Vattakanal: Life in the Clouds

Vattakanal is located approx 2000 meter above sea level. The closest town is Kodaikanal, where circa 30 000 people live. Kodaikanal is a fairly famous tourist spot, and to me, it seemed like the economy of Kodaikanal was based upon home made chocolate, avocado and eucalyptus oil. Its cold up in the mountains, we wore long pants and a hoddie every day. We spent 10 days and a half in Vattakanal. We found what we were looking for in Munnar, in Vattakanal.

View from Altafs Café

As we step out of the taxi from Kodaikanal in Vattakanal, a young Indian man in a thick winter jacket and cargo pants approach us stroking a beautiful grey-white kitten, asking us “Do you guys have a room?”

After meeting like that we were more than willing to stay in the accommodation provided by this man, called Danish (International name Danny).

The accommodation Danish offered us was in a house built by a British couple who moved to Vattakanal some 30 years ago to work with the local flora of the region. Danish works with the man now, Bob, and he is leasing the house from Bob. Danish is set on the mission of caring for the nature around Vattakanal and the Eastern Ghats mountains. He came there as a researcher two years ago, and decided to settle. He decided to remake the house he is leasing into a hostel, in order to support himself on the side of running a bike-tour business and working for Bob.

The room we stayed in was big, and has a big double bed and one 120cm bed, which Pablo got, although he was like 2 decimeter to tall for the bed 😛 Danish is going to turn this room into the female dorm in the hostel. He leased the place only one week before we moved in, and we got to participate in the process with ideas and tips of various natures. Danish opened the kitchen for the first time when we were there, as well as his future to be reception/ library/ office. When I first stepped in to our room I had a weird feeling, there is a slight eco in the room, and the walls are a cold blue. I felt like a weird energy was in the room, some colour and some plants would help, I thought, so I started a wall painting and planted an avocado. There is an open fireplace in the room which works great and the isolation is good, so the fire place can actually heat up the room. I think that Danish’s project can become a very popular travelers hostel. The thing about hostels is that people are willing to pay a little more for the community that usually comes with a hostel. Its very easy to meet people, make friends and get help with whatever you need in a hostel, usually the staff can help you book buses and trains and get you scooters or a sim card even. We have come to learn that where you live will affect the experience you will have in a place greatly. But for now it was only us; me, August and Pablo in Danish’s soon-to-be hostel. Thanks to the great service and company provided by Danish, we, as his first customers, gave the hostel a great start.

Our room, with my painting on the wall

Maybe Pablo wasn’t the first one to enter the bathroom, but he was the first one to spot the giant spider that lived in the ceiling of out bathroom. He was on his knees, sticking in his head as close to the floor as possible, looking up into the ceiling. When he said “there is a giant spider in here” I pictured something like the Mango Orchard spiders we shared the forest with up in Navdanya , or like a tarantella. August imagined something like the spider that was in our room in Kochi, but it was maybe half that size but she was still very big. Kyle later named the spider Beatrice and going to the bathroom every time those first days was a dreaded must. But we couldn’t make her leave, we definitely couldn’t kill her so we just had to learn to live together.

Kyle, Shaun and August

Kyle and Shaun arrived in the morning the same day as us, and lived on the top of the mountain. Maybe it was the third day in Vatta when me and August decided that we were bored enough to go out into the rain, in dusk, to try to find their house. Pablo was already there. There is no phone reception in Vattakanal so we had to go look for people as soon as we wanted to hang out or make plans. Danish gave us a walkie-talkie is we needed anything from him. So, we took on our ponchos and went out. We knocked on doors and disturbed people in their regular lives to try to find Kyle and Shaun, without success. At one point the clouds came in so fast I became lost and August disappeared in the clouds; it’s like a really thick fog. That was an experience in itself. After this experience, we deemed our mission to be a failure and went home, but Danish; being such a great host, brought us an italian to cook spaghetti Napoli for us, and a guy from Singapore to keep us company. So the party came to us!

Kyle and Shaun’s house

There are maybe a few hundred permanent residents in Vattakanal. Its located on the side of a mountain, with steep stairs climbing from house to house. The most distinct feature about Vattakanal is all the Israelis that go there. August overheard an American woman say that she was going to go home and tell her friends that she’d been to Israel in India, that’s how many Israelis there are in Vatta. It was very rare to hear a foreigner speak something other than hebrew. Even when we were out walking people first addressed us in hebrew. There are Indian tourists too, but they come mostly for the weekends..

Danish taking a “short cut”

There are three things one can do in Vattakanal; 1. Go into Kodaikanal, 2, eat at one of the many cafés or 3; hike. Hike is the only free option so this is what we did the most. One morning, me and August and Pablo went to a location called Dolphine Nose. Its a rock that goes out into a valley a little. We went for the sunrise and yoga. In the end we just watched the sunrise and ate crackers. It wasn’t very impressive, but it seems like that is the top sight in Vattakanal, because all the Indian tourists that come for the day, go there.

Pablo took this photo of me, doing morning yoga at Dolphine Nose

You can also determine which point is the most popular based on the amount of trash you can see along the way… Personally, I prefer Eagles Point, which is a much easier hike with a much better view. At Eagles Point there is a 1000 meter drop down into the valley at the cliff edge. It’s beautiful. Me and August also hiked to a village down the side of the mountain then up another one. There are no roads to this village, only this path which we took. Everyday people from this village go to work in Kodaikanal, everyday they climb a mountain! The village was very clean and a woman cooked us a rice and tomato dish and gave us chai. This village had maybe a 100 residents, and all the houses are wall to wall style. The Italian guy who cooked for us, Marco, went there before us and came back saying that you can’t wear shoes in this village. No one told us we couldn’t, but no one was wearing shoes, so we left ours as well. When we were walking around the village, meanwhile the woman was cooking for us, an old dog started barking at us. I bet this dog belonged to this woman sitting on the opposite side of the street. She was really old, and fat and one of her boobs were hanging outside her sari. She picks up a bamboo stick and when the dog doesn’t stop barking, she hits the dog over the back with the stick! The dog cries out and stay silent after that. The woman, seemingly only having one functional eye, grins at us, like “I got you” when we pass her to return for food 😛

The bank in the village where you can’t wear shoes

Another time me, August and Shaun went into the forest, following bison paths along the mountain side, not really having a destination. This black mama dog came with us on our trek, sometimes showing us better ways through bushes with needles that get stuck in our clothes, and scratched our skin. August wasn’t very happy during this trek, because he was wearing harem pants – alibaba pants – which got caught in EVERYTHING. They broke in many places, so its totally understandable. One other time just me and August tried to climb a mountain and got pretty adventurous in our methods. This time, the same dog came with us, proving how four legs are superior to two in most situations. We never made it all the way up.

August and Danish at Eagles point

Life in India involves a lot of dogs. They live side by side with humans in every place we have gone to so far.. Every place has its own dogs, and they protect the area against other dogs and bark when they see humans they don’t like or welcome you when you know them. They can randomly come with you for a walk until they get bored, but it’s good company!

A bison in our garden

One day we went on a bike tour with Danish and Pablo and Kyle and Shaun to a village called Mannavanour. In this village they still have the grass lands that used to occupy most of the nature in the Eastern Ghats. People planted trees instead on most of the grasslands, because trees are more useful, so the grass lands all but disappeared. Today they grow pine and eucalyptus in the area, making oil of the eucalyptus and using the pine as firewood. It was a beautiful ride with the motorbikes and I rode with Pablo, who were new on a motorbike. He picked it up really fast though! And in the end, going back to Vattakanal went as smoothly as if he’d been doing it for years.

One day we followed Danish to the place where he works for the British guy, Bob, at a nursery. In this nursery there is a tree which used to be extinct, and now there was only three recorded plants left in the world. There is another tree that hasn’t changed much ,except for in size since the dinosaur times. We also saw a flower that only blooms every 12 years and it was actually blooming when we were there, but it was not very special, just a nice blue colour. The mountaintops of the Eastern Ghats have birds and a flora which is similar to the Himalaya region. Danish told us that during the before times, ice age era birds hopped in between the mountain tops, and now they are stuck. Since humans are changing the fauna with planting trees and such, the birds are endangered. This is the nursery Danish is assisting in:

The green house at the nursery

So we have this running joke with Kyle, that Sweden is the best country in the world. All along our travels people asks us “Is it true that people in Sweden only work 6 hours a day” Or “I’ve heard that you guys only work 4 days a week!” Another good one is that we recycle all our waste! So Kyle is playing on this through out our stay, he’d say stuff like “Did you know that in Sweden the minimum salary is 24 euros per hour?” and then, in our conversations every day, the minimum salary of Sweden rise with 10 euros 😛 Kyle told us a story of when we was in Stockholm: He was walking at night in Djurgården or somewhere, which is a big park, and all the time in Stockholm he has a feeling that everything is a little too well organised, when suddenly a man stops him. He starts speaking Swedish to Kyle and Kyle says that he doesn’t speak Swedish, so the man switches to English: “Hello, I’m making a survey. Do you think we need another lamp post between this one and that one?” Kyle looks around in this very well lit park and says “Na, everything is working fine here, you can send that lamppost to another country!” One day in Vattakanal this new arrives, Elina form UK. She had gotten bitten by a dog, a very domesticated dog with a necklace and everything, and it didn’t even pierce her skin. She wants to go get rabies shots but me and August says that that would be unnecessary. “Did you know that the basic education in Sweden makes every Swedish person have the knowledge of your average doctor?” Kyle says.

Pablo randomly met a friend from Berlin in Vattakanal. His name is Laurence, and he was travelling with Alisa, a German based girl from Latvia. So random. In places like this, where you somehow feel like home, I almost expect to meet someone I know from before. We spent some time with Laurence and Alisa, especially before Pablo left.

Shaun, August and Lawrence outside Laerence and Alisas house

 Pablo went back to Kerala already on the 14th of February. At this point we had been travelling together for around two weeks. We missed him a lot the first days, because it felt very empty in our room, but like everything, we got used to it. Pablo is the first person we have travelled with together and we are both happy that it just kinda happened and that travelling with others is an option in the future. And Pablo taught us that it’s better to just go do it. No need to panic on the booking apps where there they rush you with “ONLY ONE ROOM LEFT FOR THIS PRICE HURRY” statements. And as a result of this my travel-stress has decreased noticeably, to both our delight 🙂 Pablo had to go because he was doing a Vipassana, which is a ten day silent meditation course, kind of. You cannot speak to anyone or look anyone in the eyes, men and women are separate and you have to meditate for 10 hours every day. But we have met so many people who did this and loved it; for example Wojtek and Kathrin who we met at Navdanya our first days in India were the first people we met who had done it. After that it felt like every other person we met had done it. Claire and Gillian left Navdanya early to do a Vipassana in the north. We will also do one, eventually.

Pablo at the fire place

The days went by with the clouds in Vattakanal. We made dinner together with Shaun and Kyle almost every night, climbing the stairs up to their house several times a day, eating avocado sandwiches for lunch, a snack and sometimes for breakfast. Kodaikanal and Vatta are famous for the avocados so we had our fill! The vibe in Vatta is very relaxed, people are nice and have this humor that I love. It definetly has some magic to it, Vattakanal, but I think we stayed in Vattakanal mostly because we liked our group and they way we could live there. Cooking our own food is worth sooo much in the land of deep-fried spices. And the best thing: No mosquitoes! Its too cold for them. In the last days our crew grew to include a British girl, Elina, who was staying with Danish as a couch-surfer. We also became friends with another Irish guy named Glen and his friend Dennis from the Netherlands. But this was the day before we left. Meeting new people makes it harder to leave. They were asking Elina to get some booz if she was going into Kodai, letting their lives continue without us! Not good.

Elina at Eagles Point

I finished my wall painting the day before we left Vattakanal. This is the result:

“The rift” for Danish

On the 19th we took a bus directly from Kodaikanal to Pondicherry, which used to be a french colony south of Chennai (prev. Madras) on the east coast. Now we are in Auroville outside Pondicherry. I will tell you about this place in the next post.

Hiker

Lots of Love

August and Linnea

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