Monday, December 29, 2014

Yellapur to Dandeli

Leaving Yellapur we enjoyed riding through the jungles of the Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary, with virtually no traffic and only jumping monkeys and shrilling of birds to keep us company. Our first stop at the edge of Dandeli was at the government run Jungle Resort, staff dressed as ageing boy scouts, offering a room for two at a steep price or camping in tents - not much less expensive. When I questioned the prices, the first selling point was that it included a bonfire, a seemingly obvious attempt to sell the sizzle, as well as night and morning jungle activities and all meals.

Within less than a kilometer, we were at the town traffic circle, with the usual mayhem, the high noon sun soaking up my energy reserves, when a kind soul offered to help locate the homestay I had been trying to find. Using two cell phones, and many trips in and out of an adjoining small eatery, about 10 minutes later this friendly fellow summons someone from the crowd, who proceeds to guide us across the traffic circle, to a travel agent, with all kinds of enticing photos of elephants, treks etc. Alarm bells rang for this intrepid independent traveler. The agent, who we later learn is Nandini, tells me that the highly rated homestay I wanted is some 60 kms away. She shows me a number of nearby properties on her computer screen, and I select one with a pink room, costing a modest 1000 rupees room only or 2000 for the package, which again included a bonfire and meals or about 10% of the government property's rates. A quick calculus: room only is a better value as we will likely not have breakfast and take lunch in town. She is delighted with our choice as it is the property that she and her family own and manage, and Nandini and husband lead the way in their car for about 3 kms, with us cycling behind, to their Jungle Mist Hill Homestay.

The place, at the foot of a hill, is a former worker lodging for a nearby pulp mill. It is simple, with renovated bathrooms, but provides the basic creature comforts. Set on the edge of a small village where locals still live off the land as I suspect they have for generations, our presence is very much a novelty. In fact, between Goa and Hampi, for about 10 days there was not a foreigner in sight.

Following signs at first, we go looking for a nearby mountain top temple. When there are no more signs we follow narrow and steep trails to the top of the hill, assuming from the name, that temple would occupy prime real estate at the peak but its not there. After climbing down, a half hour each way, we discover that it was much closer to our place of stay but we managed to create our own jungle experience! We walk to the village, and enjoy the market: a proud flower merchant offers Alison a red rose, another bananas, neither expecting anything but a smile and a thanks in return. Lunch is the local thali, four curries, rice and chapati, with unlimited refills for 50 rupees a serving, a bargain even in India. We sip chai at the end of a bridge that separates the village for the "jungle lodge" and watch local life unfold in front of our eyes and of course respond to ongoing questions about us aliens "What is your country? what is your age? what is your profession? What is your purpose in India? What do you eat in India?" This is typically followed by a request to take our photograph on a cell phone and a parting phrase "Happy journey"

The second day Nadini's brother and four college friends arrive from Pune, a big city some six hours drive away. They have come, wanting to partake in a back-to-nature, outdoor experience. In the evening, the 'house boy' struggles even with plenty of lighter fluid, to start the bonfire of a few sad sticks of wood, and the smell of the later is quite overwhelming. Wood as a fuel source is a scarce commodity, as all through are travels, we see people pick dead pieces, cutting branches and splitting chunks with wedges and hammers.

At our bonfire, the men bring out a bottle of rum and a bottle of 12 year old scotch. It is clear they are not drinkers. Being "uncle" as I am commonly called, and not wishing to be a poor sport, I, with much persuasion, accept the first serving from the bottle and help consume far more than my share of the scotch.

A live band, brought in for the occasion, plays local melodies in the background as Nandini tells us about her marketing plans for the lodge and business plans for hotel she and family are building north of Goa. Being someone who never feels too restrained about giving advice, free or otherwise, and with the help of good scotch, I make some marketing and real estate suggestions. She is clearly appreciative.

On our final bill, the room rate is reduced for the "overstay night" and there is no charge for the the second dinner as "we were part of the family". Such is the warmth and generosity that we continually receive.

As we continue our ride, sadly, I cannot help but notice, outside factories, construction sites and where crops are being harvested, temporary settlements consisting of prospector style tents: mostly blue tarps supported by a beam and a couple of cross pieces. These tent cities have with minimal facilities: women cooking on open fires, water carried in large urns for considerable distance and children and a few livestock, meandering about. We in the developed world seek out glam camping and the outdoor experience; clearly, India has also arrived as urbanites are drawn by bonfires and the seemingly simpler ways of life of yesteryear.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

From Goa to Yellapur

Traveling, especially in India, while reading Paul Theroux's semi-autobiographical "My Secret History", is a lethal combination for me. His response to a female benefactor's question: "Is there anything you want?" He replies "Yes, what no one else has, what no one else wants or can even imagine." He continues "people with money bought things to be like everyone else. If I had money, I thought, I would try to be different as possible'".

Leaving the endless beaches of Goa with limitless comforts and stuff that money can buy and what all the tourist seem to want and can have, we took a radical turn as we headed inland. For a week now we have been riding through country I could not have imagined, and because of the perceived hardship of doing it on two wheels, I suspect few would want, and yet the totality of the experience, is as different as possible, which makes it so satisfying.

Our point of departure from the coast was Karwar, a sheltered port, a huge estuary that has been coveted by navies and foreign conquerors for millennia and is now India's largest naval base. Our first stop is in Virje, just a tiny dot only on the Google map, turns out to be the home of a huge hydro and nuclear power project, with residents housed in Soviet style high-rises and a fleet of modern buses shuttling workers between sites. The hotel we stayed at clearly had its moment of grandeur during the construction phase of the projects a few decades ago, and is now vastly oversized and under-utilized, and the deferred maintenance is clearly showing. The arrival of two foreigners, especially cyclists, sends waves through the staff. I decline the super-deluxe suite, all in white marble and cavernous spaces with badly peeling plaster, for the superior room, in much better condition and still huge with the same gleaming marble. The manager personally directs us to the attached restaurant and the staff descends eager to please. Outside the residential compound the locals treat us as dignitaries from a foreign place, which we clearly are.

For our next day's ride we are forewarned that it is for the most part through a State Park and there are no services other than two tiny villages, and that the road is mostly a single lane track, albeit paved. We stock up on local tangerines, bananas, peanuts, water and of course, sweets and pastries, which are ubiquitous in India. What we were not anticipating were the twist and turns and challenging hills, and the near absence of any traffic. The sixty kilometers were demanding but thrilling as the jungle provided a near complete canopy covering, keeping us cool and waterfalls with their rushing sounds adding a novelty to the silence of the jungle, which was constantly punctuated by birds, mostly heard but not seen. But it was the presence of monkeys, individually and sometimes in large troops watching us from the roadside or jumping from tree to tree leaving trails of green leaves and small broken branches on the roadside that provided amusement beyond imagination.

Arriving quite tired in Yellapur, we were further delighted to see a huge billboard advertising Banana County Resort with modern cottages, massage, internet etc. and it was only two kilometers off the main road, admittedly on a poorly maintained dirt track. The place was huge and an inspection of the room showed it to have all the mod cons. At about $50 per night it was expensive, but seemed like a fitting reward for a hard days' days ride. To our surprise, there was no hot water. When I mentioned this obvious deficiency, and that even the bell boy said there was hot water, we were given a stream of explanations. "Yes there is hot water; would will like a bucket of it now, that there was break in the pipes, and the "bellboy does not know anything." On further probing, we are reassured that there is solar powered hot water but is not turned on because there are no guests. Clearly our presence after paying full freight went unnoticed. Later, after an immense struggle, as the internet only works intermittently if one leanes over the front reception desk, I was able to check Tripadvisor and noticed that lots of others complained about not having had hot water. When I mention this to the manager, he said "those were comments by angry and malicious customers who demanded a discount, for no hot water". Exactly!

We had a great dinner in the cavernous but elegant dining room. The next morning, at exactly 6:30 am as promised, there is a knock at the door and a waiter in full uniform, gleaming smile announces: "Good morning SIR! its bed tea". When I ask for a bucket of hot water, he assures me, and indeed the hot water has been turned on! Welcome to the mysterious ways of India. We left clean and well fed, awaiting the mysteries of the roads ahead.