Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Memorable and Eventful Day in Ooty....

After the two adventurous days in Coonoor, we started planning for the optimum utilisation of our last day at Ooty before boarding the night bus back to Bangalore from there. The Brat Girl had treated herself to one of those green mangoes from one of the makeshift stalls at Lamb's rock with lots of the red masala on it and was paying the price by having to frequent the toilet at regular short intervals! She also managed to throw up the light dinner of bread and butter. We thought that we won't be able to leave Coonoor before noon. However, things started moving pretty fast after I got up by seven and had a long rejuvenating bath!! That gave me strength to quickly wake the kids and have then bathed and raring to go by 7:45. We had heard that there was a toy train at 8:30 or 9:30 ( different people had given different timings). We reached the station by 8:30 ish and was informed that the next train ( the 7: 45 one had left) would leave only at 10: 40 and the ticket counter for that would open at 10!! We decided to wait in the picturesque Coonoor station. We had breakfast and made ourselves at home on the bench next to the ticket counter. You can't buy the tickets of the toy train before hand, you have to get them half an hour before the departure of the train. We had breakfast there and watched the capers of a sparrow family who'd made their nest right above the ticket counter! A group of army cadets joined us in the wait a little later. The Mr got talking to them, they had missed the train ride on the day before because of no seats. The Mr suggested that they can easily take the bus to Ooty and that we were bothering with the train as we have kids who want to take the of the boys answered.." hum bhi thoda dekh lein....." I felt a pang for the young men, who had been children only a handful of years ago, they too were eager to take the toy train ride...
Closer to 10, three Fench tourists also joined the motley crowd outside the closed ticket counter. They were flammoxed by the train charts which had the name of the station as 'Udhakamandalam', the Mr assured the alarmed elderly gentleman that this unfathomable name was actually Ooty! Well, the counter finally opened only after the train chugged in! The armymen travelled second class (tkt Rs 3) and the foreigners and we took the first class tkts of Rs 80 + 100 Rs reservation fees! Two coaches were added to the 2 coach train that had arrived and we all setteled in! The ride is soothing with sweeping valleys and hill ranges on both sides and stretches of forest too and quaint little stations with their sweet names. While crossing the Coonoor station platform, something caught my eye, the pictures of a gentleman and a lady on the wall of the gents and ladies toilet respectively! These were actually pictures of a very English gentleman, complete with top hat and necktie, and a lady in a gown holding a parasol! I checked all the loos in the stations that came along and the same 'English' representation continued till Lovedale, I think and then a very Indian lady and gent's face replaced them till Ooty. The train journey became quite thrilling on the outskirts of Ooty where the train halted abruptly and we were informed that a man was lying on the tracks! At first we heard the man was dead, then it was slowly revealed that he was alive though bruised a bit. The Mr got off and took some pictures of the hapless man! Finally an ambulence was called and the man was removed from the tracks and we breezed into Ooty at 12 noon.
At the station we made a beeline for the first book shop we'd seen in these 2 and a half days ( although it was only a station push cart)! We got some picture postcards and a tourist map of Ooty and adjoining areas and a booklet on the Nilgiris. Then we took a room at a nearby hotel and after freshening up we set off to explore Ooty. We were wondered out of the lane aimlessly hoping to engage an autorickshaw to take us around ( the french tourists had also informed us that they'd take a 'tuktuk' around town that day) when we were accosted by a taxi driver who said he'd take us around for a very reasonable sum (Rs 600). We engaged him as we knew that the Brat Girl was a little wobbly and we were too tired to haggle. We stopped on the way for lunch and headed for the Botanical Gardens first. We took a leisurely after lunch walk through the place. It was beautiful. The speciality of these gardens in the hills is their terreced gardens . A section of the Ooty gardens was also terreced which was specially eye catching. Near the exist there was a shop built in the likes of a Toda hut selling different Nilgiri products. We were amazed to see in the market outside the gardens that the Ooty apples (plums) that we had bought in Coonoor were costlier here (Rs 25 to the coonoor 20) and later we found that they were not as sweet as the Coonoor ones either! There were fresh carrots too, attached to their leaves @ 10Rs for four!
We informed the taxi man that we'd like to see a few out of the way (and hence more interesting) spots too and miss some of the regular points in the standard itinerary, like the tea factory or boating at the lake. We'd already had a glimpse of the lake when we entered and we had already visited a tea factory and tea gardens at Coonoor. The taxi man offered to throw in a few exciting points like the earliest Toda village from which Ooty got its name, and the 9th Mile point if we paid 500more, we readily agreed. The next stop was the Doddabetta peak which is the highest view point in Tamil Nadu and affords a view of almost all the towns around Ooty. The place really had a great panoramic view of the entire region we had just visited. We had an invigorating cup of lemon tea and gazed at the great expanse of the valleys and ranges around. a light drizzle started while we descended from the peak. The cab man took us next to the Ooty rose garden inaugurated by Jayalalitha about 7years ago. The garden was in 4tiers and there were more than 2000 varieties of roses. It was a joy walking through bed upon bed of this captivating flower in all colours and sized imaginable, and it wasn't even the season for them! While returning  from the garden, our cab driver asked us how we liked the garden. We said it was very beautiful and extremely well maintained. He expressed satisfaction in our response. He lamented that mostly Indian tourists were less than impressed with the garden, they'd say that visiting it was a waste of time! One tourist had said that he had a garden better than this at his home. I laughed that this person was some kind of a 'Maharaja' perhaps! On the other hand, the driver continued, European tourists were always very impressed with the gardens! Surely many beautiful gardens adorned their countries, but they always found words of praise for this one, said the driver. While our own Indian tourists were the hardest to impress!
Thereafter, we took a path less trod to go to a Toda village. The village lay on a slope, the cab man instructed us to leave our shoes near a tree and then approach their temple to which he vaguely pointed us to. For the life of us, we could not figure out which the temple might be, it seemed like a cluster of ordinary houses. There was a man ambling about near the tree, he seemed reluctant to allow us to wander into that area. When our cab man cajoled him, he relented. He made us open our shoes and he lead us to a typical hut like structure some distance up the slope. I noticed there were a couple of stone slabs stuck into the mud a few metres from the tree, I wondered what they were for... The kids tread cautiously over the wet grass of the slope strewn with what looked like crumpled buffalo dung and bits and pieces of tree barks. We were not allowed into the temple, even the Todas are not allowed inside, we were told by our guide, only the 'priest' may enter, that too in traditional gear. the others dance around in front of the structure, made entirely out of natural stuff, not even ropes are used as they are man made! The women can come no further than the stone slab on the ground! ( Ahhh! that figures! Women are always at the periphery of organised religion, and bear the brunt of religious sanctions). The temple appeared to be a place where the men could dance and be merry away from the preying eyes of the women folk, an exclusive men's club of ancient times! The guide quickly added that the women of his clan were highly educated, infact his mother, said he, was the first Toda woman graduate! We were also shown the bufallo pen made of natural materials near the temple. He told us about the antiquity of his tribe and said that the name Ooty came from a tribal name which meant 'Man with one arm..' ( ofcourse, a different meaning is given in the tourist book!) which later became Udhakamandalam, then Ootacamund and lastly Ooty.... All the lands around the place were owned by the tribe, however the local potentates swindled the tribe and took over most of their lands before the British passed a law forbidding them to sell the land off! While coming down from the slope the Mr was invited into a Toda hut by an elderly woman who showed us pictures from a brochure which depicted the participation of the Todas in cultural functions. By this time our cab driver was calling frantically for us and the first Toda lady gradute was walking up the slope, returning from her evening walk. We took our leave from the elderly woman, she asked for some money, the Mr handed Rs 10 to her, she seemed pleased! I felt sorry for the woman, living alone in the small traditional hut shaped house, an accomplished performer, perhaps, in her hay day...We met our guide's mother, she spoke in flawless English, showed us the famous Toda buffalo, so sacred and indispensable to the Todas, would have loved to stay with that lady for an entire day, but alas...They had four buffalos in their open air shed, two babies and two adults, each had a name, the buffaloes listened attentively to our conversation. They were not as black as the buffaloes in the plains and a brownish downy hair covered their bodies. While leaving, I wished that they got many more buffaloes! The lady siad that was a very good wish....
Next, we stopped by at the Gymkhana club and the adjescent golf course where Hum Aapke Hain Kaun was shot, it seems. The Mr took pictures, I remained in the car with the mite, i was too overwhelmed by the Toda village! Thereafter we stopped at a majestic dam, our cab man lead us into the dam area through a gap in the wired fencing and told us to cross the dam by foot and try the echo point at the other end and meet him there. We ambled on to the dam and walked lazily down it. The valve on the other side of the dam was open and a water was coming out in a gushing force and was being lead out through a canal. We all tried the echo at the other, the mite was highly thrilled that he got an echo of his tiny voice too!
We sped off next to a secluded section of the pine forests of Ooty, where Roja was shot, we were told. We trudged off into the small wood, picking up pine cones and branches and pine needles. We fooled around a bit, then headed back hearing the plaintive cries of our cab man who was plagued by his passengers' propensity to vanish into whatever place he unloaded them on to! It was really difficult to tear ourselves from the pine forest, though! We headed off, next to another spectacular view point called something -something..Ninth Mile ( try as we may, we cannot remember what preceeded 9th mile!). This was a lightly inclined hillock which afforded a view which had pristine ranges and valleys and unadulterated woodlands on all sides. There was no town, no city, no cultivation and no sign of habitation all around, the sun was setting fast, or else we would have liked to spend more time here. I got a message on my cellphone welcoming me to Kerala! so this must've have been near the Kerala border somewhere, it was a grand end to our adventurous tour.
We headed back to Ooty town we stopped at the lake as our driver had promised to take us to a tea n natural oils shop near the lakeside. the shop was closed, we then headed back to the bus stop from where we had boarded our taxi. The Amman festival procession was due to arrive at any moment, we stopped at a shop near our hotel and bought teas and natural oils and chocolates. We staggered off to the hotel freshened up and hurried to the main road again to catch a glimpse of the procession which had men dressed up as Nag devta, Saraswati, and a mother goddess similar to durga, Amman. We had a hearty dinner at a Chinese restaurant which had the unique system of having the customers write out their order on a small pad, to avoid hapless waiters from getting thoroughly confused by the indecision of  fumbling diners, I am sure!

We boarded the night bus happy, contented and completely satiated. However we do hope to go back to Ooty again, it is the closest the South will have to a classic North Indian hill station. The town is congested but there are still numerous wonderful scenic places to be explored and enjoyed. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

Hilly Sojourn: Coonoor- Ooty

The Mr and I had last undertaken a family trip almost a year ago! We were getting a bit restless as a rest, so we planned a quick trip to the nearest hill station- Ooty and its nearest satellite town Coonoor. Now, we had heard and read about all sorts of negative stuff about Ooty, that it was too congested, that the filmwallas had made the place too commercialised etc etc. therefore our plan was to hit the more serene Coonoor as soon as we could. We took the night bus from Bangalore at 10:30pm and reached Ooty bus stand bright and early (by 6am). It was freezing cold (the Mr had spoken to the Coonoor hotel which had informed him that it was warm weather there). We were wearing long sleeved clothes to ward off the bus ac, so we managed.Therewas a resourceful wollen cap seller near at hand, waiting for the likes of us unprepared folks so the Brat Girl got a cap for herself and we were off to Coonoor by the first available autorickshaw which demanded 450Rs!The ride was thrilling with tall pines and flowering trees all along the way and the refreshing smell of the mountains. It felt like the air of one of the Himachali hills stations that we were so used to while living in Delhi. The South Indian hill stations are lower, less cooler and exudes a diffrent smell an feel altogether!
We reached our hotel bright and early and after taking a look at the beautiful view of a section of a tea garden from the room balcony, we were all charged up and ready to explore the place.We changed into our new year finery (the day was poila boishak, the Bengali new year day)and set off on foot to the upper Coonoor market road (Bedford), we had breakfast and walked to the Coocoor Botanical gardens also known as 'Sim's Park'. It is a naturally terreced garden which had four tiers ending at the bottom in a small lake in which one can do some boating. There are beautiful gigantic trees and winding stairways on both sides that lead to the well of the garden where the lake is located. The mite in his excitement to reach the lake took a tumble on the pathway and stracthed himself above the lip. He remained whiney for sometime but by the time we were out of the gardens he had put it behind him. Thereafter we engaged an autorickshaw driver to take us to the various places of interest in the town for a price of Rs 550.Our first destination was 'Dolphin's Nose', on the way there we stopped at another view point 'Lady Canning's Seat' which is not favoured by tourists nowadays. The Mr had read about the place and hence made the reluctant auto driver stop for us. These are the times that the times that the love and respect overflows for the Mr, you can never say that he has not done the research on our travel destination! Infact he brings print outs from travel blogs and information sites and leaves them in strategic positions at home so that I am motivated to read them, but he highly underestimates my laziness in such matters!
Lady Cannings seat has a quaint concrete 'umbrella' much scratched with names of lovers and prior visitors. The view is sweeping and gives an instant sense of calm. What a nice way to unwind!
Dolphin's nose is a mountain face that juts out roughly in the shape of a dolphin's nose and affords great views on three sides- of Catherine's fall, of a toda village and hills and valley's all around. The telescope man has thrown in the view of a recently built water amusement park!! I think that park should pay the man for the free publicity!There are a lot of 'instant family photograph' fellows all over the place in this region with prices varying from Rs60 - 40, we were not tempted! However, there is a lack of any kind of information- maps, picture post cards and the like at any of the places we visited.
From Dolphin's nose, we set off to a tea factory one of the noted ones in these parts. We had a guide who had lost one of his hands to the large machines in the factory! He showed us how the leaves are sorted, dried, rolled and packaged. It was an illuminating tour. The place had a strong but pleasant smell of tea. We yearned for a cuppa but our auto driver had a special garden in mind for that exercise! After the tour of the factory we headed for another famous view point- Lamb's Rock. A short stone walkway down a hilly path leads to a sloping rock clearing from which there is a breath taking view of hill ranges and valleys. It is possible to spend an entire day here with a book, but we were yearning for masala tea!
Our last stop was the tea garden which is a property of the yesteryear actress Mumtaz and her husband. Slope upon slope of tea bushes greated us. There is a small shop which sells to products of Coonoor, flavoured teas, spices and medicinal oils. One of the shop assistants cam ewith us to explain about the tea pluckingetc. There was the mandatory instant photo person too. This time we relented and the Brat had her picture taken dressed as a traditional tea picker. Most of the tea pluckers we saw had pulled on a shirt over their saris and gotten down to business!!
At last we got to the tea shop and tasted chocolate tea and masala tea, the kids loved chocolate tea!
After the hectic sight seeing we returned to the hotel to a hot buffet meal of rice sambhar, 2types of vegetables, curd rice rasam and payasam, all for only Rs 60! Needless to say, we crashed out completely after that only to surface when it was nearly getting dark. We ventured out in the evening and took the route opposite to the one we had taken in the morning only to discover that the 'Figure of Eight' road led us to exactly the same spot that we had gone to in the morning by a longer circular path...these hill roads are crazy!The Mr discovered that he'd forgotten to get a key cable used to download pic from and charge our camera, he walked back to the hotel while the kids and I ambled about in the market buying biscuits and other necessities. The funny thing is that NONE of the shops had Coonoor flavoured tea on offer! you could buy as many tea packets as you want but no one will prepare a masala or chocolate or green tea for you. We finally had to settle for a Nescafe machine coffee from a local bakery. One could make a fortune from a Chai bar at the bedford market, seriously!
The Quality restaurant at Bedford is supposed to be good but there is only buffet dinner which we didn't feel up to at that time so we went to 'Dragon' a Chinese place in the main square. After a hearty meal we took an auto back to the hotel.
On the next day, we were up bright and early to catch the bus to Kotagiri. The bus service between Kotagiri and Coonoor is very good with buses at every half hour.We took the 8:30am bus and reached Kotagiri at under an hour. The journey was enjoyable, the bus was not overcrowded and the hills and valleys provided a great view. At Kotagiri we had to wait for some time to catch the bus to Kodanadu (our destination).I picked up beautiful and fragrant jasmine flowers for my hair. At only 10Rs for a hand's length they were a treat! At Coonoor we had encountered a flower lady who had actually asked for Rs 30 for a similar length of these flower garlands! We had finally settled for 20! In Bangalore its price ranges from 10 - 25 depending on the season, but the flowers here were larger and were strung on thicker thread. The fragrance is so enduring that I can still smell the flowers in my hair, even after shampooing!I wore the flowers throughout our stay even though the Mr called me 'Chameli Bai' for my troubles!
The Kodanadu bus arrived, this service is also very good and punctual and takes tourists right upto the famous Kodanadu view point. The bus had a lovely poster depicting Islam Hinduism and Christianity together laminated and hung up on the windshield. Not separate pictures but on a single sheet, maybe there are drivers of all three faiths driving this bus. Somehow it renewed my hopes of harmony and peaceful coexistence amongst faiths that is the essence of our national character...
Kodanadu view point is a pure thriller! Flanked by huge tea estates, nestled in a reserved forest area it provides a spectacular view of the mountain ranges and valley below. We finally got some decent masala tea at the outlet near the watch tower. There was a huge river winding its way across the valley below, there was also a quaint hillock with three prongs which looked dramatic amidst the flat land around it. We spent a good half hour just gazing at the scenery. We walked about half a kilometer back toward another viewing point and caught the return bus from there.We reached the hotel at lunch time where the scrumptious buffet awaited us! After lunch and some rest we set off on foot to lower Coonoor. There is a winding pathway which would land us near the Coonoor bus stand. It was a beautiful walk. From the bus stop e took an autorickshaw to the St John's church which is a grand structure visible even from our hotel in upper Coonoor. We spent some relaxed moments in the church and headed back to the hotel. The city was abuzz with the celebration of the Amman festival and there was dancing on the streets and the market area in lower Coonoor had great crowds thronging the streets. We would be heading back the next day to Ooty from where we had to catch the night bus back to Bangalore...No one could give us concrete information regarding the timing of the Toy Train from Coonoor to Ooty. If one wants to take this delightful train, it is advisable to enquire at the station beforehand. We learnt later that the train that originates in Coonoor leaves at 7:45 the next was at 10:45, for which we had to buy tickets at 10. This train originates from a station before Coonoor.Coming up in the next post (I am exhausted from all this rambling!)- mystifying Ooty.....