An Indian Hill-Station Holiday (Part 7 of Return to India)

At Neral Junction, Una and I descended from our train into a different world.  Gone were the crowds and filth of Mumbai. The station was a quiet oasis shaded by a striped awning.  We waited there for more than an hour while trains from Mumbai came and went.

There were several ways to get to Matheran from Neral Junction—by hired car or bus (these only went to a car park a mile from town), pony cart, hand-pulled rickshaw, on foot, and via the narrow-gage railway known as the “toy train.”  Una and I had opted for the heritage toy train that consisted of a diesel engine and a half-dozen small, blue carriages. Scheduled to leave at 11 am, the mini-train waited across the tracks at the only other station platform.

At first, is seemed Una and I would be the only passengers on the toy train. But we were in India. The engine was already blowing its whistle when our carriage and the one in front of us filled up with teenagers and their chaperons.  We soon realized our travel companions were students from a school for deaf students. The girls, all in our car, looked pretty in matching, blue-checked shalwar kameez uniforms, each with a flowing white scarf. Most of them had done their hair in long, glistening black, braid loops tied up with red ribbons. Each student wore a hearing aid, some quite substantial. They chattered among themselves in Hindi and sign-language. At the last moment, because there was not enough room in the first car, two teenage boys reluctantly joined our carriage full of girls.

As soon as the train left the station, the chaperons passed out snacks to the students. With a smile, they also offered plates to Una and me.  As we nibbled on idli (steamed fermented rice cakes) topped with grated coconut and chilies, the toy train inched up the dry, brown hills.  The ride was long, hot, and tedious. The train stopped twice nowhere near any structure, almost as if the engine needed a rest.

The chaperon who sat across the aisle from us spoke perfect English. She explained that the school outing was organized by a volunteer of the Home Guard, a paramilitary auxiliary of the police. This fellow, who sat in the first car with the boys, had been trained to work with children who had disabilities.  The students would stay in Matheran for four days, sleep in dormitories, go horseback riding, hiking, and take classes in compass and first-aid.

Forced to sit in the “girls’ car,” the two older boys spent most of the trip teasing the girls who sat in front of them. At the same time, a younger girl sitting behind the boys delighted at pulling the hair of one of them and yanking on his hearing aid cord. A lanky youth with a thin mustache and a jutting jaw, he didn’t seem to mind.  He talked constantly, his hands flying, while his friend sat silently, only responding occasionally with a simple gesture.

When our toy train finally reached the town of Matheran, the students eagerly poured out and followed the Home Guard officer down the road, kicking up red dust.  Una and I were greeted by a tall, white-haired representative of our hotel. We followed him along the dirt road, carrying our own packs, much to the displeasure of the porters waiting at the station for tourist tips.

Though the buildings were a bit dilapidated, we immediately loved our hotel. Surrounded by gardens, the location was perfect for catching mountain breezes. We were given a big room with a veranda that overlooked a pool and a view of the Neral Valley far below. Our included meals were served in a blue dining room. The owner, a Parsi gentleman by the name of Jim Lord, served us and lingered by our table to explain each dish that came from his immaculate kitchen.

Matheran, the only hill-station in India that forbids cars, was the perfect place for us to relax for a day—a kind of vacation set between the active parts of our journey. Noted for its magnificent viewpoints, bands of roaming wild monkeys, opportunities for rock-climbing, and many saddle horses, it fulfilled its promise. Una was able to run before breakfast. We walked around town to work up an appetite before lunch and took a nap in the heat of the afternoon. After tea-time, we hiked to Sunset Point which offered a west-facing view of dramatic rock pinnacles and mountain crevices. Back at the hotel for dinner, we spent the evening chatting with Jim Lord and his wife.

The Lords arranged for rickshaws to take us down the hill early the next morning.  After breakfast, Una and I again shouldered our heavy travel packs.  This time, the transportation was on time—two rickshaws, each with two men to manage it. We felt a bit self-conscious, wondering about political correctness, as we got into the light-weight bamboo and metal contraptions. Our luggage was piled at our feet and we set off.

One man ran in front pulling the rickshaw, while the other trotted behind to steady it or give a needed push.

The unpaved road twisted and turned through trees and over uneven stones and ruts.  In some places the track was extremely steep, making it clear why the rear rickshaw man was so important. He pulled and braked the rickshaw so the forward driver wouldn’t be crushed by a run-a-way vehicle. On the descent, we passed laden pack horses heading up the hill. Even construction materials were transported with out benefit of engine power. We bounced past several heavy carts filled with bricks, each pushed up the steep incline by six or seven grunting, sweating laborers.

After a mile of this we reached the car-park and transferred to a black sedan for the rest of the way to the train station. By mid-morning we would again be on an Indian train, this time heading for the city of Pune.


One response to “An Indian Hill-Station Holiday (Part 7 of Return to India)”

  1. Elaine Atherton

    Katie, I so enjoyed this chapter of your travels. Your experience here exemplifies why we travel. To seek moments of peace, pleasure, and change from our ordinary lives is what we seek.
    Elaine Atherton

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