It was one of our recent driving holidays. My wife, Jyothi, and I were in our SUV. We had set off from Cochin, Kerala early in the morning on our way to Bangalore. The drive was expected to take about 9 hours.
Many of our friends are often surprised by our decision to drive such a distance. I don’t blame them. There are several convenient flight connections. The flight takes a little over an hour. Given the travel time to and from the airport, and the waiting time at both airports, it works out to about 4 hours, door to door. It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?
Well, let me take you on a drive through Kerala, then. You can decide for yourself.
As we leave Cochin, the dawn is just breaking. It has rained in the night just enough to make everything look wet and clean. A cool, refreshing breeze is blowing and the pure fragrance of the wet earth is in the air. In the yellow streetlights, the trees are a glistening gold, so are the roads and the shimmer in the puddles of water that have collected after the downpour. The streets are empty as I race through them to hit the highway.
I am passing through a town now. Here a mosque; there a church. I hear the azaan (the Muslim call to ritual prayer) from the mosque. The church is decorated with buntings, ribbons, and banners, welcoming a religious leader. As I descend the winding road, I see a large temple and the attached pond. I slow down. I see children splashing about in the pond while a mahout is bathing an elephant at the other end of the pond. Families in the traditional Kerala attire are entering the temple.
Up ahead, on the narrow and winding street, dimly lit tea shops are open, some shops are getting ready to display fresh vegetables. The road quickly widens to allow a small circular junction from where several noodle-like streets run off in different directions. My road climbs and narrows again. And suddenly…I spot T rex in my rear-view mirror.
People who have watched Jurassic Park would recall the T rex scene where the much-feared dinosaur chases a carload of petrified folks. The private bus on Kerala roads is the equivalent of T rex in Jurassic Park.
Garishly painted, bloated and poorly designed, the large rounded forehead of the bus proclaims its name – a ‘Binnymol’, ‘Sajumon’ or thereabouts. Its innocuous name – in many cases, the name of the youngest member in the owner’s family, is a cunning deception. The very choice of the lettering size that takes up half of the windshield space is designed to intimidate. While weaving in and out of traffic and intermittently emitting high decibel screams, it resembles a sperm whale escaping a still-larger predator. It is specifically on such occasions that I take the safety warning printed on my rear-view mirror very seriously – ‘objects in mirror are closer than they appear’. I allow the beast to pass. Quite suddenly, the bus cuts to the left and grinds to a halt while breathing heavily to disgorge the still-shaking passengers. The driver leaps off the bus. He is middle-aged and wiry, in his lungi (a garment wrapped around the waist) with no footwear. He crosses the road to buy cigarettes and runs back into the bus. The bus jumps up, screams again and races ahead leaving a cloud of dust behind. With the speeding bus ahead of us, we heave a sigh of relief. A life-saving lesson: never overtake this beast. Like bad karma, it is sure to catch up with you.
We are now on the new highway. From Kerala standards, this is a wide one. The black and white paint on the median is fresh, the freshly planted bougainvillea saplings are bursting with flowers of different colors. I spot a deep violet one. ‘We don’t have this color in our society garden’, my wife is quick to add. She suggests stopping at a roadside nursery to pick up some bougainvillea plants. ‘We’ll keep an eye open.’
It is time for some tea. The sight of a copper boiler is a giveaway – that’s a tea shop! I am just about to park when it begins to rain. I wait and suddenly it begins to rain quite heavily. I am in no mood to get wet and I drive the car closer to the shop. Immediately, an old woman appears. She gives me a wide toothless grin. She disappears inside the shop to make tea for us. We wait inside the car, the rain beating down on the car. My wife fiddles with the car stereo and the speakers crackle to life – it is an old Mohammed Rafi (a very popular Indian playback singer who passed away in 1980) song. The tea arrives. With her toothless smile intact, the old woman, on her own, brings hot onion paruppu vada (a Kerala snack), usually served with tea. The vada is very tasty and the tea, piping hot, though a little too sweet for our taste.
The wide-angle view ahead is truly spectacular. The ascending highway appears to head straight into the misty blue hills. The hill-sides are green with dense vegetation. Up above, we see the blue sky with puffed-up white clouds. We have a wide view of the sky now. In some parts, Nature seems to have dragged its white brush against the blue canvas in sheer joy. Light plays hide and seek. A few kilometers ahead, the highway climbs again and suddenly the sun breaks through the clouds flooding us with gentle, warm and happy sunshine. We are at an altitude now. On both sides, I can see the fields stretching out till the hills. Several farmworkers are bent over, working in the fields. Far away, I can see a tractor at work. I see over a dozen different shades of green. Some fields are under the water and I see a mirror image of the palm trees in the water. There, I spot a scarecrow! Suddenly, a bunch of white birds rise from the fields, climb up and circle over us and after a brief show, return to the fields. Was that a show for us? I wonder. Now, a gust of wind rushes in and the palm trees are seen swaying. I roll down the windows to partake in nature’s bounty.
We cross a bridge over a river. Along the edge of the bridge, I see small, bright yellow flowers against a background of moss – a striking color contrast. It occurs to me that there would be no one to appreciate these flowers. Not that it matters to Nature which, unlike us, is never looking for public approval. Ahead, we see a speeding mini-truck transporting calves. They are tied to each other and struggle to retain their balance. One of them is brown and is looking straight at us with playful and naughty innocence. We spot another truck. This one is full of coconuts. As they go over a bump, a few coconuts fall off the truck. I wonder who pays for the loss of inventory.
Jyothi spots a nursery. She sees a bunch of bougainvillea plants. We pull to the side, walk across the road to the nursery. The owner comes out to greet us. A middle-aged lady takes us inside the nursery. Rows upon rows of bougainvillea plans are neatly laid out. We do not find the violet color and settle for a pinkish-violet one. On the way out, we see a colorful chili plant and fall for it. A young boy helps place them securely in the boot of the car.
I resume driving. Further down, I slow down to allow a village marriage procession to cross the road. Men are in their veshti and women in their kasavu (veshti and kasavu are traditional Kerala attire). The groom looks like a Malayalam (the language spoken in Kerala) film hero – I wonder if he works in the Gulf or anywhere else outside Kerala – we know that not many jobs are available in Kerala. A few kilometers ahead, I see an adult elephant in chains walking on the road, the mahout in tow. Up ahead, we see dense vegetation on both sides for quite a distance – this is the Forest Area. I can see several trucks waiting at the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border to pay taxes.
Armed with several pictures in our camera, we cross over from ‘God’s Own Country’ (Kerala Government’s tagline to promote tourism) into Tamil Nadu.
What are you thinking about now?
Here’s a post from Overlandsite on how to stay fit and healthy during a long road trip.