It is May in Kodaikanal. Now I know how native Parisians feel in June. I also know how Hawaiians feel year-round. And it’s a terrible feeling. You see, like those places, Kodaikanal is a Tourist Town; and from mid-April through the end of May, it is Tourist Season. Our mountaintop city of 10,000 swells to 40,000 on an average weekend. We have traffic jams. We have shouting and singing crowds. The tour buses have the loudest air horns on earth. The prices go up. The shops are crowded and there are shortages (the liquor stores were sold out over Easter weekend). We get great piles of stinking garbage. Kodaikanal becomes Paradise Lost until the monsoon arrives in June. Only when the heavens open up and 40 days and 40 nights of rain begin do the tourists go away. Then we have peace and quiet sitting in our leaky houses.
From another perspective, though the Kodaikanal tourist season is quite a spectacle. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world. But then India is not like any other place. As I’ve heard tell, the “I” in India is for “Intense.” The tourist crowds here are no exception, in their search of cool weather, rest and relaxation. But in truth, the real attraction is cool in the summer heat.
But first, I need to give a little background about Indian seasons. They are not quite like North American or European seasons, with the classical foursome of Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall. One-two-three-four in ever predictable harmony from the dead of winter to the flowers of Spring to the lush green growth of Summer to the orange harvest of Fall back to the dead white of Winter. Perhaps this is the basis for the very common 4/4 musical patterns of the West. However in India, Vivaldi would be greatly misunderstood. Indian weather rhythms alternate between dry and wet and hot and hotter, but not in any pattern that my numb Western senses can easily discern. I figure the weather here is like an Indian raga: granted there must be rhythms in there somewhere, but beyond my powers of perception, understanding or description.
In early June (May 30th this year, predicts a friend most precisely) the monsoon hits Southern India and hangs around for about two months. The rain isn’t constant, but frequent and heavy. It remains hot, but bearably so (in the 80’s and 90’s on the plains). In August and September, the monsoon heads North leaving the south alone for a bit. The skies get clearer and the heat rises some, but not to unbearable temperatures. Then the monsoon comes back South in October through December, saturating and cooling the South a second time.
Finally by December or January, the last of the monsoon bids farewell, and the skies clear. From January through May, the South is dry: blue skies and sunny every day. Sure, the occasional rain storm pops up, but only once or twice a month. Since it’s Winter, the temperatures are quite pleasant down on the plains, so the European tourists arrive in droves. But slowly the plains heat up and by May are unimaginably hot and humid. Try 110 degrees and 99 percent humidity for weeks on end. When the monsoon finally does come back in June, the temperature can plummet on a single day into the 80’s. It’s not uncommon to see people dance in the street with joy. Indians don’t like the heat any more than Europeans do. They’re just more used to it.
So Kodai becomes Tourist Central in May as not because the weather is nice here but because the weather is beastly everywhere else. When it’s 110 on the plains, it is 75 degrees here. And we don’t have the smoggy haze of the big cities. So busload after busload of suffering Indians pull up the Ghat road for simple heat relief. To exacerbate the situation, school’s out in May. Kodai gets whole families for weeks on end.
Now you know the “why” of the “when.” This is all boring. It’s the “what” and the “how” of the tourist season that’s exciting.
To start with, we have the traffic jams. The Ghat road is not quite as wide and much more twisty than the back roads back home, in the Berkshire foothills of Northwestern Connecticut. Back home, cars can navigate the roads without problem. Large trucks have to take it slow, but a full-size Greyhound bus would have a tough time. During tourist season here, hundreds of tour buses mixed with 8 and 10-wheel trucks mixed with cars, mixed with motorcycles and pedestrians clog the entire length of the Ghat road in both directions, up and down. The only reason thousands don’t die every day, is that the speed is much lower than usual. In many places, the road is only wide enough to allow a single tour bus to get by. Other buses and trucks stop and wait, though the motorcycles, pedestrians, cows and dogs don’t, and work their way around the edges of the buses as they creep along. Remember, all this is done with a rock face on one side and a precipice on the other, with only a short stone wall intermittently obstructing falls.
Ghat traffic can remain stopped for long periods of time, when two tour buses play chicken to see who goes first, end up halfway into a tight spot, and can’t agree about who is going to back up. Marvelously, everyone involved feels it’s required to stand on the horn unceasingly until they can move again. However, horns aren’t the only sounds coming out of the buses. Many of the buses have very loud sound systems, playing either Bollywood movies or music videos on the TV screens. Many dance and sing along as they travel. Other passengers shout and wave to everyone they pass, especially the white folk (I guess we’re part of the exotic local fauna) shouting “hello!” and “where from!” fifteen of them at a time. They’re just so excited to be here, sitting in a traffic jam. I’m sure the noise can be heard in neighboring countries.
The biggest traffic jams occur on Friday evenings and Sunday nights, when the largest number of people are trying to get up or get down the mountain. The jams can extend all the way into the center of Kodai town. There is one blessing. It is slightly safer to cross the road when the buses are stopped. You still have to look for the motorcycles weaving in between them, but a collision with one would not be as nearly fatal as with a fast moving bus.
When the buses finally get to Kodai, where do they go? Nowhere. They just pull a little off the road and park where they can. Every road in Kodai becomes a bus parking lot, making the roads even narrower, and causing even more jams. Once parked, the buses disgorge their contents—usually young middle class Indians looking for a good time. They come as nuclear families: mom, dad and two or three kids. They come as extended families: groups of twenty or thirty all with strong facial similarities. They come as groups of young men: five or six guys trying desperately to look cool, tough and handsome all at the same time. And they come as groups of young girls: bright flocks of colorful saris, all with sweet-smelling flowers in their hair.
Once off the buses, they head to perform several different tourist rituals. They include a visit to Coaker’s Walk for the view down onto the plains; a boat ride on the lake; a horse or bicycle ride around the lake; a picnic in Byrant Park (or anywhere else), and shopping in the tourist stalls.
Coaker’s Walk is the one ritual worth a visit. The view is simply astounding. The Western Ghats pop up out of the plains sharply. There are virtually no foot-hills. So from 7500 ft. up, you can look down and see a vast, flat stretch of land extending into the haze. The feeling is closer to being in a tower than a usual mountain view, which is of more mountains. Our house sits at one end of Coaker’s walk. We would have an excellent view, but previous tenants have let the trees and shrubs grow up and obstruct the view. Cut them down you suggest? It’s against the law to cut down a tree without a permit in Kodai. And permits are only given under special circumstances, such as that the tree already fell down by itself, immediate threat to life and limb, or bribery.
After tourists have been thoroughly impressed with how high they are at Coaker’s Walk, they can head over to the lake for some more fun. Boating on Kodai lake is over the top. It costs 30 rs. for ½ hr. in a two-person pedal boat and 40 rs. for a pedal boat with a swan’s head. However, the time starts when you buy the ticket, not when you get in the boat. And there are usually a crowd of 100 people pushing to get the next available boat. On the big weekends, I’d estimate the wait after buying the ticket is at least 45 min. You can also hire a rowboat, and a rower for your rowboat to pull you around the lake.
There can be so many boats on Kodai lake that they start to form traffic jams, just like on the Ghat road. Boats come out of the docks get in the way of the boats coming into the docks. Few of the boaters have any idea of how to handle the boat. They generally know that pedaling means they go forward. Beyond that it’s a learning experience for the boaters, especially how to use the rudder. Add hormones into this mix, and it gets even more complicated. Many boats are filled with young men (some drunk, some not) trying to impress other boatloads of young ladies (never drunk). There’s splashing, shouting, singing, throwing, and frantic squeaking.
Squeaking? You see, the pedal boats aren’t maintained as well as they might be. The pedal mechanisms do not get the oil they need. So there is a constant din of “squeak-squeak-squeak” wherever the pedal boats go. You can tell another boat’s speed by the rate of squeaking. One blessing it that it’s impossible to sneak up on anyone. The boat-antics on the lake have just as much charm as the bus-antics on the Ghat road.
Oh yes, then there’s the variable Kodai weather. Sometimes a cloudbank will roll in of a sudden, plunging everything into thick mist. At times, it can be hard to see 20 feet in front of you. For the boaters on the lake, this can cause a lot of trouble. Kodai lake is not a simple round pond. It has five arms and a very uncertain edge. Even with 100% visibility, it’s hard to figure out where you are in relation to where you start. When the fog rolls it, orientation is impossible.
Some boaters know this. When the clouds roll in, you can hear the frantic squeaking of their boats as they try to make it back to the dock in time. Others don’t, and slowly squeak their way around the lake. When they’re plunged into the fog, you start to hear tentative shouts for help. The squeaking rates increase as they aim to get somewhere. Of course there are collisions, followed by shouting and threatening. From the shore perspective, the disembodied squeaking, shouting, arguing and splashing is a like a soundtrack from an absurdist play in a language I can’t understand (yet).
When the clouds bring heavy rain, there is a level of pity to be considered. The lake is quite big. To walk around it takes 45 minutes. To pedal from one end to the other takes at least ½ hr. When the heavy rain comes, the boaters far from the docks have nothing else but to get wet. The young men’s Saturday Night Live poufy hair dos will all wilt. Their pressed shirts will be wrinkled. Their squeaking takes on a slow, dolorous tone as they in return to the docks in defeat. They only have wet saris to look forwards to.
A little less susceptible to the vagaries of the weather are the horse and bicycle rides around the lake. Sadly, equestrian technique is not the Indian schooling system’s strong point. Hardly one of the tourists up here knows how to ride a horse. The horse-wallah can generally get his customer up on the horse without too much trouble. He then can easily lead the horse in a walk around the lake. The trouble begins when the customer wants to “go faster.” First of all, the horse-wallah is not going to let go of his livelihood, so he has to run alongside the horse. Secondly, at a trot, the customer get bounced around so much, they get angry and start shouting: “Something’s wrong with the horse! Make it stop! You idiot! Make the horse go right!” It’s a thankless job. One occasion, I saw a horse and rider zoom by at a slow canter, and the horse-wallah was riding a bicycle alongside.
The Lake Road is quite congested. Not only are there 30,000 tourists milling about, they’re riding horses, bicycles and taxis. They’re also buying things from the open air stalls along the edge. To avoid being hit, jostled, or shoved into the lake, you need the magic eyeball of Mad Eye Moody.
For lunch, there are a number of restaurants in town. But many of the day trippers picnic. This is sometimes as simple as claiming a large piece of the sidewalk as a table, laying out the aluminum tiffin boxes, and tucking in. The sidewalk? Yes, since there’s generally much less cow shit on the sidewalk. In the grass, it’s harder to see I guess. It does mean that pedestrians are shunted off into the street. Congesting traffic even more.
One place a large number of picnickers congregate is Bryant Park, directly adjacent to the Lake. It’s a rather beautiful park, with topiary lined walks and brilliant flower beds, and rolling lawns. It can be enjoyable to visit, too, but not during tourist season. The park gets so packed, it’s a bit like Central Park during a Rolling Stones concert. The lawns are littered with picnickers, literally shoulder to shoulder. The walks are jammed so tight that they resemble the Ghat road: Men serve the roles of trucks, their wives of cars, and the children are like the motorcyclists, weaving between legs. The difference is they travel in caravans. And much like on the Ghat road, the park is not a place for peace and quiet. Groups will start dancing and singing quite loudly as they walk down the garden paths.
Apologies for the mismatched photos. I'm in a rush to post (having been so long). Next post will be shorter, and concern a particular incident on the lake.