The picturesque drive into Munnar on the bus suggested that we might be about to discover everything we were looking for in Nuwara Eliya, but couldn't find.
Honestly, it was tea plantations as far as the eye could see - rolling hills of bright, emerald green, with clouds clinging to the tops. Occasionally you could pick out brightly dressed women picking tea in the distance. It was one hell of an introduction to the area.
We climbed off the bus, grateful to be on solid ground after 4 hours on windy roads, only to jump back into a tuk tuk for the 5km drive to our accommodation. We were delighted to be greeted by a huge room with a balcony. At first glance, it was great! 2 minutes later, we opened our curtains to check out the view from the balcony. Of a shack, a rubbish pile, and a power pylon. But if you looked to the right, we did have a pretty great view of a tea plantation, so it wasn't all bad! About 10 minutes later, we realised that we didn't have a toilet seat... We chose to ignore these shortcomings, instead choosing to focus on the fact that it was big, reasonably clean, and dirt cheap.
Having been on the bus all day, we were starving, so asked for directions to somewhere to get some food. We went to the place recommended by the hotel staff, and walked in. Despite there being a sign outside advertising food, we walked in to find an Indian man looking incredibly confused as to why we were there. We asked if we could get some food, and he looked as if we'd just walked into his lounge, sat on his couch and demanded that he make us a cup of tea. He sent us in to the dining area (this was clearly a shop and restaurant, I'm just not sure he really expected anyone to come in), and 5 minutes later we were eating dhosa and cold curry and enjoying a pretty amazing view out over the countryside.
Too lazy to make the trek back into town for dinner, we happily accepted when the hotel staff came round taking orders for dinner, and ended up being served some pretty damn good vegetarian curries in our room for dinner. It was a little difficult to eat because there was no table to eat off, but dinner in bed's a thing right? It wasn't too long after that that we realised another shortcoming of our wonderful bathroom. In addition to a lack of toilet seats, there was also a lack of ability to flush it... Nothing that several buckets full of water and some kiwi ingenuity couldn't fix.
Trekking through the spice gardens and tea plantations
Breakfast the next morning was a rather lackluster affair. I still can't eat eggs after having to choke down cold, slimy fried eggs every day for 6 months in South East Asia, and this section of the world seems to have a similar relationship with toast and jam. Every guesthouse offers toast and strawberry jam for breakfast. Sadly, the toast seems to have been made last week, and left to get cold, soggy, and a little slimy. The strawberry jam has never seen a strawberry in its life, and appears to have been made in a lab somewhere to get that particular fluorescent colour that just doesn't occur in nature. So we choked down some cold burnt bread and radioactive spread to fuel our bodies for our day of hiking.
At 10am sharp, we were collected by our hiking guide, Blossom Dinesh. Dinesh was a really sweet guy with pretty good English, who chatted away happily with us as we walked.
We started with a walk through a spice garden, with Dinesh talking about the various plants (particularly cardamom) grown in the area.
As we climbed further up the hill, the views over Munnar became more and more spectacular. The haze over the countryside from the cloud gave it a dreamy quality, and the light breeze was great for cooling us down in the midday heat. Unusual rock formations dotted the hillside, and made for great viewing platforms.
Eventually we reached the highest point of our trek, and stopped for a snack and a drink, and a quick bout of photo taking. We were standing on a ridge that basically separated Munnar into two sections: tea plantations on one side, spice gardens on the other. Dinesh told us that he frequently saw elephants and foxes in the area, so we kept an eye out, but no luck.
We continued on, hiking back the way we had come with a plan to wander through a tea plantation on the way back down. We came across a French couple who had become lost - Dinesh explained to them that it was a bad idea to hike without a guide, as it was easy to become lost (maps of the area aren't terribly accurate), and many of the trekking paths pass through private properties that you need permission to walk through. And that was how we adopted a French couple for the afternoon.
About 10 minutes after finding our new friends, we stopped for lunch - jam sandwiches! Yay! We used the remainder of our water washing the taste out of our mouths and hoped that the remainder of the hike wasn't too strenuous.
The rest of the hike was pretty laid back, and consisted of about 45 minutes of walking through a tea plantation. Once we reached the road, the French couple departed, heading back to town. Dinesh firmly refused the money they offered him to say thank you for helping them - something we've encountered frequently in India. People are insistent about giving you the correct change, and seem embarrassed if you offer them a tip (unless you're in a restaurant that caters predominantly to tourists).
It was about another 20 minutes of walking back along the road to our hotel, chatting to Dinesh before the trek was over. Since we'd run out of water a while back, we set out in search of cold drinks without much success. Defeated, we piled back into the room, sweaty and dusty, very much looking forward to a shower. Only to discover that in addition to lacking a toilet seat and a working flush, our bathroom was also missing a shower. In place of a shower head was a tap and a bucket. Oh hell no. After a quick chat with the hotel staff, we shifted rooms to one with a toilet seat and a shower. We still had trouble with flushing the toilet, but hey, you can't win them all. And while I was enjoying a luxurious (or adequate, depending on your outlook) shower, my wonderful husband even managed to sneak out to get us some ice cold water and a couple of cokes. Good man.
We spent the afternoon relaxing (as usual), and headed out again for dinner. During our 700m walk to a nearby hotel, I saw my first ever lightening bug (or certainly the first that I remember). The road was pitch black, and a little fly with a glowing bum flew right in front of me - very cool! Dinner was an incredible Indian buffet, with strawberry ice cream and tea for dessert. A successful dinner to end a successful day!
A tuk tuk tour of Munnar
The following day was our 3rd wedding anniversary, so we decided to celebrate by hiring a tuk tuk for the day. At 11.30, our driver picked us up, and we put our day into his capable hands.
Our first stop was a viewpoint that we entered through a cafe (for a nominal 5r (10c) fee) that afforded panoramic views. After stocking up on some snacks in the shop (we decided to skip breakfast that morning), we hit the road again, cruising the windy roads.
After paying our entry fee for the spice garden, a lady took us on a 20 minute tour of the garden. Garden was probably a pretty generous word - it seemed like they'd planted one of each type of spice they could think of, and our guide told us about each plant in turn. On the plus side, we made a dog friend, so all was not lost.
The tour ended with a quick stop in to their chocolate shop. We figured it would be rude not to buy anything, so left with a few goodies stashed away for later.
Included in the ticket price was entry to a waterfall, so we asked for directions. We were told to wait at a table, and a jeep would arrive to pick us up shortly. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later, a jeep pulled up and we jumped in. 5 minutes of kidney-bruising off roading later, we arrived jumped back out, and a short walk later we checked out some pretty cool waterfalls. Then it was back into the jeep to return to the entrance, and reunite with our tuk tuk driver.
This was where the day got even more enjoyable. The tuk tuk driver put on some Indian music, and it was awesome. We were winding our way through picture book, stereotypical Indian vistas with amazingly funky modern Indian music blaring from our tuk tuk speakers, and honestly, it was like being in a movie. It was one of the coolest experiences we've had in India so far.
We pulled off the main road and bounced down a long driveway through a tea plantation, and stopped at the bottom to check out another impressive waterfall. The tuk tuk driver pointed to a small shop, and asked if we wanted to stop for a drink. We went into the shop and sat down, and order some lemon sodas and tea. We started chatting to our driver, who told us that he just got married last month and started showing us pictures of his wife. We explained that it was out 3 year wedding anniversary, leading to the 3rd conversation that day about how someone thought that Zev was my son. My confidence was soaring.
The whole time we were chatting, an older Indian woman (maybe in her 70s? Hard to tell) was whipping up our drinks - juicing lemons, adding soda, stirring in copious icing sugar. As she delivered our drinks (by FAR the most amazing lemon sodas we've had), another woman brought out the tea from the kitchen. The driver explained that these women were his grandmother and great aunt. His great aunt stayed and chatted with us, and she was the most adorable woman I've ever met. She was about 5 foot tall with a HUGE smile. She shook our hands when she learned that it was our wedding anniversary, then berated us for not having children, tried on all our sunglasses and laughed at my gray hair. This was definitely one of the most entertaining refreshment stops we've experienced!
A short time later, we were back on the road, then stopping for a local lunch at a side of the road restaurant. We met a couple of English girls and traded stories about questionable accommodation, before resuming our journey to the tea museum, our final stop for the day.
The tea museum was pretty average. A 20 minute long video about the tea company was pretty propaganda heavy, with a lot of talk about how they take great care of their workers and love the local environment and animals (contradicted in the following rooms which were full of photos of the plantation owners with dead animals, and mounted heads). A talk from a man followed, but it was really difficult to figure out what he was saying (at one point he was talking about how you need to use green tea to help you poo, which was where my interest started to wander). After a quick walk past some of the machinery, we called it a day, heading back to our tuk tuk, and then back to our accommodation.
In honour of our wedding anniversary, we headed back to the same Indian buffet for dinner, enjoying a fresh menu of offerings before retiring to our hotel room.
In the end, Munnar was everything that we thought Nuwara Eliya would be, but wasn't. We were so glad that we detoured here to enjoy the spectacular green countryside, and to learn how to properly flush a toilet.
Lots of love,
S & Z