Ujjain

I learnt early in my travels that the worst way to blend into a place while traveling in India was to show up there with a bright green top-loading Quechua rucksack on your back and a wide-brimmed hat on your head (the heat was searing and this was my only remedy to protect my head). In Ujjain, this obscene show of anachronism resulted in a group of rickshawallahs mobbing me at the bus stand with questions like, “Hello friend, you want hotel?” and “Which country?” This enraged me no end and I angrily told them that I was fine and I didn’t need any assistance in as good a Hindi as I could muster. This only made things worse as they began analyzing my not-so-chaste accent and tried to put a place to it and inevitably came to a conclusion that it could only be “Madras”. I ran out of the area before they could change their strategies to something more suited to a Madrasi.

Hotel Ramakrishna was that rare hotel that turned out to be a great Lonely Planet recommendation. Although it had some budget hotel quirks like indifferent receptionists, a plumbing leak in the bathroom, peeling paint on the walls and a non-functional telephone connection, it was kept clean with good natural light and after the horrific rooms in Indore, Aurangabad and Ahmednagar, almost luxurious. At 250 Rs., it was practically a steal.

The scorching summer was in full force and it was becoming a bit of a pain to travel around Central India. So I stood in a long, serpentine queue for 4 hours at the railway station to book a ticket out of Ujjain to Dehradun to get a glimpse of the Himalayan mountains. I was famished by the time I got my ticket and went to the nearest restaurant that I could find for a meal.

From the outside, it looked ominous. There wasn’t a soul around and the man in a skull-cap at the billing counter looked terribly disinterested in serving any food. While I was wondering whether to leave and find another place, a man dressed in an immaculately formal attire came up to my table and courteously asked me how I was doing. He looked too well-dressed to work in such a bargain basement restaurant, so I thought he probably wanted to share a table (though why he would want to do that when all the other tables were empty did puzzle me). I told him I was very hungry and he could join me if he wanted. He smiled politely and told me that he was there to take my order.

I apologized profusely for my faux pas and asked for a biryani. The man then did join my table because he was apparently also the owner of the establishment. He had to let go of some of his waiters because of a pay dispute and since business wasn’t going so well, he thought he could handle some of the work himself. Managing a hotel business wasn’t his dream job. He had spent 3 years in Mumbai struggling to make it in the film industry as an actor but had to settle for bit parts in theater for which he wasn’t paid so well. His father, who had been running the restaurant until his death a year ago, was very unhappy with the direction of his son’s career and gave him a “return or perish” order. So he decided to come back and aid his father in the day to day affairs but had neither the clout nor the aptitude his father had for the business. Because he respected his father a lot, he could neither sell the place nor neglect the affairs after he passed away. He said he loved talking to customers but regretted the fact that he had no skill in handling his staff who were moody and demanding and that he was only hanging on for the inevitable to happen i.e. for the business to die a natural death and take a second stab at acting by either joining a theater group in Ujjain or going back to Mumbai.

After finishing my dinner/conversation at the restaurant, I took a rickshaw to the Mahakaleshwar temple, one of the 12 jyotirlinga sites (the holiest Shiva temples) in India. The exterior of the temple had been extensively modernized and refurbished with marble tiles and whatnots but one could get a sense of its ancient origins in the underground section. Here, the oil smeared pillars, the dark corridors, the brass lamps lighting the way, the aromatic fumes of camphor and the periodic rush of devotees towards the inner shrine tickled my imaginations to wonder if I was walking on the same stones that the legendary King Vikramaditya once did.

Outside, sitting on the platform, I watched people feeding the million crows that had descended on the temple grounds. An angry family was attempting to bully a priest into giving them a good deal for a puja. The priest wasn’t one to give in and he pushed them away by telling them that they were agents of the devil for bargaining the way they did and nothing good would ever happen to them if they persisted in their endeavors. The family cooled down after these retributive rebuttals and reluctantly agreed to pay the priest the money he demanded for getting their rituals done.

Anyone sitting on the platform was easy pickings for the slew of pujaris on the lookout for potential clientele. Soon enough, an aged pujari with a long white beard and dressed in white and saffron robes sat down beside me.

“You look troubled”, he said, with a look of concern, in chaste Hindi.

“No”, I said, “Why do you think so?”

“Oh, I know these things. You’re sitting alone staring at people and have no one to talk to. What is bothering you, my son?”

“You are the one bothering me” is what I wanted to tell him but since this was his territory, I chose not to be so combative.

“Oh, nothing. I’m just letting the divine energy of the temple guide me on the right path to lead my life.”

“What is life?”, he asked putting on a faux philosophical air, “Your life is just an accumulation of sins that you hope to wash away by coming here because once you die, there is no escape. I can help you purify yourself.”

“I have already washed away my sins in Nashik”, I said.

“Okay”, he said, after taking a deep breath, “What do you do for a living?”

I told him that I worked as an editor in a production house and had just quit my job to atone for the sins that I committed while doing that job.

“Good, good”, he said. “So you make films. Now if you ask me to make films, will I be good at it?”

“I don’t know”, I said, “Maybe you could give it a shot.”

“I will not be good at it”, he said, a bit angrily, “You know why? It’s because I have no training in that area. I have trained all my life to learn the divine verses in praise of Kal Bhairav and do the rituals that wash away people’s sins. And, my son, in that field, you know nothing. So even if you have been to Nashik and had some priest do it for you, you can’t be sure he’s done it properly. Different rituals need to be performed in different places.” After this, he went on to list a litany of things one needed to do in Kal Bhairav’s honour to purify oneself. The only part I could understand was the one where you had to take a few dips in the Shipra river that flowed through the city while chanting some mantras. As if that wasn’t convincing enough, he gave me a long-winded lecture on the mythology of Kal Bhairav, his genesis in form of the nail of Shiva meant to decapitate Lord Brahma and why the head was frequently seen in Bhairav’s hands in the many representations of his form. After about an hour of talking, he ended his discourse by saying, “If you go with me, I can assure you that you’ll be at peace with both yourself and with God.”

It was a good pitch but I was exhausted by his narrative and was feeling a bit woozy in the head having skipped my evening cup of chai. I told him that I had to leave and that I will certainly look him up if I needed any religious cleansing or soul-searching. He shook his head dejectedly and said , “You’re missing a good opportunity. I can’t force you to do anything but I hope you know that chances like these don’t come all the time.” He shrugged and looked mournfully into my eyes. I felt a bit sorry for him because he had after all spent an hour convincing me to go with him. So I touched his feet, gave him 40 Rs. and made my way back to the city.

Around the corner close to my hotel, I saw a small crowd forming. Being a habitual voyeur, I went there and asked a gentleman what the fuss was all about. He frowned and said, “Andhe ho kya? Chai ban rahi hai.” (Are you blind? He’s making tea.) If this was true, it must be some very good tea, I thought. So I muscled my way ahead of the crowd to get a glimpse of the old man making tea at the shop. His process was a treat in itself. He had two massive cauldrons of milk boiling on coals next to each other and kept mixing ingredients into the boiling milk, stirring and tasting the mix all the time. After he was satisfied with the mix in Cauldron 1, a young helper transferred it onto a third set of coals, where he mixed some water, cinnamon, coriander, lots of ginger, more tea, vigorously stirring and tasting the mix all the time. It was more than half an hour by the time he was done preparing it after which a mad scramble ensued to get a taste of the chai. There may have been more than fifty people waiting for their turn but Cauldron 1 was so big that it had enough tea in it to serve everyone gathered there. The chai was worth the long wait and had just the right mixture of sweetness, pungency and bitterness. It’s been over 8 years since I drank that chai in Ujjain and although some of the tea-shops in Varanasi and Allahabad come close, it’s far and away the best chai I’ve ever had.

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Indore

The private bus stand at Aurangabad was a hub of chaos and frenetic activity as I saw passengers scrambling and shouting on top of each other at the droll, disinterested people manning the reception desks of the travel agencies that sold them tickets at overpriced rates in an attempt to figure out which bus they were supposed to get on. The company that ripped me off was called Royal Star and the people in the shop, who seemed so nice when they had sold me the ticket earlier in the day, had determined to put me on “ignore” mode.

I saw an old gentleman curled up in the corner with his head buried in a newspaper. He looked like he’d been here many times before. So I went up to him get some sense of what was going on. It turned out he was waiting for the same bus as I was. “It’s always late,” he said, “Learn to be patient and you’ll be happy.”

The bus arrived 2 hours later kicking up Saharan chunks of dust and plumes of exhaust smoke. It was a classic bad deal. The AC didn’t work, the windows wouldn’t open, the driver was a maniac and I got a top bunk on a double sleeper bed which meant there was a large, sweaty man sleeping next to me blocking my access to the aisle. Every time the driver made blind turns at brute pace, the man’s hairy arms flung over me like a hammer to my chest. He also had the habit of mumbling loudly in his sleep and his bulk was parked so close to me that I could feel his warm breath in my ear. I turned away to look outside the window where headlights of speeding vehicles streaked past like laser beams gone awry.

After this borderline homoerotic night, I was glad when the bus pulled up at some dark private bus stand in Indore at 4 a.m. in the morning. A quick, overpriced rickshaw took me through the maze of inner-city Indore alleys to a dingy looking hotel. The hotel demanded that I not only pay the price of the room but also a 50 Rs. commission for the rickshaw driver who drove me there at that time of the morning. It was one of those early moments on the road that made me realize that even something as innocuous and easy as independent travel can have a learning curve and resolved never to have a rickshaw driver take me to a hotel of his choice ever again.

The room was dank and bare and had a tiny energy saving bulb hanging off the ceiling to partially illuminate the room. There was no ventilation to speak of because even a little opening that would have served as a window was covered with wooden boards clearly with the intention of making the tenant as claustrophobic as possible. The lack of windows did not prevent the noise from coming into the room which was facing a very noisy road full of honking rickshaws and banging hammers on a construction site opposite. There was no running water in the bathroom and when I enquired about the same, I was told rather curtly that it was available only for 2 hours in the morning and the evening but I was welcome to take a deluxe air conditioned room with 24 hour supply for 2000 Rs. if I wished to have these comforts.  Considering that was my weekly budget for food, travel and lodging, I chose to refuse the ungenerous offer.

My room was too depressing a place to spend any length of time in and I stayed in just long enough to catch up with a little sleep. The incessant noise from the road outside meant that, even though I was feeling immensely drowsy, I didn’t get a wink of sleep. I left my room in a huff and spent half a day looking for a better place to sleep but none of the hotels I could find in my budget were any better. So I embarked on a round of sight-seeing to wash away my blues.

First on the list was the Holkar-era Lal Bagh palace. When I entered through the enormous and positively intimidating wrought iron gates to the building, I knew I was in for an opulent treat. Although not much to look at from the outside, it was grand and extravagant inside with Belgian glass windows, Persian carpets, exquisite artwork and all manner of stuffed animals adorning the rooms that were as spacious and well-furnished as the one I was sleeping in wasn’t. It was a good-looking palace but like all the museums in the world, it wasn’t a place to visit after a sleepless night on a bus. I took a walk in the garden outside and found myself an empty bench to take a quick nap.

Te minutes later, I felt a painful blow on my shins. It was the watchman who, sternly, hands on his hips, told me that the benches in the property weren’t for homeless people to loiter and that if I wanted to sleep, the district jail wasn’t very far from where we were and he could arrange for some transportation to the same if I so wished. I did not know lying on these royal benches would come with these benefits, so I told him it wouldn’t be necessary. After showing him my tickets to the museum, my pan card, driving license and my hotel keys and address, I beat a hasty retreat.

I needed something strong to keep me awake through the rest of the day. So I took a bus down to the Indian Coffee House beside the Gandhi Hall/Clock Tower. I’ve never felt as out of place in an Indian Coffee House joint as I did in Indore. Here, my stained, filthy and unwashed self had to share a table with a group of three immaculately well-dressed defense lawyers who were discussing the cases they were fighting. Since they were kind enough to ignore my unkempt appearance, I just sipped my watery coffee quietly while they went about their animated conversation. Although it was difficult for me to follow the  conversation (I’m terrible at clandestine eavesdropping), I did manage to catch a bit when the more dignified of the three lawyers bragged on length about a case relating to one of his clients, a brother of a powerful MLA, and getting his money laundering friends out of jail. The longer I sat, the more the three men looked at me like they wanted me out of there. So I finished my coffee in one gulp, left the money on the table and left.

Having fortified myself temporarily, I took a quick peek at Gandhi Hall nearby which was a gorgeous colonial structure complete with an ornate clock tower and globular minarets. And then, in what ended up being my favourite and most time-consuming activity of the day, I took a walk through the many bazaars in the old part of the town. I didn’t intend to do any shopping on account of my ridiculous budget but I found it interesting to find that the streets and the markets therein were classified according to the wares being peddled in that particular section. So there was a Dawa (medicine) Bazaar, a Chappal (footwear) Bazaar, a Kapda (cloth) Bazaar, a Bartan (utensils) Bazaar, a bazaar where you found only electronic items and even a Chivda (snacks) bazaar where I had to control my urge to buy every kind of chivda available there.

But my favourite bazaar of them all was the Sarafa (jewellery) Bazaar. I stumbled onto this street after hours of walking in the maze of lanes surrounding the ancient Rajwada Palace. And no, I didn’t hang around because I like ogling at jewellery or have any interest in wasting my money in buying some, but because, in one of the most fascinating daily activities in India, the entire market gets covered in food stalls once the jewellery shops close at 8 p.m. Here, till the wee hours of the morning, all manner of stalls serve a mouth-watering range of food.

Thanks to the double whammy of low price and high quality, I indulged in the sort of gluttony I seldom ever do. From Bhutte ka kees to dahi vada to malpua to jalebi to pizza sandwich to pav bhaji to tikki chaat to shahi falooda to sev cheese paratha, my stomach was full to bursting by the time I had dragged my overfed body back to my crummy room. The excess food and the exhausting wanderings allowed my mind to tune out the awful setting of my room and get a good night’s sleep, something I hadn’t thought possible when I checked in.
 

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Chitwan

There’s a certain inexplicable energy to leaving a place and not knowing where you’re going. When I reached the bus stand in Tansen, my mind was still running over the possibilities ahead. A two bus switch and a 6 hour ride would take me to Pokhara. A three bus switch and 6 hour ride would take me to Chitwan. A quick toss of the coin put me on the way to Chitwan. The Royal Chitwan National Park was Nepal’s oldest national park, a densely forested region with a healthy population of tigers, rhinos, sloth bears, hundreds of species of birds and critically endangered crocs like the gharial. It is one of the handful of wildlife sanctuaries in the world that could be visited independently and relatively inexpensively.

An Italian backpacker I befriended in Tansen had highly recommended an allegedly quiet and beautiful place away from the touristic mayhem of the main town of Sauraha. So I called the place up on the way and booked a “deluxe” room for myself. I didn’t expect the world for 400 NR but even by the standards of slummy accommodations, it was a squalorous dump. GR, the owner, claimed he had to give away the “good” room that he had kept for me to a family of “foreigners” and requested me to “adjust” in a terrifyingly shabby room which was a filthy mud and bamboo shack that was infested with mosquitoes and spiders and had big holes in the mesh screens on the windows. He promised to get a “luxury” room ready the next day when the “foreigners” checked out. I took his word for it, plonked my luggage on the dank, muddy floors of the hut and went for a walk around Sauraha.

If you didn’t know Sauraha was the gateway to a UNESCO listed wildlife reserve, you probably would have thought it was a wild and hopping party town. The sandy banks of the river aka “the beach” were lined with back-to-back “beach” bars supplying an endless number of sun decks for people to chill and down a few beers. It was late evening when I took a stroll by the river and the innumerable copy-paste bars had turned up the volume of EDM and Bollywood dance numbers while flashing Happy Hours discounts to lure safari-weary tourists to their decadent pads. At sunset, I could spot a herd of spotted deer on the wilder side of the river walking back into the forest after quenching their thirst. Having come here to experience the wild, I found much of the blatant commercial enterprise terribly appalling. Like Lumbini, Sauraha existed only because of a UNESCO site and it seemed people came here less for the forests than for having a “good time”.

Back in the guest house, the longer I spent in the room, the worse it became. The mosquito net would rather not have been there at all because much of it had been pockmarked with cigarette butt-holes. The wicker chair in my room was broken in half. None of the electrical sockets were working. When I went to GR to discuss these issues, he looked drunk out of his mind. “The mosquitoes are harmless”, he slurred, “Most of the time I just finish 2 bottles of Vodka and sleep peacefully. If you want, I can give you one.” I was fuming with anger inside but being naturally nonconfrontational, chose not to take him on.

The next morning, the place had run out of water. So I packed my bags and left without having brushed my teeth or taken a dump. The property screamed squandered potential. It had a beautiful setting, very close to the buffer zone, set amidst green fields and organic gardens and came with an added bonus of a resident elephant in the neighbourhood. It seemed to attract primarily shoestring backpackers dressed in colourful pyjamas who probably wouldn’t mind living anywhere as long as it was cheap. I drew a line at the basic lack of running water and the swarm of mosquitoes indoors. With the uncomfortably distressing feeling that I was getting a bit too old for this sort of slumming, I lugged around Sauraha looking for a decent place to live.

A street in Sauraha
A street in Sauraha

Everybody in the town must have gone away for their safaris and forest walks because Sauraha looked like a ghost town at 10 in the morning. I cluelessly marched into a few decent-looking resort hotels that lined the main streets and walked out feeling like a penniless outcast. Thoroughly demoralized, I sat down for breakfast at a tiny road-side café run by a very talkative woman. She, like many people in Nepal, was a big fan of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi because of a speech he gave in the Nepali Parliament. And because of him, she was back in love with India. Her son was useless, she said, who spent all his evenings singing songs, playing guitar and getting drunk but now hopefully, he would be motivated to finish his studies and get a job in India. The son arrived on cue, all woozy and sluggish, ordering his mother to make some eggs. They got into a fight, she asking him to make them himself, he throwing a mad fit, she censuring him for being jobless and unmarried, he cursing her for being a nag. I sympathized with her predicament, paid for my breakfast and left quietly.

Now that I had some food in my stomach and some conversation and drama to liven up my spirits, I was able to think more clearly and settled quickly for a room at the unimaginatively titled “Sauraha Guest House”. It looked brand new and quite desolate. But the rooms, that would have cost an arm and a leg elsewhere, were bright and clean and came with free wi-fi and a verandah that overlooked a little forested area twittering with birdsong with the Chitwan River gurgling in the distance. I learnt the real reason for the deserted look of the village when I spoke to the owner of the restaurant below. The Kathmandu airport had been shut for a week because a Turkish Airlines flight had moored itself on the runway. So there were too many people waiting anxiously to get out and nobody coming in. Much of the awfully new architecture in Sauraha had been built to accommodate hordes of tourists from abroad and the bullock carts and horse carts lumbering about the empty streets looked like period film props on the wrong day of shoot.

IMG_6569The forests in Chitwan were divine and offered an astounding array of options to explore them – by foot, by canoe, by elephants, by jeep. Like most National Parks, the access and entry inside the park were prohibitively expensive for a solo traveler. So I spent a lot of time wandering about the buffer zone all by myself. Every evening, I would watch the sun go down by the river sitting on one of its wilder unpopulated banks to look at a big herd of spotted deer on the other side. Kingfishers, pipits, robins, minivets, treepies and barbets would flutter around in the meadows. Muggers and critically endangered gharials basked in the sun on rocky patches in the river. Spotted eagles swooped down to catch a meal of fresh fish. A rhino or two slumbered across sending a shiver up my spine. It was everything I hoped for, a wild setting where I was free to roam independently for as long as I wished.

Some of the cafes away from the “beach” had local bands playing acoustic pop songs. One evening the “Acoustic Sheesha” café was particularly lively where a big group of young boys took off their shirts and sang and danced wildly to Nepali folk songs. I recognized the sluggish jobless boy, the son of the talkative woman who ran the breakfast café, among the stragglers. He looked significantly happier now and came up to my table to have beers and a chat. He, too, felt sorry for his mother but they had divergent ideas about his future. He wanted to play music for the rest of his life, a line of work his mother didn’t quite understand. Yes, it didn’t pay a lot of money now but he was confident that he would be able to make it big in the future. In any case, he had been a failure in everything else that he had attempted that far. It was music or nothing. He was 28 years old and his only source of income was gigging in the cafes of Sauraha. He felt his mother was more worried about the pretty girls he brought home frequently than his future. I wondered aloud if the lust for pretty girls was keeping him from building a more secure future for himself. He knew of my vagabonding life and retorted back saying I should probably worry about my lust for aimless travel instead. It was a valid point and there was no easy way to counter this. So we clinked beer mugs and toasted to living happily in the moment.

Despite the beautiful walks in the buffer areas of the forest, I quickly grew tired of the overbearing, vacuous touristiness of Sauraha. But I hadn’t been into the core forest areas and it would be a pity to get out before taking a peek inside. So I  booked a seat for myself on a safari to the forest. I felt awkward being the only non-white single solo traveler in the 8-person jeep, my co-passengers being an old British couple, an American couple and a French couple. The British were cantankerous and complained throughout the journey. They’d spent a lot of time in Africa and vocally expressed their disappointments at not being able to “catch any tigers”. Like all my forays into forests, I was happy just being there amid the trees, the bushes and breathing the fresh air in the wide open landscape. It was a more open forest than I expected and the tall grasslands were being trimmed and burnt for them to rejuvenate later in the year. Many rhinos dutifully showed up, sparking some excitement among the Brits. Big herds of spotted deer hopped about and eagles, vultures, cormorants, darters, peacocks and kingfishers were seen in abundance.

A gharial in the wild
A gharial in the wild

Later, we were ejected at the Crocodile Breeding Center, where critically endangered gharials were being force-breeded to save the species from extinction. Gharials look far more photogenic in a more natural setting like a rocky outcrop on a wild river and here, in clusters of different age-groups in big cages, looked like they’d been punished for a crime they hadn’t commitedt. But I guess, when a species has only 120 individuals left on earth, these measures become more necessary than any romantic notions of freedom. And I suppose this was the only way one was ever going to see the young un’s that looked unbearably cute.

Throughout the safari, I couldn’t help thinking that this would have been far more worthwhile if I had just walked. But walking in the forest was both hazardous and expensive on my own. I would have to pay for a guide and a forest guard and since a day trip wouldn’t take one very far into the jungle, I would also have to walk fast enough to reach a village for an overnight stay. More than anything else, I was petrified at the thought of being gored to death by an angry rhino or sloth bear protecting a young one. These budget issues and paranoid fears meant I had a substantially inferior experience of the forest than I would have liked.

Apart from the few interactions I had with the lady at the little breakfast place, her son and a couple of backpackers, Sauraha had been depressing. It was a purely functional place where one came to do a few touristy things and left. The forest walks had been the only attraction to make me linger here longer than I would have liked but once I was back from the walks, it was dispiriting to always be eating alone in a restaurant covering up my alienation with a book in my hand. My mind was numbed into ennui by my loneliness and I knew only one way to cure it. I booked a bus ticket, packed my bags and took the Greenline bus to Pokhara the next morning. There was a girl from Czech Republic sitting next to me. I started talking to her immediately and the sense of motion and the conversation drove my blues away.

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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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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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