20th September. 3.10pm
Coimbatore Junction Railway Station
Platform 3 – Awaiting departure to Trivandrum
That’s it. I’ve chickened out of the Indian experience. I need some rest, relaxation and Western culture. One look at Coimbatore, a big sprawling city with no apparent attractions for the traveller and many disruptions – such as the auto-rickshaw ‘union’ refusing to use their meters – so I head to the beaches, beers, suntan oil and FISH.
In this oh so vegetarian diet of mine – there’s little variety either for Indians in their meals, dosas and idlis – I need fish. Although I did enjoy my cheese rolls for breakfast, something was lacking – pickles. It’s strange to think that considering I can’t stand spice foods on first awakening.
After a big generous coffee for Rs.1.50 at Ooty Railway Station, our dinky toy train left on time at 7.30. I was still wearing socks, corduroy trousers and two layers of warm clothing for my top half because it was so cold last night. I do not recall feeling that chilled in Ladakh.
The journey down to Coonor from Ooty is a classic. From 7,000 ft (which explains the chill) our three carriages pulled and occasionally – perhaps usually – braked by a Thomas the Tank Engine replica descended. The steepest gradient I noted was 1 in 23.81, though 1 in 25 or 1 in 40 were regularly marked.
The cuttings were wall-plaqued to show the pride of the engineers, such as the Pioneers of 1906-7, who’d eased the passage of my forebears, and me. Our speed varied but little from the “10kph over turnouts” as we stopped at way stations with names like Lovedale and Wellington.
Through the dense woods of tapped eucalyptus trees the English influence could be glimpsed in the steeples of parish churches and Christian cemeteries occupying a stepped terrace. Many of the other terraces were recently under an ox-drawn plough exposing rich red earth. This colouring was naturally reflected in the smallholders’ dwellings. An occasional larger building, maybe a co-operative storehouse, red-ridged and pantiled on three sides of a courtyard, I imagined that this was Roman Appalacia. Few, if any, vines were being grown – tea for profit, cabbages for trade – yet life here would still be as feudal as 2,000 years ago.
For a change, no-one came into my section of the carriage, although the low wooden partitions made me highly visible. Perhaps I was infected with a wayfarers contagion which had overcome the curiosity of the (male) students and workers who packed out the rest of the train.
Coonor arrived too soon. Because the only timetabled train engages the toothed central rail further down the line does not leave Ooty until 2pm, and I had felt that catching that would have restricted my travel options.
But no matter: outside the station was parked a 1949 Vauxhall 4. I enthused with and photographed its driver, Mr. Mustafa Esmail, proudly posing. He told me on the way to the bus station, a free ride incidentally, that there are still 15 similar vintage models plying his trade in Coonor.
I doubt that the rest of today’s journey will be so interesting.