India

O’Land Estate, Coonoor

The planning obsession has ensured that our vacations/home trips are meticulously planned, and much in advance. So the long Ugadi weekend would’ve ended up as just another long weekend, but for the wonderful disruption by B & N, who suggested that we take a mini break. After many Facebook chats and near misses, we finally zeroed in on O’land Estates. (all details are on the site – click on the individual rooms for prices)

Day 1: Though we’d heard much, we’d never actually met a 5 AM (departure) on a Saturday, so it took us an extra fifteen minutes to get fully acquainted, and get started. (route map) Though B tried his best to convince us on the merits of the thatte idli at Bidadi, we made very Amit-like (for a definition, check the text here) jokes based on the first word minus an h and finally landed up at the standard Kamat Lokaruchi. Masala dosa, idli, chow chow bath, vada and coffee later, we were on our way. Barring a tiny water purchase stop, we (I use the word loosely, B and N did all the driving!) then drove until Gundlupet before stopping at the unofficial restroom sponsor of all weekend getaways out of Bangalore – CCD. ( a pot can happen over coffee!) We entered the Bandipur National Park in a while, and after some standard deer and monkey spotting, also managed to get the elephants to pose!

36 hairpin curves later, we were in Ooty. After much googling and even 4sqing, we landed up at the Nahar Sidewalk cafe for lunch. I sensed something wrong in the menu and we soon discovered that – horror of horrors- it was all veg!  But we were too hungry and the pasta we ordered turned out to be quite decent. I also happened to earn a Herbivore badge on 4sq thanks to the checkin! We had Google to thank for the chocolates from King Star Bakery, which were consumed through the trip.

The trip thus far had been very pleasant and we were wondering if we’d beaten our road trip hex. And then began our road wrestling! The route from Ooty to O’Land is curvy in real life but pretty straightforward on the map. But a couple of wrong turns after Lovedale meant that it was near 4.30 by the time we reached O’Land! The only consolations were the beautiful vista including picturesque bungalows, and the ever dropping temperature. The road on Google Maps actually ended quite a long way before the estate gate (that was a first for me) but the locals were very helpful. O’Land was quite a land’s end and looked totally awesome. We enjoyed the view from the Estate House and the tea, thoughtfully provided by Aslam. Our rooms – Hornbill House – was a tiny walk away, and we were already floored by the unique design before we even inside!

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Hornbill house is spread over two floors and shares a common living room. The ground floor has a sit out while the first floor has a bathtub with a view! (though the area was facing a drought, said a notice, and guests were requested not to use it) The view also includes a waterfall, but that was on a leave of absence, courtesy the same drought!

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We relaxed for a bit before heading over to the Estate House for dinner. The biryani would take a while, said Aslam, so we decided to have a simpler rice + vegetables + chicken meal, all the while admiring the quirky decor elements of the Estate House. The Bollywood lover in me had a feast! We also chatted with Sajan, the estate manager, who had himself just returned from Coorg. The night view from the Estate House was equally fantastic – lights from the isolated dwellings on the hills, and a starlit sky above.

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Day 2: We just about made it in time for breakfast – Poori sabji, bread and eggs washed down with some excellent tea! There’s a little space below the courtyard level that offers a wonderful view, and that came to be our favourite eating spot. We asked Sajan for some outing options and he had two – a 40 km drive to Upper Bhavani or a 30 km drive to Coonoor. After much debate, we decided that we’d pursue the latter after lunch. We roamed around the plantation until lunch.

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Lunch was the biryani we missed the previous night, and we set out to Coonoor at about 2.30. Thanks to Sajan’s precise directions, it took us just about 45 mins to get there. Splendid views all along the route. B, for some reason, got it into his head to see Wellington, a cantonment a little after Coonoor. What he specifically wanted to see was a golf course which apparently Tendulkar had visited. We never found it and B was the subject of much ridicule, though I later found that it does exist! We roamed around Coonoor hunting for a place to hang around and finally landed at the Gateway Hotel, a lovely property that has the Raj written all over it, including a hunting trophy from 1912. After a couple of beers, fish ‘n’chips and a fruit platter later, we decided to begin our journey back. Some fruit and plant shopping happened on the way. Dinner was standard fare and we watched Flight before a sound sleep!

Day 3: We decided to start our return trip immediately after breakfast – that turned out to be Rava Idli @ 9.30. :) Sajan was kind enough to have one of the workers get us the jackfruits we’d been eyeing since the time we’d arrived! :) He also gave us directions and even accompanied us for a bit. This time we didn’t get lost and made it to Ooty in just under an hour. There was much shopping to do – pickles, chocolates, spices – from Modern, which was also Sajan’s suggestion. Lunch was planned at Gundlupet, a slight detour from the Kanakpura route we’d decided to take. The Misty Rock hotel is exactly opposite the CCD we’d stopped at on Day 1, and its restaurant De Shell was our lunch stop. The unintentionally funny menu (check the image below) was the only solace while we waited and waited for our lunch to arrive. (Tip: order only meals or biryani if you’re in a hurry)

The Kanakpura route has small stretches of bad roads, and is relatively quite boring compared to the regular Mysore route. If you’re planning to take this route, prepare yourself for repeat stretches of farmland, hamlets, little towns and lakes that exist only on Google Maps. (blame the summer)

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We reached in about 8.5 hours including the hour long lunch break – significantly better than Day 1. O’Land is a wonderful retreat from the concrete jungle, and the perspectives that nature provides when you allow it to, continue to amaze me.  And we owe B and N one for a fantastic mini break! :)

Kodagu Moments – Days 2,3

Continued from Day 1.

The replacement for the early morning trek was a coffee trail trek that began at 10.30. Breakfast was sumptuous, and in addition to the elaborate buffet, you could also get dosas and eggs made-to-order. We returned to our room before getting to the Leisure area to begin the trek. Arun Poovaiah arrived on time, but we had to wait for a few guests who took a while to land up! After introductions, to each other, and to some fauna near the building (like the Burmese you can see in the second image – it stops growing if it comes in contact with an alternate life form! And I thought I was asocial!) we began walking higher, towards the second phase of the property’s expansion. On the way, we were shown the Arabica and Robusta coffee plants. The second phase was where the deluxe suites were being built – they were complete except for the work on the interiors. I think 227 was the suite we saw, and it was a rival to the ‘best view in the resort’ tag. To top it, there was a Jacuzzi on the balcony!

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Here’s a quick view of the scene from the balcony.

Poor Arun, having encouraged questions, was at the receiving end of some utterly random questions! I hate to sound like a jerk, but I really wished I had lmgtfy stickers! When he asked us for feedback on the stay, most guests said there were not enough activities – live bands was one suggestion! Led me to wonder whether humans had lost their ability to make their peace with silence and stillness. ​Our frantic days are really just a hedge against emptiness. 
 ~ Tim Kreider. Ah, well. Arun replied that live bands were not really in the scheme of things, but they did have tennis, basketball and badminton courts. We had also discovered a ping-pong table, carom and several board games in the Leisure area earlier. This is one feedback we had – that the welcome folder in the room should have this information, WiFi passwords etc.

We had been asked specifically to wear jeans and shoes for the trek, but several in the group pretended not to have received the memo. Thanks to that, the leeches in the area decided to invite themselves to the party! Arun totally downplayed it saying that it was blood donation. 😀 We then saw a rudraksh tree and the poor guy was asked for the significance of the number of faces a rudraksh had! He did say that a single faced one only appeared once a century and apparently Rajinikanth, Sonia Gandhi and Queen Liz had one! From there we moved on to see Elaichis, and the leeches decided to crash the party again! I got a video of one doing its version of the pub crawl.

We also saw the soon-to-be spa, the sports courts, and even the area for the swimming pool before we completed the trek.

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Lunch was another buffet, and there was still no pork! We asked for it and were told that we’d get a portion for dinner. We also saw a couple of kids whom we suspected were aged less than the resort’s 12 year old criteria. Hmm. On the way back to the room, I thought the buggy ride would serve as a good proxy tour of the resort. Here it is!

D had already made plans of how to spend the afternoon – Arun had invited everyone to The Verandah to make their own blend of coffee. I begged off and went into deep meditation, from which I emerged bleary eyed an hour later, when D came over to call me to taste the coffee she had blended, ground and brewed. We even got a packet of it. After we walked back to the room, we played a Calvinball version of chess, and then (for the first time) walked to the restaurant from the room. Silence except for crickets, a light breeze, bliss!

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We did get the pork curry, but though it was tasty, it was too little too late. This is another feedback we gave – when in Coorg, it is unpardonable not to serve pork in every single meal! After dinner, we played carom, and D was convinced that we should buy one. Yay! I’d been asking for one forever now!

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And thus ended Day 2, and our check out time the next day was 11 AM.

Day 3

The only time the service faltered was after breakfast when we asked for a buggy. It was raining heavily, and we had to wait for about 20 minutes before we got one. I have to say that this was the sole exception – the staff had always been courteous, and understood the meaning of service very clearly. They’d go out of the way to help and always made it a point to ask if we needed anything. Most everyone smiled, and that was wonderful! We ended up paying Rs.34500, inclusive of the driver’s food (nominal charges, and his accommodation was complimentary) for 3D/2N and while it might seem on the high side, and the place is not the easiest to reach, all things considered, it’s worth it if you can convince them to feed you pork regularly! 😀

We left out by around 11.30. and the driver’s clock showed 4.50. Our time was not right, I should have taken it seriously! We had initially thought of lunching at Madikeri but we made quick time on the way back and based on the distance, decided on Cafe Coorg near Hunsur for lunch. At Kushalnagar, the driver braked suddenly thanks to an idiot in front of him who, without any warning, decided to stop and attempt a U turn in the middle of the road! A bike scraped our vehicle a bit, cursed us and we thought that was the end of the day’s adventures. We stopped at Cafe Coorg and managed to keep down the food. Enough said. (Probably a good idea to have an early breakfast at Tamara and lunch at Madikeri)

A little after that, the awesomeness began. A sudden hump ahead made the driver in front of us brake. Our driver was too late to respond, and we could only watch in helpless silence, as despite the hand brake, we skidded straight on to the back of the vehicle ahead of us! No one except our car was hurt. The other car’s owner was a Mallu and after mildly complaining about the damage to his vehicle, (which wasn’t much) prophesied that our vehicle wouldn’t move! He offered us a lift till Kengeri but we declined. We then limped r.e.a.l.ly.s.l.o.w.l.y till Srirangapatna, where we got a mechanic. There was a theatre playing ‘Bulbul’ opposite the workshop, but D wasn’t very interested. The ‘fix’ took half an hour, and we resumed the journey. Turned out in a while that he had made it worse – the engine began to overheat! We barely managed to reach Mandya. Several bullock carts chose this opportunity to add wins to their CVs! Hmmph! Our driver managed to get us an alternate vehicle at Mandya, after unsuccessfully trying to convince us of the benefits of a Volvo bus, and then practically assembling all the taxi drivers around to offer bids, and suggestions!

We started from Mandya at 6, and managed not to touch other vehicles. But this driver also understood that we were on a vacation and despite directions and suggestions, decided to show us most of Bangalore before dropping us in Koramangala at 9.45. Ten hours and fifteen minutes on the road! D claimed that all the tranquility she had attained at Tamara was lost on state highways! But hey, we have 2 posts and photos to show for all of it! 😉

Kodagu Moments – Day 1

A variety of factors led us to look nearby for the first of this (financial) year’s vacations – a relatively unambitious trip to Coorg. But it was our first trip to the area, so we decided to make it special by resorting to luxuries that we otherwise stay away from during our travels. The trip began on a Friday morning, and our Celcabs driver was only about 15 minutes late. At 7.30 we got out of Koramangala on to tolled NICE and un-tolled other roads, and parts of Bangalore that we’d seen only on Google Maps.

Though we’d have liked to try out breakfast at Maddur Tiffany’s, hunger and a persuasive driver led us to Kamat Lokaruchi, just after Ramanagara, at about 9.15 AM. We decided that the ‘buffet’ option would be the least taxing mentally. At Rs.120 per head, it wasn’t the stuff legends are made of, but pretty filling and reasonably tasty – pongal, dosas, (masala and standard) Kotte Kadubu, vada, jalebi, kesari bath and so on! The pit stop was short and we then passed more Kamat outlets, a few CCD, McDonald ones, and even a KFC and Empire, all much more spacious and luxurious than the ones in Bangalore.

On to Channapatna, Maddur, and a Mandya quite different from the muddy little town that I had somehow visualised. Ambareesh (whom we have something bordering on affection for – thanks to Sumalatha’s mallu movie connection :) ) was everywhere, and thanks to ‘Bulbul’, so was Darshan! Shaded roads, a smattering of brand outlets and large parks, Mandya made a pretty picture. Neither of us knew that we’d meet again in a more elaborate way during the trip, but that’s for later.

Srirangapatna, Hunsur (which has a few highway eateries) Periyapatna later, we passed Bylakuppe, where ocher and saffron robed monks swarmed, and a couple of them managed to scandalise D when she spotted them in a non-veg restaurant which heavily advertised chicken as a specialty. I told her about the Dalai Lama being a non-vegetarian and she refused to believe me! After Kushalnagar, we were at Madikere just before 12.30. Given that our destination was only about 40 km away, we decided to wait till we got there, for lunch. But 40 km actually took almost a couple of hours, and past Napoklu and Kabbinakad lay the end of our journey – The Tamara, where we had reserved a weekend break package.

The billing happened first, heh, as did a welcome garland a vanilla drink that was oh-so-refreshing! Since we were reasonably famished, and there was some confusion regarding the room, we went straight to the restaurant. A buffet awaited us, and we weren’t really discerning of what we ate – I remember it as a large blur! Our luggage saw our room before us. A buggy (on-demand and a call away) is the most common form of transport, unless you want to walk, which is a splendid option. We’d specifically asked for Room 111 (or its adjacent 112) because they offered the best view in the property. And so it was.

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Since even a few thousand words aren’t really enough, here’s a video that D shot.

As with every other trip, my headache decided to pay a visit in the evening! Thankfully, there was an option to lounge around on the balcony, or to watch the landscape change colour right from the bed! Easy to guess what I chose. :)

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The buffet dinner had a couple of Coorg dishes but not what we had come seeking – pork! But we pigged out anyway. By then, it had begun raining. That meant that our trek planned for 6.30 AM had to be canceled, since the paths would be slippery. I pretended disappointment, but apparently not enough of an act to convince D! Haha. Day 2 would therefore begin a little later. At least one of us was not complaining!

To be continued…

Shillonging Day 4 – Peaks and Falls

Contd from Day 1, Day 2, Day 3

Ajmal managed to be late citing tire problems as an excuse. My legs were tired too, but D seemed to be even worse off, stooping like an old woman when she walked. I laughed, but my back hurt when I did that! Breakfast was standard – paratha and omelette. The night before, Ajmal had claimed complete ignorance of where Laitlum – one of our destinations for the day – was. Though Chintu also professed no knowledge, he was kind enough to find out and draw a map for us. Google Maps helped too.

We decided to go straight to Smit, and from thereon to Laitlum. Despite the map, it was difficult to find. It was really an ‘edge of the world’ place, and though there was heavy mist, it was quite an awesome view. Unfortunately the damn mist wouldn’t allow the canyon view to pose for photos! It takes just over an hour from Shillong, so it’s really worth a trip, for the silence and awe. :) Ajmal, as usual, had no idea on where the 100 year old house in Smit was, so we had to skip that!

 

 

 

The next stop was Shillong Peak, and it had begun raining heavily again! But it cleared for a few minutes just as we reached the peak, and so we were able to catch the splendid view, though there were clouds and mist. D also got to wear the traditional Khasi costume for Rs.50. While climbing the little watchtower, D suddenly realised that she had developed a fear of steps. 😀

    

Elephant Falls was next. Appearances and sounds were deceiving, and when D realised the number of steps that it would take to reach the third level of falls, she immediately balked. The first level was easy, and I went till about the second level, but from my vantage point, didn’t see a lot of sense in going to the third. I also realised that the place seemed to be a favourite rendezvous for the young Shillong crowd, and didn’t want to disturb their, erm, best practices.

We got back to Laitumkhra after spending close to an hour in Shillong traffic! This time we were adamant about finding Sesame, and finally did! It was in a little building called Shoppers Cove near the Municipal Parking Lot in Laitumkhra! We entered the dimly lit, tiny outlet and discovered that they really didn’t serve local dishes as various stories had informed us! So Pork Chilly Mushroom and a Chicken Chopsuey it was! We then went back to the hotel, totally tired.

We were too lazy to even go out for dinner, so the plan of visiting Cloud 9 in Police Bazaar was dropped. Instead we ate waffle cone ice creams at the Baskin Robbins outlet nearby. 😀 A sweet last night in Shillong.

Day 5: On the return trip, Ajmal was supposed to stop at Barahpani, but didn’t deem it worthy enough. Instead we got to see several man made waterfalls on the road, with truckers being the major contributors. Ajmal seemed to be focused on sending us heavenwards even before the flight, and had a curious habit of accelerating on hairpin curves and places where there were boards that stated speed limits of 20-30 kmph. Have to mention here, that we found a Kerala restaurant at 9th Mile! Seemed closed though. The Guwahati airport does have a couple of options for snacks. At Kolkata we sat at our regular CCD hangout just outside the main building and killed a few hours. Indigo proved to be as 6E as it always is in terms of sticking to time.

The trip cost us around Rs.60000 inclusive of everything – tickets, hotels, meals, taxi. We went through Traveloearth, but really wouldn’t recommend them mostly courtesy Ajmal. Both White Orchid and Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort are functional and clean. The trip was worth it thanks to the day spent at Cherrapunjee,  a couple of really nice people we met – Chintu and Angela, and for visiting a place that a favourite author set her first book in – also her birthplace. I am a huge fan of Anjum Hasan‘s writing, but on Day 1, I became skeptical of her description of Shillong. However, by the end of the journey, I could completely relate to the place in “Lunatic in my head” though it is set in the 1990s. It would seem that Shillong has grown since then, but hasn’t really moved.

Shillonging Day 3 – Rooted

Contd from Day 1, Day 2….

Cherrapunjee had decided to show us why it deserved the ‘wettest place on earth’ tag. Being from Kerala, we were not really wet behind our ears when it came to heavy rains. But this was something else! Many times we saw the sky clear up, but it was like two government departments. The skies never communicated to the rains, and the latter just kept falling unabated. We wondered what we could do since the checkout time was 12. After breakfast, we cancelled the guide and the packed lunch plans, and went back to staring at the rains.

By 10.30, it had reduced to an irritating “won’t go away and won’t let you go anywhere either” level, but we decided to get out anyway. That was when Angela completely lived up to her name. Our plan was to drop the Double Decker Bridge trek plan and see the Single version, but Angela said that the path to the latter was made of stone steps, and thus more slippery, so we should attempt the former, and the longest Root Bridge and a Single Root living bridge were anyway on the way. She gave us a detailed map for us – till the point the car could go, and the longer stretch beyond. To top it, a little gift from them, and a Perk each. (we were as delighted as kids!) Then followed another example of thoughtfulness and concern when she said that we should carry plastic bags to cover our heads, and promptly gave us a few. She also advised Ajmal – no easy task – on the car route. And thus we bid adieu to the wonderful Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort.

Despite Ajmal’s best efforts, we reached the starting point of the trek. Telling him to wait there, and have a quick lunch (and come back soon) if absolutely necessary, we started out. 2500 steps, the signboard warned. Yes, we knew that when we signed up. The first 1.5 kms, Angela had told us, were the toughest, and boy, it was! Steps after steps, and steep ones at that. I gave up counting after 15. It was either my balance or the balance number I could focus on, since the steps were slippery thanks to the rain. Handrails exist for a tiny stretch much later, but at several points, you get a clear idea of how deep your final fall would be! Walking down, I remarked, was tougher, since the chances of slipping were higher. So I led the way. Staring at the map Angela had given surprisingly did not reduce the length of the trek! I wish they had some ‘you are here’ mechanism in terms of the number of steps. We finally reached the village where the right turn would take us to the longest root bridge and the left, to a single root bridge, steel rope bridge, the double decker root bridge and the end point, with natural springs. Even typing it seems exhausting! We went right and reached the longest root bridge fast enough. The mandatory photo op done, we retraced our steps, and then continued on the ‘left’ path. The cement steps feature was no longer available, and after the smooth stones threatened me a couple of times, I took my slippers in my hand and continued.

 

The steps continued to be steep, and the rain became nastier, so after several “we’ll go till the next corner and then decide” we finally decided to go back. :( Though I’d decided not to look up, I did, when I reached the village, and massively shuddered. Since I wanted to catch D in case she slipped, I erm, bravely let her take the lead. I began strongly, humming ‘how many steps must a man take before he can reach a car’, but soon had to spend more time trying to figure out when and where my next breath would come from! At one point, I even contemplated settling down in the village below, and waiting for the day a car could make its way there. D dealt with it much better. An old woman coming down said something when I smiled at her. We both understood the need for minimal communication. We successfully lost our way in the last 100m, and came upon a sight that I had come close to seeing several times in the 2.5 hours we had been trekking- God, in the form of a church. We retraced our steps and found that the great man had gone for lunch! Thankfully he deemed it fit to return soon and we asked him to take us back to the hotel. He wondered if we were talking about the Cherrapunjee one!

This was also the day that we were supposed to see the cleanest village in Asia  – Mawlynnong, but thanks to our tour operator’s excellent planning skills, it was not possible, since it was too far away! On the way back to Shillong, we also realised that the word ‘resort’ was used loosely here, and these places could actually be considered only as a last resort! Angela’s Perk was lunch! Shillong’s traffic jams reminded me of Bangalore’s worst, and we finally reached White Orchid at 5ish.

  

We asked Ajmal to come by around 6.30 since we wanted to explore Police Bazaar. That sortie turned out to be a futile one, as neither the Police Bazaar, nor its adjacent roads – GS Road, Jail Road, actually led to anything interesting.

We decided to go back to Laitumkhrah for dinner, and since the search for Sesame again proved futile, and Munchies was full, had to visit Café Shillong again. Shillong Chicken cutlets, Khao Suey and Shillong Noodles with Chilly Chicken followed. Unsurprisingly, the cutlets came after the Khao Suey (they gave us dried shrimp with it and D identified it before I killed myself again) The noodles and chilly chicken was a spicy combination, I quite liked it. We asked the restaurant manager for the directions to Sesame, and he did try to help us, with ‘look down for the signage’ and ‘near the Police Station’ being the best tips.

 

We finally returned to the hotel, knowing fully well that the next morning would be full of aches!

Shillonging Day 2 – To Cherrapunjee

Continued from Day 1

Day 2 was slightly kinder as we got up at 7.30 and had plans to start off for Cherrapunjee by about 8.30. Breakfast was paratha and omelette, served at 8. We were slightly delayed though, but set out just before 9. The journey took us through some extremely picturesque landscapes and we stifled the urge to tell Ajmal to stop the car so we could take snaps. We were secretly afraid that he might continue without us. We stopped at Duwan Sing Syiem on the way to Sohra, and then at Nohsngithiang falls before continuing to Cherrapunjee. Soon, it was easy to understand why Meghalaya is called the Scotland of the East. It has to be those endless meadows.

 

 

It was immediately after that, soon as we passed the Mawsmai caves, that Ajmal got it into his head that we had to see the Indo-Bangladesh border. Of course he had no idea where it was. So he just vaguely drove around for a few hours, despite several suggestions from us that we turn back. I have a feeling that his ancestors must have come from Bangladesh, that is the only plausible explanation for his extra bout of madness. It passed at about 11.45 and we got back to the caves. That was another bizarre experience as we splashed into the cave with another large set of tourists. Slippery as hell, the only way out was to just keep plodding ahead, amidst shrieks from kids and their parents alike. Ignoring Ajmal’s suggestions to eat at a restaurant there, we decided to proceed to our hotel, following spirited little yellow signboards along the twisty, curvy way that had some amazing views.

The Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort, about 15 kms away from the main road, is an establishment that’s totally unique. We reached just in time for for a late lunch – Pork Chilly, Chicken  Neiiong and Butter Tawa Rotis. There is something very homely about the place – the people, the large hall with the computer, common television, and photographs and handicraft items on the wall. We rested for a while in our clean and functional room. A musty smell was mostly solved by the freshener that the staff sprayed just before we got in. :) There are  costlier Executive rooms too, but we had an awesome view from our room. D went out to take snaps while I napped. Around tea time, we were given a little file on local legends, and the treks we could go for. THE thing we wanted to see was the famous double decker root bridge, unique to this part of the world. But that was for the next day.

Sipping tea, watching the sunset and a view that’s one of the best I’ve ever seen, we chatted about the resort itself. The main building had a bungalow feel to it and we wondered if it was government owned. I had become a fan of the place – the little yellow signs on the approach road, the way the staff interacted with us, the copious documentation available on various aspects about Cherrapunjee, their efforts on sustainable and inclusive tourism etc- and told D that I sensed a smart and creative mind behind this. As we strolled, an oldish gentleman stopped to chat with us. We gathered that he was in charge, and wondered if he was probably a government employee, a very amiable one at that! :) Probably an IAS officer who had chosen to skip the bureaucratic rat race? It was only a few hours later that Google pointed me to the amazing love story of Denis P Rayen, who owns the place. The love in this case for not just his Khasi wife, but for Cherrapunjee itself. :) Suddenly, everything we were seeing around us, had an explanation. I kicked myself for not recognising him from the photo in the little office room and having a longer chat, which would undoubtedly have been an interesting one! Several times on this blog, I have written about the purpose of life, I think this guy has at least gotten close to nailing it.

Meanwhile, the view progressed further on a scale of awesomeness, and even the two noisy couples (and their noisier children) couldn’t take away from our experience. It wasn’t just the view – mountains and plains and the tiny town on the hill nearby, or the lights far away slowly flickering on as the sun set, it was the entire ambiance, the spells of silence…. It was magical, and by far the best part of our trip.

 

 

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Dinner consisted of Pork Dohkhleh (highly recommended) and a Jadoh Stem Chicken, which seemed like a regional variation of the Biryani. We also made elaborate plans for the trek the next day – a guide, packed lunch – and were guided perfectly by the staff. Sometime during the night, I was awakened by a loud noise. It was a thunderclap, Cherrapunjee had just said hello. But that’s a story for the next day.

Shillonging Day 1 – 4 states

To protest against people being unwillingly sent back to the north east, we decided to willingly go there. Actually, we had booked the tickets quite a while back. :) It had been a while since “Gang talk” happened, and since D seemed to be acquiring the taste from Zingron, we thought now was as good a time as any to go Shillonging!

Early we woke – 3.45ish – to catch the cab at 4.15 and reach the airport in time for the 6.40 AM flight to Kolkata. 6E is known to be punctual to a fault and we had no intention of taking any risks. We arrived early enough and true to form, the flight took off right on time. Kolkata airport was exactly as we remembered it, but then 2 years is hardly time enough for that phenomenon to change! We thankfully didn’t have long to wait since the connecting flight to Guwahati was just a couple of hours away. Breakfast was at Subway! Kolkata is not the kind of airport that gives you a wide array of choices, so you can probably stop smirking now!

We had been informed by the tour operators that a person would be at the Guwahati airport to collect the balance amount, and with him we would find our driver, Ajmal. We saw a person carrying a placard with D’s name. In just 5 minutes, we were able to establish, with the help of a passerby, that D was indeed the D he was waiting for, and in turn, he was reasonably sure he was Ajmal! Introductions done, we started our journey towards Shillong. From the massive bovine presence on the road, we figured out how Cowhati got its name! Lots of greenery dotted with brick kilns and markets. We seemed to have arrived just in time for one of their celebrations, which involved people trying to spit on moving vehicles, including our own. White cars were given preference – probably more points.

The person who was supposed to meet us for the payment finally met us outside town, and wished us a pleasant journey after he counted the money. We stopped to fill petrol at a station that had its own complex patterns of how differently sized vehicles should exit. Just to spice it up a bit, they also used a larger board for smaller vehicles. But Ajmal was smarter by a league, and used the entry path to exit. Ha!   In fact he was so good that we didn’t even know that we had already crossed into Meghalaya. 4 states in about 6 hours. 2x Chetan. We stopped soon at the L.C Woodland Dhaba and dug into rotis and Chicken Butter Masala, which actually turned out to be quite tasty. My friend from previous travels – the splitting headache  -announced itself immediately after. Ajmal celebrated by playing Silsila. (Hindi, not Malayalam)

We slept most of the way to Shillong, though we did wake up in time to catch the amazing scenery as we climbed. Though the journey is a 3 hr one, we took double that. Part of it was the last mile traffic jams in Shillong. That’s a story in itself! Once we crossed that hurdle, it was time for Ajmal to do his bit. Having no idea of where our hotel White Orchid was, he promptly took us to Orchid, parts of which were white in color. It was also the home of the village idiot who proclaimed that he had been living in Shillong since 1979 and there was no place named White Orchid. He played the same sentence in a loop until I said I could pay him to shut up. While he considered that, we called up the hotel. They were very helpful and gave Ajmal directions to get there. But Ajmal, whose IQ cannot be measured by petty human standards, rebelled against directions, and stopping near a petrol pump gave that as the landmark to the hotel people. The hotel staff said they would be there in a couple of minutes. In subsequent calls, he also created a fantasy world nearby which had a hospital and a bridge. I used Google Maps and urged Ajmal, but he silenced me with a glare that would have made internet watchdogs proud! Finally I made him move in the direction that Google gave me and voila, there was another petrol pump. Ajmal complained about what the world was coming to when a town could have two petrol pumps.

White Orchid was a tiny guesthouse but we were given a warm welcome by Chetan Kumar (aka Chintu bhaiyya) who would prove to be a godsend many a time in the next few days. We skipped dining there and asked for directions to one of the many places on our list – Sesame in Laitumkhrah, just over a km away. We used the most common transit form – the Rs.10/head taxi, but just couldn’t find the place. We finally settled for Cafe Shillong.

A cosy little cafe on the first floor, a few buildings after the famous Jadoh. We were the only customers though the only big table had a ‘Reserved’ sign. Tiny tables on the balcony gives you a good view of the street. From the not-so-elaborate menu, we asked for a Pork Momos with soup, and for the main course, a Shillong beef steak with mashed potato and a Chicken Bastenga. The soup was thin but flavorful and the momos, tasty, though not a match for the Delicacy ones in Bangalore. :) The Shillong beef steak was well, a beef steak in Shillong, with a tangy sauce and well cooked meat. The local rice wasn’t available for the Bastenga, so they used white rice instead. It had a spicy chutney and a very strong bamboo+other shoots flavour and smell. To wash it down, we asked for a Hot Chocolate, a reasonable drink. The bill came to about Rs.700.

 

 

We took the taxi back to Malki Point, home to White Orchid, and slept in a spartan room after watching Kung Fu Panda for a while. :)

Kochi Chronicles – Part 2

….continued from Part 1

Much as Willingdon Island has remained unchanged, Cochin itself has a completely different story to tell. As I’ve mentioned before, each time I visit, I am presented with a new landmark and a demise of an older one which belonged to an earlier era.

For lunch, we decided to go to a trusted old timer – Tandoor. At Chillies (1st Floor) they serve an excellent Andhra meal. It’d been a while since I tried the Chicken Biriyani, so I chose to have that while D and the other M hogged the meals. No meal in Tandoor is complete without their special Kadai Chicken, so we shared a half plate. Amazing as it has always been.

Chillies hasn’t changed a bit though Tandoor downstairs keeps changing the decor. A dimly lit ambiance that somehow manages to freeze time. Helped by the huge photos from a long gone era. (the owner is related to the Travancore Sisters, so you can find many like these featuring them and MGR/Sivaji Ganesan)

The plan for the afternoon was ‘Beautiful‘. A movie we missed in Bangalore. We watched it at Padma, one of the several ‘feminine’ theaters Cochin is famous for. Most of them have survived, though the multiplexes have begun their march. Beautiful lived up to its name, and I loved the way they have quietly, but wonderfully shot the city and Fort Kochi in the movie. The day before, the other M had asked us to note a house in Fort Kochi – the one that had been featured in the movie.

In the evening, I met a friend whom I knew from Bangalore. K suggested the Cocoa Tree on MG Road, a place that has consistently ticked me off whenever I have visited, but is still a fave hangout for many in Cochin. She had moved to Cochin only a while back and I quizzed her on her first impressions. A city in transition, we both agreed, and something that reminded her of Bangalore a couple of decades ago.

To me it was still a small ‘town’, where most people still knew most other people. I probably bored her, talking of old landmarks and routes to school, and how the skyline has changed since then. I told her that I’d never felt a Cochin culture, something I could sense strongly in Trivandrum, Kozhikode, Trichur etc. Cochin has always been Kerala’s big city, changing too fast to have crafted an identity beyond that. She showed me the photo of her house with an awesome balcony view. Once again, I began thinking of where my final home would be. Oh yes, it would be fun to walk the roads as an old man – to walk past the Public Library, where I have spent so many hours, the CISF grounds whose pitch has seen many of my ‘spin experiments’, the school and its surrounding areas which has seen me transition from walking to cycles to a motor vehicle, Foreshore Road, where a dimly lit university computer room hosted my first forays into the internet, and so many many others. But would they be the same? A thought that crossed my mind when I walked back home, seeing familiar faces that had grown older, same people, doing the same things, even as time passed by. A mirror of a different sort.

Dinner was at Kahawa, the owners were the other M’s friends. A coffee shop+ with a distinct character. Hand painted wall art, a book lending mechanism ( a tie up with another of their friends) and reasonably decent food. They also have a section upstairs which is opened on days that Manchester United has a match on. Also available are group discounts and discounts for the Mayor on Foursquare. :)

 

    

We tried the Mango Italian Soda, which could have done a better job with the fizz. The Choco Chiller was significantly better and so was the Mint Hot Chocolate.

 

In the main course, K had recommended the mashed potato and Meat Sauce, but the Roast Pork was too tempting. But sadly, it just about passed muster, as did the Chicken a la Kiev. The best dish was the Grilled Fish with Mornay Sauce. Once again D was the one who got lucky! There were a few options for dessert, but nothing that we really fancied.

Before we left for the airport, we stopped at Malabar Chips – banana chips for Bangalore. Familiar faces, though they didn’t recognise me. Except for one person. :) I wondered if this was the idea of home – a place that you can come back to after several years and still be  recognised, a place that thus gives you a sense of belonging.

As we passed the North Bridge, we saw the first signs of the Kochi Metro construction. There was a line that stayed with me long after ‘Beautiful’ – “Maturity is the loss of innocence” It probably is true of cities too, and I wondered if it was only incidental that there were huge hoardings of a TOI launch on Feb 1st.

We detoured through the University, and though the place shows small signs of transformation every time I visit, there are parts of it that refuse to change. Islands in time. Places where I could stand and travel back in time, because the settings were the same, all I had to do was remember. But I had a flight to catch, and a journey to end.

until next time, timed travel

Kochi chronicles – Part 1

It looks as though the cosmos reads my posts, well almost. The 2 hour bus ride to Cochin was spent near the window seat, close enough to see the night lights. Especially at the stadium where the Kerala Strikers were trouncing their Bollywood opponents in the CCL, and the collective star power was only eclipsed by the floodlights, which dominated the sky. Dinner was the must-have dish on every Cochin trip, from a restaurant which I used to frequent, but whose special dish I discovered much later thanks to a distant relative. The restaurant has shifted since, but thankfully, the dish survived the trip. :)

A trip to a hospital which has been witness to many childhood exploits was the first agenda of the next day. The backbone apparently had its own growth agenda, the tangential perks of a daily face to monitor relationship with the computer. Reminders of mortality too, but a trip I was looking forward to was scheduled for later in the day, and that dispelled the morbid thoughts.

Despite living in Cochin for more than two decades, Fort Kochi and Mattancheri had always been faraway places for me. My connection to them, for a long time, had been that they used to be the final destinations of the buses I used to travel in. Whenever I saw someone take a ticket to these places, I used to look at them curiously. A “where do you live, what happens there, what is it like – living there” look. Later, I had quite a few school friends who used to live there, and I knew the names of the localities they lived in and talked about – Cherlai, Kappalandimukku… :) I had a friend in college too, my regular travel companion, who lived in Pandikudy.

But it was only much later, when I started working in Cochin, that I actually visited these places. Despite frequent biriyani trips, I could never master the lane mazes there. An era before Google Maps. And despite the familiarity these trips created, these places, especially Fort Kochi, never lost the little bit of magic it held for me. The last time I visited the place was around 4 years back – part of an official trip, and as a ‘tourist’. :)

This time, the other M, my sister, a regular visitor, kept teasing D in front of shops with “Madam, you want Kerala sari?” We went by the synagogue, the Police History Museum, visited Jew Town, and watched the backwaters from a cafe + curios outlet which charged tourists for window shopping. At Fort Kochi, a walk along the Chinese fishing nets was mandatory, and on the wall nearby, someone had painted his expression of the Mullaperiyar controversy. A refreshing iced tea + chocolate cake at the Kashi Gallery+Cafe later, we were on our way back.

   

   

  

But there was one stop left before we got back home. One of my favourite areas in all of Cochin – Willingdon Island. Island, which has always remained the same. From Cochin’s old airport, which was returned to the Navy a long time ago, to the shipping container yards, the KV School grounds, the shipping offices, warehouses past their glory days and now in disrepair, and buildings which seem to tell us stories of another time.  The world has changed, and yet they remain, like a living snapshot of another era. These are the places where I learned to drive a car, where numerous hours were spent convincing people to buy broadband internet, where endless cups of tea were consumed dreaming about the future. Time on Island has always stood still for me. We stood by the sea, watching the Vallarpadam container terminal come up, the Rainbow Bridge, Bolgatty and so on, as ferries carried people home.

Cochin might be a big city in the making, but it sleeps early, for now. Even as we got out for dinner, at just after 8, most shops were closed/beginning to close, and traffic was minimal. We had dinner at 14 Avenue, which served some excellent pasta and cannelloni. The best way to end the day is with good chocolate cake, and that’s exactly what we did.

 
The thing with hometowns is that there are many streets and places which activate memories. It is as though they are always waiting for me, to share a common story, to ask me if I remember, to tell me what has happened since, and if I will pass by to see them the next time I visit. Though our paths have separated since, each road has shared a journey with me, and every time I step on them, I step out of myself and think of the younger me who walked these roads.

until next time, walk on

Sikkim Day 7 – Up & Away

One more monastery before we left. We bade farewell to Mintokling and left for Enchey monastery, located within the town. It followed the same pattern as the other two we’d visited, the only exception being a lot of sleeping beings we found – a foreigner, a few dogs. The monk in charge was pretty rude when we almost stepped into an area inside the sanctum, we weren’t supposed to. We didn’t bother to point out that they should ideally cordon off that area, since there was no way to put a sign. Buddha really wouldn’t have minded.

As we reached the limits of Gangtok, I wished I could take a snap of the CCD outlet with arguably the best view among its kind. We left for the 4 hour drive to Bagdogra, and there was a sense of finality as we passed familiar places and checked them off, like a countdown. – Ranipool, Singtham, Rangpo, and then into West Bengal – Malli, Teesta, Rambi, Sivok, and finally Siliguri. We stopped at the newly opened mall for lunch, actually still under construction, but with a restaurant, a multiplex and a few shops operational. We thought we’d try the food court, but the elevator wasn’t working and climbing up 4 floors (still under varying degrees of construction) didn’t really appeal. The loos worked, but were also victims of rigorous testing by the construction workers. Prakash, our driver from the first 2 days, claimed that the legendary Pawan Chamling owned the mall.

The sudden shift from all the cold mountains to the stifling plains was very depressing, especially as we passed shanties and huge mounds of garbage as we continued from Siliguri to Bagdogra, in typical city traffic, where we shift to cm/hr measurements.

We’d been sent a message the previous day, asking us to report 2 hours in advance owing to congestion. They were right, the baggage check queue almost went out of the airport. Bagdogra airport was a revelation as far as standards went. International check in times, aside, this was one of those heritage airports, from the time IA/AI planes ruled the Indian skies. Utterly ill equipped, the staff seemed to be always paying homage to that era. Their security checks were indeed pertinent – one visit to this place and you’ll be very tempted to you-know-what-mentioning-which-could-get-me-into-trouble. The railway station ambiance was topped with a bunch of women, exceeding their baggage quota by 216 kgs (!!) and then shifting bags to cabin baggage/ putting them back like veg shopping. We sat waiting, and I got bored enough to check my mail. The place was so crowded that I stored this in my drafts “‘Opening a secure connection. Content cannot be seen by anyone else’ does not include the guy looking over your shoulder.”

We finally took off, about 20 minutes late. Our plans to make a quick dash to the Howrah Bridge from Kolkata airport were dashed, as the taxi operators weren’t sure of getting us back in time. So we sat in the CCD outside, and drank in the airport sights at dusk, quite an ironical finale to a vacation, as though helping us make the transition to routine.

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Sikkim proved a decent trip – for me, vacations are in the mind, and a different setting can only help. Despite a few niggles, there’s no reason to follow the advice of one of the drivers ahead of us, on the way from Gurudongmar.

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The single biggest thing for me was regaining the motivation to continue that book, for whatever it’s worth. But for now, we  seem to have developed a 3M fatigue – momos, mountains, monasteries, so maybe its time for a break from that. Like I told Mo, we were carrying the Leh baggage, and it will always be a difficult gold standard to measure up to. But having said that, there was a coincidence that seemed to me like the Joker character introduction in Batman Begins. The first chapter of the book I was reading was set in Tibet, at the exact same place mentioned in the first bottle of water I got during the journey.

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Maybe, someday………….. :)

PS. For those interested, we customised a tour with Yak & Yeti