So Close I Could Hear It Breathing
© Copyright 2021 by Lisa Reily
Nilgiri langur - photo by the author
It was a relief to arrive at our room. We had travelled over two hours on a bumpy bus ride from Vagamon, our bus more-or-less a frail, rickety metal frame impersonating a bus. Snaking through jungle, mountains in cloud, and luminescent-green tea plantations, we encountered only one small town along the way, its presence marked by a brief absence of vegetation and the sudden appearance of a worn dirt footpath, stray dogs and a sprawl of plastic rubbish by the roadside.
Ion and I had no choice but to endure the trip separately. With no seat for the two of us to sit together, he had been directed to the back of the bus with our trolley bags and backpacks, which were awkwardly manoeuvred through the aisle by passengers and set amid a crowd of sweating men. My journey consisted of a no-window window seat in the middle section of the bus and a young Indian boy, on the seat in front, turning back to stare and grin at me, perhaps the only white woman he had ever seen. An Indian man next to me occasionally slept on my shoulder. Ion fared far worse, his stomach rolling with the dizziness of the road and the stifling, jam-packed and bouncy rear of the bus, his fellow passengers simultaneously offering him greasy medu vada, a kind of fried savoury donut popular for breakfast in South India.
When we arrived at our accommodation in Thekkady, our host, Jobin, swept our heavy bags up numerous steep concrete stairs. We followed cautiously, avoiding the pretty plants decorating the edge of each step, the steps themselves narrow and angled at a ladder-like eighty degrees. At the top was our room, basic and clean, situated above two other smaller rooms, which were also part of this Indian homestay. We would live here for the next eleven nights. Steaming black coffee was quickly served on a tray on the huge balcony outside our room, accompanied by a cut-glass bowl of sugar and two plain sweet biscuits each. We thanked Jobin and let the sunset take us in.
The warm evening air through the surrounding garden and jungle was so peaceful, and most welcome after our tiring journey. We relaxed on comfortable cane chairs, sipping syrupy coffee until the darkness of night. After a lazy dinner of pretzels and salted crisps, and a Pepsi for me, we each took a ‘bucket bath’—something we had already learned to do during our last three weeks in Kerala—and went straight to bed. (It was quite a discovery how much water we saved by filling a bucket with hot water and pouring it over ourselves with a large plastic pot!)
We awoke in the morning to a ruckus outside. Peering out the window, we found a plump, grey macaque sitting on the floor of our balcony, its sugar-encrusted hand in our cut-glass sugar bowl, which was also now on the balcony floor; we had left the bowl on the coffee table last night. We watched on as a small, pink, fur-topped monkey hand repeatedly dipped itself into the bowl to pilfer its sweet reward. To the right, we discovered another macaque swinging from the top of a cane swing chair that hung from the roof. Two smaller macaques loitered in the trees nearby.
Ion quietly opened our front door to take a closer look, but was not game to open it beyond a crack, for fear of disturbing the sugar-feasting intruder. We had both experienced the antics of various macaques during our travels in Asia and did not particularly want to invite the wrath we had recently encountered. While we had witnessed the more tame of these cute-but-clever furry friends stealing cameras, sunglasses and wallets from unsuspecting tourists, we had also experienced a wild and particularly feisty one in Malaysia. This one had unduly threatened us with its seething hiss and long fangs in an effort to steal and raid our backpack of food.
Next thing we heard was Jobin.
‘Get off there!’ he boomed at the macaque as he came up the stairs with a vengeful look on his face.
The macaque on the swing promptly skedaddled; perhaps it already knew Jobin. Sugar Macaque glanced back at Jobin, seized the sugar bowl, and jumped onto the thin balcony railing. Balancing the bowl precariously, it grabbed an extra handful of sugar.
‘Off! Out!’ Jobin yelled again, nearing the top steps.
Sugar Macaque leapt from the railing and into a tree, knocking the sugar bowl off the railing in the process and sending it crashing to the ground. With a loud smash, the macaque was gone and all was restored to the quiet of morning. Only the twitter of birds remained.
Jobin apologised for not warning us about the macaques the night before. Not many had been around of late, but they had occasionally been a problem in the past, disturbing and scaring some of his previous guests, sometimes delighting them. It was probably the sugar left out that had attracted them; he would collect it in future.
Ion and I sat at breakfast with a nervous eye out for sugar-loving monkeys, but as the days passed, there was no sign of them. Our daily breakfast ritual evolved into a relaxing and bountiful experience of South Indian breakfast cuisine: delicious wheat pancakes filled with banana and sugared coconut, as well as delicious curries—chickpea, potato, pea and bean, and mixed vegetable—with idli, steamed, fermented rice-and-lentil cakes, or idiyappam, steamed rice noodles served in soft, flat coils. All of this with sugary black coffee and a serve of Indian wildlife.
Our plan for Thekkady had been to visit the nearby Periyar National Park, but so far our homestay had been a national park in itself. Not only had we encountered macaques at close range on our arrival, we were surrounded by an abundance of plant and animal life. Around our balcony, we had coconut, pomegranate, jackfruit, and banana trees, and over the fence, thick forests of bamboo in the neighbouring jungle. Beautiful magenta and white bougainvilleas decorated the garden, along with a wealth of pots, both at our feet and in hanging baskets, which contained all manner of green: aloe vera, a variety of bromeliads, and copious lush climbing plants.
With such an array of leaves and fruity nutrition available, countless birds and butterflies made themselves at home here, or at least paid a visit. Huge blue tiger butterflies meandered amongst the flowers. Palm squirrels scurried about the trees. A pair of red-whiskered bulbuls, with their red cheek patches and black pointed crests, appeared every day, one in particular entertaining itself each morning in front of a mirror on our neighbour’s veranda.
Numerous birds appeared during our stay and we found ourselves letting the days pass on our balcony just to observe them. Besides the bulbuls, we spotted an Asian koel—a large, long-tailed kind of cuckoo—and a white-bellied treepie, too, which is a type of crow, but in a colour combination of black, white, grey and chestnut-brown. Common tailorbirds were regulars; these are small greenish-grey songbirds with rust foreheads. Ion was also lucky enough to spot a blue-winged parakeet, with its long, blue, yellow-tipped tail and bright red beak, as well as a purple sunbird, which he noticed hovering over a flower; needless to say, Ion became a keen birdwatcher during and after our trip!
We were both amazed at the beauty around us, not only of the picturesque garden, but the magnificence that buzzed, crawled and fluttered in our presence when we took the time to simply sit still. So many of our fellow travellers came and went during the short eleven days of our stay. They arrived, had dinner, stayed overnight for their next-day trip to the national park and then left, usually straight after. Witnessing this day after day made us all the more grateful that we took our time during our budget-travel adventures—even eleven days was shorter than usual for us.
Aside from spending the first few days of our stay on our balcony, we ventured out to town for walks and for food. We lived on dahl vadas, a snack food consisting of vegetarian patties made of lentils and spices. Inevitably, we also came home with banana fritters, which were freshly fried a five-minute walk away from our homestay. We made a habit of purchasing small bananas, tapioca chips, and cashew or peanut chikkis, treats made from nuts and jaggery (cane sugar). On one occasion, I came home completely calm and dripping in oil after a local ayurvedic massage.
After five days of relaxing at our homestay, we finally made it to Periyar National Park. This necessitated an early morning start, so we enjoyed a breakfast of bananas on our walk to the shuttle bus, which then took us to a meeting point in the national park. In the cool of morning, we boarded a huge, rectangular boat, a kind of ferry, and were allocated seats and life jackets, along with fifty-or-so other tourists. We were instructed to stay in our seats and remain quiet for the best wildlife-spotting experience, which, we later discovered, was extremely difficult for many, particularly the young guy behind us, who watched a video on his phone for the greater part of the trip.
We headed off over smooth, green water, passing red-soil landscapes, swathes of rich green grasses, gentle mist, and picturesque forest. Shortly after we left the dock, we witnessed a pack of Indian wild dogs circling a single black boar, its black boar herd seemingly unconcerned by the unfolding events. Thankfully, the boat drifted on before anything drastic occurred, until the scene was far enough away from our presence to feel like a passing dream.
Overall, we experienced a minimum of wildlife on our journey—probably something to do with the constant hum of chatter emanating from our boat! Apart from wild boars and dogs, and a large herd of Indian bison (gaurs), we encountered a number of birds, both in the water and along its edge: Indian robins, pigeons, egrets, and cormorants. We also spotted a lone woolly-necked stalk in the air!
Although our national park experience did not gift us with the abundance of animals we had hoped for, our gentle boat journey, and the beauty of the landscape reflected on the water, was worth getting out of bed for. We were also very glad to do the early morning trip as, by the time we returned to the dock, the Indian heat was setting in. After enjoying some more macaques—this time baby ones playing in the trees at the park entrance—we headed back to our homestay.
On our final day in Thekkady, Ion and I packed our things. As we considered a siesta in the still afternoon, a sudden, loud thump and crash came down hard on the corrugated iron roof above us. When we looked out the window, several long, thick, cat-like tails hung from above. I approached the window slowly, to take a look up through the bars, and was shocked to discover an unusual black monkey sitting alone in the pomegranate tree, just opposite me, its delicate black hands tearing pomegranate leaves.
I reached for my camera, ignoring the tails obstructing my view, and poised it silently at the open window. But my presence was swiftly felt, and with its bright eyes directly on me, my black monkey friend barked into my face—bah!—its small liquorice mouth and pin-like teeth bared. Too close for comfort, I stretched my arm through the open window to pull back the pane which was flung well beyond the frame. Scary. I moved slowly, avoiding the gaze of the sleek, black monkey with its strange orange-blonde lion’s mane—a monkey we later learned was a Nilgiri langur.
Gradually, the thumps and thuds became louder, with langurs bounding across our roof like thunder. Ion rushed to close our back and front windows, and we realised that we were surrounded by a dozen or more of these lion-maned Old World monkeys. A family of glossy black bodies, of all sizes, made themselves at home on our balcony railing, which extended right around our room. They scampered along the brick and barbed-wire boundary which divided our homestay from an expanse of jungle.
Hearts beating through our chests, we watched on as grandmother to newborn jumped fences, romping and wrestling in the space of our temporary home. Two settled on our neighbour’s roof to groom each other, picking at fur with mouths and nimble hands. A mother with a baby clinging to her chest took respite on our railing, while others continued to leap and chase each other around the edges of the homestay.
A half an hour later, the last of the langurs dived from the back wall and into the trees of the jungle behind our room. As leaves shifted in the balmy afternoon air, we could still feel them everywhere. Slowly, but surely, the last of their black-sheen coats disappeared, their presence discernible only by the occasional sway of a tree, the distant rustle of leaves, or the crack of a dry branch under the weight of a powerful landing.
When the jungle was restored to stillness, Ion and I opened our windows again, then sat on the balcony with yet another steaming black coffee. We checked the internet for information about the amazing monkeys we’d encountered.
Nilgiri langurs can only be found in the tropical forests of South India. They travel in groups of up to twenty females, along with one dominant male, moving in the afternoons to head to their sleeping areas. At this time, they participate in various social activities, such as grooming, play and rest; we felt very lucky to have witnessed them in their daily routines.
It was also heartbreaking to learn of their plight. These beautiful and unusual animals are now a threatened species. Unfortunately, Nilgiri langurs are hunted for traditional medicine, and for their skin, which is used for drums. Their habitat has been greatly compromised through other intrusions, such as mining, the creation of dams, crop plantations and human settlements. There are only 5,000 left in the wild.
On our final evening, it was a sad feeling to know that these langurs we had encountered were a threatened species. In my mind, this was their home and they belonged here. They never really interfered with ‘our space’; it was us sitting in the middle of theirs. We felt so fortunate that these unique and striking monkeys had passed by, taking note of us, staring in our windows, but leaving us in peace, and unharmed. It is a shame that mankind cannot return the favour.
Our final stop before leaving India was at a new, inexpensive business hotel in Ernakulam. We had booked a room for a few nights, to recover from our six-week stay in India, and to prepare us for our next stop in Malaysia. It was a pleasure to lie on new sheets and to feel the power of a shiny shower head; no more bucket baths, at least for now.
After a buffet breakfast of eggs, fruit, bread and coffee, we returned to find our room clean and mopped, with fresh soap and towels, and our bottled water replenished. The young Indian men who cleaned our room had folded a large towel into the shape of a pretty white elephant and placed it in the centre of our bed; this was the closest thing to wildlife we would encounter during the last days of our trip.
It was fun to chat with these young men, who took such pride in their jobs and did everything to make our stay a perfect one. We thoroughly enjoyed the change of pace, the chance to eat in a restaurant, to feel the crisp air-conditioning of a hotel. But even with the rickety, stomach-churning bus journey to get to Thekkady, we would never forego the amazing experience of a macaque with its eager hand in our sugar bowl or the Nilgiri langurs bounding across our roof. And I would never forget the curious langur in the pomegranate tree, its shiny eyes on me, so close I could hear it breathing.
Reily and her partner, Ion, have been budget travelling for the past
six years. During this time, Lisa has taken to writing poetry and
short stories, some of which have focused on their travels. Lisa’s
writing has been published in several journals and one of her poems,
‘making soup’, won first prize in the Earlyworks Press
Poetry Competition 2019.