In the Ghats for a day

When you live in Pune and it rains and you want to get away, there is a beautiful getaway called Lonavala that beckons you. Problem is, it beckons majority of the population around. Net result is chaos.

Last week I got an invite to spend the weekend in a resort at the very top, somewhere in that city and I jumped at the offer. Already dreaming about the rain and clouds and waterfalls and cool breeze, I wondered how to go, since taking the car was not an option. Well, driving on winding broken single lane mountain roads is not something I do very often, but the excuse I have is better- my car was being used by family so…So. I decided to take a train. Not having ridden in a train for quite a few years now, my first thought was, how difficult can it be, it is just about an hour and a few minutes away, with trains almost every hour, all I need to do is reach the station and board the next one.

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A view from the train

But then wiser and saner thoughts prevailed, maybe I should get a reservation. A dialogue with the hubby resolved the situation and he booked a ticket for me. So far so good. Reached the station almost 45 minutes in advance, years of non-practice does that to you. Waited with stamping legs and straining ears at the entrance for about half hour till the platform was announced. Managed to board without any incidents, just observing that the platform was decidedly cleaner than what I was used to in the yesteryears. Provided you don’t look out when the platform ends.

The train was cleaned twice in that small journey- nice. It was decidedly hard to resist the constant chant of “sabudana vada, veg cutlet, sandwich”, but the most interesting was “water pani” which I realised meant plain water and not “chilled pani”. Now, not having travelled this route before, I wondered how I would know my station was arriving and how long would it stop for and will there be enough time to get down. Yeah, I know, I am a totally inexperienced traveler. But outwardly, I was cool, even though I was doing the math in the mind, so many minutes from Pune, shall I ask Siri, what was the last station that went by and so on.., I did manage to get down at the right station quite safely. It is a different matter that after that, I had to climb up and down the bridge multiple times to find the driver. I mean how was I supposed to know “towards the city” didn’t imply towards the platform no 1.

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It is gonna pour

Sitting in the cab, with cool breeze blowing my hair, and rain drops down my cheeks, well, I was smiling away, I had arrived, and the rest was going to be a cool breeze (literally). Till I found traffic jam and jam and crowd and hawkers and no one following traffic rules. Well, this feels just like Pune, I thought with a grimace. Small congested roads, directionless people and honking all around. A little more than an hour, a packet of chips and several bumps and potholes later, I reached the resort.

It was as beautiful and serene as expected. Ah the beauty of a hill top resort when it is raining is beyond compare. Gorging on good food, good company, love and laughter. Even in 45 acres of property, we could find hordes of people coming from the dry state and debating whether to be upgraded to purple from white and other such nonsense. No, this is not a gyan session on Club Mahindra.

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6 am from the balcony
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Ah the colours

A day of relaxation, chai in the balcony, long morning walk, lot of selfies and a huge breakfast spread. We hogged so much, needed to lie down awhile. But then finally it was time to leave. The lime water in the tummy kept bubbling up and down as we encountered the familiar potholes again, somehow kept it from overflowing.

We stopped at the tiger’s point, or was it lion, or jackal, not sure. Some animal, definitely. Any self-respecting hill station in India has to have a Lion or Tiger’s point, and a sunset and sunrise point. Amidst a mass of humanity and cars and a breathtaking view, we too decided to do what the tourists do, walk, eat and click pictures. All around us were couple with the girlfriend perched on the boyfriend’s back, posing away, and few I-am-a-cool-dude guys posing on the cliff edges. Thankfully nobody fell off during our watch. After about an hour of touristy thingy, we followed the bro, the leader, who kept going in weird directions till we realised he was looking for relief and so we hastily retreated and went back to the car, relieved.

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At the animal point

Next stop was Bhushi ghat. Now that is a place, I would absolutely not recommend unless you are drunk and rowdy and enjoy sitting in dirty slimy water and throwing it around on yourself and others. The walk is long and bad, uneven stones does wonders for your back, the place has some broken steps with no railing and a sure chance of falling on the rocks, stairs that lead nowhere and a lot of smelly people sitting in smellier water, on the steps and throwing it around. Just not worth the time. The river on the other side that overflows at times. Not for me.

Came back to downtown, tired and happy and in dire need of ginger chai. Unfortunately, my train mode of transport did not work this time, simply because I did not get a reservation. Too many people, too little time. How will you go back, maybe come to Mumbai with us and then go back Monday. No way, I want to be back tonight. So, a cab, me and a 60 km drive back to home. With memories. And an agreement to go back again, with kids.

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The memory

 

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Majuli – बीच मे

Literally meaning- in the middle of. Majuli is the largest river island in Brahmaputra in Assam, almost 50-by-25 kms across, largely populated by the Mising tribe, speaking Mising, weaving stuff and using bamboo.

Phew, Wikipedia can tell you much more by just one click.

When we decided to spend a couple of days in Majuli, I wasn’t sure what to expect, not having done my usual homework.

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somewhere at Kaziranga

The terrain from Guwahati to Majuli, via Kaziranga is interesting, with a mix of potholed roads under the guise of construction, ability to see elephants and Rhinos lazing around (try using binoculars, else they are just a speck). And a horde of two and four legged creatures crossing the highway including but not limited to

  • ducks- full family evening walk with two baby ducks and parents
  • pregnant goats (why was every goat I saw, expecting? I guess it is something to do with fertility)
  • chickens who were not too chicken to cross the road
  • cows
  • elephants
  • and of course, humans who know no better than to cross roads and drivers paying no heed to screeching tires and cursing drivers.

Having reached Jorhat by nightfall, with the accelerometer fooled into thinking we had walked all the way, we decided to spend the night in a dubious hotel where waiters did not understand the meaning of Jain food and that cooking is possible without onions too. And promptly refused to serve us. Sigh, somehow passed the night since our गुटखा eating drivers wanted to leave at 6 am sharp and with a family of 7 ranging from 17 to 70, trust me, it is near-impossible.

The route to Majuli took us through a ferry that takes humans, luggage and two and four wheelers. So 8.00 am saw our cars lined up door to door, while we were all on the ferry roof, holding on to dear life as we sailed across the river. An uneventful 45 minute but photographic journey later, we entered what looked like the Run of Kutch.

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As you enter Majuli

Yeah, you heard me right. It is an unending stretch of white sand, which my brother promptly declared to be quicksand. I was a trifle doubtful as cars and dogs seem to be running fine on the same. The banks rose sharply to about 8-10 feet into this stretch as our ferry eased its belly into a nook made for this purpose.

It is indescribably beautiful. Stretches of white sand, followed by stretches of blue water, wherever you see, warm sun, no human construction, save bamboo huts and boats close by.

We drank in the sights using our cameras and eyes, sipping #AssamRunsOnChai positivi-tea. After about an hour, post a refill and release, we decided to drive into the city.

Majuli no longer felt like an island, a couple of kilometres inland. It looked every inch a normal dirty Indian town, with its full share of Oppo and Coke and Kurkure hoardings. Seriously, these guys are everywhere, including no man’s land.

As we moved past the dirt roads, we could only see bamboo huts on stilts. Since water comes in easily during monsoon, a few kilometres inland, the tribes mostly live on first floor, ground floor being left for scavenger pigs who also contribute to the स्वच्छ भारत अभियान. Toilets have arrived at the village, you can actually see a lone one concealed by a crowd of huts. Shy girls weaving clothes, unruly children playing around, mind you- no men.

Moving on, we crossed the north India in the East, stretches of सरसों के खेत, where the kids had their DDLJ moment. A few brick houses, and lots of bamboo and banana trees later, we landed at our resort. Yeah, the place has a resort, and it was all bamboo. The huts, floor, lamps, tables, chairs, झूला, washroom shower panels, and the toothpick stand. (and we also ate boiled bamboo shoots).

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Our home for the next two days

Lovely place, awesome food, decent service. It was surreal to see nightfall at 4.30 pm, so we decided to light a bonfire, try some local beer (made from burnt husk) and play अंताक्षरी and dumb charades with the kids. All of us middle aged people trying to enact Bollywood movies was seriously hilarious and we had a riot. (The word came to mind as I am writing this, the news on TV is shrieking riots at Pune).

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The DDLJ view

Of course we had teething problems like no lights, no water, specially no hot water, plethora of mosquitoes and red ants.

The city does not have a sunset point (strange, all man defined tourist places ought to have a sunset or a sunrise point, basic qualifier), but a bamboo bridge (yeah, and you can also drive on it) from where you can see the sun set. Not really being subject to the sight of sun setting from the high rises we stay in normally, it was a pretty serene view.

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The bamboo bridge

Next day saw us take a long walk in the woods early morning. A dog with a curled tail discovered us, (couple of them actually) and escorted us through the walk and all the way back to our adobe. Funny fellow, maybe he didn’t want other dogs in his territory.

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walk with the dog

Post local breakfast of curd and jaggery with a fibrous poha kind of stuff, delicious, we decided to go traditional and visit temples. Learnt that the island and its people are mostly self-sufficient. They grow the rice and सरसों and vegetables locally, and just buy the spices.

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the Mising villagers (but they are not really missing)

We had just missed Raas Leela that is quite a well-known three-day fest.  The city has a few Satras which are places of Vishnu worship as well as art and culture. With one showing mask making, some featuring artefacts, and some famous for its dance forms. The only issue was we had to take the shoes and socks off at the gate while the actual places were about half a kilometre in. (why socks?)

One fellow these guys worship is Garuda, whose statues are found everywhere, protecting the gates. The island probably has more goats and cows than humans, you can always see dozens grazing in the fields. Mr Gadkari decided to visit the place a day after us, announcing a sanction of some 330 Cr INR for Majuli development. If only I knew my चरण धूलि would make such a difference, I would have blessed the place long back.

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The Garuda

 

The big fat sleepy Indian travels

A ten hour long flight is a great time to introspect, come a wee bit closer to your inner goddess ( courtesy 50 shades of whatever), catch up with some cramped sections of sleep, watch the latest movies you have missed, or write a blog, which I did. In fact I had absolutely no such intention, but I could not sleep. The flight was half empty, I was pretty tired, hence found a group of three empty seats together, which I occupied before anyone else got a similar idea.

I was feeling decidedly cold so decided to keep my long jacket on, fully zipped as I tried to make myself comfortable. After several moments of counting the sheep I had seen in Scottish highlands, when I still could not catch a couple of winks, my mind started wandering and I thought it might have been so great if the knee length coat had a gadget build in, where, if I pressed a button, the overcoat would open up from the bottom, another inner layer would come out, all the way down to the foot, and lo and behold, I would have a sleeping bag. Wouldn’t that be like cool? Then I could flop down anywhere on the floor and catch my winks, instead of trying to make a bed out of the cramped uneven too small seats.

Last two weeks, we spent going around the beautiful cities and countryside of the British Isles. As we roamed around UK, sometimes in buses, trains, tubes and flights, I noticed my entire family, and extended family nodding off in their seats. In unison, everyone’s head would drop and bob up and down with the uneven roads ( uneven roads and UK, not really), reminded me of the head bobbing dolls you place on the car dashboard. Once upon a time, I could not imagine myself sleeping on a bus, but in the current dowager status, anything is possible. Except my quiet niece, who would put her head against the window pane and go off to sleep as soon as she boarded a vehicle. Maybe to avoid talking to us mere mortals, or maybe just to sleep.

Even after coming back from the hectic weeks, my sleep starved body is still creaking and groaning. Why, why did the two weeks have to be all run and no sleep, I am so dog tired, all I want to do is lift up my legs, and die. My ageing, creaking bones, do not have the energy of my 20 yr old prodigal son, and I have hitherto refused to accept the fact. As I ran huffing and puffing, filling my days with oodles of touristy things that all Indian tourists must do when in England and other countries of similar nature. As soon as you reach the spots of the picture postcards, out come the phones and cameras, and everyone must take a independent selfie with the iconic background and then we also must remember to take pictures together, with everyone saying cheese, and my bro-in-law has to take all the random clicks where u may see the family or, maybe a finger or back or a cow or some other piece of anatomy that proves you were there when the random click was being taken. Amidst all this rigmarole, we forget to actually see the place with bare eyes, but then we middle class Indian tourists are like that only. We have to fill one moment with hundreds, never mind the quality, so long as the quantity is enough, the purpose is achieved.

And I have to tell you this one more well known fact about us, we eat, everywhere, we have to eat on the bus where the guide has explicitly told us not to, right in front of him, and he has no option but to look away as we happily munch on all the puri bhujiya, sandwiches, chips and nuts, that our backpacks are able to carry. Having hoarded all that could possibly be taken from flight and hotels, we made most optimal use of the salt and pepper sachets and coffee pouches and fruits. Since we feel hungry as soon as we board the bus, or train, our hunger pangs are directly tied to the bus engine starting, and if we are hungry, our frustrated half anglicized kids have to be hungry too. And we just don’t eat quietly, we have to ask everyone on what they want, in our usual loud voice, drowning down the guide as he tries in vain to tell us about the Vikings and the Normans. And once that is satisfied, we go back to nodding. And we have to use the wifi, wherever available, which is bloody well, almost everywhere, just in case, we don’t find it further ahead. Saying Hi all the friends who have no interest in knowing where we are, but telling them that we are touring UK, has a charm of its own, specially when you know they are sweating it out in the Indian summer.

You can make out Indian tourists from afar. They are the ones with the biggest backpacks full of Indian snacks, they have the biggest cameras and they talk loudest and they are the first to reach a spot for the selfie moment, followed by the remaining 15 in the family immediately queued up, while others wait patiently for the party to finish. We love taking the hop on hop off buses, and talking all the while, never listening to the painstakingly recorded commentary. And of course, every stop, we have to visit the toilet, कल हो न हो, except when it is a paid one, then our uretary muscles suddenly develop the courage to wait till the next stop. Which self respecting Indian is going to pay 20 Rs for a washroom visit! We are the first to leave the bus, hustling and bustling, and the last ones to come back with the self assurance of the back benchers- nobody can leave us behind.

When we are any headcount more than one, crossing the road is a project. In India, you know you can’t trust the drivers or the lights and you make a dash for dear life when you need to cross. But in UK, you cross like civilized people. Invariably we would find that 1/2 of us have crossed and gone ahead, albeit in the wrong direction, one group is waiting for the right to walk while the rest have given up on the UK road crossing system and crossed without the zebra fellow around without worrying about the buses and taxis. And then we have to use our God gifted tremendous lung power, to collect and count all of us, before repeating the scenario. By the time the trip ended, we had mastered the art of crossing with the masses.

And as soon as we feel cold, we start zipping up the jackets and blazers of our 20 yr old adult children, amidst complaints and frantic cries of Maa, it ain’t cold, falling on deaf ears. Out comes the fluffy caps with the फुन्दा and continuous muttering of, uff, why does it have to be so cold. God forbid, if we enter into a restaurant, we have to visit the loo, before, during and after the dinner, everyone has to order different food, completely confusing the waiter, as we try to pronounce the unpronounceable dishes with our Indian tongues, finally giving up, just pointing towards the dish works most of the time.

A 12 yr old, who wanted to spend money wherever possible, just because he wanted to, and would burst into tears at the drop of a hat unless allowed to hug his sister anywhere on the road, a 20 yr old fully excited and charged son, who was always full of energy at the end of the day also, and his opposite, 20 yr old, perennially sleep infused daughter, who favorite pastime was nodding off, we were a varied bunch.

From the land of Oscar Wilde to the bonnie bonnie banks of Loch Lomond, to the hustle and bustle of the London streets. A weather that would vary from quite cold to very cold, dry to rainy in a matter of minutes, winds that made you want to run indoors, when there is nothing but open spaces and a few pieces of stones. Walking tours to hoho buses, meeting big Rex, Scottish humor to whisky, ( why did the farmer not know how many sheep he had, because he fell asleep every time he started counting). Making sure we don’t miss anything remotely free, and flopping down on the broken spring bed back at the room. Lack of sleep, but no lack of enthusiasm for the gardens and the castles, somebody needs to tell the Scottish that 4 walls and a roof do not a castle make. Peering inside 10, Downing Street and Windsor castle to catch a glimpse of the high and mighty, fighting at the tube station when confused with which line to take, UK must be glad to see the last of us leave.

How Indians सफर

I can’t help it, whenever I travel, I find stories. Either they follow me or I eavesdrop too much. Sitting at Jodhpur airport as I looked at some of my fellow passengers ( and for want of stories, I do stare) I realized they can be easily classified as

  • the normal class like me and you, jeans and shirts types, who pack their bags with Jodhpur goodies like कचोरी and घेवर and then huff and puff with their luggage ( but who forget the glares even when travelling to the sun city in May).
  • then there is a local class ( no offence- they are the locals of Jodhpur) easily identified by their paunches, distinct gait, accent and clothes. Men typically wear white pants, white shirt, gold chain and earrings, black shoes and black glares (even in the shade). Women in their synthetic saris and heavy gold jewelry with their head respectfully covered and carrying varieties of printed and embroidered थैले and kids.
  • there is the tourist class who go for the express reason of visiting the fort and because it is en route to Jaisalmer. They insist on wearing thin and frayed ethnic ensemble with multiple layers, headgear, scarves, inner shirts and outer shirts, all of different but indistinguishable colors and still manage to look paper-thin. ( even they remember the glares)
  • finally the elite class, who wear the designer बंधेज suits and their glares are always perched on top of their puffed hair ( how they manage that, I fail to fathom, when I try that, my glasses insist on falling off- maybe my head is the wrong shape) and their obnoxiously big flashing diamond rings on multiple fingers, designer looking bags, the western accent and oh the arrogance, returning from a destination wedding.

I had the pleasure of sitting next to an elite family yesterday who were discussing loudly about the wedding they just came from. In the 10 minutes, I felt almost as if I had been there. Catered by the Taj group, 1000-1200 people invited, family in diamonds business worth few thousand crores (gulp), had invited Shahrukh Khan ( who probably did not do the honors) .  The big fat Indian wedding dinner was a 7 course meal costing 7000-8000 Rs per plate. Thank God, the menu was not elaborated upon. The 7 day festivities with polo match and cricket match and bachelors party and couples dinner and संगीत and of course, the wedding.  The 2 couples discussing this were related and the better halves suitably waved their diamond glittered hands every once in a while. I was feeling decidedly poor on hearing and seeing the display of wealth. Had I taken a selfie, you would probably see my mouth hanging open ( maybe even drooling). Jodhpur airport does not have a lounge so even the elitists have to sit with us normal class and we are exposed to the world we know close to nothing about. But I always enjoy sitting next to people who can talk of thousands of crores as a matter of complete insignificance.

Another old episode I remember vaguely concerned a गुज्जु family ( again, this is not a racist post, they were from Gujarat, so ). This was an international flight and I had an aisle seat and people were still walking in. This military looking husband walked in with a frail bird-like wife hovering behind carrying loads of luggage. I realized their seats were in my row so I got up so they could move in. I had to stand for about 10-15 minutes as husband dear tried to find space for the number of items they were carrying- opening every overhead compartment, moving everything around, all the while cursing loudly. Finally they settled in with some pieces of the luggage on and around them (if you have been on a train before in India, you can visualize the scene). And then the overbearing husband had to point out his “ज्ञान” to his ever suffering dutiful wife of forty years- about aircrafts, about runaways and what not.  When she could not tie her seatbelt, he had to do it for her. When she fumbled with the TV screen, he leaned forward aggressively to help but could not even after multiple finger pokes, finally I had to pitch in to get it working for her. And when the tea was served- the wife promptly took out the Marie biscuits from one of the numerous bags and served it. Had they offered the थेपला, I would probably have taken it. The long flight with the अचारी smells and other aromas of dubious origin coming from right next seat kept me company throughout. (I thought I had posted this story sometime back, but could not find it).

As kids when travelling by train, I remember my dad carrying his aluminum suitcase and 5-6 थैला around his neck, one carrying medicines for all possible ailments (but if you needed a Crocin, that may have been forgotten) , one carrying food and biscuits, one- a towel and chain complete with lock and key and a few handkerchiefs , bowl and spoons, coins, nail-cutter and  also some cleaning clothes- just in case (and rest I never really got around to- since I was not allowed to peek inside them). And of course multiple water bottles and vacuum flasks. Over time the suitcase became a trolley, the  train journey became a flight but the count of  झोलाs of थोले Banerjee as he was named did not reduce.

My bro is another unique piece. Once he was planning to visit Pune during November and asked me whether it was going to be cold. Pune and cold? When he turned up for a 2 day visit, he had a big suitcase and a bag along with an overnighter. When I tried to enquire about the too much luggage- he told he has a set of clothes for summer, a set of clothes for mild winter and a set of clothes for extreme winter. !!! and of course it could rain, and there has to be a change of wear for every season. I am only glad he did not bring along a Parka and snow boots and bandana. And his overnighter can only carry his vanity case with all his creams for the face and foot and fingers and arms and other anatomical parts. (not to forget the Boroline without which our family never moves an inch).

When I send my son back to college after a vacation, I pack all possible foodstuff I can lay hands on and that would fit in his reasonably big suitcase bursting at the seams even though he has to pay excess luggage. But the काजू and बादाम and मसालाs and ready-to-eats and cooked सब्जीs and रोटीs and पराठाs have to go. After all, the genes and the baggage crosses over the generation boundary.