JK, Shiva & Sharma at Coorg – The Out-of-Cash ATM Episode!

[An Episode From My Coorg Yarns]

I was enjoying Bill Bryson’s ‘In a Sunburned Country’ – a brilliantly chronicled humours account of an epic journey across Australia when my phone buzzed. I had just received a text message. It wasn’t unusual. In a country swarming with people having access to inexpensive mobile phones, free SIM cards and dirt-cheap call rates, everyday, everyone got a call or a SMS. But the content of this particular text message was certainly unusual. It said ‘I’m reaching Bangalore by 7.30 AM’. It was already past midnight. I thought either Jaya Krishna Reddy, JK for short, was high on Old Monk or he was just trying to mess with my mind. But the next moment he called, his delirious voice suggested that he was indeed gulping pints of Buddha Sadhu. But he was not trying to play any tricks. He had already booked a ticket and he was boarding an early morning flight from Hyderabad. Frantically, I called Shiva, our dear friend and key team member in every joyride. Even he had received the same text message. And that’s how we three friends started our own epic journey from Bangalore to an unknown destination on a frosty December morning in 2011. It turned out to be the most reckless trip of our life.

As agreed, by 7.30 AM on a Sunday Christmas day, Shiva had reached airport to receive JK. The flight was on time. But to get over the combined effects of sleepless night, weary journey and half a bottle of Whisky, JK had decided to get fresh inside the airport and by the time he came out, it was past 8.30 AM. Excited on reaching Bangalore and thrilled at the prospect of a carefree holiday, JK wanted to drive Shiva’s brand-new Swift and soon, he was racing on Bellary highway. Promptly, a vigilant cop on an Interceptor stopped the wildly drifting car and collected the obligatory over speeding fine. We couldn’t have asked for a better start to our trip.

They took an hour to reach my place and shortly afterwards, we were moving on Old Airport Road. So far we had no plans and this seemed like a right time to decide on some place that we could reach before evening. Shiva suggested driving to Coorg through Nagarahole National Park. We agreed and decided to stay at Pachi Bale Home Stay in Beeruga village near Irpu falls.

After passing Channapatanna, we pulled into a BP petrol bunk to fill gas and have breakfast at a neighbouring McDonald’s outlet.

We crossed Mysore at around 1.30PM and by now, Shiva was on the wheels. Past Ring Road junction on Madikeri Road, JK spotted an Axis Bank ATM and asked Shiva to stop the car. The road was narrow and there was no place to park. I suggested that he can withdraw cash in Hunsur, the next town at a distance of about 40 kilometres. Later as it turned out, this was the worst on-the-road suggestion I ever gave in my life. Even today when I think of it, I regret it badly.

Inside Hunsur town, Shiva parked the car in front of an ATM opposite KSRTC bus stand. JK went inside and after a minute, came out with a sigh. It was out of cash. We went past old bus stand in search of more ATMs and couldn’t find any. After crossing Lakshmantheertha Bridge, we decided to ask some random auto driver and he told us that there were two more ATMs on Madikere bypass. When we reached the first one, a State Bank of India unit, our hearts sank. A tiny cardboard with dreaded ‘Out of Cash’ scribble welcomed us. Some 200 meters down the road, we could see an ING Vysya Bank ATM. As Shiva stopped his car in front of the glass door, a clearly agitated guy came out of the air-conditioned booth and cursing his luck, told us that the machine was out of cash. There was a State Bank of Mysore ATM opposite Police Station on Silver Jubilee Road and even this turned out to be empty. With this, we had exhausted all our options of getting any cash in Hunsur.

Hunsur sits on the confluence of important roads connecting several tourist destinations including entire Coorg district, Nagarahole, Kabini, Mangalore and Wayanad in Kerala. On a weekend leading to Christmas, loads of tourists had driven through Hunsur and evidently, they had drained out every ATM in this small town.

This was a disaster waiting to happen and none of us were prepared to face it. Last night when JK called, I had no cash and so did Shiva. At least, he had some spare change, but my pockets were empty. JK had booked his ticket online and while leaving, he had little money. After spending it on taxi to reach airport, over speeding ticket and McDonald’s breakfast, he was left with a greasy one hundred rupee note. This was a trip planned in eager haste and before starting, all three of us had a similar thought – to withdraw cash somewhere on the road. In excited state, we had pushed it too far and collectively, we all had gone terribly wrong.

We were hungry, there was no drinking water and we had smoked our last stock of cigarettes. With the little cash left, we decided to buy a bottle of water and pack of ITC Kings; both of which could add slight liveliness to our worn-out mind. Now, to get any money we had only two choices – either to drive back and withdraw cash in Mysore or as I suggested, drive to Kutta where I was sure to find ATMs. After all, Coorg is a region of wealthy estate owners and Kutta is a key gateway to this rich land of Arabica and Robusta. So, with dreamy notions of savouring rich aromatic coffee, delicious Coorg cuisine and chilled beer, we pushed on from the land of empty ATM machines.

The 30 kilometre drive within Nagarahole National Park was an incredible experience. Narrow jungle road cutting through the mighty woods offered magnificent views of the immense terrain. The eerie silence inside the jungle was astounding. The foliage was thick, huge trees covered the skyline and at every turn, we expected encountering the unknown. With empty pockets, we feared illusory dangers of absurd proportions. We dreaded a car breakdown and anticipated a flat tyre. Even with fuel gauge showing half a tank of diesel, we anticipated a dead engine. We were on our nervy edge, we were starving and we wanted to reach Kutta at the earliest. That was our land of heavenly contentment.

As it turned out, there was no ATM in Kutta. We were devastated.

A shopkeeper directed us to the next ATM at Srimangala, a distance of about 14 kilometres. The roads were bad and as we approached our longing destination, towards our right, we saw a Union Bank of India ATM. To our utter disbelief, it was closed. The shutters were down and there was not a soul around. With that, the only hope of our salvation was gone.

I felt like a complete fool to have suggested driving to Kutta. I was entirely responsible for our miserable condition. None of us were in mood to talk, we didn’t know what to do next and there was nobody we could ask for any help. From here Pachi Bale Home Stay was 10 kilometres, but we decided to push on till Gonikoppal, the only alternative. In a gloomy silence, we went further and at T.Shettigeri junction, Shiva stopped his car. With whatever money was left with JK and Shiva, we bought 2 packs of biscuit and resumed our journey. At Ponnampet JK tried withdrawing cash at Canara Bank ATM next to bus stop and here the display didn’t work. It didn’t bother us anymore. Our appetite was dead. If ATMs were out of cash at Gonikoppal, we decided to drive back to Mysore.

Luckily, the State Bank of Mysore ATM on main road in Gonikoppal had money. When JK was withdrawing cash, a strange sense of liberty took over our mind.

It was too late to search for any home stay. So, we checked into Hotel Nandanavana near Gonikoppal bus stand. After getting fresh, we went to a restaurant on Ammathi Road and enjoyed chilled beer and spicy Coorg delicacies.

Suddenly, life felt blissful.

Next two days were spent at hotel, driving and Chelavara Falls. Also, we had a flat tyre, encountered a huge King Cobra and narrowly missed hitting a pack of wild boars.

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My Experiences with Coorg, the Land of Kodava Takk (II)

[Coorg is the land of stunning landscapes, awesome coffee, delicious food & invigorating wine. That’s the exact statement I heard before shifting to Coorg (or Kodagu) in 1993. I lived there for 2 years, followed it with dozens of jaunts, learnt that Coorg is much more than just a ‘touristy’ statement and decided to share my experiences of a mystifying land with wonderful people, unique traditions and Kodava Takk]

PART 2 (To Read Part 1, Click HERE)

As suggest by the doctor, by first week of July I was back in Bachahalli to take rest and recover my health. In the awful days that followed, my diet consisted of rice and a lentil curry that was cooked without oil, salt and spices. The unsavoury yellowy broth with consistency of tap water had a sharp acidly niff and mild bitter taste. On some lucky days, I ate boiled vegetables, papaya and bread. I was confined to my bed, my taste buds were dead, I was delirious and alarmingly, I was losing weight.

This was not the summer holiday I had planned and I hated it.

By end of August, I started to feel better. Gradually, the pale yellow Jaundice eyes turned white and looked natural. My body regained its strength and I was able to walk without any need of short breaks to recover my breath. Meanwhile, dad had written to the Principal at Jawahar Navodaya Vidyala in Coorg with details of my health conditions and requested him to postpone my admission by two months. He also enclosed a letter from the doctor who recommended bed rest and medication. The Principal, Mr. Bhat promptly replied and suggested that I should join my Pre-university course at the earliest. Some subjects were new, hard to learn and required students to attend classes from day one. I had to study Kannada, English, Accountancy and Office Management and learn Typing and Shorthand.

Just like Coorg, I had never heard of Shorthand. While Coorg fascinated me, Shorthand scared me.

I had a reason.

Immediately after receiving the letter, I had asked dad if he knew what Shorthand was and he didn’t. But he suggested referring a dictionary. I opened an old edition of D.K. Bharadwaj’s English – English – Kannada dictionary that occasionally dad referred while reading his collection of National Geographic and Reader’s Digest magazines. It had a mystifying one line detail for Shorthand – “a method of rapid handwriting using strokes and symbols for designated alphabets, words and phrases”.

I almost jumped out my sickbed.

Why should someone write rapidly? Who uses strokes and symbols instead of regular writing? And, why should I learn it?

It became clear the next day.

In the letter Mr. Bhat considered Shorthand as the toughest subject of my curriculum and since my admission was delayed, he reflected that once I start to attend the classes, it will be hard for me to follow-through with the backlog lessons. To be prepared, he suggested that I should practice and learn the basics of Shorthand during my extended sick holidays. He recommended buying a Pitman’s Shorthand Learning Guide from Geeta Book House at Mysore. Promptly, dad bought the book with dozen H.P Bond pencils, box of Nataraj erasers and half a dozen Vidya notepads.

Strangely, the Pitman’s Shorthand Learning Guide bought back my bitter memories of a Greek epic ‘Odyssey’ by Homer. It was of the same size, had a similar dusty whiff and the dark aging colour guaranteed that for years, it was stocked and forgotten in the back alley of a dreary storeroom. Sitting amid the gloomy silence of a school library in Shyampur, I had tried hard to understand the English  translation of Odyssey and to my dismay, failed miserably. Similarly, I thought I could never master Shorthand.

Gradually, I made-up my mind and spoke to dad. I told him my intentions of not shifting to Coorg. Casually, he looked at me, clinched his fists and without speaking a word, walked-away from me. But by next morning he had made-up his mind. I was to leave in 2 days and there was nothing I could do.

Reluctantly, I started packing for my 2 year stay at Coorg.

(To be continued / updated, infrequently)

My Experiences with Coorg, the Land of Kodava Takk

[Coorg is the land of stunning landscapes, awesome coffee, delicious food & invigorating wine. That’s the exact statement I heard before shifting to Coorg (or Kodagu) in 1993. I lived there for 2 years, followed it with dozens of jaunts, learnt that Coorg is much more than just a ‘touristy’ statement and decided to share my experiences of a mystifying land with wonderful people, unique traditions and Kodava Takk]

PART 1

In April 1993, after writing my SSLC exams at Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya in Shyampur near Bhopal, I had just returned to my family at Bachahalli, a small village on the fringes of Bandipur National Park in Chamarajanagara district of Karnataka. Tucked away from 1990s urban delights of colour televisions, ITI telephones, masala dosas, Five-Star chocolates, tin shaped Maruti cars, Bajaj scooters, baggy pants, sleazy Debonair magazine, step-cutting, Coca-Cola and neatly eye-browed busty females, Bachahalli was surrounded with beautiful green pastures, tiny hillocks, magnificent forests and hardworking peasants. A far-off South Indian settlement, Bachahalli had few basic amenities that were rare to see in many remote villages till recent times. Apart from four or five general merchant shops and two shanty hotels, it had a primary and middle school, hostel for backward community students, little health dispensary, one room post office, a bus connected it to the outer world and most importantly, a licensed toddy shop sold country made liquor. And on few blessed days for patrons, this shop stocked Government manufactured 250ml ‘Arrack’ plastic pouches.

After a harrowing two-day train journey from the hot and horrid plains of Central India, I had just landed into the pleasant climate of Nilgiri Biosphere where I was to spend three month long summer holidays with my family. It was a good sized joint family with people I loved the most – my parents, younger sister, granny, uncles, aunts, cousins and nieces. Tired of eating North Indian Poha for breakfast and Roti with Soya Badi curry for every lunch and dinner at my residential school, I was looking forward to relish homemade Idly, Poori and Chaklis. I was eager to meet my childhood friends and roam around the village like old times. I was planning to watch loads of Kannada movies at a ramshackle cinema tent in a neighbouring village, Bommalapura. I wanted to night camp in our farmland and see how people chased away elephants and wild boars that destroyed crops. After gruelling one year full of studies, assignments and exams, I was planning to enjoy my summer holidays before leaving Bachahalli to continue my higher studies elsewhere in the State.

But my dad had other ideas.

Within next one week, I was staying with my aunt in Bangalore and learning how to create and delete folders in MS-Dos on a shiny new computer. Ominously set-up in a small car garage, it was the sole computer in a place that called itself a Computer Training Institute.

Next two months were spent either watching Doordarshan on a Sharp television or hazy set of texts on a monochrome computer monitor. To my delight, a sunny afternoon in June that year, my aunt in Bangalore received an inland letter from my dad; a letter that I was eagerly waiting for last three months. In its secret folding secured with a stroke of glue, it carried an important message for a student who was nervously waiting for his SSLC exam results. In those days mobile telephones were nonexistent and owning a land-line was still a luxury. Speaking to relatives and friends who stayed beyond certain distance involved calling local telephone exchanges and placing trunk-call requests. It meant sitting next to telephone for hours waiting for a call from the exchange to get connected to your loved ones, and if situation demanded, your enemies. And most of the times, the rickety exchanges were busy with backlog demands which meant that your trunk-call requests were invariably transferred to next day. In those days the entire country, well let’s say, most of the urban part at least was connected with the ‘Great Indian Telephone Network’. It involved crisscrossing the entire nation with telephone exchanges connected with black coloured wires hung over silver coloured metal poles. This obscure network of ten feet poles and millimetre thin wires carried your voice across and most of the time, connected wrong numbers. So, my dad sitting in an tiny village some 200 kilometres away from Bangalore had to involve the ‘Great Indian Postal Department’ to convey my aunt that I had just passed my SSLC exams. Next, I had to study Vocational Training as part of my two year Pre-University course in another Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya in Coorg district.

I had never heard of Coorg, but the name fascinated me. It was different. I decided to find out more.

That evening sitting in a balcony overlooking the busy Gokula Road in Mathikere, I was chatting with my cousin who was almost ten years elder to me. In between our conversation, I spoke about dad’s letter and asked my cousin if he knew anything about Coorg. That led to an interesting conversation.

“So, you are going to Coorg?”

“Yes”

“Coorg is a nice place”

That relived my mind, but it was not enough. I wanted to know more.

“But it’s different”

“Different?”

I know Coorg sounded different compared to other places that I knew to exist. Names of places or districts in Karnataka usually had Nagara, Ooru or Pattanna in them. Be it Bangalore, Mysore or Chamarajanagara, they all had the usual phonetic endings. As if reading my mind, he continued.

“Yes, the place, the people, their food and the language; everything is different”

For a moment, I was nervous. After two rough years in Madhya Pradesh, once again I didn’t want to end up in an alien land.

“Coorg is full of forests, hills and coffee estates”

I always loved nature. Trekking in forests and hiking hillocks around my village excited me. But I hated coffee. When I was 6 or 7 years old, my granny had mixed a homemade Ayurvedic tablet in my coffee. It was suppose to clean my stomach and rejuvenate my health. But the black concoction had hideous smell and extremely bitter taste. The first sip had gagged me violently and I had thrown up everything I ate that day. I was sick for a week and since then, I only drank tea.

“They eat Pork”

“Pork!”

“Yes Pork. That’s why they are strong. And you know, when they go out, they carry a gun”

Even though that was clearly an exaggerated statement, I was still shifting nervously in my chair.

“And it rains, I guess, for 4 to 5 months a year”

I love rains. That shouldn’t deter me.

“In Coorg, women wear saris differently”

“How?”

“You will see it for yourself”

Slowly, I was getting used to the word ‘different’.

“Most of Coorg men are in Indian army”

“That’s interesting. Then they must be strong”

“In Coorg, people play hockey”

When the entire nation was mesmerized by Kapil Dev, Sunil Gavaskar, Azaruddin, Ajay Jadeja and the young lad Sachin Tendulkar, how could only Coorg people be interested in hockey and not cricket? I decided not to believe it.

“And Coorg girls are very beautiful”

“Oh!”

“Yes, and I am sure you’re going to enjoy your stay in Coorg”

I was not sure. Instead of clearing my doubts and making me comfortable for the impending journey, the conversation had confused my mind and faintly, I was feeling uneasy. But somewhere deep in my heart, I was looking forward to meet a beautiful Coorg girl without a pork eating and gun wielding father.

But nature had other plans.

One fine sunny afternoon that month, I started to shiver slightly and felt sick. Later sometime, I threw up all over the room and got a terrible fever. I was diagnosed with Jaundice and doctor suggested few medications, strict diet and two month bed rest.

I was to join my school in 2nd week of July, but suddenly, my Coorg journey was in jeopardy.

[To read Part 2, click HERE]