I hadn't made it more than thirty yards down the street from the entrance to our homestay in Southern Wayanad, Aranyakam, before I was joined by several local children who'd been playing in the yard of a nearby house. As they ran out to intercept me, one of them said "Hello" to me in English, and when I said hello back, they all dissolved into giggles as they ran ahead of me in the street. I asked them what they were doing, and in response, I got another wave of giggles. One of the smaller boys held up a dragonfly, which he had captured and was holding by its wings, for me to see. The air was thick with dragonflies, fluttering lazily in the heat. Another boy had picked a purple flower from the side of the road and held it out for me, too, until he received what seemed to be too much teasing from his friends, and he ran off to the front of the group, shouting in Malayalam.
I motioned to my camera and said, "photo?" They happily complied, jostling each other into a line across the middle of the road.
After I'd taken it, they all rushed up to me and I showed them the image on my LCD screen, which produced even more giggling, pointing, and apparent teasing among them.
We continued down the road, me wandering slowly and the boys running and skipping ahead of me, and as we walked, we lost some of them, one by one, until it was just the oldest boy and one younger one left following me.
The two walked close behind me on my right. The younger one dashed energetically ahead and ran back, jumping up to pull leaves off of trees and saying things to his older friend in Malayalam that made them both smile. The older one matched my pace, and each time I looked back, I found him looking at me and smiling bashfully. As the mountains came in and out of view between the trees and curves of the road, I pointed to the tallest one asked the older boy, "Mount Chambra?" He shook his head and said, "Chambra no," and pointed in another direction: "Chambra."
"Ah," I said.
"Are you brothers?" I asked him, motioning to the younger boy ahead of us.
"No, brother no," he said.
"Just friends?" I asked.
"Friends," he confirmed.
As we passed the houses, more children would run to the street — but not farther — to watch us go by. They waved, and sometimes said hello shyly. Then they would go back to their games and their projects, constructing things out of dirt or playing tag in the front yard.
We passed a Malay rose apple tree, which has the most unique bright red blooms, and when the younger boy noticed my interest in them, he ran up and picked one, which he presented to me proudly. I stuck the stem in a buttonhole of my shirt.
Eventually we reached a curve in the road that had the most wonderful view of the surrounding tea and coffee plantations, covering the rolling hills all the way into the distance.
I stopped to take some photos, and when I turned around, more children from a house across the street had joined us. I looked over to see someone’s mother, and maybe a sister, watching our little procession from their yard. I thought for a moment they might not appreciate the distraction of my presence, but they smiled at me, and I smiled back, attempting the affable Indian head wobble.
The younger boy and the older boy followed me all the way back to Aranyakam, and as we reached the entrance, a third boy had wandered up, about the age of the younger one, and I could hear the three of them behind me, practicing a sentence in English.
After some more quiet murmuring, the boy who'd given me the flower proudly proclaimed: "When you will come back?"
"Later this afternoon," I told them.
"Afternoon," they said.
"Yes," I said. "Later."
After some more whispering between the three of them, the older one said, "You come back this afternoon."
"Yes," I said. "I will see you later." And I smiled.
The two younger boys ran off giggling, and the older one followed behind them more slowly, and he looked back to smile at me before they all turned the corner.