Diwali is about culture, crackers, candles and cuisines. What goes ignored, however, is that Diwali also embodies the spirit of wandering. If it weren’t for our beloved Prince Ram’s fondness for wandering far and beyond, we wouldn’t be celebrating Diwali.
Now that’s a fact.
The preposterous idea of spending Diwali with family had crept into the minds of my friends. Of course. Bursting crackers, lighting well-oiled earthen lamps, donning that favourite traditional garment, gorging on a well brainstormed dinner, followed by a calorie indignant desert – all of these remain approved ways of celebrating Diwali.
However, a different sentiment prevailed this year. A friend of mine, referred to as AK in this story, floated the idea of a lengthy road trip which we christened – Southern Sojourn. A two thousand kilometre drive around jungles, sunbathed country sides, grassy mountain slopes and glorious beaches.
After hastily conceptualising the trip, the rest of the week dragged on like a turtle in soggy spirits. Week’s work had been lousily completed at the office, but it was the procurement of marijuana from a reputed dealer that uplifted our spirits greatly.
What else is there to do anyway?
It was Friday evening, and my packing for the trip was done and dusted. And by packing I mean stuffing clothes into a rucksack mercilessly.
All set to depart, I thought.
There was one tiny problem though. Bangalore was deluged by untimely and unseemly rainfall. Drains and potholes ran amok, and the traffic was as snail paced as internet in the late nineties. Electricity poles had short circuited and fallen on walkways. Even trees bowed and ducked for cover. There was thunder and lightning followed by blackouts across the city.
What could we do? What could we do?
Ah! We rolled up a joint and smoked it. That gave us a solid frame of mind upon which to base mature decisions. The best way to beat foul weather is to actually beat it, argued AK.
“Not following you.”
“The weather is a localised phenomenon. We can outpace it.”
We left a bedraggled Bangalore in search of dryer pastures elsewhere. AK set Sakleshpur in the Western Ghats as our modest target for the first night. The weather prognosis as per my cell phone was as grimmer than Lord Emsworth’s mood in presence of the free-willed although a tad irksome Hon. Fredrick Threepwood.
Naturally, the two of us ganged up in our derision, not merely for the forecast, but for the science of meteorology in general.
“The weather forecast is almost always wrong.”
We headed westward on the Bangalore-Mangalore national highway. AK drove at an admirable speed, despite rainfall that had not abated and the damning glare coming from trucks on the opposite side.
Shortly after midnight, we entered a snoring Sakleshpur - a town on the peripheries of Western Ghats. The inhabitants must have embraced sleep for there wasn’t a solitary man roaming the streets – only a bunch of petulant stray dogs who wouldn’t give up their pointless howling.
A gruelling session of phone calls commenced. We rang up homestays, hotels, lodges and resorts – but with little success. The only woman who picked up the phone must have been quite elderly because she dozed off with the receiver in her palm.
A slight although discernible feeling of being stranded began creeping in. The drive to Sakleshpur had been quite tricky, and primarily because good old Indian truckers, driving their rickety trucks, have quite the apathy for using the dimmer. There was little we could do – except delving into our mental lexicons for ghastly abusive phrases.
A lethal combination of bright lights, slippery tarmac and the generally awkward road sense that Indians inculcate through years of dodgy driving made overtaking an act of daredevilry.
AK claimed exhaustion, and even I embraced defeat. The slim hope of finding accommodation had vanished. Without much ado, I fitted myself into the spacious backseats of the car. Likewise, after wishing that there were no steering wheel and gear box, AK fell asleep on a fully inclined front seat.
Alright fine. Maybe not the perfect start to the trip.
A sharp knock woke me up at six – to blue skies and a rising sun. The receptionist of the hotel who wasn’t willing to part with his ear-popping slumber last night was gesticulating wildly.
“You need accommodation?” he screamed.
“We needed last night.”
“I give you now. Best price.”
“Right now all we need is a cup of tea.”
A cup of ginger tea straight from the burner dissipated any drowsiness that there might have been. We left for the Kudremukh National Park – situated in the heart of Western Ghats. For the first time ever in my short road tripping career, the sanctity of schedule wasn’t violated on the first morning itself.
A new morning had dawned upon us. It was accompanied by sunshine and the gentlest breeze. The countryside looked washed and replenished. A layer of moisture still remained on the grass and droplets dripped from leaflets.
What an unusually fine morning it was!
We abandoned the highway for a series of lesser roads – those that wriggled around the ghats in a manner befitting of a reptile. It was Diwali morning, and our cell phones buzzed with tad irritating although well-meaning Diwali messages.
Of course, of course – we ignored the heartfelt messages from friends and family, and concentrated on jungles, hills, springs and mountaintops instead.
Before I delve any further, let me take a brief moment to champion the cause of Western Ghats. There aren’t many places in India as green, serene and under-marketed as the Western Ghats. Aside from flecks of snow on mountain tops, what does this place lack? Certainly not grasslands, pine grooves, coffee estates and waterfalls. Moreover, there’s ample connectivity and yet none of the clamour that characterises the rest of India.
The ride from Sakleshpur to Kudremukh was both swift and spectacular. At the entrance to the park, a barricade brought our car to a screeching halt. A disinterested policeman approached and inspected our car with a brand of frivolity that’s usually reserved for security personnel at shopping malls.
“You can go,” he ordered his moustachioed subordinate to lift the barricade.
After a fifteen minute drive through the forest, we arrived at the reservoir of Lakya Dam, where an old man was squatting near the tattered iron-gate entrance. He looked content at having kept his job as a vigilante even as everything else around him had been forsaken. An antique cassette player, music from the nineties and a lamp was all that he possessed.
The old man ushered us in. A wide road lay ahead, at the end of which stood the dam. Polar difference in landscape distinguished the two flanks of the lane - to our left was an evergreen forest of grassy slopes, pine grooves and waterfall cascades - the right side was as barren as the Nubra Valley in Ladakh.
The simply stunning scenery compelled us to roll up a joint. We marched back to the car, drew a couple of healthiest buds, and began the tedious procedure of crushing and handpicking. The old man approached us with a perplexed look on his face. The curious, maybe even mildly suspicious look, on his face was replaced by a benign smile when he saw what we were upto.
The old man turned down our offer of a puff. He, however, reminisced his younger days when he had no such aversion towards smoking marijuana. As he narrated tales from his heyday, I and AK sat on a brick railing, soaked in the scenery, and inhaled deep puffs.
We said our good byes to the old man leaving him behind with a cassette player, un-contemporary music, and a view that can elevate the spirits of a man who recently lost his house on a strange poker bet. We crossed the small hill station cum mining town of Kudremukh. A recent Supreme Court verdict citing environment degradation put an end to mining activities inside the national park. The township and the plant has ever since been abandoned, but tourism has caught up in the area as resorts and homestays have sprung up on hill tops and adjacent grassy slopes.
After a cup of tea that tasted more like lukewarm sherbet, we departed from Kudremukh and arrived at Hanumangundi Waterfall. An elderly watchman at the entrance reprimanded us for parking recklessly, but failed to suggest a better spot. We duly ignored him but not before taking a swipe at him. Yet another old man wearing an obnoxious yellow rimmed spectacle greeted us at the ticket counter.
“So where’s the waterfall?” asked AK.
“Take the staircase,” coldly replied the man at the ticket counter.
“How many stairs?” and our gazes turned to the man at the counter for an estimate.
“One thousand,” he said coldly.
A gang of college kids had come down before us. They were a loud bunch, as if microphones were in built into their vocal chords. Perched on boulders, along the rivulet at the base of the waterfall, they smoked furiously and not cigarettes.
Yes the greener stuff.
Of course, everybody does it.
No I didn’t walk up to them for a puff or two.
Fine. We can agree to disagree.
Going up the oddly sized stairs was a harrowing affair that depicted my fitness in a rather poor light. AK was faring only marginally better. By the time I made it to the car, a hefty toll had already been extracted on my respiration. In the ten minutes or so that it took me to locate my breath, a gargantuan American road tripper approached us and enquired about the waterfall.
“Is the waterfall any good?” he enquired mildly.
“Depends on what?”
“On your fondness for staircases.”
I believe he went downstairs to have a look anyway. Maybe he found solace in the company of the college students. Maybe he liked smoking and not cigarettes.
We set off once again…
In another hour and a half, we bumbled into the college town of Manipal – my hometown during four years of undergrad. The monsoon was over but it had left behind a fresh layer of moss on college buildings.
With slight nostalgia I drove around the place – registering the new and reminiscing the old. To quell our hunger was foremost on the agenda, and a detailed lunch followed.
Post lunch, snoring the afternoon away seemed more lucrative than anything else. We woke up to fierce thunder and lightning. Rainfall, I was told, hadn’t abated for hours. College students with bags full of Diwali crackers looked on hopelessly. They’d wait another hour before moronically bursting crackers in the car parking.
Under such circumstances, the logical thing was to head to a pub, grab a pint of beer, and wait for nature to amend its spoilsport ways.
It rained all night!
The weather forecast that I earlier mocked was proving freakishly accurate. And it was beginning to cause me slight discomfiture. Sobered by a handful of pints, we decided to call it a night. The following morning, I hoped, would bring sunshine and blue skies so that we’d no longer require spirits to elevate our spirit.
And it did.
When I woke up at seven, things had transformed dramatically. The sun wasn’t going to be shackled forever and as it broke out, an orange hue illuminated the thoroughly washed lands of Manipal. At the stroke of eight o’clock, I noticed students with dilated pupils sleep walking their way towards college. The lack of classroom accoutre, or as much as a notebook in their hands, is hardly grounds for being judgemental.
After all, we’ve all been practitioners of physical attendance over mental.
An efficient breakfast comprising sausage omelette, toast and a glass of orange juice made me feel generally better about life. Manipal’s calm, almost lackadaisical pace of life was such in sharp contrast to the frenetic pace of life that consumes every city dweller nowadays.
Backed by glorious sunshine, we were more than happy to be back on the road once again.
There was the small matter of a missing wallet – and along with it – missing identification, credit cards and driver’s license. AK’s wallet which housed all his cards, spanning aspects both financial and legal, had gone missing in Manipal. A cursory search had yielded no results and we drove off with little cash and no car documents.
Fortunately, policemen in India don’t even feign interest in people who’ve got no money on them.
The Turtle Bay Beach near Kundapura was our next stop and instant gratification was on offer. Running alongside the beach, the highway was denied a view of the ocean by a dense groove of palm trees and incessant banana plantations. Out of the blue, literally, the highway swayed along an expansive curve and the Arabian Sea appeared with its golden sands, fishing boats and turquoise waters.
A couple of shacks, a solitary fisherman sleeping in the stern of his boat and a beach resort – that’s pretty much all that Turtle Bay has to offer.
The quietness of the beach was exceeded only by the calmness of sea waves that afternoon. To my mind – Turtle Bay remains an ideal place for swimming and splashing, a game of soccer on the soft sands.
After devouring on a plate of fresh fish curry served with steamed rice, we resumed our journey towards Goa. Shortly after we left Turtle Bay, the skies, it seemed, came under massive upheaval – they turned grey, grim and laden with rain. Quite surprisingly though, it didn’t pour as heavily as the sullen firmament indicated. Racing against time and running away from nature’s wrath, we avoided the Gokarna crossing and headed straight towards Palolem, South Goa.
The tarmac quality goes up a notch as soon as you enter Goa - India’s most prosperous state. It is one thing to burnish the main roads that politicos and business honchos ply upon themselves, but an entirely different craft when it comes to maintaining and sustaining the narrower lanes that criss cross villages. Another striking thing about Goa is the lush green cover that blankets the state. Add to that – a mesh of rivers, backwaters, lakes and lest I forget beaches – and you get a part of India that is sacrosanct not just for hippies and the beach stroller but also for a nature admirer.
We headed straight towards Palolem – perhaps the most pristine among well-known beaches of Goa. A monumental tussle ensued before we settled on a semi-decent parking spot.
Yes – some problems pervade state boundaries in my country.
The lazy village of Palolem shot to fame in the early eighties when hippies in flowered pyjamas and severely tattooed torsos started flocking in. Shaped like a crescent moon – much like the Ganges in Banaras – Palolem continues to attract an assortment of nationalities – for an assortment of activities.
At the far end, abutting the beach, is situated an island. Evenings and sunset create rufescent skies, best relished with a pint of beer. Island exploration during low tide hours, however, is an idea as moronic as bursting crackers in your own living room.
Of course we chose the moronic.
A long walk along the beach, followed by a painful one across jagged rocks brought us to the island. Long back, many years ago, an American artist had visited Palolem. He created a stone sculpture which has become a pilgrimage for those who appreciate alternate art.
Ingrained on his sculpture are words - ‘give if you can – take if you have to’.
After capturing what turned out to be below par pictures of Palolem sunset, we set out for Anjuna, North Goa. Mother Nature could hold back the barrage no longer. The next thirty minutes provoked fears of a cloud burst. The wiper oscillated haplessly as rivulets swept across the windscreen.
In my country abrupt rainfall usually precedes a commuter nightmare. Goa was stunned. The tail end of October usually brought sunny afternoons and breezy nights, not storms and deluges. Bemused commuters honked incessantly and overtook maniacally – often leading to further jams.
After several detours and heated exchanges with fellow sufferers on the road, we reached Anjuna. Untimely rainfall had already extracted heavy toll on Anjuna’s usually nocturnal ways. The beach looked solemn. We checked ourselves into ‘Coutinho Guest House’ which was run by a lady and his helpful son. They lived on the ground floor along with a restless Rottweiler who’d give me a horrid time all throughout my stay in Anjuna.
Braving the rain, we walked towards the beach in search of ‘sea horse restaurant’. A shady man welcomed us with a handshake that was cursory and thus avoidable. By the way, he was a drug dealer, and, self admittedly quite renowned. By his own admission, his clientele came from Mumbai and Moscow while his consignment came in from Columbia.
Curiosity is the mother of all invention. Let me add to that oft quoted piece of proverbial wisdom that curiosity is also the mother of all drug addictions. The dealer and his even shadier sidekick spelt out the entire drug menu for us. AK reiterated that we weren’t looking for any of the fancy stuff.
Although my dealer couldn’t name the capital of Columbia, he boasted of traveling there every other month. The sidekick meanwhile claimed to wander deep into the forests of Himachal in search of hash. Him I found a tad believable
We returned to our Coutinho Guest House. Heightened snoring from the adjacent room indicated that the lady in charge was fast asleep. Her well-mannered son patrolled the guest house whose inhabitants were fed up of being licked by the Rottweiler. Alberto – the son was kind enough to give us directions to the UV Bar.
“I might pay UV a visit little later myself,” he added.
“Why not come with us now?”
“He sure looks smart but he can’t possibly run a guest house all by himself,” said Peter, pointing at his favourite dog.
UV Bar was unfettered by the rocky weather. The fluorescent lights flickered trippingly, bar was swamped with requests for a refill, and goa trance filled up the dank nightly air. Down at the beach, we rolled some of our hash into a joint that would soon become the cynosure of all eyes.
Alright cynosure of at least some eyes.
A little later that night, we sauntered across to the other side of Anjuna. It was business as usual at Curlie’s and Shiva Valley. We met a bloke from the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand at the beach. He ran a shack, albeit a much smaller one, but not very far away from Curlie’s.
“You like Goa Trance?” he asked us.
“We can bear it.”
“Well, then you haven’t heard the best of it,” he added with a chuckle before inviting us to visit his shack.
He offered us a pint of kingfisher that I hoped we wouldn’t have to pay for. Truth be told, the music he played was not all that bad. It was a peculiar concoction of goa trance with some Garhwali tunes.
“Yes sure sounds quite different.”
At the stroke of dawn, it was time to retreat to our guest house. The UV guest list was at long last exhibiting signs of fatigue. The bartender yawned and even the beastly bouncer had sunk into a lowly chair. Although a bunch of curiously dressed Russians kept the dance floor alive and the DJ engaged, others began trickling onto the beach for a glimpse of sun rise.
The following day had a long list of planned activities, like kayaking in the Mandovi River, or strolling the sleepy lanes of Chorao Island. But for any of that to materialize, we’d need to pay the bank a visit.
Yes. Cashless-ness had struck us.
A dapper bank manager and her beautiful cashier greeted us into an unusually claustrophobic bank branch. In some government banks as much space is allotted just for the photocopier. The beautiful cashier assured us, largely with an endearing smile. A duplicate card, she said, would be issued in no time. The manager nodded approvingly, almost as if he were the pioneer of instant banking.
Upon another short drive we arrived at the Ashvem Beach – renowned for yoga classes under swaying coconut palms. The general mood on the beach was of fitness and fine living. European women practiced yoga, their male counterparts ran sprints on the golden sands, the touring Indians ate healthy breakfast for a change, and even the local fishermen folk played football on the beach.
The breakfast at Pagan Café was exactly what a doctor would have ordered. Two cups of ginger-honey-lemon tea cured whatever remained of my hangover. At the beach a fisherman had twisted his ankle after what he protested had been a dastardly tackle from behind. The fishermen folk invited us to join because the injured player, allegedly, had a reputation for moping.
After football which was essentially a brazen display of fouls, tackles, lunges and general uncouthness, we drove back to a brilliantly sunlit Anjuna. Bright sunshine had galvanized everyone at the beach. Ladies scuttled across to the beach in pursuit of that perfect sun tan.
The shops were lined up with tourists dillydallying over blue pyjamas or purple pyjamas. Teenagers unintroduced to the joys of alcoholism put their hearts and minds into jet skis. One para-glider in the distance hovered mid-air like a really large bird in peril. Even the shacks bustled with renewed energy.
The UV Bar from last night looked forsaken without fluorescent light panels and our dubitable mental states. Instead we walked across the beach towards Curlie’s. A familiar sight of sun soaking and pot smoking greeted us – the latter of which we were quick to embrace. The afternoon elapsed at a leisurely pace as I alternated between a quick swim and a quick nap.
By six in the evening, the two of us had consumed enough alcohol to pay the casino a visit. We drove to Panjim with big hopes of not losing grandly. Lady Luck welcomed us into the casino and gave us big wins at blackjack and roulette. AK sat on a poker table and played with a surreptitious blend of caution and aggression that left his opponents bemused.
A considerable profit had already been amassed in the first couple of hours which made us confident enough to start sipping whisky. Things took a dark turn from thereon. A simple analysis of our time at the casino would reveal that every peg of bourbon pushed Lady Luck further apart from us. By the time this would all end, a significant sum of money would’ve been lost.
Of course the casino always wins.
Enroute Old Goa, there is an old favourite Punjabi Dhaba of mine that overlooks the Mandovi River. We had discovered the place during one of our cash stricken college trips. It was a testimony to the slipperiness of money that we were cash stricken, and at the same Punjabi Dhaba, yet again.
A befitting end, isn’t it?