May 4th – Drinking in the dark

From Nalimbur, we further trundled into the foothills of the Western Ghats. Having left the relative comfort of the railways behind, the high wheel-base of the Humvee-like public busses were our means up the windy roads and through the close, green confines of the hillside tracks. Despite there being a closely interlinking and well-used state transport infrastructure, the busses that connected the towns with their smaller satellite villages were inevitably crowded. Of the three connecting buses we caught, I was only lucky enough to secure a seat on one of them, so that on the others I was forced to stand in the aisle with most of the rest of the passengers. There was an added bonus to these rides of having my fifteen kilo bag on my bag because the storage was as full as the bus was, as well as being three inches taller than the available headroom. In hindsight, the experience of becoming intensely stressed and irritable whilst being forced to adopt a lopsided gait probably appeared quite funny to those around me, even if it didn’t appear funny to me.

From the town of Kalpetta, the central hub nestled in and amongst an array of protected state parks clustered in the North Eastern edge of Kerala, we pushed further north and into the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary itself, catching our final bus of the day. The last forty-eight hours had seen us ride (in order of appearance), a ferry, a rickshaw, two trains, three busses, another rickshaw, two more busses and then an army-green, open-top jeep that finally took us onto the guesthouse that we tumbled into, exhausted, just as the sun was burning orange through the trees around us. The guesthouse had been recommended to us by one of the rangers who had approached us off the bus, who then drove us down here for a small fee. The owner greeted all three of us with open arms and talked animatedly with the ranger only after we had been shown to our room. The stunning lodge he owned was nestled amongst land of his own, with the undergrowth and trees sloping up and away from us all around, so that it felt that there was little dividing where we stood in his garden with the surrounding national park. A walk further into the undergrowth and down his garden path did indeed reveal nothing more than a small metal gate separating his land from the path that sloped down and away from us, into the gloomy undergrowth and the park itself.

That evening we ate the meal his wife prepared with another family that was staying with him. Bilaji, Rosie and their two daughters were from Bangalore and were here for the weekend celebrating their daughter’s birthday. In their company, we were once again reminded of the disarming willingness Indians had of openly discussing employment, income, family situation and religion as freely as Brits would the weather or what was on TV. Both Bilaji and Rosie, speaking better English Alec or I, had jobs in the services sector in Bangalore and were the picture of India’s mushrooming middle class. We sat over dinner, gushing reverence for each other’s home countries and offering competing levels of cynicism toward our own respective nationalities, so that it became almost a satirical game.

After dark, we walked up the drive and into the darkness with a bottle of Rum that Bilaji had produced from his cooler bag. Amidst the soft rattle of the crickets all around us, we sat on a bench by the road and watched as a thousand fireflies twinkled and bobbed around us in every direction. The tiny green hovering dots would dance and blink against the pitch blackness, disappearing and reappearing behind invisible trees for as far as the eye could see, so that there appeared to be no form to the green blinking muddle of blackness around us, save for our four disembodied voices and the trickle of a cup being re-filled.


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