The Long and Winding Road to Get Back Home
pilgrims on the way to Sabarimala Temple -- this could be a Peace Corps picture ...

The Long and Winding Road to Get Back Home

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Sometimes when you’re on the road, you just get swept up by your surroundings.  Yesterday was one of those days for me.

It was a day where I truly got to experience India and I learned something that might seem like common sense until you’ve experienced it: it’s never a good feeling to be sitting in a police station in a foreign country while people thumb through your passport, look sideways at you and speak seriously amongst themselves in a language you don’t understand.

My day actually began a few days ago when I took a tour of the tea and spice plantations which cover the steep hillsides of the Western Ghats around Kumily in the state of Kerala.  (It’s a shame that time, space and power outages have prevented me from documenting those days — including a tiger and elephant safari two days ago — but I will say that eating the bark of a cinnamon tree is another one of those experiences that’s hard to describe but really worth doing in the flesh.)  At the end of the tour I asked the guide to point me to a good local eatery where I could get some real South Indian fare.  He dropped me at a place where my all-you-can-eat buffet cost a dollar and my whole bill with two sodas and fresh naan bread came to less than two dollars.  Oh, and the food was quite tasty too.

Apparently I’m not the only one that thought so as the place is pretty well known among locals and, as I was sitting alone, a few Indians sat down with me.  In broken English one of them explained that he was part of a group of pilgrims walking from Tamil Nadu on a 41-day trek to some temple nearby where the lot of them hoped to, as he said: “pour ghee on the god there.” I thought to myself in disbelief: “You’re walking for more than a month so you can smear clarified butter on a statue?!?!”

I didn’t think much more about it but I began to see how Kumily was overrun by pilgrims carrying their few possessions tied on a bundle on their heads, all topped off with a garland of flowers.  And the roads are crammed with cars carrying the faithful that look like moveable shrines they are so bedecked in flower strands.  The only thing I can compare it to is game-day between two giant football programs in Texas or Ohio.

So I got curious and asked around.  Turns out they’re on their way the Sabarimala Temple, one of India’s biggest annual religious pilgrimages.  Estimates from people I asked put the number of visitors at between “two lakh” (i.e. 200,000) to “10 crore” (i.e. 100 million).  (It seems the real number of the two months it’s open is about 30 million.)  It ain’t in the guidebook.  To see what all the fuss was about I decided I’d check it out for myself.

Easier said than done.  The temple is not easily accessible and I had to take a 40km bus (which took 1.5 hours) and then I had a 7km mountain hike in front of me.  To make this more efficient, let’s just skip ahead many hours to the point where I arrive at the temple after my hike.

I had pictured a remote temple with a few thousand faithful camped out, a la Woodstock.  What greeted me was a city-like complex bursting with people.  I couldn’t even make out the temple and certainly had no idea what I was looking at with a labyrinth of buildings and queues of thousands upon thousands of people that made me think I was at a big water park and the pilgrims were waiting for the log flume rather than a fat-coated idol.

And I’m feeling a bit out place here.  From the time I left the mini-tourist stopover of Kumily, I did not see another non-Indian for the rest of the day (which it turned out would stretch until 3:00 am the next day).  Not only am I the only non-Indian, I am very obviously the only non-Indian among this throng of people that would fill any one of the world’s largest stadiums.  And I’m the only one wearing shoes.

Yes, that’s right, almost every single one of these people has hiked in barefoot — many after hundreds of miles of walking.

On the hike down I was playing the usual celebrity part that foreigners often play in India – taking pictures with strangers, signing autographs and shaking hands with passers-by while answering a standard battery of questions about what country I come from, what I do as a job and what my “good name” is — but now that I was nearly at the sanctum sanctorum, people are looking at me a bit more like, “So what exactly are you doing here?”

Despite the mild discomfort this caused, I was glad for it.  This was a part of India I had been missing.  Finally I got a sense for what happens when you combine a deeply spiritual country with one that has a billion people: you get some very large, very genuine religious gatherings.  This was definitely not India gussied up for the tourist dollar (or Euro or yen).

As a non-devotee I was not allowed into the inner sanctuary where the ghee smearing happens but I did get to walk around the complex watching groups of men congregate around plates of fire and I saw devotees hurl coconuts at a wall by the thousands.  The whole time I’m enveloped by smoke, I’m jumping from the regular canon-like explosions that accompany prayers and my bare feet (I had to remove my shoes around the temple too) are coated with a combination of dirt, ritual powders, toe jam and lots of excess butter.

Having had my fill and feeling a bit overwhelmed, I decided it was time to turn back.  Clearly I wasn’t thinking straight because, despite all logic, I thought I could retrace my steps downhill in 45 minutes (yup — five miles of challenging mountainous terrain in less than an hour!) before darkness fell.  Luckily a group of pilgrims on their way down stopped me with the following: You can’t go this way because (a) it’s not allowed by the park service now, and (b) you”ll likely be attacked by tigers or elephants.

Right — welcome to the real, untamed India.

So, thanking my stars, I turned back to head out of the other entrance to catch the 150km bus back to where I was to lay my head at night.

If only it were that easy.

The 5km path is much easier than the 7km one through the mountains but it’s still no picnic: it’s heavily trafficked by coolies bringing provisions to and from the quasi-city, carrying huge sacks and boxes atop their heads; imagine that every day for two months there was a game at Wembley Stadium or the Rose Bowl with 100,000 fans and the only way to get all of the supplies there was for men to carry them three miles.

I make it about 2km down the path but I don’t see any signs for buses so I decide to ask at the guard shack.  Big mistake.

At this point let me point out that I have asked directions or interacted with a dozen or two dozen guards and other security personnel; I have walked right up to the main police buildings and I am clearly on everyone’s radar because  I am the only non-Indian in the entire crowd and it’s very obvious.

However the guy in charge of the checkpoint gets all bent out of shape when I tell him that I am not arriving but that I am now leaving; I have already been through the temple complex and just need to know where to catch the bus to Kumily.  Even though I don’t know what he’s saying I can tell that he’s not pleased by this news.

He tells me that a few of his deputies will walk me back to the bus stop which I’ve apparently missed a kilometer back on the path.  I’m a little wary of this because, unless it was a secret path right out of 007, I’m pretty sure I would have seen it.  Also, I have four guys to keep me company.  Hmmm.

I keep repeating that I just need the bus back to Kumily (which I’m told will take three hours) and I’m pretty sure there aren’t any buses this way.  They keep telling me that, oh, yes, sure, there are indeed buses this way; I start to seriously wonder how long it will take for anyone I know to track me down and call the embassy and whether that would be enough time to keep me alive.  I’m also wondering what the going rate is for police payoffs and if I have enough on my person.  Yes, things are not looking good.

Not only am I bound for questioning (mind you, after spending hours walking around the complex — good thing the bad guys never think about using the secondary entrance) but I am really, really tired and I’m still looking at a really, really long night even without a police date.  You see I’ve hiked at least 7km downhill, sweating bullets in the heat and humidity, then walked another 2km or so in the complex and then hiked back another 1km to where I had to turn around because of elephants and tigers and then walked 2km to the point where I was rerouted by the officer in charge and then back another 3km to the police chief’s office — and I know I still have at least another 5km to walk before hopping on a three-plus hour bus trip.  And it’s already well past sunset.

One of the good things about being American is there is something in your blood that allows you to be calm and a little cocky in such situations — we’re also really good at being indignant but I didn’t seem to have the proper cards for that at the time — so I’m sitting in the chair in front of the police chief, chugging water and offering it to the guys who brought me while joking with them that they did a really good job fooling me into thinking I was going to the bus: “Aw, shucks, you little devils, you got me!”

But seriously, as I said at the beginning, it’s not a great situation to be in.  Luckily they finally contented themselves that I was not a terrorist and offered me a chai and an, ahem, hearty apology because, as you know, we can’t be too safe these days.

Right, because I would have made a great terrorist.  I mean, I’ve never seen terrorist training videos but I’m sure they don’t advise trainees to approach police officers and ask them for directions when they’re almost home free.  And it’s not like I was hiding.  If they put out an APB alert for me, any of the following would have worked:

“Look for the guy:
(a)    who’s the only non-Indian.”
(b)    wearing a T-shirt.”
(c)    wearing pants.”
(d)    wearing shoes.”

It would be like playing the world’s easiest game of “Where’s Waldo?”

Finally, at 8:00 pm or so they let me go, albeit escorted off the property in the company of a guard who actually turned out to be quite amiable.  So then I retraced my steps to the checkpoint and then on another 2.5km where I had to find a bus back to Kumily.  This is the main entrance to the temple and even in the dark, thousands upon thousands of devotees were pouring in and I had to fight my way against the stream like an exhausted, non-Indian salmon.

The bus I needed was just leaving when I arrived and there were no seats left.  Of course.

I begged the ticket guy to let me on and reluctantly he did.  The driver indicated that I should sit next to him on the engine cowling, right up against the windshield — so I could best watch the horror of driving on the wrong side of the dark, narrow, winding mountain road as we passed other buses on blind curves with sheer drop-offs below.  Whatever; I was happy to be getting away, hoping to be in bed in three short hours.  This was at about 9:30 pm.

At 2:45 am (i.e. more than five hours later), we rolled into Kumily.  With the exception of some crackers I’d bought before getting on the bus, the last food I’d had was at about 1:00 pm when some pilgrims shared a banana leaf packet of lemon rice with me.  I got back to the hotel, hungry, tired, and . . . locked out.

After I was finally able to wake up the proprietor I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

There are long days and then there are very loooong days.  But, as they say, if you don’t leave home, what stories can you tell?