It was a long pending trip to Udipi. We finally decided to go ahead though we did not get the train tickets. We decided to drive down, though somewhere deep down, I was not too keen about driving from one coast to the other - Chennai in the East to Mangalore in the West. Anyway, counting on the driving skills of my husband and our driver, we set out - leave granted, bags packed and everything.
We reached Bangalore first and spent the night there for a break as we had another 6 hr journey ahead of us. We then left Bangalore the next morning at around 11 am (so that we can avoid the rush hour, little knowing that we were anyway going to spend a very long time on the road). The road up to a town called Hassan was okay though not very good. Then came, Sankleshpur – a name I will not forget in a long time to come. The ordeal started there. It wasn’t a regular road but a National Highway – NH48! I would call it a National Rubbleway! There was absolutely not a stretch that was smooth. The roads were broken and what made things worse was that the roads went uphill, popularly known as the ‘Ghat section’. We did some homework before we left Chennai - we were told that the Highway is good except for some 30 kms. Maybe the 30 km they referred to was the good part. It became very dark and roads got worse. I had already decided we will not take this road on our way back. As we drove up, the hill it was getting darker, the jungle denser. I normally don’t have any major fears to talk about but that day, I found myself hallucinating. I saw a man’s face peering through the gigantic leaves of a tree. Me a lover of nature, found the hills and trees very gloomy that evening. I don’t ‘t know why but I heard myself telling our maid that we will be delayed by a day and she can have another day’s off and also heard myself informing my boss that I will need another day’s off – it still remains a mystery why and how I heard those voices. We anyway reached Mangalore at 9 pm, a good 3 hours behind schedule and with stiff necks.
We left to Udipi the next day and managed to get a good darshan in spite of the mad holiday rush – can’t blame them. They were also trying to make the best of the holiday season just like we were. Lesson #1 Never visit temples during vacations, particularly long weekends. Many more lessons follow.
Day 2: Arun (my husband) talked to a few people, bought some good maps and found a better route to get to Bangalore from Mangalore – via Madikkeri (Coorg). He suggested we take a break there and then proceed to Chennai via Bangalore. My parents who were with us had confirmed bus bookings from Mangalore to Hyderabad (a solid 20 hr journey) the next day. Poor things, we convinced them to cancel it and join us for a good time at Madikkeri and even got them train tickets from Bangalore to Hyderabad – we were so pleased that we had made it easy for them. So we went to Subramanya Temple, around 100 km from Mangalore but couldn’t get the Darshan at the main temple, again due to the holiday rush. We left to Madikkeri around 3 pm and realized that the road has been blocked. We took the alternative route and regret it till date ☺All the while I was uncomfortable, I repeatedly kept asking everyone – do we actually have to climb uphill and go to Madikeri? Can’t we go to Mysore directly? I don’t feel like going uphill. But they said this is the only available route to Mysore too. Lesson #2 Respect your instincts, follow your gut feeling. Anyway the suggested road was nothing but a narrow mud path where only 1 vehicle can pass freely at any time, again a winding road up the hills, with a jungle on one side and a valley on the other. It was very difficult to climb up the hill. I then felt a strange smell and we all thought forest areas do have such unusual “herbal” smells!! A few minutes later, the climb was getting more difficult. We thought it must be because of the weight – 1 baby, 5 adults, 5 suitcases and an assortment of other stuff. The realization came when a passing car mentioned that smoke was coming out of our car! We opened the doors and windows of our car to see smoke—a whole lot of it at that. The tension that gripped all of us at that time would not leave us for next 18 hours at least. We tried balancing the weight in the car. My husband and I moved to the front passenger seat and dad moved behind. We thought it worked for a while. We hadn’t even covered 2 kms—we would stop for a while every time the smoke came out. We did this twice. Finally our Corolla Altis just gave up. Poor thing, if it had feelings, wonder what it would have gone through at that time and the rest of the night. Tension was building up. I could hear my mum and baby chanting Lord Ayappa’s names and prayers “Swamiye Saranam Ayappa” ‘’Ethividayya, thookividayya’’. This is normally chanted by devotees while climbing the tough hills to reach Lord Ayappa’s temple in Sabarimalai (my parents have made 2 visits so far and now have decided to go next year too). A man driving alone in a black Chevrolet slowed down and asked if we needed a lift. We declined, thinking we can manage. When we actually thought we should perhaps ask someone for a lift, we didn’t get one. Just then a bus that was passing by stopped and around 20 full grown men swiftly got off the bus and started walking towards our car. I got scared and quickly got into our car. They exchanged a few words with my dad, husband and driver. One of them got into our car and tried to start it and said something in Kannada that meant “it's gone’’ – at least that’s what I could make out. The rest of the men pushed our car to a corner of the road and again spoke something to the men in our car. My mom was very excited and I was thinking how she could trust just anyone. I think my head was clouded with thoughts and I couldn’t hear anything. The next thing I realized was my dad telling me that those men offered us a lift up to a point and me quickly grabbing 2 bags with me and running towards the bus. I only had one second to turn back to Arun who nodded, asking me to get into that bus and that he would meet me soon. We got into the bus and I now came to know why mom was excited. It was indeed a bus full of Ayappa devotees. They were on their way back from a trip to Sabharimalai! That was a very pleasant surprise and I started crying – don’t know why. We then realized the folly of just leaving my husband behind without even discussing further plans. I was still confident that they would somehow lug the car and come behind the bus now that the load had reduced. It was then that my mum dropped the bombshell “didn’t you know that we’ve had a breakdown? The clutch is broken and the car will not move”. Goodness gracious me! I just didn’t know that. Totally unaware of the distances and routes, I thought we would go to Khushalnagar, a few kilometres from Madikkeri, my dad will find a mechanic and go back to the spot where the car was stranded. How stupid of me. There was absolutely no network on our cell phones and we just couldn’t get in touch with Arun or the driver. My tears increased – to make the situation more filmy, sentimental Ayappa songs were blaring in the bus – a lady angrily challenging to God to prove His existence and another man lamenting over the loss of his worldly processions only to be directed towards the Lord’s doors and so on. Mom was assuring that if God has put us in the hands of these kind men, He would definitely guide my husband too. Luckily, my dad and Arun, both users of the good old BSNL were able to finally connect to each other and decided on a place to meet each other in the town of Sankleshpur. Arun and our driver had got a lift up to that town. They had decided to leave our car alone in the jungle that night. I felt bad for our loyal car. People were saying that the jungle is a marked forest area and had animals coming out at night, particularly elephants! We then reached some town and one of the men on our bus dropped us off at a bus station and before we realized anything, put us on a bus that was almost about to leave and quickly told us this bus would not actually go to Sankleshpur but to another town – we will have to get another bus from there to Sankleshpur. Phew! What had we got ourselves into?
We had no choice but to board the ‘town bus’. We thanked the Ayappa bus guy and started our journey # 3 of the day. We enquired with the conductor of the town bus and he said he was not very sure about the distance to Sankleshpur but we had to get off at a village called Holenarsapur which is around 2.5 hrs from where we were! It was already 8:15 in the night. The Ayappa bus had actually crossed the shortcut to Sankleshpur from the jungle. Gosh! What a mess! My dad got talking to an elderly person and related the story to him. My mom again smiled her optimistic smile (I will write about her inspiring optimism and belief in miracles another time). She said, "Hey look at his clothes, looks like he is from Ramakrishna Mission" and I went...gosh mom, how would you know? In a while, dad tells us “this gentleman says we will reach Holenarsapur at very odd hours and since we have a baby with us, he suggested that we get off in the next stop along with him and spend the night at his Ashram and leave to Sankleshpur in the morning”. Thankfully Mom declined the offer and so did I. This bus was actually going towards Bangalore and for a second we toyed with the idea of directly proceeding to Bangalore because of our baby but then decided to hang on with Arun - whatever happens – we will all stick together. One good decision in the whole day! (We were already regretting the way we split earlier). By then luckily the cell phone networks started getting better. We learnt that Arun was luckily with some very kind people who were giving the correct guidance. They suggested that we all spend the night in Hassan town as it is a bigger and safer place to stay. This meant, we had to get off at Holenarsapur and get a bus to Hassan. It would be 11 pm by then. What would we do? Arun started connecting with us every 10 minutes. He was really concerned for us – from his point of view, he was safer and more comfortable than us. Lessons # 3 – Never drive down very long distances, especially when you are not comfortable with the topography and more so if you have small babies and older people with you. Lesson # 4 Never take the road to anywhere in Karnataka even if you know the area like the back of your hand, unless you want to hurt your spine – for there are no roads there (except Bangalore perhaps), just piles of stones and mud everywhere.
Our bumpy bus journey continued. The bus started getting more and more crowded with uncouth villagers, drunken men almost getting into a brawl....roads without lights and more forests (maybe they wouldn’t appear like forests in daylight). Note to self: I will never get anywhere near a forest for the next 2 yrs at least. Parents bought some bananas on the way. We had them. My baby just had a few pieces of cake that I had with me and slept. She was truly an angel –as if she understood the tense moments we were going through, she was totally quiet and didn’t kick up any fuss. In the earlier bus, she was talking about fear for a while, which seemed to disappear once she was in the warm arms of her Grandmom. Thank you darling, for being such an angel. In between, there was a lady throwing up all over the bus, a drunk was being literally kicked out from the bus for bad behaviour – wonder where he went because at least 5 km on either side, there was no trace of life or light.
Finally Arun, who had already reached Hassan and booked a hotel for the night, insisted that he pick us up at Holenarsapur. I felt much better. The bus trundled into the town and we got off. We didn’t see anyone on the road, no buses, no shops, no nothing – just a white cab that came speeding by – that was Arun and our driver in a cab. I was so glad to see Arun but was totally tongue-tied for at least half an hour. I learnt that the people who gave a lift to Arun and our driver were truly nice people. Though they were to drop them off at Sankleshpur, listening to our predicament, it was they who suggested that Hassan was a better place. They found a good hotel there, checked if rooms were available, insisted that Arun pick us up at Holenarsapur, fixed up a cab to that town and only then had left the place. They were even willing to give the address of their sister’s place where we could get some milk for our baby! Strangely the bus we got into had only 3 seats and the car which Arun got into had place only for 2! We then started discussing what we could do about the car that we left in the jungle, how to retrieve the luggage in the car, how to get our parents back into Bangalore by the next evening in time for their train. Arun suggested we all just get a good night’s sleep and talk over it in the morning. It was midnight by the time we reached Hassan. None of us had any dinner, it was too late, and the hotel staff offered us hot Bournvita. We had a lot of snacks in our bags but we were in no mood to eat – not even my baby who went off to sleep without even drinking her Bournvita. All of us slept in the same clothes that we had on since morning.
I couldn’t sleep. I was picturing two elephants pushing down our Toyota down the valley. Apart from clothes, books and other stuff, the luggage in the car included my laptop, handycam and mom’s jewellery (poor thing has just now started buying new ones after she lost every bit of jewellery in a burglary at Hyderabad). And mainly our house keys were in there and we had no duplicate!
Day 3: Morning. It was decided that Dad, Arun and our driver would take a cab and go to the spot where they had left the car. Arun spoke to the Toyota Company the previous day itself and told them the story. They offered to come and take a look at the car. And so they set out after breakfast. Mom and I left behind in the Hotel with the baby tried our best to distract ourselves. We went and bought some change of clothes. Bathed, ate and sat worried and wondering. Again, they were near the jungle and the men could not be contacted. Finally the call came at around 1 pm. They found the car and it was all intact – just the way they had left it – no one had even touched it – neither elephants nor highway robbers!
After sending our darling car to Mangalore along with our driver, dad and Arun brought our luggage to Hassan. We proceeded to Bangalore immediately and reached late at night. Man, what a relief to come into a ‘home’. My parents left to Hyderabad the next evening. And we left to Chennai on day 5 after our car came back serviced and all fine. We were told by the mechanics at Toyota that even the brakes had broken. Thank Heavens! Just like what I had already heard myself telling, I called my maid and the office – the only difference, I was extending the trip by 2 more days! As soon as the car came back from the service station at Mangalore, we ran the car over 4 lemons placed under each tire – call it whatever you please – drishti or aura cleansing – we all needed some good aura cleansing actually! Our poor driver drove down all alone from Mangalore to Bangalore with the serviced car, somehow blaming himself for all that happened apart from worrying about his pregnant wife back home.
Man, what a trip it has been! People wished us memorable vacation but ours was unforgettable. Apart from the stress that we all went through, we ended up spending a whole lot of money. What is more important is that all of us, including our car, are safe and sound and I am able to share this with all of you! I came across many angels as part of this adventure – the Ayappa group, the people who gave Arun the lift, the Toyota people who carefully towed the car up to Mangalore and fixed our car for us, our driver who was his quiet and patient self throughout and my parents, who were a real blessing by being there at the right time, they had to suffer the ordeal along with us but gave us their support in so many ways – they helped us keep our morale in order, helped us communicate in Kannada and much more. We all have angels around us all the time. We just need to recognize them and thank them.