India can perplex me like no other place I have been to before. I can have trouble conceiving of its charms and deterrents as pertaining to the same place and it continues to lead to frequent feelings of irony and mood reversals. There is a level of consciousness that I obviously still fail to tap into!
Provincial Mysore made for the ideal pit stop to catch up on sleep and reading. After a couple of lazy days however, it proved relieving to push myself to make the southbound bus to Ooty (also known as Udhagamandalam, 2286m) on Thursday. The ride through the Mysore plain and the climb into the Nilgiri Mountains of Tamil Nadu was as breathtaking seen through the window as it was entertaining to be within the vehicle – one of these days I will write about why this continues to be my choice mode of transportation.
Electing the cost-effective dorm option to stay at the YWCA, I was assigned to an empty three-bed room which, with its moldy walls, painted old wood furniture, musty checkered linens, empty fireplace and back-of-the-building location at the bottom of a small flight of stairs, gave me the chills. The next day, I malevolently decided that I had been sent there in anticipation of the twenty or so pious adolescent girls on an organized tour that were arriving that morning and I took out my vengeance by planting the rumour that I had seen a ghost. Even when I would explain that it was a joke, members of the personnel kept approaching me with worried queries for the next two days..
I accepted the Y’s offer to match me up with a local guide for a trek in the surrounding mountains. A friendly man from Israel and his son joined in too. By eleven, I was roaming through grazing lands, pine and eucalyptus forests, tea plantations and small villages, lungs filled with fresh air and a snug second layer of clothing. Our knowledgeable guide Kumar took us on a beautiful walk that culminated with us reaching the summit of a mountain towering over the foothills and valley floor of the Mysore plain. Far below, geometrical tea fields met the dark green forests of Malamalay National Park. Kumar was from these mountains and evidently cultivated a lot of respect and friendship. I felt a lot more free to approach the people we met with requests to take their photographs, and these were often met with warm smiles.
Shortly after our return to Ooty, I began to feel very feverish. In my indecision to hit the bed or attempt to eat a dinner, I wandered along the darkening packed roads and began to curse the stagnant sewage-filled gutters, the smokey polluted air, the omnipresent trash, the carelessness of people. Suddenly, I felt very trapped in India, and ridiculous for feeling so at the same time. Unable to take more than two bites of a meal I ordered, and being yelled at by the waiter for ordering something which I did not want (but apologized and paid for), I hurried back to my haunted room.
Metamorphosing over night, I awoke happy and healthy from deep prolonged slumber and was soon granted the friendly encounter of a woman from New Orleans with whom I ended up having chai. I got to ask her about her experience of living for two continuous years in ashrams along the Ganges and participating in the most important of Hindu pilgrimages, the Kumbh Mela which takes place only every four years. The last one attracted nearly 60 million people! Then, my bag packed, myself checked-out and heading for the exit gate, I met a gentleman called Srikumar who was walking about managing his sister pre-wedding and the arrival of their guests at the YWCA’s banquet hall. He invited me to join, it was his “goal to have a foreigner attend”! Friends and relatives were coming to enjoy a communal meal of typical Nilgiri vegetarian food and dancing afterwards to celebrate the bride’s entry into married life. I had an incredible time. I even got coaxed into dancing a little bit myself but I was no match for their elegance.
That evening I met a friendly group of travelers from Bangalore and Singapore. I rode the bus and had lunch with them in Mysore the next day. Then I caught a train, where my conversations led to a four-way discussion on the future of India, China and the environment with three information technology engineers. And here I am now in Bangalore, gladly at work for two weeks again, happy that I changed my mind on another previously categorical decision.
The walk home from work today involved the purchase of four different kinds of mangoes. Along the way, lizards scuttled ahead off the warm cement tiles that make the sidewalks of this affluent part of town. My new favourite mango variety – benisha.