Wednesday, 16 December 2009


We completed 10 years of marriage together yesterday. 1/4 of our lives so far.

We were all up at 4 AM to start our epic trip to Matheran - but not before a small time of cake and flowers and cards and joy and grateful prayer. Asha presented me with a cloth cross-stitched book-mark - her first cross stich - done in painful secrecy to me. A very happy family left the home at 5 AM for Thane station - and our day of adventure!

One of the total highlights of the whole time was the amazing toy train.

When you get into the tiny carriages - you have no idea how wonderful the ride is going to be. After a slow and (at least for our carriage) slightly bumpy ride up an initial few hill ridges, you suddenly come right up against the side of the Matheran plateau.

From then on it is up, up, up and you see the most wonderful scenery unfold around you, even as you look down a sheer drop from your bar-less windows.

The beauty of the Sahaydri hills takes your breath away. And to think that just a few minutes earlier we had gotten off one of the many Mumbai local trains that ferry crammed boxes of people to and fro their workplaces in their daily grinds!

This amazing train covers 126 kms between Neral and Matheran. It is both slow and fast.

Slow because you move at a leisurely pace - able to soak in the views as you judder along the little narrow track on the thin man-made ledge of stone.

Fast, because we soon come to the famous 'one-kiss tunnel' - a tiny little tunnel which allows for just a single kiss before the light floods the carriage again (being a 10th anniv. there were plenty of excuses for being honey-mooney).

Fast, because before you know it, your 2 hours are up, and you are scooting through the forest crown that covers the flat top of the Matheran plateau.

As you come close to the town, you start to smell the horses. No vehicles are allowed in Matheran - not even bicycles. The only transportation are horses and human-pulled rickshaws. The horse owning lobby has zealously kept others out. And are making plenty off the throngs to tourists who make it up to the top during the peak seasons.

And then there are the monkeys too.

Nice to see from afar.

Not so nice close by.

We had just come to the 'Hope Hall Hotel' - a spartan place (no guesses for who chose it) - run by a quirky goan family. Enoch and I went to check in while Sheba and Asha lay down after the walk through the bazaar.

The door was open.

Before they knew it, Sheba and Asha had guests. A troop of rhesus monkeys. Not friendly either. They instantly started trying to loot our things. A shout from Sheba and Asha and the hotel boy who was bringing water rushed in to the rescue and chased out at least 6 of them.

By the time Enoch and I returned, the door was firmly shut. And so it remained. Generations of tourists have taught generations of monkeys to take advantage of them. We saw numerous people being boldly attacked and have packages snatched from them. One was a pack of kholapuri chappals. The monkey took it to a roof and opened it - only to leave it up there in disgust when if found out that it had stolen something inedible.

The kids had been looking forward to horse-riding.

The big moment finally came.

We gave in to the friendliest of the touts and 'negotiated' a ride with 3 mounts for something close to the amount being demanded by Somali pirates.

However, no sooner had the family mounted, than most decided that riding was not their thing after all. Various shrieks and shouts while walking through the bazaar - and then the ride was over. Bemused horse-men were paid off with a tip and the Eichers continued the trip to "One Tree Hill" on foot.

A ride had become a hike. And a splendid time was had by all!

To be out in the woods. To be alone. To be wandering at mid-day in the cool of the hills and the warmth of the sun. What a joy to be at Belvedere point - absolutely only us - and look down ravishing heights to a large reservoir - with magnificent cliffs on all sides and tinouses in a village below - nestled in the trees.

The charms of Matheran caught us quick.

Our intrepid family did the 7 kms round trip with a lot of gusto - and oohs and aahs - and many rest-stops and a final push back to the bazaar and a late lunch. While we feasted on tandoori roti and chicken (and Asha ate her normal rice-dal) the TV was cackling about India and Sri Lanka clobbering each other on the cricket field. Another world from ours in Matheran - but one being avidly followed.

So much of the place - however - was decaying. The old stately homes seem largely to have gone to seed.

Other than the garish shops selling chikki and leather sandals - and the amazing variety of hotels (most with hair-standing crassness on offer) - the place is pretty dead. I wondered how many of the school children we saw were planning to stay in Matheran - and how many had their eyes fixed on Mumbai.

As for the Parsis, who were the real founders and establishers of Matheran - their influence seems mainly to linger in the estates that still bear the exotic names like Jeejeebhoy.

We didn't meet anyone who identified themselves as Parsi during our short stay - but then we only had a sample day of 1.

The other oddly decrepid thing were the horses.

Now there were the odd handsome ones -buffed up and sharp looking, ready for tourists to mount them.
But the bulk of the horses looked sad overused. Especially the occassional train of pack horses, straining under their heavy loads - and the occasional whack from their masters.

We passed a camp of them this morning as the train wound us down the mountain again. Each horse had a feed bag on and were munching in the mist. What would today's labour mean for these gentle beasts?

Suffice it to say - that seeing Matheran with adult eyes is very different from seeing it through the wild-eyed vision of a 7th grader.

We came down the mountain deeply refreshed in our hearts. Still tired in our bodies and minds because of the mountain of work that met us back in Thane. But very very glad that we were able to do this trip.

Now to make sure it is not another 10 years before we foray out like this to Matheran - and beyond!

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