“We are never going to make it,” I despaired loudly, letting my panic show. We were late, and the surrounding traffic would not let up. Frantically, I called the pilot who was waiting for us with boarding passes in hand. As I listened to him, my panic left me like a slow loosening up. “The plane will wait,” I heard the smile in the pilot’s voice, “you are its only passengers,” he added. Of course we were, I remembered.
For once, we were traveling in a chartered aircraft. It belonged to Orient Flights, and we were about to take off on a week long vacation all over the south of our India. It was going to be lovely, we promised ourselves.
Flying in the King Air was a totally different experience. We flew directly above land, never losing sight of what we were passing over. We could see the traffic, snaking its way through on narrow roads, the trees and the houses. I could even catch a glimpse of ant-sized people as they hurried to work. Hovering just beneath the clouds I could see a well-formed landscape as we flew past it. The curve of a river, the actual shape of a lake, and the jaggered edges of a mountain range – three dimensional and textured.
Flying over Kanchipuram, I let my imagination run riot. I imagined the gamut of silken colours that were being woven into the most glorious sarees right then on busy looms. Sandwiches were offered, and sipping on a cool lemon and soda, I watched as slowly Salem came into view. ‘We try and cater to our customer’s food preferences, and encourage only light meals on board the plane,’ the co-pilot informed us.
Exactly an hour and forty minutes later, we landed in Cochin, our first destination. A ‘normal’ flight would take slightly over an hour. Travelling at a maximum speed of 400 kms an hour, I was surprised that I did not feel any airsickness at all. We were landing at the ethnically clean Cochin airport. At other times, during ‘commercial’ flights, the time before landing seems to stretch eternally. Not so in a King Air. Almost as soon as we landed, the door was opened, and we could deplane. No warnings of overhead lockers bursting open, and luggage falling out, or mad scrambles for the door in an urge to get out first. Our luggage went with us, and we had a chauffer from the Taj Malabar waiting with a name board and a car. Our suite on the fifth floor had a view of the azure Arabian Sea backwaters. A sight I could never tire of no matter how long I look at it. Palm trees swayed in the distance. Across the water, we cold see old Cochin and Mattencherry. Uniformly tiled red roofs and contrasting white walls looked curiously quaint. Chinese fishing nets were laid out and hungry crows swooped down on the catch even before the fishermen could get a glimpse of what their nets had trapped in them. A sense of openness and well being filled my lungs as I took a deep breath and drank in the sheer luxury of my view. Small islands in the distance looked intriguing, evergreen and lush with the vegetation that Kerala has throughout the year.
Hot intense days followed by cool soothing evenings were the expected norm. As the sun set, a new shade of crimson lit the sky and I just had to sit at Dolphin Point, the Malabar’s outdoor restaurant and have my cup of tea. Suddenly, to my surprise, I saw something dart out from the backwaters. A dolphin. Then another, and another. It was like they had all come to say ‘hi’.
A few days later, we left for Madurai. I learnt a valuable lesson at the Cochin airport. Security is tight, no matter how you fly. My suitcase had to be checked. And the combination lock refused to co-operate. It had to be broken open, exposing all my deep dark secrets to the prying eye of at least ten pairs of vigilant security eyes.
Naturally, the exercise was time consuming. We took off slightly later than schedule, but managed to make it in good time to Madurai and checked into the Taj Garden Retreat. Up, down and around, lovely pathways weave through the property, and getting to the restaurant from the room alone is enough to make one hungry. The food in Madurai has a special quality to it, especially the Chettinad cuisine. We tucked in and were ready for a cultural stint into Madurai city. Of course, the Madurai Meenakshi temple formed the focal point of our visit. What really shook me up, though, was the Niakan Palace. It is the very place where epics like Bombay were shot. Huge in proportion, the palace stands in sad neglect its pillars gouged into and its high ceilings dirty with centuries old cobwebs and grime.
By night, Madurai became magically jeweled from our hotel on the hills. It was a magical sight, so engrossing and soothing that one gets transported into the magical world of a vivid imagination.
We took in interesting trips to Chettinad, Tanjore, and made some startling discoveries. For one, Tanjore paintings are never easily available in the shops of Tanjore. Secondly, the little villages that form Chettinad are alarmingly lonely places to live. The arid countryside speaks of a rich past, but its present and its future are a huge question mark, as the old houses crumble under the weight of time and unlived in neglect.