On a budget, the destination never matters; it's who you go with.
I was done with my final exams on the 18th, had to reach Kolkata, from Delhi, on the 20th and then leave for a much-needed holiday to Varkala on the 21st. Or well, that was the plan.
Romit, who I have rechristened “Party Papa”, was entrusted with the task of booking, planning and detailing, and as always, we had implicit faith in his organizational skills (so far as it was organizing something fun).
On the 20th, in the morning, I walked into his bedroom. It was an all too familiar scene – drunks sprawled across the room in a state of blissful delinquency. I could not believe their nonchalance because our tickets had not been confirmed, not even RAC!
The hills are alive with the sound of shenanigans
We were off to a terrible start. Our tickets to Varkala didn't get confirmed. We had always wanted to go to Kodi, and the places around it, and so a makeshift travel plan was hatched. After five days, a lot of money spent, many trains and many cars changed, we finally reached Kodaikanal! And it wasn’t even one of our destinations, it was a pit stop.
You know how the saying goes ‘two’s company, three’s crowd? We were FIVE. Two frequently bickering couples and an extremely patient Ronit (Not Romit, we had a Romit and a Ronit on this trip). Poor guy. I think he drank as much as he did only so he could bear with us.
We reached Kodi at 4 p.m. and were leaving for Vattakanal – a smaller and more isolated town roughly 45 minutes away – the next day.
It was season time and most places were fully booked. After an intensely frantic room hunting session, we found ourselves in one shitty room with two disgusting beds and, horrible as it was, it was all we could manage. We settled. This left us with only a few hours to explore what we could of Kodi.
Pitstops and smiles en route to Kodi
As we made our way through the winding roads of this quaint little town, constantly tantalized by the mixed smells of homemade chocolate (and sometimes even natural soap), we left the zippers of our pullovers slightly undone as if to tell the hills, “we like you, you are chill, but not cold”.
It’s true that in Kodi we found none of the mountainous grandeur that is typical to a hill-station. It wasn't Himachal. No snow-capped peaks, no infinite horizons. The altitudes were mediocre, and so were the people. There were more honeymoon couples here than hipsters, but there was a warmth to the place that bound the five of us together in a kind of happy Christmas spirit.
We spent the entire evening taking long aimless strolls, while purchasing sweaters we barely used (but bought anyway because God, they were cheap – 100 bucks each). We stumbled upon this perfect little Tibetan joint where we gorged on beef chili and steamed buns. We then spent a helluva lot of cash on drinks at the swanky Carlton hotel just so we could forget the shithole we were staying in, and stared into the lights glistening off the calm water of Kodi Lake.
Brunch at Café Cloud Street
The next day, after a hearty meal at Café Cloud Street and gathering “supplies” as Romit put it, we booked a car, and in 40 minutes we had already reached Vattakanal.
We were just about prepping ourselves for another exasperating hotel hunt when we found the perfect suite at Kodai Heaven where we spent the next 2 days.
Our beers were always cold, our rooms were gigantic with a wonderful, large verandah up front. The view was amazing; Vatta kept reminding me of Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree collection, as I looked down on the meadows that disappeared into unexplored woods. We stayed in most of the time, but every now and then we would leave the comfort of our makeshift home and wander into town, almost always stopping for tea at Altaf Café and pausing sometimes to wonder how jackasses like us got to be in such a beautiful place.
Kicking back at Vattakanal
And then Naina got chased by a bison. Scary as it was for her, it's probably the only story we'll be repeating over and over, whenever we meet, for the rest of our lives. The look on her face – priceless!
Our Vattakanal party came to a close, but we were more than thrilled because it was time for the next destination. En route, we made a pit stop at Kodi (again) for lunch and supplies. And off we went, this time in a jeep, severely cramped, down a painfully rocky road (more rocks, less road).
Forty minutes later the jeep came to a sudden halt with Romit squealing, “We are here!” All I could see was a trail, and some funny-looking men squatting nearby. Were we to hike down this narrow undulated road made out of old tires with our luggage to find our rooms?
Looking for nothing in particular at Karuna
Karuna Farms is a commune, completely cut off from civilization, sitting conspicuously in the lap of the stout hills of the Western Ghats. This detached slice of nature runs completely on solar/hydroelectric power. There are no shops or restaurants or bars or anything at all actually to tend to the regular consumerist heart. There is only a canteen which provides food made out of produce cultivated in the farm itself. So you either eat that or carry supplies from town and cook your own food.
Here, you wash your own clothes and make your own beds. The window is your TV screen and nature, your dance floor. For entertainment there are earthships, waterfalls, a yoga room and an entire landscape of fairly conquerable hills that you could trek or simply stare at.
It has covered itself in a shroud of untenable simplicity, with its simple folklore and even simpler logic of living. To add to our test, at the time we were there, it was understaffed (not taking away from the constant service of the sweetest caretaker, Prakash).
Learning to live with each other happily
For the next 3 days, we learnt what it is like to really live with each other, as opposed to around people. I saw Zico, who does not even know how to make tea, toast breads; and Romit, peel garlic cloves; and Ronit, do the dishes; and Naina, lazy Naina, do a variety of chores I would never expect from her. Our staple for the next few days had become a cleverly designed (by me) meal of pakodas, sandwiches and soup. I cooked our dinners in the room, by the light of a candle held by someone else peering over my cauldron (The one LED light in our room didn't really help).
Trying not to fall down a waterfall
As with all trips, things did go wrong. Naina fell terribly ill one day and we barely ventured out. We had disagreements, squabbles and fights over everything from religion to sandwiches. Somebody lost a shoe, somebody almost died slipping over moss and one fateful night a frog entered our room creating a lot of havoc. But all of this, all the issues, eventually and always, dissipated.
Finding the perfect spot at Shashi Top House
A day before leaving, we hiked up to Shashi Top House, one of the highest points at Karuna. Sitting there, on the slope leading to the entrance, we could see the clouds approaching us from the other side of the hills. Ronit was smoking a cigarette, Romit was contemplating taking a puff from a joint, Naina was smiling like a foolish little child, and I was resting my head on Zico’s shoulder. Taking the beauty and the quiet of the hills in, we agreed, all the quarrels, all the over-spending, all the rubbish on the trip was worth it – for this one moment of togetherness.
We realised, staying at Karuna, with limited resources, all we really had was the eerie silence of isolation by day, the drone of crickets at night and... each other…
1. Buy home-made chocolates and natural soaps from Bazaar Road.
2. Book a tandem bicycle and cycle around Kodi lake. They come at 20/hr, 50/hr and 100/hr.
3. Eat at Cafe Cloud Street (wood oven pizza a MUST) and Tibetan Brothers
4. For Karuna Farms book 2-3months ahead to get the best houses like Shashi Big and Shiuli House.
5. Carry mosquito and other insect repellents, torches, lights, batteries.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Suman Quazi
Photographs by Nayoneka and Romit