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.