The work contract stated we were entitled to a four-week holiday each year when we signed on for our work assignment in India. Our introduction to India had been quite agreeable. It was monsoon time and the train trip to Pune in Western India had been spectacular. The mountainsides were a mass of waterfalls around which clustered tropical foliage and the omnipresent flame trees. We felt fortunate indeed to be living and working in such a beautiful environment for the next five years.
Soon after monsoons had ended there was a remarkable change in the environment. We made the startling discovery on our return to Mumbai several weeks later that waterfalls were not year round tourist attractions. They’d dried up! Grass disappeared during the cold season, and the sun systematically dried anything else that didn’t have access to water as summer approached.
The month of March gave us a foretaste of what was before us until next monsoon arrived to provide a new set of clothing for the countryside. We’d been advised to purchase a motor scooter as well as a car. The motor scooter was a sensible way to navigate through the maze of vehicles, animals and people on roads when on business. By the end of March you could actually see the tar boiling on the road surface as you paused for a stoplight, but people were walking barefoot and unconcerned through that molten mass!
By April temperatures were up to low forties. It was then we discovered why the British had made an annual migration to the hills during the days of the Raj. It was too hot to stay where we were, and too hot to travel. Seasoned fellow teachers helped make a decision on an appropriate date to join a migration to the hills, and we made arrangements to join one of their convoys.
As the day for departure approached tempers flared, and energies were sapped in the furnace like heat. Travel being more pleasant by night we decided to begin our eighteen-hour road journey as the sun set. We were advised to invest in double sets of headlights so we could spot unlighted trucks, bullock carts and migrating villagers well in advance as we traveled the highways.
Our two days of travel were a mixture of interest and despair. India changes every hundred kilometers as you enter and leave language areas. The typical Indian village never sleeps, and has its own cultural identity. Minds slip into hibernation in the heat and dust, and actions become mechanical. What keeps the traveler going is a mental picture of green mountains, waterfalls and cool clean air, instead of the infernal dust and heat of the plains. Our destination was Kodaikanal.
Winding up the mountain to Kodaikanal in South India is a road that combines breathtaking scenery with incredible dangers. The road is narrow and winding with steep inclines and abrupt turns. As our car labored up kilometer after kilometer of ascending road, vistas of the plains far below exploded into view distracting attention from potential threats ahead. Occasional breaks in low stone walls at the side of the road revealed hazards of distraction, for vehicles were to be seen crashed to their destruction thousands of meters below. Occasionally the road broadened and leveled, easing tension of driving under such conditions, but reverted back to steep and dangerous sections further up the mountain. One had to be alert to survive on this road.
Our convey leader had made this trip many times over the years and had memorized peculiar hazards of each stretch of the road. Something had troubled him over the years, and indeed, struck terror in the hearts of all who used the Kodai Road. That something was the two motor coaches operating between the hill leave station and village at the foot of these mountains. In large print on the front of each coach were the names “Good Shepherd’, and “Prince of Peace.” India’s south had been a center for concentrated Christian activity since the eighteen hundreds but Christian influence goes back to St Thomas who landed in Kerala within the first century AD.
People commonly believed the drivers of these vehicles possessed a spirit different to the one indicated on the nameplate of each coach. The drivers would aim their vehicles down the mountainside at breakneck speed, without a care as to which side of the road they traveled. It was suspected cars lying in ruins at the foot of the mountain were there because their drivers had chosen that end, rather than be annihilated by the “Good Shepherd”, or the “Prince of Peace.”
Old hands on the Kodai road were under a constant strain as they looked for telltale signs of the approach of a coach. Occasionally, one could catch glimpses of the winding road snaking around the mountain above and eyes would strain for a glimpse of the brightly colored coach. Drivers of descending vehicles would wave their hands, and flick lights on and off to alert ascending drivers to the danger approaching them. In close proximity, you could hear the roar of the motor and the grinding of gears. That was a signal to beat a hasty retreat to a wide section of the road, parking as close as possible to the side of the mountain. The bus drivers relished their notoriety and were always cheerful.
We eventually made it to the summit safely. After unpacking our trailers we headed for the business center of town to buy enough supplies for duration of our four-week retreat from the heat of the plains below. Looking over one of the sheer cliff faces you could see a village at the foot of the mountain far below, grilling in the heat while we enjoyed the chill of mountain heights and a strong smell of eucalyptus.
At this time of the year Kodai had a high expatriate population. We found a cluster of Missionaries on Main Street and quizzed them about the motor coaches. They were deeply offended by the coach names, and even more offended by the reputation the coaches had acquired, but the Indian citizens of Kodai could not see anything unusual in name or performance. The bizarre was the norm to them.
Monsoon season, and the annual Kodai holiday were highpoints of our employment in India, and we will always remember our first encounters with “The Good Shepherd”, and the “Prince of Peace” on the Kodai road in South India.
“© Copyright Ian Grice 2012 all rights reserved”