It was the August of 2015. I was nearly pennilessness. And I was craving for travel.
My birthday was about 10 days away and I had made a wish travel on every birthday. But as life would have it, circumstances were not on my side. I was in a testing job with almost no money to spare. But I just wanted to get away.
I was ranting about this existential drama to DKD (aka, Dil Ka Dost, aka Ameya Bahulekar), and he echoed my words. In an instant, as if scripted by a higher power, I asked him – “Kodai chalen?” (Let’s go to Kodai?)
And got a reply within a split-second “Chalo” (Let’s)
So, on the 8th of August 2015, we boarded the sleeper class of a 36 hours long train to Madurai, to travel further 5 hours to Kodaikanal. The universe showered us with luck and it was surreal how things had come together. As the train left Mumbai Central, we were so excited that our cheeks hurt from all the smiling.
#BeenThereTip 36 hours make for a long, long journey. Although, we were lucky that it was raining and the views were fabulous, but do carry things that will help you pass the time. Also, food can be an issue, so make sure you have plenty of munchies.
We reached Madurai on the 10th night and halted there for a day. We bought in my birthday with the scrumptious biscuit cake that DKD’s mom (Thank you, Anju aunty!) had made. Oh, sweet surprises!
We spent a colourfully hot day in Madurai, getting lost, meeting the sweetest of people and having tonnes of adventure. (If I get in to the details, I could write a book.) And left for an equally adventurous journey to Kodai in a cab, after we missed the last local bus.
#BeenThereTip before leaving, we made a pact - Feel aai,toh karneka (if you get the feels, go for it). Living up to the feels, we donned traditional attire and roamed around the city. Not only was it fun for us, but the locals loved it too.
That night, we met Karuna.
It was pitch-dark when our cab dropped us to the Kodai bazzar. The watch told us that it was only 8 in the evening. DKD called Neville – the owner of the farm, and he arranged for a jeep to pick us up – Karuna was about 13 kms away. Just when we were discussing that it seems a bit too much – jeep and all, our ride arrived. We drove away from the market area in to quieter and quieter lanes, till the darkness took over. The road appeared only occasionally by a faint streetlight. On our right were the twinkling lights of the bazaar. We clutched on to the handles at the back of the jeep and rode in absolute silence. It felt like we were moving in space, with distant galaxies glinting far far away. The evening was cold, but our excitement kept us warm.
#BeenThereTip keep a warm jacket and raincoat/wind cheater absolutely handy - the evenings are windy and chilly. Also, while you are at the market, pick-up your supplies. Each hut at Karuna has a kitchenette and you can make your own meals.
Eventually, the road turned in to a kacchi sadak and then in to a rocky, bumpy path. Our death-grip had started to drain the blood out of our fingers. I have to admit, I kinda shat a brick or two. The ride abruptly came to a thankful end and we met Prakash (pretty sure the best guy on earth).
That’s when I saw Karuna. In the darkness.
Prakash effortlessly led us to our hut – Ganga, and told us that since we hadn’t informed earlier, the dinner was over. But we’ll get Maggie in the community area, and pointed out to a faint light in the distance. And then he disappeared in to the darkness.
Ganga was faintly lit by small strips of LED. We dumped our bags, dug out the torches and made our way to the community area with some struggle. Two voices from the kitchen welcome us, as we sat in the cane chairs. Our Maggie was ready, and served by two farm volunteers – an outrageously good-looking yogi and an equally charming Swedish (I think) girl.
#BeenThereTip - torches and batteries. DON'T FORGET THEM. JUST DON'T. Also, dinners are complimentary. Yay!
We devoured the Maggie without saying a word. The volunteers eventually said their goodnights and we sat there in the darkness, gazing at the clouds floating by and the stars shining behind them. We saw eight shooting stars that night.
I exhaustedly sank in to the bed that night, and probably had the best sleep of my life. What an exceptionally excellent birthday it had been.
The next four days in Karuna were an absolute heaven. We inevitably lost track of time as none of the huts had a wall-clock. I would wake up to Ameya brewing green tea, and break in to a stretch in the lap of nature. The air was crisp, and the sky – a bright, delicious blue. We had a small clearing outside our hut, where we spent mornings jamming, reading and talking to the nature.
We spent the afternoons exploring the farm. A trek here, and a sudden hut would appear. A little walk further and a tiny stream would cross our path. The farm, a 20-acre expanse of the Shola Forest, had a surprise tucked away in every corner. We would wander off, often losing our way, and discovering the unknown. When the sun got hotter, we would stop and try to guess the time. And then head to the community area – the only place that had a clock, to crosscheck it. The community area also had a few working plug-points, and so charging phones became a luxury, forget about the camera.
#BeenThereTip Karuna is runs on Solar Power. There are plug points in the huts, but they seldom work. Please invest in power banks, if you really must charge you phone. But then there is only one spot in the entire farm where you can catch network. So, I recommend, just toss the phones away.
On the evenings when we decided to head to the city, we covered the rocky, bumpy path on foot. The path was invitingly lined with eucalyptus trees that filled our soul with its sweet, lingering fragrance. I would struggle to hike that 4km stretch to the nearest bus stop – Prakashapurum, but DKD’s encouraging woots would keep me going.
#BeenThereTip good, comfortable shoes are must. Karuna required a lot of walking around, and if you are not used to it (I wasn't) it can be really tiresome. Which brings me to the second tip - carry essential medicines.
Our trips to the city were short – just to pick up essentials, make calls home, and grab a bite at the best bakery that I’ve EVER been to, the humbly named – Pastry Corner. One cold evening, we wandered the by-lanes of the city, picked up some locally made chocolates and landed up at the Kodai lake, silently sipping on piping hot lemon tea. By the end of the evening, we were already craving to be back in Karuna’s enveloping embrace.
On our third morning in Ganga, just after polishing a ‘special’ omelette, we were setting up our painting kits, when two volunteers (incidentally both from Mumbai, and one of them from a building opposite to Dkd’s) came around. They told us that we’d have to shift to Jamuna, just behind Ganga – some people, who had previously visited Karuna and stayed at Ganga, insisted to stay at the same hut again.
There are no words to describe how pissed-off we were. Why would you come back to the same hut, when every hut at Karuna offers a different view and feel? Why? That too when you know that people were staying at the hut you want? Ugh, it was beyond us. (as you can see, I am still quite enraged about that situation.)
#BeenThereTip as I said, every hut at Karuna had a different feel. Do get there early and check out the huts before deciding on which one(s) you want.
Turns out, it was one of the best things that happened to us! Jamuna, just behind Ganga, was more private and had a small clearing, lined with shadowing banana trees. Once our Kali-like temper settled, we began to see the beauty of it.
That morning, Karuna became a part of me.
We set up a table in the clearing, Ameya made some green tea, and I put aggarbatties in our aangan. We set up our painting kits (again) and painted till the nature and us became one. We were so high on nature, that Ameya wanted to give a hug to everything and I forgot how to blink. We asked everyone who passed by our hut to join us. Hours passed, people switched, but we were there, bringing colours to life.
#BeenThereTip this was the first time I painted/played with colours on a trip and it was such an incredible experience. Everyone who is reading this, even if you don't paint, please just try it once. Its therapeutic.
We were so lost and deep into not being in touch with reality, that we conveniently forgot to book our return train. It was evening by the time realization hit us, and we hiked up to Neville’s hut. He quickly booked busses for us, and confirmed our check-out.
After the initial commotion, Neville settled in for a conversation in his aangan, under a glowing bulb. From what we saw, he looked like mystic – complete with a white beard and lungi. He told us the tales of Karuna and how everything came to life, of the many people who he met and those who made Karuna their homes. He spoke about his life before Karuna and the years that followed. He spoke about politics, economy, philosophy, travel, consciousness, and we hungrily drank every drop that poured out of his rich experiences.
Next morning, we procrastinated packing up until the two volunteers showed up again. We knew we couldn’t run away from it anymore. After leaving Jamuna, we spend another hour or so at the community area, making mental painting of every little thing we saw.
Our jeep arrived around 3 in the evening (or was it 4?) and we reluctantly got in. We sat in our favourite spots (back of the jeep) and as the jeep toiled away on that bumpy path, my heart slowly started to break into a million little pieces.
That evening, I refused to bid a goodbye to Karuna.
We took an overnight bus to Bangalore and another overnight bus from there to Mumbai. Both, DKD and I were so moved by all that had happened in the past few days, that we found it difficult to even express our feelings. But I guess we didn’t need words to express. Our sentences would trail off and a knowing smile would appear. Late in the night, in that rattling bus, a tear escaped my eyes. I could not understand it then, but something within me had changed.
Even after we came back, we were so full of stories and silence at the same time that we kinda made everyone’s life difficult. Every moment of this journey was a story, and these stories filled us with such immense gratitude to have experienced what it is to be truly alive…
I still crave to go back to Karuna almost every day. And I know I will. We are just not done yet.
DISCLAIMER: Karuna is a community space for like-minded, peace and nature loving individuals. If you ever plan to go, please respect the space, peace and the way things function there. Please go through their website and speak to Neville before booking your stay.
DECLARATION: Most pictures in this post are edited. My phone camera, at that time, was a really bad one. It did not capture the feel and colours. Most pictures are enhanced, to come as close to how it actually was.