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Published: October 9th 2019
The goal was to experience the Kerala Thekkady area, including the Periyar National Park and Wildlife Preserve, in a budget friendly and authentic way.
So when Sumod, a man I met on the streets of Kumily suggested this “option,” I thought, “that sounds fun.” But I had little idea what to expect.
That’s okay, because that’s what I like about travel. Not knowing what to expect. It’s the best way because then anything can happen! And everything always works out, somehow.
Sumod met me on the darkened street at 5:00 AM outside my homestay. We walked to the bus station, where our daily 5:15 AM bus was predictably late. This Kerala government bus makes a daily run to a faraway village, traveling through a portion of the Periyar National Park.
We sped off into the dark along with a few other passengers. The metal window covers were down so I had only a view from our second row seat through the bus driver’s window. As we climbed higher and higher on the curvy road, I recognized we were traveling the same route as the “jeep safari” that I did a couple days before. Except we didn’t take
the dirt roads and instead continued on through a gated checkpoint that allowed us into the park.
We raised the window cover so I could see and also get cold from the crispy air. The sign said, “don’t exceed speed of 30km per hour.” The bus driver obviously could not read. He had a bus route to travel, and was already 30 minutes late.
The one-track paved and graveled road was pockmarked with pools of muddy water and curved through giant trees, only a few of which I know: banyan, strangler figs, invasive eucalyptus trees native to Australia, teak, and others. Branches dripped, mist dressed the leaves, and bamboo fronds tickled the air.
But they started attacking me through the open window. We plowed through the vegetation and I donned my sunglasses even though there was no sun. I did not want a stray branch to slap my eyes. I had the choice window seat, but it came with some danger. The branches hitting the bus sides made a clack-clack-clack sound like a stick being dragged along a picket fence, and some found their way inside the window opening.
I was cold, despite wearing my rain
jacket. Why hadn’t I packed a scarf so I could wrap my head like the woman in the seat in front of me? Sumod was wearing only a short sleeve shirt and wrapped himself with his arms.
We searched for animals in the gloom, but saw very little. Two mongooses scurried across the road, a fox dashed as well, except it evaded my view. A couple monkeys played on some tree branches. I got a fleeting look at a lion-tailed macaque with a face framed in a fluffy mane of fur.
The driver abruptly stopped the bus and everyone wondered what was happening. He stuck his hand out the window and flicked his fingers. What was it—snot? A bug? The man selling the bus tickets rushed to the driver to find out what was wrong.
”Hmm, leeches,” Sumod said. A leech—a sticky, two-mouthed, blood-sucking creature had found its way inside the bus and landed on the driver. My gawd! I started checking myself for leeches, looking for blood or a swollen lump on my flesh. I hate leeches, and I thought about them for the rest of the day, hoping I would not become a victim.
The road opened into an area with several houses spread on the nearby hills. Time for breakfast for the driver. A canteen offered simple breakfast fare and tea, the latter of which I thankfully accepted. Sumod ran off down the road, but walked back when he saw me standing outside with my glass of tea.
”Is that a bidi you’re smoking?”
He sheepishly said yes, even though he was trying to hide the tiny lit cylinder behind his back.
”Those things are strong, aren’t they?”
”No. Ten of these equals one regular cigarette.”
”Who told you that?” He had no reply and just puffed away.
According to Wikipedia, “Beedies deliver more nicotine, carbon monoxide, and tar and carry a greater risk of oral cancers (then regular cigarettes).” He had a rather bad smoker’s cough and a bit of a wheeze.
He later told me that in Kerala there is a 200-rupee fine for people smoking in public, hence his need to slink away behind a building or tree where a government official was less likely to see him smoking.
Our journey continued over several dams, up and down switchbacks, atop mountain ridges
where hills beyond peeked through layers of mist. Great mounds of elephant poop, so fresh I thought they were emitting steam, were on the side of the road. The bus passengers erupted in shouting and the bus stopped. They all urged me to look behind the bus on a hillside, where I could barely see grey blobs. I pointed my camera that way and snapped, proving to myself later that I had actually seen some elephants.
We met only a half dozen or so vehicles along the route. When a bus appeared, we had to stop and maneuver gently off the side of the road to allow the two vehicles to share the single track. We also met some jeeps filled with tourists—they were on the full day tour from Kumily, at quite an expense. I felt smug, because I was having a jungle experience for a fraction of the cost! The quality, however, was totally different.
The air warmed rapidly as we descended into a small town where we got down and headed for a restaurant. It was about 10:30 am and I was very hungry. We had simple parotha and spicy beans. Sumod kept questioning the
people in the restaurant about the 10:30 bus which would take us further, but we appeared to have missed it.
“We’ll walk a half kilometer or so.” Then what, I thought. We walked, and walked, and walked, on a seemingly deserted road, and I was questioning the plan. After about 30 minutes of walking, a car came along and Sumod stepped into the roadway. The driver had to stop. He talked to the driver, then opened the back door and we both piled in next to a rather large woman who had to move boxes and bags and books.
Just go with it, I thought. I’ve placed my well-being in his hands and it will all work out.
Seven kilometers later the driver dropped us at an intersection. Again in the middle of nowhere. There was no traffic. A curious dog emerged to sniff both of us, then wandered off. We turned down a road and plunged into forest, going down a long hill.
“Does this road go somewhere?”
“Yes.” Well of course it went somewhere, but how far were we walking to somewhere? Would a bus pass and stop for us? There was very
little traffic—a motor cycle or two, and the drivers stared. They must have thought this was a crazy scene—a foreigner walking with this Indian man in the middle of the jungle. I was thankful it was not raining, and tried instead to enjoy the jungle sounds.
Sumod was a fast walker and seemed to expect me to walk just as fast, so I matched his pace.
“Oh you’re lucky today!” Right, because I was walking for another half hour on a jungle road not knowing where we were going and when we would be picked up? And weren’t there leeches along the road ready to spring on to my bare skin?
“I saw a giant squirrel.” Indeed he had. A Malabar squirrel was running along a teak tree branch, his black and cream coat of fur slinking against the sunlit teak leaves above him. We watched for awhile, then saw two more. They were eating the teak “fruits,” and casting off the big kernel to the ground.
We heard a big vehicle approaching from behind us. It was worth a try. I put on my brightest smile and looked alluringly in the vehicle’s direction. Sumod tried
to make himself look hopeful and stepped into the roadway. We had to get the drill down just right. But the big lorry didn’t even slow down and instead sped on by. We kept walking in the middle of the road, looking for more giant squirrels, monkeys, birds, anything.
Sumod showed me how a young teak leaf could be rubbed on the hand leaving a red dye. Then he pointed out a millipede crossing the road. I really wanted to see a tiger.
We kept going down into a drainage, then heard another big vehicle approaching. This time we would be successful in capturing a ride I thought. A passenger vehicle rounded the corner, with a lorry hot on its tail lights. Sumod had waved the vehicle over and I thought surely that lorry is going to smash into the rear of the automobile. But it didn’t. Sumod climbed in the front and I got in the back.
Ten minutes later the driver dropped us at an intersection of a village. Across the street, a gaggle of men under a shelter was erupting in man noises. I moved closer to investigate, noting that playing cards were being
tossed around a flat board and six men were holding cards. One of the players had half a card stuck behind his ear.
“Are you gambling?” I asked.
“No gambling. This is just for fun to pass the time,” a young man replied. Most of the men were auto rickshaw drivers, and their vehicles were parked in a row nearby. There was hardly any traffic, and hardly any people save these men and a woman waiting for a bus. Business appeared to be nonexistent for the auto rickshaw drivers.
“Just another ten minutes for the bus,” said Sumod. I’ve learned that in India you can always triple the time estimates, maybe even quadruple them. So I watched the guys playing their card game for another 30 minutes. They slapped the cards on the table with great gusto, laughing and poking fun at each other. The card behind the ear was the “card of shame,” signifying that that team of players was losing. After a great guffaw rumble, they closed the card game and wandered off, many of them going to their respective rickshaws for a nap.
Eventually our bus appeared, and we started riding a string
of buses in order to make our way back to Kumily. Turns out we were nearly 100 km away from home. We rode four buses and loitered in three bus stations before pulling into Kumily. By the end of my 12-hour adventure, I was sweaty, sleepy, sore from banging against the side of the bus, hungry, thirsty, and mostly happy with my adventure. Sumod was happy to provide me with his “guiding” services.
I knew it would all work out somehow. Although I really wanted to see a tiger.
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