The Present Has My Name On It: Christmas in the Western Ghats

High school girls make me just as nervous outside of high school as they did in high school, maybe even more. I found out this weird personal fault through the unlikely circumstance of being the topic of discussion amongst a group of them.

Absurd – I know!

But to make this situation even more science-fictiony – they were from New Zealand! (Oh, and we were in a forest on the side of a mountain in the Western Ghats of India.)

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How I found myself being roasted around a campfire in the woods like the marshmallow that I am by a dozen 16 year old girls, I can hardly explain. All I know is that I was graciously invited by Kalypso to accompany one of their tours through the Western Ghats as a part of my internship. I wish now to describe the experience I had.

At six in the morning, just as the sun struck the panes of my window, Jeffin arrived at my hostel in a minivan to fetch me for the trek. A person arranged on sharp angles, long lines, and great cheer, Jeffin is a very good friend of mine from the office and fortunately he was also the tour guide for this adventure. As I threw my pack into the back of the van he began to brief me on the details of the trek; where we were going, what we were doing, and about the group we were traveling with.

Here is where I was introduced to the notion that I’d be traveling around the spooky forests with the scariest people on Earth – female teenagers.

Oooooooo.

They turned out to be pretty great people, actually. Over the course of the trek my thoughts became deeply invested in the lives and companionship of these young people and their chaperones. The conversations that we engaged in seemed to me as several seas colliding against one another in a portrait of swirling currents and crests, and recalling all the meanings had would be the same feat as holding the oceans of the world in your hand.

It was just an initial shock that surfaced Vietnam-esque flashbacks of locker-lined blues and gym bleacher mortification. After I recovered from my fit of P.E.S.D. (Physical Education Stress Disorder) we hopped in the van and left for the mountains.

Even just the ride through Munnar and the surrounding foothills was worthy of the award of An Experience of a Lifetime, an accolade that I’ve had to become very liberal in awarding to my circumstances recently. I saw the 5 hour drive as an excellent opportunity to catch up on the sleep I had missed by stubbornly neglecting to pack until the night before, so I actually missed most of it.

But I awoke as one turns on the television to the ‘Yippee Ki Yay’ or the ‘Make my day’ of a movie; as one opens a 24 chapter book to chapter 23.

When I saw what I saw, the sound that escaped my throat was an effect never thought of by the grand composer of life’s caprices. My hard bones furiously drank in the beauty that spilled over the rim of my gorged eyesight, and their contraction around my soft lungs stuck chords known only to those left to thrive in the most ancient human conditions.

“Oh shit,” is what this sounded like.

Green! By God, green like no one has ever seen!

Green slopes rose high above me on every side, ebbing the sky and intimidating the dust of my origins for fear of being taken hold of and rooted down to the earth once again by the dense green flesh. We were driving through an immense valley framed like the Mona Lisa (but more deserving of acclaim) by mountains covered foot to summit in tea plants. These plants pieced together a jigsaw of vitality masking the great wave of stone beneath, and binding the witness by color of ethereal potency.

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We swung through the valley. Seemingly eternities I spent caressing the gentle transitions embellished by the glories of nature, yet no time at all. The fluorescence of the slopes starkly contrasted with the deep blue sky spreading out behind pure white clouds etched by shadow as if of floating marble.

The car moved over the mountain and onto a sloping forest road flanked by palms tangled in vines and gilded with sunshine. The palm trees reached desperately for the stars unseen in the sky, cutting open the thick sunlight and allowing its golden entrails to fall down over the road as we passed like confetti – beauty celebrating itself.

If you haven’t figured me out by now, (it’s okay, neither have I,) here is what I’ve gathered so far: I am 6 feet and 2 inches tall, I am an 8 year old in a 25 year old man’s body, and my favorite thing to do is climb trees. Driving me through the profuse forest could be compared to driving a little boy past Disneyworld or a Chuck E Cheese. Frankly, I wanted to go play in the woods.

So, 30 minutes later, after some death defying mountain road maneuvering, when the girls, the guides, and I were dumped in the middle of nowhere with our packs and our lunches, I was reeling in ecstasy.

Seriously – Don’t Stop Me Now started playing in my head.

Finally stepping out into the aesthetic landscape was like stepping into the world of a classic art piece – joy electrocuted my body from my toes up infinitely and I felt a warmness deep between my ears.

As I stepped through the tall grass I could feel my lungs expanding with fresh wind, breaking free and discarding of the restraining cast of pollution that the city air had covered them with. I felt new and free.

 

The first day was a short easy stroll through the grassy foothills and a peek into the dense woods – slowly easing ourselves into the overwhelming beauty of the area lest we be swallowed whole by the sea of profound. The muscles of my legs took strength from the sounds of life resting in my ear – insects dancing to the tune of birds chirping and the fast rhythm of the babbling brook. With my newfound strength it became difficult not to sprint ahead into the tempting unknown leaving the group and guides behind in my joyous wake.

The bright sun beat against the green hillside, reflecting in starry clusters from the long waving grass. The wind ran its fingers through the course mane of the hill. Under canopies of trees, over talking streams, and through tightly knit brushes we marched.DSCN0750

The day passed quickly, as time behaves impatiently under the influence of rejoice and we found ourselves at the first campsite in no time. The end of the first day was as rewarding as its beginning, with a hot meal, a campfire, and a warm tent waiting for us on arrival.

I realized here that the present truly was a present – this day I woke up, ripped the paper off, and exclaimed to the heavens, “How did you know!?” when I saw what was inside. I looked up at the radiant stars above me and instead of seeing the cosmos displayed in the skies of Munnar I saw the grandest of Christmas trees, emblazoned with the lights of a million insurgent diamonds cut in the beginning time. Here I was underneath checking the boxes – they all had my name of them.

Each day ahead of me was a mysterious gift, meaning I had 5 more parcels to savagely rip apart and revel in the contents of. This thought gave me bliss like I’ve never experienced.

With this thought nestled in my brain I myself nestled into my tent and fell to sleep with bold yearning for the horizon of the morrow.

The crisp, cool morning found me wide awake much earlier than usual, eagerly awaiting the day’s endeavors. Clouds of fog topped the mountains surrounding the camp while in sheer contrariety great clarity rolled gently through my mind.

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A routine comprised of a great night’s sleep followed immediately by a phenomenal early morning breakfast was established at this campsite, to be carried on for the whole of the adventure. Sleep, food, and assurance of those things are the best things so I was pretty stoked on that.

We began our descent of the slope on a red clay path, passing a few houses belonging to local villagers who stopped hanging their clothes or sweeping their porches to smile and wave.

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The next 10 kilometers consisted of up and down rocky terrain – crossing streams and valley ponds, piercing dense forests of cardamom, coffee, tea, and chilies. The long path through the pine forest took me not to a marshy valley between the mountains of Kerala but to my back yard in North Carolina, where many afterschool walks found me getting lost. DSCN0777There were birds of every kind and every color streaming through the branches like pale silk ribbons, monkeys loafing around mischievously, and snakes pushing their thick, shiny bodies through the undergrowth. The entire spectrum of biology was showing off for us.

We approached an immense natural structure of rock and golden grass then quickly ascended, falling upward and plunging head-first into the cold wind whispering to the peak. As I fell up, my vision fell down to the valley that reached from one of my peripherals to the other and beyond. A black lake stretched lazily at the bottom over a bed of soft emeralds. The sky was indecisive – both bright blue and milky white with morning dew. Suddenly the sun broke through the ceiling of fog and rained down on an island of tea plants in the distance, making it glow vibrantly in the blackness like Gatsby’s dreams. My heart would’ve gladly volunteered to strike a match to itself and burst as to applaud the merits of the Earth with a light show.

 

The second camp was the base camp of Kalypso – a collection of tents, huts, and dorms spanning the internal face of a mountain. The group was to stay in a row of cabins set in a shelf on the mountain; a balcony designed for the show of the valley I’ve described.

When we arrived I kicked off my boots, struggled out of my leech socks, and walked to the edge to let my bare feet dangle in the biting drafts. I looked to my right, I looked my left – peace had cornered my mind and wouldn’t relent to its attempts to return to the world.DSCN0800

I dare not boast the ability to explain the serenity of being cradled by furious Earth’s violent strikes against the heavens for giving her everything except eyes to see her own beauty with.

Nearing bedtime Jeffin approaches me by the cliff and tells me that I won’t be staying in a hut, but rather at a dorm house near the bottom of the hill.

“Oh, sweet!” I said thankful that I’d have a bed that night.

He walked me down the tiny street to the huge house I’d be staying in. 3 bedrooms, a dining room, and a big living room – “All to yourself,” smiled Jeff.

I noticed that he hesitated briefly before stepping up on to the porch.

“Okay, cool…” I said.

“Yeah, pick any bed you want to,” and then he added in an undertone, “you aren’t afraid of ghosts, are you?”

“Uhh…”

“Cool – sleep tight!” he exclaimed and disappeared into the night.

I stood there for a minute considering the options of either preparing myself for something strange in my neighborhood (but lack of a phone to make the appropriate call) or of chucking Jeffin’s last few words up to being misheard out of tiredness. I went with the latter.

Too tired to care, I stumbled into the house, threw down my pack, and slept like a baby.

The night proved bumpless, but I thought it worth noting that I stayed that night in an allegedly haunted house under a mountain named the Phantom’s Head.

And the next morning we climbed the Phantom’s Head.

We were faced on awakening with the task of conquering this mountain that was prominently visible and definitely intimidating. I watched from afar as the black stone giant ran steeply in to the sky – losing its head in the clouds and empathy struck me. With another delicious breakfast packed in, we set about it.

The climb was a rough one, just a narrow path leading us up a steeply sloping rock face. My muscles burned, every step an effort taking me higher into the atmosphere and beading my forehead with sweat. When we reached the top my shirt was drenched and my legs felt like the jelly that I now regretted having eaten for breakfast, but what I found at the summit washed away all feelings of discomfort and I felt nothing but numb wonder.

The view that was witnessed from here made everything else I had seen in my life seem as if it were in black and gray. All of my atoms were on edge. Every molecule of me was being pulled into the aura of allure surrounding the valley. The eye level clouds rolling sluggishly through the celestial property cast great dark shadows that moved like living beings over the stunningly brilliant valley that stretched as far as you could look. I saw the colors have intimate conversations with one another – telling stories of beauty and tragedy, brutally mocking the altruistic attempts of human poetry to portray the glimpse that they’ve allowed. I sat, lost in every dimension I’ve known and observed the betrothal of heaven and earth – a painting of matter on a divine canvas.

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I had to pry my eyes from the scene and my soul from utter tranquility when it was time to move on. I was cemented into my position on the grassy mound above it all; my body refused to move. Then the sun broke through the mist melting my frozen joints and the oil on my face – the light of the valley reflected in me and as I stood up I felt like I could hurdle a mountain in a single bound.

We continued across a stitched wound of mountain crests looking over DSCN0829into the tea plantations garnished with falling streams. From these slack earthen bridges connecting the summits we entered a breezeway of pine trees sprouting from a drowned steep made, as it seemed, entirely of sloshy green mud. After our descent of the slippery slope we inevitably reached the campsite* which was situated in a field of corn and chilies and surrounded by a 10ft tall electric fence to keep the elephants from making salsa out of the chili patch or out of us in our sleep.

* Ha.

Hard rains carried on through the night, drumming its fingers on the canvas of my tent and lulling me to sleep to the rhythm of white noise.

The morning of the fourth day was calm and brisk – the rainfall beckoned forth the aromas from the green flesh of the edging undergrowth. We began by hiking up through a cardamom plantation, passing a couple of neon blue and pink temples and villages on the cliffs beside the skinny, winding road. The local people treated foreigners coming through their dwelling as they would a parade – stopping in the streets to look, smile, and comment.giphy The villagers were incredibly friendly. One man that I said hello to and attempted the head language with engaged me in conversation. Our chat became roister, this roister met contention, the contention alleviated itself again – he spewed interesting and flamboyant dialogue that I’m sure I would have agreed with wholeheartedly… had I been able to understand Malayalam, or he English.

Nonetheless, we hopped the language barrier like 2 reckless teens jumping a chain link fence and volleyed words.

The village that we found such revel in rested next to a drippy, crowded forest which we slipped away into after mingling with the good local people.

A long trek down into the breast of the damp grove followed. While our boots splashed through the sticky earth the woods seemed to become enamored with us. We were beset on all sides by dripping leaves, studded trunks, and jewel-like flowers. My own feeling was that somewhere near was the hot, miry cavity where dwells the verdant heart of all life, pumping dark beauty through the capillaries of the undergrowth and seducing those who’ve tasted her blood to savagery. I tyranny she slights even sunlight, allowing never even a hairline to penetrate her hood or illuminate the cause of deep laughter in her bosom.giphy

We soaked our boots on deceptive footing in the deep rapid pouring like an avalanche across our path, and had lunch just on the other side. Finishing lunch we began again, downstream with the roaring brook. I looked up and around me – I saw the real version of what I always envisioned the canal behind my grandma’s house to be: an overgrown valley at the meeting of two mountains, two forests clashing together like armies. Vines clacked with tree trunks in the breeze like spears on shields. The scale of the scene made my rambunctious youth quiet and meditative, contemplating if its contribution to the weight of my life was as substantial as it had always been sure of. I remember playing on the banks of the canal reenacting scenes from The Jungle Book, dreaming of jungles in India – now here I was in India dreaming of home.

By being here – by observing this place as it happened to be I was bringing peace to my childhood on its deathbed – I was paying the wages of my desirous dreams that lacked the capital to make its keep in reality’s industry.

We plunged into the cardamom once more. The yellow-green leaves provided a ceiling of cover from the hearth of the sun. After many ups and downs through hills made muddy by the previous night’s rains we approached the haven of our fourth camp.

The thought of the fifth day had everyone among the group shook. A very reliable source (Jeffin) had started a very plausible rumor that this day contained the most uphill portions of the entire trek and everyone was shaking in their leech socks – everyone but me. I was swelling with excitement. The seams of my skin were threatening to rip apart under the pounding feet of my dancing blood.

Don’t Stop Me Now was still reverberating against the walls of my skull, growing even louder as the journey continued.

It seemed that the longer I was out there the better I felt, the more hills I climbed the less tired I became, the more breaths I breathed the more breaths I’d have.

The mountain light shined in my stained glass eyes like chapel windows depicting scenes of epic passion – filling my head with warmth and beams of sunshine in every color catching the flecks of wonder falling from the rafters.

The day began with a sharp incline up a road running through a neighborhood. We eventually crossed over into the wild, where we penetrated an uphill thicket woven carefully by nature’s steady hand like a scarf tightly wrapped round the neck of her mountain child. When the sky opened up to us again we were in view of miles and miles squared of banana plantations and other crops past the edge of the mountain range, in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu.

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Our way forward was a serpentine path up the stone-and-yellow-rye podium, and we climbed like medalists receiving our awards. Our trophies were not round and gilded, however, they were enormous and grey, and we definitely didn’t want them around our necks.

Jeff cautioned the group to be quiet, because just across the hill was a herd of wild elephants chowing on some bamboo. I watched from across the valley while these tender giants swung great green stalks into their mouths in a funny, dancing rhythm known to them as a sacred practice. Their calm demeanor and deep brown eyes flashed primal wisdom that it seems us humans have forgotten in our quest for… um… whatever we’re going for. (Given that America is seriously considering Donald Trump for president I’ve sort of lost faith that we have a clear objective.)

Silently we crouched and tiptoed across the dip between the grassy peaks. Across the path were flattened bushes and fresh tracks the size of Mama’s cast iron frying pans. I had seen African elephants on a safari in Tanzania, but being here in the forests – on the ground with them, was a completely different experience. Had they approached the Jeep in the safari, we could’ve just driven away never even having to consider the consequences of an encounter. But if they walked up to us here they’d simply walk over us and we’d be scrambled eggs cooking in my grandma’s frying pan on a hillside in the Western Ghats.

So we got the hell out of there.

Having safely escaped the elephant’s domain and triumphed over several more rolling peaks we reached the fifth camp deep in the body of the woods and laid into dinner around the blazing campfire. This is the part where I realized that my vulnerability in the face of two X chromosomes, (in this case 18 X chromosomes,) had transferred over into the ‘real world.’ But by this time it was okay. These people in front of me laughing jovially at my expense were my great friends. I laughed along while I looked at them as I would’ve looked at my family and remembered once again what Saumu had taught me – I felt the embodiment of home around me. These people, these laughs, these conversations around this campfire under this sky! O, Life and Love! What is greater?

I fell into my tent exhausted after the difficult day – but still beaming at the glory of it.

When we awoke this time the final day was upon us – I recall this as the only day I awoke disheartened. I was disturbed that my time amidst the wildflowers was nearing an end.

My spirits lifted, however, as we started out on the trail once more. As we walked I took a closer look at the fellowship of the group that had made this trip whole. Great friendships had begun to bud between the group’s leaders and me by the careful care of ideas and understanding. I particularly admired a dude named JR, a mountaineer from Ireland, who had some things to say about life in general that made me feel real 18 years old. He imparted practical wisdom and methods of kindness to me that I think will fit nicely into my ‘DIY Life Toolbox’ that I’ve been restlessly collecting for since I realized needed one. This guy was the man. He DSCN0797reminded me of the depth and consistency to the worth of people everywhere, and that’s a beautiful thing. He told me he’d be reading my blog, so hopefully he’ll see this one: Thanks, man.

The day flew by in a blur of stone, verdure, and laughter. I continued my
obsession, poring over the intricacies of nature and filling myself up with the wealth it had to offer me. I tried to grasp within the atriums of my heart every fleeting moment, but they slipped back into my arteries and combusted in a moment’s passion.

I looked ahead of me. I looked behind me, and then around at the humbling mountain range. I saw myself swaddled in the belly of a valley, and then standing triumphantly on the crown of a summit. These mountains had displayed the full spectrum of human. The earth a fountainhead of the virtues of life and living.

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When we reached the final camp it was a gentle moment. The joy we had experienced on that trek together was never to be forgotten. Although it was over, I was so happy that I was able to experience such an amazing thing. It will definitely be considered one of the summits of my gap year, but as I learned from this adventure reaching one summit merely puts you in position to spot another to conquer. It’s just a matter of choosing.

Giddy with fatigue, I put a finger to my temple. “This is the next one,” I said recklessly.

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