by Joe Morris

My not-so-humble abode in Kodaikanal.
My not-so-humble abode in Kodaikanal.

Joseph Iype, the man who ran the cottage where I stayed in Munnar, told me where the bus station was, where I could catch the morning bus to Theni at 7:30, and from which there would be a connecting bus to Kodaikanal. Since we were high on a hill, he actually pointed to it, a long shed with an advertisement written on it. My pack is pretty heavy at about fifty-five pounds, but I can carry it several kilometers without much of a problem. I set out, walking down the rutted path from Zina cottages, past several restaurants and towards the bus stand.

About three-quarters of the way there, there was a gas station with several battered Tamil busses that were sitting there. I stopped and asked if this was the bus station, and if I could get to Theni from there. The bus had already left at seven, I was told; there would be another one at noon that I could catch in the center of town. Much has been written on the subject of Indians creating bogus directions and advice in the interest of seeming knowledgeable, and Joseph had so far given me a wealth of flawless information. I kept going to the station he had pointed out.

The shed I had seen before was actually one side of a three-sided compound that was full of closed shops. On the far wall from where I entered, there was a man of about fifty years sitting on one side, with long hair that curled up like a natural pompadour with ambitions of becoming an afro. On the other corner there was a group of about ten people, an extended family of some kind. They looked poor, but not desperately so.

There was an office that claimed to be a “station office” for which the door was open but no one was inside. As I was looking, the pompadour man came up and said something in Tamil; we communicated by pointing at places on my watch, and it seemed like Joseph’s information was correct. I sat down to wait.
Jaipaul the tailor, holding Mom's salwar.
Jaipaul the tailor, holding Mom's salwar.

A man from the family group came over with liquor bottle, which had been stripped of its label and was now holding a fifth of honey. He screwed off the top and poured some in my hand. Like tea and coffee, which have been boiled, one can always trust honey to be clean; it sucks the water out of bacteria that come in contact with it and kills them. So I licked the honey off of my hand. It was passable, but not delicious.

He pestered me to buy it, and then just to take it: “No money! No money!” He seemed to be very dirty, and from all appearances the family had slept here the night before. One of two women who had come over from the group to watch hocked, turned, turned, and spat. I don’t trust you if your women spit like that, I thought. And I didn’t want to carry a kilogram of honey.

“No, thank you,” I replied.

He persisted: trying to set it next to me, trying to pour it in my hands. I repeated “No, thank you” like a mantra until he turned back, bottle in hand, and said something in Tamil that ended in a mocking “No, thank you.” The remaining family members, or whatever they were, gave a roar of laughter.
Fog spilling over into the valley as seen from Pillar Rock, Kodaikanal.
Fog spilling over into the valley as seen from Pillar Rock, Kodaikanal.

One of the boys, with long black hair and golden earrings, came up to me with a little girl in his arms and another timid looking boy behind him. Golden Earrings had an impish, gypsy look to him and started to fiddle with my belongings; he looked at my jacket and made a motion of asking me to give it to him, grinning broadly. I smiled back wanly – I am not easily entertained before at least ten in the morning – and shook my head. He noticed my camera bag, which was only recognizable as such because I had left my tripod hanging from it.

“Photo! Photo!” he said. The boy behind him joined in chorus.

I shook my head again.

“Photo!” they repeated.
With Don and Betchen Oberdorfer, in the entryway to their cottage, Kodaikanal.
With Don and Betchen Oberdorfer, in the entryway to their cottage, Kodaikanal.

I relented, and took a picture of them. A group of two women and another man came over and stood to pose for another one. The man brought a tin kettle filled with water, about the right size for making a good stew, and scooped it out of the pot with his hand as I took the picture. It was the first time I really wished I could speak a few words of Tamil – or whatever it was that these people spoke. What the hell are you doing with that water? I would have asked.

After that, the two boys became fascinated with my shirt and made elaborate gestures to try to describe something about it. It almost seemed as if there were something wrong, or not stylish, about it. I bought it in the center of Munnar, not two kilometers away, for three dollars. It was a blue and white pattern, and the only thing that was slightly odd about it was that it had a weave that gave it some texture. “Honeybee! Honeybee!” they exclaimed. No honeybees here, kids. It doesn’t look like a honeybee, I didn’t spill any honey on it, I have no idea what you’re talking about. They grew weary of that explanation, and then tried to ask me for deodorant; they made underarm-spraying motions and said “Scent! Scent!”

Entertaining rambunctious ten year olds has never been my forte, and so it was a happy moment when I saw that Joseph was accurate one final time: the bus pulled in to the lot at 7:40. I was the only one that got on; I wouldn’t have been surprised if the family lived at the station. I picked up my backpack and my camera bag, and then looked around out of habit, to make sure I wasn’t leaving anything. Golden Earrings, smiling impishly, picked up an imaginary bag from the ground and offered it to me. Thanks, buddy.

I transferred at Theni, and the stationmaster there wrote down the name of another place where I needed to go to get the bus I wanted: Battlegundu, which he wrote as “Battlegnnv”. He asked to take my pen, which was a fancy looking Samaritan Center of Michigan City one, from where my parents worked. I gave it to him – it skipped and wrote poorly, and I had five of them. I asked him for his, a “040 Reynolds bureau N Bold” that has since been my favorite pen for writing in my notebook.

The busses, particularly after Theni, were filled with Tamils. The women in particular are easy to spot, since they are small, have fine bones, and have oiled hair that has been put into a braid with a flower near the top. The men on the busses were harder to distinguish from those in Kerala, except that perhaps their skin was a bit darker. I had gone into Tamil Nadu with the Germans the day before, for about two hours, and the main thing that I noticed there was that men wore shorts, and I noticed that switch on the second border crossing as well. Men in the other two states had worn either pants or a lunghi – a thin cloth with a decorated hem, worn the way Americans wear a towel out of the shower. They would sometimes pull up the bottom hem and tuck it in at the waist, making it a knee-length garment. Lunghis were still in evidence in Tamil Nadu, but they shared the market with plain old cutoffs, particularly among laborers. As we made it further up into the hills and the air got colder, the men pulled out cloths like dishtowels – the one right in front of me was white with blue stripes, and looked exactly like a towel I had purchased at Ikea – and wrapped them around their heads.

The bus driver insisted that I sit next to him on the bus to Battlegundu, so I had a prime view, when we stopped after ten minutes at what looked like a border crossing, with a welter of vehicles piled up against a black and yellow pole running across the road. Autorickshaws, bicycles, and busses dribbled to a halt. In front of us, a man picked at the buttocks of a Brahma bull that was pulling his cart, which were covered in either mud or feces, or perhaps both.

Brahma bulls are – particularly when viewed head-on – dignified looking animals that are frequently used to haul carts in India, either singly or in pairs. Their heavily lidded eyes give them the appearance of either being deep in meditation or thoroughly stoned; if the owners have painted their long, curving horns bright colors, or tipped them with metal ornaments, the effect is more strikingly Buddhist. They have a big hump between their shoulder blades that makes it easy to drop a bar on their back to harness them. They are, overall, very impressive.

Just as I was starting to realize that there was nobody going through the border, the train went past, its horn blaring, and the pitch diving from the Doppler effect as it passed: warrrrrrrrruuuuummmmmmmmmm. And then the poles were raised. It was a train crossing, not a border crossing.

All of the vehicles jockeyed for position to get across the tracks, honking all the while. Our bus was particularly gifted in this regard: it had three separate horns. One was a small curled horn with a squeeze-ball that was attached to the window for close-packed, slow traffic like this. The next one was like a standard car horn, used for up to perhaps twenty miles an hour. When we were rolling along at full speed, or whenever the driver felt a particular need to point out to a person, animal, or vehicle that they were on the verge of being flattened, there was the “air horn”, a deafening blare worthy of a battleship. Many villages and bus stops had “NO AIR HORN” signs.

In Battlegundu, I transferred eventlessly to the Kodaikanal bus. Having been somewhat frightened by the drive up to Munnar, and advised by the guidebook’s Kodaikanal section that “the journey up and down is breathtaking” (which is to say, hair-raising), I appraised the driver for sanity. He was dressed in a tan uniform, looked like he had recently gotten his hair cut and moustache trimmed, and seemed serious. I could imagine worse. His seat, as on most Indian busses, is a woven chair, what my parents have in our dining room and call a “brewer’s chair”, that has been bolted to the floor. He has an assistant who sold tickets and gave guidance from the back of the bus. In Kerala, they have a string running the length of the bus that ends in a bell near the driver, but on Tamil Nadu busses, of which this was one, the assistant just blew his whistle. If someone needed to get off of the bus, they stood up and the assistant whistled; if the bus needed to back up, the assistant whistled at regular intervals to indicate “all clear.”

A boy in front of me turned around and asked the ubiquitous “Coming from?” question, but we had difficulty communicating beyond our names – his was Ganesh – and where we were from. I noticed before he spoke that he was reading Introduction to Computers and had a copy of The Hindu, an English-language paper, but either he couldn’t understand spoken English in general, or perhaps my accent was too difficult. He motioned to borrow The Brothers Karamazov, and gave me the front section of The Hindu in return, and then swapped back after a few kilometers when we reached his station. The big news was that Karnataka, a state to the north of Tamil Nadu and with all of the water supplies, was refusing to release water to the Tamils, who were in dreadfully short supply, even for drinking, not to mention agriculture. The Indian Supreme Court had ordered that they release some of it, but the Karnataka Chief Minister was procrastinating.

I told the bus driver assistant to drop me at the Kodaikanal International School (KIS), where I was going to stay with Don and Betchen Oberdorfer. Don had grown up in Andra Pradesh, north of Chennai, gone to graduate school with my father at the Chicago Theological Seminary, had a successful career as a documentary film producer, and then retired and now teaches a class or two some semesters at KIS. His wife, Betchen, is a counselor at the school, and seemed to be very much in demand; wherever we would walk around the schools campus there would always be students coming up to her, and they would have hushed conversations.

Don and Betchen were, surprisingly, waiting for me at the gate. I was a day late – I had postponed my journey to recover a bit more before taking the bus journey – and there were many busses into Kodaikanal. I still don’t know if they were just waiting there all day, or happened to chance upon me: but there they were.

I spent five days at Kodaikanal, and they were mostly the same and all quite pleasant. The school was old and British looking – although it had mostly been built by American Lutherans, like the Oberdorfers – and the alumni cottage where they put me was spectacular: it had four rooms, a fireplace (filled with a stack of wood, kindling, and newspaper, ready to be lit), and a coop of clucking poultry just outside. Most days I would wake up to the crowing of roosters, go over to the Oberdorfer’s cottage and Don would prepare a cheese omelet or french toast. Then I would go write, or shop, or read, and meet them at the school cafeteria for lunch, where we were the three adults among a mass of children from the ages of ten to eighteen. Sometimes we would meet for dinner, and just about every evening I would to go to their cottage for tea and we would trade travel stories. Betchen was an M.S.W. who had worked throughout Asia and was an intrepid, get-on-a-random-bus kind of traveler. Don had mellowed out a bit more with age, but had grown up wandering and camping in the Western Ghats, the son of Lutheran missionaries, and spoke Telugu, the language of Andhra Pradesh.

“So this friend of mine, who I grew up with in Andhra, is now a Member of Parliament,” Don related one evening. “And so he was able to get us into this temple where they normally don’t allow white people.”

“Actually they used to not allow non-Hindus, then they did for a while, and now they don’t,” said Betchen.

“Right. So we wait for the masses to die down, and we go into the temple. There is this idol that’s covered in gold and jewels – more riches than you or I will see in a lifetime – and all around there is gold and precious stones. There is a man doing a puja, wearing a lunghi and bare chested. Our friend introduces us and says to the pujari, this guy speaks your language and has been living in India for X number of years, could you talk to him for a little bit. So he did, and we talked for a while, and then he says suddenly, ‘Actually, I have a Ph.D. in microbiology from MIT. A Ph.D. from MIT! But his family has been pujaris since 1000 B.C., and when his father died he took over. If he dies, his brother, who is a businessman in Boston, will drop what he’s doing and come out here.”

I told them about Istanbul and being chased by the camel police on the Giza plateau; Betchen told me about a little girl selling trinkets in Kolkata who, at the age of ten, had learned to peddle them in German, French, English, and Spanish. Don told me about what my dad was like when he was younger. We ate American cake: they had found a cake mix in India, but there was no confectioners sugar, so I had lugged a pound of it from America, and they made chocolate cake upon my arrival. There is cake in Indian bakeries, but it invariably tastes like sickly sweet cardboard, and eating it just depresses me and makes me wish that they hadn’t reminded me of the existence of cake in the first place.

One day, in the afternoon, I went with the Oberdorfers to pay a visit to a couple of Canadians who were having a small event surrounding the eating of a jar of German hot dogs, which someone had brought them. “We tried having a few of these with some of our students, but they just don’t appreciate them,” said the Canadian woman. “So we needed to invite some Americans.” I didn’t appreciate them either, since I didn’t eat any, but I did enjoy the hard cheese that they had. The only kind of cheese that is native to India is paneer, which is sort of like congealed cottage cheese. It’s not bad, but it can’t replace a good cheddar.

Don did the lighting for a pedantic Christian children’s play, and I stopped in for one evening. It was eerily reminiscent of other such productions that I had participated in fifteen years before in Indiana. I sat in the audience among KIS students with glazed eyes and thought, did I come two thousand miles for this? But in a sense, I did: knowing what is the same the world over is almost as interesting as seeing what’s different. The Canadians told me at point that “Kodaikanal International School is not really India,” but I would disagree: the hill stations of India are filled with these kinds of schools, where wealthy Indians send their kids, and are therefore just as much a part of India as the grubby alleys of Mumbai.

Leaving Kodaikanal was almost like leaving home again; I found that it took some effort to bring my guard back up again to hunt for transportation and accommodation after the Oberdorfer’s hospitality. My only regret leaving was that it hadn’t come later on in my journey, so that I could have had a small piece of home when I would have missed it more. As it was, I felt sad leaving the Oberdorfers, and hoped that I would see them again before too long, either in India or the United States.

The day I was leaving, Don told me, "I admire your generation. You bring one bag, and your idea of packing heavy is bringing two changes of clothes. We've got all these people coming in next week, my nieces and nephews, and they wonder: will I be safe walking around? Will I get mugged every other day? And it's not like that."

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