When the rest of the gang left for Bangalore, I returned to the room to indulge in my favourite activity on holidays – watching TV. Having no access to cable in Chennai, all opportunities when one can catch up on the latest Bollywood songs (still Himesh Bhai) and music videos (still vulgar) is used by me with enthusiasm. I lay in bed entranced for nearly two hours.
I had contemplated endlessly on the return leg and had finally decided to hire a cab from Mangalore. My train that night was at 9 and the journey from Kudremukh by car would take just a couple of hours. I had thought of an elaborate plan involving leaving in the morning and checking out Dharmasthala and Kukke Subramanya on the way. Eventually, the cost of hiring a car and more importantly, the fear of Naxalites (supposedly the area has its share) looting a single passenger overwhelmed all other thoughts and I decided to take the local bus to Mangalore. This also meant that I could not do the planned detours and as I lay watching the flickering images on screen, I was happy enough to have a relaxed itinerary.
My bus was at two in the afternoon. By twelve thirty, I had packed, bathed, had lunch and reminded the surly old man at the counter about my rickshaw to the bus stand at least three times. Each time, he showed further indifference and at one fifteen, I planted myself next to the reception with my luggage, pretending to read the newspaper. Then I decided to infuse some life into his interest levels on the rickshaw by informing him I had to buy a water bottle on the way. So when the rickshaw had not turned up by one forty, he got a bit worried. Finally, the vehicle turned up in full speed and like a knight in shining armour, the young driver jumped out and stowed my bag at the back and set off. I tipped the surly old man with whom I had now bonded well enough for him to tell me about the delights of Udipi, his hometown. Two minutes into the ride, we were at a large tree. The driver informed me that this was the bus stand. There were no signs of life there barring the three people standing around desultorily. The driver volunteered to go to the store and buy my water bottles lest I missed the bus. Touched and guilty (I already had a full bottle of water and had used the story as a ruse), I went to the store myself. The driver then instructed the three bystanders to put me in the Mangalore bus. Apparently my inability to speak the local language had been equated with an IQ level too low to board the correct bus.
The bus arrived with ‘Mangalore’ written in big, bold English lettering. Nevertheless, the three locals gestured to me wildly that this was the bus I was to take and instructed the fourteen-year-old conductor to look after me. Hauling my luggage inside, I placed myself behind the driver’s seat. This provided a strategic view of the road and would give first hand info about any Naxals who may care to attack. As it turned out my most exciting challenge seemed to be balancing my suitcase, my bag and my water bottle as the bus winded through various hairpin bends with gusto. I dozed a bit and then began to watch with interest as town upon town passed by with Gomateswara temples. This place seemed to be a major Jain hotspot.
After nearly an hour and a half, we arrived at a major town. I had not heard of the place till then but it was big enough to boast of a DTH operator. We were asked to switch to another bus, which was headed to Mangalore. The conductor, remembering my alleged low IQ, gave me special instructions by gesturing wildly. Along with the other passengers, I rushed to the other bus to bag a good seat. Despite my modest Salwar kameez, I was still sticking out like a sore thumb thanks to my short hair, height, trolley suitcase and other signs of being urban. So when my suitcase tumbled and fell, I heard a louder guffaw than what I had expected. Amused and mortified, I boarded the other bus and sat behind the driver again.
This bus was pretty crowded and was getting more so. One of the prime reasons was the driver’s tendency to stop the bus for any passer by who looked like he might want to go to Mangalore. More often than not, most people simply stood outside their homes, stuck their thumbs out when the bus approached and boarded the bus. I was more than happy since reaching Mangalore early would be mean more efforts to entertain myself and this journey was quite entertaining. We passed through Suratkal and I caught a glimpse of the famous REC (now NIT) where a lot of my friends had studied. The road had been good till this point but deteriorated steadily after this. However, Mangalore was only 30 kms away.
When we reached Mangalore, I waited till the last stop to get off. Then turning to the driver, I asked him directions to the railway station. The driver began to scold in Kannada. I watched perplexed and then asked the conductor for directions, who scolded me too, but in Hindi. I finally understood that both of them were upset that I had not told I wanted to get to the railway station beforehand since it was on the way and they could have easily stopped the bus there. I was touched yet again and began to finally appreciate all the help I had been receiving on the journey. I bade them goodbye, went to the railway station, checked my luggage into cloak and headed back to the city.
My first stop was the Poonja Intl hotel where I had stayed during the Konkan trip in November. I walked into the empty restaurant on the first floor. The curtains were drawn, the air conditioning was off and when my eyes got used to the darkness, the first sight that greeted me was that of a dark Santa Claus approaching me, grinning menacingly. I nearly jumped out of my skin and then remembered it was Christmas. Being an up market place, the hotel had thought to put up decorations and hire a local to dress the part. Upon closer examination I realised that Santa was clearly embarrassed by this alien tradition that involved him approaching strangers and going ‘HO HO HO’. My negative reaction had not encouraged him and distraught, he soon left. I gestured to the group of waiters crowded around a TV and placed the order for tea. The air conditioning stayed off and instead a giant table fan was placed next to me. The waiters also kindly tuned the TV next to my table into a Hindi channel and went off to continue their Kannada movie in a TV at the other end. We were a contented group, doing our own thing.
After hot tea and a wash, I browsed the streets to pick up second hand books and then had dinner at Mangalore’s best restaurant, Palki. The restaurant employees were nice and if they found a young woman dining alone disconcerting, they did not let it show. Being there for the second time and not being a stranger gave the city a charm I did not know it had. Not to mention, the friendliness of most strangers there also made me realise that there was more to the place than gorgeous beaches. My trip was now at an end and I boarded the train happy and content.