Category Archives: Ooty

The Ooty Tea Party

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This morning we are under strict instructions to be ready for departure as scheduled – we’re taking a trip on the famous toy train, and it’s usually packed, so arriving early to collect tickets is a must. Unfortunately the hotel staff have other ideas, intent instead on setting a new record for service at pace of snail, though we are the only patrons.

20120309-233723.jpg The choice of emblem should in no way be taken to represent the author’s opinion of the hotel

We arrive at the station in a mad rush, and hurry onto the platform – only to find, when the little train puffs up to the station, that at least two carriages are completely empty. We abandon our allocated seating (to the palpable relief of the local tourists who had the misfortune to be sitting next to us), and settle in more comfortably for the hour-long ride to the tea plantations of Coonoor.

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Along the way we make a short stop in Wellington (only similarity to the NZ version: it’s built on a hillside), and take advantage of the platform catering service: one beaming fellow with a huge basket of deep-fried chickpea patties.

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At Coonoor Charles takes us on an impromptu tour of the railway workshop, where several steam engines are lined up looking as if they’re waiting for the Fat Controller to arrive. We can’t wait though – it’s back on the bus, and on to our next stop: a nearby tea factory.

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The factory is mostly closed for cleaning today, but the manager gives us a tour of the plant, from sorting to drying to packaging the tea. In the bowels of the factory a woman is operating some kind of noisy machine which emits orange-brown tea dust – she is covered in it, but manages to stop and smile as we squeeze past.

20120309-232652.jpg This fellow was also working in the plant. A minute later when I showed him his photo he collapsed in paroxysms of laughter

Down the slope from the factory there is a demonstration of the picking process, and they have thoughtfully provided brightly-coloured ponchos and tea-pickers’ baskets for the obligatory photos (pretty sure the ponchos are their own private joke, as there’s nothing traditional about them!). One or two of the group take to the task as if born to it. I forget to tuck my hair in the scarf and manage to look more like a seventies hippie. For others, the chance to break into dance is too much to resist…..the hills are alive?

20120309-233013.jpg Any excuse to tap dance…

Finally it’s time to taste the sponsor’s product, which comes in plain, masala, ginger or chocolate (tea aficionados may wish to avert their eyes). There is expensive white tea as well, but this has to be taken on spec as they’re not handing out freebies. The chocolate tea is surprisingly good (some nameless cocoa brand mixed into the leaves), though this may also be related to the amount of sugar in the mix…

We are nearly back at the hotel when the bus makes an unscheduled stop. Our guide mutters “back in a minute”, and disappears. He returns a few minutes later and says “Would you like to go to an Indian wedding?”. It seems the driver had seen the crowd at the temple and, being from around this area, took it upon himself to pop in and arrange impromptu invites. For twelve. Plus Charles, of course.

The formal part of the proceedings has been completed, apparently, but we are just in time for the official photos. We troop upstairs to the main hall, where the bridal couple are standing centre stage as a long stream of relations and well-wishers line up to have their photo taken for the record. The groom is looking pretty stoked about the whole thing, while the bride is doing her best to stifle a yawn. We are hustled to the front of the queue, and before I know it I am on the stage, as the official photographers – and quite a few unofficial ones – snap away. I can only wonder what the newlyweds will say to their children years from now – “who are they, Mum?” “Haven’t the foggiest”. I doubt they’d have such a friendly reception if the position were reversed, but here we are, photobombing, then ushered down through the dining hall, where we only narrowly escape crashing the wedding breakfast as well. As it is we are plied with plates of bhajis and sweets, and one of us is even given a gift bag on the way out – I hope there isn’t a wedding guest somewhere cursing us for depriving them of their blessed coconut and string of marigolds….. We meet the father of the groom at the door; he is grinning from ear to ear and generously bids us welcome, handing us someone else’s invitation to make it all official – it’s all a bit surreal!

20120309-233227.jpg The groom’s father brandishing “our” invitation

After the morning’s excitement the afternoon is pretty laid back. A quick thali for lunch, which I manage to eat entirely without cutlery, though having mastered the skill I’ll be quite happy if I don’t need to use it again (I was never one of those kids who liked to spend hours playing with fingerpaints). Then a few of us wander back into town, and stop in at a small pharmacy for assorted supplies (though don’t ask for a pharmacy: try “medical” shop instead). One of our group is a dentist, and is a bit like a kid in a candy store, having discovered that pharmacies here will dispense pretty much any drug you like without a prescription and for little more than 20 rupees. Cough and cold remedies, anti-nausea pills and anti-emetics for the downhill journey tomorrow (which apparently also work as a foolproof hangover remedy, though I couldn’t possibly comment) – we consider asking for sleeping pills and valium while we’re at it, wondering if there is any limit to what they will dispense.

That evening we board the bus for the short drive to Fernhill Palace. If I were coming back to Ooty with unlimited funds, this place would be at the top of my list. At the end of a sweeping drive, the summer palace is a grand old colonial relic, its walls lined with photos of maharajahs past. We take a walk through the grounds, past outbuildings and cottages (the more reasonably priced accommodation is, sadly for us, under restoration), and pause on the terrace to watch the sun sinking below the hills, before we are ushered inside to the bar.

20120309-233350.jpg Fernhill Palace

Again, I’m afraid we are not suitably attired – this place is crying out for a sparkly evening gown or, better yet, a safari suit, as it is lined with stuffed animals and sepia-toned pictures of tiger hunting parties, polo matches and maharajahs on elephants.

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An unofficial guided tour reveals palatial suites and a huge ballroom with grand piano. Like yesterday’s hotel, it appears to be completely unoccupied, though I suppose this is the off-season: this is traditionally where one goes to escape the summer heat, and it’s decidedly chilly once the sun goes down.

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We settle in at the bar, which is not as well stocked as the huge selection of bottles and decanters behind it might suggest. In fact, our options are Kingfisher, or Kingfisher: the bottles are just for show, and they’ve brought in a few beers just for this evening. There are masala peanuts to go with the beer, a spicy mix of nuts, raw red onion and sharp green chillies.

Then dinner is announced, and it is delicious – the first time I have tried a goat curry, and I suspect I won’t try one as delicious again (be warned: if you see mutton on the menu, it is far more likely to be goat). After dinner there is warm carrot halva, which is now on my list of must-learn recipes before I leave India – I know there is grated carrot, condensed milk, and probably ghee and cardamom – the rest remains a delicious mystery.

There is a slight air of abandonment and decline about Fernhill, but this only adds to the atmosphere – it would be an unforgettable place to spend a day or two. One day…

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Formerly Snooty, Ooty.

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It is another early start, though my alarm doesn’t stand a chance between the various muezzins and church bells competing to call the faithful to prayer. Our packs are loaded into and onto a convoy of autorickshaws for the trip to the station in Ernakulam – my rickshaw is having technical issues (though I’m not sure how technical a tricycle with a motormower engine can get) and we trail behind the others. At one point I am tempted to get out and help to push it over a bridge, but eventually we reach the station and find our seats in AC chair class.

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Once the train has started moving, Charles takes a few of us through the general cars and down to the pantry car, to see how it all works “backstage”. The catering for each train is put out to tender, and the caterer for this train keeps anything that he earns above an agreed price, which goes some way to explaining the constant stream of attendants proffering chai, coffee and snacks up and down the aisle. In the pantry car the heat is incredible. Huge vats of veg and chicken biriani are being prepared on gas burners, and in a small compartment two men are chopping onions.

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The external doors remain open throughout the journey, and the path back to our seats is an obstacle course of stray legs, as passengers in the non-AC carriages enjoy the breeze from the doorway.

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On arrival in Coimbatore we transfer to a minibus, and zoom through the outskirts of the city. Coimbatore was devastated by a series of bomb blasts back in 1998, and has undergone considerable reconstruction, including a road network that seems to be a labyrinth of concrete barriers.

We stop for lunch at a roadside diner on the edge of the city, part of the Annapurna chain. It’s a vast cafeteria, and the service is quick: metre-long paper dosas with coconut chutney and sambhar, and black coffee served in metal tumblers nested in shallow bowls. Charles shows us how to tip the boiling coffee from one to the other until it has cooled enough to drink.

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On the road outside, a street vendor is selling guavas, greenish-yellow and fragrant. I pick out half a kilo, and the vendor gestures for me to take a photo. Well, if I must… :).

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The bus takes us from Coimbatore towards the foothills of the Nilgiris, then begins a tortuous series of hairpin bends up into the hills towards Ootacamund, or Ooty as it’s more commonly known. The view is stunning, but those of the group prone to carsickness are feeling miserable as the bus winds back and forth, overtaking trucks and jeeps at every opportunity (did I mention that the signs forbidding overtaking on blind corners are really just for show?).

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On first glance Ooty doesn’t seem to be an especially pretty town, with the usual crazy traffic and random concrete buildings in various states of construction. It was a popular summer retreat in the time of the British Raj, famous for polo, parties, and making an extreme sport of clique-dom and snobbery (hence the sobriquet “snooty Ooty”). These days, there are a number of expensive “international” schools (where the children of the privileged sit the International Baccalaureate in lieu of local exams), and an inordinate number of chocolate shops. There is also a botanic garden (which is apparently quite lovely), a small boating lake, and a racecourse which looks to be completely abandoned and overgrown save for the shanties in one corner. Charles assures me it’s just the offseason and that races will re-commence in the summer, but I have my doubts.

We check into our hotel, which is uninspiring. It’s clean enough, but pretty soulless, and the bathrooms have odd little open windows that face directly onto the internal corridor, so that your screams of shock when you duck under the icy water emitting from the “hot” tap can be heard by whoever happens to be passing.

We head for the markets in search of some local colour, and find it in abundance. The market is buzzing with activity, even though it’s now late afternoon. I hold my breath down the lane of butchers (which is also buzzing, for a different reason), and past the sole fishmonger. Bearing in mind that the sea is some hours away, it seems best to avoid the fish (and apparently he was selling the same sorry specimens when someone went back to the market the next day).

The floral market is easier on the nose – though I’m careful not to sniff too overtly: apparently it is bad form to inhale the fragrance of wreathes meant for temple offerings before the gods have had their turn.

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There are baskets of limes and pomegranates, garlands of bananas in green, yellow and red, huge piles of raw peanuts ready for roasting, and, just around the corner, a chai wallah who serves us all a sweet, hot cup of masala chai.

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Across the lane from the chai shop is a small shop filled with huge sacks of rice – a local government scheme, apparently, to provide affordable rice to those who could not otherwise afford it. It’s the first example of any kind of state safety net that I’ve seen, and it’d be interesting to know how far the scheme extends. Based on the volume of political advertising and the number of photos of the Chief Minister surrounding the shop, it appears to be a key part of her re-election policy.

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The sun is starting to set, and there is a general consensus that it is fast approaching G&T o’clock. Charles knows just the place, and leads us through town and up a short sharp hill towards the Government Rose Gardens. It is getting dark now, and I can’t say I notice any roses, but we are passed by a couple of riders on smart-looking thoroughbreds (the effect is ruined somewhat when one bellows “you want ride? Horse ride?” – an opportunistic out-of-work jockey, perhaps…). At the top of the hill we saunter past a security guard and into the bar of a fancy five star hotel, which appears to be almost entirely empty but for the staff, who don’t bat an eyelid at our – shall we say informal – appearance. A few G&Ts, pints of kingfisher and assorted hot bhajis later, we barely notice that the temperature has dropped to about 2 degrees as we tumble back down the hill to our own, less salubrious, accommodation.