Kodaikanal is a hill station. This peculiar brand of colonial creation is increasingly popular with tourists, but Kodai is still fairly embryonic as far as tourism goes; sure, there are plenty of wealthy weekenders paddling about on the lake, but there are none of the high rise hotels that have ruined similar places.
Hill stations were devised by colonialists as places to get away from the monsoon's heat and humidity; being high up, settlements like Kodaikanal (about 2100m above sea level) don't suffer from the crazy climates of the plains, and can support a much more European array of flowers, trees and pleasantries like mosquito-free boating lakes and forest walks. For the traveller the hill station affords an opportunity to stop sweating and take it easy for a while.
There is a downside to the weather though: it gets bloody cold, the water is freezing, and quite often you can spend the whole day shrouded in cloud, transforming walks with beautiful views into monotonous trudges through the mist. However the mix of India with the cool weather and rolling landscape more than makes up for any inconvenience; as with Indonesia's Dieng Plateau, Malaysia's Cameron Highlands and Thailand's Chiang Mai, the effect of breath-condensing temperatures on the local culture goes a lot deeper than is immediately obvious from the woolly jumpers and balaclavas sported by the inhabitants.
On my second day in Kodai I moved out to Pampar Puram, a little village some 40 minutes' walk from the town centre, a fact that rubbed itself home as I walked back from town in the pitch black of night, the country lanes swirling in impenetrable fog like something out of a Sherlock Holmes story. After the comparative luxury of the city hotel scene, living in a country farmhouse (owned by a farmer called Jerayam) was both a return to roots and a wonderful opportunity to escape the stresses of India's urban sprawls.
The rural ruggedness of the village with its little chai shops, dirt roads and roaming cows and dogs made procrastination a very attractive deal. My plans slowly slipped away into the ether as the timescale of Pampar Puram settled in; Kodaikanal, only a few hilly kilometres away with its tourists, buses and sculptured lakeside setting, might have been on the other side of the planet for all I cared.
The walking was good. I wandered around lakes, up hills, into forests and through villages, savouring sights like the plantations of fresh-smelling Australian blue gum trees, and pretty-as-a-picture cottages with lovely British-era names like 'Ingleby', 'Plymouth', 'Park View', 'Clavarack', 'Central House', 'Lakeside' and, less romantically, 'Bolton'. Kodaikanal doesn't feel like India, but it's definitely Indian, and is just another example of how amazingly diverse this country is.
Images of Kodaikanal
Of course, very little actually happened during my extended stay in Pampar Puram; that's the whole point of taking time out to relax in a quiet haven. But just for the record, here are a few highlights of my stay in the hills:
I met an equally laid-back Swiss traveller called Niko, and together we explored lakes, valleys, lookouts and forests, wandering aimlessly along cattle tracks and bridle paths. One particular highlight was a reservoir up in the hills where a team of Indian workers were quarrying rock right by the side of the water; we wandered past, exchanged smiles and hellos, and as we settled down for a rest in the soft pine needle beds just round the corner from the quarry, the world exploded as the dynamite the workers had been sticking into holes in the rock face went off. I guess that in India if you manage to get blown up in an explosives accident, it's just the will of God; it probably never occurred to them to warn us about it...
Wandering up the road to watch a local cricket match, I managed to get a ride on the back of a push bike down to the pitch and, after the match, a ride on a motorbike to the tourist spot overlooking Pillar Rocks, a place I'd been meaning to visit. This sounds like a bit of good luck, but if you've ever been on the back of a screaming Indian-driven Kawasaki on a hairpin road, you'll understand just how hair-raising it is. Ashok, my courteous but reckless driver, heard my sharp intake of breath as we vulcanised our way round another corner, and shouted, 'Cold, isn't it!' He totally failed to realise that my reaction had nothing to do with temperature, but more to do with the juggernaut approaching at full speed on our side of the road. And Pillar Rocks? It's probably very pleasant when the clouds aren't smothering the view, but all I saw was grey mist and loads of trinket shops: not exactly worth risking your life for.
The people in the local chai shops were as friendly as they come. They taught us some choice words in Tamil (which I instantly forgot), invited us to join in their cricket matches, swapped cigarettes and stories, and pointed out the best places for us to visit. It's just another example of the wonderful people in India, and I realised with some delight that whereas after a month in Indonesia I was ready to throttle the locals, after a month in India I'm growing to like the people more and more. And I still don't know exactly why, 'cos they can be an infuriating bunch quite a lot of the time...
Green Valley View is a pleasant viewpoint that's renowned as a favourite suicide spot owing to its 2000 ft drop off; these days it seems that the only things going over the edge are empty Coke cans and chocolate wrappers, but its reputation brings in the tourists by the truckload. That still doesn't explain the sign erected by the cliff edge, which says, 'Mocking of ladies is punishable.' When I visited the lookout even the group of Christian nuns who had popped in for a look were climbing over the barbed-wire wall for a better view of the scenery, so any explanation is possible. I didn't mock anyone, just in case...
I have discovered my favourite Indian foodstuff, bar none: Milk Bikis. These delectable treats are identical to Malted Milk biscuits back home (or 'moo cow' biscuits as we used to call them when I was a nipper) and they're perfect for the midnight munchies. At Rs6.50 per packet (about 10p) they're a cheap way to make it through the day; full marks to Britannia, the company behind the packet, many of which I consumed in Kodai.
The election came and went, and provided me with one of the quietest days I'd yet seen. The village was dead and the town not much livelier; I had expected an explosive culmination of all the blustering and bloodletting, but instead everything closed down and kept to itself. It was slightly disappointing, but then again, in an election where the voting started in some constituencies on , and the results won't arrive until a week into March, I suppose there's none of the 'incoming results' TV coverage that's so prevalent in western elections. I just assume that things will finally go crazy when the results are released...
In every valley there is someone with a smile that lives on beyond their presence. Pampar Puram's resident Happiness Guru was called Sayga and he worked on the local golf course, trimming the greens. With his black bush hat, his infectious and trippy laugh and an uncanny ability to spring out on you in the middle of nowhere and drag you off for a quick chai, he kept us smiling throughout our stay. Not for nothing did the locals refer him to as the 'hero of Pampar Puram'.
Sarah, a bubbling nineteen-year-old brunette from Brighton, arrived halfway through my stay and improved life in the farmhouse considerably. The three of us talked, sat round campfires, walked, cooked and slipped further into the timelessness of the hills, but surely the most momentous bonding took place when we idly started to talk about music. Niko had already declared his love for English music, particularly the gloriously acidic New Model Army, and I was still having trouble shifting Sheryl Crow's 'Home' from my mind, having played it incessantly as the soundtrack to my Singapore experience; so when Sarah declared she had both a New Model Army tape and Sheryl's latest in her bag, it seemed as if heaven itself had landed in Pampar Puram. How apt is this quote from William Styron's classic novel Sophie's Choice, which I happened to be reading at the time: 'Just the availability of music alone, she said, filled her insides with a sense of delectation, as one feels just before what one knows will be a sumptuous meal.' We feasted on the tinny sound of memories wafting from her Walkman like hungry children in a sweet shop.
Our music couldn't compete with the local brew, though. Throughout the election, music exploded through the village's public announcement system every morning at 5.30am, and this I took with good grace and a set of earplugs, assuming it was all just electioneering. But the election came and went, and the music continued unabated, kicking in before even the sun had yawned itself awake; I have no idea whether this is a common event in sleepy backwaters, but it doesn't half shatter any chance of an uninterrupted lie in.
And all we did all day was explore, taking some wonderful trips into the hilly forests, discovering waterfalls, villages and yet more happy, friendly locals. It was really hard to move on, but with my original schedule in tatters, I had to move at some point. So I eventually hauled myself out of the farmhouse and headed back down to Madurai, after some nine days of living rough in the hills...