(Road Trip) Acknowledgements


A trifle formal, but we felt it was important to acknowledge people whose support motivated us considerably.

Special thanks to Radhika Ganorkar (http://rgar8687.wordpress.com) who not only pushed us to start writing about our road trip but consistently expressed her opinions on the same, conveyed her excitement, and was quick to state her dismay at any delay from our side. I cannot forget Amrita telling me at 12 in the night: I just put up a stat counter and no one is reading our blog; I don’t feel like writing. And two days later. Amrita puts up a delay post on Facebook to which Radhika said DISLIKE!! That was great motivation! :D Without her, this blog may or may not have happened, but it would definitely not have happened as consistently. Thanks to her, I (Arun) finally did something I have been planning to do ever since I stopped doing it (12 years ago)—write consistently. It was great fun to be back writing!

This blog would either not have started or would have meandered into nothingness carried by the gentle soporific currents of laziness but for the continuous pats on the back and consistently recurring interest displayed by Radhika, Pallavi Jonnalgadda, Marissa Doshi, Parag Mahale (pyromaniaaac.blogspot.com) and Kamala Menon. Prachi Kamat, Vinay Shekhar, Ananth Padmanabhan, Vinayak Mohanlal, and Hari Iyer were also kind enough to find our blog (and photographs at http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2038079&id=1340908262&l=b55e8c64af) worth their time. Ananth, Prachi, Shreyas Balakrishna, Sandeep Raja, and Gajanan Nabar offered us excellent advice on roads to take and place to see, some of which we could not follow due to constraints, but we are really grateful to them. Parag also supplied important information but after the horse had bolted! :)

Saee K, Shruti Pathak, Kabhilan Mohan, Varsha Naik, Shibin Paul were generous with their comments on Facebook, and a heartfelt thank you to you! Much appreciated!

To Anshika Gulati, Dipti Deshpande, Vivek Krishna, Raji Vivek, Naveen Sankaran, Dennis Daniel, Sanika Murdeshwar, Apurva Shah, Anupama Chandran, Zankruti Dave, Rajvee Shah, Arjun Singh Gill, Santosh More, Nandita Govil, Preeta Guptan, Shruti Mokashi, thanks a lot for your comments!

Given the number of well-wishers who actively followed our little trip and encouraged us, we are sure we have missed out a few names. We are really sorry.

Without you, this bog would not have been possible, but without some people, the trip would not have been possible. Nine people deserve a special mention for watching over us, albeit with a gulped throat and mouthed heart: our parents, siblings and grandparents.

(Road Trip) Epilogue



(we have already said most things we wanted to about the journey but you cant have a prologue without an epilogue! So...)

 


Just some off-the-cuff lines (for better or for verse!)

We ended our sojourn in harmonious discontent

Satisfied but craving for some more

Scheming for another road

Some day another day

Again we shall

Set out

Set sail

To vistas anew

Making big fresh tracks

Delighting in colors and shapes

And unending roads invitingly laid out

Living a gypsy life, sans care sans labor; only a new road.

(Road Trip) Day 27: The Last Mile


We started this day having decided to celebrate Amrita’s birthday at the only beach in Alibaug we had not gone to, the remote Awas beach, and thus appropriately end the road trip. But I was already beginning to feel like the trip had ended. This halt in civilization, among people, after a long long time brought with it the sudden realization of how far away from society we had been and how now we were almost irrevocably back! The road trip seemed to have ended and the Alibaug trip but a miniature diversion.

 

My mind was already in a retrospective brooding mode, looking back at the days gone by and the people we saw, automatically forming a weird montage of sights and sounds. Suddenly, I recollected the young guys at Benaulim Beach assuring us about the safety of the beach. “Madam, the beach is perfectly safe. But you know what happens sometimes...” and then in a perfectly tactful manner, “You know these couples log no? Aap samajh rahe ho na. (You’re understanding no?). These couples, they sometimes go very inside the water—you know what we mean na?—they go in far without realizing and then accidents happen!”

 

Suddenly, a massive Russian with loose drooping skin and hanging cheek jowls in shorts lumbered up from the waters rising like a huge monkey and plonked himself on one of the beach beds in Goa; the Russians have major presence in Goa, menus are often written in Russian, and the Russian mafia is said to operate on and from its shores.

 

In Ganpatipule, a girl was dancing in the secluded beach in front of the MTDC Konkani huts, dancing continuously, not very gracefully, but with gay abandon, sometimes twirling, sometimes arching, sometimes twisting, dancing on and on and on while the sun went down in a blaze of glory.

 

I could see foreigners of all sizes, shapes, and appearances unfailingly smiling and cordially whispering “hello” if you meet their eye  wandering around half-naked in Goa and Gokarna, reading books, talking, or riding bikes; I could taste the blandness of the food prepared to their taste and could sense the conspicuousness of their absence everywhere else but Goa and Gokarna.

 

From Goregaon, we first visited another relative near Nagothane and then turned toward Alibaug wincing as we sighted slices of modern civilization—heavy traffic, industries belching smoke over creeks, and corrugated steel. It had been a long time. Gone were canopies of banyan trees over the roads, green bee-eaters flying lopsided, green grasses, blue skies, and clear black diamond-studded nights; drongos had turned into crows and squirrels into rats. Nearer Alibaug and Awas, some specks of discernible greenery appeared and we sighed at a last chance to sample nature undiluted. But it was not to be. First of all, we lost our way searching for Saldanha Farms where we had booked rooms—as had happened throughout the trip, helpful smiling people guided us all the way through—and then we found out that Saldanha Farms had closed and boarding was instead available at the owner’s place, which was quite far from the beach. This was a exactly what we did not want—we were looking for a secluded peaceful spot a little distance from the beach and not a five-min drive away. We were quick to decide to take the road home to Mumbai. 

 

We encountered maximum traffic (among all roads) along the roads we drove on the last day (Goregaon to Nagothane and then onto Mumbai), and we were considerably slowed down. And by the time we hit Karnala Ghat, it was pitch dark with the high beam lights of oncoming traffic beginning to irritate us. On then we moved to Panvel with a sigh, to Vashi with a groan, took a right turn to Ghatkopar with a sob, a left to Powai with a whine, and then right toward Malad with a lament. That then was the end.

 

But our trip had ended long back. When towering cement structures became a consistent sight on the horizon, when smoke-filled air harassed our lungs, when a torrential unending stream of cars, lorries, and buses enveloped us, when people began replacing trees, we knew. Our sojourn was over.


 

I woke up thinking about today, meant to be the day we went back to people. Twenty-five days of each others’ solitude—being two strangers among thousand others—would end today. In a sense, our road trip had ended; our last interlude in Alibag tomorrow was going to be just that, a brief mini-escape before reaching the chaos of people. But we still had this morning, which in the morning’s soft light promised to be perfection itself. And it was, with Arun conceding yet another game of Scrabble as we finished our chai in the sea-facing verandah.

The sea beckoned us with its gentle rumbles, but we sat watching the panorama of blue and white and green and brown before us. A pair of bulbuls chittered at each other, bringing in twigs and leaves for the nest they were building in the hedge of our garden. We assigned them their genders: the male was of course building the nest (I have to find the perfect twig honey, don’t be so impatient!), while the female perched on a wire and chirruped instructions (Hurry up! That’s a useless twig! What yaa, what are you doing?! Hmph, now I’ll have to come and build it myself!) at him. Well not really, but among birds, it is usually the male that builds the nest for inspection and approval by the female, who then may turn her tail up and stalk off or consent to warm their eggs! We could have spent hours watching them and making up stories about them…unable to resist our curiosity, we casually walked by the hedge, peering in at their little bowl-like nest (no touching!) and marveling at the ingenuity of birds and animals that so carefully look after their young. A debate about higher and lower evolutionary orders followed—Avis and Mammalia are evolutionarily higher, I said, because they take care of their young; Arun countered: if they were indeed higher than Reptilia et al., their young wouldn’t be so vulnerable as to not survive without care!

Checkout being 11 am (though why I couldn’t understand, the place was empty and no one had come until we left), we hurried to the beach so that we had enough time to play in the calm waters; having the assuredly safe beach entirely to ourselves, we jumped and bathed and splashed, as I pretended to spot dolphins far off (Arun can’t see anything beyond me without his glasses!).

As we left, we knew we’d had an absolutely perfect morning, and we questioned whether going to Alibag was a good idea when we were both already feeling like the road trip had ended. The vote was 2-0 for Alibag, which had always been a magical place for us for all our special days, and we confirmed our booking at the much-recommended Saldanha Farms at Awas beach, Alibag.

A last glimpse backward at the sea, and leaving behind the awful dirt track with lumps of tar and a super-steep slope, we turned our car toward my native place in Raigad district. It was only a short 120 km away—but with the dreadful Kashedi ghat in between. This long ghat section between Khed and Poladpur has claimed countless lives on its snaking turns and hairpin bends; and we paid it due respect by not driving over 40 kmph. However, this road has now been widened and, while still not very safe, is not the deathtrap it used to be.

Safe across the ghat by 1-30 pm, we looked around Poladpur for an eating joint since we had already told my folks we wouldn’t be reaching for lunch. The town itself offered no decent options, but as we were noting the couple of large hotel/restaurants on its outskirts, my grandmother called to ask me where we were. Poladpur already?!, she exclaimed, you’ll be here within an hour! Come for lunch, don’t be silly, of course there’s food. And so we drove on to Goregaon. The enormous Savitri river guided us to Mahad (which she floods almost every year), after which we longingly looked at the turnoff to Raigad fort. Another day, we said; then drove past a bunch of Buddhist caves carved into a hill, looked at each other, we’ve already told Aaji we’re coming!, and filed them away for yet another day.

At Lonere, we turned onto the Shriwardhan-Harihareshwar road (on which Goregaon lies), where green fields welcomed our eyes once more after the drabness of the Sahyadris. A sumptuous home-cooked meal awaited us at my ancestral house, and we both ate far more than we should have! Arun promptly fell asleep on his full tummy, while I talked and talked to Aaji about all that we’d seen. Pictures flowed before me; I felt like the girl with kaleidoscope eyes…the loveliness of the statues at Bellur; the sweetly smelling miles of dark green coffee; the religiously fevered crowd at Udipi; a red man at Gokarna with his gnarled face, sipping the quintessentially Indian milky chai; a little blonde boy at Palolem who was building sand castles and jumping on them wearing cute bright blue shorts; an old Frenchman gesticulating wildly as he bargained for a dolphin/sunset trip in the boat; the fishermen gathering in their nets from a trip that well could be their last; the fishes swimming past my head; heaps of bleached clam shells lying by the road near creeks; vast stretches of pristine sand lined by the blue of the sea and the green of the casuarinas; the little sand-like crabs that ran far faster than you; the smell of roasting cashews and the sight of bottles of urak (cashewnut moonshine); the tribal woman in her strangely draped saree and neckful of silver who refused to let me photograph her; the little schoolgirls in green with their bright red belts who did let me photograph them; the smiling people who waved us to the right road with detailed directions…I described all this and more and saw it once again as I talked.

It was soon evening, and we all sat down to see some of our trip’s photos. Talking about the trip, seeing the photos with others…again, the feeling that this journey was over swept over both of us; perhaps only because we were among known faces again. Another amazing meal (my Kaki is a fantastic cook!), and we are ready to crash out, in anticipation of our last trip tomorrow!

Next stop: Alibag

Important Information: The road to Karde is the pits (quite literally) for almost 2 km. The rickshaws brave it with impunity and so did our car, but it can’t be good for it!

At Karde, there are only 4 hotels facing the sea; Kinara, Sagar Hill, Hotel Sea-face, and Sagar Sawli. Saniya and Konkan Kinara do not face the beach. All hotels seem to get raw foodstuffs from Murud, so place meal orders as soon as you reach or a couple of hours before you reach on phone if reaching at meal times.

(Road Trip) Day 25: On the road


Waking up relatively early, we set out for Jaigad fort a mere 20 km away (half an hour) from Ganpatipule. The wide swathes of green fields and palm trees suddenly tuned into huge buildings and tall pillars of modernity; a huge JSW steel plant was plonked a few meters behind the fort. Although this steel plant did not seem at home in the countryside, to give the devil its due, it did seem to have transformed the village into a place of bustling activity, huge lorries, and employment opportunities. From one perspective, it looms in the horizon like a beautiful modern monument while from another, it seems like a monstrous brown blot on a green landscape. This apparently is a recent development, for, four years ago, it was not there.

Jaigad fort itself is a small fort overlooking a bay on one side, an estuary of River Sangameshwar on another, and the blot on the landscape on the other sides. Mostly in ruins, this 17th century fort also has a lighthouse built (apparently) by John Oswald in 1832, which we did not visit because we were not aware. In Maharashtra, we sorely missed a good guidebook; moreover, yellow signboards pointing to places to see that were so plentiful in Karnataka (which is aggressively promoting tourism under the appropriate banner one state, many worlds) were conspicuous by their absence. The ancient temple of Karateshwar, Parag assured us rather late, is also worth visiting; he was also keen to know if we saw any of the numerous snakes found around the fort. Sadly, we hadn't.

Having had our fill of the wonderful views from top of the fort and been enthralled by a beautiful blue-green bird that fluttered away at the first sight of a camera, and after making sure to scare a couple of screeching mynas by running at them at full tilt, we made our way back to our room in time for the checkout time of ten. A quick breakfast at MTDC later, we took a slower pradakshina around the AshtaVinayak Ganapati Temple (on my insistence:

there is a good view... 

 

Hmm...ok...


(twenty minutes later, a profusely perspiring Amrita taps her foot) So where is the view?  

 

Well, see there, you can see the sea in the distance (pointing to a vague clump of blue)

 

WHAT?!! You made me climb for this?!! 

 

Err, also I had done this last time so I wanted to do it again.. 

 

WHAT?!! (suddenly distracted) Hey, whats that? A handicrafts shop. Lets go there! 

 

(sigh of big relief) Saved!)


The newly constructed Aarey Vaarey Road from Ratnagiri to Ganpatipule had been recommended to us twice already by Kishor and although we didn't need to go southward toward Ratnagiri, we took the road in any case. This road traverses through hills by the sea so that for at least 15 km of the 30-km stretch to Ratnagiri, one is privy to some spectacular views of miles and miles of seas and beaches fringed by waving palms and swaying suru (Casuarina) trees. Using this road, the time taken to reach Ratnagiri from Ganpatipule becomes just 25 min; in no hurry, and being eager to just stand and stare, we took an hour to reach Ratnagiri.

  

Along the way, I morosely reflected on the changes I had seen in Ganpatipule. I had last visited Ganpatipule in September 2006 when it was pristine, uncrowded and lovely; there were a maximum of about 20 people at any time, even on a weekend, on the beach, and I had spent a blissfully solitary time sitting on rocks and reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. In contrast, today, we saw several stalls selling coconut water and sundries on the beach, many tourists had come for the day to loll on the sands and waters, the beach was liberally littered by uncaring visitors, and the hitherto white sand had turned brownish. Commercialization was taking roots slowly but surely, probably a welcome change to the residents in terms of economic benefit but posing tremendous infrastructural challenges not to mention tears to travelers seeking escape from this very commercialization! In fact, in Goa, new resorts have been actively opposed because they end up using too many resources such as water, and also artificially inflate prices, thereby depriving villages of essential supplies.

The only saving grace in Ganpatipule were the MTDC Konkani huts, almost 0.5-km northward, which opens out into a private beach almost (tariff 1300/-). Also, two kilometers northward lie the still-secluded Malgund beach, which can be a good alternative if Ganpatipule becomes too trying for strained nerves. Malgund village is also close to the home of the Marathi poet Keshav Suth, whose house now has his poems engraved on granite stones (as evidenced by Parag after we left Ganpatipule).

 

From Ratnagiri, we almost took a bad road toward Chiplun, but quickly correcting ourselves, we reached Hathkhamba (16 km) and then took the NH 17 to Chiplun (about 44 km away). We were now far from the coast—the NH 17 in Maharashtra does not kiss the coastline as in Karnataka or Goa ,and the Mahasagar Highway had ended prematurely at Vijaydurg—and our way ahead now mostly consisted of snaking through several Sahyadri ghats along serpentine roads and required circumspection. The land was immensely desolate, dry, and brown for the most part, and it was interesting and instructive to note the chance in landscape from coast to slightly inward; the land near any coast tended to be green and full of trees and plants even in March while inland areas were really dry and waterless. I was also reminded of the sudden change that occurs during monsoon—this brown desolate land suddenly turns green, reviving itself as if a thirsty person is quenched by water, and previously drooping flowers and plants suddenly perk up and begin to smile and dance. Brown hills and mountains suddenly become a large green carpet on which are embroidered small yellow flowers, and the entire countryside explodes in a torrent of buzzing activity, bees spring to life, and birds twitter like there is no tomorrow. Buried in these thoughts and regaled by more innovative signboards ("Control your nerves on curves!", "You are travellers, not racers!",  and "Fast wont last") on the way, we ate reasonably decent food at Hotel Satkar and reached Chiplun (whose name incidentally means The abode of Lord Parshurama) by about 3 pm. Our destination, the beaches around Murud such as Harnai or Karde, was still about 65 kilometers away.

          

For some time, we drove in the wake of an ST (State Transport bus), which is the safest way to drive since all must perforce bow to its intimidating powers; it provides remarkable cover from all onrushing vehicles that automatically become wary at its approach. We continued circling brown mountains and hills for another 36 kilometers toward Khed crossing River Vashishti (and several streams) on the way. Often, bridges of that marvel of modern Indian engineering accomplishments, Konkan Railway, thrust itself out in brief spurts over or by the highway. But even this could not raise our spirits because it was too too hot and we yearned for the sea, salty breeze, beaches, and life of some sort other than hay-carrying lorries spewing grass and smoke at equal intervals! Many fields had also been burnt as a prelude to farming making it seem like we were Frodo and Sam going toward Mordor. Suddenly, my mind went back to a morning conversation at Afonso, Goa, with an American woman, now settled in Lithuania, who had visited Velha (Old) Goa the previous day. She had felt the heat quite literally and wondered if it had been 45–50 degrees. Although I empathised with her completely, I chuckled at her and told her that the heat was most definitely not more than 35 degrees; she was astonished. In an endearing tone she almost implored, “No, no. Surely at least 38–40 degrees, no? In the sun at 1 pm?” almost as if she want the temperature to be that high since she had felt that hot! We tried explaining the humidity factor but she was not willing to accept any figure below 40 degrees. Having spent considerable time at temperatures of 40 and 45 degrees as a student, I was quite sure it was not that high, but it was certainly exceedingly hot and one wondered how it would be in April and May.

 

From Khed, we took a left turn toward Dapoli (about 30 km away) and were immediately surprised to find a good road surrounded by verdant greenery laden with cashew nut trees, mango trees, and green fields. It was a refreshing change and it lifted our spirits in no small measure; we were soon at Dapoli asking directions toward Murud (about 12 km away). Nearing Murud, we began debating about the beach to go to—Harnai (nice beach but fish auction takes place in morning leading to stink apparently), Murud (crowded), Anjarle (not sure of accommodation), or Karde (secluded; accommodation costly). Unresolved, with sunset just an hour away, we saw a turnoff toward Karde, which we took on an impulse. A few 100 meters on, we wished we had held onto caution more firmly instead of throwing it away like a kite to the winds. This was surely the worst road we had encountered so far. Calling it a dirt track would insult a dirt track; besides, patches of tar showing signs of road construction in the 10th century still remained. An appalling stretch of 2 km later, we espied a resort called Hotel Sagar Hill into which we checked in. Ten minutes later, we were in the safe (level land for 1 km) and secluded waters of Karde beach washing away our travails and bathing away our fatigues.

 

A bottle of wine and a game of Scrabble later—while watching the sea from the porch and accompanied by its recurring acoustics—we turned in for the night with the sad realization that we were almost at the fag end of an immensely fulfilling journey.

 

Next Stop: Goregaon, Raigad (Amrita's native place)

 

Important Information:

The 30-km Aarey-Vaarey road connecting Ratnagiri and Ganpatipule is highly recommended for some wonderful views of beaches, sands, and seas.

Jaigad and Malgund near Ganpatipule are worth one or many visits. A kilometer away from Ganpatipule is also an Old Konkan Museum to which we did not go; apparently, it houses artifacts and information related to old Konkani styles and ways of living.

Ratnagiri is famous for mangoes; either steal some or buy from the sellers who often stand on the road with fresh produce.

There are many ghats between Ganpatipule and Khed, so estimated times might differ. We did not encounter much traffic but this may have been because we almost always drove in the afternoon.

Hotel Sagar Hill charges 1000/- for ground-floor sea-facing rooms and 1200/- for 1st floor sea-facing rooms. The rooms were satisfactory but could have been much better; overall maintenance of lawns and rooms seemed poor. The view from the porch outside the room was excellent, and we felt we were paying 600 rupees for the view and 400 for the room itself. The in-house food—there is no choice in any case due to the seclusion and the nightmarish road—was average (reasonably priced). Parking facility is available.

 


 Ganpatipule…the land of white sands, and for the religiously inclined, the home of an Ashtavinayak (Eight super-important Ganpati/Ganesh temples in Maharashtra). This was our destination, the next halt after Malvan. Thanks to work pressures, we had ended up leaving in the morning of Day 24 rather than the afternoon of Day 23—and what a good thing that turned out to be…despite taking no deviations (or hardly any), it still ended up being an 8-hour drive!

We started out on the Sagari Mahamarg again (which was in bad condition until Ozar), intending to visit Devgad and Vijaydurg, both forts near the sea. Plenty of milestones with relevant distances made navigation a breeze despite the fairly basic map we had. The most inventive road safety signs met us on this route: “Good driver. We proud of you”, “Safety on road is safe tea at home”, “This is highway not dieway” and so on!

A grotesque sight assailed us as we passed by a mango plantation—a dead langur had been hung on a tree by its tail, ostensibly to discourage other monkeys from stealing fruit. The trees were laden with mangoes in Sindhudurg (but not as much in Ratnagiri), and as revenge for the monkeys, we stole a couple of kairees (raw mangoes) and I watched Arun eat them with great relish (“Arun give me a bite! NO. ARUN! Okay, here, take.” Amrita takes teensy bite, screws up face at its sourness, and Arun promptly takes it away for himself!) without the usual salt and red chilly powder.

A lovely beach swam into view as we neared Kunkeshwar, another temple town. It was Katvan, absolutely undeveloped with no hotels in sight, which goes on to become the famed Kunkeshwar beach. A short detour to Kunkeshwar, some laughter at cartoon temple figures, a discussion on how temple people probably can’t afford good sculptors (Then they should leave it plain! I said), a quick glance at the extremely mucky path to the beach (through the dumping grounds of a couple of hotels), and a look-see from the temple’s viewpoint later, we were off to Devgad.

Devgad is very famous for its mangoes (which were still unripe), a fort (which we could not find), and a beach (which smelled strongly of rotting fish)—a pretty but non-enjoyable beach. Both our detours were a bit of a washout!

From Devgad, the Sagari Mahamarg was a dirt track for a few kilometres, needing a short detour through narrow village roads. Soon after becoming a proper road again, the Mahamarg ended at Vijaydurg, 26 km away from Devgad. At Padel village, the road forked—one going to Vijayadurg and the others leading to Ratnagiri. Much as we wanted to see the fort, we still had more than 150 km to go, and the afternoon sun was beating down quite mercilessly. Chucking the fort, we drove for a while toward Tirlot, a supposedly shorter route to NH-17 from Padel, but the road was absolutely terrible—and we turned back to SH-115. Arun never changed from 4th gear on this road, right until we hit NH-17. Along the coast, it had been green with mango and cashew trees jostling for space, but now the landscape became bare, brown, and desolate.

We reached NH-17 again at Tarali, stopping off for a delicious and homely veggie thali lunch (I, Amrita Karnik, ate the baingan with relish!) at Hotel Nakshatra, which also had nice and clean rooms for Rs. 500. We passed the road to Unhavare hot springs, near the Arjun river, on the way to Rajapur; it was the first touristy signboard that we had seen in Maharashtra. Several emu farms had dotted the roads from Malvan onward (What do they do on emu farms Amrita? Well, they grow emus!), and we passed some villages with really strange names (Pural, rash; Fanasgaon, jackfruit-village; Paisafund, money-trust or money-fraud depending on whether you speak properly or in slang; Kachre, trash; and so on).

Ganpatipule was a great drive via NH-17 albeit through several small ghats that curved quite madly; we chose to turn at Hathkhamba rather than go to Ratnagiri. Uniformly good roads ensured that we reached Ganpatipule well before sunset, and after being assailed by chaps asking “Room chahiye?”, we checked into the slightly musty but clean Kelkar Lodge, which was right next to the MTDC property (although with no view of any sort). A quick bath for me with Arun clamouring for chai, and we set off for MTDC’s beach restaurant near their Konkani huts with an uninterrupted view of an empty beach and a lovely sunset. Stepping on to the beach involved me screaming and frightening away a little snake, but after that, the walk on the beach was peaceful and without further adventure!

 

Next stop: Murud/Harne

 

Important Information:

The route: Malvan-Devgad-Padel (76 km) via Sagari Mahamarg (MSH-4); turn right at Padel toward Ratnagiri on SH-115 (fantastic road); turn left at Tarali on NH-17 and drive on to Hathkhamba via snaking ghats; turn leftward to Ganpatipule and follow the signs.

Malvan-Ganpatipule: 250 km; 8 hours including lunch and loo breaks.

The world is your loo on most of this stretch, with hardly any hotels offering the necessary standards of cleanliness. Villages are few and far in between, and until NH-17, traffic was very little. Just ensure you don’t stop in a ghat!

Hotel Nakshatra at Tarali had good, cheap, and fresh food with a very clean loo (2 thalis: Rs. 80).

Hotel Kelkar Lodge: Rs. 400 for ordinary double room, Rs. 800 for TV-double room, and Rs. 600 for ordinary 4-people room (all can accommodate a couple of extra people at least); rooms were spacious and clean with comfy beds; hot water buckets available in mornings.

MTDC, Ganpatipule has AC/non-AC Konkani huts and deluxe rooms; the Konkani huts are away from the main resort and right on the beach with a decent open-air restaurant with a fantastic view. Book well in advance!

The beach is crowded near the temple area, but the other ends are quite empty.

A note of caution: Ganpatipule’s waters are enticingly blue but deadly. The blueness owes itself to suddenly deep waters that have claimed several lives (32 in the last 5 years alone) as the macabre board listing names, ages, and dates proclaims. Do NOT venture into the sea beyond ankle-depth, even if you know swimming. We saw no lifeguards. 

(Road Trip) Day 23: Under the Sea


We woke up to an elegantly misty sunrise and a small problem—Amrita still had work pending; our original plans—see Sindhudurg Fort, go snorkelling, and then move on to Ganpatipule in Ratnagiri District—were in disarray. Under such conditions and given our flexibility with time and space, there could only be one happy ending. We decided to defer the Ganpatipule trip and instead do the snorkelling and fort-visiting today with a break in the middle.

 Once we finished snorkelling, we immediately began squabbling, almost like children. I said, “I am going to enjoy writing about this experience today.” She said, “What?! Its your turn? No, it is not; it is mine. I want to write.” “Hey! How’s that? It is my turn!” “No! It’s mine. And even If it isn’t, I want to write. You already had a chance to write about under the sea”. “But I ended up writing more about my fears than the sea.” and so on and so forth…

 We finally did the square thing, compromised, and decided that both will write individually about their experiences. However, in the end, she wrote first (women!) and I read her version, decided that my writing a mirror version was silly, and so here, there is only version, her version.

 Amrita’s static takes over in this post!

 …and then, I was one with the sea, feeling its minutest currents in my self, revelling in its colours, and being alive with it. The fishes danced before my eyes—streaks of myriad colours that transported me to my childhood reading of Vernes’ 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, standing in Captain Nemo’s saloon with walls of glass and looking out onto the heart of this living, breathing creature that we call the sea. Streaks of silver-blue shot past, the sunlight making them glow, and my guide, Amar, pointed this way and that as new beings came into our field of vision.

My concern about Arun being uncomfortable in the sea vanished as he floated around with his head firmly under water, without once coming up. A large silver fish with big blue lips swam by serenely—Sweet lips, Amar said. The names of the various plants, coming rapidly, confused me; and though I resolutely memorized them, I can’t remember a single one now, except sargassum. A school of black-yellow-and-silver surgeon fish floated past, uncaring of the two big humans in their midst. Plate corals and cabbage corals turned red and brown, as the light and shade played, and barnacles and acorn sails stuck to their rocky perches. Suddenly, Amar let go of my float, and dived down. When he came up, he held in his hands a squishy-looking red oblong thing. “Sea cucumber” he pronounced gravely, “do you want to touch it?” Hesitantly, afraid of hurting it, I took it into my hands—Gosh, I was actually touching a part of the sea! It was like being on a safari in the jungle, and a little monkey—one that couldn’t harm you but you could—came by to let you pet it and stroke it (which has, needless to say, never happened). It slipped into the depths without spraying us with white stuff as it does when irritated, and we swam above rocky crevices where another wonder—the moray eel—awaited us. Its spotted head could be seen in the mouth of a tiny cave, where it sat and gulped at us.

In the shadow of Sindhudurg fort, the water seemed to grow a little colder and darker. Amar towed me to the fort’s wall, which extended 2 feet below the water even in low tide, and I gingerly touched the barnacles growing on the huge rock-bricks. Into shallower water again, a bunch of dark shadows swept pass, and we both rapidly followed them, our heads under the water—until we saw the red snappers properly. A large and extremely beautiful butterfly fish—with a blue-white ring around it just behind the eye—swam out lazily to peer at us before disappearing into the rocks again. All the while, golden and black zebra fish kept swimming past us, weaving between our arms and legs. My guide made motions of feeding them, though with empty hands, and suddenly I was surrounded by damsel and zebra and parrot fishes that nibbled at my fingers! I didn’t want to climb out at all, but our hour was up.

Before we left the sea, Amar asked me if I wanted to have a last look—inside. “What?” I asked, “Dive beneath the sea?” He nodded and ever-so-casually said, “You just need to remove the float and hold your breath without the snorkel, and I’ll do the rest.” Remove the float?! No way! But he patiently encouraged and persuaded, “We’ll touch the coral”; and conquering all fear, I let go of the float. Twice, we dived and touched the coral and swam among the colours—and then so did Arun—and now, I’m going to learn swimming so I can go scuba-diving to see the world beneath—a world that I have merely glimpsed so far, a world that I’ve been enamoured of from outside, and that I dearly want to explore again and again!


Back to Arun

 We then had good lunch at a place called Saiba, whose chief attraction is a beautiful view of a creek and a lovely breeze that succeeds in fanning the face and cooling our body successfully. Returning to the hotel, we found that there was no electricity again. Sigh! However, strange enough, Malwan was not as hot as Goa or Karnataka coast had been, and there were far more clouds. In the morning, it had been somewhat on the colder side even, which was a big surprise for the time of year. We wondered sometimes if it will rain any time soon. (it was cold at Ganpatipule too, which prompted me to wonder if the temperature had changed with time or with space? Was it colder now in Goa and Karnataka?)

 Amrita soon fell asleep in the soft afternoon stillness, while I began reading a book on travel The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Thereoux. I was sorely disappointed by the book, however. The prose is excellent and the writing stylish but the author appears to be too much like a condescending upper-class English/Western snob moving about superciliously in upper-class compartments in Eastern countries, making foolish generalizations and silly assumptions, and what is worse committing the worst crime a travel writer could commit—seeing what he wants to see and adhering to pre-conceived notions. The only cliché that he has missed out seems to be about seeing an elephant. Even the humour is out of place—he quotes Mark Twain repeatedly but seems to have learnt little from the writer—and I found more to enjoy in the wry unbiased humour in The Rough Guide To Goa than in this book seemingly written by the worst species of them all—the pretentious overbearing “Western” cultural snob who makes no attempt to understand the country he is in or its people. Here is a small example in which he is talking about Sikhs: …exemplifies the Sikh virtues of piety, ferocity, and strength. But Sikhs are also very kind and friendly, and an enormous number are members of Lions Club International. This is partly a cultural misunderstanding, since all Sikhs bear the surname Singh, which means lion; they feel obliged to join. I rest my case. I decided to complete reading the book in any case—even although Amrita, now awake, warned me that he is worse about the Japanese—since I don’t like half-finished books, but I don’t expect to be happy.

 We reached the Malwan jetty from where we took a boat to the sea fort at Sindhudurg, eponymously called Sindhudurg Fort; there were about 10 more people with us. The boat ferried us across to the fort entrance—the fort was built in such a way that the entrance cannot be identified easily—and we had to return within an hour for the return journey (total cost: 27 per head). The fort itself was constructed by Shivaji and today houses the only temple dedicated to the great Maratha warrior. The hideous statue/idol is the only one, apparently, portraying Shivaji without a beard. The fort itself—it took thirty years to complete—is massive and could easily house 2000-3000 people; the fort walls circumvent the island on which it is built. It is said to have been impregnable, but I am not sure about this—after all, how can a sea fort resist a siege? However, it must be said, that according to legend, there were three tunnels that go under the fort, under the sea, and back onto land...Such legends pepper the history of almost all Indian forts... The single most memorable aspect of the visit to the fort was the clarity of the water around it; I was beginning to think that snorkelling is not required in such waters and all one had to do was look!

   


We remained at the Malwan Jetty to watch the sun set and were amazed to see a perfectly white rock in the distance. Our amazement turned to wonder and delight when a million sea gulls took flight from the rock encircling and enveloping the now fiery red sun and returned again after a brief ten-second sojourn to colour the rock white again. It was quite magical to view millions of gulls in the far distance flying in unison as if some conductor was co-ordinating their musical movements. We irritated a couple of swallows, chased a crab into its hole, and returned, happy that we stayed back to go underwater once more and hoping for many encores in the years to come.

 We are now in the home stretch of our trip, and tomorrow, we plan to move on to Ganpatipule in Ratnagiri District.

 Next Stop: Ganpatipule, Ratnagiri

 Important Notes:

 MTDC in Malwan use very good equipment for snorkelling; we were not sure about outer private operators. Paradoxically, we trust government services more in these matters since they tend to be reliable and usually have the best infrastructure, be it proximity to a beach or diving expertise. Our guides were very good and extremely helpful. However, if you are still wary, you could try a private operator Damania. Scuba Diving is set to begin in Malwan from circa August 2011; you have to know swimming to do this.

 Sindhudurg Fort can be reached only by boat; a charge of 27 per head is levied, and they give you one hour to spend time there.


 

In Goa, we had wondered if we could manage 27 beaches in 27 days. We hit that number today, on day 22, with 5 days and 2 whole districts of Konkan left!

The “lets wake up and leave early” plan being scuppered as usual, we left for Vengurla at 9 am after a quick breakfast of good kande pohe (how I have missed my 3rd favourite breakfast!) and tea at a small shack. We struck out in the direction of NH-17 since we wanted to visit Dhamapur lake, which we had passed and noted while coming to Malvan, midway to Kudal (the nearest railway station). The other road that goes to Vengurla from Malvan—the Sagari Mahamarg (Sea Highway)—was reserved for our return, when we planned to visit a few beaches.

The drive to Dhamapur took us through thick forest via constantly curving roads. Parking in the shade of the nearby areca nut plantations (This looks just like Kerala! Arun said), I realized I had been here before on my last trip. Excitedly, I pulled out a packet of biscuits as we passed the oil-painted but old-looking temple. A lovely dense band of dark green ran around the lake; later, Aai said, “Why didn’t you go for a walk around the lake?! You can see hornbills there!” From the very top of the steps leading to the picturesque lake, we could see a lot of fishes! Silvery hockey-sticks swam on the topmost submerged step, while unidentified (an ID would be welcome from the mad snap!) bigger fish swam all around. Fishing is not allowed here; and it seems as if the fishes multiply madly and are without fear of humans…the minute our shadows fell on the water, they started clustering around on the surface. A bit of leaf blew in…and we saw chaos! The fish leaped up all over it, splashing madly in their attempt to eat it, until they realized what it was and left it alone. When it was the biscuits’ turn, the scene went from chaos to pandemonium. We kept crumbling and throwing in biscuits, and everything would disappear in an instant; the big fish writhed on top of each other, jumped madly, and did everything they could to get at the food. Arun was in a “scientific” mood—he placed a piece of biscuit on the dry step just an inch above the water, and right away, there were fish coming to try their luck! One enterprising fellow stuck his head out and almost climbed out to successfully nibble at the biscuit. A packet of Good-days later, we bid goodbye to the fishes.


A surly old woman at the stall selling tea et al. refused to let me use the loo, and we drove on toward Vengurla via Kudal and Pinguli till Hotel Sindhudurg Palace came up; a successful request this time (the restaurant was closed, but the man cleaning the fairly nice hotel rooms led me to a very modern and clean loo),  emergency taken care of, and we were off again.

As Vengurla’s shops and houses came into view, a bunch of pink-red-blue-yellow-black boys/men barricaded the road, asking for money since it was the last day of Holi. This scene repeated itself every 20 metres, until we were extremely fed up (and poorer by Rs. 100 or so), after which we demanded to go off without giving anything; some groups had a chap that waved us through, while some vociferously and even rudely insisted on the money. This is an apparently new (and ugly) derivation of an old Holi custom where groups of men would go around the houses in the village asking for a coin or two, to be given in joy and without pressure. We must have met 20–30 super-annoying groups like these until we reached Vengurla jetty. 

The jetty gave a great view of the sea dashing on the rocks, Sagareshwar beach, and the boats, but the strong smell of fish ensured that we left it soon, for the 30-min climb to the lighthouse. Sweating profusely, we reached the lighthouse gates and the board that said “Visiting timings: 1600 to 1700 hours”; but the caretaker-cum-operator of the lighthouse let us in anyway. The wind on top and the view took away our exhaustion. We learnt that the light of the 3000-watt bulb inside passes through prismatic glass and red windows, so that the red beam signifying extreme danger reaches 25 km into the rocky sea; the rocks that form the hillock and are in the sea are the first type of rocks ever formed on earth—think billions of years! Climbing down, Arun excitedly pointed to a tree, screeching “SEE! SEE! SEE!” Unsure of what I was looking for, I still peered, while he craned his neck and jumped on the spot, twisting my head this way and that with his hands. “Paradise flycatcher, the white one!” he finally explained, and then I spotted it. This incredibly beautiful (when in breeding plumage) bird is common enough on the coast but not in its breeding form, and Arun was very happy that he’d finally seen it.

Passing by the clean and nice-looking Hotel Sagar Holiday, which offered a splendid view, we decided to lunch there. Monday is the day of the weekly powercut in Sindhudurg, a phenomenon that most urbanites are unaware of. No power from 9 am to 5 pm every single week! This meant no fish curry (no mixie to grind the coconut); but the veggie food was great, or as Arun said, it was made with a lot of love. Mrs. Deolekar (I think), the efficient and friendly proprietress, herself disappeared into the kitchen after we placed our order. We checked out the rooms; they were lovely, 4 of them facing a wonderful view of the sea, and 2 others giving a partial view. For Rs. 1200, what a great getaway deal! In low tide, one can even walk over to the nearby Sagareshwar beach, we were told. 

Through a few more hooligan-type barricades (the men were now drunk, silver-black, and pretty unrecognizable as humans), we headed to Mochemad, where a friend’s recommendation of a temple and beach awaited us. The temple was atrociously colourful and not at all worth an atheist’s time—but the beach was beautiful. 


 


It was now time to move back northward, and after Arun took a quick dip at the completely secluded and empty Nivati beach, we headed to Tarkarli. This time we had taken the Sagari Mahamarg, which was mostly in great condition, except for a couple of rough (but not terrible) patches. Very scenic—needless to say—sparse traffic, and with a few beaches (Bhogave and Nivati are the ones on the map) tucked away 6–8 km from the highway, this is definitely a good road to take. We also saw evidences of the government doing serious work here; good roads led off to villages that weren’t even on our map, with “Pradhanmantri Grameen Rasta Yojna” (Prime Minister’s Rural Road Programme) boards at every turn-off. The villages that we passed through also had public toilets with similar boards; I have to say I was pleased that at least a part of our taxes are used somewhere constructively!

By the time we reached Malvan, a loo was the priority and rather than drive to our guesthouse and miss the sunset, we headed straight to Tarkarli. Somehow, we never saw a path leading toward Tarkarli beach—and the one path through MTDC’s resort was distinctly unwelcoming, with a “For staying guests only” board plastered to the closed gate. Driving ahead, we almost reached Deobag, when we saw a biggish expensive-looking place called Sagar Sangam overlooking the Tarkarli river just before it meets the sea. Excellent loo, some tea, and a look at their neatly landscaped garden later, we drove and then scrambled down to the beach, just in time for an absolutely magnificent sunset. The pink wisps framed the casuarinas lining the soft white sands, while the sea flamed in yellows and reds. I then understood why everyone comes away enchanted with Tarkarli; I could not help but walk into the whispering waves that welcomed me in. 

After drinking endless bowls of perfect solkadhi at Chaitanya, we headed back to crash out right away, Arun tired from driving, and me from being the navigator, photographer, and fish-eater all rolled into one. Forgive us, dear reader, for the repeated delays—but work and sleep (and certain other things :-p)—have been the cause, and no more delays now, we promise!


Important information:

Malvan-Vengurla via Kudal: Go to Kudal and turn; advise not turning before the town since the bypass road to Pinguli is awful (being repaired though). Malvan-Kudal: 29 km, Kudal-Vengurla: 24 km.

Vengurla-Malvan via Sagari Mahamarg: 45 km. Road to Mochemad also same, southward of Vengurla. Turn-offs to Nivati, Nivati killa, and Bhogave on same road.

Vengurla has no trustworthy petrol pumps (which were all closed today owing to some lafda that everyone refused to talk about); consider fuelling up at Malvan or Goa, whichever way you’re coming.

Vengurla Sagar Holiday Resort: 02366-280363 Rs. 1200/1500 (NAC/AC) with modern, spacious, clean, and airy rooms, flat screen TV, excellent view, and beach at walking distance during low tide. http://www.krishnaholidays.co.in (site says 1500/1800 but its lesser) In season, book a week in advance.

Nivati has some basic staying options, and supposedly has dolphin spotting and snorkelling; Dolphin Beach Resort (which are not on the beach, but on a parallel road): 02366-228295

Deobag: Saagar Sangam Resort: a slightly pricey but VFM getaway 5 min from the beach (across the road) with all rooms overlooking the Tarkarli river. Rs. 2750 and 3350. In season, book a month in advance. http://www.saagarsangam.com

In Malvan, Chaitanya is on the main road leading to Sindhudurg fort; Unlimited solkadhi, veggies, rice, and chapattis (not thick rotis!); Veggie thali: Rs 50 and Nonveg thalis Rs 100+ (mackerel is cheapest). Best food so far (among Daryasarang on Chivla beach, Swami on road to Kasal, and Chaitanya) in Malvan.

Blog update tonight


 Work pressures have again meant that the blog has to take a backseat for a day. Back tonight!

Fear is a strange thing. It enslaves, deters, strangles, and stops. Fear has several forms and many shapes and can come unexpectedly and present itself in the strangest of ways. Fears can be small, big, horrible, dangerous, and nightmarish. Fears can be childish, obvious, straight-forward, complicated, or a combination of all of them. Fear is a monster that feeds on itself and often grows until it becomes larger than life. Fear is unnerving, unpleasant, irritating, and limiting, but unable to shake off; as a blood-sucking leech preys on the human body, fear preys on the human mind weakening it while strengthening itself till it becomes almost impossible to dislodge and difficult to avoid. Fear is omnipresent, omniscient, and all pervasive. Fear usually has one root—fear of getting hurt or dying—and most phobias and fears stem from this source.

 I have a fear, and have had it for almost as long as I can imagine—fear of going below water. Or, rather, fear of putting my nose below water. Partially due to this, I never learnt swimming despite my father trying hard (perhaps too hard), and it took a long time for me to be able to dunk my head in water even for a few seconds (today I can do it for about 5 seconds easily). So when Amrita kept getting excited about snorkelling, I was not exactly over the moon; instead, I was afraid…my old fear might make it impossible for me to snorkel, and although this would be nothing short of a tragedy, what could I do? When I told this to Amrita, she simply quoted me—Conquer your fears!—words that I had thrown at her many times while climbing cliffs and mountains!

 I woke up in the morning to find Amrita writing the blog entry for the previous two days, and we had a brief discussion on the importance of delivering the blog entries on time but also ensuring that it does not take precedence over our agendas and time together (even though we know that at least one reader—Radhika G—watches out for a new entry regularly, for which inspiration we are eternally grateful J). I suggested then that we stay at home while Amrita finishes her pending work, and we postpone all activities to the next day; but Amrita was bent on snorkelling or at least seeing Sindhudurg Fort (just 2 km away by boat) and I had no choice. I could no longer avoid the issue!

 We set out trying to locate the MTDC office, which turned out to be a lone man sitting on a bench with some tickets (very difficult to spot), and we paid 300/- for our time below the sea. There were some more people with us, and we soon set off in a small boat toward Sindhudurg Fort. About ten meters from Sindhudurg fort, we stopped to begin snorkelling.

 Intrepidly, I ensured that Amrita went in first and I followed later. I gingerly placed myself inside a floating ring-shaped tube (like a tyre) that is strong enough to bear the weight of at least 3 people. Then I slowly placed a mask—that has a magnifying glass, enabling you to see under water—over me; it covered my nose forcing me to breathe through my mouth. I was with Amrita’s instructor, who seemed more senior and had pulled me to him when he noticed my discomfort; this was great because this instructor was really patient and gentle. I was breathing through my mouth when suddenly I felt suffocated, and an overpowering sense of fear and helplessness assailed my mind, and all I wanted to do to was to take off my mask and get back to the boat. I took off the mask and was almost heading back, but Amrita and the instructor patiently “counselled” me. Slowly, I put the mask back on, and again, the strange nameless fear. I was sure I could not do this now. I was simply too scared!

 A third and a fourth attempt, and I settled down somewhat. The instructor suggested that I catch my breath ad look under water and see if that works. Good idea! I clutched my nose—strictly not needed since nose was blocked anyways—as I have done before in rivers, which helped because of familiarity, took one quick underwater look and came up all excited! Fishes, I saw them! My fear was now slowly eroding, and I was ready to go further. I put the snorkel in my mouth, and I found that I could put my head underwater for longer periods of time comfortably. I was most comforted also when I realised that I had to only put my “magnified” eyes inside water, and not my ears. Logically, I always knew I was not going to die, but now, my psychological self also realized it and it withdrew all its objections with a bow and a smile. Gung-ho, finally, I was ready to see under water!

 And what a magnificent sight it was! Schools of iridescent fish, black fish, bronze-coloured fish, and yellow-finned fish streamed past us aware of our presence but seemingly unheeding. We watched with amazement—we were rubbing shoulders with fish!!! We touched a few fins, and even attempted to catch some but they all wriggled out. We saw butterfly fish, parrot fish, groupers, and black damsel, yellow-finned damsel, and many other kinds of fish, mostly smaller ones but beautiful in their colours and magnificent in their diversity. We also saw large cabbage corals, red-brown in colour, which seemed like they were breathing deeply and gently, while supporting many life-forms in its million tentacles. There were many many beautiful and inviting corals, and our instructor almost managed to persuade us to dive under water to touch one of them. I was on the verge of saying yes, but the old fear reasserted itself, and I decided that the conquest of one fear was enough for one day

 By this time, it was beginning to get difficult to persuade me (and Amrita) to get out of the water and back, but 45 minutes had gone in the blink of a sea-watered eye, and it was time to get back. Exited and satisfied, we clambered onto the boat, still amazed that we saw fish and corals as if on land. We made plans to go again after two days, only the two of us (1200/-, that is, the price of four people), to a different place, and taking down phone numbers, we returned to the room.

 Amrita had a lot of work to do, and hence, we decided to stay put in the room itself for the day. It was a cloudy day and not as hot as it had been in coastal Karnataka and Goa, for some strange reason, I was thinking to myself, when suddenly, there was a power cut, the third of the day. The power situation in all three states seemed to be comparable, although power cuts were least in Goa (maximum 1 h), followed by Karnataka (about 3 h); in Maharashtra, it seems to be 5 h. The afternoon suddenly became dreadfully hot, and we were suddenly uncomfortable being drenched in truckloads of sweat. Over the last two weeks, it had been becoming increasingly difficult to travel in the afternoon due to the energy-sapping and sweat-inducing heat, and we were glad we were in the room, even though sleeping itself was difficult.

 Over dinner at the deservingly Malwan-famous Chaitanya, we made plans to go to Vengurla the next day.

 Important Notes:

 MTDC offers snorkelling at Malwan in clear waters off Sindhudurg fort for 300/- per head foor about 45 minutes; at least 4 people are required, else you can pay 1200/- and go. Tickets are available at Malwan Jetty, but MTDC does not have a ticket counter or an office at the jetty; you have to spend some befuddled time searching for the MTDC man.

Damaniya Sports also offers snorkelling as well as dolphin watching, etc. not sure about the cost of snorkelling, but dolphin watching is 200/- to 250- per head.

Swami Restaurant and Chaitanya Restaurant both offer good food in Malwan, and the latter, especially, is well known.