I met Dr. Anne on my first trip to Kanyakumari, way back in early July, almost a life time ago. It certainly feels a life time ago. Dr. Anne is a ‘retired’ doctor, and at 68 still fully employed and in the thick of it. A misfit in Indian society: a woman who makes her own decisions and tries to break the mould, with a husband who allows her free spirit to blossom. Whilst hubby takes charge of a menagerie of cats and dogs in Maharashtra, Dr. Anne provides palliative care for cancer patients in Kerala. Dr. Anne hails from Kerala but has not lived here for quite some time and is just as keen as me to explore all the wonders the state has to offer. So as soon as I returned from Nepal, we met over a sumptuous dinner of chicken biryani and came up with a plan of action, or rather a list of places on our to-do list.
On our first weekend we headed to Kumarakam, a bird sanctuary not far from Dr. Anne’s ‘home’ town. I cannot say that birds are my thing, but any chance to escape the little hamlet of N has to be grabbed with both hands. So off we went, early Saturday morning, by bus. Dr. Anne is a firm believer in using public transport, especially using buses. ‘It may well take a little longer than by train but it is definitely more exciting than going by taxi. You meet more people,’ or so she claimed. Five hours later – including my extra hour getting to our meeting place in Trivandrum – we reached Kottayam, bursting to go to the loo and dying for some sustenance. No such luxuries as toilets on Indian long distance buses, nor time for food stops. And then one more hour by bus saw us indeed to our destination.
And the bird sanctuary? A backwater trip by boat was required to guide us along tranquil Kerala rivers to spot the resident wildlife. Only having arrived at midday, we missed any dawn chorus as well as the magnificent deep pink sea of lotus flowers in full bloom. By lunchtime most of them had sealed themselves shut, carefully guarding their secret morning display. And birds? We counted about three… apparently Kumarakam’s birds migrate and were not expected back in the area until December… Still, not all was wasted and lost. We had a fantastic lunch of fried Karimeen fish and succulent prawn curry after carefully selecting the seafood we wanted to eat.
Luckily the rest of the weekend had not been planned in detail, as per Indian tradition it all got changed last minute. Instead of finding a hotel for the night, we were invited to spend Saturday night with Dr. Anne’s family… So I met her brother, sister-in-law, her nephew’s wife and two children, her friend and the neighbours; got the grand tour of the house; uprooted Dr. Anne from her usual bed which I was to take whilst she slept on the sofa; was confined to the house whilst heavy monsoon rains kept us company; spent most of the evening, the whole night and the best part of the next morning in darkness as an uprooted coconut tree caused a power cut; had dinner by candlelight and storm lamp without the romance; and entertained a three year old bouncy boy who had great fun imitating my English.
The rains finally subsided on Sunday morning, in time for us to start our journey back. As it had taken six hours to get to the bird sanctuary and another two to reach Dr. Anne’s family house, we left before lunch heading for Kottayam, by bus of course! And then onto the train, which was full to the brim. But Dr. Anne is a seasoned traveller and used to elbowing her way into a carriage, and squeezing herself into the tiniest bit of space… I, however, found a seat all to myself. Being in a sleeper carriage intended for long distance travel meant there was room right at the top, on a berth just below the ceiling fans. I clambered, not quite ladylike I must admit, on the metal ladder and hoisted myself up. I used my rucksack as a pillow and put my head down – not enough room for sitting except in yoga pose – and slept all the way to Trivandrum, four hours of blissful rest to the tune and the hum of the railway.
The next weekend we ventured on a day trip to Punmoody, the highest ‘hill’ in the area, a gem ‘just outside’ Trivandum at a mere 50 km away. And indeed in the Western world, 50 km is hardly worth worrying about. But this is India, where snail’s pace traffic is the norm and crawling up the hills mandatory, if only because the buses can’t get up speed!! No such rules for motorbikes menacingly weaving in and out, racing around blind corners and giving chase. We set off for Punmoody in the early morning, arriving well before lunch time and ready to hike the last few kilometres. At the entrance, I was relieved of 600 rupees, whereas Dr. Anne – being Indian – paid just 20 rupees. Not even the hills are free in India, the Indian tourist industry has clearly smelled an opportunity to make a quick and easy buck!! My indignation did not get me anywhere as I had not brought my passport or visa registration documents to prove that I was NOT a tourist, so no concessions for me.
Nevertheless, it was amazing to witness the constant shapeshifting of the hills in the Monsoon season. Low hanging clouds, pregnant with rain, swept across the sky, trailing sheer cotton-wool layers. People spectres hazed in barely translucent fog. Rocky outcrops appeared naked, people ants precariously balancing on top. And just as we were ready to climb the outlook tower, it was swallowed up by a thick, impenetrable mist . Punmoody is difficult to describe, but definitely worth the experience.
On our way back, we stopped at a waterfall, MY entry fee again inflated because of my ‘tourist status’. We walked at a brisk pace; it was getting late and rain clouds threatened a soggy hike. On our way up, we glimpsed some visitors dipping in the swollen river, where nature had carved out a small pool. We climbed higher, stumbling over rocks and tree trunks. We held on tight to the railings and ropes on the sides and pulled ourselves upwards, the sultry afternoon heat making our clothes clammy with sweat. Fewer and fewer people shared our path… Had we missed the waterfall? I went ahead and eventually spotted a waterfall between the trees. Was this it? Apparently, the best spot to view the waterfall, the whole waterfall, had been closed off because the heavy rainfalls of the previous days made it too treacherous.. But they did not tell us, nor adjust the astronomical (for me) entrance fee…
Our way back took hours longer than expected. Because of our little detour, we missed direct buses to Trivandrum, the one hour journey took about three.. But we got there in the end… Maybe there are some advantages to using your own personal taxi driver, and I may need to discuss this with Dr. Anne after all…