Tamil Nadu tired me out. The sights were interesting, although perhaps not as grande as elsewhere in India. The suffering humidity made it difficult to appreciate the culture. I saw a lot of cities in a short amount of time, and I felt that a retreat into the hills might be the type of refresher I needed.
India is filled with these so-called “hill stations” - little mountain towns full of cool weather, sweeping views and hot chai. They were built by the British, who would move their capitals up to the hills during the summer months to escape the blistering heat. From Calcutta they went up to Darjeeling, from Delhi they went to Shimla, from Mumbai they went to Matheran, and from Madurai I went up to Munnar.
I was a little hesitant to go back to Munnar. It had been one of the first places I had travelled to in India, almost a year-and-a-half ago. Everything was so new to me then, so freeing, so exciting. I felt like it was one of the most beautiful places on earth.
But since that first visit to Munnar I’ve seen half of the subcontinent. I’ve seen the sprawl of the Himalaya, packed marketplaces, the diversity of the people from the Tibetan refugees of Dharamshala to the Tamil temple-goers down south. I saw the Taj Mahal and countless temples, shrines and monuments. Surely after all that Munnar couldn’t still hold the same allure that it did all those months ago. I was afraid to go back and blur those memories that I had.
The first time I visited had been February. Vibrant greens collided with a clear blue sky. My skin turned red from all the time spent in the sun. The cool air mixed with the constant chai stops were a wonderful combination.
This time it was monsoon. You could feel the change. As the bus made its way up the hairpin switchbacks from the Tamil plains, you could make out the clear line where the blue sky stopped and the grey clouds began. The greens were just as vibrant, but now they blended into dark greys where they met the ominous skies. Some hills rose so high they were completely surrounded by thick white mist. I stepped off the bus to rain in Munnar town and went to buy myself a sweater.
I called up my friend Raja, the motorcycle driver who had taken me around the last time I was here. He was still there, same as before. The monsoon was wreaking its havoc on the narrow mountain roads, so we alternated between his bike and his car. He still insisted on giving me ayurvedic massages using the plants we found in the fields. After a fresh lemongrass facial made my skin burn I asked him to stop.
We passed his grandmother’s house in the valley and stopped for chai. I was taking off my sandals, when his cousin sister noticed that my foot was covered in blood. They immediately had me lie down on the shared family bed, and propped me up on all sorts of pillows. His grandmother brought me sweet chai and warm halwa while the cousin sister got to work washing my foot in hot water and plucking out the monsoon leeches that had attached themselves. Raja fretted over me as she continued to wash away the blood.
Last time I had stayed right in Munnar town, but this time I opted for a tiny cottage right in the middle of a tea plantation. Shabbat afternoon the cloud cover cleared for a few hours as I went on a breathtaking hike through the surrounding hills. They seemed to go on forever, undulating fields covered in emerald green tea bushes. The red dirt path curled around the hillcrests as they split into different valleys. I walked for hours, alone with the aroma of fresh mountain air and tea leaves. Being in Munnar is being in a constant state of wonder.
My final morning in Munnar I awoke early to catch a bus back down to the plains. Backpack in tow, I made my way down the steep hill, the rainwater reflecting the golden rays of the rising sun. Munnar hadn’t seemed to have changed much. People came and went, tea was harvested, elephants passed through in the middle of the night. The boy who ran the guesthouse lay on a mat in the dark kitchen, chainsmoking cigarettes and making tea for the guests. The villagers woke up early to put up their washing. Munnar hadn’t changed, I had.
It’s sort of a sad reality to accept. This country has meant so much to me, but all of these places continue on. I may be moving halfway across the world, but every morning the villagers still wake up early to put up their washing. Little Soniya in Khuri is still fetching water from the well everyday. The priest’s father in Jodhpur is still sitting on the temple ledge, drinking chai and watching the sunset. Mumbai’s 220 000 rickshaw drivers are still driving around, looking for passengers to carry around. I’m the one that’s leaving.
I’m glad I went back to Munnar. It felt fitting to close off my travels the way I started them, and to come to a place that I already know. I retraced some of my steps - I went to the same restaurants, visited the same places. It felt familiar, nostalgic even. Like I was coming full circle. Or full spiral.
Today is 14 days until I leave India - two weeks. I'm packing up, saying goodbyes, revisiting my favourite places. Some places I've been many times - I've spent countless Friday mornings drinking coffee upstairs at Candies. Some places I've only been once or twice. Some places I probably won't get back to before I leave. I try to think of the last time I was at the Gateway of India. It was probably when I went to Revdanda for Pesach, although at the time it didn't feel like a last, just like another day. Some people I've seen for the last time, and the moment passed without occasion.
Maybe I’ll come back to Munnar one day. I’m sure I’ll come back to India. I'm sure I'll explore so many new and wonderful places and meet so many new and wonderful people, but that doesn't make it any more fun to leave home. But for now I'm enjoying these last few weeks of wrapping up and saying goodbyes, and getting ready to carry these experiences forward with me.