HCMC Dining Guide

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Garbage and Beauty in Ooty

We were heading south to Ooty (Short for Udhagamandalam. Yea.), South India's most famous hill station, about a mile and a half up in the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu. I couldn't wait to get there since I had heard there was good trekking in the area, and the temperatures would be much cooler at altitude. Although Ooty isn't actually that far from Mysore, it takes about five hours to get there since once you get into the mountains the narrow, twisty roads make for a tough slog.

The scenery got nicer as we got further away from Mysore, and for one stretch the highway cut through a wildlife preserve...which sort of seems counterproductive in my opinion but hey, what do I know? The entire bus freaked out every time a deer was spotted in the trees, and huge groups of monkeys scampered all over the road, obviously accustomed to large speeding vehicles.

After passing through the preserve we were into the mountains, and the driver sawed away at the wheel as we rounded hairpin turns and just squeezed by other buses coming down the other way. This region of the country is called the Nilgiris, and it is home to a number of tiny ethnic groups who live in the hills. There is also a ton of wildlife in the area, and I could see signs posted along the road proclaiming that these were the "Plastic-free Nilgiris", and fines would be levied on anyone who disposed of plastic in the woods since it could kill the animals that roam around there. That's all well and good, and there was no plastic to be seen, but the problem is that trash of every other material was strewn everywhere.

I discussed this after my trip to India last year, but the amount of garbage just left out in the open in the country is mind-boggling. We drove past picnic areas where families were happily relaxing on top of a carpet of paper plates and cartons that covered most of the grass. Are locals so used to trash that they have simply became inured to it? If an American family went to have a picnic and the place was full of trash, they would clean it up. Or leave. One of the two, but they certainly wouldn't just plop down on top of it all and start eating. The Indian government needs to do something, like, now, to raise awareness among the population that they are destroying their own country.

Anyway, on to Ooty. We arrived and checked into our hotel, the White Residency, which was a just outside of town. We hadn't really had breakfast in Mysore and it was now getting towards 4pm so we immediately headed to the town center for late lunch/early dinner.
We had lunch at the amazing Hotel Pankaj Bhojanalaya (if a place says 'hotel' it usually actually means restaurant), a Jain eatery that was so good it deserves to get name recognition here. A feast ensued, and the friendly Rajasthani owner was impressed by the fact that we ate with our hands.
mixed pakora
thali
We walked around a bit and soon learned that the town center was yet another congested mess of crowded streets and honking autos. As we discovered the following day Ooty's appeal lays in the countryside surrounding it.
not the best example of congestion
For some stupid reason we decided to walk back to our hotel, which was probably about 2km away. As we picked our way through broken sidewalks - and stretches of no sidewalks - the endless traffic beside us belched diesel fumes right into our faces. We were appalled at the number of vehicles going past trailing a noxious cloud of black exhaust, and wondered if there are any emissions regulations in India. I found out later that there are, but when people take their horribly polluting car/truck/auto to get inspected they simply pay off the authorities so that they can get approval to continue killing the planet. As a result walking down the street was like struggling through the ventilation shaft of a coal mine; I could literally feel my respiratory system disintegrating. As with the trash, I once again wondered: how the hell do people live with that on a daily basis? I had always thought the air here in Saigon was awful, but in comparison to some Indian towns and cities it seems as fresh as a flower-filled meadow with puppies running around it.

Fortunately the following day proved to be far more pleasant, and less worrying.
view from the hotel
Kevin and I had told the two guys running the White Residency (the insanely helpful Anand and Sentil, who we came to be friends with) that we wanted to rent two motos. Through a miscommunication we ended up getting one under-powered scooter, so I drove while Kevin (who is rather tall) rode pillion, a sight that greatly amused many locals.

With over 300 pounds of dude on it the scooter wheezed up hills like the Little Engine that Could and the gas tank began to empty quickly since I had to hold the throttle open all the way most of the time just to work up any sort of speed. We headed towards the Doddabetta Lookout, the highest peak in South India (look at the sign), 10km outside of town.
This ended up being rather disappointing; although I'm still amazed we even made it: the small road off the main highway that went up the mountain was very steep, and a few times I expected the bike to start rolling backwards. The lookout was a circus: roughly 56 million domestic tourists were swarming the place, and the views weren't even that great, to be honest. I'm not even including any pictures here. Plus, the fact that you can drive up to the highest peak in the whole region is pretty lame. I like to work for my scenic views!

Fortunately the rest of the drive was fantastic. After careening back down the hill we headed further away from Ooty and into the lush, green hills that surround it. Terraced tea plantations and other farms flanked the hillsides, and the weather was gorgeous: sunny, but cool enough to keep you from sweating. Here are some shots from the largely traffic-free road:


dragon tree




cool hillside temple
We ended up in Kotagiri, a scruffy town 30km from Ooty, where we had a great lunch of baked goods and a cup of local tea. For some reason the Ooty area was chock full of bakeries and sweet shops. (That's not a complaint.)



We turned around to head back to Ooty and were in town within an hour or so. The moto drive had been brilliant: the scenery was beautiful, the road was well-paved, the traffic light (we saw more monkeys than cars), the conditions perfect, and I picked up a nice tan to boot. We were glad to be reminded that there is still plenty of beauty in India after all of the trash and fumes of the previous day.

This is long enough already so I'll continue with that evening in Ooty and the trek we went on the following day in the next post.

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