Monday, September 15, 2008

Kerala Diary-4

In spite of the hotel's valiant efforts, our laundry hadn't dried by the morning of our departure. So, as we checked out, each one of us bore a plastic bag of damp, sodden clothes, each promising a stink if we didn't get them dry, and fast.

In a rather endearing piece of naivete, we thought we'd leave a bit earlier if we got our own breakfast instead of waiting 4 hours for the hotel to make it. So we'd purchased a jar of strawberry jam and a couple of loaves of bread the previous day. Unfortunately, we hadn't factored in Vix. Needless to say, we left an hour and half late.

Next on the itinerary was Periyar Tiger Reserve. It's located near the town of Kumily, near the southern portion of Kerala's border with Tamil Nadu. The drive was all downhill, a winding road from the hilly tea gardens. We listened to music and I was labeled "anti-Pappu" for skipping "Pappu Can't Dance". He who holds the remote holds absolute power, till he falls asleep of course. We passed thru innumerable hamlets. Tiny Christian (chapels?) punctuated the road sides. Men walked about in lungis everywhere; they even rode motorcycles wearing them, a feat that defies belief.

Kumily is, in my humble opinion, a sorry-ass town, whose streets are lined with spice emporiums, hotels and restaurants. It exists solely to service the tourists who visit Periyar. There are plenty of spice farms in the area and you can get good-quality spices there, which is exactly what Horus did in the evening.

Our hotel (Mt Sinai Tourist Lodge, just so you know never to go there) was representative of the town of Kumily: sorry-ass. Tiny rooms with the barest of decoration and comfort. The corridors were open and the railing was bare concrete. Our rooms faced an under-construction building. Indeed, the two buildings were so close together, we could easily climb over to the other building from ours. We laid out wet clothing out on the concrete railing, in the bright sunshine.

Lunch was at a low-to-medium quality restaurant, bereft of anything not containing rice. It didn't matter, because I wasn't in a position to eat much else and I believe Rocky was with me. The food wasn't anything to write home about.

To see Periyar Tiger Reserve, you drive in and buy a ticket for a boat ride on the man-made Periyar Lake, where all the animals come to drink. The best time to go is early morning or failing that, late in the evening. We elected to take the boat ride the following morning, just before leaving for Allapuzha and instead, go on a guided trek in the afternoon. So we signed up for Cloud Walk, a 4-hour trek along the hills of Periyar and were assigned two guides. Those who weren't wearing shoes, socks and full-length pants had to wear protective canvas stockings. Leeches are abundant in the Periyar Hills. The guides also carried a packet of salt along, just in case a leech did clamp on.

Off we went. As soon as we started, Ruud, who had already been running a fever since we reached town, decided to go back to the hotel. He went to the bus and was driven back. It was a wise decision. Cloud Walk in Periyar National Park, was anything but a walk in the park.

Apart from Neo, Henry, Horus and our guides, everyone was huffing and puffing in fifteen minutes. The climb was up, always up, and steep. Because of the rains, the paths were slippery and treacherous. We climbed up, heads bowed looking out for leeches, panting and gasping for breath. It rained intermittently. The guides showed us the wire fence separating the park from tribal lands. Apparently it was an electric fence, but nothing happened when we touched it. Maybe there was load-shedding going on there too.

Presently, we came to a hilly clearing, where a group of locals were playing cricket. On a slope, and with a real, hard cricket ball no less! No pads and gloves either. Every once in a while, the ball would roll down the hill and two guys would scurry after it, lest it conk someone in the head further downhill. It could have been us!

And we kept climbing, till we reached the summit of the hill, about 500 metres high by my reckoning. There was a large cross. We were virtually standing on the Tamil Nadu border and could see that state. It was raining and the wind was blowing quite hard too. Our windcheaters and clothing were whipped about by the gusts. We got up to a lot of antics at the hill top. No need for me to describe them; just check out the photos.

I was tired. My legs had turned to lead. And then I learned that the trek wasn't over. Far from it. We weren't even halfway through. In fact, we would be making our way along the hilly ridge to a point very distant from where we stood. That is what we did. Along the way, we encountered some ramshackle wooden shacks, on the tribal side of the wire fence. They looked awfully rickety but we crossed the fence and went in anyway. A wooden bench collapsed almost instantly under the combined weight of Jay-Z, Henry and myself. We took a lot of videos, laughed a lot. I was constantly conscious of the fact, as the others joined us in the shack, that the floor could collapse at any instant and send us rolling down the hill. I was most relieved when we left.

Neo picked up a couple of leeches on his sandals but they were found and disposed of instantly, before they could do any damage. We reached a tall steel watchtower used by forest officers. It was thoroughly rusted and the guides told us to go up four at a time. The view from the watchtower was spectacular. More leeches as we left the tower and these were also doused with salt.

Finally we emerged onto an asphalt road. I hadn't the slightest idea where we were. There was a minor comic moment along the trek when we found out that one of our guides' names was Indre. Jay-Z can speak some nonsense, which sounds like a South Indian language. Most of his "sentences" start with the word "Indre" and they usually go like "Indre athropode andrema". He stopped speaking "Malayalam" as soon as he found out our guide's name.

It started pouring once again. We were already drenched and chilly and took refuge in front of a provisions store, where Henry bought fake-fruit jelly candy. I wanted something a bit warmer and refused a rare show of generosity from him (:P). A man came up and offered us an elephant ride. Everybody was very excited and Jay-Z and couple of the others went off to have a look at the elephants and negotiate a rate. We got their "best offer": Rs 250 for a half hour ride. Everybody except Rocky and myself assented, so we stayed at the elephant loading dock (a raised platform where you can climb on), watching a Mallu film on the TV and shivering in our wet clothes. We took pictures of the guys on the elephants and watched the mahouts bathe and feed the elephants platefuls of rice.

By the time we got back to where our bus was parked, it was nearly 6:30 PM and darkness had already fallen. We called Ruud at the hotel to ask them to heat up some water for out baths. Hot water is a surprisingly rare commodity for Keralan hotelry. He sounded very sick and was running a very high temperature.

At the tourist centre, we heard a most unpleasant bit of news. There had been some political trouble in the district and a general strike had been called starting at 6 AM the following morning. We were advised to leave the district before that time, which essentially meant a departure time of 4:30 AM or thereabouts. Of course, our boat ride on Periyar Lake was also out of the question, so we would never see a tiger or any other animal. The closest we got to seeing wild animals on the entire trip was when Horus stepped on the droppings of an Asiatic wild dog during the trek.

Back at the hotel, we thought things couldn't get any worse, then realised we were wrong. They did; very fast. The hotel rationed out hot water, for one thing. We were told that if we took hot water now, we wouldn't get any the following morning. Hotel policy mind you, not lack of hot water. Then, there was a "one bath towel per room" policy. All the hotel's towels were at the dhobi's apparently. I could not remember the last time I had heard such a load of bull's excrement.

Vix had been carrying a leech on his leg for God knows how long. It had happily been drinking his blood all the while, without his suspecting a thing. The thing wouldn't come off when pulled by hand. A packet of salt was found and purchased swiftly, but Vix burned it off with a matchstick before that, so we were stuck with a useless 500 gram bag of salt. I took Ruud to the doctor on his dad's instructions, then sent him back to the hotel and went off to buy him medicine. Then I cursed at the hotel manager till he gave me a bucket of hot water, cursed some more when I didn't get a fresh towel and gratefully took a hot bath. Let me just mention the hotel's name so that you never go there: Mt Sinai Lodge, Thekkady, Kumily. Please do not ever go there.

Dinner was at another depressing joint; we had Chinese for a change and found it mediocre, like everything else in Kumily. Horus bought spices and we went back to the hotel. The big final of Euro 2008 was on: Spain vs Germany. Stifling yawns and propping up drooping eyelids, eight of us watched, sitting on a bed meant for two, as Fernando Torres scored the only goal of the game for Spain. It ended at 3:00 AM. We hadn't slept a wink yet and had to leave in another hour and half, to beat the strike.

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