On saying fond farewells to the remaining group members, I was presented with some valuable gifts. Jane had discovered Indian toilet paper was better than she had expected, so gifted me with a huge luxuriously soft US bog roll, as well as some water she knew wouldn’t be allowed on the plane. From Lis I scored some Body Shop shower gel (woo-hoo). Kay and Leslie, I discovered, were planning to jettison their famous stripey bags that had allowed them to travel so economically for the last two weeks, and so I gladly put my hand up for these too. Kay, with whom I also shared a room during the trip, had also inadvertently bequeathed me her characteristic, ‘Oh my godfather!’, which I was to realise over the next few days.
Now at last I was on my Pat Malone in Mangalore en route to Coorg. Dervla Murphy has a theory that if you wait around long enough somewhere in India, you can get a bus anywhere. Whilst she was happy to test this on the roadside, I preferred to put my faith in the KSRTC bus stand.
On claiming a seat two from the front, I immediately fell into conversation with a Swedish woman I had seen in the hotel reception the previous day. Inga was an attractive suntanned woman in her autumn years, and you could see with her long blonde hair she must have been stunning when younger.
She asked me, ‘What is your favourite place in India?’ Then she quickly added, ‘without thinking.’
‘The backwaters in Kerala near Alleppy,’ I replied, visions of large expanses of water and palms swaying in the cool breeze before my eyes.
‘For me, Varanasi is India; it is such a special place.’
‘I agree – you did say without thinking!’ I laughed. ‘But I have a lot of favourites for different reasons.’
‘Yes, India is like that.’
‘So what brings you to Coorg?’ I ask her.
‘My husband, he’s English, has read this book On a Shoestring to Coorg…’
‘Really? Same here! Where will you be going? I’m having difficulty translating some of the old place names into the new and I’m convinced Devangeri is too small to be on any map.’
‘I don’t know.’ Inga’s eyes crease up in an attractive smile. ‘At home I am the boss, but when we are travelling…’ she indicated her husband standing outside the bus with a vague wave of the hand.
The motor of our bus churned into action and Nick, Inga’s husband bounded on board. ‘You travel light!’ he said indicating Lesley’s stripey bag.
‘For a few blessed days anyway. The Srinivas Hotel is keeping an eye on the rest for me.’
Nick and Inga are old hands at Indian travel and I asked what their plans were.
‘We just let things happen when we’re in India,’ Nick said. ‘We stay with some friends, but generally we just wander around. Our baggage is currently with a doctor friend in Goa – although you could be forgiven for thinking this is all of it!’ He laughed ruefully as he indicated a huge drawstring army bag.
We trundled around the streets of Mangalore with our driver’s assistant hanging out the door yelling, ‘Madikerimysoremadikerimysore!’
Finally we were clear of Mangalore, and soon I was aware of that elated feeling I get on launching out on my own following an anticipated trail, and yet free to change at a moment’s notice. We were already driving down tree-lined roads and I was quite excited about seeing this area of India that Dervla had been teasing me about for the last two years.
The trip would be four-and-a-half hours, but for the first hour we were few and I had a seat to myself. We passed by the Zen Garage (I suppose they practice motorcycle maintenance..?) and a large shed with garden gnome sized yoni and lingam sets, or were they mortars and pestles? Same thing I guess! Not long afterwards we passed a large billboard with pictures of them titled ‘Souza’s Grinders.’
We also passed a Post Office which bore the slogan ‘India Post – reach out, throughout’ which only served to remind me that although my carpets arrived post haste, my flatmate still hadn’t received the postcard I posted over a month ago. A shame, as it showed a Rajasthani woman ‘evilled’ in public, which tickled me immensely.
At a fork in the road the assistant started yelling and gesticulating wildly from the back of the bus where he was busy selling tickets. We had turned left instead of right. Nick peered back over the seat at me. ‘I don’t know how he’s going to find his way up the mountain if he’s already lost.’
Nick started telling me about another journey they had taken with two drivers and an assistant.
‘I suppose they changed over without stopping,’ I joked.
Nick nodded emphatically with upshot brows. ‘That’s exactly what they did, with the assistant hanging out the door to warn them of oncoming traffic!’
Omagawd…that made the smile drop off my face in a hurry. I had actually noticed already our driver’s reticence when it came to using his horn and frankly, this worried me. We were already rising in altitude and driving around sharp corners with no warning noise at all. It wasn’t long and a bus named Super Sonic careened around a corner and nearly wiped us out.
JAY-ZUZ! We all flew forward as our driver slammed on the brakes. Super Sonic my fat arse! The Japanese characters for ‘Divine Wind’ would be far more appropriate. Now our second problem was regaining momentum from zero in the soft dirt on the side of the road.
I should point out at that I use the term ‘side of the road’ loosely in so far as we were on one side of the thoroughfare. As we entered Coorg, the roads had totally disintegrated. In fact, the stubborn islands of asphalt still clinging on were causing extra trouble (yes, my Intrepid friends, even worse than the road to Somnathpur!). Thank Pavarti I had had the presence of mind to put on a sports bra that morning.
This trip cast my mind back to being in the cattle truck with Dad grinding up the steep dirt roads of the Wattagan Mountains with a full load of moaning and screaming beasts – except we passengers hadn’t quite reached that stage yet.
At one point we passed by three layers of small wire cages stacked up, each one with its own chicken. ‘Poor chickens!’ exclaimed Inga. I suspect they took one look at us crammed into this juddering beast and thought ‘Poor humans!’ At least they were in the shade.
The sudden depravity of the roads also brought to mind DM’s comments that Coorg had suffered financially for having been subsumed into the larger province of Karnataka, run from Mysore. Coorg was once a wealthy and self-sufficient area and I quote a generous portion of what she said back then to illustrate:
…most Coorgs still bitterly resent their loss of independence…one middle-aged man, clad in patched pants and a threadbare shirt, gloomily quoted Abraham Lincoln – "You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong." I do not know how real local grievances are, but one does see many signs of a recent decline in the region’s traditional level of prosperity. For seventeen years [this said in 1972] the State government has been siphoning off, through taxation, a considerable portion of Coorg’s income and the Coorg’s argue that it is grossly unjust to expect them to prop up the less fortunate areas of Karnataka. At first glance this reluctance to share their wealth seems ungenerous, but at second glance one realises that Lincoln was right. Applied to the vastness of Karnataka state that stream of wealth which would suffice to keep Coorg happy and healthy makes little impression, while its deflection from Coorg has already perceptible ill-effects.
Well, if the state of these treacherous mountain roads is anything to go by…
In addition to having my bones juddered to pieces I had also scored as a seat mate a young man with rectangular rimless frames (the first I’ve seen here) and a laptop case on his lap. I later found out he was on his weekly trip to Mysore, where he worked. For the first half hour of his trip he had been yelling above the racket of the bus to get his message rammed down his cell phone. He was driving me mental.
Ingar had already leaned past him to pass me a few welcome pods of orange (Laptop Lad later asked me if they were my parents), which prompted me to get out my remaining Keralan cashews to pass over. This reminded me of a story told to us by our guide in Mamallapuram. I have never seen cashews growing, but apparently they are unique in that the nut grows on the outside of the fruit, not inside (I have since confirmed this via google – how bizarre!). This is apparently because when Brahma was busy creating everything in the world, Shiva was pestering him to have a go too (Shiva's job ironically being that of Destroyer). When Brahma’s back was turned Shiva made his first and only attempt (the cashew tree) and completely botched it up. ‘When Brahma found out,’ said our guide, ‘he used a phrase you have in English, which is the moral of this story: “Mind your own business!”’
Further back in time, I wouldn’t mind guessing that this fable may also have been used to enforce the originally profession-based caste system where those at the top (such as the Brahmin caste of priests) wished to pass on the benefits to their descendents. Then the moral may have been more like ‘Stick to your own job, buddy.’
The scenery was definitely changing and we were passing a lot of logged timber. The largest I saw was chained to a truck and was about three feet in diameter. In amongst these tall trees I could see men shimmy-ing up bamboo poles to harvest pepper off the vines that had grown up some of these forest Leviathans.
Man! And what is it with the Indians’ obsession with the love song from Titanic? At least three people on this bus have it as their ring tone and every hopeful flute seller plays it for the tourists. I might be suffering from severe western music withdrawal, but enough!
The bus is still pretending to be a jackhammer and after two hours of this grinding inexorably upward my nerves are very frayed (as you probably gathered by the last comment). I pulled out my bottle of water and like a poor Parkinson’s sufferer I only managed to get the jiggling bottle to my lips by sheer force of will.
We are now passing by very neat white cement veneered houses with red tiled roofs – the scenery is really starting to reflect DM’s descriptions and I’m looking forward to finally seeing Madikeri. To my horror we met a tuk tuk driver preparing to descend the road from which we have just come. An amusing picture of a black-eyed Wiley Coyote deliriously pedalling his one remaining wheel accompanied by a swarm of stars, immediately came to mind.