I Must Be Off! is having its first annual Travel Essay Contest. Each entry will appear at first without byline or bio. These will be added at the end of the contest. As you enjoy these travel essays from around the world, please feel free to comment; but if you offer criticism, remember to be positive. These writers are my guests.
God's Own Country
by Saahil Acharya
The boat ride took an inordinately long time to complete. Most of my companions dozed right through its duration, while a few occasionally woke up, peered through the windows at the water and the surrounding jungle, and went back to sleep. There I was, in a motorized boat, being taken around an artificial lake in the middle of Periyar tiger reserve in Kerala, India. I intermittently dreamt of the city as I dozed, and in the minutes of wakefulness, I gazed around at the sights surrounding me, just to remind myself how far reality was from my dreams. Sometimes my attention would be seized by the flocks of frolicking big birds, which I took to be egrets. The view otherwise was monotonous- mile upon mile of solid green vegetation, interspersed with tree trunks and branches. The only break from this was something that caused quite a stir among the travellers aboard the boat, and a few leapt up believing someone had announced what we had come to regard as a miracle- the sight of a tiger in a tiger reserve. It was, however, nothing that dramatic: merely a herd of deer. I looked with some longing at the deer, and could not help thinking of my childhood fancies of being a naturalist, something I have long since forsaken for the real, comfortable world of humans. It was the third day of a week-long tour of the wilderness. In a few minutes, however, sleep came as a welcome reprieve, and departed only when the bump of the boat against the jetty signalled the end of the tour.
It was several hours later, in a bus on the way to another sanctuary, that I picked up the chain of thoughts I had left drifting. This time there was much outside that provided fodder to the fire, and I spied what seemed to be an oddity in an otherwise unremarkable plantation through which our bus was passing. It was an ancient carved rock, a figure cut probably from the mountain itself, of what seemed to be a deity. The monolithic figure stared down at the workers, his minions, from the top of the hill. There in the valley, amid the tangle of vines and the interlocking tree branches, they worked away, chopping and cutting and tearing their way into the jungle. The figure of rock was worn down by the weather, but its haloed head and the solid staff were clearly visible, clearly commanding. The minions had built it in the image of themselves, a reassuring, otherworldly deity, standing by, commanding them to do each job they chose for themselves. The valley was clearly discernable as a battlefield- in great patches of light green lay organized fields, growing a single crop of rubber trees, each of the same height, each bleeding its white sap into cups bound to its trunk. Through these trees wound neat little roads. No birds disturbed the peace here, no animals crawled here. A man walked among the trees, collecting the sap. At the edge of this peace lay the wilderness- the jungle and its terrors. Vines and trees and grasses and bushes grew together. None of them served any purpose but to live for themselves. The jungle probably reeked of too much life- the din of birds, the rustle of leaves, the shadows and the moisture. Slowly, the men were spreading their peace- they were ridding the jungle of its stench. The saint stood at the top of the hill, and I wondered how proud he must be of his children who had created him.
The vitality of man, I decided, lies in his mission of spreading his peace. In the hills of Kerala, the divide between man and Nature is obvious. Nature dominates the landscape, but man has worked hard. In one of the most difficult places in the world, where Nature, once cut back, seems to re-grow even faster, man has planted the first seeds of his peace. I forced myself to consider the achievement with more pride and less of a strange feeling of loss. Most of these hills now serve- they yield rubber and spices and tea, and even those too impotent to yield such crops serve- they yield grass for cattle. Here, I thought, trying hard to keep the bitterness away from the voice in my head, finally, after thousands of years, chemicals poison the life force of Nature. Finally, the air bears the hint of man’s influence- the reassuring toxicity of burnt fuel and dust. Finally this land is being transformed to fit its description- “God’s own Country”. Throughout the state, once upon a time, lush jungles existed. Where now there are thriving cities, there was once the pointlessness of the wilderness. This state is still covered by huge swathes of the original landscape, but even in the hills which seem wildly, excessively covered by the natural vegetation, you can make out the snaking telephone lines, carrying the word of man through the jungle. Throughout the surface of the earth, this word is now being heard. Of what consequence is Nature when confronted with the undeniable necessity of human endeavour? There still remain thousands of square miles of the pristine backwaters- shallow pools covering huge areas, surrounded by groves of coconut trees, near the coast. But even these, I realized, no longer remain free of the touch of man. In a remote little lake a few hours’ drive from our hotel, I watched with awe the sight of a plastic bottle floating serenely amid the water-hyacinth. The truth is that the earth will be ours, very soon. Finally, Nature lives in fear of man, and not the other way around. This, I told myself unconvincingly, is the way it should be.
At times, as I read reports of deforestation and global warming, vanishing species and disappearing wetlands, of new industries and nuclear plants, I find my faith in my species wavering. Though there is seemingly no hope for the aspirations of the traitors of mankind- the Nature lovers- I find the valleys and the hills, the serene waters and the swaying palms appearing before me often- an enticing mirage. Like a confirmed addict, I flip through wildlife channels and subscribe to the Greenpeace newsletter now with no irritating prods from the logical, rational part of me, once the sole controller of my opinions and emotions. I have a trip to another wild haven planned for this summer. I admit I have surrendered.
Saahil Acharya, lives in Bangalore, India. He is a college junior, studying Biology. His spare time he devotes to books, cinema and trivial writing. On the 24th of December, 2011, he officially turned into an adult, much against his wishes.