Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Mumbai - Goa motorcycle trip - Part II

After receiving several death threats for not posting the complete account, here is the rest of the installment of the trip and also some photographs

Day 4: Back on the road to Goa

With a reluctant heart (and a still slightly sore bottom) we set out the next day to resume our journey to Goa – reluctant coz we knew that the beaches in Goa would never compare with the one we were leaving behind at Ganapatipule! But the love of biking lured us on. And soon we were happily threading our way back on to NH17 and onwards through the long, lovely, lonely stretches of the last few ghats between Mumbai and Goa.

The ghats after Ganapatipule are nothing spectacular, though the quality of the road appeared to have deteriorated. Watch out however, for numerous little villages that dot the length of the highway where the locals have right of way. But for Gudugu’s trusty brakes (believe me they are good, the front disc brake holds the road in an instantaneous vice like grip), we would have run over the ankle of a village woman who decided to leap in our way from behind a stationary bus. Quick nerves and a quick getaway avoided what would surely have been a small fight.

This stretch marked a personal milestone – crossing the 1,000 km mark on our new bike – an exhilarating moment. Apart from a rattling noise that sounds more like a helicopter taking off and incorrect ignition timing that turns the exhaust pipe blue, the bike’s been handling like a darling, averaging more than 35 kms to the litre. Two days rest (relatively!) and the experience of the 380 kms stretch behind us meant a not so stiff back and a not so sore bottom. The solitude of the unwinding highway with rolling green fields on either side and the rhythmic thumping of the 350 cc engine is a different matter altogether. After briefly considering taking up an alternative career as a motorcycle tour operator and discarding the idea as quickly, we reached Sawantwadi…

With the customary stops for food and rest, we reached Sawantwadi by 4’ish in the evening. A small town, Sawantwadi is known for the Wadi (or Palace) of the Sawant Bhonsales, where the last living Rani of the Bhonsale dynasty still resides. As we walked into the gates of the palace, we ran into who else but Her Highness Rajmata Satvashiladevi sipping tea with her son in the palace garden. Our ardent hope of enjoying a hot cuppa tea and 2 minutes of fame with the royalty was, alas, dashed to the ground as we were led away to witness those parts of the palace that are open to public viewing. We later discovered that the garden tea was occasioned by power failure at the palace. Stuffy heat and lack of any power backup system drew the royalties out into the garden. The grandeur that these royal lawns would have once witnessed…

The palace is nothing phenomenal that can make your jaw hang in awe. Its just plain nice and simple, and a bit run down. I do hope the private residence of the Rajmata is in better shape! If nothing else, the palace is good for some nice shots with your camera and for picking up your own set of the Ganjifa cards. The game of Ganjifa cards, though now out of vogue, was once the game of the royals. Local artisans employed by the royal family are engaged all day long in putting brush to woodpulp and board for creating artifacts which, to me, seem quite exorbitantly priced! Thanks to the efforts of the royal family, the art lives on.

The palace overlooks the Moti Talao (a serene lake in the midst of the hustle-bustle of the town), which also provides you some good photo opportunities. Another Kamath is also handy for a quick bite before you rush off to complete the last 60 kms to your destination – Goa!

The lake itself offers some good photo opportunities – we took maiden photos of the bike with our luggage still strapped on here. The palace itself is a tad disappointing and its present condition, tragic. The walls of the palace however, are a treasure trove of old photographs, appropriately labeled – ranging from hunting expeditions of the erstwhile Sawant Bhonsale’s sister standing over a panther that she gunned down to the coronation ceremony of the last Sawant. We were totally bowled over by HH Hemalata Raje (the late Sawant Bhonsale’s sister) who as per an account, waited on a treetop with the customary goat bait to hunt down a panther / tiger. And hunt it down she did! There are several sepia toned photographs of her in khaki hunting fatigues, with a sure grip on a mean looking rifle!

Regarding the Kamath…be warned – though the Kamath here is well placed, at the edge of the lake, the fare is below average. The puri in the bhel was soggy and the pav in the pav bhaaji was not fresh.

The last stretch of Ghats just after exit from Sawantwadi is probably the shortest and the worst! So keep your eyes peeled to the road as it twists and turns and heaves and falls sharply. To make matters worse, there is enough loose gravel around the bends to make you feel you are riding on marbles! With this stretch behind you, the rest of the road is quite nondescript. And then, BANG! Suddenly, you’ll find yourself in the thick of mad traffic in Panaji!

A word of caution: the stretch of highway between Sawantwadi and Panaji is narrow and twisty, with several patches of peeling asphalt and little children running all over. The stretch just before you hit Panaji is the worst, filled with potholes galore.

We veered off the NH17 to head towards Calangute, and soon checked into Calangute Residency (a resort run by Goa Tourism Development Corporation) – our haven for the reminder of the days in Goa. Well, it wasn’t as easy as it sounds here! Without prior bookings and with no rooms available, we had to pull up a long and haggard face and give the manager the ‘we’ve-been-riding-all-the-way-from-Mumbai-&-could-drop-dead-any-minute’ story before he obliged! As expected, the resort was bang on the beach, very clean and well maintained, most definitely lacking in ambience, served decent food and was super economical (what with the monsoon discounts and all!).

The food at the hotel was a revelation! Whoever imagined that a Government run resort would cook up delightful and tasty stuff! The breakfast (served in your room!) was again splendid. While here, don’t forget to sample the puri and bhaji. Contrasted with the dry aloo bhaji that is staple with puris along Konkan Maharashtra, the Goan bhaji accompanying the puri, though with an aloo base, has a thin gravy and a hint of tang. The end result? Heavenly! A dash of besan and it would almost be the same delectable bhaji that Amma prepares. Also try out their aloo paratha: served with curd and pickle, the paratha is as good as you can get!

Day 5 and 6 – exploring Goa

A bright and sunny day, God in his heaven and all well with the world, a bike of your own and a loved partner – what more can one ask for! Off we went to explore the known and the unknown corners of Goa. Beaches, forts, churches, temples – you name it, we did it all! If you are less fortunate than us (as in you don’t posses a bike of your own) then you can rent one from virtually any shop in Goa. In respect of other aspects, arrhhmmm, we have no help to offer!

Any good travelogue worth its price will tell you the places to visit in Goa, so we’ll tell you the stuff you just shouldn’t miss! And at the top of that list is Old Goa – the churches here are just mind bogglingly spectacular! The beaches are of course great, but I still maintain they are nothing in comparison to Ganapatipule!

The first stop for the day was Fort Aguada. A former Portuguese bastion, this fort is devised in two storeys. The upper level, which is thronged by tourists has the customary bastions, turrets, watch towers, and even a defunct lighthouse. Walk along the fort walls for a view of the sea and Panaji in the distance. What caught my fancy though, was the lower level, which is a huge water reservoir. A good part of the upper level is supported on top of this underground reservoir by massive pillars. Barred ventilators on the ground give a sneak preview into the now in disuse massive reservoir that must have once been a harbinger of life to parched sailors arriving from the west. A short drive down the Fort Aguada leads to the Aguada Jail. Not surely a destination for someone visiting Goa on a holiday, but trust us to find the unlikeliest of places to visit! On reaching the gates of the jail (barred for entry, since this is no tourist spot!), we were pleasantly surprised to find another young couple on a hired Scooty looking for photo-opps. Apparently, we were not the only crazy people around!

Our next port of call after Fort Aguada were the famous beaches of Goa. Though no comparison to the serenity of the Ganapatipule beach or the calm white sands of Kashid, the golden sands of the Miramar beach were inviting for two souls worn in the bustle of the city. The sands were hot, but the beach was calm, with hardly any of the otherwise boisterous tourists around. After lounging on the beach for a while, we headed to the Dona Paula beach. What a contrast! Compared to the quite Miramar beach, Dona Paula was a riot of colour and babble of noise! Shacks selling the stipulation “I love Goa” tees to garishly engraved conch shells lined the beach. Transported back to Andheri station for a moment, we bolted right out of the cacophony and headed back to Miramar for a quick bite. Finding Miramar Residency – a GTDC run inn right on the beach, we ambled in wearily and placed our order. What followed was a gastronomical delight. We sampled the best vegetable biriyani ever: not too oily, not too spicy, and just the right amount of gravy and vegetables. And the frozen dessert that followed… delectable.

Throughout our trip, we placed great faith in the Outlook Traveller for tips on places to see and stay. And our faith was proved to be well placed till now. So, understandably, we were very excited to learn of a Brahma Temple in Goa. In recorded history, there is only one Temple of this elusive God, in Rajasthan. So a chance to visit another such temple led us on a wild goose chase all across Goa. And a wild goose chase it was in the end! After traversing the length and breadth of Goa, we finally located the temple and were rather surprised to find a Gomateshwara (Shiva) temple in its stead! But if communion with God is the motive with which you visit a temple, then you’ve certainly come to the right place! Declared as a protected site by the Archeological Survey of India, the place is totally isolated. Not a single soul around to distract you. All you can hear are the sounds of chirping birds and temple bells ringing (well, you’ll need to ring them yourselves!). You can have your tête-à-tête with God to your heart’s content.

The Brahma Temple was indeed a disappointment. Setting out on what almost seemed to be a wild goose chase that took us through the campus of the University of Goa, never ending winding village roads, we finally reached an obscure place – Brahmapuri - that sounded like the right place. Reaching the temple, which was closed at the time, we realized there was no way it could be a Brahma Temple. Not with a Nandi in the front of the temple and shivlings on the vimana of the sanctum. Disappointed, we turned towards Old Goa.

Old Goa is indeed a delight. The Basilica of Bom Jesus, where the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier are embalmed is an architectural delight. Constructed from basalt and laterite, the church with its richly carved pulpit, gilded altar and expansive ceilings transported us into a different era. Compulsive shutterbugs that we are, several rolls of film were exhausted in this one monument. Fading light forced us to turn back to Calangute and we left Old Goa and what was left to explore of it for the next day.

Returning to Calangute, we headed straight to the Calangute beach. We spent many hours chatting (yes!) on the beach and gazing at the stars, picking out the constellations. We even sighted the flicker of the Aguada lighthouse in the distance! What bliss, to be sitting on a beach unpolluted, gazing at the stars overhead with the roar of the crashing waves in the background! Never would such a feat be possible in Mumbai. I savored every moment of this peace…

We started the day heading off to the ruins of St. Augustine’s Tower in Old Goa. A stone’s throw away from the Basilica of Bom Jesus, this church certainly had seen better days. A crumbling bell tower, long collapsed ceiling, and were once vast prayer halls are all that are left of this once magnificent church. The Archaeological Survey of India has done much to clear the place of dense shrubbery that had overtaken the ruins. According to the ASI, the place was so once bad that the movie Gumnaam was shot here! St Augustine’s has lots of photo opportunities – archways, broad stairs, platforms, awnings and the like. Be careful when you step on the platforms or the stairs – rain fed alga makes them slippery to the touch.

A stone’s throw away from St. Augustine’s is the Museum of Christian Art. The well maintained Museum has many artifacts from over five centuries, including a manuscript (the handwriting was more beautiful than any printed document I have seen) setting out rules for girls joining the convent. After a quick look through the Museum, we headed to the “Gateway of Goa” located within the premises of the Church of St Cajetan. The Gateway turned out to be nothing more than a stone doorframe / archway, less than fifteen feet tall. The gateway was created by one of the Bijapur sultans and brought to its current resting place when the Portuguese overwhelmed the local rulers. A stone’s throw away is the Church of St Cajetan. Situated in a sprawling premises, many parts of the Church are under renovation and the ASI has laid out wooden planks for tourists to walk on. The central dome of the Church was imposing and I got down on my knees for some long exposure shots. My antics lying on the ground caught the attention of one of the keepers who walked in to investigate.

She left shortly, convinced that I was either a madcap or a top notch professional photographer!

We headed back to the Basilica of Bom Jesus for snaps that the previous day’s fading light has prevented us from clicking. Across the road from the Basilica is the Se Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of St Catherine of Alexandria. An imposing whitewashed structure, the campus also houses the office of the ASI and another Museum of Christian Art. The white imposing structure of the Cathedral is set in the midst of a sprawling manicured garden. By the time we approached the entrance to the Cathedral, we were so tired that we decided to limit the photos here and head for a good meal.

The last sightseeing spot on our itinerary was the Church of our Lady of Immaculate Conception – the site of many Hindi movies – right from Amar Akbar Anthony (remember the white church with criss crossing steps) to Bichhoo (Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai and Chandrachur Singh).

Before that, however, I was keen to get my bike checked up at a Enfield service centre, for the engine was now sounding like a rattling old ceiling fan. The service centre we found easily. The mechanic grumbled that we had dropped in un announced, that he had several bikes to service and that we should come back the next day or leave the bike with him for a couple of days. That was ruled out since we had to head back the next morning. However, the legendary Bulletteer camaraderie surfaced when we told him that we had biked down all the way from Mumbai and that we had to leave the next morning and could not afford to set off on a bike that was probably unfit for such a long travel. The service centre in-charge immediately directed the more than willing mechanic, who had by now dropped whatever he was doing to inspect our bike. After the mandatory check of the engine oil level and gearbox oil level and tightening of the various levers and cables, he gave a satisfactory nod. He also took it for a short ride and assured a concerned me that the noise was routine (this is a Bullet you are riding, he reminded) and nothing to be bothered about. Reassured, and proud once again to be riding a great bike, we set out for the Church of our Lady of Immaculate Conception. With no other bikes can you witness such camaraderie. Bullet! What a legend!

Finding the Church, which by all description ought to be famous, was another matter altogether. While I was asking locals for “the Church of our Lady of Immaculate Conception” (you can imagine the bewilderment on their faces!), wifey dear reminded me to go by a much simpler description, for no one would probably use such a long name to refer to a name so long. Imagine asking a Juhu panwalla for a temple of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness! He would probably think you landed on the wrong planet! So it was that we asked for “bada church”, “famous church”, “purana church” etc., and finally landed at the appointed place. The façade of the Church was pretty – with symmetrical, criss crossing stairs. We took many snaps here. After seeing the grandeur of the Basilica of Bom Jesus and the majesty of the Church of St Cajetan and St Augustine, the inside of this Church was a bit disappointing, though to be fair, the comparison was not called for. A Kamath restaurant nearby beckoned us and two weary nomads walked in to the welcoming AC (never realized AC could be so refreshing!). The fare, though average, was far better than what we sampled at Sawantwadi. As dusk fell, we turned our backs to Panaji and headed back to Calangute for another evening of peace with the surf and the stars! And peace we had! Building sand castles, though we could never agree on the architecture, resulting in our sand castle resembling something of a cross between St Augustine’s Tower and the Aguada Fort!

Day 7 – Homewards drawn

The thought of home and work beckoned us and we packed up our few belongings and headed home. But only, the trip back home was vastly different from the one onwards. While the Ghats were as wonderfully breathtaking as ever, this time we too ended up getting as rain-soaked as the Ghats! Incessant driving rains hampered our way, but not our spirit. Riding through clouds lifting up from the valley lifted up our spirits with them and we rode on – sometimes along with the clouds, sometimes into them, sometimes chasing them and at other times being chased by them. Thanks to our riding jackets, we managed to avoid getting soaked to the last bone, though there weren’t many bones left undrenched! Finally, and thankfully, well before dark, we reached Chiplun, our destination for that night’s halt.

The ride back upto Chiplun was wonderful and we rested a bit easy, in the knowledge that there was nothing wrong with the bike and the fact that we now knew the way back! The ride upto Chiplun was otherwise, without incident if you discount the fact that we got soaking wet (inspite of the thick jackets!) and my riding boots were sloshing with several litres of rainwater!

Chiplun was a surprise package altogether. We hadn’t realized until then that Chiplun could be a good weekend getaway in the monsoons! Located in the midst of Ghats among floating clouds, a beautiful Savitri River flowing by (in spate during the monsoons), and a good star resort to stay, Chiplun is a good destination to spend a quite weekend away from Mumbai. Once again, we didn’t have reservations at the resort, and this time our story of ‘riding-all-day-&-dead-on-our-toes’ story didn’t work too! (Moral of the story: you can fool some people with some tricks, but you can’t fool all people with the same tricks!) Fortunately though, the people at the resort were good enough to direct us to another hotel some 6 kms ahead towards Mumbai and even called up and blocked a room for us there while we made our way thither. And luck was on our side this time too! The hotel (called Hotel Pagoda for some strange reason), though small and rather no-frills type, is total value for money. And their restaurant just left us licking our fingers! Apparently, this place is quite famous even in Chiplun town and several eminent companies (Chiplun being an industrial town) and social groups (such as the Lions Club) prefer to conduct their meetings and conferences here.

Day 8 – Back to the madding crowd

What was of interest to us in Chiplun though was an ancient temple of Parashurama Rishi. Over 700 years old, the temple is around 6 kms outside of Chiplun town on NH17, towards Mumbai.

The temple of Bhagawan Parashurama is located near the apex of the Parshuram Ghat. To reach the temple, we had to backtrack and hit the ghat road again. As we climbed the ghat, a passing cloud cover hit us head on and we were literally riding through the cloud. It was exhilarating to ride through the clouds in visibility less than fifty feet, on a steep ghat road with no idea of the oncoming traffic or the bend in the road, headlights on high beam (it was eight in the morning). How I wish I had a point and shoot to immortalize these moments in print. A rock strewn road led us to the Parashurama Temple, which was indeed old world. Legend has it that Bhagawan Parashurama, the sixth avatar of Lord Vishnu, threw his axe into the sea and the Konkan emerged out of the sea. The Parashurama Temple is said to be the very spot where his ashram stood. The temple itself is of ancient construction, with shoddy renovations and improvisations. The sanctum has the idols of Bhagawan Parashurama with kala and kama - whom he conquered - on either side. Remember to ask the pujari for the sthalapurana i.e., the legend of the place. Though the outer structures are badly preserved, their condition worsened by shoddy additions / renovations, the sanctum itself vibrates with a powerful energy. Spend some time here, if you will. Though, oil lamps in the stead of fluorescent lights would have been better. Remember, that photography in the temple premises is prohibited.

The cloud cover had passed by the time we completed our darshan of the temple and we rode back in relative ease (but far less thrill). It was now time to hit the highway back to the madding crowds of Mumbai.

Rejuvenated by an early morning visit to this temple, we proceeded on our way to Mumbai. It rained cats and dogs and several other animals that day and we were soaked and shivering by the time we approached the outskirts to Mumbai.

This was the second day in running that we were riding in driving rain, the rain today far worse than yesterday. Our attempts to outsmart the rain gods were in vain, for wherever we went, it was heavily overcast and pouring. On the way, we crossed several rivers in spate, their water levels visibly higher than during our onward journey. Crossing the Kashedi Ghat was thrilling again, as we rode through clouds of mist (it was noon) and several steep curves. But for a speeding Tata Sumo that almost pushed us off the road, the ride through the ghats was without incident. Nor did we savour the lunch at a nondescript place, since we were keen to get home at the earliest. In the process, we even skipped the mandatory stop for late afternoon snacks, choosing instead to ride home non-stop, without even stopping for the hourly break.

We knew we were nearing civilization as we ran into a mad stream of trucks, buses and other assorted vehicles at Vadhkal Naka. Rain had slowed the traffic to a crawl and I had to wind up the throttle to zig zag through slow moving heavy vehicles. The traffic condition improved somewhat as we approached Panvel and we bid goodbye to the last of greenery as we exited Panvel and headed towards Vashi. The last bend in the highway before you hit the straight stretch to Vashi has the last spots of greenery. It was back into the concrete jungle and pollution again. What a torture to get into the smog barely hours after riding through the clouds! An hour later, after negotiating crazy traffic at Vashi, Chembur, Sion and BKC (and attracting curious glances of fellow motorists who were no doubt awed / amused at the bundles of luggage strapped to the bike and the riding gear that we were in) we hit the last mile that separated us from home – the Western Express Highway.

The soaking condition that we were in, and on a stomach fed on poor lunch, made us even overlook the jarring contrast of the never ending concrete in Mumbai to the beautiful hues of green and brown that we had just left behind. We were just longing to get back into the cozy warmth of our home, feel the fingers of hot jets of water from the shower caress our skins, eat some deliciously mouthwatering home cooked food, and curl-up in bed tucked into warm sheets! Bliss! Now I know why its called Home Sweet Home!

As I rolled into the parking lot of my apartment block, the speedometer read 2047 – 1,600 kms, a stiff back and a sore bottom! What a holiday it was!

1 comment:

Aarti said...

phew... read most of it, shall come back and read it aaramseeee

u gotta put in more pics of ur trip.... plsssssss.. makes it more fun for us to read~~ :D