The following post is something I intended to blog about somewhere around February. Apologies about the delay.
CHAPTER 0:‘GOOD MORNING, SUNSHINE!’- MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!
It was 6:07 am. We reached the peak, exhausted, but mustered enough energy to hoot and give out cries of joy and achievement. Exhilaration was the strongest of what I felt. I was sleep deprived and it all seemed like a dream to me. Why wouldn’t it? The location was dreamlike. We were surrounded by smaller mountains and hills, the sky seemed endless because of the clouds, the stratocumulus, waiting to be blown away by strong wind. The air smelt moist, filled with the sweet smell of the fresh dew drops on blades of grass. There was barely and flower- producing vegetation up there, at 1501 mts. All I could hear was the wind whooshing, the early cries of the thrushes, cuckoos and a few other cries my bird brain couldn’t identify. Another thing I could identify, however, was my stomach growling, which occurs more often than it should.
I found a nice depression on the huge boulder that was the highest around the almost- flat peak and settled there. It felt like sitting on top of the world (Yes, I know 1501mts is nothing) I was shivering and the only thought in my head wasn’t mine. It was a poem by Lord Byron
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more…
These lines were ringing in my head. I was 20 kms away from the sea, sitting as high as I could on the highest in the Eastern Ghats, Mahendragiri. While the others were busy clicking, I wrote down a few lines in my small pocket book (Nerdy, I know!) Finally, when we were all at peace, waiting for the sun to rise and starving, we munched on some biscuits I was carrying and that controlled the growling from my stomach. A few clicks here this way and there that way. The only thing visible in the sky was bright, bright Venus and of course, the moon, at the centre of the blue sky that was split into two by a thick orange that encircled us. Below that, twilight.
At precisely 6:14 am, beyond the clouds, towards the sea (Which I couldn’t see/ differentiate from the infinite blue canvas above me) there was the bright, orange sun. Alright, alright! No more silly descriptions of the sun. You know what the sun looks like from your rooftop when it’s just about to rise, don’t you? Well, it looked like that. Only Bigger, more orange. Also, replace the background of the concrete jungle with a real jungle. With valleys and mountains you usually see on wallpapers. That was it. Surprisingly, it rose pretty quickly. Within seconds we were bathed in beautiful golden light. It was divine. As if we all attained enlightenment. Like it happens in the movies. Only the phony background music was missing. (Those high pitched allegros of female opera singers “Oooooooo”. Actually, it’s somewhere between an “ooo” and “aaa”) Absolute silence. With respect to human voices, that is. The sun looked godly. Then, there came a Surya Namaskaara, straight from the heart. I didn’t know how to do it. Arun showed me and we did it together. It was almost at 45 degrees from the horizon, faster than I expected. Yes, I did expect it to rise slowly. I knew there wouldn’t be a background score, though. Movies are so misleading, aren’t they? It was over, within minutes. I went around the small (not more than 5X4 feet), but beautifully built temple. It had just two openings-One narrow, towards the east, from where one could see a lingam and a narrower one opposite it, to the west. The placing of the shafts couldn’t be more appropriate. As the sun rose, the beams cut through the eastern opening and the lingam looked like it was under a spotlight. Awe-inspiring! It perfectly complemented the structure’s simple, yet complete architecture. I thought it looked like a Howard Roark design. I know you’re leaving your chair to spank me right now, but the first time I set my eyes upon the gopuram, I was reminded of Ayn Rand’s description of Roark’s bold, simple strokes. Only that they were cut in stone. The first look might suggest that it looks incomplete, because it lacks any intricate carvings of other goddesses and gods. But as one wonders what contributes to its complete, imposing look, one look around it will suffice. (Strictly for less- perspicacious beings like me only) I think that’s why we’re asked to circumambulate temples. To see the structure, admire it. The flawless, complete geometry of the place will, however strike only at sunrise, I think.
The sun, it seemed, became overtly affectionate and it grew hot, so, now that our mission was accomplished, our descent began. Yes, our mission was to watch the sun rise from the highest point in the Eastern Ghats (I know this is getting a little too much, but I love bragging about it.) and we had trekked about 38 kms, starved ourselves of food, deprived ourselves of water (more on this one, later) for those moments. But you know what, it was totally worth it. Period.
CHAPTER 1: “YOU’LL DIE, YOU’LL DIE!”
I was about to have my ‘breakfast’ while watching ‘Eureka’ when Arun called me. “Hey! There’s another girl, Meghana joining us. You can still come. We leave by the Falaknuma at 4” That was it. I had a small little debate in my small little brain and decided I will move the proposal of going for the trek that afternoon up the hierarchy, to my parents. My Dad agreed, no issues (He’s the best!) My mom didn’t. There was an argument and I was allowed to go, thanks to Dad’s veto power usage (Thanks, Dad!) I packed my backpack in record time, nearly about 5 mins. I had a checklist ready so that I didn’t miss out on anything and face a 127-hours-ish situation (Hell, yeah! My imagination is wild!). Dad hurriedly dropped me at Secunderabad station and I was the first to reach there. The train was to leave in half an hour and I made a few calls explaining I wouldn’t be there for the next 3 days.Then, I met Meghana, who managed to get a leave in the last moment because she’d be having ‘fever’ for the next 3 days. Here’s a ‘Thank you!’ for her sweet manager. Managers like her/him are difficult to find. So are people like Meghana herself, who’d later go on to earn the coveted title of ‘Miss Mandasa’.
Our co-passengers were a group of 4 uncles, all hailing from Srikakulam district, evident from their smirks as they were listening to our conversations. (The typical ‘Oh, you Hyderabadi brats!’ look) Sharing some chikki I brought eased some tension. Oh yes! I left my breakfast where it was (to be yelled at, by my mother, later) and Arun, fortunately brought lots of fruit salad and I finished one pack in no time. Time for another snack. Time progressed and sometime later that evening, one of the uncles asked me what exactly we were going there for. “That’s a naxal infested area and there are frequent combing operations there.” Soon, all of them joined him in voicing their concern for us. In case you haven’t read between the lines, all they were implying was that certain death awaited us by:
a. The police mistaking us for naxalites and gunning us down during a combing operation. Or,
b. The naxals holding us hostage, etc.,
And I thought I was the one with a wild imagination.
But their statements were partly true. There had been combing operations in the past and this place was situated on the Andhra-Orissa border, notorious for naxal- activity. We were however, proceeding with the permission of the local police.
One of them, our ‘well-wishers’ as they liked to put it (No pun intended) asked us where we’d be staying in the night, after the trek uphill. Upon replying coolly in the temple up there, they seemed more frantic and determined to convince us to not do so. Because combing operations occurred “during that time only”. Okay, we faced certain death. One of them gave me his phone number asking me to call him in case of trouble. Thank you, Sir.
Guntur passed. Lots of footboarding happened. It was nice and windy and the moon did look beautiful up there, against the Krishna River. We decided to settle on the footboard. The engine driver seemed to be a really nice, fun-loving guy or it was probably something to do with the signaling stuff, but the train moved at less than 10kmph on the bridge across the Krishna. Yes, you guessed it. We sat there, attempting to touch the bridge, succeeding, of course. But what could be better than your legs dangling down in free space while below you, for about a few hundred feet there is nothingness before it hits the water? That was indescribable! There was a nice soft breeze and the water looked like a vast expanse of black oil with patches of white here and there, the reflections of the lights on the train and the brightest patch, which was on the other side, behind us, the moon.
Normally, we’d clamor to sit there, on the first step, like little children waiting to sit on a merry-go-round, but that didn’t happen. Praveen and Bhargav stood behind us, appreciating what was before us, while Arun went to the adjacent compartment, facing the east, reliving his memories of Vijayawada. Meghana and I joined him later. He explained animatedly about the place, about whatever one explains about one’s hometown in a span of five minutes before the topic changes and the place is far behind. So it was almost dinnertime and Bhargav, who has a rather interesting choice of diet had ice-creams for dinner and bought is the same. I quickly bought some PalaKhova and buttermilk too. I had already eaten too much and I saved that stuff for breakfast-on-berth next morning.
I don’t remember when I fell asleep or when others fell asleep, but I remember waking up at 3:30 am. The train was stationary and I could smell fresh chutney and sambar in the air. I was on the topmost berth and with a quick peek below, I found myself staring at Praveen’s head bent over a piece of newspaper with about 5 idlies on it. I didn’t bother counting the exact number, for I was distracted by Bhargav and Arun who noticed that I woke up upon the mere mention of food and laughed to themselves. Strangely, I wasn’t hungry, so I rejected the idea of having a 3 am snack and went back to sleep.
The next morning, by the time I was up, the uncles were gone and everyone was up, doing what usually one does in a train- moving up and down, chatting about everything and nothing. I quickly brushed my teeth because I was hungry and ate the ice-cream, which wasn’t very good (I know ‘bad ice-cream ’ can’t possibly exist on the face of the earth, but there it was, from Vijayawada- bad butterscotch ice-cream) followed by some curd rice and butter milk I shared with Praveen, who shares my love for food. I went back to sleep after that. Yes, all I did was eat and sleep.
Anyways, there it was- Palasa, our stop. We got off to be welcomed by some nice hot idlies with delicious sambar and chutney right outside the station. We walked through the market lanes to reach the bus station to proceed to Mandasa. Arun thought it was best to carry some bread and jam for lunch and dinner on our trek and I still can’t figure out what took them so long at the bakery. Meghana and I walked back from the bus stand. With each of us having our own loaf of bread and jam, Praveen with an extra pack of rusk, we moved to the bus stand to wait for a bus to Mandasa. We had nothing to do until our bus arrived. Checking our weights would be a good idea and we did just that. To see how much weight we’d lose on the trek. As if it really mattered to any of us.
CHAPTER 2: WALKING THE LONELY ROAD
The bus finally came at about 7:40 and before we could realize it, all the seats, but the last row were taken. To our right was the huge spare tyre for the bus on which our backpacks went. Arun asked the bus conductor to let us know when Mandasa came and he replied with a great amount of certainity that it would come at 9 am, exactly. The bus ride was fun. The conductor didn’t seem to like the idea of me footboarding and reprimanded me once. I decided to sit there, which wasn’t exactly convenient because people kept coming in and going out, but it was pretty cool. The passengers were the usual student junta, women with baskets and occasionally a farmer. When it got too crowded, I went back to my place, between Meghana and Arun.
The bus ride was everything but uninteresting. Directly in front of us, was this young man, the playboy of the village, perhaps, flirting with every girl that got into the bus. He was wearing the usual stuff you’d see young men heavily influenced by their favorite ‘hero’ of ‘Tollywood’. But what was most striking about him was his manicured hands with nails so well shaped that it would put my fashion-conscious neighbor to shame. Oh, they were painted pink. The dark ‘rani’ pink. Probably the colour of the season in the village because that guy wore it and created waves in the fashion world or something. What struck me was he was flaunting it so proudly. And the girls seemed to dig that. Girls dig confidence, yes. But confident about wearing pink paint? This guy took it to a whole new level! Anyways, as the bus got more crowded, a lot of people obstructed my view of the guy wearing pink nail paint and that, thankfully, helped me think about other problems the world had. The background music wasn’t obstructed though. The other ‘in-thing’, apparently was his mobile with some gross music from a Telugu movie that released circa 7 years ago. I must admit, however, that his mobile’s speakers were better than mine. Jealousy. There was a friendly vegetable- woman who wore her hair in a neat bun. She spoke politely and also helped us with a curios old lady who could speak nothing but Oriya. The old lady started getting a little too curious, because she seemed to ask me too much and I replied with a smile and nod for everything. I was a little interested by the way the vegetable woman wore her bun and asked her if she could demonstrate the same on me. I have long hair. Longer than it should be, actually.
Soon the demo became ‘PalleVelugu’’s passengers’ entertainment and not to mention that it was being captured on video on Arun’s camera. She tried and complained about it being a tad too long and that she did her best. It was pretty decent, actually. But it did come off loose in a while. So amidst all this ‘excitement’ of getting a new hairstyle, the bus stopped just outside Mandasa and went to the Bus stop, where we got off. Exactly at 9 am. We hopped off the bus and went around talking to the locals about reaching Mahendragiri. The locals seemed to think we were a little crazy.
We had originally planned to hike our way there. And, hiking we did. We ignored the locals when they suggested we take the bus to Singupuram, which was pretty close to our destination and started walking. After about 5 mins, we reached the outskirts of Mandasa, where the bus had first stopped. Celebrations were on for some reason and the road leading to the Vishweshwara temple Mandasa was famous for was lined with the usual poles supporting the serial lights, leading to a huge tent pitched right outside the temple. When I first saw the temple, I thought it was pretty new. Built with concrete and painted some shade between light red ad peach. Arun argued otherwise. He couldn’t be more right. It was a beautiful old temple with superb detailing in stone and I have no idea about its details whatsoever. I wondered, however why it wasn’t famous. There were signs of it being restored pretty recently, thankfully and the pulihora served as the prasadam was delicious. Like it usually is in temples.
It was around 9:40 and we resumed hiking our way to Mahendragiri. We passed a lady with an interesting Vietnamese-style hat. I turned down Arun’s suggestion of exchanging my cap with her. I regret it now. We stopped by this shed where a guy was sorting out sugarcane, each easily about 7 feet in length. The boys were keen on having one each. Cutting them into half would ensure easy carriage throughout the hike. Meghana and I weren’t sure about having the whole thing because I hardly ate a sugarcane directly before. It was all cut into small easy little chewable pieces and neatly packaged and handed to me. Meghana and I decided to give it a try and took a half each. He charged 20 bucks per cane. That made it 80. It was pretty costly, according to Arun. Almost the same as it would cost in Hyderabad.
The hike was in one word- AWESOME! It was hiking in dreamland. The warm sun on my skin, soft breeze in my hair when we encountered the open fields, the birds chirping, the sweet smell of the sugarcane and the occasional mango tree, the sound of mini trucks whizzing past us and most importantly the sweet juicy sugarcane in my mouth. Bhargav and Arun kept giving me ‘tips to effective ganna consumption’ and I thoroughly savored every second of it. Absolute joy. We passed by a few sleepy villages. The usual village stuff- Children playing alongside and in a pond, the loudspeaker outside small shrines/ temples blaring some devotional songs, women outside their huts invariably doing the same activity- chatting or combing/oiling their hair or both. Women programmed to do just that. Oh, and stare at us as I walked by staring at them. A new topic to chat about. The hike on the ‘main road’ (which was 10 feet wide) was over and we turned right. From Paradise# 1 to Paradise #2
This one was quite different from the previous one in ways more than one. This was more of a boulevard, lined with tall bamboo that could easily trick you into believing you weren’t in South India anymore. There were hardly any automobiles. Just people carrying freshly cut bamboo and asking us questions. And my favorite means of transport- the bicycle. It felt cooler on this road. There was a board right at the beginning of the road showing the stats of the cost, name of the contractor, length and stuff. Pretty neatly laid it was and despite being a year and a half old, it had absolutely no potholes. It was evenly carpeted and banked at the right places, unlike the roads back here in Hyderabad. Perfect for a ride.
We took our first break beside an anthill. I went a little deeper hoping for some change in vegetation and encountering something interesting. I was in for some disappointment, though. 10 yards- Bamboo, 30 yards- more bamboo. “Okay, I’m going back”. That was boring. Just the crunchy sound of dry bamboo under my shoes. Nothing interesting. By now, chewing sugarcane had become a voluntary action and my body seemed to accept it with great pleasure.
There wasn’t a change in landscape except for a few turns and curves the road took and led us to places that looked exactly the same. It was like being in a video game. One anthill every 50mts, one turn every 1/4th km, people carrying bamboo and grinning at us at regular intervals. Only that it wasn’t monotonous.
CHAPTER 3: CEREBRAL MALARIA AND THE HOT SUN
We passed by a village whose name was funny sounding. It started with a ‘B’ and it sounded something like Bamboo. After passing through so much of it, all that was on my mind was bamboo. Never mind! So here I was, almost reached the end of my sugarcane. The boys gave up theirs long ago and Meghana almost finished hers too, but took a break. I was walking alongside Arun and we saw a man bathing by a handpump. The same thought passed our minds and we enthusiastically ran towards it to wash up a little and drink some water, hoping to save the 2 lts each of us were carrying. We lagged behind and caught up with the others who waited beside a school, which was actually one big empty room, with the ‘National Literacy Mission’ logo and painting in yellow. The wording was in Telugu and the paint was peeling off in a lot of places. It was empty because all the kids were playing some weird game outside, under a huge tree. The game looked like a cross between ‘catching’ and I don’t know what. But they’d scream occasionally and also give us stares, coupled with shy grins when I smiled back.
So Meghana told me about this well that wasn’t far off that had real sweet water. Megh and I went there. There were friendly women around the well who gave us water, talked to us. The water was refreshingly sweet and cool. We found the boys sitting on the step of another government structure (Another room, really) laughing about something. I found a tamarind. Kinda small, really. But we shared even that and it was nice to experience a change in flavor-From the light, sweet flavor of the sugarcane to the strong, tangy and seldom sweet tamarind. Arun plucked off some mango inflorescence off a tree. The mild sweet smell was uplifting. It didn’t taste very bad too. Especially when coupled with the flavor of the tamarind.
By now, the BT road gave way to a muddy, irregular road, typical ones you see between fields. Roads that are dry and hard in the summer and feel like a roller coaster ride when on an automobile. Actually, they’d probably give you the feel of those small horses in malls and fairs kids ride, the ones that rock when fed a coin. And in the monsoon, they’d probably fill up with mini pools of considerable size providing a breeding haven for mosquito youngs and tadpoles. But we were on foot and it was dry. So, it didn’t matter.
Here we were, breaking into songs. I was a bathroom singer, I warned. Meghana and Arun sang pretty well. We didn’t know the song the other was singing, funnily. Not more than a line or two. So, we played ‘cut antakshari’ and went on to take a break under a huge mango tree, with a huge anthill under it. My love for climbing trees took me up the tree and earned me a couple of bites from huge red ants. The first step was easy and then I couldn’t find any grips. Arun kept hinting and helping me. Meghana gave me some verbal motivation and I finally got on to find that there was a flat space, where the branches converged, that was large enough to set 3 people. I chose to climb another branch only to find I was proceeding in a direction where there wasn’t any support under the branch. Direct drop to the anthill and a little further, to the ground. Arun reminded me there wasn’t a 108 service available so I had to retreat. The descent was unconventional. I never climbed down a tree from a branch. I went to the opposite end of the tree and jumped off a branch, fighting off many ants and weird insects in the process.
The singing continued and we reached a village, easily the sleepiest during our hike. It looked like ghost town save a shop where there were about 6 people. There was a handpump and Arun drank some water from it and filled a bottle he had emptied on the way there. We bought a few things we missed out, like Chilli powder, which, according to Arun was best to ward off wild animals we may encounter during our trek through the jungle. I thought carrying some pickle would be a good idea- a change of flavor since all the food we were carrying was sweet. So in went the little sachets of tomato-garlic pickle. Arun, Praveen and I were doing the buying while Meghana and Bhargav, who were slightly ahead of us were talking to a guy on a luna with a couple of heavy bags hung on the sides. He was lean, wore a red cap and grinned easily. I didn’t like the man. He was talking about something and Meghana and Bhargav didn’t look happy. Five steps away from them and Meghana started telling that the man cautioned us about not consuming the ground water from that village and the surrounding villages; one would surely be affected with Cerebral Malaria. “Hunnnndred percent chance,” he said.
We looked at each other and almost simultaneously, they emptied their bottles and looked at Arun, who consumed the ground water at two villages. Anyways, we decided to finish the trek and vaccinate ourselves later. We then reached a junction, the border between Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. There was a yellow concrete sign with some stuff in Oriya. We obviously clicked pictures there. With one leg in Orissa and another in AP and all. There was a small group of men on a tractor we had earlier come across, where the boys stopped to chat. Meghana and I gorged on the small little bananas bought at the shop earlier. They weren’t very sweet, but filling and they were that Kepok variety or something. So Meghana and I continued to chat and kept walking where we came to the village of Singupuram. The last village we’d come across on our trek. And behind us came a jeep, driven by a maniac who kept honking, disturbing the all the peace and quiet. Following that, the 1 pm ‘PalleVelugu’ from Mandasa. The one we refused to take.
We moved on into a wide expanse of lush green paddy. It was breath takingly beautiful! We reached a considerable distance where we came across two men grouping the paddy crop together. I asked one of them if we were on the right route to Mahendragiri. He showed a path that led to the end of the field, apparently and onto the trail to Mahendragiri. We happily continued and we heard someone calling out my name. Bhargav was far behind, where the vast expanse of fields began. He was signalling frantically, asking us to turn around and come back. We were in the wrong direction. That was it. Meghana and me were sure it was the right direction, the farmers knew better, didn’t they? We carried on a conversation for about two minutes by waving our hands wildly and yelling at each other, but couldn’t hear any of what the other said. We would meet at the midpoint, like we were duelling. Bhargav then told us that we were on the right route, but we weren’t going to take it. There was another route from Orissa, that was on a proper road, instead of the fields, which would make it easier for us to stick to the right route. “Getting lost is easy through this one. Besides, it’ll just take us half an hour more,” said he. Groan! Not again! We had to walk back all the way to that junction. We somehow did it and crossed a bridge that was across nothing. I mean, one would expect it to be across a water body, at least a dry one with wild weeds. But this wasn’t. As if it stood there symbolically to indicate the border across AP and Orissa. That 30 feet bridge would probably be the last stretch of concrete we’d be walking on. Not that we were walking on concrete/ BT paths since that noon, but, the change from those hard, uneven, pebble studded path that your feet gets used to after walking for hours, to a smooth, even cement road, (though for 30 feet) was a relaxing in a way. Back to hiking on earth’s little craters.
CHAPTER 4: THE HITCHIKERS GUIDE TO MAHENDRAGIRI
Tired feet, hot weather, hunger and thirst. There were more than a few inclined paths. Just considerable inclination, actually or perhaps the above four factors made it seem so. There were groups of villagers walking in the opposite direction, talking in Oriya. Asking us if we needed a guide, we figured. Who needs a guide? Hahaha! No, thank you. The path was interestingly twisted, full of turns, lined with those really dry weeds and hedges, sharp rock formations, which were really beautiful, fyi.
Now, we needed some support. A hiking- danda. So we rip off some branches of the vegetation around. Dry and dead, mind you. Meghana’s and mine were the closest to still being small trees. With small, sharp branches protruding out and all. They were really sharp and pretty dangerous. Okay, scratch the pretty. They were really sharp and dangerous. Our first
That is all I wrote back then. Something came up and I couldn’t continue writing. And later when I found the time to write, I kept putting it off and was affected by a nice long bout of Writer’s block. Now that I’m trying to overcome it, I’m being optimistic about posting crap regularly. And, oh, I don’t remember the details of the trek very clearly now. I will have to sit with my co-trekkers to get it right. So, this stands unfinished at the moment.