I arrive at the ecotourism office just before 1:30 pm, much to the chagrin of my driver, who makes it clear that he disapproves of my sightseeing priorities.
It has been a bumpy morning for us, as I have taken to ignoring his destination suggestions. A short while later he tells me that the two British friends who had come sightseeing with me the day before, were not allowed in the car. Nobody was allowed in the car except me.
I have realized by this point, that my driver is somewhat controlling, and while there may be such a rule, he is exaggerating it.
In response, I get on the phone and loudly tell my travel agent that if nobody else is allowed in the car I may cancel the cab early. This silences him for the moment.I ask the lady at the ecotourism office about the various packages. There are two people waiting for a third to join them for the park nature walk.
Although it sounds like e a little bit of a boring activity, I call the couple, and they arrive at the office within a few minutes.
As it turns out, we have to be at the bus stand in 20 minutes, and so I rush to my hotel, hurriedly check in and change and am heading out, when I decide to swallow my pride and take the stupid taxi to the bus stand. It is only a 10-15 minute walk but I don’t have enough time.
My driver screws up his face as he moves the car towards my destination and asks why I want to go there. I tell him, quite simply, that I need to take a bus.
He asks, probably for the third or fourth time if I’m going boating, and I say no. He asks how much it costs. Knowing his angle, I feign ignorance, and tell him I got it as part of a package. Frustrated he goes silent again.
We board the bus, and I chat with a girl named Angie (who has been to India 6-7 times already, but never to Kerala). She’s from Pasadena, and I have relatives there so we bond over that and she tells me of her own strange experiences of being a foreigner in India.
We reach the park and part ways, as she is going boating. We meet Suresh, who is to guide us through the walk. Suresh is quiet serious man, who has low tolerance for nonsense.
At this point, the husband asks Suresh “is it safe?”
He gets a mischievous smile on his face and says “well anything may happen.”
The husband looks mildly panicked and goes quiet. The couple asks me to take a photo of them. I do it innocently enough, not realising what I’m in for.
Finally we get up and head across and metal bridge towards the shoreline of the water, separating forest from park entrance.
We don life jackets, and I’m about to walk towards the raft, when the husband hands me the camera, asks me to wait on the shore and take a photo of them on the boat.
This brings our walk to a standstill, as neither Suresh can board the raft, nor can the small group behind me.
We start walking along the water, feeling the remnants of the afternoon heat burning down on our skin.
The couple appear to have a two minute interval for photos, as they keep pausing. They are keen to see elephants; there are no tigers in this part of the park unfortunately, as Suresh explains.
The couple are young, rather cute, and newlyweds from what I’m guessing. It must be one of their first major trips away from home.
Unfortunately, the charm of this is lost on Suresh, as he all but rolls his eyes when we stop so one or both of them can pose, or so that he or I might click their photo.
He later tells me, “next time you come alone.”
It cools down after we get off the waters edge. Suresh walks straight ahead, with the swagger of someone who knows these jungles inside out. Dragonflies buzzes around us, painting invisible circles in the air.
The couple are excited at the prospect of seeing an elephant, and were so pumped up about it, that the girl has worn a tee shirt with an elephant on it.
“We also have one baby elephant,” says her husband goofily. I smile, Suresh’s face remains expressionless. They ask about tigers but those, are apparently kept in the off-limits area of the park.
At one point Suresh stops us, and walks ahead to check the coast is clear. I hear the familiar click of the camera behind me as they pose while we wait.
Finally he signals us that the coast is clear. As we catch up to where he’s standing, some 50 meters ahead of us, he points out the fresh elephant dung. A short while later we find wild dog stool as well.
The fact that they’re fresh means the animals are close.
“This is not a joke,” said Suresh. The wild animals could do anything. People had been injured on this walk before but thankfully nobody had died. This gave the name “nature walk” a much more sinister meaning than I had first imagined.
Suresh tells me how the guava trees were brought in by the British. However he speaks in a low mumble, difficult to understand whilst walking in a singular file. Tiny flowers dot the grass on either side of the track, interspersed with small plants growing wild.
We pass a few elephant mud bathing pools. Mud cools and protects the elephants skin. They also look fresh. We must be close.
Suddenly Suresh stops us again. We freeze, and he shushes the couple, who cannot help but whisper to each other at such inopportune moments.
They start taking photos again, much to Suresh’s annoyance. He creeps ahead and then returns and makes us walk back to where we came from.
Apparently there is a baby elephant sleeping in the wooded area we are just about the cross. Soon enough we hear the mother’s bellows from across the way.
Another group has come up behind us, and they too have stopped for fear of angering her.
We are pushed further back. The wife reprimands the husband for wearing white, apparently it is recommended to wear dark colours in the jungle so you do not stand out. I look at the other couple, who are foreign tourists, in their bright white tops and curse our luck.
Suresh asks us to be very quiet and very still while we wait. A few obligatory clicks are slipped in behind me, and I start to wonder, if this may turn Jurassic Park on us because of something silly like a camera click.
Finally Suresh motions us to come back the other way. The other guide does not follow. Both people in my party ask pleadingly if we can’t wait with the others.
“It’s too dangerous,” said Suresh. “If something happens there goes my job.”
I by this point, am quite relieved, because getting trampled by a wild and pissed off mama elephant, is not high on my list of priorities, vacation or no vacation.
We come into the jungle now, further and further into the depths. By one of the trees, the couple once again asks me to take a few photos.
I have not gotten over my brief spell of wilderness jitters, so I start envisioning the headlines
“Solo female traveller mauled by wild elephant while clicking photo.”
That would be such a cruelly ridiculous way to go, I wouldn’t blame people for snorting a little bit as they read it.
At one point Suresh looks at them and asks me “why do they do this?”
I smiled, and told him they were young.
“I’ve been doing this so many years, and this is the first time I see something like this.”
I smile again, torn between feeling indulgent towards them and agreeing with Suresh.
We spot wild monkeys, and though I don’t have the camera to capture them, I content myself with watching them play, swinging from branch to branch. These are black monkeys that do not prefer to interact with humans.
At this point the husband’s cellular phone rings. It sounds like a work call because he mentions something about selling another lot, before explaining he is on a nature walk, so that’s why he has to go. I chuckle inwards as I think of Suresh’s blood pressure rising.
The jungle floor is littered with dead leaves that crunch crisply underfoot, and we dodge the trunk carcasses block our paths, and sharp bits of branch sticking out, in hopes of skewering hapless accident-prone human travellers (like me).
Here, life and death intermingle comfortably – the latter isn’t a dark word to be hidden away and not spoken of. Death is a necessary part of a healthy ecosystem, and in turn supports new life. Every space, every nook and cranny, be it dead tree trunks or greying grass, each sprouts life.
Suresh showed me new leaves juxtaposed with old, small clumps of greenery emerging from tree trunks standing or fallen, spider webs stretched across blades of grass, vines swallowing the trees, a fig tree that grew over another wild (and dead) tree, wild rubber trees, leaves sprouting from the trunk of an orchid tree, and much more.
My reverie is interrupted by the husband’s cellular phone ringing again. This time it sounds like a female relative. After chatting with her, his wife takes the phone and starts a very animated conversation, where she uses some amount of baby talk.
The husband comes to his senses as he notices that we are traipsing downhill, and makes his wife get off the phone before she slides down all the way towards the raft. Suresh does not react, but I have the sense he is relieved that this is almost over.
However in spite of all the hullabaloo, as we head back to the raft, having missed spotting fauna of any interest, I’m not disappointed. I’ve gained something today.
What exactly that is, I cannot articulate. Words are simply not enough.