Munnar Hill Station & Joseph [Stalin]

Sunday, April. 19, 11:26 PM
Munnar, KL, India

musical selection: Black Moth Super Rainbow’s “satanstompingcaterpillars” (some of the prettiest stuff I’ve heard in a while)

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I’m so glad we took a trip off the coastal path, or else we would’ve missed some great nature adventures. I’m using my head (working smarter, not harder) making choices to optimize my trip, round out the experiences, get the most of this place & my time. So we took the bus UP the mountain to Munnar, and biked DOWN 5 days later. (20+Km of downhill bliss… then 40 more KM of mountain hell… but wait, not yet.)

It seems so long ago already, when J, Lasse & I arrived in Munnar. We wanted to camp up there, but for the first night, arriving after sunset, we took a room in the Green View Inn. It was Cold there at night (at 1800M above sea level) so the Hot Showers were amazing! In the morning we exercised on the roof, taking-in the crisp mountian air, stretching, keeping fit. Being in beautiful nature makes you want to be healthier, (like jogging on the beach & playing daily (drunken) tennis in Amagansett… I’ll miss you terribly, Anna, at your 30th B-day beach bash!) By recommendation of the Rough Guide to S. India, we biked into town to meet this guy Joseph, the go-to travel guy in Munnar. Let me preface the following tale of Joseph as NOT being an endorsement… he kind of dicked us over at first, then royally screwed us in the end. So screw Joseph.

Munnar is a tourist town, and the first thing that jumped out at us was Western people scattered among the Indian tourists; so that was a weird shock of sorts ā€“ I think it’s been at least 6 weeks since the last westerners, at the farm in Karnataka. So we went and bought some home-made chocolate (cuz that’s what they sell in tourist places, yay!) Then walked over to Joseph’s office. We was nice enough, and asked “What’s my name?” I forgot, and he seemed a bit hurt that I didn’t know it. He then asked which book I heard about him, and told me how he’s in ALL the tourist books for India. Ok! When I asked him if he could suggest any place for us to do some free wild camping, he offered for us to stay in the hills above his cottage. Nice! Only thing: it’s cold up on the hill, and since we didn’t have blankets (and we’ve all sent home our cold-weather sleeping bags), we had to buy some blankets. Upon learning that he had a guest house with 9 rooms, I asked if we could rent some blankets, but he said No. I stayed with the cycles, and he showed the boys over to the only store which would sell us blankets on a holiday (Wednesday?), where we got 2 pretty expensive blankets. I was a little sore, as they cost as much as a hotel would have for 2 nights (we were only staying 3 more nights in Munnar), but that’s what we had to do! Whatevs. Still grateful for the hook-up, I offered some chocolate to him and the ladies who worked in his office. (I had 5 in all.) After passing around the chocolate, I had one piece left. He took it from my hand and finished it off, and I was sort of surprised! (I only had 1 piece!) This guy had jutspa! There were 2 other boys there whom he was escorting to his place… he said to them “you get us an auto” and we were off, chasing after them on our bikes to his cottage a couple KM away. (The boys paid, of course.)

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He told us what we would do that afternoon: hike to the fire tower along the range above his house. Happily, it was a nice hike, taking up much of the afternoon, and the guys we went with were nice too. He permitted us to stash our bikes in his driveway and leave our bags in the tool shed, and we’d go find a camping spot atop on of the ridges in the evening. It was dinner time, so he told us to go to the Royal Retreat, a posh tourist restaurant down the street. Two funny things: First, he told us to hurry back and stop by his house before we headed up to the mountain. Ok? Other funny thing: there were intermittent power outages throughout the evening, and during our meal it went pitch black. Suddenly, 8 head lamps flicker on, a sure sign of a restaurant filled with prepared westerners! (I haven’t seen a single Indian with a head lamp yet. I, on the other hand, never leave home w/o it at night!) Everyone is the restaurant were Joseph’s guests.

This is when a very weird thing happened. We got a phone call, at the restaurant! Sort of unsettling, as none of us have had a phone for 5 months! We went to the reception and it was Joseph, for us. He told us to hurry back to his house as soon as we were done. What did he want? The restaurant owner gave us some words of warning: He had known Joseph for 24 years, and he’s a very nice man, but in the last 3 years, since Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide had printed his name, he’s changed. He guessed that Joseph would probably tell us there was an elephant or a tiger up on the hill, and recommend we take a room in his guest house (for 700 rupees, way above our usual 300 rupee budget!) We finish the expensive meal and head up to face the music. Guess what! There was a mother and baby elephant up on the hill, and just as his neighbor who came to tell him the news and he were talking, they heard the baby blow his trunk! We should probably take one of his rooms instead of going up, as it would be very dangerous. We politely thanked him for looking out for us, but we insisted on going up, as we had already set-up and left important things up there. We’d take our chances. That was day #1. The camping was nice… stars overhead with mist in the hills. None of us were really prepared to get so cold that night… me sleeping in the middle of our tent, by sunrise I had spooned with both Jamey and Lasse! (True story, we were cooold!)

Room with a view
Room with a view

As we headed down the hill in the morning, I joked that we should tell Joseph that we heard the elephants during the night; so then he wouldn’t trust us either!

The next morning we came down to stash our tent and get our day packs, and Joseph asked for our passports; in case the police came he’d have to verify who we are. I was uneasy about handing over my passport, even for a minute, and moments later (with Jamey’s passport tucked into his guest book) he explained that he would need to hold on to them. I refused, and explained that we’re required to keep the document on us at all times Ā  it’s the law! I was getting very uncomfortable with this situation. I already had the feeling that he’d sort of conned us into buying him blankets, and when he next had us each complete his guest house forms, I knew he was about to hit us up for some money. He brought over the Lonely Planet and showed us the minimum price he charges for a room, and insisted that we pay him at least for one night Ā  it’s the minimum! I was getting impatient with these shenanigans, and my boys could see it in my face that I was going to go off. Tired of this extortion, I wanted to leave Joseph behind and find a new camping spot. Mis amigos didn’t want to waste our day relocating, letting these trifles ruin one of our few days in the mountains, so eventually we settled on gifting him the blankets.

I didn’t realize this would be such a long-winded tale, so I’ll keep the fun Munnar stories for the next entry and get to how Joseph really stuck it to us in the end.

At first, with the blankets, then when he tried to steal our passports and extort money from us (we didn’t even have any access to water Ā  we’d be washing in public bathrooms for 4 days, no showers!) and suffering through having see him two to three times a day to unlock the shed so we could access our stuff, we were anxious to leave Joseph S. behind.

After day one, I wanted badly to leave and search for some real no-strings-attached free camping, but when the boys didn’t want to, I had to compromise; I accepted the situation. I didn’t want to waste any more energy brooding over a deceptively greedy old man, so I went as far as to convince myself that Joseph was OK; he tried his best to get some money from us, but he wasn’t a bad man, and I should be thankful for opportunity we had, even if the situation was a bit clunky. My comrades, on the other hand, went the opposite way, speculating that Joseph S was sinister, and since we were of no use to him that he wanted us out. (Each day he did ask us if we were still planning to camp up there for the subsequent nights we agreed on, but any hotels we stayed in for more than one night asked us the same too, day after day.) Jamey and Lasse were also accusing Joseph of giving us bad information, and could cite different examples of this every day. (It’s true, for example we spent a while day traveling 70KM to the Chinna Wildlife Preserve, which has been closed for the past month but was opening today, which he supposedly called and verified before our eyes, but upon arriving there after 3 hours on the bus, it was CLOSED for another month.) I tried to convince them that it was in their heads, that I never sensed any ill-will, and I even became the unofficial spokesperson in dealing with the man, as the boys always seemed to be somewhere else, avoiding him, like Lasse lingering behind on the hill, “taking pictures” (even though he lacks a camera), when I was asking Big Joe S to unlock the shed for us.

One evening we were taking an auto back from town, and when we told the driver where we were staying above Joseph’s cottages, he said, somewhat incredulously, “Elephants up there!” We didn’t know whether the elephants up on the hill really existed, or whether Joseph’s crooked ways were well-known and the driver was poking-fun. (We still don’t know!) I decided to be humble and admit that he may NOT have been tricking us, after days of trumpeting about elephants in the night.

After 3 nights of camping up on the hill, (and no elephants), it came time for us to leave. We found Joseph, gave him the blankets, and thanked him (me very sincerely) for putting up with us, and for giving us the opportunity to camp in beautiful Munnar through his generosity. Oddly, he almost hurriedly shrugged off my words of gratitude, and insisted on making one of his famous hand-drawn maps. (He’d done this 2 times already… drawing us maps which we could have easily done without by employing our usual technique… “Which way to [next town]?) We were bound next for the Thattakad Bird Sanctuary, a short day’s ride (down hill), 60km away. The map directed us through a series 8 towns, which he spelled-out very deliberately. He even went so far as to draw the road we were going to take, and draw a big “X” over it, telling us to turn on another nearby road instead. At first we were in heaven, cruising downhill for 20km… it was bliss, and Jamey and Lasse were glowing, this being among their top rides ever. I, however, was inexplicably moody, with a bad feeling, as Something was not right. My trusty compass indicated that we were exiting the mountain in the wrong direction, traveling away from the bird sanctuary, due East on our map.

leading us astray
leading us astray. Pictured: Joseph / Lasse
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The map we should have disregarded. That little squiggle in our path (after Idukki Dam) is a minimum of a day's ride (60+KM in hills in 100+degree heat!) Little stinker!

The next 40km was hell: hot, mostly uphill after our initial descent, the hills were non-stop, and the boys insisted on carrying-on straight through the hot 44C (110F) midday heat. I wanted to throw in the biking towel, period. (It was the next day on the bus back to Thrissur that I had my epiphany, to go to cool New Zealand next instead of hot sticky Thailand.) We landed in our sixth milestone on the map, the Idukki Dam Ā  Asia’s largest, apparently. It was nothing to look at. I was beyond done. I analyzed the maps… the next town on Joseph’s map was another 60KM away, and in a completely different direction! He sent us due-south through the Western Ghats, India’s mountainous backbone, for no reason. And we believed him. Stupid! Really, we were fucked, and on a pretty tight schedule, so far away from and having only a day to visit the Bird Sanctuary before the much-anticipated Elephant festival back in Trichur the next day.

img_5199img_5200The ride through the mountains wasn't without it's eye candy... I can't believe he sent us to this damned Idukki dam!  Haha.
The ride through the mountains wasn't without it's eye candy... I can't believe he sent us to this damned Idukki dam! Haha.

Despite all of these shenanigans with the old man, each and every day in Munnar was unforgettable, filled with so much fun, beauty, and laughter. With no pressures beyond the daily challenges of finding our way through the wild, each of these plot points make our adventure more intense, the drama more incredible, and the rewards more delicious. Best of all, the aftermath of each unexpected turn contains a lesson, and I can’t believe how far I’ve come already.

The lesson I learned here is, trust my gut. I knew this guy was messing with us from the start, and then psyched myself out of it in order to enjoy myself. Trust the gut!!! It’s hard to switch gears when you’re on a path that’s already laid out, but it’s essential to be alert, listen to your heart, and do what must be done, at any cost, to craft the destiny you desire. Life’s rewards are worth working for, and taking the easy way is seldom the most rewarding.

I’ve always felt that every experience has value; good, bad, different, it’s what you take from it that’s important. I don’t think any experiences are actually bad either… even though this man ruffled our feathers, we had so much fun anyway, and laughing at ourselves throughout it was the best part of it all. I think, with practice, people can eventually work towards living life with grace and perfection. But a life without surprises is quite dull, so I think I’m already as polished and seasoned as I wish to be! Right now is perfect.

May the players on the stage of life before me continue to surprise, startle, bewilder, and delight me! And may I continue to enjoy my follies. I laugh!

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