In October 2012, I commenced my first open-ended, unplanned journey through SE Asia. The idea wasn’t very different from how I had travelled across India and Nepal until that time, which was to do as much as possible spending as little as I could. Apart from getting my Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand visas, I hadn’t done any prep or research and was going to take things as they came. The only instructions running in my head were, “DO IT CHEAP.”
But on the morning of 14th October 2012, the day before I would turn a year older, a fuse went off in my head. I cancelled the dirt-cheap Indigo Airline ticket I had booked for the 22nd of October to Singapore and upgraded myself to an economy seat on a Singapore Airlines flight which was scheduled to depart close to midnight on the 14th itself. These tickets would cost me over three times more but it would be my first trip outside the subcontinent and I wished to bring in a new year of my life in some comfort and style.
I had never flown a 5-star airline with such luxuries as IFE, spacious leg-room and free alcohol before. So I chose to navigate this unknown territory by observing whatever the large, surly man sitting next to me did. As soon as the flight had taken off and the crew had begun to serve food and drinks, this man ordered three whisky shots in quick succession and some starters to go with. I assumed this was the protocol and ordered a Singapore Sling in celebration of my journey to that city-state and two glasses of Long Island Iced Tea to follow.
Soon the entire cabin, packed with Indian passengers, began pestering the crew for food and drinks. The crew serving us, who were initially very patient and polite, got increasingly stressed out as these orders overwhelmed their capacity to deliver. But, feeling light-headed after gulping down my inebriations, I was blissfully unaware of their troubles. In my mind, I was also counting the number of drinks I might need to consume to effectively nullify the hefty 20,000 Rs. ticket cost. So I kept signalling to the crew for drinks. The surly man sitting next to me was now taking a leaf out of my book and began ordering drinks with increasing speed perhaps to show that if I could be so indecorous, he could do better. After two more rounds of LITs, an exhausted airhostess walked up to me and said, “Sir, we can’t serve you any more alcohol.”
“But why?”, I said, looking positively distressed.
“Because we have already served you all the drinks we’re allowed to, Sir.”
I expected support from the surly man who had been ordering drinks as avariciously as I had. But he was now busy fiddling with his IFE screen as if he didn’t want to know what was going on around him.
“But it’s my birthday”, I whimpered.
“I wish you a very happy birthday, sir, but we can’t serve you any more drinks”, she said, visibly suppressing her laughter.
“Not even one more?”
“No, sir”, she said and went away.
The surly man then turned to me and said, “It’s really your birthday?”
I nodded sorrowfully.
“Many happy returns of the day, my friend,” he said, “Don’t worry about the bad service here. Singapore Airlines isn’t what it used to be. Earlier I would have fought for my drinks. They have no right to deny you anything. But that’s how these greedy airlines work. They promise you everything and give you nothing.”
“Thank you. Are you from Mumbai?” I asked.
“No, no, I’m 100 percent Singaporean. I can’t stand Mumbai and its crowd and its filth. I just came here to close a business deal. I dread traveling to India.”
The man ran an export business that took him around the world. When I told him it was my first trip to Singapore, he hit me with a litany of advice like I was an uncivilised chump that needed some schooling.
“You can’t just go around throwing shit on the roads like you do in India”, he said. “Singapore is a very cultured place and you have to remember to always follow the rules. The Singaporean Chinese have many problems with Indians and Bangladeshis because they (the Indians) tend to treat the country like they own it. But you have to remember that you’re a minority and if Singapore has good quality life today, it is because of the hard-working Chinese.”
I just nodded my head non-commitally and wished he would stop talking because I wanted to experience the wonders of in-flight entertainment. I looked longingly at the LCD screen and the numerous film/TV options available while the surly man’s words continued hitting my ears like shards of glass. But since he had already judged me to be a boor, I was conscious not to lower his impressions on me further. I smiled, nodded, looked away often hoping he would stop. But this strategy perhaps only served to create an illusion in his head that I was very interested in hearing what he had to say.
He went on to share his half-baked knowledge of Chinese history, its connections to Singapore and how India would do well to take lessons from it. “You know what India needs? It needs a Great Leap Forward. You know about the Great Leap Forward? It was when Chairman Mao pushed ahead extreme reforms to develop his country. It was disastrous and killed millions of Chinese people. The country was left in ruins. But it disciplined them and when Deng Xiaoping pushed ahead with reforms after, he not only had a country that was hungry for development, he also had the single-minded discipline of the Chinese workforce.”
“Any sign of indiscipline or vagrant behaviour was ruthlessly put down. You know about the Tianenmen Square massacre? Hundreds of students were gunned down when they were protesting. All the Western countries protested, the UN criticized it but Lee Kwan Yew supported it. Because he knew discipline was the key to a successful state. If you don’t agree with what your country is doing, you don’t deserve to live there.
“And that is the attitude India needs. Indians think they’re free to do anything but a lot of that freedom needs to be taken away and some discipline needs to be enforced. They need someone with the willpower to rule with an iron hand. Till that happens, it will always be a mess. Look at Singapore and judge for yourself where you would rather live.”
He continued in this vein for a few hours and wouldn’t shut up for a moment. I too couldn’t summon the necessary curtness to interrupt him and kept nodding perfunctorily to show he had my attention even when he didn’t. His monologue had a circular quality to it but so intense was his hatred for the land of his ancestors that the only purpose any of his arguments had was to point out a critical flaw in the way India was governed. In his vision, that country was populated by the dregs of the world and his missionary purpose was to bring one of them over to the bright side.
We wouldn’t part company even after we arrived in Singapore as he wished to take me on a tour of a ritual he had to do every time he landed in Singapore. At a little restaurant in a corner of the Changi Airport, this large man exclaimed with irresistible joy as two plates of kaya toast and half boiled eggs landed on our table.
“This is my favourite thing about Singapore”, he said ecstatically, “You won’t get this anywhere else in the world.” So pure was his happiness that it was difficult even for someone like myself, who had been so annoyed by his company, to be moved by this sight. And after two morsels of this gooey high calorie butteriness later, I too was melting in happiness. I had barely entered Singapore and I was already in love with one of its most popular guilty pleasure foods.
The man lived close to the airport and we had to part ways but not before he gave me an elaborate tutorial on how to use the metro to get to the hostel I had booked. When I looked out of the window of the train on the 35 minute ride to Bugis, I felt like I had stumbled into an animation film. There wasn’t a speck of dirt to be seen anywhere and in just a matter of a few hours, all the noise, chaos and clutter of Mumbai had morphed into this immaculately clean, ordered, neatly designed metropolis that, on the face of things, appeared to look sternly down on any little iota of imperfection. The city looked fresh and new and I couldn’t perhaps have asked for a more appropriate beginning to a fresh, new year of my life.
The departure of S didn’t depress me for too long as I hopped onto a bus to Almora where I had been invited to stay with my ex-colleague and awesome video editor/shortmoviemaker AJ. He had come to visit his parents who lived in a lovely house a couple of miles out of the center of Almora.
AJ’s parents were delightfully easy going people and great at making conversation. The delicious and healthy home-cooked food was just the icing on the cake. I learnt from AJ’s father about how the Kumaoni Hills were rapidly being denuded of their natural beauty. Earlier, you could see the entire Himalyan range on clear days, he said, but those days were getting more infrequent owing to the chronic haze caused by rampant pollution.
AJ and I hiked up to the Mall Road market in the town through a long-winded route that climbed up through pine forests and descended via an Army camp. This was a wilder and more unmolested part of the Kumaon Himalayas than what I’d seen in Nainital. We passed by a spartan temple dedicated to a Goddess whose gateway was decorated with myriad bells. Some thoughtful people had scribbled the word “Ma” (mother) in white chalk on large rocks in the vicinity and AJ dutifully donned his Bollywood avatar and hugged them for me to take pictures.
Almora town didn’t make a great first impression for my judgemental eyes. The bazaar area here was messy, cluttered and crowded. Steep, dank flights of steps linked the lower and upper bazaars where a long line of shops sold groceries, utensils, electronics, shoes, medicines, covering any basic need the denizens of the Himalayan town may have. The most appealing features of the market were the quaint, crudely ornate wooden galleries adorning the top floors of the shops lining the narrow streets on the market road. Extremely cramped, dark pathways led to more crumbling stairs leading to the houses and the shops below. The IPL (Indian Cricket League) was on and the electronic stores were crowded with people taking a peek at the scores.
I had a blissful, relaxing few days with AJ and his family but it was time to move on. I had pored through the Outlook Traveler and read about an inexpensive nature resort called Binsar Eco Camp in the outskirts of the Binsar bird sanctuary. The day I planned to leave, AJ’s family had made plans to visit Jageshwar, a temple complex built between the 7th and 12th centuries AD and since the place I was going wasn’t too far from here, I tagged along.
Jageshwar’s cluster of temples was as serene and quiet as an ancient temple complex ought to be. Bordering the complex on one side was a deodar forest and it was refreshing to see these broad, green trunks amassed in such density after the more monotonous sight of pine forests everywhere else. The central cluster with their Nagara style spires formed the core group of temples. Here, saffron-clothed priests sat on the ground close to the shrines and calmly solicited pilgrims to offer rituals to the Gods. A relatively unspoilt river stream, perhaps the waters of the Jataganga river, formed another border. A bridge across these waters led to a small shrine dedicated to Kuber, the God of Money, where I dutifully threw some prayers hoping he would shower me with some wealth and fortune so I could be on the road for a lot longer. Some of those prayers must have found an answer because I’m writing this piece sitting in a hotel in Bangalore, still doing what I was doing three months shy of 10 years later.
AJ and family dropped me off at the Binsar Eco Camp in Dhaulachina. My first impressions of the Binsar Eco Camp was that I wasn’t the target clientele for this sort of setting. There was a little play area with swings and a nice little garden full of flowers and orchids. The owner was away when I visited but there was a young boy named R who dutifully showed me around the area.
R was here for the vacations and had already gathered a formidable knowledge of hundreds of species of birds and animals. Binsar was a prime birding area in the Kumaoni Hills and he took me on long walks through the forested terrain, much of which was a humiliating ordeal for me because I could never keep up the pace on the vertiginous hills and had to frequently stop to catch my breath. But it was all fairly exciting as well and it was humbling to learn so much about the natural world from such a young boy. I couldn’t help feeling that, growing up in Mumbai in a world of brick and concrete, I had wasted much of my life being disconnected from the natural world.
Two adventurous days later, the Eco Camp was attacked by a mighty group of school kids and some of the serenity I had experienced within its confines was disturbed. So I chose to take a long walk through the forest to the ancient temple of Vriddh Jageshwar. The jungly trail wound through oak and rhododendron forests. It is perhaps a tribute to my general lack of navigational sense that despite walking on a clearly marked path, I lost my way to wander deep in the forests. It was only after an hour of aimless walking that I realised something was amiss when the path I was on ended abruptly at a yawning ravine.
A little whisper of a wind rustled through the leaves of the old forest and songbirds were singing from the shelter of the mighty oak trees. If I wasn’t so vexed at having lost my way, I might have found it to be a beautiful ethereal scene. But as I clambered down trying to find my way back to the main trail, I realised the futility of the exercise as over a dozen little trails intersected each other at any point and it was impossible for my untrained eyes to pick the right one. I was in a place so deep and wild that I didn’t expect any human being to show up and show me the way.
And no one did. The point where I got really worried was when a steady pattern of footprints lined an offshoot of a trail I was on. They looked suspiciously like that of a big animal (and I feared it was a big cat because R had enthusiastically filled me in on the number of leopards he had seen in casual walks through the jungle) and they looked fresh. Till that moment, I was using my intuition (or a lack of it) and attempting to sniff my way to some semblance of a big, wide trail. But having seen these tracks, I thought the best course of action would be to follow it in the opposite direction and go wherever the trail leads.
I ignored my body’s painful protestations and walked rapidly up and down this stony, steep, slippery track and I don’t know if it was my prayers to Kuber a couple of days ago or just dumb luck but after trudging anxiously for an interminable amount of time, I had a glimpse of what I never considered a wondrous sight but was now the very vision of heaven, a truck rattling down a tarmac road a hundred feet below. I clambered down a precipitous trail down the slope and as soon as I reached the road and sat on a roadside rock to catch my breath, I blacked out.
When I opened my eyes, I found myself lying on a cot in somebody’s home surrounded by concerned eyes staring at me. A doctor with a stethoscope around his neck was examining my body. A sigh of relief went about the room as he told them there was nothing to worry about. I was merely carrying a mild fever and the reason I had the fainting episode was dehydration and exhaustion. In all my stress and excitement, I had forgotten that I had walked for over 9 hours without drinking a drop of water. He asked me to thank the biker who happened to see me lying motionless by the roadside and escorted me to this house in Jwalabanj.
The Jwalabanj people served me dry rotis and dal to eat. After this nourishment and gulping down a liter of water, I felt up and ready to go. But the people of the Jwalabanj house wanted to know more about how I landed up here. When I told them it had taken me 9 hours from the Eco Camp to here, they laughed. If I had taken the straight route, it wouldn’t have taken more than a couple of hours they said. The doctor advised me stay put for at least a night but I wanted to move on. It would be a pity not to go to Vriddh Jageshwar after working so hard for it. The biker who rescued me offered to take me up to the temple and back to the Eco Camp and I gladly went along.
He was from a village nearby and had been cantering merrily to Dhaulachina to meet a friend for his birthday. I apologized profusely for derailing his plans but he brushed it off saying, “Usse toh mai roz milta hoon. Aapse milne ka mauka mujhe phir kab milega?” (I meet him everyday but when will I get a chance to meet you again?) like I was some celebrity. He took me to a little house by the temple where we had chai. He had finished his BA in Economics two years ago, he said, but had to put off his job hunt to take care of his ailing father. He was terribly bored by the tranquil rural life and was itching to get to Delhi and find a job. “Pata nahin aap log kya dhoondne aate ho yahaan par. Hume toh sirf pareshaani hoti hai. Mauka mila toh bas bhaag jaayenge.” (I don’t know what you people are looking for. I only get stressed out here. If I get an opportunity, I’ll just run away.)
Vriddh Jageshwar was a more serene, modest place of worship than the Jageshwar temples. There was a lone temple pujari who was sitting by himself inside the shrine. I paid a generous tribute to the Gods having survived two potentially life-ending episodes in a day. The biker then took me to a spur where he pointed out the Himalayas peaks that were now shrouded in mist. “Udhar Trishul hai. Aap agar subah subah aate toh badhiya hota”(Trishul is visible over there. If you’d come in the morning, it would have been good.), he said wistfully.
He then took me to Dhaulachina where I wished his friend a very happy birthday and hiked up the steps to the Eco Camp. The people at the place heaved a sigh of relief as they had been worried where I had gone all day. Vriddh Jageshwar wasn’t so far, how stupid of me not to take a guide, mountain walking isn’t for everybody etc. They were also disappointed that I wasn’t there to consume a Kumaoni buffet they’d made for the teachers and the kids. I heard them all patiently, then quietly went to my room and dropped on the bed like a sack of potatoes.
I wouldn’t wake until noon the next day and I wouldn’t have woken up at all if it wasn’t for the yells and screams of the school kids in the play area. Unlike the previous day, I quite enjoyed their screeching. Maybe getting lost in the wild had momentarily awoken a hint of compassion for humanity. But not for too long.
At brunch, the caretaker mournfully informed me that R had departed for Dehradun. I would have liked to say goodbye. When I heard the news, I suddenly found the noise and chaos of the children and their teachers very annoying. What I needed was some quiet but my body was aching too much from the travails of the previous day and taking a tranquil walk all alone wasn’t an option. I also felt lonely and my mind was in a haze not knowing what to do amidst all the chaos, not having either the imagination or the inclination to go talk to the teachers or the other people around. So I went back to my room to sleep, slept the entire day, packed my bags the next morning, paid my bills and walked down to the highway for a jeep back to Almora.