Top of the World

At 6,000+ feet up on a 35,000 year old mountain older than the Himalayas, it might be easy to understand why I fell into tears upon arrival here in this beautiful place on a pristine hilltop surrounded by tea plantations in every direction as far as the eye can see! But let’s back up so you can hear about the journey to get up here.

This is my 6th visit to these beloved mountains, and our driver, Shiva, has been navigating this singular road up and down from Coimbatore to Coonoor for 35 years. He collects us at the airport and whisks us off into thick Coimbatore traffic full of bus horns, tuk tuks jockeying for position, pedestrians crisscrossing the road, and, of course, a cow or two that slows the whole process down.

The first hour or more is flat as we pass from city to sprawling towns into countryside full of banana and palm fields. Neither Karin nor I have eaten since last night (it’s now 11:45 am), and we are pretty parched after our flight, so we ask if Shiva can stop at a coconut stand. He pulls into the teeniest roadside stall I’ve seen, and a little man plucks a green coconut out of a pile and whacks the top off with a machete.

He pokes a pink straw into the hole and hands it to Karin. Next one is for Shiva, and finally for me. It is the most delicious nectar, and I drink it down in between “mmmms.” After the coconut water is gone, we hand our empty nuts back to the man, and he chops them in half and makes a spoon out of the skin for us to scoop out the coconut “jelly.” To say it’s delicious is an understatement. We relish each bite before we get back in the car for the mountain portion of the journey. 

In no time, we are rising into the clouds, and Shiva takes the gazillion hairpin turns with incredible precision. I imagine he could do it in his sleep, but he is alert and focused, even as he tells me stories of all my old friends and what people are up to in the three years since I’ve seen them. I’m in a place of trust, but I remember my first ride up here, and I’m sure I squealed on numerous occasions. I imagine all of our new guests coming the next day and picture their faces as they experience this ride. One can either feel terrified and maybe woozy, or decide to tap into the race up the mountain. Trucks beep their horns, motorbikes try to pass us on the curves, and a gigantic lorry nearly plows into our bumper on a blind corner. Karin and I gasp, then laugh… Is it delight? Horror? Relief? All three, I suppose! I hold my handle in the back seat and imagine I’m on a motorcycle, lean into the curves, let my head sway toward the slope of the mountain. 

As we ascend, the steep pitch of the Nilgiri Hills emerges out of the flat plains we left behind, and the crags of the mountains reveal rockslides, dried up waterfalls, and a thick lining of trees that shade the roadways and pit stops on the way up.  Every once in a while a pop of purple jacaranda trees breaks up the foliage, and monkeys hang out on the guard rails, spectators of this daily race to the top. Sorry, guys, but we are driving too fast to get any good photos. I am reminded of the annual rally timed race up Mount Washington in my home state of NH, which is also just over 6,000 feet. Here the constant jingle of horns is a language of its own: it’s as if the cars, trucks, bikes, and occasional tuk tuks are all playing different musical instruments–some are percussive, some are in the brass section, some have almost the delicacy of ivory keys; but all of the drivers all communicate in this unique and intelligent concert that gets everyone up and down the mountain safely. We don’t see a single fender bender, even though it defies logic that we make it up without a scrape.

Shiva stops the car momentarily at a fork in the road and says, “if you go that way it will take you to the old retreat,” and my eyes peek uphill with a little pang in my heart. I’ve gone that way so many years now, and here I am taking a new road to a new center. I am excited but a little nervous. Will I love the location as much? Will our retreat guests feel the same affinity for the doctor I’ve come to know over the past few years of emails and What’s App calls? What about the staff at the old retreat? I miss them and long to see their familiar faces, even though I know they have all left there now since Covid. Will we fall in love with these new therapists the way we love our old friends? My heart feels a tug. Shiva drives on and on through the tea estates and a bit further up the road stops and points: “See that red tent up there? “That is Mountaintop.” 

One more swish of a cow’s tail, a few more bends through the brilliant green tea, and we are nearly there.

The driveway is so steep, the tuk tuks don’t even attempt to drive up here. Shiva guns it and has to stop, reverse, and crank hard to the right to get up the last slope up to Mountaintop Clinic. At the top, Dr. Sundara appears to greet us. Karin and I thank Shiva for getting us up the mountain safely, and he takes our bags as the doctor blesses us with rudraksha malas and asks to show us around. I hug him gratefully, for it is so good to see his kind face for real after all this time.

He takes us to the new kitchen facility and dining room completed just in time for our arrival; he shows us the yoga hall, perched high up in the back corner of the property overlooking the mountains; we peek into different bedrooms and see staff making beds and cleaning in preparation for our group that arrives tomorrow. And then he walks Karin and I up onto the new patio that sits like a grecian deck, overlooking the mountains and entire valley below. I am so overwhelmed with joy, relief, gratitude, and awe that the tears slip easily over my cheeks, and I feel a deep heave in my chest that tells me I have landed in the most perfect little home on top of the world. I try to hide my tears, but the dear doctor can see I am emotional. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Dr. Sundara says. “It’s okay?” My heart is so full, I can barely get a word out of my mouth. “It’s just beautiful,” I say. “Okay,” he says sweetly, with the most earnest smile. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

We retire to our bedrooms, get ready for our first abhyanga massage, and the rest of the day is spent settling in, having our first of many Ayurvedic consultations with the doctor, eating delicious meals overlooking the tea fields, and unpacking. With few photographs of these first sweet hours, I’ll leave you with this one of me after my first massage with Indra, Selvie, and Jansi:

with love from Mountaintop,

~ Katie ~

2 thoughts on “Top of the World”

  1. I am SO enjoying living vicariously through you on this beautiful journey! Thank you for sharing. If you decide yoga isn’t your thing anymore (yeah, right), you could easily make a living as a writer! Blessings and Hugs, Francie Epperson

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