Feet on the ground versus armchair analysis. Sherlock vs. Mycroft. A debate for all economists, investors and macro watchers. Hop on a bike for a three-month road trip, Jim Rogers would say, but few have the ability, patience or time. Financial markets churn out millions of research reports, authored by arm-chair analysts, and the financially literate yet reality-challenged 1% (including yours truly) wonder whether the financial world we inhabit has anything in common with the “real economy”. Post the 2008 financial crisis that proved how over-paid “market folks” were relative to their contribution to the real economy, acknowledging it and maintaining a smidgen of sanity requires me to take a break every couple of months; and the traveler me more often than not rescues the markets me – a couple of hours with chatty locals can either destroy a thousand hypothesis, or reinforce them as solid facts. And demystify a lot of the jargon that passes off as “smart analysis”. In an exaggerated feedback loop, the smart investor travels to learn while having fun, while the real traveler uses his local interactions to make enough money to fund his next trip.
Momentous discoveries and meaningless philosophical discourses were farthest from my mind, the basic plan was a trek up the famous “Z-point” at Kemmangundi, a drive along those scenic, foggy winding roads to Bababudangiri, and a climb up the 1,900 metre Mullayanagiri peak. www.takeabreak.in suggested both a location www.kemmangundihomestays.com and a local driver-cum-guide. Google maps and AP’s ipad did the rest. Old-timers like us who have actually trampled around without smart phones find googlemaps extremely useful, yet I cannot avoid the feeling that all these gadgets and apps are making me dumber by the minute. A seven hour drive, the last two through some wonderfully quaint and scenic surroundings passing through Chikmagalur town, coffee estates surrounded by pine forests and sheer cliffs, which test the city driver and his small car, brought us to the edge of Bhadra forest where the home-stay is located; right in front of a tall hill and surrounded by small fields and plantations. A long walk in the crisp winter air in the evening, with the setting sun throwing off golden streaks across the reddish soil, and a rustic dinner in the common hall were real treats. These are cherished memories for a city-dweller; how complicated our lives have turned out to be!
Kemmangundi is a lovely small hill-town, flanked by the Bababudangiri hill range, with spectacular red soil and wonderful hiking trails passing through lavish green valleys, grasslands and waterfalls. From the homestay to Raj Bhavan was a 12km long narrow winding path, which the Mahindra jeep handled really well. Raju was the driver-cum-guide from the nearby village of Lingadahalli, and he made his displeasure with city drivers rather apparent. “They don’t belong here, they don’t know how to drive, they don’t have any commonsense”, he kept muttering. The jeep twisted and turned, and wafts of crisp mountain air floated in through the windows, and with every hair-pin we climbed, our lungs struggled while our ears popped. Most cars can get up to Raj Bhavan where the hiking trails start, but Raju had other ideas. “What is the point of hiking on flat terrain, climb when you can't drive”, and proceeded to subject us to the agony of a non-existent dirt track for the next 10 minutes, which mercifully ended when we came upon a large ditch. We ditched our jackets, bundled water and biscuits in to a backpack, while Raju was already disturbing the peaceful environment with his snores.
It is not supposed to be a difficult climb, but the intensity and struggle depends on the differential between how fit one believes he is, and reality. Body vs. Mind. Not very steep, yet challenging as you go higher, with some episodes of breathlessness, couple of recovery periods, and two sharp juts where one needs to be careful and hold on to the slippery rocks. We passed a family with extremely inappropriately dressed women (for the climb!) at one of the waterfalls, enquiring how far they were from the peak. A very suspicious group of teenagers, a guy and three girls, all panting heavily, said 45 minutes. It didn’t look that far, the peak was visible, the trail looked innocuous enough.
All around were steep valleys covered with tall grass that swayed to the strong winds, while the sun shone brightly and drove the chill out of our bones; glorious settings with dazzling scenery, the immense trees along the steep cliffs obscuring the deep bottom of the valley, with a lake at the horizon visible to the eye but not to my expensive camera. Surprisingly, we were all alone for the next hour as we kept climbing and taking pictures. It is only when you hit the peak and look at the watch that the realization sinks in. It was easily the tallest peak around; the towns looked like tiny dots way below, the wind turned in to strong breeze that threatened to blow away my glares, and the steep slopes of the “Z-point” looked threatening enough for me to take a step back. AP displayed previously unheard bravery and pointed out a steep trail to the very top, which I took one look at and turned around; bravery and foolhardy are separated by a thin line, perhaps as thin as the trail he wanted to take. We lingered around, trying to settle our cameras which swayed to the mighty wind, and our hearts, which fluttered with joy. The family was still at the waterfall on our way back, and one of the women asked “did you see my kid? He went out on the climb after you”. Indian mothers have a way of ignoring age, she was at least sixty and her kid would be my age. “I didn’t, there is no one around on the trail” I said, as a wave of panic swept across her eyes. “Maybe he went on the other trail up the waterfall?” “Oh yes, there he is, my child, waving at me”. You never stop being a mother, said mine once. Raju was fast asleep and we had to wake him up, knocking furiously on the windows. He looked refreshed; it had been two and a half hours since we left him at peace.
“Do you want to see the real mountainside?” Faced with such an existential question, my experience told me to nod. Raju is as rustic as one can get; rough and tough on the outside, and soft and gooey on the inside. And mindful of the fact that we were paying him top dollar, by his definition anyway, and he promised to make it worth the money. The concept of money and wealth is very urban; village-folk anywhere in the world get their basics right; never equate time with money, value a good night’s sleep, not a bank balance. Raju swung his jeep across the rickety gate that separates the village limits from the Bhadra reserve. We should have feared the worst when he said “typically, I don’t take this route if there was a family riding, but”.
There are two routes from Kemmangundi to Bababudangiri – the paved double lane that is 60kms long, or the 18km partly paved single lane cut across the hills, through the natural reserve, that only the locals or the truly lost seemed to take. Over the next 45 mins, we overtook two jeeps and a small car and passed a shuttle auto. Raju wanted us to have an “authentic mountain” experience, and that meant a minute of paved road followed by deft maneuvering across potholes, pebbles, and deep gashes on a non-existent pebble infested track that hugged the steep mountainside. The road snakes through some stunning scenery and tall mountains that jut out and end mysteriously in the strange moist and sweet fog, the sun plays hide and seek and turns the grass brown one minute and green the next, showing off bright flashes of silver as the rays bounce off some invisible mysterious objects far away. AP and me have survived each other on a million trips for the past 12 years, mainly through the art of keeping quiet. Pass me the water, I have to take a leak, I am hungry! Raju did all the talking, boasting about his driving skills while humming two decades old Hindi film songs and a decade old pop music, while we silently took in the sights and filled our lungs with the sweet mountain mist. Raju does 10-12 such trips a month and the surroundings must feel normal to him, just as a pub or an office feels to me. We take for granted what we are used to, that is the bane of our existence. Entertainment of the day was a risky overtaking maneuver which annoyed him, since he had to brake and slow down, activities he hates; a drunk driver, with four fully drunk ugly-looking pot-bellied men who were obviously lost and imagined this to be the main road to Chikmagalur asked Raju where they could borrow a 4-wheel drive. What they wanted to do with their tata indica and whether they made it alive to the town remains a mystery.
All proponents of the “Intolerance” debate must visit Bababudangiri or Dattapeetha, as it’s called by locals. Always a tinder-box, controversial, headline grabbing, a place of worship revered and claimed by both religions, and witness to several clashes over the years, our first experience with local passions had begun with a question the previous afternoon as we were driving through Chikmagalur town. Why were police and riot gear in full display, and why had they set up so many road blocks? At a particular junction, which we later learnt led to the shrine, there was a traffic jam a couple of miles long. Buses full of saffron shawl pilgrims waving orange flags contrasted with the green headgear. It was both eid and datta jayanti, on Christmas eve! The shrine was empty as we stepped in, relatively speaking, a policeman said it was bursting the previous day. "We had to lathicharge to control the crowds yesterday, the lines never stopped".
The shrine is a cave that worships, depending on who you talk to, Lord Dattatreya, Dada Hayath, the sufi saint Baba Budan, and may others. Within the cave, the first site is a dargah and the second is a formless image of Dattatreya, administered respectively by the two religions. We drank the holy water administered by the fakir, touched the image and paid our respects, and smeared the clay on our foreheads. Attendance was thin, but both religions paid obeisance at each other’ shrine. And it has been this way for as long as I can remember, said Raju. A German couple, who had found the shrine on tripadvisor and were brave enough to venture out, were very curious. The fakir called a lady and said “explain to them about Baba Budan”. “Touch the image and your prayers will be answered” said the priest, and AP translated, with due explanations. She was from Frankfurt, “I haven’t seen something like this in a long time”. Neither have I.
The peak of Bababudangiri is a further 3kms away, over steep hair-pins up the mountain, and sadly resembles a picnic spot. Hordes of families, plastic bottles and chips packets strewn, dirty clothes discarded all around, you get the drift. It is still a beautiful sight as one looks over the edge, the saffron flag fluttering at the cliff-top temple which is open on special days and can be reached only through steep stairs, must be a real treat for those who time it right. We hardly spent 15 mins at the lookout, the breeze was strong, and the people too many. We walked up and down the steep slopes and imagined what a trek up the base would take. Ten years ago, we might have actually done it, and I had climbed up the slope in my teens, but those were good times.
The base of Mullayanagiri peak is reached through an ever narrower road, about 8kms away. It is a surprise it can be reached at all by road, so steep is the drive and so exposed the road that a single twitch can send you down the scary slope. Raju laughed at the cars attempting the climb, betting which would get stuck at which turn, and he was bang on. Only the very brave or the really experienced drivers have the heart to drive to the top; I took one look down the slippery slope and the road ahead, and mumbled a quick prayer. Even a couple of off-road bikes had to ditch, but Raju motored on; after dropping us at the base, he had the energy to make a couple of quick trips, ferrying families up and down the last mile, charging 50 per head. Grinning ear to ear, and planning which arrack shop to hit that night.
From the base to the temple at the peak is a series of winding steps, which takes a toll on the knees and calves, rather than the lungs. AP felt the other way round, but we both made it to the temple in about eight minutes and two breathing breaks. At 6,330ft, it is the highest in Karnataka and deserves every accolade I ever read; the views from the peak on a bright day like this are worth all the pain and the horrid road. Six years ago, two young men climbed Adam’s peak in Srilanka in the middle of the night to feast on the most gorgeous sunrise I could ever imagine. The features on every mountain peak remain identical. Long hours of pain followed by the orgasmic thrill of actually being there, smelling the crisp mountain air, looking down at the slopes and waving at the faces laboring up the steps, celebrating with bars of chocolate and gallons of water, and those long moments of silence when you want to freeze that one moment and remember it as a highlight of your life. Mountains are exciting, they are a challenge, and Mullayanagiri certainly was one. Every mountain I climb, the same thought scares me; will I be fit enough to climb the next one?
There were about a million cars streaming up the narrow slopes as mid-day turned in to a beautiful evening, and we were lucky to escape the traffic jam on our way back. Raju laughed; “All you city-dwellers are responsible for this, imagine, a traffic jam here”. He believes the road should be blocked half-way and only the fit should be allowed to trek up. I can certainly see the merit in his argument, judging by the quantum of cars. “They are all rushing to watch the sunset, but you know what, you don’t see the setting sun from here, it is a classic tourist scam”, he said. Try explaining that to the hordes of tourists stuck in that five km long traffic jam. Evening falls quickly in the hills, and for my tired knees, it couldn’t come any sooner. Raju drove rather warily into the evening, actually braking a couple of times to let someone pass, so out of character. He must be tired; it had been a long day.
Evening was spent in the most interesting conversation I had for a long time. Next to the resort is a large farmland, I was fascinated by the striking red earth and started taking pictures. The farmer called out to me, asked where I was from, and we started talking; knowing the local lingo has its advantages. His story was one of extremes. A ten acre land divided among three families, enough to feed each but not much more, sons more interested in city life and alcohol than farming, and for good reasons; extremes of weather and prices. Potato sold at 25 a kg last year and at 5 a kg this year; rains that started as plenty tapered off right when you needed them; farm labor getting expensive every year, from 300 a day to 500 post MNREGA program; bore wells that keep getting deeper and deeper, 10 years ago at 100ft now 700ft; bank loans available in plenty and at lower rates as well, but no takers; “Where is the reward for my hard work?” he wailed. He is 47 and expects to die tilling his field, “If I don’t, who will? Not my sons”.
If the first hour was negative, the next was anything but. Ramesh owns an adjoining farmland, “that was my distant uncle you were talking to an hour ago” he started. These small town folk open up the minute they trust you, we city dwellers don’t unless our lives depend on it. “Proud of my farm, look around, I planted all these trees myself”. Arecanut trees and coffee inter-cropped in neat rows, hard labor paying dividends. His land is worth a decent 1cr today, and was bare just 7 years ago. 5-7 years it takes for arecanut to start yielding, and they yield for twice as long, three or four pluckings a year, all they need is water and fertilizer once they take root. Robusta coffee is true to its name, requires very little treatment, yields for 40 years, all it needs is shade and fertilizer. I hesitated while asking “how much does an acre yield in a year?” Ramesh was proud “8-10 lakhs after expenses in a good year”. The plants are his, maintenance expenses are his, he contracts out the farm every year to one of those estates which pay him by the yield. “I am thinking of selling my next year’s produce directly to the market in Chikmagalur, let me see what I can get”. This small town man dreams big, but entrepreneurs everywhere think alike. Risk and effort should have disproportionate rewards; only the financial world sees risk-free rewards, or is it reward-free risks?
Raju was happy as well, “made decent money today”, and at dinner, he was seen standing in for one of the resort help; they frequently help each other out, belonging to the same village. “I will sleep well today, tomorrow is another struggle”, he said before signing off. “What is happening in Bangalore, I heard you have pubs the size of dance floors? It must be fun!”. What we have, we take for granted. Pubs, forests, family, bank balance, health, a good night’s sleep. Life is all about choices. Raju his jeep and long drives to Mullayanagiri, Ramesh his farm and 2am watering alarm, AP his badminton, and yours truly, his travel, music and long runs. And a pledge to keep my sanity as China increasingly becomes the buzzword in global markets.