The Nilgiris: chasing monkeys in Coonoor
After a frustrating couple of days in Coimbatore, I hopped onto a state bus onward to Coonoor, the first of three tea-estate towns on my checklist. I didn’t know much about this hill station, and on arrival realised that there wasn’t much to know at all. The British first brought it into the limelight in the 19th century as a summer retreat, and large colonial-style bungalows that dotted the town were a constant reminder of that. Coonoor is a sleepy little town stopped in time, and the lack of activity here ensures that the clock doesn’t tick. The town revealed a burst of colour upon arrival, led from the front by the bright yellow frames of buses, autos, jeeps, and trucks. The locals enthralled visitors by different bouts of activity through the day. The freshness and liveliness in the morning turned to sweaty faces and dripping t-shirts when the sun beat down in the afternoon. Evenings were pleasant, with a calm breeze welcoming smiling faces and chirpy conversations. Come nightfall, the people were gradually replaced by light bulbs that lit up the entire town. The only constant around the clock was the smashing of empty cups of filter coffee on dinner tables, a sound that really meant ‘that was delicious, now please get my bill without me having to tell you.’ It was that, and the white and red tikas smeared on each local’s forehead. I had multiple windows of opportunities to get some face paint, but felt it would be a waste of holy colours were it to be applied on my blasphemous forehead.
Coonoor never seemed crowded till one hiked up to Upper Coonoor to see alpine houses bundled together in the distance on one face of a hill otherwise highlighted by verdant carpets of tea gardens. The bus depot, the railway station, the auto and cab stand, and the local market were cramped together in Lower Coonoor, a region solitarily responsible for all the humdrum in a twenty-kilometre radius. A slow walk up a quiet inclined road led me to my hostel, one that would be occupied by all of one person for the rest of my stay. Backpacker’s Burrow was stationed in the upper reaches of town and was part of Vivek Hotel. The owner was trying to start a new venture to attract backpackers, but for now, the Burrow was still a bolthole. The dormitory had two rooms separated by a door, with three beds stuck together in one and two in the other. Squeezing in the middle of two people wasn’t my understanding of unpacking in a hostel, and I was glad I was the only one here. Two washrooms meant I could choose which tea garden I wanted to admire in the morning. A television in the room was an added bonus, not that I ever switched it on. I’m lying. I did turn the television on. What was planned as an early night in to watch a good game of football, turned out to be Manchester United made to look like noobs by Liverpool.
For just INR 600 per night, this accommodation was surely a steal, but that wasn’t to be. While I relieved myself one morning, I heard a sound outside but discredited it for my clothes hanging in the window grill flapping in the strong wind. Turns out, that while I ensued in my morning routine, a monkey slipped into the room, played around with my things, and littered the room with some of its own morning magic. I calmed myself down with the assumption that nothing was stolen, but only nibbled on and thrown around. Anyway, I’ve never heard of thieves who took a dump in the same house that they came to rob. To pile onto the comedy, the staff wasn’t surprised or apologetic. Instead, I was warned to keep the windows shut and not invite our naughty neighbours over.
To avoid overpriced auto-rickshaws, I walked across the quiet streets, slowly grasping that tourism was yet to cripple Coonoor. One major attraction here was 180 McIver Villa, a heritage hotel-cum-restaurant made popular in ‘Kapoor & Sons’. I was in admiration of the rustic-yet-stylish design of this estate; open-gable roofs, turquoise-hued columns, and bushy creepers hugging the entrance made for quite a fascinating frame. This was temporary, for a pricey beef steak slowly tortured in half a litre of pepper sauce ruined the architectural experience that had begun to impress. After testing times like these, I would pop into Ababa Café, named after Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where coffee was first grown. I took a special liking for the owner, for a head of hair that resembled my brother’s and his constant efforts to start a biking club in Coonoor, among other things. And the coffee was great too!
Lower Coonoor was where one could go and enjoy a pocket-friendly meal, something I’d grown to expect after my mealtime adventures in Coimbatore. I cured boredom by stuffing myself, and the diners were efficient accomplices to complement this wrongdoing. Amid the dosas and biryanis, I was particularly pleased by the Wellington Parotha served at Sri Ramachandra Lunch Home. Another delight was a derelict no-name shack I walked into on a sultry afternoon. The food was simple but made with homely affection that most diners here lacked. Conversations with the old lady and her son were a mix of hand gestures, head nodding, Tamil, and English, and were interspersed by forceful pouring over of cold sambhar. Other than the lack of hygiene, the company of flies, filthy tables, and poorly washed utensils, there wasn’t much I could complain about for a thrifty thirty-buck meal.
I followed the crowds to Sim’s Park, a huge sloping botanical garden showcasing a spectacular collection of trees and flowers. The climate suits evergreen trees and thus visitors are treated to flowering plants and glowing foliage for months on end. I try my best to avoid places where outsiders exceed local populace, but Sim’s Park had impressed beyond belief—large gardens, cobbled pathways, and the distinctive shola, a broccoli-like tropical grassland special to the region. The trees here were as old as 1885, namely a Monkey Puzzle Tree sourced from Australia. There was a noticeable decline in trees planted between 1914-19 and 1939-45. This could’ve been due to something as relevant as India’s involvement in the World Wars, or something as casual as funding. I’d let you decide.
Maintaining the garden must seem like a gargantuan task for the gardeners here, or so I thought; I just about care for the thirty-odd plants at home. I was in particular awe of the greenhouse here. It reminded me of a tiny little corner in my living room, where one-and-a-half plants die year on year. Light filtered in through massive skylights and lit up endless rows of indoor plants. Knowing that I couldn’t buy one and take it home to perish in the Delhi heat, I frivolously took selfies with each plant. I’d wait for the room to clear and put on big smiles for the camera, convinced that the foliage had turned into friends.
When that got boring, I walked down to Tiger Hill Cemetery. The view of the tea gardens that fronted this run-down cemetery was a sight for sore eyes. It must be a privilege to be buried at a spot with a view so breath-taking. But unlike the lively charm of the lovely gardens in Mughal tomb sites, the mood set here was like any other cemetery, regardless of the serene view or the canopy of trees that marked the premises. I left in quite a hurry, overwhelmed by the sad messages carved into the gravestones.
Tiger Hill Estate was one of the main tea estates in town, and I ambled along the entire stretch while the sun pressed on. I was bewildered by the number of couples I had to nervously walk past as each enjoyed a snog session deep in the tea gardens. After awkwardly muttering hello the first couple of times, I realised it’s better to stride past, ensuring not to make eye contact. Leather jackets and Royal Enfields made it pretty clear that these trips were strategic dates carefully planned over weeks. In hindsight, I want these couples to be glad it was me who barged in on their privacy and not a family of six with DSLRs and bulky Milton water bottles in hand, ready to barf out sermons about public obscenity and lack of Indian values.
Given all the hype that my next destination (Ooty) brought with it, Coonoor had served as an ideal hamlet to kick back and practice the art of doing nothing. The game plan had worked well here–stay long enough to explore every street, and leave as soon as boredom took over.