Driving in India is generally not a whole lot of fun (traffic, bad roads, general lack of order/following of traffic laws, etc.). Driving from the backwaters to Munnar was no exception. We hit heavy traffic near Cochin, including at one point waiting at a traffic stop while everyone was breathalyzed. At 9:15am mind you. Thankfully, our driver passed, though it was questionable given his driving skills. He was probably the worst driver we’ve had yet. Though he did introduce me to the Cham Cham song, which I’m now obsessed with. Listen to it a few times and tell me you don’t find yourself singing “Cham Cham” hours later…
Anyway, all was nothing but nice from there. Our hotel in Munnar (Casa del Fauno) was a wonderful and cozy little abode tucked away in the hills where we could relax, explore and enjoy Christmas. We spent a lot of time here (most afternoons) hanging out on the porch or in the common room or our very spacious bedroom drinking milk tea and enjoying the peacefulness of hill country. It didn’t hurt that they were big on the Christmas decorations. The festiveness, paired with the much cooler weather up in the hills made it Christmas cozy.
The food was pretty amazing too. We ate all but one of our meals at Casa del Fauno, and while you aren’t provided much (anything) in the way of options, you are presented with an incredible array of curries, rice, various Indian breads, and papadum at each lunch and dinner (and tasty Masala omelets at breakfast). And of course, tea. Lots and lots of milk tea was drunk.
One morning we took a Jeep out to the hills to see the tea plantations and tour a tea factory (highest organic tea plantation in the world apparently). The Jeep is very necessary. And it is a bumpy ride. How bumpy? Ladies, wear a supportive bra (or two). That is one hell of a ride. I never thought it possible to be so battered by a drive in which the airbags have not been deployed. Worth it though! Spectacular scenery up there. And there is an epic echo spot where your yells bounce around the hills maybe four or five times. We did not see any other non-Indian tourists, though we did pass several other Jeep goers. We’d read that Munnar is an up and coming tourist destination for middle class Indians looking to escape the heat, and this seems to be very true. At our hotel as well, there was a mix of Indian and European visitors, though curiously everyone seemed to stay only one night, while we kept still for four. I suppose there isn’t too much in the way of things to do up there – see the tea plantations, visit the top station, maybe a visit to Eravikulam (the national park where you supposedly can see elephants and (very rarely) tigers). We stayed long and did little as we were trying to enjoy a low-key Christmas and add calmness and tranquility to our zen bank before the next two weeks of intense-India.
Our driver loved taking pictures of us and for us. I think he took more pictures than we did (often of really uninteresting things haha. He fancies himself a photographer I suppose). His taste in music was fun though, I’ll hand him that. We were untz-untzing it all through those hills. And the man knows how to handle a Jeep on some brutal roads. Please note that the little green handle you see there is the closest you get to a door or seat belt! I think I got my (right) arm workout in just gripping for dear life. 😉
The tea plantation was pretty neat. All the machinery there is 100 years old, and still functioning. Where most tea plantations have moved onto to better and faster technology, this one is still all done manually.
On the way back we grabbed lunch at a local restaurant. We were a little nervous this village resto could be the spot to break our streak of not getting sick, but luckily some parathas and mystery veggie curry didn’t do us in. Didn’t hurt that the lunch cost about $1.25 for the two of us, plus I got a dessert for Rs 1 (approximately 2 cents)! It was a packaged cookie thing and nothing special, except that it cost one rupee! (This of course excited me even more than a $1 meal.)
The next morning Anoop, the property manager, took us out for a walk around the grounds. The hotel sits on 85 acres of a cardamom plantation. It’s really lovely here. Beautiful flowers of every color everywhere you turn, and lots and lots of cardamom. He showed us what all the plants are, an impressive array of banana, jackfruit, mango, oranges, coffee, mulberry and hibiscus (to name a few). He taught us how to suck the honey out of the hibiscus, yum. We even saw tracks from where a wild elephant had come through and trampled the cardamom plants. Those were some BIG footprints. Very glad we didn’t encounter that elephant up close. Can you even imagine? We also stopped to meet some of the ladies who work on the plantation, picking cardamom pods. They were super sweet. I loved their earrings, with the chain that wraps around the upper part of the ear.
Afterwards we took a little hike further down the road and back up a big rocky hill where we saw 500 year old rock homes used by the pygmies. On the return back we saw even more adorable Indian kids, and I nearly peed my pants when I realized one of them was holding a pile of kittens. A PILE of them. Cuteness overload. They couldn’t be more than a few weeks old.
There is a large Christian population in Munnar, and they are big on Christmas here, especially at our hotel. We were treated with Christmas carolers one night. A group of 15 or so men singing and drumming backed up the two dancing santas in front. Check out a video here. We also had fires in the evenings and Christmas fruit cake! The decorations seemed to multiply by the day, culminating with baby Jesus in a manger out front on Christmas Eve.
Christmas Eve was pleasant. We had a lowkey day, not doing terribly much of anything. Anoop ran to the liquor store and picked up a bottle of red wine for us, and we enjoyed this by the fire while we made friends with a lovely British/Welsh family visiting. All the hotel guests (really only us, the British family and one other couple) and staff gathered around to cut the Christmas fruitcake. I was bestowed the honor of making the first cut, probably because I had a Santa hat to don. Alan and I were cracking up when Anoop restarted Celine Dion’s “So This Is Christmas” for maybe the 20th time. He sheepishly said, “I like very much this song.” We noticed, Anoop, we did. I had told him the first night that I loved the Christmas carols, and he ensured us that he had 7 CDs worth of carols. We never got to hear those other 6, nor probably the whole of the first, as Anoop was so so into Celine. After dinner the guys lit some fireworks and sparklers in the yard. Anoop even invited us to midnight mass, but we politely declined. It was a Christmas to remember, for sure, but we were of course missing our family, the tree, stockings, presents, the ham, etc. etc…
I was sad leaving Munnar. We spent so long there it was starting to feel like home. And we spent a lot of time with Anoop and crew, they were our makeshift Christmas family. I think they liked us too, as they all came outside to bid us farewell and we took turns passing around cameras to get a picture of us all together.
On the drive out I saw signs for elephant crossing. I’ve seen signs for a lot of random animal crossings by now on this journey, but this was the first elephant crossing sign I’ve ever come across.