Pune

Distressed boys were pacing up and down their dark and dingy rooms. Some were memorizing convoluted algebraic formulae and differential equations. Others were muttering anatomical jargons, obtuse molecular physics and English vocabulary lessons. The faint echoes of the “Top Gun” anthem were audible down the grimy paan-reddened corridors. Louder strains of Metallica’s “Fade to Black” blared out from an adjacent cell where a slumping figure was bobbing his head up and down mumbling obscure verses.

A groggy, bespectacled face saw me standing by the door. I feigned concern by asking him why he was playing such a depressing, suicidal song before his exams. He replied, nerves spiking on the edge, “Motivation”. A little boy, who should have been in school, pranced up and down the stairs. He was delivering stale vada pavs and hot chai to the rooms. And because he did not have the luxury to study for exams, the boy teased everyone with a high pitched shriek.

As I took in these scenes, a gap-toothed old man opened a room that had the musty odor of mold accrued over the ages. It was furnished with a rusty metal cot and a crummy Indian toilet. It would be the first of many beds I would rent in the years ahead.

. . .

My introduction to solo traveling couldn’t have been any less romantic or more surreal because all I had been doing in the days before leaving home was reading shallow and banal travel drivel on travel blogs. And they gave me all the wrong advice. “Find yourself”. “Don’t take a guidebook.” “Go with the flow.” “The less money you have the better it is.” “Bad experiences only make you better.” “Travel with your heart not your mind.” They sold the idea of a life on the road as a fairy tale adventure with cupids and goblins lying in wait to make your journey the grandest thing ever.

But this illusion was shattered the moment I landed at the Pune Station. Because I had to take a dump. I had left Mumbai at the stroke of dawn in a 3rd class compartment on a crowded train to Pune. But I hadn’t attended to nature’s calls before leaving home. And nature was building up the pressure.

So I walked into the first hotel I could find.  The dreary colonial edifice of The National Hotel beckoned opposite the Pune railway station. Here, I was offered damp, dark, windowless rooms for 500 Rs. It was a lot more than I could afford. So I kept walking and looking at more hotels in the area. But I was dismayed to find that National Hotel was the cheapest one around. I continued my search in the vain hope that I might spot some affordable, comfortable lodging.

The day began to heat up and that was my second true lesson. Days tend to heat up pretty quickly in Indian cities. Beads of sweat trickled down my brow and obscured my spectacles. A few steps in, my slippers broke down. That was the third lesson. Don’t wear footwear you’ve been wearing for years on a long shoestring journey.

I felt utterly defeated. So I hailed an auto rickshaw and asked him to take me to a place in the city that would lend me a room for a 100 Rs. The driver weaved through the narrow streets of the old city and led me to a decrepit looking building. I had entered a youth hostel for the first time in my life.

. . .

The gap-toothed man introduced himself as Manohar. But the boys like to call him Patya. Patya had the ability turn even the most extroverted human being into a xenophobe. He met all my friendly overtures with a gnarly scowl. He reacted to all my requests for the promised bucket of hot water with a volley of choice abuse in Marathi. And he made frequent threats to evict me from the property. Sometimes it was because he didn’t like the look on my face.

So Patya understandably was an object of hate and amusement for the boys living in the hostel. The boys took revenge for his unflattering treatment by pulling ugly pranks on him. In the 4 days I stayed here, they had stolen his register, locked the door of the basement toilet when he was inside for an hour, interrogated the cleaning lady on her relationship with Patya, hooted from the terrace when he hobbled towards her with an uncharacteristically kind and gentle demeanor he reserved only for her, hidden the bottle of old monk rum he helped himself to every night and emptied his tiffin box when he’d gone out on an errand. Far from feeling bad for the poor old man, I was deriving much pleasure from cheering the kids on in these indignities.

. . .

Amit, the Metallica fan in the hostel, was an anti-social loner recluse. He never made friends and his eyes bulged with insomniac stress. But when he learnt that I liked my thrash metal, he talked to me like I was a long lost best friend. And he wouldn’t stop talking. I felt like he had a lot to say and the world was going to end any minute and he had to say it all before the world ended.

He became my first travel companion. We hung about every evening at a misal pav shop down the road. We would spend evenings around the imposing walls of Shaniwar Wada. He was a bit of a snob because he found interacting with the other boys in the hostel to be beneath his dignity. They did nasty things in the rooms, he said and once, forced him to take his clothes off and dance to item numbers.

The boys had caught on to the fact that he hated the music they listened to. So they made him an object of persistent bullying and ridicule. He dreamed of starting a band that would become so big that these boys who made fun of him would cower before him in the future. And he chuckled as he thought of the idea that they would be rotting away in an office space somewhere.

. . .

The youth hostel in Pune made me realize that I was beginning my travels as an “uncle”. Because the boys in the hostel constantly mocked me for being too old to live in a place like that. “Aunty kab aa rahi hai, uncle? Hum bulaade kisiko aap ke liye?” (Where’s your wife, uncle? Should we find someone for you?”), was a persistent taunt.

And it made me feel miserable because I thought that if I had done what I was doing ten years ago, this place might have felt somewhat more pleasant. But, then, maybe not. Ten years ago, I would have been someone like Amit, a snob who had to endure bullying far worse than what I was being put through. Today, I find it incredible that my travels, that went on for over 10 years and 800 destinations, began on such an uncomfortably wretched note.

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Chhomrong, a Himalayan village on the edge

The extraordinary landscape of the snow covered Himalayan mountains on the Annapurna Base Camp trekking trail in Nepal.

The Himalayan mountains create their own weather. They change colour and texture with every turn of the light. One day, they’re bright and sunny with a blue sky and the next, dark, gloomy and mysterious.

You need time to appreciate the many moods of these mountains. Most trekkers on the Annapurna Base Camp trek spend a night in a village and move on early next morning. But I was stranded. I broke my knee on the way to Chhromrong. So I had to spend many days recuperating at the Panorama Point trekking lodge in this remote Himalayan hamlet.

Sinuwa by Balaji Srinivasan

Chhromrong is the last inhabited village before the Annapurna Base Camp. Icy Himalayan wildernesses fill the landscape beyond. Landslides and avalanches are a regular feature and some of those have been deadly.

I would, of course, have loved to walk the perilous trails ahead. But I have no complaints. From the rooftop of my trekking lodge, I had a 180 degree view of the entire Annapurna South range. With umpteen cups of tea for company, I sat on a plastic chair on the rooftop to capture the many moods of these mountains in pictures and words.

Machapuchare by Balaji Srinivasan
A view of the Machpuchhare aka Fishtail mountain from the rooftop of the lodge.

The family running the Panorama Point trekking lodge were caring and supportive. As soon as the old owner saw my injury, he made a stopgap bandage and tied it around my knee. When another trekker checked out of a corner room with a view of the mountains, he made me shift. It had a western toilet and was bigger than the smaller, darker room I had.

Guides, porters and trekkers stopped through the day for a tea break. When they learnt of my injury, they helped however they could. An American woman gave me a strip of tylenol and a tube of Moov. A Sherpa porter offered me medicinal herbs. A trekking guide gave me half a bottle of whisky.

Evenings would be filled with raucous conversation. Trekkers and guides filled the dining hall. Some bragged about walking for 21 days, some complained about eating dal bhat every day, some would launch into long rants about the being ripped off. But it was never boring.

So I have no regrets about staying in one teahouse for such a long time. Thanks to the injury, the mountains gave me serenity and idyll every day. But I remember Chhomrong primarily for its dal bhat, conversations and the kindness of strangers.

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Stormy Exit from Khati

D had big plans for the return journey. He spoke to the manager at the Tourist Rest House in Dhakuri and booked a bed for the night. Dhakuri was midway between Khati and the roadhead at Loharkhet. He said he was distraught that I couldn’t go to Kafni Glacier. So he wanted me to stop for a night and think about doing other treks like a hike to Sundherdunga Valley or a long, perilous trip to Milam Glacier. He would need to hire tents and ropes for precipitous clambers over high cliffs, he said, rubbing his hands in glee.

I was less enthusiastic about these ideas than he was. After a few days of hard walking, I was looking forward to the relative comfort of a market town like Bageshwar or Almora and lounging about doing nothing. When he sensed my indifference, he implored me to take AR along for some like-minded company. I told him we would take the call at leisure when we reached Dhakuri.

AR had other plans. On the way down to the village, he wondered if we could take a shortcut back to the roadhead instead of the longer route. This was an exciting idea. I was on a shoestring budget and D’s services, while helpful,  were a luxury. It would be prudent to minimize the expenditure as much as possible and lesser time trekking meant lesser money I would need to spend.

D had asked us to rendezvous at the village square because he had to see his family and say goodbye. When AR and I reached the place, we asked a group of villagers assembled there if they knew of another way back to the road. They did and  they highly recommended we take the route. If we climbed up the steep path leading over the hills that hung above the village, there was a trail of rocky steps that would take us directly down to village of Supi on the other side. From Supi, we would have no trouble getting transport back to Bageshwar. They took that route all the time, they said, and we would be wasting time walking through Dhakuri.

When D came back and heard our change of plans, he was furious. “Why do you keep changing your plans?”, he yelled, “I took so much trouble making an itinerary for you and you spoil everything. I won’t take you on this short cut. Go find your way alone if you want.”

Some of the villagers tried to pacify D and asked him not to be rude to his clients as it might spoil the name of the village.

“You know what we were going to do when we started from Bageshwar?”, he replied angrily, “Pindari, Kafni, Sundherdunga, Namik. I had marked all the spots on the map. He only went to Pindari. If I had known before, I would never have taken him along.”

Then, with an angry grunt, he said, “Chalo!” and we followed obediently.

To say that this route was steep would be profoundly understating it. It was an obscure trail and some sections were a right scramble through thick pine and oak jungle. D never stopped grumbling. He wanted to show us our place in the world. He would run up a steep slope to watch us with a frown from the top. When we slipped and scrambled our way to where he was, he would shake his head disdainfully.

After suffering much pain and exhaustion, we reached the top of a pass and I rested on a rock because I was thoroughly spent with all the effort climbing up. I hoped we had reached the top of the hill we had to climb and looked forward to the scramble down. But D shattered these hopes cruelly. “This is only the first hill”, he said. When I asked how long we had to go before we get down, he pointed at a steep hill in front of us and said, “First you need to go up that one and then there’s another one the same size after and then you climb down.”

My spirit thoroughly crushed, I pined for the original route through Dhakuri which, while longer, was a far gentler incline and passed through verdant meadows and had distant views of snow-capped mountains. This was a torturous hike where the only view I had was the steep hills that I had to negotiate to get to steeper hills. But we soldiered on and when, after a few hours of herculean struggle, we reached the pinnacle drenched in sweat, I felt like I had climbed Mount Everest.

For these strenuous efforts, I was rewarded with a clear view of the snow white peak of Nanda Kot. But as I was enjoying this view, just to remind me of the ephemeral nature of things, a big bank of clouds enveloped us and D, perhaps as much for the fear of his own life as ours, urged us to move quickly and descend because the weather looked ominous. Minutes after he said this and we began hurrying down, we were battered by a mighty hailstorm.

Much of the trail was a steep descent with crude, haphazard steps cut into the rocks. As the icy pellets rained on us, the trail got increasingly slippery and my terrible shoes, unable to grip the wet, mossy stone surfaces, caused me to slip multiple times. One fall was so bad, I might have descended 30 feet. It was a minor miracle I hadn’t broken any bones or suffered a debilitating back injury.

AR had other problems. While his shoes were sturdy enough, his bag was getting drenched. He was on the edge because he was carrying a laptop and the hailstorm showed no signs of abating as it mercilessly poured over his unprotected rucksack as we were clambering down an exposed hillside with no place to take shelter.

We heaved a sigh of relief when we saw the road below and ran quickly down to a tented teashop covered with blue tarp. It was a wet, muggy place with water dripping through the holes in the tarp but nevertheless it resembled a sanctuary. We dropped our rucksacks in the driest corner, rested on the wet benches and asked the lady who ran the shop to make us some chai.

As we were quietly sipping our chai, a short man in a blue jacket wobbled inside with an awkward gait. “Hello”, he said, “Hello”, we said, “Hello”, he said again. We smiled and nodded politely. “Hello”, he said again and then again and kept saying that word over and over again. We didn’t know what to make of it. We thought maybe he wished to make conversation. So I began asking questions in Hindi but all I got was a “Hello” and a “yes” in reply. Then he tried to mumble something in English. The long, treacherous hike must have slowed our senses because it was only when he began drawling words nonsensically in English that we realised he was thoroughly inebriated.

But we were desperate. We had waited for an hour and no vehicle had passed by. It was 5 in the evening and we had to find a place to stay for the night. The lady was highly pessimistic of a bus coming by and the hailstorm was only growing stronger. When we asked her if she knew a place we could spend the night, she merely shook her head. D was sulking in a corner and had gone incommunicado. So we turned to the only other villager from Supi we could find, the inebriated short dude in the blue jacket.

When we asked him if he knew of a place to stay, he nodded enthusiastically and asked us to follow him because he knew just the spot. The room was clean and had a toilet, he said, and we could have a look if we wished. And he managed to communicate all of this with just “Hello” and “Yes” and wicked spurts of laughter. My desperation was so great that I volunteered to go have a look. As soon as I said this, D rushed to where I was, picked up my bag and said, “We have to get out of here.”

“Why?”, I asked, ‘It’s still raining outside.”

“Because you could get yourself killed”, he said.

“Aren’t you being paranoid?”, I asked.

“You don’t know these people”, he said, “They could stick a knife on your back.”

Then an elderly Army guy walked in. He calmly brushed the water and the hailstones off his raincoat and sat down for a cup of chai. AR wanted to ask him if he could accommodate us. But D was having none of it. He had already begun to walk with my bag in the pouring hailstorm.

“We should walk down to the highway”, he said, “We might find a vehicle there. This is a dangerous place.”

“But he’s an Army guy”, AR said, “I’m sure he’ll know a place we can stay.”

“You can’t trust anybody”, D said.

“Oh yeah, why should we trust you”, AR said.

“Okay, you don’t trust me”, the looked at me and said, “Do you trust me?”

I shrugged diplomatically. Caught between a leaky tent and a hailstorm, we had to make quick decisions. But I did not know what the right decision was. Following the army guy, we might find a bed and some food for the night. But there was uncertainty there because I didn’t know if he genuinely an army guy or just a guy dressed in fatigues. And what if D was right? Following D down to the highway in the middle of a hailstorm didn’t sound like a particularly great idea either because what if we were stranded in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night? But D, for all his eccentricities, had taken me through a perilous trek. I had been with him for 5 days. So I trusted him more than random strangers on the road.

So I told AR it’s probably a better idea to follow D because he knew the region better than we did. AR felt it was a much better idea to follow the Army guy because we could wait for the rain to stop and his bag with his laptop won’t get wet. My gut instinct told me to go with D, so I followed him to see what happens. As we walked down the road, AR grudgingly followed us as well.

We were all on the edge and D had lost his sense of direction completely. He began taking needless shortcuts requiring us to slide down steep paths to cut across the road. But when we reached the road and looked at where we came from, we realised we would have made it faster and safer if we had just walked along.

The hailstorm showed no signs of abating. But now it was accompanied by lightning bursts. The lightning was so intense that I could feel it strike the dirt road just ahead. This made us scamper for any shelter we could find. We found a small village below the road and stood under the roof of a house. But when we heard the sounds of a vehicle on the road, we broke into another run. My joy knew no bounds when I saw that the vehicle stopped for us. It was an Innova ferrying a local politician. The driver rolled down his window, had one good look at us, then rolled it back up and sped away.

In 20 minutes, another big SUV passed by. This too belonged to a politician. It too sped away after taking a good look at us. I began to feel it was a far better decision to go with the Army guy. AR made sure D and I knew what a terrible decision we had made. He suggested we go back to the tented shack and look for the Army guy. But as we were about to walk back, we heard another vehicle approach the road below us. So we made another run for it.

It was a sumo ferrying passengers to the village of Song. But since it wasn’t carrying a politician, we could have a conversation with the driver. To our considerable delight, he was okay with us hopping in. Song was a proper town. So we could maybe figure out some accommodation there. Maybe in a dhaba, maybe in a shop.

On the way, I wondered aloud if we could go all the way to Bageshwar.

“I wouldn’t want to drive all the way to Bageshwar in the night in this weather,” the driver said, “But…”

“But what?”, we said.

“But if you’re willing to pay extra, I don’t mind.”

I was willing to pay more than extra, I said excitedly. AR and D were on the same side for a change because both stared at me angrily. But we agreed on a reasonable fare.

AR had left some luggage at the TRH in Loharkhet which was a small detour from Song. So we went there, picked it up, and reached Bageshwar at 10 pm in the night. I congratulated myself for leaving some of my clothes at the hotel I had stayed in. There were no dry clothes in my bag. After a quick change of clothes, the three of us went to the only restaurant that was open. I have never eaten a quieter dinner. The three of us so exhausted that we spent 30 minutes eating our meal in complete silence.

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Neermahal

A visit to Neermahal, the water palace, Melaghar’s crowning glory, threatened to be elusive. From the ends of the dusty trails lining the banks of the Rudrasagar, the palace appeared so close one could almost touch it. I spent a couple of days idling on the banks of the lake waiting for the large 20 seater boat to take off for a ride across the waters but there were never enough tourists to fill it up. The only visitors were romancing couples on a day trip from Agartala who hired one of the more expensive smaller boats. Boatmen hankered me to go with them to the Palace when they first saw me but left me alone thinking I was a crazy person after I refused to show any interest after knowing their rates. A seat in the 20 seater cost 20 Rs., hiring a private boat 400 and I wished to stick to my core budget traveller roots and wait for the 20 seater to take off some day.

On day 3, two large tourist buses from Kolkata arrived. Their numbers were so populous that they had to hire two 20 seater boats to go across. I felt apprehensive about walking over to the group and asking if I could go with. By now, I was resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t see the Palace and had prepared myself mentally to be OK if that was to happen. I consoled myself thinking how sightseeing was never a primary objective in my travels and how just watching the tranquil scenes of colourful boats bobbing on the lake and the Palace rising up in the distance was enough.

While I was sitting gloomily on the sandy banks watching a group of labourers cut steps in the wet mud down to the boats on the lake, the man at the counter, with whom I shared a cup of tea and jhal muri the last two evenings, came up to me and handed me a piece of paper. “It’s your seat on the boat”, he said, “They have 4 seats empty. Sit wherever you want. You can’t come all the way from Mumbai and not see the Palace.” I thanked him profusely but also told him he didn’t have to do that because I was okay not seeing the Palace at all. “You’re a very strange person”, he said shaking his head and went away.

I looked around the boat and saw that it was full of loud, cantankerous families gossiping among themselves. A group of kids ran about yelling loudly. One of them thought it was a great idea to climb onto the roof of the boat and jump on it before being yanked down angrily by the boatman. The kid wailed in disappointment and two women consoled and pampered him to calm him down. He was happy as soon as they gave him a mobile phone to play with and things were back to normal, or as normal as a loud, chaotic group like this would allow. It wasn’t easy finding a place to sit because I wanted to be away from this family mayhem. An elderly gentleman in a sparklingly white shirt and dhoti was sitting all alone in a corner. So I went and sat next to him.

As the boatman cranked up the engine lever and the boat began moving, the old man began to reminisce. “I used to come here very often,” he said, “I was a cadre of the Communist Party and worked in the office in Agartala. There was nothing here back then. No buildings, no houses, nothing. Only forest. It was like coming to the jungle. None of these noisy steamboats. You had to hire a wooden fishing canoe which would wobble in the waters. This place used to be very calm and beautiful then.”

As he was talking, a middle-aged man came up awkwardly to where we were sitting, smiled sheepishly and said, “I’m sorry. He likes to talk a lot. Hope he’s not bothering you.”

The old man shouted at him saying, “He’s not like you. He listens.” Then he looked at me and yelled,  “Am I right?”

“Yes”, I said, instinctively, out of sheer fright and told the younger man that I didn’t have a problem with the old man talking. He thanked me, apologized again and went back to his seat.

“He’s my son. Just because he doesn’t like to hear me talk, he thinks nobody likes it. Do you have a problem with me talking to you?”

“No”, I said, as quickly and convincingly as I could.

“In our days, we used to love listening to old people talk. People these days are completely spoilt. We have so much experience to share. But nobody listens. I sincerely hope I’m not bothering you.”

“You’re not bothering me at all. It’s interesting to listen to you”, I said, half-sincerely, because while I did ordinarily enjoy a good conversation, all I wanted to do on the boat ride was to soak in the scenery around me, watching the fishermen on rickety boats glide by as the dainty old palace slowly zoomed in closer. There were few pleasures in life equal to just floating on the water and watching life go by.

But the old man was having none of it. Now that he was convinced he had my ears, he launched into an impassioned critique of the various species of fish available in the lake and how eating some of them could make you sick and the subtle differences between the fish that came out of Tripura and the fish that came out of South Bengal and the fish he had the pleasure of eating in the 60s and the fish he was forced to consume today. “I don’t know what people are eating these days, plastic or fish”, he said, animatedly, “Sometimes I think the plastic wrapper at the fish market is healthier than the fish they sell there. Who knows what waters they fished them out of. Most of our rivers don’t even have water, it’s only a drain filled with chemicals and shit.”

I nodded my head dutifully to pretend I was ardently listening to his monologue. It had been a strangely dissatisfying trip. Even if it lasted only for 20 minutes, I felt as if I had been sitting there bored out of my skull for years. I was neither able to enjoy the tranquillity of the lake nor initiate a conversation with the old man in subjects that genuinely interested me, like his Communist past, his work in Tripura, his political ideologies today. So annoyed was I with the journey that I felt genuinely relieved when it ended and we reached the banks of the palace.

As we embarked from the boat, the boatman issued a stern warning to all of us to return within an hour or risk being stranded at the palace. But the kids had other ideas. They had scattered off to different corners of the palace and after an hour was up, their mothers had to spend another hour trying to gather them together. The old man and his son sat on the walls of a rampart with the old man passionately illustrating a point he was trying to make and the son staring into the distance, nodding absent-mindedly.

The Neermahal of Melaghar might seem like a poor cousin of the grandiose Lake Palace in Udaipur, Rajasthan (now an expensive Taj Hotel) but to my eyes, it was just as beautiful. It had the air of slow decay, a gentle dilapidation, a faded glory that gave it a character that the exquisitely polished air of the Taj Hotel didn’t have. Despite its whitewashed walls and splendid domes, it looked withered and aged. Architecturally, it was neither imposing nor grand but its lengthy ramparts and latticed walls spoke of a delicate beauty. The people who built the structure and lived in it perhaps didn’t want to make an opulent statement but were content enough to stay in this quiet, isolated palace in the middle of waters, watching the sun go down in rainbow colors every day.

By the time all of us had seen the palace and returned to the boats, it was evening. I took a seat in a corner, far away from the old man because I wanted to enjoy this ride back as peacefully and quietly as possible. The sun was beginning to set in the distance and the sky was milling with cumulus clouds  scattering in all directions filling the landscape with myriad shades of purple and orange. The colors swept into the Rudrasagar melding and mixing with the ripples of the waters. Silhouetted fishermen floated in their canoes in the violet waves. I wished I could live in those water colors forever.

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Pindari

Huffing and puffing up a long, steep, slippery slope, AR and I reached the edge of the Zero Point in front of which, a razor sharp, scree-ridden slope led our eyes deep into the valley below and the glacial wildernesses beyond. Unfit mortals like myself weren’t allowed to venture ahead of this area and for very good reason. Just standing there staring at the slender thread of the Pindari river snaking through the barren, snow-capped gorge was enough to give me a vertigo attack.

“That’s Nanda Khat, that’s Nanda Kot and that’s Pindari glacier,” said D, perfunctorily pointing out the hazy peaks in the Himalayan panorama visible in front of us. While the view might have impressed anyone just waltzing into the place, having toiled long and hard for 3 days, fighting hunger, lack of sleep and the sort of body aches I never knew a human being could endure, my expectations were obscenely high and they found these views underwhelming. To make matters worse, my camera stopped working and I felt like all the hard work I had put in to get there was futile.

D might have sensed the disappointment writ large on my face because he saw a ripe opportunity to throw more salt on my wounds. He said, “The views aren’t great today. But if you had come in October, it would have been much better. It’s all crystal clear that time of the year. That ridge you see next to the Pindari Glacier is the Traill’s Pass. When you lose 20 kilos, get fitter and buy a good camera, I’ll take you there.” I was weary and tired but I summoned all the energy I had to give him as fearsome a death stare as I could.

We walked back down the rocky hillside to meet the most famous resident on the Pindari trail, the Pindari baba. The baba was born in Orissa but after years of wanderings, he became a disciple of an aged guru and took a vow of asceticism. One day, his wanderings took him to the icy wildernesses of the Zero Point. He was so impressed with the landscapes here that he chose to make it his abode for life.

The baba had been living alone in his modest little wood-and-stone ashram for over 20 years. D said some of the people in the villages had weird theories about him. Some suspected he was a CBI agent, some thought he got funding from foreign NGOs, some felt he was a spy. But what he did know was that the baba could speak over 36 languages fluently and did a lot of work with the schools in the villages to spread education and improve infrastructure.

When AR, D and I entered the ashram, Pindari baba greeted us with a plate of dal-rice and endless cups of tea. He was a gentle, cheerful man, very curious, uninhibited and open to conversation.

“We’ve heard a lot about you”, I said.

“Haha I don’t know what you’ve heard. People say all kinds of things about me. Most of it is untrue. I’m just a simple man living a simple life.”

“How do you speak 36 languages?”

“I can speak more than 36 languages. Many foreigners come here. I talk to every single one of them and try to learn as much as I can. What’s the point of life if you stop learning?”

“Don’t you ever feel afraid or lonely living alone?”

“Everyone asks me this. But what do I have to fear? Every morning I go down to the river to collect water and watch the bharal (wild sheep) grazing on the high mountain slopes. If you had come here earlier, you could also have seen them. Then the trekkers keep coming during the day. After people leave in the afternoon, I have all the time to myself. There’s no one to disturb me. I do my meditation, prayer and a lot of reading. People keep sending me books. Just a minute, I have something to show you.”

He went inside and got a hard cover copy of a book called “Spies in the Himalayas” by M.S. Kohli.

“I just got this book last week. Do you know there’s a nuclear device hidden in the Himalayas? This book gives you all the details. The Indian Government tried to install a plutonium device in the 60s to spy on Chinese nuclear instalments but they somehow lost it and haven’t been able to find it ever since. Why do you think people aren’t allowed to go close to the Nanda Devi mountain? It’s because the radiations might kill you. You should read it. It’s about the deepest secrets hidden in the Himalayas. The author was in the army before. So he knows what he’s saying.”

I would have loved to spend an entire day chatting with the baba but we had a long walk ahead of us. D was especially anxious to get going because he wanted to cross the snowfields on the way before they began melting in the afternoon sun. Walking back in the thick forest, I was consumed by the idea of living alone in the wilderness and entertained thoughts about living a simple life satisfying only my basic needs. I asked D what he thought of these ideas.

“Terrible”, he said, sounding decidedly unimpressed, “First of all, many tourists, especially foreigners, try to do this after seeing babas in the Himalayas. No one survives for more than a few days because it is impossible to live alone for so long. Pindari baba is good and I don’t want to say anything bad about him but there are many babas like him in the Himalayas and not all of them are genuine. Many of them hardly ever stay for winters and have a lot of money in the bank account. They have connections, investments, back up plans and are as materialistic as you are. Some even have money to visit Europe every year. So if someone like you wants to do it, without any tapasya (meditation) or training, you have to have a business plan in place.”

“I wasn’t talking about becoming a baba. I only wondered if it’s possible to build a hut and settle down in the mountains somewhere and live peacefully for the rest of my life.”

“That’s even worse. You’ll kill yourself in a few days. You won’t have anyone to talk to. You don’t look like you fast a lot and you probably don’t know how to grow food either, so what will you do? I have a better idea for you. Come here every year, have fun, spend a few peaceful days walking in the mountains and go back home to your wife and children. Better still, bring them with you. You’re 28 years old. It’s about time you got married. Then you’ll be so busy your mind won’t think of these stupid ideas.”

As we were walking and conversing, the long trail of school children walked ahead of us. One of the kids was traveling on top of a mule, crying uncontrollably. She had twisted her foot close to Zero Point and was unable to walk any further. The mule walked awkwardly and every few steps, it would jerk around and one of its legs would threaten to slide down the trail deep into the gorge below. The girl wailed every time this happened and one of the rescue specialists who was part of the team ran to pacify her.

I was a bit disgruntled with D’s straightforward assessment of my life choices and walked with the rescue specialist. He, too, was a frustrated man.

“It’s not as if I don’t like doing this”, he said,  “Of course, it’s wonderful to take children deep into the mountains and show them natural beauty. But as an adventurer, I’m sick of walking on these easy trails. I have seen these mountains so many times it’s boring. I need some new adventures. Just last week, I was climbing Satopanth with a Korean expedition and see what I’m doing today. But if you want to put food on the table, you have to run after mules. Chances for big expeditions don’t come very often.”

“But from my perspective, you’re very fortunate”, I said, “If someone gave me your job, I’ll very happily take it and do it for the rest of my life.”

The rescue specialist laughed and said, “This is not an easy job. I had to train for years at the Mountaineering Institute to be good enough to qualify. If that mule falls down the slope, I would have to put my life on the line and run down the gorge, pick up the girl and climb back here. There’s no option to fail because it is my responsibility to see that everyone finishes the trek safely. That could be a huge burden to deal with every day of your working life.”

We soon arrived at the Tourist Rest House in Dwali without any casualties. The angry caretaker who had shooed us away just the day before didn’t look any happier when he saw AR, D and I striding towards him.  He looked at me and said, “What did I tell you yesterday? He is your guide! He has to come hours before you do and tell me you are coming. How can you make the same mistake again and again?”

“So you don’t have any rooms today as well?”, I said, wearily.

“No, I don’t. All the rooms are taken by the school group.”

D smiled sheepishly and said, “Wait here. I’ll do something.”

He managed to find a “friend” among the guides working with the school group.

“You know that if it was up to us, we could walk down to Khati in a couple of hours”, he said to his friend, “But these clients, they get tired too soon. So just do something.”

The friend spoke to his crew and managed to get AR and I some space in a dark, dank store-room space filled with quilts and rugs piled on a filthy floor. My feet were aching so bad after the strenuous 8 hour walk that I could barely move them. We had to wake up early the next morning for another long day’s walk up to the Kafni glacier and back, a thought that sounded more agonizing than pleasurable.

D was right, if this was the way I felt after only 3 days of walking in the mountains, maybe it was a terrible idea to even entertain thoughts of settling down here.

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Palitana – Not getting there

I have always marvelled at the uncanny ability of rickshaw drivers to spot an outsider and know where they’re going. I wasn’t dressed too differently from a lot of other people at the bus stand; a simple blue t-shirt, jeans and a small backpack. But there he was, in my face, asking no one else but me, if I wished to go to Palitana. He would take me there for only 700 Rs., he said, and put me up in a nice dharamshala close to the big temples. First, I refused politely with a gentle smile saying I would rather take a bus. Then, when he refused to go away, a curt, dismissive “no”. And finally, when he became overtly insistent, a very angry “no” which appeared to shock him with its vehemence.

It also annoyed me immensely that the bus to Palitana was taking such a long time to arrive. If the time-tables at the station were to be believed, there was a bus that went every hour. But I had been waiting for well over an hour and there was no sign of any that went to Palitana. I went over to the “Enquiry Counter” to interrupt the men sitting inside who had been loudly gossiping with idle drivers and conductors in Gujarati. Someone had made a joke that made them all laugh very loudly and my frantic appeals went unheard. Finally when I broke the sound barrier with the loudest “excuse me” I had ever uttered, the laughter died off abruptly and all the faces turned to stare at me with a stupefied gaze.

“What do you want?”, said the man seated behind the square grill at the counter. “When is the bus to Palitana expected to arrive?” I asked. He gave me a piercing stare, like I was a student who had asked the dumbest of questions, then showed me the palm of his hand, closed the shutter of the window and turned back to entertain his colleagues before I could figure out if the five fingers meant “5 minutes”, “wait” or “get out of here”. When I went back to the Palitana stand, the rickshaw driver, seeing that my situation was becoming more hopeless with every passing minute, made another opportunistic move.

“The bus to Palitana will never come”, he said, “and even if it does, you won’t be able to get a seat.”

“I’ll take my chances”, I said, “Please go away. I’m not going in your rickshaw.”

“Okay, 500 Rs. You’ve come as a tourist to see the temples. It’ll be more comfortable for you if you come with me.”

“No”, I said, “Please go away.”

“As you wish”, he said, shrugging his shoulders.

The bus to Palitana tottered in after half an hour and to my utter dismay, he proved to be right. All the seats were taken and the people who had been waiting patiently all this while took up the standing space as well. There was no way I was going to hang out the door for a 2 hour journey.

The rickshaw driver rubbed his palms gleefully and walked towards me for another round of negotiations. This time, I didn’t know what to do. If I was to reach Palitana, he could be my only way out. But before he could reach where I was standing, a man who was sitting in the waiting area and who had perhaps been observing the dejected look on my face when I couldn’t get a seat on the bus, came up to me and said, “You’re going to Palitana?”

I said, “Yes.”

“If you hurry up, there’s a passenger train leaving in an hour”, he said.

So when the rickshaw driver looked at me with a smirk on his face asking if I was finally ready to go to Palitana, I said, “No, but you could take me to the railway station.”

The driver was appalled at this suggestion and tried every trick from the Book of the Touts to dissuade me from taking the train. The trains don’t go every day, he said. They always break down on the way. Too many people take them because they’re too cheap. The coaches are filthy and the train would take far longer to get to Palitana than his rickshaw would. And it won’t take me to those fabulous dharamshalas where I could bed with all the worldly comforts at bargain basement rates.

I’ll take my chances, I said, as I scooted across the bus station to find the first rickshaw I could find that would take me to the Bhavnagar railway station. Since I had the desperate look on my face that screamed “Yes, rob me of all the money I have”, I totally expected to be robbed of all the money I had by a rowdy rickshaw driver charging extortionate rates. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that the rickshaw drivers of Bhavnagar were gentle, honest souls who only charge 30 Rs. for a 2 km journey.

The route to the train station passed through parts of the old town I hadn’t seen and as I had another fleeting glimpse of the exquisitely photogenic stone and timber architecture of the buildings in this part of the city, I swore to come back some day and take a better look at them.

The train station was utterly deserted with not a soul in the vicinity. There was nobody behind the ticket window either. I walked down the platform to look for a station master to enquire about the timings of the train to Palitana. But I couldn’t find anybody. If I didn’t know I was wide awake, I could have sworn I had dreamt up a ghostly apparition of a haunted railroad, stranded all alone on a line that went nowhere.

The first human presence I came across was a bearded man, sleeping on a bench at the far end of the platform. I don’t like waking up people who are asleep but I was anxious to know when the train was going to arrive. So I nervously sputtered, “Bhaisaab” a couple of times and when he didn’t respond, shook him up slightly.

Two bleary, heavily reddened eyes stared at me angrily and asked, “What do you want?”

“I’m sorry”, I said, “I was looking for the train…”

“What train? There are no trains”, he said and shooed me away vehemently with his hands before going back to sleep.

I strolled back to the main entrance where I found that a human being had miraculously surfaced behind the ticket counter. “I’m looking for a train to Palitana…”, I began tentatively. “What train?”, he said,  interrupting me curtly, “There are no trains.”

“But I heard there was a train to Palitana going around this hour”, I said.

“That train left long ago. The evening train is cancelled.”

I walked back dejectedly to the bustling market outside the station and hailed a rickshaw. I asked the driver if he would take me to Palitana and he laughed and said, “No, no. I can’t go to Palitana. It’s too far away. I’ll drop you off at the bus stand and you can take a  bus or a rickshaw from there.”

After reaching the bus stand, he pointed to the platform where the buses to Palitana arrived. I didn’t want to take the bus, I said, and asked him if he knew someone who could take me to Palitana for a reasonable rate.

He looked around and yelled, “Raju! Palitana jaoge?” (Raju! Will you go to Palitana?) Raju came running from the distance and when he came closer, I was dismayed to discover that it was the same driver who was chasing me to go with him earlier at the bus stand.

This happenstance gave him the opportunity to rub his hands in glee again. He said, “Toh, sir, chalein? Kaisa laga Bhavnagar railway station?” (So, sir, let’s go. How did you like the Bhavnagar railway station?”

“Bahut khoobsurat” (Very beautiful), I said, “Kitna loge? 500 Rs?” (Will you go for 500 Rs.?)

“Haan, sir, aapke liye toh jaan bhi haazir hain”, (Yes, sir, I could even give my life for you), he said, smirking uncontrollably, sarcasm dripping from every pore.

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Kuala Lumpur – First Impressions

The bus from Melaka dropped me off at Kuala Lumpur’s premier bus station, the Terminal Bersepadu Selatan, an enormous air-conditioned complex of ticket windows, food courts, arrival lounges and shopping centres. I felt like I had landed not at a bus station but in an International Airport. An electronic board announcing arrivals and departures to myriad Malaysian and SE Asian cities only served to enhance the illusion. As I walked around in a giddy daze trying to find my way to the train station to get to the center of the city, a tall, anxious figure walked towards me, stopped and said, “Do you speak English?” I said yeah, I spoke English.

“Do you know the way to Bukit Bintang? I’ve been trying hard to wrap my head around this map but can’t seem to find a way to the right station”, he said pointing at the indecipherable map on the Lonely Planet guidebook he’d been lugging around. I said I had no idea and that I’d never been to the city before. He apologized. Given the number of “Indian-like” faces he’d seen in the country, he mistook me for a local, he said. His casual racial profiling made me simmer with anger inside but since we were trying to solve the same puzzles, I chose to forgive and forget and we teamed up to find the train station.

Kuala Lumpur had many metro, railway and monorail lines connecting different parts of the city and many of them were privatized necessitating the need to buy different tickets for different legs of the journey if you didn’t have some kind of interlinking smart card. Neither Steve (the tall American guy) nor I had the card and this somewhat complex web of railway lines was making Steve very angry.

But having grown up in the chaotic mish-mash of BEST bus routes and the Western, Central and Harbour Lines of Mumbai, I thought it wasn’t too difficult a task to figure this out, especially considering the fact that the maps at the Bandar Tasik Selatan station were practically handholding you through the route and the people manning the counters were immensely helpful in answering any doubts we had. So we took the KLIA Transit to KL Sentral, the gargantuan junction where many of the lines intersected, and the monorail from KL Sentral to Bukit Bintang.

I hadn’t booked a room or a bed in the city and followed Steve to the hostel he had booked on Jalan Angsoka. The hostel (which, alas, no longer exists) was on the first floor of a building above an odorous Bangladeshi restaurant. It wasn’t exactly a winning first impression but the squeaky clean interiors and good-humored reception staff made me forgive the fishy odours we had to wade through to get there. They had run out of dorm beds and offered me a boxy single room that cost 10 RM more than a dorm bed, an offer that I gladly accepted.

Steve was hungry and wanted to have Indian food. So we went to the Nagasari Curry House around the corner from the hostel where sumptuous plates of roti cinai, tandoori chicken and rava masala thosai invaded our table. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the prices for the Indian dishes here were cheaper than what you would find in a similar setting in India.

As we washed the food down with masala chai, Steve told me a bit about himself.  He was from Indiana but had moved to Brooklyn back in 2004. There he worked in a retail store for over 4 years before being kicked out of the job when the recession hit. He had to move out of his house and live as a homeless for another year while working odd jobs. His mother lived in Indiana but he had no money to go see her and he sure as hell didn’t want to live in Indiana. But one day, his mother died and he got her house and a decent amount of money in inheritance. Sick of life in America, he sold the house, withdrew all the money he had and began traveling in Asia. He set up base in Krabi in Thailand where he worked with the ping pong bars to get white people in. There he fell in love with a Thai girl who worked in one of the bars and began building his own house from scratch on a plot of land he was given by a friend from the sleaze industry.

He had to do a visa run every couple of months to take advantage of a visa loophole that let him live in Thailand indefinitely for as long as he wished. He usually went to Penang but was sick of Penang and since he had to fly to Singapore to meet a “business acquaintance”, he thought KL would serve the purpose better on this journey. “This city sucks”, he said, “It has zero charm or character. It stinks of oil and money. I hope I never have to come back here again.”

“So why didn’t you get the visa done in Singapore and fly back?”, I asked.

“They ask too many questions in Singapore. My guy knows everyone in the Malaysian consulates. So if I’m in a pickle, it’s easier to get it resolved in this country. You have no reason to be here though. Get out soon. Come see me in Krabi on the way out. Lovely beaches, good beer and some nice girls waiting for ya.”

I drank my masala tea to that.

I didn’t find KL to be as terrible as people had been telling me. For one, there was the free bus service called GoKL which linked some of the central districts. As a perennial pennypincher, I used it frequently to get around. Unlike bargain basement services in other cities, the GoKL buses were maintained as immaculately as the more premium bus services and were comfortable to travel in. It also helped that the route maps were clearly laid out making it incredibly easy to navigate the central parts of the city like Chinatown and the Petronas area.

KL wasn’t obsessively clean but it was shiny enough. The Chinatown area of Jalan Petaling was typically old-fashioned with some sanitized chaos and hubbub revolving around its old shophouses and squares. It had a gallery of legendary food stalls and cafés to choose from serving all manner of wicked Cantonese and Hainanese dishes from watan mee to char siew to roast duck to char kuay teow to the most adventurous of offal ranging from pig intestines to chicken hearts. The street not only had a wide range of food I’d never seen or tasted before, it was also ridiculously cheap.

And that’s one of the reasons I spent a longer time in the city than I had planned to. It had the comforts, the glitz and the metropolitan air of an expensive megapolis without threatening to burn a hole in my wallet. For the price of a dorm bed in the Singaporean suburbs, I could get a small private room in a hotel in a central district of KL, eat a ton of delicious food and have money left over for commutes. Yes, it was a bit rough around the edges and not exactly as sanitised, ordered and convenient as Singapore was, but it offered a far better value for my money.

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Bhavnagar – Curious salesmen, Takhteshwar, CCD, Pav Gathiya

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“Sir, if you don’t mind, can you tell me what you’re doing in Bhavnagar?”, squeaked a figure sitting on a sofa opposite to the reception desk as soon as I had waltzed into the hotel after walking in the sweltering heat for hours.

“Why? Why do you want to know?”, I asked, without any effort to mask my annoyance.

“Just like that, sir”, he said, with a nervous laugh, “You keep coming and going during the day. I was only wondering if you were also into sales like the other guests here. I can help you make contacts.”

“What? No. I’m not a salesman. And I’m not in Bhavnagar for work.”

“Sir, then what are you doing here? What is your job?”

“I’m sorry but that’s none of your business”, I said and began walking towards my room.

“Do you work for the CBI?”, he asked in a tone that sounded suspiciously suspicious.

“If I did, why would I tell you?”, I said, “No, I’m not working for the CBI.”

“Then why can’t you tell me what you do?”

I sighed and thought it’s better to get this over with than prolong this conversation in a never-ending question loop.

“I’m a photographer. I’m here to shoot the old architecture of Bhavnagar”, I said.

“Oh”, he said, visibly perking up, “So where do you go tomorrow?”

“I might head to Palitana or Velavadar”, I said, “or maybe spend another day here. I don’t know.”

“I’m very happy to meet you,” he said, “It can get very boring talking to salesmen all the time. Yes, Palitana and Velavadar are amazing. But if you’re here one more day, you should also go to Takhteshwar Temple. It’s only 1 kilometer from here and if you climb up, the views are amazing. You can see all the way to the Gulf of Khambat from the top. Don’t miss it. ”

I felt bad about being snappy and rude earlier and I told him that. I took his advice and extended my stay in Bhavnagar for another day.

Takhteshwar Temple was located on a small hillock in a quiet neighbourhood in the city. This part of Bhavnagar was a stark contrast to the bustle of the market streets of the old town, with row houses, clean streets and gardens. I climbed up the short flight of stairs that led to the temple on top of the hill. The landscapes visible from here were certainly panoramic if not spectacular. Over the low rises around the hillock, the industries surrounding the city could be seen in the distance and bits of the Gulf of Cambay shone through the haze.

The temple was built in the late 19th century AD by Maharaj Takhatsinhji and is a small, yet clean structure with 18 marble pillars and a shikara. It was undoubtedly an important place of worship but the day I went, people were using the temple as a handy place to catch a siesta or to lounge about on a hot afternoon. A group of school children were playing in the area outside and an old caretaker was sitting on the patio under the shade of tree, gazing into the distance. As it always happens, as soon as I took my camera out to take some pictures, all eyes turned towards me momentarily. The siesta people went back to sleep while the children began pestering me to show them my camera and take their pictures.

I ran away from the kids and went up to the old man to talk to him but I don’t know if he had taken a vow of silence or simply found me too weird because as soon as I opened my mouth to break the ice he smiled awkwardly and walked away in a hurry. This was disappointing because I had hoped to spend a few hours at the temple to catch the sunset. But with no one to talk to and nothing particularly interesting to look at, I walked back down to the road in a dreary drudge.

It’s a testament to my lack of imagination that the first thing that popped into my head when I thought of an alternative plan was “coffee”. I google mapped for the nearest Café Coffee Day (when you’re in the interiors of India, you can’t be too choosy) and was gladdened to see that there was one about a couple of kilometres away near Ghogha Circle. Google Maps showed me a short cut that cut through a large ground and so I happily trod in that direction but when I reached the ground, I found that a tented market had blocked the access to the path that the app advised me to take.

It was 2 pm and it was hot. The sale was comprised of mostly textiles and woollens sold by Tibetans and Nepalis. I wondered who would want to buy those in such a hot, arid place. With Google Maps rendered useless, I reverted to more old-fashioned methods to seek my directions and asked a panipuriwala who had opportunistically placed his stall outside the grounds if there was a way through. He had stuffed a mountain of pan inside his mouth and just flailed his hands about. I asked the people inside the tent if they knew and they didn’t. So finally, the budget traveller in me admitted defeat and hailed an auto rickshaw to Ghogha Circle for 30 Rs.

The Café Coffee Day at Ghogha Circle was like a lot of other Café Coffee Days; glass-fronted, monotonous and soulless with expensive coffee. They wanted to charge me extra for making the cappuccino a bit stronger. Since I refused to pay more money for the additional shot, I had to make do with a cup of coffee that tasted like hot milk with more cinnamon than espresso. The AC was a relief though and I tried to make as good a deal of it as I could by lounging about for a couple of hours in the cool air and surfing the internet on my phone until the staff had enough of me sitting around and shoved a menu card in my face to order or get out. I looked around and the place was absolutely empty but I didn’t want to get into a stupid argument and left.

Ghogha Circle was bustling with street food vendors and just looking at all the food was making me hungry. I didn’t want to have Mumbai chaat having come all the way to Bhavnagar, so I googled standing next to a chaat stall to see what unique varieties of cholesterolic street food Bhavnagar had to offer. Some person on quora believed that it was a sacrilege to go to Bhavnagar and not have pav gathiya. So I asked the people around where I could get some pav gathiya. Fingers pointed in all directions because apparently pav gathiya was available everywhere.

Pav Gathiya is essentially deep fried chunks of besan (gram flour) mixed with an assortment of sauces (many of them extremely spicy) and served with pav (bread). I chose the cleanest looking establishment in the circle, a place called Surendranagar Samosa, and confidently ordered a plateful. A part of me wishes I hadn’t because it was so hot that my digestive system spent the next two days growling for help. Eight months on, I think there are parts of it still trying to come to terms with it.

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Agartala-Melaghar

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While Agartala wasn’t quite the culinary hotspot, it had a few places where I enjoyed wasting my afternoons. The cheapest of them all was a restaurant called Aamantran in the main market area which had perhaps the best North Indian thalis in the city that you could have without breaking the bank or your gastric lining. Because the place was both popular and small, I had to inevitably share a table with cantankerous families, bickering couples, salespeople taking a break from working the markets, kids bunking college, old men talking about communism and art, old men working for the communist party, young men working for the communist party, bureaucrats working under the communist government cribbing about the communist party. If I had ever entertained thoughts of joining the communist party, the time I spent at this restaurant might have been enough to convince me to swing right.

The other place I liked to hang out was a coffeeshop called Café Frespresso which was always empty when I walked in. The people running it were exceptionally friendly and when I complained once about the coffee being too light, they happily added another shot of espresso at no extra charge. It was a gesture that made me wish there was a Frespresso in every town in India so I didn’t have to depend on a miserly Café Coffee Day or Starbucks for my laptop-coffee loungings. The only time it got weird was when there was a birthday party on where everybody in the house joined in the celebrations while I wallowed all alone in a corner working away at my laptop like a solitary grouch.

When I wasn’t eating at Aamantran or having coffee at the Frespresso, I walked around, took pictures of people doing stuff on the streets, wandered about the markets, took evening walks along the lakeside promenade, had numerous cups of 4 Rs. chai at the various grungy corners of the markets and spent hours lounging at the Ujjayanta Palace where the evening sun painted its whitewashed facades a deep orange as it went down.

A few days into this routine, I got somewhat bored and decided to get out and look at the other pleasures that Tripura had to offer. My first stop was the village of Melaghar, about 50 kms by a dusty road from Agartala. Most people wisely do this journey as a day trip but since I had to live up to my credentials as a “slow traveller”, I had booked a room at the Sagarmahal Tourist Lodge run by the Tripura Government on the banks of the Rudrasagar Lake.

The bus dropped me off at the main market area and I already felt refreshed while walking to the lodge through a quiet, traffic-free, bird-song filled street and thought how wonderful it was to get out of a noisy, urban setting like Agartala to this beautifully bucolic village. My mind was racing at the speed of light thinking of the possibilities here. I could perhaps spend a week or a month, quietly sitting by the lake, walking muddy trails, filling my lungs with oxygen and getting some writing done.

But this tranquility was short-lived. Distant sounds of Bollywood disco beats began to drown out the whispers of mother nature and I was alarmed to find that the closer I got to the lodge, the louder the sounds became. 15 minutes later, when I reached the lodge, I stared, shocked out of my senses, at the gaudily decorated gate of the Sagarmahal Tourist Lodge inside which pandals in the ugliest shades of secondary colors had been put up. Here, women dressed in excessively ornate costumes were giddily chirping at each other and uncles were drunkenly dancing to the deafening sounds of Bengali EDM. In my unwashed t-shirt, torn shorts and a dusty rucksack, I felt ridiculously out of place.

I walked over to the reception where everyone stared at me like I was some undesirable creature that had sauntered into an aristocratic party. The receptionist checked me out from top to bottom, frowned disapprovingly and said, “Sorry, no rooms.”

“That’s okay. I only need one room”, I said, not without a hint of anger and frustration while brandishing the email confirmation, “The room I have booked and paid for at your website.”

The receptionist looked flummoxed and said, “How did you get the booking?”

I shrugged.

He made a phone call and looked sad when it was over. Then he pored over his register like he was doing some complex math. After he was done with his calculations, he yelled at somebody to carry my luggage over to a room.

“There’s a wedding going on,” he said, “You’re lucky to find a room today.”

“I’m not sure I’m so lucky”, I said, in half a mind to get a refund and go back to Agartala.

The room was grubby on the edges but perfectly satisfactory for the 550 Rs. I had paid for it. The only problem, of course, was the noise from the wedding below which was already giving me a headache. But I was also hungry for lunch and went down to the restaurant to see if they could rustle up something quick. The eating area was full of wedding guests, some of whom felt they had seen me somewhere. One woman came up to me to wonder if I was the brother of so-and-so. Another gentleman wished to know how my children were doing. It was all fairly bizarre and made me realise how easy it was to gate crash weddings.

When I enquired about the “menu”, the man at the kitchen counter rolled his eyes, took me aside and told me to grab a seat and pretend I was part of the wedding. That was the only way I was going to get any food, he said. So I pulled up a chair on a long table surrounded by the chirping aunties and the drunk uncles and tried to be as inconspicuous as I could. It was a decidedly modest wedding meal, with dal, rice, some vegetables, chicken and fish curries, an assortment of condiments and a heap of rosogollas to go with.

After the meal, I popped in a paracetamol to take care of the throbbing headache I had incurred due to the loud music and went on a stroll to the lakeside. The farther I got away from the noise, the more ethereal the place became. Neermahal, the lake palace, gleamed glamorously in all its snow-white splendor, fishermen rowed their boats in its shadow and scooped out the fish trapped in the mighty fishing nets spread around the lake, tourist boats painted in bright colors ferried people who’d come to see the palace. In the distance, smoke gushed out of chimneys that reared their heads up over the villages, the farms and the jungles. These scenes might have done a better job at curing my headache than that 500 mg of paracetamol and I again began to entertain thoughts of spending an inordinately long time in this pastoral setting.

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Melaka – Museums and Food

It’s impossible to visit Melaka without stumbling into a museum. There’s a Museum of Literature, Museum of Architecture, Museum of History, Museum of Ethnography, Museum of Chinese Jewellery, Museum of the Democratic Government, Museum of Toys, Museum of Stamps, Museum of Islam, Museum of Prisons, you name a human endeavour, they’ve built a museum for it in Melaka. Now I’m no museum person and my first inclination when I pass one by is to keep walking but I found a couple of the ones dedicated to specific ethnic groups somewhat interesting.

The Chitty Museum, dedicated to the Tamil trading community that had settled down in Malaysia in the 16th century, was housed in a remarkably well preserved old Chitty house. They were ethnically similar to the Tamil Chettiars, a gloriously wealthy trading community in Tamil Nadu whose business acumen was much envied. The Chitty’s, though, had assimilated Chinese, Malay, Portuguese and Dutch influences in their religious iconography, clothing and food, making them a distinctly different ethnic group culturally with faint echoes of the Chettiar past, and the artifacts, photographs and illustrations in this museum illuminated their lives and their culture beautifully.

The Cheng Ho Cultural Museum , on the other hand, has to be the most elaborate museum dedicated to the life of a single person, that I have ever been to. Here, spread across a number of Chinese shophouses, lie the antiques and the treasures and the miniaturized ships that belonged to the legendary Chinese mariner Zhang He. Immortalized in the accounts of explorers as diverse as Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta and Niccolo De Conti, Zheng He commanded a massive fleet that undertook treasure voyages into South-east Asia, India, Africa and Arabia and was among the most influential figures in Chinese history. The museum is built on what is believed to be the site of an old warehouse that Zheng used to stash his treasures.

It would be a pity to finish talking about my time in Melaka without talking about its food because every meal I had here was excellent. But there were two that are particularly memorable 7 years on. The first was a place called Pak Putra, run by two brothers from Gujranwalla in Pakistan. Big, hulking tandoors manned by bustling chefs in aprons suggested a joint that meant business. Tables and chairs filled with a mix of largely regular Malaccan patrons and a scattering of tourists meant the Pakistani brothers delivered what they promised. The tandoori chicken was supremely tender and succulent, marinated to perfection while the naan was utterly delectable, subtly garnished with fragrant spices. After the meal, I sought one of the brothers out and when I told him how much I loved the food, he gave me a big hug saying he always found it deeply heartening when someone from across the border loved his food.

The other meal that I remember from back in 2012 is a busy and popular satay celup place whose name I have tried to remember for years on end but can’t (yeah I know it’s useless to talk about a restaurant on a travel blog if you don’t know its name but anyone who’s actually paying attention would know that this blog isn’t particularly useful anyway and usefulness was never its principal objective). It was small, redolent with the aroma of fragrant gravies and choc-a-bloc with people (mostly Chinese/Malay Chinese), all of whom appeared to be families sitting on big round tables dipping their meaty sticks into big bowls of steaming and bubbling satay liquid.

So I thought maybe I should come back on a slower day or seek another satay place out to quench my satay hunger but as I was leaving, this dude ran right up to me, pulled up a chair and asked me to sit on a table packed with 5 people. He pointed to a refrigerator full of sticks with dozens of unnamed varieties of seafood, vegetables and meat and asked me to get whatever I wanted and dip it in the steaming pot of satay gravy that was bubbling in the center of the table.

I learnt that none of the people who were sharing my table knew each other from before. It was a beautiful communal eating experience where the 75-year old Chinese gentleman from Guangdong and the Malay girl sitting next to me were holding my hand through the mystical process of getting a well-cooked stick of satay. When they saw that I was hopeless at this feat despite their elaborate instructions and had been either undercooking or overcooking the sticks, they took over my plate of assorted meats and started doing my satays for me. I don’t know what they were doing differently (the instructions were to dip the meats in the hot gravy for a few minutes and eat) but it transformed my food from thick chewy inedible flesh to soft, tender, scrumptious skewers. Every few minutes the waiters would come to add bits of soup or stir the gravy or offer some special meats like tiger prawns or varieties of shellfish.

At the end of this gargantuan meal, I was filled to bursting but the old Chinese man coaxed the entire group to get some dessert at a place he knew nearby. While slurping my bowl of cendol, I learnt that the Malay girl worked at a mobile phone store in Kuala Lumpur. It was her first time in Melaka as well despite the fact that she had spent all her life in and around KL and it was only 3 hours away by road from the city. She preferred more natural settings, she said, and travelled frequently to the Cameron Highlands and Taman Negara. She was quite a traveller herself and had once lived in a camper van while driving from Melbourne to Darwin.

When I told her that I was on my way to Kuala Lumpur the day after, she tried her best to dissuade me from going there. “Why would you want to go to Kuala Lumpur?” she said, “It’s just a big concrete jungle. I wouldn’t live there myself if I didn’t have to work to save for my next trip! You should go to the Perhentian Islands, Taman Negara, Sarawak, even Penang! There’s nothing in Kuala Lumpur. Just big buildings and malls and expensive hotels.”

Her points were valid and having spent over 10 ridiculously expensive days just the previous week in Singapore, my enthusiasm for another South-East Asian metropolis was fairly low. Melaka was the perfect change from Singapore, a quiet easy going touristy town with quaint old architecture, a place where nothing was too far or too expensive. Kuala Lumpur was bound to be more hectic and challenging. But it would be a pity to travel across Malaysia without a cursory glance at its capital city. So I ignored the Malay girl’s advice and headed to the Melaka bus station the next morning to go to Malaysia’s biggest metropolis.

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