It was the summer of 1990. A seriously hot one. I remember it well because I had just finished my I.C.S.E. examinations. My single mum was keen on making sure we celebrate this occasion well and planned an elaborate vacation to Munnar, well before it became a well-known vacation spot. Besides the two of us, my paternal grandmother, younger sister, and two cousin sisters made up the travelling group.
The trip held the promise of being spectacular. A picturesque train ride to Kochi (Cochin), where we would spend a couple of days in an aunt’s empty house. Then a drive to Periyar, followed by another picturesque drive to Munnar. In Munnar, we were to stay amidst tea gardens at the High Range Club and planned to drive around to nearby towns and villages. We were sure to return to Mumbai relaxed and well rewarded.
Instead, when we arrived at the station to catch our train to Kochi, we discovered that my mother’s friend’s husband (as things were back in the day) who had promised us train tickets during the busy summer had failed to get them. After a prolonged discussion at the station, his PA had managed to secure us a non-air-conditioned coupé on the Netravati Express, which makes some 35 stops between Bombay and Kochi. Within two hours of leaving Bombay, the train stalled for a few hours and we were without electricity. It was the month of May. Soon the bogie was invaded by mosquitoes and other flying insects. My sister and cousins squealed. I apparently dealt with the heat by taking my T-shirt off and running around the train gasping “it’s too hot, it’s too hot!” Turned out this train had no meals for travellers and although we Gujaratis always have an ample supply of theplas, we were still hungry. My mother and grandmother tried to calm things down, but as luck would have it, one of the most finicky in the group fell in the train loo. Meanwhile, I befriended a few army jawans and invited them over to our house in Kochi. Sure enough, they did turn up, much to the consternation of my mother, grandmother and cousins, who couldn’t understand how I could be so stupid and give strangers our address.
On the long journey to Munnar, my grandmother befriended the taxi driver by chatting with him in the Tamil she remembered from her days in Sri Lanka. Every time we asked, the driver insisted that our destination was just “runda muna” (two to three) kilometres away. Meanwhile he drove as if he were in an F1 race. Thanks to this, the three young girls found the hairpin bends a bit too hairy. Much to my disgust, almost like clockwork, they took turns requesting an emesis break. The four-hour drive seemed to stretch like fourteen.
To top it all, just when we had almost reached the town adjacent to Munnar, my mother thought she had seen an ibex and asked for the car to be stopped. Then she and I went searching for ibexes in the forest while my grandmother waited in the car with the others, mumbling all along under her breath: “What will people say if something happens to them (on my watch)?”
To our young minds, the greenery of the tea estates, the quaint enchantment of Fort Kochi, the delicious dosas and appams that a family friend Mrs. Mani prepared for us, all paled in comparison to the perceived “horrors” of the journeys. It caused the teenager in me to remark rather rudely to my mother that “this was the worst trip ever!”
Twenty-five years later, I still forward every news article that speaks of a delayed Netravati Express to my sister and cousins. We live on different continents, but every time we meet, references to this trip will be made, followed by rounds of pealing laughter.
Was this the worst trip? Probably not. Do I want to repeat it? Probably not. But it certainly provided us much entertainment long after it was done. Every time we have a bad experience on a trip now, and my daughter whines or complains, I smile deep down because I’m almost certain it will bring some joy on another day.
Appeared in the November 2015 issue as “The Worst Trip Ever”.