After spending a week exploring Bangalore, Coimbatore, and various smaller villages, my friend Karis brought me to her hometown, Kodaikanal. Over the last week, I was slowly becoming acquainted with India and the culture, but even the short introduction that I had had did very little to prepare me for Kodai.
Getting there was an adventure in and of itself - a steep, 2 hour drive up the Ghat road. Fortunately, it’s quite beautiful, with the surrounding nature and the deep valleys. Unlike in the plains, the Kodai hills are very green and covered in trees and grass and flowers. We traveled by car, so along the way, there are a few places to stop for tea or coffee, and a few stands offer some seasonal fruits to snack on during the drive up. As we got closer to our destination, I discovered something else that was uniquely thrilling about this journey to the hill station: monkeys. Because Kodaikanal is a popular place for Indian tourism, there are many monkeys just outside of the town, sustained by various snacks and treats provided by the incoming visitors.
Upon arrival, the first thing that I noticed was the temperature, which was such a drastic change from the dry heat that I had gotten used to in Bangalore. In January, the average temperature sits between seven and ten degrees celsius during the day, and dips below zero on some nights: definitely sweater weather. I found it very comfortable, though, coming from a place that is much colder during the winter months, this mild Kodai chill suited me nicely.
Over the next two weeks, I began to learn more about the town and the community itself. Kodaikanal is a small city built around a lake, and surrounded on all sides by beautiful sightseeing destinations. In the town itself there are two main roads closest to the bust stations that house the majority of the shops and restaurants. Also in the main part of town is Kodaikanal International School, which is home to over 500 students of all ages and employs staff from all over the world. The school is one of the many things that makes the Kodai community so diverse, combining foreigners with the Tamil people and the North Indian vendors in an environment that makes it possible for everyone to come together in a very natural sort of way. While she was showing me around, it was very common for my friend to meet someone on the street whom she had known from her childhood. Everyone seemed to be very friendly with one another, creating a cozy small-town sort of feel to this not-so-small town.
The food experience in Kodai did not disappoint. The first place we went to eat was called the Royal Tibet - known as “Tibs” to the locals and students. I had never before tried Tibetan food, so my friends ordered a little bit of everything on the menu of us all to try. Tibs is known for their momos, but it should also be stated that they have the best ginger lemon honey tea I have ever had. For coffee and pastries, I was taken to The Daily Bread, which is a bakery beloved by the locals and sought after by travelers passing through. However, the following day we discovered the Tredis Tea Room, which offers a beautiful atmosphere away from the noise of the streets and a vast variety of teas and international cuisine. I had never tried black currant and vanilla tea before, but I’m grateful to have gone for it at Tredis. Later on, I was also taken to Astoria, which is a hotel just down the street from the Daily Bread. We went for a late breakfast and I still had yet to try poori. Astoria is very nicely set up with a very classy feel, and has become home to the best poori I have ever had.
My friend was very eager to show me some of the tourist sights that Kodai has to offer, so one morning we got up very early and set off to Coaker’s walk, which is a 1-kilometre paved pedestrian path running along the edge of steep slopes on the southern side of Kodai. It was breathtaking to see the town and the distant valleys engulfed in the clouds, though somewhat unfortunate that we couldn’t see much more because of the fog. After that, we continued our tour to Green Valley View, which is still known by most as Suicide Point and looks out at the plains miles below. After that, we explored the Pillar Rocks, Guna Caves (or Devil’s Kitchen), and Dolphin’s Nose, which were all very amazing viewpoints. However, my favorite view of all was the surrounding forests. There’s one spot where the roots of the trees spread out all over the forest floor, and in a certain light with the surrounding mist, the entire scene looks like something out of Lord of the Rings.
I was told the lake was a big attraction for the Indian tourists. With 60 acres of water area, it provides a great opportunity for boating and fishing. The 5 km path around this man-made wonder is filled with shops and vendors, selling everything from chocolates to sweatshirts. For those who are not as interested in shopping or boating, there is a bicycle shop where one can rent a bike to ride around the lake, or if you’re feeling more adventurous, you can even ride one of the horses that line the sidewalk with their handlers. I was happy just walking, but found the surrounding activities very exciting to watch.
After not even two weeks in Kodaikanal, I had fallen in love with the area. I knew that I would need to return before I left India in June. So after embarking on a few other adventures, I set off to return to my beloved Kodai. This time, I took a sleeper bus up the Ghat road. The air had been warm and sticky when I left Pondicherry the night before, so I had kept the window open and was delighted to wake up to the crisp, cool mountain air. I had signed up for a workaway opportunity offered by Organic Brooklyn. Nimi, my host, was incredibly kind, welcoming me into her home and all the excitement that happens in it. The workaway deal mostly is about learning to work on an organic farm, but unfortunately I was unable to go as the only volunteer, so for the first week I worked in the big vegetable garden at Nimi’s house. Working every day felt incredible. I loved walking away with sore legs and dirt under my nails, feeling like I had accomplished so much in just a few hours. Halfway through my stay, another volunteer showed up: a Russian girl named Evgenya (I call her Gen), and after spending a few more days in Kodai, we went to work on the farm together. The farm is about two hours out of town,and the drive is incredible, with tons of valleys and the occasional monkey and the smell of pine trees most of the way. Big-time farming was hard work, but not difficult. We both could feel our entire bodies being worked by the labor, and went to bed tired and satisfied every night. After five days of work, we returned to Kodai, and I have to say I was happy to return to what has become my favorite place.
Kodaikanal in June is very different from Kodai in the winter. Of course all of my favorite staples were there, but in the summer, the tourists are everywhere. This made weekend outings a completely new adventure, navigating through the crowds and traffic that form on Friday and don’t seem to disperse until Sunday night. The solution to this, of course, is to try to experience Kodai during the week. Like any other tourist destination, it will always be busier on weekends. Gen wanted to see Coaker’s walk one Sunday morning, so to beat the crowds, we left early, and the reward was well-worth the few lost hours of sleep. The roads were almost completely empty as the town was just beginning to wake up, and when we reached the path, the view was completely clear, with no clouds or fog. We could see all the way down into the valley of the Pambar River in the southeast, Periyakulam town and even the city of Madurai. It was incredible.
In my last week in my favorite Indian town, Gen left for Kerala and two new volunteers came to join me at Brooklyn. Together we continued to explore a few places and discovered Cafe Cariappa, a cute little spot right next to the Tibetan restaurant. With their home-made cakes and manual espresso machine imported straight from Italy, Cariappa made my coffee-loving heart sing.
Kodaikanal is not like any other place I’ve ever experienced in India. In fact, when I first came here with my friend, she told me “It’s not India.” But this isn’t a negative statement. Kodai isn’t like anywhere, which is what makes it so unique. With so much to offer, it’s an easy place for travelers who are just passing through and longer-term visitors to each get something out of it. The only downside is that once you get here, you may not want to leave.
Madison Orme is from Denver, Colorado, USA