Day 116: Vattakanal
Aviel and Shay are still crumpled like old crêpes in their bed when I wake up. After pulling on pants and wrapping a red and purple pashmina around my shoulders, I sneak down to the guesthouse’s restaurant porch to curl my hands around a mug of ginger lemon tea. In the early morning muffle of the mountain’s quiet, I write until the primitive swathe lifts a little. Dawn’s chill tapers off, and the echoes around Vattakanal fold in on themselves. Suddenly, Aviel appears on the path, descending the hill. He spots me. “I’m going to the café. Want to join?”
“I’ll meet you there in ten,” I say.
He doesn’t get far. By the time I shuffle down the steep driveway and reach the street, Aviel is sitting on the curb not a hundred feet away, surrounded by a group of Indian men. I plop myself next to him and am soon knee deep in conversation. They are Christian, these men, which is one of the more obscure religions in India.
“I believe in Nature,” I say in response to someone.
“But how can you not believe in God?” A man with an impressive moustache asks, astounded.
Before I can answer, another fellow pipes up. “Nature can be god, too.”
“Exactly,” I say. “And the Universe, too.”
When Aviel and I arrive at the outdoor café, the owner greets us as usual.
He whips up fresh ginger coffee and avocado rolls from scratch. That little girl from the shop next door clutches onto chips and biscuits, her massive brown eyes agape at us from beneath her twirly pigtails. In awe of such open lack of self-awareness that only a child can possess, Aviel and I say hello.
Then, our breakfast is ready and the two of us scarf it down. I realize I left my phone back at the room.
“I’ll meet you at Altaf’s in a few minutes, okay?” I tell Aviel, referring to the restaurant down the street. It sits at the end of the road, which is where our hike begins today.
Back at the guesthouse, I bump into Goldi, the spiritually-inclined Israeli girl who stays in the room across from ours. We walk over to Altaf’s together, one of but a few places with a barely-there wi-fi signal. The boys all sit around a table next to the wall.
“I ran into Nagarjun earlier,” Aviel says to us as we walk in, leaning back in his chair. “He’s gonna come on the hike, too.”
Nagarjun is the young Indian dude we met the other day at the outdoor café where we ate breakfast. He’s easygoing and funky, with dark-framed glasses and long hair tied in a low, loose bun. Within minutes he shows up, a professional camera slung around his neck and a big grin on his face. Goldi’s wild coif of curls are bound in a knot on her head, Aviel is in his running shoes, and my feet are strapped into a pair of black hightop Converse. Ready to hike.
Our trek starts off at a negative ninety degree angle. We trip downhill past a film crew, who are seated in a staggered procession on rocks and exposed roots in a carved out section of the mountainside. The path empties and veers to the right, past shack-like houses flocked with chickens, past an army of trees. It dips down and then up and we find ourselves erected on the Dolphin’s Nose, a rocky outcrop created in the image of said aqueous mammal’s snout.
From the narrow tip of the nose, the earth drops off below, rolling out like a carpet of moss that, upon closer inspection, would reveal itself as the thicket of trees and magic that forests grow up in. We’re closer to the sky than to the bottom of the valley, a canvas on which the clouds have painted their silhouettes. Off to the right, nestled on a mountain ridge far below–a tiny village. Our destination. I look down again, straight past my knees to the lush, loitering jungle below. Just how far down is that?
This is where we lose Goldi. She’s not keen on a 16km hike today, but a geological cetacean schnoz proves a sufficient spot to meditate. After a few moments at the edge of the world–or one of ’em, at least–Aviel, Nagarjun, and I wave goodbye to our curly-locked lady and move back to the path. It wastes no time in getting us down, criss-crossing through the trees, rugged enough to trip us with exposed roots and sharp rocks. A treacherous glance away from the landings of our feet prove full of scandalous beauty. Layers of mountain after green mountain, like folds in a mossy tarpaulin, gather a dusting of gold silt the farther away they tumble, harvesting on their edges the nuggets of metallic sunlight pushing through the crop of clouds above.
The path, switchbacking at an average gradient of about a 45 degrees, seems to level out on the even calm of Nagarjun’s voice as he tells us stories. He talks about his job as a videographer for CNN and doing wedding photography; he recounts treks all over India, from Ladakh in the north and up 22,000 feet of elevation in the Himalayas, to the Coorg region and here in the Nilgiris. These here mountains are the Nilgiris, and we just plummeted to 1100 feet from our starting point of 2500 an hour ago.
The path nudges its way over a pass and saunters up another peak, past a small horse with a big bell around its neck that jingles hello and goodbye in conjunction with a flick of his head. At this little apex, the village spotted from the Dolphin’s Nose is now close enough to toss a packet of saffron at. Still, downward we climb. Haphazardly placed stones finally lead into the village, and not far off, groups of children play. Spotting us, they stop. Stare. Solemn. As we move slowly forward, whispers among them break out. They toss their arms around each other and hide smiles behind their dirty hands.
“RAWR!” I lunge forward with my hands over my head and they spread out, running backwards, shrieking in pseudo-fear. Then they sprint back, laughing, and Aviel moves in with high-fives. Nagarjun is already capturing everything on his camera when the elders emerge onto the scene. One of them is mute, with a golf-ball sized lump on his forehead. He picks up one of the kids, shoulders jumping with laughter. An elder lady swathed in pink turns to us. “Tea? Coffee?”
Through the small, colourful village, corrugated tin roofs beg for cats and dwellings are ignited by vibrant paint–pink, blue, yellow, green. On some roofs, damp laundry bakes under the South Indian sun. A woman roasts coffee beans in a spinning metal contraption over a fire; ladies in their chromatic saris sweep the pathways as we walk by; curious faces poke from doorframes.
The woman in pink leads us into her home, a sturdy structure fashioned of patties of cow dung, strong as concrete. Inside, it is cool and shady. Aviel and Nagarjun take a seat on a bench beside the old woman, and I sit on plastic chairs across from them. An elderly man sits further inside the house while younger members of the family mill about. They don’t speak much English, but Nagarjun converses with everyone in Tamil, then translates to us foreigners. A young lad makes sweet black coffee and the old woman disperses it into little metal cups as we chat.
The name of the village is Vellagiva. (At least, it’s something like that. Translation in English is difficult because the Tamil language has 40 characters and each character has 24 dialects.) 300 people live in Vellagiva in about 130 homes, and it has existed since before Kodaikanal, the denser sister-town of Vattakanal, where we came from today. Our host, who is ninety years old, was born here, as were her parents and grandparents. Bananas have always been Vellagiva’s most lucrative export. To transport them, the villagers carry bushels atop their heads for eight kilometres uphill. It takes three hours to reach Kodaikanal, where they are then sold.
A bundle of the famed mountain bananas are passed around, and when I bite into the small, meaty fruit, a tang mixes with the familiar mellow sweetness that makes me instantly crave another.
The old man tells us he has a small house on the mountainside we can rent out, if we like. Our trio follows him out of the hut and through the village, up a big clunky staircase, past cute kids and more houses with eyes creeping in the doorways, and finally down a narrow footpath through the brush. Amongst the leaves and bushes protrudes a tiny cow dung hut, the colour of powdered milk and cocoa, not six feet by twelve feet, and topped with a tin roof. Its aluminum door is framed by green wood and garnished with a pink sash and a banner of dried pea pods. At the foot of the door, prayer symbols have been mapped out in white paint. This humble piece of Vellagivan architecture stands erect just near the edge of the mountain with an expansive view over the Nilgiris and the lowlands of Tamil Nadu.
The surrounding trees are flowering something fluffy and white. Our guide pulls a fluff down and shows it to us–it’s similar to cotton. The villagers stuff their pillows and blankets with it. First, someone climbs the tree, Nagarjun says, converting between Tamil and English, and shakes the soft material to the ground where it is collected in bags. He then explains the incredible building properties of cow dung. Once a wooden frame has been erected, the dried feces is mixed with water and straw, then molded in around the frame until the structure is complete. Even the floor is hardened dung. There is no scent, though, and it in fact boasts antiseptic and anti-fungal qualities. The villagers wash their houses and floor with cow urine for the same reason. In the mornings, some people use it to clean their face and hands.
The mountain bananas tumble around in my tummy with the mountain coffee and nothing else. I’m hungry. And I know Aviel feels the same. When you spend close to 24 hours a day with anyone, your stomachs start to speak the same dialect of growl.
“Wonderful house,” we tell Nagarjun to tell the man, then start walking back from whence we came, along the dirt path and through the fence and past the sleeping doggies and down the stairs past creeping kids and goats and chickens, past the old woman’s house where we drank coffee.
We wave goodbye and head back into the dense thicket which is the Nilgiris, where the echoes of our aching tummies scare away jungle beasts as we trek through eight kilometres of mountain, climbing 1400 metres in two hours. Within the first twenty minutes, Aviel disappears, running up the path, singing. Nagarjun and I are left to climb slowly but steadily, and we reach him at the last kilometre, stopping at one of the little houses where a family sells tree tomatoes.
Nagarjun pulls off to the side and picks out three. “Here,” he says. “Eat this.”
“What is it?” It looks like a tomato but with a different stem. The flesh is thick and inedible. Inside, the seeds are black. The meat is like the offspring of a guava and a, well, tomato. It’s delicious.
Back in town, we’ve earned ourselves some chai, after which I pounce on the shitty wi-fi at Altaf’s Cafe and inhale a tuna salad. Then Aviel trickles in, followed by Shay. When we settle in to our room at the end of the night, I type away on my laptop, giving sidelong glances to the two of them playing a KinderEgg mini tennis set. Eventually, Shay quits and falls asleep. Aviel and I ensue on a discussion covering the future of planet earth and humans and religion and Judaism.
Then, we sleep.