S had to report back to duty at the TRH. So although we would have loved to stay longer at his rustic abode, we had to make a move after a couple of days of tramping up and down the hills. His village was one of those tranquil idylls with no road connectivity. The roadhead where we could catch a bus or share jeep to Almora was in Dhaulachina, a trek of a few miles through the forest.
This would have been fine if we were walking freely with our daypacks. But both A and particularly I were loaded with luggage. A didn’t have a problem because he carried one heavy rucksack that had all his belongings. But I had about 20 kilos of extra baggage full of books scored at Mr. Arora’s bookstore in Dehradun and these items were packed in an unwieldy sling bag.
S volunteered to carry one of the bags for me but the proud idiot that I was, I steadfastly refused the offer. As a result, I found myself stopping every 5 minutes to gasp for breath and drink water. The undulating terrain, the ton of luggage and my general lack of fitness took a weary toll. At one point, A and S had a lead of over 2 kilometers over me and I was going so slowly that S had the time to run back home for an errand and find me just a 100 meters ahead on his way back.
It all made S a very angry man. He snatched the sling bag from my hands and ran ahead and beckoned me to walk faster because he had to get back to work in 3 hours and the walk was long and we might even miss our transport if we didn’t hurry up. The sling bag and the books was a particular target of S’s fury. Who brings books on a trip to the hills, he yelled. That too, so many of them. He had never seen me reading any of them, so what was the purpose of lugging so many along? They would have been more useful to set up a fire at night when it got cold. And why the hell was I carrying a sling bag? Had I never traveled before?
When we reached the roadhead, we bid goodbye to S and promised to return to stay with him some day. “Don’t bring this bag next time”, he said, wagging a finger in my face. You live and you learn.
We had time to kill before a tempo or a sumo or a milk van or a bus would take us to Almora. So a simple lunch of dal, roti, veggies was consumed at a grungy dhaba run by an elderly gentleman. Two labourers sat in a corner sipping cups of chai. They were from Nepal and had been working on a tourist resort on a hillside above Dhaulachina for 4 months. “Life must be very hard for you guys”, I said, still as clumsy and awkward with conversation as ever. “Not at all”, one of them replied, “This is good work and we don’t ever want to go back.” “What about your family?”, I said. “They’ll be fine. They’re probably happier that we are here. When we make enough money and buy a house, we’ll bring them here.”
At that note of big dreams and high hopes, a sumo with two vacant seats at the back arrived to take us to Almora. Both A and I had been to the town so many times in the month that we had no desire to spend any more time there. But we hadn’t checked our emails or the internet for a while, so we made a pitstop at a local cybercafe near Bansal Hotel before deciding how to make a push to our next destination.
We knew we were going to the Corbett National Park but we hadn’t figured out how to manage expenses on what would certainly be an expensive trip. We had left messages on the indiamike forums looking for people who might like to join us to share costs and got a message from just one person, a businessman from Delhi, who said he had already been to Corbett just two weeks before but would have loved to join us not out of interest but out of pity but couldn’t even if he wished to because he had other plans.
So after some samosa chaat and chai at Bansal Hotel, we scrambled down the steep stairs that led to the lower main road to catch a jeep to Haldwani. It was dark by the time we reached the town and I was hoping to rest up in a hotel because it had already been quite a hectic day with the hike and traveling and internet surfing and if left to my languid self, I would have done each of these activities on separate days. But A was a hardier traveler and he wished to push on to Ramnagar the same night and to Corbett NP early next morning.
His arguments were persuasive. Why would anyone want to spend a night in Haldwani?, he said. I don’t know, I said with a shrug, new town, maybe there’s a market, good food somewhere but even as I was saying these words, I knew my reasoning made very little sense. So we had a hasty meal of dal, roti, sabzi at a local dhaba and rushed to catch the first bus to Ramnagar we could.
We didn’t really have to rush because there was a bus to Ramnagar running every half an hour. It wasn’t a particularly crowded bus either, which made me wonder why so many buses ran between the two towns. Nevertheless, we got front seats and it was a comfortable ride on flat tarmacked roads of the plains, which after a couple of months of winding Himalayan terrain, felt like we were cruising on a Boeing.
Ramnagar isn’t the town one would expect at the edge of the most famed tiger reserve in the world. It was worn around the edges like many small roadhead towns were, with blaring horns, busy bazaars, general cluttered mayhem all around. We trudged through the chaos looking for a place to crash and found a windowless room in a dank little hotel for 500 Rs. It had been a tiring day and we crashed as soon as we got to the hotel and resolved to wake up at 5 am the next morning to figure out how to navigate the labyrinthine bureaucracies and snag a room inside the famed Corbett Reserve.
The alarm rang at 5 am but neither of us woke up.