Pokhara

The Greenline buses that shuttle between the tourist centers of Nepal are like cocoons that protect you from the everyday realities of travel in the country. The tickets are priced in dollars – the one from Sauraha to Lumbini cost me 23 dollars – and instead of stopping for lunch at the rows of cheap eateries at Mugling, you are taken to the Riverside Springs Resort at Kurintar for a buffet lunch that’s included in the ticket price. The buses are air-conditioned and the drivers are trained to go safely on the notoriously accident-prone roads. Your companions in the bus are going to be predominantly non-Nepalis and you land up in the bus stand near Lakeside, the tourist district of Pokhara instead of the one at Baglung Bus Park or Prithvi Chowk.

When I arrived at the bus stand, an army of hotel owners attacked me with lucrative deals, some with breakfast thrown in, some with bath-tubs, some with wifi. But I was in a tricky situation. DB had given me the address of a home-stay and I had called the owner, KC, the previous evening. His place was fully booked for a couple of nights and he had arranged a room for me at a hotel nearby. But he hadn’t told me where and I couldn’t get through to him. So, I hired a taxi to take me to Hallan Chowk, the main intersection in Lakeside where there was accommodation aplenty. Within a minute of my entering the taxi, KC called back and told me to go to Hotel Asia. This hotel was just a 5 -10 minute walk from the bus stand and we had already overshot it. The taxi driver had an impish smile on his face as he took the 250 Rupees off my hands, probably the most money he’ll ever make and I’ll ever pay for a 2 minute ride.

Hotel Asia looked like a big hotel, something I wasn’t in the mood for in a place like Pokhara. To dampen my enthusiasm even further, there was a big hotel under construction on the opposite side and the only sunny rooms in the complex were facing the abominable drilling going on in that building. I could have ditched KC and gone elsewhere but my conscience was getting prickly because KC had argued a great deal with the owner of the hotel for my stay here. So I took the room, which was bland, dull and business-like but quite clean with an LCD TV, free wifi, hot shower and tea-coffee makers. There was a UN vehicle parked outside the hotel which raised my self-esteem temporarily. KC came to meet me in my room to check if everything was alright and apologized profusely for not being able to accommodate me at his home. In the evening, the hotel was packed to the gills with package tourists from India – big, demanding families from Rajasthan and Gujarat creating much ruckus and noise.

I don’t learn from my mistakes very well and had procrastinated on work yet again. This time, I was up to my neck in deadlines and my laptop punished my lackadaisical attitude by overheating and refusing to boot. I was awake all night trying everything I could – taking the battery out, leaving the device to cool down for hours, refreshing Windows, resetting Windows, formatting the hard disk, reinstalling Windows – and nothing worked. The next morning, I unsuccessfully strolled around Lakeside looking for a place to fix it and then made a despairing call to KC asking for help. I was so screwed that I was ready to buy a new laptop as a last resort. KC knew of a place in Prithvi Chowk that could be of help and arranged for a vehicle to take me there.

The vehicle was a big micro-bus driven by a young Nepali boy dressed in a black leather jacket and ray bans. KC had called him saying he had to pick me up on very urgent business and he took the only vehicle that was available with him at the time to take me around. It felt odd to be the only passenger in such a massive vehicle driven by a guy who looked like a film-star. We vroomed into the computer repair store, which was a small, dusty, garage-like shed with a few laptops arranged haphazardly for sale. They were far more expensive than they ought to have been and I was hoping my laptop could somehow be fixed. The signs didn’t look good. There was a boy in the store who called himself DJ and tripled up as salesman, manager and techie. He confessed to me that he was just out of college and had learnt everything he knew on the job. Nevertheless, he pulled all the tricks he could and after a few hours of unsuccessful tweaking, said he would have to open it up to diagnose the problem. He had never seen my model before, so he went to youtube and took the laptop apart while looking at a video telling him how to do so. It all felt a bit like having a painful dental surgery being done in my molars by a trainee dentist googling for tips and tricks on his mobile phone. Anyway, DJ diagnosed the problem successfully. The heating vents had been clogged with dust and as he painstakingly removed every speck of dirt he could find from the dusty innards, I rued the needless sacrifice of 400 gigabytes of unbackup’d pictures and memories I had made the previous night while formatting my hard drive. DJ could see that I was upset and ordered a round of beers to cool my frayed nerves. Both the film-star driver and I appreciated the gesture, although I had to pay for the whole carton eventually. But I was thankful to DJ for having saved my ass, my laptop and a whole lot of money I would have spent on a grossly overpriced netbook.

The next day, I was supposed to check out of Hotel Asia and into KC’s place but KC had gone incommunicado and all my attempts to reach him were in vain. I did not want to stay in Hotel Asia because it was bland, sterile, sad, soulless and expensive, filled with the same sort of people I sought to escape when I left India. But I didn’t know where KC’s homestay was either. So I checked out and walked around Lakeside past numerous expensive resorts shopping for a decent place to stay. My Rough Guide highly recommended Nirvana Guest House, praising its “huge, thoughtfully decorated and spotless rooms overlooking spacious flower-strewn balconies and a garden”, so that’s where I went first. They offered me a good-sized room on the ground floor with a bathroom outside for 1200 NR. Too much, I said, and moved on. The street was packed with back-to-back hotels hazardously stuck to each other, all looking identical. I settled for the Eagle Nest Hotel for a room with an ensuite bathroom with hot shower and wifi for 700 NR.

As fate would have it, moments after I checked in, KC called me asking where I was. He was waiting for me in his home and had kept a room all mopped up and ready hoping I would arrive in the morning. Would I be coming home for lunch? I must be craving for some good home-cooked food, no? With a heavy heart, I told him about my predicament and he was understandably quite upset, more with the shitty network in Pokhara than my non-arrival. He had refused guests for my sake and the room will have to go vacant the rest of the day. I felt terrible and told him I would come by the next day to stay for a couple of weeks. This pacified him and I went about exploring ways to socialize in my new dwelling. My room was at the end of a narrow corridor near a little balcony. A Chinese guy and a Danish girl were smoking Marlboro’s and we talked about how eerie the buildings in this side of Pokhara looked. There was less than an inch of space between our building and the next and the balconies of two adjacent buildings were stuck together. We wondered what would happen if an earthquake struck here, something I would find out two months later.

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There are few places in the world that are better than Pokhara to comfortably linger while reading, writing, working and whiling away your time. The frenetic hotel searching, laptop fixing and proof reading had given me little time to enjoy the true pleasures of this beautiful Himalayan city by the lake but once I arrived in KC’s Shangri La Home Stay, my routine started falling in place. Shangri La was in a little alley in Lakeside South away from the touristic mayhem of Lakeside Central and was largely a quiet and peaceful place to live. I spent three glorious weeks here, eating didi’s delicious home-cooked food, lounging in the airy balcony, engaging with trekkers who often stayed here, reading and writing. Some days, when the sky was clear, KC would wake me up at 5.30 in the morning to look at the mountains in all their glory. From his rooftop, I could catch the sun rising over the mightiest peaks in the world, from the Dhaulagiri in the east through the Machchapuchhare and the Annapurnas to Manaslu way down in the west. The shimmering lake, the predominant feature of the city, was just down the road and on many gentle strolls by its promenade, I wondered if I would ever want to leave such a glorious setting.

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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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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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