SOMA BASU relives the thrills and travails of exploring 100 places for the columnthat ran for more than four years

We all know the Boss doesn’t like to hear No. Less than a week after I left behind a Delhi winter and arrived in Madurai, Mukund Padmanabhan, the MetroPlus Chief, called. “Take a cab and go to Karaikudi tomorrow. We are starting a new column, ‘Road Less Travelled’. Check out the majestic banglas there and especially the one with 1,000 windows.”

I wanted to mumble, “I haven’t yet settled down …I don’t speak Tamil, I don’t know the geography of the area and the history of the people there…” But the words remained stuck in my throat. Sitting in Chennai, he sensed my silence and said something I never forgot. “Your personal experience will drive your narrative. What you see, smell, hear and taste will make your copy interesting.”

I was not a travel writer. But I made a start with Karaikudi and thereafter, with other members of the MetroPlus team, pounded that road week after week.

Each visit to a hitherto unexplored spot made me bolder. I went on bumpy roads where my clattering taxi broke down and I was stranded in the middle of nowhere for hours in Kanyakumari District.

I walked through wilderness and got lost in the mist in Adukkam. I fought a lost battle with monkeys over my handbag at Sittanavasal. Yet, the experiences only drove us more actively into the paths where few tourists had trodden before.

Some places were absolute enchantment, watching the ocean at Thengapattinam, riding the coracle in Kamarajar Lake in Athoor and photographing hidden nooks and crannies in Thiruppodaimarudu. Each time I returned, my pictures evoked cynicism and suspicion along with appreciation. People would ask, “Are these places really so beautiful as in your photographs?”

I wasn’t always sure I would survive to write the next RLT, as when I clung to a rope slung from one bank of the pond to the other at the Thenmala Eco-Tourism Centre on the Madurai-Kollam Highway. Uphill walks left my legs tottering and my back sore, and I yearned to be tucked inside a rolling drum and sent back down. I had near misses, almost blinding myself on thorny branches and slipping off wet rocks. Yet the spirit soared.

What I realised during these years is that travel writing is not easy, given our limited vocabulary. The sky will always be azure, hills verdant and forests emerald. There can be few alternatives to the vast emptiness of the sand on the beaches or the infinite blue sea.

What always mattered was the adventurous road, whether we saw a slice of biodiversity close up after a smelly boat ride in Muthupet or let our imagination run riot in the ruined fort of Thirumayyam. We saw the misty mountains at Mannavannur, cascading water in Kumbhavarutty, the rolling hills in Govindapperi, the strange swamp forests in Konalar, the archaeological sites at Manora or the salt pans at Valinokkam.

On these roads less travelled, I was often lucky, too. Well-meaning strangers and forest caretakers volunteered information and entertained me with food and history. Many of them today are my good friends.

I owe my stint as a travel writer to my boss, who allowed me the space, and scores of readers who called, e-mailed and wrote letters suggesting places. These messages I receive even now, five years after we closed RLT and replaced it with more travel pieces and new columns like Time Out, Stay and Tell, and Hidden Hundred.

There are surely many more hidden spots waiting to be explored by the adventurous.

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