Wednesday, 23 January 2008

The Beach

That’s The Beach. Or as its more officially known, Marina Beach. Although there are other contenders for the title of The Beach, Marina beats all of them by a mile. Although Elliot’s Beach, and the private ones littering the East Coast each have their own USPs, there is something about the uique mix of factors in Marina that none of the others can hope to emulate.

First is its geographical extent. 12 kilometres from one end to the other. That would probably make it the longest urban beach on the third rock from the sun.

Next is its location. Having Fort St. George at one end, there isn’t one politician of note this beach hasn’t seen or heard. They even had a stand of sorts erected to hold political meetings on the beach!! Thankfully, that was razed overnight by another politician. Its sort of ideally located, with bus services from just about anywhere and an MRTS line running parallel to the beach.

Then there’s the patronage. Everybody has something they like at the beach. Once the ideal family beach, with the removal of the stalls from the sand and the corresponding reduction in illumination, its been seeing a steady rise in the number of lovesick couples. Families still visit the place but they tend to stick close to the lights. Lovers used to come here even before the stalls disappeared, but the prospect of running into ones parents and siblings at the beach when you’re supposed to be in class or something deterred the majority of them. It provides an inexpensive evening out for the perennially broke and a home for the homeless loitering near the beach. It’s a place where dogs come to walk their masters and meet their friends and bark about the freedom of the strays. It’s a place where the old come to remember what it was like when they were young and a place where the young come and hope it doesn’t change when they get old. Its all that and a lot more.

But the most important factor that makes it The Beach is the intangible one. Character. I know it sounds weird. A beach having character and all. But visit it and the other beaches around Madras and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

PS: That dopey looking chap staring off into the distance in a nostalgic sort of way is my is my brother, another lover of The Beach.

More pictures here.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

To the Middle of Nowhere and Back

Warning: This is a really long post (2634 words).

It started simply enough. A phone call from Tandeep. A trek. 5 nights and 4 days. 4300 bucks. Surprisingly, my mom agreed instantly. I didn’t even have to explain that 4300 rupees is pretty reasonable for what was promised. Guess she was just happy to have me out of the house for 4 days.

After getting a little confused with the date of departure, I managed to turn up on the correct night at the Chennai Central. I was a little apprehensive about the trip as I didn’t know most of the people I was going to spend the next 4 days with. Once the formality of introductions was done away with, we got along like we’d known each other all our lives. The cast of colourful characters consisted of Narayan (aka) Nari, Praveen (aka) SKP, Chandan (aka) The Cook, John (aka) The Cameraman, Prem (aka) Dr. Cowboy, Tandeep (aka) Tan and myself. Balaji and Nirmal, who were organising the whole thing along with Nari, could only wave us goodbye from Central as they weren’t accompanying us on this trip.

Left to right-Tan, Nari, The Cameraman, Dr. Cowboy, SKP, The Cook.
Above- Our Driver.

The train, Chennai-Bangalore/Mysore Express, left on time at 2130 hrs on the 20th of December. We spent some time getting to know each other and the upcoming treks a little better. We had to get off at Bangalore instead of Mysore as the tickets to Mysore were not available when we booked. After an interrupted sleep, we got off at Bangalore at about 0400 hrs and had our coffees at a really upmarket looking IRCTC restaurant. Wonder why they don’t have that sort of stuff in Central?

Once outside, we were pleasantly surprised to see our driver already waiting for us. As he tied our luggage to the roof of the Qualis, the smokers amongst us lit up their sticks and were courteous enough to even ask the driver if he didn’t mind. In reply, he pulled out a Kings of his own and wanted to know if we had a lighter. We knew at that moment, that the car ride would be one happy road trip. We left Bangalore at around 0430 hrs and headed to Mysore. The journey was pretty silent as most of us were catching up on some lost sleep. On the way to Mysore, we suffered our first flat tyre. It was kind of surprising as the road looked like you could play billiards on it. After a tyre change that some F1 teams would have been proud of, we were on our way.

Upon reaching Mysore, the first thing we did was look for a nice restaurant to have breakfast. Our knowledgeable driver took us to a vegetarian hotel, Siddhartha, where I had a couple of masala dosas that is synonymous with Mysore. Without the masala of course. That was probably the best dosa I have ever had. I have it on good authority that the masala dosa was “excellent” as well. So were the idlys (or is it idlies?) and the coffee. After a sumptuous breakfast, we went about town looking for a place to fill up our miniature LPG cooking stove and gas based Petromax lantern. I don’t know if it was because of Bakrid or if Mysoreans are late risers, but almost every single store was closed. After a lot of questioning and driving around, we found a place to fill up the stove and gas lantern. Despite the delays, we left for Kabinakad almost on time.

On the way to Kabinakad, we stopped at a tyre repair shop to get our flat tyre fixed. Unfortunately, they lacked electricity to power the air compressor, and we couldn’t get the 5th tyre repaired. About a couple of kilometres down the road, we suffered another flat tyre. Now, we had a 4 wheeled vehicle with only 3 usable tyres. The driver jacked the car up, flagged a passing vehicle and left to get the tyres repaired a couple of kilometres down the road. We spent the time usefully staring like infatuated zombies at vehicles passing by, watering the roadside plants, taking a few photographs and eating biscuits. About an hour later, just as we were getting bored of staring at passing vehicles, our driver came back with the tyres repaired and a smile that suggested that he had just accomplished his life long dream of climbing Everest. We were on our way. Again.

We reached Kabinakad Junction about 2 hrs late and a Jeep picked us up from there to take us to Honey Valley, about 3 kilometres from the Junction. If you’re wondering why we had to trade wheels, lets just say a Qualis isn’t built for 30 degree inclines with rocks the size of a human head coated with slippery, red mud. At Honey Valley after apologising for our late arrival, we got acquainted with the Chengappas (owners of Honey Valley), Jack (manager of Honey Valley), Rocky (a wily old dog) and his feisty pups (both turn one year old this January) we were taken to the dining hall for lunch. After a delicious and typically nutritious home made lunch, we were shown to the dorm where we would be staying for the night. And what a dorm it was!!! 10 beds with clean, white sheets and good insulating blankets. If dorms had star ratings, that would have been a 7 star palace!!

We left for Chingaara Falls, a 45 minute walk from Honey Valley, after settling down in the dorm. It was an easy walk full of photo ops and we made the best of those opportunities. After spending some time, a lot of virtual memory and even more battery juice, we returned to the dorm just after sunset.

Once all our cameras had been charged, we left for dinner. Dinner was another delicious and nutritious affair, for both us and Rocky & Pups. As we were swimming about in the twilight zone between being awake and asleep, the one thing that struck me was the silence. It was complete. Almost like sensory deprivation, but in a good way. Remember the teachers shouting for pin drop silence back in school?? This was it. The first thing I did after experiencing that silence was to turn off my bloody phone. It seemed almost sacrilegious there. The full moon lit up the whole valley a pristine and cool bluish white. It felt like I had just stepped into a classy Japanese anime. I almost felt sad that we had to leave the next day.

The next morning, I woke up to that same wonderfully addictive silence, went for a walk around the place barefoot with my camera and returned just in time to have a nice hot water bath. If only I had known then that this would be the only bath I’d be taking this whole trip, I’d have enjoyed it for a little longer. Not being blessed with foresight, I had to keep it short as the others were waiting for their turn. After packing our bags, we had a wonderful breakfast. The rice balls and the accompanying chutney were so good that I soon lost count of how many I ate. After stuffing ourselves full of rice balls, we said our goodbyes to our hosts, who were kind enough to pack us a picnic lunch, and their dogs and left for Tadiyandamol, the tallest peak in the Coorg area. I think. On the way to Tadiyandamol, we stopped at Gonikoppal to buy some of the things needed to ensure our survival up on the unforgiving mountain, such as beer, vodka, whiskey and lighters. We also bought some vegetables to add to our Maggi and some chocolates and chewing gum. It was here that we realised that the rumours about Coorgi women being pretty pretty were totally true.

As we had already packed our bags in the dorm, we didn’t bother double checking everything we were carrying up the mountain. Big, big mistake. Halfway up the mountain, we realised that we’d left behind the picnic lunch in the car along with half the vegetables. But as we had, divided amongst us, almost a tonne of biscuits, we weren’t too worried. Sometime after this realisation, we came to what would be our campsite for the night. It was occupied by a bunch of guys who’d stayed there the earlier night and were about to leave. They told us that they’d hidden their luggage in the nearby sholas and then trekked up to the peak. Fearing for the safety of our equipment, we decided to carry them along. An even bigger mistake.

After trudging along like pack mules, with what felt like 78 kilos attached to our backs, for over an hour, we reached the summit. Although the trek up a steep slope with slippery, loose mud and small stones was pretty painful, the view from the summit was worth every single “ow” and “ouch” and “oh fuck” uttered enroute. After enjoying the vista for a considerable period of time, the lack of water forced us back to our predetermined campsite a little sooner than we’d have liked.

We reached the campsite about an hour before sunset and started setting up the tents, collecting firewood and water. We needed considerable amount of water as our dinner consisted only of Maggi with some vegetables thrown in and some whiskey and vodka. Collecting water in a forest in the dark was a scary little episode with us expecting all sorts of creatures to pop out. Thankfully, the only popping about was done by Chandan on almost stepping on a frog the size of a fist. As Chandan was the only married bloke amongst us, he was assigned the cooking duties. His experience shown through as he cooked what is till date the best Maggi I’ve had. He even prepared some side dish consisting of boiled groundnuts and onions to go along with the alcohol. God bless him!! After a wonderfully hot dinner, we stared for a while at the fog creeping up, a lot like how it does in the movie The Fog, and retired for the night into the 2 tents.

The next morning, we woke to a sunrise that still gives me goosebumps every time I think of it. After spending a lot of time photographing the sunrise, we attended to the various calls of nature and then packed our tents and started the climb back down to our car. The climb down was slightly less strenuous as some the food we’d carried up had disappeared down our gullet. On the way down, Nari mentioned that the next trek, later in the day, would be “better”. We had no idea how much “better” it was going to be!!!

Upon reaching our car, we feasted on the wonderful picnic lunch packed by the people at Honey Valley and visited the nearby Nalknad Palace. After lunch, we proceeded to Irupu Falls, from where our next trek was to begin. As that trek, to the Narimale Forest Guest House, went through a nature reserve with wild animals, we needed the forest officer’s permission as well as a guide for the trek. Although we had booked in advance, due to the unexpected rush, our stay there for the night was in doubt. But a few phone calls later, everything was set. Upon reaching the falls, we had our lunch at the restaurant there and started our climb. About 15 minutes into the trek, Prem asked the one question on all our minds…. “How the fuck is this trek better??!!!”.

That was a pertinent question as the path was inclined at what felt like 88 degrees, was strewn with slippery rocks the size of footballs, wound through a really thick, dark and humid forest, was littered with elephant dung, some of which looked pretty recent and we were carrying about a tonne of food on our backs again. To this question, Nari’s reply was “I meant it would be tougher”. After all of us had uttered some choice words, whose mention here would result in the flagging of my blog, we carried on bravely expecting elephants to jump out at any moment. Thankfully, the only fauna of consequence we met on the way was a 6-7 foot spectacled cobra with its hood fully extended. I was so mesmerised that I forgot I had a camera on my side.

After what seemed like an eternity, we were out of the thick forest and what we saw took our breath away! An ocean of knee-high grass with islands of emerald forests!! We were in the sholas. I felt like I was in the middle of a Planet Earth documentary and could even hear David Attenborough narrating in my head!!

Soon, we were at the Narimale Forest Guest House and the number of people there really surprised me. Once we'd dropped our bags and were just beginning to settle down, our guide turned up and wanted to know i we wanted to see the sunset from an isolated place. We said yes with palpable apprehension as the walk up here had been enough to sap us almost completely. The trek to the sunset point was nothing more than a walk but actually seeing the sun set from there was an indescribable experience.

The collection of water and firewood here was an altogether different and much more frightening experience. A bunch of guys armed with sickles and empty buckets is not a very comforting sight. In the middle of a forest in the dark, its positively scary. After a dinner of Maggi and MTR’s ready to eat Jeera Rice, we slept. I slept anyway. The others went to the nearby abandoned outpost to hopefully sight some animals.

Unfortunately, the only thing they saw were shadows in the moonlight and the bone chilling wind put an early end to their vigil. It was decided that we’d visit Brahmagiri and other places nearby in the morning and then start our trek down to Irupu Falls. Unfortunately, as the guide decided to leave only at 9 am to Brahmagiri and we had to catch a train later in the day after a safari at Nagarhole, we had to skip the climb to Brahmagiri. We had our breakfast (bread, cucumber and a chutney made with tomatoes, onions and capsicums cooked in Parachute hair oil by the ingenious Chandan), and started down without the guide. We managed to reach Irupu Falls after getting lost only once. After a dip in the falls, we were on our way to the safari at Nagarhole.

Nagarhole looked a lot different on Discovery Channel. I don’t remember an army of tourists or tourist buses or vehicle trails or forest department buses with very impatient drivers or woodcutters being mentioned on Discovery. Guess that programme must’ve been shot on a different planet or something. Or maybe the whole thing was CGI…. Anyway, the safari was pretty routine. The fact that those who’d been on the safari before us wanted to name the place Nagarhole Deer Park didn’t do our sagging spirits any good. Luckily for us, we managed to spot an elephant, a bison, some Sambar and a few peacocks. But thanks to our impatient driver and the bozo who occupied the window seat next to me and slept the whole way, photo ops were not exactly knocking on my doors. But on the way to Mysore, just as we were leaving Nagarhole, we saw a huge bison grazing on the roadside only a few feet from our car! We also think that we might have seen a tiger in the forest…. The photograph wasn’t exactly conclusive and there was a good chance that our minds might have been playing tricks on us. But if anyone asks, I’ll say I saw a tiger. Period.

After a silent ride, we reached Mysore. We settled our driver’s accounts there and gave him the extra bottle of whiskey we had. He was one happy chap. It was kind of difficult to leave. I had gotten used to the silence, the animals, the tents and the walking with tonnes of food attached to my back. The city felt like a different world. But some things just have to be done and returning to civilisation was one of those things.