Story By: Olympia Bhatt
About ten years ago, I was close to doing the two train rides that I have been meaning to do forever. And then I went ahead and missed both my chances. The first train ride was from Bangalore to Mangalore during the rains. Take a night train like Karwar Express or Kannur Express that begin in Bangalore and in the wee hours of the morning, chugs along the rain-soaked Western ghats (hills), from where the slow descent to the sea begins.
Slowly, the salt-laden air of the sea comes closer as one approached the beautiful coastal town of Mangalore. If you continue travelling north along the sea, you reach the holy town of Udupi. Sadly, my two-year stay in Bangalore did not bring me any closer to this wonderful journey. A few years later, I was adamant about doing another train ride, or at least a part of it, that traversed a similar landscape, on the Matsyagandha Express. The train that takes you on an olfactory journey of its maritime inhabitants, as the name Matsya (Sanskrit for “Fish”) Gandha (Sanskrit for “Aroma”) suggests.
I always imagined it to be a dramatic ride with the open vistas of the ocean on one side and the cascading rolling lush ghats on the other. The reality of it, however, takes a lot away from my imagined ride, but still is a journey worth its experience. An extremely longish weekend (i.e. two days of consecutive vacation plus the usual weekend plus Monday) had come once in our life in the monsoon month of August. With little responsibility and loads of time at hand, we decided to vacation in Gokarna in the peak monsoon yet off-season, when there was little chance of finding tourists lodging close to the rough seas and incessant rain.
I was responsible for all the ticket booking and the travel itinerary. That is how I stumbled across the fabled Matsyagandha Express, and I had this sudden urge to experience it the moment I read its name. So, the plan was to take a train ride Wednesday night to Bangalore. Thursday night travel to Akola or Kumta, the two closest train stations to Gokarna. (Gokarna railway station was not there when we travelled.) And then take a public transport, reach Gokarna beach where our guesthouse was located.
There was a minor complication though. Our friend Liz, at whose place we had landed in Bangalore, was still making up her mind about travelling with us. In all politeness, she decided to stay put when she found all our tickets were booked. But she was not doing anything anyway for the weekend, so we decided if we get bus tickets to Kumta or Akola, then we will cancel our train tickets so that the three of us can go. Luckily, in spite of the weekend rush we did manage to get the tickets and all three of us were raring to go.
Before leaving, we bought a bit of liquor too else we would not be shacking up, living it up on the beach. Places like Gokarna being a holy town and beach-side shacks being big bamboozlers when it came to selling booze had us prepared. In the rain and cold of the monsoon, it was good way to spend the night talking and sharing stories that we would rarely do most of the sober time.
Saturday was fun at Om beach for which we had to climb a hill from our lodge and then walk down few steps that led to the sea. It is naturally cut in the shape of the Hindu symbol Om, hence the name. It was the most crowded beach of all in spite of the rains and off-season. Felt like the whole of Bangalore, and a bit of Gokarna town, had landed there.
So, after a bit of soaking in the water, we decided to walk up and check what lay beyond. From the sands, we had to climb up the ghats to see if the sea was further accessible. We had hardly entered the thick of the jungle when it started to pour. With no umbrellas or raincoats in tow, we kept walking in the rain while Liz continued with her riyaaz (she had just begun learning Hindustani classical music), which she believed would make the rain go away. We shared a bottle of coke and Old Monk to keep ourselves warm as we walked.
After about 30-40 minutes of walking, we came across probably the tiniest beach ever. Shaped like a crescent, its waves sounded like little swallowed gulps which could be clearly heard as there was hardly anyone around. BB enjoyed himself alone in the waves and we felt like the owners of our little corner on the earth. We even named it BOL beach after our initials and told so to any passer-by we met on our return.
After a while of lapping in the sea, Liz and I got bored and decided to wear the dry change of clothes that we had been carrying around. With no change rooms, we decided to go behind a tree and change. The wet, sticky clothes were difficult to remove while we fumbled to find the dry ones from our plastic bag. Suddenly, we saw someone walking from afar, and we both panicked as both of us were partially nude.
Later, Liz commented how that man had managed to see a complete naked woman though in parts. Our Gokarna adventure did not come to an end at Gokarna. Sunday evening, we were back in Kumta to take our bus to Bangalore. With a few hours to kill as our bus was around 9 pm, we decided to explore the small village town of Kumta. The locals told us to keep walking on the Beach Road, the road from the bus stand that goes into the village, and it would lead to Kumta beach.
Under the twilight sky, we talked and walked along the tarred path between the lush paddy fields. The beach was the biggest surprise of all. A strange L-shaped sea (something I have never come across) and its gigantic roaring waves was a ferocious sight to behold. That wasn’t all. Little fingerlings (of probably mackerel) were finding their way from little rivulets into the sea while little crabs played peek-a- boo on the wet sands against our footsteps.
It would have been a wonderful memory to end this impromptu magical trip. This trip to the beach was a prelude to the “wonders” that still lay ahead. We were the last three people to board our bus, only to realise we had misplaced our ticket. It was in BB’s back pocket and disappeared in the few enchanted hours that we spent on Kumta beach.
We produced our ID proofs which corresponded to the names on the conductor’s roster but he was not completely convinced. So out of the blue, we decided to call the KSRTC service centre in Bangalore where we had booked our tickets. And what stroke of luck! The same guy who had booked our ticket answered the landline number at 9 pm and that too on a Sunday. We explained our quandary and asked for help. He spoke to the conductor. I don’t know what he said but the conductor was persuaded enough to let us travel till another group of three people with the exact same names showed up to take this particular bus to Bangalore.
The night was to remain magical thankfully and not downright spooky as we reached Bangalore without any namesake doppelgangers dropping by. I had completely forgotten about my desired train ride as for once it was not about the journey but the destination and the beautiful accidents and experiences that it brought.