Travel creates memories, and sitting home in this lockdown all we can do is revisit the memories. Over the last 10 plus years, I realised we have covered more than 100,000 kms, road tripping across North and South India. A whole lot of it was related to work, where we decided it best to drive, to add some pleasure to the work.
We have road tripped from Mumbai all the way to Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh in the North. In the South we have driven as far away as Point Calimere, in Tamil Nadu. If the call and guilt of work back home wasn’t there, maybe we would have driven further.
Road tripping is one of the best ways to experience the land, the changing landscape, food, culture, weather… while flying may get you there faster (and sometimes cheaper), it just doesn’t let you experience what’s on the ground. It doesn’t let you soak in local tastes, languages, people, smaller towns…
India is a vast country, and when you take into account the diverse cultures every few hundred kilometers, it becomes even bigger. The best way to experience this is through road trips.
We started with shorter day drives around Mumbai. There are plenty of popular destinations like Igatpuri, or the Ghats of Lonavala. We started venturing further out to Mahabaleshwar, Satara and Nashik. Each place has its own unique food, flavour, weather, and very different landscapes.
On a monsoon trip somewhere in rural Maharashtra. we came across this huge grove of Banyan trees. There was something eerie about an ‘orchard’ of really old banyans, their roots cascading down to the ground. We took a narrow road amidst them to discover a colonial era bungalow. Walking around it, we found no one there, but it did look lived in. It smelt of an old house, which is not cleaned very often. Then a ferocious dog came barking and we left.
Then we started driving slightly further away to Goa. The first time we drove two Goa, we took the Old Goa Highway, now named NH66 (It was then called NH17). Although a beautiful route, it has been a single lane highway, forever under construction, and has one of the highest accident rates in the country. So we started taking an alternate route, the Bangalore Highway. The route is longer, but safer, and a four lane all the way. A lounger route meant we had to stay over somewhere for one night, so we started looking at Belgaum as a stopover town. And what a pleasant surprise. We would have never visited Belgaum, had it not been for our love of Road Tripping. Belgaum is a tiny town with a rich history, great food and mild weather. Once on a drive back from Goa we decided to stay at Kolhapur instead of Belgaum. Though we didn’t stay in the city, the place we chose was on a small hillock affording great views and breeze, and we had the best Kolhapuri Mutton Thali ever. The joys of road tripping.
In our numerous drives to Rajasthan, we explored Udaipur and Mount Abu in more details. We went into smaller towns like Viraatnagar and Sawai Madhopur. We explored the narrow lanes of Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. We have road tripped some 6600 km into Rajasthan, yet a lot of it remains unseen for us. It has been a dream to visit the Desert National Park. And the havelis of Bikaner.
In Gujarat we missed out on the Rann of Kutch because of peak season bookings. But we did visit Velavadar National Park and Sasan Gir. We discovered Jambughoda on this same trip, a quaint little town not far from UNESCO World Heritage Site of Champaner Pavagad. And it was because of road tripping that we could also include Wadwana Bird Sanctuary.
But sometimes road trips can also give you the fright of your life! In a Gujarat trip, we were driving through a small town and we lost data network. It was getting dark, and we didn’t know the route. Our Google Map app stopped working because there was no internet. We tried asking the locals but couldn’t understand their language, and they didn’t seem very welcoming either. It was a mostly old dilapidated almost deserted kind of town. By now it was dark. While we were fumbling with directions, someone knocked on our window. I only slightly opened the glass to hear him. He was with the truck ahead of us and asked where we wanted to go. We were going to Jambughoda, and he said there is a highway ahead which will straight take us there. He asked us to follow him to the highway. Though hesitant, we didn’t have much choice, so we followed him from a safe distance with all our car doors locked. Thankfully the trucker was nice and helpful, and we found the highway, and also our network. I learnt that day I should always have offline maps with me on road trips.
On another note, while driving to Kochi for the Biennale, we experienced very heavy traffic on the main highway. Somehow the roads were full of vehicles and people shopping km after km, and coupled with the heat of December Kerala, it was getting to us. Meanwhile a friend was sending us pictures from Coonoor, of gorgeous crisp weather, the hills, and mist. We were so tempted, we decided to change our plans, give Kochi a miss and head over to Coonoor. That night we stopped at the town of Kannur in North Kerala. Luckily we found a fabulous homestay, in a 100 year old house. The owners treated us to some delicious home food for dinner. Not wanting to get stuck back on a busy highway, I asked my hosts if there was a non-big-highway route to Coonoor. I told them I wanted to avoid traffic and towns. Luckily he marked us a fabulous route from Kannur to Coonoor, through forests, hills and plantations, village by village. It turned out to be the most amazing road route we have driven in India. We even sighted the Lion Tailed Macaque and Emerald Pigeon, both not easily spotted, on this route.
On our many trips to South of India, I realised over a period of time, it was getting increasingly difficult to get Filter Coffee. Most highway side eateries/tapris were selling instant coffee. This was deeply disturbing. How the push towards modernity erodes local cultures. Speaking of which, once we had a stopover in Udupi town. Since it was our first time there (and we were here only for the night), we asked a friend who originates from the town to recommend a nice place to eat. He asked his father who called us and highly recommended a place. We reached there, excitedly thinking of trying the local cuisine, only to discover the place served mutton kolhapuri and butter chicken. Damn.
One day, after an especially long drive, further delayed by being stuck in a tiny town on a local festival night, we managed to reach Mt Abu very late. As I was removing luggage from the car, I realised I accidentally locked my key inside. Not carrying a spare, it was a stressful night. Luckily we had removed our bags so we had clothes and necessities, but this meant we couldn’t leave until the keys were made accessible. The kind hosts and their friends tried and suggested various ideas to retrieve the keys from the car. Someone tried using air pressure to unlock the door. Someone suggested the old trick of sliding a ruler down the window glass (it doesn’t work on modern cars). Fearing further issues, I had to ask everyone to halt. I called the manufacturer’s support number. Confident, since I pay for annual Road Side Assistance, I was hoping they would send a car with a master key or such. The person on the 24X7 service call first asked me all kinds of personal details, which I answered with diminishing patience levels. Finally he asked what the problem was. After a pause, he said he had the right solution for me. The solution was, I should look for a sharp rock and break the window to extract the key. Seriously. I decided to never again pay for Road Side Assistance.
However, years of working in films has made us good at solving problems. I remembered my father in law has my home keys and my house has the car spare ones. I called a junior colleague and co-ordinated through the night (over very poor phone networks) so he could go my house early morning with my father-in-law, who would find the key, hand to this young gentleman, who would take the first available train to Mt Abu with the key. In return, I would pay for his small holiday in Rajasthan. He was more than thrilled. The next night, he was there with the key. Far more workable solution than the ‘professional’ road side assistance I have been wasting my money on.
In the north, we drove till Kaza in Spiti Valley. Since winter was approaching we took the route from Kinnaur. The road through Sumdoh, Tabo was in terrible shape, but it made the journey that much more pleasurable. We had reached Nako very late in the night, an unscheduled halt, since like inexperienced mountain drivers we were hoping to have covered more distance on that day. The tourist ‘season’ was over, all hotels were shut and we weren’t getting any place to stay. And it was biting cold outside. Finally we manage to find one basement, where 5 of us shared one bed and one couch. But then the roads would also get divinely pretty and make it all worth the while.
Over these tens of thousands of kilometres driven, we realised roads are generally fine everywhere. They lead everywhere we want to go. There are alternate routes as well. It is only in two incidents that I remember very bad roads. While there are improvements definitely possible, what is perhaps lacking is schools and hospitals. I feel we need more of them. Once working on a film for a charity hospital in remote Rajasthan we learnt some patients come from as far away as 80km. I think no one should have to travel 80km for healthcare.
Then only thing I have missed is time. There are so many places we want to visit. So many smaller towns we want to spend a couple of days in. So many small projects we want to take on, not for the money but for the cause. But however many highways one can build, however much one can accomplish, one will always have only limited time. We have to use it wisely. Without anxiety.