Vada pav with hot tea at a road side joint. Perfect start to the Pune trip!
Monty looked slimmer, younger, and happier. I was glad to see him. Over the last 2 years, since he moved from Bangalore, our lives had come a long way trudging through somehow. But that’s a long personal story we’d rather keep buried.
After a few days in Pune, Ratnagiri was next, which is an 8 hour, 350 kms journey from Pune. Monty suggested I take his car, or whatever remained of it. The blue Maruti Esteem had withered almost 13 years of interstate travel. Now the AC hardly functioned, the driver side window was stuck, and the left headlamp wouldn’t glow. Yet, in the Avanturas spirit and raised eyebrows, I agreed to take a chance. The engine was still powerful. It easily touched 140 km/h and the brakes were equally responsive.
An early start from Pune to avoid the rush hour office traffic and I had hit the highway by 8 am, en route an Alphonso orchard 50 kms south of Ratnagiri. I had intended to take a break for lunch around 1, but the road and the superb drive through the ghats didn’t make me want to stop. It turned out to be a good call when the orchard owner, Mr. Ranade, warmly welcomed me with yummy home-made Konkani lunch and an unlimited Alphonso supply.
After a quick 30 minute snooze I took out my Nikon D5100 and stepped out to explore the vast orchard. Mr. Ranade had given me a free hand. I could eat as many mangoes as I could handle, from those that had just fallen from the trees, or plucked fresh if I were athletic enough to climb the trees. I was certainly not going to let go of this opportunity. The last time I climbed trees, explored farms, or plucked fruits must have been a decade ago.
Let me not even begin to count how many mangoes I had. I was acting like a shameless child who had never seen mangoes before. What fun! Over the next two days, Mr Ranade hosted me graciously and took me around his village to see the ice factory and paddy fields, taught me to milk the cows and treated me to some delicious Konkani dishes. The eating area is on the open terrace overlooking the entire orchard, with a mild sea breeze through the day making it a perfect place for a relaxed meal.
What made this whole experience even more exciting was this beautiful secluded beach just half a km from the orchard. One has to walk down for about 5 minutes from the hill to access the beach and it seemed like an easy child friendly walk. Over the few hours that Mr Ranade and I spent at the beach, we didn’t see a single soul venture out. If only I had my gang out there!
On the return journey to Pune, while I was reflecting back on the two refreshing days I had spent at the Orchard, I had no idea that the most exciting part of this trip was yet to unfurl. Let’s scroll up a little. Remember the Esteem’s left headlamp wasn’t working? Since the latter part of the drive was going to be at night, at 5:30 pm I stopped at a garage near Lanja, some 50 kms from the orchard. It was already 6:30 pm by the time the mechanic finished the job. I had tea at the small local joint and hit the road again. Just after Lanja, the ghats get denser. It must be 8 pm and deep inside the ghats when suddenly both the headlamps went off. Damn, what the hell just happened? It took me 4-5 seconds to come to a screeching halt. I got out of the car in pitch darkness and found myself just a few inches from the edge of the road. Slightly delayed reflexes and who knows!
After 15 minutes of futile effort to get the lamps up again, I decided to seek help. But who would stop to help a stranger in the middle of darkness? I assumed at least the truck drivers might, but I was wrong. By 8:45, with no help, there were only two options I could think off. Either park the car on the side and sleep the night off OR follow a bus or a truck slowly till I reach the next town. The second was going to be very tricky and perhaps dangerous, but I wasn’t going to sleep the night off in the ghats for obvious reasons. So after almost 30 trucks and buses had zipped past me, finally a truck came to my rescue, heavily loaded and slow enough to follow. The idea was to drive within 2 meters range behind the truck and follow its front headlight to navigate the turns, but it turned out to be a bad call. The truck was so wide that I could barely see its front lights and only one of its back red lights was working, so it was even harder to judge its edges. Within 2-3 minutes I was back to a halt. With nothing else seeming like a wise option, I took out my phone to dial for help. And as you rightly guessed….no signal!
Epic! I was so totally stuck.
While the first attempt at following the truck was useless, I decided to give it another shot, but this time perhaps a car. Finding a slow car was going to be much tougher, but luckily I found one, slowly working the ghats’ turns. For the first time ever I was happy to see what I saw next, an L (Learner’s) mark at the back of the car. No wonder the car was so slow. While it was slightly easier following a car than a truck, it was still a risk. If you are ever driving on a dark road, try it maybe. Switch off the headlamps for a few seconds. Just for the kicks! You’ll know the feeling. For the next 30-35 minutes, I followed the car and reached Malkapur. It must be about 10 pm, but the town still had some life. Yet, what were the chances that I’ll find a garage open? Nil. They were all closed. Disappointed, I walked up to a tea shop to ask if there was any lodge I could spend the night at. The tea shop guy was a young boy, Ashok, who was in a mood for a chat. And I needed someone to crib to. He started to brag about this world famous mechanic in their town who could repair anything. You bet! I told him I once had a dog that could wash clothes.
But he insisted and offered to take me to the mechanic’s house. Thinking that this could help me get back to Pune tonight, I accepted the offer. We waited for his father, who had gone to get some dinner, to get back so he didn’t have to shut the shop. While we were getting into the car, two more boys jumped out of nowhere and got into the rear seat. For the first time that night, I felt the “oh shit’ feeling. They were Ashok’s friends and joined in since for them it seemed like an adventure to take me to the mechanic’s house. But I wasn’t feeling that adventure, especially on a night that had already been too strange. I took my time starting the engine, giving myself time to think if I wanted to bail out of this. I decided to go ahead with it. If these boys meant harm, they were already in the car. I had to deal with it now. They guided me towards some dark by lanes and I was scheming on how I’ll jump out and grab the tool kit if the need arose. Eventually, they lead me to the mechanic’s house as they had promised. We had to wake up the mechanic but he very amicably helped me out. Turns out that previous mechanic at Lanja had used an inferior fuse which gave up.
Within 5 minutes the lights were on and I was back on road, but not before I had captured them all together with my Nikon. I dropped the boys back to the tea shop and offered them some money and a box of Alphonsos for having been so kind. They politely declined the offer saying it was their duty to help someone in need. With a promise to stop by for tea whenever I visited their world again, I put some Floyd on and accelerated towards Pune.
One of the most memorable trips in Avanturas’ journey.
PS: The Orchard is 190 KMs from Baga Beach, Goa. If you are travelling to Goa, it’ll be a good idea to add this experience to the itinerary.
Best season: Jan-April.
For details, connect with Avanturas.