Lockdown in Loch End

Note from The Kodai Chronicle: This extract contains edited excerpts of a lockdown photo journal by a long-term resident and staff member of Kodaikanal International School, edited for our readers.

Note from the author: Loch End is one of the old mission compounds. It was originally the property of a Scottish plantation owner, who gave it the name ‘Lake’s End’ , so it may have once included neighbouring properties (including what is now Spencer’s).  It then became a Lutheran mission property, with a church, a dormitory, and a school. Located across the road from KIS, it now has housing for a number of school families, and a dorm for high school boys. It is where my house is located, hence the title ‘Lockdown in Loch End’ for the first stage of the photo journal through the Covid-19 time frame.

Some people blog, I post on Facebook.  As an artist, I share visually, most often photos, sometimes sketches, posting when interesting things happen. Before Covid struck, I would post the week’s hike photos, or pictures from vacations. 

In March 2020, lockdown began. We were all set to travel and enjoy a four-day weekend, which was cancelled. These were the first indications of change coming, with a day-long test run lockdown. Then came the real deal.

Locked down in Loch End compound, I decided to record this unique and unusual event, as a way to pass my time, taking photos as I walked around the campus, gardened, watched the weather and my animals, whittled, and drew to entertain myself when human interaction had to be at a distance.  I also thought it was my last year in Kodai.  So I wanted  to preserve memories—‘last pictures’ of places, animals, and activities (once they resumed).  Each time could be a ‘last’.

I had hoped the first lockdown would be over by May and expected to be able to visit family in Canada by December. We all know that wasn’t the case.

Eventually, when we were allowed to emerge for essential shopping, it was to empty streets or careful line-ups for supplies, with masks and hand washing. 

Those who followed my regular posts on Facebook, with commentary, on Facebook, asked me to explain why I started this project and how it grew. Different stages or albums had different names.  The first was ‘Lockdown on Loch End’, referring to the spacious compound where I was required to stay. Another was ‘Online School’. Later came ‘Opening Up’, and so on. 

Here is just a sample of that journey. I have chosen some more significant days, as well as some reflecting the more ordinary (but still extraordinary) moments. 

Even before the all India lockdown, there were memorable images: such as the ‘school closed’ sign going up mid semester at KIS

March 17: After a directive by the Tamil Nadu government, schools are closed until the end of March. Those who could leave have left, while day scholars stay inside their homes. Dorm kids who are still on campus stay indoors too. There are no deliveries, no relatives coming, no parties. 

March 25, Day One: Lockdown in Loch End. It started quiet, with time to enjoy the flowers. 

Setting up for my first online Grade 10 art class. Watered and weeded in the NHS garden below my house, helped by another staff member. 

Day 14: My ‘Queen of the Night’ blooms through the day as well. A spell of mid-afternoon rain brought jacaranda petals tumbling down in front of the church and dorm.

.Day 18: Easter Sunday. Many of the traditions I love couldn’t happen but I found new ways, like the Stations of the Cross around my campus on Good Friday. On Easter morning, I awoke to watch the sunrise, then listened to online virtual services and music. I was not alone because God has been with me. I think I am more aware of that than I was on previous busy, more exciting Easters. I will treasure this Easter. It has been special.

April 23, Day 28: Up early, waited at the school gate for an appointment as workers lined up for their health check before coming in to work. Kodai is locked down, and only essential movement is allowed. 

Kitchen staff and a few maintenance workers are needed on campus for the 50 or so students who still require meals, although these numbers are dropping quickly. 

If you were following on Facebook, a post would look like this one from Day 32: 

Day 54:. We are allowed to walk around the lake, with proper social distancing, of course. Unfortunately, I have been too busy with winding up the semester to do it yet. As for my photos of Puma—he is rather photogenic and does not tire of posing. 

This series, of him ‘reading’ the bison warning sign, was a fun one to post.

May 24, Day 57: Lockdown… beyond Loch End? Today I walked around the Highclerc campus (the main campus, on Seven Roads), and along the lake, where a smattering of tea shops are open. At the school, only 10 students remained, awaiting their return home as domestic flights resume. 

Day 71: On Friday, we received reports of the first confirmed Covid case in Kodai. Now that ‘it’ is here, I am doing a personal mini lockdown, especially as many here in town are now crowding up at stores, going semi-masked or maskless. People have also started getting together with immediate neighbours for outdoor brunches or barbecues. Planning my outings at low movement times, or via quieter back roads if I go out for a walk.

Day 77: Yesterday I had company for brunch.Today, I was the company. #feelslikefamily

Aby’s Cafe

Day 80: Gave the day to home, donated to my pets, Fudge, Puma and Boo. Let them dictate activities. Geese and chickens got outings as well. 

One short trip to Seven Roads for groceries, and a quesadilla from Abby’s for takeaway lunch. 

Shops and restaurants have chalk circles to ensure proper spacing while one waits… Fudge was very good at staying in ‘her space’ (and often helped me, as others would not crowd in when she was there). 

Sat down on one walk and drew. Feels like vacation when I have time to do that.

Then the first ‘escape’, during the June ‘holiday’ for KIS, 10 allowed to gather outdoors, with no more than three to a vehicle.  

Sketch, and real-life model (by Barbara Block)

Days 86-88 : Escaped lockdown on June 17. Three adults and three kids piled into two jeeps to explore a coffee plantation that belongs to a friend. We set up camp at the coffee-drying area, where we remained for two nights, exploring the Shola and the mountain stream and having picnic lunches. A lovely break, with time to draw and whittle. 

School resumed for KIS, fully online, from kindergarten to 12th grade. Teachers, after being trained in online teaching methods, resumed their duties in empty classrooms, sitting in front of their monitors.

Day 101: KIS gears up to start classes again, which will remain fully online at least well into September, we imagine. 

August 5, Day 128: KIS’ SEED* distributed care packages to the house workers of KIS staff.  Food supplies to augment government rations of rice, dal and oil. 

*Social and Environment Experience Department 

Day 133: Six schools collected food supplies to distribute to families that rely on school lunches in normal times, ensuring that those with the fewest resources get help every month. A prayer of dedication to start. 

Similar packages have been going monthly since June to local and village schools, (KIS staff raised the first amounts, now alumni and students are joining in) to the families that no longer have school lunches. Additional donations are allowing this support to expand further. Many families are lucky if they have one person earning out of maybe four adults. 

I continued walks around Loch End: in the end, the morning sun and coffee on my verandah with my pets

August 20, Day 149: A hike! Four of us, a short drive, then plantation road walk, and views! The Vaigai Dam, dim in the plains haze, a hint of the cardamom mountains in the far distance, and the Kerala border. Vilagavi perched on its ridge.  Refreshed.

Day 151 for me… India is counting 159. Tomorrow phase 4 means we open up a bit more, except in ‘containment zones’, areas where Covid continues to rise, mostly the cities. Onam, Kerala’s big festival, culminated today. My neighbours had the most elaborate arrangement and a special vegetarian feast, which I got to try.

Today’s photos are all of Onam. I watched each day (of ten days), as a new floral arrangement was created by my neighbours.

Sept 4, Day 155: Started off nicely, but clouds, mist and drizzle before noon. 

Below, a glimpse into my archival work, my office in the KMU: One task is scanning Nora Mitchell’s photos of Kodai in 1956! Pre eucy and wattle planting. 

Sept 5: ‘FUDGING IT’: Unofficial MS Mini Hikes. As Phase 4 eased restrictions, we decided to start our own, very unofficial hiking program now that groups of 10 or more could move around.  

The boys suggested that Fudge be our mascot (the Tahr is the official hiking mascot for the KIS hiking program). So the ‘Fudging It’ hikes they became.

These first walks were on less used town roads and trails

Several staff families and I continued the ‘Fudging It’ hikes. As restrictions on movement were eased, we were able to drive a bit further afield, and do longer hikes. Those with water fun were favorites! Such as this one from Day 158:

Now, gatherings can include up to 50 persons, if outdoors. In November, KIS student-generated fund raising brought in money to help school children in Kodai with school-related supplies, for the minimum online or worksheet tasks they might be able to access. Schools came in once again to pick up and distribute to their own students.  I prepared for Christmas in Kodai.  

Nov 23, Day 232: Family Zoom, so nice to see my Mom back out of hospital after a week of medical checks, after a fall. 

Trying to think of vacation plans. After a semester of isolation, vacation as ‘alone time’ is less attractive. My family has been decorating for Christmas. I decided to put up my northern Thai traditional nativity scene. 

 In December,  I opted to stay in Tamil Nadu, within three hours of Kodai,  even though travel was now possible, so this was my escape from Kodai. Time to hike, swim, rest, draw, play games. 

January started with a bang… and tourist crowds! Going by the tourists (and the vendors), Covid is ‘nothing to worry about’, masks rare, and if seen, hung around chins. 

 Day 270: New Year’s Day 2021. If the traffic jams in town today are anything to go by, a scary start. I would have appreciated a quieter and more peaceful Kodai. 

After one view of the crowds by the lake, I retreated to Loch End, for a quieter walk with Puma and Fudge. On it, I took this photo of a visit with ‘Aslan’ and Puma in the Loch End Rock Garden.  

January 14-15, Day 283: I enjoy mist, and damp… but this constant drizzle is getting me down. Got a boost from early morning visitors: 6:45 am, breakfast with the bison! 

Fudge alerted me to one on the lawn. Her bark caused it to move away. I put her inside and went out for a look, thinking there was only one… and realized a herd of nine, with two calves, was munching the invasive morning glories that are taking over the edges of my garden. 

Perhaps the most interesting and certainly the most shy one was the calf, hiding behind her mother. The mother eyed me very carefully to make sure I wasn’t a threat, before they both moved away through the mist. 

January saw students return to campus in phases

Feb 3, Day 301: Great excitement. Seniors who have been in quarantine for over a week came out to the opening of the renovated dining hall… They tested ‘hybrid classes’ for the first time and ‘new protocols’.

March 2, Day 338: Three hospitals in Kodai now vaccinating those over 60, and those who are 45 and above with health issues. KIS arranged for the government hospital to come to campus today, to give shots. I got mine.

Grade 9 and 11 students, the last window of arrivals, emerged from quarantine.  We now have 200 students back for live classes. Life with an almost full high school! 

Scenes that have been missed for a year: class on the flag green, and Grade 10 students painting in my art room. 

March 6, Day 342: The first batch of students came to the renovated (expanded and fenced) SEED garden on Loch End, to work.

March 22, 23, 24; Day 356, 57, 58, 69: Off to Pondi camp, with this year’s senior class. It will be their class camp, field trip, senior class trip, all in one. 

They thoroughly enjoyed ‘chilling together’, lake sports, volleyball, music, unforgettable skits, bonfires and late night chats.

As we headed back out on Sunday, a warning to ‘keep masks on or risk being fined’ was the first hint of change. We returned to find new rules in place, with classes to resume online for everyone except Grade 12.

June 20, Day 450: Lockdown vacation and the journaling have continued through June. In lockdown again, new recipes tried, or work done, such as the harvest of cabbages, from the KIS student garden. Grade 11 students were active working in the garden on weekends, in small groups; this is part of the student initiatives program that funded food for families in need, supplies for school children, sewing machines for women, and more. This batch went to a tribal village as a gift.

Today: A bit of gardening work in the KIS SEED organic garden.  So many cabbages, packed one big bag for a friend to distribute, to ensure they reach families who really need them. Cut 36 today. 

Note: If you enjoyed this taste of my photo journaling, you may visit my Facebook page (most posts are public). If you want to offer considered feedback, advice, or publishing tips, email barbarablockart@gmail.com.  

Barbara Block

Barbara Gail Block is a long-term resident of Kodaikanal, who has taught at Kodaikanal International School (KIS) since 1988. An artist with a BFA and BEd, she now works on the KIS archives and is working on a book. She lives on Loch End campus.

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