Tucked away in the deep south of Kerala is a delightful little run; from Thiruvananthapuram to Ponmudi. I am an amateur runner. This article is a personal account. Treat it as such. For more on Ponmudi and its neighborhood please try this link to a three part series published earlier on this blog: https://shyamgopan.com/2014/08/09/a-trek-and-a-tea-story-part-1/)
I have a strange relation with Kerala.
Decades ago, when I was in school, the state’s language – Malayalam – was taught with a vengeance. Born Malayali, I was expected to be a master of Malayalam, including Malayalam literature, pretty early in life. I dislike anything shoved down my throat. Consequently, I grew up hailing from the state but with no identity founded in mother tongue. Instead, I rediscovered Kerala on my own terms, loving it in adulthood for its natural beauty; the sheer magic of being a land where you can travel from 600 km-long coastline to an equally long spine of high hills in three to four hours or less. Few places have such diversity, so easily accessed. For bonus, it was all green although a green battling to hold its beauty amid the state’s emergent bane – the garbage of its rampant consumerism ranging from an explosion of automobiles to trash piled at every turn. As for Malayalam, I won’t say I rediscovered it with the same fervor as bonding with the state’s geography. I am told I speak and write it better than before. The improvement amazes others; the effort I make to articulate well amazes me. Maybe back at school, the curriculum should have set aside linguistic chauvinism and let me explore geography first, as reason to know land and language.
As part of rediscovering Kerala, most trips home include a visit to the seashore, hills, backwaters or forests. At the very least, an extended ride stitching together a clutch of state transport bus routes. On such trips along state highways or between towns, from my bus window I watch mansions and properties priced beyond my wallet, pass by. That has been another route to banishment from home state – I can’t afford a place there. Elsewhere in the state, I soak in the greenery knowing well that its ownership is domain of wealthy agriculturists and where it isn’t, belonging to government. I am therefore visitor; sometimes I think, visitor everywhere. Even visitor in life, for as we are prone to say in our wakeful moments: who is going to haul all these assets along, when they die? But humans are empire builders. Try preaching the virtues of living light to emperors! Life is as you choose to live it.
One trip I often make from Thiruvananthapuram is to Ponmudi, a 3600 ft-high hill approximately 60 km away from the city. Positioned as a resort, it was once home to a healthy tea industry; the southernmost tea plantations of India. Now there are portions of neglected tea estate and an industry that is a ghost of its former self for a variety of reasons. What continues to attract people like me to Ponmudi, is the prospect of getting away from city, even getting away from ourselves. You take a bus from the Thampanoor bus stand, reach Ponmudi in two to two and half hours, spend some time on top and then take another bus back. Years ago, it was a quiet place. It is still relatively quiet on weekdays but with Thiruvananthapuram’s growing army of cars and bands of youngsters on motorcycles, the peace has begun crumbling.
On April 14, 2018 – the day before Vishu, the Malayali New Year – I ran to Ponmudi from my home in the city. I am sure there are many who did this before me; many who continue to do it. I did so for a few reasons. First, all my previous trips to Ponmudi had been in a bus or a car. I had long wanted to do the journey on foot. Second, I know my limitations as a runner. I am not cut out to compete or chase podium positions. I like the act of moving. I like running as a means of moving. I am also ready to mix running with walking when required; even walk if that be all I can do. A journey – as opposed to a race – appealed. Third, I find it increasingly difficult to make sense of the world I live in. I like it when I can shut out thoughts in the head. A long run helps you do that. I had imagined doing this run in advance. So before I left Mumbai for Kerala, as part of my regular running, I ensured that I did a few modestly long runs. Frequently prone to injury, this trip happened luckily in a phase wherein I kept injury at bay.
On April 14, I left my home in Thiruvananthapuram at 3 AM with just one goal in mind – don’t injure yourself. I promised myself to run slowly, be gentle – maybe even walk – on uphill and downhill sections and I pinched myself to remember well, the care to avoid injury my friend, Ramachandran of Coimbatore had described in his article about running 80km in Kodaikanal (please click on this link for that story: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/03/29/kodaikanal-by-trail/). I had a hydration pack with one liter of water, a few bars of chocolates, phone, wallet and a change of clothes. The pack had reflector strips; roads in Kerala are narrow and people tend to drive fast. I wore a bright red T-shirt and until the sun showed up, used a headlamp. As much as the run was self-supported, I was also determined to pause at roadside tea stalls for fuel and conversation. I wanted to get a sense of local life. The first such pause was on the outskirts of Nedumangad, where a tea shop that was just opening for business gave me a big glass of water to drink (the water in the hydration pack, I reserved it for use on the final ascent to Ponmudi). Twenty minutes later at another tea shop, I had a quick glass of tea. At Tholicode, roughly 30 km from Thiruvananthapuram, I bought a bottle of ice cold water to drink and wash my head and neck with, for the April heat had set in early and strong. I reached Vithura, about 37 km from Thiruvananthapuram, by 7.15 AM. There I took a half hour-break. The tea shop I went to was already bustling with customers digging into their breakfast and it took fifteen minutes for my tea to manifest. Leaving Vithura around 7.50 AM, I again halted some distance away at a fruit shop. Its owner, who had just opened the shop for the day, said he would give me an orange. Thus fueled, I headed for Kallar at the foot of Ponmudi.
By now I was a little tired and needing effort to produce good running form. I must have been a sight, for one person from a group of laborers gearing up for their day’s work, trotted towards me imitating the hunched shoulders and slouch of an old man. It triggered laughter. I am happy I provided them reason for mirth although right then, I chose to ignore the group. About five to six kilometers before Kallar, a woman looked up from what she was doing and said loudly for all to hear, “ look, there is somebody running in from some far off place.’’ Her brief broadcast made me feel important and happy. I put on my best running form, jogged past the settlement and out of sight, relapsed to journalist’s slouch born from too many hours before the computer. In general, all through the run people left me alone. But deep down, knowing how much well-settled life and its frills count for social standing in Kerala, I suspected my running self was an oddity. Middle aged and pointlessly sweating it out on foot to Ponmudi; one man I checked with for road directions asked: why don’t you take the bus?
I reached Kallar by 9 AM. The sun was now out in full force and it was blazing hot. Kallar is approximately 45 km away from Thiruvananthapuram. The road from the capital city till Vithura is mildly hilly, from Vithura to Kallar it gets hillier, and from Kallar to Ponmudi, it is completely uphill for 15km. I had been mixing running and walking from just ahead of Vithura. From Kallar, given the heat, I decided to walk the uphill portion and not run. For the first eight kilometers or so of this final stretch, there are no small shops you can visit for a drink of water. I sipped from the hydration pack. Past this portion, you have small stalls opened by tea estate workers. At one of those shops, I met Muniyandi who busied himself making two glasses of lemonade for me while his friend, Appukkuttan, regaled me with great conversation. I love these small shops filled with produce from the local tea estate and the land these people live on. They sold tea, guava, rose apples (locally called chambakka) and, my favorite – sliced green mangoes served with salt and chili powder. I paid twenty rupees for the two big glasses of lemonade Muniyandi gave me. According to Appukkuttan, neither he nor Muniyandi had received salary for their work at the tea estate for the past several months. I remain utterly grateful for the lemonade they generously gave me notwithstanding their own troubles. It was a very warm morning. These two men – the lemonade and conversation they provided – made my day. A little ahead, I met a group that had stopped to have tea. They said they had seen the running group I belonged to – Soles of Cochin. I was aware of Thiruvananthapuram based-Iten (another group of runners), who run up Ponmudi on a regular basis. I wasn’t aware of Soles of Cochin joining in. I told them that I didn’t belong to any of these groups and had come alone. We had another nice chat.
I was on top of Ponmudi, at the restaurant operated by Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC), by 11.53 AM. Technically they call this the lower portion of the apex of Ponmudi. But having witnessed the traffic congestion that sometimes happens in the upper half on previous visits, the KTDC restaurant had been my destination right from start. I sat down, took my shoes off and nursed my left sole, where a large blister was beginning to form. It woke me to a mistake in preparations – I should have packed in an extra pair of dry socks. Two youngsters who were speaking to the restaurant’s security guard (he knew all the running that had happened that day; he asked me for my account too) came to speak to me; the mother of one of them had been part of that day’s team run from Kallar to Ponmudi. The view from the top was an eye opener. My ever distracted brain held no memory of rolling hills from past visits to Ponmudi and I was staring exactly at that. Water, coffee and lunch later, I caught the 2PM bus back to Nedumangad and from there another bus to Thiruvananthapuram. With last fifteen kilometers walked, would I call my outing a run? Years ago one of the gifts Thiruvananthapuram gave me was introduction to blues music. Trains found mention in some of these songs – from just “ train” to “ lonesome train” and “ slow train.” With my huffing and puffing, I have always felt like a train engine on my runs. On the road to Ponmudi with people on cars and bikes whizzing past, I think I was slow train. One day, I will sing the blues.
Then, I committed a blunder.
After two days of rest, I returned to my daily running. Happy with my outing to Ponmudi and enjoying the roads of Thiruvananthapuram, quite empty early in the morning, I ran at a pace faster than sensible. Vanity got the better of me. I forgot that what had worked for me on the trip to Ponmudi, was being slow train. I forgot the caution Ramachandran had wisely shown. One hour later, I was home nursing a very familiar shin pain from the past. I knew I would be grounded for a month, at least.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. All distance and elevation mentioned herein are from the Internet. All the photos used with the article were clicked a few days after the run, when I returned to Ponmudi for some solo time.)