“I’m going to die, and the last thing I’ll have listened to is a cheesy Backstreet Boys ballad.”
That’s what was going through my head (and evidently, my iPod) Saturday night as the bus I was in sped through the Nilgiris district, a spread of mountains in the northwestern part of Tamil Nadu, south of Bangalore. It was close to dusk and eyesight was limited, not to mention the buses, trucks and motorbikes driving down the mountain, sharing the already narrow road with us. Steph had already popped a Dramamine and refused to look out the window. It was just me, a dozen Indians and some absurdly cheesy 1980s Bollywood film playing on repeat. There are worse ways of dying, I’m sure. I just can’t think of any at the moment.
How did I get to that point? Well, when I first arrived at the orphanage, Dwarakanath suggested Steph and I escape the oppressive May heat by taking a weekend trip to a city called Ooty. One of many hill communities in the Nigiris region, Ooty was a summer vacation spot for the British in colonial days. Because of its altitude (7,500 feet above sea level), it’s a good 15 degrees cooler than Bangalore, and therefore still a popular spot for people looking to escape the heat.
But as is the case with most things in this country, nothing is simple. Booking a ticket in advance at this time of year is a must, something we were unaware of when we strolled into the bus terminal at 5 p.m. on Friday. Tickets to Ooty were sold out, but we were told that if we caught a bus to nearby Mysore, we would have no problem finding a bus to Ooty in the morning. Stephanie had spent a weekend there in April but was game to return. Mysore is a nice little city of 800,000 (when compared to Bangalore’s millions, 800,000 seems like nothing), with a palace, markets and gardens. We toured the palace (and gave the security guard a $2 “tip” to let us bring our cameras in–bribery is alive and well in these parts) and grabbed lunch (one of the best dal makhanis I’ve ever had) before heading to the bus station.
Which brings me to the bus ride. It started out like any normal ride on a coach bus. But then we entered Bandipur National Park, home to elephants, deer, tigers and monkeys, just to name a few. A few kilometers into the park, our bus slowed enough for me to snap a photo of the local residents, a few gigantic elephants. Farther up the mountain, we met with hundreds of monkeys, much to my disdain. (After last year’s monkey attack in Thailand, I am decidedly anti-monkey.)
Eventually and miraculously, we made it up to Ooty in one piece. We found a place to stay, grabbed dinner and watched MTV India, which plays the most amazing Bollywood music videos. As has become habit for me on vacation, I indulged in some late-night CNN before drifting off to sleep.
The next morning, we headed into town to see what Ooty was all about. First stop: Thread Garden. The garden was kitsch to the max. According to the guides, the “garden” was created by 50 local women over the course of 12 years. The “flowers” are made of thread wrapped around paper. From a distance, the creations looked as real as the flowers outside. Tourist trap? Yes. Worth every last rupee? At 10 rupees (about 20 cents), absofreakinglutely.
We left the garden and headed down to the boathouse, where we rented a paddleboat and took to the lake. What happens when you and your friend are the only two young white girls surrounded by hundreds of Indians? You guessed it–or did you?–photo shoot time. Every few minutes, some young guys would ram into our boat, wave and ask where we’re from as others snapped photos from a distance. In all of my travels, I have never felt like such a celebrity. (I should mention that a day earlier in Mysore, a father rushed up to me with a baby in his arms and three kids in tow as another family member took our picture.)
We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around town before getting an evening minibus back to Mysore. A minibus in the States could legally seat, at most, 15 people. But when in India, cram as many people into one vehicle as possible. In this case, the magic number was 35. A few kilometers outside of Mysore, we dropped off the standers, leaving the final number head count at 25, including six of us in a backseat meant for four.
We intended to spend a few hours at the Mysore bus station before catching a late-night bus to Bangalore, but 10 minutes, a few whiffs of public restroom air and several spitting men later, we gave up on the idea. We decided to spend a night at a local hotel and take a bus back to Bangalore in the morning. Even that didn’t go off without a hitch, as some strange man on the street felt the need to pinch my backside as he walked past me. Classy, I know.
The next morning we woke up early and jumped on a bus to Bangalore. I honed my newfound pushy-Indian skills and snagged a pair of seats before the bus filled up. Five hours and an absurdly long rickshaw ride later, we were happy to be back at the orphanage and ready for another week of chopping vegetables, washing dishes and playing with kids.