Gorakhpur

Having spent two weeks in Lucknow, I was itching to leave and I had many options in front of me – Mathura and Vrindavan for Holi to the West, Orchha and Bundelkhand in Madhya Pradesh to the South, Bangladesh to the East and Nepal to the North. Since I had been traveling without a pause in India for more than a year, it made sense to go to another country and between the cool Himalayan weather of Nepal and the encroaching summer and the resultant humidity of Bangladesh, the choice was easy to make.

So I booked myself a ridiculously cheap “Deluxe” room at the Gorakhpur station along with tickets to the Intercity to Gorakhpur on the irctc website, hauled myself across the mayhem of the twin railway stations of Lucknow Junction and Charbagh and hopped into the bustling cacophony of the AC Chair Car of the Intercity. I had been assigned Seat No. 68 by the Indian Railways, the very seat I was staring at in horror as a little boy wearing a bright yellow T-shirt embroidered with teddy bears was having a wonderful time drooling all over it while playing with a mobile phone. His father soon arrived on the scene. He had no tickets, he said, but was confident enough of bribing the TC to get a seat or two for his family of 3, so could I let the boy occupy my seat while he cracks a deal? Absolutely not, I said, and demanded that the boy be removed from my seat immediately. The two girls occupying the seats next to mine supported my demand which caused the father to lose his temper and hurl fiery misogynistic invectives at them. This enraged everyone from Seat 72 to Seat 48 and the little boy, protesting violently with deafening screams, was forcibly evicted from my seat.

Once the train got moving, I was happy that, for once, I had two pretty girls for company instead of a fat old man in a business suit snoring away. BM and HM were sisters who lived in Lucknow and were on their way to a wedding in Gorakhpur. Contrary to most people I’d spoken to in Lucknow, they disagreed when I suggested that the city had been decaying for a long time. They felt that the people who said such things were elitist snobs who had the luxury to escape and lost touch with the reality of the city. They were particularly impressed with the new malls in Gomti Nagar and places to hang out in the city which were difficult to find earlier. Once they finished their studies – BM wanted to be a lawyer and HM a doctor – they aimed to leave the country. BM had a hopeless crush on a presumably handsome boy from her college and HM kept teasing her about her vain attempts to flirt with him and to distract him away from his current girlfriends. HM was of the opinion that BM would never leave the country until the boy made a marriage proposal to her. BM, in turn, sniped back at HM threatening to reveal some of her cherished secrets. And then, they needled me to open some scandalizing cans of worms of my own. It was incredible fun to travel with the girls and I felt that familiar pang of sadness and regret when the time came to say inevitable goodbyes to people who had become the best of friends for the shortest of whiles.

Because the AC Chair Car was locked out from the unreserved compartments, it had no vendors coming in to serve food or tea. So I had a massive headache on arrival at Gorakhpur Station having had nothing to eat or drink since breakfast. It was now almost 10 in the night, not the time one would ideally want to wrestle with Indian Railway bureaucracy. But I had a booking and the rest of the hotels in Gorakhpur looked decidedly dreary and overpriced, so I went to the retiring room counter to find a long queue in front of the window. If I hadn’t been so tired I would have found the vain attempts of old men grappling with computer technology highly amusing. But every punch of the key, shake of the head and machine reboot was only amplifying my hunger pangs and the resultant headaches tenfold. It took the man behind the counter 30 minutes to process the first person in queue and I was just about ready to give up my booking and head to the common waiting room like ordinary people when the man dismissively waved off ten people in front me. He was about to leave, presumably for a paan or chai break and I frantically shoved my booking printouts in his face. He looked at them sullenly giving me a caustic look or two, a few scratches of the chin, a heave and a sigh. Much punching of keys, shaking of heads and checking of IDs followed and after an hour of standing in queue, I felt victorious at having secured a room for myself in the hallowed walls of the Gorakhpur Railway Station.

The next level in this game of rooms was to locate the caretaker with the keys to my room. This consumed another half an hour and I finally found her, an old, haggard-looking woman, sitting in a dark corner finishing her meal. She was understandably reluctant to pause her meal for a random guest but gave me a bundle of keys and asked me to locate the room and the keys to that room all by myself. This took a considerable amount of time and eventually, I had to wait for the old lady to plod down to the end of the long corridor where my room was. By now, this game had turned from Heroes of Might and Magic III to Dark Souls 2, from an easy game you play for fun to a game you know you have no chance of cracking without cheat codes. It took less than two seconds for the lady to find the key that corresponded to my room and open it up for me.

The keys were “railway property”, so I couldn’t take them outside. I was so hungry and so tired that I put my bags in the room, closed the doors without locking them and walked out to eat something. It was midnight but one of the perks of staying in a big railway station was that dhabas were open all night long. While I was sitting in Hotel Adarsh Palace, trying to finish a roti or two with the greasy, oily, borderline inedible dal and vegetables, I got anxious for the things I left unguarded in my room. I stuffed myself as quickly as I could and ran upstairs to check if my belongings were intact. The old lady was waiting for me in the corridor to give me a dressing down for leaving my room open. She was caretaker and watchwoman rolled into one terribly underpaid profile and Gorakhpur was notorious for being unsafe, she said. Was it too much to ask for guests to get a padlock of their own if they had plans to venture out in the middle of the night? She had taken the liberty to lock my room herself and despite the fact that it was way past her bedtime, stayed awake for me to return.

I thanked her profusely for being so considerate and felt sorry for putting her through all that. The first impressions of the room were good. It was palatial by any standards. There was an AC that, though unnecessary for that time of the year, seemed to be functional. It wasn’t musty, the floor had been scrubbed clean and the geyser in the bathroom appeared to work just fine. Not bad, I thought, for 250 Rs. But when I looked closely, the entire edifice of surface cleanliness started falling apart rapidly to reveal the filth and the rot underneath. The bed sheets smelt of vomit and had a little museum of different varieties of stains (blood, sperm, paan, saliva, you name it) possibly left unwashed since independence, there was a thick crust of something filthy on the pillows that I didn’t want to investigate, the plumbing in the bathroom was non-existent and two cockroaches were running around having a jolly good time. Having already tasted the helpless wrath of the old lady, the last thing I wanted to do was to confront her regarding the state of my room. It was already 1 o’clock and dawn wasn’t very far away. There was a little corner of my bed that looked unmolested and I wriggled there all night, waiting for the clock to strike 6 so I could get moving out of this wretched place into another country.

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Muktinath – Before the Quake

11174678_10153215270136963_1110935383350014418_oThe next morning I woke up ridiculously late to find all the tables in the restaurant empty. The big, loud German group had gone away and so had everyone else. Didi, Romy (the cook) and his naughty little child were the only ones left, peacefully gulping down their breakfasts. Soon, they were turning over tables, lifting up chairs and putting on ear-splittingly loud music to motivate themselves while cleaning the restaurant area. Romy threw a sparkling smile in my direction and suggested I go upstairs to eat my meal.

Armed with my diary and my kindle, I did as I was told. The sunny terrace here was the perfect place to sit down, reminisce, read, write, update my diary and take in the view of the Dhaulagiris while resting weary legs that had been walking for 20 days. I breezed through a few chapters of “Swann’s Way”, the first volume in Marcel Proust’s mighty tome “In Search of Lost Time”. My cerebration was soon jolted by a hoarse voice crooning “Tu Mujhe Kabool, Main Tujhe Kabool”. I was so deeply engrossed with the cat-and-mouse games of M. Swann and Mme. Odette that I hadn’t noticed Romy had sauntered upstairs and was sitting right opposite to where I was gleaming another one of his toothy smiles.

“You know this song?”, he asked. “Yes. Khuda Gawah. You sing well”, I said.

“It was shot right there”, he said, pointing towards Jhong. “Amitabh Bachchan, Sridevi, very good movie.” I dutifully noted this previously unknown (to me) trivia in my diary as Romy threw some details about his life for me to chew on.

He had been working in Kathmandu in a big hotel but had shifted to Muktinath recently with his boy. It was more peaceful here and the money was better too. His wife was working in Israel and she saw them once a year. He had an affable, easygoing attitude but was obviously missing his wife a lot. I couldn’t probe more deeply into the circumstances that led to them being temporarily separated because he was more keen on probing “me”.

“Are you married?” “No.”

“Girlfiriend?” “No.”

“Don’t you feel lonely?” “Well, yeah, sometimes, but then there are always people to talk to.”

“I think you are a good man. Not like other Indians.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, you are quiet, travel alone, read books. Indians talk loudly and make noise. Are you really from Mumbai? I think you live in Europe. No?”

“I’ve never been to Europe. I lived in Mumbai for 27 years before beginning my travels. And I know many Indians who are quiet and read a lot, much more than I do.”

“But you also walk.”

I pulled out the Mumbai Hikers website on my phone and showed him there were other Indians who walked too.

“But why don’t they walk here?”

“I don’t know. Maybe because the people who trek in India don’t come here very often. And many of them are in jobs that don’t give them such long holidays.”

“But still, I think you are different. Tonight, if you don’t mind, we can eat together and have a party”, he said, beaming another of his big smiles. It wasn’t an offer I wanted to refuse.

IMG_7492The skies were cloudy and there was a rumble or two of thunder. It was getting cold. Since the noise had died down below, I went back to the restaurant. GG and MS were back from their hike to the Thorung La Base Camp with their German friend, who was recounting the fascinating story of how he slipped on the icy slopes while trekking. There was also a Polish couple, a Ukranian guy and a Polish-Irish couple, who had all made their way down from the pass that day.

We were all getting to know each other when an old man in a blue hood with a big, white beard marched in, his eyes ferociously darting around the room. The eyes locked themselves on GG, who was standing by the door. He waved his hands theatrically like a magician, closed his fists, opened four of his fingers in a flourish and said,“Char chai.” The whole place burst into laughter. He then marched out, hollered to his friends in Tamil, and when they entered, chattering loudly in Tamil, they were welcomed with peals of laughter.

It was difficult to tell what was more hilarious, their derogatory assumption that any Nepali looking guy had to be a waiter/working for them or the absurd theatrics of it all. Incensed at the fact that GG was standing there doing nothing and just coyly smiling a beautific smile, the old man went up to him, waved his fingers and said, “Chai kahaan hai??” (“Where’s the tea??”) This led to another round of laughter which only served to anger the old man and his group. GG, meanwhile (despite the fact that it wasn’t his job) went up to the kitchen and told the didi, who was busy cooking, that she had customers who were asking for chai. The Indians were now red-faced with anger. They had realized by now that people were laughing at them and started confronting GG and MS. One woman called GG to the table and demanded an apology. “Why were you laughing at us? Is this how you treat your guests??” etc. etc.

Having noticed that their interrogation was going nowhere and was attracting only smirks and giggles, they switched to bitching about the country they were in among themselves.

“Namba dressa thaan parthu chirikkaralo ennamo” (Maybe they’re laughing at the dress we’re wearing)

“Inda madiri adhiga prasangithanathunnala thaan uruppadi illama poyindirukku inda naadu. Namba thaan inda madiri chinna idattha perisa panni vidarom. Pohattum nashtamaa. Namba enna pannaradu?” (It’s because of these antics that this country is languishing without development. It’s only we who come to this small place and make it more prosperous. Let it go to hell. What can we do?)

“Police stationku poi complaint pannalam. India lerndu pannattha vaangi Indiansa paarthu chirikkaranga.” (Let’s file a police complaint. They borrow Indian money and laugh at Indians”)

The chai arrived and this led to another round of righteous indignation. “Is this what they call chai?” “It’s just half a cup and they charge 50 Rs. for it.” “Maybe they’re doing this because we’re Indians.” And they were having these discussions in Tamil so loudly, no one else could speak. Romy had to come out and request them to speak a little softly because there were other people sitting in the same room. This, of course, led to more anger and more hate. The old man, who was ready to go to battle again, was wisely dissuaded from doing so by the women in the group. “Pessama panattha kudutthuttu polaam vanga” (Let’s just give them the money and go) The didi, meanwhile, was trying to cool things down and make peace with them by asking them if they liked the chai, how their trip was etc. but it looked as if she was speaking to a stone wall. The group had already decided that they hated the place and the country and all of its people. It couldn’t possibly have any redeeming features.

After the initial bout of laughter, I stayed quiet and intervened neither for nor against the group. I did not let on that I was from India or that I knew Tamil. I fought the urge to tell them that people were neither laughing at their dress code nor their nationality but at the rude, unruly, entitled behaviour they had brought along with them. None of them apologized for having mistaken a Nepali trekker for a waiter and neither did they have a word of gratitude for someone who went out of his way to get their orders in anyway. But it’s not my place to tell people how to behave in a foreign country.

IMG_7507It had started snowing and I went out to taste the first fresh “powder” I had tasted in 3 years. Unlike the harsh pounding of raindrops, a snowfall feels ethereal, majestic, magical even as it slows down time with its gentle shower. It took me back to Markha Valley, Hemis, Tawang, Shingo La, Nubra and filled me with gratitude for having been fortunate enough to be able to travel to places where I could comprehend the beauty of this phenomenon. With these reveries playing in my head, I walked to the monastery in the centre of Ranipauwa, whose caretaker was a lovely, shy, Tibetan woman who was knitting woollens outside its gates. It was a new, remarkably well-kept monastery with some of the most exquisitely detailed and colourful paintings I had seen. They didn’t have the wear and tear that added texture to the many millennia old monasteries in Tibet and Mustang but the artistry was so sublime, I was sure if they managed to survive a few hundred years, they could be regarded as masterpieces in their own right.

When I was back in “Path of Dreams”, GG and MS were singing folk songs. MS, especially, had a mellifluous voice and the didi joined in every now and again while flitting between the kitchen and the dining room. Sometimes, they sang along to the songs playing on the speakers through the didi’s iPod. The playlist was a mish mash of Nepali songs, heavy metal remixes of folk songs, 80s Hindi film songs and fresh out of the over Bollywood nos. In the middle of this infectiously harmonic atmosphere, GG gave me a free crash course on Nepali folk music. He told me about Raju Lama – one of the leading young Nepali singer-songwriters, Edge – a popular folk-rock band from Pokhara, Gaurav – a singer whose trick-in-trade was switching between Hindi and Nepali in alternate stanzas.

This scene dissolved into the evening when, as promised, Romy invited me to dine with all the Nepalis once the other “foreigners” had gone off to bed. The musical session resumed with Romy on the tabla, GG on the guitars, MS on vocals and Romy’s 4 year old boy doing the screams and the growls. The didi was habitually shy but she had the sweetest voice of all and obliged to sing a couple of songs. It was a beautiful evening, pure, harmonious and in tune with the tranquil settings of Muktinath. I had known none of them the day before but by the end of this evening, it seemed as if we were the closest of friends. This was the sort of evening that validated solo travel, gave it momentum and made you wish you never had to go back home again. As it turned out, it was also the last purely happy moment any of us would have for weeks.

 

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Muktinath

View of Jharkot from Ranipauwa
View of Jharkot from Ranipauwa

Ever since I’d met R & B on a cold, drizzly night over whisky and chips in the village of Khati in Kumaon, Muktinath had been firmly plonked on a bucket-list of priorities. R especially was so enthusiastic , he wouldn’t stop raving about the Circuit, the trek, his children doing the trek, the pass, crossing the pass, his children crossing the pass, arriving at the incredible wonders of Mustang, a world apart from the other side and blah and blah. He was selling the trek and left me no choice but to buy it. I’ve been to Nepal twice since that cold, drizzly day in Khati and was thwarted both times, once by flash floods, the next by a terrible eye infection. I wasn’t going to be beat this time.

The walk from Jharkot to Ranipauwa, the lodge town below Muktinath, takes just 30 minutes. But it was a breathless 30 minutes as I took the short-cuts climbing up the hill trying to avoid the dusty jeep-infested road as much as I could. Everyone I had met on the way had warned me against staying in Ranipauwa. “It’s just big hotels built for Indian pilgrims”, “It’s dirty and charmless”, “Except for the temple, there’s nothing interesting there” and it’s all largely true. Ranipauwa is just a disorganized cluster of ugly buildings, bland lodges and over-priced shops but I didn’t want to have come this far and not stayed just steps away from the temple. C & T, the affable American Missionaries I’d met in Tirigaon, had highly recommended The Royal Mustang Hotel saying they had “friends” there. But when I spoke to the didi, she didn’t seem too happy that people recommended by C&T were knocking on her door. I wandered around for a bit, past trinket sellers who were trying to make a fortune by haggling fiercely with gullible Indian pilgrims over ammonites procured from the Kali Gandaki Valley, bypassed Hotel Bob Marley where there seemed to be a big party going on and went straight to one of the last places on the road, the enticingly named “Path of Dreams”.

Fierce haggling in Ranipauwa
Fierce haggling in Ranipauwa

The first thing you do when you “check out” a lodge on a trek in Nepal is not ask the price of a room but look at the menu. The price of an ensuite room with bathroom, wi-fi and hot shower is usually a miniscule 200 NPR (2 dollars) but it’s the food that could break your bank. Here dal bhat was 400 NPR, a very reasonable rate for this altitude, so I put my bags in my sunny room, took a hot shower and had a sumptuous meal of dal bhat while watching pilgrims from my country go about on horseback. The Indian pilgrim traffic to Muktinath has exploded recently after the “road” opened a few years ago. Till then, only the hardiest people made the trek all the way from Pokhara. Most people now fly to Jomsom and take a jeep to Ranipauwa and while the temple is hardly a 20 minute walk/gentle ascent away, they are too lazy to trouble their precious legs. A few years ago, motorbikes from the surrounding villages made a killing by ferrying them across to the temple. But thankfully, those have now been replaced by ponies. Many of the pilgrims were young and healthy and it was just embarrassing watching pot-bellied, double chinned 30-year old men, looking weary and exhausted, sitting lifelessly on top of a pony pulled by a pony man.

I met some hardy pilgrims on the way to the temple, huffing and puffing every now and then. After the obscene spectacle of fat people on horses, my admiration knew no bounds for these more genuine pilgrims, some who had walked from the jeep-stand, some all the way from Tatopani, all adorned with saffron robes and begging bowls. I generally ignore any request for alms but the contrast between the luxury tourists and these old pilgrims made such an impression on me that I treated some of them to chai. Then, realizing that they had finally laid hands on a suitably gullible victim, they started clamouring for my money. It was time to beat a retreat. IMG_7392 Muktinath was destined to be one of the premier pilgrim destinations in the Hindu/Buddhist world. One of the essential requirements for the establishment of a Vaishnavite temple is the presence of a shaligram (ammonites) or two. The Kali Gandaki Valley below Muktinath is littered with ammonites and that certainly must have played a part in its designation as a place of liberation or “moksha”. It also happens to be a sacred site for Buddhists as Guru Rinpoche aka Padmasambhava, one of the founding fathers of Tibetan Buddhism, had spent some of his time meditating here. It’s one of the 108 Divya Desams compiled by the Alwars from South India which explains the huge number of people who make it all the way here from Tamil Nadu and Andhra. And thanks to the eternal flame at the Jwala Devi Temple, it’s one of the very few places in the world where the five elements (fire, water, sky, earth, air) co-exist eternally. In short, it has some pretty impressive credentials for divinity.

Freezing dips in the pool
Freezing dips in the pool

And that’s probably why people choose to go through what should certainly count as one of the more “chilling” rituals in Hinduism. It requires people to take their clothes off in sub-zero weather, then a shower in each of the 108 fearsome fountains spouting glacier melt water from the Himalayas and then end the ordeal with three dips in two pools, also filled with freezing glacial waters. Some people, especially the very young Nepalis who come here in huge numbers, treat it as good old-fashioned fun. Some dip their toes, try to sneak out, then look around to see an assembly of tourists armed with cameras and lest they be taken for sissies, take the obligatory dips screaming in agony.

The fearsome fountains
The fearsome fountains

At the western end of the temple complex was a Buddhist monastery. It looked newish but it was a good place for some solitude and to take in the view of the region around. To my right were the old villages of Chongur and Jhong, with their own ancient monasteries, cults and traditions. Far below was Jharkot, where I came from that day. In the distance, the Dhaulagiris and above me the trail that ascends steeply to the Thorung La. It was 3 in the afternoon now and the weather was getting cloudy and stormy with gale force winds striking my face with much fury. I could see groups of trekkers limping their way down after the torturous walk from the other side of the pass. I wanted to stick around for the aarti at 6 but the weather was just getting too windy and cold. For all its pilgrim traffic, this temple was among the most peaceful and tranquil settings that I had spent any length of time in. With the mountains, the history, the mythology and the moving spectacle of people sacrifing comfort to shower in its fountains and dip in its pools, it was as genuine a spritual atmosphere as I have encountered. Having been to temples all my life and been appalled time and again by the filth, the corruption, the moneybagging, the swindler pandas, lack of hygiene, general unruliness and ugliness, Muktinath was like a breath of fresh air.

Back in “Path of Dreams”, it was now packed with people, particularly a large, loud, German group who had crossed the pass and were celebrating the achievement with many bottles of beer. It was around 5 and I ordered dinner, veg curry with rice, specifically mentioning that I wanted it at 7.30. It was on my table in half an hour and I was fuming with anger. I hate early dinners because I have always been afraid of waking up at midnight and getting hunger pangs. I gave the didi a gentle earful to which she smiled and said, I could always order something else later. But I was also afraid of running out of money because the nearest ATM was in Jomsom, 20 kms away. I grred and ate my delicious curry-rice very slowly hoping not to become hungry again.

Because of the large German group, I had to share a table with a Dutch couple and two Nepali boys, GG and MS, who were playing chess. GG and MS had initially mistaken me for a Nepali (it’s not funny the no. of times it’s happened to me in Nepal) and after having a loud laugh about it when they realised I didn’t speak a word of Nepali, returned to their game. The Dutch girl was reading “Burmese Days” which gave me a good conversation opener. “That’s a great book, isn’t it? A bit depressing but so beautifully written.” “Well, I think it’s disappointing,” she said, “We’re going to Myanmar and I thought I could get some tips about life there. It turns out it’s a novel. Do you know any good books about Myanmar?” That was a conversation ender. I said, “Not really”, a tad grumpily and started focussing on the chess game between GG and MS. It was a tough game and after GG beat MS, he wanted to play with me. An India vs. Nepal match. In no time, I had lost 4 pawns, 2 elephants, one horse and a queen. I had let my country down.

It was 7.30 and I was already feeling a bit hungry. I looked at the menu and the only affordable and light meal that wasn’t a salad was an apple pie. So I ordered apple pie. When it arrived, steaming loudly on its place, I already knew there was something wrong. But when I looked at it, it made me almost throw up with nausea. It was a small, fat, deep fried pakoda with apples stuffed inside. The Dutch couple, sitting opposite, had ordered fries and burritos, both of which looked delicious, and I wished I hadn’t grumpily ended the conversation earlier with these Orwell-haters just so I could borrow a bit of fries and burritos! GG and MS sympathised and I went back to my room to hopefully sleep without having to wake up hungry in the middle of the night.

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Phusachodu continued…

“Tonight, we’ll have squirrel for dinner”, announced V gleefully as we sat by the fire drinking tea.

“No, we will not. What do we have for lunch, though?”, said I, in equal parts repulsed at the thought of the dead squirrel with bullet wounds being discussed as a prospective meal and squirming with hunger having not had anything to eat since a 7 a.m. breakfast of boiled eggs and toast.

“Lunch?”, he asked puzzledly to the ladies of the house. This question was discussed at great length in the (to me) incomprehensible local dialect and when I saw that no solution seemed to have arrived at, I thought I would throw in a few options of my own.

“Any bread? “No.” “Dal and rice?” “No.”

“Maggi?” “Of course.”

IMG_1720
After I gorged on bucketfuls of Maggi to whet my voracious appetite, V employed one of his cousin brothers, B, to take me around the village. B did his MA from Pune and had chosen to come back to his village to work in the school. His big regret about the many years he spent in Pune was that he never made it to Mumbai. I tried consoling him by telling him that he wasn’t missing much but that didn’t prove to be much of a consolation. After spending all his youthful years in the Naga Hills, he had missed that one glorious opportunity to see what a (Juhu) beach looks like. Now he was a primary school teacher here and with his characteristic calm, quiet reserve showed me many an interesting Phusachudan sight like big chunks of beef hung out to dry on the roof of a house, a massive log drum used to store rice beer that had to be carried by the villagers every time a festival was on, the house of the oldest man in the village who lived alone with all his family gone, an eerily carved village gate that opened up to the jungles beyond, the big village community “pond” that holds pure drinking water despite having a covering of algae on top and many more that I forget for lack of pictures or scribbled notes. What I do remember though is that I shook hands with many men who introduced themselves as “Deacons” and a squadron of hunters with home-made muzzle guns who were on their way back from an unsuccessful day of hunting.

Beef put out to dry
Beef hung out to dry
The massive log drum
The massive log drum

Phusachodu was unforgivably cold once the sun gloriously set on the horizon of Naga Hills. So it made sense for everyone to huddle around a fire in the kitchen. Other than B, no one spoke a language that I could decipher, so most of the time it was me staring into the fire and taking pictures of people chatting over the fire. Every once in a while, I would rudely interrupt the conversation and pester B with some inane questions like, “Are there any animists here?” or “Does anyone have a collection of human skulls from your head-hunting days?”, answers to all of which were a resounding no. Just to prove how resounding it was, our somber gathering was interrupted by a deacon who had come to collect the “10 percent” that every family had to contribute to the Church and made them do so by making them pray around a fire and hurl incantations from the Bible. Everyone (except for me) passionately got into the act which was fascinating to watch with the whole prayer session resembling an otherworldly neo-rap act with the lines flowing into each other at high pitches said at break-neck speeds.

Dinner by the fire
Dinner by the fire

Dinner, thankfully, was not squirrel but a delicious combination of rice, squash curry and chicken (cooked the naga way). V and another of his cousin brothers, A, joined us later. Although V’s earlier luck had deserted him on his evening hunt, he looked in high spirits, cracking everyone up with (judging by how everyone was falling over their chairs laughing) his hilarious jokes. He later turned to me and said, “Okay, let’s make tomorrow’s programme now. You want to go for a hunt?” I had to walk a line here. I was emphatically against hunting wild animals and birds but I didn’t want to offend the sensibilities of my highly generous hosts by emphatically refusing the offer either. While I was puzzling over the reply, B pulled a rescue act by telling me that if I wished to, I could go with him to the “miracle stream” deep in the valley.

The grumpy little girl
The grumpy little girl

When I woke up the next morning and went to the kitchen to have my breakfast, I saw the young girl of the family being dressed up in traditional attire. This gladdened me immensely because I thought there was going to be some kind of a festival in the village, so I went up to BC and asked him what this was all about. What he said distressed me. She was being dolled up for me, the tourist, so I could take her picture. This was weird on a few levels. One, a tourist usually has to pay extortionate rates to get a chance to snap local exotica to show off back home (and this is true of places in North Nagaland, particularly the Mon District where some of the villagers have become so savvy thanks to whole armies of foreigners visiting them that they cover up their faces whenever an opportunistic “outsider” shows up with a camera, uncovering it only when the demanded fee is paid) It certainly wasn’t normal for a family to willingly dress up their little girl for someone like me to take her picture. The second thing that distressed me was the fact that I am quite terrible with kids and this kid was no different. She was grumpy and angry and certainly didn’t want her picture taken by someone she didn’t want to know. She defiantly refused to pose for me and I had to hand over my camera to her father who couldn’t make her smile but managed to make her stand with a grumpy look on her face for a few seconds.

The miracle stream
The miracle stream

We then set off to the “miracle stream”. A, who had volunteered to drive his car also carried his home-made muzzle gun because he wanted to hunt. So down we went the stony, slushy, dusty road and after we reached a point on the road, B tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Now we walk.” I was in my chappals and completely unprepared to hike down a steep gradient to the bowels of the valley but was too proud to say “no”. The trail was knee-twistingly steep and my chappals were entirely ill-equipped to deal with the scree and the incline. Nevertheless, I made it unscathed to the fields below from where we could see the stream and just as I was feeling happy at having made it without embarrassing myself too much, I slipped and fell down a moss-laden stretch that I had ignored in my self-congratulatory reverie. My clothes were caked in mud and some of my companions were howling with laughter leaving me red-faced. Thankfully, the only thing that broke was my ego, my bones seemed intact. I took the last little stretch to the stream painfully slowly wiping all the dust and grime I could off my clothes in the process. The fall had a deep psychological effect on me as I felt positively terrified at the sight of the put-together wooden bridge over the “miracle stream”. But I could muster up enough courage to walk over it, join my fellow companions, taste the saline water of the stream (supposedly used for treating gastric ailments) and huff and puff my way back to our vehicle.

We picked up an old lady who had a mountain of luggage on her back. During the journey, I became responsible for the only bird A managed to hunt that day. I saw a bulbul perched on a branch and in my excitement asked them to stop so I could take a picture or two. A, of course, immediately went for his gun, ran to a point where he could get a clear view and shot the bird down. When A and B displayed the dead and bloody bird to me, I felt gutted to the core. For the rest of the trip, I remained glum and depressed and while I tried not to show it, I didn’t try to intrude in any of the Nagamese conversations that were going on in the car. The car hit a ditch a little while later and while I should have been lending a helping hand, I just strode ahead wuth my cameras trying to counter my guilt and sadness by distracting myself with butterfly photography.

The perilous wooden bridge
The perilous wooden bridge

But who was I to judge them anyway? This has been the Naga way of life for eons. They may have hunted birds to extinction and may continue to do so in the future but what right does any man from Mumbai (conservationist or not) who has gadgets dangling from every pore (the manufacturing of which, incidentally, is far more harmful than what these Nagas do to their wildlife) have to judge people who have been living a different way of life in these forests? After all, isn’t the fact that the Youth Council of this village had imposed a ban on hunting that was rigorously observed for the rest of the year glorious enough? How many cultures go away from their traditional ways of doing things of their own volition without other people telling them to do so? Is it even remotely imaginable that people in the big Indian cities would say “no” to coal and hydel-based power that’s more environmentally destructive than anything else in the world?

Later in the evening, I felt like a celebrity when people were queueing up to meet their “guest”. First, a secondary school Hindi teacher (who curiously spoke broken Hindi), then the Youth Council President, then an old man in the neighbourhood and so on and so forth. The next morning, when I was about to leave, B waited for me. Had I known he was skipping his school duty, I would have tried to leave earlier. The school exams were on and B should have shown up on time. As I was sipping chai and urging him to please go to work, he got a call from school. He sounded distressed on the phone but once the call got over, gave out a loud laugh. The question papers for the exam were in his house and he had completely forgotten about it. The exams won’t start until he shows up with the papers! He apologised saying he had to leave, I said he had no cause to and we parted company.

I will always cherish my time in this little Naga village because its people made me momentarily believe that I was having the greatest time of my life.

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A comfortable bed in Phusachodu

Thanks to Nino Zhasa (who runs Explore Nagaland) and her extensive contacts in the villages of Nagaland, I decided to take the plunge and travel to a few villages not many people visit or, hell, even know about. V, who was my contact from the village of Phusachodu, rescued me from the dusty bowels of the N.S.T bus station at Pfutsero where I had spent many an hour drinking tea and having monosyllabic conversations with the owner of the N.S.T Hotel. V was a small, young, wiry and an extremely enthusiastic man who worked as a school teacher in Phusachodu and had previously done a course in Tourism from an institute in Sikkim. Phusachodu was 8 kms from Pfutsero, an hour’s drive through steep hills, thick jungles and terrible roads, ample time for V to fill me in on everything that he felt I had to know about his village.

Villages around the village
Villages around the village

The first thing I learnt (and this delighted me no end) was that I was to be the first ever home-stay guest in the village. People had visited the village before but they ended up staying in the cushy confines of the Speaker’s House. No one had ever stayed in an actual home there and V wished for me to experience “the raw everyday reality of life in the village”. I replied guardedly pessimistically that “we don’t have to go that far”, a sentiment that was greeted with mocking laughter.

The second thing I learnt was that there was a hunting ban in effect in the village, but (and this distressed me no end) that it had been lifted for the week I was visiting because of a “Children’s Feast Day” where all the children in the village would go to a house of their choosing and be served the animals and birds hunted by that household over the course of the week. As a result, the whole village was out hunting in the thick jungles surrounding the village.

Our first stop was V’s house which was close to the entrance near the top-most part of the village. His was a modest 3 room house, with one kitchen, one living room and one bed-room which, he declared very proudly, was built all by himself. While we were drinking tea and eating wild apples that he had knocked down from a tree in his courtyard, he showed me his “lucky hunt” of the day – a white-cheeked barbet and a squirrel. I had been traveling and hearing about the legendary tendency of the Nagas to hunt everything non-human that moves but this was the first time I’d actually seen a hunt and a part of me died inside. I try not to judge people while traveling and have a “to each his own” attitude wherever I go but watching a colourful blood-soaked dead bird hunted not for lack of food but for some cultural sport did spoil my mood greatly.

Mithun horns welcoming visitors at the house I was staying
Mithun horns welcoming visitors at the house I was staying

We stopped by the local ground and the cathedral on the way to my “home” in the village. Christianity came here on 10th December 1948 and “achieved” full conversion on 9th August 1989, said a plaque on a monolithic stone here. V was highly proud of the Church and I tried to feign enthusiasm to keep him happy but didn’t have to try to feign anything when we climbed to the awesome views of the village and the hills beyond at the top of the Church. The village was a cluster of tin-roofed houses, many of them beautifully traditional in all their wooden finery, some adorned with colourful verandahs surrounded by eye-poppingly colourful flower gardens. Concrete was slowly but surely creeping in, though, with some ugly tenements dotted among the splendidly crafted houses.

The view of Phesachodu from the Cathedral
The view of Phesachodu from the Cathedral

My hosts lived in one of those traditional wooden houses and had a gallery of mithun horns at the entrance to welcome its visitors. In the “hall” adjacent to the kitchen, V pointed towards an elongated wooden board with massive circular holes punctuating its length and said, “This is your bed tonight.” I laughed, patted him on the back and complimented his sense of humour to which he stared incredulously back at me and said, “I’m serious. This is where you sleep tonight.” As we sat by the fire in the kitchen drinking copious amounts of tea, I asked him, very nervously, “But don’t they have a ‘bed’ here?” “That is the bed. You can keep your luggage in the room and sleep here”. “Ah!”, I said, perking up, “So there IS a room I can sleep in if I don’t want to sleep here?” “Yes,” he said, “but I want you to sleep here to show you how we people really live. I want to give you the genuine experience of life in a village. I want you to feel how difficult life is in Naga villages compared to big cities like Mumbai. I want you to go through the hardships we go through.”

The "bed"
The “bed”

I took a few steps towards the wooden board to test my prospective couch, which I learnt was not a couch at all but an instrument to grind millets and grains. I lay down on it and found my terribly out of shape spine getting entangled in one of the holes and crying for mercy. When I turned to the side for a demo of how uncomfortable it could possibly get, I found my lips sticking to the board and the attendant dust and grime with it. This wasn’t a place to accidentally find your tongue sticking out drooling in the middle of the night. I went up to V and said, “I’m okay with this trip being not all that authentic. Can you show me my ‘room’ please?” We went up a concrete one-storey building right next to the wooden house, one that I despised earlier for being ugly, walked into a room to find a splendidly clean and comfortable bed provided with acrylic blankets and a little bathroom at the back. “Wonderful”, I said, “So what’s for lunch?”

Lunch and beyond shall be chronicled in the forthcoming posts set in the quaint, old village of Phusachodu.

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BNHS Camps – Wild Goa!

“Now we’re going to show you a very rare bird. It’s roosting here but the sight of people staring at it for long durations could be disturbing. So we’ll go 2 at a time, stay quiet, take a picture or two and move ahead so others can see it too.”

I was a bit groggy after a long day’s exhausting walk and travel but the moment I saw the Ceylon Frogmouth, perfectly camouflaged on the tree, giving me the cutesily grumpy “yeah, whatever” look, I could have done somersaults. The Ceylon Frogmouth is a nocturnal bird and prefers to stay put during the day, the camouflage being an effective defence mechanism allowing it to catch up on sleep without worrying about being eaten by a predator.

Ceylon Frogmouth
Ceylon Frogmouth

The Wildernest property that the Frogmouth had chosen to roost in is spectacularly located within the Swapnagandha valley close to the tri-junction of Goa, Maharashtra and Karnataka. It’s surrounded by thick forests and gives away views of the waterfalls in one direction and the Anjunem lake ringed by forested hills on the other. It’s a wonder that the place even exists today because many of the hills around were marked for iron ore mining but a group of passionate nature lovers and conservationists came together and bought the massive chunk of land in an endeavour to keep at least a section of the forest alive and undisturbed. The rooms are immaculately well-designed. They’re comfortable and blend with the foliage around. None of the people who work here have hospitality experience and I wouldn’t have known this if Nirmal Kulkarni (a conservationist and one of the directors) hadn’t pointed it out in his talk. They’re all local men and women, trained in both grass-roots conservation and the nitty-gritties of running a resort. I never found anything lacking in my time here (except maybe a sighting of the Hornbill!) There’s an infinity pool for the more luxury-seeking kind that I tenaciously avoided after hearing a big, loud group splashing and hooting in it all day long.

Our room at Wildernest
Our room at Wildernest
The Anjunem lake
The Anjunem lake

It’s a wonder that I even made the trip as I had happily drunk a few beers while chatting with Roy at his beautiful heritage guest house, Hospedaria Abrigo De Botelho in Panjim the previous evening and eaten a rather bloated dinner of Pav Bhaji at Bhaiyya’s. My room at Roy’s place was so comfortable that despite my alarm going off at 7.30 in the morning, I woke up at 9 and walked lazily down to breakfast. There I got talking to an old American couple, also career vagabonders. They asked me what my plans were for the day which was the cue for me to scream, “Holy shit!” and rush upstairs to go pack my bags. My plan for the day was to join the BNHS group at Thivim Railway Station at 10.30, the very reason I had come to Goa in the first place. Well, it was 10.30 NOW and I made a frantic phone call to PG, who was the group leader, saying I would certainly be late. Fortunately for me, the Indian Railways happens to be just as sluggish as I am. The train was late by over an hour and I could comfortably switch buses quickly enough to meet them in time to leave for the wildernesses of Goa.

Although I’m a dyed-in-the-wool solo traveller, I chose to go with the BNHS for this trip because after my underwhelming tour of Mudumalai and Wayanad, I thought it would be a good thing to go with people who knew their plants and birds and animals. Both PG and PS knew about much of the flora and fauna we saw on the way and my eyes (and I’m sure many other eyes in the group) were being opened to a new world that was both fascinating and easy-to-miss.

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An unID’d moth
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Habenaria

Every now and then, one of the members would yell, “Leech! Leech! Leech!” and instead of helping her get rid of it, everyone else would frantically start looking at their feet to make sure they didn’t get one. Goa’s forests crawl with leeches and this being the monsoon, it was a veritable feast for the little blood suckers. I somehow escaped despite the malfunctioning “leech proof socks” and a couple of trips made with chappals. In the midst of all the leechy chaos, we saw Malabar Trogons, insectivorous plants, habenarias, bio-luminous fungii, countless sunbirds, the Malabar Giant Squirrel, Gaur, green vine snakes, dracos, slugs, blister beetles, the daath fada (teeth tearing) plant which is apparently used in dentistry to take your teeth off, an astounding view of the Anjunem lake ringed by forested mountains everywhere, the mist enveloping the entire Mhadei plateau, the Chorla Falls, pill millipedes, centipedes, bronze toads, picture-wings, green barbets, the Tambdi Surla Temple and, well, tigers at the Bondla Zoo. Okay, the last one I could have lived without. But the sheer amount of bio-diversity in the region boggled my mind.

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Before the mist
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After the mist

During the British days, this whole region used to be called the Goa Gap, which is to say that the hills here were never officially acknowledged to exist on paper. The region was under the Portuguese who never took cartography too seriously. As a result, much of the vegetation and bio-diversity here went unexplored until recently. Large-scale mining is possibly the most burning issue in Goa but what conservationists like Nirmal fear is that, in the rush to exploit resources, we’re probably condemning species that are both undiscovered and endemic to this region, to extinction.

Purple rumped sunbird
Purple rumped sunbird
A blister beetle
A blister beetle

Many dedicated naturalists now love to hang out at Wildernest because there is such an abundance of life here that you never know what you’re going to find. My afternoons were spent talking to KS and LV, who love coming to the place. They spent much of their time around the dining area, always hunting for the tiniest of insects on the walls and grounds of the property and showed off their discoveries with glee. The tinier the insects, the more fearsome, strange and colourful their bodies were. KS had been an ornithologist and now worked with the extremely well-run Jungle Lodges properties in Karnataka and LV had been to “places on my bucket list that I’m sure I’ll never visit” (which is to say, places like Antarctica and Alaska) and was now doing a play with children in Bangalore. They made what would have been otherwise boring afternoons, very worthwhile.

IMG_1648In many ways, this trip was like a perfect storm that one would love to be caught up in. The 2 P’s from BNHS made the trip immensely enjoyable and so did the well-trained guides from the Wildernest who knew the forests and the plants and animals that live in it very intimately. It lasted just for 3 days but I felt strange returning back to Panjim. Spending time in the wild and with people who love the wilderness changes you, even if just temporarily. On the train back to Mumbai, as I was reading my copy of Nirmal Kulkarni’s lovingly compiled “Goan Jungle Book”, I swore that the next time I come to Goa, I would spend more time in its forests than its beaches. And, yes, I’ll do more BNHS camps!

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The cable car from Kibber to Chicham

Chicham is a village like any other in the Spiti Valley, quiet, pastoral, with a primary school, a friendly lama and spectacular views.  But the people in the village have one hell of a time getting out of it as the nearest settlement, Kibber, is one deep canyon away and the only way to get across is through a perilously perched pulley system joining two cliff-sides.

I trotted along with D purposefully towards the object of our adventure. And there they were, the village in the distance, the gorge separating us, the angry waters of a stream gurgling 500 feet below and a little basket and a rope provided to haul yourself across to the other side. D bailed out immediately and left the scene. I stupidly put my foot in the pulley only to realise that it had moved before I could get the other foot in. I got the other foot in and then realised that there was no one on the other side to pull me across. The basket had moved and there was now a 20 meter gap between me and the cliff separated by a yawning canyon. I tried pushing the pulley back to the cliff but it resisted the motion and pulled itself away towards the other side, which made me curse myself for not paying more attention during physics lectures in college.

After a while, no matter what I did, the basket wouldn’t move and this was bang in the middle of the canyon. My nerves were doing a dance of death and I sat there suspended for over an hour, 500 feet above raging waters wondering what after-life was going to be like. I had lost all hope of survival till I heard someone calling from the Chicham side of the gorge, giving me step by step instructions to get out of the jam. Basically, I had to loosen the ropes very slowly and pull myself with all my might to go over to the other side. I fought my vertigo and gingerly got up to loosen the ropes one by one, after which it moved a few feet. In 20 minutes, once I was close enough to the Chicham cliff, the man pulled me across.

He was a Czech musicology student who was doing some research for his thesis paper on ethnic music from the Himalayan hinterlands. He lived in Chicham, he said, and went across to Kibber every day for a snack and a few beers. He didn’t know how the pulley worked either and was primarily using trial and error to negotiate the challenge. Nevertheless, he had saved my life and we went on to have a few beers in Kibber to celebrate the fact. What are the odds.

The village
The village
The road
The road
The gorge
The gorge
The solution
The solution

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In Kutta

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The “tet” road. Road to the right goes to Wayanad Sanctuary. The one to left goes to Thirunelli.

After walking up and down the steep Nilgiris for a month and a half, my legs were ecstatic at finding themselves trotting on the flat roads of Mysore. My hub here has always been Hotel Dasaprakash, that sprawling old hotel, whose standards haven’t changed in the decades it has been in operation. It provides everything a budget traveller needs, a bed, a clean bathroom, a balcony and an excellent restaurant. It carries a whiff of the pre-1991 days, with a reception desk that looks more like a government office. It’s as old school as it gets and I was happy that I was meeting SS here as few people like “old school” more than SS.

There was more old schoolery in store for us as we chose to skip the 9 a.m. bus to Kutta and have the legendary saagu masala dosas at Vinayaka Mylari instead. After a sumptuous feast and gallons of coffee, we embarked on the journey to Kutta in Coorg. SS unwittingly entrusted me with the task of finding a bus that goes there but no one seemed to have heard of the place I was asking for until a bus conductor angrily (yet helpfully) pointed out that I was spelling it all wrong. We also learnt that, thanks to our laziness and gluttony, we had missed all the direct buses and now had to take the longer route via Gonikappal and switch there.

SS sat in the bus melancholically singing an old Hindi film song that only he, with his inexhaustible knowledge of Hindi cinema (up to the 90s as he corrected me later), would have known. I gave him a look that said “WTF” and asked him to pipe it down a bit. Maybe I shouldn’t have. SS was on one of his extremely rare holidays from a government job and should have been allowed to dance on the roof of the bus if he wished to. In fact, he should have been in the Himalayas, trekking up the Valley of Flowers with a group he had signed up with. But since that got cancelled and he had bought a fresh pair of trekking boots just for the trek, he felt a dire need to do something with them. I had just finished my Nilgiri sojourn and was headed to Coorg and he agreed to join me probably expecting adventurous walks in mountainous and jungly terrain.

A large pied wagtail in the "Spice Garden"
A large pied wagtail in the “Spice Garden”

The Spice Gardens Homestay is nested deep within hundreds of acres of coffee plantations in the Nellore Estate in Kutta. After the long journey that caused considerable butt-hurt, it felt great to get a warm welcome from NC and RC, who owned the place. If we were happy with our small, clean and cozy room on the first day, we became ecstatic when we saw the room NC offered us on the second day. It was massive with multiple rooms, a porch, a dining area and a verandah on the back-side. NC used to come for a chat every morning and evening and entertain us passionately with his bottomless reservoir of Coorgi stories, adventures and happenings. So we came to learn of the time he had to rescue a man accused of mowing down a chital with his car while it was being hunted by a leopard, of the wild boars that create havoc in his plantations justifying the ownership of guns, of his participation in the tiger and elephant censuses with the Forest Department in the Nagarhole National Park (he’s seen more than 70 tiger up till now), of the people who come to his place and spend days sitting on the tree-top machan and bird-watching, of how he hated the fact that there were so many “unregistered” homestays in the region while people like him had to run from pillar to post to get themselves registered, of how this was absolutely the wrong time to travel to Coorg, of the prevalence of heart disease among Coorgis thanks to eating all the cholesterol heavy pork etc. etc. Thankfully, the prevalence of heart disease didn’t affect our breakfasts and dinners as they were sumptuous feasts with all manner of Coorgi delicacies like pandhi curries, Coorgi egg curries, akki rotis and Coorg scotch on offer.

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A sculpture on the doorsteps of Thirunelli

Because NC had to run the house, send their boy to school and take care of many acres of plantations, they didn’t serve lunch. So, all our trips were made on the pretext of going somewhere to eat. We chose to head to Wayanad first. Nestled deep within the Brahmagiri hills (and history and mythology), the Thirunelli temple in Wayanad, known for its great antiquity and isolation, should have been awesome. But we had no way of knowing because it was raining so heavily that all we could see were clumps of dark clouds blocking the views of the surrounding hills and some vague bits of rock resembling ancient sculptures being splashed with big drops of water from the sky. After a quick round of the temple and some grumblings and mumblings from SS about the pathetic state of archaeological conservation in this country, we scurried back to the restaurant nearby to have lunch.

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Wayanad WLS

Disappointed by the temple experience yet undeterred, we decided to head to the Wayanad Sanctuary next. At the Tholpetty gate, we quickly and painlessly managed to get a jeep into the forest. The ranger who accompanied us was very enthusiastic initially, showing us some chital here, some gaur there, a tusker lurking behind the bushes but lost interest quickly and began gossiping with the driver in Malayalam. Every once in a while, one of us would see a bird flying or an interesting looking tree but our pleas to stop fell on deaf ears. The driver too, who went slowly at the beginning, was now in a hurry to finish the ride. In the end, it was a cheap joy-ride (torture-ride if you don’t like bumpy roads) into the jungle more than an actual “safari” and the few animals and birds we did see were a bonus and worth the money we paid for it.

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A tusker behind the bushes
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A fawn giving funny looks

I chose not to do “anything” the next day and just relax and enjoy the green surrounds of the estate. SS woke up at his usual unearthly hour of 7 a.m. and went for a walk. He had already finished drinking a cauldron of coffee by the time I woke up. After another spectacularly filling breakfast, we made the usual noises about not needing any food for the rest of the day. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Come 2 p.m. and hunger struck and we called NC and the whole town’s favourite rickshaw guy, J, for a round to the market, so we could grab something to eat. He dropped us near some dingy local restaurants that SS didn’t approve of. He said, with a beaming smile, “Why don’t we walk to Café Robusta?”

We’d been hearing a lot about Café Robusta since the time we got here. NC wouldn’t stop raving about the place and to him, a trip to Kutta was incomplete without a gastronomic tour of Café Robusta. It probably had something to do with the fact that he doesn’t serve lunch and that was the only place in and around the town that served edible food come lunch hour. So off we walked. And walked. It started raining and the road was never-ending. There were no helpful signboards to be found and we increasingly started suspecting that we were on the wrong road but since it was the only “road”, that probably wasn’t true. Calling J wasn’t an option because neither of us had signal on our phones. Turning back wasn’t an option because we had already walked too far. Being two guys with their heads up in the clouds most of the time, we gave each other angry glances and kept walking, with the rain coming down on our umbrellas. After what seemed like an eternity, we saw a hundred signboards directing us to “CAFÉ ROBUSTA”, a mere 10 meters away. Basically, all the signboards the café had invested in and there were many, were clustered together like a little road-side museum of signboards right next to the destination they were pointing to.

We were the only people there but if the owner is to be believed, it’s jam-packed during weekends and in the high-season, there’s a long queue to get in. SS had some more coffee, I had some dal and chapatti. We called J using the owner’s phone, bought some cheapo rain-gear at the market and went back to our room. We couldn’t take a tour of NC’s sprawling estate because of the incessant rains but regardless, a fun yet peaceful time was had. SS couldn’t use his boots to do any of the things he had envisioned for it, but that’s life. He most certainly won’t be using them in Kabini, where we were headed next.

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Nilgiri Journals – The End

“…so the stuff you wanna do is the stuff they don’t wanna do and you make plans for the stuff you think they wanna do but you don’t wanna do and then they ditch you and you end up doing what you think they wanted to do and you didn’t wanna and you end up in a place like this, all alone and miserable.” – S, sitting by the spectacularly odorous (and poisonous) Ooty lake, enumerating her reasons for ending up there.

The ugliest hill-station in India?
The ugliest hill-station in India?

Ooty, to me, was primarily a transit town, a place to access good 3G, eat pizzas and drink coffee at the Sidewalk Cafe, use the great library at Willy’s Coffee Pub, buy books, get permits for Mudumalai and chill out in the spacious lobbies of the YWCA. The rooms at the YWCA Anandagiri were a penny pincher’s paradise with clean, spacious rooms that came with high ceilings, ornamental fireplaces and a writer’s table (you really cannot ask for more when you pay 400 Rs.) They were also a sonic nightmare where you could hear everything that went on, not just in the adjacent rooms, but also the ones way down the cavernous corridor. So my ears were treated to much sex, drugs and wedding music during the fractured couple of weeks I spent there. Despite the illusions of privacy, the feel was more of a luxurious hostel in Khao San Road frequented by a curious mixture of holidaying Tamil boys, big families, wedding groups and thanks to the Lonely Planet, lots of backpackers.

The restaurant downstairs, where I ate all my dinners thanks to Ooty’s utter lack of night-life, was a paradise for earworms. Every evening, I would be treated to midi versions of Boney M’s greatest hits, annoying songs from the Grease and Saturday Night Fever soundtracks, Eye of the Tiger and other such sweet and cuddly songs that refused to leave my head and had me humming them while walking on the streets of Ooty thus making the desperate men on the sidewalks take a break from leching at hot tourists and stare at some idiot mechanically humming “Tell me more, tell me more, was it love at first sight?”

The colonial part of Ooty where the holidaying Englishmen probably had a few beers and thought of hilarious nicknames like "Snooty Ooty"
The colonial part of Ooty where the holidaying Englishmen probably had a few beers and thought of hilarious nicknames like “Snooty Ooty”

I met S because she wanted to take a leak. She stayed in the room next to mine. The toilets to our rooms were exclusive but lay across the corridor. She had forgotten to lock hers and the wedding party, who had colonized YWCA for 2 days, had shitted, littered and turned her loo into a muddy wreck. Mine was the only relatively cleanish one around and she begged me to allow her to use it. I could hear her humming “Eye of the Tiger” in her room and that initiated a long conversation that never really ended, mostly bitching about the need to get a lobotomy to put those stupid songs out of our heads.

The Ooty lake is a spectacularly odorific place and it’s a miracle that a mutant monster hasn’t emerged out of all the sewage pumped into the lake. It was the perfect place for S to pour all her frustrations out. She didn’t really want to be here and had planned this hilly detour only to meet a Swedish couple she had become friends with in Varkala, who ditched her at the last minute deciding to go to Goa instead. Being two single people, we bitched and joked about “couple” behaviour for a few hours and came to a conclusion that the “couples” enjoying their paddle boats and splashing filthy, septic, toxic waters on each other certainly belonged to a different species.

The Ooty Botanical Garden on a foggy day
The Ooty Botanical Garden on a foggy day

The Ooty Botanical Gardens are a de rigueur for anyone who goes to the Nilgiris but de rigueurity is well-deserved. It’s among the handful of tourist hotspots that are actually worth visiting. Once you dodge the noisy group of kids rolling down the knolls and weave your way past innumerable couples doing it behind the bushes, it’s an oasis of peace and calm that teems with all manner of faunal and avian life. Yes, they could have done without the kitschy art and the artificial falls that look like rejected backdrops to mythological serials, but for a place that sees thousands of people every day, it’s clean and well-kept. We made it all the way up to the Toda Mund at the top, housed within a HADP complex will a group of bulls staring at us threateningly.

The Toda Mund outside the Botanical Gardens
The Toda Mund outside the Botanical Gardens

Ooty is not a heaven for a foodie (which I pretend to be every now and then) but it has a fair share of good eateries. The Sidewalk Café is certainly the place to go for wood-fired pizzas and pastas (whose quantities can be truly enormous and with the garlic bread, could almost qualify as a smorgasmabord) There’s a splendid Marwadi restaurant called Pankaj Bhojanalaya right opposite, which is quite popular. Run by Marwadis, it’s the real deal and the guy who runs it is very friendly. The only “kadak chai” I had in South India was here. Ask him nicely and he would even do a dal bhati churma for you. Shinkows is highly rated and very popular but I found the food disappointingly bland. Willy’s Coffee Pub doesn’t do great coffee but is a wonderful place to hang out thanks to its well-stocked lending library and homemade cakes. If you like having over-priced watery coffee in plastic cups, you can try the Café Coffee Day on Garden Road.

One of the trails within the Botanical Garden
One of the trails within the Botanical Garden

One evening, I finally found the mushroom and soy manchurian place in the Upper Commercial Road that everyone and his brother in YWCA kept raving about, thanks to a meticulously drawn map given to me by J. It was incongruously called “Pani Puri Center” and was packed to the gills with people waiting for their Manchurians. By street food standards, this was spectacularly good, a juicy, tangy, lemony snack that melted in your mouth. It had just the right amount of spice and made one crave for chai later. It was when I was having a watery tamilian chai at the stall next door, shivering in the chill triggered by the wind and drizzle outside, that I knew I would miss the town terribly. For all the misgivings I have about Ooty and the Nilgiris in general and there are quite a few – the noise, the pollution, the plastic littering once-pristine grasslands, the stink, the unchecked development, the toxic waters, maniacal bus drivers, the touts, the touristiness etc. – it has something most other hill-stations south of the Himalayas in India don’t, altitude. At 2245 meters, it’s higher than Manali, Shimla and Mussoorie and has year-round chilly weather, something that’s an extreme rarity this far south. Of course, most Tamilians know this and it explains the plunder and exploitation Ooty has had to endure over the years. Nonetheless, feeling the quasi-Himalayan chill after traveling for months in the heat and dust of Tamil Nadu and Kerala was an incredible feeling. And as I packed my bags to leave Ooty and meet SS in Mysore, I knew I would miss snuggling out of thick blankets for a morning cup of tea and feeling that nip in the air.

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Nilgiri Journals Part 5 – Languid days in Mudumalai

One of the many peacocks around Sylvan Lodge
One of the many peacocks around Sylvan Lodge

After calling a few ridiculously expensive “resorts” in Masinagudi and deciding that I certainly didn’t need to spend several thousand rupees a night on a place with a f’ing swimming pool (!) in the forest, I went to the unusually friendly Project Director’s Office in Ooty to see if I could book a room at one of the forest rest houses (FRH). My idea was to spend a few days in each of the FRH’s, taking long walks in the jungle and clear my head in network-less peace. My idea was resoundly rejected by the booking officer, because in his opinion, there was a danger of me dying of boredom if I spent more than a couple of days within the park all alone. I laughed and told him of the many lonely, intrepid days I’ve spent in desolate places only to find a cold, battle-hardened face staring back at me. Finally, after 3 trips to the office, he let me book 2 nights at Theppakadu and one at Abhyaranyam.

Shady sylvan glades at Sylvan Lodge
Shady sylvan glades at Sylvan Lodge

The man had a point because there is not much one can do around the FRH’s if you don’t have your own vehicle. Sylvan Lodge, where I was put up, was a clean enough place with a great location by the Moyar river but I was only allowed to walk the 100 meters to the bridge or around the property grounds. I am not the restless type and could easily spend days doing nothing but usually even those tranquil days involved a little walk on the beach or a traipse up the hill. After a few hours sitting by the river, I got stir-crazy and even my attempts to walk along the highway were deterred by a stern forest ranger who scared me off with many tales of unsuspecting amblers getting charged by a tusker or mauled by a leopard or gored to death by a gaur.

A gaur on the road
A gaur on the road

The reception center ran bus tours of the park every time there were enough people to fill the bus (20 to 26). It was the monsoonal off-season and in the afternoon, I had to wait for hours at the office for a jeep full of day-trippers or a big bus-full of package tourists to arrive making it the only time in my life that I was hoping such a mass of cheerfully loud humans would come my way. That evening, I felt incredibly fortunate to have seen any wild animals at all (a few gaurs and chitals) considering all the hooting and squealing that was going on behind me. A restful time in the jungles of India, this was not.

A cormorant luxuriating on the waters of the Moyar
A cormorant luxuriating on the waters of the Moyar

On the way back, I saw more animals in 15 minutes at the Sylvan Lodge (wild boars, flying squirrels, peacocks, babblers, woodpeckers, eagles) than I did in an hour in the core area of the forest. In the evening, some entertainment was in store as M and his family checked in. M was from Chennai and had taken part in many a tiger census in Mudumalai. He was understandably dismissive of the bus tours run by the Forest Department and was here only to show his daughter (who runs a biryani restaurant in Edinburgh) and his grand-daughter (who squeaked Adele songs in a Scottish accent) a good time in the woods. He told me that I was wasting my time here and it was only worthwhile coming here if my aim was to gain access to walk or safari deep into the core areas of the forest. The trick, in his opinion was, “Come often, tip well, praise everybody. You never know where money can take you”.

Chitals. Many of them.
Chitals. Many of them.

Despite his pessimism, M was very excited about the bus tour the next morning. We went to the reception center at 6.30 a.m. to catch the first bus into the Park and as I expected, we were the only people around. M was understandably agitated but being a man of “soft words and hard deeds” (in his words), calmly asked a forest ranger how he expected 25 tourists to show up that early in the morning in extreme off-season. The ranger had barely reacted when two jeeps, one with a Gujarathi family and another with young Delhiites zoomed in. We had enough time to chat and know each other because the man at the ticket window arrived more than half an hour later, having been chased by an elephant on the way.

Anna, the camp elephant, musthing in the rain
Anna, the camp elephant, musthing in the rain

It was raining very hard and this time, even the gaur and chital visible to me yesterday weren’t around. M was sad that all little Adele could see were “water and trees”. Later, we went to the Theppakadu Elephant Camp where she was thrilled to bits watching tamed tuskers being fed and bathed. M was vehemently against domestication of wild elephants in theory but was glad they were being domesticated momentarily for the sake of his daughter’s happiness.

More Chital
More Chital

In the evening, I was joined for dinner by SJ and LK. It was Ramzan, they were Muslims and having fasted all day, were stuffing themselves silly with kebabs and biryanis. SJ was a rich, young politician from Bangalore who also dabbled in real estate. LK worked under him and SJ wanted to show him “how wonderful Mother Nature was”. He had been coming to Mudumalai for more than a decade, bought many properties in and around the area thanks to his rapport with Forest Officials and was being pampered and hero-worshipped by everyone around. He had been to “every corner of Mudumalai” and when asked how he managed that feat, he said (with a wink and a smile), “Add an extra 500 Rs. and you can get anything you want here.”

An Indian Robin
An Indian Robin

The next morning, SJ took me on a drive to the Moyar river and Singara Reserve Forest, where I saw more birds and animals than I did from the rumbling tourist bus. SJ wasn’t a bird-watcher but was impressed by my ability to identify many of the (easily identifiable) birds. He had been in these parts many times but was always on the look-out for big animals, which he seldom saw. I was excited too because, although the Mudumalai NP teems with bird-life, the bus would never stop to look at any of them. SJ was a patient man and at the end of our 4 hour trip, was very happy that he now knew what a Green Bee-Eater and an Oriental White-Eye looked like. In his Hyderabadi hindi, he told LK, “Dekha kaise parindiniyon ka majaa le re hai. Politics ke jungle me aise parindiniyan dikhti kya?” (Look at how he’s enjoying watching birds. Can we see such birds in the political jungles?)

Wild jungle fowl on the Singaara Road
Wild jungle fowl on the Singaara Road

SJ dropped me at the Abhyaranyam GH, where he was given a princely welcome by the staff there. After ordering them to show me around and take good care of me, he took his leave. I had known him for hardly 12 hours of my life and he had already made an impact with his extraordinary generosity. My days at Abhyaranyam were decidedly low-key because I was the only guest here and the staff were not very keen to make conversation. I walked about the little patch of grassland around the guest house, scaring whole herds of chital with my presence and watching little worker ants go about their business. I did enjoy the peace and quiet here, but I also felt very happy to take the bus back to Ooty the next morning.

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