India for the Savvy Traveler: Exploring the Ooty Mountains
“Every twelve years, the mountains become blue,” someone told me when I moved to the little hill station in southern India known as “Ooty.” The purple-blue Kurinji flower blooms once every twelve years, cloaking the rolling hills in blue. Tea bushes blanket the mountain slopes in a patchwork quilt of bright shades of green. The milky chai brewed in every home and restaurant in Ooty comes straight from the tea leaves grown locally. Drinking sweet milk tea is one of those simple pleasures that all Indian people enjoy on a daily basis, multiple times a day. Yet not all is sugary sweet in India. To live here and enjoy yourself, you must be prepared to embrace your wild side. I have spent fifteen years of my life in India. When people ask me if they should visit India or not, the first thing I tell them is that a fondness for spicy food is a must. The second thing I mention is that you need to have an appreciation for the unexpected, and a love for spontaneity. Last but certainly not least, I reveal the best part: you don’t have to have a loaded bank account to travel, because India is one of the cheapest countries in the world.
Monsoon rains begin to fall in July and carry on until October. The rest of the year, from November to June, is painted with blue skies and sunshine. Temperatures are always favorable for enjoying the great outdoors; balmy in the day and cool at night. When the British occupied India, they made their way up to the mountains a few times a year to escape the rolling heat of the plains. In the early 19th century, a railway track was laid that winds its way through the picturesque plantations and rocky ravines. For less than a dollar, you can catch the quaint blue and yellow steam train from Mettupalayam all the way to Ooty. Fly into Coimbatore International Airport and take the hour-long train ride to Mettupalayam, change trains for Ooty, and breath in the miles of scenery until you reach your destination a few hours later.
Most tourists make their way up to Ooty’s tallest mountain, known as Dodabetta. Though the 360-degree view is spectacular, the peak bustles with tourists and the usual souvenir and snack vendors hollering for attention. Few know that an equally impressive view can be found on top of a neighboring mountain called Snowdon. The peak is only slightly lower than Dodabetta and is hooded in old-growth forest untouched by sightseeing development. A long forgotten logging trail leads through the woods to the breathtaking wrap-around view. Venturing the two-hour hike to Snowdon peak is not for the faint of heart. You may see herds of wild bison lumbering through the woods, wild boar snuffling through the undergrowth, and swift-footed Sambar deer bounding down the hillside. If you look up, you may be lucky enough to catch a flash of amber-red as a shy Malabar squirrel navigates the tree tops.
History manifests in many unexpected ways in Ooty. Old, colonial-style houses stand as remnants of British rule, crumbling and lovely. Time lost its grip on the rustic library near the town’s center many years ago, and it has stayed unchanged since the British left. Ancient, dusty books line the shelves and moth-eaten plush sofas on beautiful threadbare carpets offer any bookworm an opportunity to lose themselves for days. Far older than the British in India, the local tribes of the Nilgiri mountain range still live in the forests. The Toda tribe were a people who lived off their herds of buffalo, never sacrificing or eating the sacred meat, and only using the milk for cheeses and butter, and the manure for fuel. To this day, you can see herds of buffalo wandering through the streets, foraging in the day, and returning to their villages at night. The Todas create beautifully patterned shawls and purses, and many still live in their traditionally designed homes of thatch, mud, and bamboo. For those who are interested, there are many opportunities to learn about their way of life. All are invited to visit their villages and understand their culture and history. Visitors are welcomed with open arms and a glass of fresh buffalo buttermilk.
I go to the Ooty markets once a week to roam row upon row of produce, recognizing and greeting the friendly vendors and absorbing the mélange of sights and sounds. I always begin with the vibrant fruit and vegetable stalls, spilling over with the usual array of crops coupled with an exotic selection of the strange and unknown: marvelously-sized bulbous root vegetables that remind me of elephants, and little spiky pink fruits that look like wacky hair berets. Bananas hang splendidly and plentiful and cost four rupees each – only a few cents apiece.
India has long since appealed to the thrifty traveler because of the low cost of living. The town of Ooty is no exception and offers a variety of restaurants to suit all tastes and wallets. A high-end meal never costs more than about five dollars, and the local hole-in-the-wall eateries serve meals for a dollar or two. Everything is in walking distance around the town, and locals are always more than happy to recommend places to eat, give directions, or pass on useful information about the area. Most Indian people have a good knowledge of English, making communication very easy. Though there are plenty of hotels and guesthouses, Ooty also offers a range of beautiful places to stay through Airbnb that are comfortable and inexpensive.
Living constantly on the brink of the unforeseen is what I love most about India. You just never know what’s about to happen. Sometimes you see whole busloads of people pulled over on the side of the road, dancing Bollywood-style to blaring music. Sometimes you see elephants galumphing through the streets, festooned with sweet smelling flowers, followed by drummers and holy men and people of all walks of life celebrating religious festivals. When I am away I cannot help but think of the colorful, wonderful chaos that permeates everything from the marketplaces to the train stations to the untamed wilderness. To live in Ooty is to live more economically, more brightly, and more fully.