The taxi driver stared at me incredulously. “Yes, man, in there,” I said, urging him forward into the jungle.
We drove out of town, the point of no return, the trees swallowing us whole as we bumped along a dirt road. Civilisation slipped away as the track coiled its way into the unknown. A sign warning of wild elephants reminded us that this was no place to get lost.
I already had no idea where we were.
A year before, I had spent an eye-opening month in this Tamil Nadu jungle, volunteering on a construction project in a tiny Indian village of just 40 people; it had no name and was not marked on any map. I had dug trenches to lay piping, helped construct huge concrete water tanks and connected the village to an untapped water source that was nearly 2km away. For the first time in living memory, the villagers had access to a limitless supply of water for their crops.
Before arriving in this overlooked corner of southern India, I had hoped to get fit, perhaps make friends with the other 16 volunteers and gain an insight into rural Indian life. What I had not expected was to be adopted.
“Will-sir, chai sir?”
I rolled over at the noise. The first tendrils of light were pushing into my tent and it was already starting to get warm. Wordlessly, I threw on a top and stepped outside, where a lanky 12-year-old named Marymut stood waiting for me with a beaming smile and a cheap torch. I followed him along a dusty trail, past a cluster of tents, to a small shack obscured by a fence of jumbled branches lashed together with twine.
“Nalla Kalai Am’ma” (Good morning mother), I said. Aadya, Marymut’s mother, beamed up at me, gesturing towards a nearby rock for me to sit on. I was plied with hot chai – India’s milky, sugar-laden tea – as I practised my very rudimentary Tamil. Aadya smiled at me from across her cooking fire, wisps of smoke trailing into the sky.
This had quickly become my morning routine. I had barely been in the village for three days before Marymut was waking me every morning for a steaming mug of chai. While the other volunteers slept, I would spend an early morning hour chatting with Marymut and Aadya. Then I’d head into the forest to work.
By the end of my first week, I was spending nearly all my time with Marymut, exploring the jungle, collecting firewood, climbing trees and playing cricket. I had never been very good at the sport, but Marymut had me bowling like a pro in no time. We could say only a few words to each other, but I quickly learned to understand him. I showed him how to use my Swiss army knife; he taught me how to make bundles of kindling and lash them to my pack using vines. We’d nap in the sun, eat samosas and play with a yellow Frisbee I’d bought from home. When I was working, he would often spend the whole day helping: lugging rocks out the way, digging trenches and swinging the pickaxe. In the evenings, Marymut would often take my camera, play with every conceivable configuration and take hundreds of pictures of the sunset.
Slowly but surely, I drifted away from my fellow volunteers. I connected far better with the villagers, every one of whom made an impact on me. I admired their unrelenting work in the fields, on the trenches, in the jungle. They ran themselves ragged and yet always seemed ready to smile, to chat, to chill out. Despite the language barrier, there was something therapeutic about being with such hard-working, yet relaxed, people.
Marymut and Aadya in particular were incredibly kind, perhaps sensing that I missed my family back home. They made sure I was well fed, consistently had a mug of chai in one hand, and that I felt at ease. We couldn’t say much, but we used hand signals to chat about the day. Mundane conversations on the difficulty of using a pickaxe turned into hilarious games of charades.
In the evening, Aadya would cook up a feast of curry, rice and chapattis (flat Indian breads used for scooping up mouthfuls of food from a rough-hewn wooden bowl). Sometimes, for a treat, there would be chicken in the curry. Eating with a family every night, being welcomed into the circle of conversation, playing cards with Marymut by flickering candlelight – I felt at home.
The weeks drifted by as we slowly worked our way through the jungle. Every day, the piping got closer to the village, and I knew that, soon, it would be time to leave.
The final day came and went in a whirlwind of emotion. Marigold garlands – the hallmark of both a great celebration and day of mourning – were handed out by the village elders. There was whooping and shouting, crying and cursing. I was not ready to leave. I had come here to do a job but somehow, along the way, I had been accepted into a new family, one that utterly different from my one back home. I had been shown a simpler way of life and a more tranquil way of interacting with people.
The final hour rushed by like a charging beast. Marymut and Aadya hugged me as I turned to go. Aadya’s eyes were filled with tears. I passed her my Swiss army knife, gestured at Marymut, and mimed that she mustn't let him cut himself. She smiled at me and hugged me again. I kissed her on the top of the head, squeezed her hand and turned, tears threatening to spill down my cheeks. I shouldered my pack. Marymut walked alongside me, bawling in the way that only a kid on the cusp of becoming a teenager can. I too began to cry. I dropped to one knee.
“Marymut, within two years, I come back.”
He looked at me, I was not sure if he understood.
“Two,” I held up two fingers. “Two years and I will return.”
He looked at me, somewhat unsure, hope in his eyes.
I hadn't been sure whether I meant it until that very moment. The second those two words tumbled out of my mouth, I was committed. I would be returning to Tamil Nadu, I would keep my promise.
But to keep my promise 12 months on, I first had to find the village – which was proving increasingly difficult. I could feel the bemused eyes of my mother and father in the back seat boring into my skull. Perhaps bringing them to meet my Indian family had not been such a good idea.
I had been travelling in India for several months now, slowly working my way from Rajasthan in the north down to Tamil Nadu. I had told my parents about my Indian family many times, and, on a whim, they had flown out from England to meet me and the villagers. All we had to do was find them.
An elephant suddenly surged out of the foliage about 20m away, staring directly at us. The taxi driver looked at me, looked at the elephant and let out a low moan of terror. He closed his eyes, chanting something quietly. When he opened his eyes, the elephant was gone, back into the bush from which it had materialised.
I tried to convince the taxi driver that we needed to continue deeper into the jungle. The village was just round the corner, I could feel it.
“Sir, it’s not safe…. sir”
The taxi driver’s protests faded into the background, I had a promise to keep.
I stepped out of the car and followed a zigzagging trail deeper into the undergrowth. I had no idea if this was right. We had passed dozens of these trails, and this was the third one I had tried. The taxi driver was nearly hysterical, convinced I would be eaten by a tiger.
My parents waited, nervous yet patient, in the back of the car. They were confident that I knew what I was doing.
Then I saw footprints in the dirt. I was no tracker but these were definitely human. I continued on, hoping I could find my way back.
I rounded a bend and suddenly found myself outside the village, the elephant-proof fence I remembered from my time here standing in front of me.
A figure wandered past the gate and happened to glance towards me. He stopped in his tracks.
Marymut rushed to meet me, opening the gate and calling out to Aadya and the rest of the village. The taxi materialised from the jungle at exactly the right moment, having followed me at a safe distance. The villagers swirled around us, handing us hot cups of chai, patting us on the back, shaking our hands. I smiled. I was home.
That evening, I sat on my favourite rock, watching the sun set over the fields, while Marymut played with a battered telescope that I’d been carrying for months. My Swiss army knife was clipped proudly to his jeans; it looked like it was being well looked after. My mum fussed with Aadya over a stove while my dad sat stoically beside me, taking it all in.
Marymut turned towards me and smiled. We still could not properly communicate: my Tamil was rusty as ever and his English limited to a dozen words. It didn’t matter. We both understood.
I had kept my promise.