Saturday, June 16, 2007

There and back again - 4

Km 933 Mangalore, 5:05 am

Wake up with my limbs feeling completely jaded, worn out. A cold water bath dispels the grogginess and weariness only temporarily. Tempted to stay over another day and rest until the next morning, but there's no money or time for that - besides, pride intervenes.

Km 936 Kankanady circle, Mangalore, 5:50 am

“Which way is the Bangalore highway?”
“Saaar, Bangalore is very far. Take a bus.”

Km 982, Stop, 6:55am

300km to go, and the left wrist almost feels like it’s been wrenched free. I want to go sleep. Roads have worsened, patches of mud and piles of stones abruptly populate midst of tarred stretches. Soon the road begins to resemble that god-awful NH4A(Panjim-Londa-Belgaum), which, as you know, is the undisputed stinker-prince of National Highways.

No ups and downs, or descents and ascents – only the trees around rear up and occasionally form a canopy. At times the vegetation is so thick, you can’t see more than two or three trees deep.

The houses and cottages and their clumps that form villages perch on the roadside – the unending jungle as their backyard, and the by now very narrow highway as their verandah.

I park in a small clearing, acknowledge the receipt of a curious glance from the local milk girl, lie down on the bridge over a brook.

Km 1009, Breakfast!, 7:50am

Subramanya Vilasa. Store room, kitchen and eating area all in one huge hall.

Hunger, thus far blocked by other bodily aches, is soothed by 5 large idlis, 4 huge dosas and a big tumbler of coffee. All for the grand total of Rs. 25.

The satisfied feeling of a full stomach is so enlivening, the creaky joints and the countdown currently at 275 are driven out of the head. I leave a 50 buck note and take a walk, and find myself attempting to hum a tune.

An auto goes past, with the words on its hood,"Baare figure, andare togombaro Pulsar"

Translated, that means: "I tell her - come with me, o figure. She says - go get a Pulsar"

Translations just completely spoil it! Pah.

Km 1042, 9:25am

Again! Uncanny, the ability of the Sahyadris to throw up scenes that completely astound you. My road is between two enormous, grassy peaks that rear up on either side of me, both of them stretching on and on - upwards as well as on all sides – it’s the enormity of it all that overwhelms you. These two distinct peaks seem to be infinite, everywhere.

There’s absolutely no traffic – I go lie down on a stone flanking the road, and stare unbelievingly at the peaks and their cloudy halos.

As good a place as any, I say, to catch a nap. Tale for grandchildren and all that. Dreamless sleep for more than an hour, uninterrupted by passing truck-roars. Bliss!

Km1074, Sakleshpur, 11:30am

The ghats end. But not before increasingly deteriorating roads, whose effect manifests itself in four overturned trucks over 100-odd-km. As the ghats approach their end, there’re boards on the roadside homes advertising the fact that fresh honey and coffee beans are for sale. I stop for a break in what seems like an immensely dense cover of green, almost like a green tunnel.

I’ve to bid goodbye to the Sahyadris who’ve been my companions for four days, showing me a world of beauty and depth and enormity that completely amazed me. The awareness, the reaffirmation of the beauty that makes everything worthwhile, ends up changing at least some part of you deep within.

Km 1080, The plains!, 11:50am

Finally, the roads get better. Flat, straight, and as fast as you’d want them to be. That’s at the cost of the forest and the hills that now seem to have been with me for ages, who now give way to fields and flatlands that let you see as far up the horizon as you want to.

Why must a highway through the ghats be that bad? NH17 goes through much tougher terrain, and refuses to admit abrasions and lacerations on its surface. The cost of it all is what’s most tragic – all the deaths, all the accidents are so completely pointless, all the more so since they result from what are primarily pleasure trips.

Mysore-Bangalore and Pune-Mumbai, which were graveyard stretches, became much, much safer after doubling(though people still manage to find ways to kill themselves on these two roads) – why cant we fast track the doubling of every national highway around?

The trouble is, road safety is grossly underrated, perhaps because we assume accidents to be an unavoidable fact of life. Also, perhaps because we always think accidents happen only to someone else. Unfortunately, we’re all someone else to someone else.

Km 1117, 12:35pm

Past Hassan, past the intersection where two years ago I had hopped off a bus to Bangalore and lorry-hopped my way to Mysore. I dont stop at that intersection - I go past it and on.

The almost contemplative, meditative calm of driving on an even, beautiful road fills you with immense peace – all you do is look at the skies, watch the clouds, allowing no thought of what purports to be real life, as the bike coasts by, refusing to make any demands on your attention.

I’m much less than halfway through by noon, but the road here puts me at ease. I stop again, in the midst of a completely open space. As soon as I stop, the calmness, sereneness of the drive give way to the fatigue and exertion that have been in the background so far.

I go to a hut in the middle of a neighbouring field, ask if I could sit down. The old man points to the corridor where I go ahead and lie down for a while. His wife offers some water, which I refuse, and proceed to draw out my Bisleri.

Km 1167, 2:30pm

Break. Walk around, sit down at roadside beedi shop. This is sometime after lunch at a Kamat’s restaurant – where I gorged on what seemed an exorbitantly priced 90-buck meal.

Highway still fast, calm, peaceful. Towns, fields, villages, houses, people, cars, buses – everything flashes by, everything flits by – nothing’s a bother, nothing any trouble.

Km 1224, 4:10pm

Raindrops on the visor. No sweat, will drive on.

Am overtaking a truck, who decides to overtake a car that I cant see. Truck does a late swing into me. Reflexes are jaded after 4 days of constant attention, but manage to respond in time to ensure all’s well.

Km 1264, 5:10pm

Past Nelamangala. Mad traffic. Jam. Stuck. Agony of driving inside a city. Both wrists coming apart. Body pain decides it’ll go ahead and scream. In slow traffic, pain and bodily sensations get magnified, everything needs to be done with greater deliberation.

There're views of the city that provide comfort – Bangalore isnt flat, it’s largely up and down, so there’re spots where you can get a view of large swathes of the city, almost from up above.

Km 1284, Channasandra, 6:30pm

Home. I strut around for sometime, putting on my best ‘of-course-I’m-not-tired’ air.

I give up after a while, and pop off to sleep.

**

There and back again - 3

Km 556, Panjim, 5:35am

Am still half asleep. Muscles and bones lodge complaints. The crawl-in-first-gear along the shimmering bluish-black of Mandovi gives some succour. The sharp tang of the wet morning air dispels sleep. The clouds look a dirty grey – I only hope it isn’t a sign of rain.

Some way on, there’s a small descent from flat ground, as the horizon opens up to reveal an enormous water body - the Zuari river, looking almost like an exit from a cave or a shell. The bridge is crossed in customary first-gear-crawl mode, even as the first shades of orange line the deep blue above.

Km 591, Madgaon, 6:20am

Refuel. Quick calculation indicates that mileage has shot up to 80. While I’m reeling from astonishment, I realize I’ve included the 30 or so kilometers of the engine-off-and-descend-ghat routine in my calculations. The mileage, then, turns out to be 77, which is still a personal best.

Km 627, 7:10am

Stop atop the first ghat. I’ve passed some Goan villages that clutch the highway’s hands on either side. There’s been a long, straight moist plain that has rushed headlong into this first ghat.

While you’d creep around the hills and go past them before, you go right through them here. You wriggle through the midst of what appears a clump of green from a distance. The ghats turn out to be thicker, deeper, more intense than the ones before – there’s an enormous green mushroom-shaped hill right across the ravine in front of me. Then there’s the usual effect of omnipresence of these ghats – with colossal green-tops spreading out, stretching on in every direction you care to see.

Km 651, 8:10am

The border, under a sunshade of green. There’re busy, bustling shacks that are checkposts. Almost abruptly, the ghats recede, but stay in the background. The road’s straight, fast, as it courses between fields that lie in the lap of the hills.

Km 662, The Kali bridge outside Karwar, 8:25am

The majestic Kali is vast enough to look like the sea has been in spate and flooded the land. Just as I begin the slow-crawl across the bridge, there’s a barricade – a police team checking everyone.

Cop looks at papers, writes down my name-address. He mentions that there’s been a burglary in town, and that the suspects got away on motorbikes, hence the checks.

“Where’re you coming from?”
“Poona.”
“Eh? Poona would be MH12. You’re MH14.”
“MH14 is Pimpri Chinchwad New Town, saar.”

I’m exasperated at having to explain that to the gazillionth man to ask the question. I am immediately issued a suspicious stare.

“Where’re you going?”
“Bangalore.”
“Why don’t you take the other highway?”
“Eh?”
“NH4. Kolhapur-Belgaum-Hubli-Bangalore. What’re you doing on *this* highway? You’d save 450km doing that one.”

Now, how does one explain that one is rather insane when it comes to travel? That one chooses routes because one has never seen some places, because one wants experiences one has never had before?

I try telling him, nevertheless – but I suspect it all comes out as a series of incomprehensible noises. By the time I leave, the cop must have been certain he’d cracked the burglary case.

Km 664, Karwar, 8:45am

After unsuccessfully attempting a restaurant-with-glass-façade that tells me it doesn’t serve South Indian food, I weave amid the pedestrians in the town market to get to a sweet-stall-plus-restaurant.

Couple of idlis and dosas, and of course the obligatory caffeine intake. Every meal, every snack on this trip is so very satisfying, so fulfilling, it eases my stomach to be able to imbibe it all. This, even when the taste is rather bland. Perhaps it’s because it’s all enormously tiring, and my body welcomes every bit of energy it can get hold of.

Sometimes there’s this ‘what-am-I-doing-here’ feeling, I begin to wonder why I’m doing all this, what’s the point of what I’m doing – day after day of completely exhausting travel, of allowing snatches of sleep and food to be the only interruptions in continuous travel, of keeping my muscles and bones taut more than 12 hours a day, of keeping my eyes open and mind awake when the body commands them to retire to sleep, of knowing that all it’s going to take is one small mistake to end it all. I don’t quite have a definitive answer to why I’m here, why I’m doing it all. At least, not at this point in my experience. Maybe I just want to prove a point to myself. Maybe I just want to look cool because I’ve done something that you, gentle reader, will not have thought of doing.

Maybe I don’t need an answer after all – it’s enough that I am able to forget myself, able to dive completely into the profusion of nature, people, homes, of every shade, every flavor around me, able to allow the Sahyadris to fill me up with sensations that are new, refreshing and awakening, and exhaust, tire, spend, splurge myself completely.

Km 666, 9:30 am

The road in Karwar heads straight into a hill, and at the seemingly last moment, sidesteps it to creep around it – and before you know it, you’re between a cliff and the deep blue sea.

I was tempted to stop by for a splash, but figured the Om-shaped beach at Gokarna would be a better choice. Besides, a swim break right after one for breakfast may not be apt on a long 380-km day.

Km 705, 10:30am

Break. Beside a stream – the Gangavali. The green enormities on every side enclose me and the Gangavali in a warm embrace. That’s not a tight or claustrophobic hug, it’s a gentle cuddle still leaves us both unconstrained to flow on as we wish. There’s absolutely no human presence around – it looks like the ghat has been this way forever, remained unchanged over millennia, except perhaps when somebody must have come by to put a smear of tar across it.

What is astonishing is that there are so many such islands, oases of superlative beauty, of calm, of a this-makes-the-rest-of-life-worthwhile feeling. Just as amazing is the fact that these stand out amid what really is a 900km-long aesthetic experience. Each entity different from the other, each marvelous in its own distinct way, all collectively quite overwhelming.

Km 712, Outside Gokarna, 11:05am

Goddamit. The highway sidesteps the town yet again. The Om-shaped beach that I was so keen on a splash in, turns out to be some 12km off the highway, and I’ve no option but to skip it.

That’s the tragedy - although both the NH17 and the Konkan railway are commendable engineering feats for having found ways through and around the Western Ghats, their major shortcoming is that they give most towns a miss.

Km 758, Honnavar, 12:20pm

Slow crawl across the Sharavati – I look at the railway bridge that looked like it was crossing the sea when I took a ride upon it the last time. There’s a market going on upon the banks – the bank of the receded waterline is teeming with multitudes bustling about. I take a break upon the bridge.

Km 774, near Murudeshwar, 12:45pm

The rain stops, but the Sahyadris open up. It’s almost like a giant hand has been enclosing you in its palm, and has opened its fingers to let sunlight in. Motifs recur all the time on this trip – but they’re still engaging enough to completely hold your attention. The hills tuck themselves in behind the railway line in the distance.

Km 790, Bhatkal, 1:35pm

Lunch. Drizzle. Hoping.

Km 824, 3:15pm

The sea! The highway is a promenade, a walkway beside the crowded, lively waterfront. I instinctively slow to first gear and look beyond the crowds at the stretch of blue that dissolves into a different blue of the sky. The road goes on for quite a distance before swirling out of sight to the east.

Km 873, Udupi, 4:30pm

A rectangular arch with the name ‘Udupi’ inscribed in carefully calligraphed letters to my left. The highway skips this town too. I stop amid the drizzle at a one-room eatery – raving hunger is quenched by generous helpings of idli, dosas, bonda, and of course coffee. Yes, yes, I know it’s a very diverse and imaginative menu I’ve been having on this trip – thank you very much.

The bill comes to 30 bucks – I leave 60 bucks on the table and walk out. The waiter comes running after me, stuffs 30 bucks into my hand – “Saaar, you forgot to take your change.”

Km 911, Suratkal, 6:10pm

I’ve been driving in the rain since Udupi – I try pushing my helmet’s visor up, but the drops sting. It would be much more fun if I didn’t have the killer private buses to sidestep and evade. Still the jacket and kneepads reassure one.

The road and the surroundings get red around the Mangalore Port trust – there’s dust all around. There’s grey too – it’s an industrial area. Traffic around me congeals slowly until we’re all in a traffic jam – for one half of the highway is blocked for repairs. The NHAI attempts to comfort me with a board that reads “Today’s pain, tomorrow’s gain.”

My aching wrists and wailing back and the fact that it’s nearly sundown don’t make it any easier. We all crawl away to glory – barely managing 20kmph.

Km 930, Mangalore, 7:15pm

Finally. After an age of inching on, the city shows up. The roads are of concrete and not tar, so as to resist the rains better. The surface is a comfort after the agonizing ride of the last hour or so.

Km 933, 7:25pm

My hotel! I fling bag and helmet, throw self upon bed, and sink into very badly needed sleep. My stomach had been pleading for nutrition, but my eyes were clamouring for respite too. I pick a pre-dinner nap, for it is the more pressing need – there’s 350km to do tomorrow. Now, does this qualify as masochism yet?

Auggh, dammit, I need sleep, I need food, and there seems so little of it all, there seems so little time to grab it all. I need a full day’s rest, and there’s no way I’ll get it. I also need new muscles and ribs. And wrists. And knees.

Friday, June 08, 2007

There and back again - 2

Km 239, Lote Parashuram, 5:40am

Hotel Pagoda Retreat agrees to give me bread-jam-tea at a half past four, in lieu of the complimentary breakfast I’d have got if I’d left after 8.

I leave in air that is wet with dew that slowly swells into a drizzle. A winding path up a hill and an engine-off-and-coast-down descent welcomes me back into the Sahyadris. The river sprawled below like a gash of spilt milk deftly sidesteps the town of Chiplun.

Km 301, 7: 05am

First stop of the day. Between a clump of rocks and a river. I haven’t been able to find out if this is the same river there was at Mahad and Chiplun, or the one that has also peeped out from behind the hills to say hello at a couple of other places. The village across the river is blanketed by green. There’s a temple tower much higher up than the village, seemingly unconnected, unreachable.

The patch of road is like a bicycle handle – it’s a straight stretch, but the road bends away on either side. The sparse traffic bows into the straight, zips on, bends ever so slightly before swinging away out of sight into the other end.

I call to confirm my hotel in Panjim for tonight. Uh oh, Mayfair’s out of rooms, sorry sir. Why don’t I try Neptune, who don’t reserve rooms, but why don’t I show up this evening, they’ll surely have rooms vacant.

Km 312, 8:05am

Some operative words are more effective than others, and often it has little to do with what they are supposed to be describing. I see a board mentioning ‘coffee bar, lounge and restaurant’, and am tempted to stop there for a second breakfast. The first is still filling me up, so I decide against it.

Coffee-bar-lounge-restaurant evokes a vision of delicacy and cleanliness that’s so much more appealing to the traveler so much more than, say, Garden restaurant, or Family Garden restaurant, at least after you’ve seen enough of the latter two.

Km 341, 8:55am

I was expecting a look at Ratnagiri town, but the highway refuses to oblige, showing me only a detour indicating that the town was 11 km away from the highway.

Km 353, 9:15am

I decided to try a one room home-plus-hotel – a run down nameless place with jars of Parle G and a kettle of tea on display. I decided to see if it was as decent in practice as I thought it would be in theory. Decent in theory, but not extraordinarily so, because this sort of establishment doesn’t have to hire inept cooks like most dhabas, or garden and family restaurants have to – it’s very likely to be homemade stuff, the cooked by wife and served by husband types.

I sit on one of the two tables in the front verandah – there’re freshly slept in charpoys in the other half of the verandah. There’s a TV in front, the table underneath which doubles as a cash counter and a shelf holding chikkis, biscuits and some of the household’s wardrobe.

The lady of the house is multitasking as cook, waitress and cashier today. I am the only customer. I have roti and a masoor dal masala. Decent, very plain, without a taste of the shady masalas that would have fed my worry. The woman’s given me 4 rotis, so I’m full enough to contentedly pat my tummy at the end of it.

The early morning wake-up jogs into memory, and I ask if I can take a nap on the charpoy within. The lady says why don’t I take it out into the outer half of the verandah, it’s cooler there. Peace. I nap there for slightly over half an hour.

Km 381, 11:15am

Another break. Another ghat. I see the valley underneath, the green top across the valley, and hills immediately above and beneath me. I am astonished, and not for the first time on this trip. These hills and valleys stretch ahead and behind you as far as you can see.

In fact, what you can see of them is absolutely no indication of their vastness – I know they stretch 300km behind me, and some 600km ahead of me. Having driven that distance one kilometer at a time, having experienced every one of those kilometers heightens the awe you feel - the sheer hugeness of it all makes you feel like you’ve had a taste of the infinite.

Km 440, Kankavli, 1:15pm

As I said before, it’s not easy to take a call on which places to eat at, especially since all you have is a split-second glance at a restaurant’s façade while biking. When I am keen on a fairly plush, high-end place, the number of cars outside it usually clinches it for me.

I spot this fairly grand looking mansion that is a resort plus restaurant, and decide that lunch is going to be at Neelam resorts. I also figure that the average Kankavli-an isnt going to shell out the sort of money I would flinch at, so prices shouldnt be exorbitant, which guess is confirmed by a glance at the menu. Turns out they’ve AC too, which justifies decision to stop.

I’m sorely tempted to try some seafood that’s all over the menu. I desist, and settle for dal-rice and curd-rice. Sigh – such is the fate that a South Indian upbringing consigns us to, although the reason I give myself is that I cant risk shady food while traveling.

Km 495, Sawantwadi, 3:50pm

When I’m not being seduced by the depth and enormity of the ghats, I’m being charmed by the trees and the path before me. Almost all through, the trees form an arch to usher me on. Sometimes, they’re bejeweled with the red, yellow and blue of the flowers upon them, which flowers sometimes fall onto the road and form a welcome carpet. Passing through the long arch of the trees of the Sahyadris is like a stroll through an infinitely large cool grove.

Next break is at Sawantwadi, one of the prettiest towns on the highway. I squeeze between the houses that almost spill onto the highway, before parking in front of the lake. All there is of the town seems centred around the lake that has a huge, almost fluid seeming mountain standing guard over it.

Km 527, 4:50pm

Goa. The green atop the hills gets thicker. The hills and the roadside villages snuggle closer to the highway, ensconcing it, as the green all around intensifies.

I stop to see a goods train carrying trucks pass atop the bridge over me. There’s the customary river to my right to stare into and across, and to tempt me to consider staying here forever.

Km 556, Panjim, 5:55pm

The hills open up to reveal open skies and underneath-lying valleys. There’s the bridge on the Mandovi – the first time I saw it, I thought it was an inland arm of the sea. I switch to first gear, crawl across the humongous river that, even in summer, is so wide it looks like it’s in spate.

Now, to find hotel Neptune. The landmark I’ve been given is National theatre. I get odd looks when I ask for said theatre. When I do find said theatre, it turns out the morning show is of Vicious Vixens(starring ‘the sensuous goddess’ Mona) and other shows are of Ghar me ho saali to poora saal diwali.

Neptune turns out to be a sterile, plain, colourless place – the white all over the bedsheets and walls makes it look like a hospital room. I need it only for a night, so I don’t bother too much. I’m not too tired, but I take a pre-dinner nap, for there’s 380km to do tomorrow.

This trip isnt about seeing towns, it’s more about seeing what’s in between towns, enjoying the middle of nowhere, so all I see of Panjim is on a short post-dinner walk along the Mandovi. Ghar me ho saali to poora saal diwali, unfortunately, will have to wait.