Binsar, May 2009

Anyone who’s been to a National Park in India would know that they tend to be somewhat pricey, especially when you’re traveling like I was, on a budget that’s unlikely to buy you even a shoestring. So I teamed up with A, the fellow solo vagabonder I met on the trek to Pindari, to journey into some of Kumaon’s famed wildernesses.

Binsar National Park, helpfully situated on a hill on the outskirts of Almora, would be our first escapade. As far as we knew, there was only one place to stay within the park, the Tourist Rest House run by KMVN. There were two ways to get there. First, take a bus, get off on the highway and walk 10 miles uphill. Two, hire a cab, go all the way up without putting a foot in the forest. Having walked for a week in the wilderness to Pindari, neither of us were in any mood for option one. So option two it was.

The rates for the rooms at the Binsar TRH were as high as its altitude. For a couple of dirt-baggers like A and I, it was way out of our league. Nevertheless, since we had ventured so far and the way back was both a bit long and depressing, we made an exception, even if just for a night. We got a taste of what people who spent all that money were getting in return, which was, to be perfectly honest, not very much. The room was somewhat spacious and reasonably clean but essentially it served the same purpose as our 300 Rs. rooms in various towns did, put a roof over our heads and give us a place to pee and shit in.

Anyway, A made the best of an expensive situation. He got his laptop out, put on some jazz and blues, ordered some beer and food. He wondered if I liked this sort of music. I didn’t but the pathological liar that I was, I tried to fake my way out of the situation by namedropping some artists I claimed I liked, B B King, Robert Johnson, John Coltrane, Miles Davis etc. (I knew the names but had heard very little of the music). But when he asked if I knew which songs were playing, I got caught out because I couldn’t identify even the most popular jazz/blues classics.

It would have been a bit of a waste to come all the way up here and not explore the ornithological treasures that lay hidden in the jungles around because it was, after all, first and foremost, a bird sanctuary. So we hired a guide through the reception who woke us up at the unearthly hour of 5.30 am for a stroll up the steep slopes of the oak and pine forests.

To A’s delight and my profound displeasure, S was an extremely enthusiastic guide who knew his birds. Whenever he heard a bird call, he rushed up the hill and urged us to run up with him. A, being fit and healthy, had no trouble doing this. But I, being borderline obese, huffed and puffed up and by the time I got up, the bird would have flown.

A was also way more efficient with organizing information. While I depended solely on my memory to remember all the birds I saw (the reason why I couldn’t remember half of them when I sat down to write a list later that night in my notebook), A had brought a pen along and had scribbled their names on his entire arm.

We saw a lot of birds. We saw birds I never knew existed in colours I had never seen before. The Eurasian Jay, the Blue Whistling Thrush, the Green Backed Tit, the Grey Canary-headed Flycatcher, the Oriental Turtledove among a couple of dozen others. But of them all, S’s favorite bird would become my favorite too, a tiny creature with a red belly that loved to perch high up on a tree and you had to squint very hard to see, the Scarlet Minivet.

On our way back to the TRH, we felt a bit unhappy about having to check out after breakfast. The adrenaline rush after seeing so many birds scrambling up and down the hills was so high that we (and especially A) wanted more of it. Hearing us whine so much, S had enough of it and invited us to stay with him in his house for a few days.

So we packed our backs and scrambled down to his rustic wood and stone house built in traditional Kumaoni architecture in a village on a hillside populated with steep terraced rice fields. It was a lovely setting redolent with birdsong and barking dogs. Chilling on the wooden verandahs, we could glimpse distant birds on treetops with S’s binoculars. This also gave me an opportunity to have a conversation with the man.

A girl from Brazil had spent 25 days at his guest house, he said. She knew more about birds than he did. He felt envious because she truly loved the forest and the birds while he learnt about them only because it was his profession. Given a choice, he would have done something else. But there was nothing else to do. The school in his village barely gave him any education to compete for good jobs with people in big cities. Many of his childhood friends were in cities like Delhi and Mumbai looking for work but some came back failing to make money and wasted away their lives in the village. He was lucky enough to know someone who taught him to identify birds and make a bit of money doing it. If he wasn’t doing this, he would be in one of the labour markets in the towns and cities putting his body on the line.

There was nothing in the forest, he said. It might be romantic for people like us but for him, it was a means to an end. He would rather someone cut some of it down and build a resort or something so people like his friends who had failed to find work in urban India could find some sustenance.

So why didn’t he teach his friends how to identify birds and help them make a living out of this?

It wasn’t easy to learn how to do this, he said. He was taught from a very young age and it was a lot of hard work. And there were already many guides doing this work, more guides than there were tourists. Work was available only for 4 months a year. So there was no point in teaching hundreds of others. It would be easier for them to find a job as a driver or a woodcutter or pick kidajadi (magic herbs) for the Chinese.

Then something caught his eye and he galloped down the stairs in excitement. Perched on a dead trunk of a tree miles away was a Verditer Flycatcher. It was barely a dot in the distance but S could spot and identify it with his naked eye. This sighting spurred us on another venture up the forest in search of more avian life. We saw the Brown-fronted Woodpecker, Mistle Thrush, more Eurasian Jays, a Long Tail Broadbill and more flycatchers.

On the way back, we had to clamber up the steep terraced rice fields until we came to a spot where local village boys were playing cricket. A and I did not join because the games looked fairly serious and every time the ball went any distance, someone had to gallop down the rice terraces to fetch it. S looked quite the batsman and had no mercy for the fielders as he clobbered the bowling with flashy slogs to all parts of the mountains.

All that exertion made us terribly hungry. We waited patiently for S’s mother and sister to finish cooking meals for the family. It was simple fare, dal, roti, rice, a vegetable garnished with local herbs, but it was more wholesome and delectable than the expensive food we had at the tourist resort the night before.

There was nothing to do after dinner. A didn’t feel like taking out his laptop. I didn’t feel like going to sleep. So we sat quietly in the dark of the night outside, trembling in the chilly air and staring at a million stars above. The best things in life did come cheap, we thought.

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And we’re back… maybe

A few months ago, perhaps fueled by covid 19 induced insecurities (both mental and financial), I made an impulsive announcement about shutting down this site/blog/whatever it is. But then, on the brink of the expiration of the domain, I felt a painful pang about letting go of something I’ve put some degree of time and effort over the years, regardless of the meagre rewards they might have brought.

So, I don’t know what this is going to lead to. More posts, less posts, no posts but for the time being, the site is up and alive. One thing I do hope for is fewer kneejerk “content” like the previous post. I haven’t traveled in the last 2 years, so if I do end up writing something for the blog, it’ll be recounting old memories of old travels.

Let’s see where this goes and what happens.

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And that’s a wrap…

This blog began like my travels began, on an impulse. It was my fifth year on the road and my third month living in a dirt cheap apartment in Benaulim in Goa. I was having my usual G&T at my usual bunghole bar where I was a familiar enough face for the usual waiters to know what I wanted. I was sitting alone, so I took out the book I was reading, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux, his follow up to The Great Railway Bazaar and as I was reading a somewhat cringey passage about his “adventures” in the “offbeat” slums of Dharavi in Mumbai, I got triggered.

I began wondering if I could do what he’s doing. Sure, he was a good writer but I wasn’t terrible at putting a few sentences together either and I sure won’t do cliched shit like slum tourism or going to meet famous writers in famous cities. I also had been through shit (this is not going to be a very literary post) like breaking my ankle ligaments in Varanasi, getting stuck in a flood in Ayutthaya, being stranded for 2 weeks with no money in a remote isolated region in Ladakh, breaking all the bones in my left arm in a nasty travel accident and getting a surgery in a Laos-Chinese Friendship hospital in Laos, falling in and out of love numerous times, crazy conversations with crazy people etc. etc. I also had 5 years worth of travel notes that had been ever accumulating in dusty unread diaries.

So yeah, I had stuff to write about and I thought I should do it immediately. And I did. I took a train back to Mumbai, sat with my friend and business partner drinking expensive coffee and hot chocolate in cafes and we bought the domain and a theme. I wanted the blog to be different from the usual travel blog, all text, no pictures, more literary (so it could turn into a book later) and less click-baity than your standard successful travel blog that makes a lot of money. In hindsight, that would have been a good idea if I had stuck to it.

But eventually, the blog turned out to be very similar to how my mind worked i.e. cluttered, messy, disorganized, impatient, sporadic. Because I had traveled for so long and to so many places, I thought I would do a non-linear arrangement of events and places. Then a few months on, when I didn’t see much readership or engagement, I switched to posting only pictures. This brought more traffic and eventually, when I married pictures to posts, it led to an even higher readership. When I dumbed down my posts, making them less about the stories and more about “content”, the blog did even better. The only posts of mine which ever ranked on google (on pages 10-20) were lists of restaurants I ate at in popular tourist towns.

This was soul-destroying. So I would go back to writing about my stories from the road. But then no one would read and I would let the blog stagnate for a year. Once in a while, I would remember this site existed and I would try rejuvenating it with a rapid flurry of posts, generally a mix of pictures, writing and click-baity nonsense, then get exhausted and let it die again.

The posts I genuinely enjoyed writing were the all-text-no-pics freewheeling travel stories but they began extracting a mental toll when people wouldn’t read them. I had to learn the hard way that creation is a two way street and that without validation, it feels somewhat meaningless. It especially hurt when people I considered my friends and who I thought would be interested in reading my stories never read them. I’m not blaming anyone and while I used to feel bitter earlier, I don’t feel that anymore because ultimately everyone has a finite amount of time and no one has the time to consume everything and if people weren’t reading, the fault lay entirely in my court for not writing what they perhaps wished to read.

None of this would have mattered if the blog had monetized. Because then there would at least be an economic reason for it to exist. But I have always been uncomfortable with selling out, not because of the act itself (money is always good) but because of the compromises you had to make to sell out. There is a certain kind of travel blogger who makes money writing “content” with the requisite amount of SEO keywording, shortening lines, doing lists, breaking paragraphs with pictures, being happy and positive etc. But when I tried to do that, it sucked the soul out of me. I don’t want to throw any shade at people who do this sort of thing and make money (you gotta do whatever works for you or makes you happy) but this made me feel downright miserable.

Last year, during the pandemic, I thought I would let the domain expire quietly. But just before it was about to expire, I bought it again. I did an expensive shift from wordpress.com to wordpress.org, bought a new host, revamped it with a new theme. Then I spent a month reading travel blogs and watching tutorials on youtube to find ways to monetize it. I rewrote some of my earlier pieces to be more SEO friendly, made some highly generic listy posts, connected adsense etc. Like before, this only made me feel terrible.

I’m inherently cynical about market forces that force you to mould yourself to more marketable ends. I had (and still entertain) ideas of being a good “writer” (and maybe there’s a long way to go before I become one) and all the wrestling I had to do with SEO and keyphrasing felt entirely at odds with what I really wanted to become good at.

I wanted my blog/website to be more pure and authentic and I did not want anyone reading to see an ad in every corner. But with all the money I had put into it, it had to make some revenue and if it wasn’t, I was losing precious income I couldn’t afford to lose. So the only option I have now is to shut it down. It might be up for a couple of months before the domain expires for good.

Sincere thanks to everyone who read what I wrote and apologies for letting the site meander in so many directions over the years. Cheers.

 

 

 

 

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The Markets, Palaces and Streets of Mysore

Mysore palace lit in the evening
The Mysore Palace illuminated in the evening

When you wander the quiet streets of the city of Mysore, you travel back in time. This city of big blue skies, grand pavilions, glittery palaces and age old markets was once the capital of the Mysore State, renamed to Karnataka in the year 1973.

I’ve been to the city a number of times and have always loved to linger longer than I planned. It’s a convenient escape from the more metropolitan hustle of Bangalore. It also provides a useful base to explore the hill stations of Coorg and Ooty and the National Parks of Bandipur and Nagarhole.

The cool air and the quiet, lazy pace of the city often lulls me into doing nothing. The food is great in every restaurant you go. From the melt-in-your-mouth dosas at Vinayaka Mylari to fiery Andhra thalis at RRR to the filter coffee at Cafe Aramane, one could spend entire days just eating and drinking.

But the city packs a gallery of easily accessible delights that enable even a lazy soul like myself to do some “sight-seeing”. Some of the places I genuinely enjoyed in my travel to Mysore are…

Mysore Palace

Tourists at the Mysore Palace
Tourists at the Mysore Palace

The biggest attraction in the city is, of course, the Mysore Palace. It’s the erstwhile residence of the Kings of the Wodeyar Dynasty and among the grandest buildings in India. Ornately carved ceilings, graceful arches, glittery chandeliers, mosaic tiles and historic paintings fill the colorful interiors furnished in the Indo-Saracenic style. The audio guide, available at the ticket counter, does a great job of making the Palace come alive with details.

The sprawling complex is populated with wide, open spaces and ancient temples. Elephants and camels roam around the green, expansive grounds of the Palace. Crowds of tourists lounge about and take selfies. And if you like solitude, there are plenty of nooks and corners where you can walk around peacefully.

On Sundays and public holidays, thousands of bright light bulbs illuminate the Palace in the evenings from 7 pm. They make an already beautiful monument even more spectacular.

Devaraja Market

Devaraja market
The old Devaraja Market

The busy, chaotic, aromatic market in Central Mysore might be over a 100 years old but it attracts customers in droves. Here you find flower sellers, vegetable vendors, fruit stalls, hardware, kitchenware, metalware, silk and sandalwood stores jostling for space.

This is the only place many of the city’s residents like to shop. Busy, bustling shoppers throng the shops, making small talk while haggling for deals. The vendors and customers have a knowing bonhomie because of relationships that have been cultivated over many generations.

Sadly, this is perhaps the most fragile of the city’s attractions. The market has endured innumerable fires and disasters and plans are afoot to demolish it altogether to make way for a new one.

Outside the market, there’s a large public square, perfect for people watching. It revolves around the historic, colorful Dufferin Clock Tower named after the Viceroy of India in 1884. Around the tower, more vendors sell fruits and vegetables, often at rates cheaper than inside the market.

Town Hall and Clock Tower

The clock tower of Mysore
The big clock tower

The Mysore Town Hall is an imposing monument with white walls and tall Corinthian columns. It’s also known as Rangacharlu Hall, named after the first dewan of Mysore.

Quaint old fashioned horse carts lounge on the gates outside. One of the gates leads to the statue of Chamarajendra Wodeyar in the wide traffic circle outside the Mysore Palace. The other takes you to the Big Clock Tower, a lot taller and grander than the Dufferin outside Devaraja market.

Chamundi Hill

Pilgrims at the ancient Chamundeshwari temple

No travel to Mysore is complete without a trip to the ancient Chamundeshwari temple in the Chamundi Hills. While the weather in the city is suitably pleasant for most of the year, the air around the temple is suitably cleaner and cooler. Here, street vendors sell coconuts, flowers and ritual items to devout Hindu pilgrims. Groups of monkeys prance around stealing food freaking people out.

The other attractions around the temple are a monolithic sculpture of Lord Shiva’s bull Nandi a few steps down the hill and a colorful statue of the demon Mahishasura in the main traffic circle. The views of the city of Mysore below are spectacular from just about anywhere in the vicinity of the temple.

The exercise freaks might want to take the 1200 stairs leading up to the temple. But the lazier ones can take bus 201, which takes you right up to the temple.

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Palitana #5 – Obstacles

The soda shop guy told me the bus to Shatrunjaya stopped right beside his shop. I waited 15 minutes but when no bus came by, I hailed a rickshaw. The driver wanted 250 rs. for the 4 kms. No way, I said, I’ll wait for a bus even if it takes an hour. Hearing this, the man’s rate magically dropped to 40 Rs. His only condition was that he be allowed to pick up passengers. I congratulated myself on striking such a brilliant bargain and put it down to all the years of budget travel. 

But, as it turned out, all the years of budget travel experience didn’t prepare me for what followed. Because in about 10 minutes, just before the cranky old bridge before the market at the other end of the town, the rickshaw, which ordinarily had the capacity to house 4 people, was bursting at the seams with 10. It was so crammed that I traveled all the way with my left foot precariously dangling outside and other people resting their butts on my right thigh. 

Not everyone was going to Shatrunjaya. Most people were in for short rides. For 2 or 3 extra rupees, the driver was even kind enough to take a detour to take them exactly where they wanted to go. As soon as they got off, they would be replaced with more people. This prolonged my discomfort further because every time someone got off, I had to get off as well to let people out. The driver wouldn’t let me sit in the middle because I was too fat. So every time he had a new passenger, I had to get off to let them in. With the no. of steps I took to get in and off I could have walked all the way. I would have reached faster too because with all the stops and detours, it took us over an hour to traverse the 4 kms to Shatrunjaya. 

The final blow landed when the only other person in the rickshaw, an aged gentleman in a white kurta, got off near his dharamshala and paid only 10 rupees for the trip despite having embarked just a minute after I had. The driver, because he had to rub it in, now began to count the wads of cash he just earned and said I too had to get down because he can’t go any further. I began arguing, the mid day sun heating up my head and making my arguments blisteringly incoherent. But the man just sat there looking at me like I was speaking a foreign language. I looked at the time. It was already close to 2 o’clock and I had to hurry up if I was to have any chance of going to the temples. I also didn’t want to waste my time in a loud confrontation in a town I didn’t belong to. So I just coughed up the 40 Rs. and stormed away angrily. 

I walked the 500 meters to the entrance quickly. Here was a scene of much religious bustle. Jain monks, nuns and pilgrims dressed in white walked up and down with their wooden walking sticks. A mahout fed an elephant in a corner. A line of food and drink stalls served families of exhausted pilgrims who had just finished the pilgrimage. 

You weren’t allowed to wear footwear beyond the security barricades. So I left my slippers dutifully at the locker room and walked up to the security guard to be frisked. He pointed at my rucksack and asked what I was carrying. 

“A camera”, I said. 

“Why are you carrying a camera? Are you a journalist?” 

“No”, I said with a forced smile, “Just a tourist.” 

“Do you have a written permission?” 

“No.” 

“Then camera not allowed. Either get a permission from the office or keep it in the locker.” 

It wasn’t my day, I thought, and ran over to the “office”.

There were so many people crammed in the little I didn’t know who I was supposed to ask for a permit. Then I spotted an elderly man dressed in a white robe in a corner. 

“Sab theek hai? (Is everything all right?), he asked as soon as he approached him, “You look very tense.” 

“Yes, I need permission for a camera”, I said breathlessly. 

The man laughed. “Haha I thought something bad had happened. Are you a photographer?” 

“Yes.” 

“You work for a newspaper?” 

“No.” 

“A magazine?” 

No.” 

“Then how are you a photographer? You won’t get permission.

I was at my wit’s end and in my desperation to get a permit, told him about what a woeful day I had. I hoped that he would help me get one out of pity. Jain monks might be influential in these affairs I thought. The man listened patiently with a wide smile on his face and then said, “So you had a bad day. Maybe what you need are prayers and blessings, not pictures.” 

“Maybe”, I said, “But I would really love the permit. It will immediately make this a good day. Can you help me get one?” 

“Tell me one thing. What would you do with the pictures?” 

“I will keep them as memories and put them online for people to see.” 

“But there are already thousands of Palitana photos on the internet. Surely you can just look at them if you want to remember the place.” 

“Maybe yes. But these will be my own pictures.” 

“That’s where you’re wrong. They won’t be your pictures. Just because you own a camera and click the shutter doesn’t make those pictures yours. The pictures belong to God and Lord Mahavir and his followers over thousands of years who built this temple. All you would have done is climb up the stairs and taken a shot. There is no need for you to do that.” 

“I don’t know…” I said, tentatively. 

“Take my advice. You’re having a bad day. Go back to your hotel. Wake up early tomorrow morning before dawn and see the temples with true devotion. This is not a tourist place. It’s a pilgrimage. And I promise you, when you come back down, you’ll feel a lot better than you feel today.” 

I nodded my head resignedly and as I was about to leave he said, “But don’t be so sad. If all you want to do is take pictures, you can take your phone and take pictures with it. No one needs a permit for that.” 

“That’s good to know”, I said. 

“But what would actually help your soul is if you woke up early and saw the temples with your own eyes than the camera’s eyes. I can’t help you get a permit but I can help you see the temples. I will begin my walk up at 5 a.m. You’re free to join me if you want. I’ll be right here.” 

“I’ll try”, I said, “I usually go to sleep at 5. 

“Where are you staying?”, he asked. 

I told him. 

“Oh”, he said with a laugh, “Then no problem. I’ll make sure you wake up.” 

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Palitana #4 – Night Nerves and Haute Cuisine

The plan was to wake up before dawn, take a rickshaw to the pilgrim town, walk up the 3000 steps to the Jain temples of shatrunjaya in the cool morning air, walk back, do breakfast, take a rickshaw back to hotel and sleep. 

So I set an alarm for 4  a.m. on my phone and hit the sack. Then I began getting a strange sense of deja vu. I had done this before. That time I had to catch an early flight, the early stop at a railway station I had to get off, that wedding muhurat I had to attend before dawn, the trek to Everest base camp that began at 3 am. My mind began running through every single time I had set an alarm for the wee hours of the morning and as it ran through all the different times I had done so, one common element united them all. I had never gotten any sleep. 

And so it was this night as well. I kept tossing and turning expecting the alarm to ring thinking of completely random things, the time I had spoken rudely to a friend, Harsha Bhogle commentating on a cricket match between India and South Africa, the time I was too reticent to propose to a girlfriend only to end up losing her, the scene from Inside Llewyn Davis where the protagonist walks through a snow storm to meet a producer, the endless nights at Mehboob studio. And these thoughts seamlessly blended into each other as my subconscious waited for the clock to strike four. 

I was wide awake when the alarm rang and I put it off. When the alarm turned off, I suddenly began feeling sleepy. So I thought I would snooze for 10 minutes to get a power nap and then go about the business for the day. 

When I awoke, it was well past noon. I awoke only because someone was frantically ringing the door bell. When I opened the door to see who it was, it turned out to be the anxious looking manager. “Sorry sir”, he said, “Just checking to see if you’re okay. Are you all right? 

“Yes”, I said, wiping my groggy eyes. 

“Sorry for disturbing you”, he said, “You said you were going to the temples early morning but when we didn’t see you go out we got worried.” 

“I overslept”, I said, with a mixture of sadness and embarrassment, “I’ll get going now.” 

“It’s too hot”, he said, “Early mornings are the best.” 

“I know”, I said, angrily, “But I have to go when I can.” 

So I quickly finished taking a shower, packed my camera into my daypack and ran down to a restaurant for breakfast. 

Palitana town is the very opposite of a culinary paradise. I discovered this the hard way. There was a ramshackle dhaba style restaurant opposite the bus stand with dirt and mould  and oil stains covering every inch of the surface. I sat there, impatiently hailed the waiter to my table and said, “Kya milega?” 

He made a “what do I know” shrug in response. 

“Menu?”, I asked, to which he gave me a cold, deep stare as if I had asked him to get me a Kohinoor diamond. 

I saw another waiter delivering a plate of puris, oil dripping from the plate, and asked my friendly waiter to get me the same. 

I got sick the moment I looked at my plate. There was a pool of dark oil surrounding a slimy pickle and the puri smelt of oil that must have been recycled since the middle ages. But I had to eat and so I did. As soon as I had finished half a puri my hands were greased with such a lot of oil that I could have fried another puri with it. That’s what you get for bargain basement 10 Rs. breakfast in some towns I thought. 

Mercifully, there was a row of soda shops right next door and I helped myself to two icy glasses of masala lemon soda that somewhat alleviated the nausea. 

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Palitana #3 – Getting There

I had trawled the internet for hours in my guest house in Bhavnagar looking for hotels in Palitana. And, to my utmost surprise, I couldn’t find any. Only dharamsalas run by various Jain organizations offered any accommodation. 

There appeared to be unanimous consensus among both travelers and pilgrims that the only authentic way to experience the religious vibrations of this most ancient pilgrimage site was to stay in one of the many dharamsalas scattered around. 

But booking any of them beforehand proved to be impossible. I called up just about every dharamsala I could find online. Many of them had strict entry only for Jains, some allowed only members of a specific community to stay while others wouldn’t book a room in advance and asked me to just show up on the day to see if any were available. 

So I was genuinely fearful of getting stranded in the town with nowhere to stay. But as I voiced these fears loudly on the steps of the ancient stepwell at Sihore, Raju brushed them away with a swipe of the hand. He knew every dharamsala in town, he said, and knew many trustees as well. If they refuse to give me a room, he could threaten to never bring any guests to them ever again and that would put them in their place, he said, with much arrogance and swagger. 

It was dark by the time our grunting rickshaw grunted its way into the quiet street of the pilgrim town. Raju confidently marched into the first dharamsala we saw. He claimed it had the best rooms, better than many 5-star hotels in Gujarat. 

He asked me to stay in the rickshaw and went in to enquire about rooms. When he came back, he wore a sombre expression on his face. “No rooms”, he said dejectedly. 

But Raju wasn’t one to accept defeat so easily. “Don’t worry”, he said with a confident wave of the hand, “There are dozens of dharamsalas. I know all of them.” 

And so we went to a dozen dharamsalas where the same routine repeated with mounting dejection. If I wasn’t so tense and nervous, I might have compiled a handy guidebook of every dharamsala in the town and what their exterior facades and front managers looked like. 

Raju was an enterprising man but even his superior powers of confidence and swag failed to account for the fact that we had arrived in the middle of Kartik Poornima, when Jain pilgrims throng the town in their thousands. Every dharamsala had been taken over by the respective subsect or community they represented. 

Because of such a high proliferation of dharamsalas near the entrance to the long stairway that leads to the temples of Shatrunjaya, there were no hotels here. There was never a need for any. 

But Raju refused to give up. I could literally see a lightbulb flicker inside his head as he asked me to hop back into the rickshaw and drove me 3 kms away from the pilgrim town of Shatrunjaya to the main town of Palitana which wore a more urban look with grime and traffic and bus stands and train stations.  

Here he whizzed into a clean, modern concrete building which looked utterly desolate and deserted. It was the guest house run by Gujarat Tourism. The staff were chilling on chairs by the courtyard outside. They looked utterly flummoxed when they saw our rickshaw zoom in. 

Raju got out and had a word in Gujarati with the staff. Then he came up to me and said, “The whole hotel is empty. Take whichever room you want. There is so much space you can even play cricket.” 

I am usually extremely wary of staying in any place that’s entirely vacant because the rooms are likely to be either too shabby or too expensive. But these were desperate times. I did not want to go back to Bhavnagar after having traveled an entire day. 

My trepidations were put to rest as soon as I had a look at the rooms because they were all spacious, airy, had clean, functional toilets and were below my usual budget. It was among the best bargains I’d ever had. 

I went up to Raju to thank him for everything he’d done for me through the day and asked him why he didn’t come here earlier. Because this is far away from the temples. I’m sad that you can’t stay in a dharamsala. They have great atmosphere and serve the best food“, he said, “It’s entirely my fault. I should have known about the festival. This is where I take people when there are no rooms in the dharamsalas because no one usually stays here.” 

I gave him a few hundred rupees extra for all the trouble he took to show me places off the road and for engaging me in such friendly conversation throughout. But he refused to take it. I felt terrible about paying him just 500 Rs. rupees for what was effectively a guided tour through rural Gujarat.  

So I asked the cook at the hotel to make food for the both of us as we hadn’t eaten all day. Raju grudgingly agreed saying his wife wouldn’t be happy if she found out he had already eaten. 

As we were eating our thalis, Raju said, “You know where you’re going next?” 

“Yes”, I said, “I’m going to Diu.” 

He laughed and said he’d never been to Diu. “But you know where you should go? Velavadar. No one who comes to Bhavnagar should ever go without seeing Velavadar.” 

“It’s too expensive”, I said, “I’m alone and I don’t have a budget.” 

“The place is priceless. You see blackbucks, wolves, hyenas, grass taller than people. 

I said I would think about it and thanked him for the suggestion. 

But your rickshaw won’t be able to take me there.” 

“It won’t. But I can arrange a taxi for you. If I were you, I would go to Velavadar and then go back home. Because there is no place better.” 

“I’m sure your house is better. Where your wife and children are waiting for you.” 

“Yes, of course. That’s the best place”, he said with a big smile, “Maybe when I become successful at my dairy business and make it bigger, you can come visit me.” 

“I certainly would love to”, I said. 

It had been a long exhausting day with a lot of travel, some beauty and some frustration. But I had a lump in my throat as I said goodbye to my newest friend, Raju. 

 

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