NOTHING LETS YOU KNOW it's raining bulls and buffaloes like a sheet-metal roof outside your hotel-room window. Indians say the monsoon is the best weather for sleeping, but on my second night in the mountain town of Munnar, in the southern state of Kerala, I'm up and down constantly. Mostly this is from excitementthe monsoon, finally!but Indian mattresses are also a factor. Spend a few weeks flopping around on one and you'll understand why they had to invent yoga here.
Monsoon weather pattern
"It is raining bulls and buffaloes!" my driver, nature guide, and new best friend, Baiju, says when he greets me in the morning. "Now you are happy."
At the nadir of my monthlong monsoon quest, under Indian skies as sunny as the Disney Channel, I came across Baiju in the Kerala seaside town of Cochin. For the first day or two he was a rock of courtesy and professionalism, all "Yes, sir" and "Let me carry that, sir" and "Don't purchase tea in that shop, sirit is known to be operated by a criminal element." Now that he's gotten comfortable around me, his more local tendencies have begun to flower.
An amateur photographer, Baiju is even more rabid for high-impact monsoon photos than I am. In a windshield-fogging deluge, approaching a corner so flooded that it has its own whitecaps, he points at an old woman making her way up the side of the road with a sack of vegetables.
"Get your camera ready!" he says, punching the gas and rocking the steering wheel like a six-year-old in a video arcade. "Watch the spray when we pass her!"
Baiju downshifts the white Ambassador sedan, turns up the volume on Best of Bollywood Duets, and veers for the woman like a cornerback closing in on a gimpy receiver.
"No, hey, Baiju, that's not necessary. I don't think we should"
"You not like? It's no problem! She won't mind!"
"No! I not like!"
We plow into the mini-lake and a wall of brown waterbacked-up sewers are a big problem during the monsoonexplodes ten feet into the air. I click a few shots through the window because well, because who doesn't love seeing a sheet of water suspended in midair? The old lady disappears inside the curl like a North Shore pro. Baiju speeds on, crazy for more prey, while BB's of rain pop like firecrackers across the hood of the car.
That's one thing about the monsoon: Even with a roof over your head, you never really escape it. If you're not outside being relentlessly moisturized, you're getting your socks damp on someone's living-room rug. Like an effective branding campaign, the monsoon is an insidiously pervasive force that seeps into the background of Indian life, sometimes slapping you in the face for not paying attention.
WHAT MOST OF INDIA is to the hyper-reality of Slumdog Millionaire, the coastal state of Kerala is to high mountains, sandalwood forests, and, most important, the monsoon. Each summer, along this narrow state occupying the southwestern edge of India, the ferocious rains and wind that originate in the Indian Ocean first strike.
This happens, with remarkable consistency, starting around June 1, when the monsoon rolls into Kerala and begins blowing through the country, advancing steadily north through India in a storm system that produces strong northeasterly winds. By June 10 it has usually hit Mumbai and Calcutta. By July 15, all of India will lie beneath a claustrophobic dome of pewter that settles over the country like a garbage-can lid. In the north, along the Pakistan border, even hardscrabble villages in the great Thar Desert will get a month of rain.
But Kerala is the sweet spot. During the monsoon's nearly half-year cycle of rain, it will never completely leave this soaked, subtropical Eden. In a typical monsoon, the northeast and west coasts of India receive about 118 inches of rain. That's both a glorious and dangerous amount of freshwater for a four-to-six-month stretch, but it's only an average. In July 2005, Mumbai got 37 inches in one day. Last September, 900,000 villagers fled their homes after the Kosi River burst its banks, turning much of the state of Bihar into a sprawling lake.
For travelers, the monsoon period is considered the most wretched time to visit India, but wretched was what I wanted. I've spent my life in the eternal rainforests of Southeast Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, so you might assume I've already experienced enough rain for one incarnation. But I haven't. Surprising as it might seem coming from someone who owns 14 rain jackets, I mostly feel cheated where precipitation is concerned.
Rain in the Northwest is, like the locals, misty, pleasant, and polite; often gloomy but rarely flamboyant. Rain we get, but almost never the opening-of-the-heavens theatrics of midwestern or southeastern thunderstorms. As my aunt Gay told friends upon returning to Ohio after a two-week visit to Juneau, "It's the craziest thingit rains all the time, but you never get wet."
Decades of congenial drizzle have left me with a powerful craving for authentic rain. Belligerent rain. Rain so hard and steady that the fish complain about it. Thinking this way about the rain inevitably got me thinking about India. This in turn made every Indian I contacted about traveling to Kerala in June ask if I'd lost my mind.
"It will rain every day," they warned. "You will not be able to tolerate the heat." "June is the absolute worst time of all in India, and a perfect hell in Kerala."
This was a surprise. I thought Indians were supposed to love the monsoon. Ancient ragas have woven it into the national mythology. The country's entire life cycle supposedly revolves around a weather system that, at its climax, covers one-third of the planet.
The more Indians I talked to, however, the more I got the sense that the monsoon may not be the cause célèbre it once was. Seasonal rains used to mean survival in a country with little assured irrigation, but advances in food preservation have eliminated the worst rural starvation. Improved transportation means villages are no longer isolated by annual flooding. Even Bollywood's famed wet-sari dancesfor decades the only legitimate T&A that Indians were allowed to enjoyhave been rendered quaint by the high heels and micro-miniskirts of the "Bombabes" who are bringing skank fashion to every corner of the country.
More important, motorists hate the legendary traffic jams the rains bring, and it's motorists who are driving (literally, figuratively) India in its manic aspirational push to keep up with China's manic aspirational push to overtake the United States' position of global economic primacy.
"And we come to the same story...which is repeated every year," bitches a typical Times of India article. "The monsoon showers playing havoc on the city roads, and the harried commuters praying for relief and cursing the authorities all the while."
Given that no one likes an outsider who's been in their country all of three weeks lecturing them about their culture, I assumed locals would be angered by my position that the modern state has blown past the monsoon. From train platforms to spice shops, I've been springing my monsoon-is-dead thesis on every Indian who will talk to me, yet, astonishingly, not one seems all that offended by my outlandish challenge to the national identity. After road-testing it on an endless array of bystanders in Delhi and Mumbai, I decided my old rain jacket was ready for the ultimate shakedown in Kerala.
THE PLAN WAS TO HEAD into the Kerala countryside and, not unlike Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin, find the most sincere place to await the rain. After a fair amount of research I chose Munnar, a mountain town in the Western Ghats coastal range. In addition to being impossibly beautiful, these are some of the wettest mountains in the world.
At a shop in Cochin, a providential encounter led me to Baiju, who insisted that his only real deficiency was his height. "Too short for the Indian army," he said in a tone suggesting that a life of target= practice and drilling at dawn would have been just the one for him. "The army's minimum-height requirement for permanent commissions is 157.5 centimeters."
That's about five-two. Baiju missed the cut by three-quarters of an inch.
It took nearly a month, but I think I finally pulled an honest man out of India's endless stable of crooked drivers. Barrel-chested and bearded, Baiju is exemplary. His 2004 Ambassador is clean, and he keeps it in the kind of shape my engineer grandfather kept his Caprice Classic in. He senses the moments to be quiet and let the scenery do the talking. And, as an amateur photographer himself, he's savvy about light and angles and stopping points whenever I see a photo op, which is often.
The Western Ghats are India's highest peaks south of the Himalayas, massive rock towers rising to 8,000 feet, so the four-hour drive from Cochin to Munnar is spectacular. The lower slopes are covered with fluorescent-green tea plantations. As we gain elevation, fragrances of cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, cumin, vanilla, pepper, ginger, garlic, and clove pour through our open windowsKerala grows half your spice caddyalong with smoke from small cooking fires.
At a scenic viewpoint, we get out to immerse ourselves in a steady patter of rain and assess a promising mass of dark clouds on the horizon. Across the parking lot, four guys in their late thirties, leaning unsteadily on the hood of an SUV and passing around a shot glass, are rolling like a whiskey bottle down a set of stadium stairs.
"Hello! What is your country?" the friendliest of the crew yells. Then he lurches toward me with an insane grin and the apparent idea of planting a wet-bearded welcome on my lips. I turn my head just in time to get a sandpaper slurp that starts on my cheek and slides down my neck.
Baiju and I have stumbled onto an Indian version of the weekend roader. Buddies out to drink in the monsoon. Or just drink. Like a trip to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, the main event is really just an excuse to get out of town.
"We are four from Cochin," one of the guys tells me, tilting his head to catch a spray of warm rain and thrusting a filthy glass into my hand. "This is our annual trip to the mountains. No wives and children. Now, toast the monsoon!"
Normally, I'm pretty sociable in these situations, but drunks on windy mountain roads shouldn't be encouraged, especially when they're chugging something called White Mischief, which turns out to be a popular Indian vodka. I consent only to a quick courtesy snort before we shove off.
WHEN THE FULL FURY of the monsoon finally does arrive in Munnar, two days after our arrival, it's heralded by a thick, solemn wind that gathers itself with the singular purpose of a wrecking ball. Cats and dogs run for cover. Birds disappear. Within seconds the air is filled with dust, branches, leaves, plastic bags, sheets of newspaper, food wrappers, and every other piece of stray garbagethis in a place that specializes in stray garbage.
Rain bounces like grapeshot across canvas awnings at outdoor markets. Chattering crowds dispersea thousand directions for a thousand people. Women struggle to control their saris. Men on bicycles and mopeds lower their heads into the onslaught. Within half an hour, gutters rage like small rivers and clogged sewer drains cough up pungent backwash.
Prompted by a recent newspaper op-ed bemoaning the fact that Indians are now more likely to stay inside playing video games than enjoy the rain, I hit an older Keralan with my monsoon theory. "I grew up in the 1940s," he says in a cranky tone suggesting a pending hip replacement. "We walked to school in the heavy monsoon, and by the time we reached the school our clothes were completely drenched. Nowadays children travel only by car and bus. They can sit during the monsoon and be dry."
A younger guy is slightly less equivocal. "Of course, you may be right," he says. "Now there is no monsoon poetry. There are no new monsoon stories."
The next day, up with the roosters and on the road by daylight, Baiju and I come upon a monsoon casualty. Twenty feet below a two-lane mountain road, four guys are trying to push a Kawasaki motorcycle up a steep, muddy embankment. Moments ago, a jeep barreling into a blind curve in the wrong lanea move as common in India as barreling into a blind curve in the correct lanehad set up a potential head-on collision.
"I braked suddenly and the bike slid from under me," the Kawasaki rider tells me, still half in shock. "I was saved by the bushes. My bike tumbled down the hill."
Kerala is known throughout India for the "trail of blood" caused by winding roads, wet asphalt, and what the government Transport Department ungraciously labels "inept motorists." Despite having only 3 percent of India's population, Kerala racks up 10 percent of the nation's traffic accidents. In 2007 it accounted for 3,778 deaths in 39,918 wrecks. That's more than ten traffic fatalities a day.
The Kawasaki is so heavy that the guys below look like they're struggling with an injured cow. Finally, someone arrives with a line of strong cord. One end is tied to the bike, the other thrown up the hill. It lands a yard from my feet.
Southern Indians are notably short and wiry, and since I'm six-three and unapologetically rumbled past 200 years ago, I'm the obvious choice to anchor the ad hoc rope gang. With four guys pushing from below and five guys pulling from above, you'd think a motorcycle would be pretty easy to rescue. You'd be wrong. Still, the organization required to get eight screaming Hindus and Muslims and one gung-ho American to do anything in concert makes for an inspiring cultural moment.
With great effort, we haul the hunk of steel and rubber over roots, logs, trees, bushes, and boulders. Once the limping Kawasaki is back on the pavement, Baiju and I return to the car with the self-satisfaction of Good Samaritans. Baiju is feeling a little down about one thing, though.
"Had there been a serious injury," he grouses as we move down the road, "we might have gotten better photographs."
THE DAY'S BIG DRAMA comes during a late-afternoon lull in the rain, when the ever-alert Baiju spots three elephantsa bull, a female, and a babydrinking at the farthest edge of a lake about half a mile from the road. We're so far away that looking at them is like taking an eye exam.
"See the baby standing behind the mother?" I say.
"Oh, yes, I see it now," Baiju replies.
"That male looks like he could be pretty big."
"Yes. But he also looks quite small from here."
After a few minutes of this, an older man wearing a steeply peaked policeman's cap pops out of the nearby woods. He's a local game officer who, following a brief chat with Baiju, shows us a spot where the fence protecting the elephants' habitat has been cut. If we're so interested in elephants, he says, holding out his palms, why don't we climb through the fence and hike down to the edge of the lake while he looks the other way?
The "pay to play" game is, of course, slightly older in India than it is in Illinois. I decide to help the guy maintain the integrity of his position.
"No, we're fine," I say, trying to convey the immense personal satisfaction I derive from respecting the terrain of wild animals. "We're happy to watch from here."
Baiju, however, has no intention of letting an official offer to skirt the law pass him by, especially since it gives him a rare opportunity for close-up wildlife photography. He charges into the brush, shouting "Come on, come on!" Not because he's afraid I'll miss out on anything but because he knows that my pricey Canon 200mm zoom lens will fit right onto his shitty old EOS body. In place of his knockoff 50mm lens, my optical beast will make him four times the photographer.
I follow Baiju through the fence. (The Thompson coat of arms depicts a man being handed a beer while someone twists his arm.) We sidestep down a slippery hillside covered with tall razor grass. Pellets of rain tickle our faces. At the bottom of the hill we get a clear shot of the elephants across the water, barely 50 yards away. I hand Baiju the 200mm.
"I can see the hairs on his ass! It is fantastic!" Baiju clicks off 20 identical frames. He shakes with delight each time he lines up a trunk in the viewfinder, but with a new rain attack suddenly thundering above us, I can't help but worry about my lens. I shove my camera under my shirt for protection, but Baiju waves his/my equipment around as though it's made of Gore-Tex.
After snuffling by the lakeshore for a bit, the elephants make an unexpected plunge into the water and start swimming directly for our position. Judging by the fresh turds, flattened grass, and rapid approach of the great gray dreadnoughts, it's clear that Baiju and I are standing in the middle of a popular elephant hangout. I mutter something about our possibly illegal and certainly uncool encroachment on pachyderm turf, but Baiju stays crouched in the reeds.
While Baiju burns chip memory, I detect a slight itching near my ankle. Through the wet grass I look down at my Teva'd feet and find two slimy, purplish-black streaks, like squiggles of dark snot, writhing on top of my right foot. At first I have no idea what I'm looking at. Then it becomes painfully clear.
"Leeches! Baiju, goddammit, leeches! Let's get the hell out of here!"
The downpour has brought the bloodsuckers out in force. I swipe at my feet and shout at the leeches like a gorilla hoping to intimidate a rival.
Holding his ground, Baiju is blind to my horror. I haul ass up the elephant track and back to the road. The game officer is still there, standing in the rain next to our car, smiling as though he's expecting a tip. I ignore him and conduct a deeply personal leech search, toenails to taint. Baiju pops out of the bushes five minutes behind me, out of breath, out of battery power, and, most alarmingly, out of professional boundaries.
"There were many leeches where I was standing," he says. He peels one off his calf, as though he's picking lint off a sweater, and holds it up for me to examine. "I must ask you the generosity of allowing me to take a hot shower in your hotel room tonight. You may have to call for an extra towel."
FOR TWO DAYS AFTER the motorcycle wreck and elephants and leeches, Baiju and I drive through magnificent countryside, exposing ourselves to the full intensity of all-encompassing showers. We return the welcoming laughter of strangers huddled for shelter in doorways. We watch village boys slip, slide, and howl through mud-soccer games. We laugh as two men race out of a bus and literally dance a jig amid drops of rain so big they look like meteors. Because temperatures are so high, you can stay out in the rain forever and never get cold.
It's all pretty great except that, with every inch that falls, I feel my monsoon theory being swept away in a tide of collective joy. Far from being hostile or even indifferent to the monsoon, the people of Kerala embrace it, clearly drawing from the storms a reaffirming, communal assurance. Nature still matters, at least to these Indians.
At some point during all this, the old woman and the wall of brown water return to haunt my sleep. Between this nagging guilt and the bad mattress, my last night in India becomes such a restless hell that, by the time Baiju picks me up on the morning of my flight home, I'm in an uncharacteristically pissy mood.
"Why didn't you tell me?" I complain as we claw through city traffic.
"Tell you what?"
"That I was wrong. My theory. We talked about it for a week. You translated interviews. You told me I was a man blessed with keen insight."
"I believe you have a good theory five days a week," he says. "Look out the window. It is Monday again." Baiju motions at the traffic. "The soccer games and dancing you will find only on the weekend. Now the people are going, as they say, back to the real world. It is just another gloomy Monday."
One of the great things about travel is getting to the point where you forget what day of the week it is. I roll down the window. Dirty rain, diesel exhaust, and angry blares of late-for-work car horns roll into the Ambassador. It feels like modern India again. I recline in the seat, close my eyes, and settle in for the slog to the airport.
For the schmoes on their way to jobs in threatening IT office parks, predatory call centers, and world-altering auto factories, it most certainly is another gloomy Monday. For me, though, things are looking good. Thanks to Baiju, I have some decent, if gore-free, monsoon pictures; a reliable ride back to the mellow drizzle of the real world; and at least five-sevenths of a theory that, like the clothes in my suitcase, still holds a little bit of ancient water.