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Nothing To Do But So Much To Do: On Stuart Hill in Madikeri Coorg

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Living, Writing, and Slow Traveling on Stuart Hill in Madikeri Coorg, Karnataka

February 2021

We have been here in Stuart Hill in Madikeri town for almost two weeks. The popular Coorg viewpoint Raja’s seat is near Stuart Hill. I’m seated in the garden of our homestay to write.

I don’t know the origin of the name Stuart Hill. The place must have a story from British times. I could go to the Madikeri museum to get a glimpse of this town’s history. But on this trip, I’m not hungry to know. 

Even though we were here on our first wedding anniversary, we didn’t make any big adventurous plans. In the morning we walked down the path going in front of our house. That trail is fringed by jungly plants and trees on both sides. Few houses peek out of that path here and there.

“There’s a water source down that track,” our homestay aunty had said. (Here in India we call unrelated women aunty. Don’t ask me why.)

The lane turned soggy much before we could find any water pond. Snakes love wet mud so we didn’t try walking to the source. Some old woman on the trail blabbered on even when we had turned around.

During the day we went to the Madikeri bazaar. As we couldn’t find eggless cake, we brought creams, raisins, and jaggery laddoos to mix with fruits. We ate soup and momos at a small shop. Later we also searched for a Jio dongle but it was out of stock for several more months.

When we arrived home it started raining. From our parking spot on the main road through the concrete slope down and the stairs further to the house, we would have been soaked. So while sitting in the car we watched funny videos and ate kurkure and roasted chickpeas. Once home, we slowed down into the night with a movie.

Most days have been peaceful and slow here. I get up and meditate for a bit. Or I climb up the roof to do yoga. From the terrace, I can see the surrounding fields, stone huts dotting the landscape, swaying coconuts, betel nuts, avocado trees, and a few cats and monkeys.

Earlier in the month I had taken a driving course in Bangalore. So I have also been driving on Madikeri roads. We have picked a big road for practice. We leave as early as 5.

Ours is a rambling rented Revv car with manual transmission. Many pedestrians come to walk there even in dark. Driving school cars are also practicing. So I drive a bit straight, we make a u-turn, drive straight, and another about-turn. This goes on for a while. (I have a draft on driving in big and small Indian cities in heavy traffic. The article also talks about how to keep driving practice going while traveling constantly and having to find a different place to practice.)

The journey isn’t always easy.

Our car was punctured here.

One morning we were going out at 5. But as we were about to leave, a man in lungi on the road pointed to our car tires. Both the back tires were flat. How can two tires get punctured on the same day? I had an odd feeling.

We searched for mechanics online and called a guy. He said he would come in ten minutes if we paid auto-rickshaw charges too. We agreed.

Ten minutes later the mechanic drove in his auto. Many Stuart Hill locals have an auto-rickshaw instead of a car. A small rickshaw is easier to bring up and down the hill. And they use it for picking up passengers too.

The mechanic told us someone had taken out the air of both tires. How about that? The locals said some pardesi — someone outside from the hill — had done it. Drunkards roam everywhere, you know.

The guy took the tires in his auto-rickshaw, filled the air, and brought us back in fifteen minutes. We paid three hundred rupees and the commute charges.

From then on we brought our car down the slope and parked it closer to the house. Soon everyone on the hill knew our flat tire story.

The drunk grandfather from next door told us he would thrash the drunkard if he knew who he was. A family rents the garden home sharing our house walls. There is a little girl in the family, her parents, and her grandparents. 

But the grandfather also said weird things. He said someone might have thought we are that kind of people, you know, those men who bring girls around. The grandfather is always drunk, has a dark face, and his eyes are droopy. He wasn’t saying any of this loudly but just audible enough with enough pauses. I had a hard time understanding him. And when I got it, I made that conversation my last with him.

Should we have chided him for being rude and disrespectful? My partner and I choose not to mess with every other person and mind our lives. So we ignored the grandpa and moved on.

But that incident happened only a day ago. First, let me share our beautiful memories from Stuart Hill.

After our drives, we walk around on the hill. The local people get up early here so they are out on the streets. Some wash their auto-rickshaws on the steep roads while chatting with neighbors. They look at us with wonder. With our city clothes and curious faces, we never fit anywhere but are always nosing around in tiny local communities. Many houses on the Stuart hill had been broken down. We don’t know why. 

Once our morning rendezvous is over, we shower and have our complimentary breakfast in the garden. Aunty gives us a spread of either dosas, idli, or chapati with a vegetable curry and two cups of milky coffee. We have some fruits with us. The whole meal is nothing less than splendid.

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I write during the days. Mostly I can be found in the garden. But if I’m not outside, then I’ve gone off somewhere to satiate my hunger of getting to know the locals.

Countryside people are always hustling around during the day. Watching families move around doing daily stuff, I struggle between sitting down to write and just being.

Yesterday afternoon I went to aunty’s house to bring her some beans I had plucked on my neighborhood walk and the brinjals the cleaning lady of our Bangalore guesthouse Casa Cottage had given me. I called out to aunty. She wasn’t there. 

I thought aunty must have driven to uncle’s chicken shop to deliver lunch. I also looked around the garden hoping to find her mending her plants, drying clothes, or picking chikus (sapotas), but she wasn’t around.

Then aunty appeared out of nowhere.

When aunty saw the goodies I had brought, she laughed. She took me inside her house and opened up every room for me to see. She even unlatched her toilets for me to look inside.

Aunty went around the garden showing me all her plants and picking a leaf from every plant for me to smell. One plant’s leaf was redolent of biryani, and aunty said indeed the plant was biryani plant. She later gives me some vegetarian biryani to eat and told me women are considered goddesses in Coorg. Men should ideally eat after women have eaten (I didn’t see this belief in practice). The rice had such an earthy fragrance I wanted to take some leaves of that plant with me. But when we left, I forgot to ask aunty.

Even though biryani isn’t even cooked at my parent’s house, that rich biryani fragrance made me feel at home. Maybe because years of living in Karnataka has made the state my second home.

I have long conversations with aunty as if I have known her for a long time. She describes her life to me as if she was waiting for a friend to come along. I admire her honesty. 

But aunty’s truthfulness is only one of her many powers. She cooks, cleans, shops, drives to the shop twice to bring food to her husband and workers, does everything for her children, entertains guests, helps out relatives, tends her plants and garden, feeds the pets, and runs the homestay. She gives us breakfast at 9 am sharp. Once when she didn’t bring us breakfast, we went to ask her. Uncle had told her we were checking out. We hadn’t said anything though. Instantly aunty said she would bring our breakfast in half an hour. And she did.

Aunty is always so busy. We had decided to play chess one day but we couldn’t go to their house that day. And later our hosts never got time. 

Most days I’m calm and working or wandering around the garden talking to aunty. But some afternoons I have wanted to hike or get coffee. One day I fought my instincts and went to Peace cafe with my partner. They didn’t have wifi but our hotspots worked. We ordered pizza and french fries. The outing gave us the freshness we wanted.

One afternoon I felt bored, hungry, and sleepy so I walked to a Udupi place for coffee. (The Udupi food was decent. Coffee and juices would come in plastic packs though.)

There are waterfalls to visit around. Madikeri is nestled between mountains. A fort, temples, and Talacauvery, the birthplace of the revered Cauvery river are also nearby. 

“We drink Cauvery water,” aunty had said one afternoon while we were filling campers from the tank. “This tank is filled from a Cauvery well.” 

We carried those campers to the back of the house. When the house worker Leelavati doesn’t show up, aunty fills the cans. Aunty said Leelavati always wears her sari in traditional Coorgy style.

One day aunty wrapped her red silk sari around me as Leelavati wears. So around and around and on the chest she flattened it. She gave me her gold chains and rings to wear. She clicked my pictures smiling all the while.

Later when my partner and I were taking our photographs, the grandfather from the next house arrived. I went inside the house. But he asked my partner to call me outside and asked his son-in-law to click our pictures. It was a bit weird but also so common of old uncles we didn’t bat an eyelid afterward.

Sometimes we appreciate the people around as us the countryside can get slow and melancholic. Like the world has stopped. I like it. The mynahs, sparrows, and cuckoos chirp. Bee-eaters. Yellow birds. Bulbul. Crows. Monkeys. They keep me busy.

But birds and monkeys aren’t all. We have seen three snakes within these two weeks. Two of those we saw while climbing up the concrete ramp from our home to the road. Those black snakes were chasing each other. Entangling and separating. Crawling and pausing. I stopped to see but my partner wanted to leave. A woman whose house was right in front of the slope was watching us. When I chirped “snake here,” she smiled. Later I heard her tell a family member about the snakes. She didn’t sound excited.

Snakes or no snakes, I stay in the garden. The yellow light of the sun filters through the banana plant’s leaves. I love the brightness of the sunlight on my face. I clicked selfies with the sun on my face and flowers in the background. Hibiscus, roses of all kinds, jasmine, avocado, coffee, queen of the night. Nothing is here. Still, everything is.

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At the back of aunty’s house, there’s a tall bamboo. Aunty said locals eat bamboo. I asked her to cook it for us. “Bamboo shoots are best eaten in the monsoon,” she said.

Giving in to our craving, we bought a bamboo pickle from the Ainmane coffee shop in Madikeri town. We also got coffee, honey, and chocolates. Do visit the shop if you can. They also have interesting books on Coorg history which I read while sipping coffee.

We were only eating two meals in Stuart Hill. For dinner, we walked around in Mahadevpet (the area around Stuart hill) or drove to someplace. 

One afternoon we ate three large paper dosas at a dosa counter. We walked in the sun after the meal. We wanted to go to the opposite side of the hill but irrespective of how much further we walked, we always ended up at the back of our house.

The Machlee seafood restaurant we loved was a ten-minute walk away. They serve fish and prawns. So many dinners have been consumed there.

Our food adventures cost us dearly sometimes. A promising highway restaurant served spicy food from which oil dripped like water drips from clothes that haven’t been spun. We never went back there. 

We also ate at the Coorg Traditional Food restaurant in the market near Rainbow restaurant. Albeit a bit spicy, the food was delicious. We bought homemade wine from there. 

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One evening we walked to the Nehru Mantappa near our house. You can see sunsets from the Mantappa. We walked to it at 6. The sunset was at 6:30. After asking a lot of people we found the place. It was closed. Someone told us it closed at 6. When the sunset is at 6:30? Logic that. There was a government Mayur Valley hotel nearby so we ate there. There we got our twilight, great food, and beer. Of course, it was expensive.

Once on a street stall run by a woman we had banana-chili-potato pakodas and two vadas. Another evening we were at the little food market outside Raja’s seat. From where we stayed on Stuart hill, Raja’s seat was five minutes away.

We ordered pineapple chaat and bhelpuri at a food stall and waited. But the old woman prepared our food, I saw a tiny snake slither in front of me. Excited, I showed it to a vendor standing nearby.

I thought the vendors would appreciate the snake, they will see how graceful it was, and how silently it was running away. But the ladies started telling each other about the snake with so much vigor I was sure I had made a mistake. Soon everyone was looking for the snake. Men and women turned the utensils and the boxes under all the chaat stalls. The quiet market suddenly bustled up.

I asked our vendor, “why are they looking for him? Why don’t they let the snake go?”

She replied, “what if it bites someone?”

“Snakes are more scared of us than we are of them. He would want to leave. Just give him a path. Let him go.” I said but I don’t think she cared for what I said.

We walked back home with drooping shoulders.

The homestay owner (aunty’s husband) went to his chicken shop early in the morning and only returned by 9. When I got down from the stairs to the house, I saw all the cats had surrounded aunty’s house. Upon seeing us they shot like catapults in different directions. From everywhere we heard meows. 

It was about five minutes to nine. Cats knew uncle was about to arrive. Every day he had bags of discarded chicken pieces from the shop. The cats circled uncle and aunty until they got their chicken. And when aunty tossed the chicken pieces in the garden, the cats sprang like bullets out of a pistol. 

All the cats ate their chicken bones and kidneys where they were thrown, except Meenakshi. She slinked away with her piece.

By keeping a lot of milk every day on our house door, we befriended Meenakshi. She let us pet her. And when aunty told us both Meenakshi and her mother were pregnant at the time, we laughed until we could laugh no more. 

Those days we don’t want to do anything, we ask aunty to cook dinner for us. I would have loved to cook in the kitchen in our guesthouse but they haven’t equipped the kitchen. So we decided to get the next place on our travels with a kitchen.

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Here in Stuart Hill, I’ve been focused and I’ve been distracted. I don’t have an iota of disappointment about not exploring much. Sitting in a village but writing on the laptop, looking at the greenery wanting to go out to walk, publishing but hoping to be with aunty in her kitchen, giving milk to house cats but also wanting one of our own, we all want all of it. And that’s okay.

In this Flow podcast, Jason Silva and Alain De Botton talk about a settled realm and a wandering realm. They discussed how you can’t have everything of both and you will always have this longing for the other. The episode was appropriate for my situation and I’m glad I heard it in Madikeri.

Weekends passed by admiring the sunrise, drinking, eating, watching movies, driving, and looking at the sunset. Most nights we played like two puppies and slept like babies. Sometimes I watched Alain De Botton’s School of Life videos on relationships and love before going to bed (here are all his books). 

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I’m surrounded by beautiful nature. People are doing so many day-to-day things around me I’m tempted. But everyone’s life’s pleasures and goals are different.

And when you always live in beautiful places you don’t have to think you are wasting time by just being or not making the best use of the opportunity by working or writing or aren’t exploring enough. Just do what you have to do. Do what you want to do. With discipline and rhythm. Be happy you can work from beautiful places. Appreciate the world for you can just walk to a Coorgy woman’s house and ask her to teach you some Kannada over home-brewed coffee.

Earlier we always stayed in Coffee estates. But this open house with trees and plants all around does make a lot of sense to me. Birds fluttering in the garden, butterflies floating above my head, six cats waiting for chicken like hungry wolves, and snails waiting at the washbowl for me to come to brush my teeth. 

What more shall I ask for?

In a couple of days we would leave. Our car would be ready for pick up in Bengaluru. The drive from Madikeri to Bangalore would start at 5 am. We would arrive in HSR Layout at 1 pm after taking two rest stops. We would go via Mysore. And I will finish this memoir you are reading now in a couple more months. But those memories of seeing aunty smile and laugh describing bamboo dishes, her family life, and Meenakshi’s eccentricities would live on with me.

Where to stay in Stuart Hill Madikeri?

We stayed at Eshwari Cottage in Stuart Hill.

Our homestay was eight hundred rupees per day with breakfast. Cleaning was not scheduled. The woman who was supposed to clean didn’t want to clean (she wasn’t happy with the pay). The house smelled funny from mold and seepage. Snails crawled everywhere. Foot mats were dirty. Another room was completely molded. When we checked in, the bedsheets and blankets were dirty. I got fresh sheets. The new sheets were marked with old bloodstains. But I’m guessing those marks were mushed mosquitoes, hopefully. Power didn’t go much. The hot shower worked well.

Aunty would love to cook for you but she is more of an expert in cooking non-vegetarian food.

Madikeri town is ten minutes away from the place. Raja’s seat is about 5-minute away. Raja’s seat is a good landmark.

Our homestay uncle had promised us the place for eight hundred rupees per day for two weeks. But one day he asked us to pay fifty rupees more for the past days.

“Didn’t we talk about eight hundred?” I asked.

“But you have now seen it all. You know this is a good house with breakfast. It is not a room but two rooms and a living. Pay eight fifty.”

“But we finalized eight hundred for these weeks. How can you ask for more after we have lived here?”

I could have said the second room was so moldy it wasn’t usable. The kitchen wasn’t functional. The cleanliness was questionable. But we didn’t say any of that and just stuck to our old price. Eventually, the host said okay, and we went back to our room. Oh, he also called us many times one day starting from early morning until night to make us leave a Google review for the guesthouse.

Though those conversations and phone calls marred our experience a bit, I still look at those three weeks in Stuart Hill as slow and pleasant. You can check out the Stuart hill guesthouse here.

Do you ever go somewhere just to be? Enjoyed this memoir of Stuart Hill Madikeri? Tell me in the comments.

*****

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1 thought on “Nothing To Do But So Much To Do: On Stuart Hill in Madikeri Coorg”

  1. Many thanks for featuring our old house
    We built it in 1995 but had to move on
    You could have walked around to the next hilllock towards the left on the way to Madikeri there is the remains of a British majour on whom it is named
    The place has 2 Christmas trees

    Reply

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