India, days 5/6: Thekaddy

When planning out trip we never planned to go to Thekaddy (aka Kumily) and F didn’t believe me the place existed until we booked a room there. Thekaddy was a recommendation from Vijay, our Munnar guide, and despite the tepid reviews on TripAdvisor, the place holds many charms. Perched in the lower Ghatts on the border with Tamil Nadu, it provides the entrance to Periyar Tiger reserve, established around an artificial lake, and is also the centre of spice production, for which Kerala is famous. The spices git the colonists into India. They even made Columbus look for a westward way to the Malabar shore, which ended the way it did.

On the very scenic way there, F and I met M, a French lady-adventurer who decided to brave South India by herself and D, a German student on a similar mission. We bonded over finding a smelly toilet in a mountain town stop, but the friendship only truly blossomed after they were hounded by a tout to stay in the same homestay as us. We then quickly decided to visit the Periyar Tiger reserve, the chief attraction, tomorrow and buy a few Kingfishers in a government store (Kerala has a bit of an alcohol problem so there is state monopoly). We then proceeded to a massively underwhelming joint (recommended by Lonely Planet, insisted on by M), where we met H, a Londoner and a charity worker here on after business leisure. While emptying our Kingfishers we discussed what we liked and did not like so far, with the ladies explaining their inconveniences as single white tourists in India (unwanted attention at worst, stares at best – M did not leave her homestays in the evenings before meeting us).

The next day, we set off on our hike, I had a clear purpose of snapping a tiger so that I can have a nice, Tinder photo, like so many a brave bachelor before me, showing that I can tame a feline. All of this was to be done ironically. Instead of tigers, we were greeted by a bunch of evil looking macaques, of which H has warned us. She told us that one of them pulled her hair, and more hilariously yet disturbingly, pleasured himself and ate the spoils – city boy in me shivered imagining both of these scenes. The monkeys who congregated at the tourist waiting pen thankfully did not make much trouble: the small cute ones played, while the big ones shrieked and showed largish fangs. Soon after we started our hike and lake cruise, where we were joined by a funny American father son duo from Colorado, and 5 guards and guides. The Americans both came from a Amritapuri where they are staying, a sanctuary presided by Ama, the hugging mother, a charity guru whose party trick is hugging people (simple) and spreading love and peace around the world (a bit more difficult). Dad, who seemed to be the spiritual heart of the couple, spoke serenely and sold Ama very well (“She runs the best university in India” – I wasn’t convinced), while the very talkative 12-year-old son seemed almost the opposite, with a somewhat cocky, bossy attitude. As expected it was the Son who provided the narration to the entire 6 hour trek, starting hilariously with “Daaad, next time you take me on holiday where I need to wear anti-leech socks…”.

The reserve looked like something out of a 19th century romantic landscape painting, improved by Capability Brown. There were rolling hills, just tall enough to for clouds to skirt their tops, as well as lakes with black tree trunks jutting from them and, naturally, a rainforest that tied it all together.

Walking around, we saw all the beauty of tropical forests, redwood and banyan, kingfisher (unbottled) and eagle, as well as tiger-wasps and a freakishly big spider, none of which looked too threatening. We were lucky with the mammals: the red mongoose was casually playing in the field, while sambars and boars pranced around, presumably unaware of tiger-danger, wanting to chase, claw and slaughter them. Yet during the trek, Tinder tigers and elephants were missing.

As an interlude to our walking, we had to board bamboo rafts and punt around the lake. I was glad to use that bit of my Oxford education to the benefit of F, M and D who provided useful commentary on how to row and punt. F, as ever, was particularly encouraging with snide comments.

Lake crossed, upper body strength increased, we proceeded through the other part of the jungle and have then heard a trumpeting noise that whipped us into a frenzy. The guides scattered to inspect, the pleaded us to be quiet in hushed stern words (even the little American obliged and stopped providing us with career advice). We were told to lay low and after reaching the bushes we saw them: a family of elephants, lazily feeding themselves, with a little elephant happily walking around. They were some 500m away from us, yet I could not be happier. I remembered Dumbo, my stuffed toys and all the nature documentaries, and felt very happy. In my mind I startcrafting phrases praising nature for this blog: how clean it is, how much safer we are in it (depite leeched, tigers, tiger-wasps and crazy spiders), how amazing it is. After the sighting I even had a rousing discussion with the Dad about the American elections (we bemoaned Bernie’s fall due to nefarious political manoeuvring). Later we had even rowed across to see a bear and even more elephants who joined the group.

Yet my enthusiasm for the park, nature, travel and life dampened after the rain started falling while I was punting us back, sans-umbrella or jacket. The return was dispiriting. All the hill, lake and rainforest now looked inferior to my treks in the West Midlands, around Lemaington Spa, and even Regent’s park. I even told the Little Big Mouth that his life is going to be a series of disappointments after the age of 12 (mine indeed seemed that way while I was drenched), in retribution for his nasty comment about my mud-jumping ability.

We said bye to D who continued to Chennai (American hippy dad described the city as full of disfigured beggars and that at one point river there was so polluted that it caught fire). F wanted to do shopping and found a Kashmiri shop nearby which looked like Ali-Baba’s cove. M and I followed, and were greeted there by very charming and soft lyspoken owner who wooed us to bye more. After the money was passed for knick-knacks (the owner even managed to persuade me that a thing I bought was artisanal and I was sorely disappointed when I’ve seen it later all around Kerala), we started to chat. The owner was in his late 50s, well groomed, with salt and pepper mane and slightly hooked nose on an elongated face, he spoke perfect English and started telling us his story. He came to Thekaddy 30 years ago, when that part of town was still a forest. He explained that Kashmiri items are only interesting to tourists who can actually wear them due to cooler climate: in the rest of India, people prefer saris and gold.

As the tensions over Kashmir just intensified, he started talking about his native state. He thought the people there should have independence from both India and Pakistan and try it out on their own. He mentioned that it was 90% Muslim and unwilling to be part of India. They were mostly unemployed and impoverished and under military pressure in a country they did not want to be part of since the beginning. That rhymed somewhat with the Kosovo-Serbia situation. Again we bonded over fucked-upness of our countries and parted ways.

Perhaps it was because of my pettiness earlier that day towards Little big Mouth, that I was punished that night. As were going to bed there was a wail, scarily close to our room, which was overlooking the jungle.

“That sounds like a gecko”, F said, after making sure that all doors and windows were closed.

“Oh, I think it’s the evil monkeys in the forest”, I said hopefully. The image of a lizard roaming around me, and falling on me was now lodged in my mind. Due to heat, and probably fear, I could not sleep. And then it begun. The sounds of the jungle intensified: roaring, eeking, screeching. And then there was this evil chuckling-wailing noise. I thought it was in the toilet, it wasn’t. I thought I touched it with my foot, it didn’t.

After it sounded itself for an umpteenth awful time, I got up and saw it on our door. It was a gecko, maybe 10 centimetres long. To my eyes and reason it did not look threatening. To my mind, it looked like Satan.

Having seen the devil, I finally went to bed. The next morning, under-slept and grumpy I went to out to check if my clothes were dry and gecko-free. The little Satan was out of sight. I braved the door. Then in one horrifying second, I felt a bit of additional weight on my shirt and a thump. I screamed like twenty macaques. The gecko jumped off my shoulder into the green expanse below.

“He is more terrified of you then you are of him”, F said, channeling an annoying school teacher.

“I really don’t care about his emotions”

We continued to Alleppey with M, by yet another bus. I remained grumpy the whole day.

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