The nanoscopic hamlet of Top Station is the highest point on the road from Munnar to Kodaikanal and lies smack in the scruffy workaday heart of Kerala's main tea-growing region. Innumerable tons of the stuff that fills breakfast mugs around the world originates here, on the 1,600-meter-high ranges of the western Ghats. In the last days of the Raj, white planters came in their grateful droves, lured by the green hills and tolerable climate. Today, though, this is the domain of Indian agribusiness, and you'll barely see a non-Indian face. The only visitors tend to be from the big smoke of Mumbai or maybe Bangalore—mostly well-off families and couples on quality-time retreats.
For the foreign traveler, this is precisely the attraction. You haven't been preceded by backpacking squads of gap-year Europeans; there are no sari-clad Swiss ladies or gentle Australian retirees asking directions to the nearest Ayurvedic spa. As a result the touts and taxi drivers are smiling, open-faced naïfs by the rapacious standards of India's tourism hot spots, and the infrastructure is gratifyingly nonexistent. All you get is unmediated India. And an awful lot of tea.
From Anita's it was a short stroll to the viewing area at Top Station. The rewards all come at this summit, where the air is crisp and the views sheer and dramatic. The craggy peaks of the western Ghats, the rolling plains and immaculately laid-out tea plantations are all around. Top Station in fact straddles southeastern Kerala and the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. The border bisects the village. I never got a chance to find out at which point, though, because as well as being greeted by the views I was met by a horde of local men. As the only foreign tourist and woman in sight, I myself became, by neat irony, the photo opportunity. Dodging the inevitable "Coming from where?" and other, less-delicate conversational gambits, I beat a diplomatic retreat.
Later that day, I hired a jeep and driver for the 34-kilometer journey back to Munnar; we also drove into what turned out to be the day's high point. The first sign of the latter was a long and honking traffic jam—not the kind of thing you expect in up-country Kerala. But as I leaned out of the window, the source of the disruption became clear. For there on the road in front of us was a lone, enraged bull elephant.
"Danger, Madam," intoned my driver soberly, but I couldn't help grinning. The elephant chased us, along with a sprawling convoy of cars and buses, back up the hill. Craning my neck to keep the behemoth in view for as long as possible, the last thing I saw before we rounded the corner to safety was an archetypal drama of David and Goliath. Like the famous lone protester of Tiananmen facing off a Chinese army tank, there stood one brave lunatic, arm outstretched and brandishing a rock as the elephant lumbered mightily towards him. As far as I know the man survived. But as soon as we got off the mountain, I badly needed a cup of tea, and that long-postponed cigarette.