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South by southern-most

After the surreal experience of Varkala, it was felt that we were more happier atop the cliff that looked over the beach. Then on, there was no time to stop and wonder, we had to rev the bikes to reach Trivandrum in time to catch the Padmanabha temple open in its morning hours. We started from Varkala at 10:30 and reached the temple by one, just late for the morning darshana. To wait till 3:30 would mean loitering around Trivandrum for too long, so the road led straight to Kovalam, the more famous of Kerala’s beaches.

Kovalam

Kovalam

Once you get over the initial thrill of being in a place once seen in early childhood, any exaggerated memories of the past is quickly extinguished by what you see. I seemed to remember going boating in the Kovalam with my parents, and some distance from the shore, a gigantic wave rose and fell just in front of us. We made a quick return. When in some of the tsunami videos I saw waves rising to about the same height, I had to let go of the Kovalam image as compounded interest.
The lighthouse, the coconut groves and unused boats that make the landscape might yet have been just as they had been all those years ago, but since there was no better image to remember Kovalam with, I’ll stick with the gigantic waves that we escaped from.
From Kovalam, we were quickly going through the final stages of the first phase of the journey, the one along the Kerala coast. To compensate for missing Padmanabha temple, we stopped an hour before Kanyakumari, just outside Nagercoil, at the temple of Suchindram.
Suchindram

Suchindram

The spice stalls and the holy lake outside the temple will remain etched in memory and a memory card. It also signalled the beginning of crossing paths with Aiyappa devotees who thronged Suchindram. It also began a personal task of mentally segregating the good ones with the bad ones. To keep Aiyappa away from all this, I’d refer to these temporary pilgrims as… well, just temporary pilgrims.
Lake outside the temple

Lake outside the temple

An hour after leaving Suchindram, the bustling tourist town of Kanyakumari was glittering in multi-coloured serial sets. We had reached there on the eve of New Year’s eve. We didn’t realise it then, but the “no rooms” sign was to haunt us more the next day. For Kanyakumari though, we got a room in an overpriced building which called itself the Tri Sea hotel. I remembered the Vivekananda Rock from last time and wanted to see again, the different colours of the meeting oceans at the southern-most part of mainland India.

Cometh the hour, no cometh the sun

This must have counted as the earliest we managed to wake up. It was understandably for the quintessential sunrise part of the tour. At 5:30 in the morning, the place at the edge of the town was full.

Waiting crowd

Waiting crowd

The only clear space was closer to the assumed toilet. Since Mukunda had his camera and tripod ready to go, we had to go closer to the place where people “went”. For the next 15-30 minutes everyone was focussed at the sky just beyond the Thiruvalluvar’s statue which stood next to Vivekananda Rock. There were all kinds of people in the crowd.

Thiruvalluvar next to Vivekanda rock

Thiruvalluvar next to Vivekanda rock

Locals, proper Aiyappa devotees, Temporary Pilgrims, Chinese exchange students, other foreigners and a group of Jain pilgrims. The women among the latter were of many ages upwards of 40 perhaps. They weren’t too keen on the sunrise and braved the stench to get down and have a dip. The Temporary Pilgrims were of many ages as well. Some of those older men were smoking, shoving and pushing while the younger ones were just being pesky. Added to this was the current attraction that Mukunda’s tripod had become. The sun wouldn’t show from behind the clouds and the more curious of the onlookers turned their attention to this photo device. A few boats roamed across, the lights at the rock went off and at least the Thiruvalluvar statue looked clear. Slowly, the crowd began dwindling. It was breakfast time. It was for us too. By 10:30, we had returned from the Kanyakumari temple where like in Kerala’s temples, men are to go in bare-chested. After some introspection, I have to admit it doesn’t make for a good sight.

Long queue for the ferry

Long queue for the ferry

The Vivekananda rock was alone by itself a few years back. The Thiruvalluvar statue is a later addition and this had blurred my memory of this place. But the ferry ride to and back from the rock brought back images of the long queue. Even now, the long queue and the overcrowded ferry are all that I remember. This memorial has become another of the “tick off” places on many people’s trips to Kanyakumari. Been there, done that rock. It became so for me too.

Windmills and the New Year

Along the highway

Along the highway

Very soon out of Kanyakumari, going towards Madurai, we found a grove of windmills. Like trees, they clogged a massive area beside the highway. That was to be the most pleasant part of this stretch of our trip. These 250 or so kms were laced so many different kinds of boredom inducing roads that I haven’t been able to forget it quickly enough. The relentless maintenance of at least one side of the highway meant that brakes and gears were worked over time, It was also time for sore backsides to make their presence felt. Worse still was the realisation that we simply had to make this stretch in one go. After Tirunelveli, there is hardly any place that could have a lodge in it. By dusk, we took a break at Koilpatti, a highway village with a twilight-induced morose look. From here on, the route only went downhill figuratively. There were no sign of a decent highway town anywhere and boredom was occasionally overwhelmed only by terribly bad roads. How we wanted Madurai to drive towards us! But it wouldn’t and it seemed further and further away from the highway.
At 10:30 pm, just as most eateries were shutting shop, we walked into a Madurai street to be told that no rooms were free in any of the 20 or so lodges we asked. “New Year’s eve saar. 75% rooms have been booked by locals only.” We were hungry and no restaurant in sight was open. We had bikes and bags and no hotel had a room. Time for a miracle. Time for Bhai to take his phone out.
We had almost ignored his persistent phone usage till then. It was a given anyway with him. But now, he called someone he had last seen three years back, and who had subsequently gotten married and whose husband was working in Madurai as a businessman. In 10 minutes we were in two of the best rooms of the journey as the clock struck 12:15 am at MR Hotel in Madurai. We quickly rushed to the only restaurant open at that time and found a closing-time staff taking last orders. We joined an uncontrollable drunkard to finish our dinner. He had nothing to say to us in particular, but a lot to comment on life in general.

Munnar Night Riders

Meenakshi temple

Meenakshi temple

The Meenakshi temple is one of the largest in south India. The gopuram was sadly covered for renovation work. Arvind had been hassled into buying some special tickets by an elderly gentleman. He promised quicker access to the sanctum sanctorum. After walking briskly for close to 10 minutes, he made us stand in a long queue which was how everyone was supposed to go in anyway. We slashed his service charge drastically.
After lunch, the fear of being late for Munnar began haunting us. One of my friends had been there a few days back and his assessment was apocalyptic, “If it is foggy, forget it. It is difficult even for cars. Your best chance is to use your fog lights.”
“We don’t have fog lights.”
“Ha ha ha”.
At least one of us wasn’t joking. It somehow struck 3:00 pm on many Madurai clocks by the time we left town. A few “down buses” passed us and quite soon we were in Theni.

Coconuts and the sleeper

Coconuts and the sleeper

Having stopped at a roadside coconut stall, we noticed it wasn’t just among the cheapest and best coconut water we’d had on the tour, but there was a guy sleeping so heavily that the flying scalps from the coconut wouldn’t make any impression on him. He was stone drunk at 4.30 in the afternoon.
From here, it was clear we wouldn’t reach Munnar before dark. The hope was it wouldn’t be too foggy.

Sun sets on the road to Munnar

Sun sets on the road to Munnar

As we began riding higher altitudes, the setting sun brought with it pleasant white clouds. Soon, it became darker and the route to Munnar was dark. Few vehicles passed us and the surge was a lot slower than we had wanted. This was the worst it was going to be unless a sudden cold spell hit us.
By 7.30 pm, Munnar was bustling with honeymooners and families alike. That friend of mine had mentioned that Saravana Bhavan had a lodge there. It was full, but a guy in the lodge offered to show us his cottage. These things are fraught with irritants, but the guy seemed quite nice. It was half a kilometer away from the center of the town and but for the 60-degree steep climb from the road, it was perfect. We still chose the Casper Cottage as it had two rooms and Rajan was indeed a nice guy.

The two hams

With one serving of a dosai, the cloak was off the Saravana Bhavan. It was fake. Even if it was real, it didn’t make any effort to appear so. Food was fine, but it still wasn’t Saravana Bhavan. Add to this the ham actor tried hard to be a waiter. He was tending to our table with great intent and even for the simple act of giving extra chutney, he’d bring out every ounce of emotion from inside. He covered the distance from the kitchen to two feet from our table at normal speed. Suddenly, a touch of Vijay, a melodrama from Sivaji and a yemotion from T Rajendran flooded into him. “Saar, chutney?” was never so dramatic.
As I wrote this, it occured to me that we didn’t do anything touristy in Munnar.

Munnar

Munnar

It was just a pit-stop. We cleared from Casper Cottage towards Udumulpet. After negotiating the steep descent from the cottage to the main road of Munnar, we moved towards Coimbatore. Along the way, we bought tea from estates and oranges from the street. We thought of going into a animal park, but thought better of it. At 2.30 in the afternoon, we were at Raagam Bakery in Udumulpet. It was a revelation.

Cartoon cake is somewhere there

Cartoon cake is somewhere there

The cartoon cake especially struck me as magnificent. It still wasn’t lunch though and by the time a Bihari waiter brought half-baked chappatis in Pollachi, it was 4 pm.
The traffic from here to Coimbatore was horrendous. We made through it thanks more to time than smooth flow of vehicles. Just after dusk and just after meeting Naga and Mukunda’s friend in a Ayurveda hospital, we checked into Aiba Hotel. This was to precede one of the horror evenings we’d ever have. We watched Aamir Khan’s Ghajini in KG Cinemas. Enough said!

My impression of Ooty had been negative for it being a commercial tourist station and positive because Mithun lives here. It was a surprise that Ooty turned out to be quite beautiful.
Coonoor

Coonoor

Ooty

Ooty

The stop at Coonoor was good by itself, but Ooty held its own. We had taken the Mettupalyam route from Coimbatore and barring a serious case of amnesia, there weren’t many things memorable. Mukunda had to miss out on his dream destination of this trip, the Silent Valley. Most of us didn’t really know what or where it was. Even the few maps we had and lost didn’t have much more than a dot to show it. We instead stopped at Coonoor. The steam train was just about to leave the Coonoor station when we went there and after an hour, seeing off 14 sharp bends, we had reached Ooty.

The return leg

From here, there isn’t much to flash back on. There was the Ooty to Mysore ride which cost us some Rs. 300 as bribe to the forest officials in Bandipur and Madumalai. We had reached late, as ever, and they reckoned it was dangerous for two-wheelers to ride in the dark. They also somehow reckoned that with Rs. 300 in their hands, it would be miraculously safer. Still, there were times while making quick turns when an elephant two feet close to the bikes wouldn’t have been visible.
This still was no scarier in comparison to travel on the road between Gundlupet and Mysore. At night, there is no way you have bright enough lights to see speed breakers. They aren’t zebra coloured and prop up at the most infuriating of places. When you are riding at close to 80 kmph, this poses a massive danger to motorists. It seems these speed bumps are produced by local villagers who live along the highway.

On Chamundi Hill

On Chamundi Hill

Another worthy accomplishment in this final stage of the tour was the climb up the Chamundi Hills. Again we found Jain and Temporary pilgrims here. The climb was tough and generally nothing too flash to write a ton about, but the regulars who ran up and down a few number of times surprised me. Whats the point?
It was also the question many asked us about this trip. You didn’t see Wayanad properly, you didn’t spend much time in Munnar, all you got from your 10-minute visit to Ooty were few home-made chocolates, with a bit more planning you could have visited a few other places too; what was the point?

After grazing south

It is close to 5 months since that trip. Many things have changed. Many things have happened in people’s lives.
Mukunda has had to manage few more databases in his software company.
Naga was disillusioned by the pointed “whats the point?” questions and resigned himself to study management on weekends.
Arvind hopes he will get his 2gb memory card that was lent to me.
After giving the RX-Z back in a better condition than it ever had been, Sujeevan Bhai has got nostalgic and is posting his old pictures on Orkut.
I lost my mobile phone last month, but I did climb the Table Mountain.

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