During the British rule of India, when the heat and dust grew oppressive, the colonialists would retreat up into hill stations at a higher altitude where the climate was milder. After several hot days on the plains of Tamil Nadu we were looking forward to visiting one ourselves.
As the rickety government bus left Madurai in the morning we caught sight of the Nilgiri Mountains rising dramatically off to the left. We passed electric windmills at a gap between the hills where the monsoon came through as well, bringing rains that became torrents that flooded the streets. The bus dumped us at a small station on the outskirts of Coimbatore. A man at a desk was on an endless phone call that we could tell was not about the bus business. I tried to interrupt to ask which bus would get us in to town. He just waved toward the flooded road. We crawled into a rickshaw.
The rickshaw took us to a bus office where we arranged a night bus to Chennai, two nights hence, after our return from the hills. The bus office was half flooded with water dripping from the ceiling. Then our helpful rickshaw man took us onward to the northern bus station, where we found a bus heading for our hill station, Ooty. It took us quickly to Mettupalayam, and then we began climbing up hairy switchbacks into cooler pine forests.
The hills were more relief from the heat than we had bargained for. The sun went down and the night was downright chilly. Rain pelted us as we arrived at the dark Ooty bus station. Brown floodwaters poured down the streets and the taxis had all gone. Our hotel was not far, so we began the trudge, following the map on my phone, trying not to let rain splash the device, feeling grim.
Luckily one taxi driver happened by, on his way home, and agreed to give us a lift. Our hotel, the Paradise Perfect, was plastered with signs listing rules: no outside food, no visitors, no alcohol. Karen whispered that we should walk to town and buy a bottle of wine and sneak it back. We checked in, and asked for the WiFi password. It was "noalcohol". Okay, I guess they were serious about that. We decided to find a new place to stay the next day.
The next morning rain was still falling in this dreary place. We went down to the narrow gauge railway station to book tickets to leave town tomorrow via a special steam powered cog train. Some fellow tried to cut in front of me and I gave him the hard stare. And the train was all booked up for tomorrow! But suddenly two tickets were available for later today. It didn't take us two seconds: buy them and let's get outta here.
So we had a couple hours to explore this town of gloomy people shuffling around in heavy jackets and wool hats, showered by cold raindrops. A mural reminded people to use toilets. Plain looking churches had tin roofs. Puddles splashed. We found the office of our night bus company and changed our ticket to tonight, leaving from where the toy train would drop us.
The miniature train was pretty cool, the carriages over a hundred years old, creeping through tea plantations much like those in Sri Lanka. At Coonoor the diesel engine was swapped for a real steam engine that used cogs to get down the steep grade of the hills, as shown in the pictures here. We steamed down across tall stone bridges, past waterfalls, through cloudy jungles. One station was full of monkeys looking for handouts, chasing each other, some with babies clinging on.
Reaching Mettupalayam again we had a few hours to kill before our night bus came. As it got dark the town felt more sketchy. The pick up point was a small cargo office. The bus was late. We got nervous: what if it didn't come? There was nowhere to stay...
But the glowing bus rolled up and we climbed in to a hallway lined with beds on each side. Our compartment was a double bed with curtains, snacks, water. Warm and dry and snug, at last, what a joy! The bus jolted into the night bound for Chennai.