“This is not a proper road,” said Jude. Not the words that I wanted to hear my trusted, experienced driver speak on a dark road in the middle of the Indian countryside. Jude has a much wider definition of a proper road than I do.
If he says the road is improper, then you are in for a bumpy ride. We were less than 5 km (3 mi) from our hotel, but we found ourselves on a rough gravel road at 9:30 at night. We were headed to another hotel for dinner, and the improper road was the only way there. I am still not exactly sure why, but it seems that the perfectly good highway under which the improper road traversed at one point was not a possible path from one hotel to the other. The improper road was lonely and isolated. Yes, that is possible in India. We were only about two hours from Mumbai at a hill station called लोणावळा (Lonavla), but it was as if we were in another country. The constant howling of street dogs and honking of car horns were replaced by the buzzing of the rain and the croaking of frogs. This India was not the one of wall-to-wall people, but of wall-to-wall rainforest. This India was the one that the guidebooks romanticize: rainforests that team with lush vegetation and wildlife; sacred spaces that touch the sky; quaint towns that cater to tourists.
Lonavla (or Lonavala depending on your transliteration) is a hill station about 60 km (37 mi) from Pune and is the closest hill station to Mumbai (about 90 km). Hill stations are high-altitude towns, mostly established during the Raj, when the British retreated to the hills during the summer to escape the heat. In some ways, these hill stations resemble typical American tourist destinations. They have local attractions, pizza joints, amusement parks, and tourist-oriented handicrafts and foodstuffs. Taking a drive to an Indian hill station is like traveling to the Texas Hill Country or the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Carolinas. At a hill station, we can escape the hustle and bustle of the city, but still stay close to home.
These places are popular locations to witness the power and beauty of the monsoon season. During monsoon, waterfalls cascade over the hillsides, and water pours from the sky.
Or, at least, they are supposed to. Yes, we saw some amazing waterfalls, and we witnessed a fantastic downpour as we ate dinner on the porch of the hotel located on the improper road. But, our impression was that these sights were not as impressive as usual. Monsoon has been below average this year. Although we saw more rain in Lonavla than we have seen all season in Mumbai, Lonavla’s typical downpours have not materialized, and nature’s bounty was not as bountiful.
To be honest, I am grateful that the more than 250 stairs we climbed to the Karla and Bhaja caves were not running with rainwater.
I am also grateful we hired guides on the way up. Not that we could not have climbed the steps alone, but it was better to have guides who navigated us around slick surfaces and offered some local history and color. These caves are temples: Karla is Buddhist; Bhaja is Buddhist and Hindu. They are more than 2,500 years old, located on steep hillsides, and miraculous engineering feats. Hand-carved, monolithic columns ring the main halls of both caves.
In the center, stands a stupa that represents the five elements essential to life.
On the way down from the Karla caves, we ate grilled corn coated with masala, salt, and lime juice. That is as close to street food as I will probably ever get. I practiced my Hindi to ask how much the corn cost and even understood the guy when he replied, “bis.” Thank goodness I have learned the word for “twenty.” If he had said the word for “thirty,” I would have been in trouble.
The Bhaja caves are more elaborate and were my favorite on the trip. They featured an amazing stone staircase with no handrails. Yes, I climbed it; yes, Brian had to help me get down.
On our way up to Bhaja caves, we met an Indian doctor from MD Anderson in Houston. It was one of those small world moments that happens in a country with one billion people. At the caves, Brian had his photo taken (or as they say here, “a snap clicked”). At first, Brian thought that the people wanted Brian to click the snap for the couple, but it turned out they wanted a photo with him. This behavior is common with blondes in India, but it was our first experience where Indians wanted a photo of the videsi (foreigner).
One day, we drove to Lion’s Point, a lookout spot high atop one of the many hills surrounding Lonavla. Although we were on a proper road this time, the road had many hairpin turns, which were challenging in the rain. It was raining so hard at one point that we pulled over in an open spot, which turned out to be Lion’s Point.
It was one of those serendipitous moments when we happened along the spot we were searching for without realizing it—mostly because the rain was so heavy that we could not see the sign right in front of us.
We waited a few minutes, and the clouds parted just long enough to reveal our location and allow us a chance to take a few snaps.
While driving on the main road on our way out of town, Brian stopped to photograph a chikki shop.
Chikki (चिककी) is an Indian sweet similar to peanut brittle made with nuts and jaggery, a form of sugar cane. The shop owner was very hospitable and smiled for Brian’s photo.
Naturally, Brian bought more chikki. Because you can never have enough “high-nutrition energy bars.” It was a sweet end to my first road trip.