With all due respect due to Bill Bryson, I’d like to see him hike in the mountains of South India. There are no maintained trails and certainly no maps. You follow a bewildering lattice of intersecting cow paths and a few abandoned roads to get where you want. Indian guides have reputation for telling you they know the way, but then getting hopelessly lost, which afterwards they maintain was the right way to go. In case of true emergency, rescue is laughable. If you can’t walk out, you have to hope there’s someone with you both willing and able to drag you out.
Wild elephants live in these hills. The bulls frown upon human company and have been known to trample the people they come across. God forbid you get in between a mother and a calf. Then there are guar, a sort of giant buffalo with horns and mean tempers. And yes, the ubiquitous monkeys. They don’t give you too much trouble unless you have visible food. If you show weakness and fear, they will sense the upper hand is theirs. Then they gang up on you, bullies-in-the-cafeteria-who-want-your-lunch style, and scratch and bite you until you hand the food over.
Finally, there are the giant leeches lurking on the forest floor, waiting for a tasty leg to wander by. Yes, leeches. The small ones look like black inch-worms. The large ones like long black cigar butts. You don’t feel them as they slither up your pant leg or down into your shoe. You don’t feel them when they bite, either. But you feel your shoe filling up with blood. Leech bites can take days to stop bleeding as leech saliva thins the blood considerably. And leech bites itch for months.
And then there was Veerappan lurking in the forests. But he’s no more.
Consequently, I don’t think Bryson would make it ten feet before he’d turn tail and head for the comforts of the nearest Holiday Inn to console himself with hot and cold running water. I’m not sure I would have made it ten feet, had I known all this in advance. But that’s not the way India works. Here, complete disclosure is a contradiction in terms.
Simply, nobody told me what I was getting myself into.
So the hiking coordinator asks me to lead a hike back from the Poondi wilderness camp. The 11th grade is going to spend a weekend there (I’d be a chaperone), and some, she says, might prefer a lovely walk in the woods over the bus trip back. I could ask one of the camp security guards to guide us back, as they knew the way. Hey, no problem, I say. That’s what I’m here for. I’ll be glad to go. I had led a few hikes before to places with gorgeous views and enjoyed them immensely. The only concern I had was that the hike was 35 km long. I couldn’t judge how long it would take us to get back.
At Poondi, I asked around and found 15 willing souls—some were quite enthusiastic, others willing on the basis that it earned them hiking credits (very kid has to go on two hikes), and at least two who could not face the bus ride back. In truth, the 2 ½ hr. drive out to Poondi is over the most awful roads. The sharp curves are endless so the bus wallows as if a swamped ship in a terrible sea squall. On our way there we stopped twice to let kids get off and vomit their guts out by the side of the road. It didn’t surprise me that some preferred to walk home.
Any doubts I had about the hike vanished instantly. In the back of my mind were the universal rules that no 16-year-old kid has any shame about refusing to do something that a) he doesn’t have to, b) takes effort and c) is insane. No kids would ever sign up for a hike that wasn’t going to be easy and awesome, right? And I had a fifteen jumping at the chance.
The night before we left, I asked the kitchen staff to make us some sandwiches for the road. “No problem” and “Yes sir” was the cheery answer. The next step was to find a security guard who would guide us back. I found one, quite a friendly fellow. I asked hi to guide us. He stared back at me blankly. He shifted his eyes left and right and opened his mouth to let no sound out. I felt as if I’d asked him an embarrassing question. Perhaps he misunderstood my question as a marriage proposal, or the opening parley in a heroin deal? It was hard to gauge, so many layer of language and culture between us. I backpedaled and suggested that we could find out way without trouble, that he wasn’t needed. He gladly accepted the new version, smiled and walked off. Well, there goes our guide.
One of the other chaperones witnessed the parley and took me aside. “You know,” he told me, “these guards aren’t paid to hike, just to guard, and he certainly wouldn’t be paid by the school for the day he hiked. You needed to offer him some money to guide you.” Oh? Really. Duh. I should have guessed. “But also, you see,” he continued, “it’s the school’s policy not to pay our staff off the books, so to speak, so you really can’t hire him.” Ah, yes. It’s all clear to me know, I muttered under my breath, still clinging to that common Western whine “why wasn’t I told?” Just not the way the place works.
So, on the verge of canceling the hike—hey kids, let’s go get really lost in the woods!—one said he had done the hike many times and knew 90% of the way, the rest he could make an educated guess. Good enough for me: the hike was on. After all, for the uncertain bits, I had a compass and knew the school should be directly East of the camp. We could afford to be 10% lost.
We decided to leave as soon after breakfast as we could. The night before I had packed water, a rain poncho and a first aid kit. The kit worried me a little. I was hoping for at least a GPS system, an emergency satellite phone and some opiates in case of a broken ankle, or general need. But no such luck. The kit contained some antiseptic lotion and bandaids.
Just before breakfast, I inquired about our 15 packed lunches. The nice man said “yes” then quickly disappeared. Ok, at least he hasn’t forgotten. I went off to rustle up the kids. The hardest part, it seemed, was for them to get out of bed by 8 am. At breakfast, only six boys and one girl showed up. The rest couldn’t make it out of their sleeping bags. Just as well. If I dragged them out, I’d have to drag them along the whole hike. I let the kitchen know I needed only 8 lunches. “Yes sir,” was the reply.
Breakfast was served, consisting of pancakes and syrup, toast, butter and jam, frosted flakes and milk, hot coffee, and oatmeal with turmeric, peppers, green beans, cilantro and tomatoes. It was so very close to an American camp breakfast, but just not quite the same. Munching on a pancake and sniffing the oatmeal—I think that’s a peppercorn, not a raisin—I got very homesick. Boy scout camp in Northern Wisconsin. YMCA camp in Milwaukee. Cans of rootbeer with a cheese sandwich for lunch. And those crackers-and-cheese kits with the little plastic paddle. Gee, the old times.
At quarter after 8, I inquired after our lunches. The kitchen staff looked sort of startled, and this time said nothing. One man disappeared and came back with an empty cereal box filled with small oranges and pears. I accepted them, but asked after sandwiches again to more blank stares.
Another chaperone took me aside and suggested that it might be best if the kids get their own lunch. What? 7 kids were going to invade the kitchen and rustle up lunch? But this is a foreign land with strange rules, so I called out “Everyone get their own lunch!” Surprisingly, the kids didn’t grumble at all, but just started milling around the kitchen getting the job done. Personally, I hit the huge bowl of frosted flakes and poured a gallon of them into my backpack. Then I found two pieces of toast and wrapped five pancakes in them. They went in a side pocket. I eyed the oatmeal and thought better of it. I also snagged a bottle of what looked like orange juice.
At 8:20, I checked through my hikers and made sure they all had some food and some water. Then one kid caught my eye.
“Why are you pouring salt on your socks?” I asked not really wanting the answer.
“Leeches, of course, Mr. Purdy.”
“I see,” I said, not seeing.
“There’s a spot outside the Berijam camp that generally has leeches. I hate leeches. I don’t want to get bitten. I really hate leeches and I didn’t bring leech socks.” He seemed logical enough, though over a suppressed tone of panic in his voice. My soul felt great sympathy with that panic.
“Um, maybe I should do the same.” I aimed for some irony but failed miserably. “Next on the salt, please.” I was wearing sandals. Leech socks? This sounded serious.
Leeches? The hike coordinator had said nothing about leeches on this hike. Were we walking through streams? Did leeches live on land? Was salt in your socks enough of a preventative? I asked around and got nowhere, as usual. One kid said he didn’t worry about leeches and didn’t mind getting bitten. Another described them to me in intimate detail, from their size to the way their bites don’t heal to their incredible toughness, being made of some natural Kevlar material.
“You can smash them with rocks, cut them in half and shoot them and they just keep inching towards you, salivating” one student described with a gleam in his eye. “Only salt gets them off.”
At that point I marched into the kitchen with a threatening look in my eye. I demanded and got an entire 1 kg. bag of salt. Then off we went, my eyes riveted to the spots where I planned to step, looking for little black long things.
I noticed none of the kids were really well protected against leeches, if one could be protected against them in normal clothes. Three kids were in shorts, one had socks that just peeked out of his running shoes. Two of us were in sandals. My first aid kit shrank even more in my mind. I began to imagine all of my hikers rolling around on the ground, screaming “GET IT OFF!!! AAAAAAAHHH!” clutching at their legs, their arms, their faces, covered in hundreds of black leeches. Then their distraught parents, suing me and the school for the disfigurement of their children, the leech bites scarring forever…. This promised to be some hike.
We finally set out, loaded with cornflakes, fruit and salt. Thankfully, the first part was a long vertical climb out of the river valley where the camp was located. It took a lot of effort and cleared the mind of everything except the next step. It was a dirt path used by local farmers and their cattle. The hillside ranged from steep to very steep. Some sections were more like an irregular staircase formed on the roots of trees, mixed wattle, eucalyptus, smaller flowering trees and a wide variety of shrubs. As we climbed in began to rain gently, refreshingly, and more of a spittle than a true rain. Our climb went on for at least 45 minutes, with a few horizontal sections for relief, though many photo opportunities of the rich green valley below shrouded in cloud and mist. Of the seven hikers, only one got winded a bit on the way up. Some of the kids did no sports and were in terrible shape. But they bounded like mountain goats up to the top of the ridge. Maybe there’s something to the old joke that Asians don’t feel pain.
At the top of the ridge we stop to rest and eat some of the food we’d brought. One kid had scored bag of raw vegetables. He pulled out a few cucumbers, several tomatoes and an eggplant. An eggplant? A raw eggplant? We found a resting spot for it of the trail. Perhaps in years to come, eggplants will grow there. The glade will become a landmark—the eggplant grove—courtesy of the unhelpful kitchen staff.
Directions were on my mind, as we had a choice of three ridge roads to take. One kid started walking down one, but another shouted “that’s the wrong one! Go that way.” Then a third kid joined in with “You’re both wrong, it’s this way.” Wonderful. Not an hour into a hike and we’re already lost. As I had little clue of which way to go, I let the kids duke it out. They finally reached consensus and we started down a road that had a felled tree across it every ten feet. It looked rather purposeful, as if someone wanted to close the road. The going was quite tough, with hair and backpacks caught on branches, legs scratched and so on, but no leeches yet. We bushwhacked through it, a young forest, the trees not much greater in diameter than my leg. Not too long ago, you probably could have seen for miles from the ridge top. Now, it’s a quiet forest with mosses underfoot.
After a while, we came to a Y in the road, had another argument about which way to go, then set off on the victor’s choice. We began to see more evidence of human presence. The downed trees had been chopped. There were piles of leaves in places, also piles of coiled bark. Some looked quite old, others looked quite fresh. One of the students explained to me that the British had built the road in the 1940’s, as part of an evacuation route over the mountains in case the Japanese ever landed in India.
After a bit, there were fewer felled trees and the walking became easy, a real forest ramble. The mosses along the road became more plentiful, then of a sudden we found ourselves walking on an emerald green carpet that extended as far as the eye could see. “You could sleep on this” commented one student. Rightly so, the ground off the road was as soft as a mattress. Your feet sunk down a good three inches with each step, but rebounded as you went on. The color overwhelmed my senses. The green was so green my eyes almost stopped seeing green out of protest. It was a shining green, a gem-like sparkling green, a truly, deeply beautiful green, a fairy-tale green. I didn’t want to walk any more. I wanted to stand there and contemplate the meaning—there had to be one—of this overwhelming green moss that spread from horizon to horizon under the canopy of this young forest. Had we wandered into the Land of OZ? But the kids were forging ahead, and I couldn’t dally without shedding responsibility.
Soon we heard crunching and snapping and voices in the distance. People. It was an odd feeling to know that our little group wasn’t alone. There was even a sense of solitude hiking, as the fast hikers were generally a good 100 meters up ahead and often out of sight, and the slow hikers perhaps 20 meters behind, but always in sight. A few walked together and spoke, but most walked alone and silently. There’s something inherently contemplative, meditative about walking in the woods.
We got closer to the voices and noticed a number of village women peeling bark off wattle trees. The wattle was grown by the British for the high levels of tannin in the bark, one student told me. The villagers took the wood for heating and cooking, and sold the bark. Then the women noticed us and ran over. I was taken aback for a second then remembered; of course, rich Westerners and Mumbai mercantile class kids. We were perfect targets for begging. After much haggling and arguing, we got past them only to find ourselves walking into a huge rolling sunny field, a forest glade, with close-cropped grass and an occasional tall thistle. The glade was easily a kilometer long by the same wide. The sight was spectacular, as was the contrast from the forest. Who mowed the grass? Cows of course, and yikes, we nearly stepped in their huge fresh pats several times. Gotta keep at least one eye looking down at all times in this land.
At the other side of the glade, we found the road again and continued on our way. The typical wattle and eucalyptus forests became mixed with pine. And again, as if we stepped into another universe, we came upon an exclusively pine glade with closely cropped grass. It looked consciously maintained. And perhaps it was. At one edge was a little shrine to Shiva.
From there, we walked directly into a cypress monoculture forest, a plantation. Nothing grew on the forest floor in all the brown needles, except the funniest mushrooms. They were little gray balls. When you stepped on them they made a popping sound as they exploded, emitting a huge cloud of gray-black spores. As soon as this was discovered, the kids all ran along, stamping their feet, making huge clouds of spores. Pop pop pop pop. I started to say something about breathing the spores, but gave up as they were having too much fun.
At the edge of this forest we came to a very dry lake with a dam at one end. The water level was at least fifteen feet below the dam. Some of the kids called out “ooh wow” as they remembered last year when the water ran over the dam and they had to walk through it.
We rested by the lake, ate oranges, skipped stones and found lemon grass, pinched and smelled it. The sun shone over the oddly shriveled lake. Hanging around was pleasant. It was hard to leave, but we had to get back to school.
The next stage followed the valley of the river that emptied the lake. The path traversed the slope, and angled down slightly, but was less than a foot wide. The slope was so steep, one missed step meant a severe tumble. I could almost touch the ground level with my head, without leaning into the slope. Again, the woods were a cypress monoculture, and we walked on a soft bed of brown needles. Eventually, we emerged into another glade of tall grass, milkweed and the stray thistle. Lunchtime was getting near. Berijam, a campsite next to a good swimming lake was near, another ½ hr. walk downhill, so we settled on eating there.
We paused in another glade for a pre-lunch snack, and noticed monkeys in the tree tops not too far away. In my knapsack I found a bottle of juice that I had nabbed from the kitchen. I opened it and took a swig. Woah. It was like syrup. I winced and coughed. The kids started laughing.
“Hey, Mr. Purdy, why are you drinking the concentrate?” said one smiling youth.
“What the heck? Concentrate?” cough cough. “The kitchen staff gave me a bottle of concentrate?” cough. A long draught of water finally brought my tongue some mercy. So we passed the concentrate around and flavored all our water bottles. Cut 4-to-1 it tasted pretty good.
In the distance, we could see monkeys jumping from tree-limb to tree limb. To the uneducated eye, it looked as if successive trees were waving branches at us, a sort of sylvan greeting in wave fashion. We were peeling oranges, and one of the kids worried that the sight of them would attract the monkeys.
“Let’s feed the monkeys” suggested another one.
“Not a good idea,” cautioned a third. They argued back and forth, finally one kid piled the peelings, wrote a note “Monkey Snack. I hope you enjoy” and put it on the peelings.
“Is that paper biodegradable?” asked another.
“It will degrade faster than the orange peels” offered another.
“No way,” said a third.
And we discussed the matter on our merry way.
At the end of the glade, we found another forest road, and started walking down it. In the distance and up high there was a rustling of branches. A glance up, a furry black smudge hopped from tree to tree into the forest.
“A black langur. They’re extremely rare you know. Almost extinct.”
After a bit of bushwhacking, we came upon a real forest road. One of the kids commented “there’s a grove of oaks up ahead somewhere. That’ll tell us we’re on the right road. In fact, there they are.” As we approached, I was sure they weren’t oaks, but what were they? I hadn’t seen trees like them in India. When the bark came into focus, and the leaves, they were unmistakably birches of some sort. Huge birches. 100 ft. tall birches. 2 ft. diameter birches. Hundreds of them planted there who knows how long ago. They were beautiful. I made a mental note to come back and cut one down. See if they were a beautiful red inside. Make furniture out of them. Aaaaaah.
The ground was very damp on the road. Bare stones made for slippery and treacherous walking. But this depends on your perspective. One kid discovered he could slide down the rocks in a controlled manner, like snowboarding. So he did, with spectacular grace. While I was stepping around the rocks to keep my footing, he would slide by, arms out in tightrope-walker fashion. This created much amusement. Then one spoke up:
“Oh. No, wait. That’s a leech.”
I looked up and saw the kids looking down at the ground and their shoes. Then I looked down at my own sandals, and sure enough on the edge was a fat leech, perhaps 2 in. long, wiggling its way into my sock. I tried to brush it away. It didn’t budge. In fact it redoubled its efforts to squirm inside my sock. I tried again to remove it and it resisted with huge and unnatural muscular force. My heart skipped a beat.
“They’re everywhere! LEECHES!!!! RUN!!!!” I’m not sure who shouted, but the stampede was instantaneous. It was everyone for himself (and one herself). We catapulted ourselves down that hillside. Where to? Did it matter? We had leeches on us. We had to run. The kids up ahead were running helter-skelter. I didn’t look behind for fear of tripping and falling headlong. I was not about to stop.
“Find a rock and get on it!” came the sage and slightly panicked advice from somewhere behind me. But a road and an open field on the edge of the forest came into sight. We all headed for it.
Bursting out of the forest, out of breath, we were most happily standing on a stone and dirt road. There couldn’t be any leeches here. It was safe to stop and get rid of the ones we had picked up. Then the leech dance began: hopping around one foot in the air grabbing at shoes and socks to tear them off. And my goodness had we picked up leeches. I pulled two very fat leeches off my pants, one off my ankle, and three little thread-like ones from the top of my foot. None had bitten yet. Whew. Then I went to work on my sandals. I pulled another three or four fat ones off. In my socks were another two or three very little ones. I checked and rechecked my pants, and found two more. The kids were all doing the same—except one.
“I don’t mind leeches,” he said. “They bite. They fall off. I don’t feel them. They’re actually good for you, medically speaking. I don’t want to spend all day in the forest. Let’s get going.”
I stared at him with a worried look. Had he lost his mind? Did the leeches spray him with some mind-altering drug? Had the leeches hypnotized him? Now a slave to the leeches, was he going to drag each of us, kicking and screaming back into the forest for ritual slaughter in some giant leech temple? Hmm. Maybe not.
But hey, he was entitled to his own opinion. It’s true the leeches didn’t do you much harm. But not even to try to pick them off? Just leave them there? I was impressed.
We cleaned ourselves off as well as we could, then hit the road again, now along open expanses that had been clearcut of their lumber. Piles of lumber and brush dotted the barren landscape. It looked horrible, but was actually closer to the original look of the hills. At one time, the Palani hills were mostly open grasslands, dotted by little shola forests in the valleys and folds between hills. The huge and beautiful eucalyptus, wattle and cypress forests that had sprung up were man-made.
“Hey, that’s a leech on your leg,” one kid would say to another in front of him.
“Thanks,” the other one would say as he pulled and tossed a 3 in. long leech from his pants. Leeches became a normal part of our life, and not much of a problem.
We continued a while, picking up another leech or two, then reached Berijam lake where we sat down on a very nice sandy and rocky bit of leech-free road to eat lunch. We passed around my knapsack full of frosted cornflakes, the cucumbers, tomatoes, oranges, pears and orange-flavored water bottles.
One of the kids had been collecting rolly-poochies as she walked. She set them down while she ate her lunch. Rollie-poochies are an antediluvian insect that look all the world like black trilobites. The lumber along the forest floor at a very slow speed looking for goodness knows what to eat. If you disturb them, they roll up into a perfect sphere, armor plating all around. Let them alone for 5 minutes, they slowly unroll, and go back to lumbering around. They’re among the friendliest and goofiest many-legged insects I’ve come across. “Rolly poochy” is the Tamil name for them. “Poochy” is the general term for insect, and “rolly” I guess is universal.
When we finished lunch, we cleaned up our garbage, threw away the biodegradable stuff, and collected the rolly poochies.
Back on the trail, we hit another patch of leeches, though not as bad as the first. A few pulled off, and all was well, almost in stride. We passed two extremely pretty lizards, speckled camouflage with dinosaur spikes on their backs, who, when they saw us, climbed a small tree up to eye level and hid on the other side. When we walked around the tree, the lizards kept to the other side. It became very complicated when two of us walked around the tree in opposite directions. Their brains obviously overheated as they just froze and waited to be eaten. We didn’t and went on our way.
We were now climbing the sides of a pretty tall mountain, and unfortunately, the trail sort of ran out. We bumbled this way and that, then found a glade familiar to two of the hikers. Left or right then became the question. We didn’t need to get up the cone shaped mountain, just around it. To the left, everyone felt, was easier but longer. To the right it was shorter, but maybe harder. So as we were in a hurry to get home, we went right.
Within 100 ft. we had completely lost any trail. Only seldom-used cow paths crisscrossed the hillside before us. I should have turned the whole party around right then and there, gone back and taken the left. But shouts from in back that “yes, this is the way, we’re sure” steeled me to the task, and we kept on, hoping for a real path at some point soon.
I marveled over the cow paths. Now cows are pretty big, right? They sure leave huge pats of dung. But the paths weren’t as wide as my feet, and the underbrush seemed woven tightly across the paths. Maybe the paths hadn’t been used in a while, but the fresh pats suggested otherwise. We pushed through the brush, almost always avoiding stepping in the pats climbing along the shoulder of what became an increasingly steep hillside for a good hour. The kids with shorts were really scratched up. We were all wet too, though it wasn’t raining, since the brush was. The going had become very slow and very difficult.
The shouts of “yep, this is the right way” gradually diminished over the hour and slowly were replaced with “maybe we should climb higher” and “are you sure it’s this way?” I stopped to have a conference with the most confident of the kids:
“You sure we’re on the right track?” I opined.
“Well, we’re certainly in the right direction, as Berijam lake is other there.”
“Actually, it’s over there.”
“Oh. Well in that case, we’re still on the right track because we’re just coming around the other side.”
“The other side of what?”
“The hill over there.”
“But we’re not at that hill over there yet.”
“We’ll get there soon if we hike up this hill.”
“Oh. Ok.” I gave up.
So we turned our path from moving horizontally along side the steep hill to attacking it directly. As the incline was much sharper than steep stairs, closer to a ladder in angle, and there were no vertical cow paths, we pushed our way up on loose, muddy soil covered in brush.
In fifteen minutes, out of breath, we reached a rock with a nice view down. We ate the last of our oranges and frosted flakes. Then we decided we weren’t really lost, exhausted, out of food and in a tight spot. We decided that if we kept going right and up we’d make it. So off we went.
Almost instantly, the brush ended and we came to a gentle rock face incline that was easy to scale. We thought we could see the summit of the hill, so we pressed on.
“This is Vembadi. I’ve tried to find the summit of Vembadi many times but never made it. We kept getting lost.”
Cheered on by the thought that we had cracked the summit secret of “Vembadi,” we redoubled our efforts and made it to a real summit, though shadowed in Eucalyptus and a giant Poinsettia. Now let me say a word about Indian flora. Much of it is similar to the stuff back home but MUCH bigger. In Connecticut, the poinsettias came in pots and were no bigger than a table top bouquet. Here, we have a poinsettia plant outside of our house. It is about fifteen feet tall with a hundred flowers. It’s a tree. The one on top of Vembadi was bigger. You start to feel like a midget in this country.
So we took a group photo, so proud that we had made it all the way to the top. We stood there, exhausted with a great sense of accomplishment. We looked around to make sure we could describe it to everybody. Not only had we hiked all the way back to school, but we scaled Vembadi too. That was impressive. Then we started back down, to the right and within a hundred feet found a proper road.
“This is the road! This is it! Keep right!”
So we did. Spirits rose immeasurably as we were now no longer lost. With a clear path we started making real time. On our left loomed up a giant hill, much, much taller than the one we had just descended from.
“Oh, yeah. That’s Vembaddi up there. I was wrong before,” a soggy voice trickled through the line of hikers.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, that’s Vembadi.”
No one said anything else. But we weren’t lost.
We kept along, losing the road now and again because it was blocked by downed trees, finding it again after a hike through the woods. The going was quite flat and easy. We came to a slight rise and a ridge, where the road started down steeply, zigzagging across the mountainside.
We started a long, steep descent. Now and again we’d hear a truck in the distance.
“That’s the main road back to school. When we get there, we’ve only got a few more hours of hiking.” I wasn’t sure if this inspired or depressed everyone.
When we reached the road about an hour later, there was much rejoicing. The kids ran the last hundred feet to get to the road. Civilization. No more leeches. Then a bus came careening around a corner and nearly ran over two rejoicing kids.
“Keep to the shoulders!” I shouted, feeling responsible and without any control over the kids.
The road felt less like civilization as an odd intruder in the forest. The forest was unchanged, still as dense as ever, just a scar of black tarmac running through it. But it was very welcome nonetheless, a clear direction home.
Soon we came to “Neptune’s Pool,” a romantically named widening of a stream. We took a rest next to the road and watched the water. One kid lay down on the grass. When he got up, his back was covered in leeches.
“LEEEEEEECHES!” And so the dance began anew, plucking and pulling them off. One kid did get bitten, and the little wound bled and bled. Sure enough his sock got redder and redder as we walked. But he didn’t even seem to notice. It just looked awful.
Another three hours later, after having dodged suicidal bus after bus, we made it back to school. Walking in the gates of KIS was a marvelous feeling, like explorers having stumbled upon an alien civilization. Our legs and shoulders were sore. We were covered in scratches and stray bits of vegetation. But we had made it.
As I sat for a moment trying to remember all the things I needed to do before heading home, taking a shower and locating a cold Kingfisher (a local beer that is almost drinkable but the best available), I mused that in fact, the universal rules of teenagers had not been broken. It was not an insane hike. It was a real blast. I had enjoyed the day immensely. Everyone else had too. Everyone made it. Walking back the next morning seemed like a great idea. We could really get up Vembadi this time.
I also realized something was profoundly different. The social bonds I had with these kids had been radically changed during the hike. I had not been their teacher and they had not been my students. They treated me like a member of their group (amazing for teenagers) and I treated them like a member of my group (amazing for a teacher). They certainly were still kids and I was certainly still an old fart, but we got along as equals, with respect. This is the way the classroom should be, I figured. But carrying a whiteboard up Vembadi didn’t seem very practical.