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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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.”

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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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Nilgiri Journals Part 4 – Busy Days in Kotagiri

...and the best is the one you get from an open toilet
The view from an open toilet

Day 1 – A bus parks noisily behind me honking at me unnecessarily as it does so. A passenger jumps, whips out his willy and pisses into the valley below. Two more people slither out and follow his lead. 5 young boys (who probably think I don’t know Tamil) are staring at me and are wondering in hushed whispers which country I’m from. I stare back, they blush, laugh and walk away. Another man jumps out from his vehicle and relieves himself. Standing in the middle of this frenetic activity, I’m trying very hard to ignore the stench of urine and garbage and focus my attention on the magnificent landscape in front of me because this open toilet cum dumping ground opposite the Kotagiri bus stand commands the best views to be had in the town.

The Wesley Church
The Wesley Church

Day 2 – After spending an entire afternoon in peaceful solitude on the steps of the Wesleyan Church, I walked down the steep steps that lead from the Church to the little village of Kannerimukku. Here, in the 1880s a Mr. John Sullivan had the brilliant idea of building a bungalow, growing tea and kick-starting a tourist industry. It is now an impeccably maintained building that looks as good as a well-restored film print and is taken care of by an ex-Hindu scribe Dharmalingam Venugopal, who has also penned a guide-book on the Nilgiris. I didn’t meet him but I met M and G, the friendly Badaga brother and sister who showed me around the little museum whose “before-after” exhibits and picture galleries with shots of Indian politicians looking at the building were livened up only by M’s scrambled, incoherent yet enthusiastic commentary.

Sullivan's Memorial in Kannerimukku
Sullivan’s Memorial in Kannerimukku

Later, M (who was certainly a bit inebriated) took me to his home, served me awesome coffee, discussed football and Badaga rituals, introduced me to his kids who were just back from school, showed me off proudly as a “friend from Bumbaai” to all the people we met on the way and offered to hang out with me for the rest of my days in Kotagiri. His sister seemed embarrassed and apologized for her brother’s “openness”. I didn’t know what to say and mumbling some thank yous, walked back to Kotagiri.

Tengumarada village
Tengumarada village

Day 3 -The wind was lashing my face with what seemed like a lot of wrath and anger but I was finding it very hard to look away from the spectacular landscape that lay before me. On my left were the Talamalai Hills beyond which one could see the villages of the Mysore Plateau. Down below was the village of Tengumarada, remote and isolated, hemmed in by the walls of Talamalai on one side and the winding Moyar river on the other. The women who ran the tourist café seemed bored and started filling me with anecdotal information like how Bharathiraja, the Tamil film director, loves to shoot in Tengumarada. In front of me rose the insurmountably tall Rangaswamy Pillar and the Rangaswamy Peak which fell steeply to the plains below where the waters of the Moyar river had been dammed to form the Bhavani Sagar reservoir. This was the Kodanad view-point, among the best of its ilk. During a conversation with an idle forest guard, I mentioned that the views were somewhat hazy and he advised me to come at dawn when they are much clearer. I mulled staying at the desolate Deccan Valley View Hotel near the view-point but couldn’t muster up the courage to do it. Lonely nights in a lonely place are just not my thing.

The Kodanad Viewpoint
The Kodanad Viewpoint

The view was still extraordinarily beautiful though and as I was taking in its beautiful extraordinariness, a Gujarati family led by a patriarch trotted up purposefully. He was a businessman who had lived in Coimbatore for the last 50 years and certainly preferred the life there compared to the one he had in Ahmedabad when he was a young man. He spoke to his wife in Tamil but in Gujarati to his brother and sister-in-law and gave me crucial life-lessons (in Tamil) – “Marry a girl who wants to live here, not in Mumbai”, “Better still, take a girl from here, get married and show her to your parents. It’ll be a load off their shoulders”, “Youngsters these days think sex is everything, but you have to love first”, “We Indians are still backward and afraid when it comes to making moves, that’s why rapes happen so often nowadays”, “When we were young, the women used to do all the household work. They used to get a lot of exercise. Now, everyone has a maid in the house thanks to feminism and all that. That’s why they’re so weak. Women of my generation would fight back boldly.” etc. etc. He promptly took his leave when his wife yelled at him to get back into the car so they can go shop for tea in Kotagiri.

The few remaining shola forests in Kotagiri
The few remaining shola forests in Kotagiri

Day 4 – I took a walk to the Longwood Shola which is one of the only shola forests that exist close to Kotagiri. As I walked in some general direction, I thought I had lost my way. So I asked a gentleman who was just parking his car where the Forest Office was. After enlightening me of its location, he asked me if I’d like to have some tea. So, instead of going ahead and taking a nice walk in the forests in good weather, I spent the whole afternoon drinking tea and talking to him. He was a pharmacist and Kotagiri being a small town where everyone knew everyone else very well, started filling me in on unnecessary details about the life of the owner of my guest house. After a few hours of idle gossip about his family life, adventures in Sharjah and Dubai, more cups of tea, plans for the new house he’s building, some cookies, lunch, a tour of family albums and a lot of other nonsense, I bid farewell. It had started raining by now, very heavily too, and it was getting late. Yet, I soldiered on to the Forest Office, met C, the super-friendly caretaker of the Forest Rest House there and drank more tea with him. He laughed when I said I wanted to see the Longwood Shola saying I should have been there earlier because the whole track would be covered with leeches after the rains. I told him very quickly about my little time-wasting session with the gentle pharmacist and he shook his head and agreed to take me on a little tour. We walked for a little while inside the thickest forests I’d walked this side of Taman Negara and C very excitedly showed me some Malabar Giant Squirrels, leopard tracks, bison shit, porcupine squills, some mynas and some red-whiskered bulbuls. I’m definitely going back to Longwood Shola someday.

I wouldn’t have made any of those trips if my stay at the “Heavenly Stay” had been truly heavenly. It was a little lodge-like place, very clean, overlooking a not-very-busy road but the hammering noise from the construction site next door made sure I didn’t spend any time in my room during the day (the nights were quiet and peaceful). At 750 Rs. a night, it was also the most expensive place I’d stayed in the Nilgiris with little of the homely atmosphere that even an institution like the YWCA managed. The family was friendly and helpful enough but I wish they were visible more often. D, the care-taker, was among the more annoying people I’d met. If I spent even a couple of hours in the room during the day, he would either look very suspiciously (I don’t know why) or very pitifully (because I was alone). His typical “Good morning” message went something like this – “Good morning (beaming smile). So what are you doing today? It must be very sad being alone, no? Where are your friends?” My trips out of my room were primarily a way to convince him that I was “doing something” in Kotagiri and was “happy”. And, just for that, thank you, D! Caveats aside, it certainly is a good value place to spend time when you’re in Kotagiri.

Climb a few meters above Heavenly Stay to Luke's Church and you get this view
A small, clean, open and charming place, like all hill stations ought to be

Kotagiri is the smallest, cleanest and the most pleasant of all the Nilgiri Hill Stations. It doesn’t have the polluted haze of Coonoor and Ooty and the people (even D!) go out of their way to be open and friendly. My favourite haunt here was the Friend’s Bakery which was hugely popular with locals. It had a little café where the evenings were spent discussing World Cup matches, politics, DMK-AIADMK wars, movies –why Rajnikant is awesome, why Vijayakant is awesome, why Tamil movies are the best movies in the world, gossip – why so-and-so person working in the PWD didn’t get his pension, how this man was ruining his family by piling on debt, more gossip and more politics. In a way, it made me feel warmly nostalgic for the small Himalayan towns and villages in that, in many ways, the people in these hills weren’t so different from the easy-going, affable people one encounters in the Himalayas. Once the altitude drops and the population rises, the smiles start to disappear and the faces appear more tense and unhappy.

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Nilgiri Journals Part 2 – Being an account of two days spent around Coonoor

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The view from Lady Canning’s Seat

Of the 5 weeks I’ve spent in the Nilgiris so far, 3 have been in Coonoor. Thanks to ennui, laziness and the peaceful confines of the YWCA Wyoming, only two days out of the 21 were spent traveling around the town and they too happened only because of coincidentally timely visits by a few friends.

One of them was a drive around Wellington with A and P (you know who you are if you’re reading this), through the military area and the golf course, to a little puddle with paddle boats they called the “Wellington Lake” and then to a nice property they had stayed at called Tea Nest which had big rooms, friendly staff and delivered gorgeous views, sprawling tea estates, massive hills in the distance, good tea and a story about a bear that likes to pay a visit every now and then.

The cloudy drive to Dolphin's Nose
The cloudy drive to Dolphin’s Nose

The other was a trip with D to Dolphin’s Nose, Lamb’s Rock and Lady Canning’s Seat two days before I left the town for good. We could see nothing but walls of clouds around us when we were on our way and I began to think it was a terrible idea to do the trip in that weather. But thankfully, once we reached Dolphin’s Nose, some of the mist had cleared and while the views were still somewhat hazy, one could see all the way down to Mettupalayam and Coimbatore in the plains below. M, our rickshaw driver, insisted that there was a map of India imprinted in the landscape somewhere. I squinted hard but couldn’t see anything so cartographically precise but when he started getting agitated and directing my eyes to every hazy outline decipherable below, everything I saw started resembling a map of India in one way or the other. I pretended to see whatever he wanted me to see to get rid of him momentarily and break out of bizarre illusions.

"They haven't evolved much, have they?", says the monkey watching humans litter
“They haven’t evolved much, have they?”, says the monkey watching humans litter

While we were standing there admiring the view and ignoring resident primates and trigger-happy tourists, M started telling us about a traumatic incident he witnessed a few years back. He had come here with some gullible tourists and was showing them the landscaped map of India. A young couple were sitting on a rock behind the view-point having what he felt was a leisurely chat. Suddenly, the boy (of the couple) walked down calmly and jumped into the valley below. I asked him if this is what passed for “suicide point” in this area and he laughed and said that the suicide point was on the other side of the hill where even more gruesome events were known to happen. I discovered that vertiginous suicides were one of M’s pet obsessions when he tried to convince me that Lamb’s Rock was so named because a certain Mr. Lamb jumped from his eponymous rock, which is utter nonsense as I learned from a little google research later.

Stopping jilted lovers jumping over
Stopping jilted lovers jumping over

Our next stop was Lady Canning’s Seat and I could already sense a fidgety impatience in M when he started playing loud Tamil songs and telling us that there was nothing to “see” there. But we wanted to tick all the boxes, so up we climbed the desolately mossy steps to a “seat” that was scratched and scribbled with notes of people who must have wanted to record their memories in stone. D wondered why it was called “Lady Canning’s Seat” to which I cunningly replied that it must have been because a Lady Canning sat there. We had the whole place to ourselves and the clouds were doing a ballet in the air waltzing over the villages and estates below creating a dreamscape that stays in your head long after but is impossible to photograph (with my limited skills anyway)

Watching reptiles at Lamb's Rock
Our reptilian friends at Lamb’s Rock

We then merrily hopped towards Lamb’s Rock, where M issued a stern warning to us to make it quick because we were going regularly over the “time limit”. But Lamb’s Rock proved to be the place we lingered the most, not because of the views, which were just a slight variation of the views you get from Dolphin’s Nose, but because I started developing a sudden interest in herpetology. Down on the rocky cliff were many multi-coloured reptiles basking in the sun safe in the knowledge that no human being would be stupid enough to venture where they were. After spending an inordinately long time watching and taking pictures of the many lizards on the rocks (some extremely well-camouflaged), we remembered M’s grumblings and hustled back.

More herpetology
More herpetology

M’s rickshaw started rebelling against him as it sputtered and stuttered to a halt. He rather somberly shut the music down and started focusing on solving the problem at hand while we were solemnly contemplating walking the 8 kms back. D had foreseen this much earlier but we hadn’t done anything about it. Would our inaction bite us in the ass? Fortunately for us, M solved the problem soon enough and we romped home.

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Nilgiri Journals Part 1 – Getting there

The beginnings
The beginnings

There is a 3 year old kid emptying his bladder in the seat next to mine. His brother is busy jumping from one cabin over to the next, screaming every time he does a hop. Their mother seated diagonally opposite is juggling between taking pictures of her son’s adventurousness on her smartphone, scolding her younger ‘un for soiling his neighbour’s pants and exchanging itinerary notes very loudly with another family. Her bored-looking husband, sitting glumly and despondently opposite to me, has just finished eating a packet of jam roll and drinking a cup of tea he was conned into buying at the chaotic stall at the station by enterprising vendors who told him nothing was available in the jungles beyond where the train was going. He vengefully dumps his plastic wrapper and foam cup outside the window so they could join millions of their cousins littered among the green slopes of the valley we were slumbering through.

In the adjacent cabin, another big family from Chandigarh has a septuagenarian patriarch boasting about the devious means he used to convince the ticket collector to give him a first class ticket for a second class price so he could join his noisy family in the same coach, a remarkable feat where he saved a princely sum of 100 rupees. A group of young college boys and girls have taken over another cabin and their atonal cacophonic screams and wails could have killed many an endangered species in the forests outside.

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This wasn’t an ordinary train. This was the more than 100-year old UNESCO-certified world heritage mountain railway from Mettupalayam to Ooty which offered an opportunity to travel by the old romantic way of getting to a destination, behind a chugging steam engine on a narrow-gauge track. It’s a trip every guide-book tells you to do when you visit South India. When I successfully booked the only seat available on the train a month ago, I felt triumphant and for days dreamed of the quiet valleys of the Nilgiri foothills, of the dense forests with hundreds of endemic bird-calls and of the hooting steam engine that would transport me to a different place and time. The imagination, as always, trumped reality.

Frenetic picture-taking at Hillgrove
Frenetic picture-taking at Hillgrove

Was it worth enduring all that mayhem to take a supremely hyped up and romanticized mode of travel to reach my destination? In a way, yes. For one, the ticket cost 25 Rupees. And as the train wound up through the forested valleys of the Nilgiri foothills, I whipped out my Sansa Clip Plus mp3 player, started listening to Rain Dogs by Tom Waits, drowned out the ambient noise, began ignoring my cantankerous neighbours and started enjoying the journey. The names of the stations, Hillgrove, Runnymede, Adderley, belonged to another, more oppressive (now faux romantic) time and so did the pace of travel as the train jogged along for 3 hours to traverse the 17 kms to Coonoor. We would get down at every station, drink some tea, dutifully brandish our DSLRs to take pictures and get back in. Some of the scenery was spectacular and different in perspective from the ones you would get from the road that you could see winding down below. There were bridges so high you felt as if you hovered in the air. As the jungles got thicker, the air got cooler and clear streams flowed hundreds of meters below. Thanks to the altitude, there was a nip in the air and every now and then, an expansive landscape would open up where one could see miles and miles into the plains, making me (almost) forgive the kid who peed on my pants.

The view from Adderley
The view from Adderley

So yes, I’m glad I took the train. Will I do it again? I’m not so sure. Maybe once in a lifetime is more than enough.

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Gluttony in Pondicherry

One of the pleasures of coming to Pondicherry is hopping from one café to the next, either sipping a lovingly brewed cup of coffee or munching a sublime croissant that melts in your mouth or gorging on freshly made pancakes. I should say, though, that the best food I had here was not in a fancy café but at the busy South Indian restaurant Surguru. Some days, especially on week-ends, it gets so packed, there’s a long queue waiting to get in, always a good sign. Now, I have had my fair share of dosas, “meals” (the South Indian version of the unlimited thali), idli’s, parottas and filter coffees but nothing quite compares to the quality you get here. Unlike the infamous Saravana Bhavan, the food isn’t oily, looks hygienic and is as tasty as Tam food gets. Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s a list of places where I enjoyed other kinds of food –

Baker Street – Being impossibly absent-minded about most things in life, I have lost many an expensive item on the road. A mobile in Sri Lanka, another in Goa, a portable stove in Zanskar, spectacles in Vientiane, a bag in Chiang Rai, countless room keys and dozens of other very important things. If it wasn’t for the friendly and honest people at Baker Street, I would have added a Kindle to the list. So, thank you, people who run Baker Street, for keeping my Kindle safe and returning it back to me. On the food front, you get great croissants, quiches, salads and all manner of French-like things here. I heard it’s very crowded usually but it was empty both times I went. The desserts were positively yum too, especially the flan and the eclairs. Nice place to put on a few kilos.

A quiche and a croissant in Pondicherry

Arokya – Although I find much of what passes for “organic” tasteless and insipid, I do have a tendency to go for healthy sounding meals every once in a while. You would think a place like Pondicherry, the land of ashrams, yoga and Auroville would have more of these but Arokya is a pioneer, being the only organic-themed restaurant in Pondy (according to Sundar who runs it) and I’m very happy to say that they make healthy food without making you feel like you’re eating tasteless gruel. The veggie soup wasn’t great but the main course was delicious. The carrot paniharam which was accompanied by sambar and chutney was delightful and so was the nine-grain chappathi that came with a helping of vegetable kurma. I washed it all down with a mixed fruit juice that was ever so slightly sweetened with sugarcane.

Zuka – Everything here screams chocolate and how! Zuka is a cosy little café that values quality over quantity and although my hot chocolate felt more like having a shot of whisky than a mug of beer, it was still the best hot chocolate that I can remember having in a long time. The last one was in the (also) ex-French colonial town of Luang Prabang. The hot chocolate here comes with bits of chocolate in little chocolate thimbles so you can make your drink more chocolatey. Did I mention they do good chocolate here?

Hot chocolate at Zuka

Le Café – This one wins purely for the location on the promenade facing the sea, which makes it possibly the most popular café in the city. Sip on well-brewed filter coffee with the crowds and enjoy the fresh sea breeze from the Bay of Bengal. It’s open 24 hours, so perfect for the ones who wake up at 5 in the morning and go jogging on the Promenade.

Kasha ki Aasha – A rooftop place run by local ladies that makes piping hot pancakes that are a world away from the imitation banana/honey pancakes you get on the backpacker trail made by Nepali cooks. I have never been to France but the Frenchman who lives next to me at my guest house swears it’s as authentic as it gets. The coffee is fantastic too, served with a lot of love and a few smiles. It’s the perfect place to spend a hot afternoon reading a book and if you don’t have a book, there’s free wi-fi to make sure you don’t get too bored.

Coffee at Kasha ki Aasha

Cafe Xtasi – If Pizza is what you crave for, this is where you should go. This place has a menu with a whopping 7 pages of pizzas with just about every permutation, combination and ingredient that you can think of. The breads come out of a wood-fired oven that lies outside the air-conditioned dining area in public view so you know what you’re getting is the real thing.

If anyone’s been to Pondicherry and has more suggestions, do let me know! I’m here and always willing to eat.

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