In the evening, Indian tourists are bused in from the resorts scattered around the countryside. This is definitely an Indian tourist destination. The majority are newlyweds from Mumbai and Pune, the bashful young brides in their iridescent nylon honeymoon suits. After five days we were glad we’d made the effort, but once is enough – we doubt we’ll return anytime soon.
The 12 hour private bus from Margoa in Goa would take us only 48 KM from our next destination, Mahabaleshwar, a small hill station on a remote plateau in the western ghats. “We will arrange for a taxi, included in the price,” the bus company told us. But we couldn’t get reassurance from the non English speaking conductor about when or where we’d get off. In the dark, the four lane highway is treacherous; the conductor takes our bags out of the storage and points across to the distant far side, where a small bus depot and restaurant are lit up. With my heart pounding, I follow Gerard into the median, dragging my case. “Run!” he shouts…and we make it to the other side.
Inside the restaurant, a man listens to our request for a taxi to Mahabaleshwar. “But where are your tickets?” “We gave them to the conductor on the bus”….we have no record of our reservation. It doesn’t look good and we suspect we may have to pay extra for the taxi now. The man is in no rush to help us, and speaks virtually no English. “15 minutes!” he says… It’s getting late and we only have a tentative hotel booking. 30 minutes go by… Hungry, tired and nervous that I may have nowhere to sleep tonight, I keep hassling the man…. For two hours, his response continues: “15 minutes.” Finally a jeep arrives and we’re transported effortlessly up the winding mountain road to the plateau. The driver drop us off in the center of town, and to our surprise make no demand for payment.
Mahalabeshwar, famous for its strawberries and clean mountain air, is a hill station developed by an Englishman in the 1830s. It’s the highest point in the western ghats, with wonderful views into the valley below were it not for the inevitable haze.
Gerard tries to make a joke with the young Indian boys: “Do you know why there is so much haze? It’s due to all the damn cigarette smokers in Mumbai!” The joke falls flat.
One afternoon, we took a 7 Km walk through the woods to a beautiful viewing point. The guidebook told us we probably wouldn’t meet another living soul – and it was right. Walking along a path that was once a road, long since abandoned, we passed by the crumbling gateway to Nugent Lodge, the one time residence of some Englishman.
Another day we took the local bus to old Mahalabeshwar, a peaceful hamlet with an old Shiva temple sitting on a ridge, overlooking the valley stretching far below.
On the way back from the temple, we passed a strawberry farm offering large of glasses of fresh strawberries and cream which was irresistible. We ate in the sunshine sitting in a garden surrounded by hollyhocks in full bloom. A Hallmark moment!
An old Indian couple (older than us) from Long Islandapproached us in the bus station to share the cost of a sightseeing taxi with them for the day. Ken came to the USin 1969 via Canadawith $300 in his pocket. Arriving at JFK unable to speak English, a taxi driver found him a room for the night, another man helped him get a job – within 6 months he’d brought over his wife and child, and by the end of the first year he owned a duplex in the Bronx and was working as an accountant at Chase Manhattan where he continued to work his way up. Today, two sons are eye surgeons and his daughter, a producer for NBC Dateline.
He had a wealth of amusing stories including on his first flight out of India he sat next to a white woman – the first he’d ever seen. She took her shoes off and he stared at her feet – she had no toes! Being an outspoken man, he asked if all white people had feet like that. She laughed and explained that she was wearing “knee-highs” and took one off to prove she wasn’t a freak, with webbed toes, after all!