Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Pondy

I want to blog about my first hitchhiking trip, even though I haven't completed my Mangalore Express and Big Fat Indian Wedding blog.It all started when Piyush and myself were returning from Sirsi to Hubli after Guru's wedding. Like every other post travel discussion, we wanted to kick start our plans for the next weekend. However, both of us felt that our weekends were draining every penny out of our bank balance. Yet felt the urge to travel and see new places especially with the following weekend being a long weekend . And then the thought struck us, why not hitchhike and travel to Pondicherry. The entire week we had our hands full with office work and had no time to discuss and formalize any plan. With no clue on possibility of hitchhiking from Bangalore and no idea on Pondicherry it was nothing less than a perfect adventure.

At 7:30PM Feb 26th, Friday, we set  out from Koramangala to Electronic City with the hope of finding a free ride to Hosur or Krishnagiri from there. After reaching Electronic city we walked a few kms towards Hoskur Gate in search of dhabas or petrol station where we can strike a conversation with truck drivers. My attempts to convince truck drivers of TN and KA registration lorry and Piyush's at MH registartion were in vain. We however did not give up and stood at the signal near Hoskur Gate waving at truck drivers but turning our head away at Buses and cabs. After an hour, we decide to take a bus and try our luck at Hosur. We caught the first bus and got down at Atibele where we again gave a shot at catching a truck. Surprisingly one of the TN truck drivers stopped and offered us a ride till Hosur. Delighted we hopped in and shared a short conversation with him describing the imaginary story of how we missed our scheduled bus at Bangalore and now traveling without money to Pondy.  Since he was heading to a warehouse in Hosur, he dropped us at the old bus stand and bid adieu. We were happy with our first hitchhike but far from our destination. Rejuvenated with energy we continued to walk away from the city space continuously waving at passing by trucks. As we walked we found a roadside dinner spot, filled with truck drivers. We inquired the cook outside the shop if we can help us with finding a ride to Krishnagiri. He warned us against it as the truck drivers were drunk. Undeterred by his warning we walked little away from the shop and continued to wave at trucks. One of the trucks stopped, he had spotted us at the shop earlier and asked us to hop in. Only after did I sit next him did I realize how drunk he was. But faith we had. We told him the same story about missing our bus and asked him if we can drop us at Krishnagiri. Unluckly he was just going to take a diversion away from Hosur and offered to drop us at the new bus stand. Either he was so kind or totally sloshed, he went to the extent of offering us money for our travel to Krishnagiri which we politely turned down!. The new bus stand was in every way the wrong place to find a free ride. First, the road runs down from the bus stand making it impossible to expect a lorry to stop. Second, even if they stop they are brilliant enough to give you the advice to take a bus at the stand. Our only hope was to convince a truck driver while they stop behind a bus. We then walked behind the bus stop and continued our waving. By this time we gained some confidence at sticking our hands stretched into the highway at oncoming traffic. And then came Khalid. While we were concentrating at the trucks, little did we noticed a Scorpio pull behind a bus and the driver looking at us. The moment we spotted him, we rushed towards him asking for a ride to Krishnagiri. He drove at 120Kmph and reached Krishnagiri within an hour. Khalid was a wonderful person, who even took the pain of getting off the highway to drop us at the bus stand.  But we preferred to walk back to the toll gate on the highway to catch a truck. Nearly for 90mins we tried our luck at more than 100 trucks that passed by. Evey one seemed to be heading towards Salem. At around 1:30AM we gave up and took a bus to Tiruvanamali. We reached T'malai at 4:00AM and took another bus to Tindivanam. From Tindivanam took our bus to Pondy bus stand.

At 6:45AM we were at P'cherry and we immediately set off to the beach. On route to the beach, we saw the Annai Ashram and some of the prominent P'cherry administrative buildings. After a few snaps of the morning sun and the beach, we not only finished our breakfast at Le Cafe but also made good use of the rest room for morning duties and brushing our teeth. We then walked to the tourism office and inquired about the heritage walk. One of the annoying things about P'cherry was the persistent Auto drivers and their attitude. One of the auto drivers kept following us as we walked along the beach offering a package deal for the day. Frustrated, we took the auto for showing us chunnambar beach, Auroville and one of the old churches.

Chunnambar beach surrounded by the backwater was picturesque. From there we set off to Auroville. True to the saying, it was really an International village with unspoiled environment and a healthy mix of wonderful people. We had our lunch and waited for our passes to visit the matrimandir. Provided an opportunity, I would love to spend few months here and enjoy some time away from civilization and meeting new people. We had to rush through the Auroville beach as the heritage walk was about to starts at 4:00 from LeCafe.Our walk started at 4:30PM and learned a lot of interesting information about the old french buildings.,like the cafe was the old French Port of entry office. After our walk, we returned to the beach with the hope of convincing the LeCafe guys to provide us the terrace for spreading our sleeping bags. But before that we wanted to take some photos of the french consulate building. While Piyush took off with his lens, I brought some peanuts and sat at the bench in front of the french conulate enjoying the view of the beach. Within a minute, I had a cop charging at me with his stick asking me to get going. Only then I realized how close I would have resembled a terrorist with a huge backpack, untidy look and sitting outside an important building. Thanks to my tam, i was able to cool the cop down and convince him that I was just a tourist but not without him checking my backpack.

After that, we gave up on pitching at LeCafe and headed back to the bus stand in search of a budget place to stay for the night. After some 2 hours of walking down the road asking every single hotel, we decided to catch a bus to Chidambaram.  At 12:00 we found a budget room for Rs.200 at a lodge near Chidambaram bus stand. After a good 6 hours sleep, we had a quick bath and went to Chidambaram temple. While returning we met a fake fakir who wanted to guide us through the temple. Even though we knew he was fake with his breath still smelling of last night alcohol, we followed him. With nothing else to see in Chidambaram, we took a bus to Tanjavur. Piyush was awestruck by the magnificent temple and did not mind getting his foot burnt by the flaming rocks. Unfortunately we were late as the sanctum was closed. After good 2 hours of photography and prayer, we set off to Trichy hoping to catch a comfortable ride back to Bangalore.

Trichy bus stand was crowed and there were no tickets available in any of the private buses. We took a local bus to Salem and decided to try our luck there. But after a few hours of hassle, we managed to grab a seat in Bangalore bound bus. Tired and exhausted we reached Bangalore at 4AM. After a good 20hours sleep on Monday it was back to office.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Mangalore Express

First I want to congratulate Guru and wish him and Suvarna a happy married life. Not only was his wedding an memorable event, his love story is an exciting one too. How exciting: he met his lady love in the bus while commuting from office to home. (I don't want to deprive Guru from sharing his beautiful love story in his own words).

When Guru announced about his wedding to Suvarna in early December, all our team members wanted to attend the wedding at brides' native place, Sirsi. Their wedding was to be held on Monday the 21st Feb. Everyone agreed on a three day long weekend travel and explore the tourist places near Sirsi. Within a few days, the onward train tickets were booked to Mangalore and return was booked from Hubli for 9 members. The planning was put to a hold in event of the Christmas holidays. Early January, Guru was pleasantly surprised to find that Mike (our big boss in US) and Daniele (Guru's functional boss in US) are planning to visit his wedding and enjoy the 3 day travel with the team. Despite several If's and But's in their travel plan, we booked round trip flight and train tickets for them. Later, the trip also included the three new members Dhanpathi and Ravi (accompanied by his wife).

Guru and myself proactively planned for the three days travel. We sat together identified tourist places, drew schedules, calculated rough expenses and made reservations. With everything planned our only worry had been about Mike and Daniele traveling 8 hours by Indian Railways. Undeterred by our graphic explanation of the Indian Railways and Railway station, they were strongly convinced to experience our Incredible India!. With Guru off to his native a week before his wedding, I had taken up the responsibility of a full time travel agent. Last minute inclusion of Krishna's wife in the trip increased our travelers list from 14 to 15. I had collected an advance amount of Rs. 2200 from individuals towards hotel and other expenses. With everything planned, we just waited for our travel day eagerly.

Firday 19th Feb, Mangalore Express was scheduled to depart from Bangalore City Junction at 8:55PM. Before leaving the office, I personally informed everyone about the train timings and requested them to be available at the railway station by 8:30PM. Unfortunately Krish, Ravi, his wife and 1 year old kid missed the train by a whisker. While we enjoyed the comfortable train travel, they had to travel by bus to Mangalore and then to Udupi. After a few hours of playing cards with Daniele we decided to hit the berth. At 7:00AM we were awake and looking at the beautiful western plains. When I found Mike and Daniele sitting by the window seats and enjoying the country side, I offered them to come out and have a look by the door. Their great Indian experience had began with the fresh morning wind rushing against their hair as they stood with their heads out of the train. Like every other Indian we encouraged them to enjoy the journey by dis-boarding the train at stops and boarding again after the train starts. Surprisingly, by the time we reached Mangalore  Krish and others had managed to reach Udupi by 8:20AM. At Mangalore railway station, our 21 seater mini bus was waiting to take us to Udupi. At 9:00AM we set off enjoying the scenic bus ride on route to Udupi.

We reached Udupi at 10:00AM and checked into our rooms at Mango Suites. The rooms were comfortable and well maintained. Around 11:30AM we set out to visit the famous Krishna Temple. Before we entered the temple, Mike received blessings from the temple elephant - his first experience which unfortunately he could not get a photograph of. While I had imagined the temple to be a architectural marvel that would intrigue our boss from US, but on the contrary the temple was small and simple with horde of people pushing through the narrow passage that is common for exit and entrance to get a glimpse of All Mighty. I just hope that they enjoyed wallowing in their sweat as well others, while pushing through the queue. With His blessings, we head out to have lunch at the best restaurant in Udupi, that closely resembled Saravana Bhavan.

Everything is within walkable distance in Udupi. Loka, Deepa and myself  (the veggies) finished our lunch and walked back to the hotel. Everyone was back from lunch by 2:30PM. I informed them to be down at the lobby around 4:00PM in their beach wear and we will be heading to Malpe. We manged to leave for Malpe at 4:45PM and it was nearly a 45min drive to the place. Sunil and myself didn't enjoy the comfortable ride in the air conditioned bus and took a permanent seat near the driver. On-route to Malpe, the driver informed about St.Mary's island, 3Kms off Malpe beach. We decided to try out the island and asked the driver to drop us off at the port. On time for the 5:30PM ferry we reached St.Mary's at 5:50PM. Our fun at the island lasted only for 30mins as the last ferry was at 6:30PM. Sunil and Krishna despite warnings from Dhanpathi, rubbed their body against a rock in the sea which inflicted multiple bruises in their chest and hand. With no medicine and time to treat their wounds, we took the last ferry back to Malpe. The sunset at Arabian sea was picture postcard.

Back on our bus at 7:00PM, we were heading out without any clear destination. After some discussion, we concluded to finish our dinner in our wet clothes at Malpe's Hotel Paradise Isle which was by the beach. Krishna and Sunil got themselves completely high with nearly 400ml of scotch. Their conversations and acts got interesting. The restaurant service was one of the worst resulting in Dhanpati and others getting in a verbal tussle with the waiters. Adding to that was Sunil's un-controllable thirst to dance at the private party being held in the hall nearby. Dhanpathi and Mike motivated (secretly enjoying) Sunil to break an entry into the party. Gathering all his courage thanks to his scotch, he and Krishna managed to enter the party. Worried that they might end up with black spots under their eye, we sent Subu to the rescue. Subu diligently rescued them, however was questioned for depriving Sunil his opportunity to dance. We managed to complete our dinner at 10:00PM and make our way back to hotel in Udupi.
I briefed them on the day 2 plan and asked them to assemble at the lobby at 7:30AM. (To be contd.)

Friday, February 26, 2010

A Matter of Honour (Part - II)

Part - 2 (Ombattu Gudda)

After a good 8 hours sleep, we woke up early morning at 6AM before the sunrise. Our camp fire had been raging all night and gave us the warmth required to stand among the clouds to watch the sun rays make its way through the mountains. While we enjoyed the morning colors, Miltan was busy barbecuing his Jockey in the camp fire. Krishna, Miltan, Debarshi and myself then started packing the tents while the photographers were excused to make the best use of the morning light to capture nature through their lens.

By 7:30AM we put out the fire and began our climb down towards Bhaireweshwara Temple. The declivity was constant and we reached the plains withing 1 hour. We then walked to the nearby farmhouse and inquired the route to Ombattu Gudda. After a long discussion with the farmer, our guide informed us that path lay behind us and the two peaks that was obstructing our view needs to be crossed first. Despite some reluctant faces we pushed ourselves towards the mystery peak. I was excited at the very thought of conquering the peak this time. We walked at a good pace towards the base of the first peak. Piyush, Ramesh and myself were the sweepers and weren't comfortable with our water bottles being empty. Our shouts for stopping at streams for water died down and no one seemed to realize the importance of water. When our ascent for the first peak began, we set our foot down and declined to take a further step forward until our water bottles were refilled.

Manju had relied on the Guide on the water sources, but then after few minutes of argument we went back towards the nearest water source. However, the water was relatively stagnant and close to where a Porcupine was skinned (or dethorn-ed) and eaten; lucky, I had bought some water purification tablets. We finished our breakfast, filled our bottles and began our climb. The climb was pretty steep, but having trekked just 2 weeks back, I found it less demanding, except for some backward force from the bag.

Within 30mins into the climb we were at the top and the guide found a shorter route to second peak without much descent. Surprisingly, when we reached the top we could find the jeep track running in front of us. Having done extensive study on Ombattu Gudda during our last expedition Piyush and myself realized our location and proximity to Ombattu Gudda. We were enthralled by the green and dense Kabinhale Reserve forest. We took few minutes to cherish the moment; the moment of conquering Ombattu Gudda.

Without wasting any time and energized by the thought of no more camping, we walked on the jeep track following the guide. Having walked nearly 3kms in the open sun and exhausting our water supply, we halted under a tree to find that we were not making a descent to Lakshmi Estate, but walking in the opposite direction towards the last OG peak (Remember 9 hills). This major mis-communication between the leaders and sweepers resulted in a argument that had to be settled logically. With our water supply exhausted we had three options, continue our walk towards OG last peak, head to Sarswathi Estate and get some water there or walk back to Lakshmi Estate. After a long discussion and voting, we planned to first head to Sarswathi Estate to get some water. Decision was made but route to Sarswathi estate was not known. Believe it or not, we had mobile signal out in the middle of the forest!. Phone a friend, Ramesh placed a call to the Guide's partner and after an elaborate conversation declared that we were on wrong track to Sarswathi Estate. Like it wasn't hard enough, we had to trace back our path by 1Km and take a detour. Driven out of options we walked like Zombies back to the detour point. We then halted, while the guide set out to find the route ahead.

Within few minutes, the guide returned with a bad news, no route ahead. Walking with minimal water, and the heat above us were perfect combination for insanity to creep in. Everyone were releasing reserve energy in the form of abuses. Not arriving at a conclusion, we then decided to walk back 7Kms to Lakshmi Estate with just 4L of water. This 7Km was never ending walk, or atleast looked like one. With the first glimpse of Lakshmi Estate, we pushed at full throttle forwards.

As we entered Lakshmi Estate, we were crying 'Ner, Neri Elli' (Water, where is water). The estate workers then showed us to the hose pipe and I stopped not for a minute to drink from it. After quenching our thirst, Ramesh and Manju struck an amicable chord with the estate workers. The workers not only showed us the way to the most wonderful waterfall, that massaged our torn muscles but also prepared the best sambar that I have ever tasted in Karnataka. After a sumptuous meal, the workers offered us beetle nut and their rooms for a quick nap. While Ramesh, Manju conversed with the workers, I made my best attempt to understand the Kannada and enjoy the conversation.

After nearly a hours rest, we set out to the entrance of Lakshmi Estate. We reached the main road at 5:00PM and had our fingers crossed at the TT driver arriving on time. Withing 20mins we were back in our Tempo Traveller and towards Bangalore.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Matter of Honour

Part -1 (Ettina Bhuja)

Our last week trek to Ombattu Gudda was adventurous but unsuccessful being lost in the middle of the forest. We returned back to Bangalore with disappointment but determined to conqueror the peak eventually. After a few days of postmortem Manju, Piyush and myself decided to utilize the Shiv Rathri long weekend and scale two peaks this time, Ettina Bhuja (shoulder of an ox) and Ombattu Gudda (9 hills) with the help of a local guide. Our plan was to trek to Ettina Bhuja on Friday, enjoy the sunset at the peak, camp the night there and walk through the jungle towards OG on Saturday and try our best to return to Hosakere by the same day evening.

Manju did the entire planning from arranging the guide to buying the food. We started on Friday night 10:00PM to Shashila. The winding roads of Shriradi Ghats had given me enough spin to throw up everything that I ate the last evening, leaving me exhausted and hungry again. We reached Shashila at around 6:30AM. Our guide had arranged for breakfast at a bhatt's house where I hogged on enough idlies to keep me going for two days. The Bhatt also packed fresh chappathis and sabjee for lunch in banana leaves. We decided to keep our food at minimum and carry organic plates and covers so that we don't have to carry volumes of litter. Despite our preparation, my backpack was weighing nearly 10kgs (1.7Kg bag+1.5Kg Sleeping Bag + 3.5Kg tent + .7Kg food + .5Kg clothes + 2Kg Water)
Around 5kms from the Bhatt's house was our starting point for the trek, where we had our first glimpse of the peak we had set out to conquer. It was steep climb right from the beginning. The sun was burning us and I had to take breaks every 15minutes to control my hear rate and avoid hyper-ventilating.

We walked for nearly 4 hours under the shades of the thickets and stopped for lunch at about 2PM. We had a wholesome food and decided to take a 'power nap' for 20minutes. The sun was at its peak and we had another 1 hour walk ahead of us in the open heat. With no water source to replenish our bottles we just drank water sufficient to wet our throats. We reached the peak just in time to witness the sunset. We pitched our tents and collected water and log for our night camp fire and cooking. We then left our backpacks at the camp and climbed up the almost cliff section of Ettina Bhuja.

The climb was challenging both physically and mentally. After climbing nearly 90% , I gave up and sat fearing a fall while returning. (I forgot the saying never look down when you are going up). But then it was Manju who made me continue upwards. (Actually, it was more like if Manju can do it would be self humiliating if I didn't make it. :P, no offense Manju). After enjoying the sun set, we returned to our camp to start preparing for dinner.

While I was cutting the vegetables, Manju and others went to collect water from a stream nearby. We then cooked our maggie and began our discussion on our plan for the next day trek to Ombattu Gudda. Only then did we become aware that the guide was not familiar of the route through the forest to OG. The guide informed us that OG was three peaks behind towards east, but there was no defined route. We were left with two options, either to climb down and reach Lakshmi Estate and climb back from the end point or to climb down to Bhariavashwara Devasthanam and inquire the locals about the path to OG. Since our trail was unknown we prepared ourselves mentally for another day of camping. We finished our dinner and slept with little disturbance from the strange sounds that filled the night.

[Day 2: to be contd.]