We planned to leave Palace Utelia early, get breakfast on the way (we were not going to spend 900rs for poha or worse still cornflakes, refer previous post) and drive to Khambhat at the tip of the gulf and then south towards Surat, but the charm of the palace and the caretaker’s adorable family had us linger and we left later than planned. As usual !
We stopped for breakfast at the first highway dhabba and to my utmost delight there was fresh fafda and methi pakora. Such a fitting goodbye to Gujarat, our favourite breakfast made to perfection. Currently after the crispy Chennai dosa, I think fafda – jalebi – methi pakora is my second favourite breakfast of all time. The number of varied dishes the Gujrati’s make with just besan ( gram flour) is mind blowing.
The ride from Utelia to Khambhat is also the third most scenic route we have been on during this trip right after Dholavira and the ride from the Great Rann to Lakhpat. We rode slowly through beautiful village roads, with a surprise at every turn, past lotus ponds, large lakes which stretched till the horizon, and herds of buffaloes with feisty female herders wearing the most daring backless blouses, red tiled roofs small vegetable patches, school children waiting for buses in the middle of nowhere, 100 year old sprawling banyan trees and saw our first sarus cranes too pecking away at something in a field yonder. Every passing second was a feast to the eye.
Khambhat was an important erstwhile trade centre and was known for its craftsmanship of semi precious stones. Today it’s a disoriented town of congested winding alleyways and crumbling old buildings.
After riding around the crowded old city, we headed to the beach but just couldn’t find it. There was a strong sea breeze, we could taste salt on our lips but there was no ocean in sight. We were on a mud road, riding through the city’s landfill where scavengers where sorting out trash. There were men women and children looking through and sorting piles of garbage with their bare hands under the blistering sun. and it hit me, like it hits me every time I see such abject poverty, there are so many different India’s living in parallel. But then I move on, I forget, maybe forgetting is a coping mechanism.
At the end of the land fill, the road ended abruptly, against a big pile of mud. I checked the maps, and according to google we were in the ocean !!
I guess the ocean had retreated a bit, maybe there were mangroves ahead, maybe a salt marsh, but whatever it was it was visually and physically inaccessible and the locals stared at us blankly when we asked for the beach. We did pass a fish market on our way so I guess the ocean is accessible, but maybe the beach / harbour was a little away, but we didn’t get to see it. The mystery remains.
So I didn’t get the panaroma I wanted of both the Gulf of Kutch and Gulf of Khambhat, but as I am understanding this coast better, I do think it is more of salt marshes, swamps and mangroves which are more often than not inaccessible. This is also probably why the entire coast of Gujarat from Lakhpat to Khambhat is also sparsely populated when compared to the coast of Kerala or Tamil Nadu.
But all said and done the ride from Utelia to Khmbhat was worth a thousand words and pictures and I would do it again, and then maybe again.
From Khambhat to Surat we went through many beautiful state highways including one which was part of the historical dandi march lead by Gandhiji for the salt satyagraha in 1930. But all good things come to an end and we finally joined a massive motorway closer to Baruch. Baruch and Ankleshwar are industrial cities and the air smells foul for miles. Baruch is bearable, but you need to cross a bridge to enter Ankleshwar, it is the worst smelling city I have had the misfortune to chance upon. Try not to breathe for the 20 minutes it takes to cross the city, a city most potent, a city most foul.
We stopped for lunch at a Muslim run vegetarian dhaba called Savera and had a very different kind of a Gujju thali. The dhal and sabjis were cooked with the masalas one would use for meat.. it was tasty nevertheless. Curiouser..curiouser… Muslims who are not vegetarians are forced/ choose to run vegetarian dhabbas..hmmm
The latter part of our ride was hard and unforgiving and after a long 280 KM we rode into Surat at 4:00 PM. Our original plan was to get to Surat by lunch and spend the rest of the day looking around the textile markets and diamond district, but offcourse we could not leave the wonderful palace at Utelia early enough. So here is my next tip, if you are not planning to explore a big city, don’t bother going in, stay on the highway and ride towards your next destination, it is a waste of time and you will ride through traffic for nothing. So late as we were, we had reservations at the heart of Surat and decided to ride in anyways to sample its renowned street food.
Surat is the second biggest city in Gujarat and has close trade ties with Bombay especially through the textile and diamond industry. Once again, our reservations were through booking.com at a hotel called Central Excellency, which was the 8th best hotel in Surat according to Trip advisor. But booking.com is really the worst travel website, they screwed up our reservations at Palace Utelia, and did no better here… just as we were pulling into the hotel, I got an email from them letting us know that the rent had doubled from 2800 to 5600 Rs. Eeek !!! And the hotel was bang in the middle of the bus stand and railway station and screamed shady from every pore. If the other had been his cool self I would have bit my tongue and stayed there, but I could tell that he was uncomfortable, and when someone as cool as him could get uncomfortable, something was really wrong. I checked tripadvisor and immediately jumped to the comfort and luxury of the known, and asked him to ride to the Taj Gateway. I had taken all responsibility of finding accommodation this trip and this was the first time I had failed. The other can pretty much stay anywhere, he is the most low maintenance person I have met but can be extremely fussy about the intangible way a place affects his mood. Don’t ask ! For instance there is this sizzler restaurant in Chennai to which he can go only for lunch, never for dinner, it doesn’t feel right apparently. I guess he was far more uncomfortable than he let on for he didn’t raise his eyebrows against the unplanned expense and soon we are at the Gateway Athwalines. People were smiling at us, the AC was at the right temperature, someone took our bags, we were given a welcome drink and ushered into a room with a beautiful view of the Tapi river.
For being what it promises to be, no less or no more I have to give the Taj Gateway a 5, it is everything you would expect and the most comfortable bed we have slept on this trip.It is a bed you sink into, and you never want to get out, needless to say, I just couldn’t get up and we left late again the next day. It was totally worth it though. I really think we should stop pretending to try and eave early, I guess we just really enjoy the mornings where we are staying, maybe I have finally become a morning person.
They also have a great pool and separate jacuzzis for men and women where we relaxed our very sore muscles before stepping out to try the street food.
We had some amazingly crispy dosas called nylon dosas, the normal and the cheese version. I am a staunch south Indian but love what the gujjus do to the dosa… so many variations, they take it to a whole different level.
As Surat is so close to Bombay culturally and culinarily it is a mix of two states rather than being pure Gujrati, so we also had some frankies and ended the meal with ice cream from Janata ice cream. The ice cream here is to die for, and there is one right next to the Taj Gateway.
I don’t think we did Surat justice, we didn’t go to the beaches nearby, any of the markets or the Tapi riverfront. I don’t think we did the street food justice because there is a limit to how much we can eat in one night, so till I come back and am proven othersise I shall remain loyal to Ahmedabad on this front. Ahmedabad has the best street food.
We bade Gujarat a heavy hearted farewell and got ready for the next chapter in our journey – Maharashtra starting with a weekend at my chuddi buddy’s house in Bombay. (CB translates to childhood friend, he is my oldest friend actually, I have known him since we were 4 and do think I have written a blog post about him somewhere in the past )
We drove out of Surat, through a fog, through the outskirts of the city which were filled with scrap markets, tonnes of recyclables, mostly colourful piles of waste cloth, and automobile parts. How I wish I had time to explore it.. maybe next time when I come to buy myself a diamond tiara.
Surat to Mumbai was the one journey I was least looking forward to this entire trip as it was 7 hours on a highway, but I guess you should never dread anything, as every cloud has a silver lining.
When we had passed the Dandi path the previous day, we both were really excited and hoped to see the historic beach on the way to Surat, but missed it. We let it go. . we know it is not possible to see everything we want to or have planned to and have been realistic with our expecations the whole trip. But silly us, we never checked the map, we just assumed we missed a turn or sign board. But Dandi is actually South of Surat and not north as we had imagined it and we didn’t miss it at all. 40 KM ahead of Surat we saw a board that asked us turn right to Dandi. Yay !!
We didn’t need to be asked twice.
It was a 22KM diversion but takes you to the heritage path Gandhiji walked through years ago in the most daring act of civil disobedience, the salt satyagraha against the salt tax imposed by the British. The path is lined with beautiful old trees and leads dierectly to the beach. Something about being there gave my goosbumps. A little off the beach is the exact spot where he picked up a handful of salt with a commemorative arch, and a beautiful old bungalow – the Saifee Villa where he spent 10 days before moving on to the next village.
One of the volunteers came up and started talking to us. What stood out the most was that he referred to Gandhiji as Bapu with so much love. I haven’t heard anyone call him that except in the movies. He was a special man, he painstakingly explained everything to us and walked the Other and I to buttercup and asked us if we were riding for a cause. We said no, just for ourselves, he looked at us thoughtfully and then smiled. I wonder what he was thinking, he bade us farewell with a Namaste and a bit of a bow.
Another beautiful encounter.
The diversion allowed us to ride through shady village roads for just a bit longer before we joined the unforgiving highway again.
The landscape both natural and manmade slowly started changing once we crossed the border and entered Maharashtra. On the natural front the higway passes through various ghat sections and we could see mountains around us and in the distance. It was beautiful, the western ghats were beginning . The change in the manmade landscape was the presence of bars every 100M on the highway, in Gujarat dhabbas put up giants signs screaming pure vegetarian food, and in Maharashtra we were greeted with signs screaming the presence of chilled beer and family bars.
We stopped for lunch at a nice dhabba and had our usual dhal -roti – sabji…we had hardly entered Maharashtra but the food had changed, there was a lot of garlic, the spices were different. The subtle changes in the cuisine at every district is fascinating, and all this eating is beginning to show on us.
The dhabba had a really nice outdoor seating area with string cots and hammocks, and I would have loved to have a beer if we didn’t have to ride. That being said, highway bars make no sense to me, it is like an open invite for drunken driving. Maybe people from Bombay drive up this highway to eat and drink on the weekends, to just get out of the city and look at the mountains, maybe their target audience are truckers who stop for the day/night. But along with muslim run vegetarian hotels, this is just one of those things which make no sense to me, a highway dotted with bars ??!!??
Just before we entered Bombay, we crossed the Vasai Creek with the Sanjay Gandhi National Park on one side to some amazing views.
I have been to Bombay so many times, but never really explored the city apart from Colaba Causeway and Marine Drive. I would love to go spend a week there, explore the National Park, Dharavi, the Prince of Wales Museum, NGMA, the beautiful old buildings in South Bombay, and take a ferry to elephanta caves..travel by the Mumbai locals… as you see I have my itinerary ready, I just need to find the time.
Bombay has a system of two expressways – east-west and north-south, which allows you to traverse the length and breadth of the city without getting caught up in the city’s traffic. You can just get off at an exit and get where you need to. We were dreading the ride into the city with its infamous traffic jams, a city where distances are measures in time and kilometres, but it was far shorter and smoother than we expected thanks to the east-west express way and we were in CB’s (chuddy buddy) house before long, munching on unhealthy snacks, drinking beer and catching up.
Space has a different meaning in Bombay, it is scarce, it is respected and used in multiple ways. I once visited a friend who’s entire apartment was an old Parsi lady’s balcony. CB lives in the cutest apartment I have ever been too.. It is small, but sliding doors partition the space into a living area / kitchennete and sleeping area or you can open in out into one flowing space and there is so much storage tucked away. Apart from the design of it, CB and his wife have made a warm beautiful home of it.
They are trying to minimise their possessions and their footprint and there is so much to learn from them. I have been patting myself on my back for not using plastic shopping bags, but these guys take their own containers when they go to buy food and that is my life lesson for this trip. I don’t order food in a lot, but I am very partial to the chips from a local store, where the friendly shop keeper fries it in front of my eyes and packs it in clear plastic bags for me to take home. He always gives me a handful to munch on too as we chat. I tear open the packaging as soon as I get home eat some and store the rest in my chips box. Yes, I have a box just for chips.. that’s how much I love it. So now I am just going to take my chips box to the store. Small steps I know, but I can’t change national policies so I gotta do what I gotta do.
We used the weekend to service buttercup, service ourselves at a beauty parlour, (the Other was super stoked when they sent a lady in for his back massage, but her strength scared him a little I think :)) do our laundry and just catch up with friends, we didn’t even manage to play on CB’s X-box though we kept saying we would… sometimes it is just so hard to get up, when there is so much beer to be drunk and so much conversation to be had.
But no trip to Bombay is complete without a trip to South Bombay, I cannot get over the buildings there, and if I ever had to live in Bombay, I would have to live there. With the real estate prices, I guess that is one thing I never have to worry about. I am never going to live in Bombay. CB scoffed at my suggestions of Leopold / Mondy’s and said they were touristy with absolute disdain. He then took us to an amazing most hidden treasure, the roof top restaurant at Hotel Strand, overlooking the harbour, by the side of gateway of India. In all my visits to Bombay I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of this place, the view of the marina is breath taking but unfortunately it faces East so no sunset views. But an evening here is an evening with a bit of magic.
We stayed till the last rays of light faded away and pottered around south Bombay, and with a little help from their friends found another characteristic beer bar, called Beer Bar tucked away in a side alley, with chequered table cloths, playing rock and roll, it was quaint, it was Bombay, it was perfect.
More on Maharashtra Soon !