Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Holiday and back to work 1

Part I Setting Up a Holiday

It was a long time since I had taken a proper vacation. This was largely because I was pulled between work pressures and also had this need to keep going back to Bangalore to be with parents everytime there was some time available. This time I made a conscious decision to plan a seven day off from everything that I was doing. Work pressures be damned, they are going to be there all the time. It was therefore a question of getting the timing right and freezing on the plans. One of the things I had checked out was a trip to Bhuj/Gandhidham/Kutch. But given the soaring temperatures, we really had to look at something that was more tolerable in summer. We then looked at three options before the trip – Goa, Vishakhapattanam and Coorg/Kabini. The former because of the sea and the latter because we had really heard about Kabini from a few friends. Given that I was in Ahmedabad, Gowri and Arjun were in Bangalore we decided that taking a holiday from the Bangalore base would be the best.

So it was Kabini/Coorg afterall, but then was the other task of planning out the sequence and what we wanted to do. As we were taking this break after such a long time, I had in my mind that it should be as comfortable and well paced. I therefore consciously avoided public transport in the consideration. For this time, I also did not want to reach destinations without reservations, having to haggle at railway stations or bus stands, or wait. I knew that I was taking an expensive option, but decided that it was worth the indulgence.

We bought the Outlook book on 52 weekend breaks from Bangalore, to check out on the options to stay and also to figure out what the possibilities were as far as our tour was concerned. While it was more or less decided that Kabini Jungle Lodge will be the non-negotiable part of the trip, the question was to figure out what we would do around this. I called Jungle Lodges and Resorts to find out the availability and found that getting an accommodation was not very simple. It was generally booked and holiday seasons was full to the brim. One of the constraints we imposed on ourselves was to look at staying in Kabini for two nights rather than one – a decision which we were very pleased with, in retrospect. It was a bit risky because of the expense involved and also because the promo materials of Jungle Lodges had a clear one day list of activities, but was a bit vague about the second day. The person at the counter – who was harassed with several phone calls and customers asking for multiple dates was not very helpful in telling us what we do on the second day and therefore there was an element of risk. However we did take the call and booked for two nights in a tented accommodation.

I had heard that the Jungle Lodges are very professionally managed and one could see that while the general approach was that of a government undertaking – right from wanting upfront full payments, to the need for a demand draft if you were booking from off site [and non acceptance of cheques] and the non-availability of the option of online payments they had moved slightly in some payment options if you were at the booking office – that they accepted credit cards was a saving grace! The nice thing about the sarkaari set ups are that once they decide to get into the serious act, they do their job quite well – helpful in customer interface [not necessarily courteous], and a certain non-elite approach. For the middle class it puts you into great level of comfort. The choice of accommodation was between a cottage, a tented accommodation and a regular sort of a room. We thought it would be exotic to stay in a tented accommodation, and that was a bit cheaper than the others. It was a good decision even in retrospect.

So there we were armed with a booking for 2 night stay in Jungle Lodges and trying figure out how we were going to append an additional 2-3 days to this. Coorg looked inviting, but the options were several – do we go to Coorg first and then come to the Lodge, do we opt for a plantation stay or a hotel in coorg and how do we organize the logistics of reaching the Jungle Lodge from whichever route we were taking. It was clear that while it was possible to reach Coorg using a KSRTC bus [with appropriate reservations] it was absolutely necessary to have own transport for reaching the Jungle Lodges. The lady at the booking counter [and the website] gave us two options of taxi operators who they suggested were reliable. I called up Skyway and had a chat with Amaravati [also calling herself Vishal] and she infused enough confidence in me. For one, Skyway had offices in Bangalore, Mysore and Mercara. She was from Mercara and not only offered to provide transport, but also organize the stay and itinerary at the Coorg end. It was a bit of a burden taken off me, and I had to trust Skyway to come up with things interesting and not take us for a ride. Our preferred option was a plantation stay, but the places that we wanted to check out [using the Outlook book] were all full. Vishal suggested that she would book us and get us a fair deal in Coorg International Hotel. Given the availability of dates in Kabini, we had to choose to go to Kabini first, as the availability was too close to my being able to take days off. So Coorg was back ended and Vishal sent us in a suggested itinerary. She also took online payments, [and to be on the safe side, wanted payments in full for travel as well as for the stay in Coorg] though it appeared that she was quite flexible and friendly about the entire transaction. So the planning though not elaborate and dictated by the theory of bounded rationality, we froze on the plans for a five day trip – two nights in Kabini and three in Mercara.

Though the reporting time at Kabini was only around 12.00 noon, we decided to leave early. We thought it would be a good idea to stop over and meet some relatives in Mysore and be there early. We had asked the car to report at 6.00 am and Hemant, the driver had called the previous night to find out the location of our house and promptly reported on dot. We were all set and armed – a pair of good binoculars which Arjun had borrowed from his aunt and two identical pairs of binoculars that were a part of Arjun’s few sophisticated toys, a digital camera and a normal one and tons of eatables and water. A trip to Butter Sponge the previous day had put a small hole in the pocket, but was again, well worth it.

Hemant was a good chap. He was from Somvarpet. He had done these trips often and told us that Skyway specialized in offering services to the Jungle Lodges customers and rarely took up other assignments. Therefore their drivers knew the beat well. Though Vishal had warned us that the road from Kabini to Mercara could be bad, Hemant said that it was pretty decent. Any day I would take the driver’s word than the owner’s! He was quite careful in driving and was also well behaved – and appeared patient. The last thing one wants to have on a six day trip is an irritable driver. The only thing that worried us was that he had just returned from Coorg – a fairly long drive and had reached Bangalore at around 3.00 am. So, we were concerned about his lack of sleep and told him that at any point that he felt drowsy he could stop by. The other thing I clearly told him when the first mobile ring came in was that he would pull up, if he wanted to take a call. He was quite nice about this as well. Having used taxis on long distance travel often, I wonder what keeps these drivers going – the art of staying awake for long hours and also catching up on sleep whenever there is a break. I have never seen a driver who would not be deep in slumber if you have got dropped in the car and come back an hour later! Well I suppose they do get used to controlling their sleep cycles, and those who do not, possibly add to the accident statistics of the country.

It was nice to be with Gowri and Arjun, and it was a great feeling to be going off like this, without a meeting scheduled at the other end of the journey. As we approached Srirangapattana, I asked Gowri is she was willing to visit the Ranganathaswamy temple. For me, having stayed in Mysore for a few years and having ferried hoards of relatives to this place, it was nostalgic to get back. I had not been to this temple for more than 20 years and thought it was worth a visit. So we headed for our first stop on the way. I somehow got the feeling that the place had run down a little bit. I did not find the same vibrancy that I had expected, but my memories were too rusty to really take a call on whether it was indeed so or it was just in my mind. We had a good walk inside the temple, had a darshan – more for the sake of Arjun who was possibly seeing a reclining god for the first time and came back.

One dilemma that I face everytime I visit a temple is a question of where to take the footwear off. Given that we were actually off on a safari, I was not even in my slippers, but in sneakers. In Srirangapattana, and every other place we took the footwear off in the car, and each time we regretted it! It was nice to drive around Srirangapattana and that place does not seem to have changed in the last several decades. We did not go to the other places of tourist importance there – Darya Daulat, Gumbaz or Sangam nor did we stop by the fort or the place of the death of Tipu. The detour was just incidental and not planned, and there would be more occasions for us to visit these places if needed.

After a brief stopover in Mysore – where we had some lovely bisi-bele-bath made by my sister’s mother-in-law we were headed to Kabini. In the previous week I had traveled on official duty on the Mananthavady road to visit a few students who were on fieldwork at Myrada’s field location near Hand Post in HD Kote. I felt familiar with the road and had also done my inquiries about Kabini. Now, we were on the actual journey. As I said earlier, it was possibly a good decision to have Skyway send the car, because Hemant knew the route very well and as we approached Kabini also knew what roads to avoid in order to reach more comfortably. He took a 10 kilometer detour nearer the resort as he said that the three kilometer shorter strech was awful. The road from Kerala border – all the way to Kabini and beyond – a strech of some 40 kilometers has not been attended to in years. Apparently the forest department is party to this non-performance as speeding vehicles on these roads have killed some wild life in the past. Thus it was necessary to avoid driving on these streches if alternatives were available to save your back and behind.

The welcome at Kabini was quite warm. We were stopped at the reception for a briefing, the bookings checked and without much fuss ushered into our tent. The person at the reception told us to have lunch and report at 3.00 pm for a tea to be followed by a briefing and a safari.

The tented accommodation is quite nice. Given that Jungle Lodges extracts a heavy price from its tourist, the facilities can at best be said to be modest for the price. I never understood the logic of pricing on a “per person” basis, as most of the spaces they had were on the basis of twin occupancy. I guess it would have been much better to have a per tent/room basis with premium charged on extra occupancy. We had a single person staying in the next tent paying a third of what we were paying for the same accommodation! Well, I guess the logic of per person charges is something to do with the entire package which includes lots of variable costs such as food and trips into the Jungle. The tent had an attached bath, a tea kettle with ample supplies of tea, milk powder, coffee and sugar and adequate lighting, a fan and a couple of plug points for plugging in your mobile charger or the laptop. Obviously one did not expect to have a television and there was no chair inside. The bathroom was almost as spacious as the room itself with a shower and all other facilities, including a supply of hotwater from the nearby fuelwood fired boiler. When we came out, we saw a fire extinguisher perked up promptly on a tree near our tent.. just in case there was a forest fire??!!


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