This piece was published in The Hindu.
The woods are lovely dark and deep, but I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep. The closing verse from Robert Frost’s famous poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, reverberates in my mind as I pant my way along the muddy path evading grasshoppers, beetles, bugs and an occasional salamander. Even though these are no woods, and I have had a good night’s sleep, this is the closest I have been to woods in years, and I am on the verge of giving up. The lines therefore make perfect sense.
Remembering and playing the verse in my head repeatedly could also be my way of shutting out the nasal voice Arun, my guide for the morning. He is the owner of the coffee plantation I am staying at and a compulsive talker too. He has insisted that I come for the early morning trek with him (he has also arranged a pair of gum boots for me and has helped me put them on – much to my embarrassment) and has been talking non-stop right from the time we have left the cottage.
A visit to Coorg had been on my mind for years. I had been to the Himalayas, I had been to the Nilgiris, I lived not far off from the Aravallis, but I had yet to set foot on the Western Ghats. So when my friend suggested that I come with her to the plantations, I jumped at the opportunity. There was something else that she had told me: the coffee plants bloom in the middle of summer and that was the best time to be at Coorg, among low and dense foliage bursting with delicate white flowers which look and smell just like Jasmine. It was only after we had reached our home stay, a cozy set of cottages built alongside the residence of Arun and his wife Kaveri, that we realized the coffee flowers had already bloomed in spring. But by then I was so absorbed in the shades of green that surrounded us that the lack of white hardly mattered.
Located at an hour’s drive from Madikeri, the estate is as green as green can possibly be. We had reached there driving through narrow winding hill roads lined with tall oaks and shrubs and had almost missed the elusive turn to the estate. Far removed from habitation our place of stay is a true example of back of beyond. The cottages – there are only two of them, since the owners do not want to overcrowd the place – stand bang in the middle of the plantation. The day was bright and sunny when we had arrived in the afternoon; by early evening however, the sky had already turned a shade of charcoal and soon rains were lashing at the tiled roof of the cottages: what else could a parched soul from a concrete jungle ask for?
We spent the evening sitting on the cemented ledge of the long verandah sipping strong coffee and munching on crunchy onion and potato bhajjis made by Lakshmi, the doe-eyed housekeeper of the home stay. It was here, among the coffee and the bhajjis that I met Arun: he had come to say hello and had hung around through the evening talking animatedly about coffee, climate and Coorg; he had left only after I had agreed to go out with him around the estate in the morning.
In the middle of a thicket now, drenched in sweat with a steady stream of water dripping from millions of thick, broad coffee leaves on my arms and legs, struggling to climb the slippery hill, and surrounded by unruly branches and the abundant insect life I curse myself for having agreed to the trek: how nice would it have been to just sit in the verandah and write!
My chain of thoughts is broken by Arun’s voice. He is energetic as ever and is busy explaining to me why he has brought me here. “I want you to remember Coorg for a long time”, he says while offering me his hand. I reluctantly take it and climb another tricky rock. He keeps talking and offering me his hand even as I gasp for breath and almost slip over a pile of soggy leaves wondering if the climb will ever end.
I am close to tears of frustration and exasperation when I finally see rays of the early morning sun streaming in through the canopy of leaves. In another few minutes the dense shrubs magically disappear and we are standing on a large rocky clearing atop a hill that has no road or walkway.
As I look down at the sea of fluorescent paddy fields sprinkled with tiny ponds formed by last night’s rain, the thick forest along the horizon with trees that touch the clouds, the silver mist rising from the earth and mingling with the golden rays of the sun midway, and the height of the hill I have just climbed, my heart fills with gratitude for Arun. I now know what he meant when he said that he wanted me to remember Coorg for a long time. Thanks to him I will never forget it.