WAYANAD HAS THE MAKINGS OF SOMETHING truly wonderful. It has misty peaks, miles of tea plantations, tall, lanky palm trees, and gushing waterfalls – it is absolutely bursting with vegetation. It is also home to a large wildlife preserve that hosts elephants living in the wild, exotic birds, and numerous other species. Despite all of this, it only has rudimentary tourist infrastructure making it difficult and expensive to visit. Travis and I decided to visit anyway as we couldn’t resist the temptation of glimpsing elephants in their natural habitat. Unfortunately, thousands of other Indian families had the same idea. Many of them had decided to spend their month long holiday in between Christmas and New Years in this peaceful outdoor retreat, which had the effect of eliminating any trace of peacefulness that existed.So instead of a quiet, serene landscape we found a landscape teeming with boisterous Indian tourists.
We arrived in Wayanad around 10 o’clock at night after a horrendously long travel day. We left our hotel in Southern Goa at 4 am and took a van (that just happened to have large buckets of marinating raw meat in the back seat – a smell that permeated the whole van)
to the train station an hour away. This was followed by a 9 and a half hour train ride and then a 6 hour bus ride with standing room only through the harrowing, winding hills of Wayanad. The last stretch of the journey, the bus ride, was supposed to be a mere 2 hours, but we got held up at the bus station for almost two hours waiting for the bus to fill up, then got stuck on the bus for 6 more due to an accident up ahead. By hour 4 Travis and I’s patience was wearing thin – but looking around at all the Indian people sitting calmly, not complaining gave us a fresh perspective. I got the feeling they had done this before. Plus, the women on the bus were incredibly friendly and eager to learn about my life and why I was in India. These conversations and connections with local people are what makes traveling worthwhile for me. The attractions are just that – but the people are kind souls, always eager to practice their English. We finally pulled into the town of Kalpetta at 10pm, after 18 hours of traveling. The doors to the bus
swung open, and we tumbled out into a dark, deserted street. Normally there are dozens of rickshaw drivers vying for our attention the second we step off the bus so this was a bit of a shock. Walking up and down the dark street we eventually saw a single rickshaw and flagged him down. He took us to the guesthouse that we had called the previous day, which ended up being a single room in someone’s house. The house and room were beautiful, located on a quiet, residential street, but our host - while incredibly kind and eager to please - was also incredibly socially awkward. He had a knack for knocking on our door every time we had just gotten comfortable (which for me involves stripping down to my skimpies).
The next day after catching up on sleep our host dropped us off at the peaceful Pookot Lake where we took pictures of cheeky monkeys and Indian tourists took pictures of us. While we have generated a decent amount of attention in other areas of India we ascended to celebrity status in Wayanad. People stopped to take pictures with us everywhere we went, whole bus loads of boys
would cheer when they saw my face in the bus window, and every few feet men and women stop us to inquire about our lives. Pookot Lake was full of Indian tourists on holiday – families eating ice cream and peanuts and splashing around in paddle boats. Huge white cranes landed gingerly on lily pads in the water and monkeys scampered around in the trees. Afterwards we went shopping at the spice shops nearby.
The following morning we climbed out of bed while it was still dark (a cocky 5 am) and into the back of a jeep that was waiting to take us to the wildlife safari. A brisk 45 minutes later we arrived at Muthanga National Park and went to get in line to get our tickets, but in usual Indian fashion, there was no line. Instead there was a crowd of men jockeying for a position next to the ticket desk. I prepared my elbows and dove into the seething crowd. I fought my way to the front and thrust my arm out, but apparently that wasn’t enough though – in order to get a number I needed to actually rib the piece of paper forcefully
from the guy’s hand like everyone else was doing. When all was said and done I thought I had done a pretty good job but somehow I still got one of the last numbers. After the numbers were handed out everyone resumed standing around waiting for something to happen. Finally, over an hour and a half later, our number was called and we were given a ticket to enter the park. Every time we experience something like this – chaos, disorder, inefficiency - Travis and I look at each other and repeat the mantra “it’s India man, deal with it.” An American Indian man said this to us on a train once in jest and since then the line has stuck as it has been very applicable to our daily life here. Take the following for example:
We are standing in line waiting for the ATM. Five men suddenly walk up and budge right in front of us as if we weren’t there.
Deal with it man, it’s India.
I am trying to climb onto the train with my heavy pack weighing me down when an old Indian woman bumps into me from behind practically knocking me
down. I almost trip climbing up the steps. She doesn’t even look back to acknowledge what happened.
Deal with it man, it’s India.
We check into our hotel sweaty and dirty after a 12 hour train ride. I cannot wait to take a long, hot shower to scrub the filth off of me (the words “HOT SHOWER” were written in bold print on the sign). We turn on the faucet. Only a small pathetic dribble of cold water comes out, not enough for a shower, much less a hot
Deal with it man, it’s India.
The jeep roars to a start, and we are off! As soon as we pull through the gates of the park two large, adult elephants come into view, one on either side of the road. They looked so much bigger than I had imagined. Finally! We have been seeing images of elephants the entire time we have been in Nepal and India but had never actually seen these elusive creature in the flesh. They looked really peaceful in their natural environment, with no saddles, chains, or ropes attached to them – free to graze and live as they please. As
we continued on down the dirt road we saw several other animals. Herds of spotted deer grazed in the trees, a brilliant iridescent colored peacock crossed the road right in front of us, and our guide pointed out a rare 5 foot long lizard high up in a tree. We also spotted about a dozen or so more elephants quietly grazing in the brush. It was worth the wait.
After the safari our jeep drove us to the Edakkal Caves, two natural caves that have hieroglyphics from the Stone Age on the walls. When we arrived we found a huge crowd of boisterous Indian tourists standing around waiting by the entrance. Similar to the park we had to get a number and wait around for it to be called; this time the wait was closer to two hours. We finally made it through the gate only to find that the waiting wasn’t over - you had to climb several hundred more meters to make it inside the actual cave, and there was a long, unmoving line all the way up. To make it even more frustrating people were constantly bumping into us. After spending 5 weeks in India I
can say pretty confidently that Indian people’s concept of personal space is not the same as ours – people constantly crowd and bump into us and think absolutely nothing of it. By the time we finally made it into the cave it was late in the day and we were exhausted, hot and irritated. It was interesting to see such ancient carvings but unfortunately I couldn’t appreciate it that much. We snapped a few pictures and tried to hightail it out of there – but we couldn’t. There were so many people inside the cave that we had to wait in a long line even to leave. I couldn’t wait to get home and crash, it had been a really long day, which consisted mostly of standing around and waiting – with a couple elephants and some hieroglyphics somewhere in between.
When we got back to our place I jumped in the shower to clean up before I retired to the bed. While I was still in the shower we heard a knock on the door - it was our host, Rajiv. Travis answered it. He stood there smiling and said with a head wobble, “we are going on
a cultural program now. There will be dancing and performances. Two Americans are outside waiting. Wear something Indian if you have it.” Travis smiled politely and closed the door. “Do you want
to go on a cultural program right now?” I asked. “It doesn’t matter if we want
to” said Travis, “he just told us that we are
.” Apparently the day was not over yet.
A few minutes later we climbed out of the car onto the side of a dark country road with another American couple we had picked up on the way (they thought they were going to and Italian woman’s house to couch surf). Up ahead we could see a crowd of people gathered around a brightly lit stage. After some conversation we deciphered that we were at some sort of wedding event being thrown for an Indian man (Surajiv) and a Swiss woman (Corrine). If you know anything about Indian culture, you know that weddings are a big
deal, and this was no exception. There were dancers, singers and dozens of live performers. Even the family of the Swiss woman took to the stage to sing a traditional Swiss German song and a rendition of
Edelweiss. After several hours of performances by friends and family a large tribal group of about 30 people took to the stage. You would’ve think Brittney Spears had showed up - the crowd went crazy. They began dancing wildly, throwing their arms and legs around haphazardly in all directions, eyes rolling in the back of their heads. Somebody even busted out the worm! Watching the guests dance was almost
as interesting as watching the tribal performance. There were drummers, dozens of dancers, singers, people spinning fire, and a guy parading around in an elaborate costume with a mask and large breast plate. It went on for hours. Around 9pm I found Rajiv and told him that we really needed to eat – we hadn’t eaten anything since 11 that morning. He led us over to a large tent where we were given a huge traditional Keralan feast, served on a banana leaf! There was rose flavored water, chicken curry, rice, pickled vegetables and several different types of sauces and condiments. It was so surreal sitting there in a field, eating off of a banana leaf with our hands, watching Indian men prance around in the fields as though they were
in a trance, and listening to tribal drums beat in the background. It totally saved our Wayanad experience. We finally went home around 11pm and I fell asleep before my head even hit the pillow.
To see more pics from Wayanad see Travis’ site: http://www.flickr.com/thejarvisproject
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