Mugged by monkeys in India's first "ecopark"
Every Friday afternoon when the day students board the buses and head home to start their weekends, a large number resident students return to their hostels (dorms) and hope for something interesting to happen over the weekend. A couple of weekends ago, the duty teachers organized a day long trip to Thenmala, a small town a couple of hours away, for a visit to India's first planned "ecotourism" establishment park. Hanging with the kids for the day in woods seemed to offer the promise of adventure of one sort or another, so of course, we were in.
The departure was about 45 minutes late due to some logistical issues involving loading of food and space for passengers. Specifically, we had 55 people for a 48 person bus. Fortunately, logistical snafus such as these are much easily remedied in India than they would be in the US. The solution - the smaller kids sit on the laps of the bigger kids. No problem.
If you read the earlier blog entry about our trip to Cochin, you'll remember a car sickness episode with Elena in one of the TRINS vehicles on the way to the train station. We felt bad about messing up the car, but after the two hour bus ride to Thenmala with 50 plus kids, I've come to realize that a few puking kids are a standard component of any TRINS journey over an hour long. We had three kids heave on the way so I figured that our own little incident was by now lost among the many other occasions when school vehicles required a good swabbing after a trip.
After winding through some beautiful hilly countryside, we arrived in the village of Thenmala and when I saw the sign on the central rotary of main street, my suspicions about the caliber of this park, which is only a few years old, were confirmed.
Our drive up the narrow, trash-strewn, pot-holed road left us at the park facilitation center where we off loaded and had some breakfast under a gazebo that doubled as a planetarium. With an assortment of baseball sized planets dangling out of scale from the light bulb sun, I was reminded of many a middle school astronomy project. Breakfast brought from school consisted of slices of bread along with small pads of butter and jam, some biscuits and cookies, and paper cups of juice to wash it all down. Breakfast in the eco-park - what nice way to start the day. As kids finished up and dispersed for a little local exploration, I looked around the outside perimeter of the gazebo and saw dozens of little foil butter wrappers and crumbled paper cups scattered about the ground. I was stunned. We've been observing the general filth and trashiness of India since we arrived in India but I guess I wanted to believe that our Indian kids were different from all the others. I climbed atop my soap box and gave them a talk about their responsibility for taking care of their beautiful places and they quickly cleaned things up, but I could see I was bumping up against a cultural divide. Trashing main street India is one thing but trashing the eco-park tested my tolerance for cultural diversity regarding the practice of littering.
After breakfast, an eco-park bus pulled up and loaded us in to be shuttled with our guide to a hiking area nearby. For some of the kids (not unlike their American counterparts), the hike amounted to a forced march, at least at the beginning. Once we got into the woods and started to walk a bit, their griping subsided.
Continuing with my theme taking care of the environment, I was very public and deliberate as I picked up bits of trash along the trail and stuffed into the side pockets of my day pack. Leadership by example I thought. Great idea, accept for one variable that I overlooked having not encountering it in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. About 15 minutes into a our hike, a small troop of four or five monkeys made an appearance to the delight of the kids.
Encounters with monkeys usually start out as exciting, fun events but can turn quickly when the creatures begin to express their criminal intent.
I tried to distance myself from the biggest one who was pawing the exposed flesh of my legs and growling, with an occasional flash of his inch long incisors to make his point. He might as well have been waving a snub-nosed revolver at me. He definitely wanted something in my pack and was persistent in his efforts to get to it despite my reasoned protests. Then the light bulb flicked on and it occurred to me what was going on. Both sides of my pack were stuffed with candy wrappers and other food related trail junk gathered during my public display of civic responsibility. The next scene my students got to watch featured me sprinting up the trail far enough ahead of the hairy hoodlum to allow the speedy emptying of a small pile of trash onto the trail's edge hoping to gain relief from my simian pursuer. DOn't they alsways instruct the tellers to give the bank robbers whatever they want? I'm not sure what was more humiliating - being harassed by this long tailed thug or having to dump a sizable pile of trash on the side of the trail not 30 minutes after delivering a rather eloquent lecture on preserving the pristine nature of the ecopark.
One final insult from the miscreants missed being captured on video by just a few seconds. Two of the monkeys were walking along side Elena just strolling along with her, much to Elena's delight. Suddenly, an uncontrollable urge consumed the larger apparently male monkey and he jumped on the back of the smaller apparently female monkey and began to express his unbridled affection for her. I so wish I could have captured the transformation of reaction that washed across Elena's face as she witnessed this sudden turn of events and shrieked off down the trail with a mixture of realization, shock, and who knows what other emotion. After that, the monkeys thankfully went a different way, perhaps to have a cigarette or something.
Our arrival at the lake marked the half way point of our five kilometer stroll. Here, much entertainment was had skipping stones and seeing who could chuck a rock far enough to reach the other side. The forest in the area was quite dense in places and offered may unexpected and unusual sights.
Following a long lunch in a restaurant too small to seat all of us at once, we were off to the adventure sport section of the park for some high flying excitement. One way to reach the adventure sports center was to follow the aerial staircase up the side of the hill climbing a structure advertised to be "based on canopy walks" in other tropical countries. The architectural design of the walkway was really quite impressive but the real excitement was generated by the very real possibility that one of the numerous rotted wooden steps could crumble beneath a foot at any instant plunging one a great distance to the forest floor below. This might have been the most adventurous part of the whole trip.
The adventure park afforded one the chance to slink along a cable out over a green algae pond while dangling from a climbing harness as well as the thrill of gliding through the canopy on the "flying fox" a slow motion zip-line that launched riders on their 45 second at a rate of about one flyer every ten minutes. Of course, most of our 50 kids wanted to try it out. Breaking too soon resulted in the rider stalling somewhere out over the pond requiring an attendant to paddle a little boat out to below the rider, receive a dropped rope, then pull the rider along the balance of the cable all the while trying to paddle their boat to shore. Much sitting around ensued - mercifully, darkness grounded the flying fox before everyone in line completed their run on the world's first geriatric zip-line.
The kids seemed too tired to be car sick on the way home a good place for them to be at the end of the day. It was an enjoyable outing and though I've poked a little fun at the Thenmala ecopark for it's second rate execution, it is encouraging to know that officials in Kerala are thinking that environmentally friendly projects such as this one are worth developing. Perhaps the park represents a small step in the evolution of Indian thinking about the possibilities of eco-tourism and sustainable environmental conservation.