It has been very hectic four weeks on the road; living off suitcases, sleeping erratically, eating subpar airplane and restaurant foods across India and Afghanistan. Inaugurating two schools, housing projects, butting heads with contractors in tentative Dari while shivering in sub-zero Kabul weather, fretting over and juggling perpetual precariously low CAI cash flows, cajoling donors for funds, listening to orphan girls in Kabul proudly show off their newly acquired English vocabulary…all in a day's work, for lucky me.
Back in Mumbai, I get an all clear (for now) from doctors frowning over my medical tests, so I seize upon a few personal days off, to rest, rejuvenate and contemplate. I have a free two-night coupon for any Taj resort property in India about to expire, so I cash it in, paying for the required third night. Apart from the cloudy medical opinions from my sometimes-ambiguous medical professionals (aren’t they always?), life’s good and I have no reason to bellyache. The doctors are guardedly optimistic; I still actively workout, eat like a horse and feel (and look) like a trillion (okay billion) dollars. Alhamd’Allah.
Coorg is a remote resort in Karnataka, about sixty air minutes from Mumbai, renowned for spectacular geographical vistas and ideal for some serious solitary reconnection with nature; I head there. I land in Mangalore, the nearest major airport city and take a rickety cab for Coorg. The cab driver, an eccentric old codger really, who speaks broken Hindi and no English, frequently thumps his chest and burps away audibly, filling the confined cab with noxious, toxic garlic fumes. He peers at me from the rearview mirror, shakes his head, flashes red gudka stained teeth my way, makes a face and quips, It’s gas, Sahib, bad gas, in Hindi. I glare at him, but swallow hard and fervently pray that the bad gas does not start affecting other ends of his body. I have to bear his assaults and listen to loud ancient Hindi and Kannada songs all the way to the hotel, about three hours away.
The hotel, The Taj Vivanta, once we get there, is spectacular. It is set deep in a forest, and all I see is vibrant green. I have the cab door open before it comes to a complete stop, startling the old man, but the need for abundant fresh air outside is immense after the 3-hour garlicky confinement. The air is cool, filled with sweet frangipani (and raat-ki-raani at night), absolutely pollution free and the landscape, stunning; I hear birds chirping and water gurgling. An attractive young teenage hostess, Arti, greets me and sprinkles a few drops of holy water on my head; for luck and long life, she mutters. I’ll need both; I mutter back. It might be my imagination, but swear I sense her politely restrain the tweaking of her pert nose on smelling all that garlic on me. I am offered all sorts of gimmicks to enhance my stay, including a private dinner for two overlooking an expansive valley from where the view can only match what could be paradise. Only for Rs. 25,000 (about US$370 in today's conversion rate) Arti demurely murmurs, making it sound as if it’s a must do thing and I’d be a fool to decline. But it’s for two people, I mockingly exclaim, playing a smartass, unless you want to join me for the dinner? Oh, I don’t mind Sir, Arti glibly retorts instantly, least unruffled, I’d love to have dinner with you. What night should I reserve the dinner for, Sir? I’m not sure how I get out of this jam, but I do, declining the offer red-faced and wanting to kick myself. Hard.
My secluded cottage is not a room, rather, a den of luxury; everything first-class, with a romantic private fireplace room included; lavishness overdone, for me. Apart from my room and the bathroom, I don’t use any other part of the cottage during my entire 3-night stay. What makes it worthwhile, however, is the view from the bedroom. The cottage in perched on top of a hill with a grand view of the canyon stretched below, as far and wide as my eyes can see. Arti tells me there are animals out there; wild boars and deer and elephants even, beyond the range of bordering hills.
I splurge the three days in contemplation, trekking, exercise, working on my current novel and taking in the abundant wild nature as Allah has first created it; indeed, I feel very close to my Creator here. I crave this solitude sometimes, especially now, as I fight the demons trying to destroy my body. A brief gloomy dip in my mood - what if I do die from this? Followed by an immediate recovery - how often has Allah, in the Quraan, shown me the parables of the life cycle, especially in regards to nature? He creates, He nourishes, He terminates. The greenery before me will surely wither and perish, only to take hold the next life cycle. Such is life, no? I revert to my Imam's advice on confronting life’s battles – That stars shine their brightest in the darkest of nights - Imam Ali (A).
The service here is incredibly super; when I hesitate to order a non-vegetarian dish, the head Chef, a Hussein Ali, personally comes by to assure me all meats are 100% halal. This property has 63 cottages and all are fully booked, this being the ideal time of the year to visit India. The mode of travel between cottages and various restaurants and the lobby is by chauffeured golf carts, since the extreme terrain can be difficult or hazardous by foot at night. I meet my fellow holiday mates only when I go for meals or to the gym or to swim at the main building. They are an assorted group of very wealthy Indians and a few foreigners who can afford the US$250 / night price tag. An overwhelming number of them are Gujaratis, so the dining area is full of the familiar language; conversations about business deals and how much money can be made from the bearish stock market by the men and common gossip of shopping, clothes, jewelry, Bollywood and mean mother-in-laws or stingy, unfaithful husbands from the women.
I leave this sanctuary refreshed, energized and heartened, head for Mumbai and then home; there is so much to do. I look forward to seeing my Zainab; haven’t seen her for almost a month; miss her terribly. I have a different driver taking me to Mangalore this time, one without evidently gassy or loud music issues; I am much relieved. I’ll be home Tuesday, insha’Allah.