IMG_7245 It was an arduous yet eventful month, full of commitments and deadlines, exhausting yet satisfying. The festival of Holi came exactly on a Friday to give me a long weekend as if a reward to the toil. On Friday morning, i looked no less an alien, after the extreme combinations of colours that were smeared on my face and body. Soon, i was running behind others to take revenge. Holi was celebrated with all cheer and josh and once the excitement came down, i took a good bath (washed off whatever colour would come off) and had a heavy lunch. After a sumptuous lunch, the ideal option would have been a siesta and i should have hit the bed hard. Instead, i hit the road. (body was tired from all the running around and celebrations, but kya karoon…. dil maange more….) Screen Shot 2015-03-14 at 3.44.19 pm copy As i worked my way through the city traffic, i made a rough plan of action (POA) in my mind. My broad plan was to venture into the forests northwest of Visakhapatnam and drive through those lonely roads enjoying the beauty of pure untouched nature. I was fascinated by ‘Lammasingi’ ever since i read an article describing it as the ‘Kashmir of AP’. It was written that the area experiences zero degree temperatures and would even witness rare snowfalls during winter. The idea of setting off on a drive to the region had been in my mind for a long time. But i had no clue that i would decide to do so on a lazy afternoon. Since i had some time in hand, I decided to include some more waypoints (read destinations) before i head towards Lammasingi. I decided to take off towards Vizianagaram through Sringavarapu Kota (in short S. Kota) and spend the night at Vizianagaram. Next day morning after exploring Vizianagaram i would head to Araku valley and spend the night there. Thereafter, i would head towards Lammasingi through Paderu and head back to Visakhapatnam through Anakkapalle. Armed with a camera and a self authorised ‘shoot at sight’ order in hand, i left the hustle bustle of the city far behind and wroomed into the sleepy villages on the Visakhapatnam-Araku road in the outskirts of the city.

IMG_7199 As i left the city, green trees and paddy fields replaced the concrete jungle on either side of the road. The sky was overcast and weather pleasant. I rolled down the window screens and the cool wind brought in the pure scent of mother earth. As the white parting lines on the tarmac rolled past me, the weariness of the body slowly withered away. I did not, for a moment feel alone, thanks to my car stereo. As Pink Floyd to Akon to AR Rahman to Yesudas to Jagjit singh sang, i sang along to my heart’s content (i cannot afford such luxury when in company of others since my singing can bring the dead to life). Travelling, even if its just a small simple ride, has therapeutic qualities. For me, it breaks the monotony of life and eases the mind of all the stress it accumulates (in short makes me happy). I generally choose ‘the road less taken’ for then, every moment is filled with hope and suspense and (touchwood) god has a way of surprising me every time i venture out this way. The uninitiated may brush that claim aside, but been there and done that, i can vouch for it. I experience the same joy in company of friends or family. I have even experienced a peace or soothingness while with like minded people, though complete strangers and hence when you travel with your friends, its like a chocolate-vanilla double sundae. But this time, unfortunately, i was on my own.

IMG_7210 On reaching S.Kota, I took a right turn to enter the Kothavasala-Jami-Vizianagaram road and within thirty odd minutes, i found myself in front of a huge gate with a board, “Sainik School, Korukunda”. There are 18 Sainik Schools all over India and I was fortunate enough to do my schooling from Sainik School Kazhakootam at Kerala. That made this school my sister school and i drove inside as if its my own. The Principal was kind enough to allow me to interact with the cadets and even gave me a guest room to spend the night. The building where the school is located was built by Maharaja Vijayaram Ganapathi Raju as his farm house and was called Alak Appala Kondayamba Vijayaram Palace. The guest room that was allotted to me was in the main palace building. The huge fort walls, colonial stone arches, giant windows with coloured glasses, stunning glass chandeliers, intricate wall paintings and impressive wooden artefacts spoke of the opulence of a bygone era. It is said that the palace and the grounds nearby had hosted many sports tournaments and has played host to many a dignitary. I perceived a smell of affluence even in the air inside the palace. The staff at the school too treated me with such love and care that I felt like a prince staying in his palace. I spend the evening playing basketball with the cadets and interacting with them. The josh, energy and the positive vibrations from them made my day. After a light dinner and a small walk within the campus, i called it a day. Next day, I woke up early in the morning and went for a small run. It had rained the night before and the campus was looking bright with green capped trees amongst brown sports fields. The fresh air that filled my lungs gave me a new spurt of energy. When i returned, a hot cup of tea was waiting at my table. Sipping the tea, i took a walk to explore the palace. I noticed that the old palace had lots of empty rooms and long desolate corridors. The sun was still coming up and birds, mainly pigeons and parrots were gliding in and out of the palace uninhibitedly. With my camera in hand, I managed to snuggle upto a quiet corner from where i could manage to click the feathered friends without disturbing their peace. I managed to get some beautiful snaps and my ambush was so effective that  a parrot landed right in front and stayed just enough for me to fill her in my frame. I also   managed to capture some beautiful snaps of the palace along with sunrise.

IMG_7158 IMG_7141 IMG_7147 After a light breakfast, i thanked the school authorities for all the luxury i enjoyed and headed towards Vizianagaram. Vizianagaram is another city like Visakhapatnam with its hectic traffic and cramped roads. So after a quick visit to the Maharaja’s Government College of Music and Dance and Ramanarayanam temple, i proceeded towards Araku valley through Gantyada-Bowdara road by noon. In between i took a short break near Thattipudi dam.

IMG_7097 The drive through the Araku valley was heavenly. The picturesque valley with lush greenery and the curvaceous roads gave a hint of whats coming. The sky was overcast and the clouds added a sense of mystery to the aura. The cool wet air and lack of incoming traffic made the drive all the more enjoyable. Hills dotted the horizon and the enchanting beauty of the valley against the overcast sky forced me often to stop and capture them on my camera. Cattle and sheep were grazing leisurely in the meadows. I halted briefly for a tea break at Haritha resort at Ananthagiri. Sitting at the balcony of the restaurant, i sipped a hot tea, looking out at the valley. I could feel the hills swathing me in layers of mist. I had been to Araku a couple of times before, but never alone. I have beautiful memories of this valley, spun by the golden misty yarns. The sky was still a mushy blue, darkening with time. I felt it would rain any time now. It could have been a dejavu since i had imagined myself in the same way not so long ago. I had jotted down these lines then.

Somewhere deep within the forest.

I heard as if a twig cracked under my foot,

a muffled shout followed by a slow roar

I saw the trees tremble, birds fled in flocks,                  

a scent rose, from the wounds of the forest,                    

trees bled darkness and turned sky murky,                        

it was the sobs first, then a whimper.

Then she wailed her heart out
And i stood watching
Rain drenching me......

Neither did it rain, nor did i get drenched. Sometimes life goes out of track, against the huge dreams we weave for ourselves. What is important is to do the right things and keep walking. I moved on from Ananthagiri and the milestone i passed indicated the distance to my destination. I managed to reach Araku town just in time to witness a gorgeous sunset, one of the best that i ever captured on camera.

IMG_7280 The road trip from Araku back to Visakhapatnam through Paderu and Lammasingi was the most exciting part of my trip. The road (if you can call it so) passes through the dense forest that is scarcely inhabited by tribals. I was forewarned by my friends and well-wishers that the area is a hub of naxal activity and the journey through the forest is not advisable. But i decided to follow my heart. Naxals, are after all human beings and as you can see, i live to tell this tale. But i did have an interesting encounter which i would explain later. Personally, I wouldn’t advice anyone to skip the road but to be on the safer side, avoid travelling at night. This too, am not saying you should fear naxals, but only because the roads are bad, there are no street lights and the vegetation is dense. Rest is your call. It was a cold misty morning and after three alarms and lot of self-coaxing, I managed to sit up on my bed just in time. I had planned to start early from Araku so as to drive as much distance as i can, through the fog and the early morning light (small joys, photographs in morning light diffused through the mist would come out extraordinarily beautiful). After a quick bath in the ice cold water (the geyser packed up, thanks to Mr. Murphy), i drove down to the nearest hotel to sip a hot tea before i started the journey (the cook in the hotel i stayed in, was a late riser). As i got out of my car, Mr. Murphy struck again and my car got locked up with the key still inside. All my efforts to open the lock using the classic ‘scale and rod method’ went down the drain (am an expert in this, locking up the car with keys inside isnt a new thing for me). Hyundai seems to take the security of their cars pretty seriously since the poor old Maruti cars never troubled me so much, so much for liberalisation of markets. The hotel staff quickly came to my rescue and soon a horde of onlookers were fiercely commenting on various methods to open the car lock. Somebody even suggested breaking the window glass open. Playing moderator to the debate was extremely exasperating but i somehow managed the complex task of convincing the crowd to call a mechanic. The weary looking mechanic who arrived after fifteen minutes became my messiah. He took the task of dispersing the crowd to himself and gave a fresh cheer to my blood drained face (the crowd control part was pretty tough since i couldn’t speak Telugu and they were all sincerely trying to help). The mechanic managed to open the lock and even spotted a punctured rear tyre in the process which had missed my scrutiny. Repairing the tyre took another hour and all my hopes of driving through the misty morning light were trashed. However, I quickly thrusted a light breakfast down my throat and drove out. I exited Araku, way behind my timeline and there was no way i could have accelerated on those roads. So i decided to take it slow and steady. After all, i did not have a destination but the journey in my plan. Ten minutes in to the drive, at the outskirts of Araku, I saw a hand signalling me to stop. It was a well dressed old man and his not so well dressed aide. I was already behind schedule and had nothing much to lose and hence i decided to stop and give them a lift.  There is an unwritten rule amongst travellers that one must not entertain a stranger in your car, that too when you are alone. But here i was, travelling through the jungle, with two unknown men in company, along an unknown territory and not a soul was in sight. I was following an inner voice and as i mentioned earlier, god has a strange way of surprising me in such ventures. The old man who slipped into the front seat effortlessly, identified himself as a retired government employee. He was conversant in English and immediately initiated a chat with me. His aide, a rough looking native with ruffled hair and tobacco stains on his teeth had made himself comfortable on the backseat. I kept a vigil watch through the rear view mirror since I had my luggage in the backseat and this resulted in some cold blank stares from his aide. As the conversation started, i realised that the old man has had his quota of local toddy early in the morning since the stench was slightly intolerable. But the facts he revealed ensured that i drove them to their destination without much ado. The man has three houses and some land, his savings from his service to the nation. In addition to the income from his houses on rent, he gives loans to people on interest. This particular journey to this remote jungle village was to “coax” a particular customer into repaying his dues. His aide who was sitting behind, flexing his muscles was a local goonda who would assist him in this noble task. I now looked at the man sitting behind with much more reverence. Thereafter the journey was particularly peaceful since i frantically agreed to every view the old man had about the world. On reaching the village they got down and repeatedly thanked me for the favour. I made sure to convey to them that the pleasure was entirely mine. IMG_7306 Sun was high up by now and it was getting slightly hotter. Most of the area from Araku to Lammasingi is covered with thick pristine forests. However, small tribal colonies have settled at dispersed locations along the road and jeeps ply at not so regular intervals for transport. Main occupation is agriculture and terrace farming is being followed due to the topography. Small villages with clusters of tiny mud houses roofed with palm leaves and cattle sheds appeared as i drove through. Electricity and other facilities are still a distant dream.

IMG_7227 At Gangaraju Madugula, a village on the road to Lammasingi, a group of plainclothes policemen stopped me and enquired regarding my presence in the area. This was the first sign i got of naxal trouble in the area. They wanted to know why i wanted to go through the forest and how long would I stay. My answers would have satisfied them for they gave me a green signal within no time. My speed of advance (SOA) reduced further due to innumerable potholes or lack of road itself at some places. At a particular curve, a small stream had taken over the road itself. I gave a lift to two more people, this time youngsters, who were walking all the way to the next village to attend a festival at the local temple. I initiated the conversation this time but all I could manage to find out was the name of one lad whilst the other just smiled at every question. On reaching the temple, they vigorously invited me for the function and offered me a glass of local toddy as the welcome drink. I politely declined the offer as well as the toddy and continued on my way. Not so far away from there, i stopped again on sighting a beautiful tree with multicoloured leaves. From far, it looked like a lone tree with duple colours. But going closer, I realised that it was actually two trees growing so close to each other that the branches were intertwined. I stopped the car and went closer to click a photograph and was surprised to see a mare grazing nearby. I attempted to click her on the backdrop of the tree. Unfortunately, the mare was frightened by my presence and I wasn’t too happy with the snap I took.

IMG_7318 I walked back to the car and was surprised to find a man standing near my car with a 7.62mm SLR. He did not look like a ghabbar singh or samba nor was he in any military  or police outfit. The first thought that flashed my mind was that am going to get kidnapped by naxals. I was still walking towards him and my mind was frantically thinking on how to handle this. I did not see anybody with him but i couldn’t have assumed that he is alone. He could be a naxal or could be a forest ranger or even a plainclothes policeman, I was in a jungle about which he would know better than me, i had neither weapons nor friends on my side. The best way to solve a problem is to face it and i decided to take it head on. As i approached him, i gave him my best smile and made sure he saw both my hands and my camera. The man did not smile back but he stared right into my eye. I kept my smile on and offered him some water to drink which he declined. He asked me something in Telugu which i assumed as what was my business in stopping my car here. Though there was an ocean of emotions mounting within me (fear and anxiety towered over others), i ensured my face reflected nothing of it. I spoke in a mixture of Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi (that should add up to Telugu right?) to explain to him how beautiful the mare looked in the backdrop of the twin tree (how foolish can that be) and turned the camera display towards him. He came closer to see the snap (the SLR was still right between us). I showed him the other snaps i took at the valley and enroute. Finally his stern face twitched in a particular way which i would positively claim as a smile. His twitch of a smile broadened my smile and I assumed that the huge iceberg in between us had melted (SLR was still there, the man was a soldier for sure). I gave a sigh of relief when he finally walked away waving me a good bye. I felt like taking a picture of him walking away, but then better sense prevailed and I abstained myself from doing so. Within no time i was inside the car and my foot was involuntarily pressing the accelerator hard. For the first time in my life, i learnt that not just an SLR but a DSLR too can save your life and i drove off with a foolish grin from ear to ear on my face. I did not stop anywhere thereafter till Lammasingi. IMG_7344 The drive from Lammasingi to Narsipatnam has almost thirteen hairpin bends and all along the route one would find troupe of monkeys lounging around. Very friendly company, i should say since almost all of them grinned at me and i promptly grinned back every time (i cant really remember now whether it was me who initiated the grinning cycle since i was in the best spirits after the naxal encounter).

IMG_7347 At Narsipatnam, what stuck me  was the sudden eruption of traffic and people since it was after hours of uninhabited wilderness that i was meeting so many people and traffic. I had a quick yet heavy Hyderabadi biriyani at Narsipatnam and in no time i was on NH5 heading towards Visakhapatnam and my speedometer never went below 100 kmph thereafter. I promptly reached Visakhapatnam in the evening. A weekend escape to Araku and Lammasingi is highly recommended for those who derive joy from being amidst nature, for those whom the journey is more important than the destination and for those who are in no hurry. If you are planning to drive from Araku to Lammasingi, it is better to tank up on fuel and other supplies at Araku since petrol pumps, tyre repair shops, garages and eateries are non-existent till one reaches Narsipatnam. IMG_7358 One more weekend is over, but this one would stay in my memory locker for a long time to come. I had met total strangers who offered me genuine affection, generosity and timely help in a time honoured Indian tradition of ‘athithi devo bhava’ that i’ll remember and imbibe in my life. May be my decisions to give lift to random strangers and to stop amidst dense jungles springs out of such incidents that has made me the person that I am. I remember somebody telling me that life is actually a journey, but we don’t see it that way. Remember, it is never too late to start a journey and it is not over if you have lost your way. It could be a bumpy ride ahead but it will be well worth the effort. Keep moving.…..

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