A friendlier and less 'familyer' Kodaikanal
There’s a certain buzzing sensation that you have in your stomach just before you pile into a car with several others for a road trip. It’s as if your stomach is bracing itself for the impact of spending hours together in near-immobility, full-bladder challenges and the general delight of going away. That buzzing, caused by a zillion hyperactive bees of excitement, comes in my top five list of favourite feelings. At about 2 PM on the 31st of December 2015, this buzzing became a very palpable, alive thing as we headed to Kodaikanal.
There are two types of Kodaikanal. One is a very family-certified, muffler-clad, bad-food-nonfunctioning-geysers-hotel, respectable Kodaikanal where you walk through Coakers Walk, boatride-horse-ride at the Lake and buy homemade chocolate for friends and family back home and experience a rather threadbare thrill as you peer over at Suicide point. And the other one is a little less, for want of a better word, mainstream. After debating about which route was better, we settled for the Dindigul route over the Coimbatore route. The roads were gorgeous and wide, with wide open country sides for company. A rather corpulent duchess moon lounged lazily in a diamond-spilt sky. Meanwhile we went all-out top-of-the-pops on our playlist and sang along to every cheap song we could remember.
Kodaikanal is a hill station that sits pretty in the Palani hills, high above the suffocations of the dust and burn of the Tamil plains. Depending on how your tongue plays with its vowels, the name Kodaikanal can translate into ‘forest of creepers’ or ‘gift of the forest’ or ‘the end of the forest’ or a “forest that protects like an umbrella”. Whatever its name actually means, to us it meant escape. Things had begun to get too middle-ageish for comfort and busy was taking too much space in our daily lexicon.
The night drive was good with great roads throughout. And then began the climb up the hill. Hardly my favourite part as I tend to get all vomitty. But I have to saw this - the hair pin bends are not what they used to be. The roads are a lot better so the climb is a lot more comfortable. But a few kilometres ahead of Kodaikanal town, I stumbled out of the car to empty the contents of stomach. Let me just put it this way - prettiest puke session ever. The chilly mountain air, the crisp wind, and the dark black mountain filled with luminescent starflowers sky. Unfortunately the magic of the mountain night drive was compromised by my heaving stomach. All I wanted to do was reach terra mattress.
Boris had reached ahead of us and found a nice little house for us to stay. But finding this night little house in the dead of the night turned out to be a little less than nice. After a couple of pointless roundabouts, we stopped the car and waited for Boris to come get us. We waited in the cold that bit and gnawed at us,making us very aware of the geographies of our bodies. Finally after about twenty minutes of hypothermic body awareness, Boris emerged from the shadows. And with nary a greeting, walked into the house we’d been waiting in front of for the last damn freezing twenty minutes. We were too tired to even appoint and direct the annoyance we were clearly feeling. We stumbled into the house and right into bed.
I really wanted to wake up early enough to catch the sunrise. But the body didn’t cooperate. So I missed it. We were headed for Kodaikanal’s other lake. This one offered more illicit pleasures. Less crowds and more scenery. Less horse-rides and more hallucinogens. All the way to the lake, men with deceptive big, religious ‘basmam’ or holy ash on their foreheads stopped you and surreptitiously asked you “Mushies venama?” The first time someone stopped us, I almost yelped “Just like that? In the open?” Magic Mushrooms evidently held another spell in these parts. So this lake we were headed for was completely off the touristy grid. It’s called the Mannavanur Lake and the 35 kms that lead to this slice of perfect serenity is green and woodsy and gorgeous. But please watch out for morons who like to come over the edge of the hill and take on hairpin bends as though it were an F1 circuit. One guy nearly drove off the hill. So for the love of not wanting to end up being mountain-scrape, please drive carefully on Kodai roads.
Back to Mannavanur Lake. It’s gorgeous, it’s secluded and it’s not touristy. So don’t expect the menu to go much further than magic mushrooms. If you’re not keeping your stomach empty for the sake of a trip, please buy food supplies when you can. The expansive hillocks and the fresh air will leave you feeling really hungry. No window of opportunity opened for us to grab a bite before we got to the lake. All the empty stomach and fresh airair went straight to my head and had me skipping across the meadows singing ‘mary had a little lamb’. But since we had acres after verdant acres to just ourselves, my performance went unchecked and unnoticed. How do I begin to describe that feeling of breathing lungfuls of fresh, free and oxygenated air? The rush of that perfect stillness. Of seeing cute little birds with the most obnoxious of calls. Of crossing rickety old bridges and dipping your feet in icy cold water. Of experiencing all this for the first time after living your life in coastal or congested cities? I was unreined and ready to twirl like Julie Andrews in the opening shot of The Sound of Music. We spent the entire morning and pretty much of the noon, drinking in the beauty of this place. We walked so much that our legs tremble from the exertion. Oh what a way to usher in the new year!
After rambling around the mannavanur lake, we decided to get some grub in our tummies. We thought Altaf’s Cafe at Vattakanal would be just perfect. Now let me tell you something about the road to Vattankanal. It’s a narrow two-way road where drivers think nothing of parking on the sides of the road. Why? because there’s a rather pleasant waterfall right there. Who cares if the mother of all gridlock traffic jams are caused? So when we decided to head for Altaf’s with stomach being incinerated by hunger, we were in no way prepared for the jam that would come before the bread. There was just no way any of us were getting out of it. Too many parked vehicles and enough space for a vehicle and a quarter more, made for a frustrating situation. We didn’t come on a holiday to get caught in a traffic jam, for crying out loud! The boys stepped out to direct traffic and remind people that nobody was sprouting wings just yet, and so no one was more disposed to clear the traffic jam than the others. Our car was on the side of the road, where the road decided it had enough of being a road and wanted to me a tiny ravine instead. Before we knew it, the boys were placing stones beneath the left tyres, so we could move forward. We literally did road construction to get to food. After a good 15 minutes of patience tests, we got out of the jam. I can’t remember feeling this relieved in a long time.
Vattakanal is a delightful place and the neighbourhood of Altaf’s is young and hotblooded. I froze in my multiple layers of clothing watching the nubile blonde foreigners walking in their flannel shirt and denim cutoffs. Oh to be unfazed by the cold! But we need to get back to the topic of Altaf’s! This cafe serves Israeli food. Delicious Israeli food. Overwhelming relief moment #2. This is little nook is like hippy slash hipster paradise. Malayalee boys with haircuts and beards that all Malayalee sport, sip steaming tea while addressing all and sundry as “bro”. Biker boys and chicks sit around sipping tea in their bulky biker trappings. Bohemian boys and girls add mood and colour to the evening. The cigarettes are mostly aromatic and clings to the twilight air like an olfactory afterglow. It was like the other side of the Pied Piper’s mountain where the kids had grown into an equally magical, untainted adulthood. The sun dropped a purple scarf in the sky and tree fingers put up a dance of silhouettes. The air was filled with a brand of witchery. Little white flowers glowed like fairy lanterns in the half-dark as only mountain flowers can. We were so happy in our newly bought sherpa caps. We were happy and we were free. And dog tired. So we headed back to the hotel and hugged ourselves because the cold was back and began gnawing on us again.
We’d decided to head back to Bangalore the next day. I made plans with the sunrise again. Sleep made me cancel on those plans again. We groggily went looking for food. The Tredis Tea Room looked like a nice place in the sun. The tables were wood barks and most of the seats were tree stumps. For one breakfast, I was chief of the woodland. The food took a while to get to us - but the guy running the place did warn us that it would be a while, because a bigger group had raced us to the place. But we didn’t mind. We let the morning sunshine warm us nice and toasty. And when the food arrived, it was hot and delicious. They serve great English Breakfast. But let this be known, it’s hardly the place for vegetarians. Once we’d had our sanity restored by food and nourishment, we were ready for some moseying around Kodaikanal Town.
We went through our metal lists of recommendations. Daily Bread apparently has the best cakes in all of Kodaikanal. So we headed Daily Bread-wards. But unfortunately for us, it lived a little too well to its reputation. The cute little bakery had empty shelves by the time we got there and offered us only disappointment. So we wandered around looking for other ways to amuse our stomachs. There’s so much uphill climbing involved in Kodaikanal that I began to look around for fat locals. It’s hard to be out of shape with daily life hurling so much exercise at you. Sedentary lifestyle doesn’t stand a chance here. Sahit indulged in some coffee beans which turned out to be an epiphany in our morning coffee ritual.
Freshly ground coffee is the only kind of coffee for us now. We got bored pretty quickly and decided to head back, since we didn’t have enough time to ramble through some forest or seek another waterfall. The drive down is scenic. Flowers of different sizes and different hues waved at me, stealing a piece of my heart with their winsome ways. Kodaikanal offered respite to the colonial gentry and missionaries. They braved no roads, uncomfortable transport, wild animals and robbers, just to enjoy this piece of paradise. Just the thought of taking on those hair pin bends without the road that actually become the hairpin bends on horse carriages and palanquins and foot. One must have really wanted to escape the heat! Kodaikanal has come a long way, since its career as a tourist destination began when the first European Lt. B.S Ward, a British surveyor visited it. I, for one, am incredibly grateful for the roads. But it’s easy to understand how the call of the hills must have compelled people to make the precarious journey and over time, transform Kodai into the accessible piece of paradise it is. Meanwhile, people continue to find their escape and sanctuary in the Princess of Hills.