The Road to Lonavala

Annalise and I had planned to travel to Panchgani on our second day away from CRHP, yet when we arrived with our backpacks at the bus station, the bus had not yet arrived. We waited, and waited, standing awkwardly by the buses and slightly away from everyone else, keeping steady watch over the comings and goings of the buses. Finally, I walked over to the ticket counter, and learned that, due to a strike, our bus wouldn’t be coming at all. I was unsure at first, was the ticket seller telling us to go to a different bus stop? Annalise and I decided to walk back to our hotel and ask the staff there for help. The woman at Hotel Samrat called the bus station and discovered for us that no buses would be running to Panchgani until the strike ended. When will that be? Unsure.

We decided to go to a museum, and after a quick Google search, we chose the Doshan museum. We made sure that we’d have a room in Hotel Samrat for the night, left our belongings in the room, and set out again into the city.

We spent the day walking around, investigating shops and roads and finding interesting places to eat. What are the chances we get sick at this place? Our inability to drink unfiltered water challenged us significantly in our choices of dining, but we settled on using our intuition to determine whether or not we could eat at an establishment (I can positively say that this tactic worked, since I am now sitting in the Mumbai airport about to leave, and neither I nor Annalise became ill from any of the food we ate).

We met Ravi (the director of CRHP) for dinner, and he asked us to decide about going to Panchgani. “If you go tomorrow, even if the buses are working, there is no guarantee you will be able to come back. And you don’t want to get caught on the road during a strike.” But this might be the only time I can visit, and meet the family of an incredible college mentor. Ravi explained reasonably that we might make our own decision, but that if we were to get hurt in any way, it would reflect back on him and CRHP. “Do you want to go back to Jamkhed?” Annalise and I were both eager to go on an adventure despite the setback, and we asked for Ravi’s advice and decided to drive to Lonavala, which appeared to be a mountainous town an hour and a half away from Pune.

When we arrived, we were dropped off at a hotel we’d identified as probably good from a Google search. As we walked in, I smelled the fresh air of open windows and many, many plants. Yes, there was a room available (Annalise had called earlier to ask the price), and yes, they would give us the discount they mentioned over the phone. We were shown upstairs to a lovely, incredibly comfortable room, and we unpacked and spent a few moments simply content to sit on a soft bed.

There was a list of local attractions on the bedside table, and Annalise picked it up. She read the spellings out loud and I laid stomach-down on the bed, Google searching each place to determine whether or not we should prioritize this one or that one. We finally decided to walk to a temple in our first day, and quickly set out into the cool afternoon.

Our walk was dominated by the color green. It had recently rained, so the cement was a dark gray color, and the moss and vines were the brightest of greens. I marveled at the distinct colors, while also being careful not to step into one of the many puddles dotting our path. We walked up and down, climbing small hills, and passing through shopping areas, neighborhoods, and open fields.

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It was very obvious when we had reached the temple because of the bright salmon-colored wall which rose to our left. Where is the entrance? We walked along this wall, noticing the intricate paintings along it, until we reached a massive entrance gate. We walked through, following trains of worshippers and the curious into the temple compound. We left our shoes at the bottom of a staircase, then walked up, entering an open air space with diamond and jewel statues of deities. I stood in front of the middle deity, a female, her lips lifted in a smile and her eyes welcoming. As I stood there, lost in the intricacy of the statue and her background, I heard a woman start speaking with Annalise to my left. I could only make out a murmur, and I slowly shifted my attention away from the deity and to Annalise. An older woman with lovely grey-black hair and a soft face held Annalise’s hands in her palm, and had placed white blossoms in her hand. “This is for your eyes,” she told Annalise, and closed her fingers over the flowers. An older man, who I assumed to be the woman’s husband, approached me, smiling openly. His fingers uncurled, showing two mounds of sweets. He broke part off from each, and grabbed my hand. He put two smaller lumps of the orange and brown sweets in my palm, and told me to eat them. He pointed to the priests dressed in bright orange robes, and I saw how they gave each worshipper a small piece of the sweets. The woman turned away and returned to her puja (worship), sitting on a small stool facing the female deity and swaying slightly. The man struck up a conversation with us, while also making sure that we ate the sweets in our hands. He used to be a flight attendant, he told us, and his English was very good. We chatted for a few minutes, talking about our homes and the beauty of the temple.

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That night, we chose to have dinner in our hotel. The hotel served a buffet, and despite the fact that neither Annalise nor I had ever tried any of the foods listed, we decided to trust in the goodness of Indian cooking and go for it. We sat at a small table, and a young man brought a plate with small metal dishes arrayed in a rainbow shape across the plate. More men walked out of the kitchen with pots of different vegetable curries, sweet desserts, yogurts, and breads. I tried everything, including a salty drink which I very much disliked; the owner of the hotel came over, though, and asked if I’d tried the drink. “It’s very good, you must try it!” I tasted it for him, and exclaimed at its deliciousness, not wanting to insult the cooking. I drank the whole cup, and Annalise and I broke into a fit of laughter.IMG_2525IMG_7639

We spent the next day exploring Lonavala via a six-hour taxi rental (the price was surprisingly affordable). I watched the landscape pass by, sometimes rolling down my window. We drove upwards, higher and higher, to reach “Lion’s Point” and as we moved into the clouds, our driver put his window down. He turned his face toward us, eyes still on the road. “Natural oxygen!” He explained, and I rolled down my window and breathed. Every time we reached a new special point or area, our driver pulled over and we walked around. Once, when we reached a dam, as Annalise and I walked toward the entrance we noticed that everyone had their pant legs rolled up to knee height or higher. You don’t actually get into the dam, do you? Neither of us was prepared for what we found, when we reached the edge of the path toward the dam. People were wading through knee-high water, dark and muddy, to reach a series of steps which were also under water and which people climbed to reach the top of the dam. I took one look at the water and everything in my body said nope. Annalise and I debated for at least five minutes. Both of us saw ourselves as adventurous people, but neither of us wanted to step into that water. It was a miniature identity crisis, and soon, we decided that we needed to calm down and not let our determination to be adventurous be our first priority. We walked back, and our taxi driver ran out of a small restaurant. “Just two minutes!” He explained, apologizing; he’d obviously expected us to take a lot longer to walk to the dam. We apologized profusely and walked the opposite direction, finding an outcropping of rocks and climbing the slippery, muddy path. At the top, we were witness to a breathtaking view of the city.

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As had gone our quests for finding safe restaurants, we picked our means of returning to Pune by asking around a bit, but eventually following our intuition. Our taxi driver dropped us off at the railway station in Lonavala, and we bought tickets for 15 Rupees each for the local train to Pune. We found a place to sit near the tracks and waited for the train to arrive. When it did, I saw a series of men leap onto the train, grabbing handrails and spinning themselves into the doorways to sell wares before everyone else. Annalise and I watched how other people were getting on; did we have assigned seating, or a certain train car we should get onto? No one else seemed worried about this, so we followed the crowd onto the train and sat on a bench seat with one woman and two men. I smiled at the woman, who smiled back, and I settled in for the ride. Annalise offered an earphone, and we listened to a podcast she’d downloaded on her phone. I watched the towns and villages speed by through the painted blue bars of the train, and listened both to the podcast and the songs of men and women hawking goods to the passengers.

Our time in Lonavala was short, but there is something to a last-minute adventure, especially one which is planned despite some setback. We defied the complications of having no hotel, no concrete ideas of what we would do, no real idea of how to get back to Pune once we got there, and we made it work. We let it work. These small adventures always build my trust in people, in myself, and in life.

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