A year and a half ago, I was most enchanted by the Mistress of Munnar, but I came to realise that in the month of May, she is a relatively benevolent beauty.
You may be wondering what I mean by relatively benevolent … Well here we go.
Soon after Dassera, towards the end of the monsoons, we went to Coorg for an extended weekend holiday. All the enigmatic memories of Munnar faded in comparison to the playful mists of Coorg, where in October, you could be standing in bright sunshine for one moment with mist lurking in a farawy corner, and then be so engulfed by clouds and mist that the entire world would seem to shrink to a circle with a radius of a few meters.
We were on a mountain top when this happened, and the illusion of being alone in an idyllic world was overwhelming. Little did we realize, that all along the treacherous Sirens of Coorg were assiduously at work, and even while we reveled in the serene beauty that surrounded us, they were quietly, but methodically draining away our essential life force …
Let’s back up a little so you know how we got in to this pickle of a situation.
We stayed at the Taj Madikeri, a gorgeous property situated on 180 acres of forest land. The hotel is tastefully constructed to blend in to the forest. Even the roofs of the cottages have a thick carpet of grass and weeds.
As gorgeous as the property was, with a multitude of activities, like archery, swimming, pottery, kayaking, zip lining, etc, it left me restless and frustrated. For I was itching to respond to the call of the wild.
To really enjoy a forest, I like to take a long walk through narrow muddy paths negotiating my way around bushes, bramble and streams, checking out the wild flowers and fruits and climbing rocks.
Unfortunately, most of the paths in the hotel were paved. When we did find a muddy path leading off the premises, it was barricaded and we were told that we could only go there with a naturalist on an organized walk with other hotel guests.
We as a family prefer to be by ourselves while we explore a place, doing it at our own pace, chatting and bonding in the privacy of secluded paths, enjoying the feeling of temporarily being cut off from the rest of the world and its cares.
When I inquired why we couldn’t just go explore the path on our own, the guard at the barricade informed us that the path was full of leeches and snakes, and it wouldn’t be safe to go without an expert.
Embers Of Rebellion
The man might as well have said there were dragons in the forest! Leeches, snakes, come on! Who was he trying to frighten? I wasn’t a newbie at trekking! Nonsense to scare babies, I mumbled, as I walked away from the barricade, determined to find another way.
Many years ago, I had applied to a Physics summer camp in Kodaikanal, and when I was accepted, I was horrified to learn that the place crawls with leeches and that hordes of them latch on to your skin and merrily suck away your blood. I was relieved that I did not have to deal with the fearsome blood suckers, when I was offered a better internship in Bangalore. So you see, I was terrified of leech bites, but I had an almost teenage like optimism that no leech would bite me, personally.
Where did I get this absurd idea?
As a child, I was unfamiliar with nature. All my holidays had been in cities where we usually visited museums, bookstores, malls, restaurants or amusement parks.
But during my graduate school years I developed a fondness for trekking. Initially, I was terrified of any little bug or fly or creepy crawly. But after many enjoyable treks in Eastern Washington, California, Banff (in Canada) and several Himalayan hill stations, my fears of encountering dangerous creatures on treks had ebbed. I learned that they usually did not bother you, so long as you left them alone. Most recently, during a trek in Nainital I saw a huge snake, but even that was at the side of the trail and slithered out of sight in a jiffy.
So, I did not take any of the guard’s warnings seriously. I assumed the hotel was paranoid about getting sued.
Much like a teenager, I firmly believed knew better, simply because I had some experience to boast of. Besides, the mountains were so beautiful with the vibrant greenery of the rain-forest shrouded in a dense mist playing hide and seek, I could not contain my temptation.
Papa (my husband) tried to explain that this was a tropical forest, and leeches and snakes were indeed a real danger, unlike the trails of the temperate coniferous forests of California, Canada and the Himalayas. But his warnings fell on deaf ears. I had made up my mind that I was going to walk, and no silly fairy tales about leeches were going to stop me.
A Way Around
I did not attempt to go in to the barricaded road again, but I kept a sharp look out for other possible forest trails. Finally, I found one. This one had no guard or barricade at the entrance, and was fairly broad, so I rationalized that it could not be dangerous. I dragged the rest of my family along to walk with me and they reluctantly agreed.
The path was beautiful and we began to enjoy the walk. We saw an unusual frog on the the way and the little one was impressed. It was a mildly challenging trek, especially for the kids, so it kept us focused and entertained. After about 20 minutes of walking, we came across a hole. Papa informed me that it was a snake hole, and for the first time I began to feel uneasy.
About 10 minutes later, there was a blood stain on Papa’s sock. We couldn’t figure out what caused it, and assumed he had scratched himself somewhere. We plodded on and reached the top of the highest mountain in sight. For our efforts and courage, we were richly rewarded with a stunning view of the surrounding bright green hills and mountains, lit up in patches where the the sunlight had streamed in through holes in the cloud cover. The mist was swirling at a distance and approaching quickly and within moments we were surrounded by a mist so dense that it looked like the rest of the world did not exist.
And that’s when Papa noticed that his other leg was bleeding too. This time it was above his sock and we saw a leech stuck on, sucking away, becoming fatter every second. I was scared. It was like the Greek myth of the Sirens. We had been lured in by the beauty, only to have the life force sucked out of us.
From what we knew of leeches, they were supposed to be notoriously difficult to detach. None the less, Papa tried to scrape it off with a rock and succeeded. He was visibly relieved, and so were the rest of us. But not for long. As we descended, down the trail, every few minutes Papa would notice a leech on his shoe. Fortunately, his shoes were light colored and the leeches quite easy to see on them.
The leeches were barely a couple of centimeters long and and about as thick as an earthworm. They could easily nibble their way through the cloth of our sneakers and socks. So, while I was expecting fat sluggish creatures I would easily notice so long as I was alert, Papa was accosted by tiny, wily parasites.
I had only known of leeches from western movies and TV shows, where they were used for medical treatment in Victorian times. But those leeches had been left to suck blood for a long time and had consequently become fat and large.
My face froze in an expression of terror, as I noticed a leech on my light grey track pants. It hadn't bitten me yet. I desperately pulled the fabric of my pants away from my leg to prevent it from biting me, as Papa hunted for a rock to scrape it off. He managed to get it off before it had borrowed through on to my leg.
A few minutes later my daughter mentioned a ticklish feeling on her tummy. Papa lifted her T-shirt and spotted a leech. Fortunately, he managed to get it off with a leaf before it had bitten her.
Now I was truly terrified. Why had I ignored all the warnings and advice? Would we all be covered in leeches by the time we were back? Would they all come off as easily as the one Papa had managed to shake off with a stone?
The mist was dense, obscuring the path ahead and the return journey seemed to last for ever as we cautiously navigated the slippery downhill path keeping an eye out for leeches. The same mist that had once been so alluring, was now a frightening, unwelcome hurdle.
I was freaking out at the idea of several leeches having penetrated my dark colored shoes, but I had to keep it together so my daughters would not be frightened.
Even so, Papa had to keep reminding me to slow down every so often. I felt terrible about having caused my family so many problems. In the mean time, Papa has extricated 3 more leeches from himself using either stones or leaves.
But not once did he reproach me for not listening to his warnings. He encouraged me to go on and reassured me that all would be fine.
And then it happened. I felt a strange sensation on my neck, a slight sting or itchiness. I stifled a scream so as to not alarm my daughters. Papa found a leech latched on to my neck. After two unsuccessful attempts, he was able to pull it out. Now, I was convinced that I had more leeches in my shoe, because I had a similar sensation on my left foot. Fortunately, we were very close to the hotel.
As soon as we got to the paved road next to the lobby, we all took off our shoes. I found 4 leeches in my shoes, but only two had latched on to my foot and Papa took them off slowly, patiently and carefully.
Our daughter’s shoes too had 3 or 4 leeches in them but none had latched on to her yet, and I was very grateful for that. Papa however found a very fat leech latched on to his ankle under his sock, where we had all seen the very first unexplained blood stain. The particular leech was very difficult to remove.
After that we got rid of the shoes and returned to our room, we had a baths and carefully inspected each other to check for any missed, lingering leeches. We bathed all the wounds in antiseptic and applied liberal amounts of antibiotic ointment. Even so, one of Papa’s leech bites bled for an hour and later got infected. He had to apply an antibiotic ointment for a few days to fix it.
As adults we are often baffled by the risks teens choose to take. Why do they do it? Don’t they see how awful the consequences of drinking, smoking, drugs, unsafe sex, rash driving can be?
This experience has taught me that they don’t. How can they really know, how bad the consequences of addiction or other risky behavior can be? We might as well try to frighten them with dragons! They may be intellectually aware of the consequences but they don’t really feel the pain or dread of them. Besides there is a realistic possibility they won’t get addicted or pregnant or suffer some other disastrous consequence of their risky behavior.
It is easy to rationalize away the fear of consequences. Peer pressure, curiosity, the urge to impress, experiment and experience thrill are far more immediate and compelling emotions, like the mist was in my case.
I hope I remember this experience well, and it helps me empathize with my teenage daughters and connect with them properly when the time comes.
On the other side of the coin, I was happy to overcome a longstanding fear. I may learn from a million reliable sources that a leech bite is fairly harmless, but the thought of the creature firmly attaching itself to my skin and sucking away my blood gives me the heebie jeebies. The actual experience of being bitten helped me overcome the fear.
So it’s not necessarily bad to take a risk. Sometimes, it can lead to something wonderful. This time it did, for even Papa's worst leech bite healed well without causing too much trouble. But it is important to be aware, really aware, of the dangers involved and make an informed choice.
What Really Matters
We are merely human, and even when we try our best, we make mistakes. Sometimes risks pay off, and sometimes they can have devastating effects. But what I learned from Papa with the way he reacted in this scary situation is that, there is no point in lamenting our choices or blaming someone or punishing ourselves with self loathing. It is much more productive to handle the crisis at hand as best we can, and learn from the experience.