See you there!
Friday, May 20, 2011
Monday, April 11, 2011
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Sunday, February 06, 2011
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Thursday, November 25, 2010
Thursday, November 11, 2010
Friday, August 20, 2010
A town of salesmen
“You have to go to YMCA? Left and straight – half a km” he said, and paused to add, “Do you need a houseboat for tonight, sir?”
As I park my car 5 minutes hence, another man walks over, looks rather conspicuously at my out-of-town license plate, and comes over, “Houseboat night stay, sir?”
Far, far away, some 15km from town. I’m taking an evening walk in a field off the Quilon-Cochin waterway. There is the vast emptiness of paddy fields around. There are but 2 houses visible in the far distance. A man walks from the village that lies 2km away, and moves away from me.
This man suddenly stops, turns around. There’s nobody else around – just the two of us. He asks, “Houseboat, sir? 6000 rupees only for 1 night”.
Just like Bombay offers sex to newly arrived visitors, Alleppey offers houseboats-by-night.
“Toddy?”, I ask.
“Bar?” comes the reply.
“No. No. Toddy.” I insist.
“Why toddy? Go to whisky, brandy bar. Next road only”, the man persists.
Finally, I decide to take my friend Samanth’s advice .”Shaaaaap?”, say I.
No avail. Perhaps I had missed the precise intonation that Samanth insisted was the key to success.
I try again , imploring, ”Kallu shaaaap?”
I immediately receive detailed, precise directions to the nearest toddy shop.
I also get dirty stares for being a car-driving, jeans-wearing toddy-shop visitor.
Where romantic notions go to die
After I’ve booked a place to stay in, I look up directions for getting there. I find, “We are not reachable by road. We are located on the Quilon-Cochin waterway.”
Wow, I tell myself, a place with enough attitude to stay away from the path of tourists. This, I tell myself, is precisely the sort of thing one writes about.
An hour before reaching, I call the resort to tell them about my arrival. The manager asks ,”What will you have for dinner?”.
“I’ll come there and order.”
“No, we’ll need to cook for you, so tell me now.”
Ah, I tell myself, here’s a place where they cook especially for guests, which doesnt have stocks of what could be leftover dishes. Here’s a place that isnt business-like in taking orders and mass-producing dishes listed on big menus. This really must be a place one could call quaint and nice. This, perhaps, is a place that is a house, but merely calls itself a resort.
I reach the resort, taking a 10 minute boat ride across the waterway to get there.
There are but two men there. One’s in the kitchen, the cook. The other man, who’s driven the motor boat, and also mans the reception, is the manager. There are just 2 other guests in the resort tonight.
See? Quaint is just the word, I tell myself. Very nice and non-commercial. This is the way resorts should be. Owner runs the place, talks to guests, manages everything. No corporate management, no indifferent staff. Owner relaxes and lives happily because he doesn’t have to sweat himself to death about ‘scaling up’.
Romantic notions, alas, die a cruel death.
As I chat with the manager over dinner, he laments, “So many staff are on leave. The boat driver is taking a vacation. The MD wants me to handle all the work.”
At least, I tell myself, the place maintains its peaceful seclusion. It’s not for everyone, just like any place with any notion of pride should be. It’s so far away from the town, only the most intrepid, only the worthy come here. See how un-crowded it is?
That notion, too, dies an ignominious death.
Sometime later, he says, “This is a very busy waterway. Boats pass all day. We pick up guests directly from Alleppey. Sometimes, we have houseboats stop by for parties at our resort. Today somehow we hardly have guests.”
“Sometimes, people book the entire resort and hold parties and bonfires here. They have a great time. Especially software engineers from Bangalore.”
Well, so the place didn’t quite match up to the exalted levels of chastity I demanded. Oh well, at least the place was memorable enough to make me want to stay two extra days. One cant have everything, can one?
Friday, July 02, 2010
Sunday, June 13, 2010
Earlier this summer, I went on a slow-driving vacation covering most of the National Highway 17. The NH17 is one of India’s longest highways, running along 1400km of India’s west coast from Cochin to Mumbai(although the purists will point out that it plies, in fact, from Edapally to Panvel).
The NH17 wades through vast coconut groves, coasts through plains, climbs the enormous Sahyadris, and deposits one at the edge of the snarling metropolitan traffic of Bombay. All along, it stays tantalizingly close to the shore of the Arabian sea.
The NH17 is among India’s best loved roads. Many friends began their vacations with a drive along the very pretty Bombay-Goa stretch of the NH17. Those who didn’t take the road went along the just-as-beautiful Konkan Railway that runs alongside. The NH17 was also the stretch where I spent many weekends on motorbike-trips a few years ago.
A drive along the NH17 was, in a way, a homecoming, a return to roads once traveled and loved.
No seasides on this highway
Calicut in Northern Kerala is where this journey begins. For the purely practical reason that I stay in Calicut, I skipped the southernmost 200-odd kilometers of the NH17 from Cochin to Calicut.
Calicut is a seaside town, but you wouldn’t know if you passed Calicut along NH17. You pass along clumps of coconut trees, along the yawning Ferok river, along quiet cottages, but the sea remains hidden from view.
For all of NH17’s charms, its one shortcoming is that it offers very hardly any glimpses of the sea. It passes within a few kilometers of the coast throughout its 1400km length. But like a jealous lover, it snorts stubborn refusals when asked for an introduction to the Arabian sea.
Another English channel
North of Calicut, coconut trees cloak the highway in a cool, protective shelter from the summer. You see the open sky only where occasional rivers puncture coconut groves.
At Mahe, some 60km away, the highway is chock full of alcohol shops. That’s because Mahe is a union territory(it’s a part of Pondicherry), and has lower alcohol prices. Mahe was a French colony – but the only symbol of its French past that you can see from the highway today is the St Theresa’s church that comfortably dwarfs the coconut trees around.
Thalassery town is across the Mahe river. Thalassery was British and Mahe French, so the Mahe river wedged between the towns is oft nicknamed the English Channel.
One billboard for a real estate company announces – ‘Thalassery - the cradle of Indian cricket’, referencing a mostly forgotten bit of trivia – the fact that Thalassery is widely held to be the first place in India where cricket was played. The 200th anniversary celebrations of the Telicherry Cricket Club in 2002 went mostly unnoticed too.
Driving by the sea
Thalassery’s chief attraction is that it has one of only two drive-through beaches on NH17. But there are no signs or boards to prepare one for the arrival of this beach. It is rather abruptly, then, that I find myself on a half-kilometer stretch of the highway on a ledge right above the sea. There are no crowds, parked vehicles, picnickers or swimmers that you’d expect of a popular beach. Mine is the only vehicle parked on the highway.
Buses, trucks and cars whiz by in a tearing hurry. Some of their passengers peep out, and make frantic efforts to see as much of the vast open sea as possible before the road disappears into the interior of the town.
I shift into first gear, crawl alongside the sea, and gaze wistfully into infinity in the late morning sun before the highway veers me away from the sea-view.
The seen and the unseen
The highway traveler goes places, but never really gets to stay long enough to appreciate any one place in depth. He has to form an appreciation of each place purely on the basis of the meager clues afforded by the surroundings of the highway. Such are the implications of choosing to take a highway vacation.
On the NH17, most towns and places worth seeing lie off the highway. Now, for instance, a signboard, like a dangling carrot, tells me that the seaside fort at Bekal is 9km off the highway. Yet another tells me that the ancient pagoda-like Malik Dinar mosque is off the highway as well.
But the highway does give enough clues about what is changing. As I go further into Northern Kerala, green crescent-and-star flags and red hammer-and-sickle flags slowly reduce in number, until I find Kasargode town full of flashing saffron flags for a BJP rally. Vegetarian restaurants start to appear instead of open air chicken-grill-displays.
The shade of coconut trees diminishes. Shrubs and undergrowth hardly compensate for the lost shade, as the summer heat beats down directly. The car interior starts to get stuffy. Soon enough, I go across the Karnataka-Kerala border, traverse the immense Nethravathi river and enter Mangalore.
Saturday, December 19, 2009
Once you get to Gokarna town, you’ll have another twinge of disappointment awaiting you. You’ll find that the Om beach, the biggest attraction in town, is 7km away from the bus stand, and that there is no public transport to the place.
Then you’ll be helpfully told that from the Om beach, you’ve to traverse 2, 2 and 3 kilometres respectively to get to the three other beaches around (Kudle, Half Moon and Paradise). Now, that wouldn’t be so much of a bother if it weren’t for the fact that there are no roads to any of these beaches from Om. The only way to get to these beaches is to hike across hills.
I had all day, and was curious enough to travel slowly, to take my time seeing things. So I set out on walk from Gokarna town bus stand. The road to Om beach lay along what looked like a nondescript bylane. I walked along the deserted village road, past thatched houses hidden behind shrub fences.
Shortly after the 5km-to-Om milestone, the road rose to reveal just a little glimpse of the wide open sea in the distance. I regretted walking on, for the road dipped again, and the sea hid behind a hill. As I impatiently awaited the shore, the road swerved around a couple of hills. At the 2km-to-Om milestone, the hill to my right dropped away to reveal a yawning valley.
I stood staring across the valley, as the vast expanse of the Arabian Sea shimmered across it in the late morning sun. The infinite silvery stretch seemed just beneath me, yet the intervening forests made it seem tantalisingly unreachable. The empty grey of the road waved about ahead of me, and I walked on, for the shore was still some way off.
The Om beach, my first port of call, is named thus because it is shaped like the letter ‘Om’. While you can see the two semicircular shores that form halves of the Om, the meagre elevation isn’t enough to reveal the Om-shape very clearly.
Because Om is the only beach in Gokarna accessible by road, it is the only one that draws crowds. It was quite an interesting mix of people too. Beer guzzling Europeans occupied tables in the numerous seaside restaurants, as did Indian joint families. Middle aged women wrapped up in drenched saris got out of the water and walked past sunbathers. A 6 year old girl pointed excitedly at a bikini clad woman and screamed in Kannada - “she’s in her underwear!” as her parents made frantic attempts to look elsewhere.
I walked across the two arcs of the Om, past the numerous restaurants dotting the fringe. At the southern end, a narrow hill-path sneaked out behind Sunset Cafe, the last restaurant on the beach. The path quickly rose upwards. It made its way into the forests that just a little while ago had been a green blanket covering the hills bordering the sea.
Trees on either side were slender and short, and accompanied by undergrowth. The foliage completely obscured the sea. There were no people along the trail. At times the path dissolved into a clump of trees and became ill defined. Sometimes two roads diverged in a wood. I found my way from the fact that Half Moon and Paradise beaches lay in a general southward direction, across a couple of hills.
After what seemed an age of walking through the canopy of forest cover, the path stepped outdoors. I walked along a ledge, right above the sea. There was nothing but the cold blue of the boundless water below me. The gentle wrinkles of wavelets twinkled in the sunshine. The crowds, the restaurants, the noises that lay just across a hill seemed a world away.
I climbed down to Half Moon beach. It was empty. The golden sand looked never stepped in. The beach was just some 40-50 metres across, yet its solitude gave it an air of purity, of peace. The few shacks being built, the wannabe restaurants hadn’t quite managed to spoil the calm of Half Moon.
Paradise beach was two hills away. This stretch spared me forest walks, but furnished rocks to climb across, sometimes amid clear water that gently gurgled in frothy pools under my feet.
Paradise beach was a mass of seaside restaurants. The beach was much smaller than Om, just 150 metres or so long. There wasnt much space between the hills and the water, and the six or seven restaurants packed what little space there was. Shacks for rent lay tucked in the hills behind the restaurants, where a few foreigners lay slung in hammocks, in the midst of idyllic seaside vacations. My initial surprise at the existence of commerce in this outpost lasted only till I noticed boats depositing people here.
I stepped into one of the open air restaurants for lunch. Conversations wafted across the wet, still air from neighbouring tables. There was a “but I’m just disillusioned with all the commercialism” as was “and then she found another boyfriend”.
From the edge of Paradise, I retraced my steps on the two hour trek back to Om. It was late afternoon by the time I got to Om. I began walking towards yet another beach – Kudle, to the north of the Om beach. Kudle lay across two mounds that were relatively tame compared to the others I’d faced earlier in the day.
The Kudle beach was a semicircular bowl of hills that contained the sea within. The water was nearly still. Waves rolled in, not crashed through. Kudle looked like a placid backwater, a forgotten lake, a long way from civilization. Along the sprawling half-kilometre circumference of the beach, there were no more than a dozen bathers. A dolphin’s leap punctured the grey water surface in the distance.
The late evening sun lowered itself into the water far, far away. Soon, the only remnant of the day was a diffuse orange light draped over the water.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
I had a free evening during a business trip, and decided to employ it by taking a walk along Chandni Chowk, which, as you might know, has been variously described as ‘quaint’, ‘right out of the 18th century’ and having ‘awesome food’. Though I'd been there a few years ago, there was much curiosity to experience it all over again.
Chandni Chowk is the road perpendicular to the Red Fort’s Lahori Gate. It is the main street, therefore the central market of the walled city of Old Delhi, which was established in 1639.
Around me, the Saturday evening traffic inches past the entrance to Chandni Chowk. Sweaty pedestrians zigzag through the maze of stuck vehicles, making no distinction between the road and the sidewalk.
The Lal Jain Mandir at the entrance to Chandni Chowk has a porch packed with feeding pigeons, with an empty verandah separating the gate from the sanctum. The sense of spaciousness is relative – the temple looked like an oasis in contrast with the choked road.
The crowd looks like it will spill over into the Gurudwara Sis Ganj that stands at the edge of the road, from where I can see a part of its inner hall. Its clean floors hold no props or furniture, only devotees occupied in their private prayers, covered heads bowed in reverence. Pigeons flutter atop the Gurudwara’s golden coloured dome that is splashed with a rich yellow cover by the rays of the waning sun.
Matchbox-like shops huddle together. Ancient houses with spacious, shady verandahs hide behind them. Most buildings in Chandni Chowk are grey, unpainted, nameless. Some are clumsily boarded up, hiding frantic attempts at bandaging ruptured surfaces. Crumbling, doddering are the words that come to mind – not historic, monumental.
Here, even the new and the modern dons a sober garb. The Cafe Coffee Day is on the ground floor of a wrinkled yellow building that looks like a seedy lodge. State Bank of India’s branch is situated in a town-hall like building, complete with wide staircase and tall pillars by the entrance. The golden arch of McDonald’s fronts a dull red house with fading paint, the grey underneath showing in places like a badly patched dress.
Chandni Chowk is dusty, old fashioned. Yet people throng in their multitudes, in expensive cars, autos and buses alike; its streetside shops are patronised alike by hip teens and tentative young women in cotton salwars.
Families came for an evening outing; young couples came to court; groups of collegians hung out. Shirtless daily wage workers push brimming hand carts past the shoppers.
Food is Chandni Chowk’s chief occupation -- some might say preoccupation. Purani Jalebiwala, whose board reads ‘Old Famous Jalebiwala’, serves up glistening jalebis dripping with ghee and replete with a wholesome taste I had never experienced before. The pea samosas that followed would have been great their own right, but they paled in the bountiful presence of the jalebis.
Parathewali Gali is a narrow, twisting lane full of low-roofed eateries, each proclaiming its pedigree. One was founded in 1890, another was active for 6 generations, yet another had a six word name. All announced matter of factly that they use ‘shudh desi ghee’.
The ‘parathas’ here are uncharacteristic – more like stuffed pooris or bhaturas than the more traditional flat version. These are thick, oily, rich - the greasiness drowning the taste of the stuffed vegetable and spices. There is no nuance, none of the subtleties of taste I had anticipated from a street named after them.
Across the road is yet another narrow lane, just wide enough to allow two or three people to walk abreast. People throng the entrance of the lane, and gradually trickle within. Natraj Dahi Bhalle, the alu tikki guy who had been recommended to me, is right at the entrance to the lane.
The alu tikkis look crisp, with a sharpness on their surface, but turn out to be soft and succulent as I dug into them. I mentally lament that alu tikkis are largely absent in South India, and have only a poor cousin in the form of ragda patties in West India.
There is more food all along the road – chaats, samosas, lassis, and even a government-run liquor shop sandwiched in there.
I abandoned my linear trek along Chandni Chowk to explore the streets and bylanes, tempted in part by their lyrical, wistful names – I walked along the Gali Ghantewali, Dariba Kalan ('Street of the Incomparable Pearl') and ‘favvara’ (fountain), among other places. The name Chandni Chowk itself comes from the moonlight reflecting from a canal that used to flow through the center of what is now the main road.
For all the poetry in the names, the buildings the streets house are greying, fragile. Delhi Public Library has piles of debris within. The Old Delhi railway station has carefully designed arches and precisely made metal pillars, if you can see through the cobwebs, the grime and the neglect. And everywhere, there is destitution, poverty: often, you sidestep vagrants as you progress through the narrow lanes.
Most people who frequent Chandni Chowk insist that its charms come from its antiquity. But in practice, the romance of the ancient is masked, obscured, by grime and the all pervasive squalor. The charms of the past can be endured only in small doses – you long, thus, for a speedy return to the comfortable cocoon of swankier locales.
No sooner wished, than done - only a long, largely deserted flight of steps separates grimy Chandni Chowk from the antiseptic cleanliness of the underground Metro station. Seated in air conditioned comfort in one of its shiny cars, I leave the old world behind and head, with a sense of relief, into the comfortable familiarity of 21st century New Delhi.
(This perhaps is a good point to say thanks to the good friend who gave recommendations.)
Thursday, November 05, 2009
The 4:15 am Parasuram Express was a ghost train as it out of sighed out of Mangalore Central. As it rumbled across the Netravathi in the pre-dawn darkness, white tubelights within throbbed down upon the few sleepy faces that populated the largely empty train.
I was on a journey that’d let me see all of Kerala in the rain. I wanted to see the South West monsoons at their most bountiful, draping what is perhaps their favourite region in India. I hoped to view India’s most popular tourist state from a vantage point that it’s not been seen from too often – the train footboard.
As the train sped southwards in the darkness and persistent rain, name boards on wayside stations switched from Kannada to Malayalam. Hoardings for Hoorulyn brand burqas and New Age brand dhothies appeared by the trackside. Silhouettes of the first coconut trees surfaced from the shadows, dwarfing and sheltering all other vegetation.
What remained unchanged were the inundated fields and gushing water bodies. Unchanged too was the violence of even the smaller streams that furiously tossed about branches and other remnants of vegetation.
The Parasuram express is named after the man who, according to legend, carved out Kerala by hurling his axe into the sea. Even though it plies a distance of 634km from Mangalore to Trivandrum, it is practically a series of short distance trains. People hopped in and out of it every hour or two – with hardly anyone traveling more than 3 or 4 hours.
Nearly all the somnambulists from Mangalore got off at Kasargode, 46km away. Folks who replaced them would alight in another two hours at Cannanore, 86km further downstream. Purposeful office goers boarding there would go an hour or two till Telicherry or Calicut, only to be replaced by college students and work delegations headed to Trichur. This relay would go on until the last cohort of office returnees alighted in Trivandrum, 14-odd hours from the faraway mists of 4:15am.
Around Bekal, 65km from Mangalore, tearing streams occasionally revealed just a little glimpse of the open sea. Just as the train put on a burst of speed, the green of the coconut groves abruptly gave way to a vast openness. Just a few hundred metres away was the open sea, its greenish-blue stretches merging into the inky twilight sky far, far away. The two or three minutes of this proximity seemed to last forever. Inevitably, the train swerved inland and moved on, ruthlessly pushing back the view until it was a mere memory.
Cannanore, 130km from home, came at 7am. The folks who entered were already the fourth set of people on the train. Calicut, best known because it was Vasco da Gama’s port of call, came by at 8:35am, 221km into the journey. The day was just beginning for the folks coming in freshly bathed and breakfasted. I was already a long way into my day, as I tucked into the thankful warmth of upma and watery tea.
Past Calicut, there was water everywhere. Lakes and water bodies had encroached into flooded fields. Often, there was just a continuum of water punctuated by stubbles of grass within. The rivers swelled, lapping up bridge spans. The Thootha and the Bharathapuzha had water rushing almost right under my feet.
Yet, there was no despair around. In Bihar two monsoons ago, I saw refugees from the rain shivering in shacks by the trackside. There was none of that here. Houses stood steady. Schoolkids waved happily to the train. Women unmindfully waded through water-logged verandahs. Everywhere along the route, groups of men crouched under umbrellas, intent in games of cards.
The railway was never alone. Often, coconut groves cocooned the track tightly on either side. Houses had the railway tracks for their front yards. Hillocks loomed alongside the tracks after Shoranur, 307km into the ride. The infrequent clearings, water bodies and fields felt like an opening up, a relief from being accompanied all the time.
Lunch came by at 1:30pm in Ernakulam, lesser half of the better known Cochin. I had the hobson’s choice of any dish as long as it was badly-cooked biriyani. As Parasuram lurched out of the city limits, the sun came out briefly. Waterlogged rice fields stretched out in the fuzzy light. Their silver surfaces carried imperfect reflections within them.
Pepper and rubber trees surfaced. Town names grew longer. Attempts to register Tripunithura’s name made me nearly miss the sight of the pagoda-like station building that stood in proud isolation in the downpour. At Mulagunnathukavu, I didn’t stand a chance of noticing any detail of the station.
Kottayam came at 3pm, and looked like a forest-town. Passengers, of course, continued their in-and-out-of-the-train medley. Soon, the Parasuram express entered Alleppey district, which has most of the backwaters that Kerala is known for. Most backwaters are canals that branch out from Vembanad and Ashtamudi lakes. I’d see the latter lake shortly, which gets its name from its octopus-shape.
Dirty grey clouds loomed above. The Pampa river was an unassuming, modest stream, but as full and overflowing as the other water bodies. In two weeks it would host the famous boat races at Alleppey.
Thick threads of rainwater sheeted down, forming a near-opaque curtain in front of me. Canals and rivulets surged ahead with vehemence, with none of the languidness suggested by the word ‘backwater’. Metres away from the deluge, I gratefully held the hot tea in my chilly hands at Kayankulam at 4pm. It was 529km into the day by now.
The train skirted the Ashtamudi lake, which, perhaps by its enormity, gave the impression of placidity, even in the furious rain. The contours of the lake curved away tantalisingly. But the train persisted in bestowing its attentions on it. After perhaps two kilometres or so of this futile courtship, the Parasuram express impatiently swung away. It clearly had no intention of following the footsteps of the Island Express, which had plunged into this lake in 1988.
This rejection, of course, wasn’t the end of the world for Parasuram. It cavorted with the Kilimukkam lake, rendered wetter by the pouring rain, and caught a glimpse of the lake dissolving into the immensity of the sea. This lake too, of course, turned out to be unattainable for Parasuram.
After another stroll amid coconut groves, the inevitable happened. The grey that had filled the sky all day turned just a shade deeper – a foreboding of the arrival of evening twilight. Thatched roofs, copses and rivulets gave way to concrete buildings, shops and traffic filled roads. Trivandrum, the end of the journey was nigh. Fourteen odd hours by greenery, in the rain didn’t quite seem enough.
The Parasuram express squeaked into the solemn, majestic stone buildings of Trivandrum Central. The square, clean-cut edifice seemed to have come too soon, as it rounded off a day spent in the abundance of unspoilt, newly washed stretches.