- Saptadeepa Bandopadhyay
Not far from home - A weekend escape to Coorg amidst the pandemic!
Life has been pretty much the same through most of 2020! Some days are so monotonous that we hardly bother about the time we eat or bath. The essentials too get home delivered across my city, making all reasons to venture outdoors absolutely unimportant.
Though we are shocked and would like to pinch ourselves hard to discover that all this Covid-19 pandemic situation is an sci-fi dream, but much to our disappointment it's our reality now.
Amidst all this, I am grateful for a job that is flexible enough to have allowed my to work from the safety of my home, but at the same time it has dissolved the work-life balance. Today work is everywhere, starting from the kitchen to the bed or even the loo. My privilege to choose a life I admire, to connect and disconnect from a virtual office environment after nine hours has dissolved!
So when travel regulations within my home state of Karnataka were relaxed, we took a leap of desperation to escape our caged concrete nests to the land of spices and coffee, Coorg!
I had known this time it would be quiet different, but I had not expected such aghast difference in the before and after pandemic scenes across my journey.
This was not my first time to Coorg, so I pretty much had a good idea of the place! Nor was I wanting to cover any specific 'Places to visit in Coorg' list this particular season.
A summary on Coorg -
Coorg is a little mountain district of Karnataka state located in the Western Ghats of India. Its a nature lover's serendipity! Coorg is an unpredictable wetland, with misty mornings and humid often afternoons followed by rains in the evening. The dense rainforests here are known for their variety of wildlife. The favorable conditions of Coorg are also known for its spice and coffee plantations.
The indigenous Kodava warrior tribe who also join the Indian army in large numbers originally belong to Coorg/Kodagu.
Here is how we experienced Coorg differently this time!
We started from Bengaluru much before sunrise (around 4 am) over an early September weekend and slept in the backseat of the car until sunrise. The prevalent Metro constructions along with the monsoons had the highways in a sad state. So sleeping didn't remain a choice until long.
The scenes of wet and lush green neighbourhoods through my car window was immensely satisfying to my caged apartment soul. This time however I missed people and open store scenes throughout the journey. Eateries selling the staple south Indian breakfasts, coffee stalls were scarcely visible. However when we were bored of our packed snacks and the stomach growled for a proper satiating breakfast, we asked the chauffeur to halt at a hygienic south Indian restaurant. We were relieved that the place was following all safety precautions before we ordered our breakfast. After a plateful of Idli vadas with Sambar and Chutney followed by the authentic local coffee, we resumed our journey towards Coorg (or Kodagu, as the local name goes).
From my last visit's memories, I wanted to visit Kushalnagara's Namdroling Monastery and the Tibetan colony. Namdroling is the only Buddhist monastery of South India and has a calmingly serene vibe of it's own.
Having been misguided by a local, we drove all the way to the monastery only to find it's large gates shut! How I wish I could have visited it this time, this place so vividly remains in my memories still date!
Starting here, I knew that the administration across states must have been planning to open up transport and tourism but it only depended on the local communities who would and should rightfully withhold the decision to allow tourists or outsiders. I am in complete support of the fact that just for the sake of travel, communities must not expose themselves to the dreadful coronavirus until the pandemic is under control.
No regrets, as I was out for a dose of fresh breeze and I should not be put any other lives at risk for my sake of free clean air.
Nisarga Dhama -
We stopped at Nisarga Dhama natural retreat which had a bunch of protocols to be followed before entering. There were no tourists around, no kids rushing to get the glimpse of deer at the Deer park or waiting for an elephant ride.
But I had found what my heart was yarning for in the past few months. The wilderness of the bamboo forest, fresh green new leaves on every tree, smell of moist soil, hissing of crickets and the gushing sounds of the overflowing Kaveri River had awakened my dormant sense to life.
After soaking in the monsoon winds and admiring the mangroves around the gushing Kaveri river, we walked back to the car.
Abbey Falls -
In no time, we were in the heart of Coorg city. We visited the Abbey falls, which was gushing and roaring through its milky-white water fall. Abbey falls has been a crowd puller and this time too it was no different. There were less tourists but there were locals who were obviously enjoying the undivided share of their towns beauty.
We were next on the mission to locate our 'Tree-house' which we had booked online but was not visible on the Google maps. All attempts to reach the owner failed because of limited connectivity. Asking few locals and then driving past a few high-end resorts, when we reached the end of the tar road, we knew that we were staying amidst the jungle.
Through the murky wet route when we reached the end of the mountain cliff, we saw a lone building standing between the clouds overlooking the forest on one side and a valley on the other.
That is how you socially distance I said!
I was suspicious to remove my masks but saw our host family happily roaming around with minimum safety gears. We soon realized, we were the first guest to the property after they opened up post-lockdown. Our hosts were managing every bit of the caretaking, cooking, cleaning as their staff had left mid-March, 2020 and never returned. Small businesses will obviously face the difficulties, knowing that the migrant workers have left their jobs and shifted to their villages.
We enjoyed every bit of the stay at this place where you heard only birds singing or experienced sudden bouts of showers while enjoying the green views! We were tired from the road trip, so after a wholesome meal it was time for a afternoon nap! I only woke up to catch the last glimpse of the pink sky before the sun set, the birds chirped until dark for their folks to return home!
Our host had been pampering us with their authentic homemade recipes until it was pitch dark outside and we only heard the hissing of the cricket! We chatted for a while and then retarded soon in our jungle-beds.
We woke up with the sun! The moment we stepped out to the balcony, I saw the mild morning sun, lazily peeping from the clouds over the foggy forest. The sunrays on the drenched trees, gave the leaves a shimmery glow all around the forest.
Soon after the morning chai, we enquired about the surrounding and wandered around the property going up and down the hills and then running back when a leech tried to attack my feet. The surrounding seemed so densely forested but had some local village houses, grazing cattle and pet dogs in the vicinity. As instructed we didn't venture far, so that we don't lose our way back!
After a warm water bath and a wholesome breakfast we bid goodbyes to our host and drove down to Coorg Town. Our hunger for the outdoors, fresh air, green views and feeling the rain on our skin had been finally satiated. We didn't have much hopes of getting the tourist attractions open, but that would not be a regret anymore!
Omkareshwara temple -
Ironically though we got a few places to visit which we had not seen the last time we came here.
Like the surreal walk through the premises of Omkareshwara temple past it water talk being filled by occasional drizzles. We were there at the time of the afternoon aarti ritual, and we witnessed the local traditional Karnatic Maaha Puja and offerings. Some old women adorned their Coorgi style saree.
Temples in India are the closest one can get to explore the traditional side of a place in India. Omkareshwara temple is a strange mix of Islamic and Gothic architectural style with a dome-like structure in the center and four minarets in the corners. It is a Shiva Temple established by then King Lingarajendra II in 1820.
Raja's Seat -
We also wandered around the garden of Raja's Seat, while soaking in the views of the lower meadows that made the surrounding so pretty and green! We stood there admiring the tiny trucks on the serpentine roads of the valley below. Our day-dream ended abruptly after a sudden spell of shower that made use run for shelter.
The place had few tourists and some local teenagers who were allowed only after a temperature check.
Raja's seat is a famous sunset spot for tourists visiting Coorg. The seat of the King lies in the center of the garden, facing the beautiful valley from there. The King must have used this spot to enjoy the perfect sunset views.
Coorg Fort -
Last in town we visited the Coorg Fort which was also open to visitors. It seems like an old structure almost in ruins. There was bright green moss and grass all around the old walls and buildings. We walked around the premises and climbed the broad walls which gives a distant view of the premises otherwise guided by these walls. There is a temple within the premise which you may visit.
A British ruler had constructed a Gothic style church when he must have taken over from the local ruler. The church is today converted into a museum that displays antiques and history related to the district of Coorg. A part of the fort is converted into the Deputy Commissioner's office and a part is used as the district jail.
A must stop to the local market -
Before leaving, we visited the market to stock some fresh spices and handmade chocolates for our home. Coorg is very well known for its spice plantations all across its mountains. One can sign-up for a plantation walk if you do not visit in the monsoons.
My thoughts on tourism in the times of Covid-19 pandemic -
One thing I have understood from this tour is that we are far from a normal travel.
Until the vaccines are in or the scare of the virus is luring over our heads, travel definitely needs to slow down.
Public transports, shared or hostel accommodations and budget backpack travels have an added risk of coming in touch with strangers and exposing ourselves as well as others to the coronavirus.
Private transports and accommodations following proper safety protocols have to be chosen to maintain social distancing.
Destinations have to be explored over longer stays than ticking of the popular tourist places around a location.
We need to look for activities close to the nature that crowding the places of attraction. Staycation (or the new buzz word - workcation) are a better better alternative.
I couldn't ignore the youth, around streets and markets sitting aimlessly, on my way back. I may not know them but I could definitely feel their fears of the uncertain future. Their expression told, that we would die of hunger than the virus. Not many wore masks. Our chauffeur exclaimed that villagers wore masks to avoid the police lathis but not for the fear of the virus.
We tried checking a few favorite spots around Mysore on our way back, but were turned away from all of them.