The road from Kothamangalam climbs steeply into the Western Ghats, winding tightly over and around itself like small intestine. In parts the rickety bus travels on little more than dirt track and the sight of long, sheer drops inches outside the tyre treads thrill window-seat passengers as the driver loops round corners in big, winding arcs.
One golden rule of Indian driving is that the solution is never to slow down. If there’s not enough time to get through a gap then, obviously, you need to go faster. William Dalrymple writes that in Delhi right of way belongs to the owner of the largest vehicle, and the same applies in the Southern mountains however ill-suited to the terrain the cumbersome, dilapidated buses might be. Blind corners are tackled not by braking but with a stout blast of deafening horn: on-comers, you have been warned. I spend the duration of the five hour journey wondering whether I find the driver’s debonair over-his-shoulder chatter with other passengers and (sometimes simultaneously) texting off his mobile while steering one-handed reassuring or criminal.
As we climb close to Munnar the scenery transforms from forest into tea plantation which has a strange, other-worldly beauty to it. I’m captivated, both by the surroundings and by the roadside signage advertising “Budjeted rooms” in the town. I’m smug to have booked ahead: there’s budget, then there’s budjet. There’s a great deal of variety in the spelling of Indian English, hardly surprising given the huge linguistic and educational diversity within the country and that the spelling of British English was itself inconsistent for much of the colonial period. There are, however, some particularly amusing examples, like the judicial “Jungle Bird Trial” signposted in Thattekad, and Kothamangalam’s intriguing “Pollution Tasting Centre”.
In the event, my self-congratulation at having reserved ahead is misplaced. I’ll say here that for anyone on a short- or medium-term trip to India with money to spend and a keen interest in hiking, Munnar is probably unmissable, but rewards stumping up for a decent hotel outside the main town and putting time aside for the longer treks. As long-stay, low-budget, general-purpose tourists Rebecca and I have reserved a cheap room in a hotel just off the squalid bus stand – the sight of which is enough to kill my relief at arriving intact on the spot – and it is dire.
The room has two orifices besides the door. One is a window looking out not at the district’s rolling, tea-tree covered hills but at the hotel’s second floor corridor. The other is a rusty, dust-ridden vent in the bathroom’s bare concrete wall with a gaping hole in it, leading to a shaft from which the conversations of other guests are clearly audible. The walls are painted a nauseating shade of dark green and the bedsheets are pink and festooned with roses, heart motifs and the word “Love”. The towels provided are striped pink and black and made from a plasticy sponge-like material that has the curious ability to get soaking wet without drying the body at all.
Everything about the room seems designed to induce misanthropy so we drop our bags and head downstairs as quickly as possible. The skinny, sleep-deprived lad on reception talks us through the map of the local area and the prohibitively pricey hiking packages on offer in a bored monotone that would douse Michael McIntyre’s spirits, and we emerge blinking from the Greenview Holiday Inn’s gloom to the blazing sunshine of a mountain afternoon.
The bus stand is as torrid on second view as our first impression had been. A cluster of budget accommodation and cheap, grimy food outlets have sprung up around it, creating a loud, dusty and utterly depressing mini-settlement about twenty minutes’ walk from the town proper. Thronged with hawkers and invasive auto drivers it is a charmless assault on all senses. After jumping into an auto we discover the town itself is little better; the same dense, tourist-trap crush, just more of it.
We eat, and return to the room dejectedly. There is at least decent Wi-Fi, so to raise spirits we download Monty Python’s Holy Grail onto my tablet and try our best to forget where we are.
My diary entry for today reads as follows:
Nearly have a breakdown. Card and WiFi not working. Can’t do much about it. R has used all tablet memory and entire internet to download a load of shite films, incl. Princess Switch. She thought it would be “funny” 😦
An afternoon power cut plunges the Inn into hours of darkness. I find myself standing guard for Rebecca in the bathroom, headtorch trained at the scary vent from which she is convinced a serial killer is about to emerge. I want to screw my eyes shut and imagine myself somewhere else but instead keep them fixed on the vent, not daring to abandon my bizarre call of duty for a second.
I can see the Greenview trekking itineraries over Rebecca’s shoulder while we eat breakfast, and feel guilty and remorseful that we’re leaving without a walk. The plan had been to extend our initial two nights once we’d got our bearings, but we’re so bummed out by the place that yesterday we told the guy on reception we’d check out today. He’d seemed surprised. Now I feel as though we’re ditching Munnar without giving it a chance.
The Soft Trek, 7km from 8.30am-12.30pm for 450 rupees per head seems a good length and fits our budget. Rebecca reassures me; I needed to write yesterday and the room was too horrible to stay another day. We’ll trek in Periyar.
At the bus stop I get chatting to a French couple who are also on their way to Thekkady, in the Periyar wildlife park and effectively on the border with Tamil Nadu, while Rebecca is off buying snacks for the journey. We load our bags onto the back seat with the help of the French pair and get comfy, glad to be leaving Munnar and the Greenview Holiday Inn.
Relaxing into the journey, I ask Rebecca the name of the place we’re staying in Thekkady. “Erm…” she checks her messages, “… the Greenview Residency”.
The Western Ghats echo with my howl of despair.