A Winter’s Trail

Some numb-fingered recollections
Winter Travel
Golden Gate Bridge, San  Francisco
A road that  passes through a tunnel cut into  the trunk of a giant Sequoia tree  at Yosemite National Park
SOAK UP THE SUN  Apart from lazing  about the beach, there  is diving, snorkelling  and much else to be  done in the Maldives
The Ooty  countryside retains the charm that  seduced the Scots who flocked here
Ashtamudi lake, Kerala
SUNKISSED  The French  quarters and the palmyra- fringed beaches of  Pondicherry are  great for walking,  even at mid-day

I’ve never wrapped my head around how a stray shower over the Bay of Bengal can turn out the Bangalorean in mothballed woollens. Monkey cap, muffler and pullover stage a ceremonious coming-out parade before you can say, “Beta, svahter pehno.”

You might argue that Bangalore actually enjoys a winter. But Pondicherry in November, if you permit me to mangle Tom Robbins, is an obscene phone call from nature. Arriving there after one of the milder cyclones had dishevelled the avenue trees and strewn dustbins across Goubert Salai, I was astonished to see morning-walkers in earmuffs. Perhaps they were deafened by the howling gale, I surmised as I studied these fancy wraparound numbers—some in fatigue and leopard prints. How wrong I was. Even after the wind had dropped and the sun glowered out of the dishwater sky, the accessories stayed on. Now, that I could wrap my head around.

As evidenced by our taste in winter fashion, we South Indians crave comfort in the unwritten prophecy that someday this intemperate tropical hell we endure shall freeze over. Mention the Himalayas—that abode of eternal winter—and our eyes mist over. Don’t forget it was our homegrown saint Adi Shankara who raised the mountain temples that to this day keep the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam’s cash registers chiming.

Someone observed that travel doesn’t broaden the mind, it merely lengthens the conversations. To wit, rather than recommend where you should go this winter, I leave you with a smattering of numb-fingered recollections to help you decide where you shouldn’t.

CALIFORNIA

Twelve years ago, driving to work in the San Francisco Bay Area, I spotted crests of gleaming white on the hilltops presiding over the horizon. Snow on the Sierra Nevada! Though distant, so hypnotic was the vista that I nearly veered off the freeway. Yet, to see it, touch it and taste it demanded a weekend off. In Sunnyvale, where I worked, it has not snowed in remembered history, discounting two freak occasions three decades ago.

If Mamas and Papas are to be believed, California is a sanatorium for those plagued by the chills. Prepare for crashing disappointment if you go there expecting a white Christmas. Rather than the Calvin-and-Hobbes landscapes of mutant snowmen and sleds I had imagined America to be, I had to be content with weekends of interminable rain that smelt strangely of old dogs. Yet, San Francisco was charming, swathed in a cruddy fog that fumed intermittently from the Bay like whale’s breath. From the deserted piers the cold barks of sealions rang like baby foghorns.

Stuffed with Christmas turkey, three friends and I drove south to Los Angeles and San Diego, each one warmer than the other. We swilled Jack Daniels to ring in the New Year at a small Russian bar in Hollywood, hiccuping anxiously at midnight when gunshots rang out—blanks, a ruddy-faced bit-part actor assured us—and a limousine swerved round the corner. From its sunroof an Amazon, topless and lavishly inked, waved amiably at the celebrating crowd, flaunting star-shaped pasties on each areola. Abreast of the times we thought we were until the bartender, a bearish, red-haired babushka with a walnut-sized sapphire wedged in her freckled cleavage, clasped us to her bosom and anointed our flushed cheeks with equal parts vodka vapour and halitosis.

Right through the winter my friends and I chased the snow, on occasion crossing the Sierra into Nevada and the tomb-grey desert town of Reno, enlivened only by the neon lights of strip bars and casinos and the nametag of the ‘biggest little city in the world’. Breakfasting on chalupas at forlorn Taco Bells, we regarded every hulking redneck with alarm, praying to be spared a mugging.

I found my winter idyll at Lake Tahoe, North America’s largest alpine lake. Beside this cerulean jewel, 1,645 feet at its deepest, my quest was threatened by anticlimax. Humps of snow encircled the banks from which Canada geese honked desultorily. A chafing, humourless wind whipped frost in the evening air. Teeth clattering like a tone-deaf tambourine, I expressed a desire to go home, wherever it may be. At the hotel I plunged to sleep, dreading the finality of disappointment. But the morning, with sun pouring on the dazzling snow from a lapis lazuli sky, thawed out my woes. I spent most of it attempting to learn to ski but mostly taking photographs to stoke the envy of the snow-deprived back home.

First winter, then spring, turns Yosemite National Park into a gallery of breathless sighs. Bridalveil and Vernal waterfalls were glorious with snowmelt. The towering granite monoliths of Half Dome and El Capitan, scrubbed smooth as river pebbles by Ice Age glaciers, wore stately cravats of mist—both were muses to their legendary portraitist Ansel Adams. My hardest and most rewarding hike was made in enormous, unwieldy snowshoes to Mariposa Grove, where the world’s largest living trees, Giant Sequoias, shocked and awed with their height and girth. And their age—most are over 2,500 years old but they are still strapping young things compared to their gnarled elders, the 4,500-year-old Bristlecone Pines that grow on clumps of arid dolomite rock in eastern California’s White Mountains. Arching to fit a gigantic tree in one frame, I keeled over helplessly, snowshoes flailing in the air like turtle flippers.

Hunting for winter’s warm heart, we found it in a cave. With a bleak grey rain lashing the Bay Area, we drove 230 km east to Mercer Caverns in Calaveras County. Whistling the blues with virtuosity, our guide Bernard showed us around beautifully preserved subterranean limestone galleries sculpted by running water. Outside, snow carpeted the ground and filigreed the bay oaks, but underground the temperature was a pleasantly consistent 15° Celsius and the air humid as a seafront.

MALDIVES

 “What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness,” observed Steinbeck. Clearly, he hadn’t been to the Maldives, where the islanders can’t tell the difference. Save for seaborne thunderstorms that pound the atolls in quick-dissolving rage, the Maldives know little variation in temperature round the year. Which makes it a great escape from the bitter northerly winter.

On a brisk evening walk you can cover all 6 sq km of Male, the capital that governs the Maldives’ 1,192 islands (of which only 200 are inhabited). There are two rules to interacting with the conservative but affable Maldivians: don’t talk politics or religion, and don’t mess with dress. If your shorts fall below the knee and if your upper arms are covered, you’re cool. Or you’ll invite disapproving looks. Alcohol is not served anywhere in Male, so it takes plenty of effort to get into a brawl, but the troubled politics of this Islamic island nation is a touchy topic. When I visited in 2010, former president Mohamed Nasheed had not yet been ousted but political rallies, watched over by armed commandos in trucks, were being taken out and posters bearing revolutionary slogans in Dhivehi were everywhere. To a foreigner, the tension was palpable but hard to comprehend, because everything else about the Maldives was a postcard of serenity. Still, the wild hair and gnashing heavy metal music of the Maldivian youth spoke in undercurrents.

Far gentler were the currents that lapped the reefs around the resort island of Club Faru, where no draconian rules applied. The bar opened at 11 am and the beach never closed. We snorkelled with well-mannered stingrays and occasionally with shoals of foot-long reef sharks that would appear in the aquamarine water and nose about us endearingly. Speedboats ferried us at stomach-

churning velocity across the deep ocean and in their frothy wake dolphins leapt out, spinning. The days were long and there was little to do but island-hop, eat too much tuna, swim, and make excuses to tipple. Winter was the farthest thing from my mind.

ASHTAMUDI

I have never been much of a tourist in Kerala. I mostly lodge with relatives and though their hospitality is undeniably excellent, I shrink away from the obligation to make conversation as gratitude for all the good eating. Things were refreshingly different last winter, when we holidayed at a private resort on a backwater isle two hours north of Thiruvananthapuram.

Much is made of Kumarakom and Kovalam, but one evening at Ashtamudi gave me a good idea of what they lacked. Ashtamudi Lake, smaller than its sibling Vembanad on which Kumarakom is located, is Kerala’s second largest wetland ecosystem and was documented by the 14th century Berber traveller Ibn Battuta when the nearby town, Neendakara, was a seaport of importance. Seafood—shrimp, shellfish and crabs—is plentiful but the karimeen (Pearl Spot) caught at Ashtamudi is nonpareil. The lake’s brackish water does something magical to this freshwater fish; nowhere else does it taste as special.

Ashtamudi’s backwaters are unmolested by boorish ‘tourist-watching’ crowds for which Kerala is notorious. As dusk silhouetted the Chinese fishing nets against the mauve sky, skeins of curlews and egrets flew home to roost. Lights came on in the surrounding villages and reflected in the eddying water. At dawn we were roused to sounds of splashing as fishermen hauled in their catch. Lunch, we knew, was going to be excellent.

OOTY

Who goes to a hill station in winter? Consider, for a nanosecond, our brethren on the east coast who spend summers praying for water and winters scooping it out of their flooded

homes. A trip to Ooty presents them with an opportunity to deck up in the fancy woollies they have been hoarding without purpose.

Or so I thought.

Swollen with hubris from walking at 13,000 feet in the Himalayas, I packed lightly for Ooty (“It’s only 7,350 feet,” I hissed when my wife nagged) and boarded an overnight bus from Bangalore. I chided the conductor for setting the air-conditioning to 26°C but barely had I alighted when I ate my words. Every single one.

I convulsed and shook and shivered and palpitated in the cold, then tottered like a drunk to an enterprising cap-

seller who was doing brisk business selling fleece caps. It took three scalding teas (and some wayward pissing in a corner of the bus stand) to achieve thermostasis. I learned later that the temperature had been 3°C. By 8 am, it had only gone up to 9°C.

I have never since underestimated the south Indian winter.

Ooty is a town bald of vegetation, crowded and annoying, but the countryside retains some of the charm that seduced the Scots who flocked here. Pine, wattle and scotch broom planted to mimic English environs have edged out the native shola forests. Still, January offers a chance to see the native rhododendron in glorious flower. Growing at altitudes over 6,000 feet in the forested highlands of Avalanche, Upper Bhavani and Mukurthi National Park, it is the only southern race of the tree that hikers encounter in the Himalayas. Local people call it Pongal Poo (Pongal Flower), as its blooming coincides with the Tamil harvest festival that falls on winter solstice.

My newly acquired fleece cap barely covered my temples. As I waited for my connecting bus, I watched with envy as tourists strutted about in earmuffs.

PONDICHERRY

That cruel turn of fate brought me back to earth. Pondicherry, specifically.

Everybody heads to Goa for Christmas but I make a beeline for Pondicherry. The skies are mostly overcast and the sweltering humidity so characteristic of the east coast is absent. In the woods of Auroville, brainfever birds cry hoarse as uncertain tourists flock to shop at the boutique after gawking at the gilded globe of the Matri Mandir. The palmyra-

fringed beaches are great for walking, even at midday. And it’s the best weather to enjoy lobster at Rendezvous, or the exquisite wood-fired pizzas at Don Giovanni.

I’m not ashamed to admit it—there was a nip in the air as I walked down Beach Road late on a December evening. But no thanks, I’ll pass up the earmuffs.

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Bijoy Venugopal is travel editor at Yahoo! India and founding editor of the nature blog, The Green Ogre

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Twitter: @bijoyv