I grew up in Kerala, the region in India with neatly manicured tea plantations and palm-fringed beaches that are the stuff of travel dreams. Travel writers have a hard time writing about Kerala without using the word “lush.” But I did not grow up skipping down lush green plantation trails. In fact, that was the childhood my parents happily left behind, moving out of their villages to set up home in the bustling city of Kochi. They embraced urban living, and we children grew up on the sidelines of Kochi’s never-ending development, apartment towers stacking up precariously while the city ticked off construction mega-projects: an international airport, overpasses, a new metro system. For me, Kerala was Mahatma Gandhi Road, with its speeding buses and glitzy sari shops, restaurants full of loud conversation and steam rising off hot coffee, the sound of the Muslim call to prayer merging with chants from a Hindu temple.
Sometimes I would think of yet another Kerala, one once covered in trees and crisscrossed by rivers. Until the British colonial rulers systematically razed forests to plant tea, teak, coffee, and spices, Kerala was mostly wilderness. I had heard of this Kerala in the stories my grandmother told us during power outages, stories about proud elephant herds that roamed up and down mountains, about rivers with water so clear they were like flowing mirrors, about tribal people who knew of life-saving herbs that grew deep in the woods—stories she had learned from her grandmother. But I didn’t speak the language of this older, wilder place. The stories weren’t my own.
Is there a way back to that Kerala? I often wondered, usually while sitting comfortably in my armchair in Brooklyn. The problem was not just that Kerala’s tea plantations and relentless urbanization made nature harder to come by; it was also me. I have a city-dweller’s deep distrust of any place without sidewalks and air-conditioning and coffeemakers.
Plus, forests have snakes.
“Definitely don’t worry about snakes,” my husband told me as I pulled on gum boots. “They never attack unless provoked.” We were standing in the grassy garden of Fringe Ford, a tiny guesthouse in a valley in Kerala’s Wayanad mountain range. I had finally decided to push through my fear of nature so I could seek out this ancient Kerala. But as we prepared for our two-mile uphill trek into the thick forest, I could only think of all the creepy crawlies that lived in it.
“You would be lucky if you got to see a snake,” Shaji, our guide, told us. “They are shy.” He should have stopped there, but he didn’t. “Funny incident a few years ago. Two men were riding a motorbike down the mountain when they saw an eagle flying off with a cobra. But the snake was struggling so much the eagle dropped it, right on top of the passenger on the motorbike. Crazy, huh? The snake was so confused, of course, it bit the man. He should have worn a helmet.”
When I first read about Fringe Ford, I was struck by its history: The 500-acre property was once a colonial-era spice plantation. The guesthouse used to be the home of a British settler, and the rocky roads leading up to it can be traversed only by Jeep. Now it bears little resemblance to a plantation; the new owners let nature take its course, and the forest has reclaimed the neat slopes where cardamom plants and pepper vines once grew. Ferns flourish in the shade of towering trees. A fantasy bloomed: The real Kerala, I thought longingly. Surely, the forest would recognize me and take me back. She would teach me how to speak in her tongue. I imagined sitting on a veranda, warm in the embrace of unspoiled nature as Kerala put on its finest show, the elephants that populated my grandmother’s stories parading in front of me.
“You would be lucky if you got to see a snake,” Shaji, our guide, told us. “They are shy.” He should have stopped there, but he didn’t.
There are indeed plenty of verandas at Fringe Ford. Creature comforts, however, are harder to find. The rooms are on the small side, the beds are hard, and there is no shortage of cobwebs. We were there during monsoon season, when it rains so much that the stone floors are always damp. And did I mention the leeches?
“Congratulations,” the irrepressible Shaji said when he noticed me, within an hour of our arrival, trying to pick a couple of leeches off my elbow. According to him, the little suckers will purify your blood, so you’re lucky to have them. Nevertheless, he showed me how to get them off with a salt stick (a bundle of salt wrapped in cloth and tied to the bottom of a stick), which is the leech kiss of death.
Equipped with salt sticks and leech socks—unwieldy nylon sheaths that create a seal between your boots and your pants—we set out on our hike. We hadn’t taken more than five steps before droves of leeches started groping up my boots. As we climbed the mountain—and I continued to tap off leeches with my salt stick—all I could think was: I want this trek to be over.
I had heard that elephants routinely stop by to snack on the fruit trees. Indian bison supposedly roam in the mountains. Shaji said that the week before we arrived, he’d had to wait for a sleeping tiger to wake up and saunter across the road before he could drive by. We saw none of this. I had wandered onto the set of a boring nature movie.
The forest was full of wildflowers and the butterflies feasting on them, but soon the vegetation became so dense that it shut out the sunlight. I could hardly see. I was wondering how much longer we had to go on when Shaji stopped to show us tiger scratch marks on a tree trunk. He sniffed the air. “I smell tiger,” he said. I sniffed the air. Nothing. Shaji has walked this land alone a thousand times. For him, it’s a library full of stories. I was forest illiterate.
A few moments later, Shaji stopped to show us an animal skeleton that lay in a clearing. It was a baby elephant, he told us, likely killed by a tiger that then ate the elephant over the course of several days. The rain-washed white bones lay starkly on grass that still showed evidence of the animal’s fight. They looked like signs, and as I pieced them together—ribs, mud, bloodstained leaves—I felt like a toddler learning to read. Over the rest of the week, a previously invisible world became more and more visible. On a walk one day, we came across a row of matted patches of grass. “Deer were sunning here till we came around the corner,” Shaji said. When we asked him how he knew, he pointed downhill to their fresh hoofprints. Instead of looking for grand animal sightings, my eyes learned to look for the tiny punctuation marks those animals leave behind. Woodpecker holes up the length of a tree like a flute. A pile of elephant dung with a dozen mushrooms protruding from its surface. The empty amber-hued shell of a dead male cicada. Slowly, the world around us came into sharper and sharper focus.
He sniffed the air. “I smell tiger,” he said. I sniffed the air. Nothing. Shaji has walked this land alone a thousand times. For him, it’s a library full of stories. I was forest illiterate.
One day, while lounging on the veranda, I noticed a faint movement. It wasn’t a tiger or an elephant. It was a green cricket struggling in one of the cobwebs I had cowered from on my first day. Even as I watched, a wasp swooped in, plucked the cricket out of the web, and carried it off. Such drama in a cobweb. It dawned on me that Kerala was not going to welcome me back with a parade of elephants. It was, instead, whispering its secrets—and I’d need to work to understand them. Another day, we heard sambar deer calling in the forest, a brusque percussive sound that Shaji said was an alarm call. A tiger was probably on the prowl.
At the end of the week, we departed, the Jeep bumping us back down the road. As we rolled into the small town at the base of the mountain, I looked back at that impenetrable green mask of the forest where we had stayed. This too was home: the part of Kerala that was never tamed. I knew then that learning the language of the forest would be much more than a weeklong project—it is in fact a lifetime’s work. I was far from reading her stories. But the forest had shown me her alphabet and murmured her syllables. And in my head, they felt—almost—like a mother tongue.