two of the friendlier residents of Kodaikanal
I arrived in Kodaikanal and the bus dropped me off in the middle of town. My two old Brahmin friends who discussed yoga philosophy with me bowed their heads and placed their hands in anjali mudra and told me that these “two old jivans” were honored to sit next to me and they hoped I would be blessed for the remainder of my trip.
One of the scenarios the old jivan presented to me was this: he looked out the window and waved his hand at the poor people along the way. He said, “what do you think, madam? Why is one man born a king and the other born a beggar? Is that not fate?” I shrugged and said that karma is not fate, it is cause and effect, that karma is karma, no more, no less. I told him that the beggar could very well have been a king in a previous life, and because of his past actions was reborn a beggar, maybe because he treated beggars very poorly when he was a king. A man sitting in front of us turned around and said loudly, “She is right! Karma is karma!”, then said nothing more for the rest of the trip. I smiled because I loved these little Indian vignettes. The two old jivans laughed and discussed karma between themselves, maybe discussing how it was their karma to sit next to an American woman of a certain age who was dressed like an old hippie chick and who was reading an Indian book on meditation.
I was in Kodai only for two nights and I admit that maybe this was too short a time to form a proper opinion. But as of right now, I would not return to Kodai, at least as a solo traveler. I believe Kodai is best visited with other people, unlike the other cities I visited. Despite the beauty of the surroundings compared to the dry Tamil Nadu I was accustomed to, I felt claustrophobic in Kodai, I felt trapped. This was the first city where I felt bored and antsy. One thing that was remarkably different was that I was never besieged by touts or beggars in Kodai – that was a refreshing change! It was interesting how I was in a relatively clean, quiet town with the least amount of people so far, not hassled by touts or beggars, but I felt uncomfortable, and I did not feel that way in maddening Madurai or busy Chennai.
The place where I stayed was considered a “resort” and was more for tourist groups or for families. Kodai is known for hiking trails, but I knew I would not feel safe hiking in the hills alone. The center of town is small and there’s not much to do or see. The connections at the two internet cafes were exceedingly slow. Walking around town I found an ayurvedic store and made an appointment for another ayurvedic massage, hoping it would as wonderful as the one I had in Chennai. I thought it might even be better since the store was run by an ashram – they had a convincing brochure about their services but I should have relied on the old adage about not judging the book by its cover.
When I arrived for my massage, I was taken into the basement of a nearby hotel and was shocked. The basement was cold, damp, and scary, and it really looked like just what it was — an unfinished basement. I was taken into a small, dark room that was literally freezing, the first time I had ever felt cold in India. I looked around, disgusted. The “masseuse” put an old, ratty towel on the table that was a duplicate version of the one in Chennai, like a doctor’s exam table from the 1950s. Only this time the towel was greasy looking. No way was I going to go through with this massage. This room looked like the photos I remember from the pre-Roe v. Wade days — it looked like a room where a back-alley abortionist would do his work.
I told the woman who brought me that the room was disgusting and cold. She turned on a heater that looked like it couldn’t heat up a closet much less a room, and she changed the towel to one that had smaller grease stains. I shook my head and told her in no uncertain terms that I wanted my deposit back NOW. She shrugged, didn’t try to argue, said no problem, and I left. So much for my wonderful ayurvedic massage.
I walked around town and met Tibetans for the first time. The ones I met were open and friendly, very different from the Indians I experienced in Kodai. I found a wonderful Tibetan restaurant where I would hang out and enjoy the warmth and I’m not talking about the temperature. Fabulous steamed momos and an awesome soup that was so thick I ate it with a fork, all for less than $1.
I felt an underlying tension in Kodaikanal, an almost imperceptible violence that was waiting to explode. I had never felt this before in my travels and I’m a good one for picking up the energy of a place.
An IndiaMiker told me this when I told him my feelings about being in Kodai:
“Most of those people selling fruit and trinkets to tourists in Kodai are tribals. The only other source of employment in the area is the coffee and tea plantations, and the contracts are usually indenture. So they are bonded laborers who try to scrape together a little cash when they aren’t picking leaves or beans–it’s either that or starve. They live with all the caste discrimination and violence you would expect. They’re even included in Human Rights Watch reports. It’s genuinely cold in winter, at which time it also get the monsoon. Roads wash out. Living in a thatched shack isn’t easy.
There are also plenty of monied interests–hotels, property development and luxury real estate, the plantation owners, etc.–that keep a firm hand on Kodai with bribes, violence, and other incentives. The place is really a cesspool of corruption and environmental waste, with the people at the bottom little better than slaves.”
And here I was…