The RRR restaurant in Mysore, recommended in the Rough Guide, looks grotty. The walls and stone floor are blackened with soot, the neon strip lighting is stark, the plastic tables and chairs are cracked and peeling, the sink area hasn’t been cleaned, ever. Dinner is served, not on a plate but on a banana plant leaf. The chicken Biryani is a spice sensation. In just one banana-leaf-full of Biryani there are dozens of cloves, a load of cardamom seeds, some bits of cinnamon bark, a couple of entire star anise pods, a whole nutmeg, and probably five gold rings and a partridge. It was like the twelve days of Christmas with some rice, and it really clears your nose and throat!
The first evening in Ooty (short for Ootacamund, which apparently is the Anglicized version of the original name Udhagamandalam) I found a tiny eatery just off Charing Cross (no joke – that’s the name of Ooty’s central square). Inside, their dining room is both dingy and dazzling. It looks like a cross between an Anderson air-raid shelter, a W.I. hall from a Carry On film and the Bash Street Kids’ classroom. There are homemade Christmas decorations hanging from the corrugated iron roof and an effigy of Father Christmas in plastic relief on one wall. On the facing wall there is a single huge brightly coloured photo-realism painting depicting a Muslim Mosque on the left, in the centre is Hindu Ganesh (the elephant headed God) with Christ on the other side of him. The most bizarre mixture of religions is clearly symbolising the owner’s intention to cater for all. Amongst other things he is advertising Halal chicken, pure veg (Hindu), and ketchip (his typo, not mine). So apparently the Christian faith’s dietary representation is tomato sauce. Well it’s nearly red wine!
Other sights are genuinely spectacular. There’s a short walkway at the top of Kadaikanal hill station (over 2000m above sea level) from which you can look down on the clouds enveloping the hill peaks which have a carpet of rich green tea plantations and silver oak trees growing on them. The road which winds up to Ooty has 36 hairpin bends each turning around a precipice looking hundreds of feet down the mountain. The huge fishing nets on the estuary near Fort Kochi, suspended on 10m high wooden cantilever structures, held together by bits of wire, rope, and the grace of several Gods are a stunning sight, they look alive as they dip their huge wooden necks in and out of the water like giant storks.
It’s hard to describe how it feels to ride around Southern India. Terrifying, exhilarating, scintillating, strange, exciting. Yeah, Rupert’s lexicon of hyperbolic adjectives is out again. Hot and sweaty in Kochi; an ambient temperature of 38°C isn’t too bad until you factor in the high humidity, the traffic jam, and the heat from the engine which started to boil my dumplings. It's fresh and cold in Ooty, but then 9°C isn’t that cold, except in hotels which have no heating whatsoever, windows which don’t shut properly and doors with a 2cm gap at the bottom. But on the mountain twists of Tamil Nadu and the lilting rural landscape of Karnataka this is by far the best thing in the world. The bike is amazing, yes it’s very heavy at slow speeds and its engine cooks me in hot traffic, but it’s unbeatable here. I’m using less than 60% of the power band so not putting that much strain on the engine and gearbox but this is the most fun you can have while wearing protection!
Today I went on a guided hill trek through the tea plantations and indigenous Tamil tribal villages in the hills above Ooty. I’m glad I’ve abstained from alcohol for the last three weeks, I’m a little bit lighter than last month, which helped when dragging myself up a mountain trail at 2500m, the air is quite thin up here, but it tastes of tea and eucalyptus. Both are here as a result of the British. The British colonialists brought tea plants over from China, which is why the Indians refer to tea as Chai, short for Chinese. And the eucalyptus trees they brought from Australia to make eucalyptus oil. The trees are a pest in Indian rural regions because they don’t belong to this eco-system, nothing lives in them and they take over the woodland because they grow faster and bigger than the silver oaks. Bloody British! Talking of Brits, the world is indeed a small and coincidental place. On today’s trek was a couple from Cataluña, a multi-lingual Frenchman called Jean, a Canadian called Harmony who’s approach to the Indian guides and their proposed route struck me as ironically dissonant and a Brit called Phil. Harmony’s name prompted a musical comment. Turns out that Phil is a musician. “Snap” says I. Phil: You based in London? Me: No, I’ve spent the last 5-6 years near Guildford. Phil: I know Guildford; I live in Farnham. Me: You’re kidding, I was living and working in Rowledge until December. Phil: Rowledge? No way! I live in Rowledge, on Sandrock hill, just up from the Bat and Ball. Me: Unbelievable. I’ve just spent nearly six years being Director of Music at Frensham, just down the road. Phil: You’re kidding, most of my friends went there, do you know Sam Rolles the viola player and his Dad Edwin? Me: Of course, his Dad was my predecessor, I employed Sam as a string teacher for a bit and did some gigs and shows with him. Phil: Small world, I’ve gigged with Sam in string quartets, I’m a violinist, do you know Debussy’s …
This went on for some time … small world!