Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Beauty of Ooty







All this leisure is exhausting. We've earned a break.

With our friend Gopal's able assistance, we hired a car and driver to drive us to Ooty for a couple of days of R&R. Ooty is a hill station less than 100k from Coimbatore in the province of Tamil Nadu. Hill stations were built in several locations in India as refuge for the English from the heat of summer. The most famous of these is Simla in the north. Every year the English would move their entire government from Delhi to the relative cool of Simla during the hot season. The winding road to Udagamandalam , or as it is more commonly known, Ooty, is about as nausea inducing as it gets, with more than 30 hairpin turns as it rises to nearly 2200 meters above sea level.

As we left the foothills and got into the Western Ghat mountains proper, the boys were delighted to have their first wild monkey sighting. These little buggers look incredibly cute, especially the mothers with small babies clinging to them, but their appearance belies a nasty streak a mile wide. Look. Don't touch. The steep climb levels out around the 2000 meter mark, and there Ooty is spread out before us. Many tea plantations form well manicured geometric patterns of lush green that cover the undulating hills. It's quite pretty, and refreshingly cool.

Ooty is also a resort town, and where there is a resort, there is cheese. Lots of it. Not the yummy reggiano kind of cheese that I've been craving, but the tacky "only exists for the tourists" cheese. Our driver, bless his misguided soul, erroneously assumed that due to the fact that we were of the caucasian persuasion, we wanted to stop at every tourist trap that the town had to offer, and subsequently divest ourselves of every last rupee in the quest for ultimate cheese. Fortunately, there was no giant fiberglass "World's Largest Idli", or anything like that, but the places he chose to deposit us were not far off that degree of fromage. After a frantic search for a suitable place for lunch, at least a place our driver thought suitable for Westerners, we were summarily deposited at a place called "Shogun". This was a truly dreadful place, swathed in tacky decorations that were more faux Chinese than the Japanese name suggested. Lunch was not great but not truly awful. Just about triple the price it should have been at the locals only places just down the street. If I sound grumpy, it's because I was. At least there was no attempt to serve sushi. Sigh...

Our friend Gopal generously fixed us up with a couple of deluxe rooms at a resort that he owns a holiday time-share at, but rarely has time to visit. It's a huge and sprawling complex with over 100 suites, and it somehow manages the peculiarly Indian feat of appearing both brand new and run-down at the same time. Our suites were fabulous though, with cooking facilities (unused) and hot water showers, however brief. We were virtually the only people there, and if you've ever seen that old British TV series, "The Prisoner", you'll get a small sense of the vibe. I half expected that giant white blancmange to come chasing after us when we attempted to finally check out. Be seeing you!

We took a drive to the Botanical Gardens, a Raj-era holdover that had definitely seen some better days. It was nice to walk amongst some greenery though, despite being stopped by strangers every 30 seconds to pose for photos with them. A few guys in their late teens/early twenties with boozy cigarette breath were perhaps a little more enthusiastic than was was comfortable when they posed with their arms around Emma and Laurel. Grrrrr..... Then it was off to the Boathouse, a man-made lake also dating back to the Raj era. Here, we actually broke down and rented two decrepit fibreglass pedal boats. Each boat displayed a two foot high Disney character on it's bow, and I'm pretty sure old Walt and Company will be waiting a long time before receiving those licensing royalties. At one end of the lake was a sorry no-man's land containing several retired pedalboats in various stages of sinking. This is a theme that is repeated throughout the India we have seen. There is this odd combination of enthusiastic beginnings combined with subsequent systematic neglect and decay. A children's park will have a huge expensive granite plaque proudly announcing the persons present at its dedication, yet all the playground equipment is rusty and broken. Elaborate concrete fountains are built in the middle of roundabouts, yet they contain only weeds within their cracked concrete walls. Did they ever function? Ooty has a full size horse racing track, yet its covered entirely with weeds and the structures are crumbling. Monkeys patrol the broken fountains in the Botanical Gardens, where water hasn't flowed for thirty years.

The sun was going down, and we felt the sudden need to actually dress up in long pants, sweaters and hoodies, which was pretty unusual for India. We headed off for dinner, this time swearing to do the exact opposite of whatever the driver recommended. Our obstinance was rewarded with a decent Northern Indian meal at a local workingman's hotel. You may have noticed that there is not much written here about the food in Tamil Nadu. Speaking for myself, the food is not as varied or interesting as it is in Cochin and some other parts of the state of Kerala. Gopal did show us a couple of new things, such as Sevai, which is a really good kind of rice noodle. The Poori, or deep fried puffy bread, were quite good here. However, fish and other seafoods are pretty much off the menu, and instead there is an endless parade of idli, dosa, and sambar. If there are any other regional specialties that stand out, it may just be that we were not visiting long enough to sniff them out.

The next morning, we checked out very early and thus managed to escape the clutches of the prisoner retrieval blancmange, although I'm sure I caught a glimpse of it in the rear view mirror as we left. It was Isaac's 5th birthday the next day, and we were determined to show him an elephant as a special treat. We drove down the backside of the mountain through another 30 plus hairpins until we leveled out onto the plains of the tiger reserve. Just before we hit the plain, the driver shouted "Elephant!", and sure enough right by the side of the road, ambling through the dense brush was a wild elephant about 10 feet away from the car. Pretty exciting stuff.

Driving through the reserve, we stopped to take pictures of a troop of monkeys. The driver had his window open, and suddenly there was a commotion of excited voices in the car. A large female monkey (I could tell, as she bore an uncanny resemblance to a topless Cher), obviously the recipient of extensive Ninja training, leapt up and perched on the driver's door, and attempted to climb in the car through the open window. The driver reached for the nearest weapon, in this case a wooden brush, and wildly thrashed away at the monkey until she finally was finally convinced to leave the vehicle, unharmed. There was much laughter after the shock subsided. We also saw several peacocks, axis deer, more monkeys, a mongoose (tasty!), and several more elephants in the reserve before we turned around and hightailed it back up the mountain, and then back down the mountain to head straight back to Coimbatore.

We owe a big thank you to Gopal for showing us the depth of Indian hospitality. That night our excitement mounted. One more sleep and we could return to our house in Cochin and gorge on seafood! We are but simple people...

1 comment:

jcree said...

Happy birthday Isaac. We miss you all!