and some we did not know. The guide was keen promote their use in Ayurvedic medicine: ‘Take this in hot water for 30 days and your arthritis will be gone … Your memory will improve … Your heart problems will be no more … Your hair will grow again … Your diabetes will go. This is for skin problems … For eye problems ….take for 30 days and it will go.’ If only.
As we drove on up the air became cooler and the landscape greener. The phrase ‘fresh air’ took on new meaning after the sultry heat of the lowlands. The rugged Mahindra jeeps raced past us on the bends, packed with passengers and even here the wonderful little auto rickshaws chugged gamely up into the hills.
We drove past men loading and lighting huge smoking brick kilns, past toddy shacks, past monkeys sitting in groups beside the road, past stalls selling chocolate made from locally grown cocoa beans and stalls with piles of white tapioca root, past banana, tobacco, mango and rubber plantations, through glades of huge bamboo and coconut palms and forests of eucalyptus and then we were in what they call tea country. The hills around Munnar Hill Station are covered in the highest tea plantations in India, mile after mile of hillsides covered in neatly clipped tea bushes like sculpted topiary.
The Green Valley Vista hotel, twenty minutes or so outside Munnar, was our driver’s choice. At first glance we weren’t especially impressed. Soulless and unprepossessing with a sickly yellow green exterior, it wasn’t dissimilar to other establishments spaced along the roadside. Chittarapuram, a few kms down the road, was the nearest village and there was precious little there. We felt very much in the hands of the driver and the hotel. Once again we had misjudged the driver. We had a very friendly welcome from the smiling man on reception who allowed us to see all the vacant rooms before making a choice. The room was spacious and cool but, best of all, we looked out from the back of the hotel through the floor to ceiling window and balcony down on the palms and jackfruit trees immediately below to the Green Valley and the hills beyond that. I suppose we should have taken more note of the name of the hotel.
Trek is too ambitious a term to call the walk we had in the afternoon along Tea Valley between the tea plantations. It was very quiet, the only sound the clipping of the shears of the women.
Driving back at the end of the day I asked Michael if I would be able to get a cold beer at the hotel. ‘No,’ he said. ‘You want beer I take you to buy. Not cold.’
A twenty minute drive later we were parking in a road outside a shabby collection of shops and street stalls. ‘Follow me. Better Lynne stay in car,’ said the driver. I got out and dutifully followed him up a narrow alleyway. At the end and well away from the road, two dozen men men stood in a silent queue. They cast a sly glance in my direction as I approached and lowered their heads again. This was the Government Liquor Shop. At the head of the queue a man was taking orders and collecting money from an opening in a metal grill just big enough to poke a fistful of rupees through. Behind him in a darkened room, boxes and crates of booze were piled and on a set of grey metal shelves at the side, quarter litre bottles of spirits, brandy, whiskey and others and none with a recognisable brand name. At the second grill, slightly larger, a second man handed over what the men had paid for, wrapped in newspaper and immediately put discreetly into bags. I joined the queue and shuffled forward with the other sinners to the grill. ‘Kingfisher beer?’ I asked. ‘Two?’. He took my rupees and I moved on to the second grill where the second man handed me my two bottles of beer. ‘Er, this is Kingfisher Ultra, the super strength version. Do you have the ordinary?’ I asked wimpishly. ‘No!’ And moved on to serve the next customer.
I walked back down the alley with the driver, furtively trying to conceal my two bottles of beer.
‘Is there a problem with alcohol in India, then, apart from getting hold of it that is?’ I asked him. ‘Yes. Certainly,’ he replied shortly.
At the end of the alley, out in the road lay the evidence of what the driver was talking about: stretched out on his back, arms flung wide, eyes closed and dead to the world and surrounded by a few mildly interested bystanders was a half naked man. ‘My god! Is he ill?’ I asked, shocked.
‘No. Drunk.’ It was 5.30 in the afternoon.
In India’s defence I have to say that if alcoholism is a problem it’s a discreet one. It’s the only time I’ve seen anyone drunk in public.
Back at the hotel the beer went into the fridge in the kitchens to come out again later, and colder, to drink with a passable dinner.
We were woken to an exotic dawn chorus of watery warbles, piping, whistles and chirrupping. Out on the balcony as the sun was coming up there was a hint of a chill in the air, like first thing on a summer morning in England, something we haven’t experienced for a while. In the palms, jackfruit trees and jungly undergrowth there were flashes of blue, green tangerine, red and yellow as the bird life flitted about below us. The sun came up beyond the mountain on the other side and in the valley the mist hung like cobwebs in the trees.
We set out early on the road winding the 36kms up to Top Station through the tea plantations and some of the most beautiful man made landscape we have ever seen, sweeping green waves following the contours of the hills, carefully manicured by the teams of women working between the rows of tea bushes and occasionally the shocking violet of a jacaranda tree in flower. When we stopped the car to get out and gaze, the distant sound of the clipping of the shears was all we could hear. At Echo Point we watched the kingfishers fishing in the dammed lake and at Top Station we sat and drank sweet cardamom tea and took in the view.
In the afternoon we took a tour around the only tea processing factory to allow visitors and the company credited with planting the first tea estates in Kerala in 1857, the Lockhart Tea Factory, in a building constructed in the 1930s using machinery made by the British 70 years before that and processes that can’t have changed much since then. Apparently it’s the only factory still using the ‘orthodox’ methods used in Victorian times. It was all a lot more interesting than I’ve made it sound.
Next a drive to a cardamom spice plantation where the women working in the field, the Spice Girls I suppose, were happy to pose for a photo and finally, an Ayurvedic massage in Munnar itself. Then back to the hotel for that other cold beer.
Tomorrow it’s back down to the coast and the Nevrati Express to Thiravandrapuram.