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Latitudes

THE CLIMB

Travel Essay by RACHEL RUDWALL

May 2011

Why am I up this early?…I shouldn’t be up this early.

It’s just before 5:00 AM and I can barely see a thing, save some stars overhead and the tangerine sodium glow of village lights below. A blue-white haze bobs before me–a flashlight beam I’m assigned to follow since my headlamp’s out of juice. The only sounds are the birds stirring, roosters readying to bother masters, and the faint dull groan of cows somewhere. Except for us, there’s not a sign of human life.

Until, out of the pitch, that now-familiar chk-chk-chk-chk-chk-chk–and with it a pair of wobbling headlights. An auto rickshaw lands at our feet, and the four of us stumble in, one guide up front with the driver, the other squeezed in back with the two fair-skinned foreigners.

The air is cold. This part of the world’s supposed to be warm by now. I’m as bundled as I can be, but the wind still stings as we speed through the streets of a sleeping city. We don’t have much time. I’m not wearing a watch, but I know the hour is near. The faster we fly, the more excited I become for the darkness ahead.

Suddenly, we grind to a halt. “Wee are heeere, madam,” reports the guide, his Rs rolled and vowels extended. We tumble out of the auto, strapping on our packs. My travel companion’s headlamp casts a foggy gleam on red and white temple steps. Right foot. Left foot. Stretch it out. Watch your balance. Right foot. Left foot. The climb has begun.

It takes about 30 seconds of climbing for me to realize I’m no longer excited. The altitude of 7,600 feet gained since yesterday is making itself known, as my lungs struggle to draw in short, stabbing breaths. Dear God, these guides move fast. Too fast. Just when I get close enough to their light to see the path, they bound ahead ten feet more.

My calves are beginning to throb. The temple steps have ended, and now we’re scrambling over rocks and roots on a jet-black hillside. Time is of the essence. Right foot. Left foot. I really wish I could see where my feet were going. The drop-offs here lie dark, in waiting. Right foot. Left foot.

Why do everyone else’s footsteps sound so steady? Why am I the only one stomping through the brush like a confused boar? And is anyone else breathing this heavily? I wish I hadn’t let that gym membership expire.

The guides kill the lights during our water break at the temple. The sky is slowly growing lighter, and as I watch the faint gray outlines of the guides moving ahead, I can tell we’re nearing the top. The ascent has begun to mellow. It’s about time, too, because my sea-level lungs need a minute to themselves.

Forty minutes in: Alarm. The guides have stopped dead in their tracks, and one throws his arm in front of me the way Mom does when she slams on the brakes. We’re surrounded by forest undergrowth, a comfy place for jungle cats to spend their mornings. And just ahead, the undergrowth crackles with movement.

The more experienced guide says nothing. He’s frozen at the head of the pack–first to go when the brush-snapping monster bounds forth. I ask myself again why I’m up this early. I could’ve stayed in bed ’til breakfast…a surefire way to not die by forest beast.

We stand in silence. Waiting. Not moving. Silence. And then, the head guide snaps a hurried glance back. He’s smiling now. Thank God. “Just bison, madam! No problem! Ha!” The bounce returns to his stride, and he’s back to bounding through the thicket.

Then, just as the sky slips into deep orange, we reach a ledge. Great stone slabs slope toward the valley beneath–a valley which, with the lightening sky, is now a vast collection of hills and villages. We stand atop the highest peak in the range, hovering somewhere around 9,600 feet. Eucalyptus breeze cools the sweat on my brow, and then there–through the trees–it arrives, just on time.

Blood red, intent and moving quickly, the sun is borne of an inked horizon. Gold unfolds on our skin, and we crouch atop our peak with big, dumb grins of appreciation. Somehow, with all the noise of days, weeks, even millennia past, this land is suddenly quiet. Quiet enough that I’ve forgotten the pain of the climb, the stomach bugs, the traffic and the scams in days preceding.

Quiet enough that for the first time since my arrival here, I can muster wholeheartedly:

Good morning, India. It’s nice to see you.

This communiqué composed by Rachel Rudwall from the Nilgiri Mounains, Tamil Nadu, India.

Rachel Rudwall is a TV producer, camera operator, media host, writer, photographer and editor.  She is best described as a “storyteller,” one who wants desperately to “tell the world’s stories.”  She has traveled the world many times over and will now let us virtually travel with her as a PMc Magazine correspondent.

LINKS:

Rachel Rudwall’s Official Site

Rachel Rudwall’s PMc Magazine Who Am I?

Written by Rachel Rudwall

Photography by Rachel Rudwall & Todd Van Osdol

Design by Marie Havens

Captions:

Page 1 / Cover:

The Nilgiri Mounains, Tamil Nadu, India, 2011, Photography by Todd Van Osdol

Page 2:

The Nilgiri Mounains, Tamil Nadu, India, 2011, Photography by Todd Van Osdol

Page 3:

The Nilgiri Mounains, Tamil Nadu, India, 2011, Photography by Rachel Rudwall

Page 4:

The Nilgiri Mounains, Tamil Nadu, India, 2011, Photography by Todd Van Osdol

Page 5:

The Nilgiri Mounains, Tamil Nadu, India, 2011, Photography by Rachel Rudwall

Page 6:

The Nilgiri Mounains, Tamil Nadu, India, 2011, Photography by Rachel Rudwall

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