This is a story I wrote years ago, but reread this morning and found it funny. I hope you don't mind that it's not a new one. We've all got the flu around here and I'm not really up to much creativity.
A Magical Mushroom Walk in the Hills of Palni—In Search of the Last Rainforest
"There are forty different kinds of paranoia," my dreadlocked Hindu guide Vijay began solemnly, while pouring thick coffee and lighting a spleef. "Different types affect different people, but since I am a multiple personality, I have suffered from them all."
I was in Southern India, in the town of Kodaikanal, 7,000 feet up in the Palni Hills, and I was negotiating with Vijay to get him to take me out on a magic mushroom walk through what remained of the old broad-leafed shoala, rainforest, that had once covered the Hills.
I was in India to do a story on Zafar Futahelli, the father of India’s environmental movement. Futahelli, an elegant and hardworking man in his eighties, had recently formed the Palni Hills Conservation Society, a group whose goal is to reforest the Hills, which are rapidly being deforested to make way for time-share resorts, new monoculture eucalyptus, pine and Australian wattle groves, and for the building materials and cooking fires of the people native to the region.
The Society was working to save the Hills because they are the watershed for the huge Plains of Madouri, the breadbasket of Southern India. Roughly 20 miles wide and 40 miles long, they rise up from the center of the flat Madouri Plains to a height of more than 9,000 feet. Hit twice by monsoons annually, the roots of the old growth rainforest which used to cover them caught and held the rains like a sponge, letting gravity pull the water to the Plains’ streams as needed over the course of the dry seasons.
It was a good system until the resort builders began to clear land recklessly and lumbermen began to convert the ancient forest to monocultures, starting a chain of events that has led to the plains now flooding after monsoons, then drying up shortly afterward. To make up for the recent water shortages farmers on the Plains have begun drilling wells for irrigation, which have lowered the water table on the Plains, in turn killing the Plains’ natural covering. Summer sun bakes the now dry topsoil and seasonal winds blow much of it away. In short, the Plains don't produce like they used to, so a lot of people are eating less throughout Southern India, and many of them are starving. Just another man-made catastrophe which the World Bank will try to solve with billions of dollars tossed in the wrong direction at interest rates India won't have a prayer of repaying.
Futahelli’s plan is simpler: Replant the Hills. Hire the locals displaced by the newcomers to plant millions of trees of the varieties that used to be there, and in 10 years time the Hills can again generate water year round for the Plains. The little funding the project calls for would come from those people buying time-shares at the resorts.
So I was in India to talk to Futahelli and some of the builders, knowing that his solution is too clever to ever be adopted on the scale that’s needed, and after several days of listening to resort builders explain why their untreated human waste simply had to be disposed of in the Hills’ natural marshes—"How bad can the waste from my 145 units be?" one builder asked in the sing-song English of the country. "People must be using the toilet, after all..."—I needed a break.
Which is where Vijay and his paranoias came into the picture. Vijay had been recommended by several people, all of whom said he was a bit peculiar but knew the Hills better than anyone. "We can take some very good walks," he assured me, when I approached him about being my guide for a magic mushroom walk.
The mushrooms were an unexpected bit of luck. A day earlier, while returning to my tiny hotel room after several hours with some of the opponents of Futahelli’s plan, I had bumped into a shriveled old woman dressed from head to toe in black. She asked me something in a language I didn't understand, and when I started to explain that I didn't get what she said she smiled, reached into the bosom of her dress and withdrew a small package of newspaper. In it were dozens of tiny psilocybin mushrooms.
"Take three and enjoy the countryside," she said in very understandable English. "Take six and talk with Shiva."
They were small headed with bluing stalks and had probably been beautiful when fresh, but looked like they’d been picked a couple of days earlier and secreted in her bosom ever since.
"Very good, be assured."
I asked for six.
"I only sell them in lots of two dozen."
"Give me two dozen then."
She smiled, tore off a bit of the newspaper, counted them out and handed them to me. "Watch out for the police. If they catch you with these they will beat you senseless."
Vijay had no problem with the thought that I would be doing mushrooms on a hike with him. "We can leave this afternoon," he said. "Go to Berijam and camp there. Of course we will not be getting there until early morning as it is nearly 30 kilometers away and walking at night is very slow and dangerous. Then tomorrow you take your mushrooms, away from the watchful eye of the police."
"Why not just leave in the morning, go see some of what’s left of the old shoala, and I’ll eat the mushrooms along the way. We can return at dusk."
"Oh no. Not here! The police will get you for sure."
"Suppose they asked me what you were doing and I told them?"
"You could say we’re hiking," I suggested.
"Yes, but that would be a sin of omission, and I have just recently become a Christian. No, I would have to tell them that we were having an hallucinogenic walk, which is very illegal here in India."
"Would you also have to tell them what we’re having for lunch? If you didn’t omit anything we’d have to spend the rest of our lives with the officer."
"They would not need to know about our lunch. But if we were walking to get lunch, then I would have a spiritual priority to tell them. In this case they are asking why we are walking and we will be walking for the mushrooms. There is the obligation."
"Hypothetically speaking, what if I tell you that if you snitch I’ll toss you off a cliff?"
"Then my priorities would change. With no physical life I have no more spiritual obligations."
"Good. So what time is good for you tomorrow?"
"Shall we say 4 AM?" He shook his dreadlocks side to side; for a moment I thought he might topple beneath their weight. "On further thinking, let me suggest 7AM. It is very cold in these hills before then, and I never rise at four."
And then he was off, an elfinish vision with crazy hair, disappearing into a patch of eucalyptus trees.
The next morning I was up at five. By six I was having coffee at Trichy’s, the only tea stall for miles which also sold a good cup of coffee. Though mist hung from the trees, the morning promised to be clear and beautiful. I breathed the thin, high altitude South Indian air.
Vijay appeared at eight. "A cha," he said. "I had so much praying to do, which is why I am late. I have been sinning so much."
I ordered us coffee and asked where he had decided to take me.
"To Pilar Rocks," he answered. "The most beautiful free standing stones. There are two and each stands unsupported for more than 1,500 meters."
"Will we pass through the shoala?"
He shook his head side to side. "The shoala is all around them."
We drank our coffee in silence, then set off along the town’s main road. Despite the damage that had been done, the Palni Hills and the little town of Kodaikanal remained lovely. Prior to its blossoming as a resort area it was known primarily for its exclusive private school for wealthy English and Indian children, and for the summer homes their parents kept there. The homes were nearly all built in British country cottage style, fitted stone with clay tile rooves. If not for the tea stalls and the monkeys that roamed freely about, Kodaikanal might have been a town in the English countryside.
We passed Kodai Lake—surrounded by wretched, two-story brick garden apartments—turned off the road at the famous guru Sai Baba’s summer home, then started up a steep stone stairway leading into the hills surrounding the town. At the top of the stairs we entered an area where locals lived and Indian temples seemed to blossom like flowers, everywhere.
Around us children in school uniforms and factory workers in overalls made their way toward their destinations. By nine the morning mist had burned off and I was in the mood for my mushrooms. I suggested to Vijay that we stop for a moment.
"Not here! Not here!" he said. "Wait until we are in the church."
I had no idea why we were going to a church but waited as he asked and a short while later we reached an old, unused Presbyterian building high on a promontory bluff overlooking a beautiful valley. We stopped and I took out my mushrooms while he rolled a joint.
"How do you reconcile the dope with your new faith?" I asked.
"I am also Rasta," he said, shaking his dreadlocks.
"Good answer," I said, eating three of the little psilocybes.
"The will of God," he laughed, starting down a path to a little village not far away.
It took less than 20 minutes for the first wave to hit me, and when it did we were in a tiny hut of a restaurant Vijay had insisted we stop at so that he could satisfy the craving for food his joint had brought on. I could not even consider eating: large rats climbed over everything and while the locals and the owner simply shooed them away I was beginning to trip and they seemed to be getting larger by the minute.
"I’ll wait for you outside, Vijay," I said, standing. Though the hut door was only a few steps away I was suddenly uncoordinated and the trip took an inordinate amount of time.
Outside, I opened my little package of newspaper, ate three more of the tiny-capped mushrooms, and caught my equilibrium. Vijay joined me a few minutes later, stuffing his rucksack with chapati, Indian bread, for the walk.
"We will be going now," he smiled through a full mouth, pointing me down a road that led past colorful shrines to Vishnu and Shiva, and small houses fronted with tall brick fences. At the street’s end was a stand of beautiful old growth forest and my heart leapt at the thought that there was rainforest this close to Kodaikanal. We stepped beneath it and I breathed deeply to fill my lungs with the sweet smell of ancient vegetation. Instead I began coughing and choking: just behind the stand of old growth was a monoculture tree farm of Vicks-Vap-O-Rubby eucalyptus and the scent nearly took the top of my head off.
Vijay seemed non-plussed with both my reaction and the fumes. He continued walking, eating his chapati, and I followed him into a breech in the tree farm at the base of a steep hill. To one side of the breech was the tiny remnant of old growth; on the other a eucalyptus tree farm a mile long and half that wide which had also been shoala just 15 years ago.
But standing in the breech between the two forests was a sacred cow. Of course it wasn’t just a cow, it was 900 pounds of pulsating energy wearing a brown and white leather coat, and it was straddling the very pass we had to pass and taking every inch of it. Vijay caught my arm and explained that hill cows were known for their cunning, and that they could be surly and dangerous, though he refused to be pinned down on exactly how many tourists he’d lost to them. Yes, I thought, I knew there was something about that cow, something about the way it was looking at me, so fiercely. Perhaps this bovine gatekeeper was a sort of test, I imagined, put in place to stump mushroomed gringos. I gathered myself up for it. Vijay looked for another way up the hill. There was none. "Perhaps we are not meant to go this way," he whispered.
"Perhaps it’s just a test," I answered.
"If I am getting hurt will you be paying the bills?"
"Then let us make our way. Follow me. Be careful." He took a tentative step. The cow didn’t move. He waited a moment and took another. Nothing. He waved me to follow and we approached with caution. Stealthily we moved in, angled, feinted, then slid behind its hindquarters. Not so hard after all, I thought, but just as I did it let out a bellow. It was no earthly sound, I was sure, no cow sound I’d ever heard. It was more like deep-tone-vibration that emitted from the mouth of the pulsing flesh in glorious and frightening color and began to shake the air violently. The trees responded and began to shake as well, and then the ground and Vijay and I began a racing assault up the steep hill to get away from it, clambering over the vine-covered, root-tangled earth. We didn’t look back until we reached the top; the cow hadn’t moved. The scene was back to normal.
I congratulated myself by exacerbating my condition with three more mushrooms. Filled with our bovine success we confidently moved on into the thick of the Palnis, past pilgrims and peasants, steppe-farmers and their daughters, shimmying past goats and dogs and monkeys, all unusually alive, all beginning to glow, and all suspiciously curious. Two hours and five mushrooms later we’d climbed dozens of hills and reached 9,000 feet. I was out of breath and watching my skin turn colors from the inside. The smell of eucalyptus clung to me like a body suit.
Then, suddenly we could see a clearing through the trees at the top of the next hill and I headed for it. Vijay tried to stop me, but I was sure I was on to something. I bounded over the underbrush of tiny wattle leaves and broke out onto a patch of bright green grass that turned out to be the 13th green of the Kodai Golf Club, which Vijay explained was one of the world’s most difficult courses.
"Some of the holes are very difficult because cows graze here, and the balls bounce off them sometimes and get lost. And if a monkey gets your ball he will chew it. Very hard to play."
I nodded. Though not a golfer I could see where those would be difficult challenges.
"Of course," he added, "there is a course in Kashmir, I forget the name, where there are tigers. I have heard that is also very difficult to play."
He spoke with an air of authority and while he did he put on a large cap to cover his locks. "This is for disguise. On the matter of the course in Kashmir, I have never actually met anyone who played there, but that is what I have heard."
Suddenly he crouched, issued me a silent warning to keep quiet and broke into a run. I caught up with him on the fairway and asked why we were running. "To avoid the greens police."
"I’m a tourist," I said. "I’m supposed to be on a golf course."
"You don’t know them. Just keep running."
It was useless to argue so I followed. Moments later we caught the attention of several men with uniforms and sticks who began to chase us, frightening half-a-dozen cows and a herd of grazing goats into a frenzied stampede. When I realized they were gaining on me I turned and asked in a shouting voice for the clubhouse, thinking that might slow down my pursuers. It didn’t. I turned and followed Vijay, who was fleeing into the brush at the edge of the fairway. He ran like a man with the devil at his heels, kicking a poor golfer’s ball wildly as he did and ignoring several peccaries rooting at the base of a fruit tree. I had no choice but to continue fleeing, finally beginning to put some distance between myself and the men chasing us. We fled through the scrub brush, beneath some trees and finally ran down a small hill next to a busy roadway and into an open cement culvert that was wet with sludge. We ran along the ditch for perhaps 50 yards before I slipped and fell. Vijay stopped to help me up but stopped short of actually touching me.
"That is really too bad," he said when he caught his breath. "This is the waste ditch from some new condos," he explained matter-of-factly. "Very disgusting."
I got up and wiped myself off as best I could. "How is it possible that I'm on my knees in human waste sucking exhaust from every car on the road when this is supposed to be a nature hike?"
Vijay looked hurt. He didn’t answer. I took a deep breath and tried to calm down. I meditated a moment to see if there wasn’t a bigger picture here that I was missing. Where was the Great Spirit in all this, the oneness, I wondered, eating three more mushrooms. Was it possible Vijay had a plan? Perhaps he wanted me to walk in the shit so that I would understand India better, or the pressing need for conservation. Perhaps it was something like that and I was just too simple or stoned to see it. Yes, I thought, that must be it.
I decided to keep a lookout on my sensibilities and continue to go along with this guru guide of mine, this man who had such a master plan concealed in his behavior. We hadn’t yet gone near shoala, but somehow this would pay off. Yes, a walk through human sludge was exactly what an arrogant Westerner like me needed.
Vijay started off again, walking now as the greens police had evidently given up the chase. I ate two more mushrooms and fell in behind him, through the shit and slime, alongside the roadway. We walked for miles, kicking discarded beer cans and food wrappers. But somehow it all seemed to be making sense now, now that I had given myself up to the secret plan of Universe, and I found myself laughing, grinning, running to keep pace with my madman companion.
The road curved off and we climbed out of the culvert and up the embankment to the two-lane asphalt; to our right sat the squat, thrown-together, wretched sludge-producing condos. I decided to melt them with my X-ray vision, but before I could a bus careened around the bend and nearly took me to my next incarnation. I jumped back and breathed a lungful of the black smoke issuing from its tailpipe. It was followed by a car, and then another, each one taking the turn too wide, all of them honking insistently, and we hugged the near shoulder of the road as we followed after them. An hour passed and still we trudged along the roadway, past stop signs and dangerous curve signs, past herds of goats and an overturned truck, my guide answering my question as to why we were taking such a dangerous path when we could just as easily walk in the woods with a cryptic, "Why must one assume that the path one is not on is a simpler one?"
The sky turned overcast, the busses and cars passing us became a nearly constant stream. I wondered where they were headed and why Zafar Futahelli’s group wasn’t also working to outlaw the diesel fuel that filled the air. Before I could answer those questions the road took a sharp left and there, suddenly, unexpectedly, reaching to the sky were the two pillars of Pilar Rocks. Strong, bold, magnificent and covered in a thick white mist. Nearly unidentifiable except for the parking lot signs on the road below me, in which dozens of busses and cars sat with their motors idling, blowing noxious black smoke and belching tourists by the hundreds. Near them, adjoining the parking lots, was a wall lined with chi stalls and tourist stands.
I was appalled. I was tagged and weaving. Worse, I soon found myself the curious object of attention to dozens of tourist families. They flocked to my side, lined up near me and posed as if in conversation with me while friends and family took photographs of them with their gringo friend. Whole families absorbed me into their Pilar Rock snapshots. Some even pushed me into positions they thought would look more conversational, sitting me on a rock wall overlooking both the Rocks and the parking lots, telling me to smile or talk or turn this way or that. I went along with the game, imagining some ancient ritual with foreigners I knew nothing about—perhaps there was a story of luck associated with taking photos of outsiders at Pillar Rock. Certainly there had to be something more than that my guide had simply walked me into a tourist trap.
So there I stood, and sat and posed, waiting for direction from Vijay, but I soon realized my guide was nowhere to be found. He’d wandered off and lost himself in the crowd. I’d been abandoned.
I slipped down from my perch on the wall and into the nearest chi shop, where comments were made about the smell and look of my clothing and shoes. And all the while the insidious Hindi-Christian-Rasta guide of mine stayed hidden from me—me, ripped out of my mind, being fed cupfuls of bacteria and sludge, up to my ankles in Indian refuse. But why? Wasn’t Pilar Rocks his idea? What happened to the shoala and why weren’t we in it?
Dozens of questions flooded my mind, but they were too complex for anyone with five uneaten mushrooms to consider, so I ate what was left and decided to remain calm. This was India, after all, so I knew I wasn’t lost.
Instantly the recognition of that calmed me down and I decided that as long as I was here I would try to get a closer look at Pilar Rocks. But the mist which had been gathering just a few minutes earlier had now fully enveloped not only the great stone monuments but the tourist busses as well. Everything was being enveloped in white mist and disappearing like a ghostly visage. Where are you, my intrepid guide? I wondered. Pour me another cup of that sludge tea, my good man, I’ve got enough bacteria in me to infect a small village. I’m a biological warhead. Point and shoot me, I’ll infect the lot!
Suddenly it hit me and I knew—knew—where Vijay had gone. I felt it and knew I was right. I left the chi shop and slowly worked through the mist to a stand of trees the tourists were using as a latrine, moved past a squatting family and called out his name.
"Over here," came the feint reply.
I headed toward the sound and nearly bumped into him. He was sitting on a stone, rolling another joint. "I knew you would be here," I said.
"Less tourists. I like nature," he commented.
"Me too. Let’s find some. I’m hoping you thrust me into the pit of snakes for a reason. Did you?"
"You are a tourist. I thought you wanted to be with other tourists."
"I wanted to go to the jungle. The shoala. You brought me here. Are you insane?"
He moved away, out of reach. "You are going to be yelling at me now, aren’t you?"
"No. I am going to forgive your lunacy. But you are going to get me away from here and take me to the jungle. I am going to walk with the shoala beneath my feet. No roads, no drainage ditches, no diesel fuel, no tourists. Only jungle."
Without a word he stood and started up a near sheer cliff of loose boulders. I followed up the incline, forcing my wobbly feet one in front of the other, nearly falling, nearly dying, and finally reaching the top of the hill.
"There," he said, pointing 30 yards to our left. "There is the shoala."
Indeed it was. Beautiful, gnarled ancient trees clustered with hanging vines and flowers, thick, dark, wet, ominous and beautiful. "Let’s go," I said, already forgiving him the first five hours of the day.
"In there?" he asked incredulously.
"Of course. That’s why we came."
"Oh, no. It is very dangerous. There are wild animals and snakes, and crevasses in the earth."
"Let’s go look at them."
"They are very deep. If you fall in you will never get out."
He hated me. I knew that now. We were walking on a scrub path littered with paper and beer cans, not 50 feet from a rainforest at nearly 9,000 feet, but he was not going in.
"Too, it is not allowed."
"No one will see us."
"Like the golf police?"
"That was nothing."
"Still, that is how it is." And then, diverting his attention to the path we were on, he fell to his knees. "Look! Some wild animal has passed here recently...yes...follow me quietly. No laughing."
And he was off and running, the banshee who hated me.
"Yes...an animal. Large...possibly dangerous...."
The track he’d seen looked common enough to me but I took his word since I realized I was not thinking clearly any longer. Somewhere along the way I’d stuffed my pockets with sticks and stones which must have seemed important at the time, and I began unloading them. What were they doing in my pockets? I certainly didn’t remember doing it. Perhaps the tourists had made me little presents. Strange. I followed after him...
"Yes!" he suddenly said. "An animal. I am sure of it." And then, further on, another 20 paces, we came on it, a mangy dog sleeping in the dirt.
"Look! A jungle dog!" he announced.
Taking no more, I dashed into the shoala despite his protests. I filled my lungs and ran through the thick underbrush, catching my clothes and hair on vines and branches, then tumbled on a tangle of roots and came to rest at the foot of a small shrine to one of the people who had investigated the crevasses without benefit of a rope. A plaque on the shrine at the yawning mouth of the black hole read:
"Dedicated to my father
May 12, 1955
Body recovered, May 13, 1955
From a depth of 500 feet."
I peered into the hole and wished him well, then praised Shiva that while Shen had bought it I had only window shopped.
"You see I am not fooling now," I heard Vijay say from the top of the embankment I’d fallen down.
I looked around. It was finally beautiful. Even to be in a rainforest which had been chopped to bits, a piecemeal patchwork of old forest interspersed with eucalyptus, wattle and pine, it was still rainforest, thick with vines and new and old growth and moving underbrush alive with things. My little Rasta was off rolling another joint but I was practically dancing, making my way to one edge of the cliff the forest stood on, looking out onto the only uninhabited piece of India I’d ever seen. Utterly inaccessible cliffs, sheer mounts fronting strange vapor covered valleys, home of the few remaining spotted panthers and mountain goats in all of Southern India. A verdant landscape of living moving things and dancing trees, filled with white-faced macaques and Ghandi monkeys, rooting boars, snakes and a host of birds. What wonder! What splendor! I pictured the entire Palni Hills covered with this sort of vegetation, and imagined what the dry Plains of Madouri must have been like with forests like these draining out into year round streams. How golden and green those plains must have been a generation ago.
Reality began slipping and I found myself picturing giant sponges like these hills dotting all of those places where greed had gotten the upper hand and left desert where there once was forest. I imagined us piling up all the beer cans and papers we throw away and instead of tossing them into holes in the ground to make land fill, piling them into heaps in the middle of deserts until the heaps were 9,000 feet high and 20 miles long by 40 miles wide and then covering the piles of garbage with dirt and planting millions of trees on them and watching our trash turn into sponge, bringing verdant life back to those dry places. Sponging the Sahara! Sponging Death Valley! Sponging the Gobi!
I sat at cliff’s edge and felt the forest around me for as long as sunlight held. It was just a speck of ancient deep green surrounded by a more modern world. Still, it was thick and lush and full of life and mystery. A person could spend days, months even, in that little rainforest and not learn all of its secrets.
It was the same in every beautiful spot in the world, I thought. People find something extraordinary. They want to be near it. They build their homes and condos and resorts and hotels until very little of the original is left. It was just our nature to smother things.
When the crevasses became difficult to see, I headed out with my wild-eyed guide who was sure we were going to die in there, back to the scrub brush road and the homestretch.
The road back was as asphalt as the one enroute. We stopped at every chi shop we saw for tea as Vijay tried to tack on the hours to increase his pay. I went along with the madman until my bladder began to float, then paid him off and zeroed in on getting back to town, back to my room, back to my own worries about conservation in the Palnis, and back, of course, to the old woman who’d sold me the mushrooms.
Saturday, November 10, 2007
This is a story I wrote years ago, but reread this morning and found it funny. I hope you don't mind that it's not a new one. We've all got the flu around here and I'm not really up to much creativity.