Taking the Mountain Air

Travels in India — 13

Alicia Thompson
8 min readJul 26, 2021

I had visions of a hot cinnamon roll and coffee for breakfast on my first morning in Kodaikanal, but tragically Pastry Corner was not opened even at the relatively late hour of 9 am. So I found myself sitting in the impeccably clean Flavours Restaurant with its red and white checked table cloths covered in plastic. I ordered a masala ‘omplate’ which caused the waiter some concern.

‘It has chillis, Madam…and onions?’

‘Yes, that’s great.’ I gave him the thumbs up. He smiled and retreated to the kitchen.

I got out my book but couldn’t help overhearing some conversation from a nearby table of two couples, one middle aged, the other young. The former were French while the male in the younger couple was showing his generational credentials with his filler-style vocabulary. After hearing three ‘likes’ in under a minute I made an extra effort to tune into William Dalrymple instead.

A tray of drinks came out but there was a longer wait for food. An Indian party came in and I noticed that they were served first, partly I suspect because their order of idlis was more straight forward. My omplate was cold when it came out, but still tasty. Then I was distracted from my book by my French neighbour yelling out to the absent waiter for chai, and then the younger couple enquiring to the air as to where their toast had got to as the rest of their order was going cold as they waited. After more yells for chai, the Frenchman finally exploded, demanding to know why the whole order couldn’t arrive togezeur, hawt; werz it serr merch to ersk, bleh bleh bleh.

I looked over and watched his wife pat his back in an effort to calm him down. I also caught a lady at the Indian table looking at me to see what my reaction was: a grimace and a shake of my head. My sympathies were definitely with the waiter; even though the man had a point, he had no style. Perhaps it was the straw to break the camel’s back after a long trip, who knows; but if you are the kind of person who needs to control your environment and have everything from home replicated perfectly, India is not the country for you (as many others will not be). I was tempted to suggest he go home and order his jam and toast there instead, but why bother. Some travel to discover and embrace the differences a country has to offer, some to seek out the similar and familiar in order to feel at home somewhere else; and therein lie the two major types of travelling philosophy. The difference being that those who can manage the former approach more often will have a much easier time of it.

I paid my bill and grabbed a spoonful of saunf (often raw green aniseed is offered as an after-meal digestive/breath freshener, but occasionally you get this white sugar-coated version which looks like the droppings of a small bird — deliciously addictive, nonetheless) and then made my way down to the lake.

© efolio Pty Limited

I was hoping for a reasonably wild trail, ups and downs and a narrow dirt track through trees perhaps, but what I was greeted with was a paved path that followed the flat four kilometre perimeter of the entire lake (lined with the inevitable shops at various intervals). It still made for a pleasant walk though, and it was nice to have some of the plants identified with signage for botanical dummies like myself.

Despite the time of year, the water lilies hugging the lake shore were in modest flower and some bird life was visible hopping from pad to pad. As I passed by the ice cream vendors setting up their mobile stalls for the day, I paused to read the labels on the trees. There were Indian Wild Cherry trees and Himalayan liquidambers. At this time of year I would’ve expected a liquidamber to be in full autumnal colour or bare, but the sign informed me it was an evergreen, which seemed to contradict its own name; but I guess you can’t help who you are related to.

© efolio Pty Limited

Beyond the spiked iron fence around the circumference, there were many plush patches of arum lilies; there were also the occasional daisies, pink asters, red salvia, and according to the signs, yellow jasmine, although I saw none of the latter.

© efolio Pty Limited

I met with several Indian tourists coming in the opposite direction, some doing there morning throat clearing and spitting (ah, yes, thank you for sharing), while others were already on the lake laughing and pedalling furiously in the colourful vehicles provided by the boat shed. As I made my way round I encountered the odd monkey, some of my first healthy cows — fat and sleek, munching on the lush green grass — and to my delight, my first kingfisher. He was such a little fellow (particularly when compared to his cousin the kookaburra) about the size of my fist, perched on an overhead power line, but I couldn’t have missed him. His feathers were the most brilliant cerulean blue I’ve ever seen in the natural world.

I could see, and smell, several varieties of Eucalypt, but these were not considered special enough to label; there were many other trees labelled with Latin names only, so I won’t even try to guess what they were. The only other one I could relate to was the Gowen cypress, imported from California, curiously enough. Along with the Latin names however, was a list of what each tree was used for. One tree alone, the Erythrina subumberans Leguminosae, was apparently useful for treating biliousness, rheumatism, itch, burning sensation, fever, fainting and even leprosy.

It was pleasing to see a minimum of rubbish around the lake. Too many sites of natural beauty in India are treated as much like an outdoor rubbish bin as everywhere else, although on this trip I’ve started noticing signs saying ‘this is a plastic free zone’ or ‘avoid plastic’. Easier said than done when all the tourists only drink bottled water. Generally speaking, Indians show no compunction about throwing rubbish wherever it lands, although I really get uptight when I see large items like plastic water bottles being ejected from bus and train windows. It makes me realise how effective Australia was in the seventies with its Do the Right Thing campaign and how positive practices like that can be culturally ingrained if a government has a mind to do it. But then of course, we have the support infrastructure to see such practices through in terms of organised collection and recycling etc. The contrast in individuals’ attitudes towards dumping rubbish is still remarkable though, and where it all starts. I have been laughed at or treated as a curiosity for putting my peelings and wrappers in a plastic bag and secreting them back in my bag. Still, some sights fare better than others, and it is nice to see this lake is one of them.

Having said all that, there is one savings measure that is heavily ingrained in this country’s culture: power cuts. Normally these go unnoticed by tourists because the generators cut in. The only negative issue I’ve encountered before this is when you’re at an internet café and you lose everything while they reboot on the new power source. But Kodaikanal appears to be an extreme case.

On checking in, nothing was mentioned to me about the usual practices. It was not until I came in from my daily wanderings in the early evening and a new lad on reception advised me that there would be no power between 8.15 and 9 pm, and there was no generator. Great. No candles, or lamps or anything like that was offered or available. So I charged up my laptop to avoid sitting in the dark twiddling my thumbs for forty-five minutes, and this served the dual purpose of dimly lighting my room as well as providing me with a way of passing the time. It was not until the next day when I was making inquiries at an internet café that the young man running it gave me some unusually frank information.

‘Sorry Madam, no internet just now. Power is not there.’

It was just after lunch. ‘So when will there be power?’

‘There will be full-on power between 2 and 6 pm.’

‘Hold on. What then? Is there another cut before the 8.15pm one?’

‘Yes, Madam. Six till 8 am, 12 till 2pm, 6 till 7pm, then 8.15 till 9pm.’

Sheesh! While it was highly refreshing to finally get a full and honest answer (the hotel staff are in denial telling me there are no other cuts) it was hard to believe there were so many. I was beginning to see why the internet was double the price of elsewhere: they had to make up for so much lost time! It also explained why the ‘24-hour’ hot water system hadn’t provided hot water that morning, as there was no electricity to power it at that peak time.

In fact, it explained a lot of things: the extra motor noise and petrol fumes clouding the place at certain times of the day (many shops and restaurants have to have generators for their refrigeration) and why many items on the menus of smaller establishments were suddenly inexplicably unavailable.

After three evenings of sensing impending blindness, I decided to depart earlier than planned. Even though my last evening was spent reading in bed tensely waiting for a cut that never came (do they not like people being able to plan in this country, or was it just my hotel not passing on the information?), I’d had enough by then. After much vigorous walking to counteract Pastry Corner, and the nights being so cold I’d resorted to wearing socks under my four dusty blankets (another thing in common with Ooty — no one airs their winter linen?), I was ready to face the downhill run to the Deccan Plain and the sweaty heat once more. At least I won’t be caring whether there is hot water or not. Bring on those cold showers!



Alicia Thompson

Novelist | Blogger | Traveller | Teacher @ aliciathompson.com.au . . . Debut novel Something Else released October 2021.