South India: A priest, an elephant and an asylum

A journey into the hills around Periyar reveals many interesting finds.


Slightly disappointingly, it’s a bog standard small hatchback which picks me up at 6am today. I am surprised to see that Vishal from my supplier, who will be accompanying me on a 4 day trip inland, is not driving and infact we have our own driver, again a luxury never afforded on a recce before.

Our first stop is an elephant rehabilitation and training centre 2 hours outside of the city. I am expecting hoards of camera clicking tourists for the daily spectacle of elephant washing in the river, but I am pleasantly surprised to find only small group there. I paddle into the water, get stuck in helping to wash the elephants and narrowly avoid being stood on by a very lively baby elephant. Risk assessment complete!

18 Jan ele washing

Today I learn something very important about Kerala; that it really does take 2 hours to drive 45km! We amble along at the speed of the M25 on a bad day on the one lane winding roads, up into the Western Ghats. The scenery changes to palm trees, sweeping vistas, spice and tea plantations and huge colonial “planters” houses.

Driving here is a real art form and one with luckily our driver is well versed in. Towns and cities are a constant symphony of horn blasting, every vehicle has a horn of a slightly different tone, and most drive with their fingers almost constantly on it. The horn has several uses. The first is to tell the many pedestrians sauntering in the road (who can blame them since pavements are a luxury item here) to move out of the way and quickly, which most people tend to ignore until the very last second of their lives. Pedestrians are at the bottom of the food chain, closely followed by cycle rickshaws, motorised rickshaws, cars, trucks and then buses who career along at the speed of light, beeping away, and who will absolutely not stop or slow down for anything or anyone is their path, except perhaps a cow. Secondly the horn is there to tell a vehicle you have more power and therefore it must surely move out of the way or crash into you, and thirdly to tell another vehicle you are definitely going to overtake at whatever cost. The ambition to overtake is constant and ubiquitous, regardless of whether you are a rickshaw, motorbike, car, bus or truck. To do this effectively you only need one instrument on your car, the horn of course, which you must beep every time before, during and after overtaking. It’s irrelevant if there is another car coming the other way, as long as you beep as loudly as possible, rules state that you will not meet that car in a head on collision. The same rules apply to driving around hair pin bends on single track roads: no need to slow down, you simply beep, the vehicle coming the other way beeps even louder, and within a millisecond of meeting head on the driver expertly dodges the other vehicle. Deep Breaths.

Late in the afternoon we finally arrive at Kumily, a town on the edge of the Periyar wildlife reserve. We go straight to Vishal’s parents house where we are warmly greeted. Vishal’s father, Rev. Abraham, is a semi-retired clergyman who is now heavily involved in many projects within the community as well as working as the hospital chaplain. Apparently this area has among a very high suicide rate and a part of his role is suicide counselling. I soon realise than Rev. Abraham will make an excellent project contact. Time on his hands… tick, highly philanthropic… tick, not in the last bit driven by money… tick,  a key figure in the community… tick and involved in absolutely everything… tick. Bingo!

Rev. Abraham takes us to a high school which he thinks would make a good project. However the school is a privately run English medium school, funded by the church and I have my doubts our help is really needed here in comparison to other state run schools. There are essentially two types of school here, those taught in Malayalam, the local Indian language, and those taught in English. The children who attend English medium schools are the privileged ones since speaking English is one of the principle keys to success in life here. The Headmaster himself (an ‘Award Winner’ according to Abraham) is clearly a successful man, however he is quick to point out that this is not the top level of private school and low school fees here mean that even working class parents can afford to send their kids here. We look around and discover there is a whole nursery building which is ripe for a World Challenge makeover, things are looking up! The Headmaster spends a lot of time explaining that if the team could teach some English it could be a very special opportunity for his pupils. After much protracted discussion, it appears to me that our visit is over, but as is becoming the norm I am completely wrong. The Head wishes us to see a karate lesson which again demonstrates to me that the children here have opportunities far beyond those at state schools. Finally its tea drinking time with the school pastor.  After this extended visit I sense that we may offend Vishal’s father, who it seems could become a valued project contact here, if we don’t send a team to this school. Such is the usual recce dilemma.



Rev Abraham insists we take an impromptu trip to an “outreach centre” which is home for learning disabled people, one of his many philanthropic interests run by two sisters. I get the feeling that Vishal is slightly embarrassed by his father’s hyperactivity at this point. I am not quite sure of the purpose of this visit, but interested to see whatever he wants me to. The centre is along a windy dirt track towards the hills and consists of a 2 storey orange and cream painted building with a square courtyard in front.

The main large square living area consisted of a few old chairs in which the residents sit nodding, smiling or many in silence. We are greeted by several of the “inmates” (as they are referred to), who were undoubtedly excited to see visitors. I soon learn that those in the main living area are the lucky ones as the sisters show me into small bare rooms each housing several residents who simply sit or sleep on their small iron beds all day every day. Many don’t move at all, some smile and understand when the sister explains I am from England. As we move around room after room I become increasingly disturbed. The patients have nothing to stimulate them, nothing to improve their development, and certainly no hope of ever leaving this institution. The sisters apologise for the putrid smell as we enter a men’s room explaining that the patients are only cleaned once each morning. It is in this room where a man reaches out to take my hand and shakes it furiously. He smiles to reveal only two yellow front teeth and asks my name in Malayalam. I use my rudimentary knowledge of the phrase “my name is” and the room erupts into excitement, now they think I can speak Malayalam and begin to ask me more questions! I explain through Abraham that I only know two phrases! I notice that Vishal is outside; he obviously finds this place disturbing and is itching to leave.

As we start the long leaving process one of the sisters offers accommodation in an adjacent building for the teams, which I have to tactfully decline, this is no place for teenagers to stay. However I do promise that our teams can visit for a day and entertain the patients. As we turn to leave a young male patient points several times to a photo on the wall and talks quickly and excitedly. This is a picture of the inmates when they first arrived here, the sister explains. “He was begging on the streets when we found him. He lifts up his trouser leg to reveal a horrifically deformed foot. I leave realising that there is no place for these people within the Indian health system and without the Church they would very probably be beggars on the street or be dead. Religion aside, it’s a moment where I see that the Church supports many people here – schools, hospitals and homes like this would not exist if it weren’t for the riches of the oldest organisation on the planet.

19th Jan outreach centre

That evening, over a veritable banquet of Keralan cuisine prepared by Vishal’s mother (who interestingly doesn’t sit down with us for dinner or breakfast the next day), Rev Abraham attempts to explain the intricacies of the history of Christianity in India, now known as the Church of South India. Having lived all over the world as a missionary and studied Theology he is clearly a highly knowledgeable man. He explains that it’s due to Kerala state’s emphasis on education that Hindu’s, Christians and Muslims can live peacefully side by side here.

I wake at dawn the next day to the sound of the Muslim prayer call. Later as the birds starting singing their tropical song, I hear a second call of prayer, the Hindu prayer call. Shortly after that the Church bell chimes and I hear Indian music blasting from a stereo somewhere. I know I am definitely in India! When I look out the window at the forests of swaying palms and the tropical hills of the Periyar sanctuary I realise why Kerala has such a huge tourist industry.


Breakfast consists of traditional “Dosa” served with Dahl based dish called Sambar and coconut type chutney. Straight after it’s off to risk assess an elephant camp. As part of the latter I have to hammer the perplexed owner with a myriad of BS8848 questions such as “Do the (elephant) guides have regular police checks”? The elephant guides are tribal men who have worked with elephants for many years and the owner quite rightly thinks I am completely off my rocker. Again when I inform him our groups will need to wear helmets he tries hard but cannot stifle his giggles.

Next on our hectic schedule Abraham agrees to take us to a local school for Tribal children. I am amazed at the difference between this school and the last one. The school buildings are old and crumbling and could do with a lot of work. This is a Malayalam language school where children had have far less exposure to English or western people, in fact despite being situated near to the tourist area of Periyar, I doubt these kids have ever seen a Westerner. Their smiles are as wide as their faces when we enter the first classroom, apparently the only English class at the school attended by the brightest kids. Abraham insists that I address the children and I am bombarded with the few English questions they know which are mainly limited to “where from” and “what your name?” which I begin to ask back to the more timid members of the class. “Teach them an English song”, says Abraham, almost as excited as the children. Luckily I remember the ever reliable “heads, shoulders knees and toes”. They learn quickly and before long they are singing at the tops of their voices.


Seeing Vishal at the door reminds me that we have at least 5 hours of travel to reach the next project and we need to leave, but the children have other ideas. As I get to the door I am mobbed by little girls who crowd around me with their note books held high in air begging for me to write in them. I try to write in as many as I can, but the crowd gets bigger and soon I have so many books literally pushed into my face that I can’t see to write, they are quite aggressive! Vishal extricates me and off we go.

Tea plantations cover the hills as far as the eye can see, looking like a giant maze of clumps of green mushrooms, neatly arranged in rows, with orangey-brown channels snaking between them for the tea pickers to be able to do their work. Cloud hangs over the mountains in the background and it’s a wonderful Keralan view.


We pass through many villages where the air is filled with spices. The Western Ghats are the source of many aromatic spices; pepper, cardamom, ginger and cinnamon as well as tea and rubber plantations. We stop at a school and children’s home near Munnar, again run by the Catholic Church. The sisters tell us they need a wall building between the playground and the steep drop onto the road, but they have already had a quote for this and its way beyond the project budget. The Head doesn’t seem interested in any other potential project tasks. Although the Sister repeatedly asks me when we can send a team to the children’s home, on inspection the children’s home wants for nothing and again it strikes me that even in Kerala the gap between some of the schools is huge.  I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but I have a bad feeling about this potential project.

Just before dusk we arrive at our camp owned by Kerala tours, 5-6 permanent tents in a row on a cliff with sweeping vistas of a lake and the Western Ghats behind. I am shown to my luxury tent complete with en-suite bathroom, and feel very lucky as this doesn’t happen very often on recces! That evening Vishal and I run through some of the mountain of paperwork this job now entails. We can hear music somewhere in the hills and the camp staff tell us it is a local festival. I would love to go but it doesn’t start until 11pm and we have to be up at 5.30am for a 9 hour drive. It’s freezing as I shuffle back to my tent by torchlight, but not as cold as at home I remind myself.


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