In what you might call downtown Munnar, a dusty Keralan hill town that in some ways recalls the rough-and-tumble frontier of David Milch’s Deadwood, there is an area where taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers park their vehicles and wait for potential customers, 98.9-percent of whom will ask how long it takes to get to Top Station, and how much it will cost to go there and back. They ask because Top Station is what you might call “one of the top attractions in Munnar.”
(Top Station, roughly 32 kilometers up a winding road from Munnar, sits at an elevation of about 5,580 feet above sea level. It was once a key point along the area’s tea shipment line, and today is a place where tourists like me take shitloads of photos of the rolling Kannan Devan hills and Western Ghats mountain range. Up there, you can also have a picture taken of you sitting on a broken-down old horse. If you’d like, you can buy carrots to feed that horse; I’m sure somebody would take a picture of you putting the carrots in the horse’s mouth. That would be a great photo! The one of you feeding a horse with carrots at Top Station.)
Kuddy, in his twenties, tussled hair, ratty jeans, rumpled button-up shirt, was among the drivers waiting for tourists like me at that taxi and auto rickshaw area in downtown Munnar. When I say he’s a driver, I mean that he knows how to get to Top Station and how to operate automobiles. He shares an automobile with at least one friend, probably more; the one who gets the tourist(s) gets the car. That’s how it works. Kuddy isn’t a full-time driver or tour guide; Kuddy, necessarily, is a jack-of-all-trades opportunist trying to eek out a living in a rough-and-tumble Indian hill town.
(To be clear, when I say “tourists like me,” I’m not referrring to the ample package tourists who zip through Munnar on day or overnight trips, because package tourists are packaged up to Top Station on package tours and don’t go wandering about Munnar willly-nilly, looking for drivers. “Tourists like me” aren’t tourists at all — we’re travelers, for chrissakes — who stride confidently into town with resolute, deadpan expressions that, in Munnar anyway, express the following: “Yes, I am looking for a driver to take me to Top Station, and I will pay fairly for your services. However, it’s important for you to first note that I’m an independent traveler disinterested in the tourist experience. I’ve been around this block before, in many different countries, so please don’t hustle me. Though I do wish to see Top Station, know that I’m not desperate for a driver — after all, I can see just how many of you are here — and while I will pay you fairly and certainly tip appropriately, I will not overpay you. Please don’t bother trying to hustle me, because I’m not easily hustled. I’ve been around the block before.”)
That day it was Kuddy’s turn to get the car, because Kuddy was the first driver who approached us when we entered the driver area, and because we hired him. He seemed harmless enough, the price was right, and he promised it’d be straight to Top Station and back, with no unexpected detours to spice farms or the like, farms which offer commissions to drivers who stop with tourists like me in tow. Plus, Kuddy’s friend vouched for him, and that’s what really sold us.
(Just so you know, the commission thing is common in places like India and Sri Lanka, and while I understand it and certainly don’t have a problem with it, we didn’t have time for it that day.)
There’s just one road that leads from downtown Munnar to Top Station; everybody takes the same road to get up there. Dump trucks, tour buses, auto rickshaws, taxis; all the construction workers and tea harvesters, all the tourists and all the travelers. Everybody. It’s a scenic drive, to say the least, one snaking through forests and along mountainous valleys blanketed in tea trees. Kuddy said those trees live for more than 100 years, so it’s possible that the tea trees you see here will still be there long after you and I are gone.
Along the way we passed many roadside shacks fashioned from corrugated metal sheets, in which vendors sold myriad produce (corn roasting on grills), tourist tat, locally made chocolates, and packaged Indian snacks. Along the way, you can stop and have a picture taken of you seated on the back of an old, broken-down horse; I’m sure you can feed him carrots if you just ask.
At one point, Kuddy stopped the car, pulled over, and pointed out a grizzled giant squirrel perched on a tree branch, just inside a forest that stopped at the road’s shoulder. Later he pulled over and reached out the window to pick a tea leaf; as he passed the leaf back to us he said that green tea is made from a single sprout in the middle of the stem.
At the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, he stopped the car, pulled over, and invited us to take “many beautiful pictures,” which we did. In the distance, in some of my many beautiful pictures, you can see the Kolukkumalai Tea Estate, which at its nearly 8,000-foot elevation is the highest tea plantation in India. You don’t see it in the beautiful picture that follows, but I feel you should know that on the way to Top Station you can see Kolukkumalai Tea Estate in the distance.
(We made it to Top Station, by the way, and it was rather pretty up there. While you’re there you can sit on a horse and feed it carrots, too, if you’d like.)
Afterwards, back in downtown Munnar, we paid Kuddy the agreed-upon fee and tipped him. He asked us where we were going next, and when we said “lunch” he suggested a restaurant that, a few minutes later, we tried to find but couldn’t. Before he left, we thanked him and asked him how to get to the Tea Museum. He said that his brother could drive us and he gave his brother’s phone number, but in the end we just walked there and forgot about Kuddy forever.
Follow this link for more information on Kerela tour packages.