Friday, July 31, 2009

MONSOON MAGIC - 2

This continues from Monsoon Magic Part 1, click here to read.

Winding down the narrow roads of the Western Ghats with enough twists and turns to churn whatever is in the stomach, one finally emerges in the coastal area of Karnataka near Honnavar Town where the mountain road meets the so-called National Highway NH-17. The “highway” is quite narrow by International standards and was badly worn out and exposed in stretches. Swollen rivers and lakes were all around us as we drove North towards Goa, reaching a wet and windy Colva Beach (Colva is near Madgao for those familiar with the larger cities of Goa).


(Swollen river)

Monsoon is a lean season in Goa and one does not generally need reservations anywhere in any class of accommodation. We just walked into a hotel that’s a stone’s throw away from Colva Beach. Although Goa tries to promote “monsoon tourism”, I know why most prefer the dry season. In this wet season, the sea is very rough and has a muddy tinge, there are no beach shacks to have a drink and eat some fresh local seafood. The sand on the beach is wet and somewhat dirty with left over plastic covers stuck in the sand, remnants from the tail end of the high season. Asking around, I came to know that they (whoever they are) don’t clean the beaches during monsoon simply because no one really comes beach side. But this is also the best time to go to Goa since there are no crowds, restaurants are all open and seating easily available unlike during the high season and generally the entire place wears a deserted look, which suits me fine. If better promoted and if the Government cleans up the place a bit, this would be an ideal monsoon lover’s paradise.


The morning turns out dark and gloomy, looking out towards the sea from the hotel window it appears like menacing clouds are about to make landfall and attack with fury and that’s precisely what happens, just as I step out the door of the lobby for a short walk across the street to a South Indian Udupi style breakfast joint called Sagar Kinara (what else!). The strong gusty wind catches me unawares and breaks my umbrella. Holding the tattered remains of the same and getting drenched, I made it to the restaurant for hot Idli and coffee. It’s raining very hard by now. It’s as if a dam in the sky has burst open and water is literally pouring down. For those who want to experience real rain and get away from the rest of the parched country, this would be the place. For lovebirds, the sounds of rain falling outside the window, the ever-rustling sounds of the coconut palm, the dark gray clouds heavily laden with rain provides ideal conditions to stay indoors and snuggle. For those who love getting wet in the rain or don’t mind a bit of a soak, like me, nothing will stop us characters from venturing out at the slightest pretext. Just watch out for objects flying around in the wind and falling tree branches!

We ventured up to Panjim, the capital city of Goa. I think a separate blog is in order, to fully describe this little town that makes up the capital of this small state. I’ll do that when I go back for housewarming in November. There are too many things to describe about Panjim that can’t be done here. I love the Old Portuguese buildings that are all over, well restored and in active use centuries later. The waterfront areas, in particular the river Mandovi’s banks, have some fine examples of such architecture. One can walk along the river on well paved walkways and lined with gardens and have a first class view of the boats that ply the river leading out to sea on one side and on the other side you’d be seeing these architecturally aesthetic buildings and you’d continue walking all the way to Campal and the Goa Kala Academy. All this is for another blog. Back in South Goa 45 minutes of driving later, we stopped for lunch at the famous Martin’s Corner and I kept my eyes peeled out for celebrities but no such luck. Photographs of Indian glitterati are hung on the wall showing how popular this place is. I found the ambiance to be delightfully Goan with murals of Mario Miranda’s cartoons on the walls. I ordered Goan food, the staple fish curry and rice combination and that was simply great. I’d say the service was fantastic too.


Next day was the big day for us. The apartment was all done and delivered. The swimming pool is near ready as is the community center and gymnasium. The keys handed over and the paperwork done, it was time for a celebratory lunch. There’s a restaurant called Fisherman’s Wharf near Mobor beach that’s right on the river Sal. One can see the line of fishing boats berthed silently, waiting for the monsoon to end before the fishing season starts. The ambience and food were both good. Sal River had turned muddy like all others.
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(River Sal from Fisherman's Wharf)

Now, Mobor Beach needs a special blog too, as it’s my favorite. You’ve got white powdery sand, nice seafront, classy hotels nearby and at one end the River Sal empties itself into the sea. It all sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? It is worth a visit to anyone who has not been there. After lunch we drove up to Ponda and after visiting the Laxmi Narasimha temple in nearby Veiling, which I go to every time I am in Goa, we headed back out towards Karwar, the coastal port town in Karnataka. Not finding a decent place to stay in Karwar, we continued on into the night, something I swear I’d never do again.

The same road, NH-17, had completely become a lunar landscape during the brief two days that I was away in Goa. There had been extensive flooding of the road, heavy rainfall, stormy winds, downed trees and power lines, you name it. The same road we had traveled earlier was unrecognizable. Driver and I had to keep looking for signs that said we were still on NH-17 as neither of us could remember the road being that bad just a few days before. Night driving is insane. Add copious rain, poor general visibility, stray cattle (even at night!) and humans running across poorly lit or sometimes even completely dark NH-17 and it adds up to be a dangerous recipe. What with blinding lights coming in the opposite direction from drivers who never dip their lights, ill defined sign boards and directions, and you know you are close to an impending disaster. Luckily we escaped some very close calls that night.

We snuck into Kumta, another coastal town not far away from Karwar and hunkered down for the night at a decent place. There’s a rest stop in between Karwar and Kumta and I’d recommend a stop here at the Kamat Yatrinivas restaurant at any time. I liked their breakfast and generally everything else on the menu. They’ve got a sugarcane juice machine and will make fresh delicious cane juice for you while you wait, for a low price of Rs. 12 a glass (US 25 cents!).


(Flying fox - hanging from a tree on the banks of the Payaswini - click on the picture for an expanded view)

The next morning looked promising, with the sun partially out, visibility reasonably good and it was only then that we could see the real damage the excessive rainfall in this area had done. Heading out South towards northern Kerala, we saw people marooned, away from the road, their houses and huts were like little islands in a sea of muddy water. There was flooding all the way South and the roads did not show any signs of improvement for the entire length of the Karnataka coast that NH-17 follows.


(Hanging bridge - still pic - over Payaswini River)

Five bumpy hours later we arrived in Kerala. Interior roads in Kerala were still good and we made good progress. Staying back in Kanhangad town and visiting the somewhat disappointing beach there and our social visit completed, we drove next to Kuntar village for more socializing. Kuntar is on the banks of the river Payaswini that had also turned red and was flowing strong. They’ve made a new suspension bridge that now connects the other bank of the river. It was fun walking across the bridge and fun to see the greenery all around. Bats hung in trees in hundreds near the water, noisy as ever. These were flying foxes and I’ve never seen them from that close up.
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(Payaswini River)

Returning to Mysore via the hill town of Madikeri was interesting. Getting out of the nice Kerala roads, one encounters the Sulya-Madikeri road winding uphill, to be an extremely bad road. What makes up for this bone jarring experience is the vista. The hills all around, coffee plantations, the cool atmosphere and light intermittent rain followed us all the way to Mysore. The weather suddenly cleared up as we were just outside Mysore and the road, State Highway SH-88, was a real pleasure to drive on. The trip was therefore an overall success, bad roads adding to the adventure. I hope those who read this are prompted to visit Jog and possibly Goa; I heard the monsoon is getting weaker over the area now.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Magic has to wait a bit

My Monsoon Magic Part 2 is ready but like many other people, I am having a tough time with Blogger and unable to post pictures and videos. Without being able to do this, I don't want to post the article. So, let's wait and see. In the meantime, I have an anecdote that I remember from my time spent with friends from Thiruvananthapuram. They were a hilarious bunch of people who would, especially after a couple of drinks, let loose jokes from Kerala, mainly targeting their politicians. We used to stay in Male', the capital of Maldives then and our drinking sessions were always fun, argumentative, loud sometimes and there were lot's of stories going around.

At one of these gatherings at a friends place, drinks in hand and snacks on the table all set, the guys started their stories, real anecdotes I was told. I believe the topic was about the Monsoon and how the moisture was trapped by the thick forests of the Western Ghats producing copious amounts of rain like it did this time as well. Apparently this came up as a discussion in the State Assembly when on a debate about deforestation, an MLA made a speech about the ill effects of deforestation and how that was preventing moisture from being trapped, resulting in drought like conditions and so on. A ruling part MLA stood up and rubbished these claims saying that there was really no evidence that cutting down trees reduced rainfall. He said that trees had no role to play regarding rainfall. He continued that he'd seen it rain many times over the open seas and that he had not seen any trees there in the middle of the sea. He sat down triumphantly, having scored a point that could not have been rebutted with a short answer from an MLA who probably could not explain further. Although I don't remember the names of the characters in the story, this just proves how this is the quality of people we chose each time in an election to run our States and Country.

While we always expect nature to live up to expectations and while it did for some this year and did not for a majority of the growing areas of India, there's not much that we do to help heal the planet. I do believe that trees are very important for rainfall to occur. I do believe trees are the greatest gift to the planet, they support entire mini ecosystems within their branches, give life, shade, shelter, homes, food and countless other supports to living creatures. This includes humans of course. They are pleasing to the eye and never fails to me rather calm and collected when I see trees. Monsoon provides the magic and turns all of India green, in a good year. This has a been a mixed year so far. I hope my monsoon magic part 2 can be uploaded soon, before the real monsoon completely runs out of steam!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

MONSOON MAGIC PART-1

It’s been bad news about the deficit rainfall in the Northern parts of India so far this year. What started as a slow and perceived deficient rainfall even in Southern India, especially coastal Karnataka and Goa, ended up being surplus by mid July. Although late, copious rains have filled the State’s reservoirs. I witnessed heavy rainfall in coastal Karnataka, Goa and generally the Western Ghats area during this monsoon season during my travels there. I encountered swollen lakes and rivers, broken embankments and general flooding all over the coastal areas between the Western Ghat mountains and the Arabian Sea.


(Muddy swollen rivers all along the roads in coastal Karnataka)

I took a short, well deserved break, in between hectic hospital visits with my dad and the timing coincided with the delivery of my new apartment in Goa, so I decided to head over there by road from Mysore. My plan, although hastily arranged, was to leave Mysore early morning and head up to Jog Falls by lunchtime and after a couple of hours there, we’d leave for Goa and reach the same evening. Jog falls is best seen when the monsoon fury is tapering and the Linganamakki dam over the Sharavathi River is full. Jog Falls is also the highest plunge waterfall in India, falling from a height of about 829 feet. My trip was in the middle of the monsoon and hence what I saw was quite a spectacle but perhaps wasn’t at maximum flow/volume of water.


(Jog Falls July 2009)

Setting out early in the morning from Mysore on an overcast day, the day promised to be a comfortable ride till we started to hit the roads going to Shimoga and believe me, astronauts may have had a better ride on the lunar rover on the lunar surface. Portions of the Highways were badly pitted. My driver also managed to nick a bus, damaging the rear door a bit, while negotiating through the crazy labyrinth of streets that make up Shimoga. It was just after noon when we reached Sagar and Jog Falls, which was perfect, schedule-wise.

I was told by friendly local touts who hang around offering to take photos of people with the falls in the background, that one can view the falls from at least 5 different places. I managed two locations on this trip, the idea being not to spend more than two hours in Jog, after all I had to head down the mountains to coastal Karnataka and Goa the same evening.

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(Here's a short video I took of Jog Falls)

The main view of the Falls is from a viewing area directly in front of it. The tourism guys have built platforms and steps to accommodate a large number of people who come to view the falls. The main area also has some accommodation facilities and restaurants. Another popular viewpoint is the one from across the main viewing area, in a place called the British Bungalow. I guess the Brits built it during their heyday in India, the small Bungalow now eclipsed by a large new edifice that will serve as an inn or hotel in the near future. If time permits, I recommend an arduous climb down the steps to the foot of the falls when the weather is right. Don’t forget the even more arduous climb back, up to the car park/bus stop area! I had done this trek long back and it was more arduous then, I don’t remember the steps being as good as it is now.

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(Another short video of the falls from the main viewing area)

What was mesmerizing was all the mist created by the water falling from such a great height. Clouds of heavy mist would drift in and out, occasionally blanking out the view of the falls and the surrounding hills completely and then vanishing mysteriously. There was intermittent drizzle from the rain, nothing that drenched us but enough to create a magical atmosphere overall. It's no wonder male and female leads in Indian movies break out into song and dance routine in such locales, the environment makes one want to sing and dance! I wouldn't try it, having been born with mediocre voice and two left feet..

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(View of the steps leading down to the foot of the falls and the falls viewed from British Bungalow side)

The weather, the journey so far and the views - all combined to give me a good appetite as we headed for one of the two restaurants that were available at site. While the food wasn’t great and ambiance lacking, a hungry stomach can pack in anything. But this is where we as a country, lose the plot. Karnataka tourism can do so much more to improve facilities in such a popular tourist destination but one wonders why nothing is done.

The best thing was the timing of this trip, although unintentional, it is during this time that few people visit the falls. Crowds of visitors had stayed away, maybe because there weren’t any holidays around the corner and perhaps most people visit during the end of the monsoon period. It was quite peaceful for us and that made the visit quite memorable. I had not seen Jog Falls in twenty-five years and had quite forgotten how spectacular it really is. I hope the pictures and video does some justice. The trip down the Ghats to Goa and back will be posted next. That was one rough ride I'd never forget!