WINTER IN WONDERLAND !! ~~ Camping in the Misty Mountains !

DAUNTING DOWNHILL

The rickety pickup truck puffed its way up the steep mountain road. Excited young voices, from the back of the truck were in sync with the haphazard movement of the vehicle ; rising with speed, laughing in turns and hollering in general ! I was squeezed in the front seat with a lady colleague and carton of mountain oranges for company ! I, of course, was enjoying the novel experience !

I could not identify if the truck was hitting a pothole or was on normal road. The vehicle was lurching on the rain eroded ghat roads, at times careening near the sharp turns. After a point, I started a guessing game with myself – will the vehicle tilt to the right or left now ?! But the local young man, who was driving the pickup truck made no guesses while driving. He seemed to know every inch of the road and steered the loaded vehicle very confidently. The inquisitive villagers along the way waved out to us excitedly, while some waved down the vehicle to have a small chat with the driver, to expressly question him about the details and itinerary of his passengers !

After a good forty minutes drive we spotted the familiar yellow bus, our school bus, which was occupied by the students from earlier jeep & truck trips. A batch of the senior students has braved the steep terrain and long distance to trek two hours to the bus from the camp site ! A quick headcount and excited mini- reunions later (friends separated for a maximum period of two hours !), our school buses started the journey to the commercialized part of the hills.

lake house

A scenic spot in Kodai Lake

Kodai Lake was hosting the tourists, hawkers and locals along its paved banks. Its waters, the main attraction, saw boats of many sizes and types. We split ourselves in groups and went out to explore the lake and its surroundings. While some rented bicycles, some chose to walk along the clean pavements. Walking had its advantages, as we could stop for a spicy freshly roasted corn here, a hot pineapple there or a chilly bajji anywhere ! We leveraged our advantage to quieten our creaking tummies ! The girls in my group enjoyed the sights and sounds as we sauntered in the lake’s circumference !

Some quick shopping for homemade chocolates and fragrant oils later, we boarded the bus for the most difficult part of our journey – the downhill drive ! Avomins became the most sought after commodity followed the ubiquitious plastic bag, in case the avomin is inefficient in keeping the contents of the digestive system inside. For once, even the audio system was shut down ! And, all the occupants of the bus maintained a stoic silence, for fear of offending their respective digestive systems which was threatening to retaliate by propelling its remnants up the esophagus and out of one’s facial cavity ! I will not reveal any specific details of that drive, sparing both the reader and the passenger in the process !

roasted corn

Roasted, spicy corn on the cob !

After what seemed like an eternity, we were finally in the plains. And relieved too ! A hearty lunch and lots of lemon sodas rebooted our systems and the students got back their verve ! From then on all the way to Pondicherry the mood was festive, with the students making up for the quiet time downhill !

The adventurous trip was in its last leg, and I dozed intermittently, for a teacher can never sleep deeply when chaperoning students.

THE PATHFINDERS

The Pathfinder Camp, has been an important event in the annual calendar of  The Study L’ecole Internationale, Pondicherry for a few years now. The Camp Director Dr. Kisku, has been at the forefront in organizing these camps in a purposeful way. While the junior camp, for 3rd to 6th graders, focuses on inculcating self-reliance in the kids, the senior camp, comprising of grades 7 to 12, challenges the students to higher levels of physical endurance through adventure and mental ability through puzzles and games – all in the outdoors of the pristine hills . The learnings in the four days of camping would in effect be equivalent to many weeks of classroom instruction.

PERSISTENCE PAYS

This year’s camp had been overwhelmed by delays ;  the original date in late September clashed with the weekend a court in a neighbouring state chose to convict a famous politician in another neighbouring state. The trip was cancelled due to the ensuing mob violences across the 2 states and 1 UT. The students were disappointed, but soon enough started awaiting new dates for the camp. The second time the camp was planned was in early November. An active NE monsoon was bringing in copious rainfall and landslides in the mountains. The Principal, Mrs. Alice, had to take a call in this and the camp was postponed again. The students were disappointed, but had not lost hope. And their patience was rewarded in the third week of December, when all the campers finally boarded the bus to Kodaikanal one cold early morning ! The 100 students, teachers, staff and drivers were ready for the challenges ahead !

The bus. after a pleasant journey, stopped at a small hill town, Perumal Malai. We jumped out of the bus, due as much from the eagerness to breathe the fresh mountain air, as also to stretch our cramped muscles. And, we did get around two hours to work our restrained muscles and exercise them, in our trek to the base campsite !

A hot homemade lunch awaited us at Kodai Camp, our home for the next four days. The students were given a choice of lodging – dorm, big tents or small tents. Ultimately, the younger ones were accommodated in dorms, while the seniors students took over the tents. The group gathered around the campfire for songs and interactions. The quiet, remote valley resonated with the voices of wonderful children.

calf

A cute calf in the campsite !

TREKKING INTO NATURE’S HEARTLAND

It was 8.30 in the morning and all the campers had assembled to start their trek through the Elephant Valley. The trek leads, guides and teachers/camp counselors made sure their group was suitably equipped with water, snacks, team spirit and adventurous attitude !

A hut in the forest

A lovely hut in the forest ! My dream house !

The mountains and valleys were covered by a thick envelope of mist and fog, giving an alluring aura to the hidden beauty. The visibility was only a few feet at its best in the trail. It was as if one had to tear open the Veil of foggy ignorance to realize the hidden Summit of Truth Within. Nature carries life’s signposts everywhere in Existence.

village woman

A village woman going home with the days rewards.

The city bred kids and adults seemed to find their foothold over the mountain trails pretty quickly. Some fell on pebbly trails, some slided over rock faces, some glided over smooth surfaces and many rested at every opportunity ! Hands were held out to rescue the one’s stuck, bags were carried by the stronger one’s, snacks shared and songs sung ; but silence too reigned intermittently when even the kids were awed by the forest sounds.

Just walking ma'am !

Just walking ma’am ! Really !

Some parts of the slopes were eroded due to the heavy rains, exposing more rocks underneath. The roots and grasses, a trekkers natural hand bars, provided the grip in the steep slippery slopes. I had divided my team of 11 into micro groups of approximately 3’s, thus minimizing the chances of an individual getting lost. Two is a crowd in lonely forests, a desired crowd infact !

slushy trail

Climbing the slippery slope

Our trek started through a spice garden and then running into an orange grove. We picked up the fallen oranges to savour the fresh flavor and aroma ! A steep walk up a paved road brought us to the edge of the wild forest – the profuse animal droppings seemed to be the welcome sign to their natural habitat ! From that point on we were leaving the last signs of civilization and going into unspoilt nature.

lemon grass

Lemon grass fringed trail !

How respectful should one be when one is a guest in another’s home ? Shouldn’t the laws of civilization be applicable to human ventures into the forest too ? The students were told to not leave trash the forest, which they complied with in all sincerity.

We trekked through the forest, under the canopy of tall and short trees. The narrow trails, just a foot or two wide at the maximum, was bordered by wild shrubs, trees and spice plants. It seemed quite dark at places. And the, suddenly the mountain seemed to open her arms to welcome her persistent children !

misty trek

“Are we crossing mountains ?!” Trekking to somewhere in low visibility !

The vista was wide open now. The mist became thicker, the tress had fallen back in the trail and we seemed to be on the steep slopes of the mountain. I say seemed to, because we were not really sure of how steep or how deep the slopes were. At one point it looked like we were crossing from one hill to the next, sometimes it looked like we were circumambulating a mountain. Few instances it looked like we were climbing higher to the very peak of that mountain. We had no way of confirming anything then.

IMG_20141220_111529

“Where are we ?!!”

Our trek guides were with us, helping us navigate the tough terrain. Some places we were wandering alone (in micro groups ofcourse). We stuck to our groups and were guided by the few feet of visibility before us, sometimes just a foot ahead. Lemon grass, a prized herb in the cities, was growing all along the slopes lending fragrance to the air. It provided the only grip in some places.

water falls

The top of the steep falls

In all this adventure, we did time for selfies, pictures, talks and lots of fun. How can one not have fun when surrounded by kids ?!! We were also well past lunch time and snacks were passed around to keep the tummies happy. Every teacher took the utmost care to see her group safe through the trek.

gorge

Gorge receiving the water from the falls

At a point near a falls, all the students converged. The water falls had a steep drop into the gorge below and the view from the top was breathtaking. Our next stop was the river that was the source of this falls. It was a gentle river, with just two feet deep at its centre – a perfect place for splashing in the water ! And this exactly what all the kids did – jumped into the water to wash away all the fatigue due to the six hour trek.

village temple

A quaint village temple covered in mist

The mist was closing in more heavily on the river now, as if telling us that visiting hours were over and the river and the forest need to get their beauty sleep ! We continued our trek out of the forest and onto our campsite through a small village. It was a beautifully adventurous day into Nature’s Heartland, where everyone, including the teacher becomes the taught.

misty river

Misty River !

Hot baths and hot meals soothed our weary bodies, and the kids bounced right back into action after a brief break ! Children are indeed the powerhouse of energy !

TEAM BUILDING

The sun shone a little the next day and we discovered that our campsite was surrounded by huge mountains, in layer after layer ! The mist had hidden this secret the previous two days. Our trek guide traced the trek route we had covered the previous day. From the comfort of our camp, we realized the arduous trek we had accomplished  – straddling a few mountains, forests and valleys ! It was like looking at the x-ray in a doctor’s office through a well lit board ! The sun was shining the spotlight on our trekking path, perhaps as a reward to the endurance of the entire team !

Collage KODAI

Pathfinders in blue – a cool collage !

The day was spent in team building activities designed by a team of resource people in the outdoors – photo scavenging, spotting, nature scavenging, plank walking etc. Each activity required the participation and contribution of each and every child. And making the every child to come out with ideas and involvement was the success. As a testimony to the inclusive nature of the camp, my younger son in 4th grade who accompanied me to the camp, was made part of the teams right at the beginning. The 12th graders heard out his ideas as much as they did a 7th graders.

camp activity

Camping grounds with the mountains as backdrop !

Co-operation, inclusiveness, initiative, team spirit, idea generation, responsibility and other such lofty ideals would remain just that – lofty ideals – if confined to text books or dry sermons by teachers in classrooms. I am by no means undermining the value of the textbook or teachers – I have utmost regard for both. But it is only in a sports ground or in the wilderness that a child can get the time and space to practice first hand and make these lofty ideals a habit, a recurring habit. I am a staunch believer in this. I am fortunate to be working in an institution that too believes and practices this.

hula hoop

Hula Hoopers !

SPECIAL MENTIONS

A special mention about our super seniors, the 12th graders, where the ‘super’ is not just a category name but an adjective to those seniors. They took their juniors under their wings, looked out for them, helped them out in difficult tasks, and coordinated with their teachers and other resource people to make this camp a success ! They were an inspiration to their juniors too, my kids still bring in the name of their senior annas and akkas when discussing the camp.

tandem plank

Tandem Bridge ! The seniors leading from the front and guiding from the rear too. The juniors learning team spirit !

It is wrong to stereotype an entire generation as irresponsible or brash or brand them with other such adjectives. Sometimes we have to trust them and give them a free hand to let them experience their goodness and potential. And the perfect setting to initiate this would be away from the classroom or even home, as the classroom dynamics sometimes comes too loaded with pre-conceived baggage.

campfire

Stories by the camp fire ! Pic courtesy : The Study

Sending out fit and responsible citizens out into the world is the responsibility of every parent, teacher, school and college. I am sure that these students will definitely Be the Change in the place and time they live.

Tha cubed !

‘Tha’ cubed 🙂

My colleagues, camp director, the resource people, the campsite owners, their staff, the students – everyone contributed to make this camp a true ‘Winter in Wonderland’ !!

ADIEUS !

It was past midnight when we reached back to school. The eager parents were happy to get back with their kids. Teachers and students were bidding adieus with a heavy heart, for the bond had grown in the four adventurous days.

tree swing

Cheered by the students to try this very long roped tyre swing ! An exhilarating experience !

~Punitha Lakshmi

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A Growth Story – of Child & Mother !

The summer of 2012. The cusp of April showers & May flowers !

I was enjoying the ride in the scenic route. The Coimbatore-Velliangiri route was scenic and the weather cool.  I was driving the car and would have been super excited normally… but now I was a little pensive too.

I had enrolled my son Abhimanyu in a 5-day Nature Awareness camp at Isha Ashram, Velliangiri. He was all of 8 yrs and was going away on a camp alone ! It was me who motivated him to join the camp, registered, packed, prepared etc… But now I was having doubts. I tried to hide my worries and was trying to pep up Abhi who was sitting beside me silently, a little thoughtful too.  He was not very happy to be away from home for 5 days in an unknown place, with strangers. Though he was excited a month back while deciding, he was also worried now.

I tried to cheer  the situation by singing songs and telling Abhi how great a time he is going to have. How his little brother is too tiny to be accepted for such camps,, and that Abhi is truly the big boy now ! This seemed to bring a little smile to Abhi. Ofcourse Rahul was not happy that he was being used as a pawn in my earnestness to cheer up Abhi 😉

Abhi clicks - his trekking route

Abhi clicks – his trekking route

I thought to myself of the time when I was in standard 4th in school. My class was being taken on a day trip to nearby Mahabalipuram, a trip of just a few hours from Pondy. My dad had flatly refused to send me, fearing that –  I’ll drown in the beach / lose my way / be kidnapped, or all of the above !! It took me a long time (many years) to convince my father that none of the above would happen to me on  a trip ! But each time it was a struggle to get permission for trips ! But that did not deter me from trying and going on fun trips in school, college & for chess tournaments 🙂

But forward to the present, and here I am, sending away my little 4th grader to a camp – for 5 days !! A camp where I will not even be able to talk to him on phone ! How much more cool can a mom get ??!! 😉

My other family members were not too happy with me sending Abhimanyu to a camp. But, I was firm. I did not want my child to be timid like me, it has been a continuous hard struggle out of this timidness for me. I wanted him to be brave, to live upto his name – Abhimanyu !

I tried to look cheerful & positive about the whole thing. We were now turning into more secluded roads while nearing our destination. Now, I too became quite and little jittery.  We entered Isha ashram and after the formalities it was time to let go, as parents were not allowed to go beyond a certain point. I hugged him and tears started flowing in my eyes.

Suddenly Abhi says : “Amma, don’t cry. Its going to be only 5 days. I’ll ask them permission and call you.”

I smiled at him and thought “That was supposed to be my parting dialogue, and this little guy has stolen my words !!” All I could do was hug and kiss him .

I drove back in silence. Even Rahul’s incessant chit-chat could not elicit a reply from me.

Abhi clicks - trekking with his camp friends !

Abhi clicks – trekking with his camp friends !

The 5 days seemed to move very slowly. I spent the time with my second kid, brother, cousins, nieces etc. We explored Coimbatore, Pollachi & the beautiful Anamalai hills. We spent most of the time soaked in rivers ! Pleasant weather, wonderful people, good food, stunning locations, fun times – yet something was missing.

I tried to call the Isha office, and everytime they said that all kids are fine, do not worry. Once I got the info that the campers have gone to Nilgiris for trekking & camping. My heart skipped a beat. Nilgiris is too vast an area, and I had no clue to which part of the hills they have gone. I was not sure how Abhi would cope with the trekking and camping there .

Abhi had gone on 3 day camps from his school for the last 2 years. The consolation in those camps were that, it was hardly 100 kms away from home, with his dear friends, caring teachers, known people, delicious familiar food, in an absolutely safe place and 2 way communication open with mom – though it cannot be overused. All these previous camps & treks had familiarised him with camp life.

But this Isha camp was different ; unknown people, unknown itinerary, no friends while entering the camp, different food habits and absolutely no contact with mom ! How is my baby going to get through this ?!

Abhi clicks - stream crossing !

Abhi clicks – stream crossing !

I have been taking my kids on a few mini treks and couple of full day treks. They had just glided on the trails with ease and had enjoyed it immensely. So I was confident that Abhi would be able to trek decent trails. I also had faith in Isha to choose activities with safety in mind.

Then why was I worried. Well, blame Motherhood !

The last day of the camp arrived, draggingly in my opinion ! But I arrived at the Isha Ashram in lightning speed, so it seemed to me !

Abhi was dancing with his friends ; ya, the shy Abhi dancing happily to a beautifully rhythmic folksy tune !! Though he tried to become a spectator now and then, his new friends and teachers in the camp were pulling him into the dance floor. It was a heart warming sight to see all the kids dance happily with a permanent smile over their lips !

Abhi saw me & Rahul and ran to us ! Before I could hug him, he was called by his friends.

There were parting hugs and goodbyes and Abhi took me to his dorm to show his abode of 5 days ! It was a spartan hall on the first floor with bunk beds, a few shelves and lots of space for the kids ! The bathrooms were down the hall. It was airy and lots of sunlight came in.

Abhi was telling me about his camp life – early morning wake ups, standing in line for the bathrooms, sharing things, getting ready, yoga, food etc. He tried to tell the experiences of 5 days in 5 minutes ! He had packed his bags all by himself and showed it to me proudly ! I listened to his banter happily ! For once Rahul also was spell bound and listened quietly.

I was looking at this apparently grown up boy and wondered where my little boy was – my careless, home-sick, babyish mom’s boy ! He seemed to have metamorphosed into this self-sufficient, courageous, outgoing big boy ! I was happy at this transformation and was proud of him ! I was proud of myself too for being brave enough to send him to this camp !

Well, my illusion was broken quickly ! Rahul was teasing and pulling Abhi into brotherly ‘games’ ! Abhi appealed to me “Amma, look at Rahul… he is fighting with me !”. Well, All izz Well & Normal after all 😉 !!

We walked back to the car with his luggage and as we were loading the bags, Abhi quickly pulled out a book from his bag. After we were seated he showed me the album of his camp memories, which the organizers had beautifully put together. He turned to the first page and pointed very proudly to a photograph ! My heart stopped on seeing that. It was a picture of Abhi with a snake around him !

Brave Abhimanyu !

Veera Abhimanyu !

Tears started flowing from my eyes and I instinctively held him close. Abhi looked at me silently and wiped my eyes.

“Why are you crying ma ?”

I could only mutter, “Hope you were not hurt by the snake.”

Abhi patted me and said “Amma, it is Indian Rat Snake. Non-venomous. It is diurnal and are found near human habitation !”

I was surprised to hear this from my little boy !

He continued “I was afraid in the beginning ma, but later enjoyed holding it. See, it did not bite me at all and I’m fine !!”

I smiled at him encouragingly, not wanting to diminish his new found courage !

He said with concern, “Ma, you cried when you left me at the camp. You cry when you receive me at the camp. You are crying when you see my pictures.I am fine, dont cry ma !!”. Again this little boy had changed the script and stolen my dialogues. I was supposed to be the brave mother, in control of the situation and telling him words of courage !! I smiled bravely and told him, “I am happy that you are brave !”

His little brother, was in awe of him and utterly proud of him. He kept telling me for many days later “Abhi is brave ma !!” , though only when out of earshot of his big brother ;).

While signing up Abhi for the camp, my goals were to increase his nature awareness, adapt him to mingling with strangers easily, learn to be away from me & home, become self-sufficient in his daily personal activities and learn to eat different foods !

More importantly I wanted him to become independent and bold enough to take his own decisions and stand by them, never going back on a promise, even if the world turns against him. Only a brave person can do this.

I was glad that majority of the purpose was touched upon, a beginning made.

While signing up, I had thought about my acceptance of his absence & my reactions to camp conditions only fleetingly ; lest I do not sign him up at all !

It was as much a test of courage for me, as it was for him ! More so for me, perhaps !

A camp of growing up for the mother as much as for the child !

Now my younger one is waiting to go for the camp and show me proudly his picture with a snake around him ! I teased him that the snake may be afraid of Rahul and so let’s not trouble the snake. But he has made up his mind ! I have one more stage to grow up I guess, with my little baby !

As Abhimanyu turns 10, I look back at the way he has overcome challenges in life at this young age, how he has adapted to sudden turns of tides and situations and how his innocent childhood blooms amidst a rocky sea.

This does not mean that he has magically become mature, very brave, perfect etc etc. That is boring anyways, right ? A child has to take his/ her own sweet time to grow, being naughty, careless, fun-loving etc along the way ! Infact, a person should retain a little of his childlike nature even as an adult.

But exposure to nature and new situations at an young age definitely gives the child a strong foundation, rooted personality , a courageous outlook and respect for all of Existence. This is what I’m trying to give children.

Abhimanyu’s growth reflects my growth as a person and a mother in the past few years, in some ways.

May Existence take care of every child on this Earth.

~Punitha Lakshmi

Kumbakarai-Vellagavi-Kodaikanal :A trek,a village & a peek into a natural lifestyle

I could see a very faint reflection of myself in the water. I tried to lean forward to get a better feel of the depth, but the surface was slippery. I stood still and let the coolness of the water to travel up to me. A voice behind called out in tamil ‘paathu ma’ (be careful).

Self Reflection...

Self Reflection…

The village well, was the place for socializing for the villagers of this mountain retreat ! Womenfolk exchanged notes on the happenings and discussed issues that concerned the village. This well, which was a steep 15 minutes walk from the living space of the village, was drying up due to the failed monsoon of 2012, and people had to walk further down a steep path for drinking water from a spring. They were hoping the well would be de-silted, cleaned and ready to receive this year’s monsoon rain.

For urbanites, who hardly know the source of their daily water and become impatient if the water from tap flows slowly, the effort expended by villagers to get one drop of water must be astonishing.

Well-a-gavi !

Well-a-gavi !

This charming village, Vellagavi, deep in the mountains of the Palani Hills, is 500 years old. One had to trek a steep path to reach here, and that’s what we, a group of CTCians had done that morning – trekking from Kumbakarai falls to here, with 2 litres of water each. Even while sweating profusely in the hot & dry day, we had to think before we took a sip, because the stream had dried up for the summer and we would be dehydrated if we finished our water too early in the trek. This made me appreciate the sources of water even more.

A village woman expertly slid her plastic bucket tied to the end of a rope, into the well and smoothly lifted the filled bucket up. She did this multiple times, to fill a single pot. No wonder their arms are toned ! Another woman came by and asked me to come further down to fill water in our bottles.

The spring is hidden somewhere in the mountains and a pipe has been drilled into a rock to channel the water for filling vessels. It was pure, sweet water and I drank it to my hearts content ! While the pots were filling, the lady and me chatted about our respective lifestyles ! She said they truly believed the well & spring are a gift from their village diety, for their benefit. Their life depended on it.

Bipasha, Pankaja & myself walked back up to the village and she and her daughter Vani balanced the pots deftly on their heads while climbing up the steps. Me and my friends were unbalanced with our 2 bottles each !!

A daily task in their life...

A daily task in their life…

We had reached the village that afternoon after a 6 hr trek, and just lazed around. A few from our group had gone to the temple at the peak and 3 of us had decided to stay back. I wanted to mingle with the villagers and go around the place.

Muthukumaran and his family were our hosts. He narrated the history of the village, as he knew it. Long ago, some king and his men were hiding in the forest to escape enemies. Long after the war was over, 5 men came back to this Vellagavi, married local women and settled in this village. ‘Gavi’ means valley. The 500 residents in the 120 houses here, were all descended from these 5 families.

The people here consider their village sacred, so much so, that no one wears footwear inside the village. We had removed our shoes at the village entrance after reading a board which requests visitors the same. It was actually nice walking in the rocky paths barefoot. Acupuncture for free !

Our hostess gave us another cup of the steaming, strong black coffee, laced with a hint of sweetness. It was refreshing ! We were seated in the ‘thinnai’, sit-out at the entrance of a house, and he continued his notes on the village.  His house was part of a row-houses, sharing walls. All the houses in one row were occupied by immediate relatives, and it could well be considered a single house for all practical purposes. Each family owned some farm land, where they grew coffee beans, cardomam, oranges, mangoes etc. I listened to all this sipping the aromatic coffee, made from freshest beans from their farm !

With our hosts..in their thinnai (sit-out}...

With our hosts…in their thinnai (sit-out}…

His little daughter was involving us in a game of ‘matching colours’ with broken bangles. Ocourse, she won hands down every time !

It was sunset time and all the children were out improvising games and playing happily. No gadgets or toys, just natural things to keep them entertained ! A few tiny tots were packing leaves into a bundle and tying it to a stick – akin to a mule carrying load ! They did not seem to miss anything ! Happy kids !

Kids playing in the village street

Kids playing in the village street

Our friends came back after their short trek and we got down to the business of cooking. Well, CTCian Vadivel, our expert chef did the cooking while we ladies, Nivya, Aishwarya, Sasi & myself,  ‘ably’ assisted him ! Bissibelabath was the dish of the day, after the soup ! We had laid siege to our hosts kitchen and flooded it with our cooking stuff ! They were very accommodating, helpful and even cheering us !!

My friend from the well, came over to take me to her house for a cup of coffee ! I had to stop my friends (the mother-daughter duo) from feeding me dinner too ! Such was their hospitality ! They have even invited me to their elder daughter’s wedding in Palani next month !

It had begun to rain heavily. Our group assembled for a late night dinner, or rather we had to wake some of them up for dinner as they had fallen asleep overcome by tiredness. The bisibelabath awoke them fully !

We just spread a tarp in the single large hall of the village house we had rented and slept . Some of them took their sleeping bags to the terrace or verandah.

It was a cold night and with just a thin bedsheet I was happily sleeping, the events of the day doing a rerun in my mind !

The overnight bus journey from Tindivanam, the midnight dinner somewhere in between, the early morning tea in Periyakulam, the car chase by Vadivel & Praveena’s husband to get the forgotten tarp from the bus, the share-auto short ride to Kumbakarai falls along a scenic way – a thrilling start to two days of learning & fun ! The slide in the sliding pool at Kumbakarai falls was the ice-breaker for the group as we the swimmers like Nithya & Lavanya helped the non-swimmers to slide & have fun ! The breakfast carried out by Murali & Vadivel at the start of the trail gave a boost to our energy they had arranged with our host in the village for 2 mules to carry the food provisions and some extra stuff that we needed the next day. Still we were left with lot of weight to carry in our backpacks, the majority of that being the weight of water. If anyone does not know about hydraulic power, they should just carry a few litres of water in a steep ascent ! The weather was dry and hot when we started the climb, but nature benevolently turned cool which prevented any dehydration in our group. Vallabh’s stretching exercises mid-way helped in avoiding major cramps.

Durai & Vadivel had originally explored this route and we were benefitting from their knowledge of this trail and the village. This trek was long overdue and I had waited for a year to come here. When Nivya & me were thinking of organizing a ladies trek, we both were unanimous in our choice of the location – Kumbakarai to Kodaikanal !! Thanks to all who made this excellent trek possible !

The next day, very early in the morning, Aishwarya, Nivya & myself walked down to the well for refreshing. There are no toilets in this village and one has to depend on natural space for one’s morning ablutions.

More of our friends came down to the spring. The village ladies give water freely, unmindful of the hardships they undergo to get a pot of water. They helpedus in filling our bottles and infact tell us to take from their homes as they say we are notused to wells and springs !

A generous village lady giving us water...

A generous village lady giving us water…

The village was up and about early and there were geometric kolams and rangolis outside every house. It being Varuda Pirappu (Tamil new year), people were buzzing around, children wore new dresses and the elders were getting ready to visit the temple. A woman invited me home for some coffee and I clicked some pictures of her grand-daughter Mareshwari in new clothes. The little one posed merrily !

Kolam on Varuda Pirappu...

Kolam on Varuda Pirappu…

Next we got down to the very important business of making tea & breakfast ! Nivya & me had decided on black tea, but after overwhelming request for milk tea, it was converted into white tea with milk powder that we had brought ! There are no cows in Vellagavi and milk is a premium here. People bring back some milk when they go downhill to Periyakulam.

Morning tea !

Morning tea !

After being sufficiently fortified by tea & noodles, we packed our bags, did some stretches as demonstrated by Vallabh and got ready to leave. I interacted with a few more villagers and clicked a few pictures. We bade our goodbyes and my well friend came running to give me some Sita fruit. Such unsophisticated generosity really warms the heart. She had already gifted me a small pack of coffee powder and a few pods of cardomam, even though I had refused strictly. It was her way of extending a warm welcome. Vallagavi keeps  its doors of hospitality open always, much like the cuture of ancient India…

Doors of hospitality...

Doors of hospitality…

At the entrance of the village a bunch of kids were creating rhythms in odd plastic and steel containers using fallen sticks from the trees. It was such raw and natural rhythms that it left us spell-bound ! Nature is the best teacher for these kids, many of whom may not even complete their schooling.

Aala marathadi kadhaigal.... ! Tales under a banyan tree... ! Relaxed childhood...

Aala marathadi kadhaigal…. !
Tales under a banyan tree… ! Relaxed childhood…

Some of the villagers too had already left/on their way to the ‘sandhai’ (weekly fair) in Kodaikanal, to purchase things for their homes/village for the coming week. They also carried produce from their gardens to be sold at the fair. Maybe some bartering also might take place. And ya, the only mode of transport from Vellagavi to Kodaikanal (or Periyakulam) is by foot. All along the route we met many villagers returning from the fair with heavy loads on their heads, but walking as if they were carrying feathers ! A lady had simply placed her child in a big cloth, held two ends of it in her hand and walked along the steep trail ! The baby slept peacefully, rocked by its mother’s smooth walk !

Returning from the weekly sandhai (fair)

Returning from the weekly sandhai (fair)

The only sounds were the sounds of the birds. There was one particular bird, I think locally called as ‘kottu kuruvi’ , which had a clear voice and sang melodiously, its voice making one to stop and listen ! The other sounds were the rustling of dry leaves under our foot as walked, and the breeze blowing through the trees !

We clicked pictures of the beautiful mountains all along the trek. We all regrouped at Echo Point, the farthest a ‘tourist’ from Kodai would venture ! This point was just a speck in a ‘traveller’s’ journey !

We were famished and the ready to eat panner sanjis that we had carried along were put to good use in a scenic eatery there, as we taught the cook to make bread-paneer-kurma instantly ! He might have been glad when we finally exited his stall,exhausting the sabjis after multiple rounds, washed down with his masala chai. We were running off for in between to pose for group pictures and he had to call out to us to come and eat !! Finally we made our official intros (CTC intros are always at the end, by which everyone are already friends !).

Next up was the dolphin’s nose, an elliptical rock jutting out to the open space. After some dramatic pictures there, we began our final stretch of trek to Vattakanal, the entry way to Kodai town.  More beauty of this place unfolded on our path. Much of this 1 km trek from Dolphin’s nose to Vattakanal is paved by strong roots from trees, interlocked naturally and forming a neat ramp ! Nature knows the way !!

Roots show the way forward....

Roots show the way forward….

A van ride from Vattakanal to Kodai bus stand, picking up some home-made chocolates enroute, chai and then we started our return journey ! The nausea created by the steep descent of the bus in the ghat road, left me wishing that we could have trekked down easily !

We, a bunch of CTCians met as strangers and parted as friends, helping each other to accomplish a tough trek during the weekend, and learning a lot from one another in the process !

The Ladies !

The Ladies !

I have been to Kodaikanal a few times, but going by foot, avoiding all the ‘tourist spots’ gave us a better perspective of life in these hills.

Pic courtesy : Biasha

Thumbs up group !

All that we take for granted in cities, is not easily available in Vellagavi ! All that is available in Vellagavi is what urbanites rush to during vacations – fresh, unpolluted air, pure water, cool clime, natural housing, disconnected from the rest of the world ! They are indeed on permanent vacation !!

A radiant sunset over a village temple...

A radiant sunset over a village temple…

I will be taking my kids (and other willing kids) back to this village at the earliest opportunity, so that they can also perceive that a happy life is possible beyond all known comforts – mentally & physically. The sooner we learn this, the freer our minds become and the better our lives unfold.

Perhaps, when I peered into that well, I was seeing the reflection of a natural lifestyle, forgotten by majority of the world, and still preserved in places like this.

~Punitha Lakshmi

Tour de Shevaroy – A Cycling Adventure !

I was flying ! The cool wind was flowing through my hair and patting my face ! As  the speed  increased landscapes around became a blur, gentle sounds from nature became muffled and I had the widest smile possible ! I was flying ! A childhood dream was coming true !!

Well, atleast I felt I was flying ! I was actually riding my bicycle downhills on a mountain ! I was having the most wonderful experience !

When I was child I used to spread my hands, stand tip-toe on one foot and rotate so fast that I used to imagine I was flying (how many of you have done it ?!!) !! Sweet memories indeed ! But now I was flying, almost 😉

Flying… !!!

I was on a 2-day cycling adventure trip @ Shevaroy Hills, Tamilnadu on July 7th & 8th ! The trip was organized by Chennai Trekking Club, CTC. When I saw the invite from CTC, I was in a dilemma – not on whether to go or not, but only how to go 🙂 !! I wanted to ride my new MTB on the mountains and fulfill its life’s purpose !! I had some logistical issues to take care of, and I tried to find solutions for those after I registered for the trip 😉 ! The CTC organizers were very helpful and rerouted the drive to Yercaud so I could board at Tindivanam. Set the goal and the way will open up !!

The highway was empty and looked like the entire world was sleeping except a bunch of crazy cyclists who were traveling to a far-away mountain to cyle !

Cycles were loaded in a mini-lorry & cyclists were traveling in a van ! Mid-way, when the cyclists in the van were told by Prashanth that the mini-lorry driver & the navigators were dozing off while driving, the cyclists were instantly awake & started to pray for the safety of their shiny new bikes – atleast the ones who owned bikes ; renters went back to sleep peacefully !! Lesson : if you want a peaceful sleep reduce your possessions and assets to the bare minimum !!

After a short early morning break at Salem, the van took us uphill to Yercaud town. After refreshing, breakfast & unloading and check-up on cycles , we started cycling on the mountains !!

We started off on a small trial ride on an off- road led by Masanamuthu & Jagadish. Well, the trial surely was a taste of things to come, with it’s uphill and rocky roads ! And my cycle got it’s first puncture . The designated puncture master of the trip, Kumar declared that the tube has to be changed and my spare tube came in handy. While I tried to help, I realized they were experts and did not really need my intervention ! Hence, I used the time ‘effectively’ to click some pics of lovely flowers growing on a roadside garden !!

White flowers…

We regrouped and started our adventure. As we crossed the Yercaud main road again, people saw us with wonder as we all cycled in sync, with our helmets & backpacks, must have been quite a scene in style to look ! But within a few minutes after we crossed the town things seemed to go out of sync (& style ;( ) as we panted our way uphill and the group broke up into smaller units according to their own speed ! At many places I was cycling alone.

There was an occasional house, here or there, but mostly it was just trees all around. Some of the houses were bright & colourful, proabably to counter the usual coldness around !! As we cycled further, there was not a soul in sight ! Whenever there was a dilemma as to which route to take , while the organizers studied the GPS, the rest of the gang rested or made into a photo op !

Colourful house…

After some discussions, it was decided to go to Karadiyur watch tower. There was a downhill ride and this is when I started feeling that I was flying ! It was exhilarating !!

But at the end of the downhill gradient, before we started on the next uphill, we took the most vital tea break ! A hot steaming cup of chaay is a true energizer ! What would India be without these little tea-shops dotting our landscape, whatever be the terrain ! There is an old joke, that Tenzing climbed Mt. Everest for the first time and he was greeted by a tea-waalah asking him “ Sir, want some Tea ?? ” . Though it is funny and a legendary joke, it is indicative of the ubiquitousness of the tea-shops !! In a CTC adventure trip these are integral pit-stops wherever they are available !!! If no tea-shops are visible for more than an hours trek/cycling, then it truly means we are away from civilization ; well-atleast till we encountered  a chaiwaalah at the top of the peak :))

Tea stall…

Again we were on the roads, and again the group was getting broken up into smaller units ! We came upon a really rocky road and it was tempting to just stay there as the legs were begging for rest. But then the adventurer part of me wanted to go the extra distance to reach the watch tower. So I along with others took the rocky road. My Cannondale, being an MTB, was on familiar ground now ;). After testing its worth in rocky terrain, Shobana, myself and a few of us stopped, in what looked like a butterfly park ! The plants seemed to be attracting butterflies in droves. The butterflies were flitting around, seeming to sit here and there, but the moment I took the camera, seemed to fly away ! But I patiently waited enjoying the different coloured butterflies and a few did pose in the end for some good clicks !!

Meanwhile one of the team members who had gone ahead, came back to motivate us to ride upto the watch tower ! And we were glad we did ! The Karadiyur watch tower was at the edge of a cliff and offered a fantastic view of the forest below. We could see only the top of trees and this made the view even more greener ! The play of sunlight and shadows also created differing shades of green.

Top of Trees… Karadiyur Watch tower

Lunch followed by rest and we were ready to ride on !! There was uphill for sometime and we struggled to cycle in the steep gradient. During a break the local children made me their official photographer, and wanted to see the pictures instantly the moment I clicked ! Such joy in their faces on being photographed !!

We further trudged on to Kaveri peak. The sun was slowly setting and the hills were turning into different tints of blue ! The crickets were coming out and the rest of the hill seemed to quieten down. After some clicks, we proceeded . The terrain was steeper and challenging. Crossing a few metres seemed like an ‘uphill task’ (pun intended !!) !! At one point, some of the successful cyclists to reach the peak came back and the rest of us could not reach the peak as we needed more stamina for that. Maybe next time !! The cycles were loaded in the mini lorry and we got into the van and drove towards the campground for the night.

It was completely dark when we reached the campsite on top of the hill at Servarayan Temple. But the moment I got out of the van was when I felt totally blacked out – by the bone chilling cold ! The day had been pleasant, but the night was in stark contrast. And I was totally unprepared for such cold weather. After covering myself in a shawl, I ventured out again to see the view from the top. It looked like the festival of lights below ! The City of Steel, Salem, was lit up by the millions of everyday lights ! I wondered how the scene would change if there was a power cut. Maybe complete darkness ? Or maybe not, with all the batteries coming to life !

Arun and his team had driven to Yercaud by car and had the tents and food preparations started ! I was overcome by fatigue and shivering. All I remember is, Sandhiya giving me a cup of hot soup which revived me a little. Ananya, suggested we go back to the van. The closed van was a saviour from the cold winds. Later we were called for an intro session. CTC official intros typically happens at the day, by which time many of the co-trekkers would have already become friends !! So there was really no ice to break in these intro sessions ! Instead there was a lot of good-humoured talk as each told a little more about themselves ! Sometimes, people have to be reminded to stop talking as they could go on and on ! But today the cold winds took on the role of silencer !

Camp food…

Atlast food was ready, and after a quick dinner, we ladies were given a tent that would keep out the chillness. Once inside the tent, I felt the wind would transport the tent and its inhabitants over the mountains and down to the valley !! But sleep overtook me and I did not care whether the tent was intact or not , all I wanted to was sleep.

The next morning dawned more pleasantly and the surroundings were actually visible to us now. The Servarayan temple, from which the hills get their name, was just a few yards away.The camp ground was part of the temple, where fairs would be conducted. There was a merry-go-round and a tea-stall (ya, didn’t I predict earlier itself ;)) . After exploring the place, it was time for morning breakfast of tea & hot bhajjis !! Not an ideal breakfast, but that was the only thing available and it was perfect for the cold weather !

Servarayan temple

After refreshing, getting ready and photo sessions, we were ready for the long downhill ride !! I was actually looking forward to breeze through Shevaroy hills as we were on top of one of the peaks probably.

The Group !

The fresh morning mountain air rejuvenated my tired bones & muscles and I felt totally alive again ! Everyone seemed happy ! We cycled down, nay rolled-down, the ghat roads until we reached Yercaud town. A small break later we were onto our next destination to Pagoda Point. I wanted to get some homemade chocolates for kids, but all I could find was signboards announcing ‘homemade chocolates’ but never found any place actually selling those !! Yercaud town was crowded with weekend tourists (ya, we are not tourists but adventurers, so we dont come in that count ;)) . The route to Pagoda point was scenic. Again we did not go upto the point as it was overcrowded and we decided to go down to Kuppanur.

Winding ghat roads…

After cycling for a long time, we came to a village with a big well ! It gave us much needed water and splashing the cold well water on the face was refreshing ! There was a Primary Health Center and it had the cleanest restroom I had seen in 2 days !!

We restarted and were faced with more uphill rides. Sometimes I could not spot anyone from my group ! But at some points the localites, especially the children would rightly assume that I am part of that helmetted group and give info on the direction they took ! Live, friendly navigators 🙂 At one point we were exhausted. After more uphills and downhills and some rescue by car, we finally reached Kuppanur, the plains at the foothills.

After loading of cycles & goodbyes to the other groups going to Salem & chennai by car, we started our return trip. But the fun was not yet over, as the drive was passed by singing songs non-stop for 3 hours by Shobana, Sandhiya, Ananya, Muthu, Arvind& myself. Each one had their own special genre – but the common thread was Sandhiya exhaustive lyrics database !! A fun and nice team of people !

Tour de Shevaroy was indeed a very memorable trip that was adventurous !

Bougenvilla avenue…

P.S : I was narrating the trip happenings to my kids the next day, while watching Tour de France live on TV. They were wonderstruck by my experience and now think that their Mom is in the league of Tour de France and the little one actually asked when I’ll be going to Tour de France !!!! Well, I am not going to break their belief about their Mom’s capability anytime soon ;)) They will one day be big enough to accompany me on cycle treks and find out how I struggle uphill ;)) !!

Cycling adventurer…

~Punitha

Happy Campers Speak !! – Kids Trek @ Nagala

Happy Campers ! Charting their trail !!

Write up by Abhimanyu (8 + years) !

Abhi enjoying the cool pool @ Nagala !

Kids Trek at Nagala !

I like the trip very much. It was a wonderful experience.

I woke up at 5.00. I went to Chennai to my Thatha’s house. Then from there I went to Nagala in car. When we reached there, we played some games. Then I went to sleep at 12.30 a.m.

I woke up and brushed my teeth with neem sticks. Then I played for little time, then I climbed very little to watch the lake. Then I got down and had boost with chocos !! Then they gave me cap, lollipop and jelly ! Then my mummy gave us swimming tubes and life jackets. After that we started the trek.

It was so adventurous. I walked so much distance. In half the way we stopped in the stream and took rest. Then we started walking to second pool. All the uncles and aunts helped us .

When I reached the second pool, I gone to swim for a long time ! Then they called us to eat noodles. After I ate I went to swim again ! Then I ate my lunch.

Then we climbed down the mountain and came down. We took group photos. Then I had gone to Chennai again.

I enjoyed the trip very much. I made lots of new friends. The forest was so green !

Abhimanyu

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Write-up by Rahul (6 + years)  !

Rahul enjoys the pool !

Happy Camper !

I was very happy !

I enjoy to swim.

I enjoy climbing rocks.

I, my mummy and my brother enjoyed the camp.

I ate noodles and lollipop.

I got new friends.

I was very happy to come to the camp !

Rahul

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Charged trekkers ! Fresh even after a day of trekking !!

Interpreters of A Dream – 3G Frequency Variance !!!


The following scene took place in our home @ 5.30 am one morning… a few weeks ago…

Puni : (Lazily sipping coffee & talking to kids): Kutties I had a dream last night ! I was in a beautiful forest with lots of trees and rivers. There were some snakes around me !

(The half-sleepy kids perked up their ears & excitedly started a volley of questions !!)

Kids :

Abhi : How many snakes ma ?

Rahul : What colour ? Were you scared ?

Abhi : How many metres long ?

Rahul : Did it raise its hood and hiss ?

Abhi : Was it cobra or python ?

Rahul : I will catch it like Chotta Bheem does !

Puni : whoa… whoa… kiddos… too many questions !! Well…. the snakes were…

(My mom overhears our conversation & does not allow me to finish the sentence… she rattles off her opinion seriously !)

Grandma K : Punitha, I think it is some dosham. We need to go to some nagalinga temple & pray & offer milk to snakes.

Puni : Hayyo… Ammaaa… plzzz nooo… don’t try to put me thru’ that ‘dosham’ circuit again !! You know it doesn’t help me ! No milk, silk etc !!

Kids :

Rahul : Mommy, we will give coke or maaza for snake ! (Bcos he is trying to dodge drinking his morning milk and instead dreaming of some cold drink !!)

Abhi : Rahulllll…. snakes can’t drink all that da !!

Rahul : Snakes can drink maaza ! Right ma ??

Abhi : No, it can’t ! (Continues sarcastically) You don’t even have science subject da… only EVS ! I have a separate science book… so I know better… ha ha ;)))

3 G Frequency - Abhi the Scientist conducts Viva Voce for the Snake ! Mom helps him !!


(Before Rahul could think of a retort, Grandma restarts her agenda !) 

Grandma K : We should go to Kalahasthi. Last time we visited Tirupati we did not go there. That is the place for naga doshams.


Now that Abhi has firmly established that Rahul is an outsider to ‘real science’, he continues to build up his superiority !!) 

Abhi : Rahul, do you know that snakes do not have ears outside their body ?

Rahul : tchchk…. how can that be ? Snakes have ears !!

Abhi : Poda… you dont know any science !

Rahul : I KNOW SCIENCE !! I’ll catch a snake and show you its ears !

3 G Frequency - Rahul the Brave catching a snake valiantly and shows off to Mommy !!

(My mom tries again !)

Grandma K : Was the snake’s hood in raised position ? Atleast you go to some local temple today.

1 G Frequency - Grandma K dreams of taking away all doshams !!

(Watching with amusement the animated opinions of her kids & mom, Puni regrets telling out her dream ! She has not even completed describing her dream, but scores of opinions are already floating around !!)

Raising her voice to be heard above the three…

Puni : Wait wait people… let me complete the description ! I was playing in a river in a forest, lots of trees & birds. A few snakes were sliding on the ground, some were hanging from trees !! The weather was cool and only the sound of the breeze, birds & river was heard ! It was like heaven !!

(Addressing her kids) Abhi, we will do a complete read-up on snakes, ok ?! Rahul, we will go to a zoo and see snakes, deal ?! Amma. NO, I’m not going to feed milk in temple. I think this dream is a call from nature for me to go trekking & camping in a forest soooon !! Even if I have to pay obeisance to snakes, I’ll do it in a forest in its natural abode than in a temple !

2 G Frequency - Puni the Nature Lover sings in the River and is @ Home in the Forest !!

(Puni finishes her long monologue in the gap she found and spells her decision emphatically !!)

Grandma K : One more trek ???? No. Go to temple.

Kids : I’ll also come to the forest !

Puni : Only trekking in forest !! Time to go on a TREK & sleep under the stars !!!

Kids continue their one-upmanship dialogues and also plan to go to a forest with Mommy !

Grandma goes to Pooja shelf to search for some sloka to safeguard against snakes !

Puni rushes off to check out the upcoming treks in CTC ;)) !!!

Peace reigns again !!

This happened few weeks back !

3G Frequency variance – 3 Generations interpreting a dream in 3 (or 4 !) different ways !!

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Forward to the present :

Fortunately, a CTC kids trek (with parent) is coming up this weekend and me & my kids are gearing up for that !! So, this weekend, its time to walk in the forest, jump in the pools, sleep on rocks under the stars… and yeah, pay my respects to the venerable snake !!!

I believe now that dreams do come true !!!! So I’ll continue dreaming !!!

Happy weekend folks !! ‘Citi’zens, stay safe in the cities ;))

~ Punitha