A monsoon day in Agumbe.

 

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Early in the morning

 

Visiting a rainforest has always been on my wish list. One of my childhood fantasies  (fueled by Robin Cook’s Congo), was to discover something unique and useful, like some magic herb or a new species of animal, watching giant man eating plants in their gory splendor, living off fresh forest produce, finding beautiful waterfalls and living in handmade tree houses or old forgotten log cabins. Sort of Tarzan, Anaconda and Robinhood rolled into one. Of course as age and logic grew, (or so I would like to assume, atleast in the case of logic), the fantasies sobered down to real ones of camping in the wilds keeping as much distance as possible from the reptile species!

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Most of these ideas used to float around in my brain when we would be travelling between destinations and all that was available to see out the car or bus window would be dark, unpenetrable forests for miles on end. Those were times when cars had rudimentary stereos, buses were basic and we did not have the luxury of earphones!

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can you spot the waterfall far far away

Travelling from Mangalore to Shimoga entailed crossing the Western ghats from Agumbe. This was one leg of the journey which was considered with a bit of apprehension. We would make sure to climb down the mountains when there was broad daylight, and kids would be asked to sit quiet for the fear of disturbing the driver. We would suddenly see some animals in the wild, darting across the road in a blink and you miss kind of way, probably as startled by us, as we were of them.  Over  years of deforestation, the stretch became infamous more for the Naxal movement rather than the wild animals crossing our paths.

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Is it not a great place for a tree house? 

 

 

As kids, the half hour journey down the ghats would seem twice as long and scary. This was probably why I failed to appreciate the wonder existing right before my eyes, all the while fantasizing about something way beyond.

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a hair pin bend
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Agumbe lake

Now the forests are threadbare, and there seem to be noisy people and plastic strewn around everywhere. But come monsoon, every year, the Western ghats become a sight of abundant lush green beauty. I now understand at least a bit of the anxiety with which the environmentalists rue the the loss the natural habitats. To lose such beauty to deforestation seems a crime deserving life imprisonment. And paradoxically, this makes Agumbe more beautiful for me. I feel that I should savor its beauty for as long as we allow it to be, and try in any possible way to help preserve a gem existing literally in our backyards before we lose it forever.

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Agumbe is a small village nestled in the midst of the Western ghats in Shimoga district of Karnataka. Till recently, it owned the unique distinction of being called the “Chirapunji of the south”, because it received the highest rainfall in the whole of South India. A title it seems to be fast losing, due to declining rainfall in this region.

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Agumbe village

The forest is home to about  150 species of frogs and 85 of snakes  (who knew there were so many types) and still counting. Apart from these, it is home to other animals like monkeys, langurs , hornbills, leopards and flying lizards.

The village has a rustic charm and seems to be stuck in a time warp, only broken by the addition of kurkure packets of varied colors hanging from most tiny shops! This charm made for its choice as the famous “Malgudi” in R.K.Narayan’s famous serial Malgudi days.

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The house where Malgudi days was shot

This time, when I got a chance to go to Mangalore, I was prepared. To enjoy the green and the charm that is Agumbe. And enjoy I did.  I now wish for a log cabin in Agumbe, where I am doing some ecological conservation work. Me and my day dreams!

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RIP Padiyaar mam

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The beauty of the Western ghats is unparalleled. The different shades of plush green, the cold chilly wind, the clouds taking a walk with you, the mist shrouding the trees and the gushing sounds of a hidden waterfall somewhere close by. If this picture makes you yearn to take a trip right-away, hold on, this is not all! At the beginning of the ghats, there is a small quaint police station across which a lovely lake and a garden exist. Just across the garden, the aroma of hot vadas frying in hot sizzling oil, wafts towards you and pulls you along towards the ramshackle cart. Hot vadas, spicy chutney and hot milky tea – now we are talking heaven!

Since my childhood, whenever we would climb down the Agumbe ghats to enter hot sultry Mangalore, we would have a customary, compulsory stop at Padiyar mam’s vada stall. Through globalization and commercialization, the stall, which actually is rather a fancy name for a tin pushcart with plastic sheets hung across to prevent the drizzle, remained the same. Rows of cars, bikes and buses would be parked across the already small, winding road. Weary passengers who would climb down to stretch their legs would invariably be drawn towards the stall and the tasty aroma emanating from there.

The USP of the stall though, was without doubt its owner. Mr. Padiyar, who knew each and every customer by name, somehow with great clarity remember where each one’s child was studying or getting married. It somehow made you feel as if you had wandered into an indulgent uncle’s house in your neighborhood.

And the vadas. Exactly the same taste year after year, decade after decade. No expansion of the menu, no fancy improvements of the stall and no HR people. It was a sort of niche place, with only one item which was world class. Whenever we would go, he would en quire about our education, how our parents and far flung relatives were faring, and introduce us whomsoever around was interested in listening to his banter. As a teenager, this used to embarrass me greatly, but not enough to forgo the vadas! I would mutter under my breath as to why he could not just leave me alone. Every single time when we passed the ghats by bus,(which was, I am ashamed to say, was quite often, given the extent of my homesickness!), I remember, I wouldn’t go home, without the vadas sitting comfortably in my stomach.

After my MBBS , I went to Mangalore quite less. Though the trips were less frequent,when we would occasionally pass by for a wedding, a meeting or a conference, we would eagerly look forward to the stall being open. Padiyar maam (mam,which meant uncle in Konkani and kannada) would always remember. It was like homecoming. What was irritating earlier, seemed like warmth later on. He would have ten conversations side by side with different customers, but still manage to remember them all! We got to know that with this tiny business, he had managed to educate his son and daughter, who were in excellent positions. When a patron questioned him as whether he would close down to go and stay with his son, he nixed it aggressively. This is what he loved, he said, and what he would do till the end!

I met him about a fortnight ago, on my way to Manipal. Little did I know that it would be the last time. A week later he was admitted to a hospital in Shimoga with fever and delirium. It was so sad to see him and realize that he was unable to recognize anyone, let alone the thousands of friends he had made over the years. In a span of one week, he deteriorated, was diagnosed to be having a rare disease, and died. It was unbelievable. Someone whom I had seen hale and hearty, and in the pink of health , suddenly disappeared.

I never imagined that I would experience a deep sense of loss about his death. After all, he was not related to me, nor was I in constant touch with him. But feel sad, I did. I could not shake off that heavy feeling through the day. Later on, I happened to see  condolence messages on whatssapp and facebook, and realized that so many more must have felt the same about him.

He was an integral part of the travelling experience. Somehow the forest and the landscape feel incomplete without him, the hungry traveler bereft. The eager wait for a few minutes respite, a soul warming snack , and comforting conversation is no more going to happen. Padiyar maam, we miss you. RIP!

a whatsapp pic of padiyar maam
a whatsapp pic of padiyar maam