In 2001 or was it 2002, I was working for an NGO on a project dealing with mapping and measuring the impact of the invasive plant Lantana camara on birds and butterflies in a small sanctuary on the border between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. MM HIlls had two claims to fame: it was a major pilgrimage destination because of the temple (the Male Mahadeshwara Temple, the MM in the name) and it was also supposed to be the area where the dreaded Sandalwood smuggler (and general all around bad guy), the dacoit Veerappan had his hideout. My job involved going around the sanctuary every morning in a Jeep, taking measurements of how dense the Lantana was, how many birds or butterflies and what species. Since birds and butterflies are generally active during the mornings, we worked from dawn till noon, and returned to the field station, a rented house perched just next to the temple. There were only a few roads, and the terrain was very hilly, almost inaccessible by jeep, but we went everywhere, following small dirt tracks in the middle of nowhere. The rather car-unfriendly terrain was also a huge factor for Veerappan’s choice of hideout; and the police learnt this lesson when the super popular Kannada actor Rajkumar was kidnapped by Veerappan. The police presence here transformed this rather placid temple town. Now our neighbours were a huge contingent of cops, with a fleet of jeeps, and constant traffic.
Still the work went on, and day by day we advanced on the project. Till one day, we went along an almost abandoned road half smothered by Lantana. I don’t remember the details, but the road was not maintained anymore, and it would have connected two different areas of the reserve, which meant that we would have mapped an area hitherto unreachable. The road seemed decent enough, and the driver, long accustomed to the forest roads of BR Hills, and elsewhere, started the descent with ease. And as we kept going deeper into the scrub, the road started deteriorating, and the mood in the jeep started getting tense. But we inched on, and at the base of the valley, where the road crossed a stream, we met a serious obstacle — the stream itself. The road had washed away, and all that remained were river smoothened stepping stones, certainly not suitable for a jeep. We decided to press on, cautiously, and then halfway through the stream, when the jeep’s wheels were literally delicately placed on river stones — with a terrifying lurch, the jeep slid off the stones and tilted into the water. The driver went out to check, and came back with the bad news: a broken axle. There was no way the jeep would make it out of there on its own steam.
There was only one choice. We would have to send a small team trekking through the hills back to the field station, contact the other field station and ask the other jeep to come for us, but through the other side, so the second jeep would not have to cross the stream. The second jeep would then tow the first jeep through the rest of the way till we could locate the nearest mechanic. We were quite close to the field station, as a crow flies, just had to climb a hill and go down another, but it was already getting late, and suddenly the situation started looking grim. We hadn’t prepared to stay back so long. By the time the other jeep came, it would only be the next day. We were looking at spending the night there, on a small ill used road, in the middle of Veerappan’s territory, and in an area haunted by elephants. Having previously had the dubious pleasure of being chased by an elephant, I had absolutely no desire to repeat that experience. We split into two teams, one team to walk and another stayed. I was in the staying team. So we heaped dry sticks for a fire, chose the flattest place on some huge boulders (boulders are the safest place against elephants, since the rocks usually are too smooth for them, and if you climb a tree, they can bring it down, or shake it till they bring you down). Night fell. And I spent one of the most uncomfortable nights in my life, half sleep half awake, every snap and crackle of the fire presaging the inevitable troop of stealthy elephants. The driver and the field assistants kept a vigil in turns, I think, my memory is all hazy. And we waited for dawn, and in the morning, one of the field assistants who’d gone to the station came back with much appreciated food. So the other jeep finally made it, and then we tied a hemp rope, and hauled the sullen jeep out of the water. Luckily the rest of the road was in much better condition and despite frequent stops because the rope kept breaking, we managed to get the jeep to Mettur, a small town in Tamil Nadu. I don’t remember now whether we went immediately to Mettur, or first to the field station and later to Mettur.
In Mettur, we waited as the Jeep’s axle was getting fixed, and since the mechanic’s shop was not the most exciting of places, I walked up and down the road (highway, really) impatiently. Window shopping, day dreaming, and then finally out of sheer boredom, I walked into a music store. Now given that my knowledge of Tamil is non-existent, and my general disdain for ‘movie songs’, I really shouldn’t have even stepped in, but I did. It was a tiny tiny shop, filled with cassettes and I could take in the whole collection with a glance. I scanned the shelves and then among the dozens of tamil tapes, I spotted this tape: The Latin Grammy Awards (2000). Hm I though to myself, that’s very odd, to find a non-tamil, non-english tape here in a music shop on the highway near Mettur! And so on a whim I bought it. I played that album incessantly that sampling season, but of all the songs, the one that blew me away was called Ojos Asi, by a certain colombian singer called Shakira. The combination of colombian spanish and arabic/lebanese rhythms captivated me, and I can truly point to this song, and this tape in particular, as a precursor for my fascination with latin american music. Of course, back in the internetless field station, I was content to listen to the music and had no idea what a phenomenon Shakira was.
I quit that job and headed abroad, to Israel for my masters. I joined an international school and mostly hung out with the latin americans, and many of them was Colombians. I can still recall the quizzical look I received when I asked one of them if they had any music by Shakira. The world already knew her as gigantic superstar but for me, Shakira was still a voice in the wilderness. I spent most of my free time with the latinos, picking up spanish… and then when I finally left, I went with a load of music that would have been simply impossible to get in India, and more importantly, my latinophilia had completely solidified. Even after I landed in Mexico, four years later, I always had a soft spot for Colombia, and always dreamt of going there someday, and so when I heard that the next Latin American Arachnological meeting was going to be in Colombia, I could not stay away. My trip to Colombia, 10 years in the making. (Stay tuned for part 2)