13 - 16 October; Munnar

Posted: 18 October 2017

I suppose if I was a superstitious type I would not have chosen to travel on Friday 13th.  I mean all that rubbish about it being a bad luck day is a lot of old wives tales. Isn’t it? What could possibly happen? As it turned out, quite a lot and what happened about a week before I was due to travel should have alerted me to revise my plans. 

     I was  in Fort Nagar, Kochi, visiting John Rumold and Noah Naveen, old friends from my last visit here. As we were chatting over a beer, you can always count on John to have a good supply of cold Kingfisher, Noah asked if I had any other trips planned.
     ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I am going to Munnar next Friday.’
     ‘Where are you staying?’ asked Noah.
     ‘The Plum Judy Hotel. Why?’
     Noah nodded and looked a bit concerned, probably in much the same way that his namesake looked when he was told to go and start stockpiling gopher wood.
     ‘Have you paid for it?’
     ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Why?’ Now it was my turn to look concerned.
     ‘It’s closed,’ said Noah. One thing about Indians is that they really know how to sugar-coat a bitter pill. Not.
     The long and the short of it was that due to a landslide the local government had closed the hotel until they were satisfied it was safe. Noah called the hotel and after a long conversation was able to tell me that inspectors were going to the hotel on the tenth and that it was expected it would re-open then.
     ‘Don’t worry. It will all work out in the end,’ Noah said, a statement which had a vague Marigold Hotel ring to it. And it took Maggie Smith and Judi Dench to fix that and, as things stood, I was right out of theatrical dames. 
     I spent a long week sending emails and making frustrating phone calls to Make My Trip with whom I had booked the hotel and eventually, late on the Thursday night, I received an email telling me that alternative accommodation had been made at the Parakkat Nature Resort and my trip could go ahead as planned. O frabjous day! Callous! Callah! I chortled in my joy. 
     The journey from Fort Kochi to Munnar is about 100 km and it takes, by bus, four and a half hours. It does take you through some amazing scenery but as most of the time you are holding on to the seat you don’t notice too much of it.
     I arrived at my hotel, tired, hot, desperately needing to go to the loo and have a shower. I cheerfully gave my name to the young woman at the reception and waited while she looked up my booking. It wasn’t there. Make My Trip had sent me an email about the change of accommodation but they hadn’t told either of the hotels. 
     ‘Please, take a seat in the restaurant until we can clear this up,’ the manager said, and so I sat and looked at the most breathtaking view over tea plantations and mountains. A view which, in normal circumstances, would have been wonderful, it was still pretty wonderful, if I’m honest, but all I wanted was a shower. And I ordered tea, well what else do you do in the place where they grow some of the world’s best.
     As I sat waiting for my room and my tea I wondered what kind of tea they would serve me. Assam, perhaps, or maybe something a bit heavier like Gunpowder Tea, strong and dark and smoky, the Laphroaig of tea, or maybe something lighter, a first flush Darjeeling, perhaps, guaranteed to get your tastebuds tingling. 
     What they brought me was a small pot of hot water and a Tetley tea-bag. This is not, I am sure, what the British tea planter A. E. Sharp had in mind when in 1880 he first planted about 50 acres of tea in what is now the Seven Mallay estate. Prior to this the region grew crops of coffee, cardamom, cinchona and sisal but these were abandoned when it was discovered that tea was the perfect crop for the region’s climate and terrain. 

     It was the job of another British planter, A. W. Turnor, to begin the large scale cultivation and in 1895 the company of Findlay Muir and Company entered the scene and bought 33 independent tea growing estates, including Sharp’s and in 1897 The Kannan Devan Hills Produce Company was formed. You might think that with all this history and all this tea it would be a simple matter to get a decent cuppa but clearly that was not the case. I did get my room though.

     Munnar, for all its plethora of high end hotels, is not really a tourist area. The town itself is a maze of dirty, busy streets and alleys with all kinds of stalls selling mostly fruit, vegetables, dried fish and plastic toys. You always know when you are about to come across a fish stall, the air quality changes quite dramatically and you are surrounded by a sort of blue haze. The town is here to cater, not for tourists, but for the local population, most of whom work in either tea plantations or, paradoxically, in one of the many hotels and homestays. That said Munnar still seems to be something of a must-visit destination and wherever you go you will see hot, weary backpackers looking tired and fed-up and more than a little bewildered. I could only take so much bewilderment and after about an hour I jumped into a Tuk-Tuk and headed for the air-conditioned comfort of my hotel and a Tetley Tea Bag.

     Before I left Munnar I visited the Tea Museum which was interesting enough and showed a very good documentary about how the tea industry has grown since A. E. Sharp first decided that this was definitely the place to have your morning chai. By far the most interesting exhibit in the museum was a proudly displayed certificate telling the world that on the 24th May 1902 Lodge Heather 928 was affiliated into the Grand Lodge of Scotland.


   That evening as I was having dinner the hotel manager approached me with the same kind of look I had seen on Noah Naveen’s face a week ago.
     ‘Bad news, I’m afraid,’ he said.
     ‘Tomorrow there is a transport strike and all buses have been cancelled. You have two choices.’
     ‘Which are?’
     ‘You could get a local open bus which will take about seven hours or you can stay another night.’
     Something told me that staying another night wasn’t being offered free gratis but the thought of seven hours in an old rickety bus with no windows was hardly appealing.
     ‘Are there no other options?’ I asked.
     ‘You could book a private taxi. That would cost you about 4,000 rupees (about £45).’
     It really was a no-brainer. Even in a taxi the journey could take up to four hours although the manager did say that because of the strike there would be very little traffic so it would probably take a lot less.
     Next day I left Munnar in my air-conditioned taxi which for some reason the driver was very reticent to use and preferred to drive with the windows open. He did, however, after much muttering in Malayalam eventually switch it on.
     The journey itself was not without incident as every time we entered a village or town we had to cross a CPI (Communist Party of India) picket line. I noticed that on every approach the drive would place on the dashboard a sign saying ‘AIRPORT’. I suppose this was to indicate to the pickets that it was not his fault he was breaking the strike, it was all the fault of the Western Capitaist in the back.


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