It’s all about the view in Yercaud

A view from Yercaud

After spending a year on the coast and the cities of the plains and enduring the resultant heat and dust, it felt great to head back into the hills again. As the bus wound its way into the Shevaroy Hills from Salem, the air felt crisper with each of the 20 hair-pin bends that wound their way through the forested slopes. But the minute the bus screeched to a halt near the market by the Yercaud lake, I was swept over by a wave of disappointment. There was garbage strewn everywhere I looked around and loud Tamil film music was blaring from (very) loud-speakers amid the chaotic squalor to the rhythm of non-stop honking traffic. The only consolation was that the air was, if not cleaner, certainly cooler.

I walked around looking for a place to stay and after being rejected by a whole line of hotels for being a solo traveller (excuses ranged from “manager is on leave” to “where is your recommendation letter?” to “sorry, we only take tourists”), I went up to the lonely, decrepit, over-priced and depressing Tamil Nadu Hotel. It was a cheerless, inflexible and downright rude Government-run hotel. During my 3 days there, I could see only a couple of couples in the entire sprawling complex and yet, the manager insisted that the season was booming and asked me to leave if I wasn’t willing to pay the extortionate rates they were charging for their extremely basic rooms. At the end of a lot of haggling where I lost and he won, I coughed up 1100 rupees per night for a dank, mouldy, cob-webbed room with a bathroom that hadn’t been cleaned for weeks. There was a little verandah that over-looked a terraced lawn that was strewn with rum and vodka bottles and a fabulous view of the dusty, broken windows of the buildings to the left and the right.

To avoid getting too depressed at my sordid fate, I took a walk around the lake. It was supposed  to be one of the very few natural lakes in the hills of the south but one that somehow managed to pull off the stupendous feat of looking kitschier and uglier than its more popular artificial cousins in Ooty, Kodaikanal and Mount Abu. The road that sloped along the lake started off with a touristy cluster of stalls selling omelettes and chai opposite the “Deer Park” and soon became an open gutter that one had to dodge to walk further to the part where the sweet odours of a massive open garbage dump welcomed anyone who dared to walk that far.

But one had to walk that far to reach the point where the road bifurcated up into the newly constructed Botanical Gardens that lead to a series of viewpoints, first the Children’s Seat, then the Gent’s Seat and finally the Ladies’ Seat that showed spectacular views of the towns of the plains and the hills and the valleys beyond. I spent hours just lounging there, taking siestas in the afternoons, speaking with the odd tourist or two who was up for conversation, listening to Bach and Sabbath on my earphones or reading books on my Kindle. In the evenings, a chilly breeze and the cacophony of a hundred bird-calls lifted my spirits and everything that had to be endured to get here felt entirely worth the trouble.

Another view from Yercaud

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A break in Kallidaikurichi

Back in the village (Explored 12-05-2013)

Four years ago, I had travelled to my village in Tamil Nadu after more than a decade. It wasn’t the village I knew or remembered, having transformed or “developed” into something of a shanty-town over the years. The clear waters of the Tambaraparani river, the source of drinking water for much of this region where people used to bathe and swim, was an unrecognizably muddy and polluted mush that was being used to wash a line of trucks. The main road, whose structure remains intact from the days of the Chola kings who built it, was now a noisy, honking mess.

Nevertheless, after a few weeks of experimenting with extreme low budget travel, where many a room was shared with the roaches and the rats, it felt good to be back with my grand-parents in their ancestral house. One evening, we went for a ride to the fields we owned near Singampatti. After wandering for a couple of hours, watching the many herons and egrets and the odd migratory crane gliding over the paddies, I found it to be a perfectly rewarding sort of de-tox from the troubles and hassles of backpacking. And boy, what a view!

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Day 5

March 9th 2009, Ahmednagar

5 a.m to 7 a.m.

I had never imagined things would be so pathetic after merely 4 days of hard travel when I woke up at 5 a.m in my dingy little room in Ahmednagar. I was downbeat, disheartened, ready to throw in the towel (that I didn’t have) and go back home. My chappals were torn, my feet were bleeding, my intestines were burning, my senses were jammed, my body was exhausted, I was sweating like a pig and depressed and lonely and I hadn’t even gone very far.

Thanks to my ridiculous budget of 250 Rs. a day (for everything), I had to settle for a little cubicle of a room with plastic walls and a TV that cost me 100 Rs. a night. Every evening, the guest house was packed with salesmen, relaxing after a hard day’s work, playing their TV’s loud until 3 in the night. The cacophony of noise was unbearable but I was too xenophobic to go out and request my neighbours to turn the volume down.

The electricity used to go off at 8 in the morning, only to return at 9 in the night for the salesmen to watch their TV’s. So there wasn’t any hope of catching up on sleep. I woke up at 5 a.m. in the sort of exhausted, hazy yet semi-adrenalized state one finds oneself after many days of poor sleep and bad nutrition and decided to do something to liven up my spirits. I took a walk in the eerie silence along what looked like a cemetary and towards the deserted Juna Bazaar, where crumbling old structures hang over gaudy new shops. The only sound to be heard was the sound of the crickets from the gardens of St. Anne’s Church that only heightened my paranoid anticipation of possible horrors. I felt stupid and irresponsible to be out in an unknown and unpeopled place making myself a convenient sitting duck for a mugging. Who knew who or what lurked in these ancient and deserted semi-urban streets at such unearthly hours of the morning? Just while I was contemplating these terrors, I felt a tap on my back and I froze.

After 2 seconds of silence when time appeared to stretch to infinity and my imagination raced at a million nasty thoughts per millisecond, a deep baritone voice said in Marathi,
“Wait right there. You don’t look like you’re from here.”

This couldn’t be happening. Why couldn’t I just have continued with the life I knew, confined to a dungeon in a studio or a production house editing tacky shows about celebrity lifestyles and settled for an unsatisfactory yet relatively comfortable and stable life? My four days on the road had given me nothing but misery so far. What the hell was I trying to achieve?

“I don’t want any trouble. Please take my money and leave me alone” is what I was going to say as I turned towards the big brawny man with a moustache but the words that came out of my mouth were, “You’re right. I’m from Mumbai. Do you know where I can get some chai?”

He said he knew just the place. We were quietly sipping tea in a corner of the Kapda bazaar, him probably wondering what a lonely, single man was doing wandering in a town like Ahmednagar purposelessly at that hour in the morning, me still recovering from the shock of finding myself capable of, what seemed to me then, a cool reply while every bone in my body was quivering with fear. We exchanged small talk, him telling me about his life as a carpet salesman and me bragging about my ambitions of long term travel.

After much conversation and many cups of chai, he invited me to his home on the outskirts of Ahmednagar. I said yes immediately and his home was to be my home for the next couple of days. It’s only because of Zafar, the carpet salesman of Ahmednagar, and countless people like him that I encountered over the years, that I still yearn to be on the road. It’s seldom the places themselves, but always the people, good and bad, eccentric and simple, rude and kind, that make for interesting times.

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