blissful by the banyan: homestay, off-mumbai

(Caveat: I wrote this ages ago but didn’t work for the newspaper it was written for. Yeah, tough luck! Today, a day before we leave for our second visit to Banyan Bliss, this article crept into my mind and I went back and re-read it. Written more than six months ago I still remember agonising over some of those lines. It might not be perfect yet, but I like it… and thought, why not share it here. Thanks to that little munchkin who came along with us.

This time we’ll be travelling with our five month puppy. I’m hoping to see the place through his eyes this time! And as a few long weekend carrots are dangled in front of us, maybe you can plan a trip here too!)

It was a long weekend and we decided to head out of Mumbai. With my husband driving, me in the front-seat, our friends with their one and a half year old toddler ensconced in the back, we set off. I was apprehensive as travelling with children, especially not your own, isn’t the most fun way to spend a holiday. Children are cute but it means every detail needs to be cross-checked for the munchkin’s safety and comfort. This trip began a month ago with the mother calling the host to check on a ‘few things’. I channeled my inner chi and told myself that this would be a ‘do nothing’ holiday albeit with a lot of babysitting.

The drive was smooth, with the toddler snoozing off for most of it, and two hours later, we’d reached Banyan Bliss 120 kms to the south of Mumbai. A family of four was finishing lunch and our eager hosts Beena and Viinod welcomed us and herded us off for lunch. Sitting on a hillock, their home has been built along the slope, without altering the terrain. An old Banyan tree forms the heart of the space, with the rooms, as separate units, on all sides and at different levels. Picture this, if Viinod had to go from his living room to the bedroom during monsoons, he needed an umbrella. Nature is a part of the family not a vagrant guest.

After lunch, we were ready for a nap, but the toddler saw the lotus pond in front of the room and dived. His father grabbed him, and held on as he explored, squealing, splashing, and trying, in vain, to catch a fish. He could have gone on all day, but his father and my husband, who’d taken turns holding him, were tired, and he was lifted out, bawling. We retired to our friend’s room, the erstwhile master bedroom, and the toddler ran around exploring all the nooks and crannies. The Nairs’ living room and three bedrooms have been converted into guest-rooms while they live in a separate house. The decor, stacks of books, and even LP records we chanced upon during our stay gave us glimpses of each room’s previous inhabitant. Most homestays have rooms ‘done up’ for guests but these weren’t. We actually felt like we were living in their rooms, and the minute we left, the family would move back in.

While the others napped, I headed to the open verandah overlooking the paddy fields, and sat there with Beena and another guest, Andrea. The conversation meandered, a young couple joined, the toddler came by, and multiple cups of chai and umpteen pakodas later, we came back to what had brought us all here – Banyan Bliss. The Nairs decided to move out of Mumbai to simplify and enrich their lives. They wanted to give back to nature and create an oasis for children to experience nature. They scouted for a piece of land, found this one, and began construction around six years ago. They built one unit at a time using vernacular architecture, which in essence, is using materials from the land itself. Added to that the doors and roofs are made of recycled wood. As Viinod says, this is a mission statement, not a fashion statement. The home is so in-sync with nature that it blends into the hill, becoming a part of it.

As light faded into dusk we were roped in to set-up tables under cashew laden trees for our barbecue dinner. Then there we sat, at the close of day, twelve awed guests and our humble hosts, each with a different life story, knitted together by conversation, food, and twinkling fairy-lights in the trees while our toddler ran around his first bonfire like an Energizer bunny.

The next day chirped in fresh and bright, and after a lazy breakfast, we walked around the Nairs’ small orchard. I saw fruits I hadn’t seen before like ramphal and the toddler waddled around collecting stones, twigs, bugs and dirty fingers. At one side of the garden, stood Prince, the horse who’d once been popular at Matheran, but as he aged, his owners wanted Viinod and Beena to care for him. Viinod fed Prince while the toddler reached out his hand, in slow motion, till he made contact with Prince’s skin. This was Prince’s retirement home, though Viinod calls it his Kingdom.

There are many treks at Banyan Bliss but the one to the Amba River was the easiest with a toddler. So with him cosy in his Mai Tai Baby Carrier, peering at the world around, we made our way down a mud road to reach the river in around twenty minutes. A classic village scene unfolded in front of us with women washing clothes, a group of rambunctious boys swimming yet, surprisingly clear water. As we stood by the river, the mountains on all sides, the sun warming the air, I thought about the last two days. As adults, we get jaded, little amazes us, but our munchkin found joy in the smallest of things, and through him, so did we. We had marvelled at a pond, watched the glowing embers of the bonfire in his eyes, and collected leaves and bugs. And at that moment, I promised myself to look at the world through a child’s eye, with the curiosity that meant wonder was just around the corner.

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Make it happen!

  • Getting there: Take the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. After the Khalapur Toll, follow sign posts for Imagica. From Imagica travel 16 kms till you cross a river bridge, immediately turn left under an arch into Jampulpada village. Continue for 4 kms till you reach a ceramic tiled bus shelter. Stop here and you will be escorted to the farm by the staff. Call Viinod or Beena from Jambulpada.
  • Make it a weekend: If you are travelling with children, you can add a stop at Imagica Theme Park. Timings: Mon-Fri 11am to 8pm, Sat-Sun 11am to 9pm (rides close 1 hour before park shuts), tickets starting at Rs. 1999/1599 per adult/child with unlimited access to rides on weekends; rates differ through the year. For more: http://www.adlabsimagica.com
  • Best time to visit: Banyan Bliss is open through the year. The best time to visit is from June to September when the valley is at its greenest, or from November to February when this area enjoys a mild winter season. Banyan Bliss +91 9321122616/9324444290, http://www.banyanbliss.com, Vasundhe Goan, Khopoli, Tariff: Rs. 2900 per person, all meals included.

 

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