It was quite dark and dawn hadn’t broken yet. At 5 am, two cars had already lined up at the forest checkpost. Fayez jumped at the chance and drove right behind them. He muttered a quick thank you to the man at the booth. We stopped at the entrance of the forest to rest for a while.
Soon, the skies were bursting with ombre hues of mauve and black. The stars twinkled one last time fading away in the purple dawn, reminding us they’d be back. The passing clouds impaled the faint primrose blush of sunrise as a blanket of fog stretched over the valley beneath us. We heard water gushing through the forests and decided to follow the sound. We came across a few breathtaking waterfalls and decided to stop there for a while. We could hear someone whistling in a distance. We looked around and couldn’t spot anyone. We heard it again and it baffled us. We then realised that it was a Malabar Whistling thrush whose calls at dawn often have a human-like tone to it.
As the sun came out, we caught a glimpse of the Pothundy Dam nestled between the hills. Clouds hovered over the mountain ranges and moved rapidly towards the foothills. The entire landscape was engulfed in a misty halo. Atop the ranges where we were, it was a sight for the heavens. It started raining and we decided to head uphill.
In the sleepy town of Nelliampathy, we came across a small restaurant called ‘Tiny’. We stopped there for some breakfast. Unlike other hilly regions, this one seemed a bit different. We couldn’t identify what it was but there was something definitely unusual about this town. After gorging on some piping hot idlis, appam and coffee, Fayez struck a conversation with the man who ran the place. He told them that we were looking for the Adivasi colony.
In conversation, the man told us that the forest department leases out land for 99 years and if we were interested to see an available plot, then we would have to take local tourist jeeps. Private vehicles weren’t allowed. He then gestured another man to join us and inquired with him about the rates. He told us that he’d charge us Rs 3,000 for 28 kms. Obviously, they were trying their level best to con us and we weren’t going to fall into their trap. So, we politely declined his offer.
One of the men talking to the hotel owner turned to us and said, “If you want to meet the Adivasis, you need to inform the Sub Inspector. You have to take his permission to enter tribal lands.” We found that to be absolutely bizarre. We were fully aware that neither do we require permission to meet tribals here nor was it necessary for us to make our presence felt in any police station. Unless the tribals resided deep in the forest reserves where it was forbidden to enter, we do not have to seek any permission from the authorities. Naturally, we assumed that palms would have to be greased and there was no way we were going to aid in a morally corrupt process.
We asked them for some scenic spots to visit in town and wondered aloud if there were any places that offered cheap accommodation. They told us that the cheapest we would find here would cost Rs 1000 to Rs 1500 per day. Since, we were travelling on a shoestring budget, shelling out Rs 1000 for accommodation would be massively inconvenient for us. So, we just thanked them and left.
So far, we’ve been wondering why Nelliampathy wasn’t as popular as Munnar or Wayanad within the tourist circuit. With every passing moment, it became clear to us. Making a quick buck and ripping someone off was far more important than building relationships with guests and asking them to spread a kind word about their business in town. Rather than focusing on nurturing a tourist scene, everyone was content looting outsiders as much as possible. Guest houses would rather remain empty than give out their rooms for a slightly cheaper rate.
Some locals told us that there’s a place called Suicide Point a few kilometres away from town. Supposedly, it offers a stunning view of Palakkad District. We headed there and found clean bathrooms to freshen up while an old senile Bengali man troubled us for parking the jeep too close to him. He behaved erratically and talked to himself. He switched languages mid-way during conversation. If we spoke to him in Malayalam, he would yell at us in Hindi. And, if we spoke to him in Hindi, he would answer in Malayalam. Apparently, he worked in the tea estates nearby.
We trekked to the View Point through a tiny pathway filled with leeches. To our left, were rolling tea gardens perched on a hill slope. The rising mist on the green winding paths added a mystical charm to the place. We walked down further and as the fog cleared we saw endless fields of lush green vegetation below us, to our right. We stopped at numerous spots to soak in the beauty of the hills. The weather kept altering every few minutes. In a moment, the entire landscape would be drenched in rain, engulfed in clouds, bathed in warm sunshine or just remain evergreen in its resounding splendour. We also found some wild lemon grass growing everywhere and Fayez plucked a few to plant them in Bodi.
We walked towards the mountains till we could see two waterfalls in the area. The sun had come out and the landscape changed its mood altogether. Every single leaflet was bathed in an orb of gold and the mismatched hues of green brought the grasslands to life.
After an hour or two, we decided to head back. We were running low on fuel and had to go to a neighbouring town to source some. We had forgotten to fill the tank before climbing the hills and were about to pay a heavy price for it. We weren’t sure if the jeep could make it to town. Since, we were climbing downhill, Fayez decided to run the car on neutral. It stopped several times and he managed to start it somehow and push it to the very last mile. Two young boys saw us struggling with the jeep and inquired if everything was alright. We told them that we were out fuel. To that one of the boys replied, “You will get diesel in the town ahead. They will charge you a bomb. Good luck and I hope you make it.”
The jeep broke down right next to the shop that sold diesel. We were told that we could get 5 ltrs for Rs 375. We were being charged Rs 20 extra per litre. We had no choice and decided to pay up. A kid got a can and used a broken bottle as funnel. Fayez measured the fuel using his own can and realised that it was a little short of 5 ltrs. When we informed the shopkeeper, he yelled at us and said, “I measured it myself. It is fine. You won’t get diesel anywhere else.”
We were quite upset about the situation but we decided to move on anyways. We drove uphill for a while and came across some sloping hills with tea estates and a beautiful church tucked away in the town next to a mosque.
So far, our experience in hilly towns has been nothing short of extraordinary. The people are warm and welcoming and it somehow seemed as if the hills had humbled them. Here, on the other hand, for the first time we experienced a ruthless demeanour towards outsiders. We didn’t really get the lovely serene hilly vibe from the locals at all. And, that struck us odd!
On our way back, we inquired with a few villagers if there was an ATM nearby. They said that there was some government run Akshaya scheme but they hadn’t seen any ATM. The closest one was 23 kms away. We also asked them where the adivasi colony was. They gave us directions and told us to turn around.
We headed towards the tribal settlement in the vicinity. There we found cement houses lined up on both sides of the streets. We saw a few women who were estate workers using tarpaulin sheets on their heads to protect themselves from the rain. We drove for about a kilometre and realised that this wasn’t the settlement we were looking for. We headed back towards the winding hilly roads to look for the colony.
In a few minutes, we spotted four Nilgiri Langurs with furry brown grey hair all over their crimson faces climbing from one tree to another. We headed further up and decided to stop at a depression within the hilly slopes. Between the trees, we saw a giant bird hunched over a branch. We debated for a while if it was an eagle or a vulture. We stopped there to take some pictures and saw a frail old man walk past us.
His name was Madhavan. He worked in the tea estates for the past 30 years and was a permanent resident here. He had the most beautiful smile and spoke with such calmness. He told us that his parents were estate workers too. He invited us to have lunch with him. Since, we had already eaten we asked him to carry on.
We continued driving through the forests and it started raining cats and dogs. We could barely see the roads ahead. While traversing the winding paths, a yellow lorry decided to take a sharp turn instead of slowing down. We didn’t have much time to react. The slippery roads and poor visibility led us to driving the jeep off road into a deep ditch. It almost toppled but Fayez managed to keep it intact. The jeep was badly stuck and couldn’t move an inch. We were now stranded in the middle of the forests with a few hours left for the sun to go down…
Project ‘Rest of My family‘ is an attempt to connect back, re-discover our relationship with and understand our responsibility towards the larger family that we are a part of — the rest of our human family. Hence, it is titled Rest Of My Family.
Through #RestofMyFamily, we will focus on highlighting social issues and human interest stories, documenting the triumphs of the ordinary man despite all the hardships they face constantly, and help these stories reach a larger audience and wherever necessary extend support to the individuals and communities that we write about. We hope to make a direct impact to the lives of those people we meet and find suffering due to various social issues; to connect the ones who need help to the ones who can help….
Find more about the campaign here: http://igg.me/at/restofmyfamily/x/539502