Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Ice Cream In the Breakfast Buffet And Other Myriad Memories Of Misty, Magical Mahabaleshwar.

This is a retrospective post. Like the order that seems to have been retrospectively applied to medical college admissions of Foreign Nationals and genuine Non Resident Indian students in India and is now a sub judice matter, this post too is not in its correct chronological order. But as usual so much was going on when I actually wanted to write this that I just shelved it, to be taken out and dusted off for more peaceful times. But if God wanted us to have peace twenty four by seven, he would have just kept us with Him in heaven and not bothered to send us down to Mother Earth at all! So despite the stressful, chaotic, financially draining time we are going through right now, I just decided to go ahead and write. And yes, details about these tough times later, not now...
Mahabaleshwar: One hundred and twenty kilometres from my home town Pune, the very name conjures up verdant valleys, high hills, cool breezes, languid lakes, rapid rivers and roads with hair pin bends. Pune, then known as Poona, was a cantonment of the British army, under colonial rule. When the summer heat became too much for these uninvited and unwanted British rulers, they escaped to the much cooler climes of Mahabaleshwar.( And probably imagined they were back home in Britain and it's even more probable that they thought they actually were there after a few sun downers!). Even after India got independence in 1947, Mahabaleshwar continued to attract the elite among the natives who definitely seemed to have learnt a thing or too from their erstwhile 'masters'. And many of them built huge bungalows there, where they could escape from the hoi polloi and the heat to which genetically they should have been immune, of course!
Today Mahabaleshwar caters to just about everybody and every budget. From dubious lodges offering rooms to shady college kids to comfortable 'pure veg' resorts that accommodate joint families holidaying together, to sparkling five star hotels which make you feel for a few days that it's all about you and only you exist. A mirage of course, and one that you shell out thousands of rupees (or hundreds of dollars) for!
I first visited Mahabaleshwar on a school trip in 8th grade. Until then, I had just heard about it whenever we flitted in and out of Pune because, of course, thanks to the Indian Army, we lived  just about all over India. This trip, conducted by our Geography teacher, was an overnight one and the high light of our high school years. This was no ordinary school trip like the ones common nowadays, where the parents fork out exorbitant amounts, the children have fun, the school makes a profit and the teachers get a fully paid for trip free. Ours was completely Geographical. From plotting out the elevation of Mahabaleshwar on a contour map, to studying which rivers originate there and which ones we would cross on the way, to which planet we would see at sunrise to the name of the one we would see at sun set, we had to know it all before we left or even paid for the trip! Little wonder then that I can still rattle off all the facts mentioned above, more than twenty six years after the event! Teachers taught in those days and students learnt...
A much awaited event of the 'Mahaby' ( as we refered to it then, feeling very hip and cool and anglicized) trip was the bonfire at the cheap lodge the school had booked. (The beds only had sheets, no bed covers, anathema in my book!). We all sat round the fire late into the night, singing all the songs we had learnt during our singing period in school...The best part of going with school friends is, up to a certain age, you all, more or less, know the same things and have shared so many experiences as part of your school life that the bond is very strong and it is easy to reconnect from where you left off, even if you meet after a couple of decades! I was introduced to 'Paani Puri' a spicy, savoury, street food at a food stall, at a popular view point in Mahabaleshwar,by a persuasive friend whose mother is a paediatrician and whose dad was a pathologist. I wonder if her parents knew that their darling, only daughter was feasting from a stall with questionable, very dubious hygiene levels, if any! As for me, that was the first and last time I ate off a food cart, though home made Paani Puri is a very popular snack with my kids and one that I make often, always remembering the dingy bucket of Paani (water) at Mahabaleshwar!
Little did I know then that I would be visiting Mahabaleshwar next only after sixteen long years,despite living just a two hour drive away, mother, husband and children in tow. We stayed in a family friendly resort. My four year old son, used to the hot, humid, Dar Es Salaam weather, kept urging us to turn off the air conditioner as we went out and about! We had to keep telling him there was no AC, that was the cold weather! He had never experienced this earlier as December is summer in the Southern hemisphere and when we visited home for the holidays in late March, it used to be the start of summer in Pune too, as it falls in the Northern hemisphere! A hands on geography lesson my old school teacher would have been proud of! Mahabaleshwar, in March, being at a higher altitude, was freezing for my little boy. Mahabaleshwar is home to many ancient temples too and we religiously did the rounds of these as well as all the view points and the lake that Mahabaleshwar is famous for. The children feasted on the luscious strawberries that Mahabaleshwar is so well known for and which are found in abundance here.
Nine long years passed by before I went to Mahabaleshwar again, with just my husband this time and we stayed at Le Meridien, Mahabaleshwar's sinfully expensive and utterly luxurious spanking new five star property, built on twenty seven acres of tree covered land. It was our gift to ourselves for having raised a daughter who had just become an official adult and who we left in charge of the house and her brother, with my parents just a floor below to keep an eye, of course! (She told me later that neither brother nor sister bothered with breakfast, got up directly at 1 :00 pm in time for lunch, ate packaged junk all the time in between and never bothered to put away their washed clothes. Honestly what kind of an adult have we raised?!) This time it was the Monsoon season and it did not just rain, it poured! It was as if buckets upon buckets of water were being emptied from up above. I drove there from my home town and by the time we were on the outskirts of Mahabaleshwar, visibility was zero due to rain! All the vehicles had their head lights on despite the fact that it was early afternoon and those treacherous hair pin bends had to negotiated very carefully... It added a new aspect to my driving repertoire, so I was thrilled of course!
Despite steep prices this hotel is worth a visit. A limited number of exclusive rooms means all you see are trees and, in our case, incessant rain of course! Paths with crazy paving zick zack through the trees and the golf carts that transport you to your room from the main areas skilfully manouver their way on these, even as you hold on for dear life! Swimming, billiards, ping pong tables, a well stocked library and a spa all await your pleasure. It is easy to lose yourself here and bask in the epitome of luxury, while you forget that there is a world outside too. All the view points are closed during Monsoons but the hotel has enough to keep you and your children entertained for the days you choose to stay here with treasure hunts, nature walks and games.
At breakfast the next morning, I could not believe my eyes. I had to blink twice to check that I wasn't seeing things... Then I had to ask my husband to see if he saw what I had seen. ICE CREAM served in the breakfast buffet? Not just one but FOUR different flavours? And no staff member guarding it, giving you the evil eye when you piled scoop upon scoop? This was too good to be true!  Never in my years and years of staying in five star hotels across the world had I ever seen this! Not even the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai had served us ice cream for breakfast... Le Meridien is an American chain and they had certainly got this one right and how! I dug into it blissfully, while contemplating that the children were missing this.... but never fear I, being the ice cream fanatic I am, would more than make up for them.
A couple of days ago, I read that the stockholders of Le Meridien, Starwood Resorts, have merged with the Marriott chain. Please, please continue with that delicious ice cream! We are coming there again with our children, if you do!

                                        Ice cream - Unlimited: No better way to start your day!

                                       (But only on a holiday!)

                                                      Paths amidst thick woods

                                           Green Mahabaleshwar as seen from Le Meridien

                                                          An ode to a strawberry seller!

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