Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ind-Ja the Indelible

And I'm back.  Over 40 hours of travel door to door.  This includes: driving, waiting, delay, flight, transfer, more delay, flight, fast track through immigration, terminal sprint, boarding bureaucracy--> missed flight, taxi ride to nearby airport, further delay, flight cancellation, final flight, immigration and WOO HOO, dear Reader, I made it from Puttankardu, India to Toronto, Canada. 

It is truly ah-mazing to contemplate, the distance, the time travel and the cultural differences: 20 rupees for two cups of teas in Parambikulum (about 40 cents), chatting with the tea shop owner, who showed us hospitality, free baked goodies that we really didn't want but he seemed excited to offer us, along with his full, unblinking attention; $4 for a tea, conveyer belt line and barely a smile at the Starbucks I am typing from now.  (Am not making any political statement here, the difference just seems surreal to me.)

India has left an indelible impression on me, that much is true.  I am not sure whether I will look at any of the 'hardships' I 'endure' in NEPA in the same light again.  Yes, going back to my first blog, this makes that whole reframing thing, really easy.  Instead of my catch-all 'it's okay, at least I'm not dead' reframe, I can now interchange this with, 'It's okay, at least I have the opportunity to earn more than 30 rupees a day picking tea/breaking stone at the side of the road, without shoes, before going home to pick vegetables, make the meal and do the laundry--without all the modern conveniences that make our lives easy, or a man who will deign to help me.'  Good reframe, huh? 

So, I wanted to focus this blog on the impressions that have, with Indian ink, been indelible etched to my cognitive microfiche.  These are they:

Our unrestrained driver, Prakash (see last week's blogette) wanted to show Indra and me more of his beautiful homeland.  He packed us a traditional Kerala picnic and took us 'up' in his jeep.  By Western standards this would be 'off-roading', in India, this is just an 'everyday commute'. 

We zig-zagged up the mountains, through the knee-high shrubbery of the lush tea gardens, jostled more than usual by the questionable camber of the dusty, red, rutted 'road'.  I use the word loosely.  Holy seltbelts and air bags, Batman!  The higher we drove the greater the perspective; the individual became the whole, each hill of the tea gardens transforming before my eyes to become a giant emerald, velvet-coated armadillo. 

At 7130 feet and higher, in the heart of 'God's Own Country', overlooking the Tata tea gardens, where so many women (and men) had laboured through blistering heat and unrelenting monsoons, we ate our picnic.  These verdant armadillos grew as far as my eyes could see.  It was not so much a vista as a vasta.

The enormity of the landscape was paralleled by that of it's creatures.  One I had particularly keen--scotch that--one I had been bubbling to see, was the Asian Elephant.  Why so?  Well, probably because I grew up watching Dumbo, had loved every word of Sara Gruen's 'Water for Elephants', but mainly because these creatures show such unflinching loyalty in their matriarchal packs, such sensitivity and honour, that they win my devotion. 

Lashmi was the elephant Indra and I were allowed to feed.  She was 40 years old, and looked every year of it.  (She could definitely have used the MK targeted toning body lotion!)   Her bulk and thick, bristled exterior were softened big her huge milk chocolate brown irises.  Her eyes seemed to say so much, shining sadly in silent protest as the Muhoot shouted at her.  I'm probably anthropomorphizing, but it's my blogette and it's a great word, so humour me.  I should add that the Muhoot did not whip her, I simply did not like his aggressive tone--there was no need!  Dude, she's big, she's slow, would you give a pachyderm a break?

Resigned to her role--and her life is certainly so much better than the chained, work elephants, so that is my reframe for her, she gently took the bananas and the somewhat surprising choice of skin-on pineapple from my hands.  We were then allowed the hose and instructed, through a complicated game of charades for non-Malayalam-speaking-foreigners, to fill up her trunk.  We seemed to be hosing for minutes.  Long minutes.  We thought she might drown--try charading that to your local, unfriendly Muhoot!  Finally, with trunkful, she knocked it back and necked litres of water in one shot.  If you think chugging a yard of ale is impressive, watch the elephant, my friend!

The average female Asian elephant weighs 8,000lbs.  One of Lashmi's feet has a greater circumference than my hip measurement.  I became rather engrossed by the power of paw.  If a horse hoof can break your fragile human metatarsals, what in Hades can a elephant foot do?  Compress a foot to fleshy, boney paper?  Sorry, a bit grisly, I know, but such is the stream of consciousness on this blogette, baby.  Back to the feet.  With every carefully-placed footfall, she exerted such power thudding through her leg that the patterns of age criss-crossing her skin, would shift and resettle.  You could see the shock absorbed from toe upwards.  In put me in mind of stale marshmallows and how they wrinkle when you prod them.  Every movement she made was a wonder to me: every sway, curl and snuffle of her trunk caught my breath.  Other tourists stood back frightened, squealing as she reached her trunk towards them.  How strange, I thought.  I couldn't think of anything I'd rather do than show this creature some care: to touch her skin, to whisper soft 'hellos', meet her sorrow-filled eyes; just to let her know that I would do her no harm.  My brief meeting with Lashmi didn't dispell the magic of Disney and her soft caresses will stay with me forever.

The adventure continued as Indra, Herma, Prakash and I sallied forth, up the corkscrew mountain pathways through the ever-continuing tea gardens, marveling at the devastating waterfalls; passing barefoot Pilgrims walking the hot dusty road on their trek to temple.  We slowed down to watch a bull elephant munch on some bamboo and laughed at the daredevil monkeys lunging onto the windscreen like little tribal mascots, curious to get a closer look.  Prakash dashed along the tree-lined avenues, cars, rickshaws, buses and motorbikes, all competing to overtake the others at the same time, and--oh horror--the opposite lane doing the same.  We navigated our way through the unbelievable synochrized-haphazard movement of traffic through the pedestrian-packed streets; and eventually we reached the silence, stillness and awe-inspiring Godliness of Parabikulum Tiger Preserve.

Godliness is not a word I use lightly.  Indra and I had brainstormed for quite some while about fitting adjectives, but when I mentioned 'Godly' we both agreed, it fitted perfectly.  Those of you who know me well, might chortle at me using it, but really, as I saw the bounty of the world unfold before me, it was a truly 'religious' experience.  The scale of it all!

Curious to see the world, had I unwittingly fallen down the rabbit hole, downed the 'drink me' bottle and shrunk to diddy-size?  No, I was no smaller; Nature unfettered, uncropped and untopiaried was just bigger.  Unbelievably so.

As Indra and I sat cross-legged, high above the canopy of the eucalyptus, the bamboo, the birch, woven together with creepers and vines, watching the sun melt into the leafy horizon, listening to the trees whistle with the wind, I was converted, to Nature.   I held my breath, for what felt like 5 minutes, and then it had gone; the sun had disappeared, the wisps of azure, ivory, rose and lilac sky had merged into a steely grey.  But I was humbled, I had the awe-inspiring snapshot fixed, preserved in the Preserve.

The Tiger Preserve is one of many large, protected areas of wilderness, conserved by the tribes of the area.  The camp within the preserve is a settlement of tent niches, dormitories, dining pagoda and gift shop (yup, even in India.  Disney would be proud!)  We were housed in the tent niche--an elegant housing by camping standards--not the leaky canvas offering I was used to after many a mildewed summer holiday spent in Wales.  There was a roof, a mattress of sorts, a cold shower, elephant-proof electric fencing... you know, the usual. 

Indra and I were early for the trek and, like good girl scout typees, we came prepared and cracked open our books!  We sat nestled in the notch of a mighty tree, a cosy gap between it's split trunks, and we feasted on currents reads.  Little did I know I had inadvertly sat in a nest of crabby-like fleas who were feasting upon me.  Oh that was a joyful discovery--what did I say about humbling?  But I digress.  As I provided the entree, Indra and I heard schoolgirl giggles in the background.  We exchanged eye-rolls.  Was our precious peace about to be disturbed?  Did this mean our trek was to be shanghai-ed by a bus-load of noisy teenagers, warning any creatures from miles away that we are approaching?  Oh good grief!  We diligently kept eyes to pages and hoped the teens would pass. 

The giggles did not pass however.  They got louder.  I reluctantly prised my eyes from the pages of Picoult and--GAH!--we were surrounded.  About twenty, wide-eyed, white-teethed school children, encircled our sanctuary.  I smile apologetically,
"Oh, hello!"
"Hello!" rang out amidst the giggles and whilstling trees.
"What is your good name?"
I kept tight-lipped, "I'm Indra and this is my friend Eleanor."  Eyes grew wider.
"Where are you going?"
I should probably point out to those unfamiliar with South India, that this is staple conversatory-fodder, similar to the 'How are you?' of western ways.
We simply told them where we were from and that we were staying for a couple of days, yet, this disclosure did not seem to satisfy them.  There they stood, unmoving, unspeaking, just...giggling.
I looked at Indra, awkwardly.
She looked at me, awkwardly.
We looked at the children, awkwardly.
She fashioned her lips into a smile and said sweetly, "Well, nice to met you.  Goodbye."
Slowly, they dispersed.

About 5 minutes later, the school tribe returned, again circling our sanctuary.
"Hello again."  We said.  I was now not only feeling awkward, but the teeniest bit threatened (probably not helped by the fact that now the crabby-fleas were helping themselves to seconds of shank of Eleanor.)
"We have come to take picture."  The ringleader said sheepishly, holding up her cell phone camera.  "You mind us take picture?"
Indra looked at me, I looked at her.  I felt just a tad foolish.  How had I felt at all threatened!  I was double their age and comfortable in my circa 1998 khakis and 2004 greying and in-need-of-replacement trainers. 
I nodded and said that would be okay and readied with my camera-smile.  Given the cue, the ringer leader said something and all at once, cameras and cell phones were brandished and held aloft, a series of little flashes fired in my general direction.  This went on for minutes, before Indra--who is, she will be the first to admit, not just camera shy, but camera-phobic, said, "Okay, that's enough now, thank you!"  The children smiled, rehoused their weaponry and off they giggled. 

I sat there amused (this was pre-flea awareness).  I had travelled three-quarters of my way around the globe.  I had thought that I had avoided the, sometimes patronizing, western arrogance that I had seen in other tourists--you know, the 'Oh Indra!  Isn't that just so cute!  The little Indians are wearing funny diaper-things. I must get a photo with me with the natives!'  But maybe I had been arrogant.  I had expected to be a known species, that my whiteness would have gone before me (rightly or wrongly).  Little had I realized that I was far more strange to the locals and school children visiting Parabikulum than they were to me.  I was the circus attraction, on a par with the bearded lady or the vertically-challenged spectacles of Victorian days, I was... the White Woman with Blue Eyes!

As the Godly, breath-taking, vast, elemental, humbling landscape is held fast on the photo-plates of my memory, my blue eyes, red hair and peppering of freckles is, for now at least, fixed in the memory of 20 cell phones somewhere in South India. 

As I recall my experiences of India, I suppose my lesson is this: to look at everything with fresh, wide-eyed wonder, you enjoy it more and look better in cell phone photos; just because it's a Tiger Preserve, don't actually expect to see a tiger; and, look down before you sit down.

Until next week!


  1. It is kind of amazing that they use elephants for transportation. It's kind of like living in Miami and having a Mercedes G55. No practical need, but you arrive in style! I would imagine that it would be cheaper to pay four men to carry you on a palanquin than to feed the elephant. That said, I would prefer the pachyderm. I don't think she would survive the climate in NEPA, but if I moved to the subcontinent I might be willing to trade the M3 in on a well manored beast.

  2. Lashmi was certainly not a speedy method of transportation, but she was a magnificent one! In fact, it is a wonder elephants cover as much ground as they do because, if Lashmi is the norm, they must be CONSTANTLY grazing. So you are right Jerry, employing four men would probably be cheaper!

    There is a lot of vegetation around, so I don't think the wild elephants find grazing a problem; it's the captive working creatures that have to be 'fed', but hey, it isn't as if the animals are being paid, so the least their muhoots can do is lavish them with bananas, bamboo, ferns, eucalyptus etc...

  3. you said until next week and now it's March. tsk, tsk. good story though. looking forward to hearing more of your adventures through time and space. thanks for the tales, gave me a taste of India i'd not have had otherwise. :)

  4. *Slumps shoulders*
    *Sinks head*
    *Shuffles off to the corner*

    I know, I know, I know. BUT, and this is a big but, I have been throwing Self into the fray in order to gather great material and harvest a blog of substance. After India and Toronto, I returned home for only 2 weeks before the off to Me-hick-co, and whilst 2 weeks may seem like oodles of time, it wasn't. Enough excuses! Blog to follow soon. I just like keeping everyone in suspenders ;)

  5. you do it well, so do what you do Miss. :)