Friday, February 26, 2010

A Coffee Adventure

Other than this, there are few things that are truly amazing. OTT,TAFTTATA

I was sitting next to a lake covered with green slime in the middle of the largest TATA coffee estate in India. 518 hectares. I couldn’t believe that I was in the middle of the jungle, squatting on one of the largest Indian company’s land. A chorus of frogs and insects pervaded the cool mountain air as I sat with my new Polish friend, Chris and my French friend from Pondicherry, Justine. We shared a tacit silence between the three of us as conversation became superfluous.

I’m a risk taker. It’s why my mother drops ‘heart attack’ in every other conversation that we have over Skype. I couldn’t help but think of the poor insurance company that had sold me a travel policy back in June—truly they hadn’t anticipated this one.

It was just one week before that I was sitting in the house of my friend Surendran in Cochin. Chris was mentioning that his friend had recently rented a motorcycle in the nearby town of Aleppy and ridden it into the mountains for a wild Indian experience. It was enticing. The idea cascaded down the rocky thought process that usually produces my half-baked plans, but this time the opportunity struck a note. What could be more adventurous than renting motorcycles and trekking through the mountains for five days? I didn’t even know how to ride a motorbike. I considered YouTubing a tutorial.

As I sipped my milky 4 pm tea, my plans developed into an itinerary. “What do you think? We can rent motorcycles in Mysore and then head over to Coorg,” Chris was saying. The thought of zipping through verdant coffee and orange estates made my mouth water. It wasn’t five minutes before Chris and Surendran were on their way to the bus station to book an overnight bus to Bangalore.

*********

I spent one day in Bangalore with Chris at Arvind’s guest house in Sahakarnagar, which is about 14 km outside the city. My day was spent haggling with Kashmiri salesmen for hookahs, sandalwood items, daggers, swords, pashmina scarves and jewelry. I’m not sure if they’re born natural salesmen or are just steeped in it, but Kashmiris may just be the best salesmen in the world. I’ve decided that when I start my business, I’m going to hire a team of Kashmiris to promote my products. I also stopped off at one point for fresh squeezed sugar cane juice with lemon before hopping into one of the super modern malls to buy some t-shirts and deodorant. Bangalore is quite the modern city.

The next morning, I woke up at 5:30 am to the incessant alarm of my Motorola flipphone. It was cold again, so I threw on my fleece. Chris and I grabbed our small backpacks that we had packed with the bare essentials and headed out the door toward the bus stop to meet Justine. Our rickety bus into the city seemed to bemoan the whole idea of straight-line movement. On arrival, I found that there are in fact 3 to 4 bus stations in the city and I had no idea where Justine would arrive. So, I chose the largest one…it was wrong. After a long process of being pointed in the wrong direction, trying to correspond over the phone with Justine (who also had no idea where she was) and racing through traffic, we found each other. It was 9 am, so a roadside tea stop was in order.

The bus to Mysore was largely uneventful—just a “getting acquainted” session between Chris and Justine. We overpaid for a Volvo coach, but the comfort was welcome. In Mysore we made our plans over some masala dosas, the ultimate tourist food that every restaurant will try to shove down your throat if you’re white. They’re delicious, actually.

1) Meet Arvind’s friend, Vasu
2) Haggle for a place to stay for the night.
3) Find 2 motorcycles
4) See Mysore’s palaces and experience its temples

When you arrive in a new place and your skin is anything like vanilla ice cream, you will be bombarded with hoards of trinket salesmen and rickshaw drivers looking for a commission from a hotel or shop. A momentary lapse in discretion will certainly produce undesired results and an emptier wallet. So, Chris, Justine and I unwisely followed a small, skinny man dressed in a lungi and plaid shirt with its front pocket drooping with the weight of some cigarettes. He showed us two lodges that were very near the bus station on a crowded street. I think we all realized the fundamental mistake that we had made after about 2 minutes, so we proceeded to lose him through a series of confused looks, shouts, and walking the other direction. It’s normal.

After talking to Arvind’s friend, Vasu, on the phone, we settled on a neighborhood to shoot for—a great first step for any tourist…know the neighborhood you should look in. We headed into the heat and sweat of the city for a haggling adventure.

Haggling is an art and a science. It’s a reflection of culture and economics that is part and parcel of any journey in Asia—that is, if you want to have any sort of fun. Chris and I have become masters of the art from our combined experiences. Chris traveled in Southeast Asia for about 2 months and learned quite a bit about “keeping face” and battling for the lowest prices. He claims that he learned all that he knows from an Israeli guy that traveled with him for about 3 weeks…those shrewd middle-easterners. My training in haggling came from Chennai, the city of crooked rickshaw drivers. If you don’t know how to haggle in Chennai, you will most certainly be cheated frequently.

After motoring around Mysore in a rickshaw, we found our first hotel; however, it was a little too pricy for our liking and they wouldn’t let Chris and I sleep in the same bedroom as Justine. A lot of places in India won’t let guys and girls sleep together if they’re not family. Chris, Justine and I claimed to be family from then on out. This is the same thing that I had to do with Kenyon (my friend from Hamilton that was traveling with me for about a week). Eventually we found a hotel named Dewan’s Residency that allowed us to all three stay in the same room and only charged us 175 rupees ($3.50) each…a steal! It was a bit retro with its wood paneling and brown d├ęcor, but it had beds.

Shortly after our arrival, Vasu came to meet us and brief us on our stay in Mysore. Vasu is a very mellow and warm man donning a huge blackish-gray beard and long hair. He was wearing Ray-bans. My friend in Cochin described Vasu as looking like a saint. Chris and I concurred. He owns a gas station in Mysore and is also the chairman of a local bank. He’s heavy into Karnataka’s politics. Vasu told us about Mysore palace, Mysore art gallery, Chamundi Hill and some of the local temples. We asked him about the motorcycle rentals also, but he said they couldn’t be found in Mysore. This was a daunting bit of information, but didn’t deter us.

Vasu dropped us off at the Mysore museum, which was filled with dusty relics and paintings situated just far enough back from the railings and ropes that you couldn’t make out their details. The museum seemed to speak to the general carelessness of Indians toward maintaining history and investing in tourism. It’s quite sad to see the shoddy maintenance in this culture. Walking through the marbled columns, I spied my fair share of Vishnus, Krishnas and other Hindu gods and goddesses. There was an occasional portrait of a British Admiral mixed in.

Some of the streets of Mysore bear accents of the Western world with their bricked sidewalks and long rows of stately trees—aesthetics befitting of the cultural capital of Karnataka. However, this section of the city was far from our first stop. The place where we had to go to find motorcycles was a maze of dirty, overcrowded streets with chickens and cows, people and motorcycles. The smell of oil and garbage was heavy in the air. Old Market. That is what it was called. Little restaurants, incense shops, butchers, tea stalls, odds-and-ends stores, rope stores, fabric stores, tailors…this is the essence of India. You must experience and be a part of this in order to make the transition from tourist to traveler. Moreover, you must partake in what makes it a market, and that is the economics…the bargaining. You must pick up a product, reveal its flaws and then ask for a lower price. You have to linger over a cup of tea and pit one shop against another. Anything less is faking.

Muneeb was another one of these small, skinny Indian guys with a sly smile, bellbottom pants and a short sleeve button-up shirt. His name was given to us by an eager rickshaw driver with lots of information. Rickshaw drivers can be a huge help or a definite harm when it comes to information mining and I’d like to think that I can get just the right amount of info out of them now without committing to anything. The discerning mind can decide which rickshaw driver will help and which one won’t. Muneeb had a small shop with dusty shelves. The shelves were covered with jeweled glass bottles containing scented oils that he claimed were aphrodisiacs. I think anything that covers up some of the smells in India will put you in the mood. The scented oils were not what we were after, though. We were after Muneeb’s connections. We didn’t have to prod at all, because Muneeb readily informed us of his connections…apparently everyone comes to his shop if they need a motorcyle. Muneeb was, of course, stretching the truth, but Chris and I knew that this was one of our last chances to get motorcycles. About five people had already told us that we wouldn’t find a motorcycle in Mysore. We exchanged a knowing glance and then plowed into business discussions.

“600 rupees is the normal price that foreigners pay,” Muneeb was telling us. Although this may be true, Chris and I were looking for something much less. We know that most foreigners will look at 600 rupees as $12 and readily accept such a cheap deal. The difference is that these people only travel for a matter of weeks and thus don’t mind paying the extra tariff. We, however, are budget travelers looking only to spend about $10 a day in India, which can be easily achieved if you play the game and follow the locals. It’s the difference between eating a 70 rupee chicken butter masala with chappati or taking the thali (meal) that everyone else does for 30 rupees. Both will fill you equally. Coming back to the motorcycles, though…Chris and I were looking for a price of below 300 rupees. We were willing to drag it out for 24 hours in order to get that price.

Muneeb chimed in again. “Okay I have a friend…come with me.” Chris and I shot another knowing glance.

Confidence is key in these situations. You must seem as non-western as possible in order to get what you want. This means that jumping on the back of someone’s motorcycle without a helmet shouldn’t even faze you. So I, showing confidence, hopped on the back of Muneeb’s bike to go, well, somewhere. I didn’t know. Chris and Justine would meet me there with the rickshaw driver who was waiting for a commission. Just play the game.

Stop. Go. Stop. Go. The scooter moved in rhythm with the ancient streets. The sun was unrelenting. Muneeb pulled up to a little hole in the wall in the middle of a concrete complex. The complex was made up of small shops--shopkeepers who had moved a few products into concrete cubes…nothing more. I walked inside and shook the shopkeeper’s hand. He was different than the other guys. His clothing was neat and clean, he had all his teeth and he spoke English well. Maybe this would be harder than I thought. I told the guy that I wouldn’t conduct any business until my friends arrived. In the meantime he ordered me a tea, a common practice among shopkeepers looking to deal. I could see the motorbikes gleaming in the sunlight just outside the shop. My senses bristled with excitement…to think: I was going to be riding one of these through the hills. As I sat in my plastic garden chair, I looked for anything redeeming about the inside of the shop. Other than a cockroach skirting up the wall, the place was bare. I couldn’t find anything. Just then, Chris and Justine pulled up in the rickshaw. I had no doubt that Justine was far outside her comfort zone. Chris and I reveled in the adventure. We had already exchanged our plan under our breath at the scented oil shop. Now we just needed to execute.

The shopkeeper offered us a cigarette. We declined. Then, the pivotal question. “So, what country do you come from.” His eyes surveyed our western dress and contrastingly white skin. Chris’ five-hundred dollar Canon camera was strategically tucked into his backpack.

“Poland,” Chris rebutted. The story was that Chris and I were Polish brothers. Justine was my French wife…we flipped a coin over that one to make things less awkward. It would have been too unbelievable to claim Justine as Polish because the French accent is easily recognizable anywhere. Chris and I had gone to school in the states, thus our American accents. It was believable.

“So, what kind of bikes are you looking for,” he asked.

I quickly informed him that we were looking for something that was serviceable but not fancy. You can’t be picky in negotiations, so you must always go for the middle to low ground. And you can never be too poor. The sweat was beading on my lower back.

“How much,” he demanded.

Then came Chris’ bullshit. “Well,” he said with a shrug of one shoulder and squint of one eye, “we’re really looking to pay something below one-fifty. We’ve seen some bikes around and this seems to be the going rate. Both my friends and I have rented motorbikes before and we’ve never paid more than 150 rupees. I realize that this place may be a bit more expensive, b-but what are you looking for?” The inflection in his voice was shrewd.

“Nice job,” I thought.

At this, the shopkeeper looked appalled. One-hundred and fifty rupees? How on earth could he let these prime specimens go for a mere one-hundred and fifty rupees per day?

“One-hundred and fifty rupees,” he balked. “No, No, I’m sorry…I can’t give it to you for that cheap. I won’t make anything. Look here, I have a German guy who rented just last week and he’s paying 600 rupees per day.”

Sure enough, the guy produced a set of papers with all the corroborating information. A roadblock, but not a deterrent.

“Sure, sure,” Chris began. “But he’s a German…he’s rich! We have no money. We’re students…we’re from Poland…Eastern Europe…a former communist country. We’re on a budget right now and can’t afford to spend any more than 250 rupees per day. Maximum! No bullshit! No Bullshit!” He relaxed back into his squeaky plastic chair obviously pleased with his work.

The shopkeeper dropped his offer to 300 rupees per day, but wouldn’t come down to the 250 rupee maximum that Chris and I had bid. Chris and I tried walking out of the shop as a final tactic, but apparently we had already reached the “walk-away” price (as it’s called), because the shopkeeper let us go. We walked across the street and tried to find another seller, but to no avail. It seemed as though no one else was in the renting business. Muneeb was walking back up to us from the other shop, though and looked like he had an idea. “Alright guys…I may have another friend that will rent the bikes to you for 250 rupees a day, but he’s not home right now. I’ll have to call you in the morning about it.” That was ok with us, though, because we had already factored in a bargaining time of 24 hours. We headed to Mysore Palace.

It was night now. Our day of haggling had burned into our sight-seeing schedule so much that all we had time for was a market and Mysore palace. As Chris, Justine and I sat on the curb inside the palace walls, I marveled at the construction. Mysore palace was much more grand than I had imagined. A lasting vestige of the Mysore Maharajas, the palace is a magnificent blend of Mughal, Saracen, Hindu and British colonial architecture. It rises from a white stone courtyard with lovely green gardens and hoards of tourists. As we sat watching and snapping some photos, Chris told us the story of Tipu Sultan, who had nearly overthrown the British colonialists with the help of the French, but failed. He had attempted to band with Napoleon in his bid to control India in the latter part of the 18th century; however, all plans were thwarted when Admiral Nelson of the British Navy sunk Napoleon’s fleets off the coast of Egypt. Tipu Sultan was killed close to Mysore, but had made a name for himself in doing so. Marble statues of tigers towered about us to honor his life--a symbol of his ferociousness. There was a huge marble statue of one such tiger to my left with a gaggle of Asian tourists huddled around it for a picture.

Then FLASH! The whole of the palace and all its walls became a vibrant white with the help of millions of small white Christmas lights. I was in awe at first, but couldn’t get into the gaudiness of it all. The brilliant white of the lights drowned the shadows that had previously added depth and character to the enormous structure--way too much flamboyance for a guy raised in a log cabin in the middle of the woods! We exited the grounds and headed back to our hotel; our heads were heavy with the thought of sleep.

Morning came as always and my wool blanket itched like crazy. I guess you get what you pay for. Groggily we all rose and made our plans for the day. Our first stop was the tea stand across the road for a couple of milky, 5 rupee beverages. Then a breakfast of dosas with coconut chutney and sambar. Coconut chutney always changes from place to place in spice and nuttiness. I hold that the best ones are the most spicy and the most nutty, meaning more green chilies and more roasted lentils. I waited for my call from Muneeb.

We walked back to Mysore palace and paid the entrance fee of 200 rupees to see the inside. Like at all tourist attractions in India, we removed our shoes. The feel of the cold stones beneath my feet made me feel in touch with the palace and its vast interior of blues and whites. Enormous metal columns supported domes and arches, Hindu gods rested in corners and on walls. The central courtyard on the upper level was breathtaking. As I stared across a sea of marble, I could see the palace gardens and all of Mysore, I felt like a Maharaja of old presiding over my territories.

I glanced at my watch. Time to go. We grabbed our sandals and headed back to the motorcycle district to close the deal with Muneeb, who had called me while I was in the palace. No motorbikes for 250 rupees…damn. It was no worry though because the three of us were set on our plans and were going to rent the motorcycles no matter what. We reached the concrete cube where the bikes were stored and closed the deal, which was structured like this: to avoid problems with the police, the motorcycles were being “sold” to us. We received a certificate of ownership for each bike and left a 2500 rupee deposit along with Chris’ passport (dumb I know). Chris and I hopped onto our trusty steeds and zoomed off. My first start was a little rocky, but I had practiced the motions in my head a million times. Remember, I was just learning how to ride.

We snaked in and out of traffic, cows, people and chickens, but all the sudden I sensed a strong foreboding. People everywhere were yelling at us and motioning to their heads…”Police! Helmet! Fine!” It registered quickly. I slowed to a stop, Chris by my side, a group of Indians crowding in our direction to be the first to tell us that we needed a helmet. We had no other choice then to abandon our motorbikes and find helmets, so we picked up Justine in a rickshaw and searched for a helmet store…not an easy task. We had to haggle for 45 minutes at three different places before we found a couple of plastic full coverage helmets at a roadside stand for $4 each. It would do.

Things being in order, we strapped all our bags to the back of my blue and black, 150cc Pulsar bike. Justine hopped on the back of Chris’ red Hero Honda. The sun glared in our eyes as we headed west into the Coorgi mountains. The temperature at dusk was perfect. My white jockey T-shirt hugged the front of my body, my forearms were tensed. I was all but a badass except for the Bass loafers and Italian jeans that I was wearing.

Every shift became more fluid as we altered speed through the small towns along the way. Luckily the 120 kilometers was flat except for the end, otherwise we would have spent hours in the dark before reaching the mountain city of Medikeri. As dusk began to set in, we climbed in elevation, the roads becoming worse and worse until they were nothing but uneven dirt pathways with rocks. Every three minutes a demonic bus driver would fly by us like a bat out of hell ousting us onto the rocky shoulder. I remained calm in this Darwinian survival game. There was some sort of construction going on, but certainly it was progressing at a snail’s pace. I shuddered in the bumpy terrain as a cloud of dust embattled my face. My white t-shirt was completely brown.

Around 8 pm, we rolled into Medikeri. We were inconspicuous until we removed our helmets. An audience of Indian heads followed our path from the corner store and down the street. We spotted a sign:

XEROX
STD/ISD
FAX
ROOMS

A room sounded right up our alley, so we ducked into the dingy office. A small middle-aged man behind the desk raised his eyes expecting business as usual. The widening of his eyes indicated his surprise at seeing a few bright-eyed white people in front of him. In the most direct Indian-English possible, I and Chris inquired about the room—and here’s where it gets Indian. The guy picked up his cell phone and began placing phone calls to find a product for which he had advertised. Neither I nor Chris were surprised. Justine probably was. Indians often will say they have some product, but they don’t. For instance, on a regular restaurant menu, there will be 100 items. The restaurant may only have 15 of them available. BUT, if you ask for something they don’t have, sometimes they will send one of the young boys to the market on a bike to retrieve the necessaries to make the dish. Thus, you wait for a long time sometimes before your dish comes out. Anyways, you get the point. Shoddy and unreliable advertising.

Sensing the heavy bullshit, the three of us began to exit the shop…he had found a 1500 rupee room somewhere, but that was way over our 500 rupee budget. As we marched out the door, he began his pleading saying that he could find somewhere else. This is the point where you ignore and make a b-line for somewhere else. A commission-based deal is never in your best interest.

We reached our motorbikes again. They were still hot from the long ride. Chris and I did what we usually do in a new town. We stopped and pondered for about 3 minutes working our logic and orientation skills. Then we asked the closest Indian where we could find a room. He pointed us to the second level of a building a few steps away. It was too expensive, but valuable nonetheless. Lodge owners are quick to point you to their competitor…information mining. After a few places, we found a run down place with dusty beds and more itchy wool blankets run by a Muslim family.

Hunger was setting in, so we didn’t spend too long dawdling in the room. I washed off the layer of dirt and dust on my arms and face. Chris and Justine did the same. I put on my fleece jacket to keep the mountain chill out.

Walking around a completely foreign mountain town with no orientation is exhilarating. Every experience is new…every corner is a discovery. After our dinner, we explored the abandoned alleyways and hilly enclaves. As we rounded the bend off of the main traffic circle, we spied a wall on the hill above the town. It looked like some sort of fortress, so we approached. Climbing the hill, I could feel the mountain dew on the blades of grass. My feet were wet. The mountain creatures emitted sounds from the forests surrounding the town.

As we reached the entrance, we found it open. So we entered. There were large, thick stone walls all around us. The monastery to our left cast moonlit shadows onto the main grassy corridor. In the distance I could see the silhouetted trunks of stone elephants raised in the air. Was I in a novel?

We scaled the walls and walked along the parapet into a circular corner. The lights of Medikeri spread out below us. The mountains rose all around. Silence.

*********

Morning came and so did hunger. We walked to a shop to buy some coffee, appams (a light and fluffy fermented rice flour cake with a thick center and thin edges) and coconut chutney. Disappointment…everything was cold. Not only that, but there were some black hairs in my appam. Hair is not unusual in Indian food, but in this situation the offense was particularly heinous—multiple hairs! I was angry and let it be known to the owner. Actually, I first told him the situation and said that I wasn’t willing to pay more than half for the meal. This would be reasonable in a western country, but here, they want you to pay no matter what the quality. So, I raised my voice and told him straight that I would not pay more than half under any circumstance. I banged 32 rupees on the counter and exited with Chris and Justine who were laughing. I looked back at them with a wry smile. “What!,” I said. “You can’t mess with my food…you just can’t.” They both knew that already.

After acquiring a map at a local trip-advising agency, we set off in a southerly direction. The sunlight cast the coffee estates in a vibrant yellow. I could see the dark maroon arabicas, robustas and Liberians all around me. The monkeys were squawking in the trees. The cinnamon trees in the estates were stripped of their bark; their products were probably scattered across the globe in small plastic containers.

Adventure. The word was ringing clear in my head. Every part of me was absorbed in the experience.

The sun glistened off of Chris’ reflectors as he came to a stop. Craning his head around and lifting his visor, he shouted and pointed to a sign on our right. We had been traveling for about two hours. The sign read “TATA. Yemigoondi Coffee Estate.”

“hmm…,” I pondered. “Let’s do it!” We brought our bikes around and over the gratuitously large speed bump at the entrance. The road was dirt and eroded away except for a center ridge between the tire tracks. A cloud of dust rose from our tires as we sped through the estate.

1 kilometer. 2 kilometers. 2.5 kilometers. This coffee estate was apparently very large. We were descending into some sort of valley and the landscape was more jungly at every bend. We were almost completely shaded by the canopy, which was dropping vines around us. Exotic fruits clung to the side of the trees. Jackfruit…the poor man’s fruit turned delicacy. The large green exterior was bumpy and some were bigger than watermelons. They were growing straight out the side of the trunk. I’d never seen something like that before. The dark green coffee leaves brushed against my legs as we tore deeper into the estate.

A final bend. We came into some sort of migrant worker housing with clay-shingled roofs and yellow plastered exteriors. There were three systems of them arranged in straight lines. We stopped to explore. Their interiors were dark and dirty. The ashes fell from the fireplaces. A ray of light could be seen filtering through heavy clouds of dust. What a find! But wait, there were fresh vegetables in one of the cubes on the upper level. And a small bag. Was someone living here?

The sound of a motorcycle echoed in the distance, so we quickly pulled our bikes to the lower system of housing. We hadn’t found any traces of life there and the complex would conceal us from the road. We peaked out the back entrance of one of the houses as someone rode by on a motorcycle. The excitement was elevating.

As I took a sip of warm water, we discussed our plans. We knew we were on a powerful company’s coffee estate. We knew we were trespassing. We knew we were in the thick of a jungle. We had a place to sleep with some protection from animals and snakes. Could it have been more perfect?! We quickly went to work with some of the bundled twigs that some might call a broom. We had found them in the upper complexes. Our room became more suitable as we swept away the dust, ashes and bat droppings that coated the concrete floor.

It was 3 p.m. and we had no food or water, and no blankets. It would be cold. So we set our bearings for the nearest town…Sidapur.

It was just a tiny town, but had all the provisions we needed. We broke up the duties among the three of us. I was supposed to search for fruits, bakery items and water; Chris needed to find blankets and a tarp. Justine would guard the bikes and bags. So we set off in different directions, the entire town watching from their front stoops and shop entrances. It was like Big Brother watching over us…just a little less menacing and a lot less clandestine.

We all convened back at the bikes to display our treasures. I had managed to find some nice oranges and bananas, some sweet chappatis (an unleavened bread) filled with sugar and cardamom and lots of water. Chris had haggled for two wool blankets at the tailor and bought a tarp from the general store. He had also purchased some fine Indian whiskey called “Original Choice.” It cost $3 and failed to describe its contents as firewater. Justine had unsuccessfully fended off a drunk man…that is, I had to lure him away from her by promising to buy him a tea at one of the stands down the way. We were ready!

Our re-entrance into the coffee estate was smooth and undetected. We safely parked our motorcycles out of eyeshot behind our house. We spread some water around the inside of our house to quell the dust and then laid the tarp and blankets. Then we set off down the path to explore our surroundings. There was a lake down the trail to the left that looked manmade. It was probably a water shelter for watering the estate. There were all sorts of lily pads and tropical plants lining the flanks. The sound of frogs could be heard. We decided that we wanted a fire there for the night, so we began collecting a large amount of firewood. The fire ants falling off the logs bit my arms and feet.

Then the unexpected…voices. I was at the bottom of the path to the lake carrying a log to our fire pit and I could see some dark figures approaching in the distance. I dropped the log and sprinted straight up the pathway to discuss what to do with the others. I had to be quick or else they would have seen me on the straightaway.

Panting, I reached the top, a look of shock on my face. Chris and Justine returned the look. In between gasps I explained that the fact that I was out of breath made the situation more dramatic than it really was…we just needed a plan. We didn’t have one, so we waited the thirty seconds for the men to come up the pathway. And boy were they surprised at the sight of us. They were from Tamil Nadu, only here for the coffee picking season. They were the coffee pickers who were living in the complexes just above us. Chris muttered under his breath, “offer them chocolate…,” as if they were savages who were about to eat us. The situation was laughable.

After a long game of charades and asking about their families, they seemed content and went back up to their housing. The whole village knew that we were there within seconds; however, no one ever bothered us from that point on. Chocolate…the great negotiator.

Our camp was set up and we were off for an adventure into the jungle. We began winding through the picking lanes, up and down valleys. My biggest worry was the huge tiger spiders that inhabit coffee shrubs, but I glimpsed signs from time to time with elephants on them. I didn’t know what to think, but I remembered the cartoons with the elephants that rear up in fear at the sight of a mouse. Innocuous, right?

Sensing dusk, we headed back to our house watching for the markers we had placed at the junctions. I could see tracks of my loafers in the sand. The monkeys watched us through the trees. The chill was setting in. The thought of a fire seemed enticing.

Arriving at the campsite, we gathered the food, water and whiskey and skipped down to the campfire by the lake. It was completely dark. Not only was it completely dark, but it also seemed a bit dangerous. I was the last down the pathway and I could hear the sounds of a large animal in the coffee shrubs on my right. I ran!

As I reached Chris and Justine, something eerie happened. An EXPLOSION! It was a monkey war and we were at ground zero. We, knowingly, had located ourselves in the midst of the monkey kingdom, but I never thought that would be a problem. Now the poisonous claws of the monkeys came to mind…images of monkey wars from the Planet Earth series flashed on my retinas. Monkey wars are fierce, bloody and deadly. Justine had a look of sheer terror in her face; my and Chris’ faces were far from placid.

“Quick, quick!” I shouted. I had never been in a menacing animal situation before but my cinematic knowledge and boy scout training told me to start a fire. I don’t think I’ve ever started a fire that quickly. It’s funny how incentives work.

After the adrenaline of the situation faded away and frogs became our only worry, we broke out the whiskey and food. I might as well have been drinking gasoline. Chris put on his manly face and said it wasn’t that bad. Justine…well, I think Justine was still in shock. France seemed a long way off.

We munched on bananas packed with melted chocolate. They were mushy and steaming hot from having placed them in the coals of the fire. The sweet chappatis with cardamom made a nice complement to the meal.

So where does this leave us? Ah yes, at the start.

Other than this, there are few things that are truly amazing. OTT,TAFTTATA

I was sitting next to a lake covered with green slime in the middle of the largest TATA coffee estate in India. 518 hectares. I couldn’t believe that I was in the middle of the jungle, squatting on one of the largest Indian company’s land. A chorus of frogs and insects pervaded the cool mountain air as I sat with my new Polish friend, Chris and my French friend from Pondicherry, Justine. We shared a tacit silence between the three of us as conversation became superfluous.

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Morning again. The sound of a motorcycle. A figure. Big trouble.

The manager of the coffee estate had finally located us. I was still a little drowsy from the night before. The three of us had cuddled under the blankets on the cold concrete floor, but it wasn’t enough. We all froze.

I sobered up. “Good morning!” I exclaimed. The young looking manager returned the greeting but seemed very hesitant.

“What are you doing down here?” he asked. Then I started onto a whole story of how we had come in after dark and lost our way as we turned down the coffee estate. Happening upon the migrant worker housing, we decided to pass the night and then rise early to find our way out. It seemed like an airtight story to me.

The man was very worried, but seemed not to be so concerned about our trespassing as much as something else. He explained. “You realize that we have an elephant menace on this estate, don’t you?” I shook my head no. “Yes,” he continued. “There are 15-20 large elephants on this estate that will kill you if they see you and you are located in the most trafficked path of the elephants.”

I thought for a second and pieced it together. We were on one of the main roads down to the watering hole—the elephants’ source of water. The housing we were in was abandoned and in disrepair. “Woops,” I thought.

The manager explained further…”If the elephants had come through last night they would have trampled the motorcycles.” I looked at the motorcycles. They were directly on the path. “But that’s the least of your worries. You could have died. In fact, in 2007, one of our managers was killed by an elephant while his daughter watched.” I was shocked.

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After explaining our fake story up and down again for about five other (angry) managers, the end seemed near. We weren’t going to get in legal trouble…phew! We wrote the story on a piece of paper and then signed it. Before leaving, we managed to chat for a few moments about my spice project and made friends with them.

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Nighttime again. Chris and I had dropped Justine at a bus stop in the middle of the mountains earlier in the day. She had a 15-hour ride back to Pondicherry. Now we were free and could do something crazy!

The day was relaxing as we swept through the countryside. We stopped in small villages for tea, coffee and some snacks. Polibetta, Gonikoppa, Poonampet. The people in the villages stared intently.

We were in the Irapu Falls area and were looking to camp out, but it was already dark and we were still riding. We had to find some place quick, so we rolled onto a coffee estate. The owners caught us immediately. We told them that we were looking for some accommodation and thought that they might have a guesthouse or a place for us to camp. They gave us a look of horror as we told them that we wanted to camp outside. Elephants, snakes, spiders. They outlined all of the dangers. Chris and I took off.

Two kilometers away we came across another coffee estate nestled amongst some sheer hills. We parked our bikes in the forest and camouflaged them with leaves and branches. We had our backpacks on our backs. Chris strapped the tarp and blankets to his front. We hiked onto the estate.

The estate consisted of a large open field with some grassy shrubs and then rose into coffee bushes on the hillsides. We froze. Someone was shouting at us from the entrance and had turned on their light to come after us. Oh wait, two lights…there was more than one. We quickly shut off the headlamp and ran for the hills where the coffee shrubs were. We were both wearing white t-shirts and the light of the moon was reflecting off of us. The white tarp was a dead giveaway. We threw our stuff over the shrubs and put our blue and black jackets on. We were invisible now except for our white skin. The thrill was too much.

We then carefully and quietly made our way to the center of the big field and chatted softly as we listened for voices. They must have searched for an hour and half, but Chris and I could not be easily found. At one point, we ducked behind the shrubs in the middle of the field that were arranged in rows. The men searched the field. We were silent for a long time.

When the fear and excitement of the moment passed Chris and I took off toward the coffee shrubs again where we had stored our stuff. We picked a spot on the hillside so that we were protected. Wrapping ourselves in the wool blankets and the tarp, we attempted to sleep, but the stars were too vibrant and the sounds of animals too impending. As I stared at the constellations, I could hear the elephants in the jungles around us. They come out at night.

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