Last weekend we drove to Matheran, probably one of the most popular and nicest places in Mumbai’s vicinity. Matheran is a hill-station, 2600ft above sea level, and is apparently the only village or town in India where vehicles are not allowed, so it has lovely air and a calm atmosphere, despite being quite touristy. It is only 110km east of Mumbai, but of course that still means a 3 hour drive. Add another hour, if you can’t read Hindi like us. We were kind of hoping to see signs for Matheran or Chauk or any of the other places shown on our fairly useless map, but no such luck, at least not in English. I had noticed on the way to Kashid that there were big signs for Goa for a while and then, all of a sudden, none of that, and we missed the road to Goa. So I was extra careful this time, but we ended up doing a little detour, reversing directions and passing through the same highway toll booth three times, until we finally understood the toll booth guy’s directions. We were meant to actually make a u-turn right at the toll booth, to get onto that little pothole infested dirt track, which then brought us to the road to Chauk. The toll booth guys only made us pay once, but they probably had a good laugh about those stupid Westerners. Try that on the NJ Turnpike, and you probably get shot at.
Anyways, so eventually we found Neral, which is the valley town where we could have taken a little toy train, which takes two and a half hours to climb up to Matheran, if that train weren’t currently out of service, due to the heavy rains this year. So we drove up the hill to where the road stops at a big chaotic parking lot. The road up there was quite something – hundreds of feet straight down on one side, canyons of water drains ripped and carved into the semi-destroyed road on the other side. The road was basically made of clay and had a nice 20% or so climb. One really had to wonder when this road will go down the valley in a landslide, but after half an hour driving in first gear we arrived and left the car on the parking lot.
From there we took horses, which is the main means of transportation in Matheran. Of course, there were two horsemen enthusiastically fighting for our business and before I knew it they literally pulled me in two different directions. We are not exactly practiced horse riders, so the fact that our horses were a bit on the small side was quite welcome. Half an hour later our horses dropped us off at the hotel that we had made reservations for. The place was recommended to me, and it looked like an odd mix of Sovjet exteriors and British-Indian colonial – well, at least the dining hall did, the bungalow-type hotel rooms looked just Soviet and didn’t have any windows to speak of. But they bathrooms were ok, and we picked the one that smelled a little less strong of whatever hotels in India smell like, probably some sort of anti-mold chemicals or maybe it’s anti-cockroach spray or whatever. There also was a strangely shaped and unused swimming pool, a cricket field that had not seen a batsman in 50 years, and something that was threateningly advertised as a discotheque, but which luckily also just turned out to be a threat.
The food was fantastic though. All vegetarian (and of course no alcohol), but very very yummy. The dining hall had a huge mirror with a kitchy etching of some wild horses, but one could well imagine a bunch of stiff British officers walking around in jackboots smoking cigars, so we didn’t even really mind that there was zero relationship between the price they had quoted on the phone, the prices on their price list, and the price we actually ended up paying.
The rest of the weekend we pretty much spent on horses and feet, going from one valley view point to another. People were annoyingly eager to try to nail us down on certain times of the day (or the next day) when they would be waiting for us with their horses, and wherever we went we or our horseman got asked where we were from and which hotel we were staying, but other than that, it was all good. One of our horsemen liked to watch WWF on television, the other one told us that his horse was the fastest horse in town, and of course the blatant staring and hello, how are you never ended.
We took one of the bigger horses once, but that was a bit scary, since it’s not like we actually have any clue about how to ride a horse. We also firmly decided that we don’t like monkeys. There were quite a few monkeys running around, and they are well trained to get their food by scaring tourists off their bags. Just a few minutes after we had seen one of the monkeys grab a plastic bag out of some tourist’s hands, I was sitting down with my bag next to me, lighting a cigarette, and before I knew it some monkey had snatched my bag and ran away with it. I guess I should not have left my bag alone, especially not if it contains a few slices of sweet bread from a Bandra bakery. So that monkey grabs the bag and as I try to go after him, the bastard just retreats right to the very edge of the cliff, a couple of hundred feet of air behind him. And then he hisses at me like a bloody monkey who just stole my bag, which by the way contained my passport, foreign registration card and another camera lens.
But of course that monkey is too stupid to actually open the bag and get the bread. Just like they are smart enough to get scared when you simply pick up a stone and raise your hand, but they are too stupid to throw stones themselves, thank god. So eventually he gets bored with the bag, leaves it right at the edge of the cliff, where there’s already a nice slope, and buggers off. Alright. Needless to say, we have an audience now and one guy deplores me not to go get the bag, because, you know, it is very dangerous and it goes down a couple of hundred feet. Well, yes, we are in India, and thankfully, it’s not like they turned that view point into a plot of concrete with benches and garbage cans on top and nice railings and warning signs around it, like they would in the US. And if anyone fell down that cliff into the valley, good luck with trying to sue the town of Matheran, telling them they didn’t know that falling down the cliff could hurt.
Anyways, so Ksenia was no longer in the mood to use her video camera or to take pictures, but just asked me nicely not to kill myself, as I got onto my knees, crawled towards my bag (go slow! someone yelled), and rescued my US passport and, more importantly maybe, my official Foreign Residents Registration Office book, the one printed on toilet paper, stamped many times by Indian government officials, the one and only document that sometimes allows me to pay local rates for museum entrance fees instead of the foreigner rates, which are usually ten or twenty times as high.
So apart from the nice views and the clean air, that life and death experience was another highlight. Well, plus the fact that it started to rain heavily just as we were about to head back home on Sunday afternoon. Not only didn’t we have umbrellas and weren’t in the mood to ride back to the parking lot in the rain, we also weren’t particularly happy about the idea of trying to drive down that little nasty clay road in heavy rain, because that seemed like just asking for trouble. But then it stopped raining, so we rode back to the parking lot, and of course by the time we got there, it was dark and now it was raining again. Ah well. So we had no choice but to slowly slowly feel our way back down that road, 1st gear all the way, and then back home from there, this time without any detours. All in all, not bad, and we’ll come visit Matheran again some time.
In other news, Ksenia is getting a tooth pulled tomorrow. The Indian tooth fairy hasn’t been so kind to her so far. Also, one of her first exectutive decisions when she got back was to fire our maid. And when I asked her today what’s new in the world, she said well, apparently, policemen in Mumbai are raping women left and right… Ok, so maybe some more on those things another time.