I spent the last two weeks of August in Ooty📍, A hill station in Tamil Nadu. Transitioning from Chennai’s heat to Ooty’s cold within a day was drastic. My hoodie was happy to be out from the bottom of my bag.

I stayed at Zostel📍. Advice: get the ten-bed dorm. It has access to the balcony. You can see all of Ooty from the balcony. At night, the lit-up Ooty City takes your mind away from everything.

On my workations, my stay in any city has taken one of the following tracks: make friends and go with the flow or explore solo. Ooty was the city of friends.

I reached the hostel early in the morning. While I waited for my dorm bed to get cleaned up, I met Arvind and Sriram. All of us were in the same dorm. Enjoying the Ooty view from the balcony, we had an engaging conversation. It was about introduction, backgrounds, work, and protocols. Introducing protocols is out of scope for this post, but do follow the shared link. The conversation ended when my time for a work meeting got closer.

There was almost a routine to our days. I get up in the morning and start my work after breakfast in the Hostel Cafe. These guys would chill or go out to some tourist points. I would have lunch and continue working till the evening. After dinner, all three of us and others (new people came and went every other day) would sit around the bonfire and talk. Sometimes we sang and played music. I would also try to produce some sounds with my Ukulele.

One evening, wrapping up early from work, three of us went for a movie. On all my travels, I have watched movies on hostel TVs, but never once have I gone to a movie in a theatre. It was a novelty experience. Let me describe the whole scene.

The movie in focus was Blue Beetle (judge all you want 😅). The only way to book the ticket was at the theatre called Assembly Rooms📍. We reached there ten minutes early. Including us, there were only five people present. The booking window was not yet open. At the show time, the ticket guy informed us that he needed at least six people to start the show. Our strength was still five. We agreed to buy an extra ticket (each ticket was 180 bucks.) After waiting for five more minutes, he let us watch the movie. The same guy was also the movie operator and started the show. The whole theatre was ours. We watched the senseless movie from the 3rd row and made fun of the various scenes.

I had conversations with both of them on a range of topics. The topic of protocols continued. We also talked about green and sustainable energy (Arvind’s forte), their college life (they know each other from college), Peru (Arvind’s base), Ooty’s past (Arvind used to come here from Coimbatore in his childhood), quantified self, music, learning music, tradition of learning music or dance in Tamil families, and a lot more.

One by one, both of them left. It is always sad when someone leaves after you have spent time with them. It is a reality of life, but it is still sad to be left behind. Despite that, you keep going, and then it becomes normal again. You meet new people, and the cycle continues.

Ooty (and the whole of Tamil Nadu) is hard on solo travellers without transport. In every city, I rent a scooty to travel around. Ooty (read: Tamil Nadu) doesn’t allow renting vehicles. The weekend was here. I wanted to see Ooty. So, I asked for the touring taxis at the reception. The taxi guy quoted 2500 bucks for the whole day. It was time to make new friends.

I met Rajesh, who was also looking to share the taxi. Meghna and Gargee were the final two. And our impromptu travel group was ready. Although the taxi driver increased the rate to 3100 INR, it was still better for all four of us.

Rajesh is a PhD student in Geology. He was studying rocks somewhere near Ooty and decided to spend the weekend here. He is more interested in Climate Science and will join another PhD program in a few weeks.

Meghna and Gargee are childhood friends from Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh. Meghna works at an IT company in Pune. Gargee is an architect in Bangalore. She left her job and was moving to Ahmedabad to become a Landscape Architect. The reason for them coming to Ooty was to enjoy Gargee’s last trip from Bangalore.

We went to the following points on our tour.

  1. Pine Forest📍
  2. Lake - Sandynulla📍
  3. Pykara Lake📍
  4. Pykara waterfalls📍
  5. 9th-mile shooting point📍

It took us till evening to cover all these points. We asked our cab driver to drop us in the city market. It was a full-moon night. We checked out some shops in the market, ate our dinner at Adyar Ananda Bhavan - A2B 🍽️ and called it a night after warming up around the bonfire.

The morning, I accompanied Meghna and Gargee to the Bus Depot. They were leaving for Wayanad. After seeing them off, I went to explore the city. I saw a watch tower. On my way, I saw scores of people entering and leaving an alleyway. My curiosity made me go into the alley, and I saw a complete change in the landscape. I was standing in a fruit and veggie market. There were multiple alleys leading to different sections of the market: fruits, veggies, meat, dry fruits, flowers, and other grocery stuff. It felt like the Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter universe.

After coming back, Mugdha and Madhvi were painting the wall art in the common area.

A little backstory. My dorm was right next to the common area. On my first day in the hostel, the staff cleared and re-painted a wall in the common room for a new wall art. Mugdha came a few days later to pencil the outline. The outline consisted of the elements of Ooty: coffee plantation, toy train, toda tribe, rose garden, and pine forest. During the weekend, Madhvi arrived. Both of them started colouring the sketch. We became friends, and I started my apprenticeship under them. Soon it became a group of seven: Mugdha, Madhavi, Anshul, Sumit, Gautam, Vani, and me.

So, I started helping them with colouring after returning from the market. The last time I held a paintbrush was in the 9th grade, more than 14 years ago. I coloured different shades of roses, coffee beans, leaves, and grasslands. I enjoyed filling up those shapes using a paintbrush. I first added a colour coat without worrying about the brush strokes. Later, I painted over it to make it consistent. I aligned the strokes with the outline to make it coherent. I experimented with multiple ways of moving my brush. Slowly, I could achieve the same effect in fewer steps and less paint. It was a very calming activity. I used to leave more delicate stuff for my teachers. By the end, both of my teachers were proud of my work. 😁

Along the way, all of us talked extensively. Both Mugdha and Madhvi are from Mumbai and friends from college. Mugdha is into art, and Madhvi likes textile design. I learnt how students learn in art schools in India. Madhvi had been working in Design Thinking for school kids. She is going to get into textile design next. Mugdha is going to experiment more with painting and colours. One morning, Mugdha introduced me to Aahatein by Agnee. (This song was at the top of my Spotify Wrapped this year.) We discussed similar songs. Madhvi showed her skills on my Ukulele. I also got to know about the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. I witnessed the traces of previous iterations of Biennale when I went to Kochi a few weeks later.

Anshul, who works on APIs for clients, was trying to explain to Madhvi and Mugdha what he does. While trying to help him explain, we learnt that many women, like Madhvi and Mugdha, enjoy having nerdy talks and would date such men. Then the topic moved to interesting or weird dates many of us have experienced.

Gautam played a ten-minute movie called Zima Blue from the Love, Death & Robots animation series. Gautam is a volunteer teacher in a nearby village. He is visiting India for a few months, following which he’ll return to the US. Sumit was on a road trip on his KTM and headed back home to Pune from Ooty. We talked about many of his road trips. Vani was on a weekend trip from Bangalore.

I enjoyed painting so much that I extended my stay by a few more days. I, unfortunately, had to say goodbye to everyone before it was complete.

From the hostel, I took the bus to Conoor. And from Conoor📍, I took the toy train to Mettupalayam📍.

Fortunately, I got the window seat assigned to me. The train - running on steam - passed through multiple bridges, coffee plantations, and dark tunnels opening up to beautiful valley views. The train stops at two railway stations along the way. Both the stations had an old vibe to them. On the second stop, they also fueled up the engine with water.

At the end of this journey, I took another bus to Coimbatore📍 and reached my hotel (no hostels in Coimbatore ☹️). I met with two people here: Arvind and Guhan. Arvind, whom I had met at the beginning of this post, returned to Coimbatore after leaving Ooty. Guhan is a friend I made in Hampi earlier this year. The story of Coimbatore will continue in another post.