It is 9p.m. and I’m in a run-down corridor. In a crisp white adidas jacket and shorts, I’m literally rubbing shoulders with a rather rough crowd. Frayed shirts, if any, and a lungi or dust coated trousers. A jumble of sweaty limbs and hard worked faces. There is one light along this 10 metre alley way that you wouldn’t notice if not for the queue that emanates from it.
As the feet shuffle along slowly, pressed between a second line on my left and the derelict wall on my right, the person in front of me takes out a phone. He’s dialling ‘bibi’. I discern – ‘Rum. Quarter’. He puts the phone back in his pocket. He’s smiling.
I am standing in a line at an alcohol shop in Kerala. The few that are.
Kerala is a drinking state. Always has been. Earlier today I walked past a small green walled hut that flashed the word Toddy over it’s front. Inside you wouldn’t have to look deep to find handfuls of people sitting at a table with a bottle of the unmistakable white liquid in bottles. People winding down after a long day.
The same is true in the line I’m in. Despite the dark and the squalor, cobwebs hanging over us, the mood is happy. Everyone is slowly but surely inching towards a good night. Down at the end of it, a thick grill divides me from the cashier. I ask for 3 Kingfisher Premium. He hollers over his shoulder. And holds up 1 finger. I ask him what else he has. Zingaro. Strong. 2 I gesticulate. He nods. And types it into a machine. A dot-matrix printer starts buzzing and he puts his hand forward. I give him a 500 that’s ready. As I wonder how much more I’ll need, he says 280. He’s joking.
In a cruel twist of fate, Kerala has the cheapest legal alcohol, and very few shops to sell it. It has been cracking down on the liquor shops systematically, and apart from 5 star hotels and KSTDC(Kerala State Tourism…) restaurants, you can’t hope to sit and drink into the night. Some say, it has some correlation with Kerala’s steadily rising illegal liquor market, but you didn’t hear it on this blog.
I head to the pickup spot, bill in hand. He offers me my three well-earned bottles. I don’t bother asking for a plastic bag, having not seen them on anyone who’s emerged from this corridor yet. And I snake my way past two lines. Outside Najeeb meets me to tell me he found a place we could have avoided this. I say, why would I have?
The next time you’re in Kerala, keep an eye out for them. By afternoon or early evening. A line of patiently waiting labourer-looking-hard-worked people with a twinkle in their eye. No jostling, no breaking formation. Just the patience of someone who knows better. And attached to the mouth of this happy line is a run-down establishment selling cheap legal liquor.
The other thing that might hit you, is the Bakeries. Lined all along the roads, you can’t miss them. Koolbar and Bakery. Offering fresh juice and warm cake. Macaroons and Halwa. Biscuits and pastries in all colours and shapes. ‘Farsan’ in big glass containers. Egg patties with half a boiled egg in them. And if you missed it, you won’t have to hold your breath too long, because another one will be with you 4 shops away.
Najeeb fills me in on this curious occurrence too. Kerala-ites love bakery food. You can’t visit someone’s house without it. In Ramanattukara, the small town I’m in, alone there are roughly a 100 bakeries. One in every 4 shops. With a population of 30,000 that’s 300 people to one bakery. And do they make any money? Najeeb puts it at 1 Lakh a day. Investment? 30 INR per sq. feet rent a month.
And he starts pointing them out to me. Slowing the two-wheeler as we pass them. He tells me that even in the remote villages, there are 4-5 bakeries. I ask him – ‘How many medical shops?’ He answers 1-2. But easy to imagine this being an inflated number. Maybe in Kerala cake saves lives.
As we stop at a petrol pump to fill up Najeeb opens the hood to reveal our catch. The attendant doesn’t flinch, or smile. He understands. And asks Najeeb – ‘How much?’ Here, in this quiet town in Kerala, with a literacy rate of 83%, it is easy to see, that everyone either bakes or gulps it down by the bucket.
Bringing us to our trip yesterday. Shanj has been pestering me to go Waterfall Rappelling with her. So we looked at the options, and chose the most adventurous one. 400 feet. Or 40 storeys high! We read through it, and it looked great. The group looked young and eager, they had an online presence and even had their own payment gateway. The trifecta. We booked it and I did my usual bit of inviting people to join us.
In our light hearted revelry, we looked past the trip organizer(Mr. D from hereon) getting a little hot-and-bothered when I added two numbers for one person on the whatsapp group.
Suraj Singh has never backed down from something rash and outdoorsy. Often, to his and my, detriment. Little did we know, the jinx would continue. So here we are, awake at 5:30 a.m. on our way to Lonavla. Suraj in shotgun, Sleepy Shanj staying true to her name in the back. It’s a lovely, uneventful ride and we reach Lonavla station ahead of the others.
Trying to reach Mr. D, he emerges from said station and beckons Suraj in the way you’d beckon coolies at railway stations where coolies are beckoned sharply. I’ve never beckoned anyone undeserving-ly, so I can’t empathize with Mr. D. Suraj looks like one who’s had a punch thrown at him before he’s in the ring.
We huddle in our Tata Sumos, too many pickles in a jar. We chalk it up to the thrills of an adventurous weekend and move on. The ride takes us past Della Adventures, that place you go to walk a dog for a price. I’m pretty sure the guy who used to wash my car charges money the other way around, but hey, Thrills, yes?
The road is the kind of peaceful that you’d expect in warn torn Afghanistan, but the beauty is breathtaking. Everything is lush green. Knee high grass rolls for miles on plateaus that stretch evenly on hills. Every near vertical face has a stream and the mist wafts in and out to show you the spectacle and then take it away. The light drizzle paints a nice Northern-Europe-summer weather.
We alight at the camp site, just in time to see a bunch of guys fully kitted and on a war path. Harness, helmets and selfies. They are ready to Kill it! And we’ve barely touched base. But then again, languid is a style, and we are acing it this Sunday. We reach and immediately set upon our first task – Poha. Or polishing it off. Suraj has already betrayed this is his first time rappelling and he doesn’t know the technique. I’ve rappelled when I was 13, so safe to say, I’m no one to show him the ropes. But I’m confident someone here will.
We have a small huddle, and Mr. D introduces himself. He’s filling in for someone who can’t be here for personal reasons. Then after telling us said reasons(Weren’t they personal D?), he asks us to introduce ourselves. We learn that we have a physically blind participant! Woah. It’s his second rappelling attempt too! Shortly after we’ve forgotten what the first guy said, I expect the safety briefing. Or a discussion on how to do it. Shanjali laughs. What does this mean? Is there an inside joke? I don’t follow.
What also doesn’t follow is all of us getting harnesses. Of which there are only 12. There are 18 of us. So, all that about – ‘only 15 people in a group’ that I’ve been hearing has been for my ears only? In tour-operators-with-payment-gateways we trust. Three of us, one of the girls and a couple are the only guys who haven’t suited up. Surely now we will get a little hands on training.
No. Now we march. Into the mouth of hell. Rode the 600. (Tennyson) Very fittingly, we are lost in 15 minutes. Our makeshift guide / Mr. D doesn’t know where the waterfall is. And the walkie talkie is at the waterfall. So we wait. Ours not to question why. Finally, a local points us in the right direction. Down a slipper path, where the firmness of our soles and the softness of the tush is tested.
It’s arguably the funnest part so far. A good 35 minutes later, we arrive at the waterfall. And it’s beautiful. Green hills all around, and the rushing sound of water falling 400 feet. The mist can get thick enough to turn everything around us white in seconds, and the rain makes it all the more beautiful. Then it rains. And then some more. And the 15×15 feet, slippery, moss covered, inclined patch that 35 of us are on, is turned into a gloomy, cold, wet island, cut off by the windy twigs on one end and a nice long fall on the other.
The other group have already started their descents. We are waiting for our instructions. Yeah, not happening. I was just joking. We are received by the guy who will drop us over the edge today, Mr. T (For Talwalkars, cos he is built like a rock. Like one of those big rocks, the kinds you use to crush smaller rocks. If one of those has been having a Whey protein every day of it’s big rock life.) He’s out there on the edge. I mean, literally on the edge, with no safety line, just strapping on people and sending them over. You’d have to be a different kind of brave to be out there, wedging yourself on a rock overhanging 400 feet into green nothingness and hauling rope up for 18 people a day in This weather.
Anyway, this is the part where we wait. And wait we do. Our line is moving quicker than our better prepared friends. But we do the math, and figure that we are here for a while. It’s 11 when we get there. Even at 15 minutes per person, it’s going to take till 3:30 to get us all down. And that’s a big If.
Reality Kicks in.
We have nothing to do here but lie and wait. I think it was Milton who said that. So we do. It’s sitting, shifting, standing, waiting. Raining. Raining. Cold wind cutting in for kicks and things are slowing up. While things look slow but steady for the guys to our left, I notice that we are not being efficient. A pulley used for our belay line is not being used anymore. Straight off the carabiner. That’s odd, no? As I stare at it(What do you do when you’re wet, cold and have nothing to do) I see a big knot come up. Odd place to put a knot. But no one seems to think on it, so I put it out of my mind.
But it’s taking us longer now. The anxious are standing in line. Even the blind person and his friend. For hours they’ve been standing. Metres from the edge. For the ones without harnesses, there is even less to do. We huddle, we talk about the dip in the wind, then we talk about it’s sudden rise. The rain is constant, so we talk about how cold we are. In fact not much out of the ordinary is happening when Mr. T suddenly leaves his spot and comes to check on the line. As I watch him again, he starts to use carabiners to put a slack on the rope and fasten it a little further down. I follow the slack and see it frayed. What is going on here!
But just the same, he goes right back to his job. Sending people down, business as usual. At around 3, someone shows up with a bag of packed rice boxes. The suspect contents of it are warm, and for people who’ve not eaten since 9, it’s keeping us on our feet. At this point there are 7-8 of us left. And Mr. D brings it up. He’s telling us that’s its late. He’s telling us the route up is a 2 hour climb through thicket. He’s telling us that we might be out of time to send people down. He’s telling us we are going to be left behind.
“Does any of you NOT want to do it?”
Yes, I woke up at 5:30, drove 90kms, and endured 4 hours of cold wetness to say – No, it isn’t my cup of tea. I don’t even fancy waterfalls. Heck, I don’t even like tea.
None of us back down. The blind person and his friend are sent down in the reverse order. On this suspect rope. Our harnesses are not yet up.
We tell them flat out, we didn’t come here to turn around. That’s when Mr. T tells us the rope is torn.
Yes, the belay-rope bringing up the harnesses(4) and the helmet(1) for the 5 of us, tore.
More so, it’s the second time this has happened today. Remember the pulley? The carabiner?
Suddenly going down doesn’t seem as important anymore. Did these guys just let a blind person and 4 other people down with a belay rope that was torn?
Suddenly, the wind blowing through our wet clothes wasn’t the coldest feeling I was having. What is with these guys? Thinking back, it was probably the cold and the hours of waiting that made us blind to this crazy racket. That and not giving anyone any headsup about anything going wrong. Or a basic intro into how it all works. Which lines are for pulling and what happens when things go wrong.
They discuss with the other team and tell us they can send us down on their line. Phew. Atleast those guys weren’t cutting corners. We agree.
Shanj’s health looks like it’s deteriorating, and it’s 3:45. We decide to send her first. And follow on.
Very soon, it’s easy to see why this line is taking so much time. They’re using a 10mm rope. They also seem to use more carabiners. It definitely sounds more safe, if you ask me. When she’s mid way, at 4:05, Mr. T. says that’s it. They aren’t sending anyone else in. Mr. D joins in.
The logic is sound. It’s taking longer on the other rope. With 4 more of us. It’s going to be round 6 when we are all down. A 2 hour hike through the jungle thicket with no torches(Yes, they didn’t have torches) puts everyone at risk. They were happy that one of us could make it but would have to call it quits.
There was no real point. And nothing we could do either.
To rappel down put everyone at risk.
To rappel down slighting people who send people down without secure ropes, is putting yourself at risk.
We turned around. And walked. Up the slippery path.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.
Came thro’ the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred. –
– Lord Tennyson
I think the similarities are uncanny. A group of well intention-ed people sent into hostile territory with no clear directions, instructions or purpose. Their numbers alone ensuring no chance of success. And they’re left to see what happens. It could have gone a lot worse for us in my opinion.
Down below, all 25 had been waiting for 5.5 hours. With no food and no water. There wasn’t someone who oversaw the last part of the descent, arguably the more dangerous part. Nor was there a mat to catch someone’s fall. After Shanj touched base, she sent up a harness and a helmet, but to no avail. Mr. T. was busy packing it all up and Mr. D. was smiling at us and chalking it up to the gods. No sir. God didn’t do this. Mr. T explain the technicals and Mr. D tells us that nobody wanted this to happen.
But I think the guilt lies a lot closer to home. It’s that oft-used phrase – Ho Jayega.
Teen aur log? Ho Jayega.
Tour Manager aa nahi sakta? Main hoon, Ho Jayega.
Rope Kat gayi? Tension mat lo, Ho Jayega.
But that isn’t adventure. The thin line between Risk and Adventure is in being prepared. Taking as many precautions as possible. To account for the regular and the unforseeable. To jump into the unknown with no plan or safety line is not adventurous, that’s flat out risky. I can’t let someone onto a kayak in the middle of a sea, toss them a paddle and see how they get on with it. And neither should these people. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs when you’re caught with your pants around your ankles or your ropes cut.
It’s a pretty obvious choice if you ask anyone sane. Do you want to be in the team that starts early, heads straight to the launch point, takes on the right amount of people and does not use torn rope? Or do you trust muscle mike and a guy who sheepishly laughs away their bad planning and last minute fall backs. Ask Suraj. He still doesn’t know the right rappelling technique. He does know a bowline knot, from his years of sailing, and he knows when someone going off a cliff has been tied a slipknot instead. That’s a fun word. Slip. Not. (Try. To.)
As we try and make the most of our day, Suraj and I find a stream and follow it till it thunders down rocks into whatever fate awaits it below. Mr. D eventually finds us and copiously explains his side of the story. As we walk back, him limping from a motor accident he’s recently come out of, it comes out- ‘I hope that couple doesn’t kill me. They were the first to register.” He laughs.
In his mind, he’s completing the sentence. Koi na, Manage Ho Jayega.
Sharing some pics of the country side nonetheless –