Here’s a short version if you haven’t got time to read the longer one:
So we’ve been AWOL for a while because we’ve been in the Keralan wilderness. We were house and dog sitting for a family who are rebuilding a natural Eco-farm and needed to travel to a project in Tamil Nadu for research.
It was a pretty unusual situation because in most remote volunteering places you would have the constant support of the host, but we only had one day with them, before they left, to learn the ropes. And when I say wilderness I literally mean sleeping on a concrete floor in a small cottage with holes in, hiking down the mountain to wash in the river once a day as they have no running water and cooking over fire with a mud oven, as well as having a dog to feed (who was scared of us and wouldn’t let us tie him back up) and a needy cat with three kittens, so it was a lot to take on. Everything took so much longer than normal but it made us realise what’s important and how much excess stuff we have in our daily lives! We knew it would be a bit of a shock and it definitely was; some days were pretty hard, but it was a lot of fun too. Read the longer version to understand more about the ups and downs…
Sarang is Gautham’s house, that’s what the locals say. Gautham, Anu, and their two small children live at the top of a mountain on the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. They are slowly recreating the place of Gautham’s youth, a self sustained eco farm where nature lives alongside humans. The main house sits just over the brow of the mountain, which in all honesty is more like a very large, steep hill, it is left over from the time where the hilltop was alive with children’s voices, echoing through the trees, learning sustainable farming techniques and this was their home. A concrete shell with three rooms and doors crudely formed out of bamboo, there’s a small first floor area which can be reached by a varnished wooden ladder of which you might expect to see on an 18th century ship. They say that they don’t go up there because it’s old and they’re not sure how stable it is. Life for the family is about making do with the bare essentials but please don’t feel sympathy for them, they’re freer people than you’re ever likely to find anywhere in the world.
This is the house currently being built and Pete with little Parthan, who never wore any trousers.
Dinner is cooked by fire in a clay oven that was shaped by their hands, it’s hard to get the hang of cooking on it. Trees, fruit, and vegetables of all kinds grew here; bananas, tapioca, bamboo, pepper, coconut, coffee, hibiscus. None of which were available in the summer.
We were told that there used to be a cluster of buildings further up the hill. Gautham had a radio station in one of them! This was a well run, sustainable farm that ran into disrepair and eventually was overrun by the forest. His parents used to run this farm before they relocated to an art project, 2 hours away. Their only failing of this place was that they didn’t worship money and never sold any of their produce; they’d simply give whatever they didn’t need to the neighbours. Inevitably, in a world that revolves around money, they fell into big debt and had to abandon their farm to get jobs. The buildings fell down and mingled with their common surroundings of mud and bamboo. There’s a cottage a little way up that volunteers stay in whilst they help out on the farm, it’s just one concrete room with nothing in it and you get a weaved bamboo mat to sleep on.
There’s no running water, they collect the rain water in a tank which you climb the gang plank to and collect a bucket load. It is used in a series of ever increasingly dirty water pots to wash up or boiled for drinking and cooking water.
To have a wash or a shower you must hike half an hour down the steep mountain side; through the rocky outcrops, following a narrow path that gets more depressed with every monsoon, the water lines still clear almost a year later. Down through the teak and rosewood forests, through the bamboo, the river a tantalising trickle in the distance. Down through the hibiscus, and coffee, pepper and jack fruit, past the man who keeps the post for the family, the roar of the river audible now, inviting, cross the road, down through the palm trees and to the river side. The final steps across stones out to a large outcrop in the river and this is where everyone from the local area takes a bath and washes their clothes from the dust that coats every inch of everything. There are four areas where the water naturally pools by the side of a gushing rapid, idyllic amongst the lush green palm trees, the sunlight filtering down through the trees on the mountainside. Let me tell you it’s the most satisfying wash that I’ve ever taken. Mostly because it’s freezing cold, there’s no way to cool yourself down from the summer sun at the farm. No cold food or water. The local people are as interested in us as everyone else which makes it hard to get undressed and into a rudimentary style lungi to bathe in.
This is the view as you walk down.
And the incredible river when you get there.
But you do have to climb back up afterwards.
This place is pretty remote, the nearest town is Goolikkadavu and you can get a public jeep there from the road by the river. It’s a bumpy 5 kilometres, 12 people crammed into an old style British military jeep, 3 in the front river with the driver, one of which must be the gear changer, 6 in the back, and I’ve seen up to 5 people hanging off of the back too. It strikes me that wherever you go in this vast country there is an abundance of people and they exist with a forced routine, in this particular place because of their extreme remoteness, that would be alien to British folk. Possibly with the exception of those who live in remote highlands. Everything is focused on the public service in Goolikkadavu, the town is maybe a kilometre wide but you can find all you need there. It is like a frontier town in the American Wild West that served the families coming in from their ranches. Vegetable markets and bakeries, huge sacks of rice and electronic shops. Public jeeps lined up ten deep by the side of the road. Once you’ve loaded all your vegetables onto the jeep you can either get the public service back to the river and hike the 10kg back up the narrow path or pay 350 Rs, that’s £3.50, to get a private jeep up the even bumpier road to the top. It is way more convenient although it does make you painfully aware of just how far the nearest settlement is from the farm.
Now for the best part, it was prearranged between us and Gautham that we stay and house sit for them for a week whilst they go on a business trip to a school in Tamil Nadu. So it is that we were left on a remote farm in the middle of nowhere to look after their house, dog, and cat who had recently had a litter of three kittens.
The dog was terrified of us, at first he cowered, visibly shaking every time that we came near him. After a day and a half with the family learning the basic ropes, we fed him to try and get him used to us as we would be responsible for looking after him. He loosened up to us a bit and even let Pete stroke him before he came off his lead for his nightly prowl around the countryside; everything was going smoothly. The next morning there he was in his usual spot, waiting for his breakfast, except when we came out of the house he was terrified of us again, as soon as we approached with his food bowl he bolted, every time we tried to get closer he ran farther away. We didn’t see him for the rest of the day. Gautham said that everything will be fine as long as he has eaten, he chuckled as he said that they already owed the local goat herders money for 2 goats. We were concerned that Suttra (the dog’s name) had not touched his food, I was expecting an angry goat herder to come banging on the door, violently demanding money for another goat. Thankfully that didn’t happen but it was frustrating that we managed to lose the dog! Finally we resigned ourselves to just laying his food bowl out and disappearing inside until he came back and ate. This worked pretty well for a few days until the cat got savvy to a free meal for her and her kittens.
The first few days on our own was difficult because it was unfamiliar. All the noises that come together to assimilate your normal surroundings make you feel at ease because they are familiar, you know what to expect and when to expect it. In a place so surrounded by nature there are many noises that are disconcerting, the shuffle of an animal through the dry leaves, the wind slowly sweeping across the landscape, rippling and rumbling through the leaves and the tarpaulin that’s fixed to the side of the house. When you can identify none of these sounds exactly they become like demons just outside the door, anxiety grips your heart and fear creeps up your spine as you listen intently for the next sound to try and work out what it is. You never can, they are sporadic and are gone before you can train your ear on them. These ghostly whispers interrupt what sleep you can get on a concrete floor and leave you waiting for the warmth and hope of the dawn. When the simplest things like getting a good night sleep, cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner become hardships there’s little room for a contented mind. We were slowly getting used to things here though.
Our only human contact at the top of the hill in this week was the little boy who lives a bit farther down the road, he drops by regularly for breakfast and lunch and this was another thing that we had to handle on our first day of solitude. It was surprising how much we could communicate with him as he only speaks the local tribal dialect, which most people do. He helped himself to a share of our fruit and was gone before we noticed. He wasn’t too impressed with our attempts to make Indian food, he left a fair amount of it, and eventually he stopped coming round! He did chat away to us though, and sat and wrote us a story for an hour or two.
The other instance was a moody woman who wanted bamboo leaves for her goats, this was before we had lost the dog. I had to call Gautham three times for her to shout grumpily down the phone to him and then she was gone. This occasion would have been fine except the locals here carry around a small, sharp sickle for work in the forest and the sight of that is unnerving, this also happened on our first day on our own. You can imagine the levels of anxiety that we were feeling as we cooked our dinner and settled down to bed on the first evening, a thick layer of dust settled on our skins as we didn’t feel up to the trek down to the river. However we were developing a routine to live by up here and the moments of peace were the most serene, tranquil peace where the cicadas droned on and the birds chirped their happy tunes.