Monday, July 24, 2006

Matheran Trip

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Walk
because in the end, this has been a very different - and fun - trip.
Chandra's trip to Mahuli got cancelled on the last minute, and just when I was resigning myself to a weekend of TV, beer and overeating, Nair came to me in the guise of an unlikely saving angel asking if I'm on for a trip tomorrow. The hardest part of any trip is getting everyone together to begin, and this was no exception with Tension Trip Tewari (me) arriving precisely 3 minutes before the last train was due to leave. (Interestingly enough, I arrived in the same train that we were supposed to catch.) Why? Because the original plan to meet at midnight at Dadar at midnight suddenly became meeting at VT with 45 mins to go. While I was peacefully having a coffee in the glistening wet orange-black world that's Dadar at night.
Bombay's a monochromatic mirror world late nights in the monsoons, everything with it's inverted doppelganger in the puddles, everything in stark shades of halogen and shadow. Here and there the odd glitter of Gova sachets at the paanwallas, white fluorescents and cops in neon yellow slickers.
Met up, got on, started off. D had a new route to try out; instead of the old well-trodden path from Neral to Matheran, we went onwards till the next station, Sevpuri / Bhelpuri / Panipuri / no, Bhivpuri Road. Apparently this was a path so untrodden that the train driver waited five minutes to see what we were up to before moving on.
Bhivpuri is a classic Station From Nowhere, sitting like an island in the wilderness. We found a samaritan - Mr. Ravi from one of the villages near Bhivpuri. He took us till the village, showed us where to sit around till dawn and left an open invitiation to just yell for him if we needed anything. There are still some people in the world who'll help you for no reason at all.
Cool walk down to the village in pitch darkness and no human habitation in sight, no signs of life. Nair kep saying he could see people coming, he could see people coming, whooo-oo-oo right uptil the point when two figures materialized out of the fog coming from the other side. Gave us almost as nasty a start as we gave them, but no more I-see-people comments from there on.
At the village, we crashed out in the verandah of the village school. Left several cig butts there which must've excited some serious comment the next morning.
We started walking at dawn, and 2 forks later, we were completely lost. We were heading for a plateau called the Garbat plateau. Where we actually ended up was paddy fields, cactii, rain-swollen streams, bush, and all-out jungle where we had to hack through the foliage to get through.
Finally we realized we were close to civilization by seeing a half-rotten pile of rice in a plate.
Then it's just a short step to finding a village, finding chai shop and cigarettes to charge up. Trying to light wet cigs with wet hands and wet matches under a wet jacket is heartbreaking.
From there, just grab autos to Neral, cab to Dasturi, and walk up to Matheran.
Matheran was cold. Cold like you wouldn't believe. The reason we're looking blurred in this pic is because of the high-frequency shiver that's set in... subzero rain and wind. And as we walked up, the wind got colder, the rain heavier, and we arrived at Bazar Peth in a cloudburst and dense fog. The Blair Witch Experience just doesn't want to leave me...
The walk up was also pretty good with Chow getting slapped by a monkey, and me explaining scientifically to him how he won't get rabies. The monkeys, of course, didn't get the benefit of the discourse so avoided Chow like the plague for the rest of the stay.
Breakfast was hot bhurji and chai, greedily watched by either a very bedraggled monkey or an extremely ugly pendulum clock. And a cameraphilic mongrel. (That's the one on the left.)
Finding a place to stay in Matheran is equally adventurous. You get surrounded by touts and agents like barracuda, and get to hear about the bad personal hygiene, vices, failings, and general disrepuatability of all other agents. Finally D got us into the Rangoli Retreat which was class. Hot water, blankets, coffee, and rain and fog outside the windows...
Since I was the only one with a change that was still dry, everyone else was forced to have lunch and dinner dressed in Tshirts and towels commandeered from the Rangoli.
Crashed out and slept like the dead until evening. Then ordered in massive quantities of daru and played Taboo and dumb charades till 2 AM. And with an advertising / media crowd, dumb c's are at another level altogether. Started off with 13-word titles, switched over to alphanumneric single-word titles, had a brief stint with Italian and French names, then finished off with C-grade hindi semi-porn. Watching someone try to act 'Basanti ki shaadi, honeymoon Gabbar ka' when thoroughly smashed is some of the best dumb c's can offer. Got so taken up that we continued till next afternoon; A had to act 'Ghaghre mein dhoomdham' on the platform.
An old man was shocked.
For the trip back, we stocked up on the Matheran rain jacket, which is basically a full-body condom with openings for the arms and head, and crackles and rustles like the icky sections of Fear Factor when you walk.
Here's the mandatory group shot on our way down; note the extremely happy expression on my face with the sprite bottle. Describing its contents will probably get this blog blacklisted, so I won't.
And here we are, finally on track. Would you believe this was an accidental photo?
Trip back fairly uneventful. Hit Dadar at 4, didn't feel tired, so charged off for Pirates 2.

Things to remember from this trip -
Carry a torch
Buy some sports slip-ons or floaters with grip
Carry a map or hire a guide

But we need to do this again. Properly this time.

See the photostream here or d/l the pics here.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Sudhagadh Trek: Day 1

Monsoons finally get underway with the first official monsoon trek of the year. I Ryze again, and after some fairly desperate packing at 1 AM (just once, I'd like to go on a trek where I've actually had 8 hours of sleep before) I reach Andheri station at 6 AM and hop aboard.
Nature Knights is definitely going the luxury-adventure way; 2 Qualis(es) this time. I love it. Had enough of the last-train-for-Karjat-at-midnight scenario.
Sudhagadh fort lies near Pali - one of the famous Ashtavinayakas - the Ballaleshwar.

Route: Take your Qualis down the Mumbai-Goa highway to Pali village (little bit ahead of Pen), have breakfast, see the temple, then drive down to a village called Pachapur from where you have to walk.
Alternately, take the last train to Karjat from VT, from Karjat you have an option to either wait for a Pali bus or take a break journey to Khopoli and then to Pali.

One of the most constant Laws of Long Trips is that there will always be one person / large luggage more than the vehicle can hold. This meant I had to get into a position with a rucksack that, had it been a person, would have got me stoned to death in some countries, excommunicated, or at least forced into marriage. However, inanimate intimacy notwithstanding, had a good ride down (stopping at Chembur to pick up rest of the gang and re-pack stuff on roof.)
Some familiar faces - Dnyanesh and Asif are there, of course, and the rest of the NK regulars- Yogi, Rupa, Mithila, Unny, Bindu - and of course Navin - and plenty of new ones, including Hardik who's been my contribution to the ranks.

The last ten minutes of the road is too cool, a complete rollercoaster. Don't do this if you get motion sickness. Arrive and organize guides and carriers for the food, since we have lugged along what feels like half a ton of lunch, dinner, and brreakfast. Starts to rain and D&A produce a dramatic new entry into the world of monsoon treks - the Blue Tarp Poncho. The one-piece, all-weather, all-purpose protection.
Take a 10X3 plastic, fold in half, cut a hole for the neck, slip over head and tie rope around waist. It makes you look like a member of the Blue Lotus Brotherhood but what the heck, it keeps the rain off. Damn neat. I'm gonna make one for me for next time. Lovely weather at this time - rolling mist, occasional showers, and cool, cool, cool wind. After Bombay, this is heaven. And greenery that you actually need to get used to.
The trip up is good; the first quarter and last quarter of any trek are the worst, and this is no exception. Highlights are a ladder set in the rock face over the worst bit (you can see an older much more dangerous route under it) and a point where the slope falls away on both sides, so you're walking a path two feet wide with a ravine on either side. When the clouds roll over, visibility drops to a couple of feet or less; the villagers have stuck sticks along the path to stop people from taking an impromptu airwalk. Combined with the mists, gives a very Blair Witch feel to the place. The fort is 2030 feet high, and the last bit is a spectacular 75-foor shattered rock staircase going up to the fort. Too good. Loose rocks, steep slope, moss, rivulets of water... you have to do the trek for this alone.
Reach the top, where we rest and have lunch. The top is think with vegetation, and what Dnyanesh calls mehmaan log - 'guests' - which will happily take up residence in your bags, shoes, or stored clothing. Sudhagadh is famous (or infamous?) for its reptilian fauna. Which is dramatically proved when we find a tunnel heading down into a balcony-type structure where visitors coming up the steps could be addressed, or shot at. At the mouth of the tunnel is the biggest goddamn lizard I ever saw, evil black and green. At first I go right back out again, before I finally get enough courage to edge past it into the dark, dank dripping tunnel. I'm avoiding touching or brushing against the walls because of what else might be sitting there in the dark, but after a while that's impossible; the tunnel keeps narrowing till the point you have to get on your back, hold the ceiling and haul yourself out through a 2 foot by 1.5 foot hole in the wall. You literally emerge shaking with claustrophobia.
Hm. Time for a cig break, I think.
From there it's onto the main plateau. Unseen from below, the top is a gigantic flat table, with temples, lakes, skeletons, and ruins. There's a Shiv temple, and an Ambarkhana where - get this - elephants were housed. A mountain goat would take an LIC policy before climbing, and these guys brought elephants up here!!
There's also a temple for Bhoraidevi, where we stayed. Bhoraidevi is the resident local deity; the place was initially called Bhoraigadh until the Marathas changed the name to Sudhagadh. Yep, Shivaji again. If there's one common thread running between every monsoon trek fort in the Sahyadris, it's Shivaji Rulz!! and Shivaji Rocks! On the rocks!!
Sat around at the Wada (which is basically a courtyard with a kitchen) where 2 other groups were also sitting. Nice place. I loved it... sit in the shade, watch the rain, and everyone on the other side look so far away, remote...

Lazed around on the plateau for a while, discussing treks, India, emigration, and career options.
Dinner was around a lantern in the ashram; hot food, wet clothes, foggy darkness and a lantern.
5 of us went for a walk later; walked 2 minutes, turned, and found a white wall. A cloud had come up behind us and everything was gone. And the place is easily big enough to get lost in.
Went on a little further, watching the ruins loom up out of the fog... there was a very faint glow from the sky, maybe scattered quarter-moonlight from behind the clouds... Deadly silence, sound of our footsteps and typewriter frogs. It's a liberating experience knowing the only sound you'll hear is the sound you'll make. Creeeeepy with a capital K. I don't need to see The Blair Witch Project after this; It'll be a let down.
This was one of the most deliciously eerie experiences I've had this year, even more than my getting lost in Oracle reconciliation quarter-million-cell excels (that was just bad)

The temple was too good. lit some candles, talked for a while, but I guess people were tired... slept way too early. Realized I'd forgotten to get a sheet in the packing rush, but slept anyway almost like a log on a tarp.
Note: Always carry dry clothes.

For some reason, I'm not being able to add photos to my blog, so here's the link to this trek's photostream. If you want to download and save photos, click here.

Sudhagadh Trek: Day 2

Morning comes with more chilled fog, into which people disappear furtively with bottles of water. Taking a crap in the open on top of a mountain is something everyone has to try once; you won't believe me if I tell you. Just do it.

See another tunnel on the way down, and then it's a fairly peaceful climb down (at least for me; Apparently several people slipped and fell on the wet stones several times, including Unny who got a nasty bump on his head.)

Reach the Qualis. Rest. No rain, starts getting hotter. Decide to cancel the Sarasgadh trek, it'll be too much in one day. Vipin decides to join us (he came for Sarasgadh, and found out it was cancelled only when he arrived.) Have vada pao and kokam under an impromptu canteen where Asif serves out food from the Qualis hatch under a tarp.

Find out there's a stream nearby, so we head down. Hardik suffered a trek tragedy at this point; He fell asleep in the Qualis, and nobody noticed he was missing till we reached. When we came back we found him wandering around on the road disconsolately, kicking pebbles.

The stream was fantastic. Fresh mountain stream, swollen with rain, roaring through mini-rapids into a largish pool. You don't know what water feels like until you wear trekking shoes for 36 hours, walk 2000+ feet up over several kilometers, swelter in the heat, and then take off most of your clothes and slide into an icy cold mountain stream and feel the clean sand between your toes. Mmmmm.
Navin made the afternoon memorable by heading a little further upstream, and reappearing in an extraordinarily skimpy number in which he happily splashed about while the female contingent in our group tried desperately not to look in that direction. We finally managed to tear ourselves away from the water and walk back along a path littered with bovine bones to the cars, packed up and headed back.
Three motion sickness and one cigarette stop later, we hit the highway and literally hummed down at 90 kmph to a Kamat's on the highway where we pigged out on paneer, chhole and reshmi parathas. The Qualis rocks on highways, man.
This was also exactly the time when network connectivity returns... and with it, news of riots in Bombay where the Shiv Sainiks are apparently going berserk. Everyone's on low battery by now, so even greater panic; parents call, and get either 'not reachable' or one ring and cut off. So it's a slightly sombre ride back home, but everything looks pretty much normal.
Reach and crash.

I wish I knew why blogger's not letting me upload pictures... here's all the snaps again, and the slideshow.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Bombay Blasts - the morning after

Last night, the roads were jammed with traffic; additional buses, cabs, autos, and most of all people on foot trudging home. I went out for a while, and the first thing that struck me was how quiet it was. No horns. No engine sounds. Nobody swearing on the roads. There was just an expectant silence, people standing or walking sombrely in groups.

The panic is... gone. I wasn't here in 1993, but I don't see this going out of control like then. It's calm, but it's a directed calm. People are waiting for a response from the administration.
The trains are running again; the Western line was back in action from late night (partially) to completely by the morning. Traffic looks normal; the Harbour side is ok, Central was slightly crowded around Sion hospital and Western looks all right as well; I guess a lot of people are choosing to stay at home. But there's still a very healthy number of people out, on the roads, in offices, at work.

There's a sense of connect. Every time I see someone I know or recognize, I get an SMS... it's one more thing we share. We Survived Bombay. Again.

Just like there's a different sense of any IMs or mails coming from out of Bombay; a sense of you-out-there, compared to the us-in-here feeling I get from Bombayites.
That's it for now, let's see how the day develops. I'm putting in a couple of links in case someone comes across them searching...

Mumbai / Bombay blasts - Some links

The above links come from the Mumbai Help Wiki; I haven't been able to verify all of them, but it's being updated fairly regularly, and if you find something that's incorrect, go ahead and edit it. You'll be helping out a lot of people.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Mumbai Monsoons - 2

The adventure continues. Hadn't intended to go home, but had to check out if my bike has drowned this year as well. God bless my watchman; he has truly justified the hafta he collects every month with this one simple brilliant act of genius. there was a three-foor-high waterline mark on the walls... and every bike in the compound had a plastic bag stuffed into the exhaust. took it out, started her up, and it's sweet purring. God bless you, you quasi-criminal guardian.
My roommate had fled the floods to Navy Nagar (The naval area is currently the driest place in Bombay.) I was able to completely ignore football after several weeks and watch Cruel Intentions casting-to-credits with no interruptions, happily munching on a fried pepper chicken that I had cooked since no restaurant was open for business.
The morning brought an ominous gray look and high winds, and I decided not to take any more chances with a new bike. The office is always... if not dry, then at least not flooded. packed up, took the bike, and hit the road. The worst bit was right outside the house; around a foot of water, and after that it's clear all the way.
Which was another problem. Take a 6-lane highway, with minimal traffic. Throw in a visor untreated for surface tension so rain sticks making blobs exactly the shape and size of traffic in front of you. Add a new 150 cc Pulsar. Season with pouring rain and a 26 kmph wind coming from the South-East. Top up with me coming from the North-West at 60 kmph... you get a recipe for disaster. Clear road, so all traffic that is there is racing like crazy, including me because I think there's a genetic flaw in my head that makes me do stupid stuff. Sheets of water planing up. Potholes like lunar craters, only less navigable.
Raindrops were slicing into my eyes at 90 kmph. Icy cold little needlepoints on my face and hands. A humming engine. Mmmm. This was fun. Came into office dripping like Noah. Changed and now I'm sweating because they've switched off the AC. Life isn't being fair.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Mumbai Monsoons - 1

I missed my chance to do this last time, and the rain gods have given me a second chance, so here goes...
I'm in office, in Parel, watching the news... it looks bad. Yesterday we had around 150 mm of rain on an average, and the scene is already pretty similar to 26/7. Same roads flooded, same lines of black umbrellas snaking through a watery wasteland.

And it's scary because so far it's just about a tenth of last year's rains. It's going to get worse. A lot worse.

Started out from home around 9:30... usual pouring rain, gray skies, water streaming around my feet. Brisk breeze as well... amazing weather. Love this kind of season...

At Khar, the trains stopped exactly across a railway crossing; and all the pedestrians immediately started levering themselves up, walking through the compartment, hopping off and continuing. You gotta admire that; So there's a train in the way? No problem! I just go through it! I hopped off, walked till Bandra, got into the train there... and realized why everyone looked so familiar. It was the same train, same compartment. Grrrgh.

Slow slosh through submerged tracks to Elphinstone, then it's hop off and walk to office. Again, a repeat of the 26/7 scene... with two notable exceptions. There were at least a dozen cops in the their spanking new half-yellow-half-transparent plastic jackets enthusiastically directing traffic and at least five news vans. Things to remember: where there is a news van, there is a flooded road. Like here. Slosh through more water.

Never realized how hypersensitive these situations make me to the road. Especially when I'm wearing my Killer Sandals with the Hydroplaning Sole. I've become an expert at judging slope, texture and traction of a any surface with one glance, even if it's under a foot of water. Tar is ok. Cemented... be careful. Interlocked pavements... cool. Concreted roads (No, they're not the same as cemented roads!) are dangerous. Stone slabs, black cobbles, steel plates... shuffle like an arthritic zombie. Tiles... lie down and crack your head on them immediately, it'll save time.

Reach office, change, answer some panicked mails / calls, have a nice hot lunch (so much mirchi in the bhurji that it's inedible. Reason? It's raining. The Mumbai Monsoon can be blamed for such a fascinating variety of ills, from blocked trains to blocked alimentary canals.)

Damn. Why didn't I park my bike at UT's when the rains started? If things are going to turn out like this, I'm down one new Pulsar.

Let's see how things turn out... to be continued. Watch this space for continued drama, adventure, suspense, thrills 'n chills... no romance sadly... no pretty office women to comfort and reassure. Unlike me, they had the brains to stay home.

But what the heck... at least I have food, water, electricity, and the net... Life Is Good.

... Continued Later

Hey boys and girls! Did you know about some of the fun games you can play during the Mumbai Monsoon? Lemme getcha staaaaaaarted!
Here's the one where you have to walk around with an umbrella. Easy-peasy. The tough but is making sure you hit every - and I mean every - eye that comes near you with the spokes. Bonus points for poking eye after knocking off specs into 2 feet of muddy water!
Oooh, here's another fun one called Hide The Manhole. You gotta figure out where the open manholes are only by the whirlpools above them. Once you finish training on this, you gotta find them in waist deep water when there's water coming out of 'em... no whirlpools! Nothing at all to tell you where they are except your good ol' feet! Enjoy!
Feeling hungry? Time for the Treasure Hunt! You have to find a loaf of bread, and an egg. That's all. The grocer? The general store? the supermarket? Your fridge? The communal dustbin? Bad luck, kids... but keep looking, and tell me when you find some!
Feeling tired, cold, and wet? It's time to Identify That Smell! Is it deliciously warm fresh vadas being fried? Half-fries and pao? Or is it the Sulabh Complex next to you, equally submerged? And is that the smell of pus and old blood coming from the water coming out of the hospital grounds?
You should also try to guess what that is, wrapped around your leg under the water's surface. Let your imagination go wild! Is it a harmless ol' plastic bag? A palm leaf? Someone's soggy handkerchief? Someone's soggy arm? A paedophilic tentacular Denizen of the Deep come in on the tide from the Arabian Sea?
Tomorrow, we'll play dodge-the-buses in a foot of water, and practice sandalskating on wet flagstones / steps / pavements.

applause and childish voices raised in glee.



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