Cruising Along The Indian West Coast

The 2009 edition of Outlook Traveler spoke of the Mumbai to Goa drive enjoying cult status. The NH17, fondly remembered as NH66, ran along the western coast of India. At a few places, it came at a stone’s throw distance from the Arabian Sea. It sounded exciting.

Arabian Sea, Maravanthe
This is how close to the sea we would drive at times…

So, for our 2017 annual domestic trip, we chose the Western Ghats & the Indian west coast. It was in line with our lets-see-the-country-at-least-before-we-die plan. When we started studying about the NH66, we found that it ran from Panvel to Kanyakumari. We were thrilled! We had ~10 days to spare. We could do a longer stretch than just Mumbai to Goa.

After extensive research & iterations, we narrowed down to a return trip of ~2,100 kilometers: Mumbai- Ganpati Phule- Gokarna- Kannur- Karwar- Panchgani- Mumbai.

The only reason we could not go till Kanyakumari: we had to return to Mumbai to drop off the rented self-drive car. Self-drive car rentals in India do not have the feature of different pick & drop points yet. & 10 days were inadequate to go till Kanyakumari AND return to Mumbai. So, the remaining stretch in maybe another trip!

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In South Karnataka & North Kerala, we crossed many backwater channels…

 

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Maravanthe Beach… unknown… where the only people who stop to frolic in the waters are truck drivers hailing all the way from Punjab, Bihar & the Northeast.

Most of our road trip was on the NH66. Here & there, we touched SH92 (in Maharashtra), SH34 (Karnataka), NH48 (Maharashtra), & the Mumbai- Pune Expressway (Maharashtra). SH92 connects the NH48 to the NH66, traversing through villages to give you a view of rural Maharashtra. SH34 is a beautiful, well-maintained hilly stretch running through the Kali Tiger Reserve & Dandeli, the river rafting paradise of west India. NH48 & Mumbai- Pune Expressway are typical highways: wide roads, straight-line driving & limited scenery.

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SH34 | Crossing the Kali Tiger Reserve – A wonderful green belt with smooth roads
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After NH66, NH48 was boring. Not many turns, not much scenery…

But this post is about the NH66. On our first stretch (Mumbai to Ganpati Phule), the highway zigzagged through the Western Ghats. It being the monsoon season, the Ghats were lush. We saw more shades of green than we thought existed. So much so, that after a while, our eyes sought colors other than green.

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green green everywhere

Once we started from Ganpati Phule (till Kannur), we encountered the reason NH66 is considered so highly. We drove parallel to the Indian west coast. We felt the sea breeze.

At places, the Arabian Sea was right beside us. One such place was Maravanthe: to our right was the Arabian Sea & to our left, the Suparnika River. Essentially, we drove on a thin strip of land.

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Left: River Suparnika. Right: Arabian Sea

All along the highway were fishing hamlets. We halted just about anywhere & asked for the day’s catch to be cooked for us.

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Not really the fishing hamlet food (as we would gobble that up quickly) but you get the drift…

Also pleasing to the eye were the intricately carved & colorfully painted temples. The gopuram of each of them carried gods & goddesses of all kinds, & of more colors than found in a child’s box of crayons.

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Ornate designs on temple gopurams… Hats off to the artist!

There cannot be words better than photographs. So, leaving you with our captures of NH66.

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We spotted the Sun going down behind a stretch of green…

 

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Merging like the palm fronds do with the rocks do with the sea Or standing out with our architectural splendor, be it a church, a school or a temple…

 

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The contrast could not be more striking The tarred roads Against the many shades of green…

It Took a Spell of Rain to Make Us Love

We have been to Goa before. You must know Goa. The city that is synonymous with India, and incorrectly so. Sure, Goa has sand, sea, skin and Sun, and attracts a large share of domestic and international tourists. But is this all that is there to India?

What about the heritage, the culture, the colors, the smells, the sounds, the jostling and pushing, the hospitality, the monuments, the history, the diversity, the religion, the dirt and grime, the easy smiles and so much more?

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We tried photography at various locations

We do not imply Goa has none of these; it does, yet it cannot accurately represent India. So now that we have established how fastidious we are, let us continue where we left off. Yes, we have been to Goa before.

The first time was when we wanted to heal ourselves. We wanted to escape the sudden pain that had been inflicted on us. We wanted to find our inner peace. Or simply put, when we did not want anybody to see our tears.

It was in April; tourist season had not really picked up. We were happy to escape crowds. We lodged ourselves in Panjim, a quiet part, going out to even quieter places, wishing to find our solace.

Consequently, the memories of Goa do not stand out for us from this visit. That trip was more about us than about the destination.

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We soothed our eyes

The second time was when we were in full spirits, gung-ho with life, and ready to take on whatever came our way. This was a more Goa-esque visit. We stayed in Baga, the heart of the city, buzzing with life, days starting late, and nights ending even later.

We thoroughly enjoyed but we asked ourselves if we would not have enjoyed as much elsewhere if we were in the same frame of mind and perhaps had similar company. So, you see Goa did not impress us much.

Sure, for a one-time visit, it is as good a tourist destination as any other. But we know people who go there every year, and perhaps even more than once a year. This fills us with discontent. There are so many exquisite places in India.

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We put our feet up

Why then would one waste one’s effort, money and time on the same destination over and over again? But then, that is us. We cannot repeat. We need our variety. We need new destinations. We need new experiences. We need new journeys. That is where we get our ecstasy from!

But this time, it was different. We think it was the ‘third time lucky’ adage working. We stayed from Friday till Sunday, a short trip. In our experience, these little breaks help tremendously in rejuvenation.

Given that we had not stepped out of Delhi for more than two months, we were not complaining. We were glad to get away.

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We counted the trees

The connectivity from Delhi was rotten. The earliest non-stop flight was at 10:25 AM. You reached after 1 PM; half a day was effectively wasted. Nonetheless, as we had been trying to see the upside of everything, we realized that taking such a flight meant we did not need to get up at an unearthly hour.

True to our nature, we were at the airport with about an hour to spare and used that to gobble down a breakfast at Fresco.

We had a page three crowd in our flight which was on its way to attend a wedding in Goa. We were forced to observe the wedding party as they were dripping with brands, air-kissing quite heavily and were loud. Ah, of course, when did money guarantee class? We immersed ourselves in our books.

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We reveled in the warm glow

Our hotel was only an hour and 10 minutes away. We were staying at Vivanta by Taj – Fort Aguada in Sinquerim. They had sent a pretty little bus to pick its guests up. As soon as the bus started moving, we started falling in love.

It was drizzling; my surroundings were lush green. The rains had washed away the dust; it seemed the plants and trees had been given an extra coat. The narrow roads had been washed clean; Goans were going about their daily lives covered by raincoats or protecting themselves under colorful umbrellas.

We could not take our eyes off. What also drew our attention was the array of colorful houses. Memories of Burano came back to life. Oh how young were we! How ‘in love’ were we! Truly, nothing can recreate the magic of a honeymoon. Or even of courtship.

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We gaped at the clear reflections

We wondered why so many colors, ranging from orange to pink to green to blue. Was it something to do with fishing communities? Fishermen returning at night with their hauls had trouble identifying their homes in the dark? Or were they too drunk?

What was it? Wikipedia told us that coloring the exterior of the house signified the economic well being of the owner. Also, the erstwhile Portuguese rulers fined houses that were not painted. Lastly, white was reserved for the churches.

We were, somehow, not convinced. There had to be a drunk fisherman angle. What is life without a bit of spice!

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We swung in hammocks tossing our worries to the wind

We had not imagined the Taj property to be as pretty as it turned out to be. Located at almost a tip of Goa, flanked by the walls of Fort Aguada, Taj Fort Aguada is sprawled across acres with cottages dispersed throughout its premises.

It is built on a hillock and so the elevation of cottages differ, making thus possible different views. Our cottage was at a fair height. The sea view was unobstructed from there. At that moment, we knew we had finally loved Goa. What the beach, shacks, parties could not do, the greenery, the rain and the sea did.

That evening, we also hit the gym after almost two years. It felt good to get our blood, heart and limbs going. The gym is located between the two Taj properties- Fort Aguada and Holiday Village. The hotel car provides the pick and drop.

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We looked up to see this. A small voice in our head said – duck!

The hotel is one where you need not step out. You can just flit from one spot to another, catching the cool sea breeze, listening to the crash of the sea waves, sipping on something and reading a good piece of fiction.

There are multiple activities arranged at the hotel itself but we, unfortunately, were unable to participate in any. Though, we did avail their spa services. We had visited Jiva before and were thoroughly impressed. This time too, we were not disappointed. It is good to leave yourself in the hands of an expert. Hmm! We reminded ourselves to do this more often.

Our next evening was spent sitting next to the sea, with music playing in the background and the warm light of the candles bringing a glow to our faces.

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We strolled in the lush green gardens…

We traveled to a lot of corners of Goa, either to buy or eat or see. Being on the road is our elixir. Being on the road in a pleasant clime with raindrops falling is perhaps divine. Plants, trees, puddles, earthworms, the smell of wet mud- all brought us to our knees.

Our road trips have brought us closer and closer to Mother Earth. Her beauty is unparalleled. She knows when to be gentle and when to unleash her fury on those who mess with her. This visit was not about us Goa; it was about you in your full glory.

We have no itinerary to provide; we are still mesmerized…

My Gangtok Chronicle – Chapter 2

Continuing from Chapter 1, landing in Bagdogra was a visual delight. As we descended, I spotted neat squares and rectangles that served as farms. Almost every shade of green was discernible. Then onward, I was in for a wonderful time.

I had booked an Innova for myself; I can trust the reliability of this vehicle blindly. My driver, KN, was a Sikkimese and pointed out that we would have to go slow on the hills in the dark. I knew then that I was in safe hands. My relief was not shared by my parents who were worrying themselves sick. They got their peace of mind when I reached Gangtok.

Along the way, crossing Bagdogra/ Siliguri was a headache with the annoying auto and rickshaw traffic. Perhaps I had had a bad day which made me more irritable. NH10 was patchy. Traffic was dense till the turn for Darjeeling. There on, it became a breeze. The roads drastically improved once we entered Sikkim at Rangpo.

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Stunning vistas- Sikkim can easily be called the Land of Lakes

It was 9 PM by the time we reached the hotel. The day had been wasted. My plans of roaming on the streets of Gangtok went down the drain. I was exhausted. I wanted a hot meal and a warm bed. Thankfully, my hotel provided both.

New Orchid Hotel was not fancy but its basics were in place. I was welcomed with the traditional ‘khada’, the white silk scarf. They upgraded me from an Executive Room to a Suite. Yay! Not a bad end to a lousy day.

On the first real day of my travel, the initial plan was to undertake local sightseeing in Gangtok. But as I feasted on my breakfast, my cab agent informed that my permit for Nathu La had come. I thus needed to leave for the daylong excursion to Nathu La, Baba Mandir & Tsomgo Lake.

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I wish I could have reached out & touched the clear water…

Excitement would be an understatement to describe my state of mind. Nathu La, of course, is the stuff legends are made of. At 14,200 feet, it is an international boundary between India and China where civilians are allowed. However, the rarefied air and the extreme temperatures deter most tourists. Also, the number of cars (and consequently the number of tourists) to Nathu La has a daily capping. This meant that I had to club with someone in one car for the last 3-4 kilometers. I did not mind this.

I have been to Dochu La, Khardung La, Chang La, Rohtang La and Kunzum La. I knew what to expect from a pass in terms of oxygen and temperature. I was, however, a little anxious about the amount of walking involved. Well, I will cross the bridge when we come to it.

I am a lover of long drives. The terrain reminded me, happily, of Ladakh and Spiti. The sky was blue; the Kangchenjunga beamed at me. I sighed with contentment but I postponed clicking its photos to the next day. I soaked in the sights as we ascended.

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I loved how the mountains seem to fade away…

Once the army-controlled area began, mobile connectivity dropped. Tiny lakes started appearing which looked like infinity pools. Furry dogs sunbathed; I wish I could take one home.

We stopped at Kyangnosla for a bio break. Surprisingly, in the family-run shop/ café, the toilets were clean, though without a light bulb. It struck me that Sikkim had taken the Swachh Bharat Mission seriously. Every few meters in Gangtok, I found posters extolling the virtues of cleanliness. Dustbins were a common feature. There was hardly any litter to be found on the streets.

I knew Sikkim was one of the most developed states in India but now I was getting to see it first-hand. Center-state cooperative federalism is something that Sikkim can teach to the other Indian states.

The blue sky made my day even better!
The blue sky made my day even better!

The ethnicity, the cleanliness, the discipline, the safety – all made me feel I was not in an Indian city. Only the presence of Mr. Narendra Modi’s posters every few hundred meters (put up by the non- BJP state government) and the presence of the Indian army brought me back to reality.

But I digress; let me continue with my Nathu La story.

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