|We decide that we are going to spend Christmas in a treehouse. On the internet this looked like the most incredible idea. The pictures show a gorgeous handcrafted structure 100 feet up in the top of a rainforest. The system to get you into the tree consists of a clever water counter balance contraption. The treehouse is located in a remote area where a myriad of creatures apparently amble by including elephants, monkeys and barking deer. This is not a "roughing it" sort of experience. This is a deluxe bedroom with attached bathroom, a luxurious wrap-around porch and incredible Keralan food all in your very own secluded treetop haven. So we decide, despite the slightly outrageous price tag that this would be our Christmas present to each other.
We set about trying to secure it. We send an email and also excitedly call 'Suresh' of Palmland Tours to see if we could get a booking. Practicing all I had learned at Tushita I concentrated on having low to no expectations. I expected it to be a nice idea but totally full. Suresh answered the phone. There seemed to be slight chaos in his midst. He told me his computer was not on and asked me to call back in half an hour. Mike and I renegotiate our plans and decide to divide and conquer. I stay at the internet to call back and Mike trots off to do a couple of errands. After the agreed half an hour I call back. Suresh still can't say whether the tree house is available and instead promises to send me an email later that day saying which days are possible in December. The next day there is no email so we call again. Suresh is still not sure it is available. He also explains that in order to book a treehouse we will have to go to a bank and make a full payment. It all seems a bit fishy and the booking system seems bizarre. Our Spidey senses start to tingle. I explain that in a few hours we are getting on a houseboat. I arrange to call the next day when we return.
On the house boat, Mike and I discuss the possibility that this is all a big scam and perhaps there is no tree house. Perhaps unsuspecting suckers look at the pictures then go off to the bank deposit cash and arrive in the area to find themselves stuck up Shit Creek without a paddle, with egg on their face and no recourse. A bit of a fatalistic view but it wouldn't be the first Indian scam we have come across. But then on the other hand there are numerous articles on the internet about this place. In all of the reviews its brilliance is highlighted and the images posted promise something quite extraordinary. How cool would it be to have Christmas in a tree house? We start hoping it will work out. We just need something is writing....
When we return from the houseboat we check email. Nothing from Suresh. We try calling but can't get through. We are preparing to leave for our canoe trip the next day. Later the next morning as we paddle along we discuss the logistics of getting from one end of Kerala where we will finish our canoe trip to the other in time for Christmas. It is going to be very tight and rushed but it is possible. We wonder what other days in December are possible as perhaps later would be better? The next morning as we are paddling in the middle of nowhere in the backwaters we happen to go past a bank. This is not a State Bank of India but perhaps it could be used to make a payment if Suresh could just confirm something to us. Close to the bank we spot an STD phone booth located in a dilapidated Chai shop. It is clear from the reaction of people that a couple of white people in a canoe don't turn up every day. We ask to use the phone. It takes the advice of the chai shop man, his wife, their friend, some chickens and a cow to make the phone work. My job is to hold the number up and point while everyone has a go at dialing. Apparently I am not qualified to dial. Eventually the group gets through to Suresh. The phone is thrust towards me. Yes it is available for the 24th and 25th. Well this is exciting and incredible. I ask what other dates in December are possible in light of the traveling and time constraints. The phone goes dead. Everyone at the Chai shop flaps about and gets involved in the calling back process. We all get through for the second time, hear Suresh's voice and then we go back to the chronic booking system. "Please call back in 15 minutes. I will check the details, my computer is not on yet," requests Suresh. I sigh. This is getting a bit old and more than a little frustrating. I explain that we are currently far from anywhere and are traveling by canoe. I also mention that right now there is a bank close by but that we have to act right now if this is going to work. I agree to call back soon and hang up. Mike and I get a chai each and watch big trucks being moved across the water using poles and a precarious log-on-rice-boat set up. The sun is blazingly hot. The chai guy wants us to take pictures of his shop and mail them to him. Some older guys look at our packs and ask our plan. Some kids see us and shriek "One pen!!!". We call back Suresh. Apparently only the 24th and 25th are available. If we want the tree house then we have to make a full payment by 2:00 today. It has to be done at a State Bank of India. I explain our circumstances again and say I will do my best. I am dubious about the realism of this plan. I say I will try and call back today whether the payment has been made or not. Suresh tells me there is a waiting list and that if we can't make the payment he will give it to someone else. I assure him that we would like to come and that we will do our best.
Mike and I get back into the canoe and head out again on our present adventure. We revisit the idea that this is a scam. We still have nothing in writing from Palmlands. We wonder whether this is the sort of thing you read about in the newspaper and think "I would never fall into that sort of thing." We discuss our frustrations with the booking system. We paddle further away from civilization and find ourselves in the wonderful backwater paradise. We don't see another STD and certainly not a bank. We decide to go for the "whatever will be will be" approach and not worry about the treehouse until later. That night we end up paddling further than expected. Getting accommodation is challenging and when we eventually get to a hotel, STD is far down our list of priorities. The next morning we leave before the banks open. We figure that by now we have lost the opportunity and the treehouse has been given away.
At the end of our canoe trip, two days after our conversation with Suresh, we have to choose a direction to go in. It is about 2:00 and we hop on a local bus towards Kottayam. We figure that there we can check email, call Suresh and formulate a plan. If we aren't heading towards the tree house then we will head towards Kumily and go to Perriyar Wildlife Park for Christmas.
The bus is pretty full and we have to stand up at the back with our packs balanced on our legs. We pretend we are snowboarding as we ride the bumpy road and lean back against the back door. We periodically softly sing Christmas songs. Our spirits are high, either plan is pretty fantastic and we do a little dance at the back of the bus. More people get on. It gets hotter and hotter. People are moving around and the air is thick with travel tension. We start quietly leaning on the backdoor. Then we are silent and look out the window. We are flagging a bit in the heat like wilting daisies. After an hour we arrive and get out at the bus stand. Amazingly we find an internet place and plan to check emails. It is full. We use STD to call Suresh - no answer. We inquire about a bus to Kumily and start walking through the town towards The Other Bus Station which is apparently where the Kumily buses go from. The town is throbbing. Everywhere people are selling last minute Christmas things. It is December 23rd. The rush here is similar to what you might see at home. Kerala is very Christian and this region clearly takes Christmas very seriously. The walk is a gauntlet of "No thank you, no, no, no, no, thank you." We hadn't really factored in the complexities of traveling on this particular day. Apparently everyone is going somewhere.
We arrive at The Other Bus Station. I settle into a little pile of packs while Mike goes off to find out about buses to Kumily. We still have to check email in case there is a tree house possibility but we decide to do this with the bus information in hand. Within moments Mike returns. He grabs his pack and says the direct bus is leaving right now. We walk over and get on. We squeeze our backsides into an impossibly small space sandwiched between two Indian bodies. I realize we have made a decision but something is not sitting well with me. I want to check email to know for sure that the tree house is a bust before we leave. But we are on the bus and it starts moving. We start talking about the possibilities. I have this sneaking feeling that Suresh might have kept it for us. The bus continues its slow grumble through the town. More people get on. A man indicates that my pack is in his way. I move it a bit and glare at him. Tempers are fraying. We are not even remotely tempted to sing a Christmas song. We are crammed in tight and are on an emotional roller coaster. Stay where we are and go to Kumily or get off the bus? The ticket guy comes up and we pay for a ticket. But it is still not sitting right with me. What happens though if we get off, the treehouse is gone and then we can't get another direct bus? Several times we almost get off. We are struggling to know what to do. But we don't get off and the time window closes. Circumstances make the decision for us. Suddenly I learn that what I previously thought was a jam packed bus (all seats occupied and the aisles full of people) was in fact just getting started. The bus stops and about twenty babbling women get on. Bodies are pressed against each other. The sun is blazing. I can hardly move at all let alone gather my stuff and get off the bus. We are stuck tight. My heart starts to pound. Too many people too close. Too many sweaty bodies. The escape route is not available. I close my eyes and wish myself somewhere far from here. Somewhere with space. The trip to Kumily is supposed to take 3 hours. I wonder whether I can last that long.
We learn something new: a "direct bus" means that it goes all the way to Kumily NOT that it goes there very rapidly. This would be called a "fast bus". Our little local bus visits every single town along the way. At first I think "Oh good some people will get off." Oh the innocence of the Western mind. Sure some people get off but then 10 more get on. The bus resembles one of those little plastic toys where you have to move the squares around in order to create a picture. Each time someone wants to get off, twenty other people had to shift and squeeze themselves into a corner and then redistribute once the small body void is created. For most of the trip we are heading up a slight incline the bus spews out black smoke and loudly complains about the weight of bodies inside it. After about three hours, we presume that we are getting close to the park. Outside it is now dark. Everywhere Christmas stars are illuminated and people are intent on jamming themselves into moving vehicles. We pull into what feels like the millionth town for the next people exchange. A young couple get on. The man spots us and has that "I know English and I want to talk to you" expression. It takes him a moment or two and then he jumps in with the customary first question: "What is your native country?". This phrase threw me a little the first time but now I know the correct answer is Canada. He explains that he and his wife have just been married for one month. It was an arranged marriage and they didn't know each other previously. It is odd to see a couple at the beginning of a marriage when they have not yet gained a connection with each other. They are two separate beings who happen to share the same space. He and I chat about books and literature with him hanging onto the bar with one hand and leaning low over a family in front of me. His proximity is making the little girl in the family nervous and she starts to cry. Her eyes dart from him to the white ghosts behind her and she looks certain this is not the reality she wants at the moment. Our conversation ends when I mention the book "A God of Small Things" which is set in Kerala. "Oh, I didn't like that," he says. I just finished it and I loved it, so I ask him, "Why didn't you like it?" He replies, "It was poorly written. Her style was to cover up a lack of intelligence." His energy changes. He looks away nervously and doesn't want to talk to me anymore. I seem to have struck a chord, but not sure which one. The kid continues to cry.
Mike and I marvel at how The Ticket Collector Guy manages to slip his way through the mass of bodies. How does he possibly keep track of who has paid, we wonder. Suddenly shouting echoes from the centre of the bus, and people start standing up as if there's a cock fight in the aisle. The bus stops. More shouting. More people standing up. People are frantic. The baby in front of us is wailing. Mike and I look at each other and silently agree: "we have to film this". The shouting escalates. People start getting off the bus. One guy has come around and is hanging on an open window. Others abandon our bus jumping onto other passing buses that snail past. Then the traffic jams up in both directions. Honking echoes over the shouting. The road system has dissolved into mayhem. Taxis are trying to back up into ditches. "Fast buses" are trying to pass "direct buses". I worry the baby's lung will erupt out of her nose. I gingerly ask The Book Man what's happening. I hope he's not still angry with me, but he seems to have overcome our literary divide. He says, "someone hasn't paid their ticket." "Just one person?" I ask in amazement. We've been sitting for about twenty minutes. Mike inhales and says, "I'll pay the damn ticket." But he can't get through the mass of Malayalam.
The shouting gradually subsides as The Ticket Guy emerges from the scrum. He looks shaken and emotionally scarred. Without warning, the bus starts up and leaves. About twelve men smoking are left in the exhaust fumes. At least the ticket incident has thinned out the crowd. We continue our slow crawl uphill on our "direct" route to Kumily. For the next hour, anyone who leaves the bus stops in front of The Ticket Guy and delivers a lengthy Malayalam morality rant. The Ticket Guy looks down and counts his money. He looks like he's considering a career change.
The heat has given way to frigid temperatures. We sit huddled in the back corner under our maroon Tibetan blankets. Our three-hour journey has become a five and a half hour marathon. We wonder if we're even going the right direction. Just when we think things can't get any worse, the relatively smooth road becomes steep and full of potholes. We jostle and bounce our way uphill. The bus groans and complains. At least the baby has stopped crying. We sleep for a bit, and when we wake up, the bus is almost completely empty. The last guy to leave looks back at us, and kindly mouths "Kumily". We have arrived. It's nearly midnight. We hop in a rickshaw and head to the Coffee Inn with no reservation and no idea if there will be any rooms the day before Christmas Eve. "We only have one room left," says the manager. "It's a tree house, is that OK?"