This summer, I was invited to spend a few days with friends in a farmhouse in Upper Coonoor. All I knew about the town was that it was regarded by people to be a perfect hilly getaway. "Ah, Coonoor...", they would sigh, in tones otherwise reserved for an Indian classical music concert or the stone temples of Hampi. I went, not looking for anything in particular.
Rejuvenate me was my challenge to this pretty town of red tile rooftops, surrounded by hills and tea and coffee plantations. There were, of course, the usual attractions: A stop at Sim's park -- a peaceful oasis of manicured lawns and more than 1000 plant species -- where children and lovers frolic amid magnolia, tree ferns and camellia. A potter around Dolphin's nose, oddly named, for the chief inhabitants of this lookout point are horses and monkeys. The last and perhaps most remarkable of the holy trinity of things to do is a visit to the Tea Factory for a guided tour of the fragrant processing plant.
Outside the factory, a shopkeeper calls with characteristic persuasion in his voice, "Spice up your life in Coonoor." At the shops that pepper this street, a whole range of spices is on offer: vanilla, nutmeg, lemongrass and cardamom. A plump woman in a green hat pushes past me in her eagerness to heap her basket with fresh juices, squashes and bottles of wild honey sourced from the surrounding forests. "It's a steal at these prices," she mutters about items that cost anywhere between Rs 60 and Rs 250, packing as much as her basket will carry.
Enjoyable these activities are, but surely not significant enough to warrant a visit to Coonoor every summer.
Then my friends take me on a morning walk.
At first, all I can see are tea pickers plucking leaves in vast plantations, but gradually my eyes open to the wonder of it all. Soon I am appreciating the greenness of the leaves, the fact that even when they get scorched or dusty, the landscape stays beautiful. Set against the cobalt blue of the sky and the red dirt tracts of land we pass, it could easily have been a Van Gogh painting we are wandering through.
On each subsequent walk I find myself growing in relationship with the land. Dew drops hanging on the undersurface of the leaves. Birds careering through the air with excitement. Ducks flapping about in little ponds. A poster stuck on a tree advertising an organic cheese-making course. Villagers, with teeth as big as palette knives and cheeks as red as apples, emerge from houses painted in primary colours. They stare curiously at the little procession we make via their homes to get to the fields on the other side.
It seems to me that they live as much outside their homes as in them, perhaps feeling as at home in the world as indoors. I carry this joyful thought and a few bags of tea home with me. Now when people say, " Ah, Coonoor..." and sigh mysteriously, I understand more precisely what they mean.