And so it was decreed that I should have last Friday off to accompany another British volunteer (student nurse) on a sight-seeing trip to Periyar, Thekkady. A trip into the cooler mountains, off to the greens of the tea plantations and the many elephants that can be spotted around the lakes and rivers, so the tourist guidebooks tell us… and if you really hit the jackpot, you might just glimpse the elusive and shy tiger. As if I hadn’t seen enough elephants this year, but these were the ones with the small ears, so a different kind and definitely worth the trip. A long weekend of indulging in pure touristy things, bliss. I do not use the word ‘decree’ lightly or in vain, but as I was hardly consulted in the process of organising this trip and men decided this on my behalf as if by divine right to rule women’s lives, it certainly felt more like a ‘decree’… Although I respectfully pointed out that for me to do this trip, I might just first need permission from the school, this was swept under the carpet and my words fell on deaf ears and the tickets were booked. So a little power struggle ensued between those in command, with me being caught in the crossfire… and for a few days I was left in limbo awaiting a final decision. I clearly was never destined to be a woman in India, demure, in deference to men who act as if their word is law, to be obeyed whether they are right or wrong, but at the same time incapable of making themselves a cup of tea. No, in this society I would definitely prefer to be the ‘blue stocking’ rather than being the inferior half in a partnership of un-equals. But I am sure that no offence was intended and that it was all done with the best intention, just not what Western women are accustomed to… So off I went on Friday morning.. and I praise the Lord for the early morning prayer call at the nearby mosque as without this I would have missed my train. I did set my alarm clock for the ungodly hour of 4.15 am, but I clearly was in the deepest of slumbers and its normal piercing sound did not penetrate my dreams, not that I recall anyway. As soon as my ears were greeted by the familiar lamenting of the local mullah, I realised something was amiss. No time for a wash, let alone a crucial shot of espresso and left-over sambar; thank goodness I had had the foresights of at least putting out my travel clothes; grabbed my bag, rushed out in a daze to find no sign of the tuk-tuk driver who sensibly had worked out that leaving at 5.00 am for the 6.30 am train was pure madness cooked up by men with too much time on their hands… So, I panicked and phoned Anandu, my faithful visitor who negotiates prices and is full of helpful (and not so helpful) advice – well, he did inform me the other day that he usually gets up at 5 am, so I figured that my call would not be too inconvenient and he duly assured me that the tuk-tuk driver would be there very soon, and indeed he was. It all worked out fine, and I got to the train station in plenty of time to meet up with Emma, the other volunteer. Travel in India is an experience not to be missed and doing it the luxury way means your visit lacks a touch of authenticity that can only be gained from using the transport the locals use. OK, as men had booked our train tickets, our first taste of train journeys was in the comfort of an air-conditioned compartment of the longest train I have ever seen. And the bus journey into the mountains was mostly uphill at an acceptable snails’ pace with the result we arrived at our destination too late to do any elephant spotting. However, we managed to catch a Kathakali drama performance that seemed to be intended for the hard-of-hearing as both Emma and I had to put our fingers in our ears and still felt deafened by the noise of the cymbals multiplied thousand-fold by the microphone in front of it – although it did not appear to have the same impact on the Indians in the audience…
After a refreshing sleep in the cooler air of the mountains – it certainly was colder, for once there was a use for the superfluous shawl which completes a churidar outfit so I draped it over my shoulders to keep the cold at bay – we were ready to venture into the wilds. We had opted to go in search of elephants on foot through the jungle before taking to Periyar Lake on a bamboo raft. I will not go on about the unfitness of the Indian population as I cannot be entirely sure that the six Indians in our group were representative, but you would have thought that a mere 5km hike is within the capabilities of the majority. Suffice it to say that there were many rest breaks and photo opportunities, regardless of whether there was anything worthwhile to be photographed. So we reached the lake in full anticipation of meeting, or at least viewing from afar, specimens of Elephas Maximum or Asian Elephants. And on the lake we went, paddled gracefully by our guides, whilst we sat as Queens of Sheba taking in the beauty of our surroundings. We spied cormorants, white egrets, and a kingfisher, tree stumps in water, bushes and trees on the banks, but elephants there were none… Still, on our way back through the jungle we came across a fresh tiger paw print, it having crossed the path we were on just a few hours before; it may well be the closest I’ll ever get to a tiger and maybe that is just as well as too close an encounter could easily spell a rather unfortunate end. Anyway, although we missed out on watching elephants in the wild, we had a more intimate meeting planned as Emma had her heart set on an elephant ride. Not on my bucket list, but I swallowed my fear and climbed aboard sitting astride this huge animal – I did ask for a little one, but unfortunately, they only come in Large or Extra Large sizes. For an hour we waddled and lumbered up and down the hills among the cardamom and Arabica coffee plants and palm trees, feasting on the most magnificent landscapes. The view certainly made up for the discomfort of having my legs in unnatural positions as I could not reach the footrests and my hands were numb from the tight grip on the metal handle bars. And getting off the elephant was hardly a relief – my legs seemed to have frozen into a permanent straddling arrangement. Fortunately the adventure did not end there as we were also invited to help with bathing the elephant. I had not quite imagined the hands-on approach as after all an elephant is still a wild animal, however domesticated and well-trained it may be. But into the bath – an enormous one – we went, scrubbing back, backside, legs and ears with a stiff brush. And I suppose, we could not object to the elephant getting its own back on us. Well, it certainly was the ice bucket challenge with a difference, four times in a row… I was soaked to the bone and very refreshed… and had not packed spare clothes. A cup of tea later, we got into a tuk-tuk on our way to our home-stay, satisfied after a day enjoyed to the full.
All that was left, was the journey back home the next day. First the bus ride, then the train, then the tuk-tuk… Whereas our crawl up the mountain had been quite sedate, on the way back we were in for a real treat! Move over Alton Towers and Disneyland take note! What is the point of paying a fortune on overpriced team parks when real thrills, death defying rides and roller coaster jaunts can be experienced for just one pound on the roads of India. No need for a seat belt; no need for a protecting harness; just you and the Indian traffic in the hands of a driver who makes overtaking cars at blind corners a sport… We hurtled downhill at avalanche speeds and uphill stretches seemed mere molehills hardly slowing down the pace. As the bus was rather empty at the start, we chose to sit on a spacious seat so we could put our bags between us. What a mistake! we kept on slipping and sliding across the bench collecting bruises and envied the Indian people with experience who preferred to squash tightly in smaller spaces so that they were securely wedged ready for the onslaught of the journey. We lost our bag of fruit to the bends in the road and the apple that was perched on the bottom step near the entrance was expertly whisked up by a vendor and as by magic appeared in his basket for sale. I would have loved to know how much it would have cost to buy our apple back, but by then we were bent over with laughter as we could hardly believe the journey we were experiencing.
Against all odds we arrived in one piece at Kottayam train station and after a very long wait, and a most refreshing Lassi laced with cardamom, our train finally arrived about 45 minutes late. Not one of the Indian travellers seemed to bat an eye-lid; maybe they had already learnt that arrival and departure times are really just guidelines.. But being really hot and stuffy after sitting in the sweltering heat of the platform, we quietly applauded the men who had had the foresight of booking us a comfortable seat in an air-conditioned compartment, and maybe having a taste of the real Indian train journey could wait for another day.